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Imagine, Joshua Tree National Park, without a single Joshua tree…

December 12, 2016

Known for its iconic namesake the Joshua tree — Yucca brevifolia, which isn’t even a tree, but a member of the Yucca family — this Joshua Tree National Park has much to offer the visitor including hiking, wildflower and wildlife viewing, world-class rock climbing, and more.

Recent growth has been pretty significant, with visitation growing from 1,589,904 in 2014 to 2,025,756 in 2015 — an increase of more than 27% in a single year. With increased visitation, economic and environmental impacts come hand in hand, including traffic, graffiti, destruction of historic resources, mortality of desert bighorn sheep due to the proximity of domestic livestock, the spread of invasive species, and damage to fragile cryptobiotic soils. But perhaps the most pressing ecological issue is climate change, and how it is projected to fundamentally change Joshua Tree National Park.


Lone Joshua tree near Geology Tour Road in Joshua Tree National Park, April 2016. Photograph by Matt Artz.

Many people associate Joshua trees with the iconic 1987 U2 album, The Joshua Tree. The famous Joshua tree that was featured on the back of the album cover was located about 100 miles from Joshua Tree National Park, and died in the year 2000 (although the site where it stood is still popular with fans of the band and the album). Joshua trees are in fact found across a wide area of the Mojave Desert between an elevation of about 1,300 to 5,900 feet. In fact, the world’s most dense Joshua tree forests are not even located within the borders of Joshua Tree National Park, but are found in the nearby Mojave National Preserve.

If deserts are known for one thing, it’s heat. But thanks to climate change, many of the world’s deserts are getting even hotter — specifically the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, parts of which are protected within the borders of Joshua Tree National Park. And climate change is threatening the very namesake of the park — not with extinction necessarily, but certainly with migration. According to some climate models, Joshua trees could be gone from 90 percent of their current range by the year 2100, including complete elimination from Joshua Tree National Park.

Can there still be a Joshua Tree National Park without the iconic Joshua tree?


Going, going, … almost gone? Dying Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park, April 2016. Photograph by Matt Artz.

As sad as such an outcome would be, the answer is: yes. Just as the Joshua trees would hopefully slowly migrate to a more favorable climate, other species could migrate into the park and make it their new home. And many of the park’s other attractions — rock climbing, hiking, sightseeing, etc. — would still be available for tourists.

Millions of people would continue to visit the park for various reasons, but at a certain point in time, when those who remembered how it used to be have long passed from this earth, the ubiquitous question will be:

“Why do they call it Joshua Tree National Park?”

And as much as I would hate to see my beloved Joshua Tree National Park become a monument to man’s environmental hubris, it could become one of our most powerful tools in educating our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, and subsequent generations about the importance of living sustainably and protecting the environment.

The Power of a Single Image

November 20, 2015

By Matt Artz

It’s one of the most frequently reproduced and instantly recognizable photographs in history. The US Postal Service used the image on a stamp. Time magazine featured it on the cover. It was—and still is—“the most influential environmental photograph ever taken,” according to acclaimed nature photographer Galen Rowell.

In the run-up to the Apollo moon landings, Apollo 8 was the first mission to put humans in to lunar orbit. And on Christmas Eve, 1968, coming around from the far side of the moon during their fourth orbit, Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman exclaimed “Oh my God, look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up! Wow, that is pretty!” Fellow astronaut Bill Anders grabbed his Hasselblad camera and shot this now-famous image of earth rising above the moon.


“Earthrise,” a photograph taken from lunar orbit by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on December 24, 1968. Image Credit: NASA / Bill Anders.

In his book Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth, historian Robert Poole suggests that this single image marked the beginning of the environmental movement, saying that “it is possible to see that Earthrise marked the tipping point, the moment when the sense of the space age flipped from what it meant for space to what it means for Earth.”

The power of imagery can be neatly summed up in the story of this single photograph. Images can help us to better understand our planet, drive change, create connections—and in some cases can even start a movement.

