The Last Wild Giraffe Herd in Western Africa

We interrupt your regular greencouple postings for an update from Maggie, who is doing volunteer work in Niger.

peekaboo_giraffe_webI’ve been in Niger for almost a week and I’m starting to adapt. Several people have told me that Niamey is the calmest capital city in all of Africa but it feels pretty active and chaotic to me so I’ve enjoyed being able to get out to the villages and visit the bush country. Today I was very happy that my host and translator Boubacar was able to arrange a trip out to the Koure giraffe preserve to visit West Africa’s last wild giraffe herd.

To get there, you drive about 60 km (24 miles) east of Niamey down a very well-paved two-lane highway, passing several villages but also many stretches of open land. There was one security-checkpoint-slash-toll-booth but the toll was less than $1 and they waved us through quickly enough. When we reached the preserve, we stopped at the main headquarters to pay our 10,000 CFA entry fee (about $20) which consisted of tickets for each of us, permission to take photographs, permission to drive the car through the park, and a stipend for the park guide. They have about a dozen guides who are sort of combination park rangers and tour leaders. Their main job is keeping tabs on the roughly 300 giraffes in the preserve so they know where to take the tourists.

giraffes_dark_lightFrom there, it was all dirt roads or total cross-country travels. I felt a little sorry for our driver but I think he enjoys the adventure of back-country driving most of the time. We went past a few villages and Boubacar explained that part of the entry fees go to the village treasuries which means the locals are very motivated to protect the giraffes and report any problems such as people illegally cutting trees. He asked if there was any problem with the giraffes eating the villagers’ crops and our guide said that during the rainy season the giraffes naturally migrate to a more gravelly area further from the villages where there are plenty of tasty trees for them to nibble so that has never been an issue.

After we drove for awhile, our guide got out and rode in the back of the truck so he could scan the horizon for giraffes. Once he spotted a herd, he used a big stick to reach across the top of the truck and gesture to the driver which way to turn. (It sounds simple but I thought it was a pretty ingenious method of communicating without trying to shout over the engine.) As we got close, he would direct the driver to zigzag towards the giraffes so we wouldn’t startle them too much.

giraffe_herd_webOur first group was about four female giraffes and three juveniles around 5 months old. They were fairly calm as we approached and let us get a lot closer than I expected. Our guide said for the most part the males keep to themselves except during mating season. When a female giraffe goes into heat, her urine takes on a distinct smell that summons male giraffes from miles around. They battle for dominance and the winner gets to mate. He said that female giraffes can live as long as 60 years but that the males generally only live about 35 years. I think I may have misunderstood his explanation why but what I thought he said was that the males get so distracted by the possibility of mating that they don’t eat during mating season and thus weaken themselves.

acacia_webGiraffes eat something like 80 different kinds of trees, most of which have thorns. Boubacar (who is a forester by training) identified about four trees that the giraffes were nibbling on while we watched, including acacia (shown here). I didn’t get any good photos of giraffe tongues but they are quite impressive and allow the giraffes to pull leaves easily off branches. However, our guide says they are a bit picky and they prefer young leaves that don’t have an accumulation of dust so they sometimes have to search pretty hard during the dry season.

mother_baby_webOur second encounter was with a mother and her calf, who the guide thought was less than 10 days old. Baby giraffes are not exactly small but they are very cute! They were a little more skittish than the first group so we took a few pictures and then moved on. I had asked if it might be possible to see some male giraffes and our guide said it was hard to find them but we plunged gamely onward into the bush. It felt like we had driven forever and I was starting to feel guilty for making the suggestion when our guide got in the back of the truck again and started leading us cross-country. The truck got stuck in the sand once and we pushed it out and kept going. I was really feeling ready to call it a day when we suddenly came into view of a huge herd of giraffes, 17 in all, including three gigantic males.


Male giraffes are about 3 feet taller than females, have bigger horns, and have a big bump in the middle of their foreheads. They are REALLY TALL. This herd was extremely mellow and let us get quite close to them, watching us curiously with big deer-like eyes. There were even several giraffes sitting under a tree, which the guide says is unusual to see. (It really makes me want to have two sitting giraffe statues in front of my house instead of the typical lions.)

