Lines in the desert

The Tsolido Hills in a remote corner of north-western Botswana contain a remarkable gallery of rock art. The location was Botswana’s only Unesco World Heritage site – until the inland delta of the Okavango River, which forms the extensive Okavango Swamps to the south east of Tsolido, was proclaimed as the world’s 1000th World Heritage Site in 2014.

The hills are a cultural heritage site of great importance. The swamps are an ecosystem of vital importance, as among other things they are the home base of 130,000 elephants, the largest remaining coherent population in the world. Recent research has shown that while the elephants wander far afield from the swamps, crossing international boundaries into five countries (Namibia, Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe), they invariably time their return to the delta to coincide with the annual flooding of the swamps which takes place June-August, the height of the dry season in the surrounding lands.

The river’s annual flooding is as much a contributor to the natural heritage of the area, as the annual flooding of the Nile was to the civilisations of Egypt.

Now, because of a remarkable quirk of geology, a whacko hypothesis has emerged. Surrounding the Tsolido Hills are parallel dunes of the Kalahari Desert, which are astonishingly regular in their form. They are all about a mile apart, and maintain this as an almost exact parallel separation, which from the air appears quite unnatural. There are supposed to be no straight lines in nature, remember? This assertion while conveniently overlooking the most dominant visual straight-edge in any naturalistic view, the horizon.

Anyway, like Ericn van Däniken’s spacemen theory about the Nazca lines in Peru, the weirdo fringe is propounding a story that these parallel Kalahari dunes are, in fact, the remnants of an ancient civilisation’s irrigation scheme, “The largest wide-array man-made (or at least non natural) structure in the world.” Quoth the author of the piece on the Earths Epochs website, one John Jehsen Jr, “The entire complex covers an area about equal in size to the State of Arizona in the USA. The canals are an integrated system of apparent irrigation and agricultural (and probably aquaculture) design. The system is about 350 miles in width and about 300 miles in depth. (For the remnants still visible.) This system represents roughly 67 MILLION acres of sustainable agriculture. Given the sophistication of design, it is entirely plausible to assume an above average yield, i.e. feeding well over 90 persons per acre on an annual basis. The system may or may not have provided a sustainable aquaculture (marine farming) environment. I have no reason to suspect that it did not.”

He goes on to claim that “this system was in fact providing food for an average of about 5 Billion people” !!! The screamers are mine.

In this, the theorist references an entirely believable changing landscape in Africa over eons, sometimes accelerated by human impact, and posits a correlation of the Kalahari’s now dry state, with the fact that the Sahara itself, was once a well-watered savannah (witness the swimmers’ cave rock paintings made famous by the novel and the film The English Patient.)

Our madman also accounts for variance in ground level over the extended area of his irrigation canal complex, by asserting the water in the ‘canals’ would have been deep enough to accommodate that. And he doesn’t explain how the sand of the Kalahari would hold the water in the ‘canals’. In fact, that’s precisely the reason why the waters of the Okavango simply subside into the earth, why the delta is landlocked, why the river never reaches the sea.

Beyond that, supporting hard evidence is scant, or more precisely, non-existent. In the same manner that the cryptozoology belief in the existence of the huge, frightening Australian primate, the Yowie, founders in scientific circles because no bones, fossils or other physical evidence have ever been found (though some giant turds were once presented as ‘proof’), so the ancient irrigation megalopolis of the Kalahari presents no artefacts that would accompany such a huge human presence, and be there as historical markers. No middens. No ruins of cities. No burial grounds of great numbers of humans. Even the paintings on the rock faces of the Tsolido hills bear no reference to the widespread agriculture (and aquaculture) as claimed in the theory.

It would seem the vast complex of the Kalahari irrigation scheme would be the first in history to have no humans to tend it, or no great population to feed.

What does science say? Given that this is a remote area, and of no real interest for prospecting, mining or contemporary large-scale agriculture, not much.

But there is this paper by PA Jacobberger and DM Hooper of the Smithsonian Institution, Geomorphology and reflectance patterns of vegetation-covered dunes at the Tsodilo Hills, north-west Botswana.

What does it say?

