Come what may and no matter what is happening elsewhere in the world, over September and October Chris & I will always be somewhere in the African Bush!
This is for us the optimal time to be there as it is at the very peak of the dry season. It’s generally easy to find game and predators and the bush is also more open which better suits Chris’s photography.
After a short stay in Hwange National Park we reached our main destination of Mana Pools National Park in Northern Zimbabwe. We had last visited here 2 years ago and the place could not have been more different. In 2017 we arrived just a few days after the area had been the recipient of a 160mm torrential downpour of rain. Over the 2 week period we were there, we watched as the Park turned into an incredible emerald green jewel. As beautiful as it was, most of the animals had departed into the better feeding areas of the jesse and due to the poor condition of the muddy roads we weren’t able to cover much distance. So, although the Park itself was intensely beautiful, we saw very little.
On arrival this time round, we could not believe the change. Mana Pools was nothing but one big giant dust bowl. There was not a blade of grass or anything else food wise on the ground and the trees had been browsed to maximum height. We were left to wonder what on earth these poor animals could be feeding on.
The toll was immediately evident. Many impalas were covered in mange (a sure sign of poor condition); zebra manes indicated how this species was struggling; baboons displayed the tell-tale emaciated hind leg look and the elephants were just so hard to look at. Almost all had their spines and ribs showing. Sunken heads and sunken foreheads left us in no doubt as to how dire the situation was.
It was all very hard to look at.
The drought is a result of very little to no rain during the 2018/2019 rainy season and now all hope is being pinned on rains that should be due in November. We cannot hope enough that it comes sooner rather than later. Things are just so incredibly desperate.
Have a look below at the differences from 2017 to 2019.
Sentient Beings in The Forest
Our photographic aim for Mana Pools this year was to really focus on photographing the elephants in the magical Acacia Albida forest. At times very special golden light can filter through the tree canopy and at other times a hazy almost mystical blue light can give off a very different effect. Due to the absent vegetation, the spectacular trees were free of clutter and the normally ever present endigopherer (annoying spiky plants that can create a distraction in most images) was missing in action. This gave rise to a great opportunity for very clean and classic wildlife images. Perfect for creating art…
Unique Feeding Techniques
Each early dawn morning gave rise to a new opportunity as the elephants were plentiful as they desperately looked for food. Mana Pools is home to some very unique elephant feeding behaviour amongst the bulls. As the tree canopy gets higher from browsing only the tallest and most ingenious elephants will get to feed.
In the past we have spent many hours with the famous Boswell. This bull elephant has learnt to stand on his two back legs and thus gives himself a tremendous advantage in terms of being able to reach higher into the trees. There was only one other bull doing this, going by the name of Fred Astaire.
On this visit we counted in the region of 6 different bulls now standing on their hind legs. It appears that a desperate situation has led to the necessity of learning an extremely important survival skill.
There are also two other bull elephants engaging in some creative feeding techniques.
The Hyrax has learnt to climb trees with his front legs thereby getting extra height in this manner. I have to say, when you stand back and watch The Hyrax in action, it is a truly bizarre sight!
And then there is another elephant (name unknown!) that seeks out tall anthills situated next to acacia trees. He actually climbs to the top of the anthill thus giving him extra height in this manner. It really is an incredible sight.
Other elephants have cottoned on to these adaptive bulls and they are often followed and surrounded by other elephants, both bulls and females. These askaris are hoping to benefit from large tree branches that are pulled down. Often times they are able to sneak in to grab a few stray branches but it is risky business. A lot of subtle elephant politics is at play and other times pure anger and aggression can be displayed towards the thief. Boswell is perhaps the most susceptible to this and we never saw him without a large posse of followers.
The Special Forests of Mana Pools
For those of you who don’t know, one of the special things about Mana Pools is that it is possible to walk in the bush and one doesn’t have to be confined to one’s vehicle. It is thus a completely different level of wildlife watching and exceptionally intimate experiences can be had. During our 2 week visit Chris & I went on many long walks in the acacia forests that are also occasionally dotted with spectacularly huge Fig trees. There is unfortunately another element to Mana Pools that is becoming disturbingly common, and that is the number of both big Fig Trees and large Acacia trees that are falling down and dying. We don’t see evidence of younger trees sprouting up so it seems something big has changed.
There are a number of theories about the cause but there is one in particular that I find interesting.
With the daming up of Lake Kariba in the 1950’s, the periodic flooding of the Lower Zambezi Valley area (Mana Pools) was effectively stopped. The flooding did two things. First, it provided conditions for the Acacia albida trees to germinate and grow, and second it killed off termites who by feeding on the trees makes them a lot weaker.
True or not, I continue to find it fascinating how as humans we make changes for our benefit even though there is always a consequence. In this case it is nearly 70 years since the creation of the hydro electric station that will possibly lead to radical changes to Mana Pools as we know it.
Mrs Stumpy Tail
We have been visiting Mana Pools for the last 8 years and always stay in same Parks Board chalet, and we love it!
