Yet another introduction

Last year I made a point of trying to find and photograph some of the exotic animals introduced in Texas, like blackbucks and various deer species.  As a state full of hunters, plenty of interesting critters have been released into the wild to make killing and eating more interesting[1].

According to The Handbook of Texas Online, “more species and greater numbers of exotic big game are in Texas than anywhere else in North America.”  It goes on to say that the “most numerous species have developed substantial free-ranging populations.”  These include chital, nilgai antelope, and blackbuck from India; sika deer from Southeast Asia; mouflon sheep from Sardinia and Corsica; fallow deer from Asia Minor and southern Europe; and wild boar from Europe[2].

My list of photographic targets included all of those and more, including the aoudad (a.k.a. barbary sheep, arui or waddan; Ammotragus lervia) from North Africa, another free-ranging exotic in the Lone Star State.

Two aoudads (a.k.a. barbary sheep, arui or waddan; Ammotragus lervia) resting near a fallen tree (2009_05_22_020816_f)

In the unrelenting heat of May somewhere on a dirt road that wound through the hills, I caught a lucky break: some aoudads resting in a clearing.  One of them had tucked itself so far beneath the fallen tree that only its horns and the top of its head were clearly visible.  The other lay comfortably in the grass where he could be seen clearly.  Still, I wanted something other than drowsy shots of half-conscious critters.  So I drove on.  And found just what I was looking for.

A female aoudad (a.k.a. barbary sheep, arui or waddan; Ammotragus lervia) resting with her young (2009_05_22_020809)

As I rounded the hillside, there nestled together on the side of the road was a female with her young[3].  By the time I snapped the photo, she was already beginning to stand up.  The baby quickly followed, and before I knew it both vanished down the hillside.  It was enough, though.  That smile-inducing child comfortably leaning against its mother was enough to satisfy my aoudad craving.  It was more than I expected to see.

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[1] The interesting thing about all the exotic game animal introductions in Texas is that the state has the largest population of white-tailed deer compared to any other U.S. state or Canadian province.  The current estimate is that there are more than four million whitetails roaming around the state.  It begs the question of why so many (almost 100) exotic species have been let loose here.  (The obvious answer: stupidity.  See note [2] below.)

[2] Many of the exotic introduced species have since become pests, although the aoudad has yet to reach that status.  And because the majority of these nonnative animals are ill adapted to the Texas climate and ecology, they die out in large numbers during the extremes.  For example, I mentioned in June 2009 that entire herds of chital died out and wild boars were starving because of our last drought.

[3] Though called barbary sheep, aoudads are not actually sheep.  They are caprids, a type of goat-antelope bovid.  And since they’re not true sheep, I’m not convinced the young are called lambs or cossets, the females ewes, or the males rams, hence my avoidance of those terms.

Another introduction

Not satisfied with introducing various deer species in Texas, the great state of hunters also decided to introduce antelope.  Sure, Texas has pronghorns (Antilocapra americana), but they’re not antelopes.  So in 1932 the state began establishing free-ranging herds of blackbucks (a.k.a. Indian antelope; Antilope cervicapra).

A young male blackbuck (a.k.a. Indian antelope; Antilope cervicapra) walking through a field (2009_05_22_019975)

Native to Pakistan and India, the introduction of blackbucks didn’t go as well as it did with chitals (a.k.a. cheetal, chital deer, spotted deer, or axis deer; Axis axis) and fallow deer (Dama dama).  It would seem the far-from-home antelope is a lot more sensitive to Texas threats.

A mature male blackbuck (a.k.a. Indian antelope; Antilope cervicapra) standing in grass (2009_05_22_020923)

Cold weather keeps them from the northern and western parts of the state, parasitism keeps them out of the east and coyotes keep them out of the south.  What started as a statewide release turned into a population confined to the middle of the state, mostly around the Edwards Plateau region.

A male blackbuck (a.k.a. Indian antelope; Antilope cervicapra) grazing in a field (2009_05_22_019978)

Despite the challenges, there are now more blackbucks in Texas than in their native homeland.  And of all the exotic species introduced here, only chitals outnumber blackbucks.

Close-up of a female blackbuck (a.k.a. Indian antelope; Antilope cervicapra) (2009_05_22_020930)

If you watch them long enough, you learn the evolutionary advantage of the long horns.