"Within northwestern Botswana, the Kalahari is dominated by vast tracts of old linear sand dunes, now degraded in form and stabilized by vegetation. These dunes, though now fixed in place, were once mobile and formed under presumably more arid conditions than exist today. And, The dunes south of Tsodilo are strikingly linear and parallel; although their morphology is heavily degraded, dune forms are visible on Landsat data, apparently due to differences in stabilizing vegetation between dune crests and interdune corridors. The dunes trend roughly east-west (azimuth 102"), average 2 km in crest-to-crest wavelength, and attain a maximum height of 25 m. Individual dunes are several tens of kilometres long, so that they run uninterrupted east-west through the field site.

"Because of their subdued topography, the dunes do not cast shadows visible in satellite imagery, even at low sun angles. In the field, traverses were taken across dunes, and slopes of 2" to 4" were measured on the broad dune crests and flanks, with locally steeper slopes; for comparison, the angle of repose for quartz sand in active dunes is 34". Grove (1969) also mentioned these extremely low slopes, and Interdune corridors are typically narrow, flat, and grass-covered with a few percentage of trees and scrub.

"The corridors are sand-filled, which explains the lack of lag surfaces. Interdune corridor width varies from 0.4 km to 1.0 km. Dense tree thickets occur locally within some corridors. No active fluvial channels were identified in interdune corridors within the study site, but a few small pans were found. (so, no water there)

"A few ephemeral or abandoned stream channels cut diagonally (my emphasis) across dune fields and others follow interdune corridors. In the field, these fluvial features are not obvious. Since no surface water was observed in these channels in any of our TM images, and because of their subdued field morphology, it is likely that Geomorphology and reflectance of vegetated dunes these are abandoned streams rather than active ephemerals. No active fluvial channels were identified in interdune corridors within the study site, but a few small pans were found."

In their conclusion, the scientists re-iterate the importance of in-the-field observations, when studying a phenomenon like the parallel dunes. It hardly bears reporting that the ancient civilisation theorist, John Jehsen Jr, has never been there. All the better to formulate weirdo theories. And so it goes...


There are feral hippos in Columbia in South America, and tigers running wild in South Africa. Behind these seemingly unnatural situations, there exist, naturally, stories of human intervention.

In the 1980s, four hippos were smuggled into Columbia by the notorious drug baron Pablo Escobar, to be a part of his private zoo. When Escobar was shot dead in 1993, the Columbian government took control of his luxurious estate. They removed most of his zoo animals, transferring them to other zoos, but left the hippos where they were in their pool.

Since then the hippos have multiplied, and some escaped their confines. Now there are dozens living happily in the Magdalena, Columbia’s principal river. They have re-wilded themselves. A few hippos remain at the estate, Hacienda Napoles, which – strange as it seems – has since become a theme park.

What to do about the hippos? Some ecologists say they must be removed from the wild, as they will modify the habitat, and possibly displace native species such as manatees. Others say nah, leave them there, as they offer ecosystem services that were once provided by now-extinct megafauna. Plus, they have become something of a tourist attraction.

One thing is certain – the longer the hippos remain there in the wild, and the more they multiply, the harder it will be to eradicate them. For now, the Columbian authorities are not doing anything about the feral hippos.

The story of the tigers outside of their natural habitat begins when Li Quan, a Beijing-born Chinese woman, left her high-flying job a the fashion house Gucci, to focus on her first love, wildlife conservation. She and her husband Stuart Bray came up with the idea of translocating tigers to a protected area in South Africa, as part of a strategy to save them from extinction.

They bought up 17 adjacent sheep farms in the Phillippolis district in the Free State province, and turned them into the Lahou (meaning ‘tiger’ in Chinese) Valley Reserve. They introduced critically endangered and captive-born South China tigers to the reserve, with the intention of re-wilding them, and further down the track, returning them to their natural habitat in China.

By all accounts, the tigers have settled in well, breeding and preying on African antelopes in the reserve such as blesbok. The project started off being controversial, but now seems to have achieved a level of acceptance within the conservation community.

Of course, we in New Zealand are no strangers to direct intervention when it comes to conservation of critically endangered species. The captive breeding programme for the Chatham Islands black robin, and its recovery from a single breeding pair, is an international conservation success story. The kakapo also appears to be making a comeback, thanks to the hands-on efforts of the DOC staff on the recovery team. Kakapo have had a stellar breeding season in 2019, with 74 chicks alive. Only a handful of the chicks are in the wild – the rest in a captive breeding facility in Invercargill. This is a great boost to the overall population of kakapo of only 147 birds.

