Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A sustainable, locally run, and off-the-grid resort in South Africa; great for birding

All photos and text by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of

Children of the Hamakuya community. Community residents find employment at the small "green" resort of Tshulu Camp, bringing needed revenue into the village.

My husband Ken consulting his bird guide on our tent's deck in Tshulu Camp.

I've written a lot about supporting people in struggling nations who are trying to transition to sustainable livelihoods. One great example of local people choosing to conserve their own natural resources, and finding employment in doing so, is Tshulu Camp in northeastern South Africa. It's operated by the Tshulu Trust, also local.

We had the good fortune to stay at Tshulu Camp, a small nature resort, this past June. The camp is completely off the grid, depending solely on PV (photovoltaic) panels to operate the lights and recharge batteries for guests. PV panels also power the pump that carries water from the well or "borehole" to the kitchen and bathrooms.

We learned about Tshulu Camp, as well as our village homestay I wrote about earlier, through friends with the Organization for Tropical Studies, an educational consortium that offers ecology courses in Costa Rica and South Africa. The OTS friends directed us to Tshulu Trust Administrator Thuseni Sigwadi, an energetic and very friendly young man.

Thuseni Sigwadi, an administrator of the Tshulu Trust and its Tshulu Camp. His job includes arranging camp stays, as well as homestays in the adjacent village of Hamakuya. His contact info is below.

Thuseni arranged everything for us, gave us driving directions, and for the homestay, he met us at the turn off into the village. Later, he rode with us from the homestay to Tshulu Camp, to help us steer our tiny VW around the most difficult rocks. As much fun as the homestay was, Tshulu Camp was just as valuable in its own way. Thuseni suggested the camp for the birding opportunities and the quiet natural setting on the Mutale River. He said Fhatuwani Makuya could serve as our nature guide while we were there.

Fhatuwani Makuya, who served as our translator during our homestay, is also a nature & birding guide at Tshulu Camp. He's in training to be a game guard for national parks, a dangerous but fascinating job. Game guards protect wildlife from poachers. More about what we learned about poaching in a later post. You can see our previous post on rhino poaching here.

Tshulu Camp was beautiful, comfortable, quiet, and the perfect place to relax in privacy after the homestay. It has 5 guest tents, and a lovely outdoor covered dining area. The staff was so, so friendly.

The dining room at Tshulu Camp (above)

The dining room, above. We loved the "catering lady" Rosina Netshituni (in red). She fixed all our multi-course meals, which were more than scrumptious. She was happy to talk recipes with anyone who could speak a little Venda. We tried!

Much of the food prepared in the camp's kitchen comes from their organic vegetable garden. The garden not only supplies food for the camp kitchen, but also provides employment for villagers living nearby. The vegetable garden is irrigated from underground, which is a plus, as water shortage is a big issue in Africa. The camp uses their waste sustainably too - composting all the vegetable and garden waste to enrich the soil for the organic farm. So those tasty vegetables prepared by Rosina are organically grown on fertile, composted soil!
From the deck of the dining area (above), Ken and I looked for birds along the Mutale River

A dedicated birder, Ken spent most of his free time wandering around through the bush along the riverbank looking for birds, while I was socializing. We did see quite a few birds in the area of Tshulu Camp and Hamakuya, including the Namaqua Dove, Cut-throat Finch, Red-billed Quelea, Great Rufous Sparrow, White-throated Robin Chat, and Levaillant's Cisticola.

One thing I really appreciate is how the camp has retained the natural topography of the land and all its native plants. The spacious and luxurious tents where guests stay required no grading at all. When construction projects do grade land to make it level for roads or buildings or landscaping, the grading destroys topsoil, native plants, animal homes, and wreaks havoc with natural communities. Tshulu Camp has avoided that, which is one reason the bird life there is prolific.

There's also no pavement in the village or at Tshulu Camp. All walkways and roads are natural substrates, allowing natural water cycles to continue unaltered. Rainfall percolates through the ground everywhere, to recharge ground water, streams, and rivers.

The deck of our tent, immersed in native flora, overlooked the Mutale River (photos above and below).

