Field Note: See One, Teach One, Do One

Reticulated Giraffe Lying Down

A herd of giraffe consists of a group of adult females and their offspring, or a group of males in a bachelor herds of their own. Individual males are only occasional visitors to the female herds. anti acidity. Although a herd of impala might run to 30 individuals or more, the largest herd of giraffe I’ve ever seen had 11 members with 5 to 7 animals being closer to the norm. There are many reasons for this but one stands out. When acacia trees (the giraffe’s preferred food) are over-grazed they produce toxins in their sap that are distributed by the capillaries into the leaves. Worse, a tree under attack somehow messages the other trees in the vicinity, so that if one acacia in a stand goes “sour” the others will follow suit. Exactly how this is accomplished is not known but giraffe are well aware of it. They nibble only a little, and move on. Obviously, the larger the herd the more impractical this strategy becomes. Too much browsing and palatability will set a limit much before the total number of trees and leaves. Another contribution to small herd size is the long gestation period of giraffe. They just don’t reproduce that fast. Plus, unlike most ungulates, newborn giraffe are slow to gain independence. There is just too much to learn. Namely, how to feed, where and how to drink and when it is safe to do so, and – for the young males – how to compete for females.

Giraffe defend against predators by kicking. You do not want to be kicked by a giraffe. Neither would another giraffe, so keep from killing each other they engage in what is called “Necking,” in which they swing their heads and slam each other with their ossicones, the horn-like structures on their heads. Pushing against each other is another form of competition and applies much the same logic as Necking: Weight wins.

Elder Brother & Little Man

What then to make of the two young giraffe I call Little Man and Elder Brother? The mismatch in size is obvious and therefore, the outcome of any contest a forgone conclusion. Why go through the exercise? The simplest and therefore the most likely interpretation is that this was a Teaching Moment

In the wild, weight and physical size matter almost more than anything. The biggest male lions are the masters of both their prides and the hunting territories those prides control, just as the heaviest elk is the one most likely to prevail in a clash of antlers. In a catfight between cats of different species (cheetah versus lion for example) a cheetah has a stark choice: Run or Die. Some of that is jaw strength, and there is also age and experience to consider; in all, weight is the trump card. Personality of the individual can inflect the outcome, but cannot conquer size.

Elder Brother as well as weighing half again as much as Little Man was also three heads taller, creating a substantive advantage in reach and leverage as well as throw-weight. Little Man not only lacked impact, he could not deliver his blows to the right places, especially when striking across the back of Elder Brother because his neck was not long enough to get there. This was a contest of No Contest. Yet Elder Brother showed great restraint and perseverance. Every move Elder Brother made was repeated many times by Little Man and there was no reason other than a desire to show him “how” for Elder Brother to allow it. He may have had a degree of benefit from what you might call “target practice,” but this alone does not and cannot account for the space and time Elder Brother gave Little Man to try. Elder Brother’s perseverance becomes a de facto transfer of knowledge and experience.

Getting there:
I flew to Kenya on KLM from JFK via Amsterdam to Nairobi. Donald Young Safaris picks its clients up at the airport (which is a huge help). They then either drive you to your destination or you can fly directly from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The flights are short, and comparatively cheap, about $250 per person each way. The drive is about four hours to the areas where the company has a large and elegant house (at El Karama) or luxury tents (in the northern Maasai Mara). If you want to see the towns (and I would recommend it at least one way) the drive is worth the trouble. One word of caution, in that it can be a dusty ride and if that is a concern you are probably better off flying. The experience at the end of the road or just off the airstrip as the case may be will be life-changing. A trip of 5 days duration plus a day each way for travel is the minimum I would recommend. In that time, with two game drives a day, you can see an amazing amount of wildlife. All-inclusive, trips are about $850/day plus airfare. Booking well in advance I was able to find a flight with KLM, JFK to Nairobi via Amsterdam, for about $1000 a round-trip. Don’t let the low fare dissuade you, my three favorite airlines by the way are Iceland Air, Norwegian, and KLM.

Donald Young and Newland, Tarlton & Co.
The giraffe in this story live in 15,000 acres of private reserve in Kenya, called El Karama. I was the guest there of Don Young, at Kiota House. Don also served as my host throughout the Maasai Mara. Every place he took me, over the two weeks I spent with him, was replete with wildlife. He freely shared his bottomless knowledge of Africa (people, places, animals) and if that were not enough he is a raconteur of African stories in the grand tradition. Don also has a great crew. Traditional Maasai, they are well-paid and treated with great respect (something that is not always the case in Africa), and their familiarity with terrain and an impeccable eye mean that very little wildlife is missed. They are a pleasure to be around.