Rhino Troubles

July 26, 2013

I was dying to get to Botswana, to help out with the conservation research work being done in the Tuli Wilderness, and even more so to just immerse myself once again in the African landscape and lifestyle.  But to get there I first had to go through South Africa, my old stomping ground.

On the way to Botswana, I had to make an overnight stop in the town of Polokwane, South Africa to wait for my ride.  I decided to add an extra day or two there, to see a little bit of a part of South Africa that I had never seen before—and to experience an Africa completely different than the Africa I would be getting in the Tuli Wilderness.

There were only three flights a day from Johannesburg to Polokwane, the first arriving at about 11 a.m. and the last arriving at about 5 p.m.  Since my ride up to Botswana was picking me up at the airport at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning, this meant I had to arrive in Polokwane on Tuesday and spend one night there.

After thinking about it, I decided to arrive in Polokwane on Monday afternoon, and spend two nights there before departing for Botswana.  This would give me time to rest, relax, acclimatize, and adjust to the time change.

Rest.  Relax.  Adjust.  It was a great idea.  Then I started looking at a map.

Only a few miles away from my hotel was the Polokwane Game Reserve.  Sandwiched between almost every kind of development imaginable, it was a wild island in the midst of modern chaos, like a jewel of nature carved out of the suburban jungle.

I made reservations to take a guided safari tour there on Tuesday.  Polokwane Game Reserve versus the Tuli Wilderness would be the ultimate contrast, and my return to Africa would be a tale of two game reserves: one fenced, one free; one managed, one wild; one mostly modern, one almost primeval; Polokwane versus Tuli.

Flying in to Polokwane, South Africa.

Flying in to Polokwane, South Africa.

Walking across the tarmac and into the Polokwane Airport, I was instantly struck with how modern, clean, well designed, and just plain nice the facility was.  I could have been standing in almost any small, ultra-modern airport in the world.  Driving out of the airport towards my hotel, I was immediately reminded that I was in Africa.  There were numerous haphazard wooden shacks set up on the side of the road—some even in the center divider—selling food.  Surrounded by stacks of firewood, many were cooking potjie, a South African stew, in cast iron pots over open fires, the thick smoke rising from the fires.  They were selling cheap, ready-made meals to the working poor.  This was the Polokwane fast food district.

A lot had changed in my 35 year absence from southern Africa, but there was much more that was immediately familiar.

I was back.


Situated on the Great North Road to Zimbabwe, Polokwane is in the heart of South Africa’s Limpopo Province.  Formerly known as Pietersburg, the town was renamed Polokwane after the fall of apartheid, when many geographic names with a colonial history were changed.

Today, Polokwane is the capital of the Limpopo province and boasts a bustling population of more than half a million people.  When South Africa hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it literally put Polokwane on the map: Peter Mokaba Stadium was built in Polokwane to host part of the tournament, one of five new stadiums built across the country to support the World Cup.

Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane, South Africa.

Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane, South Africa.

Before the Peter Mokaba Stadium came to town, the primary attraction in Polokwane was the Polokwane Game Reserve.  Owned and operated by the provincial governing authority of the Limpopo province, it is one of the largest municipal game reserves in South Africa.  Featuring a beautiful mix of grassland, acacia woodland, rocky outcrops, and open savannah, it is a completely fenced, carefully managed game sanctuary.  It preserves one of the only remaining examples of the Pietersburg Plateau false grassland, a localized ecotone that is home to a number of rare birds and plants.  The carefully selected combination of animal species in the reserve were free to roam anywhere they wanted on its 13 square miles of territory, but no further.

Compared to the Tuli Wilderness, the Polokwane Game Reserve is not a wild place; with no predators present on the property, it is a heavily managed, almost manufactured big game experience.  But that’s not to say it has no value.  It plays a vital role in conservation, preservation, and education.