We enjoyed hangin' out on the cool tent deck in the evenings, when not hiking, eating or schmoozing with fellow campers. What a view!

The inside of our private tent.

Our private bathroom with shower, inside our tent.

Housekeepers Gladys Tshinavhe and Phellinah Ntshauba

These PV or photovoltaic panels (below) power Tshulu Camp's lights and charged our camera batteries.

The PV panels below power the pump for the "bore-hole" (or well) that provides water for the camp.

Baobab trees were common in and around Tshulu Camp (below).

Student Erin Wilkus (below) from Reed College in the U.S was studying the baobabs at Tshulu Camp, for an academic project, while we were there.

Erin had already made friends with the children of Hamakuya and, on a short trip into the village, she stopped to play clapping games with them. Ben Zarov (in gray sweatshirt below) from Grinnell College was working at Tshulu Camp temporarily as a volunteer, doing odd jobs and helping maintain the grounds. The children loved Erin and Ben, who had both been at Tshulu Camp for a while and had learned a lot of the Venda language.

I highly recommend a stay at Tshulu Camp and a homestay at Hamakuya. If you want to go, e-mail Thuseni Sigwadi, Tshulu Trust Administrator, at You can call Thuseni at 011 27 72 997 6669 (from the U.S.). He speaks excellent English. From South Africa, his number is 072 997 6669. He can arrange the whole thing for you.

When you choose to visit locally owned and operated nature resorts, and particularly homestays, you learn so much more about the people and their way of life than you would in a hotel chain, or a foreign operated resort. Plus, your dollars help to empower these communities to conserve their trees, their wildlife, their wild landscapes. Dollars from ecotourism replace dollars from logging or from sale of wildlife and wildlife parts. When you support locally owned "green" tourism, you're protecting irreplaceable natural resources for future generations.

The Tshulu Trust is working on a website that will be online shortly. I'll post a link here or in a later post when the site is up.

All photos and text by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of

Keywords: Tshulu Trust Tshulu Camp Hamakuya birding South Africa Thuseni Sigwadi ecotravel sustainability green resorts sustainable resorts local communities Venda

Friday, August 21, 2009

Obama to fight consolidation of farms: good news for small farms and consumers

Text and all photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD

I like Obama. Just like me, he's tired of Smithfield and Tyson and ConAgra and all those mega food corporations running the show and fouling our food.

I heard on NPR yesterday that, starting in 2010, the Justice and Agriculture departments will hold town meetings in farming communities throughout the country, to learn how corporations like Smithfield are buying up small farms and wreaking havoc in agricultural markets. Obama's Justice Department has said that scrutinizing monopolies in agriculture is a top priority. That is very good news!

Bush's attitude was very much the opposite - he favored consolidation. His "let's make a deal" mentality encouraged big corporations to absorb small livestock farms. A monopoly allows corporations to set whatever price they want for animal products in the grocery store. During the Bush administration, mergers were approved between Dean Co. and Suiza Corp. to create the nation's largest milk processor; between Smithfield Foods and Premium Standard Farms to create the largest hog processor; and between JBS and Smithfield Beef to make one of the nation's largest cattle feeders.

A sow in a farrowing crate at a farm with 40,000 hogs, under contract to Smithfield.
Photo by Sally Kneidel

A hog farm under contract to Smithfield. Veggie Revolution co-author Sadie on the left; owner on the right. Photo by Sally Kneidel

Since the 1980s, American agriculture has become increasingly concentrated. Today, less than 2 percent of farms account for half of all agricultural sales. That means a few ag companies are getting bigger and bigger, while smaller ones are disappearing. While Sadie and I were researching our book Veggie Revolution, we learned that North Carolina is losing 1000 farms a year to consolidation. Farmers told us that small farms go out of business because the corporations own most of the slaughterhouses, and the small farmer can't find anyone reliable to process his livestock. Or...he can't price his product as cheaply as the corporations can with their penny-shaving techniques that exploit laborers, livestock, and land.

