Podcast Episode 13: Tomer Ben-Yehuda and Alex Meyer

In the latest podcast episode, Charles Foley and I interview Tomer Ben-Yehuda and Alex Meyer, two 30-something mammalwatching friends about their adventures and misadventures around the world.

We cover the full spectrum of mammalwatching emotions: the thrill of seeing a White-bellied Pangolin in the Central African Republic; the blissful relief of a last minute Maned Wolf sighting in Brazil, and the agony of standing on top of a nest of biting ants while waiting for a porcupine to reveal itself.

Plus Tomer finally reveals the shocking truth behind why he and Alex earned the nickname “The Hard Boys” in Uganda.

Here is the YouTube trailer.

Visit mammalwatching.com/podcast to listen or look for “mammalwatching” wherever you get your podcasts.

Jon

8 Comments
  1. Cathy Pasterczyk 4 weeks ago

    I also keep separate lists of birds and mammals that I have seen in zoos. I use AVISYS for this as iNaturalist, IGOTERRA and other similar websites are intended only for wild animals. It is perhaps ideal to see what critters look like and how they behave in the wild but one can also learn quite a bit from captive animals. A field guide can only show so much.

  2. Author
    Jon Hall 3 weeks ago

    I am pasting here comments from Tomer’s Facebook feed of the lively discussion on “how wild is wild” that this episode generated.

    Martin Royle
    Loved the podcast Tomer Ben-Yehuda & Alex Myor, another great success Charles Foley & Jon Hall.
    Just a quick one on the start of podcast and what I constitute as wild with a sighting. This was a big thing for me when setting up Royle Safaris was not wanting to take people to see captive animals or animals that wouldn’t be considered as wild for most people. So I came up with my own set of criteria which is largely based on what you mentioned in the podcast.
    1- it is not about historical or native range for me, but more about native and natural habitat. So hirola in Tsavo would count but nilgiri in Texas wouldn’t. The biome and vegetation make up have to be what the species evolved to take advantage of more so then if they always lived in that location.
    2- a lot of animals get food from people, foxes scavenging from bins as well as people leaving food out for hedgehogs etc. so I try and make sure that an animal doesn’t get more than 50% of its daily required food from people. Obviously that is impossible to measure in the wild, but it means that a fox taking leftovers out of a bin once a week or so is ok, whilst animals I’m zoos or safari parks where they are fed pretty much all of their food from people. Without people they would die. I suppose that is a better measure, if people derived food stopped would that animal die? If yes, it’s not wild; if no, it’s wild. So an example I would use (is contradictory to Charles Foley) as the aye-ayes in palmarium only get a small handout of smeared banana and coconut and that is not even every day. Those aye-aye have to find much of their own food each day. So for me that counts.
    3- do they live in an area which is large enough for the population to form natural sized homes ranges and have enough resources for a breeding population.
    4- do they have the real or potential to interact with their natural predators and prey.
    Those are my 4 criteria for what constitutes a wild or non wild animal for a tick.
    I must stress that it is a deeply personal choice and there is no necessary right or wrong to this (although I will say zoo animals don’t count Alex ). But I am pretty sure Java will be open for this summer…hopefully…at least every year that goes by there are more rhinos around
    Great debate though

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    · Reply · 1w · Edited

    Tomer Ben-Yehuda
    Those are all great points, Martin Royle. The only one you didn’t include (which Charles Foley mentioned in his aye-aye dilemma) is just the feel you get from the encounter. For instance, if the animals are very tame and get unnaturally close to humans, and in unnatural densities, then it just doesn’t FEEL very wild.
    I’m not sure whether aye-ayes are generally solitary (that would be my guess, based on what I’ve read/ seen but correct me if I’m wrong) so if you suddenly see 10 of them eating bananas off a feeder then it doesn’t feel natural. Same with the proximity to people. Even trash bin foxes, bears, raccoons etc. don’t like people getting near them. Once it stops bothering them then it feels a little unnatural. It’s just not the magical experience you imagine when thinking about seeing a rare species.
    With that said, I have not been to Madagascar and haven’t been to that place so I can’t judge. Only express my general assessment. I did recently see wolverines that get fed and it felt totally natural to me.

