First Ever African Safari -February and March 2014

This is the itinerary of my first adventure in Kruger National Park and first visit to Africa.

Long flight from Auckland to Johannesburg via Perth.
Johannesburg to Nylsvley with pit stop in Bela-Bela,
Nylsvley Nature Reserve, Sun 23rd Feb 2014
Nylsvley to Punda Maria Gate, Kruger National Park, Mon 24th Feb
Punda Maria camp, Tues, 25th Feb, leopard, warthogs, zebra
Punda Maria camp, Wed, 26th Feb
Shingwedze, Thurs, 27th Feb
Olifants, Fri 28th Feb
Orpen, Sat 1st Mar- First bat experience, lions roaring, elephant chase
Orpen, Sun, 2nd Mar, giraffes fighting, dead elephant
Skukuza, Mon 3rd Mar- more bats
Skukuza, Tuesday, 4th Mar, dead bat on pillow, still no lions
Skukuza, Wed 5th Mar
Skukuza, Thursday, 6th Mar, Still no lions
Skukuza to Johannesburg then the long flight home via Perth, Friday, 7th Mar-Sun 9th March

My travelling companions were my husband and my daughters. This was my first, hopefully the first of many, visit to Africa. I spent a large chunk of my youth dreaming of travelling to Africa. However, I got waylaid with studies, a science career and children. Now as I meander through mid-life and down the other side of the mountain I need to make up for some lost time!

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We entered Kruger National Park via the Punda Maria gate having run the gauntlet of a well-used road with pedestrians, cyclists and lots of cows. Giraffes, impala and an elephant were the first magnificent animals to be seen on our way to Punda Maria camp. We settled into a family cottage, “it was bigger than our house” my daughter wrote in her travel diary. We loved the two levels, the dark, chunky wood furniture and earthy coloured décor. It was a gentle, cool relief from the intense, bright midday sun. The view from the upstairs balcony was pretty good too. I was delighted by a steenbok which had ventured out from the undergrowth to the edge of the veranda.

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We set off in the late afternoon on the Mahonie loop. There were plenty of European rollers, an elephant, some kudu and impalas to be seen.

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Impala male in the rain photo Male_impala_Mahonie_Feb2014_zpsb157448a.jpg

Female kudu amongst Bauhinia galpinii
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That evening we went out on our first sunset tour and the highlights were a couple of genets, several spring hares and our first sunset in Kruger National Park. One thing I particularly enjoyed about the evening drives was the smorgasbord of smells, ranging from sweet, hypnotic herby or woody to the intense and unmistakable assault of animal. I guess that as the light fades senses other than sight start to wake up.

The girls were delighted with the geckos and insects attracted to the outside light on our return from dinner. Particularly this katydid.
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Day 2, we headed north to Parfuri. Getting up early was quite easy due to our jet lag. My husband was particularly hoping to see Pels Fishing owl. On our way to the bridge we saw our first big groups of zebras, a greater blue-eared, glossy starling and impalas. Warthogs are comical and we stopped to watch a family of them.

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I was wonderful to get out and stretch our legs at the bridge. We spotted a fish eagle, a baboon troop and a stunning fly.

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We all piled reluctantly back into the car and set off toward Parfuri picnic spot and Crook’s Corner. Suddenly a leopard leapt out of the bush and onto the road in front of us. It paused on the road to peer at us then sauntered off into the grass. We drove slowly to the point where it entered the bush on the other side of the road. It had moved into the grass but stopped. All we could see was a long tail, swishing petulantly for wee while before it moved gracefully on and was swallowed by the lush, long grass. I was so moved by my first big cat sighting that a couple of big tears rolled down my eyes.

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On route to Crook’s Corner we saw nyala, kudu, more impala, vervet monkeys and a magnificent martial eagle.

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Crook’s Corner inspired an immense childish delight – I think it was the combination of its colourful history and my Australian upbringing- it’s a novelty to be able to stand in one spot and survey three different countries! I took a picture looking up into a big Acacia tree here. By now the sun was directly above and the shade of this magnificent tree was a relief.

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We spotted an elephant on our way back to Punda Maria who also clearly appreciated the shade of a big Baobab tree. I think the shot of the elephant from a different angle illustrates how such a large beast can seem to vanish as if moving into a portal to a different dimension.

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Is it faeces for dinner, dearest, or a mixed platter? Dung beetle diets

In addition to some highly speculative claims about the health risks of exotic dung beetles there have been claims about some possible negative effects of exotic dung beetles on New Zealand ecosystems. These were recently articulated by Jacqueline Beggs in an opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald. The Environment Protection agency (EPA) considered these possible effects. Then, based on the current scientific knowledge and experience with dung beetles, the EPA decided they were unlikely to occur.

