Every team gets rostered for two capture nights. This means an overnight camp out in the bush with snares set up for the predator and a vigil every 3 hours to check the snares. On the night of our capture the community visit team comes back with the information that a calf has been taken by a lion that morning in the village. Our plan is to try and capture and collar that lion when it comes back to finish off its feed which it was disturbed from doing.
We go to the village and negotiate to get some calf remains to set as bait in the snare hoping that the lioness will come back. We eventually get the head , a few ribs and the lungs. Enough to set in the snare. I get to carry the head end of the carcass, it’s an experience. Building the snare is fascinating, we use thorny acacia around the snare to lead the animal in so that they will have tostep on the snare and set it off.
We camp not far from the kill site and have a camp fire dinner. The vigil begins. We go out 3 times checking the snare and then coming back to catch a bit of sleep stoking up the fire. Unfortunately no luck. When we get back to camp we hear that the foot transect team has come across a lot of hyena activity further up the road so this time the capture team and us go out for a chance at snaring a hyena.
Despite three separate snares we do not catch the culprit. Two of the snares have been set off by ardwolf two small a creature to snare and the third the hyena has outsmarted the snare and taken the bait from above!
This proves the case to the great frustration of Francois for the rest of our slot. It seems the hyena may need another approach to get captured.
On one of our capture nights as we were setting up the snare we got a visit from one of the young men in the local village, he watched us for quite a while and wished us luck on the capture. The people here see the value of what Francois and Julia are trying to achieve. He had one question of us, did we have any animal books for him to read as he wants to become a guide. Well here it is my project for when we get home. I get his name, check that Francois knows the village he comes from and I commit to raise funds to purchase 100 guide books for distribution amongst the interested young people in the villages. I feel that this is a really worthy project that has more future than a money donation.
NOTE: the snare that are referred to are foot snares. They are a specific design that does not hurt the animal. The way they are designed, they can be set for certain tensions and paw sizes so Francois ends up capturing the predators he wants. The snares have also been approved by the Namibian department responsible for the National Parks and environment.
Our community work involves visiting the local people in the villages of the conservancies. These are large private tribal areas bordering the road and between the two large national parks where the government supports the communities with infrastructure of roads, water, schools and clinics in exchange the communities move to the road and try to live in harmony with the animals from the parks that are not gated.
The problems arise when the cattle herds get attacked by the predators, as these animals are in fact the communities investment. A larger herd gives greater wealth and status, it takes a number of cows to acquire a wife and so the loss of a cow to a lion means a financial hit to the owner. Even though there is in place some financial compensations if a cow gets taken by a predator, for this to happen a number of criteria have to be met and the kill has to be proven by a government officer.
All the teams visit two different villages each so we get a feel of the community’s perceptions. The predators are seen mainly as a nuisance and only one village expresses a desire to keep them as part of their lives for future generations. The husbandry here is very basic, a herd boy takes the herd out for grazing in the morning and brings them back in the evening to simple kralls(corals). These are stick like enclosures often in bad need of repair so that at night the predators often can get at the animals not to mention that often that the cattle does not get brought in at night ( this would not qualify for compensation.)
Our team has André as the driver, the drivers undergo some 4×4 training and will help when needed.
Our first foot transect where we follow a designated route and count both predators and potential game is full of adventure. We encounter a large herd of buffalo ~200. They initially do not detect us but as we try and circle them at a safe distance we are pushed back into the herd due to flooding. The wind changes and they now know we are there, they assume defensive positions the young and females inside the circle the big males on the outside. You do not want to be the object of a stampeding buffalo herd. The second worst encounter to have other than an angry hippo is a charging male buffalo or stampeding herd. Neil our game guide advises us to look for sturdy trees…..we are in a flooded delta the biggest trees are about 3m tall! Then we notice a movement on the other side of us to where the herd is only 40m away. There is a bit of nervous rustling in the bush, a male that has lingered to browse and now is cut off from the herd.
My reading of Neil’s body language is that this is not good. We very very quietly try and give everybody some space by retreating and all is well. We find some leopard and hyena spoors which means tracks and this we record. Then as we enter a more open section of the transect we get given a warning growl from the only bushes close to us, this identified as a leopard. A few Kudu antelopes and warthogs to finish the count. We enjoy a snack from the treat chest when we get back.
