Thursday, July 30, 2009

We were lucky to see lions on a kill. But are lions disappearing from Africa?

Text and photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD
A lion we spotted on a kill in South Africa. Note the blood on his lower jaw.

If you go on a "game drive" in Africa, looking for wildlife with cameras & binoculars, the guide always starts off by asking, "What do you all want to see?". The answer from everyone in the jeep is always the same...."lions, leopards, cheetahs". People are fascinated with the big cats. Even though hyenas are the second most powerful carnivore on the continent, I never once heard anyone asking for hyenas. It was always the cats.

Unfortunately, cats are among the hardest of the big animals to find, even in reserves and parks like South Africa's Kruger National Park.

We were lucky this past June to come across a couple of adult male lions on the carcass of a big Cape Buffalo, just outside of Kruger in a protected area that's part of "Greater Kruger." The carcass was only 10 feet from the sandy road we were driving down. We couldn't get a clear shot of the carcass because of the bushes and grasses in the way. But we waited and we did get clear shots of the lions when they got up to stretch and sleep.

One of the lions (left) pulling meat from what's left of the Cape Buffalo carcass. You can see the open body cavity on the right, and the buffalo's gray skin still covering the rib cage.

Presently one of the lions got up to relieve himself in the grass (below).

Then the second lion got up, and ambled over to the soft sandy road to sleep. He was so stuffed and so sleepy that he almost stumbled as though he were drunk. Note the blood on his front legs and face (two photos below).

All photos and text by Sally Kneidel, PhD

We came across the same lions at the same spot the next day (below). Again, one of them was napping in the road, too full and sleepy to even get up to urinate. Instead he urinated where he lay (as we watched) and the urine pooled around his rear end.

Although we were lucky to see these lions that stayed on the kill for several days, we didn't see many other lions, even though we looked for about a month inside Kruger Park and in reserves abutting Kruger. I had expected cheetahs and leopards to be rare, but I was surprised at the scarcity of lions. I shouldn't have been surprised. Africa's lion population is sharply declining, I'm now learning. The number of free-roaming African lions has dropped from 50,000 just 10 years ago to somewhere between 10,000 and 23,000 today. That's a decline of more than 50% in just a decade! And, according to Jeff Corwin, there were 250,000 lions in Africa only 25 years ago! Some scientists, such as Dr. Laurence Frank of UC Berkeley, believe the African lion is on the road to extinction.

What the heck is going on????

It's mostly about conflict with humans. As human populations in sub-Saharan Africa expand, the land left for prey populations decreases. A single pride of lions requires a hunting territory of 8 - 154 sq miles (20-400 sq km), depending on the density of prey animals. Lions generally eat the commonest hoofed animals nearby - impala, wildebeest, zebra - all grazers that need a lot of grazing space. Loss of habitat due to human population growth and human activities is the primary cause of the decrease in lion numbers in Africa. Jeff Corwin says that lions have lost 80% of their habitat in the last century.

African lions are now officially listed as Endangered (West African subspecies) and Vulnerable (East and Southern African subspecies) by the World Conservation Union and are on Appendix II of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) list.

But loss of habitat is not the only cause; other factors play a role in their decline. As the human population increases, so does the number of livestock. In Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai people graze their cattle on the same lands where lions roam, or have roamed. Cattle are equivalent to wealth and status for the Maasai. When prey is not plentiful, some lions will kill livestock. Traditionally Maasai have eliminated such lions by hunting them with spears. Nowadays though, the lions can be eliminated much more easily by poisoning carcasses with a cheap and common crop pesticide, Furadan, and then leaving the poisoned carcasses out for lions to take. (Lions are scavengers as well as predators.) In March of 2009, the TV news program "60 Minutes" ran a story on the American chemical Furadan: "Poison Takes Toll on Africa's Lions." With hidden cameras, reporters documented that Furadan was commonly available in Kenyan shops that were miles from any cropland, where shopkeepers chuckled when asked what the Furadan was for. After the story aired on national TV in the U.S., the American manufacturer promised to stop all sales of Furadan in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. In a July 25 update online, the 60 Minutes staff report that Furadan has been pulled from the shelves in Kenya, but not in neighboring Tanzania or Uganda.

