As we head off for our last visit to Tanzania, one of the first things we come across is the Ground hornbill. There are two species of these strange birds in Africa and this one is the Southern ground hornbill. As their name suggests they spend most of their time on the ground where they feed on a variety of prey: snakes, lizards, small mammals up to the size of a hare, tortoises, snails and insects all play a part in their diet and they will also eat seeds and carrion. They are huge! They can grow to be up to 4 feet (nearly 1¼ metres) long and stand almost 40 inches (over 1 metre) high and they are long-lived, 70 years has been recorded in captive birds but the wild ones probably will not live as long as that. Ground hornbills move around in groups of up to ten and they are co-operative breeders; younger birds will help the dominant breeding pair to raise the chick. There will be only one because, although usually up to 3 eggs are laid, in a cavity often in a large tree, the first to hatch will overpower the other weaker chicks, ensuring that the first gets all the food. There is a lot of superstition attached to these birds, often contradictory. Some say to see them means good fortune, to others it is a bad omen, although one prediction seems to be consistent: when the birds appear, rain will follow.
Another terrestrial bird is the Red-necked spurfowl, or Red-necked francolin, a member of the pheasant family. This is quite a wary bird, usually hiding in deep grass, so I was lucky to get the photo; she was preoccupied with rounding up her chicks. These birds feed on seasonal seeds, tubers, vegetation and insects.
One insect that will be eaten in great numbers is the termite. These tiny creatures are master builders. They construct towering mounds that can reach 17 feet (over 5 metres) tall; the one in the photo must have easily been that high. Termites are social insects, with a queen, kings, workers and soldiers and they live very like bees and ants; they are not ants, though, they are distantly related to cockroaches. Some species create underground fungal gardens for food, while others eat wood and can be very destructive if they set up home in buildings. When the rains come young queens and males take to the wing on a nuptial flight to set up new colonies and like ants they will shed their wings after mating. The balconies and outside terraces of the hotel where we stayed in the Seychelle Islands some years ago, were covered in these discarded wings one morning, providing plenty of work for the staff who swept them up by the bucketful! This is a time of feasting for many birds, reptiles and other insects which take advantage of the plentiful supply of this protein rich food.
Mammals will also feed on termites and big cats have been seen eating them. Mice, rats, mongooses and many other small animals love them and even hyenas, which we associate with being meat eaters, will spend the night catching them and (look away now if you are at all squeamish) people also relish them, cooked or raw! Interestingly, it isn’t only the termites themselves that are eaten, the soil from the mounds is consumed by lots of animals. The habit of eating soil is called geophagia and is thought to be due to a shortage of certain minerals in the diet. Soil eating is also prevalent in pregnant women in Tanzania and it is prepared and sold in the markets for this purpose. It is, as well, quite common in the western world for expectant ladies to eat strange things. When I was a child we lived next door to a woman who had a lot of children. When she started to send the eldest to the local shop to buy sticks of chalk, we knew there was another one on the way!
Termites are also eaten by Baboons, which have a varied, omnivorous diet. They are opportunistic feeders and will take advantage of whatever they find, making them pests when they raid a crop field. They will sometimes eat meat and will kill small animals and birds if they get a chance; lambs and young antelope have been known to be victims. Baboons live in troops which can number up to 100 animals but usually average about 70. There is a strict hierarchy dominated by the alpha male who guards his right to mate with the receptive females. The complex social life puts each individual in his or her place in the troop but this can fluctuate with some working their way up the ladder; grooming a senior animal will curry favour and usually ensures a peaceful existence. Everyone in the troop will protect the young which remain dependent on their mothers until they are about a year old.
A safari wouldn’t be a safari without everybody’s favourite, the Elephant. These are also social animals and live in matriarchal herds which consist of an elderly female and her close relatives and calves; bull elephants will leave the herd when approaching maturity and either group with other bulls or remain alone. Elephants are highly intelligent, display empathy for their own kind and it seems that they mourn their dead. They are endangered partly due to habitat loss but mainly from poaching for their tusks. The trade in ivory is the cause, in Africa, of the death of thousands of these magnificent animals. Although much is being done to outlaw this barbaric practice, there is still a long way to go and as long as people buy ivory, elephants will die. Tusks are just teeth, for goodness sake!
Lastly, before we leave Tanzania, there is one final thing I want to share with you. This is not about the nature of animals or plants but the nature of man. When we were in Zanzibar our guide took us to the old slave market in Stone Town, now the site of a museum and a church. This was a place where slaves were auctioned after being forcibly marched in chains from the interior of Africa and shipped to the island. These people were often sold to the slave traders by their own families or tribal chiefs, some were also kidnapped. Many died on the journey, as they did where they were ‘stored’ in dark, airless, underground cells. These have been preserved along with the chains attached to the stone platforms where the poor souls were crammed together awaiting the sales. It was a moving and sombre experience to see this place and to try to imagine what those people went through. How could humans treat others in this manner? But the fact is that the slaves weren’t considered to be human, they were a commodity like cattle or horses, to be bought and sold. As L.P. Hartley wrote for the opening line of his novel ‘The Go-Between’, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Coincidentally, the hero in the book is called Leo Colston. Colston was the name of the slave trader about whom there has recently been a lot of fuss in Bristol. Schools and several landmarks there are named after him because he donated much money to the city and there are some who want to rename these because of his association with the slave trade. But can we rewrite history? Should we try? Perhaps it would be better to leave things as they are, not necessarily to honour Edward Colston, but to maybe to serve as a reminder not to let such things happen again. The sad thing is that they are happening and in some parts of the world always have. Slavery, in one form or another, exists today.
Although there is much more I could tell you about the journey in Tanzania, it’s time to leave and I’ll see you back in Norfolk next month.
© Sheila Sims 2018. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org