Safari photos from Kenya

(Credit for most of the photos: Dana)

I was going to write a whole long essay about

  • the differences between going to the zoo and visiting an ancestral environment of humanity, where elephants have grazed for millions of years;
  • the weird sense of familiarity, as if you’re seeing how the surface of the earth is “supposed” to look, how it did look before humans started converting it into KFCs and parking lots;
  • how to tell whether an elephant charging your jeep is serious about wanting to trample you or, much more likely, just warning you to go away (apparently, it has to do with whether its ears are straight back or flapping);
  • the “airport” at Lake Naivasha (a strip of dirt in a grassy field filled with zebras, and a guy on a bicycle who shoos the zebras off the strip before a plane lands);
  • Britain’s failure, to this day, to issue any sort of apology for its detention, torture, and murder of tens of thousands of Kenyans during the waning years of its colonial rule in the 1950s;
  • the near-destruction by poaching, over the last century, of many of the majestic animal populations you see above;
  • the heroism of Richard Leakey (past director of the Kenya Wildlife Service) in overcoming decades of bureaucratic inertia to initiate a crackdown, where rangers were authorized to “poach the poachers,” shooting them on sight (!);
  • how, after Leakey almost-singlehandedly saved Kenya’s wild elephants, he lost both of his legs when his plane crashed (widely suspected to be due to sabotage), and was forced from his job months later;
  • the benefits of safari tourism in creating a serious economic incentive for conservation, but also the drawbacks (e.g., all the jeeps making it harder for the cheetahs to hunt);
  • the large, obvious, anything-but-“theoretical” changes being wrought by global warming on the rainfall in Kenya’s game parks (which changes are killing the trees, thereby eliminating the lions’ hiding places and making it harder for them to hunt—hey, at least the zebras are happy);
  • the Maasais’ innovative uses for cow dung; the resulting immature jokes on my part (homeowner to roofer: “this roof you sold me is shit!”);
  • my growing fascination, over the course of the trip, with the lesser-known corners of Mammalia (elands, dik-diks, kudus, waterbucks, topis, rock hyraxes); how this might mirror my fascination with lesser-known complexity classes like AWPP, QMA(2)/qpoly, SBP, C=P, and BPPpath;
  • how parts of the African savannah have better cellphone reception than my office in Stata;
  • how it’s indeed possible to catch up on Jon Stewart and The Big Bang Theory over wifi, from a tent in the Maasai Mara, while hippos bellow loudly in the river below, and elephants graze and crocodiles sun themselves on the other side.

But then I never got around to writing that essay.  So enjoy the photos, and ask in the comments if you want me to say something else.

27 Responses to “Safari photos from Kenya”

  1. ungrateul_person Says:

    Just trying to pull your leg Scott (please do not be offended).

    So, are you any good at taking photographs? Is it more like Dana should be credited for all the photos or only for most of them ;)

  2. Slipper.Mystery Says:

    14.jpg: hoist on his own petard?

  3. Scott Says:

    ungrateful_person: No, I’m terrible at taking photos. As far as I remember, she took all the photos except the one she’s in.

  4. Andy B Says:

    Great pictures!

    I’d kind of like to know which elephants mean business–I’m guessing it’s the ears-back ones because flapping is for show, but guessing seems like a bad idea in this case.

  5. Scott Says:

    Andy B: Yes, ears-back means business is what I was told.

  6. Mohsen Says:

    What a nice place!
    I didn’t know you can get that close to the lions ;)

  7. Tracy Hall Says:

    Kudos (and kudus) to Dana for a fantastic set of photos, and to both of you for the trip and cetera. There is a kind of envy that one only quells by assuring himself that he will someday take an isomorphic trip.

    Surely there is a natural, wild setting, outside the zoo, where A and M(2) can go Q-hunting with their qpoly. (But perhaps that setting is the entire universe.)

  8. Hamish Johnston Says:

    Hi Scott

    Regarding the familiarity of the landscape…here’s a physics explanation of why the landscape is so easy on the eye.

    http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/45300

  9. Sniffnoy Says:

    What are those in 28.jpg and 26.jpg? Looking things up I think 28 is a hyena? But I have no idea about 26…

    (I was going to say “#28 and #26″, but then I realized that’s how we usually refer to comments…)

  10. Scott Says:

    Sniffnoy: 26 is two topi.