There are amazing, heart-warming pictures of the chicks on the Kakapo Recovery Facebook page, and more stories about exactly what the recovery team is doing to help the kakapo on their way.

There’s a moral in the story of the tigers and the kakapo. It goes to show that when a species is down to critically endangered levels, the only way forward is with direct human intervention. We simply can’t leave nature to run its course.

The bottom line is, we can make a difference; and for these two species in particular, extinction it seems, has for now been averted.

Here's looking at ya- eight times

It’s a mistake – or at least a misnomer – to claim that houses are where people live. For even given the grand imperatives of the noble profession of architecture, our houses, designed primarily for humans by humans, do become homes for others too.

And I think this is a valuable thing to contemplate – it helps us realise that not everything is all about us. It helps us to shift focus. It helps us to consider scale differently, to approach another frame of being, to look beyond our fingernails and beyond our shoelaces. It reveals the magic of other worlds – ironically, other worlds right there within ours, inhabiting what we think is our world alone.

Our indoors are practically national parks of the under-appreciated and over-looked – the species we tend not to think about, or even look at. And that much is our loss. For we share our spaces, and there is immeasurable richness in this.

And so it was with delight that we came across this funky wee jumping spider on the kitchen bench last night. A macro lens was handy, and while the photo-shoot assistant (me) kept our cool arachnid from jumping in the plate where the guava jelly was setting, it obliged and posed handily, keeping a beady on us with its four forward-facing eyes.

To reciprocate, we turned off the camera flash. Pictures taken, the little jumping spider (as yet of uncertain genus and name – am still looking among the 1,1000 species in NZ for positive ID), jumped off into the immensity of the void beyond the bench top, only to swing away and climb effortlessly up its silken thread to the ceiling. Way to go! No wonder Spiderman is the superhero that sticks!

There’s one within a yard of you right now. Not a superhero, just an ordinary spider (though some might say that all spiders can do super stuff). Spiders are everywhere. And probably looking at you – with all eight eyes. Or at least with their forward-facing component. I think they’re groovy for that alone. Plus the fact they eat mosquitoes. And the glorious bit of trivia that tells us that spiders eat more weight of insects per year, much more in fact, than the combined weight of humans in this country.

A long-standing artist’s fascination with kites and everything they do, everything they fly for, has also led me to admire spiders. Did you know that spiders are the first creatures to re-colonise places that have been blasted, sterilised, cleaned out or otherwise nuked? Spiders were the first to reclaim a foothold on the still-smoking island of Krakatoa after the famous volcano blew.

Edward O Wilson, a favourite author of mine (he won the Pulitzer prize for a book about ants) found a similar thing when studying mangrove islets in the Florida Keys in the USA. In a study of re-colonisation of the islands, he first had a few test sites soundly sterilised under plastic sheets. He then exposed the pristine wee islands to the air, and presto! Within hours, spiders were there. How did they get there? By flying of course. Spiders can spool out long threads of silk, which lift and float in the breeze, and make like little triangular parachutes. When there’s enough pull on the line, the spiders lift off and goes where ever the breeze will take them.

Scientists call this ‘mechanical kiting.’ Others of a more mystical bent, call it ballooning. They (the spiders, not the scientists) can fly over mountain tops, they can alight on the tallest trees, they can do the Sky Tower for free, they have visited weather balloons at 16,000 ft, they can stay aloft for 25 days, they can land on little mangrove islands, they can find freshly-baked new volcanoes, still hot from the oven.

The little jumping spider in our kitchen has chosen not to embark on epic trans-oceanic adventures, but seems content to hang out just here. With us. And we are honoured.

One percent please

The New Zealand's Government announcement of a predator-free goal for New Zealand by 2050 sounds good.

But, so far, the budget for this is woefully inadequate, and comes on top of years of cost cutting - some say the deliberate, reckless, weakening - of the Department of Conservation.

Given the importance of conservation land to New Zealand's reputation, and our collective future, we should invest more in conservation.

So how much does it take to run our country? Take a look at a website page from the Treasury titled 'Total Crown Expenses by functional classification', and you'll see government spent $95.9 billion in the financial year ending June 2016.

