The Pantanal – A Journal Excerpt from Pete Oxford

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The best wildlife viewing in South America? 

We are in the Pantanal, Brazil, a place very dear to us at Focus Expeditions. A Focus owner, Theo Allofs, was one of the very first photographers to produce an incredible coffee-table book on the Pantanal in partnership with Conservation International!! I was one of the first photographers to get a critical mass of professional wild jaguar images and one of the first, I believe, to have Pantanal jaguars grace the pages of National Geographic Magazine, including a pull out, double page spread and a front cover in some editions. It was also here, in the Pantanal, that Pete first met Jami and the idea of Focus Expeditions was born! Reneé too has been coming here for years and declares it her favorite place on the continent!

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Today we returned from the river, nostalgically, along the raised Transpantaneira road towards Cuiaba. We had come primarily to watch jaguars, until fairly recently one of the hardest cats in South America to see in the wild. Everywhere other than the Pantanal the jaguar remains elusive and mostly nocturnal. We set out early every morning and from our comfortable speed boats we scour the river banks looking for the cats, training our eyes and binoculars on any little spot we think might be attractive to our quarry. We imagine ourselves in their spotted skin and ask ourselves where WE would be if we were a cat. As our eyes are trained and a visual search image develops the job becomes easier. Our success on this expedition however was unprecedented. In 9 ‘game drives’ in our speed boats, we saw 11 individual cats in 13 sightings. That’s an impressive average of nearly 1.5 jaguars per drive or about 3 per day! We watched a mother with two cubs, followed jaguars hunting at the river’s edge for kilometers, saw them leap into the water after caiman or just chill – watching us.

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With heavy hearts we left our floating hotel, boarded our boat for the last time and made our way towards Porto Joffre. In a final goodbye we had an incredible sighting of a Brazilian tapir crossing the river in front of us! South America’s largest land mammal, a relative of the rhinoceros, the tapir seemed to not even notice us at all. We waited for it to reach dry land where it stopped for a drink before heading off into the bush. 

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Before we eventually made it to Cuiaba airport for our onward flight to our post extension at the spectacular Iquazu Falls we had some pretty cool subjects for our final 24 hours etched, back to back, on our memory cards! A tapir, hyacinth macaws, caracaras, a tamandua, crab-eating foxes, a caiman with an anaconda, an ocelot, hawks, kingfishers, owls, storks, herons, waders, capybaras and even a great potoo.

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A fantastic way to leave this spectacular Brazilian wetland. Until the next time Pantanal and we can only hope we have another group that is as adventurous and fun as this one was. See you all soon for another Big Cat reunion!

Cheers,

Pete Oxford

Baboons in full morning glory: Samburu, Kenya

I am back in Kenya after our amazing trip in Svalbard with Focus Expeditions. We are already looking forward to returning to Svalbard next May and September. It is a magical place.

When I arrived in Kenya, I met our Kenya group at the hotel. We spent a fantastic day in Nairobi visiting the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust where they rehabilitate sweet elephant orphans who have lost their mothers from the evils of poaching.  Focus Expeditions adopts an elephant calf for each person in our group – we then get to spend one hour with our little adopted calves. The Center closes down to the public for our group. It is a special time.

We then drove to Samburu where we spent three amazing days seeing several species unique to the area like reticulated giraffes, gerenuk and Somali ostriches. During our time there we met a troop of olive baboons who were greedily feasting on the fresh blooms of morning glory blossoms. It was really special and I have not seen this before. They stuffed their cheeks full of the blooms pulling the blossoms off the plant as fast as they could. After they stuffed their cheeks full – when all the blossoms were gone – they went off and enjoyed their bounty slowly. They eat one bloom at a time from the cache stored in their cheek. It was hilarious. They are greedy little buggers!!!! This is just one baboon who was feasting….we photographed these guys for over half hour! So much fun!

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Olive baboon eating morning glory

~ Jami Tarris

Dolomite Cathedral

On our fifth day we entered “Hinlopen Stretet” (Hinlopen Strait). The water was calm, the light was good but nothing prepared me for what was to come. We were told that we would come to a cliff with nesting birds (Alkefjellet – fjellet meaning “mountain”) – namely Brünnich’s guillemots (the penguin of the arctic but NOT actually a penguin which is only found in the southern hemisphere).   As we slowly proceeded down the straight, we could hear the sounds of the cliff long before we saw the cliff. And then we came upon Alkefjellet…..wow. There must have been over 100,000 birds flying and nesting on the ledges of this massive Dolomite wall.

