Monday, July 23, 2007

The Heat Sets In

July 18, 2007. Mole National Park, Ghana

Although the weather in Mole has been unseasonably pleasant, it still can get very hot. Water here is also scarce and only runs a few times a day, and then only for a very short period -- maybe only an hour. Just when the water is going to run is anybody's guess. Each of us has two five-gallon buckets, which we try to keep full. These buckets are used for bathing and flushing the toilets, and we've all been very good about rationing and sharing water when necessary. It's a valued commodity, though it's not good for drinking. After arriving and shooting for a few days in Mole, a few of us have gotten sick, probably from the water. Whatever we had, it zapped strength and resulted in cramps and dizziness. We all running a little slower than normal, but I think we're capturing some beautiful images that will help shed light on an important story.

When rain calls a halt to the shooting, we take refuge in an air-conditioned room. On this day we were all thankful that we had electricity, and we took this opportunity to take a brief nap together. Ghana is in the midst of an energy crisis. The country relies on hydropower, and most of the major reservoirs are painfully low. As a result, there are countrywide rolling blackouts. Power is provided from the main grid in forty-eight hour cycles, so that places get two days of power and then are left on their own. Many rely on generators to make up for the days without power.

Baboons, Woman & Children

July 18, 2007. Mole National Park, Ghana

As much fun as they are to watch, we're really getting a sense of how much of a problem the baboons can be. One interesting thing that has been brought to our attention is that baboons don't seem to have any fear of women. In speaking to the workers of the park, this fact comes up again and again. In fact, recently just to test this hypothesis, a worker here dressed up as woman and mingled with the females working outside near the kitchen. When the baboons came by, as they do most evenings as dinner is being prepared, a few of them went about hassling the women and chasing them. When they approached the man dressed up in costume, they stopped dead in their tracks. They paused for a moment to give him a closer look. Once they realized that he was a man, they ran away to safety.

According to Brashares, baboons can also be incredibly aggressive. For instance, he reported one case in Kenya where he witnessed two male baboons attempting to take a baby from the arms of its mother. The baboons lunged repeatedly at the woman, bearing their teeth, barking and circling her. Confused and frightened, the woman was hysterical and didn't know what to do as the baboons got more brazen and aggressive. Finally, a man came to her aid and forced the baboons away.

These Patas monkeys, pictured below, can also be quite aggressive. One morning, when I was watching them, one looked up at me and then charged, swatting at me -- its arms flailing. I jumped back and tried to take a posture to scare him off, but he kept on coming. Finally, he backed away when a worker from the motel ran up with a slingshot. Moments later, the Patas raided our breakfast table as we sat. They jumped on the table, went right for the sugar and jam and stuffed their mouths full before darting off.

Chris's Special Evening

July 17, 2007. Larabanga, Ghana

After a full day of shooting, Chris, our soundman, stayed behind in Larabanga. His intention was to work with a Master drummer from the community, and he had high hopes of getting a private drumming lesson. To Chris's surprise and delight, rather than a lesson, the people in the community performed music from the Damba yam festival. This involves a complex drumming style of the same name. Chris points out that there's a dispute among musicologists as to how to count and notate this style of drumming. There are very few recordings of music from Northern Ghana, so the people of Larabanga fall into the cultural group known as the Gonja. This is a recording of drummers performing on the evening of a much-awaited thunderstorm. The group included a very old master drummer accompanied by several of the men who acted a hunters in the film. For Chris, the entire experience was magical, as it was only lit by lightening from the thunderstorm. Enjoy this rare recording courtesy of Chris!

The day in the life of an AP in Africa

Brook Holston (Associate Producer)
July 17, 2007 Mole National Park, Ghana

Despite a giant thunderstorm yesterday, we are miraculously on schedule and have shot most everything that was planned and scheduled.

Justin Brashares, the scientist we are here with is a star and has been great on camera and a huge help all around. Justin's grad student, Cole Burton (also at Berkeley) is here and has been a huge help as well and we've been filming with him quite a bit.

I am currently in the town of Tamale, which is about 2 hours outside of Mole Park. Even though I came into "town", I am still chasing down one suitcase that's been missing since we arrived, which contains most of our tapestock. It should arrive here soon on a flight from Accra. As the "services" are limited at the Mole Motel, I'm also here making a supply run for things the hotel is low on or out of: fruit, water, fuel for our generator (as the power is quite random in Mole and battery charging has been a challenge), money changing, DHL (where I'm picking up tapestock that I ordered should the suitcase never makes it back to us), etc, etc!