The big ticket items were $28.9 billion on social security and welfare. Fair enough – we have to pay pensions, and look after the vulnerable. Next was $15.2 billion on health. Also OK – you gotta take care of the crook fellas. Closely followed by $13.8 billion on education. Again fair enough – we must educate our kids, and pay the teachers.

So far, so logical. But scroll down towards the bottom of the list, and you find the $616 million spent on environmental protection. Do some more digging, and you'll find the budget for the Department of Conservation accounted for $430 million of that environmental protection spend. That's about 0.44 % of total government spending.

In fact, spending on core conservation work is even less than this. For example, in DOC’s 2016/17 budget just $160.6 million was allocated for natural heritage – money spent looking after species and ecosystems. And $143.3 million was put aside for recreation, such as maintaining huts and tracks.

Now consider the 100% PURE campaign. It's selling New Zealand's unique proposition to the world of international tourism. You don't see pictures of hospitals, schools, suburbs, or open cast mines in the billboards. You see stunning images of our natural world – almost all taken within the conservation estate.

New Zealand has a very high level of land that is held as conservation estate – around 30 percent of our total land area. Or put another way, about 8.5 million hectares of native forests and islands and beaches and rivers and lakes and alpine land. And 1.77 million hectares of marine reserves. Stunning stuff. Plenty of scope for those 100% PURE photographers. And plenty of space to tuck away a tourist or two.

There's money in them green-blue spaces too. International tourism earned $11.8 billion in the year ending March 2015 – or 17.4% of our foreign exchange earnings. In total, the tourism expenditure, including domestic visitors in that year, was $29.8 billion (a 10% increase from the previous year).

An overwhelming majority of those visitors were enticed by the splendours of our natural environment. Just like they saw in the 100% PURE posters and billboards. They came to experience that for real. Good on them.

So why then do we spend so little on caring for one of our greatest assets? How about a new campaign to sit beside 100% PURE? We could call it the 1% PLEASE initiative. That's not asking for much – just one percent of our government’s annual spend to look after the forests, the rivers, the mountains, and those who look after them in turn. But no. In the past few years, we have seen budget cuts for the Department of Conservation, and more than 150 jobs lost. Good people, doing good work. Now less of them must do it all with less resources.

Why can't we set aside just one percent for this important entity? No-one who sets budget figures could refuse that, surely? It all makes good sense. It's the ultimate in business and brand sustainability. It would also help future generations of our own citizens.

Just 1% PLEASE. Ironic, isn't it, to think this level of investment would be more than double what is currently being done. Puts things a bit into perspective.

Turkey thinks Lamarckian thoughts

 Imagine what a turkey might think (if a turkey could think in the way we do) and say (if a turkey could talk), to its great-grand-parents (if a long-deceased turkey could listen) about the loss of the capability of flight.

“C’mon grand-papa! C’mon grand-mama! Why were you so lazy? If you’d have kept up the exercises, maybe you’d have passed on enhanced ability, and we’d be flying still. We wouldn’t be all so heavy now. Or the ground so much of an attachment.”

For, in theory, domesticated birds like turkeys, geese and chickens should be able to fly. It’s just that they don’t. For them, it’s too much like hard work.

The aspirational young turkey could find itself in a murky scientific space. We’re talking about the ‘Lamarckian heresy’ here – which requires some clarification.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was a French biologist who lived from 1744 to 1829, and who proposed a dual theory of evolution which became something of a forerunner to Darwin’s. Lamarck differentiated between Le pouvoir de la vie (‘the complexifying force’) which drives organisms from simple to more complex forms, and L'influence des circonstances (the adaptive force) wherein use and disuse of organs changes the form of a species. This ‘adaptive force’ has been described as the ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’.

Interpreted simplistically, it would say that the children of a blacksmith (to use a 18th century example) would naturally grow up to have strong arms – or that turkeys would be born without the ability to fly, if their parents didn’t.

It’s this second thing that has gotten a bad rap. Although in his famous 1859 book The Origin of Species, Darwin did give some time to the idea of ‘use and disuse inheritance’, many subsequent experiments (some a little unsettling, like keeping a generation of guinea pigs or chickens intoxicated with alcohol, or rats living in revolving environments), have debunked the idea.

Evolutionary scientists now primarily reject the Lamarckian notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Something that happens to one generation does not that speedily get passed on to the next.

An extreme example would be if someone loses a limb during their lifetime, this doesn’t mean their children would be born missing the same appendage.