The Brünnich’s is the most northerly guillemot and like most auks, is an expert diver and swimmer. The birds were flying and diving around the ship. Guillemot nesting cities are mostly cited along exposed cliffs where they occupy ledges against steep rock walls.  This inaccessibility provides protection against polar foxes who predate on their eggs and chicks. This cliff is the most impressive breeding site in the Arctic for guillemots. The ledges become occupied in March and April, and the eggs are laid in May or June as soon as the snow melts. The incubation period is 31 – 34 days roughly and both parents take turns with brooding. The eggs are also pear-shaped which prevents them from falling off the thin rock ledges.

How can one describe a profound experience?  Floating next to the cliffs felt like being in an ancient Cathedral built by a master architect from an age long ago – or a holy Monastery where solitude reigns supreme while the souls of nature’s saints take wing and call out to those of us still bound to this earth. We were surrounded by the glory of snowy northern peaks of the Arctic and the calling of tens of thousands of birds swarming from a wall of solid textured rock colored in tones of warm browns.

For me, it was one of those moments when you are thankful to be alive.

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~ Jami Tarris

White, Red and Blue Ice

OK. In Africa, photographers consider themselves lucky to find an African predator on a kill. In the Arctic, it is considered uber-lucky – and on our fourth day we were just that – uber lucky. We entered  “BeverlySundet”, a northern sound of “NordAustlandet” (NorthEastern Island) which was roughly 80º 46’ latitude – less than 10º south of the North Pole. Here we found a large male on a bearded seal kill on a snowy shoreline. His face, massive paws and the surrounding snow were covered with rich fatty blood.  He had already eaten quite a bit by the looks of his bulbous belly. We approached him slowly by zodiac on the clear blue Arctic water with blue skies above. He continued eating with little enthusiasm until he finally walked away and splayed out flat on the snow on his fat belly. He was “done” for a while.

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We left him alone to sleep off his feast.

~ Jami Tarris

“Ice, Ice Maybe”

 

It’s been a while since I’ve made a post. Yikes. The last 6 months escaped due to lots of office and road time. Theo and I are in Svalbard leading our first polar expedition for Focus Expeditions. We had an enthusiastic group of photographers and videographers who were all anxious to explore the north with us.

We had an amazing crew including one of the most experienced Swedish Captains – Captain Kenth Grankvist. Our two highly experienced Polar Expeditions Leaders , Rickard and Heather Berg were wonderful – they were so much fun and very informative. Rickard is a polar expeditions’ historian and our group learned a great deal about the successful and MOSTLY unsuccessful expeditions to the north pole.

Our ship was the Freya. It is Kenth’s most newly acquired ship and our expedition was its virgin voyage. It had been a Swedish Coast Guard vessel until last year. Kenth refurbished the Freya into a commercial expedition ship. It has the highest class ice rating although the hull has the bones of an ice breaker.

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Theo and I met with Rickard and Heather the day before we launched to go over the most recent ice chart and weather chart. Normally June is the time for the ice to break up in the north and so we were pretty sure that we would have lots of ice – meaning lots of seals and then of course bears. But we were shocked to discover that this year – there was very little ice. There was little to no pack ice around the entire archipelago of Svalbard. And because we were one of the first ships to launch in the season, there was little information to be gained from other ships. Two ships had just returned before we left. One ship saw 6 bears from a long distance. The other ship called the Origo which was also one of Kenth’s, didn’t see a single bear. Theo and I were worried and not without reason.

So the group arrived happily and the energy level was high. We had an ideal group dynamic – just wonderful people. The next day we launched into high northerly winds while heading due north. What this means is that we were heading into the wind and subsequently directly into the waves. We were instantly getting hammered by 15 foot waves as soon as we turned the corner and went north. Everyone went to their cabins to lay down – the best way to minimize seasickness. The ones who wore the seasickness medical patches fared much better than those who did not – note to self for future trips.

The next day the trip officially commenced and the beauty of the arctic began to reveal itself. Spitsbergen, when translated meaning “pointed peaks”, is stunningly beautiful. One loses count of the number of glaciers and fjords. They seem endless and each one seems to be more beautiful than the last. The weather was perfect: moody on some days with fog and snow (even rain) and then brilliant sunshine.

But we were looking for ice and it’s king: Isbjorn – the Ice Bear.

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~ Jami Tarris

Curiosity from the Pack Ice

There are many ways to describe ice. There is an international ice nomenclature ice terms are arranged by subject under the heading of “Floating Ice.” Sea ice, glacier ice, lake ice and river ice are the four types of floating ice. The different types of ‘sea ice’ are fast ice, drift ice, brash ice, frazil ice, grease ice, pack-ice open, pack-ice close, pack-ice very close, pancake ice, and rotten ice.