Disease is also a serious problem for lions. We were told by several wildlife guides and scientists in Kruger that lions in South Africa are suffering from tuberculosis contracted from cattle. We were told that TB doesn't kill them immediately, but weakens them and shortens their life span. In addition, according to The Lion Foundation, 90% of free-roaming lions in Botswana are infected with FIV, the feline equivalent of HIV. And the lions of the Serengeti decreased around 30% after a 1997 outbreak of canine distemper.

A thin, weak lion we saw in 2007. We watched him try to climb a tree, but he was unable to. At the time I thought he was old. But now I wonder, did he have TB?

Trophy hunting or so-called "canned hunting" also takes its toll on African lion populations. Private ranches are often stocked with game animals just to provide easy shooting for those who like to kill big animals. By some reports, as many as 1500 lions are shot annually in southern Africa for trophies. Most desired are black-maned male lions in their prime reproductive years. But according to The Lion Foundation, approximately 6-8 other lions die each time such a male is shot. That's because another male will take his place in the pride, and when that happens, the newcomer generally kills all the cubs in the pride, which makes the females come into estrus sooner than they would otherwise. Occasionally adult females are even killed trying to protect their cubs. It's an adaptive strategy for a newly dominant male to kill the cubs of his predecessor, because it increases the likelihood of propagating his own genes, which is what natural selection is all about. But it wreaks havoc in a system when prime males are plucked out over and over by trophy hunters.

What's the problem?? How'd we get here?
The problem ultimately is poverty, and an uneven distribution of wealth and resources in the world. Poverty means...
  • Families whose survival is dependent on their livestock will and must protect their domestic animals from predators.
  • Poverty leads to rapid population growth and overgrazing, both of which contribute to habitat loss for prey and predators.
  • When local families are impoverished, the breadwinners are of course tempted to make money selling lions to shooting ranches, where Europeans, Americans, and Asians pay thousands to shoot big lions (and other big animals).
What's the solution?
Practical short-term solutions include reimbursing herders or livestock owners for animals that are lost to predation, which is now happening in some places. Other solutions include recruiting Maasai and others in agrarian or herding communities into clubs or groups such as the Lion Guardians of Kenya, who stand guard and alert their neighbors when predators are nearby.

Ultimately the broader solution is support and assistance for the families and communities of Africa. That means sustainable employment that gives local people an incentive to preserve their natural resources, including lions. We need to empower women with education and jobs; when women are empowered, they choose to have smaller families, which leads to higher incomes and more opportunities for their children. People with choices and opportunities don't have to poison lions or sell lions to shooting ranches.

One thing we can do is to support organizations that are working on solutions - organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund. If you know others, write a comment after this post and tell me.

Another thing we can do is this: when we travel, we can make sure that our travel dollars go to local people, not international chains that will funnel the money to stockholders in other countries. It's not that hard to do. Americans spend 12 billion dollars a year in Africa. Let's put it in the hands of the local people.

All text and photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD

This post now appears on The Courier News online, a member of the Chicago Sun-Times News Group and on, the #1 Syndicated Site for Authors and Book Views. This post is also now linked to Google News (a time-senstive link.)

Enkosini Wildlife Sanctuary/The Lion Foundation

Poison Takes Toll on Africa's Lions: Kenyan Cattle Herders Are Using the American Pesticide Furadan to Kill the Predators. 60 Minutes. CBS News. July 25, 2009.

Investigation Earth with Jeff Corwin. Planet Green TV network. July 27, 2009.

Nicholas Bakalar. 2005. Lions in South Africa Pressured by TB Outbreak, Hunters. National Geographic News.

Richard D. Estes. Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals. Chelsea Green Publishing Co.

Key words: Kruger National Park African lions tuberculosis lions declining South Africa wildlife trophy hunting loss of habitat population growth Furadan Jeff Corwin

Friday, July 24, 2009

In the African village of Hamakuya, we learned about life with limited resources

The beautiful faces of Hamakuya

All photos and text by Sally Kneidel, PhD
Click on pics to enlarge them

I told a friend yesterday, the only time my brain gives me any peace is when I'm either workingon my blog, or I'm in a foreign place that's totally strange (and intriguing) to me. I like a place best when I have no idea what to expect and a lot to learn. That's one reason I yearned to go to the Venda village of Hamakuya, South Africa - a completely new place for me. It's in the Makuya region just west of northern Kruger National Park. Dr. Laurence Kruger, director of South Africa's Organization for Tropical Studies, had recommended Hamakuya - he sometimes takes students from his OTS ecology course to the village.