Our group gets divided into 4 teams of 3 with one of 2. All teams have to have a member that is able to drive the Land Rovers which are used for all the research activities once we get over the delta boat crossing and back on firm land. This is where all the villages are and the community work is done and where our vehicle game count will be done and the animal captures.
We meet Francois who does the animal side of the project and Julia who is running the community side of the project. At camp we have the help of Viola, Moses and Simon from the local community in camp chores, Ronel and Francois Senior who are Francois’s parents running the camp behind the scenes. Peter is the expedition leader and the Biosphere representative. We get our reed hut allocated and off for briefing on the project.
We are trying to get statistics on the predators in the area which include lion, leopard.hyena,cheetah and wild dog. From last year it has become apparent that the majority of the stock (cattle and goats) is being lost to hyena attacks, so this year we are going to try and collar a few to study their movement across the two national parks and the intervening conservancies.
At the Chrismar Hotel in Livingstone we get to fight with the start of the mozzies. We were pleasantly surprised in South Luangwa where we thought there would be lots. We have brought 3 big rolls of Rid double strength with us but have not had a need to test it against the malaria bearing insects so far.
We meet some of our expedition members at the Chrismar. We have no luck in finding someone who can deal with our forward reservation, so we will have one more night here on our return.
Our team is a total of 11, one person has pulled out in the last days due to a concern about the focus of the project shifting to hyena. We have 2 French, 4 English, 2 German, 1 American and 2 Aussies-us.
This year there has been an incredible amount of rain in the rainy season which was from October till April and now 5 months later all the flow on effect is reaching the Caprivi Delta from Angola. This has meant that the road from last year to the research station is well under water and a new access route has been established. The first 1.8km is by a small boat fashioned from two canoe hulls joined together to form a platform. The outboard motor provides many additional adventures during our two week stay. As the load on the boat is limited it takes four trips to get us to the Unimog “The Beast” with all our gear and supplies for 2 weeks. The Beast is the fond name given to the vehicle that transports us the last 5.6km to the research station through creek crossings ad very rugged terrain. Bad backs brace!!!
Our last night at the Mwamba was filled with excitement as Tom and Jerry were quite boisterous and keen on an ebony fruit feed. The staff had fun keeping them out of the dining boma which is basically a table set under the ebony trees where we have our meals. As much as I love the elies having a 35 year old bull within 3m of your dining table table is a bit close for comfort.
In the end they gave us the time to finish dinner and came back latter in the evening to finish their supper. As I woke up to the sound of footsteps out-side our straw hut at 2am I woke up Andre to let him share the experience. “Elephants ” said I, ” No” says Andre its just the staff moving around the camp. Then we heard the plop plop, the distinctive sound off elephant having a pooh! Next morning the evidence was right there. It is actually incredible how soft footed an elephant is for its size.
On our last day in the South Luangwa we stopped in at Tribal Textiles. We purchased some wonderful covers and that helps to support the local artisans.
At the airport Andre has a stress-full moment as for the first time they don’t want to let us take on his camera equipment as hand luggage. We furiously load the trusty Scottie vest with lenses to minimize what will have to get checked in. In the end I managed to distract the steward on boarding the plane and Andre gets his bag on board, we re-load the lenses back into the Kiboko bag. Even full, the bag still fits under the seat.
As we leave the pilot announces a slight change in flight route as we need to go in the opposite direction to Livingstone and pick up a couple of extra passengers. Ah well that is the flexibility of a small air-line, only 1 hour delay on our arrival time!
While staying at Mwamba we had the privilege of sharing our guides Meyham’s knowledge. He is a young Zambian local guide who initially was employed by the research team studying the Tse Tse fly a few years ago. He showed such passion and love of the bush that the scientist at the end of the project bought him books on the local wildlife. It has allowed Meyham to get a job in the tourism industry and allows people like us to share his knowledge.
We ended up going on two walking safaris while at Mwamba with the local parks guide Gideon and Meyham. It was incredible, we got given a 20 min discussion on the dung beetle and its habits which kept us enthralled. We were tracking for lions and came across a herd of Cookson wilderbeast.