A young male blackbuck (a.k.a. Indian antelope; Antilope cervicapra) scratching his hindquarters with his horn (2009_05_22_019983)

They’re for scratching those hard-to-reach places.

[this is our last full day in México; Preciliano and I have had a fantastic time; his family impressed me beyond words, just as the sights and experiences have done; overindulgence probably best defines the last week, but vacations are meant for excess; though I must admit I need to buy a “get well soon” card for my liver after what I’ve put it through; tomorrow it’s back to Dallas and back to being responsible; well, at least back to Dallas]

The smell of summer

Up through the third grade, we lived so close to our elementary school that some of my friends and I walked to and from classes so long as the weather cooperated.  We always cut through an alleyway that severed our block into four parts.  And in that alley along a neighbor’s fence, a verdant growth of vines hid an entire back yard.  But it wasn’t the yard or the house beyond that we cared about.

The vine was Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).  We could smell it from twenty paces away.  It called to us like a lover.  We could spend quite some time picking the flowers and suckling the nectar, let alone just standing and bathing in the sweet perfume that filled the air.

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) (20080426_04939)

The first girl I ever kissed hid with me behind such a vine.  There we drank of the plant’s offering before stealing an unexpected moment of childhood intimacy.  I almost missed her lips because I was so drunk on the sweet summer scent of the flowers that hovered around us.  Or was it my nervousness?  Probably both.

It’s said that we always measure every kiss in our life against the first kiss.  These many years later I’m sure no other kiss ever tasted so sweet.

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) (20080426_04609)

So many memories are defined by that irresistible aroma that formed a cloud and hung thick in summer air.  So many rites of passage come back to this plant, that smell, the quick taste upon my tongue.  So many moments from long ago stand measured by those yellow and white flowers.

Now decades later, I’m halted in my tracks each time I smell it, each time I see the telltale blooms.  Even now I always stop to let the ambrosia pass over my lips.  And I remember.

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) (20080426_04615)

I realize Japanese honeysuckle is considered a problematic invasive species in North America, though calling it “invasive” is misleading since it was introduced intentionally (it certainly didn’t swim here from Japan).  Regardless of its status, it holds some of my fondest memories of childhood.  Besides, its introduction has had consequences orders of magnitude less severe than that of kudzu (Pueraria lobata) and sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora), both also from Japan.

[I know I said I would write about my México travels.  I still intend to do that, but I decided it would be best to do it after I return to the US.  That allows me to focus more on the experience and less on trying to keep up with it in writing.  Putting more time into it later will make it more meaningful in my opinion.  Or at least less rushed.  So for now I’ll publish some of the many drafts I have at the ready.]

Life without a viewfinder

When a friend invited me on a whirlwind tour of México so he could visit family, I never blinked.  Of course I’d go with him!  What I did blink at, however, was not having a camera.  This would be the first time for me to travel without one.  I thought about buying one, and even as we stood in the airport yesterday waiting to board our six-hour flight to Tuxtla Gutierrez, I pondered grabbing a handful of disposable cameras (at exorbitant prices even if it was duty free).

But ultimately I challenged myself to see the world differently this time, to experience it in real life rather than through a lens.  That was like asking an addict to give up his fix just when he needs it most.  The flight dragged on endlessly as we headed south.  I was convinced I would begin sweating like a nervous farm animal, twitching as though in a seizure, and ultimately passing out the moment we landed as I realized there was so much to see and no way to capture it.

None of that happened, though.  Not one bit of it.  In fact, I discovered the experience was more liberating than I ever imagined.  Not that I would ever give up photography, mind you.  It’s just that one can spend too much time worried about the next picture and too little time actually living in the now.

On the bus for a thirty-minute ride from Tuxtla Gutierrez to San Cristóbal, we passed a young girl—Tzotzil Indian perhaps?—tending a flock of black sheep along the roadway.  How picturesque a scene it made.  How comfortable and indigenous.

Not once did I think about taking a photo.  Instead, I thought about looking—really looking.  I let myself vanish in the scenery as we climbed the road into the mountains.

As we drove through the clouds that hung on the mountains like wet cotton, it never occurred to me to look for the right angle, the right view, the right bit of ambient light.  Instead, I allowed the landscape to wash over me and around me, to capture my imagination and attention.  No fidgeting with settings, no silo of view, no worry about photographic results, no multiple tries for the same photo.