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    · Reply · 1w
    Martin Royle
    Tomer Ben-Yehuda the aye-ayes are one that will divide people, but I am pretty sure they can be found in high densities. But I get your point, I just don’t buy into the wild feeling particularly. I’ve had mountain gorillas come up to me and touch me, if that’s not tame and non-wild I don’t know what is
    Also I think the population is only 6-7 at palmarium and 2 have always been there (the reserve was created to protect them from the locals who were killing them) and at least one was born there.
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    · Reply · 1w
    Martin Royle
    Tomer Ben-Yehuda I count the wolverines as they couldn’t survive in good numbers purely on what they are fed at the hides. And I don’t know if you have been to the uK and seen the foxes here, you can hand feed them ‍♂️ they are certainly not scared of people anymore.
    There are hundreds of examples of animals that have become too tame through human interaction.
    There has to be a line drawn somewhere (I mean lions in east Africa in the 90’s were all given medical attention to stop canine distemper- all gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda have better medical care than the human populations) so human influence in ‘wild’ animals is also very difficult to measure.
    I just came up with my criteria as it makes sense to me. But everyone will have their own
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    · Reply · 1w
    Tomer Ben-Yehuda
    Martin Royle I get it – there are legit arguments for and against that kind of encounter. And we haven’t even began talking about my own personal feeling of trapping
    At the end of the day, it’s down to personal assessment. I agree with you that we will never be able to put together a globalized uniform algorithm because people will always disagree.

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    · Reply · 1w · Edited
    Martin Royle
    Tomer Ben-Yehuda also when it comes to the banana feeding in Madagascar, a fair few mouse lemurs and dwarf lemurs are found in places like ranamofana the same way, attracting them to trees near the road.
    I have seen that everyone counts them. I think … See more
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    · Reply · 1w · Edited
    Martin Royle
    Tomer Ben-Yehuda birders have 2-3 uniform basis I think. Although I may be wrong.
    It’s just a good debate. One I have had with many a client and it’s always interesting as everyone has different opinions.
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    · Reply · 1w
    Tomer Ben-Yehuda
    Martin Royle Lol I think if there was an okapi hanging out for several weeks and eating from trash bins at the edge of a city near the Ituri forest, Jon Hall would be the first person in the world (followed by myself and Charles Foley) to get on a plane to go see it, if it was deemed safe! (Brazzaville is in the other Congo!)
    But I get it – part of aye-aye’s magic is that they’re so fucking rare, that seeing them eating bananas on an almost-guaranteed basis makes it lose some of its magic. But on the other hand, what’s the difference between this and the olinguito at Bellavista, which gets fed? It just comes down to a personal feeing. And if all the rarest animals in the world would be easy by cheating, then when would you get to experience the levels of adrenaline I had when seeing the marbled cat/snow leopard/white-bellied pangolin/etc.?
    I can personally say, with regards to the pangolins in Sangha Lodge – that even though black-bellied pangolin is clearly the better-looking and more interesting of the 2 species, the fact that it’s pretty much guaranteed there does make it a little less of an “OH MY GOD!” moment. When I saw the white-bellied pangolin I was in total shock and disbelief – how am I this lucky?!
    I did not have the same feeling when seeing the black-bellied one, obviously.
    *ALTHOUGH – I must mention that one morning Tamar asked one of the Ba’aka guys to find her a completely wild black-bellied pangolin on the property and they were able to do that! This did not happen when I was there, but it does show you how incredibly sharp-eyed and skillful they are.