The Polokwane Game Reserve was the polar opposite of what I would be walking in to in the Tuli Wilderness less than 24 hours later.  But for many people living in modern Africa, it was as close as they were going to get to real, wild Africa; Polokwane Game Reserve was the New Wild.

For me, it would be my only chance to see a rhinoceros in the wild on this trip.


Lisa, my guide for the day in the Polokwane Game Reserve, picked me up at my hotel a little after 8 a.m.  We drove in her pickup truck to a location just outside of the reserve where we switched into her Land Rover.  I was the only one on the tour with her that day.  “I normally don’t do tours for less than six people,” she said.  “But you booked so far in advance, I decided to go ahead and take you.”  And just like that, for less than the price of  a tank of gas back home, my simple little group safari had become a totally private tour.

The drive through the streets of Polokwane brought back so many memories of my youth…there’s just something about driving around South Africa; it has a unique feel to it that’s just impossible to describe.  Or maybe it’s just unique to me because I lived there at a formative time of my life.

We drove by the massive new Peter Mokaba Stadium.  It was stunning, but it seemed like such a waste—similar to the Olympics, where a country spends a lot of money they can’t really afford on massive sporting infrastructure improvements to impress the world, then when the event is over most of the new infrastructure falls into disuse and becomes a blight on the community.  I wondered if this massive new stadium, plopped down seemingly in the middle of nowhere, ever got used now that the World Cup had come and gone.

The entrance to Polokwane Game Reserve, South Africa.

The entrance to Polokwane Game Reserve, South Africa.

Upon entering Polokwane Game Reserve, the first wildlife we saw was an ostrich. Soon after, it became quickly apparent to me that Lisa has a lot going on.  In addition to guiding safaris in her Land Rover, she has 23 horses and takes people on horseback riding safaris and tours; she also stables horses for other people; she has at least one rental unit in town; she runs a custom clothing business; she helps her husband with his environmental consulting business; and who knows what else.  She was a true entrepreneur.

I was amazed at how Lisa was able to drive her Land Rover down rutted dirt roads with one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand on her Blackberry, scanning the bush for wildlife while talking, texting, checking her emails, or surfing the web on her smart phone.  She’s what I would call a hustler, but in no derogatory sense of the word; she was scratching out an existence here and there, doing this and that, all to make ends meet.  And rich or poor, white or black, urban or rural, I increasingly got the sense that this was the way that most people here survived; that in modern Africa, most everyone was a hustler.  At least the successful ones were.

Partway through our mini safari, Lisa stopped the vehicle in front of a large, beautiful tree with two huge male kudu standing underneath it.  But the kudu were just a coincidence—it was the tree she had stopped to tell me about.

Male kudu under a marula tree in Polokwane Game Reserve, South Africa.

Male kudu under a marula tree in Polokwane Game Reserve, South Africa.

It was a marula tree, which produces a fruit little-known outside of South Africa that is used to make a wonderful, creamy liquor called Amarula.  The seeds of the fruit are also ground up and release an oil that is used for beauty products.  But I actually heard very little of what she was saying, as I was completely overcome by an amazing fragrant smell wafting through my nostrils.

“That smell,” I interrupted her, “…is that the marula tree?”

“No,” she said, “I think what you’re smelling is Salvia africana-caerulea.”

She jumped out and broke a small branch off of a nearby bush and handed it to me.

“Is that what you smelled?”

