Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Safari at Home and at Mole National Park

For Independence Day weekend, a cohort of the University of Michigan students in Ghana came together to take a road trip up to Mole National Park to go on a Ghanaian safari. I was extremely excited to go on this trip even though my African animal knowledge is limited to Disney’s The Lion King and trips to zoos like the San Diego Zoo and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Up until the trip, I had not seen many animals at all. Perhaps it was incorrect for me to assume that there would be monkeys walking along the streets with people like dogs. Don’t ask why I thought this would be the case. I blame The Lion King and TV for misinforming me. What I have seen is a “safari” of small critters and bugs in my “own backyard” that would make anyone who hates bugs and is a medical student who has passed infectious diseases (me) a paranoid wreck. Here are a few of these critters:

  • Mosquitoes are my number one concern even though they are not anything new to a South Floridian. If I wasn’t such a mosquito magnet, then perhaps I wouldn’t be so concerned. If you are ever in the same room with me, you’ll be safe. No mosquito bites for you. The added worry is malaria, which is a very real concern. Of the district hospitals I have visited so far, malaria is always one of the top five complaints. And two of my Ghanaian medical school friends have come down with malaria. Two things I must manage to do consistently every day: shower myself with OFF and take my malaria prophylaxis (doxycycline). While I was in Agroyesum, sleeping with a mosquito net was an absolute must. Every day is a battle against these mosquitoes and I fear that I am losing. Mosquito bite count as of today: 19

  • Centipedes and all other insects are significantly bigger here! The first time I saw a centipede curled up on the ground I thought it was a snake! I was even told that drying your laundry outside is a hazard because the tsetse fly will lay its eggs into your clothing. Dr. Abram’s videos of the bot fly are still fresh enough in my mind to motivate me to dry hang my clothes indoors.

  • Scorpions are not common, but since arriving in Ghana, I have come across three. These killer critters are also unexpectedly large. The largest one I’ve seen was the size of a blue crab. The movie, Scorpion King, took place in Africa, right?

  • Lizards and other reptiles are very common here. Many of the houses here are covered by a metal sheet and if you hear rumblings across your roof, it’s most likely a lizard scurrying across the roof. The coloring of the lizards is very different from those found in South Florida. I’m actually comforted by the lizards because they remind me of the lizards that run rampant in South Florida.

  • Parasitic helminthes. I had a worm scare Independence Day weekend because I was experiencing extreme fatigue, a fever, complete loss of appetite, and GI irritation. Since the twins I lived with while in Agroyesum were reported to have worms, I knew it was only a matter of time before I developed worms since we ate the same food and drank the same water. While exchanging Ghanaian experiences with the rest of the University of Michigan students, I learned that two of them had worms in their feet! Worried about my well-being despite the potential positive benefit of a parasitic worm helping me lose some weight, I adamantly requested for a de-wormer pill upon arriving back in Kumasi. I do feel better now…

  • Chickens. Almost every meal in Ghana includes fried chicken. After walking around the streets, this will come as no surprise given the number of chickens roaming around, even within hospitals! Thankfully, these chickens do not all crow at dawn every morning. Rather, the cock-a-doodle-doo can be heard at any time during the day. Every time a chicken crosses my path, I wonder if he will be a part of my next meal.

  • Goats. Roaming goats are much more common in the districts than in Kumasi, but you can still find them jumping across gutters and picking through trash. There is nothing really special or unique about these goats. Goats around the world must be the same.

While these critters keep my daily life in Ghana exciting, they do not beat being able to walk around Mole National Park and standing just a few meters away from these amazing animals:
    Blurry, but Erika's standing over a crocodile!
  • Crocodiles: The first stop on our road trip to Mole National Park was Paga, a town at the border of Ghana and Burkina Fossa. These crocodiles are unique because they are tame and live side by side with the people of Paga. Legend and folklore have the people of the village intertwined with the lives of the crocodiles. Each crocodile represents a human spirit. We unfortunately arrived in Paga too late to get the best of pictures.

    Any mention of Paga always brings up a misinformed debate about how to tell the difference between a crocodile and alligator. Since few believe being a Floridian with alligators in her backyard is a credible source of information, here is a link that details the differences.

  • Warthogs: The Lion King really did get this one right. Warthogs are not very majestic and are the “pigs” of the African wild. They were also much bigger than I had anticipated. At Mole, they run wild in the reserves, but also coexist with the humans living in Mole. If you are not careful, they will step onto your veranda in search for food. The most entertaining thing about the warthogs is how they eat. Since they have very short necks, they will bend down on their knees to eat. Though, I don’t remember Pumba doing this in The Lion King.

    Yeah for Baboons!

  • Baboons: They were everywhere! They roamed around the villages, hung around the water towers, climbed up along the soccer goal posts, and were found walking around the reserves. Though they are hairier then we are, the similarities in their mannerisms is really uncanny. Baby baboons cling onto their mother’s backs not too unlike how babies in Ghana are strapped to their mother’s backs; the baboons groom with meticulous scrutiny; the curious stares they give you only reflect our own curiosity; and they sit on “toilets” to pass waste.

    The female water buck who caused the fights

  • Antelope and Water Bucks were the hardest to track because they would flee at any sound. We were only able to catch them from a distance and hear the rustle of their graceful run. The antelope and water bucks are very territorial. Other male antelope and water buck cross into the marked territory of another male at their own risk. However, all females are allowed to cross. The most intriguing thing we were able to see was a fight between two male water buck for a female water buck.

    An elephant track...are we close?

  • Elephants!!! Mole National Park has hundreds of elephants roaming its reserves. Despite this great number and the large size of these majestic animals, it was extremely difficult to find and see elephants. Our first safari walk in the late afternoon yielded no elephants. But, the next morning, we all woke up to take the 6:30AM walking safari to see elephants before leaving Mole. After wandering around for about an hour seeing plenty of elephant tracks and the constant buzz of horse flies driving me insane, I was about to give up. But, then, our rifle-carrying guide came through for us and we found eleven elephants! The African elephant is much bigger than its Indian cousin. The most obvious difference is probably the shape of its ears: large and square compared to the smaller and triangular ears on the Indian elephant. As we approached a watering hole where the elephants were bathing, it began to smell like a circus (my most memorable elephant encounter before Mole), so I knew we were in the right place. Watching the elephants bathe and throw sand on their backs as insect repellent was an unforgettable experience. I can’t think of any other animal that has the same silent magnanimity.

    Here's an excellent video of an elephant painting!

If you are ever in Ghana, I’d highly recommend making the trip out to Mole National Park for the extremely affordable opportunity (5 Cedi to enter with student ID and 3 Cedi per hour for the walking safari) to walk along with the animals of the Ghanaian wild because you’ll only see pesky critters in the cities.

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