Sunday, August 26, 2007

An African Village Seeking Solutions

Children of Welverdiend, a South African village just outside of Kruger National Park. Photo by Sally Kneidel

In an August 6 post I briefly described our June visit to the South African village of Welverdiend. We were able to spend a day there talking with the villagers about the challenges of village life in 2007, such as dwindling supplies of fuel wood and damage to their crops from elephants. That was a remarkable day for me - the visit put faces on issues that had just been abstractions to me before.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, the village is only about 15 km outside of the Orpen Gate, one of the main entrances into Kruger National Park on the park's west side. So the village can easily be included in any visit to Kruger. If you're interested in a village tour, contact scientist Wayne Twine of the University of the Witwatersrand ( The university has a rural research facility on the Orpen Road, just a few km from the village, where anyone can stay.

Wood supplies are shrinking
For centuries, villagers in Welverdiend and other communities have harvested wood sustainably, by cutting only dead branches. But due to increased harvesting by outsiders, often for commercial purposes, dead wood is no longer available. This is a major problem because the villagers use branches to build homes, animal corrals (kraals), fencing, and furniture, as well as fuel for cooking and heating. They depend heavily on natural resources such as wood that historically have been free. But with diminishing supplies, harvesting of wood now often means cutting green branches, which damages trees and is not sustainable.

A household kitchen in Welverdiend, South Africa, constructed of branches cut from trees in the village commons. Photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD

American habits cause African resource shortages
The solutions are not easy. In order to conserve their dwindling wood supplies, villagers have resolved to use wood only for fuel. Their goal is to use metal fence posts when building more fences, and to use cement blocks for new home construction. But that's easier said than done. They use river sand to make the blocks, but supplies of river sand are diminishing too. Kruger National Park takes sand from the same site, and the villagers say that less sand is deposited by the river these days. Why? Global climate change. Less rainfall in their area means that less sand is carried and deposited by the river. And who's causing the global climate change? They know who. Americans are responsible for climate change more than any other single country, by far.

In addition to the shortage of sand, villagers have to pay a block-maker to form the blocks, using a special mold. The expense is so high that it may take 10 years to build one home.

A Welverdiend home of blocks made from river sand and cement.  Photo by Sally Kneidel

Villagers positive and inspiring
But even though their resources are changing as rapidly as the political scene in South Africa, the village is brimming with optimism and positive energy. There's almost no crime in the village, and the residents have formed a cooperative to create job opportunities. Wildlife tourists, many from the United States and Europe, bring millions of dollars into the Kruger area every year, and many of the villagers are being trained at the nearby Wildlife College (supported in part by the World Wildlife Fund) to help them get more involved in tourism at Kruger and at two private wildlife reserves bordering the village.

A leopard that we saw near Welverdiend.  Photo by Sally Kneidel

Direct your tourist dollars to those who need it most
If anyone should benefit from the $12 billion Americans spend in Africa each year, it should be indigenous villagers who live intimately with the forests, the land, and the native wildlife. It should not be international hotel chains that take the profits elsewhere. One way to help the villagers of Welverdiend to help themselves is to tour the village, have the same fantastic experience we had, and to tell others about it. If you know anyone - tourists or student groups perhaps - who would be interested in a village tour, please direct them to this blog post or to Wayne Twine, email above, or to me (Sally) at I can easily arrange a tour for you.

Keywords:: welverdiend south africa Kruger Park village tour wildlife fuel wood sustainable natural resources

Monday, August 20, 2007

Woods 1, PlayStation 0

The last thing I wanted to do last night was go bat hunting.

I started two new jobs yesterday, and as evening fell, all I wanted to do was face-plant on my pillow.

But I'd made a promise; I had a date with Dr. John Bowles. One of the nation's most renowned bat scientists, he also happens to be my friend. Now that he's retired, the knowledge he's accrued through fifty years of bat research goes largely unappreciated.

But not last night. At precisely 7:30, my boyfriend Matt and I rolled into John's driveway. With our honored passenger in tow, we drove just a few minutes to a small nearby lake. At the junction of the pond and the neighboring woods, we set up John's stool and settled ourselves carefully amongst the goose poop, gazing out over the lake.

I rested my aching head on one knee. No bats. Over the field beside the lake, the clouds were burning purple and blazing pink as the sun settled over the horizon. Effusive beams of scarlet light streaked across the sky. Above my head, chimney swifts darted and twirled against the fading shades of blue. I sighed, and felt a wave of tension escape from my tight muscles.

"Cigars with wings," chuckled John. "That's what my students called them. Even when the bats don't come, there're always the chimney swifts."

