Homeward Bound & Permit Drama

Evening driving out of Kruger is an adventure! While we were there, Northern South Africa was experiencing a pretty severe drought, so every watering hole or river we went to was pretty dry. We hadn’t seen hippos or crocodiles the whole time, but on the way out we saw tons! We saw two big groups of hippos lounging on the side of the river sunbathing, and a 6-8 ft crocodile and hippos at a watering hole. Leaving Kruger through the gate in the middle of the park, we got another nice surprise! We passed the Home of the Amarula, which is a South African alcohol, a lot like Baileys. Of course we stopped and they serve free Amarula, which was pretty amazing. We drove most of the day through terrifying mountains on a two lane road at 70 km an hour, only to stop for like almost an hour each time (there were 4 stops) for construction, where they shut down one lane of the road for like 10 km and alternate traffic through there. Thank goodness Frank was driving, because I would have had a heartattack. Once we reached the main highways, however, there were other obstacles! Turns out, no one fences their cattle in that part of South Africa or uses crosswalks, so the cattle AND pedestrians cross the expressway, where the speed limit is 100 kmp, willy nilly! I cannot tell you how many times someone would just mosey across the road, in the dark, across 6 lanes of speeding traffic. It was terrifying. Finally, we stopped in Polkwane that night, at a place called The Golden Pillow, which had tons of stuffed animal busts all along the walls of the restaurant. The steak was amazing, but all the dead animals were kind of creepy. The next morning was a little bittersweet, as it was our full day on this amazing trip. We packed up and headed to the airport to drop off the rental car and stay the night at the Airport Grand before catching our plane to Atlanta the next day. The end of the trip, however, was not without drama. When we got to Polkwane, I got an email from Duke’s Export/Import manager, reminding me of all the things that the US government has told him that I need to return to the States with my samples. I go through the list, and everything looks fine, except upon second perusal, I realize that the Export permit from Madagascar is listed as requiring a CITES Export Permit. For those of you not in the know, non-endangered animals simply require an Export Permit from the country of origin, but for products from ANY animals that have been classified as endangered by the IUCN, you need a CITES Export Permit, which is a lot harder to get. I check out my Malagasy export permit, and oohhh crapper, it’s a regular export permit, not a CITES export permit. I had emailed him, and my advisor, to advise them of the situation, and inform them that the professors I’m traveling with have assured me that I don’t need a CITES permit simply for fecal material, which is all I have. I went to bed a little worried, but not overly freaked out. Because of the time difference, when you send emails in South Africa or Madagascar to the USA, it’s usually a 12 hour delay between responses (you send the emails at 9 am just as everyone is leaving work in the USA and they don’t respond until 9 am the next morning, by which time, everything in SA and Madagascar is close for the evening). That morning, I get up and discover that I have a whole chain of frantic emails from my advisor and Duke’s Export/Import guy, explaining to me that they have called the US government, and that I will certainly not be allowed back into the USA with my samples without a CITES permit, and that I’m going to need to fly back to Madagascar to leave my samples there or get the right permit or else they will be confiscated. So I shoot of several frantic emails, to the permitting agency in Madagascar, to my advisor, to the Export/Import guy, to my parents, and then spend the carride from Polkwane to Joberg (5 hours), quietly freaking out and trying not to get sick. Did I mention that the Malagay yogart caught up with me at Kruger and I had spent the last two days throwing up everything I put in my stomach? When we get to the Airport Grand in Joberg, I’m on the computer immediately, and proceeded to spend several hours on the phone and on email doing the following: (1) checking flights to and from Madagascar the following day to see how much it would cost to fly to Tana in the morning, and fly back to Joberg in the afternoon in time to catch the Atlanta flight, (2) calling the USA trying to get ahold of USF&W, the Duke Import/Export office, anyone really, and (3) calling the Malagasy permit office asking them if they can issue me a CITES permit right now, even though usually it takes months, or if they could store my samples until someone from Duke comes back to Madagascar and can bring them out. The Malagasy permit office is all confused because they’re telling me that for fecal matter, I don’t NEED a CITES permit, so they can’t issue one. I tell this to Mark, and he says, too bad, US Fish and Wildlife says I do, regardless of the rules, and they know I’m coming so I can’t just sneak the samples in (plus it’s a huge felony). So then it’s back on the phone to Madagascar to ask them if they can issue one anyway. Finally, after several hours on the phone racking up international charges, the Malagasy permit office agrees to try to issue a CITES export permit, even though I don’t need one. So now the plan is to bring the samples to the US and then have them get confiscated and wait in the US F&W offices until the CITES export permit is ready, in several months, at which point they’ll probably have to be shipped back to Madagascar to get the permit and THEN be shipped back to the USA. So yeah. I’m in tears all afternoon and shock because holy crap, I’ve just spent 6 weeks here that’s going to be a total waste research-wise. I had horror stories I’ve heard from other people about their samples getting confiscated because the species names were all on the same line instead of on different lines of the permit and the samples sitting in customs for 6 months, and racking up thousands of dollars in fees, and not being able to get them out without calls to Congress! This seriously happened. So after 4 pm, the offices in Madagascar have closed and the offices in the USA are just opening, and I had done all I could do. Now for the waiting game…. After approximately 4 hours, at 8 pm, I finally get an email from Mark, the Duke Import/Export guy, simply saying that the Malagasy permit authorities were correct, I did not need a CITES Export permit, and that I was good to go! I just sat there staring at the email for like 5 minutes before the fact that I could process the fact that I was free and clear, did not have to rush back to Madagascar to pick up a permit, and did not have to leave my samples in US Customs in ATL. My news was greeted with cheers, and Michelle dancing around the room shaking her booty singing “I told you so! I told you so!” Thus began an night of noshing on all the food we had left for dinner (a really weird collection of cheese, olives, pickles, rolls, bread, fruit, etc), and drinking all the alcohol we had purchased and opened. The kicker of this story is that, after our 15 hour plane ride from Joberg to ATL, and I go sit in the special Customs line for people bringing in animal products, here is what happened: I wait in line for 20 minutes, finally get up to the front, with all my permits in hand, and this girl is clearly in SUCH a good mood. It’s 7 am, she’s been here since 4 am, she looks like she was out partying all night, and I’m thinking “oh man, this is not good.” So I tell her what I’ve got, from what country, and that the US F&W inspector is expecting me, and they just need to call him, he’ll come down, inspect my stuff and my permits, and we should be good. After staring at me for a minute, she looks around at the rest of the staff and asks, “Does anyone want to call F&W? No? Ok, you’re good to go”, hands me back my papers and waves me through. No one even looked at my permits or inside my bag. Most anticlimactic ending ever. And final note about a trip like this, a hint from Michelle and Frank: When traveling to the field, if you have room, pack a “Return” change of clothes, seal it in a plastic bag, and don’t touch it until you are leaving for the final plane ride. The clothes I wore on our 16 hour plane ride back from South Africa had served as pjs for a week, and washed in a sink. Getting in the car with my dad, I asked him if the dogs had been in the car, or if that smell was me. His response was most emphatic, “It is definitely you.” Sorry, that was long! Stay tuned for final thoughts on the trip, the last post :).


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