We talked to hog farmers under contract to Smithfield who said they had tried to go independent, would prefer to be independent, but they couldn't find a facility to slaughter their hogs. Plus, they got threatening letters from the company telling them that they wouldn't be allowed to go independent. They weren't really sure what that threat meant.

We talked to Tyson farmers too who said they much preferred the old days when they weren't under contract to Tyson.

24,000 Tyson broilers crammed into each shed. Photo by Sally Kneidel

A. typical Tyson broiler shed, owned and paid for by the farmer, used by the profit-taking Tyson Corporation. Photo by Sally Kneidel

They told us that being under contract means taking a huge risk, because the farmer has to pay for the land and for each $200,000 animal shed, often mortgaging his family's property to do so. He needs at least five sheds to make enough money to support his family in even a meager manner. The corporation likes it that way. As long as the farmer owns the land and shed, any lawsuit filed because of a leak in the farm's animal-waste lagoon, or airborne ammonia sickening the neighbors, is filed against the farmer not the corporation. How convenient: the farmer takes the risk - the corporation reaps the profits. And if the corporation backs out of the contract, the farmer is wrecked financially, left to pay a million-dollar mortgage on 4 or 5 useless sheds.

We interviewed owners of small farms that sell eggs, and toured a Food Lion egg factory with 1.1 million hens, crammed into cages so small they had to have their beaks cut to keep them from pecking and eating each other. I don't generally eat eggs, but I hear that the eggs from small farms, where laying hens wander around outside all day eating bugs, have lots more nutrients and flavor. I could see that even the color of the yolk was richer.

One lone hen has escaped her tiny cage at a Food Lion egg factory with 1.1 million hens. Photo by Sally Kneidel

The Food Lion hens spend their lives in cages so small they can't stand up fully, much less preen their feathers or stretch. Photo by Sally Kneidel

Thank you Obama, for your willingness to look into this! We deserve wholesome food. Farmers deserve to make a living wage. As it is now, the corporate stockholders are making all the money.

Obama's plan to apparently support small farms and limit consolidation is giving hope to independent farmers, who have complained for years about having fewer and fewer options, and being forced to raise livestock as if they were milk, egg, sausage, and burger machines, rather than living beings that need space and fresh air.

During the upcoming farm-town hearings, the ag dept is likely to hear from people like Don Quamby, a hog farmer from Wellsville, Mo. Quamby was interviewed on the NPR piece I heard.

"With the hogs, it's gotten to be where you can't make any money anymore raising them, because the packers [like Smithfield] own everything," Quamby said.

He said he's deeply concerned about the death of independent hog farms.

"It used to be you had several different markets that you'd go to in our area, several different buyers," Quamby said. "Now we don't have that."

Asked why consumers should care about the change, Quamby said, "Well, because once the packer owns all the market, they can charge whatever price they want then at the consumer level, once the meat gets to the store."

"I've got grandsons — 10, 8 and 6," said Jim Foster, who farms in Montgomery City, Mo., "and their ability to raise hogs like I did, as an independent, depends on whether these guys do their job or not." Foster also was interviewed for NPR.

The Justice Department said that the antitrust division plans to take a hard look at three areas of agriculture.

The first is seed companies. In some markets, Monsanto controls 90 percent of the technology behind genetically-modified seeds for cotton, corn and soybeans. Sadie and I wrote a long chapter about Monsanto in our 2008 book Going Green, about how the company sues farmers whose crops are accidently pollinated by windblown pollen from Monsanto's genetically-modified patented plants. See the document "Monsanto vs, U.S. Farmers" by the Center for Food Safety for lots more info about Monsanto's dirty dealings.

The second segment is beef packing. And the third is dairy, where consolidation has been especially dramatic. In the last decade, more than 4,500 dairy farms disappeared every year.

I can't wait to see what comes of it, especially since I live in N.C., a state saturated with poultry farms, hog farms, and hog waste. We have more hogs than people - second only to Iowa in the number of swine.

God, thank you for that night in November where hopeful people pulled together and elected a man who's courageous enough to look at everything with fresh eyes, with compassionate principles, and with his solid belief that we can do a heck of a lot better with the massive resources this country has at its disposal.