If there is only going to be one wildlife expedition in your life, do this one. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Donald Young’s safari company, Newland & Tarlton, can be reached through their Colorado office at (303) 439-8462, or online at

Listen to my prose essay, See One Do One Teach One, on Living on Earth at LOE.Org

Field Notes: Svalbard Coal

Working a 3-foot Seam

The Svalbard Archipelago hosts the northernmost coal mines in the world. For now, only enough coal is being extracted to run the aging power plant in the largest settlement in the archipelago, Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitzbergen. The others have been closed – but not out of climate concerns. abandoned-coal-car-cableway
Coal Car Cableway (Temporarily?) Shut Down

Rather, it is the dwindling economics of coal that pushed the closure. That the mine owners claim that closure to be temporary only drives the point home. Even 800 miles above the Arctic Circle, in the most fragile climate on the planet, money trumps common sense.
Glacier in Rapid Retreat

Of late, I’ve been including, in both my Arctic and Antarctic Tweets, the hash tag #NoIceNoUs.

No joke.

Alkefjellet Cliffs

Ivory Gull on Blue Ice, Brepollen

Female Polar Bear, in the pack ice, 81.36 North Latitude

thick-billed-murre-alkefjellet-20160717_031128_87502016Thick-billed Murre

It is worth seeing for yourself. And it is worth saving. To hear my prose essay on Svalbard coal and see more photographs, layer-up, slip into your kayak, and paddle over to Living on Earth

My fieldwork in Svalbard was supported by One Ocean Expeditions, and I highly recommend them.

Mark Seth Lender
Living on Earth
Member: Explorers Club


elephant-herd-at-sunrise-7087In August, 2016 I returned to Africa. It was twice a homecoming.  Because Africa, with its stone tools predating the time when we were even Human,\ is the origin of Us. And because it is the origin of me; of what I have become; of the thing to which I have dedicated my life, Wild things, and the Wilderness without which they cannot exist. The eyes I see with now are not the eyes of a quarter century ago. I set out went looking for difference, for what separates one from of life from another. Instead, I have come to see animals as like us more than apart from us. More than this, I know that without them we cease to exist. Literally perhaps (because the World without the Wild is unlikely to sustain us), but more important;y, because without Wildlife the part of us that is Human will die, of loneliness and shame. I fear for the Natural World.


There is something you can do for the wildlife and the people of Africa. Follow in my tracks. See these things for yourself. Go with small groups, go with local guides. If wildlife and wilderness are to survive at all, it will be because local people see their economic survival tied to these things.


I was hosted in the Maasai Mara by Don Young of Donald Young Safaris and by Nick Wood of Sekenani Camp.  I can recommend both without hesitation.  Between them, they support many families and provide the income that provides an education for the children of those families.  They make wildlife valuable and in our world today, without defined monetary value nothing survives.


You can visit the Mara with Don or Nick with complete moral clarity. Their tours in the Maasai Mara range from about $300 a day all inclusive, to about $950 all inclusive.  Save up.  Go soon. It’s worth every dime.

 – Mark Seth Lender  [MSL at MarkSethLender dot Com]

Sekenani Camp:

Donal Young Safaris:  [US office, Colorado Tel 303-4398462]



Pedestrians: Penguin Encounters of the Best Kind

Gentoo Penguins Returning to their Nests from the Sea-20151025_141021_26962015Gentoo Penguins Returning to their Nests from the Sea

Field Note:

I saw my first penguins in the Falklands and for the penguins, or at least some of them, that first was mutual. I was their first human being. Watching each other, we had effects on each other’s behavior.

Initially, when a penguin approached, I tried to get out of
the way. This resulted in penguin panic, ending in a wide arc to get away from me. Eventually I realized that they approached out of interest. Trying to accommodate I bent low.

Wrong again.

Crouching provoked a frisson of confusion ending in the same urgent exit.

I eventually worked out the desired response: Stand Still. And the penguins stood still also studying me, for a long time. This behavior obtained across different species but most notably the Gentoo and the King Penguins
Magellanic Penguin Standing Up in his Burrow-20151025_135246_23292015Magellanic Penguin Posing for a Close-up in his Burrow


Penguins and humans have gross similarities. Four limbs, bipedal locomotion, upright stance, and the proportions of the parts each to the other. The penguin’s interest may have been rooted in these externals. Certainly, in an encounter involving predation or conflict attention might well go to the equivalent of a threating beak or stiff, batting wings (flippers in the case of another penguin), or worst of all, towards flashing leopard seal teeth. This, just as we would be forced to glance toward a clenched fist and perhaps, a weapon in that fist.
King Penguin Wathcing Me Over His Shoulder-20151031_133957_28642015King Penguin Watching the Author over his Shoulder

In the absence of these forcing situations the attractors loose attraction. There was no compelling reason to look anywhere yet, attention went to the face which would indicate that a penguin attaches importance to the its own face, that face being the only point of reference the penguin has go on. If the penguin looks at a human face, preferentially, it is attaching import to the particular “features” that make up the face. Aside from the basic bilateral symmetry shared by all animals with faces, the face is where the eyes are and therefore the place from which a penguin sees the world. And behind the eyes, Awareness. What we have then is one Awareness locating and seeking out another Awareness.