We were looking for pack ice – any kind. This is where we wanted to find (if possible) our next ice bear. It is pure luck to find polar bears anywhere at all – and under any circumstance, but to a photographer, the “polar bear jack-pot” means finding them on pack ice.

Today we found our first pack ice of the trip and as it turns out, our only pack ice. After we left Alkefjellet, we continued down the Hinlopen Stretet until we came to some close pack ice. We were all on deck with our binoculars scanning the ice when we spotted a bear. But, this bear was a long way from the boat. It didn’t look hopeful.

But to our amazement, he lifted his head up (as we could see through our binos) and started to move quickly towards our boat. He moved so fast that we could hardly believe our eyes. This gorgeous male came as close to our boat as was physically possible. Since we had broken through the ice we had a watery perimeter surrounding us. He stayed directly next to our boat for at least 45 minutes and he was as curious about us as we were about him. He stood up on his hind legs and actually tried to put his dinner-plate sized paws on the boat – but he couldn’t reach.

He made it clear to all of us that he didn’t want to get wet.

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~ Jami Tarris

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A “Trimate” is a unique and wonderful phenomena that has occurred only thrice on this planet. But what is it? Well, there were three of them (thus the prefix “tri”). Now there are two. The Trimates are “the Founding Mothers of Primatology”. They were three women researchers who were so named by Dr. Louis Leakey, a Kenyan paleoanthropologist and archaeologist born in 1903 and educated at the University of Cambridge. He is famed for his study of human evolution and his early pioneering work in the field of paleotology.

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These “Mothers of Primatology” were no less than Jane Goodall (for chimpanzees), Dian Fossey (for gorillas) and Birute Mary Galdikas (for orangutans). Both Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey worked with the African Great Apes. Their work became well known “Hollywood style” as both have been featured in films (‘Gorillas in the Mist’ – starring Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey) and various documentaries.

Documentaries have also been made about the lesser-known Trimate Birute Mary Galdikas – but she has not been sensationalized as much as Goodall and Fossey. For one her work has been in Borneo Indonesia and not Africa. Orangutans only occur in two countries, Indonesia and Malaysia – but more specifically in Sumatra and Borneo. And also, she doesn’t strike one as a person wanting or needing stardom. She has a tendency to be shy and is very soft spoken.

She has also worked with the only semi-solitary Great Ape – the other three African apes (chimps, gorillas and bonobos) live in social groups. The orangutan however, is semi-solitary in that it has the longest childhood dependence on its mother than any other animal in the world. The babies nurse until they are about 6 years of age. The young females may stay with their mothers until they are into their teens allowing them to observe mothering skills as they watch their younger siblings being raised by their mother. But other than the mother/child relationship, these apes are solitary. And they have been the long time companions and focus of Birute Galdikas’ life work for over 40 years.

I had the pleasure and privilege of working with her during my time in Borneo. Stay posted for more on the work of Dr. Birute Galdikas. I will be diligently working to get her here to the States for speaking engagements. If you have a viable venue for her to raise donations, please let me know. Borneo and Sumatra are anticipating more deliberately set (by palm oil plantations) forest fires in 2016. They are in dire need of raising funds to fight the fires next year. They are also in need of funds to help with the cost of the huge numbers of orphaned orangutan babies (mothers killed by palm oil plantation workers during the deliberate setting of fires and then the babies sold into the illegal pet trade business). Please visit: https://orangutan.org/ to foster or adopt an orangutan, or to donate to the palm oil fire fund.

Jami Tarris

Profiling Today: Jami’s Observation

Once again, profiling has become a current topic of discussion in the United States and Europe due to recent events. Donald Trump has contributed much to this consideration. He asserts that profiling would for instance prevent crime.
I have decided to offer some insight into the debate about profiling:
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                                   Have you seen a profile like this lately?
Pro·fil·ing
ˈprōˌfīliNG/
noun
noun: profiling

1. the recording of behavioral characteristics (i.e. jumping), so as to assess or predict capabilities in a certain sphere (or straight line from tree to tree),  or to assist in identifying a particular subgroup or subspecies.