One concern is that native dung beetles might battle introduced dung beetles for food and that the exotic dung beetles will win. Jacqueline cites recent research that native dung beetles do occur in native forest remnants near pastures and that they eat cow poo. Well I find it hard to see how this is evidence of risk to native dung beetles from introduced dung beetles. New Zealand dung beetles have existed for eons without cow poo or any other large mammal dung- they aren’t suddenly going to miss it if it gets eaten by exotic dung beetles! In addition, if there is cow poo in forest remnants then the greatest risk to New Zealand flora and fauna is the presence of cows, not exotic dung beetles.

Jacqueline claims, “The diet and habitat of our native dung beetles was unknown at the time.” We can examine the veracity of this claim by examining EPA documentation related to the approval. The EPA report refers to unpublished (at the time) thesis data from research on native dung beetles. Native dung beetles are clearly described as opportunists that use any food source available to them. Food sources specifically identified are “carrion, humus and various faeces ranging from invertebrate (caterpillar, stick insect, weta, snail), reptilian (gecko), bird (kiwi, emu[moa]) and introduced mammalian dung from possums, rats, pigs, humans and livestock that invade native habitat (A. Jones, unpubl. data).” So native dung beetles are versatile feeders and do not rely on cow poo. The data has subsequently been published in Ecological Entomology and was not “supposition” and “unknown at the time” it was merely unpublished. Jacqueline was a supervisor of the work so is likely to have been aware of it at the time.

There is one more aspect that needs addressing. What do we know about the diet and habitat requirements of the exotic dung beetles? Do the exotic dung beetles prefer herbivore poo? There are many diet and habitat studies that have been carried out on dung beetles for example, see references in the EPA documentation & Dormont et al (2004). This aspect was also extensively reviewed when the EPA conducted their risk assessment of the dung beetles proposed for release.

The 11 species of dung beetles approved for release in New Zealand belong to a group of dung beetles that build tunnels below the cow pat and bury the poo. This buried poo in tunnels makes a tasty, safe home for their babies. They don’t roll up the dung and trundle across the ground with it like their “celebrity cousins” the dung rollers. The 11 species of dung beetles all have a strong preference for herbivore dung and open grassland habitat. There is also evidence (Dormont et al 2010) that dung beetles food preference i.e. herbivore dung is hard-wired and therefore unlikely to change. Adult dung beetles can’t chew so they are limited to foods they can suck i.e. big, sloppy herbivore poo! Dung beetle larvae are confined to the soil under poo until they become adults so they are unlikely to eat anything outside the dung tunnels lovingly prepared by their parents.

In conclusion, there has been a lot of work already done on dung beetles. The extensive pre-release work demanded by some scientists at the University of Auckland is an unnecessary indulgence and a waste of time when research and conservation funds are limited. There are worthier and more tangible risks to the New Zealand environment to spend money on. Dung beetles offer considerable benefits for the New Zealand environment and sustainable farming. Let’s hope they are set free very soon.

“Fickle thy name is” vox populi : puzzle over dung beetles and science reporting

Dung beetle necklace

When I first heard about the proposal to release dung beetles in New Zealand I was really pleased. I grew up in Australia and they have been releasing exotic dung beetles for over 40 years. Dung beetles are regarded as a highly beneficial, safe and successful introduction to Australian agricultural ecosystems.[1] Cows, sheep and horses have all been imposed on Australian and New Zealand ecosystems. They came without the creatures that normally clean up their dung – dung beetles. In Australia, in 1967, it was decided that dung beetles needed to be imported. The reasons for importing dung beetles were 1) to reduce the numbers of flies and biting midges which breed in cow poo, 2) reduce pasture covered in poo (covered pasture can’t grow), 3) reduce the amount of unpalatable grass which grows around cow poo and 4) move the nutrients locked in the cow pat to the soil. Native dung beetles in Australia just couldn’t cope very well with introduced herbivore poo.[2]

Australia is not the only country to introduce exotic dung beetles for management of problems associated with cow poo. They have also been introduced to the United States of America, including Hawaii and South America. They occur indigenously in Africa, Europe, North and South America and Asia. New Zealand has native flightless dung beetles. New Zealand also already has one Mexican dung beetle and at least three small Australian species already.

Recent news articles about the approved forthcoming release of several species of dung beetles to New Zealand have been very negative and somewhat hysterical in tone.[3] [4] There has been a flurry of generally negative public commentary on social media in response.[5]  The source of this negative tone has been researchers at the University of Auckland who disagree with the approval to release dung beetles. Prior to public expression of University of Auckland disgruntlement over dung beetles there has been generally positive media about the introduction of dung beetles to New Zealand.

There was little to no public commentary when the story was covered in the New Zealand Herald in 2009.[6] In 2010 there was another story about dung beetles and this time there were a few shares on social media.[7] Unfortunately I’m not technologically savvy enough to access the comments so I can’t feedback about the responses in this case! The article cites our favourite bug man, Ruud Kleinpaste, who,

 “ doubted the introduction of dung beetles would cause an ecological upheaval, despite earlier animal imports such as possums, rabbits and mustelids that have become expensive problems.

