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National Geographic contributor Craig Packer celebrates the wildlife of Africa, describing in absorbing detail how wildlife research is actually conducted. Beyond the sights, smells, and beauty of Africa, Packer also explores the social lives of the animals, the threats to their survival, and more.
Minneapolis / Saturday, 26 October 1991
In spite of myself, my heart is racing toward Africa. Behind my closed eyes I sense, for one fleeting moment, an impending warmth, glimpse a flash of brilliant colors. Green is mixed with gold, blue with black. I recall a world where time means more than the dull tick of anxiety, where individual existence is all but lost in the vast rhythms of life.
But the vision quickly passes and I am gripped by chronic exhaustion. Slumped in my seat, I am flying from Minneapolis to Nairobi via London and Rome. My ultimate destination is Tanzania, where I study the lions of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater and collaborate with Jane Goodall on the baboons and chimpanzees of Gombe National Park. I am engrossed by the social evolution of these animals: Why do some individuals live longer than others? Why do some raise more babies than the rest? Why do they live in groups? Why do they cooperate?
Cooperation in nature is rare, but lions, baboons, and chimpanzees are among the most cooperative of all mammals. Lions are the most social of cats; chimps and baboons live in the most complex of primate societies. These are animals worthy of study in their own right, but their worlds also reveal something about ourselves. Human society may be the product of our own making, but I suspect we are motivated by many of the same desires and fears felt by any other animal.
This trip may sound exciting to most of the other passengers on board, but I am reluctant to leave the world of constant electricity and instant information. It is my sixteenth trip to Africa, and I have already traveled too much this year. I am a professor at the University of Minnesota. Most of my research has been done in collaboration with my wife, Anne, also a Minnesota professor. For over a decade, we spent half of each year in the Serengeti, but we can no longer shift our lives at the drop of a hat. Anne is staying behind in Minneapolis this time to catch up on her writing, and our kids need a chance to settle into school. They have already spent too much of their lives on the road.
So for the past few years we have spent as much time as possible investigating these animals on paper. The lions and baboons have been studied continuously for twenty-five years, and Jane has studied the chimps for thirty. Each of these long-term chronicles is equivalent to almost a century of human history. We have just finished cleaning up and collating the abstract biographies of all the lions, and the answers to many of our most important questions are now sitting in our computers, waiting to be revealed.
Now it is time to switch perspectives, to confront the living, breathing beasts. I would love to take a break from it all, but we are trying to solve fundamental problems about how cooperation can arise in an ocean of self-interest. The historical records must be kept unbroken, and so I return each year to the other side of the earth. The excitement of scientific discovery is still intense. Those few crystalline hours are worth any kind of hardship, any amount of hard work.
London / Sunday, 27 October
I arrive at 6:00 AM and wait for the others to appear at Heathrow Terminal Two. Combating cramp and fatigue, I move about as much as I can, wandering slowly between the garishly lit newsstands and the orange signs at the Alitalia desk. By mid-morning, the plastic highlights have all faded against the grey walls, grey floors, grey sky.
The hallway has gradually filled, and the terminal looks like an ad for the United Nations, with people from all over the world waiting peacefully for their flights. Hostile nations on neutral ground: Arabs, Asians, Africans, Europeans. But this taxonomy is too crude. We live on a tribal planet where local identities mean much more than race. I can't distinguish Norwegian from Dane, Syrian from Lebanese, Tahitian from Fijian; I can't read the lines of regional hostilities on each face.
In the waiting area, an Asian woman (Is she Indian? Bengali? Pakistani?) keeps a close watch on her little boy. He is not quite two years old. He wanders a few yards from his mother and finds something on the floor—a discarded baggage label. Waving it about in triumph, he charges around the alcove, victorious in his first battle of the day. He starts to lose all self-restraint, runs into strangers, whirls on the floor. Mother quickly rises and brings him back into line. She tries to instill a little discipline, then distracts him with a toy. The child converts the toy into a gun. Dozens of fellow passengers are mortally wounded. Mother tries to ignore the carnage. Shot for a fifth time, I finally fire back with my index finger. Tomorrow's warrior doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. Confused, he suddenly wilts and hides behind his mother's sari.
At 10:00 AM, Karen McComb arrives from Cambridge to swap video equipment and say hello. She has recently finished a two-year stint with the lions in the Serengeti and will spend the next few months in front of a television monitor in her college office, watching tape-recorded lions and reliving her years in the tropics.
Over the next half hour my three traveling companions appear one by one from different parts of Britain: Christine from Oxford, Sarah from Aberdeen, and Pamela from Belfast.
