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Wild Dog Pups and Brown Hyenas: A Volunteer Adventure in South Africa

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Oct 13th, 2009, 05:38 PM
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Wild Dog Pups and Brown Hyenas: A Volunteer Adventure in South Africa

An overview for those who don’t like long trip reports…

What? A volunteer trip to northern South Africa with Earthwatch, to participate in Project Phiri (brown hyena research) for 12 days at Mankwe Reserve and Pilanesberg National Park… plus a 3-night safari to Madikwe Reserve beforehand, in the hope of seeing wild dogs.

When? August 13-30, 2009

Who are we? We’re both in our late 30s, avid travelers who also spend a lot of time volunteering with the behavioral observation team for African elephants at our local zoo.
This was our third trip to Africa, our first time in southern Africa.

Planning: The Madikwe extension and Johannesburg arrangements were booked by Gareth at Rhino Africa. He was very helpful, everything went without a hitch, and we felt it was a good value—I would definitely use Rhino Africa again if we are ever lucky enough to return to South Africa. Some other companies we contacted would not book such a short safari for us, but this was never an issue with Rhino.

The volunteer project was arranged through Earthwatch, an organization that links volunteers with wildlife and conservation research projects worldwide. This was our first experience with Earthwatch, and we would recommend them very highly. The name of our expedition was “South Africa’s Brown Hyenas” [see Earthwatch.org for more information]. An unexpected bonus of participating in a volunteer project was that we were able to get discounted airfare from SFO to Joburg through Earthwatch and Fly for Good. Overall, it saved us about $600 per ticket! If you are heading off on a volunteer project of your own, be sure to look into this.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.



PART 1: The Long Haul to Southern Africa

When my husband J and I decided to take this trip—our third journey to Africa in as many years—we got a predictable reaction from friends and family: Africa, again? How do you explain this passion for the African continent (the animals, the people, the landscapes, the excitement of a game drive, the mystery of nature, the thrill of never knowing what each day will bring) to someone who hasn’t experienced it, or at least dreamed about it? And, I’ll admit, it rankled just a bit to get the “Africa, again?” question from people who had returned to Europe over and over… as though “Africa” is one place, all the same. I can honestly say that even after three trips to Africa, we have yet to scratch the surface of this vast and marvelous place. I’m just so grateful that J and I both were bitten by this bug—that neither of us was satisfied with crossing “Africa” off our life lists after a single trip. Because it would take more than a lifetime to explore everything the continent has to offer.

So instead of trying to explain, we just emphasized what would be different about this trip—it would be our first time in southern Africa, and more importantly, the main focus of our travels this time would be to participate in a volunteer project with brown hyena researchers. This would be our chance, hopefully, to give a little bit back (our time, our energy, our enthusiasm and hard work) to this incredible continent that we love so much. Plus, this would be a first for us: only a few destinations on our itinerary, hardly any long drives, and 11 nights in one place! We’ve never stayed that long anywhere, other than our own home. So this would be our chance to dive deeply into one place, rather than snorkeling around an entire country. In every way, it promised to be a different adventure than the ones we’ve had before.

We boarded that familiar evening flight from SFO to London (hard to believe it’s been a little less than a year since we stepped onto this same flight en route to Uganda!). We helped kill the long layover at Heathrow by having breakfast at Giraffe (last visited on our return from Rwanda), and noticed to our delight that the music of our favorite South African singer, Vusi Mahlasela, was playing in the restaurant. The boarding process for our flight to Joburg on South African Airways was a mystery (even to the people who worked for the airline, it seemed!), but once on board the plane it was one of our nicest flights ever—lots of legroom (admittedly, we’re both pretty short), good food, free South African wine, and a “tail cam” so we could watch the plane flying. Vusi’s music welcomed us onto the flight too, and we took that as a good sign.

As we flew over Botswana and into Johannesburg, we were greeted by a brilliant red sunrise. The airport was decorated everywhere with World Cup banners and signs: “Welcome to South Africa, Home of the Big 5 and the Other Big Game!” There was a great deal of construction going on all around the airport, and the woman from Federal Air who greeted us in the shiny arrivals hall said everyone here is really gearing up for next winter: “Only 300 more days until the World Cup!” she exclaimed.

