Monday, October 31, 2011

Run like an antelope

Thomson's gazelle (Gazella rufifrons) in Ngorongoro Conservation Area,
Tanzania. Look at all those flamingos in the background! What a life, to
run around free and enjoy the birds, without a care, except for lions,
cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas, of course.

The name antelope refers to a wide variety of mammals. Although antelopes are extremely diverse, they all share some basic characteristics.

White-bearded gnu (a subspecies of blue wildebeest (Connochaetes 
taurinus albojubatus) in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania.

Antelopes are even-toed, hoofed mammals. They share this foot morphology with hippopotamuses, warthogs, giraffes, and deer, but none of those are "antelope."

Female eland (Taurotragus oryx) in Akagera National Park, Rwanda.

Antelope are classified in the family "Bovidae" along with cattle (buffalo) and sheep. Something that distinguishes the Bovids from other even-toed, hoofed mammals is that Bovids have horns.

Kongoni (hartebeest) (Alcelaphus buselaphus cokei) in Serengeti 
National Park, Tanzania.

Topi (Damaliscus lunatus) in Akagera National Park, Rwanda.

Antelope have horns, not antlers. Deer, for example, are not antelope. If you think about the common white-tailed deer, you may remember the male has antlers. His antlers branch; horns of Bovids do not branch. Additionally, antlers are shed each year and then regrown. Horns are permanent and do not shed.

Female waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) in Akagera National Park, 

Most antelope species also exhibit sexual dimorphism. Sizes, coloration patterns, and the presence of horns may differ between the males and females depending on the species. Adult males of all antelope always have horns, but some females have them too. Male and female elands, for example, both have horns but differ in their shade of brown and how much hair they have on their necks. Male impala have horns but females do not (males and females also differ in size but otherwise look the same).

Bush duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia) in Arusha National Park, Tanzania.

Kirk’s dikdik (Madoqua kirkii thomasi) in Tarangire National Park, 

Antelope vary greatly in size. Eland males can weigh nearly 950 kilograms whereas Kirk's dikdik reaches just 7 kilograms. Some dikdik species are even smaller (2-3 kilograms).

Bohor reedbuck (Redunca redunca) in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Some antelope species live in large herds, such as wildebeest and impala, but others like duikers live alone or in small groups. In some species, like waterbuck and gazelles, in the breeding season, the males split apart from herds and defend a territory. 

Impala  (Aepyceros melampus) in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Uganda Kob (Kobus kob thomasi) in Murchison Falls National Park,

All antelope are grazers. What they graze upon depends on their habitat. Antelope inhabit ecosystems from desert to grasslands to dense rainforests. They eat plants and serve as the link in the food chain between the sun and the predators.

Male bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus) in Akagera National Park, Rwanda

Big antelope are preyed upon by lions, cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas, but smaller antelope are eaten by a wide variety of predators. Life as an antelope is a life on the move, in search of food and avoiding being the food. Run antelope run!

Works consulted
  • Gomez, W., T. Patterson, J. Swinton and J. Berini. 2011. "Bovidae" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed October 31, 2011 at
  • Kingdon, Jonathan. The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Myers, P., R. Espinosa, C. S. Parr, T. Jones, G. S. Hammond, and T. A. Dewey. "Horns and Antlers." 2006. The Animal Diversity Web (online). Accessed October 31, 2011 at
  • "Mammals: Antelope." 2011. Zoological Society of San Diego. Accessed October 30, 2011 at

Sunday, October 30, 2011

If truffula trees were real...

I am not sure Dr. Seuss visited Africa before writing and illustrating The Lorax, but if he had, he would have seen his fictional truffula trees. The umuko, as it is called in Kinyarwanda, or Erythrina abyssinica, lights up the hillsides of Rwanda.

Umuko trees are native to Rwanda; they are a widespread species throughout savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. I have noticed that the flowers often appear after leaves have fallen from that branch (and before new leaves emerge).