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    · Reply · 1w
    Martin Royle
    I did think I had Brazzaville wrong but I went with it without double checking ‍♂️
    I agree completely with your points again.
    There are billions of individual animals on the planet and millions of people who go looking for them and so there literally uncountable numbers of interactions and sightings etc all of the time. So there are individuals, species, populations etc which can prove or disprove anyones approach to this.
    It’s all what you want it to be at the end of the day.
    If it was all complexly standardised and left no room for individualism I suppose it wouldn’t be half as interesting

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    · Reply · 1w
    Charles Foley
    I must admit Martin Royle, I debated whether to count the Aye-aye at Palmerium. My wife strongly encouraged me to accept it, as she knew that otherwise I would insist on going back again and further deplete our bank balance. As you say, many of the other lemurs that people regularly count as wild are fed or otherwise ‘encouraged’ to stay within an area, and I would probably happily accept those sightings. But after standing with 10 French tourists oohing and aahing while using their phones to film an Aye-aye attack a coconut, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. To me there has to be at least some element of chance to the whole process to make it count.

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    · Reply · 1w · Edited
    Martin Royle
    Charles Foley I do know what you mean and it hasn’t stopped me wanting to see more in different locations for sure.
    The element of chance is an interesting one to add to these criteria.
    Every time I think about whether an animal is wild or not I always come back to the mountain gorillas. Which everyone accepts are fully wild. I have been very lucky enough to track them in both Uganda & Rwanda a combined 8 times. The last time I did it in Uganda the rangers took us into the forest and after around 20 mins I noticed we have come back to the same place in the forest. I asked the guy what was happening as we had been here before. He said that the gorillas were nearby and in the past when they had taken tourists straight to them after a 5 min walk people had complained they didn’t have a ‘wild’ experience, so they now took us for pointless 30 min hike and then took us to the gorillas. The gorillas were in the garden of the hotel next door to the park HQ eating the planted ornamental plants. After the hour we walked through the hotel reception across the road and into our hotel in time to have breakfast still be served ‍♂️
    The last time I did it in Rwanda we walked for 20 mins through a nice field to a eucalyptus plantation and next to a large charcoal production pit and the gorillas were sat there eating the gum from the eucalyptus.
    Both of these were complete guarantees and very unnatural. But amazing experiences.
    I suppose the fact that neither of these experiences detracted from the sight and emotions of seeing gorillas means I will always count them. I couldn’t bring myself to count that and not something which to me is the same with the aye ayes.
    But as mentioned it’s a very personal thing and everyone will see things very differently.
    One thing that did annoy me however is that every time I have done the gorillas there has been at least one person with an iPad to take pictures and videos with.
    Have you ever tried to get views of something from behind a person carrying a iPad in front of their nose?! Bloody annoying, I was close to clipping their heels so they’d trip up

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    · Reply · 1w
    Jens Hauser
    Martin Royle Really interesting discussion and I think we all have them at least in our heads. When it comes to feeding it is sometimes hard for me to draw the line: feeding jaguars with fish, feeding orangutans with fruit, baiting wolverines with meat and scent marking a tree for a carnivore. Tricky indeed to know where to draw the line especially with once in a lifetime sightings.

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    · Reply · 1w
    Martin Royle
    Jens Hauser exactly, I think I tend to draw the line with thinking about what the animal does for the rest of the day when not being shown to people. Is that animal then finding it’s own food, interacting with predators and prey, living in natural habitat and forming breeding populations.
    It is going to be become more and more necessary to attract animals to sites for viewing with the way the world is going unfortunately. But as long as that is only short lived per day, week, season etc. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad idea, as long as it is down sustainably and the local people benefit from the revenue generated.

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    · Reply · 1w
    Jens Hauser
    Martin Royle I tend to think about the same where the line should be. My only concern is that feeding change the behaviour of the animal. They know that they are going to get something to eat if they show up at a point on a specific spot so why bother to move about the rest of the day.

