Potawatomi Zoological Society official in Botswana.

By JASON JACOBS
Potawatomi Zoo

Stories from Southbendtribune.com

February 27, 2005

OKAVANGO DELTA, Botswana — I crept through the tall grass. Horseflies buzzed all around me. I swatted at them quietly. I had to be careful not to make too much noise so as not to scare away the pair of giraffes 50 feet from me.

But then they saw me.

At first, the two just looked at me curiously. After a few minutes, they went back to their feeding. The only sound was that of a rustling bush as one of the giraffes launched on green branches.

I had to be careful to constantly check behind me. When in Africa, you never know what might be hiding in the brush, waiting to pounce and make dinner of you.

Watching these giraffes from the ground, without any barriers between us, made me even more determined to bring the towering animals to the people of Michiana.

As a development director for the Potawatomi Zoological Society, I had come to the southern African country of Botswana to do research for the zoo’s new African exhibit. The display, which could be a reality within five years, would feature giraffes, an animal zoo visitors have requested for years.

Skyscrapers of the delta

Observing giraffes in the wild could be described as a surreal experience. They easily reach heights of 15 to 17 feet.

It was amazing to watch groups of giraffes make their way to a water hole. The herd would contain maybe 20 members but would be spread out over miles and miles of open land. They looked liked skyscrapers on the barren plain.

It was even more impressive to see a giraffe in a forest, though it was tricky. Their spots help them blend in almost perfectly.

Giraffes have excellent eyesight, which they can use to spot predators. I think the shorter animals of the veldt know this because I often saw gazelle, antelope or zebra associating with the giraffe, as though knowing that the giraffe can see predators approaching from over a mile away.

Home to the hoofed

The continent of Africa is home to more hoofed animals than any place in the world. The large population supports the continent’s many predators such as lion, hyena and wild dog.

The hoofed animals of Africa can be divided into two categories: odd-toed and even-toed.

Odd-toed animals are called perissodactyls and include the zebra and rhinoceros.

Even-toed animals are called artiodactyls and include the giraffe, warthog, hippopotamus, antelope, gazelle and buffalo.

Until I went to Africa, I did not realize the sheer number of these animals that live on the plains. Within a few miles, I saw hundreds of impala, waterbuck, wildebeest and smaller groups of zebra and giraffe.

Zebras were an impressive but rare sight. During my time in Botswana, I saw several solitary males but only one herd.

The stripes of a zebra are as individual as a human’s fingerprints. Scientists have debated for years over the function of stripes. Perhaps the black and white serve to thermo-regulate the body, or maybe the stripes disorient predators. Whatever the reason for the stripes, zebras are beautiful.

Hoofed and horned

Hoofed animals have a variety of horns, not to be confused with antlers.

Deer are the only animals that have antlers. Antlers are branched and are shed and re-grown each year. Horns are permanent. If an animal such as an antelope loses a horn during a fight, it will never grow back.

I saw more impala in Africa than any other hoofed animal.

As my bush flight was about to touch down in the Okavango Delta, a group of impala bounded across the air strip and made us miss our landing. We had to circle around again and wait for them to clear the dirt runway. I was amused to have my arrival delayed by exotic African wildlife.

My excitement for the impala, though, dulled after seeing thousands of them. I renamed them “mopala” after seeing more and more of them.

There were literally hours on end where the only animal I would see was impala. They were everywhere living among giraffes, baboons, elephants, monkeys and just about any other animal (except for predators).

Water-loving antelope

The waterbuck, as its name suggests, is never far from water. It has a characteristic white circle or “bull’s-eye” on its rump.

Another water-loving antelope there is the red lechwe. This species lives in swamps and marshes. I often noticed it wading into the water holes to feed on waterlogged grasses. They have adapted elongated hooves, which keep them from sinking down in the muddy water.

Meanwhile, the massive eland is the world’s largest antelope, reaching weights of more than 2,000 pounds.

On the other end of the antelope spectrum is the tiny steenbok, which barely weighs 30 pounds.

The beaked

One of the most interesting and prehistoric characters on the veldt is a bird called the ground hornbill. These hornbills have a hollow casque over their bill, which gives them their name.

Although capable of flight, I watched the birds hop and run around the bush where they would search out their prey of small mammals, snakes, lizards, and insects.

The ground hornbill is a species we plan to add to the zoo’s collection when we build an African veldt.

Dream of an exhibit

The quintessential picture of Africa is a giraffe, zebras, antelope, and gaggles of birds such as ostrich and crane peacefully coming down to the water hole to drink their fill.

This is the Africa we envision and want to bring to the Potawatomi Zoo.

Our exhibit would feature a viewing platform where zoo guests would actually feed and interact with the giraffes.

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