Umuko flowers are pollinated by nectar-seeking birds like the bronzy sunbird (Nectarinia kilimensis) (center in the above picture).

Pollinated umuko flowers produce seedpods that eventually pop open to reveal the seeds. 

The seeds are spread by fruit-eating birds.

The umuko branches and trunk have thorns (amotwa in Kinyarwanda). When the tree grows large enough (up to 15 meters tall), they provide excellent shade for people, livestock, and even coffee trees.

Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village has more than 30 umuko trees throughout our property. The largest individual is the nature park, and another 20 small umuko trees can be found inside Parike Y'Umutungo Kamere W'Agahozo. Students work to clear invasive Lantana inside the park so that native trees like umuko can thrive. After all, truffula, I mean UMUKO trees "are what everyone needs!"

Works consulted:
  • Dr. Seuss. The Lorax. Random House, 1971.
  • "Erythrina abyssinica." AgroForestryTree Database. World Agroforestry Center. Accessed October 31, 2011 at

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Beauty Pageant

Some birds just show it off. A group of seedeaters called Estrildids are small but especially attractive. Even the duller species have their flair. Let's take a look.

Male green-winged pytilia (Pytilia melba) at Agahozo-Shalom Youth
Village, Rwanda

Be sure to vote for your favorite estrildid in the comments section.

Female green-winged pytilia (Pytilia melba) at Agahozo-Shalom Youth
Village, Rwanda

Male red-cheeked cordon-bleu (Uraeginthus bengalus) at
Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda

Estrildids are little birds. All of the estrildids range from 9cm to 14 cm (3.5-5.5 inches) in length.

Female red-cheeked cordon-bleu (Uraeginthus bengalus) at
Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda

Male purple grenadier (Uraeginthus ianthinogaster) in northeastern
Tanzania. The female lacks the purple on the breast and belly, but
is as attractive with a purple-white eye mask and rich brown-white
striping on the belly.

Male red-billed firefinch (Lagonosticta senegala) at Agahozo-Shalom
Youth Village, Rwanda.

Female red-billed firefinch (Lagonosticta senegala) at Agahozo-Shalom
Youth Village, Rwanda. Note the red spot in between the eye and
the bill and the white spots on the belly. She's a cutie!!

Yellow-bellied waxbills (Estrilda quartinia) in vegetation on the shore
of Lake Kivu, Rwanda.

Black-crowned waxbill (Estrilda nonnula) in vegetation near the shore
of Lake Kivu, Rwanda

Common waxbill (Estrilda astrild) in swamp vegetation near Lake
Mugesera, Rwanda

Fawn-breasted waxbill (Estrilda paludicola) at Agahozo-Shalom
Youth Village, Rwanda.

Crimson-rumped waxbills (Estrilda rhodopyga) at Agahozo-Shalom
Youth Village, Rwanda

Grey-headed silverbill (Lonchura griseicapilla) at Tarangire
National Park, Tanzania.

African silverbill (Lonchura cantans) in northeastern Tanzania.

Bronze mannakin (Lonchura cucullata) at Agahozo-Shalom Youth
Village, Rwanda. 

I never managed to get a picture of the red-headed bluebill (only saw it six times between Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda) or Peter's twinspot (seen once in Tanzania) but they would surely compete for the most spectacular estrildid in East Africa. Other esrtildids we saw include white-breasted nigrita, grey-headed nigrita, African firefinch, black-faced waxbill, black-headed waxbill, African quailfinch, cutthroat finch, black-and-white mannakin, and red-backed mannakin.

Shelley's Crimsonwing might have won it all, but I never got a glimpse of the bird. If you don't show up, you aren't in the pageant. Sorry, birdies, show up next time I look for you! We missed out on all the crimsonwings thus far, and we missed out on a few other neat twinspots and the white-collared oliveback. It's hard to see them all.