Yes, it was.  It was South African sage.  It was unlike the coastal sage, mountain sage, Mexican sage, and other sages I was so used to in California.  This had a completely different smell to it.  It took me a few minutes to realize, but I completely recognized the smell and it began to trigger memories of my adolescence in South Africa.  It was something I had experienced in my wanderings through the bush in the vacant lots and other open spaces near where we used to live.  It’s amazing how something as innocuous as a small sprig of leaves and flowers from a bush can almost instantly transport the mind back in time some 35 years…


Lisa was a big proponent of what I like to call “managed ecosystems,” the Polokwane Game Reserve being a perfect example.  Because the animals are protected (from humans, as well as from natural predators—there were no carnivores in the reserve), from time to time it becomes necessary to cull the herds in order to keep the population of animals at a sustainable level.  In the Polokwane Game Reserve, instead of (directly) killing animals, their preferred method of management involves capturing surplus animals and legally selling them at auction.  The animals are then purchased for relocation to private farms or game reserves, some of which may allow hunting, as well as for public game reserves and parks, zoos, etc.

I told Lisa about my upcoming trip to Botswana, and she was very familiar with the Tuli Block and the Northern Tuli Game Reserve.  Five or six years prior, she had worked in the eastern section of the Tuli block, where the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers converge and where the borders of Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa meet.  She also leads safaris up there from time to time, and had just returned from one about three weeks earlier.  She spoke of the extensive damage there from the recent floods, the most devastating of which may have been the removal of the topsoil from the landscape, as well as the destruction of much of the mature tree canopy along the Limpopo River corridor.

Lisa, my guide for the day, driving me through Polokwane Game Reserve, South Africa.

Lisa, my guide for the day, driving me through Polokwane Game Reserve, South Africa.

She went on at length about the elephant “problem” in the Tuli, and said that going back now, even after just five or six years, the change was dramatic—the Tuli area had become much more desolate looking, almost like a desert in spots, because of the elephants destroying the mopane trees.  I asked her what had caused the dramatic increase in the elephant population in recent years—was it due to the lack of predation caused by the elimination of many of the predators in the area?  She replied that carnivores really don’t predate on elephants, except maybe on the very young or the very weak; no, the elephant population was not actually increasing, it was just that increased development throughout southern Africa meant that there was less natural area for them to forage for food.  Their historic range has been heavily compromised by the encroachment of man.  To make matters worse, in a move to establish a large trans-boundary park/reserve system, fences have been removed, which brings more elephants from the outside into the area.

Lisa is what I like to call a “true” environmentalist; like me, she believes that sometimes unpopular solutions are the best answer to vexing environmental problems.  For example, sometimes you need to kill wild animals to help preserve a wild ecosystem live.  She talked about how many so-called environmentalists want to protect and save animals at any cost, no matter how impractical, or how in the long term it very well could result in destroying an entire ecosystem.

In addition to the direct ecosystem benefits of culling, we also talked about more benefits to the local community.  If carefully managed and controlled hunting is allowed in the form of culling, it can actually be an economic boon to the local community.  The skin of the animal can be used to make clothing and shelter and for a variety of other purposes; the meat can be used to feed poor people; and in the case of elephants, you could even sell the ivory (if it wasn’t illegal) and pour all of that money back in to the local community.  Lisa’s views were certain to be unpopular with the majority of people who refer to themselves as “environmentalists.”


Because of its proximity to such a large urban population, I asked Lisa if poaching was a problem in the Polokwane Game Reserve.  She told me a story about how a few months earlier she had been leading a safari through the reserve on horseback when they came across a female rhinoceros with a tranquilizer dart stuck in her hind quarters.  The dart had not fully penetrated the skin, so the tranquilizer had not taken effect.  Lisa immediately used her cell phone to call the local authorities, who immediately sent out helicopters to search for the poachers.  They never found the poachers, but a week or two later they found the carcass of a male rhino in the reserve that had been poached for its horn.

A zebra in Polokwane Game Reserve, South Africa.

A zebra in Polokwane Game Reserve, South Africa.

Before that incident, the rhinoceros population in the Polokwane Game Reserve had been 15; it was now down to 14.  And, she told me, the day before our safari, in a different reserve about 30 miles west of Polokwane, authorities had found two more poached rhinos.  The killing of rhinos for their horns has always been a problem in southern Africa, but in the last year or two it had escalated and was now reaching a level which was unimaginable.