We'd already had a fantastic experience, twice, in the Shangaan village of Welverdiend, South Africa. I knew Hamakuya would be different. It's a different indigenous culture, with a different language. The Venda culture and language of Hamakuya are originally from Zambia, unlike South Africa's many other indigenous cultures and languages.

Ken and I weren't sure how to get to Hamakuya from Kruger Park; both options involved difficult roads unless you have a 4WD, preferably a truck. We were driving a small rental car, a VW Polo. But what the heck, we like a challenge.

Me and our hardy VW, which took everything we dished out
We decided to leave the Park via the northernmost gate, the Pafuri Gate, just a couple of miles south of Zambia and Mozambique. As soon as we left the Park, the pavement deteriorated. Women selling one or two fruits of baobab trees stood at intervals alongside the road. Presently the pavement gave way to a "natural" road of dirt and jolting rocks. We had to drive very slowly. Still, it only took about 2 hours from the Pafuri Gate to the little road that leads into the village of Hamakuya. We were in for a treat.

Hamakuya is a very small village, more like a small collection of rural homesteads. They do have a primary school and a food shop, but no other establishments that I saw, and almost no cars. Instead, we saw small donkey carts on the dirt roads, many of them driven by children. Our new friend Thuseni Sigwadi (, who manages the Tshulu Trust and lives in Hamakuya, met us at the turn-off into the village. Thuseni had arranged for us to do an overnight homestay with the family of Rosina Tshinavhe, a widow with several children.
Rosina's family compound. Standing are our translator Fhatuwani and Rosina's daughter Violet.

Rosina has three grown sons who work in Pietersburg, Jo'burg, and the nearby coal mine. Two grown daughters, Sarah and Violet, live with her, as well as a teenage son, Salani. Sarah and Violet each have a baby, and Rosina has some primary-school children, but there were so many village children on hand to welcome us, I couldn't tell which ones were Rosina's. Almost no one except the teenage son Sarani spoke English, or if they did, they kept it to themselves. We did learn a tiny bit of Venda, but not enough to ask about family connections.

Thuseni had arranged for Makuya Fhatuwani to serve as our translator during our homestay. Fhatuwani works with Thuseni, as a nature and bird guide for the Tshulu Trust. Fhatuwani is also training for a job to track poachers for South Africa National Parks. He had a lot to say about that, which will be in a later post.
Makuya Fhatuwani and Thuseni Sigwadi

The Tshulu Trust not only arranges homestays as a way to bolster the income of Hamakuyu families who need it most, but also operates a small nonprofit resort (Tshulu Camp) on the Mutale River, on the outskirts of the village. The Camp features baobab trees, ironwood groves, mopane woodland, and lots of bird species. It attracts birders, students, scientists, and tourists, and is often used for meetings or retreats, employing local people as caterers and housekeepers. More about the camp in a later post.

Husband Ken, Fhatuwani, and Salani under a baobab tree in the village. Salani was able to reach a sweet fruit for us to sample.

It so happened that the day we arrived in Hamakuya was a national holiday to honor Hector Pieterson, a martyr of the struggle against apartheid. Holidays mean traditional dancing, which was already underway when we arrived. I didn't realize at first that it was a holiday; I thought the dancing was all for us! I was a little relieved to find that was not the case. The dancing was different from Welverdiend's dancing - probably because the main dance troupe was young girls, maybe 8 to 14 years old. They had an incredible amount of energy and danced to drumbeats for a long time, wearing colorful skirts, waving orange scarves in unison, with rattles tied to their lower legs. I was entranced by the dancing.

A break in the dancing

The girl who led the line of dancing, holding her leg rattles

The leading girl wore a headdress of black bird feathers and blew the dance rhythms on a plastic police whistle. I happened to have a shiny new metal police whistle, which I gave her. She collapsed at my feet when I did (which alarmed me), until I learned that collapse is the Venda way of saying "thank you".

The homestay was everything we hoped it might be. The buildings of Rosina's home were lovely. The family lives in several small clustered buildings; most are the single-room round earthen rondavels with thatched roofs that you see all over South Africa.
Another shot of Rosina's family compound. Standing are our translator Fhatuwani, Rosina's daughter Sarah, and Rosina. The cooking pit with kettles and pots is in the center foreground.

The rondavel where Ken and I slept had a handsome black pattern painted around the base (below).
We slept on homemade mats on the rondavel floor (below), although foam mats are available for homestay guests. Floors were of dried and compacted cow dung and mud, pleasant to the feet and odor-free.

