Hank Lowenstein

Myanmar, formerly Burma, is literally half way around the world from New York. We flew from JFK up over the Arctic, and down to Hong Kong, which took 16 hours. After a 3 hour layover in Hong Kong we took a 3 hour flight to Bangkok and stayed in that teeming metropolis (13 million people) for 4 days to get rid of our jet lag before proceeding into Myanmar.
Our trip started in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, which was the old capital of Burma before the military took over and changed Burma to Myanmar and moved the capital to Naypyidaw, some 100 miles north of Yangon. In Myanmar we traveled by plane, train, ox cart, horse and buggy and by foot. There is no cell phone service in the country, unless one buys a local SIM card, which enables local calls with lots of static. We were able to receive e-mails at hotels via Wi-Fi, but a snail moves faster than the connection speed in most places.
Myanmar accepts American money, but ONLY brand new bills. Any U.S. bill that has a tear, a fold, a crease or a stain will not be accepted. The country is the size of England and France combined, with a population of approximately 50 million people, and it seemed like there were almost that many tourists during our visit there! November through May is the best time to visit Myanmar, as from June through October is the monsoon season. The country was controlled by the British in the 17th century, and there are many buildings and statues that represent that occupation. Lord Mountbatten restored a sacred relic to the country after he learned it had been pilfered and sent back to London.
We visited Yangon, Pagan, the site of almost 3,000 pagodas, teak monasteries, and gold-leafed Buddha’s. One of the pictures that accompanies this story is of a 372 foot high gold-leaf pagoda built in the 16th century, and repaired after a large earthquake did major damage in 1978.
We also were also in Mandalay and took a river boat trip on the Irrawaddy river (over 1,100 miles long), to see fisherman using the ancient method of using the almost extinct Irrawaddy river dolphins to herd fish into their nets. There are only 65 of these dolphins left in the world, and we saw at least 20 of them!
I suppose the highlight of our visit to Myanmar was at the end. We flew from Mandalay to Heho, took a van for an hour and arrived at the jetty town of Shwei Yang, and were ferried to the Inle Princess hotel set on the shore of beautiful lake Inle.
Our room was magnificent, with a terrace right over the lake (picture of the sunset was taken from that terrace). The staff at the Inle Princess was extremely well trained and catered to our every wish. Each day we rose early, had a wonderful buffet breakfast, and loaded in boats for excursions to see lacquer factories, silk workshops, fishing villages and the boat people of Myanmar.
Needless to say we loaded our suitcases with wonderful locally made products. These remarkable boat people have lived on the lake for centuries, and have prospered through the use of their wits and incredible skills at fishing and other creative industries.
After our 11 days in country we flew back to Bangkok for one night before rising early to start the long trek back to New York. Myanmar was certainly magical, but the ever-rising tide of tourists is and will continue to make the country something it was never intended to be. I’m glad we went when we did.

Gabon is arguably the most bio-diverse country in all of Africa. Just above the equator on the Atlantic Ocean, Gabon is the size of New Jersey, with a population of just over 3 million people. Since it was a French territory, almost all the people speak that language. Gabon is a very rich country, as most of the land is forest, or at least was until Omar Bongo, the former president, leased logging rights to the Chinese. Gabon also has lots of offshore oil, with rigs dotting the horizon in every direction. This does not seem to bother the hippos, who swim uninhibited in the rolling salt water waves.
A Bai, as pictured in the photographs below, is a large clearing in the forest where elephants, gorillas, monkey’s, deer and many other wild life species come to drink and socialize. There are no lions or leopards in Gabon, but that aside, wildlife abounds in numbers that are staggering to comprehend. The gorillas are lowland gorillas and smaller than their mountain brethren in Rwanda and Uganda, and the elephants are forest elephants, which are smaller than their savannah cousins.
In 2001 to 2003, Mike Fay, a Wildlife Conservation Society scientific biologist, did a mega-transact from Congo to the coast in Gabon. Mike had the world class photographer Nick Nichols, of National Geographic magazine with him on many parts of the 3,376 mile trek across central Africa, spanning 13 months in the process. Upon completing the transact, Mike met with president Bongo and showed him some of Nick’s amazing photographs. Bongo was in awe and asked, “This is my country?” Mike convinced Bongo to take away logging licenses from many of the Chinese crews, and declared 13 national parks, which are still in existence today.
Gabon is not without problems. Because of the rich natural resources, the Gabonese people have become lazy and it is difficult to motivate them to work even for good pay. Elephant poaching is a huge problem, but Mike and other stalwart people from the Wildlife Conservation Society are making real progress in quelling the poaching. Much more needs to be done, as the Chinese craving for ivory is placing these magnificent beasts in real trouble. If you drive along the mostly crude roads in Gabon, you will see the carcasses of dead a animals, or their skins. The Gabonese have a lively and profitable bush meat trade, and will kill almost anything to eat themselves or sell at market.
The problems aside, Gabon is truly a magnificent place, not easy to get to, but getting better. Rumor has it the Aman Resorts has signed a contract to build a native looking hotel in Gabon, and that will surely increase the tourist trade. This is a place to visit sooner rather than later. Once people go there, and the word spreads, it will be like going to Krueger National park in South Africa.