We exchanged dollars for rands at the airport, since we wouldn’t have much chance to do that during our trip. As usual, this country has much more attractive money than our own. A lion on the 50, a buffalo on the 100, and a kudu on the 2. Maybe this bodes well for our wildlife encounters? We noticed a distinct lack of wild dogs, cheetahs, or brown hyenas, though, the animals we were most hoping to see this time around. In fact, we didn’t hold out much hope for seeing cheetahs at all. During the planning stages when we’d been trying to decide which place to go for our 3-night safari before the Earthwatch project began, several safari planners had told us the same thing: there are no reliable places in South Africa to see both wild dogs and cheetahs on a regular basis (even though several reserves do have small populations of both, these are notoriously hard-to-find animals). Since we’ve been fortunate enough to see cheetahs in the Masai Mara, we opted for Madikwe, which was supposed to give us a decent shot at seeing wild dogs. And as for those brown hyenas, well… we’d been warned that even as part of Project Phiri, volunteers didn’t always get to see these elusive creatures in the flesh.
We had a few hours to while away in the posh little lounge at Federal Air’s local terminal (free snacks! clean bathrooms! snazzy lodge brochures! Animal Planet on TV!), and I reflected on how different this was compared with our experiences in East Africa and those colorful, sometimes chaotic little airports in Arusha and Zanzibar. South Africa certainly felt tamer on the surface (or at least more organized). But like Rwanda, it’s impossible to be here and not have somewhere in your mind the complicated history of this place. Before long we boarded the little Cessna Caravan and took to the sky, on our way to the Madikwe Reserve near the Botswana border. I still felt a bit like I was in a dream—but this time, it also felt a little bit like coming home, too.
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Oct 13th, 2009, 06:00 PM
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Oh goody! Another wonderful report to look forward to!
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Oct 13th, 2009, 06:03 PM
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Very entertaining beginning with much telling detail. Look forward to the rest.
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Oct 13th, 2009, 06:13 PM
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MDK, looking forward to more--and many photos too, I hope.
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Oct 13th, 2009, 06:59 PM
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Great start and once you get through the mystery boarding in Johannesburg, the adventure begins.
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Oct 13th, 2009, 08:40 PM
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MDK,

goody, an Earthwatch report. I've often wondered what the programs were like and have looked at the Tsavo lion project. Look forward to hearing about the brown hyenas.

Cheers,


Pol
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Oct 13th, 2009, 08:58 PM
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MDK-

Ditto. Looking forward to hearing it all!

It is hard to explain to family and friends, isn't it?
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Oct 14th, 2009, 10:19 AM
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I know what you mean about people questioning your desire to return to Africa, especially from people that return to Europe over and over again. We are off to Egypt (my husband's dream) in March and Kenya and Tanzania in 2011. We started going to Africa a lot later in life than you, so our motto is "do it now as you don't know what tomorrow will bring."
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Oct 14th, 2009, 10:44 AM
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Great report and am anxious to hear all the details of your your Earthwatch experience.
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Oct 14th, 2009, 11:48 AM
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Thanks, everybody! I hope I have time to get this trip report posted a bit faster than I've done in the past. I guess it would be a less time-consuming task if I didn't write my journals in longhand, but I still enjoy doing that.

Don't worry, Leely, many photos will eventually be posted. We are still editing.

Raelond, I think that's an excellent motto to have, no matter what your age. A dear friend of mine (who is the same age as I am) is fighting her third round of cancer... so none of us know how much time we have. You have to seize experiences whenever you get the chance! For us, this desire to travel means that we have to drive cheap cars and live with the same 20-year-old garage sale furniture, but that's fine with me.
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Oct 14th, 2009, 01:39 PM
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Looking forward to your take on Madikwe.
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Oct 14th, 2009, 06:28 PM
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Thanks for starting your report and looking forward to more and your pictures.

Thanks for the Earthwatch link.

Joyce
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Oct 14th, 2009, 07:18 PM
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Enjoying your report, and looking forward to the rest of the trip, and of course the photos.

amy
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Oct 15th, 2009, 06:41 PM
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You have the same attitude we do about travel: do it now. My husband's parents planned to travel after he retired, but by then he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Your trip sounds great. We are planning our second trip to Africa--this time to Botswana--in February. And as I recall, we made our first trip around the same time, in September 2007. Can't wait to hear about the rest of your trip.
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Oct 16th, 2009, 09:26 AM
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Hi Kmania! Yes, I do remember we were heading off on our trips around the same time in 2007. From SFO too, if I'm not mistaken? Lucky you, going to Botswana! That's definitely on my dream list.

I went back to the Earthwatch website recently and noticed that they are still filling teams for the Brown Hyenas project in 2010, if anyone is so inclined. I was disappointed to see the price has gone up since we went, though. Still worth it for the experience, I think.