John Burnett. "Small Farmers See Promise in Obama's Plan." Morning Edition. August 20, 2009. National Public Radio.

Sally Kneidel and Sadie Kneidel. 2005. Veggie Revolution: Smart Choices for a Healthy Body and a Healthy Planet. Fulcrum Publishing.

Sally Kneidel and Sadie Kneidel. 2008. Going Green: A Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet. Fulcrum Publishing.

Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers Report. 2007. Center for Food Safety.

See my previous posts about Smithfield, who is suspected of starting the swine flu pandemic:

Smithfield blamed for swine flu by Mexican Press.

This virus is a swine flu and has roots in N.C., the land of Smithfield

Why is swine flu likely to return in winter? It's not because people are cooped up together in winter.

Keywords:: Obama small farms consolidation Smithfield Tyson healthy food Monsanto

Saturday, August 15, 2009

With a chain-saw, he cut off the rhino's valuable horn

This post now on Google News - a time-sensitive link.

All text and photos by Sally Kneidel PhD of

I was surprised at how simple it was. One of the men put his foot on the drugged rhino's massive horn, pinning the horn to a wooden block on the ground.

Then another guy revved up the chain-saw and sawed the horn off her face, leaving a stump that protruded about 4 inches from the rhino's skin.

A small plastic sheet under the rhino caught all the shavings, which were considerable.

Below, the shavings and the big horn.

The circular stump, head on, looked like a bulls-eye with its dark center.

Then the man with the chain-saw turned his attention to the second smaller horn, and sawed that off too, once again catching all the valuable shavings and flakes. The rhino was awake enough to flinch at that one, which was much closer to her eyes and ears.

The stumps of both horns on the mother rhino.

Rhino horns are made of compacted hair, so removing one shouldn't hurt if the growth zone at the base isn't touched. The horn will regrow about 2 inches a year, maybe twice that much if the animal is given protein supplements. A typical horn on an adult white rhino is about 22 inches.

As she lay on the ground, the rhino was grunting softly, laboring to breathe. Feeling the urge to comfort, I put my hand on her shoulder. Her skin was tough, like it looked, but I was surprised at how warm it felt- even warmer than human skin. No wonder they have so many parasites, the blood must be right under the surface.

Ken and I had been invited on this rhino capture by a couple of science friends while in Africa, in June. We'd watched while a helicopter took off with a vet, a vet tech, and a pilot to locate two rhinos from the air and to fire a tranquilizer dart from a rifle into each one.

One of the darts, after it was removed.

After a mother rhino and her year-old-baby were located and successfully darted, Ken and I and a group of other scientists had to find the fallen beasts in the dense African bush, not an easy task. The rhinos ran quite a ways before the drug brought them down. The plan was to take samples and measurements from the sedated pair, then inject an antidote to wake them and lead them into two cages on a flatbed truck.

The reason for the capture was that the rhino and her baby had been sold. They were moving from a wildlife preserve into private hands, to raise money for the preserve. The new private owner had requested that the mother have her horn removed to protect her from poachers. I had mixed feelings about that.

The new owner was operating under the theory that a rhino without horns is less likely to be killed by poachers, which may or may not be true - I don't know. Rhino poaching is a real danger, having increased in southern Africa 3-fold between 2005 and August of 2009. In Kruger Park alone, 27 rhinos have been killed in 2009. Rhino horns stored at Addo National Park were stolen in a violent armed robbery in July of '09. Just last night I got an email from a friend in South Africa that "Heidi," the only white rhino at Thula Thula preserve, has just been shot and killed by poachers who hacked off her horn.

Rhino horn is extremely valuable, for two main markets. It's sold to Asian countries, especially China, Taiwan, and South Korea, for use in traditional medicines. And it's sold to Middle Eastern countries such as Yemen and Oman, where it's used to make ornately carved handles for ceremonial daggers. We were told, while in Africa, that much of the rhino poaching is instigated by well-organized Asian syndicates, which may hire impoverished locals to do the dirty and dangerous work. It may take 3 days to track a rhino - which is invariably shot and killed before the horn is sawed or hacked off. An average-sized horn can sell for $24,000 on the black market. The scientists we went out with said the horns sell for $6,000 per kilo, and the mama's horn that we saw weighed about 4 kilos.

