You’ve probably heard that a zebra can’t change its stripes (probably when someone was acting predictably badly), but for the actual zebra, that cliché takes on a whole new meaning.
That’s because a zebra’s stripes are like a fingerprint; each animal’s pattern is unique, and, to other members of the herd, identifiable. New hairdo, better hoof maintenance, doing something different with his tail—none of that would matter to a zebra, who would still be able to recognize an old friend by his or her specific coat pattern.
Even among zebras, the one pictured below would be hard to forget!
And those herds look out for one another, in more ways than one.
Zebra herds are made up of a number of different families. Maybe we should say “different” families; the basic social unit for zebras is the harem…which means exactly the same thing as it does for people.
When a filly reaches mating age, she’ll be abducted by a stallion and added to his harem, where she’ll be relegated to the lowest position on the zebra sister-wife totem pole, at least until the harem grows again.
At first, the other zebra wives might treat the new girl with open hostility, but over time, the group bonds, and will defend one another fiercely. Zebras are very aware of when a herd member goes missing, and they will make efforts to find any lost members, calling out and hunting for them. This protectiveness of the family unit works well; zebras lose significantly fewer herd members to predators than either wildebeest or hartebeest, comparably sized (and therefore comparably predated) species.
The fierce emphasis on family, and the strangeness of the family unit, makes the life of a zebra look something like a wildlife cross between The Sopranos and Big Love.
So if HBO calls, tell them we have a GREAT idea for a new series. Working title: Black and White.
Almost everyone who travels to Africa is on the lookout for elephants…but some of the ones you spot might be a lot smaller than you think.
Meet the elephant shrew, a strange little rodent that’s actually not particularly closely related to either elephants or shrews (though strangely enough, its closer cousins are the elephants). An early offshoot of an ancient evolutionary tree, elephant shrews, or sengis, are a species apart.
The black-and-rufous elephant shrew, one of 17 species of sengi found across Africa.
“Rhynchocyon petersi from side” by Joey Makalintal from Pennsylvania, USA – A Fascinating OneUploaded by Richard001. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rhynchocyon_petersi_from_side.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Rhynchocyon_petersi_from_side.jpg
There are multiple sub-species of elephant shrew, but they’re all characterized by their most, ahem, prominent feature…a massive, mobile nose.
This “trunk” is constantly wiggling around, searching through the leaf beds of the forest floor for insects.
In total, 17 species are found scattered around the continent (some more “well-endowed” than others). Both the black-and-rufous and giant varieties have been spotted in the forests of Tanzania.
Bear in mind, by the way, that the term “giant” is relative; this species still only weighs about four ounces at adulthood.
Recently, a new sub-species of elephant shrew, the grey-faced sengi, was discovered living exclusively in the Udzunga mountains of Tanzania.
Like so many of the various sub-species of sengi, the grey-faced elephant shrew has a limited range; of course since it has only ever been spotted in this specific mountain range, “limited” is probably an understatement.
None of the species are directly threatened by humans, as they live exclusively in heavily-forested areas with well-established leaf beds. And predators aren’t a major concern; elephant shrews are known to build multiple “escape routes” from their nests, tunnels through which they can rapidly disappear at the first sign of a threat.
But encroaching civilization and global warming are both taking their toll on the species; deforestation makes it harder and harder for these wide-ranging animals to find mates in their “section” of the forest, and environmental changes in the forests that remain are robbing them of their preferred nesting sites.
Which means that, though it may be less majestic than its long-trunked namesake, an elephant shrew sighting on safari would be a much rarer—and possibly more memorable—moment.
The western world grew up with Grimm’s fairy tales and Hans Christian Andersen; in East Africa, different stories are told to children. Stories like…
The Lion of Zelabia
Once upon a time, there was a terrifying lion who lived on the island of Zelabia.
The lion was so terrifying, no one from the town of Shela, across the water from the island, would go there.
One day, a rich merchant offered a $100 reward to anyone who would sleep alone on the island of Zelabia. For a long time, no one would accept the merchant’s offer, because they were too afraid of the lion, but finally one man, who was very poor, accepted.
So when her husband left for the island, she went down to the shore and lit a fire, so he could see it from the shores of Zelabia and not be so afraid.
The next day, the man returned and went to the merchant to claim his money, but the merchant refused to pay, since the wife’s fire had kept the young man from being afraid.
The young man became very angry, and went to the sultan to tell him he had been cheated. But the sultan wanted to retain the favor of the rich merchant, and so he agreed with the merchant that the wife’s fire meant the young man had not earned his reward.
As the young man left the sultan’s palace, a wise man stopped him and asked what had happened. The young man told the wise man his story, and the wise man agreed it had been unfair.
“If I help you recover your money, what will you give me?” the wise man asked.
“I will give you one third of the money,” the young man answered. So the wise man agreed to help.
The next day, the wise man invited the sultan to his house for lunch. Before he arrived, the wise man told his servants to put all the food into pots, and to light fires far away from the pots, and not put the pots onto them.
The sultan arrived, and for many hours he and the wise man spoke, but no food was brought.
“Where is our lunch?” the sultan asked.
“It is not ready yet,” the wise man answered, “but I will tell my servants to stoke the fires and turn the meat so that it is ready soon.”
Another hour passed and still the sultan had not been served. Again he complained, and again the wise man told his servants to stoke the fires and turn the meat.
After another hour, the sultan was very hungry. Furious, he demanded that the wise man show him to the kitchens.
The wise man led him there, and the sultan saw that the pots of food were very far away from the cooking fires.