He also explained to me that there are two races of giraffes in the park, a dark one and a light one. It took me awhile to see the difference but there were a couple of young giraffes that had pretty distinctively different coloring. We wandered around taking pictures and I was really shocked by how close they were and how big. Their faces remind me a lot of white-tailed deer but they are so much bigger! They were also fairly slow to bolt although when they did run it was impressive to watch and I have no doubt they could cover a lot of ground in a hurry if they wanted.

giraffes_sitting_webAfter a long period of gawking, we headed back to the front gate to drop off our guide. I tried to ask Boubacar how much I should give as a tip but he didn’t want to impose by quoting me a number so I spent ten minutes frantically trying to calculate in my head what might be reasonable and decided to shoot higher than lower. I grossly overtipped but, hey, it was a spectacular experience and I certainly won’t regret a few dollars in years to come. I just hope the giraffes continue to thrive as the country continues to develop.

curious_giraffe_webNiger is going to see some major changes in the next few decades as the population matures. Right now 50% of the population is under the age of 15 and there is a lot to be done to find ways for them all to thrive as adults. I think it can be done and I hope it can be done in a more environmentally sensitive way than we’ve done in the United States. I’d love to find that level of appropriate technology for both countries that provides comfort and safety without being wasteful or destructive.

And if that’s too much to ask for, I hope that the last wild herd of giraffes in Western Africa will continue to survive.

For more photos, check out our flickr account.

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Freeze Yer Buns Challenge

maggie-will-hatsFellow blogger Crunchy Chicken recently launched the Winter 2010-2011 Freeze Yer Buns Challenge, encouraging everyone to turn their thermostat down this winter.  She’s open to any temperature settings that works for folks but encourages people to push their limits a bit, especially at night.  I think her target is 62 during the day and 55 at night.

I feel like we’re already participating although in a rather unique way.  We have our thermostat set at 52 degrees and are relying on our solar furnace to heat us up to a more comfortable temperature during the day.  Our main motivation is keeping our electrical bill down so that we have a shot of winning the SIREN Energy Showdown grand prize – a one kilowatt photovoltaic system!  Will also likes the idea of just acclimating to a lower indoor temperature to lower our carbon footprint all winter, since we did fairly well adjusting to life without air conditioning this summer.

For the past couple of weeks it has been unseasonably warm (several days we opened all the windows to let the warm air IN) so with the solar furnace it has been in the high sixties during the day, dropping to about 55 overnight.  Yesterday it was cold but sunny so the solar furnace ran all day and brought the temperature up to about 65.  Then last night it got cold and our furnace actually kicked on for about ten minutes this morning to heat us from 51 to 52.  It has been between 52 and 54 all day and I’ve been here working.

And you know what?  It’s cold but it’s not unbearable.  I do wish we had some sort of supplemental heat for the bathroom – I hate stepping out of a hot shower into a cold room – but otherwise it has been okay.  I wear about three layers of long sleeves plus a hat, drink a lot of hot tea, and get up to exercise every hour or two to heat my body up again.  Perhaps life with minimal heat will improve my cardiovascular health!

Or perhaps in another month or two I can coax Will into turning up the thermostat to a balmy 58.  I’ll keep you posted…

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Powering Down

A couple months ago, Maggie talked me into giving a presentation at the Simply Living Fair about our 3-kWh Challenge (which has more details, if the presentation is too high-level for you). The presentation went very well and has some more information (and hard numbers) about our electrical use since January. In my challenge post, I clocked us in at just under 80 kWh, but the official number from Duke Energy was just 71 kWh! The difference is just because we started and stopped measuring at different times, but it still sounds good.

My presentation slides are embedded below, but I’ll add some explanation underneath to replace some of the bits where I talked.

On the graph of our electrical usage, I included one line for each year plus a bar graph series at the bottom that represents our kWh usage per day based on my readings. There’s a LOT of variation, mostly due to hot water heating, the furnace, or A/C. When we stopped using all of those things in June, everything calmed down a lot.

In the end, we used 28% of the electricity we used last year, which is a tiny 14% of the electricity used by the average house our size!

We ended up using 115 kWh in September and are on track to stay under 120 kWh in October, so we’ve been able to maintain usage at 50% of last year’s numbers.

Just looking at electricity, we’ve saved about $175 so far this year and reduced our CO2 emissions by almost 2.5 tons (coal is not a very clean source of electricity)!

We’re incredibly happy with what we’ve done so far and plan to continue trimming as we head into the heating season! We knocked out some insulation projects today that will hopefully help and we’ll certainly keep you updated about the solar furnace!