Only then did I realize I was free.  Free to look, free to hear, free to witness and experience.  Free to record with the mind’s eye all that is worth noting.

And therein lay my intent: living the travel and writing of the living.

So here’s the scoop.  Today is our first full day in San Cristóbal.  Tomorrow will be our second full day.  Thursday we spend traveling to Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula, then we spend Friday there and travel to México City on Saturday.  After two days in the Distrito Federal, we return to Dallas on Tuesday.

Instead of showing you images, I intend to write those images.  I’m keeping a written journal of the event, though admittedly I’m writing after the fact.  This is much different than photographing it.  The former is more personal while the latter is more visual.  Hopefully I can do justice to what represents some of the most historically magical places imaginable.  And hopefully I can do justice to the beauty wherein they rest and which inhabits them, beauty of architecture and nature and people.

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I plan on scheduling these posts as I write them.  This one was written around one this morning, though I scheduled it to appear at 11:30 AM Dallas time (to accommodate when people are more active on Twitter and Facebook).  I won’t note on future installments that it was scheduled; I just thought it worth mentioning to give some context.

Oh deer!

Spend more than five minutes in Texas and you’re apt to see a white-tailed deer (a.k.a. whitetail deer; Odocoileus virginianus).  Drive too fast around sunrise or sunset and you’re apt to hit one.


To say they’re ubiquitous is to understate the matter.  And as they’re well adapted to the climatic and ecological regions throughout the state, they can be found easily just about everywhere you go except in the dense urban centers (and even then you get the occasional stray who wanders into town from nearby territories).

Female white-tailed deer (a.k.a. whitetail deer; Odocoileus virginianus) standing in a clearing (2009_05_16_018901)

But in a state with lots of hunters, white-tailed deer get boring.  The same old venison from the same old species found in the same old places.  So what do you do?  You introduce more species.

Male elk (a.k.a. wapiti or red deer; Cervus canadensis) eating grass (2009_05_22_020495)

The endemic species of elk, Cervus canadensis merriami (sometimes Cervus merriami), was pushed to extinction around 1900.  In response, another species of elk was introduced.  This elk (a.k.a. wapiti or red deer; Cervus canadensis)[1], now survives in various small herds in the state.  Hunting keeps its numbers low.

Herd of elk (a.k.a. wapiti or red deer; Cervus canadensis) grazing in a field (2009_05_22_020724)

But introducing the cousin of an extirpated species didn’t seem exotic enough for Texas tastes.

Two male fallow deer (Dama dama) resting in shade (2009_05_22_020327)

And so the state established free-ranging herds of fallow deer (Dama dama)[2], a species native to the Mediterranean region of Europe and Asia Minor.  Not so adept at handling Texas extremes, this species survives in less than 100 counties.

Three female fallow deer (Dama dama) at the edge of a clearing (2009_05_22_020223)

Its limited range and numbers meant it couldn’t be hunted as readily as white-tailed deer.  Can you guess where this is going?

Female chital (a.k.a. cheetal, chital deer, spotted deer, or axis deer; Axis axis) grazing by a tree (2009_05_22_020398)

That’s right!  Introduce another species, this time free-ranging herds of chital (a.k.a. cheetal, chital deer, spotted deer, or axis deer; Axis axis), a native of India.  Though they look a lot like fallow deer, they’re definitely not the same[3].

A male chital (a.k.a. cheetal, chital deer, spotted deer or axis deer; Axis axis) resting in the shade beneath a canopy of trees (2009_05_22_020395)

Sadly as these introductions usually go, Texas soon found that chital are ill adapted to the state.  They die off in herds during drought, they don’t do well in the cold and their range is quite limited.  So hunters are left mostly to chase down the option they started with: white-tailed deer.

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[1] The North American species of elk, Cervus canadensis, was originally thought to be a subspecies of the European red deer (Cervus elaphus).  Recent genetic testing has demonstrated that the two are separate species.

[2] Fallow deer have four color variants that sometimes look like different species.  All four color variants are found in Texas.  They are chocolate brown like the male in the background of that fifth image (called the black variant even though it’s not really black), all white (not albino), tan (called the menil form), and common (rust with white spots like the male in the foreground of the fifth image and the females in the sixth).

[3] I realize I already used that last photo.  What can I say?  It’s the best shot of a male chital that I have to date.