She said that arresting one poacher is not the answer to the poaching problem; as soon as you arrest one, there are 5,000 more waiting in line to take his place.  She sees the mafia as the real problem, and the solution is taking down the organized crime kingpins, not the individual poachers.

I disagree.  I think the real problem is poverty, which is why people kill rhinos for their horns.  As Jane Goodall says in her TACARE program, “to take care of the animals, you must first take care of the people.” If the people are not taken care of, they are going to use any method possible to take care of themselves—even if that means poaching an endangered animal

After giving me some rough estimates of what various species of game animals would sell for at a legal auction, Lisa noted that the value of a rhino is next to nothing because they are such a huge liability to own.  She sees legalizing the sale of rhinoceros horns to be a solution—taking them off of the black market and instead regulating the legal sale of the horns so that there is a financial incentive for ranchers to buy and breed rhinos, and to harvest their horns without killing the animals.

In general I agree with this idea, but would take it even further than that: using genetic engineering techniques, we should work to isolate the DNA for rhinoceros horn, and then create a hybrid rhino/cow that can be raised for milk and when it is mature can be slaughtered for its meat and horn—and then watch how quickly the world market for rhino horn collapses.  While we’re at it, let’s also isolate the DNA for elephant ivory as well, and then create a hybrid cow with rhino horns and elephant tusks. It’s an idea that may seem radical to some, but it’s an idea whose time has come.

While we were driving around the reserve, Lisa pointed out a strange tree that I had never seen nor heard of before.  There are many species of aloe native to South Africa, the most familiar to inhabitants of the rest of the world being aloe vera, but the “tree aloe” (aloe barberae) grows to a height of 30 feet or more and looks like a palm tree, except that at the top where you would expect to see palm fronds, there is an aloe plant.  The aloe trees of Polokwane Game Reserve are all mature, nearing the end of their natural life cycle, and no young ones are sprouting to take their place.  Lisa’s theory is that the seeds were transported to the area and planted by the local inhabitants about 300 to 400 years ago, because you only find these plants in areas where there is also evidence of pre-colonial habitation.


Polokwane Game Reserve is completely boxed in by human land uses.  It’s surrounded by a silica mine, a platinum smelting plant, coal mining, rock quarrying, residential housing, and agricultural and other land uses.  And as South Africa increasingly becomes a player in the global economy, these types of activities are increasing at an alarming rate, with little or no government planning, regulation, or oversight.

Giraffe in Polokwane Game Reserve, South Africa.

Giraffe in Polokwane Game Reserve, South Africa.

Near the end of our suburban safari, Lisa stopped the Land Rover and said we would finish by taking a hike up a nearby kopjie (an Afrikaans term for a hill covered with rocks).  We walked through the remnants of stone walls and a large hut circle constructed by the Bushmen who lived here 300 to 400 years ago, and she said that little is known about these archaeological sites because no research or study of them has been done.

We walked along the trail towards the top of the hill, looking for animals, when I smelled smoke and saw movement out of the corner of my eye in the bush off to the right.  It was a person, who looked like he was barbecuing and having a picnic.  As we approached, I realized that this was in fact our lunch!  Even though I was the only one on her safari that day, Lisa had still gone through the trouble of having her assistant come out hours earlier to start a fire and cook us a meal.

She introduced me to her assistant, Joffrey, who had prepared a delicious meal of brown rice, Malay chicken curry, carrots, green beans, and butternut squash over the open fire.  We also ate a salad made from fresh vegetables Lisa had grown in her garden, some fresh bread, and cheese.  We sat down to an elegant lunch in the bush, the midday heat cut to a manageable level by the large shade trees we sat under.  Dessert was a delicious lemon tart that Lisa had made from scratch.