In the end we did find the lions, a pride of 6 females and 1 male which we walked around at 50m. They were quite relaxed, probably much more than we were:)
It had been such a great experience that we chose to do another morning walking safari with Meyham and Gideon. This time a male leopard darted out of a tree as we approached, we started tracking him a bit closer to discover in fact that this was one of a mating pair. The female had just killed an impala and had dragged it up a tree. She was surrounded at the bottom of the tree by three lionesses who were trying to steal the kill off her. Our arrival moved the lions off and allowed the female leopard to scramble safely out of the tree.
Later that evening we came back by car to the same place and witnessed more lions and finally the female leopard relaxed lying on a branch next to her dinner.
The next 5 nights are spent at the Shenton bush camp. This camp has only 3 huts but only two other guests are there while Andre and I visit. This is where our hut made of straw sits under a sausage tree with the roof just opening out to the southern sky with mesh sky-lights. The bathroom is out-side as is the toilet, this gets interesting later in our stay.
Mwamba is an amazing place, more ebony trees in fruit and daily visits from Tom and Jerry two large elephant bulls keep things interesting.
Sausage fruit is quite amazing, it hangs out of the tree on long thin branches and can weigh up to 6kg. It is liked by a number of herbivores once it is ripe. One night after an evening game drive we come to our hut in the dark, getting ready fro dinner. We hear this regular scrunching noise right out-side but can’t see what is making it because of the thick foliage. I assume it must be a zebra or hippo at worst and make the comment to Andre ” Well at least it is a herbivore!”
When the guide comes to get us for dinner I mention our discovery, so he steps in front of our hut to investigate. Next minute we hear this massive thump and Josh with a “shittttt it’s a leopard” which just jumped out of the tree and landed next to him! He took a few minutes standing in our hut to regain his composure.
Turns out the leopard had killed a bush-buck and dragged it up our tree, the noise we were hearing was what leopard teeth make cutting through the fur of the animal. Later that night we were intimate participants of the trumpeting of Tom and Jerry who were not happy with the hyena out-side our hut wanting to steal the leopard kill from the tree. Eventually the leopard came back and the night was finished off by munching noises as the bush buck was consumed in our tree. Needless to say we held onto our bladders that night!!!
We spend a total of 5 nights at Kaingo which means leopard in the local language. Each morning the day start at 6.30am with a drum roll, a good cup of coffee and freshly backed cookies before heading out on the morning game drive. The colours are beautiful at this time of the morning, the animals are active and the birds are out in force.
The area is a birders paradise, we see and hear beautiful fish eagles, the stunning lilac breasted roller, franklins, wax bills, horn bills and so the list goes on. Derek has built an amazing hide right over a big hippo pool in the bend of the river. We have the opportunity to sit there at eye level with the hippos, unseen just observing their jostling for the best position in the river, the nurseries of youngsters minded by the nanny Mum and the not infrequent young bull territorial tusk fight-simply amazing!!
There is a lot of game in this part of the park and what is best is that it seems we are with one of a very few operators here so we hardly see anyone else. On one of the afternoon drives we come across a group of three lionesses one is the Mum of three cubs who put on this amazing playful performance for as we sit 3m away totally absorbed.
Each day brings a new amazing adventure, one morning after breakfast 4 elephants stroll into camp enticed by the fruit of the ebony trees which is falling around the huts and central boma. We have to let the Mum with the two youngsters and and young bull have their fill before we can get back to our huts.
After a ride back to the airport with our friendly cab driver Max, who was right on time we flew out to Mfuwe, an hour flight to the South Luangwa National park.
The small town of Mfuwe has undergone quite the boom due to the growing tourism in the region, they are also home to the Tribal Textiles artistry which employs a lot of local talent producing beautiful hand painted textiles which include wall hangings, table clothes, handbags and jewellery, all made on the premises.
The Luangwa river is a massive force through the rainy season which is from the end of October till April. In 2007 there was massive flooding which affected a lot of the ground dwelling animals that are only now starting to come back.
Our first encounter in a big pool filled with hippos, both the pool and the hippos covered in what is called cabbage plants. This covers the heads and backs of the hippos who look like they are wearing green hats, very cute. The hippo is Mariola’s favourite animal and she often joins in with their honking sound:)
When we arrive at the camp we get allocated one of the six huts, ours is the honeymoon suite, right at the end with it’s own bath tub out-doors. We have cute resident frogs in the bathroom and as we are right on the rivers edge we have a constant hippo concert coming through the window. One of the Mum hippos has taken residence below our hut with an 8 week old youngster, very cute.