"Did your students like coming out to look for bats?" I asked, watching a particularly deft swift spiral skyward.

"Oh, yes," smiled John. "I tried to teach them to want to learn. I tried to get them to ask the question before I gave them an answer. Too much teaching these days is just giving students answers to questions they didn't ask. And never think to ask."

John continued telling me about the long-term questions he had encouraged his students to ask. One student studied screech owls for three summers in a row. Another observed the effects of dropping lake levels on the nearby mammal species. Rather pertinent, I thought, to the rain-hungry pond before us, whose surface was at least two feet lower than usual.

As John spoke, I pondered his comments. Why don't more of our students ask questions about the natural world? Perhaps it's because we need more teachers like John to teach them how to care, how to wonder.

This weekend I went camping with my young cousins, Lily and Jack. At ages five and three, it was their first time on our annual family camping trip. We spent hours in the forest, looking for salamanders under rocks and rotting logs.

We picked mushrooms, examined deer droppings, walked on fallen tree trunks. We crouched by an ant colony, watching the workers frantically carry eggs away from our peering eyes. "That was sooo cool!" Lily breathed as we clambered back to our feet.

Despite their enthusiasm, I couldn't help but notice how new all of this was to them. When we found a centipede curled under a rock, Jack exclaimed, "It's a slug!" Climbing trees was a new experience for both of them. I wonder if they'd ever done anything like this before.

If not, they're not the only ones. My father, like John, is a dedicated teacher of biology. This spring, he accompanied an environmental science class at his school to the campus woods, to look at birds. In the course of the outing, he discovered that three of the students in the class had never before set foot in the forest. And these are not underprivileged children. These are kids who vacation in the Alps, who go to the Caribbean over school holidays. And yet they've never been exposed to the greatest treasure right under their noses.

But for my biology loving parents, I might have turned out the same. Without teachers like John and my father, who took the time to show me woods and ants and bats and deer, I too might never have come to value these treasures.

I remember camping at the very same state park when I was Lily's age. I can still feel my childish amazement at the giant stone boulders scattered through the woods, the thrill of excitement at scrambling up their lichen-covered surface. I think it was those early days of exploration that kindled the love of the woods that I am now desperate to share with Lily and Jack. The same love that dragged me off my bed on an exhausted Monday evening to go look for bats.

My mental meanderings were suddenly cut short by a loud, fast clicking noise from the bat-tracking device that Matt held in his hand. Our three heads swiveled skyward, and sure enough, the fluttering outline of a bat hurtled past us, silhouetted against the darkening sky. A moment later, a second one followed. Then five, ten, twenty bats were dipping and diving over the lake. I gasped in delight.

Our tracking device was going wild. Bats emit high frequency calls that help them ecolocate insects or obstacles in their paths. Our "bat-meter" captures these sounds and plays them back at a frequency low enough for our ears to detect. As John explained to us, you can determine the species of bat by the frequency of its calls. At 28 kHz, we heard red bats. At 32, one of three species of Myotis, or mouse-eared bats. And at 40, the lovely Pipistrelle bat. My heart pounded as the clicks, chirps, and clucks narrated the delicate bat ballet above our heads.

As darkness fell, we rose to our feet and shuffled back to the car, still smiling and breathless. Although I was even more tired than when I left home, I was no longer sorry I'd come. Not only had I just seen the best bat show of my life, but I'd realized another value to my presence there that evening. As teachers like John retire, it's up to younguns like me and Matt to carry on the torch of compassion for the natural world to another generation. If there is any hope for the protection and salvation of our wild spaces, it depends on our young people being taught to value these treasures. As I have been taught, so I must also teach, so that Lily, Jack and I myself are not the last children left in the woods.

by Sadie Kneidel

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Air conditioning: Making the heat hotter

August is hard without air conditioning.

The first few months of summer aren't bad. Throughout May, June, and July, a few trusty fans and some strategically opened and closed windows ensure a decent level of comfort - bolstered, of course, by the monthly bonus of the lowest energy bill on the block.

But August is a different story. Almost to the day, on the second day of this month, an oppressive blanket of 100-plus degree heat settled over the rolling hills of North Carolina, bringing with it a tinge of desperation. Hot days are bearable when the nights are reliably cool, when a fan can whirl in gusts of 70-degree silky night air over your sleeping body.