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    · Reply · 1w
    Martin Royle
    Jens Hauser that’s why it’s important to me to see how much they get feed. Most animals I see that are attracted to places with food, no not recieve enough food that they get all their energy requirements from the handouts

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    · Reply · 1w
    Charles Foley
    I guess the way I see it with the mountain gorillas is that they are not being fed, and they have not been introduced into the area. They are just being really, really well monitored. The impression I got with the Aye-aye’s in Palmerium is that without… See more

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    · Reply · 1w
    Martin Royle
    Charles Foley palmarium is perhaps the most divisive of all mammal encounters.
    I think what is crucial is the amount they get fed (for me) I count these like I would count a blue tit at a bird feeder in my garden but I don’t count Sumatran rhino in their enormous semi wild enclosures in way kambas.
    I suppose everyone’s list would be full of contradictions if we dug deep enough

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    · Reply · 1w

  3. Antee 3 weeks ago

    Nice discussion.

    What about fenced areas?
    Example: Do you count Arabian oryx in Shaumari reserve in Jordan? Breeding population, fence with openings for predators but also quite small area and habituated animals.

    Personally I don´t have a problem with fence. They are everywhere. Etosha, Pilanesberg and other parks in South Africa, Mlilwane in Swaziland and so on…
    And if it´s not a physical fence it´s a natural fence around small areas like Son Tra reserve in vietnam (Red shanked douc) or the small patches of forest left along the Kinabatangan river on Borneo.

    I personally don´t have any guidelines. In the end it´s just the feeling from the experience.
    For example I prefer NOT to bait predators and don´t want that kind of experience but I have no problem with trapping rodents (with baits…) or if an animal take advantage of a trash bin or bird feeders. As long as the main purpose is not to attract the animal itself.

    I personally don´t like banana feeding to attract animals either. Simply because I don´t like the experience. I have no ethics in this.

    The same goes to collared animals. I don´t know, but it feels like “cheating” for me.
    Actually the way and effort towards a sighting is just as fun as seeing the animal itself for me. It´s a package 🙂
    Therefore I prefer to stay away from tracking collared animals.

    But yes, it´s a tricky one.
    Another example. I really count Hirolas in Tsavo. But not Roan antelopes in Marrick – South Africa. Simply because of the overall feeling of “wild” 🙂

  4. Vladimir Dinets 2 weeks ago

    I agree with Martin on a lot of things he mentioned. Just a few more thoughts:
    1. I think most people here will agree that the point is seeing an animal in its natural habitat and behaving naturally. So enclosures are fine if they are big enough not to alter the animal’s behavior. For a small mammal, a large predator-free enclosure in Australian desert is a more natural habitat than the desert outside, full of introduced predators. But for a saiga, a wolverine or a humpback whale, no enclosure is big enough. (For me it also means that vagrant birds far outside their normal range are really not worth chasing unless I have nothing better to do, because they are not in their natural habitat).
    2. It would be kind of weird to count mistnetted bats or cage-trapped rodents but not carnivores coming to a bait. Of course, it’s more interesting to watch a wolverine kill a wild reindeer, but it’s in many ways better to spend an hour watching a wolverine at bait than have a 0.01 sec glimpse of its rear end disappearing between trees. (Personally, I count captured mammals only if I see them being released, so there is at least a moment of them being back into their habitat. But that’s kind of… I don’t know, pedantic?)
    3. Of course, there will always be some difficult borderline cases. Do you count reintroductions only to the historic range? or the Holocene range? or Late Pleistocene range? (it’s easier if humans were the most likely cause of range contraction, but what if it’s uncertain?). What is the acceptable size of enclosure for Nile lechwe vs. Kafue lechwe, the former being slightly more migratory? Do you count beached cetaceans or roadkill if they were still twitching when you found them? What about a vole being carried by a hawk? If in doubt, I sometimes file the sighting under “better view desired” category, and try to get a less questionable one if I have a chance.
    4. There are a few special cases, like animals that now exist only as domestics, and there might be some species that survive only outside their native range. I always try to see the wildest population existing (within the natural range if possible), so, for example, for the dromedary camel the best ones would be ferals in the Oroug Bani M’aradh, followed by ferals in Dallol (if they are, indeed, ferals – our local guide claimed that tiny population is truly wild). It was interesting to see introduced ones in Australia, but I wouldn’t count them.