Over lunch I got to know Joffrey a little better.  Joffrey was nearing the end of a 3-month internship working for Lisa, sponsored by the local college where he was studying tourism. After working with Lisa, he was now interested in continuing with his studies and focusing on conservation biology.  He was a very nice, smart young man, and an excellent chef.  I believe he has a great future in tourism, wildlife management, or whatever he ultimately chooses.  He represents much of the future of Africa.

On our short trek back to the Land Rover, Lisa pointed out an aardvark den in the middle of the trail, but the aardvark was nowhere to be seen as they are usually only active at night.

As the day progressed, it got increasingly hot under the harsh African sun.  The only thing that made it bearable was an occasional breeze, and the canvas canopy over the top of Lisa’s open Land Rover.  Most of the animals were hiding in the shade themselves now, so by the end of our safari we were seeing almost nothing.

Wildebeest in Polokwane Game Reserve, South Africa.

Wildebeest in Polokwane Game Reserve, South Africa.

On the drive back to my hotel, I noticed a huge crowd filling Peter Mokaba Stadium.  I don’t know exactly what they were there for, but it was good to see the place packed almost three years after the end of the World Cup, in the middle of the week. Ironically, at the nearby Polokwane Game Reserve, weekends can get quite busy, but weekdays can be practically empty.  Lisa and I were the only two people I saw that Tuesday in the reserve.  South Africans love their animals, but apparently they love their sport even more.

In the end, although we never saw any of the 14 elusive white rhino that day, we saw quite an impressive array of wildlife in the reserve, including ostrich, waterbuck, impala, duiker, kudu, zebra, blesbok, sable antelope, red hartebeest, tsessebe, blue wildebeest, giraffe, springbok, vervet monkey, a leopard tortoise, and countless birds.  Even more important than the animals I saw that day was the experience of the place—a carefully managed yet still intriguing game park, the polar opposite of what I was about to see in the Tuli Wilderness, and the company of a fine guide who made it personal.


This story is excerpted from Matt Artz’s book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ].

Off the Grid?

July 23, 2013

It’s been more than 20 years since I regularly wore a watch.  For the first 10 years, it was because I found that I never really needed to look at one—there was a clock built in to the dashboard of my car; at home, clocks (and appliances with built-in clocks) were never more than 10 feet away; I had clocks in my garage and in my backyard; at work, there was a clock on my computer, and if I was away from my office at a meeting, there were clocks in most of the conference rooms.  Then when cell phones came along about 10 years ago, I suddenly had a “watch” of sorts again.  It wasn’t a bulky piece of metal strapped to my wrist, but I became reliant on it.

I had opted not to take a cell phone with me on my trip to Botswana earlier this year because of the supposedly spotty reception in the Tuli Wilderness, where I would be staying for two weeks.  But even more than that, I really just wanted to get away from all of that.  I wanted a vacation form technology.

I soon realized that not having a cell phone with me while traveling would not only deny me of communications, but it would also deprive me of any way of accurately and consistently telling time.  I had flights to catch, people to meet, places to go, and a 10-hour time difference to deal with on top of all that.  So I did the unthinkable.  I went out and bought a watch.

Ironically, my quest to go technology free, or at least as “technology light” as possible, was quickly backfiring.  And it wasn’t just with the watch.

I usually charge my camera batteries by hooking the cameras directly to my computer through a USB cable.  But not taking a laptop with me, I would have to take three separate battery chargers with me.  And since my chargers all worked on standard 110 volt US current, I needed a 220 volt power converter, as well as the appropriate adapter for South Africa and Botswana.

It just kept getting more complicated.


One of the attractions of heading off to the wilds of the Tuli Wilderness for an extended time was to get “off the grid”, so to speak—and what better place to do that than at Mohave Camp, a remote, technology-challenged outpost where you were not even allowed to shower in the open bathrooms after dark because the elephants would come right up and snap off the shower heads looking for water; a place where laptop and camera batteries had to be charged for just an hour or two every night by running a power inverter off of the battery in the Land Rover.