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Our trip started in New York on the next to last day of September. Thirteen hours to Dubai with a three hour layover and then five hours to Nairobi where we were met by private charter and flown to Siriko1, an incredibly beautiful camp on the Lewa Conservancy. Lewa was originally a 100,000 acre farm owned by the Craig family, and was turned into a wild animal conservancy by Ian Craig. Through Ian’s efforts, many endangered black and white rhino have been saved and now prosper at Lewa. This park is guarded by rangers who were former poachers, converted by Ian who demonstrated that through eco-tourism, a live animal is worth far more than a dead one. I woke the first morning, lifted my head, and out of the tent saw a small herd of elephants grazing and drinking at the water hole. They were joined by water bucks, impala, cape buffalo, wart hogs and a recued cheetah named Sheba who delighted in trying t o spook the animals. Our first night was punctuated by the sounds of rhino fighting on the lawn outside our tent, hippos grazing in the same area, and a lone leopard stalking smaller prey.
Our next camp was Sarara, set in Samburu country. The Samburu are cousins of the Masai, and our guides were all Samburu warriors and experts in spotting wild animals in the Bush. We saw “The Big Five”, lions, leopards, rhino, elephants and buffalo at Sarara, but the most special treat was dinner under the stars while we watched a family of fourteen elephants come into a clearing below to drink.
They were no more than 50 yards away, a distance that would later seem miles away compared to our next camp called Elephant Watch. This camp is run by the world famous Ian and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, who have spent the past forty years looking after and studying thousands of elephants.
They and their incredible guides have named the many different families for mountains, artists, royals and rivers, and know almost all the members of each family by name. One morning we set out with a picnic lunch at the river. When we arrived “The Royal Family” awaited us. There were at least thirty elephants, bulls, females, and young elephants suckling their mothers. They recognized the car and the guides by smell, and were not the least bit threatened by our appearance. We got out of the car, usually a big no-no when around any wild elephants, and had our lunch. As we sat there with a cool breeze in our faces, three other families passed by and went into the river to drink. On our way out of the area, one big bull came right up to my side of the car, and raised his trunk to sniff the inhabitants. His trunk came no more than six inches from my face! To say this experience was thrilling would be a gross understatement.

The Flamingo pictures were taken by Dr. William Conway, a former CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society and a world famous environmentalist/conservationis.

We ended our trip at Samatian Island, a small, beautiful place on Lake Boringa in the middle of the famous Rift Valley. Here we saw thousands upon thousands of birds, including the over three million flamingoes on a nearby lake. We saw eagles, hippos and crocodiles, and were very sad when we had to leave. In all it took us twenty-seven hours to get home. Tired, jet-lagged, but unbelievable thrilled by our experience.

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We left New York on a frigid Friday evening in January, and after a brief stopover in Paris to acclimate to the time change, we arrived in Kigali Rwanda on the eve of the Inauguration of Barack Obama. I was wearing my official Obama tee shirt and cap, and everyone at the airport and at our hotel were cheering and shouting, “Obama, Obama!”