  5. Antee 2 weeks ago

    I prefer a Wolverine tail in the forest in front of one at a baited site.
    For me it´s an easy choice.

    But I would have counted both.

    How do everyone feel about photographing animals?
    for me it feels like it´s a “50% sighting” if I don´t get at least a record shot and often continue to search until I got at least something in my camera.

    A tick is simply not 100% until it is accompanied by a photo 🙂
    Personal opinion of course.

    Am I the only one who feels like this?

  6. Warren Gilson 6 days ago

    Please consider the following a theoretical exercise by a relative newbie still hampered by border closures and too many hours committed to non-animal work.
    So …. after reading the above I thought I’d apply some points to each of the criteria I agreed with listed by previous comments and determine where my personal definition of ‘wild’ sits on a scale of potential observations. For me it worked pretty well.

    If you imagine different scenarios where you might see a mammal, ranging on a scale from a caged (19th century zoo) or circus animal (zero) , through to a completely chance observation in the wild (10), and score a point for each of the following criteria, you get a range of scores. I put particular emphasis on the chance nature of the encounter and the wild ‘feeling’ as they resonated heavily with me so gave them two points each,

    Chance encounter 0-2 points
    May be difficult to see details of the animal in observation 0-1
    Lives in native or former range 0-1
    Lives in typical range size, roams freely 0-1
    Exhibits natural behavior 0-1
    May be preyed upon by natural predators 0-1
    Has to find own food, no veterinary help 0-1
    “feels wild” 0-2

    Others will apply different scores to each criteria, and I wasn’t above putting half a point to cover the most likely scenario, and my results were

    Caged animal/circus animal 0
    Zoo exhibited animal (21st century) 1
    Lured by food, humans visible 4
    Lured by food, humans in hide 6.5
    Radio collared 7
    Trapped 9
    Fenced reserve (no introduced predator sp) 9
    Island 9.5
    Completely wild, chance encounter 10

    For me, I decided that all encounters above 6 are valid for my purposes. Other readers will feel differently but it was an interesting exercise.
    Incidentally, I’ve been spending some time every evening watching webcams of African waterholes. On my scale, if you get over the fact that you’re not actually present, they rank around a 7 (?!) so that bodes well for my nursing home years 🙂

  7. Warren Gilson 6 days ago

    Yes, Antee – a photo carries a lot of weight with my satisfaction of a sighting. I rationalise it by thinking if i had time to fiddle around with a camera and compose a reasonable shot, then it was more than a fleeting glimpse. Having said that, a photo of a koala just seems to elude me constantly despite having seen them many times.

  8. Vladimir Dinets 4 days ago

    I finally had time to listen to the podcast. Enjoyed it a lot 🙂 Two comments:
    1. Congratulations to Alex! After being through this kind of travel pauses twice myself, I have an idea of starting mammalwatching tours for people with small children (so that I can combine family travel with guiding). But I’ll probably wait until COVID vaccinations are available for kids under 5.
    2. Being entirely captive at some point is not the only problem with European bison countability. There was mixing of the two subspecies during that time; the largest extant population which is partially Caucasian subspecies (in Kavkazski Nature Reserve) has some American bison blood as well, although very little and it doesn’t show. On top of that, there was a lot of hybridization between various bovid species throughout their evolution. Trophy hunters also discuss those issues a lot (they argue a lot about countability, too). I counted the ones I saw in Belowezha (in the Belarussian part) and also the ones in Teberda Reserve which have the highest percentage of Caucasian subspecies’ blood.

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