I'm hoping to post my next installment either tonight or tomorrow. (Sneak Preview: here's where the wild dogs come into the picture)
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Oct 16th, 2009, 10:44 AM
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Correction: Since I do not know of a way to edit my last post, I want to add that I looked at Earthwatch again this morning to see what the 2010 expeditions are, and I was mistaken about the price going up. The Brown Hyenas project is $2950 for 12 days (all-inclusive except for international air) for the adult teams. I must have glanced at the teen team listing, which is more expensive.
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Oct 17th, 2009, 02:09 PM
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PART 2: Beyond Our Wildest (Dog) Dreams

The flight from Johannesburg to Madikwe took just over an hour, whisking us over the city, then suburbs with enormous houses surrounded by high walls, and farmland with elaborate crop circles in green, gold and brown… and finally over open bush, past a high, jagged ridge that looked from the air like a deep wrinkle in gold-green cloth. As soon as we landed at the Madikwe airstrip, I promptly got my sleeve snagged by a thorn bush. I have a whole new respect for animals that can push their faces and bodies into these spiky bushes! Our land cruiser from Madikwe Safari Lodge was waiting, and as we climbed in we met A and M for the first time, a young couple who would be sharing the vehicle with us during our stay. Our positive first impression would turn out to be correct—the four of us very quickly became friends, and my misgivings about this whole southern African practice of sharing vehicles with strangers assigned by the lodge were laid to rest. On our trips to East Africa, we had traveled from place to place in our own vehicles with our own guides throughout the trip, so I didn’t know what to expect with having game drive companions and guides change at each destination. I imagine the experience can really vary depending on the luck of the draw… but we had a marvelous time with these two (we’ve stayed in touch since—we live half a world apart, but we’re hoping to visit each other someday). To make it even more fun, this was their first safari, so we got to share in their excitement about everything being new.

If you’ve read my other trip reports, you know that I like to keep track of our welcome animal and farewell animal for each journey. Our welcome animals for South Africa greeted us by running across the end of the airstrip just as we were stepping off the plane: a group of female kudu. My husband was really thrilled, because this was an animal high on his wish list and something we’d never seen before. We also saw a few giraffe heads poking out of the trees on the short drive up to the lodge.

Madikwe Safari Lodge is absolutely stunning, one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever stayed. To my mind, it’s made even more beautiful by its low profile: it is nestled into the hillside in such a way that you can’t really even see it as you approach, rather than sitting high on a hill and standing out in the landscape. The lodge architecture was supposedly inspired by termite mounds, and it’s easy to see that influence—the overall look is a hybrid of African and hobbit hole. Every wall seems to have a curve, the roof is broad sloped thatch, doors are decorated with carved figures in place of handles, there’s a huge clay fireplace in the open-sided dining room with birds flying in and out, and trees grow right up through the building. We were completely enchanted by this place at first sight. Then we saw our room and were ready to move in for good. It was an “anthill” cottage with a little fireplace and curvy built-in couch, a giant copper bathtub, and a private deck with a view of the bush, an outdoor shower, loungers, and a little plunge pool. Now, I have never been one to desire a plunge pool on safari. But I will admit I stuck my feet into its icy cold water, just because I could. If it weren’t the dead of winter, we probably would have taken a dip. Our ranger told us later that they used to regularly have elephants come drink out of the plunge pools (which, being the ele lover that I am, I would love to see), but that it was becoming unsafe for both elephants and guests, so they recently put up a fence to keep elephants out of the lodge. The fence was designed to be really low and porous, though—an obstacle to the elephants for sure, but not anything that would keep lions, leopards, wild dogs, porcupines, or other animal visitors out.

Lunch was served by the slightly stern chef, a big Afrikaner guy who cooked up fabulous impala kebabs (“venison” is impala here), beet salad and risotto. We overheard some other guests ask if he was German, and he sounded insulted, “Of course I am not German, I am Afrikaner!” And he was a marvelous cook, too. We were joined at the table by yellow-billed hornbills, glossy starlings, francolins, and a squirrel. After lunch we had just enough time to shower away 2 days’ worth of air travel weariness and unpack our bags, getting our daypack ready for our first game drive.

One thing about the whole South African lodge routine is that there is a LOT of eating. We’d hardly had lunch when 3:00 tea time rolled around. This was our first chance to meet our ranger, Greg Smith, and our other vehicle mates. In addition to our new buddies A and M, there were two couples from Joburg who were old safari hands. I still marvel a bit at the thought that they can come to a place like this for a weekend getaway, the same way we might go to Lake Tahoe or Yosemite.