    28 is indeed a hyena—we saw those all over, and even saw a bunch of them eating a buffalo carcass. Basically all that was left was the skeleton, and the hyenas were literally snapping off the ribs with their teeth (making loud crunching noises). They were also scuffling with each other over the right to be closer to the carcass and get an earlier turn with it. Surrounding the hyenas were vultures, waiting to eat whatever was left—I’m not sure what, exactly!—after the hyenas were done. (Alas, we don’t have very good photos of that.)

  11. Scott Says:
      I didn’t know you can get that close to the lions

    Mohsen #6: I didn’t know either—and truthfully, the question of how good an idea it was occurred to me as well. :-) We were about 3 feet from the scarred lion in the photo, in an open-sided jeep; had he any desire, it would’ve been trivial for him to enjoy a lunch of complexity theorists. Apparently, though, even when lots of jeeps are surrounding the lions like paparazzi, they barely take note of them, treating them as part of the background scenery. I could understand why the lions weren’t afraid of us: they’ve grown up accustomed to safari jeeps (which, of course, are constantly searching for lions). But why didn’t they show any interest in eating us?? Two possible explanations:

    (1) Lions mostly hunt at night; during the day they’re either sleeping or looking for a place to sleep. (Indeed, we even saw gnus and gazelles grazing quite close to resting lions, though they were carefully keeping an eye on them!)

    (2) Lions don’t like the taste of human meat. (But how would they know unless they’d tried it?)

  12. Izo Says:

    Can you elaborate on your fascination with lesser-known complexity classes? :)

  13. Scott Says:

    Izo: Sure, see http://www.complexityzoo.com :-)

  14. Richard Says:

    Looks like it was a wonderful trip! Who are the kids in photo #14?

  15. Scott Says:

    Richard #14: They were some kids in a Maasai village that we visited. They were doing a dance that involved a lot of jumping up and down, and they invited me to join them.

  16. Michael Vassar Says:

    Great hypothetical essays. Looks like you had lots of fun. How long were you there? Also, why would you want to catch up on Big Bang Theory?

    It’s my impression that very few large predators routinely eat humans, and that male lions do very little hunting in any event, which doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t also have been seriously worried as to whether getting so close was a good idea. Is it possible that lions have been subject to serious natural selection for not eating humans? Seems intuitively plausible to me.

  17. Scott Says:

    Michael: We were there for a week.

    I wanted to catch up on Big Bang because (1) it’s actually a great show, (2) I was stuck at camp for one day of the safari with food poisoning, and (3) honestly, it was nice to have a little break from the all-day game drives anyway.

    Yes, we were told that hippos are a much greater danger to humans than any of the predators—they’ll charge humans if they feel either that they’re being harassed or that humans are blocking their path to water. Fortunately, the hippos we saw were in the water, and showed almost zero desire to move let alone charge anyone.

    And yes, I think it’s entirely possible that lions have been subject to selection pressure from their interaction with humans. Indeed, I read a theory once that the reason the woolly mammoth went extinct soon after humans started hunting it, while the African and Indian elephants have survived, is that only the latter had millions of years to co-evolve with humans and learn (in the evolutionary sense) to be wary of them.

    (Note added: while it’s true that male lions do very little hunting, we also got extremely close to the lionesses. :-) )

  18. Sam K Says:

    Scott #11: It was explained to me that the animals effectively treat the jeeps as yet another animal and don’t distinguish the humans from the vehicle. Our guide told us that if you stand up and, in particular, change the “silhouette” of the “jeep animal” the animals will become agitated. I did this once, which caused a mild stampede of a few hundred water buffalo. Let’s just say I was more careful with the others after that. The guides say that’s part of the reason they strongly prefer open sided jeeps is that the other kind require the riders to stand through the sun-roof in the jeep, which tends to agitate the animals. Our guide had situated us downwind from a bunch of bison in hopes of catching a close up of a river crossing, but another group of tourists had a closed sided jeep. it sat there for about 30 minutes, but then their guide told them to stand through the roof and even though they were much further away, the animals got spooked and all (about 300-500 of them) ran away.

  19. Vishnya Maudlin Says:

    Scott,
    Great photos! Barry Loewer was at Kenya for three weeks at the time you were there. They have 7000 photos and we are planning a viewing party in Florence. We can have double fun.

  20. Vadim Says:

    Sam, out of the three types buffalo, you named the two that Kenya doesn’t have :)

    Bison are American, water buffalo are from Asia, and cape buffalo are the ones in Africa (and what I assume you meant).