2. the use of personal (or physical) characteristics or behavior patterns to make generalizations about a person (or monkey), as in monkey profiling.
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Profiling: If you are a suspicious person and suspect that you may be sitting near or in close proximity to a specific mammal, say a proboscis monkey, check out their prominent physical attribute: the nose. It’s a honker – especially the males. If you see anyone or any monkey with a nose like this, you have found yourself a real proboscis monkey.
If you are still unsure and yet remain concerned, notate the behavioral characteristics. They are jumpy…..
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Very jumpy…..
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And they make their kids jumpy too….
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I am absolutely not an advocate of profiling. However, it is difficult to overlook a protuberance such as this when going about one’s day. It is safe to say that if you find a nose like this on a monkey, you have indeed the right to make a generalization about this monkey.  It may jump.
Now the problem with profiling is that they ARE just generalizations. I have waited for long periods of time for the monkey to jump. And it didn’t.  I wasted countless hours on non-jumping monkeys with big noses.
I don’t know how you could prevent crime (according to “The Donald”) having never been assaulted by a jumpy monkey. I’m just saying….
Jami Tarris

Siswi: Queen of the Jungle

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Siswi is the dominant female orangutan in Camp Leakey area where Dr. Galdikas has a hut and often works. She has released several orangutans here. Dr. Galdikas told me that Siswi’s mother was her “best friend”. Siswi was born wild and had a wild father. Dr. Galdikas is very fond of her – as am I.

Siswi is a true character. She is the Queen around here which is apparent because the staff at Camp Leakey always has her favorite fruit on hand. She absolutely loves rambutan fruit (which comes in bunches, is the size of a small mandarin and is prickly on the outside) and durian fruit (which I call “stinky fruit” because…well, it stinks!).

I met Siswi in 2009 when Theo and I were here together. She was often sitting with ‘Tom’, the big dominant male in this area. Siswi is the only female that can sit in close proximity to Tom – safely.  One thing I noticed about Siswi 6 years ago, is that she is an orangutan ‘yogi’. I never actually observed her doing a “downward dog” – well, maybe with Tom :-o. But I photographed her in a position that I saw several times – including this time as well!!!!

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This trip when we bumped into her in the forest, she was in a rare mood. She sat on the forest path and started pulling down small trees to strip their leaves. She then took the leaves and piled them on her lap – very methodically. This lasted for quite a while until a ranger approached and scolded her for destroying these young trees.

_19A1445As soon as he left, she continued to pull the trees down and gather the leaves.

Every night, orangutans who are arboreal apes, make a nest or bed in the tree tops to sleep. But it is midday and we are firmly on the ground. Hmmm.

They also use leaves bunched together and put them over their heads like an umbrella as protection from the rain. They do not like rain. It actually makes a great deal of sense because the high humidity here doesn’t allow their thick hair to dry for a very long time. They can easily get parasites, fungi, etc because they do not groom being solitary apes (unless a mother has young with her). But now, it isn’t raining.
What is she doing?

Here is a short movie clip of her (50 seconds download):
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Jami Tarris

Highs and Lows

DJI_0047Today I am flying my drone from the boat to photograph the river with its close approximation to palm oil trees. We will then either hike or take a motor bike almost 10 kilometers (over 6 miles) to a huge area where primary forest burned down. My forest guide Aidi was on a team there working to put out the fires. In the end, we took motor bikes. That would have been a L-O-N-G walk in the forest. It was fun riding through the rain forest – and much cooler….

_90A9840…but upon arrival to the rainforest’s “new” edge, the fun was short lived. I was able to get some images from the drone that were interesting and disheartening to all of us.
DJI_0008The fires were more devastating than anyone knew. When I finally showed these images to Dr. Galdikas, she was shocked and quite upset.

Anyway, after flying we decided to go to a feeding station where the forest rangers put out bananas and cassava for the habituated Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) that were released at some time earlier (either as a result of the illegal pet trade or translocation). One big male cautiously came to the site – he was not the resident dominant male in this territory and approached cautiously. After he scattered the females and their young that were feeding, he sat and fed for a long time. All of a sudden, he started to make the “long call”. It is a sound unlike any other – Theo mentioned this in his post about Kusase.  This male then jumped off the platform and went after a young female. To my utter surprise, he raped her in front of us. She didn’t try to fight him off (maybe there was no point as he was HUGE?) and when it was all over, they sat and fed together quietly.

J19A0861If you have a chance, please look at my previous blog about Sumatran orangutans to compare the photo of the Sumatran dominant male that I posted. They look so different. This dominant Bornean male has big flanged cheek pads on the sides of his face and a large pendulous throat sack under his chin. The shape of his cheek pads also differ from those of the flanged Sumatran male.  Also, the Sumatran males don’t have the throat sack. You can visibly see the difference between these two species.

Orangutans LOVE bananas. They don’t get them in the primary or secondary forests here and so they are a favorite treat at the feeding platforms:

J19A0941Today has been a day of highs and lows (literally) with the drone – but the faces of these wonderful animals keeps me focused on why I am here – to ignite the fire to fight against the palm oil companies. It is becoming increasingly more clear every day that I MUST stop buying products with palm oil as the ingredient. It is the most important thing that I can do to reduce the demand for this insidious product.

Jami Tarris