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Rainy Solar Tour

Rainy Solar TourToday is the ASES National Solar Tour and we are one of the houses featured on the Bloomington Solar Tour but wouldn’t you know it, after an unbelievably dry summer and fall, today it is raining.  (The last time it rained was during the girl scout campout I organized.  I seem to have a gift.)  Our solar furnace is not very impressive on cloudy days and I think people are staying indoors for fear they might melt but maybe it’s just was well we have a quiet weekend after a busy week.

The Simply Living Fair went well and people seemed to enjoy Will’s talk about our efforts to get down to a 90 kilowatt-hour month (we managed it in June but are thinking 120 kilowatt-hours is a more reasonable target in the fall).  The green living tour to our house and two other green buildings was fun despite having a small crowd of about eight.  In general, everyone who came was happy; I just wish more people had come.  Maybe next year.

Will tests his IR thermometer on the dogOn Monday, Will got a new toy in the mail.  It’s an infrared thermometer and it looks a lot like a price scanner or a space age neuron gun.  You point it at an object, pull the trigger, and it tells you what temperature it is.  Will has had hours of fun testing the temperature of various surfaces around our home.  I’m not quite as entertained but I do appreciate that it will help us identify heat leaks in our ductwork, walls, windows, and attic access panels (Will measured a 20 degree difference between the ceiling in the main room and the access panel to the attic – pretty alarming).

Moving the ShedYesterday we sold our little playhouse shed, which meant we got to watch a guy come and load it on a special kind of tow truck to take it away.  I still feel slightly guilty for not figuring out a way to put it to use but it had been sitting empty for two years so it was time to let go.  The dog is still a little confused as to what happened but we figure she’ll lose interest now that there are no longer mice and skunks and other critters hiding out underneath.  (We thought she had excavated some major tunnels under the shed and were expecting a sort of underground labyrinth to be revealed but apparently she only dug out the minimum needed to squeeze her body under the boards.)

Next week we leave on the train to New Mexico for a week, which will hopefully be a nice fall break.  It will be good to see family, even if the occasion for gathering is a memorial service for Will’s grandmother.  We are looking forward to exploring a new train route and getting a change of scenery for a little while, although I hope the leaves don’t all turn colors and fall off before we get back!

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Solar Furnace is Here!

solar_furnace_1Okay, our solar furnace is actually installed!  Now if only it were cool enough to want to use it…  Still, that will come in time and for now we’re excited to show it off.  Here are some basic pictures of the final product; we’ll post pictures of the actual construction further down the road when we have caught up with ourselves (ha!).

It’s a lot flatter than I expected, about a handsbreadth deep.  I think it looks pretty good on the side of our house and Michael B. did an excellent job with the flashing around the edges.  So what you can’t see is that there are two holes in the back of the panel that continue through the wall of the house and into the living room.  One hole has a fan attached (that unfortunately sticks further into the room than we had envisioned) for pulling air from our house through the panel.  The fan is controlled by two thermostats.

solar_furnace_4One thermostat is mounted on the wall and lets us decide how hot we want our house to be (it cranks up to 90!).  The other is located inside the panel and makes sure the panel is hot enough to heat up air as it passes through.  We had it on for an afternoon right after it was installed and it gets amazingly hot.  We could totally set up a sauna in our living room if we wanted.

So here is my very crude graphic rendition of air flow through the panel heating our house.  We were a little surprised that the panel has no channels or grooves on the inside to direct air flow; it’s just one big black box.  The advantage is that you can cut the openings wherever you need them so if your house happens to have a phone jack or an electrical outlet right where you were going to install the fan, you can move it over a few inches and just put the hole in a different place in the panel.

We’ll keep you posted on results as the weather cools down.

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Construction Delays – Part of the Process

Well, our solar furnace installation has been postponed until next Tuesday (initially because the materials didn’t arrive, then because our volunteer carpenter is trying to juggle paid work with this project) which is just as well since the weather seems to have zoomed back into the 90’s.  With a little luck I can keep the house clean until it actually happens…

In the meantime, Will and I are working on a presentation for the Simply Living Fair about the reductions in energy use we’ve seen since we started participating in the SIREN Energy Showdown.  Our working title is “Powering Down: Toward a 90 kWh Month.”  Sounds good, eh?  If you’re anywhere near Bloomington, you should totally come support the fair.  Tickets are only $12 and you’ll help me sleep better at night knowing that I didn’t just make a struggling nonprofit lose money putting on an event that they can’t afford.  (Yeah, I’m having some fun stress dreams these days between coordinating the fair and gearing up for a weekend of camping with 200 girl scouts ages 6-14.)

Further bulletins as events warrant.

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Coming Soon: A Solar Furnace!

