Chipembele Wildlife Education Center
When I wasn’t rescuing baby elephants the last two Sundays, I ventured a few miles down the very bumpy road to have lunch with Roxy and Robert, a fascinating couple. After two visits, I’ve learned that they are not very prompt hosts and that I shouldn’t wear my Sunday best because I’m likely to get dirty. Roxy and Robert are, well, they’re warthogs – very friendly warthogs, adorable in their profound ugliness, but warthogs nonetheless.
Roxy and Robert come trotting up to their house every afternoon after a long day of kneeling on their front legs and rooting for roots and shoots with their tough snouts. They always stop for a long cool drink at the birdbath then hop in for a nice dip. They love having their rough, bristly, mud-encrusted skin scratched. Roxy’s mane stands straight up with pleasure like a punk-rock Mohawk when her tummy is scratched, and she squeals and grunts with delight. Even before I met these two, I had decided that warthogs are my favorite animals. The scrawny little babies are ridiculously cute as they run after Mom following her tail flying at attention in the air, sadly not realizing that half or more of their little quadruplet set is likely to end up as leopard canapés.
Roxy and Robert’s foster parents are a remarkable pair of retired British police officers, Anna and Steve Tolan. Eight years ago on land donated to them by the local Kakumbi chief, they fulfilled their long-held dream to build the Chipembele Wildlife Education Center (www.chipembele.org) to educate the local children about wildlife and wildlife conservation. Even though these kids have lived all their lives near this amazing national park, many of them have never seen the Luangwa River much less had the chance to venture into the park to see the animals. Anna and Steve’s center aims to educate the kids about the amazing wildlife that shares their land so that they will be motivated to help preserve it. Chipembele means rhinoceros in the local language – a name chosen as a poignant reminder of how quickly a species can disappear (the 6000 rhino in the park in the 80’s were finished off by poachers in the mid 90’s).
Besides running their wildlife education center, Anna and Steve also raise orphaned animals, like Roxy and Robert, which they find or are brought to them. They do return their bushbucks and monkeys and warthogs to the wild, but sometimes the animals decide to stay around for a while like Roxy and Robert and Sprite and Fanta, two gentle, shy bushbucks. Sometimes they head straight for the bush, like our little ellie from my last email whom we took to Chipembele for care.
All the foster babies are overseen by Bulu the Wonder Dog, son of Milo of “Mad Dogs and Mzungus” fame. Bulu lives up to his father’s reputation by chasing bull elephants out of the yard, bullying the warthogs despite their growing tusks and surviving being spit in the eyes by a local cobra. Bulu even survived three days in the bush after his throat was ripped open by lions. Most days he merely tempts fate by wading in the crocodile-infested Luangwa.
Bill and I joined Bulu and his folks for a wade in the river during a lovely afternoon at Chipembele spent talking with Anna and Steve and admiring their lovely spot on a wide bend in the Luangwa across from the steep tree-lined banks of the Park. We braved the Luangwa to look up close at a colony of brilliantly-colored carmine bee eaters that live in the opposite bank. When I was standing in muddy water up to my thighs, Steve said “The river’s risen quite a bit. This part was only a few inches deep yesterday. Don’t worry; the crocs usually stay in the main channel.” He then went on to tell us about some of the really big crocs he’s found in the small channels – all very reassuring.
I had trouble not thinking about all those huge crocs I’ve seen lining the banks of the river, and I kept waiting for one to grab me. Meanwhile, I was envisioning myself doing my best Johnny Weissmuller-as-Tarzan croc wrestling imitation. I’m told the trick is to hold onto the croc as it rolls you around under water at the same time trying to jam your arm down its throat to make it let go. I know this sounds easy to some of you (and intellectually appealing to all), but certainly there must be some question as to its implementation. For instance, how does one get one’s arm (up to the shoulder to reach the flap that keeps water out of its lungs) into the croc’s mouth when it’s already full of one’s leg? I’ve met someone who knows someone who knew someone who actually performed this trick and lived to tell the tale. Who knows?! I’m happy I didn’t have the chance to try. I’m not THAT intrepid!
Just as I was leaving, Anna asked me to talk with Rogers, one of her workers who is the cousin brother of Tobias, the man who died at the clinic after being bitten by a black mamba. Rogers is now financially responsible for the dead father’s five children, and he had questions about whether different treatment might have been life saving. Apparently, Tobias was kept in the village for quite some time to be given traditional medicine to induce vomiting because the locals believe vomiting rids the body of the snake venom. I told Rogers that his cousin would probably have died anyway since the closest available anti-venom is a three-hour drive away in Chipata. Talking with Rogers was a sobering end to a lovely day.
On a different note, Bill said he enjoyed his stay in Africa. As he said, “Where else can you get hot water from either tap without having to wait for it to warm up?” He also thought it was quite civilized since his underwear was always ironed. Like most Americans who remember their mother’s admonition, he worries a lot about being taken to an emergency room in anything but impeccable underwear. Since I’m the emergency room here, he needn’t worry on that score. However, ironing clothing (which is all air-dried here) kills the eggs laid on it by a local fly, the tumbu fly. When the eggs hatch, they burrow under the skin (that would be the skin of the unfortunate person wearing said clothing) where they live happily as maggots off the fat of the land (so to speak) until they emerge as winged insects. I’m told the unlucky infestee can feel the maggots wiggling under the skin. Eeeyuuuuu!!.
Now that Bill’s home, he can stop thinking about his underwear and concentrate on how he’s going to clean the house before I get there – he has only three weeks left. Ever resourceful, he said something about renting a backhoe for the hard parts like the kitchen and the bathrooms.
Now that he’s gone, I’ve had to rely on the romantic sights, sounds, and smells of the jungle for my evening entertainment. Unfortunately, most of these emanate from the carcass of an old hippo that chose to expire a few hundred feet upwind of my house last week. Because the animal was probably diseased and the meat inedible (which wouldn’t deter the locals), attempts have been made to burn the carcass. I say, “attempts,” since incinerating a full-grown hippo is no mean feat. The workers piled wood around the poor departed animal and set it alight bringing new meaning to “hippo flambé.” The result has been smells wafting through my bedroom at night ranging from mere putrid rot to a barbeque gone awfully, terribly bad. I’ve thought of bottling this eau de hippo because this scent would repel most any living thing.
I say MOST any living thing because this windfall has brought many of the neighbors, for whom such smells are akin to a hint of nectar of the gods, in to dine. The constant procession of hyenas and (probably) lions has made getting to my truck at night even more exciting than normal. I doubt the hyenas have tasted such well-charred hippo in the past. Who knows? Maybe they’ll consider it a delicacy! After three nights, I think they’ve almost finished off the carcass, so only a hint of putrid hippo floats in on the hot night breeze. They have little consideration for tired doctors, however, and spend most of the night whooping it up at the feast. Orcas will be delightfully dull after this.
This page was last updated 01/05/06