“You cannot cook food like this,” he bellowed.
“Of course you can,” the wise man answered. “It works in just the same way as the fire worked for the young man who visited you in court yesterday.”
The sultan immediately saw the sage’s meaning, and ordered his officers to tell the merchant to pay the young man. So the young man got his $100, and in the end, the wise man did not even take his part of the reward.
Lion illustration by Catherine Frances Frere (d. 1921), in a book by Mary Eliza Isabella Frere (1845–1911) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APage_117_illustration_in_Old_Deccan_Days.png
Some people nail up a horseshoe, pick up pennies, or carry around a rabbit’s foot; superstitions about how to secure your share of good luck may vary from person to person, but the impulse to try (however ridiculously) is almost universal.
Perhaps surprisingly, charms like these are one of the things that drive poaching in Africa. While elephant poaching for ivory is highly visible, on a smaller scale, many other animals are also being hunted illegally, to the detriment of the fragile ecosystems in the region. We may rub on a rabbit’s foot, but in Tanzania, these items are sought after as charms:
Less than two feet tall with short legs (for an antelope), the bush duiker makes for easy prey, both for predators and for humans, who often hunt it both for its meat and in retaliation (duiker may not threaten your life, but they have been known to decimate a vegetable garden).
But perhaps the greatest incentive to hunt duiker is its small, straight horns, traditionally used as a charm against evil spirits.
Maybe the spirits of hunted duiker?
“Common duiker kenya” by Original uploader was Chuckupd at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Richard001 using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Common_duiker_kenya.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Common_duiker_kenya.jpg
You’ve probably heard of poachers killing an elephant just for its tusks. Question: does that seem more or less wasteful than killing an entire giraffe for its tail?
Giraffe tails are prized as flyswatters (can’t improve on nature’s design, huh?), for the stiff hair on the tufted portion of the tail (which can be used for sewing or stringing beads), and as good-luck bracelets.
…none of which is particularly lucky for the giraffe.
Anyone lucky enough to spot a greater kudu on safari knows just how majestic this antelope, with its stunning, spiraled horns, can be. It would come as no surprise if kudu horns were coveted simply for their aesthetic appeal, but collectors have an even stronger incentive to snag one: they’re thought to house powerful spirits, something it’s always good to have in your pocket…or, given the lengths these twisting horns often reach, on your wall.
Kudu horns are also valued as a musical instrument (their sound is something like a French horn), and are often used in religious ceremonies, particularly in Judaism, where traditional shofar horns are often made from kudu horns.
“Tragelaphus strepsiceros ♂ (head)” by © Hans Hillewaert. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tragelaphus_strepsiceros_%E2%99%82_(head).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Tragelaphus_strepsiceros_%E2%99%82_(head).jpg
You’d think anyone hunting a leopard would be after its stunning, soft coat, but many poachers bring down these big cats for their whiskers alone. Stiff and white, the leopard’s whiskers are often used in potions and charms.
Of course the leopard uses its extremely sensitive whiskers to help it navigate the dense underbrush as it sneaks up on its prey, and can remain undetected even just feet away from a target…which is a little magical, too.
Another antelope whose horns are regularly turned into charms, the oryx has a long, international history of being hunted for its headpiece(s).
In medieval England, oryx horns were often sold as unicorn horns, which were believed to cure disease, ward off evil, purify water, and protect against poison.
You have to hand it to the superstitious when it comes to the aardvark: they’re seriously nose-to-tail about the good-luck charms.
Aardvark teeth are believed to prevent illness and generally ward off bad luck, the claws are thought to promote good harvests, the hairs are used in traditional potions, and even the meat is highly valued.
Still, we prefer spotting these odd-looking anteaters in one piece.
“Porc formiguer” by MontageMan is the author of the original image, I did the crop – Cropped from File:Porcs formiguers (Orycteropus afer).jpg. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Porc_formiguer.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Porc_formiguer.JPG
Most people know Zanzibar as an exotic spice island ringed with white-sand beaches (or as the birthplace of Queen’s Freddy Mercury); in fact its reputation as a relaxing paradise is so well-known, its rich cultural history is sometimes overshadowed!
Not at the House of Wonders, a 19th-century Zanzibari palace that now serves as the island’s museum of Swahili and Zanzibari culture.
Built in 1883, the Beit al Ajaib (“House of Wonders” in Arabic) was originally a palace for Barghash bin Said, the second Sultan of Zanzibar. Intended to showcase the wonders of modernity, the building earned its evocative name because it was the first (and at the time only) building in Zanzibar to have electricity and an elevator.
The palace features an interior covered courtyard overlooked by open galleries, pillared balconies circling the outside of the building, and since 1897 (when the palace was partly rebuilt after it received minor damage in the 38-minute war of 1896) a tall clock tower. Marble floors and silver decorations were used throughout the palace, whose extra-large main entrance was reportedly built so that the sultan could ride in on an elephant.
At three (elongated) stories high, it’s still the tallest building in Stonetown, and its third-floor balconies afford visitors fantastic views of the city.
The museum offers visitors a chance to better understand the history of both Zanzibar and the Swahili people. Favorite displays include the full-sized mtepe (a traditional Swahili boat made with coir rope and wooden pegs instead of nails) in the courtyard.
There are also rooms dedicated to ceremonial kanga, traditional Swahili fishing supplies, and Zanzibar’s historical figures.
But as exciting as any of the displays is the building itself, a beautiful, airy space where sultans and their harems once spent their days. For visitors to Zanzibar, the House of Wonders really is can’t-miss…at least if they’re able to tear themselves away from the beach.