Christine is an ecological parasitologist who will be investigating the intestinal outpourings of our study animals. Christine came from Germany to Oxford, where Anne and I spent our sabbaticals last year. Our field associates have already sent her dozens of fecal samples from the Serengeti and Gombe. By looking for worms and eggs in each specimen, she has already discovered that some animals are more heavily infected than others. She can't yet tell why, and her research will succeed only if she can detect a clear pattern in her data. Do animals that eat together share the same worms? Are they healthier in drier habitats? Can monkeys be infected by humans? Christine will accompany me throughout this trip, then park herself on a lab bench for the next two years. She has a mere seven weeks to see the animals behind the samples, seven tightly scheduled weeks in which nothing can go wrong.
I have met Pam and Sarah only once before, when they interviewed for a three-year job as field assistant on the lion project. They had recently graduated from Edinburgh University and had conducted research in Scotland and Siberia. Anne and I had planned to hire only one person, but we liked both Pam and Sarah so much that we couldn't choose between them. It also seemed smarter to send them out as a team so that they could look after each other when confronted by equipment failures or by rapacious African officials. But we can't provide them with two decent salaries, so they will be dividing a single modest paycheck from our latest grant.
Our research is financed by the National Science Foundation, and we must anticipate our expenses with care. NSF supports most of the basic scientific research in the US, yet its annual budget only amounts to the cost of a single Stealth bomber. When requesting funds, we estimate the cost of the equipment, salaries, fuel, and car parts we will need over the next three years, and we try to gauge the severity of future inflation. If we make a mistake, we must live with the consequences. One of our research vehicles recently died and it is too late to request supplementary funding. Rugged, all-terrain vehicles are extremely expensive in the third world—especially with all the import duties imposed by the local governments. The new car has taken a huge bite out of our budget, and further expenditures will have to be kept to a minimum. Everyone will be working more for love than for money.
In this spirit of parsimony, we are flying today on ultra-cheap fares. But as soon as Pam drops her rucksack on the baggage scale, she realizes that she has misplaced her ticket to Nairobi. She is almost speechless with shock—she had organized everything so carefully. What else is missing? We hastily purchase a replacement ticket at the check-in counter, and the emergency one-way fare is the same as a discounted round-trip. However, the lost ticket can be refunded if it is eventually recovered.
On the bright side, the sympathetic Alitalia clerk checks our grossly overweight baggage through at no charge. Bag after bag passes over the scale, but she militantly refuses to read the dial. The overweight charges would easily have exceeded the cost of the lost airfare.
We all stand around in the crowded terminal, whirring with dizzy, half-witted airport excitement. Karen is vicariously elated by the others' imminent adventure; Christine and Sarah are both ready to fly with or without an airplane; only Pamela seems rooted to the ground, deeply embarrassed in her first day on the job. I feel myself starting to slip back into my African persona: slightly larger than life, up on my toes, ready to cope with anything, no matter how exotic the setting. Still reluctant to be going, but ready for action.
A three-hour stopover in Rome gives us enough time to try to call Pamela's flatmate to rescue her lost ticket. We need a polyglot who can deal with an Italian telephone operator. Neither Sarah, Pam, nor I share a common language with the man, but Christine knows a smattering of French. In the end, the attempt of a German speaking French to an Italian operator to use an American credit card to call Northern Ireland fails completely, but the effort passes the time and somehow keeps our spirits up. Pam and Sarah, too excited to sleep the night before, crash on the bright red Italian floor.
Another sleepless night lies ahead as we finally take off. Through the jet windows, the sparkling lights of Rome quickly pass from view. An inky black darkness engulfs us as we fly out over the Mediterranean. The north coast of Africa steals past undetected; the Dark Continent rolls by below. Occasional open fires glimmer weakly from the distant ground. The unseen void shifts from desert to savanna to forest and swamp; one major religion reluctantly yields to another. A dozen arbitrary boundaries encircle mortal enemies, and millions of competing viewpoints struggle to survive another night, another journey through the dark.
Nairobi / Monday, 28 October
The conveyor belt in the Jomo Kenyatta Airport delivers our twelfth piece of luggage. With four battered trolleys filled to overflowing, we look like a team of Victorian explorers setting out for the source of the Nile. The sign above the customs desk warns against smuggling seditious newspapers, books, or magazines into the country. The Kenyan press is heavily censored; international criticism is blocked at the border.
It is not yet dawn, and the customs officers are offhand and humorless. They can charge 250 percent duty on anything they please, and their curiosity seems to ebb and flow at random. But rather than let them take control, I start talking fast. "This is all research equipment. We will take everything down to Tanzania on Wednesday. Nothing will be left behind."
First I wave at Christine's large box of supplies marked "Scientific Equipment." Then I point to the liquid-nitrogen tank that will carry lion blood samples back to the US. The tank is labeled "AIDS Research, National Cancer Institute." No one ever asks to look inside the tank; they would rather be handed a venomous snake. The customs men wave us through without a murmur.