  21. Jack in Danville Says:

    >the heroism of Richard Leakey (past director of the Kenya Wildlife Service) in overcoming decades of bureaucratic inertia to initiate a crackdown, where rangers were authorized to “poach the poachers,” shooting them on sight (!)

    Scott, I would have taken you to be opposed to the death penalty, even with due process. No mensch is without his contradictions.

  22. Scott Says:

    Jack: Uh, how long have you been reading this blog? :-) As I’ve written before, I have no problem of principle with the death penalty; the issues are all about how it’s implemented. In this particular case, given

    (1) the difficulty of obtaining due process in a country rife with corruption like Kenya, and

    (2) the obviousness of a poacher’s guilt when caught in the field (“hey, I was just minding my own business when the rhino attacked me! So I used these machine guns I happened to have on me to defend myself, then I cut off its horn because, you know, why not?”),

    I think “poaching the poachers” is an eminently defensible solution. Actually, I’ll say something stronger: I think hunting elephants, rhinos, etc. to extinction is more analogous to war or genocide than to ordinary criminal activity, in terms of the responses that are justified.

  23. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Good to see Scott shares my fascination with the “Big Bang Theory”. I have been following the BBT show for close to a half century now.

    For those tuning in late, an excellent plot twist has unfolded in recent decades. A problem developed: a pair (way way early, and earlier yet) of discordant eras, neither of which anyone knows squat about, refused to properly match up. A wildly popular (if bizarre) event called “inflation”, was introduced to plausibly(?) tie everything together. For dramatic tension, the showrunner cast some heretics who belittle inflation as a flagrant fudge factor. It is a lot of fun watching the rabble try to give the believers a few wedgies.

    The show’s writers have lately been exploring the contemporary topic of “Faith based reasoning”. A typical episode consists of producing a map of the sky at some wavelength and proclaiming: “That proves inflation”. This reflects a common phenomena in religions: The believers profess to be 100% sure they are right, but nevertheless seize on unlikely events as proof that they are right.

    The next century developments should be really good. I’ll report back.

  24. Cody Reisdorf Says:

    I’m very entertained by Raoul Ohio’s post.

    Scott, looks like a wonderful time! I was thinking concerning the poaching poachers, I’m not in favor of the death penalty generally, nor a huge animal rights advocate (obviously oppose cruelty/neglect/suffering, but people first…), I still would support the poaching of poachers, for much the same reason I support the use of deadly force by police officers when appropriate (like say gunman). I suppose it’s pretty extreme but so are the crimes, and the flaws with the legal system compound the problem—it doesn’t seem unmeasured.

    Also, I’ve wondered if bears mountain lions & moose in North America have been selected to avoid humans, since their populations have been decimated by us and we even tend to kill ones that wander into our society too frequently. On the other hand thanks to youtube I’ve seen videos of lion attacks, so I’d be super nervous. Though from there, all the things Sam K carry a comprehension that calms me.

    Glad you’re back safe!

  25. Aram Says:

    Since there has been no political or scientific argument yet on this comment thread, let me begin one.

    I think that instead of criminalizing poaching, we should create farms for elephants, tigers, and other endangered/vulnerable species for which there are international markets. It’s baffling how Western society accepts zoos and factory farms, but not this idea.

  26. Douglas Knight Says:

    Aram, there are two issues: hunting and body parts.

    Hunting can be done locally. Some countries in Africa sell hunting rights to monetize endangered species and pay for anti-poaching efforts. Some people raise African game in Texas and sell hunting. Countries with stable property rights and control over their preserves can do this without affecting other countries. some relevant links

    But body parts are part of a global market. I’ve heard it claimed that countries with control over their preserves want it legalized, while other countries want it kept illegal. Poaching is a difficult step, contributing to the cost of the object, but selling it on the black market also contributes to its price and lowers demand. If the sale of rhino horns became legal and there weren’t good paper trails, the value of the horn to the poacher would increase. The immediate effect would probably be to wipe out the animal in countries with weak governments. Maybe we’re slowly heading there anyhow, but it’s not clear.

    A long term solution might be to build up a supply of rhinos in, say, Texas before legalization. When legalization came, this might alleviate the spike in value of the horn to the poacher, and thus the spike in poaching. But this would require the Texan to have a lot of confidence in the coming legal change to invest in rhinos over the course of (rhino) generations. I imagine that it would be even more difficult with elephants.

  27. Hopefully Anonymous Says:

    Nice vacation and pics. You’re living a good life in every sense of the word.

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