When Mohave Camp was taken out of commission by the floods and we instead rolled into Serolo Camp, my decadent half loved the idea of staying at a “luxury” camp for the duration of my visit and taking advantage of plush creature comforts such as electricity and hot showers.  But my primitive half, the half that loves sleeping in the dirt and redefining what “personal hygiene” means, was more than a little upset that I was missing out on my chance to truly go off the grid.  But that was OK.  I could live with it.


The technology dichotomy in modern, rural Africa was quite interesting.  I imagined I was going to a place where the sun is the power grid, the local stream is the water line, and talking around the campfire is the equivalent of the cell phone or social networking.  Boy, was I wrong.

Over the course of my stay there, I saw many things.

Although I opted not to take my cell phone with me to southern Africa, I saw at least as much reliance on cell phones while there as you would see on a typical college campus back in the US.  Everyone had cell phones—and everyone used them. Constantly.

Traveling to and from Tuli, it was not uncommon to see South African women with two cell phones—one for talking, and the other so that they could text while talking.  And I thought people in the US were addicted to technology…

When driving across the Tuli Wilderness at night, besides the light on the vehicle and the stars in the sky, there was only one other light visible: a red light several miles south of the Limpopo River, inside South Africa, that marked the closest cell phone tower.  Except for a few spots, it was usually fairly easy to get a cell phone signal in the Tuli.

There were two-way radios in each of the vehicles at Tuli, and they were used frequently for both day-to-day and emergency communication, but sometimes cell phones were more reliable.  If your vehicle broke down and you radioed for help and nobody answered, you then called that person’s cell phone—because you knew that they always answered their cell phone.

One night there were eight of us sitting around the campfire at Serolo Camp, and I was deep in conversation with another person.  As our conversation slowed, I noticed we had been the only two talking and glanced over towards the others.  All six of them were sitting with their faces down in their cell phones, frantically texting.

I can only hope they were not texting each other.


Let’s face it, technology—and our reliance upon it—isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It’s easy to see the rampant destruction of the natural earth and blame modern technology, but that same technology also has a number of positive aspects.

Even though there was no Internet connection in the Tuli Wilderness, there was a laptop.  And we used it daily.  The goal of the Botswana Conservation and Research Project, after all, was data collection; what we did, every day, was to drive around the Tuli Wilderness and log data manually onto paper forms held on clip boards.  But every evening the data we had collected on various animals throughout the day had to be entered into the computer so that it could be shared with researchers around the world and thus contribute to the advancement of conservation science.

Another good example of the positive side of technology was creative use of an iPod by Andrew, who ran the conservation volunteer program.  He had it loaded with guidebooks detailing the bird, mammal, and even fish species found throughout southern Africa.  He would identify a bird from a distance, for example, and then bring up that species on his iPod, show us detailed drawings and photographs of the species, and even play us an audio file of the birds call.  Leveraging the latest technology took the idea of a printed guidebook to an entirely new level of utility and interactivity.

Good or bad, technology was everywhere in Africa.  I had gone into this trip thinking I was going to be almost completely off the grid and technology-free for a few weeks.



product_thumbnail.phpOne night in camp as we were enjoying a very quiet dinner of mincemeat, mashed potatoes, and a fresh salad by candlelight, I heard a familiar sound that at first I paid no attention to.  It took a second or two before I realized that it was a sound I shouldn’t be hearing out here in the remote wilds of Botswana.  Then Laura pulled her ringing cell phone out of her pocket and answered it.

“Hello, mummy,” she said to her mother back in the UK.  “We’re having tea just now, can you phone back at 9?”

Technology.  Sometimes we are master, and sometimes, it seems, we are slave.


This story is excerpted from Matt Artz’s book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ].

Outbreak: Homo sapiens

July 23, 2013

“From the ecological point of view an outbreak can be defined as an explosive increase in the abundance of a particular species that occurs over a relatively short period of time.  From this perspective, the most serious outbreak on the planet earth is that of the species Homo sapiens.”