Solar Air Heater on Boggess Home (slightly different model)Guess what?!?  We were chosen to have a solar air heater installed on our house as a demonstration project sponsored by the Southern Indiana Renewable Energy Network (SIREN)!  Solar air heaters (also known as solar furnaces) are essentially big black boxes that heat up in the sun.  They are filled with air channels so that air flows through the panel, heats up from the sunlight, and then the hot air goes into the house (generally with the help of a small solar fan).  Solar air heating is a form of solar energy that’s actually more efficient than solar electricity (photovoltaic panels) but doesn’t get as much publicity.  SIREN is excited to promote the technology and also hoping to launch a pilot project installing these systems on low-income houses.

Our solar furnace will come from the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), a company in Minnesota that makes them and also does a lot of work making renewable energy more accessible through training, education, installations, and a unique assistance program.  They partner with agencies that serve the low-income community to install these systems for minimal cost as a way to make low-income families more self-reliant.  Pretty cool stuff!  SIREN hopes to bring a similar program down to our neck of the woods and is looking for an agency to partner with, hopefully the South Central Community Action Program (SCCAP), which is a local group working on weatherization and energy assistance for low-income families (among many other great assistance programs).  Will and I are going through the application process so we can work together to try out the system, show it off to anyone interested, and further weatherize our home.

Want to see the system?  We’ll be posting lots of pictures on our blog when the installation happens and we’ll also be opening our home up for a few tours.  One will be as part of the Simply Living Fair coming up September 25-26.  We’re giving a talk on home energy reduction as part of the Saturday workshops and then our house will be featured as part of the Solar Energy Tour on Sunday.  It should be lots of fun!  (Disclaimer: I am chairing the organizing committee for the fair so OF COURSE I think it will be lots of fun.)

Hopefully we’ll get accepted into the SCCAP program and they will help us do some insulating and caulking later this fall to further increase the energy efficiency of our home.  I’m also still contemplating putting a greenhouse on our front porch to help improve heat gain through our south-facing bay windows but I’m  not ready to make any promises.  Regardless, we are looking forward to lowering our carbon footprint this winter while enjoying free hot air from the sun!

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Garden Ahoy!

garden_jungleEvery year I say “This is the year I will seriously garden” and then I get distracted.  However, every year I get a little better.  This year I had a nice spring crop of peas and lettuce and kale, transplanted out a healthy batch of tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries, and then planted a nice selection of melons, beans, corn, and basil.

Then I left town for a couple weeks and the garden exploded.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I knew I was falling behind in the weeding department before I left and I made peace with the idea of having a weedy garden jungle.  What I didn’t take into account was the fact that both the weeds and the “proper” garden plants would go through a major growth spurt and fill all available space, including the pathways and fences.

It’s not all bad.  I’ve been enjoying a bumper crop of tomatoes, peppers, and basil plus a nice honeydew (the watermelon is almost ripe).  My bean plants grew like champions although it turns out the cowpeas grew a lot better than the other varieties so most of what I’m harvesting is dried beans.  I feel like I’m getting some good food out of the garden.

watermelonBut it doesn’t look very pretty.  Happily, I have very tolerant neighbors who don’t seem to mind as long as it doesn’t get into their yards.  (I suspect a few of them are secretly pleased that the deer have been enjoying the unfenced areas of my garden rather than theirs.)  I’m hoping to clean it up a bit over the next few weeks and start some fall crops.  Now is the time to sow spinach, peas, kale, radishes, beets, and cold-season lettuce to harvest in the fall.

I also have a few pledges for next year

  • Plant things further apart – especially kale and melons but really I planted everything too close together.
  • Get those tomato trellises in early and keep the tomatoes under control.
  • Put in more weed-suppressing path materials (old carpet works great; straw works okay)
  • Commit myself to time weeding the garden (yeah, I’m really just lazy)
  • Build more fences!  My ugly metal-stake-and-deer-netting fence has actually done very well but everything outside the fence has been seriously chomped (especially my poor sunflower fort).

With a little luck, I’ll have 3-4 more weeks of tomatoes, a couple watermelons, and a nice harvest of popcorn to look forward to.  Oh, and it looks like two of my experimental crops are setting fruit – garden huckleberries and popping sorghum – which is very exciting!  I’m still not really replacing much of our diet with homegrown veggies and fruits but it’s nice to have a few treats and every year I feel a little more optimistic that I could be a homesteader if I really put my mind to it.

How does your garden grow?