Between the buildings was an immaculate and perfectly smooth courtyard also of mud and cow dung. Below, one of Rosina's children and Rosina in the courtyard.

The cooking area (below) was a small shallow hole in the courtyard, with a tripod over a small fire.

Above, daughter Violet stirs the pap (made of corn meal or maize meal and water) constantly to prevent lumps. Rosina is wearing yellow, behind the pot.

Below, family and friends gather around the cookfire for conversation and food. Rosina's grown daughter Violet is in the brown shirt.

Below, one of Rosina's youngsters washes the family dishes. The cooking pit and its pots are in the foreground.

As homestay guests, Ken and I were brought our meals inside our rondavel. Fhatuwani and Salani often ate with us. First, Salani poured a gourd of water over our hands to clean them (Ken and Salani, below).

We ate wild greens similar to spinach, white pap (like congealed grits), and mopane worms (caterpillars) in sauce. See below.

Below, a mopane worm ready for munching, on a wad of pap in my hand. The worms were surprisingly edible, maybe even tasty. The guts had been squeezed out and they had been dried for storage, then rehydrated with the sauce.

The family's daily tasks include gathering wood for cooking - which was no big deal in Hamakuya. They have not yet run out of wood as some communities have. Ken and I went with Sarah to collect wood, and we didn't have to walk far to find the red bush willow they prefer for the cookfire (its smoke smells sweet). With a machete and an axe, she removed enough dead branches from the trees to make a substantial bundle in just a few minutes. Cutting only the dead branches maintains a healthy stock of trees, without depleting the number of living trees and branches.

Above, Sarah chopped and bundled the wood. She then coiled a towel on top of her head, and carried the bundle home in ten minutes on the top of her head - no hands!! She even doubled over laughing at Salani's jokes on the way back, and still didn't use her hands to steady the bundle!

We learned that Rosina, the head of the household, generates income by making and selling brooms and sleeping mats, as well as by hosting homestays.

Rosina making a broom.

A finished handmade broom.

Rosina's daughters Violet and Sarah made brooms too.

We all collapsed in laughter over one of my social gaffes.

Below: Rosina's mats, woven on a handmade loom, were amazing. She used aluminum cans of sand as weights during the weaving process.
Rosina at work on her handmade loom, weaving mats to sell.

A mat under construction on the loom. The foil is snack wrappers, woven into the stiff reeds for decoration.

In addition to the brooms and mats, Rosina's family also owns a few cattle and chickens, which they can sell if times are tough. Rosina's sons presumably send her a portion of their income, and I'm guessing the family receives some money from the government for the young children. It's a meager existence by Western standards. But no less joyful than my own, and in some ways probably more so. The family spends almost all their time outside, almost all their time together, almost always moving around. They cook and eat every meal together, outdoors. That alone might be enough to make me a happy camper. The living quarters, what I saw of it, was impeccably neat and clean. The only bathroom was a "long-drop" (an outhouse) across a rocky field from the house, but that didn't seem to bother anyone. The only running water was a single spigot shared with other families, 100 meters up the road. That didn't seem to bother anyone either. They had no electricity. I don't remember if they had kerosene lamps, I don't think so. We had flashlights, so wouldn't have used them anyway. We slept on a grass mat on the cow-dung floor, like everyone else, which was not a problem. I went with Rosina and others to fetch water - she carried several gallons on top of her head (no hands). I couldn't manage more than a couple of quarts without pain.

Even the kids could carry more water than I could. Me at left, Rosina at right.

I've mentioned the good things about their lifestyle, yet I could see that Rosina felt the burden of her responsibility as head of household. Among the daughters and younger children, laughter was plentiful, even though the grown daughters spend much of the day cooking pap, gathering wood, tending the livestock, gathering wild plants to eat, making brooms, taking care of babies. Yet, as a mother myself, I'm sure Rosina worries about health care, secondary schooling for her children, drought, diminishing resources, low wages, difficulty in finding work for all of them. I never saw her at rest; she was always cooking, cleaning, weaving, tending children....working.

Neither Rosina nor the daughters were much inclined to talk to us, even through the interpreter Fhatuwani. Most of what we learned was from Fhatuwani directly or from Rosina's teenage son Sarani, who attends an internet technology school and is well-acquainted with Western culture. I'm not sure why, but in Welverdiend too we found that the men were much more interested in talking to us than women were (in general, there were exceptions). I would like to understand that better. Do the men go to school longer? Know English better? Do they feel more comfortable discussing the sustainability issues that interested us? Do cultural expectations keep women quiet?