Please, comment below on your favorite estrildid. The winner gets a 2 centimeter tiara.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Saturday Service and the spirit of umuganda

You won't find a business open or a bus running from 7 am to noon on the last Saturday of the month in Rwanda. Instead, you will find nearly every citizen over 18 engaged in the community service program called "umuganda."

Agahozo students pose with the litter they cleaned up at a Saturday
Service event.

At Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, we practice umuganda in a slightly different way. Every Saturday (and on Sunday for 7th Day Adventists), students participate in village-wide community service projects. One of my roles here this past year has been to coordinate these "Saturday Service" events.

ASYV students help clear the perimeter road around our village.

Students take action on the farm, in the kitchen, in special village projects, and at their homes. On the farm, for example, students prepare soil with pitchforks and hoes, assist with milking the cows, weed vegetable plots, or plant seeds. In the kitchen, students peel vegetables, wash dishes, or clean the dining room. When assigned to their homes, students maintain the yards, clean windows, and pull plants from the edges of the dirt roads. Village projects include planting trees, picking up litter, removing invasive species in the nature park, and cleaning the school.

ASYV students clean the school on a Saturday morning.

Activities around Rwanda are not dissimilar, with people often cleaning roads, assisting those less able with agricultural work, or beautifying an area. Participating in umuganda is mandatory (small fines can be levied for truancy); thus, it does not technically qualify as volunteering. Still, a population uniting in community service is powerful.

ASYV students chop and peel carrots in the kitchen.

There are about five million people over the age of 18 in Rwanda. Can you imagine what that force accomplishes, even just one half-day a month?

A classroom that had been used as a dumping room needed to be cleaned
for current use and next year's incoming class of students.

One Saturday morning, ASYV students transformed it into a place
 ready for study!

We have 375 students who participate for two hours (most on Saturday, with Adventists on Sunday) every week at Agahozo. In the twenty Saturday Service events I have coordinated, students have helped the village move forward by providing some 15,000 hours of service.

Students plant trees at Agahozo on a Saturday morning.

With a spirit of community, Rwandans are building their future.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Zebras, rhinos, and giraffes oh my! A mammal extravaganza

Common zebra (Equus quagga) in Ngorongoro Conservation Area,

There are roughly 5,000 mammal species on Planet Earth. Some extraordinary species inhabit East Africa. Enjoy them!

Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) in Ngorongoro Conservation Area,

All mammals exhibit three basic characteristics. All mammals have three middle ear bones that help transmit vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear. All mammals have hair at some point in their lives. All female mammals produce milk from mammary glands (modified sweat glands) to nourish their offspring. 

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Serengeti National Park,

After those three standards, although there are other shared characteristics, the forms of mammals are very diverse. From mice to elephants (and whales if you really want to go big), mammals vary in size. From giraffes to bats, mammals vary in body shape and method of locomotion. From squirrels to lions, they differ in what they eat and how they get.

A species of zebra mouse, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda

Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

For more about mammals, see the previous posts “Happy Mother’s Day” (about mothers and nursing their young), “Big cats and the endless plains of the Serengeti,” “Abirthday with gorillas,” and “Monkeying around.” Look forward to “Run like an antelope,” an upcoming post about the many antelope of East Africa. 

A species of fruit bats, in trees on the shore of Lake Kivu, Rwanda

Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) in Tarangire National Park,

Black-necked rock hyrax (Procavia johnstoni) in Serengeti National
Park, Tanzania

Brindled gnu (blue wildebeest) (Connochaetes taurinus) (left) and
golden jackal (Canis aureus) in Ngorongoro Conservation Area,

Boehm's squirrel (Paraxerus boehmi) in Mabira Forest Reserve, Uganda

A young African lion (Panthera leo) in Ngorongoro Conservation
Area, Tanzania

Works Consulted
Wund, M. and P. Myers. 2005. "Mammalia" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed October 26, 2011