So far the crew is doing great, although a bit tired, and the good news is all of our equipment has been working good in the heat and humidity. We are working closely with the Wildlife Division in Mole Park and they have been extremely helpful - yesterday we shot elephants and today will be shooting some Baboons. There are baboons at the Mole Hotel who are quite cheeky - they hang out right in front of your room hoping you'll drop your bag so they can have a look. Yesterday they stole a woman's backpack and she didn't get much back!!

Bushmeat Hunters

July 16, 2007. Mole National Park, Ghana.

Racing the last light of the day, we met a group of hunters from the community of Larabanga in order to recreate a dreamlike sequence that would illustrate hunting pressures on the park. Bushmeat is an integral part of Ghanaian culture, and hunters, like these, play a vital role in providing food for their communities.

The question that the people of Ghana face focuses on how to create sustainable harvests of bushmeat without depleting the resource. At the moment hunting is regulated to a certain degree by issuing permits, but this practice in and of itself is not enough according biologists like Moses Sam, one of our featured scientists. Currently, there are efforts underway to farm some animals, such as grass cutters, which are giant rats, but the results are mixed. Farming these animals is not simple and still requires a fair amount of food to produce a harvestable animal.

Up Close With Elephants

July 16, 2007. Mole National Park, Ghana.

Early in the morning we set off with our guide, Samuel Anponsah Mensah, and headed into the park with the hopes of shooting elephants. We would not be disappointed. Samuel guided our vehicle down over the escarpment and into the alluvial plain. We passed through grasslands, and through the dense bush on a road that resembled a trail. After about a twenty minute drive, we took off on foot, and we didn't have to walk very far before meeting our first elephants taking their morning bath. As you might imagine, we were all thrilled to see these majestic animals at such a close range. For their part, the elephants didn't give us a second thought -- they lounged in the water, spraying, drinking and occasionally rough-housing.

There are approximately 800 elephants in Mole National Park, and unlike their distant cousins living in East Africa ( in places like Kenya) very little is known about these animals. Their groups have not been identified and none of them have been studied as individuals. The elephants of Mole present an incredible opportunity for any budding biologist looking to contribute to science.
Elephant footprints that have filled with water from rainfall the previous night.
Our Guide on this morning, Samuel Anponsah Mensah.
Elephants departing the watering hole stop to take a look at us before heading back into the bush.

Ghana Wildlife Division Archives

July 15, 2007. Mole National Park, Ghana

Don't let the cluttered nature of these photos fool you; this archive of data, collected over more than thirty years by the Ghana Wildlife Division, at more than seventy sights across the country, is one of the most complete records of animal abundance and distribution collected anywhere in the world. In fact, nothing like it exists for large mammals in North America or Europe. Despite its richness and value, the archive, like much of the animals it records, needs protection. A plan is currently in place for the archive to be transcribed, however, the work is currently being done by hand, which is painstakingly slow. Brashares and his colleagues at the Ghana Wildlife Division are seeking support that would speed up the effort and ensure that this valuable resource can be preserved. The plan entails bringing on more help by purchasing a scanner and computers at cost of approximately ten thousand dollars. A very small price to save such an incredible resource. (For anybody interested in contributing, please contact Justin Brashares or Moses Sam: or

Elephants and Cell Phones

July 15, 2007. Mole National Park, Ghana.

We're staying at the only overnight facility in Mole National Park, the Mole Motel. The motel is perched above a dam, and looks out across the countryside. The views are spectacular, and the dam looks more like a watering hole. Wart hogs have the run of the motel, and they can be seen everywhere. They kneel on their front legs eating every piece of greenery that they can find sprouting from the red dirt. Baboons, too, are very common and troops move through the park, swinging from trees, running through the dirt and bounding over the hill on their way to the water below. There are also lizards, big and small, that come in a multiple array of colors. When I see them, I can't help but think of my 10-year-old daughter, Zelda, who has become quite the lizard wrangler in Pacific Grove, California. However, of all the animals that I've seen thus far, the most surprising to me were the elephants.