But on nights like tonight, when it's still 90 degrees at 10 PM, a person gets ornery. In our house we've taken to desperate measures. Nego taught me to wet a bandanna, place it in the freezer until it hardens, and then wear it around my neck as a blessedly icy collar. Isabell was seen yesterday with a plastic bag of ice cubes clipped to a string around her neck. "I tried putting it under my shirt at first," she confessed, "but the plastic felt gross." It dripped slowly on her shirt as she read contentedly on the couch.

After two sweaty and sleep-scarce nights, I've begun taking fan management more seriously. For the past few months - such child's play! - I was too lazy to bother opening and shutting the windows as the temperature changed outside, much less rearranging the fans inside. My fans sat at awkward, inconvenient angles in the corners of the room.

Last night, however, I stole an extra fan from theliving room, and placed it in the window directly above my bed. A pleasing breeze ruffled the sheets. I cranked it up to level two; the humming grew louder,a corner of the sheet flapped half-heartedly. Level three: a poster came unstuck from the wall and flew across the room. The sheet blew off the bed. I smiled and climbed into bed.

Throughout the day today, I carried the fan aroundwith me wherever I went, plugging it in at the nearest outlet. Playing the fiddle, fan on the dresser. Studying French, fan on the kitchen table. Writing on the computer, fan at my back. I think I am developing a relationship with this fan.

And still, at 3:00 we had to stage an emergency evacuation. Isabell and I staggered down the street to Larkin's house and ducked into the chilly respite of cool, merciful, conditioned air. "It's like a different world in here!" Isabell said, staring out the plate glass window. "I can't believe we're on the same planet as our house."

But we are. And unfortunately, the heat wave swamping our city is a problem that the entire planet is facing. As global temperatures rise, cities are getting hotter than ever. On a hot day, a city becomes an urban heat island - a massive conglomerate of asphalt, metal and other heat-absorbing materials. When the sun finally goes down, these man-made structures release the heat that they have soaked up all day long - preventing the city from ever really cooling off. When the sun rises the next morning, even more heat is absorbed by buildings, streets, and rooftops, only to radiate out into the next summer evening.

Miserable as this is for city inhabitants, air conditioners aren't the answer. Not only do they guzzle electricity, contributing to the global warming that makes them necessary, but they also prevent your body from handling the heat on its own.

After all, the human body knows what to do about heat. In hot conditions, your body begins to create heat shock proteins, which help your cells weather extreme temperature or stress. The composition of your sweat also changes, allowing your body to conserve more salt and prevent dehydration.

In the end, I'm inclined to let my body do its job, strengthened by the knowledge that my sweaty afternoons - however ridiculous - are not contributing to this ominous trend.

As evening fell, Isabell and I shuffled home again. I thought affectionately of my fan waiting patiently by my bedside. The air conditioning was wonderful for a visit, but Iwouldn't want to bring it home with me. After all, what would we complain about then?

by Sadie Kneidel

Monday, August 06, 2007

Plan to spend a day in the African village of Welverdiend

Enery and Saltah grinding mealie-meal from corn in Welverdiend.
The leadwood pestles were almost too heavy for me to lift.

If you are planning a trip to Africa, and want to get a grassroots understanding of the issues rural Africans grapple with, I recommend a tour of the village of Welverdiend in South Africa. We arranged the visit through the Wits Rural Facility of the University of the Witwatersrand. The WRF and the village are adjacent to Kruger National Park, just about 15 km from the Orpen Gate on the park’s west side. The WRF is a university research outpost with accommodations for tourists, scientists, or student groups (high school as well as college, etc.). Wayne Twine was our contact person for the village tour – he is a scientist based at WRF who studies the use of natural resources in 13 rural villages nearby, and supervises student research. Geoffrey Craig-Cooper is the manager of the WRF and books accommodations for visitors; he can also arrange a variety of other educational and recreational outings in the immediate area, including guided wildlife drives within Kruger National Park. Geoffrey can book transportation (ground or air) between the WRF and Johannesburg (or wherever) as well. See the WRF web site for more info about WRF lodging and the nearby outings. (

Before we went to Welverdiend, we had visited other African villages that were simply Disney-like recreations of village life 100 years ago, or that gave us canned speeches. But Welverdiend is not a re-creation or dramatization of village life. It is a contemporary, functioning village. We spent the day walking from home to home within the village, on foot like everyone else. We met with the village “headman” and the village medicine man. The women showed us how they grind and sift corn to make mealie-meal, a staple of their diet. They also prepared a delicious feast for our lunch. Most of the delicacies were foods I had never seen before – including mopani caterpillars that were surprisingly tasty! With around 1200 households, the village has schools, a preschool and a women’s guild. The women’s guild and a group of enthusiastic children demonstrated some of their traditional dances, using musical instruments made of the long spiral horns of kudu – a local antelope. I didn’t see any shops other than a tent that some boys had set up to sell haircuts.

One of the village youngsters toots a horn from a kudu as his friends do a traditional dance

Some of the village men work at lodges within Kruger Park, or for nonprofit organizations, and we found them very well informed about the changes and challenges the village faces. The households rely heavily on natural resources as a source of fuel, food, housing material, fencing, and so on. The residents talked with us very openly about their dwindling supplies of these resources, such as fuel wood, and about their frustrations with elephants that trample their crops, and lions that kill their livestock. They were refreshingly frank about their options in dealing with these issues. The visit had a profound effect on my understanding of world conservation – I can’t overstate the effect it had on me, and I’m not sure I can analyze it. But I do know that eight months ago, my sympathies, my hopes, my anxieties were exclusively focused on wildlife and the coming mass extinctions due to habitat loss and climate change. And still, those worries occupy my mind. But I see now that the issue is much more complex than just saving wildlife.

Successful wildlife conservation plans must give local people economic incentives to participate and support the plans. And more than that - local people want and are entitled to an active voice in mapping out conservation plans as well. If elephants trample their crops, they must be compensated. When villagers call park officials about lions or Cape buffalo in the village, someone should respond. Parks and wildlife preserves should offer training to local people for employment in wildlife tourism - in lodges or preserves or parks - which is happening, but needs to happen faster. When the billions of wildlife-tourism dollars flowing into Africa wind up in the hands of rural villagers near the parks, everyone will benefit: local families, animals, community stability, etc.

Clifort, Robert and Andres talk to Ken (my husband) about elephants in cropfields

The issues involving resource use and conservation are complex and daunting all over the world, but perhaps especially in Africa – a place with more cultures, more languages, more animals than anywhere else on the planet. I am grateful to the villagers of Welverdiend and to the faculty and staff at WRF for giving us a huge leap in understanding these issues.

Contact information:
Wayne Twine at to book a village tour

Geoffrey Craig-Cooper at to book accommodations at Wits Rural Facility, transportation, and other activities in the WRF area

Me (Sally Kneidel) at

Keywords:: Africa cultural village Shangan community visit tour South Africa Wits Kruger National Park Witwatersrand elephants WRF

Friday, August 03, 2007

Chimps Share Human Trait of Altruism

Chimps socializing

Until recently, we thought only humans could behave altruistically. Not any more. "Altruism" is an act or behavior that benefits the recipient but is of no benefit to the person performing the act. To qualify as true altruism, in zoology, the recipient of the good deed must be unrelated to the performer of the deed.

Humans are constantly doing things that appear to be altruistic - for example, donating time at a soup kitchen or volunteering on a Habitat for Humanity work crew.

But altruism has seldom if ever been documented in animals, except for cases of "reciprocal altruism," such as primates cleaning each other's teeth or grooming each other within a social group.

That has all changed. New research has shown that chimps readily perform altruistic acts not only for other chimps that are unrelated and unknown, but also for humans!

Psychologist Felix Warneken of the Max Planck Institute in Germany conducted three behavioral experiments with adult chimps on an island sanctuary in Uganda. He compared the results with two experiments with 18-month-old German children.

In the chimp experiments, 36 chimps watched one at a time from a barred enclosure while an experimenter unknown to the chimps tried in vain to reach a stick on the other side of the bars. Only the observing chimp could reach the stick.

Most of the chimps grabbed the stick and handed to the experimenter, with no reward.

A similar experiment with 36 children yielded similar results.The second round of experiments involved 18 chimps and 22 youngsters. In this round, the chimps had to climb a 2.5-meter-high platform to reach the stick, while the children had to navigate barriers and hurdles. Most chimps and children still retrieved the stick for the unknown experimenter trying to reach it, with no reward.

The third set of experiments tested the chimps' willingness to help other chimps they did not know and were unrelated to. One chimp watched another in a separate room try to enter a space through a chained door to get food. Only the observing chimp could reach the peg to release the chain. All but one chimp pulled the peg out in numerous trials, allowing the other chimp to reach the snack.

Commented anthropologist William McGrew of Cambridge University, "This comes as no surprise to anyone who has spent lots of time close to wild chimpanzees."

Chimps sharing food. Photo courtesy of

Source: Bruce Bower. June 30, 2007. "Ape Aid: Chimps share altruistic capacity with people." Science News Vol. 171, p. 406.

Keywords: chimps chimpanzees altruism kindness like human people