Greg asked all of us what we were most interested in looking for on our game drives, and he lit up when we said we were dreaming of seeing wild dogs. “You’re in luck!” he exclaimed. “Right now one pack of dogs is denning, and they have six pups. They’ve moved the den several times and they aren’t always there, but this morning they’ve been spotted so we can go take a look.” Now, J and I had been thinking more in terms of “if we see even one wild dog, even if it’s really, really far away—and we can’t even get a picture of it—we’ll still be ecstatic.” That’s how much we love dogs, and how very much we wanted to see African wild dogs. So you can imagine my excitement at this news.

We all bounded into the land cruiser and headed off. The first animals we saw were zebras and impalas. The zebras here have different stripes than the Burchell’s in East Africa—instead of sharp black and white stripes, they’ve also got pale brown shadow stripes in between the broader striping on their rumps. Very pretty. We followed some waxbills down the road (discovering in the process that there were some intense birders in our vehicle), and then spotted a little steenbok resting under a tree. Then more impalas, mixed in with big, hearty-looking wildebeest and dark red warthogs colored by the orange dust. A big, calm male waterbuck with impressive horns eyed us, and a slender mongoose ran across the road. Not too bad for the first 5 minutes out of the lodge.

We had to wait a little bit before approaching the dogs’ den, because only one vehicle at a time is allowed to view it. When we arrived, several adorable little puppies were sitting by the entrance to the den, looking at us with frank curiosity. They were born in June, so just a few months old—big enough to be getting those fabulous markings on their legs, but small enough to still have the downy fur of babyhood. Before long all six of them had tumbled out into the open, emerging from patches of dried grass and the various holes into the den. It became a happy jumble of pups—chasing in circles, biting each other’s tails, wrestling, rolling, pouncing, sniffing. They reminded us so much of domestic puppies in their behavior, except for the near-silence with which they did these things. We could hear little snuffles and grunts, but no barking or yapping—they’re much quieter than domestic dogs. They explored all around our vehicle, and at one point a pup crossed right behind where I was sitting in the back seat and looked straight up at me, meeting me eye to eye. We’ve seen a lot of cute wildlife babies, but these guys really took the prize, with their giant round ears and spotty legs and inquisitive doggy behavior. Of course I thought of my dog, Kyle, and what I’d read about domesticated dogs being essentially “eternal puppies” in their behavior.

Things got even more incredible when two adult dogs arrived, whisking into the jumble of puppies and starting up a chorus of high-pitched yittering. A moment before the adults made their appearance, we saw all the puppies freeze in the act of wrestling, lift their heads in alarm, and bolt for the closest den opening (you’ll see that moment when I post a link to our photos). But as soon as they realized it was their own pack returning, they flashed back out into the open. The babies ran up to their mother and surrounded her, a few trying to nurse and others jumping up toward her mouth to beg for food, hoping she’d regurgitate something tasty for them. The adult dogs were as gorgeous as I’d dreamed, some of the most beautiful animals I’ve ever seen. We stayed and watched them for a long time. I loved their lanky motion as they trotted up and down the road patrolling the den area, circling back toward our vehicle and then cruising around it, so graceful and quick it was like they were floating over the ground. Several times the dogs looked up at us, and the fierce intelligence in their eyes was such a contrast to the pups’ wide-eyed curiosity. One of the adult dogs trotted right behind the land cruiser, so close below me I could hear the low growl in her throat. Don’t worry, I thought, I’m not getting out of this vehicle!

We’ve been fortunate to have some amazing wildlife sightings before, in Africa and India and Alaska and the Rockies, but I can safely say this was one of our very best ever (not quite at the level of the mountain gorillas, but right up there in our Top 5). Even ranger Greg was wildly snapping photos and exclaiming in amazement, “It doesn’t get better then this!” More than once I felt my eyes fill with tears, I was so overwhelmed and happy. We felt so lucky that our visit coincided with these dogs’ babyhood.

[Note: I’ve been following the progress of this dog pack on &Beyond’s “Wild Watch” webpage, and the pups have moved out of the den since our visit. But anyone planning a visit to Madikwe has a chance for some great wild dog sightings—recent posts on the site have mentioned the pack hunting and killing impala inside the lodge grounds, taking up residence on the hillside above the lodge, having conflicts over their kills with brown hyenas, and just a few days ago they had a sighting of a pack of 15 dogs making an impala kill. I want to go back!]