The penguins were practicing what in humans what be called Anthropomorphization. In this case:


These days I find it harder, and harder to kill anything, or eat anything, that has the capacity to look me in the eye.

King Penguin Chick-20151031_142050_45372015

“Uncle Al?  Is that you?”

Visiting the Falklands and South Georgia Island
My fieldwork in the Falkland Islands and on South Georgia Island was conducted with the support of One Ocean Expeditions ( One Ocean is a particularly good tour company because they made multiple landings, and we were able to spend upwards of 2 hours per landing. This was absolutely essential for wildlife observation, and both wildlife and landscape photography, and for a sense of place. Cruising by on a large boat is hardly the same as setting foot on shore. If you have particular questions, or would like more information about visiting some of the places I’ve been, send me an email: MSL (at)

Gentoo Penguins Returning to their Nests from the Sea-20151025_154514_52642015

The Oakum Boys

Molting Adults-3137
Molting Adult King Penguins, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island (54′ 03″ S 37′ 01″W)

Field Note:
King penguins are large birds. The adults are almost a meter in height and my guess is that they are somewhat nearsighted, because when they come over to look at you they don’t stop until well inside your comfort zone. They “Penguinamorphise” us at least as much as we Anthropomorphise them.

That nearsightedness is likely a functional choice. It is very difficult to design an eye that sees as well underwater as it does above water. And the majority of the time, penguins are in and under, water. Between breeding cycles they are at sea continuously for at least 4 months, and even when on land to mate and to hatch and rear their chicks, they return to the sea in long shifts to feed.

Near (sighted)-5965

To survive the rigors of total immersion in the Antarctic Ocean at – 3o C (28o F) penguins rely on three things: A heavy layer of fat, plenty of fat-rich food to provide the tremendous number of calories needed for homeostasis, and extremely dense, tough feathers. Those feathers need to be nearly perfect. Shafts must be straight so that individual feathers lay down tight forming an effectively waterproof coat; they must trap just the right amount of air for added insulation; they must be well-oiled and perfectly smooth to minimize drag. Feathers that are frayed and worn cannot accomplish these things and once a year they must be replaced.

Adult at the end of the molt, surrounded by feathers-3061
Adult King Penguin at the End of the Molt (Note feathers littering the ground!)

An Oakum Boy's First Molt (into adult plumage)-4425
An Oakum Boy’s First Molt (into adult plumage)

King Penguins undergo a catastrophic molt, which means they loose all their old feathers at once and it takes about a month for the new ones to completely grow back. During that time penguin chicks are not fed because parents cannot enter the water to fish. They would freeze to death if they did. Even once the molt is complete and parents can swim and feed again, they need a significant portion of the calories they consume to restore their own body weight. And the chicks go hungry.

Chic Begging -5007
Chick Begging, Adamantly

During this time the begging of the chicks is still rewarded but not as often as the chicks would like. When the parents think the chick has had enough – or they themselves have “had enough” – they lean away, or stand tall, and when all else fails they gently tap the young ones on their heads. That we can read and understand these gestures clearly for what they are, is no trivial thing. Maybe the penguins are right to approach us they way they do, and our critique of Penguinomorphisation is misplaced.


A Head Tap gets the Point Across-4971
A Head-Tap Gets the Point Across: No more 

Some writers complain about penguins, that they have a nasty disposition, that the odor of their colonies is overwhelming. Not true. King Penguin voices are symphonic (especially the whirring calls of the adults which express several dissonant yet melodious tones simultaneously), their demeanor is curious and intelligent, and no colony I’ve ever visited is nearly as bad as a men’s locker room.

This story takes place at Salisbury Plain on South Georgia Island. I made several landfalls on South Georgia from the Akademic Ioffe, a large ice-hulled research vessel, while on tour with One Ocean Expeditions ( There were no human footprints anywhere in the Antarctic where we made landing. I saw not a single ship besides our own in 20 days at sea. I am offered all kinds of opportunities for travel these days, and everyone prefaces their offer with “It’s the Trip of Lifetime.” This was. You should go. For advice on when, where, and how to get there, contact me. I’ll be glad to help ()