Nightlife takes on new meaning.

By JASON JACOBS
Potawatomi Zoo

Stories from Southbendtribune.com

February 28, 2005

OKAVANGO DELTA, Botswana — Camp Okuti here was my home for a week during my exploration of the Moremi Wildlife Reserve in Botswana.

Going to camp was a mission in itself. It took six separate airplanes to travel from South Bend to the camp. Flight time was more than 24 hours.

As a development director for the Potawatomi Zoological Society, I came to the southern African country of Botswana to do research for an upcoming African exhibit at the zoo. With me was a small entourage of Potawatomi Zoo volunteers and a WSBT-TV photographer.

The most exciting flight was the last one, a 25-minute bush flight where I had a bird’s-eye view of the delta. From the plane, we spotted herds of elephant, giraffe, hippopotamus, and antelope. As we flew deeper into the wilderness, it dawned on me that we were really in the middle of nowhere.

Living in seclusion with nature was great. Some days, we didn’t see any other tourist.

Just because we were living in the wild didn’t mean we gave up all of the amenities of home. We stayed in thatched chalets with bathrooms. And the 80-degree temperatures outside were a welcome respite from the cold winter of Michiana.

The daily routine would be to wake up at 6 a.m. and eat breakfast. We would then go for a game drive and return to camp and eat lunch at 11 a.m. At 3:30 p.m., we would have afternoon tea and cake and another game drive from 4 to 7 p.m. Dinner would follow. African cooks prepared our meals, and some of the dishes were unusual. Have you ever had tuna mixed with the banana? As odd as it sounds, it tasted great.

Camp wildlife

A lot of wildlife was in and around camp, like bats. At Potawatomi Zoo, we have a large display of fruit bats.

These bats would sleep above the lounge during the day and would fly off at night in search of fruit. Sometimes they would leave a small “bat surprise” on the chairs or tables, but nothing a quick flick of a finger couldn’t get rid of.

Another frequent visitor to the camp was an antelope species called the bushbuck. The bushbuck is a species that is common in Africa but seldom seen in captivity. Zoos only have so much space to house animals, so they often devote exhibits to display and conserve rare species.

The bushbuck exhibits sexual dimorphism, which means the males look different from the females. The male has a nice pair of horns and dark markings, while the female is hornless and has lighter color.

You never knew what you would see around the camp’s water dock area. On several occasions, young Nile crocodiles would sun themselves or swim into the protected dock. There they were safe from larger crocodiles, which are notorious cannibals.

One day, a 4-foot-long croc was sunning itself just feet away from our lounge area, and I was able to sneak up on it and snap a few pictures.

The crocodiles were not the only reptilian residents around camp. Four-foot-long lizards called monitors would creep along the shoreline. Nights around the camp were always an adventure. You never knew what might turn up in your chalet.

One night a lizard, called a skink, scrambled underneath my bed. Another person had a frog in their shower. While I didn’t worry about frogs or lizards, I did worry about venomous species such as large spiders (which I found in my shower). I quickly learned to check my shoes every morning just in case something had crawled inside the night before.

Because we visited during the rainy season, I fully expected to be swarmed by mosquitoes, but they were quite light and at most times nowhere to be seen.

At home, you might hear the neighbor’s dog barking or cars driving down the street as you lie in bed. My bedtime in Africa included exotic sounds such as a lion roaring within a mile of camp, the constant chorus of frogs and the grunts of a hippopotamus grazing nearby.

Bird watching, monkey meddling

Camp days were a great time for birdwatching. Several species of African birds including hornbills, weavers, barbets, kingfishers, and many others would routinely fly into the camp.

The most conspicuous bird around was the gray lourie. The large bird constantly vocalizes a “g’waay” sound, which is how they earned their nickname “the go-away bird.”

Birds never caused any trouble, unlike the monkeys that would swing into camp.

The Okavango Delta is home to two species of primates: the vervet monkey and the larger chacama baboon. Both species were very cheeky and opportunistic feeders.

On the day of our arrival, lunch was delayed because the vervet monkeys crashed our party. The cooks took their eyes off the table for mere minutes when they came to greet us, and the monkeys came in and stole the food.

Another day, a vervet monkey came in and stole an entire loaf of bread. The monkeys were a nuisance to the camp manager and his staff. When the staff learned I worked at a zoo, they asked if I could please take the monkeys home with me. (As much as I would have liked to, that isn’t the way we obtain animals.)

Baboons

Baboons only occasionally came through camp, but boy, do they make an impression when they do.

Every time food was served at Camp Okuti, one of the cooks would beat a large canvas drum to inform the human occupants it was supper time.

The primates picked up on this cue long ago. One afternoon, a baboon apparently decided he had enough of watching those darn people eat and proceeded to tear the drum in half.

Unlike most primates, baboons are just as comfortable on the ground as they are in the trees. At night, they will sleep in trees or on cliffs for safety against predators. Baboons are highly gregarious animals, living in large groups headed by a dominant male.

The dominant male has his choice of mates and is responsible for defending the troop against predators such as leopards.

Social grooming is an important aspect of baboon life. Grooming strengthens bonds between animals and can be used as a political tool to help gain dominance.

We would often see groups of baboons associating with herds of impala. Both species seemed to benefit. They both watched and listened for predators. There was unspoken cooperation, even at mealtime.

At one point, baboons were eating from a fruit tree. The discarded fruit that dropped from the branches became a meal for the impala.

The zoo’s exhibit

Within the next few years, one of the goals of the Potawatomi Zoo is to create an Africa adventure so that every Michiana resident can enjoy the natural wonders of the African veldt.

There will be some minor differences between the real Africa and our zoo replica:

 

  • First, our frogs and spiders will remain in the learning center behind glass-fronted exhibits, and they will not be allowed in our public restrooms.
  • The zoo will display several monkeys, but they won’t have the opportunity to steal our zoo-goers’ lunches.
  • Our lions will roar, but safely, behind a barrier.

 

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