The modern science of evolution is based more on genetic changes over time. Though all is not all done and dusted. There remain some controversial experiments – some done as recently as 2009 – which may point to significant changes made in an animal’s environment in its adolescent phase, which change its response, that are passed on the very next generation.

And other parts of Lamarck’s work did and do contribute to the science of evolution. In the case of the irascible turkey, however, it is selective breeding by humans that has hastened its confinement to land – and not as much the fact that its ancestors were lazy.

All this is oversimplification, of course. And that’s where we’re going with this: in all things about life, nothing is a simple as it seems.


The roses are the rock stars of our garden. And bumblebees are their adoring fans.

They bumble about the blossom (the cornflowers, too, are a favourite) collecting pollen, then bumble on to the next to continue their seemingly tireless work.

Watching a bumblebee doing its thing, it struck me how little I know of them. Apart from the commonly repeated story that, according to the laws of aerodynamics promulgated by human scientists, bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly yet they do – apart from that story (which I don’t know is true or a myth), there’s not much I know about bumble bees.

Are the indigenous to New Zealand? How many different species are there? Do the make honey? Do they sting? Where do they sleep? How far can they fly? I set out to find out. Bumble bees, I learn, have their devotees.

Like any cutesy creature, bumblebees in New Zealand have human champions in the form of the NZ Bumblebee Conservation Trust. (One of my regular inspirations in New Zealand is the sheer number of groups of people doing good things about all kinds of things – and indication of our remarkable depth of social capital).

The Trust website tells me there are actually four species of bumblebees in New Zealand, all imported from England in the 1880s, primarily to help with the pollination of crops of red clover. They are all of the genus Bombus, and the species are Terrestris (the most common, and raised specially to pollinate greenhouse crops); Ruderatis (never seen in winter); Hortorum (only found in the middle of the country, but spreading north); and Subterraneus (only in the South Island).

I learned that bumblebees congregate in nests of up to 400 individuals. They forage in a circle of one to one and a half kilometres from the nest. They have a vigorous style of pollinating flowers, which works on tomato plants, where ordinary honey bees efforts won’t. That’s why bumblebees are specially introduced to greenhouses with tomatoes. Going for it, one bumblebee can pollinate 450 tomato flowers in every hour. The god ol’ bumblebee can do 50 times the work of a normal honeybee, and can operate in near-freezing conditions, in the rain, and from dawn till dusk.

It takes a lot of energy for a bumblebee to fly. It can carry up to 90% of its bodyweight in food.

While foraging, a bumblebee is only 40 minutes away from starvation, if it doesn’t get any new food. Bumblebees suck up nectar using their long, hairy tongues, which they tuck under their chins while flying.

Bumblebees do not have ears, but they are sensitive to vibrations. Bumblebees tell their mates which flowers have been visited by leaving a trace of their smelly feet. Different flowers, I’m told, replenish their nectar at different rates.

The nectar and pollen bumblebees carry is taken back to the nest to feed the little ones. There’s a queen at the nest, and she generally starts the nest by laying eggs which become the female workers, who do the foraging. The queen and the workers can sting. In late autumn, the queen produces male offspring, and after mating the males and the queen die, and the rest hibernate, until the life cycle starts again in the spring with a new queen bee starting her own new nest.

Yes, bumblebees do make honey, but in a lesser quantity than honeybees, because bumblebees have only a few individuals to feed during the winter. The honey, apparently, has a stronger taste that honeybee honey.

Bumblebees are declining around the world, due to a number of factors, including the use of pesticides dangerous to them in industrialised farming.

As for the story about whether or not, theoretically, a bumblebee should not be able to fly, well it is a myth. True, bumblebees do fly in a very different way to fixed wing aircraft or helicopters, and their aerodynamics is much more complicated.

The myth originated when a drunk engineer made some calculations on the back of a napkin (using the accepted formulae for human-made aircraft), and, presto! ‘discovered’ that bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly at all. But that ‘discovery’ was of course on the basis of not really knowing the issues at hand.

So the supposed impossibility of bumblebee flight comes down to human error. Which is a nice new lens of looking at the natural world: even the littlest, humblest, most everyday of species is an elegant mystery to the mind of humans – if that mind lives within the confines of perceptions limited by our very selves.

So my thanks to the bumblebee for maintaining a lovely element of the numinous in this world.