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Showering With the Sun

Maggie using the solar showerWill and I spent a pleasant hour in the hammock a few weeks ago talking about project ideas for the house.  He’s been especially focused on energy savings and was very excited about the idea of building a solar shower.  I have many fond memories of outdoor solar showers but the ones I have used in the past involve solar water panels, plumbing, welding, privacy screens, and several other features that would challenge my handywoman skills.  Ever practical, Will suggested that rather than plunging into a new construction project, we should pick up a simple camp shower and try it out so we could go ahead and turn off our hot water heater.

We picked up a solar shower kit at a local box store for $25 that consists of a curtain with a zipper, a solar water bag with a shower nozzle, and a support structure to hang it all from.  We hung the support structure and curtain from one of the big sugar maples in our backyard, filled up the water bag, and I took the first shower.  It was not a great experience.  The shower bag came with a long tube leading to a shower nozzle, which in theory gives you the flexibility to spray in many different directions.  In actuality, you have to keep the tube stretched out and sloping down to get decent water flow, which means crouching down and risking mooning the neighbors.  We had also neglected to stake down the curtain, so it was blowing around a bit and decreasing my feeling of privacy even further.

Solar Shower BagAfter that first shower, I cut the tube into a short piece so now I can stand under it comfortably (Will has to duck a little).  We put a piece of indoor/outdoor carpet under the shower so it doesn’t get too muddy.  It’s still a bit of a pain to fill, heat, and hang the bag but it’s doable.  Actually, the biggest challenge is keeping the water comfortable instead of scalding hot.  The solar shower heats up too well some days and we have to add cold water.

We’re going to try it out a little longer but I think it’s been successful enough that we will try building Solar Shower 2.0, perhaps using the directions from the Carbon-Free Home book.  They suggest building a platform of some sort and putting a small (10-gallon) black barrel up on it with a shower spigot sticking out.  Ideally, it should be designed so you can fill it from the ground using a garden hose (or rain barrel) so you don’t have to haul it up and down.  Sounds good to me!  Maybe we can build some actual walls around it too….

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The 3 kWh Challenge

After a poor April (with no year-over-year change in our electrical consumption), we got a new refrigerator and reevaluated our strategy. Reducing our furnace use helped a lot in the winter, but we barely used the A/C last year, so that wasn’t going to improve this year.

Thanks to the refrigerator, May was a good month. We were able to reduce our consumption by 50%! That brought our total usage for May to 121 kWh, which is a little over 4 kWh a day. Given that, I talked Maggie into trying to reduce our usage to less than 3 kWh a day in June. For comparison, leaving two incandescent bulbs on would use up the allotment for that day.

So June is over; how did we do? From June 1st to July 3rd, we used 79.9 kWh or a little under 2.5 kWh a day! Here’s how we did it.

No A/C – A/C isn’t as energy intensive as heating, at least in part because the temperature difference isn’t as high, but it still uses a lot of power. Running a typical central air system for half an hour can use over 1 kWh. Instead, we used blinds to reduce solar gain, opened windows when it was cool and closed them when it was hot, used the ceiling fan and window fans, and, on one particularly hot afternoon, took refuge in an air-conditioned movie theater.

No hot water – the majority of residential energy use is cooling and heating, including water heating. My best estimate is that our 40-gallon water heater uses 300 Wh (0.3 kWh) a day. We got a solar camp shower and we’ve also taken some cold showers. As a bonus, we cut our water use significantly since you don’t dawdle in a cold shower!

No clothes dryer – Our clothes dryer runs about 2 kWh per load! Now that it’s summer, we’ve avoided using it entirely and line dry everything. It takes more planning, especially since we had so many thunderstorms in June, but that’s quite the energy savings!

Reduced computer use – I have a small netbook that uses less than half of the electricity of my normal laptop. I was able to get even better numbers by using Windows’ power settings to dim the screen and slow the processor. I also made sure to take my charger with me when I worked outside the house. That doesn’t decrease my overall electrical use, but partly offsets the fact that I work from home.

Sharing space – In the evening, Maggie and I make sure we spend most of our time in the same room. That means we’re only running one fan and one set of lights. It’s not a big savings, but it’s also pretty easy to do.

We won’t be able to sustain it into the winter, and some of it is extreme enough that we might not be able to sustain it for more than a month or two. I think we’ll be able to keep it under 3 kWh for July and maybe August, but when it gets cold again, we’ll have to turn on the furnace. We also won’t be able to stop using the dryer entirely at that point. Still, for now, we’re feeling pretty good!

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