At last it was time to leave the dogs and let someone else have the chance to enjoy them. I know the main purpose of limiting it to one vehicle at the den is for the benefit of the dogs, but the practice made a great experience even better for the humans, too. As we drove off up the road, the pups broke off their wrestling matches and stick-tugging and came bounding along the road after us, chasing the car with their tails up and wagging. They scampered after us for a short distance, and then we heard a sharp yap from back near the den and all the pups turned tail and raced back to their mom.

From the wild dog den, we drove over to the fence that marks the border between Madikwe Reserve and Botswana. Greg told us that the dog packs have taken to using this fence for hunting, running their prey straight into it at high speed. (From a recent post on the lodge website, it seems as though they’ve also used the door of a guest’s room the same way!) This is a good example of the mixed blessings of fencing a reserve. Obviously, without the fence the impala might have a fighting chance. But the fence has also contributed not only to the dogs safety (keeping them in an area where they are protected from all the hazards that come with living near humans, such as traffic and poachers and angry farmers and canine distemper from domestic dogs), it has even helped increased their success rate in hunting. We had many conversations with Greg and, later, the Mankwe staff about the wildlife management issues that arise when a reserve is fenced—everything from water sources to migration paths to adjustments in animals’ behavior. It’s a fascinating and complicated subject, and definitely not as simple a question as “is it better to fence a reserve or leave it unfenced?” As soon as humans get involved with wildlife (and we have done so everywhere, all over the globe, like it or not), conservation answers are never simple.

Anyway, here we were at the fence, where we could see a lilac-breasted roller (in Botswana) and a crimson-breasted shrike (in South Africa). We had to break the news to our friends on their first game drive that, no, you don’t always have such an incredible sighting in your first half hour of safari ever! They were still hoping to see lions, too, and Greg was the one to point out that lions might seem a bit “boring” after those dogs. We continued back into the reserve away from the fence line, passing zebras, impalas, and a big male ostrich in breeding plumage, very impressive as he flounced away from us.

Greg stopped for sundowners and whipped out a little metal folding table, a bunch of drinks, and tins full of biltong, nuts, and dried mango. In East Africa our sundowners had generally been bottles of beer in the car or sipping something back at camp, so this was a treat for us. We had our first gin and tonics and watched the sun sink slowly behind the acacias. Just as it got dark a jackal arrived to sniff around the edge of our clearing. After we got back in the car we watched him follow his nose over to where our impromptu bar had been, searching in vain for dropped bits of biltong.

We didn’t see much on our night drive back to the lodge—some cape hares, impalas, and a bat—but no worries. I love just being out in the Africa night, looking up at those southern stars, and this drive had already been incredible enough to make the whole stay in Madikwe worth it. This was also our first experience of winter in Africa—did I mention that it was freezing? Dinner tonight was tender medallions of impala, washed down with Windhoek beer. We were joined by our new friends, and when the staff asked if the four of us wanted to always set up our table together, we cheerfully agreed. This was such a terrific and unexpected joy of our stay at Madikwe Safari Lodge. Beautiful lodge, great service, a wonderful guide… but add wild dogs and great new friends to that, and you couldn’t ask for a better safari experience.

When we returned late to our room for some much-needed sleep, we found a cozy fire blazing. I stepped out onto our deck and looked up to see a ceiling of bright stars overhead, and the blur of the Milky Way. It was so frosty I could see the plume of my breath. Was it really possible that we’d only arrived in South Africa this morning? I don’t think we could have imagined a more perfect first day.
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Oct 17th, 2009, 06:00 PM
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"The Brown Hyenas project is $2950 for 12 days." Now that's a real bargain!

Your wild dog account is wonderful. Your enthusiasm about this magnificent species is in sharp contrast to the remarks from one vehicle-mate I recall from the past when we approached a den. "Those dogs do nothing for me. If we don't see them it won't bother me."

Maybe if she had read your account first, she'd have a different attitude.

The pups seemed to be as enthused about you as you were about them, chasing after your vehicle.

You timed your trip perfectly. Were you told anything about the wild dog population and situation in the last couple of years? On the incline/decline? I thought I read where a pack had left the park by escaping through the enclosure.

When convenient, could you email about your India trip? If there is a report anywhere you can just give a link.
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Oct 17th, 2009, 06:45 PM
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Did you fly over District 9 while you were there?

/kidding.

Greg's "You're in luck"--understatement of the year! I hope I get to see dogs to someday.

How cold is winter in SA? What did you need to wear to stay warm?
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Oct 17th, 2009, 07:17 PM
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What's the elephant situation there now?

regards - tom
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