For the next few days, Pam and Sarah will be staying at Sarah's uncle's house; he has lived in Nairobi for over twenty years. Sarah's aunt greets us at the airport with the news that Pam's ticket has been found. Pam's burden is lifted.
Christine and I are greeted by my guardian angel, Barbie Allen. Barbie's father settled in Kenya following World War I, and she has lived here all her life. While her four children were being educated abroad in the late '70s, Barbie enlarged her family to include several itinerant scientists working in Kenya and Tanzania. Anne and I first met her in 1978, shortly after we moved to the Serengeti. Since then, Barbie has organized the lion project from afar, sending us emergency car parts and food, and even helping to arrange our kids' birthday parties.
From the Serengeti it is an eight-hour drive either to Nairobi or to Arusha, Tanzania, our other chief source of supplies. However, Kenya and Tanzania have followed very different economic policies since they gained independence from the British in the early 1960s. Kenya has been gung ho capitalist, while Tanzania has adopted a policy of idealistic socialism. These disparate policies led to a predictable divergence in living standards. Anne and I always relied on regular access to the luxuries of Nairobi, but because of the sheer difficulty of such long drives on miserable roads, we only came to town once every couple of months. Thus the help and supplies we have received from Barbie over the years have been worth their weight in gold.
Driving into town in the clear morning sun, we pass rows of flame trees, their flowers incandescent against the cool green leaves. The highway is bordered by hedges of bougainvillea, blossoming purple and orange. Jacaranda trees arch over the side streets and cover the pavement with a lavender blanket of fallen petals. We pass through the center of Nairobi, where traffic barely crawls and the air is clogged with exhaust fumes. The skyline has become ever more crowded with scaffolding and skyscrapers.
Conversation is lively, and I have to battle fatigue to keep up with Barbie's razor wit. She briefs me on the gossip of the past year, making my reassimilation more or less complete. My second life reclaims the front of my mind. People I haven't thought about since I was last out here suddenly seem very important, their affairs a matter of considerable interest. A whole cast of characters and their complex set of relationships replace the now-blurred crowd of family, friends, and colleagues that I knew so well somewhere else just a few days ago. It is almost as if I had never left Africa, never had another life anywhere else.
Barbie's split-level house is situated on the grounds of a small farm in an affluent suburb. We turn off the road and drive slowly past horses and stables, scattering the flock of geese that spends each day milling about the driveway. Emerging from the car, I greet Wahomey the driver, Odongo the houseboy, and Esther the cook. Some years I start out speaking Spanish or Japanese, but this year the Swahili is there when I need it.
We march unsteadily into the dining room for a lavish breakfast and meet several friends from the Serengeti over cereal and bacon and the thickest cream in the world. Revived for the moment, I start trying to cope with the Kenyan phone system—busy signals and unanswered phones are not always what they seem—then search around for the equipment I stored before my last departure.
Walking outside, I squint at the brilliant sunshine and try not to unwind too completely in the warmth of the African day. The well-practiced logistics of organizing our safari and shopping for the requirements of seven weeks impose a certain mental clarity that will last for only about six hours before I collapse in an exhausted heap.
In the late afternoon Christine and I go into town to look for a scale we can use to weigh the chimpanzees at Gombe. We start in the touristy part of Nairobi, near Woolworth's and the New Stanley Hotel. Alibhai Sharif's Hardware Store carries a large selection of scales, but nothing that could withstand month after month of heavy rain. The salesman suggests a half dozen other shops, all in the more rundown part of town.
We step outside into the stagnant city air. The rains are late this year, and the afternoon is unusually hot and smoggy. Most of Nairobi's gleaming high-rises could belong to any Western city, but the newest reflect a wave from the East: brightly colored banks of Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan with narrow windows and high, vaulted arches.
The manic excitement of the journey has finally worn off, and we drag ourselves along the cluttered streets just as all the offices close for the day. Thousands of Africans stream out to join the already large crowds of pedestrians. Kenya has one of the fastest-growing populations in the world, and Nairobi doubles in size every ten years. Most vehicles run on diesel, and the car fumes trapped in the human flood create a choking, burning haze.
We walk as fast as we can through the rising tide. Streets become narrower as we enter an older part of town; excess humanity spills from the sidewalks into the traffic. My exhaustion suddenly gets the best of me, and I am terrified that the flowing crowd will separate me from Christine. She has never been to Nairobi before—doesn't know her way back to Barbie's—and it will be dark in another hour or so. I dart from curb to curb, wedging between cars and passing through countless pedestrians, frantically looking back with each maneuver to make sure that I haven't lost her. But we both stand out a mile against the background of African faces; there is no real risk of losing Christine in this crowd.
Excerpted from Into Africa by Craig Packer. Copyright © 1996 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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