Rwanda is a tiny country, just over 26 thousand square kilometers or half the size of Scotland. There are over 11 million people here and over 25% live in the capital, Kigali. We stayed at the Hotel Des Mille Collines, the actual hotel from the film Hotel Rwanda, the powerful film depicting the genocide in this country during 1993 and 1994. Over a million human beings were slaughtered.
We were in Rwanda to be part of a film we helped to finance about the life of George Schaller, arguably the greatest living conservation biologist on the planet. Fifty years ago George did the very first studies of the mountain gorillas, actually preceding the more widely known work of Dian Fossey. Also part of our film team was Amy Vedder, who with her husband Bill Webber started the mountain gorilla tourism program in 1979. This program has grown dramatically over thirty years and now attracts some twenty thousand visitors annually. The program employs many local people and has made tourism to Rwanda the third largest source of revenue in the country.

It is a two hour drive from Kigali to the Virungas, a chain of still active volcanoes that form the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These areas are the home of some seven hundred mountain gorillas, which are the only remaining primates of their kind in the world. On the drive, as we climbed higher into the mountains, we saw the typical agriculture of Rwanda. There are terraces from the base of the hills right to the top, in layers and tiers of different crops. We also saw many workers in dark blue shirts creating new, yet unplanted terraces. Our driver told us that these were Hutu’s who had killed Tutsi’s during the genocide, and building these terraces was part of their punishment, which also includes prison time.

Thankfully, the genocide did not affect the mountain gorilla population, and today, with their protected status, they remain healthy and productive. In fact, as I am writing this, an announcement came in over the BBC website that ten new baby gorillas have just been born in the DRC! These gorilla’s are quite habituated to humans and as curious about us as we are about them.

We stayed at the locally owned and operated Kinigi Guest Lodge located at the foot of Mt. Sabinyo, one of the active peaks and an absolutely magnificent site in the early morning light with clouds sitting above the crater like a halo above an angel’s head. We had a suite with two bathrooms, a sitting room with a phone, TV and fireplace, and a very comfortable bedroom. The staff was terrific and the food exceeded our expectations.
Our first day of seeing the gorillas started at 6 AM. We met George and Amy and the three person film crew for breakfast and discussed our plan for the day. My companion and life partner, Edith, is the Vice Chair and a trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the New York based organization that employed George and Amy when they were in Rwanda and for many years thereafter. The film was being made in partnership with National Geographic and will be shown in December of this year. We met our head tracker, guides, porters and security at the staging area and were given a complete orientation as to how we should behave while in the Park. This included a no contact whatsoever policy with the gorillas, as they are very susceptible to contracting human disease.

As we set off I thought we must have made an interesting sight: the film team, George and Amy, Edith and I, and an assortment of guides, tracker’s, porter’s and guards. We all were loaded down with filming equipment, personal camera’s, binoculars, rainwear of every type and most importantly, waterproof boots with deep cleats. The trail was up and steep and covered with thick slick mud that climbed over the top of our boots and threatened to suck them off our feet! We all had our pants tucked well down into our socks. This was to avoid the awful biting red driver ants that infest the ground in the Virunga’s.
Our head tracker said the gorillas were about a forty minute walk away, but it took us twice that time to even find their sleeping nests due to the difficulty of the terrain and the steepness of the trail. While the main group rested near the gorilla nests, the film team and the trackers went to see where the gorillas were. A half hour later they returned and said we would have to wait because the gorillas were in high bamboo, still feeding, and that the filming conditions were not good. The half hour turned into two hours, during which time it started to rain, just a mist at first, building into a torrent that had us scurrying for our rain gear and umbrella’s. It also got cold, and we got out vests and other warmer clothing. The rain stopped after an hour but we were told we still had to wait for the gorillas to move into better filming areas.

Some of us, including this writer, were becoming quite impatient, but after another fifteen minutes we were told to follow the guides. Within ten minutes we started to see the gorillas! We saw babies and juveniles first, then several females and black back males. The leader of this group of forty three individuals, the silverback male, was not in view. Mountain gorillas are the largest primates on earth. A full-grown silverback male can weigh over seven hundred pounds, and these are massively powerful creatures.. Mountain gorillas have thick black fur, prominent noses and foreheads, and keen, penetrating brown eyes that reflect the sunlight. They are strict vegetarians, eating the plethora of plants that abound in the Virunga’s. Their favorite foods are celery, bamboo shoots and other green stalks. These plants also provide all the gorillas their daily intake of fluids, as they drink almost no water. The gorillas seemed quite comfortable in our presence and very interested in what we were doing, especially when we made eye contact with them. The first young male I made eye contact with stared intently into my eyes, and I felt an immediate bond and sense of intelligence between us. It was I who broke the eye contact, and I believe the gorilla would have kept staring forever! It occurred to me that we had much to share if I had the language of the gorilla and he had mine.