So, does removing the horns protect rhinos from poaching? We were told by a variety of sources, including rangers and poaching guards, that removing horns from a rhino does little to protect it. Poachers will still go after a dehorned rhino and shoot it, because even the stump is valuable. And if the stump too is gone, we heard, the trackers will kill the rhino just so they won't waste 3 days tracking the same useless animal again.

So back to the scene... the drugged mama and baby rhino.... as soon as we located the darted rhinos lying down and sedated, the group of scientists on the ground split into two teams to work respectively on the mother and baby. Cloths were tied around their eyes as blindfolds. A soft cloth ball the size of a tennis ball was stuffed into each ear to shut out sounds, to keep the animals calm.
Above, ear plugs for the mother (the black balls), put in place before the sampling and cutting began.

The teams took blood, hair, skin, and tissue samples, measured the animals' temperature and pulse, inspected the teeth and various other body parts, and clamped ID tags to their ears.

Below, the sampling materials in the truck before the work began.

The pulse is checked (below).

One graduate student plucked green Amblyoma ticks from around each rhino's anus. Below, the round ticks are visible in the skin creases. The mother's tail is in the lower right of the photo below. I'm not sure what the white stuff is, maybe an antiseptic or pesticide.

The ticks on most of their skin are plucked off by oxpeckers - birds that specialize in eating external parasites from large African herbivores. But I guess the birds can't get to an anus that's covered by a tail. I like almost all animals, including invertebrates, but I have to admit that the dozens of ticks around the mother's moist anus were a bit unsavory.

It was during this sampling and measuring that the mom's horns were sawed off. The shavings and flakes, which were considerable, were saved because of their value. We were told that they will be stored in a secure vault. For what, or until when, I don't know.

After all the sampling was done, a vet injected the antidote into the 10-yr-old mom and her yearling son, leaving the blindfolds in place.

After just a couple of minutes, the rhinos started to wake up. A bunch of people started trying to roll the rhinos so that their legs would be under them (the mother, below).

The rhinos were then urged and pushed and pulled into a sitting position (the mother, below).

Then the two animals were pulled and prodded toward the cages and truck that would take them to their new home (the mother, below).

As I ran beside the mother rhino, she passed saplings - and trampled them. She didn't go around anything, but smashed everything in her way. Of course she couldn't see where she was going. I felt sorry for her - she had no idea where her baby was, unless her keen sense of smell told her.

We soon arrived at the cage for the mother. She was pulled with the rope, and pushed from behind , and walked easily enough into the cage.

The heavy cage door was lowered by a crane, and then the crane lifted the cage onto the flatbed truck. The baby was already in his cage on the truck, which had room for both cages (below).

Then it started to drizzle. So instead of driving the rhinos 80 some miles in a drizzle and risk their getting a respiratory infection, the decision was made to release them temporarily into a nearby holding pen that was forested and quite extensive. We drove there, the crane put the cages on the ground, and the blindfolds and earplugs were removed. Mom and babe were both released, and the rhinos rejoined one another immediately (below).

They then began to trot away from us (below).

But baby stopped, and turned around to stare at us.

"What the heck was that?," he must have wondered. He may have never seen a human before. Someone clapped and yelled to shoo him and he turned to follow his mother (below).

Rhino conservation: the good and the bad
I didn't know when we were in Africa how threatened or endangered the southern white rhino is. As it turns out, they are classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List. I did know that they're the largest land animal, after the African and Asian elephants. They're larger than any other rhino species. We saw them on lots of outings in reserves - they were fairly common in southern Africa. I knew that white rhinos are really named for their "wide" and squarish upper lip. Africa's black rhinos, which are much more rare and may be extinct in the wild, have a narrow prehensile upper lip that they use for browsing. Black rhinos are particularly vulnerable to poaching because they must have water daily and they return to the same water hole every day. Sometimes water holes are poisoned to kill the rhinos (and everything else that uses it).