He said it was unlikely that they would compete with the 17 species of native dung beetles in native forests. But he urged caution.

“We have mammals here now and the poo is causing nitrification and causing major pollution on our farms,” he said.

“From that point of view it would be really good to get rid of the poo, it’s a serious job so why not get the experts in to do it. Still, you have to be cautious with what you import and Erma [the Environmental Risk Management Authority] will have some serious thinking to do.”

Zoom forward to 2013 and the EPA (formerly ERMA) have done some serious thinking and the University of Auckland claim they haven’t done enough. The flood of social media shares has increased from 62 to 462. I think the University of Auckland researchers’ and a few others claims warrant more scepticism than any of the recent journalists have given them.

Let’s examine the claims in more detail. The first hint that we are being hoodwinked is this paragraph,

“The three-member authority panel was advised by the dung beetle applicants that the insects would pose no public health risk. This assertion was made simply by ticking a box marked “no” to the question: “Can the organism cause disease, be parasitic, or become a vector for human, animal or plant disease?””

Actually the box that is ticked is a culmination of what is generally a long scientific explanation, by each expert that has been consulted by the three-member authority of the risks or lack thereof. So while the panel is only three members the consultation panel can be extensive. In the case of dung beetles there were a range of dung beetle scientists from around the world.[8] The Ministry of Health in New Zealand was also specifically invited to comment. Given that most current textbooks on Medical Entomology do not even feature dung beetles it isn’t surprising the Ministry of Health wasn’t concerned.

The second misleading claim is around an earlier application to introduce dung beetles,

“At the time, however, the Ministry of Agriculture’s regulatory arm – the predecessor of the EPA – knocked back the application because not enough research had been done to satisfy biosecurity experts that the insects would deliver all the benefits claimed for them.

Guilford maintains nothing has changed in this regard. The difference this time, he argues, was the role of Landcare scientists advocating for the scheme then providing “independent” advice to ERMA.”

There is a nuance worth exploring here. The original claim in 1998 was to import only one species of dung beetle. It was felt by MAF that just one species wouldn’t confer all the benefits which dung beetle introductions overseas have brought. In addition there was concern that dung beetles would compete with earthworms. It wasn’t “not enough research has been done”.[9]

With respect to Guilford’s assertion that “nothing has changed” this isn’t true. For example, regarding earthworms, there has subsequently been research showing that earthworms benefit from dung beetles. They don’t compete.

The NZ Herald article reports that Guildford “maintains the approval process accepted anecdote” but we have to take his word for that because there isn’t any example provided.

A related article in the NZ Herald reports,

“Dr Barnfather, medical officer of health with the Regional Public Health Service, said the evidence was “sufficient to raise concern exotic dung beetles may provide additional vectors for human exposure to significant gastro-intestinal diseases.””

Unfortunately this “evidence” isn’t made available to us. It is presented as an anecdote.

“Potential exposure from beetles contaminating water supplies in homes which collected rain in tanks,……….. had not been adequately researched, Dr Barnfather cautioned.”

Actually there has been research on tank water (and therefore any dung beetles that fall into it) as a source of disease compared to mains water in South Australia where exotic flying dung beetles have been present for about 35 years.[10] The authors conclude that,

“Young children, who were regular consumers of tank rainwater, were at no greater odds of gastroenteritis than those who drank treated public mains water.”

There has also been a systematic review of the safety of tank water versus improved water supplies. There were several studies from countries which have dung beetles and one which doesn’t, New Zealand. They found that there was no difference in disease amongst people who drink tank water compared to those drinking improved water. New Zealand was one of the exceptions. One could capriciously, but somewhat erroneously, conclude that dung beetles actually prevent disease in tank water! However back to my point – the balance of peer reviewed literature would suggest that there isn’t a risk of dung beetles transmitting disease via water tanks. So the onus is very much on Drs Barnfather and Guilford to explicitly refer to peer-reviewed evidence supporting their case.

Guilford publicly berates Landcare for falling into the trap of advocacy and the EPA for relying on them. However the best advocacy is based solely on good evidence and that is what is behind them. In addition the EPA’s consultations extended beyond Landcare scientists.

There are more examples of misleading statements in the press coverage and documentation relating to the dung beetle approval – I could go on…. New Zealand isn’t the experimental territory here, Hawaii, Australia and other countries have had exotic dung beetles for 40 years or more. Peer –reviewed research is expensive. A Google scholar search reveals about 32,000 studies of dung beetles. Dung beetles do have considerable benefits. Do we really need to spend more of our limited public funds on risk assessment of dung beetles? I think there are riskier ventures and more pressing issues that I would like to see my taxes spent on.