The gorillas love to climb and play, and knock each other about, and their antics are quite funny to watch. We found ourselves laughing out loud many times as we enjoyed their spectacle. Since every group visiting the park is limited to one hour of actual viewing time, we were becoming anxious that we would not get to see the silverback. Within ten minutes that fear was dispelled. The silverback was gigantic! It’s head the size of four men’s heads, with hugely powerful arms, shoulders and legs. The guide said he weighed almost eight hundred pounds and stood head and shoulders above all the other gorillas. He was busy pulling down large bamboo trees and stripping the shoots, continuously feeding himself. Every now and again he would look at us, unperturbed, and then go back to eating. As we were frantically taking pictures and the field team getting every angle they could, several females started crossing between us and the silverback. They had small babies on their backs and they stopped just before they were about to come abreast of the silverback. He glanced down, looked back up, and the females went on by, apparently with the blessing of their Lord and Master.
Our hour was up and we began the long, muddy trek out of the forest. When we rejoined our porters and collected our gear, I took a look back at where we had seen the gorillas and found that tears were leaking from my eyes. It was a lifetime moment, a chance that few will ever have. I kept thinking about the gorillas as we slogged through the mud and the stinging nettle plants, I thanked my lucky stars that we had turned down an invitation to Obama’s Inauguration and come to beautiful Rwanda instead.

“Pantanal” in Portuguese means “the huge swamp,” and huge it is, at half the size of California, the largest wetland in the world. In the rainy season, from December to May, the terrain is mostly under water. But if you plan your visit for the second half of the year, you’ll find that the area, while still quite wet in places, is largely navigable and absolutely beautiful. Edith and I felt as though we were one of the early explorers blazing a new trail into unknown territory.

Our Pantanal adventure began in Cuiaba, where we met our trip guide and close friend, Dr. Charles Munn. Charlie is the head of Tropical Nature, a non-profit ecotourism NGO operating lodges throughout Peru and Brazil. From the airport, we drove to his lodge in the heart of the Northern Pantanal, traversing the Transpantaneira highway, a dirt road stretching 90 miles South to Porto Jofre.
Along the way we saw more than 5,000 large birds of at least 50 different species, including five-foot-tall jabiru storks, savannah hawks, snowy egrets, and roseate spoonbills. The Pantanal is home to 80 species of large birds (those weighing more than a pound)-the greatest variety of large birds of any place in the world! The journey also afforded views of hundreds of black caimans, the South American relative of the alligator, and capybaras, the largest rodent in the world and a relative of the guinea pig.

When we arrived at Santa Terazza Lodge we stowed our bags and boarded a small boat for a trip down the Pixaim River to see the giant river otter. These creatures are related to our American otters but grow to seven feet long and weigh up to 80 pounds! On the way to an otter den we observed hawks diving and catching piranhas in their talons, performing their aerial feats in split seconds-making capturing them with our cameras equally challenging. Around a bend in the river, a family of 12 otters bobbed their heads in and out of the water, waiting for us to throw them pieces of piranha. They didn’t hesitate to come right up to the boat so they could eat the fish off an oar blade! Finally, the sun began to set, and as the otters retreated home to their den, we did the same.
On our third day we headed south to Porto Jofre at the confluence of the Cuiabá and Piquiri Rivers. We had come to catch a glimpse of the most elusive Pantanal animal…the jaguar. For two chilly days out on the water, we searched for the iconic cat, but it wasn’t until we were about to head back and give up on our quest that Charlie turned down one last bend of the Piquiri, and we finally spotted him. There, on a beach at the edge of the jungle, the jaguar was lazily sunning himself. As our boat drifted closer to the beach, the cat let us get within 25 yards before he disappeared into the brush, having decided we had seen enough. We returned to camp triumphantly, with many stories to share of this enchanting land and its exceptional wildlife.