Alan A. Berryman

Earthzine Seeks Student Essays on ‘Science Technology for Observing Earth’s Climate’ for International Contest

July 22, 2013

xlogo.png.pagespeed.ic.k6m4qA_-dTWhat are your perspectives on advances in Earth science technology?

Earthzine ( invites undergraduate and graduate students from around the world to submit an essay to its 2013 Student Essay Contest on “Science Technology for Observing Earth’s Climate. The contest offers students an opportunity to sketch visions and raise critical thoughts that can be discussed with Earthzine’s global readership.

Earth observation technology collects and processes data on climatic conditions on Earth. The 2013 Student Essay Contest is a platform to share views on Earth science technology, which includes hardware for data collection, computer infrastructures for data management, and software and algorithms for data analysis.

The essays can be reports on how you use Earth observation technology or your critical views on developments of these technologies.

What further technological advances do we need to understand Earth’s climate? What problems have been solved with Earth observation technology? What are your experiences with this kind of technology? What insights did you gain on climatic conditions on Earth from using Earth observation technology?

Accepted essays will be published at  and judged by a panel of experts, with $1,500 (U.S). in prizes awarded to the top entry or entries. The process for judging will include two weeks of online discussion with Earthzine readers and judges.

The prize funding is sponsored by Northrop Grumman, a leading global security company.

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A Different Kind of Wild

May 24, 2013

What is “wilderness”?

In the United States, we have a very specific, legal definition of the term.  The Wilderness Act of 1964 (Public Law 88–577) defines wilderness as such:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The American government defines wilderness as a road-less, car-less area, with no electricity or other modern conveniences.  The use of motorized vehicles or other types of mechanized transport devices is strictly prohibited in these legally protected areas.

To many, the United States is looked at as a model for environmental protection and conservation initiatives.  Yet if the American idea of wilderness really is to protect places where “man and his own works” do not “dominate the landscape,” there is a problem with many of the wilderness areas I’ve visited in the US.  The overwhelming imprints of modern man are well apparent beyond the obvious things like roads, cars, electricity, and buildings.  Airplane contrails crisscross the skies during the day, and numerous satellites blaze their trails across that same sky at night.  Bridges and other trail improvements have been carefully engineered to make backcountry travel both safe and speedy.  And although not nearly as obvious, even the very fabric of the landscape itself has been unmistakably altered.

Everywhere, pristine outdoor wilderness is covered by the heavy fingerprints of man, disguised by a thin veneer of wildness.  It’s virtually impossible to escape.  In countless ways both seen and unseen, the ecosystems we have worked so hard to set aside and maintain as natural have become strange hybrids—part natural, part man-made, struggling for balance all while under the watchful eye of human management.  This is the new natural.


In contrast to the American ideal of wilderness, the Tuli Wilderness in eastern Botswana is crisscrossed by roads, traversed daily by vehicles, and features permanent inhabitants who live in a few houses connected to the electrical grid.  But the roads that mark the landscape of the Tuli hardly disqualify the area from being referred to as wilderness.  I’ve hiked on trails through wilderness areas in and near Yosemite National Park that are much more eroded and have caused much more significant damage to the natural environment than many of the roads in the Tuli Wilderness have.  And while the American wilderness is defined as a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” man has been present in the Tuli Wilderness for probably as long as humans and their immediate ancestors have been on earth.  Man is an inextricable part of this wilderness.

product_thumbnail.phpIn the end, “wilderness” is just a word, used by different people, in different ways, to describe different things.  I preferred bundu.  The word “bundu.”  It’s a less restrictive definition of wild places, not bound by strict legal mandates.  It’s more…natural.

Even though the Tuli Wilderness may not be “wilderness” by the American definition, it is one of the wildest places I have ever had the privilege of visiting.  I guess that true wilderness is where you find it…


This story is excerpted from Matt Artz’s book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ].