Biologist tells of Ethiopian project

2006-05-12T23:00:00Z Biologist tells of Ethiopian projectCLAIR JOHNSON Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
May 12, 2006 11:00 pm  • 

While on a scientific rafting expedition of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia last fall, Billings wildlife biologist Kayhan Ostovar encountered more than exotic and rare wildlife.

There were armed bandits who tried to rob the party and curious natives who had never seen white people. There was confusion over the Ethiopian approach to keeping time. And there was the first descent of the remote Beschillo River, a main tributary of the Blue Nile.

"It was pretty amazing," Ostovar said.

Ostovar, the incoming president of the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society, will talk about the expedition Monday at the group's general meeting. The program begins at 7 p.m. at Mayflower Church.

Ostovar, who earned his master's degree from MSU-Bozeman studying bighorn sheep in Yellowstone National Park, led the science portion of the expedition. The trip was organized by the Scientific Exploration Society in the United Kingdom in conjunction with Addis Ababa University. Ostovar found the job on the Internet. Ostovar has led safaris in Africa but had never been to Ethiopia.

Ostovar is working on a fisheries project for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The 48-day expedition began in October with the team covering more than 370 miles in inflatable rafts.

More than 50 British and Ethiopian servicemen and civilian specialists and members from the United States and other countries were on the trip to collect animal and plant specimens and document any remaining habitat where species could survive.

More than 90 percent of Ethiopia's forests have been lost, Ostovar said. "Every bit of land that can be farmed is farmed," he said.

A British military group first descended the Blue Nile in 1968 in rafts. Since then, fewer than 70 people have traveled the route. The Blue Nile begins at Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands in eastern Africa and flows about 850 miles to Khartoum in Sudan. There the river joins the White Nile to form the Nile river. The Nile is the world's longest river and drains into the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt.

Ethiopia remains largely untouched by outside influences, Ostovar said. There are remote places, like the Beschillo River, where residents have never seen white people, much less a rafting expedition.

Residents along the Beschillo live in the highlands where they farm and raise goats, he said. Although the river is clear and supports fish, the natives tend to stay away because of mosquitoes, which carry malaria, he said. The natives were either afraid or curious.

One fellow, who ran along the shore following the expedition, stripped his clothes and swam through the crocodile infested river to Ostovar's raft. The group hauled the man aboard and asked where he wanted to be dropped off. "America," the man replied.

Tribes along the Beschillo also hire militias to guard their territory. In one encounter, a militia gang fired warnings from AK-47s to make the expedition pull ashore. "They wanted money," Ostovar said. "It was a little tense."

Expedition members refused to pay and used a satellite phone to call the British Embassy, which called the general of Ethiopia's military. The military sent troops who hiked all night to get to the expedition. They raided the bandits and captured the ringleader, he said.

Before the holdup, the expedition had hired one policeman who was armed with a pistol. Afterward, the expedition hired some of the military troops who saved them. Their addition overloaded the rafts but gave the group "more negotiating power," Ostovar said.

Crocodiles and hippos also posed dangers. Team members kept rocks, dubbed "croc rocks," in their rafts to throw at crocodiles if they came too close, Ostovar said. One day, the team counted 50 crocodiles. The expedition started with one team to scout the river in an inflatable canoe. But that ended when a crocodile chomped on the craft. The crew made it safely ashore as the canoe deflated.

After mosquitoes, hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal, Ostovar said. The huge animals sleep in the river during the day and graze on land at night. Because there are few places where hippos can come ashore, the males aggressively guard their territory, Ostovar said. Team members had to be careful where they set up camp.

The expedition had designated sites for camping for several days to collect a variety of specimens and make scientific observations, provide humanitarian aid to local residents and get resupplied by a ground support team.

At every inhabited stop, the people asked for medicine, Ostovar said. A dentist on the trip pulled more than 400 teeth, he said.

Ostovar worked closely with two graduate students from the Addis Ababa University to help them collect information for their thesis. He gave each student a watch so their reports would be in sync with universal timekeeping.

In Ethiopia, which is near the equator, daytime starts at 7 a.m., which is counted as 1. The day runs to 12. There is no "a.m." or "p.m.," Ostovar said, because the night doesn't matter. And because the country follows an Orthodox calendar, the year was 1998, not 2005, he said. "It's very confusing."

Because Ethiopia is so isolated and has diverse geography, it has a large number of native species, Ostovar said.

The expedition saw all three species of baboons and more than 200 bird species, including the goliath heron, which is twice the size of a great blue heron. Ostovar also found by his tent a species of owl that hunts fish at night.

On one stop, wild dogs thought to be extinct ran in front of Ostovar and team members. He also was able to document for the first time in Ethiopia a scarlet-chested bee eater, which is a bird.

All of the species are protected, but there is no enforcement, he said.

The trip also was physically demanding. Ostovar lost 20 pounds. While on the Beschillo River, the team at times had to pull its rafts because of low water, he said. Daytime temperatures reached 106 degrees, while the night cooled enough to require a sleeping bag. Some of the team contracted malaria.

The expedition collected several hundred plant and animal species, which were sent to museums and research institutes in the United States, England and Africa for detailed identification. The research centers will get to keep a few specimens and send the rest back to Ethiopia, Ostovar said.

"There are so few opportunities to do this kind of work," he said. "It's pretty vital information about an area that's vastly understudied."

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