WCS in the Pantanal

Ecotourism is a major economic benefit for the Pantanal, creating an alternative, sustainable source of income to the region’s predominant activity, cattle ranching. While the land is largely pristine and intact, over past decades, a number of factors have contributed to its economic decline and increased conflicts between humans and wildlife. Jaguar predation on livestock remains a major source of tension in the region. WCS is working to engage, train, and empower local stakeholders, especially ranchers, to adopt better management practices. Our aim is to integrate socioeconomic development and wildlife conservation in the Pantanal using site-based, applied research. This is part of a regional strategy for wildlife conservation in rangeland habitats.

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Karen Blixen (Isak Dinseen – “Out Of Africa”) describes an experience which must have been excruciatingly painful for her. Once you go into Equatorial East Africa the experience is permanently etched into your brain. I had the extraordinary opportunity to visit Tanzania and Kenya for three weeks in late 2004 and early 2005, and the experience exceeded my wildest expectations.

I had wondered why the U.S. Sate Department issued a warning to Americans not to visit Kenya. After spending three days in Nairobi the answer was clear. The U.S. Navy had asked the Kenyan Government for permission to build a large base in northeastern Kenya, and the Kenyans had rightly refused saying, “if you build a base here, the terrorists will come to Kenya like they did to Iraq.” Our Bush-led government responded by slapping a State Department warning against travel there, almost halving tourism, Kenya’s largest industry.
East Africa is arguably the most beautiful, bio -diverse place I have ever seen.water buffalo, tanzania, kenya, africa Kenya has banned hunting countrywide, and has dedicated hundreds of thousands of acres to protecting their abundant wildlife. There are areas where animals have not been hunted since 1970, and the animals do not fear man. From our Land Cruiser, we were able to get as close as five yards to rhinos, lions and elephants, buffalo and giraffes. My group rode camels and horses which enabled us to get even closer.

We were able to visit authentic Masai and Samburo tribal villages where women were in the process of changing hundreds of years of cultural degradation by entering the business world, then using the profits to pay for school teachers, books and pencils so their children could attend school. We heard the children singing in English and Swahili and were moved by the happiness and hope we saw everywhere we went.
We arose at six each morning, and our days ended with what the locals call “Sundowners”, a hike or drive to the top of a hill to watch the sunset over the African Plain while sipping our favorite cocktails. The sun sets in Africa are truly spectacular. The colors are vivid reds, oranges, yellows and lilacs, like a palette of impressionist
paints intertwined with the deep purple mountains all around us. After dinner we were in bed by ten, listening to the sounds of lions, leopards and hippos all around our camp as we were nodding off.
We were taken on darting trips to save a rare Grevy Zebra, and a sick elephant in the north of Kenya. We watched as brave scientists and conservationists risked life and limb getting close enough to bull elephants to fire darts that would enable them to administer antibiotics into their thick skins. We flew, drove and trekked through the thickest bush, in the most remote places we have ever been, and were elated by the effort and the results.
My traveling companion unfortunately broke her wrist crossing a small stream while we were searching for Jane Goodall’s chimps in Mahale, on the edge of Lake Tanganika, but our guides flew us out and got us to Nairobi where we were able to get excellent care at the Aga Kahn Hospital. We did manage to see the chimps before we left and while a broken wrist was a high price to pay, the experience was amazing. The animals walked right up to us, sat down and acted as though they wanted to talk!
Of all our experiences the most memorable came on our next to last night. Until then theonly animal we had not seen was a leopard. I awoke at three in the morning to the sound of a saw cutting through wood, exactly the sound a leopard makes when stalking prey. At five that morning there was a loud knock on our door and a hushed voice saying, “Come quick.” Not a hundred yards away there was a leopard in a tree with a dead gazelle! I felt a mixture of unadulterated excitement mixed with a sadness only a New Yorker who had never been to Africa could experience.

We went into Africa with high expectations of seeing “The Big Five”, and left with memories of people, wildlife, landscapes and conservation efforts that will last a lifetime. There are still serious problems in the Dark Continent, not the least of which is AIDS, which has all but killed off an entire generation there. Poaching exists becausethere are people in Japan, India and the U.S. who will pay exorbitant prices for ivory and rhino horns. The Kenya Wildlife Service has orders to shoot to kill armed poachers, and this tactic is reducing the numbers of poachers there.

Three weeks was barely enough to scratch the surface and we have vowed to return when we can. We made many new friends and better understand the commitment and passion of these people. Going “Out Of Africa” was difficult, but the experience there was exhilarating.