One of the absolute highlights is between 11am and 2pm each day our Lodge becomes an elephant highway! There are obviously various routes that the elephants make use of each day that involve favourite foraging areas and of course water for drinking and cooling down.
The Lodge is located directly in front of a small finger on the Zambezi River and its open floodplain is a perfect spot from which to drink and also to cross to another good feeding area. This means a steady stream of elephants that parade past the Lodge at midday.
Since our first visit in 2012 we have noticed one small female elephant in particular doing this daily route. Her distinguishing feature is a short, stumpy tail and we have always known her nature to be extremely gentle. In 2017 we did not see her due to the heavy rains that had just fallen so on our first afternoon at Hippo when the elephants began to file past we were anxiously on the lookout for Mrs Stumpy Tail. Low and behold at about 2pm I spotted an elephant with a short and stumpy tail … it was her!!
Relief flooded through me and I was so happy I was close to tears. Silly I know, but both Chris & I care deeply for this funny little elephant. Upon closer inspection we were dismayed to observe that she was not in good condition and was painfully thin with her spine and ribs showing. It was heart breaking…
One thing about Mana Pools is that there is an extremely active and supportive community. Lodge owners and regular visitors go to extreme lengths to curb poaching, maintain roads and just take care of the general wellbeing of the Park and its wildlife.
With the severe drought they have proved their mettle yet again. With Parks Board agreement, they are now bringing in bales of high quality hay to feed the animals and this is what is currently keeping many of them alive.
We were in Mana Pools shortly after they began bringing the feed in. It would be dropped at regular intervals along the roads and everything from elephants, to zebra and eland were feeding on it. We were extremely relieved to see that Mrs Stumpy Tail quickly caught on to this extra help and we would see her feeding on the hay most days that it was available. Amazingly, in the 2 week period she seemed to gain weight and by the time we left she was definitely looking in better condition.
In the time we have been home I have been seeing on social media that a number of elephants are starting to die right now in Mana Pools. It’s a critical time now as they wait for the rains and I just hope that the feed is going to sustain at least some of the animals.
Feeding animals is always a controversial situation and while we were in Mana, and now I see in social media, there are strong voices both for and against. My two cents worth is that mankind has had such a detrimental impact on wildlife that when we can help, we need to do so. If things were different, and wildlife wasn’t fenced in, in times of drought animals would migrate to better pastures. Due to human habitation this is no longer possible so I have absolutely no doubt that we should be helping them. Should I even mention the effects of climate change? It was amazing to see how all the operators have made this help possible and I commend them in the strongest possible way.
The Wild Dog and Predator Situation
In these tough times there is almost always a benefactor. In this case the lions and hyena are able to easily hunt the weakened animals. As a result they are in a time of plenty and they are doing extremely well.
The result of their strength means there is also a loser, in this case, the wild dogs. With the extreme pressure from both lions and hyena the wild dogs numbers have dropped from a total of 100 3 years ago (in 4 packs) to just 16 in total (over 3 packs). 1 of the packs has lost 41 dogs in 3 years and very few puppies are making it to adulthood. Lions and hyena not only steel their prey, they also kill many of the pups. So, it is also a very tough time for them.
Whilst we were there, sightings were very scarce and we only saw them on one occasion. It’s a far cry from the days of when the BBC were filming incredible wild dog scenes for the Dynasty’s series.
The Painted Dog Conservation continues do to important work. Shortly after we left, they were involved in relocating a “problem” pack from Hwange National Park. This pack was killing goats in that area and causing conflict with the local human population. They had previously tried to relocate them closer to home to no avail so the last chance was to try relocation in the Lower Zambezi. This is a massive operation that involves flying the dogs in and then keeping them in a large boma area until April next year while they get used to their new surrounds. This also means constant surveillance so a PDC team is in place to do so.
In Africa it is largely small organisations and individuals who are making a real difference on the ground and I really commend everyone involved in work of this kind.
Are things really replaceable?
After more than 70 major safari trips most of the wildlife travel Chris & I do are to places that we know extremely well now and we tend to spend fairly long periods of time in one place. This means we really get to observe individuals very closely. Often, year after year, we are seeing the same individual animals, doing the same things and walking the same paths. On a simple level, if you take note in your garden it will be the same weaver building its nest or the same hummingbird at the bird feeder. What happens when that animal is taken out of the system? There isn’t always the next one of its kind waiting in the wings to take over. We are starting to feel very strongly that these animals are not as replaceable as everyone thinks and when fishing industries are created, a hunting licence is issued or an animal is poached, the pool just keeps getting increasingly smaller. It leaves me wondering, where will this all end? And I think right now we all need to be very mindful of this.
I am aware that there was not a lot of good news in this report but it’s important to talk about the realities that wildlife is facing. It doesn’t take away from how special it was being in the bush. I just love being away from the bustling cities and sitting at night listening to all the night sounds, and the peace one achieves from all of that …