Although the white rhino population in southern Africa is doing relatively well at present, they almost went extinct. In 1895, there were only 20 to 50 animals alive in the wild. Today, the population of white rhinos in southern Africa has grown to 17,500, with 750 more in captive breeding programs around the world, according to ARKive. I don't know how they got from 50 to 17,500, but it's a nice success story.

Still, white rhinos remain in danger due to habitat loss, the recent surge in poaching, and widespread poverty which affects human priorities. Africa is the only continent where poverty is increasing, due to human population growth, recurrent droughts, HIV, and a history of colonization and exploitation.

Poverty is a contibuting factor
In some of the rural villages we visited in southern Africa, we were told that local people often enter national parks illegally to poach wildlife for food or for sale, and to gather firewood to use or to sell, when nearby sources are depleted. It's the hierarchy of needs....if your kids are hungry, you do what you need to do to feed them. If you can. We also heard that rhino poachers are often shot on sight by poaching patrols. You can tell a rhino poacher, we were told, because they carry high caliber rifles - not the snares and homemade traps that local people use to catch smaller animals.

But the main driver of rhino poaching is the demand in consumer countries
Recently, Vietnamese operators have been especially active in poaching rhinos from southern Africa, or in hiring local people to do it. That's according to Traffic, an international NGO that monitors illegal trade in wildlife. David Newton of Traffic reported that "very senior members of the Vietnamese government claim to have been cured of certain terminal diseases by the use of rhino that seems to be where the demand is coming from." Newton added that rhino horn has no medicinal qualities. It's hard for me to stomach the news that government officials are promoting the poaching of rhinos. Do they know that rhino horns are no different chemically than hair??

A white rhino with its horns intact.

Do rhinos need the horns?
As I watched the mother rhino and her youngster led through this bewildering series of events that left the mother hornless, I wondered about their safety. Doesn't she need her horn to protect the baby from predators? Maybe. But we were told, and observed for ourselves, that rhinos will trample whatever they want to trample. The trampling is more likely to kill you than the horn. Each dangerous animal has its way. A Cape Buffalo will pick you up with its horns and toss you into the air. A hippo "will bite you in half" we heard, if you get between the hippo and its river. But a rhino will just run right over you as though you weren't even there. Each animal deserves distance and respect for different reasons! Rhinos do use their horns in social confrontations, but usually only in slight horn butting, false charges, and displays.

As the two wandered off into the trees after their ordeal, neither mom nor baby seemed to pay any attention to the absence of her horn - but who knows what was in her mind...or what their future will be. At least, I feel confident that she won't wind up on a "trophy" shooting reserve. For who would pay thousands of dollars to hang a rhino head with a bulls-eye stump on his living room wall?

All text and photos by Sally Kneidel PhD of

Post script from a friend at TRAFFIC:
After I wrote this post, I got this e-mail from friend and colleague Richard Thomas, who works for TRAFFIC The Wildlife Monitoring Network:
"You may have seen that we [TRAFFIC] submitted a technical document, with WWF and
IUCN, to CITES in July, highlighting the sudden alarming urge in rhino
poaching — and issued a press release about its main findings that got
a lot of publicity. The release is here, where you can download the
report too:

Vietnam is certainly emerging as the country that's driving the rhino
horn demand. Whilst you're right to flag that poverty is a significant
factor in poaching of animals, research by TRAFFIC indicates that the
main driver is actually the demand for the products in the consumer
countries; and the Vietnam situation appears to be following that model."
I amended my post above slightly after receiving this helpful point from
Richard Thomas.

Sources used in writing this post:

Personal communication with game control scientists, vet techs, biologists, poaching guards, rangers, wildlife guides in Africa.

ARKive: Images of Life on Earth

Rhino Horn the Cure for Serious Diseases? International Rhino Foundation, Aug 6, 2009

TRAFFIC: the wildlife monitoring network

More resources:
International Rhino Foundation:
(IRF has posted my rhino post above on their website.)

IUCN SSC African Rhino Specialist Group:

Keywords:: white rhino poaching threats to rhinos habitat loss Africa