I want to go back, right now. To Hamukuya and to Welverdiend.

But that will have to wait.

If you're interested in visiting Hamakuya or a stay at Tshulu Camp, as a family or a school group or tour group, you can contact me at or contact Thuseni Sigwadi at Thuseni's phone is 072 977 6669 within South Africa; from the U.S. it's 011 27 72 977 6669. If you do go there, you're supporting a proactive community that very much needs and deserves support. Drought and a rapidly changing world have impacted their lifestyle dramatically. They need a bigger share of the world's resources, and as Westerners, we can give our travel dollars to them directly, rather than to international hotel chains.

Vha Tshimbila zwavudi (go well, good-bye in Venda)

All photos and text by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Rosina's daughters Violet and Sarah and their baby sons

Other sources of information on Hamakuya, Tshulu Trust, and Tshulu Camp:

Northwestern University in South Africa blog: Hamakuya and Kruger National Park

IHRE Orientation Program, Tshulu Camp, Hamakuya Village, Limpopo Province (a document from an organization that had a retreat at Tshulu Camp)

A blog post from one of Laurence Kruger's OTS students who visited Hamakuya

Kundalini Yoga Weekend at Tshulu Eco Retreat (a document from an organization that had a retreat at Tshulu Camp)

Key words:: Hamakuya Makuya Tshulu Trust Tshulu Camp Venda homestay Africa Kruger National Park cultural village tour South Africa

Friday, July 17, 2009

Female hyenas, all hermaphrodites, bully the male hyenas and take prey from lions

A baby spotted hyena in Shingwedze, Kruger National Park (photo by Sally Kneidel)

We were lucky to see some wildlife on our recent trip to South Africa - although our success was more than luck. We spent a lot of time looking. We were particularly attracted to the big predators, lions and leopards - which I'll write about later.

An adult spotted hyena along the road in Skukusa, Kruger National Park, South Africa (photo by Sally Kneidel)

But the most interesting and underrated carnivores we saw may have been the spotted hyenas. We saw them trotting along the road we traveled every evening, heard them yelping while we slept, and sort of took them for granted. We shouldn't have. I was surprised to read on our return that spotted hyenas are the second-biggest and most formidable carnivore (after lions, presumably) in Africa; a single hyena is capable of running down and killing unaided a bull wildebeest 3 times its own weight!

Wow! Spotted hyenas are powerful and they look powerful. They're easy to recognize, with the shoulders higher than the hindquarters, the massive skulls, dog-like faces, and spotted coats.

But here's what really got my attention about hyenas. We were on a "night game drive" at one of the camps in Kruger National Park, and we came upon a communal den of hyenas out in the bush.
A communal den of spotted hyena cubs we came upon on a night drive in Kruger National Park, South Africa (photo by Sally Kneidel)

Our guide told us a little bit about the social system of hyenas that I didn't know. Their social /mating system is just plain weird! Female embryos are exposed to a lot of testosterone during development, which makes them more aggressive (as adults) than females of other mammal species, and also affects their reproductive system. Here's the weirdness: because of all the testosterone in utero, the female has male reproductive organs, which don't function. Her vagina is blocked by a false scrotum and testes. She has a phallus but it doesn't function as one. Mating occurs through the female's phallus, which is slack, the prepuce a wrinkled ring around her enlarged urethra. During mating, the male enters the female through that ring. Don't ask me how sperm gets from her urethra to her uterus and oviducts: I don't know. But the previous explanation is supported by a written source, Richard Estes' excellent book The Safari Companion.

I also read, and heard, that the male is fearful of the female during mating, because of female dominance. Even juvenile females can and do bully adult males.

One more issue of particular interest, which our guide told us and Richard Estes corroborated: female hyena youngsters kill their female siblings, and male youngsters kill their male siblings - in order to avoid later clashes for dominance. The killing is often or usually accomplished by keeping the weaker litter-mates from nursing, so that they starve to death.

Hyena cubs are raised in communal dens, and adult males play no role in their upbringing. The cubs are fed and guarded only by their own mothers. At the communal den we saw, the cubs were of varying ages. They were not siblings, just den mates or clan mates. Dominant adult females are usually recognized as the biggest, fattest hyenas with swollen udders.

The communal den of spotted hyena cubs we saw at Shingwedze in Kruger National Park (photo by Sally Kneidel)

Females not only dominate males at kills but also lead clan members on pack hunts, boundary patrols, and into battles. Hyenas and lions are very competitive and try to take each other's kills. Hyenas in groups often succeed in chasing off female or juvenile lions, but not mature male lions. With all other predators, hyenas are very likely to win a fight over a carcass.

So. Those hyena cubs were pretty cute, looking very much like puppies. But the adults...whoa. I know now why our host at Skukusa told us not to take walks at night along the roads where we saw the adult hyenas.

How fast can a hyena run? 37 mph, or 60 kmh! A lot faster than I can!

What's the conservation status of spotted hyenas? They are not immediately threatened or endangered, but their survival depends upon the availability of prey. As human expansion continues to demand more space, and climate change alters habitat, there will inevitably be less space left for prey. The long-range consequences of human population growth and climate change will be a reduction in the numbers of almost all wildlife. What can you do? Reduce, reuse, recycle. Pay attention to your ecological footprint. Support organizations that work to protect habitat, such as Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, and World Wildlife Fund.

Wildlife guides at Kruger National Park.

Richard Estes. A Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals. Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

See also: Animal Fact Sheet on Spotted Hyena from

Key words:: hyenas wildlife hermaphrodites lions Kruger National Park

Friday, July 10, 2009

African village of Welverdiend believes in the power of good

Children of Welverdiend at play, in high spirits
(all photos and text in this post by Sally Kneidel)

Ken and I just got back from a second visit to Africa that shook, rattled, and rolled us in the best of ways. While in Africa, we visited Welverdiend again, the South African village that had such a huge impact on us in 2007. I wrote several blog posts about the first visit in 2007:

Plan to spend a day in the African village of Welverdiend

An African village seeking solutions

Ecotourism can buffer the effects of poverty

We've been to a number of villages in struggling countries, but Welverdiend is special. It's the people of Welverdiend who make it so. I see that even more clearly now, after our second visit.

We went to Welverdiend initially on the recommendation of Dr. Wayne Twine, a scientist with the University of the Witwatersrand who studies the use of dwindling natural resources by rural villages near Kruger National Park. Many of the villagers have very low incomes, many are single moms, and they depend heavily on local resources that they gather themselves - branches for fuel and fencing, wild greens and fruits for food, river sand for home construction. Many of these resources are diminishing due to population growth, overharvesting by outsiders, and altered rain patterns due to climate change....brought on by industrialized nations like the U.S.

We've been to other kinds of village tours elsewhere, that turn out to be Disney-like historical skits. Fun and interesting, yes. But Ken and I are both biologists - he's a teacher and I'm a writer. When we went to Welverdiend, we wanted to know the ecological and sociological reality. How are the people of South Africa coping with diminishing resources? How are they making a living? What are their options? What are the solutions? We didn't want entertainment or historical education. I wanted the nitty gritty: what is life like here, right now? What are your current challenges and frustrations? What do you see for the future? Will you tell us honestly?

At Welverdiend, they did tell us, during both visits. Wildlife from nearby Kruger National Park and other private game reserves trample their corn, eat their crops, kill their livestock. (Many families keep chickens and a few pigs.) Gardens must be heavily fenced to keep out baboons. As passionately as I love and worry about wildlife on our planet, I learned in Welverdiend that elephants and lions and primates cause trouble for those who live with them intimately.

In addition to hearing the details about frustrations that we wanted so badly to know about, we were also warmly welcomed into the village and learned a lot about the ordinary basics of daily life. For example, we were shown how they prepare pap (the corn-based staple of their diet).

A young woman named Celebrate (above) and her friend Virginia (below) demonstrated how the women of the village grind corn with a traditional mortar and two ironwood pestles to make mealie-meal, which when cooked yields the "pap" they eat at every meal.

Virginia (above) sifted the ground corn into different weights, some for mealie-meal and pap, some for livestock. (More about pap preparation and diet in a later post.)

A Welverdiend weaver (below) showed us how she makes sleeping mats, using stones as weights on a homemade loom.

We learned how the citizens of Welverdiend build their homes and store their grains.
The granary above, of locally gathered wood, keeps corn and other crops out of the reach of wild animals.

We learned to speak a little Shangaan, the first language of Welverdiend. Xinyanyana xile nsinyeni. (Translation: The bird is in the tree.)

And we loved the traditional dances performed by the women of the village - with machetes! Their colorful clothes were fantastic.

Masevasi led the women in traditional dances that looked like a lot of fun.

Masevasi, the leader of the dancers

We had kept in touch with Welverdiend during our two-year absence, and we knew that the 17-member "co-operative" in the village was trying to increase tourism. The co-op is a core group of young adults who are energetic about seeking different options to bring much needed revenue to the village. We knew that the number of village tours had increased since our last visit, bringing in money through tour fees and giving the village women an opportunity to sell their art and crafts (below).

The jewelry, bowls, spoons, handbags, etc., in the pictures above were made by the Women's Empowerment group in the village. More about their crafts in a later post.

But in addition to more tours and more craft sales, the village had accomplished something else that was huge. Ken and I were stunned on our return to Welverdiend to learn that the village co-operative had applied for and received a grant from the South African government to help them get started building tourist facilities and an Olympic-sized pool!

We were flabbergasted!

Construction was well underway in June, with the pool already finished. All of Phase 1 will be completed in July of 2009.

Welverdiend's just-completed pool for athletes training for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (pictured above are Clifford, Ken, Robert, and Justice, l to r)

Ken looks at the engineer's blueprints for Phase 1 with Andres and Justice (l to r)

One of Welverdiend's new tourist buildings under construction

This development is a huge leap toward solvency and sustainability for the village. Phase 1 of the project includes the pool, a kiosk or snack shop, an amphitheater, a curio or gift shop, a reception area and office, a restaurant, and a building for "ablutions." It also includes 50 braai stands (barbecue stands) and an area for camping and picnics. Because the village is just a few meters outside the Orpen Gate into Kruger National Park, it will be easily accessible to the volume of tourists who visit South Africa's biggest park each year. The villagers also hope that the pool will be used by South Africans and by international athletes coming to train for the World Cup, to be held in South Africa in 2010. By that time, the villagers will have completed the construction of lodging for athletes on site. The grant will provide safari vehicles too, to take visitors on wildlife drives - giving the villagers added incentive to protect nearby wildlife.

One of the most exciting aspects of the new grant and construction project is that it's providing jobs for many of the villagers. In fact, most of the construction workers are single moms, for whom the income will be a tremendous boost. Added income will allow them to perhaps buy some of their fuel for cooking, reducing the pressure on overharvested village trees, a chronic and difficult problem for the villagers. I can imagine the excitement the villagers must have felt when they learned they'd been awarded this grant. I wish I could have been there.

But here's what I love most about Welverdiend. The villagers decided to hand out the highly-coveted jobs by drawing names from a basket. And it just happened that no one family got more than one job, and that most jobs went to those who would benefit most, such as single moms.
A Welverdiend mom who got one of the construction jobs, developing the new resort.

I don't see the people in Welverdiend patting themselves on the back, or bragging about their accomplishments. When things go their way, they're more likely to say, "God was with us that day." Such as the day the jobs were allotted randomly and blindly, but justly. They believe in the power of good. They believe in the capacity for change. They believe in a sustainable future.

I love them for that. I appreciate them for that, because just watching them helps me believe it too.

I'll be writing more about the people of Welverdiend in future posts, people such as Andres, a powerful and passionate spokesman for the village, and Clifford, an articulate writer who's kept in touch with friendly e-mails all these many months, and Robert, another of the co-op leaders who explains things so we can understand. I want to know Saltah better - a kind and gentle female leader in the co-op, and Nomsa, a member of the Women's Empowerment group, as well as Masevasi, the woman who leads the traditional dancing. I want to know all the people of Welverdiend better.

Our dear friends: Robert, Clifford, Justice, Saltah, and Andres

I'll be writing more posts about the inspiring variety of folks in this special village I've come to love, as well as our other adventures in Africa. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, if you want to tour Welverdiend and be inspired like we were, contact Dr. Wayne Twine at or Clifford Mathebula at If you want help planning a trip to South Africa that includes Welverdiend, contact me at The villagers welcome families, school groups, and tourist organizations such as Elderhostel and Honeyguide. They are happy to adjust the tour to address the particular interests of each tour group. The villagers who lead the tours speak excellent English; no interpreters are needed.

For me, there's no place I'd rather be than this positive, energetic and forward-moving village.

All photos and text above by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Key words:: 2010 World Cup training pool in South Africa Welverdiend South Africa Kruger Park Kruger National Park village tour wildlife fuel wood sustainable natural resources resort at Kruger Park