This morning, I awoke around 5:30 in the morning, and I staggered out of bed to make breakfast by six. I checked my bathroom to see if the water was running (it wasn't, and would not run all day.) After that, I went out the back door of my room to look out over the valley below. As I stood on my porch, I heard the voice of Chad, who is rooming right next to me. "Elephants," he said, and pointed down toward the water. I rubbed my eyes and looked down the hill, and there they were: elephants. It was a group of five females and one young male standing in the water taking their morning bath. Just beyond them, in a stand of trees, stood a group of eight. It was an incredible sight and I took a seat to watch them. As I did, I have to admit that I felt very lucky to be in their presence, but at the same time the moment was tarnished by so many inescapable truths. Mole National Park, despite it's greatness, is under intense pressure of human development. Not far from the elephants, on the horizon to my left there was a cell phone tower. Like shoots of weeds, these towers are springing up everywhere, massive metal harbingers of the changes yet to come. Don't get me wrong, I think it's amazing that I can pick up my phone in the Ghanaian wilderness and call anywhere in the world, but this luxury comes with a price. "How long can these elephants last?," I wondered. " Will future parks like Mole become nothing more than large zoos?" For the people who know me, these questions come as no surprise. I no longer believe in the concept of "nature" as being a separate place, untouched by human hands. It's a myth, one often perpetuated by colleagues working in film, that there exists this vast untamed world. Yes, there are elephants and they should be revered and appreciated. Take the time to watch them and be humbled by their majesty. Feel honored to be in their presence, but keep your eyes on the horizon.

Below is a picture of the elephants from my bedroom in Mole National Park. We'd be getting much closer in the following days. After watching the elephants, and a cup of Nescafe coffee (which I have to admit, I'm starting to enjoy) we went to the nearby village of Larabanga, which has a population of approximately 4,000 people. The purpose of our trek was to meet with leaders from the local village to discuss our upcoming shooting plans. The meeting was held near one center of the village and was attended by the film crew, myself, and sixteen representatives from the village. A new guide named Eben served as a translator. After a morning prayer, we described our intentions and were warmly received.

Larabanga is predominantly Muslim, and most of the residents are farmers. Like the fisherman in Accra, the people here have to work a great deal in order to seek out a living. Their major crops are corn, groundnuts, yams and cassava, and they depend on rainfall to grow their crops; there is no irrigation. In addition to the fate of the rains, the farmers have to contend with elephants, which enter their fields from Mole National Park. Elephants can make short order of crops and destroy an entire harvest in a single morning. Monkeys are also major crop raiders. Of all the animals that the farmers have to contend with, though, perhaps the biggest threat, according to Justin Brashares, comes from the baboon populations. Their numbers in some places have increased by more than 600%. Brashares points out that while the villagers may be concerned most with the elephants, the data suggests that the baboons are the bigger problem.
Our morning meeting in Larabanga. The people of this community speak [Kamara], which is a language unique to this small town of 4,000 people.
The children of Larabanga were extremely beautiful and friendly. This young boy stood by my side, rubbing the hairs on my arm. He ultimately sat beside me, and held my hand, content to swing his feet back and forth, which dangled above the red dirt. The smile never left his face.

Africa Shoot: Ghana Part 5

July 14, 2007.
We departed from Kumasi pretty much as planned. With trucks and vans loaded, we made our way North out of the city. It was a pleasure to get out on the open road, beyond the city limits and see the Ghanaian countryside. Ghana is a beautiful country. Our trek took us on a single straight ribbon of road that cut through a seemingly endless horizon of green. We made few stops: a roadside stand for oranges, bananas and mangoes and lunch in the town of Kintampo. I spent much of the time resting, sleeping off and on, and reading. We listened to some Ghanaian music from the 1970's that our sound man, Chris, had collected. Chris has study Ghanaian music for years with a focus on drums in the Northern regions, specifically Dagomba. According to Chris, Dagomba drumming, which is a complex and multi-voiced music, utilizes entire villages as part of their performances. Chris has been studying Dagomba music for more than ten years, and studied with masters from Tamale in the states. However, this would mark his first trip to Ghana. Chris has some hopes, given the chance, to visit Tamale. We'll all keep our fingers crossed but we're not counting on it.

After about six hours, we turned off the main road. Our last two hours would be along a bumpy dirt road. We paused for a few moments in order to take all the bulbs out of our lighting gear before continuing on. There was fear that that the bumpy road would break the lamps. It's a good thing we stopped. The road was very rough, and it didn't help that we were driving between 50 and 60 miles per hour. Nonetheless, everyone’s’ spirits were high. It felt great to be so far from home.
Sunset in Mole National Park.