crocodiles

Camping in Kenya. Mara River fishing

Although I do not like eating fish, I am what the British fishing community know as a “coarse fisherman” and I have been engaged on this activity all my life, although I do not fish much these days. At the time we were in Kenya I was already returning the fish, unless someone would be interested in eating them. Tobias, Paul’s camp hand, was such a guy and if he was around there was no way that a fish would escape his attentions and invariably it would end up in the sufuria[1]!

Tobias was from the Luo ethnic group that dwells around lake Victoria both in Kenya and Uganda and, naturally, they eat fish in contrast to the Kikuyu and Maasai that very rarely, if ever, consume them. The rare event of a Maasai herdsman fishing with me was described a while ago in this blog[2] although whether he would have eaten the fish or not will never be known!

As only driving with your eyes closed would stop you from seeing animals while traveling through the Maasai Mara area, sometimes, for a change, we decided to just chill out around camp and on occasions, try our hand at fishing in the shadowy Mara River. We were able to do this as, by virtue of being outside the reserve, we enjoyed freedom of movement within the limits of common sense and/or lessons learnt!

In the area we regularly camped there were a couple of nice grassy spots from where we believed that fishing could be attempted. The problem was that we knew that crocodiles were plentiful in the River and there was no doubt that they were lurking anywhere under the muddy waters. We had already seen them in action snatching wildebeest during their river crossings. Clearly in this setting, fishing would be a hazardous sport.

After careful consideration we chose a nice opening in the riverine forest that not only offered a good view of the river but also towards our back, an important consideration in the Maasai Mara as dangerous animals were also around us inland! As there were no trees nearby we could handle our fishing gear without major mishaps. I have the innate ability to get carried away with the fishing and end up “hooking” a few trees! Although there were lots of hippos cruising up and downriver, we did not consider them a major problem.

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A view of a Mara River hippo pool to show the colour of the water.

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The aftermath of a wildebeest river crossing.

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The Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara. A lorry and us wait for a herd of Maasai cattle to cross.

So, one of the trips to the Transmara coincided with Paul doing some work with wildebeest on malignant catarrh, a viral disease that affected cattle, and we decided to try fishing. I brought fishing gear and cow liver so we were ready to try our luck. Our intended target was the common and ubiquitous African catfish (Clarias gariepinus). Immediately a worldwide event was born as we represented three Continents: Europe (Britain), represented by Paul, Africa (Kenya, Luoland), represented by Tobias while I was the America representative from Uruguay. Similar to the spear throwing competition earlier[3], it was an intercontinental fishing tournament!

The river was at its normal and flowing gently so that was favourable. What was not were the abundance of submerged trees and branches that poised great difficulties to a normal line recovery. The consequence was severe loss of equipment and we were soon running out of hooks and our lines were getting shorter! In addition, I spent lots of time disentangling my line from the trees that seemed to jump towards me every time I would try to get my bait in the water!

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The Mara River from the DC3 when it did regular flights between Nairobi and the Maasai Mara.

A fish bite was invariably followed by frantic efforts to recover the line in an attempt to get it out while avoiding it getting entangled in the various branches and water plants. However, if you were lucky or perhaps unlucky? and hooked a large fish, the task would become much more difficult as the fish would try to escape by getting inside the branches. In addition, there was the “crocodile problem” as the reptilians would be alerted by the fish splashes and immediately come to “investigate” and get our fish so fast recovery was a must to avoid losing our trophies as those lost “en route” to anything such as snags or crocs would not count.

Paul did quite well and caught more than me. However, Tobias was the star and clear winner. He probably knew things we did not, through years of fishing “for the pot” during his early years near lake Victoria. His technique was simple, almost too simple. He chose to use a hand line and threw it very close to the shore. In this way, he avoided a lot of the snagging and did not suffer too badly from line and hooks losses like us wazungu[4]. He will then wait a short while and pull them out, almost unfairly easily!

mmara-camping-with-catfish-and-tobias-copy

Tobias and the Bushsnob with some of the spoils.

Tobias was delighted, not so much for having won the contest but, much more importantly for him, for having the possibility of feasting on fish for a few days! Although later on we tried the catfish, Paul and I agreed that they tasted like we imagine the Mara River mud would do and, luckily for Tobias, we declined further offerings.

 

[1] Saucepan in Kiswahili.

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/memories-a-fishing-trip/

[3] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/javelin-throwing-almost-olympics-games/

[4] In Kiswahili, white man. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mzungu

Naughty hippo, again…

On our final day, after watching lions and birds, we planned a “sundowner” drink at Nyamandlovu pan to end our safari in style. Before it was time for drinks, we got busy watching the many migratory birds present at the pan. These were a large flock of Abdim Storks and Amur falcons that provided us with much entertainment while they fed on beetles and other insects found in the grass.

A family of five jackals, probably residents of the pan, were also around. While four of them were gnawing at an old elephant carcass, a fifth came close to the viewing platform for a look. As I was on the ground at the time I saw it coming and prepared for pictures. Despite the warnings shouted from above by fellow game watchers for me to be careful, I remained motionless and was rewarded with the closest encounter I have had with a black-backed jackal!

While watching the jackal I heard loud splashing noises coming from the pan and I saw a large crocodile (one of the three present) coming out of the water holding a very large chunk of carcass. I left the jackal to its business and rushed up the platform for a better look. The beast, at the left end of the pan, was violently shaking the carcass and scattering pieces in the water while it swam off with the remains to the opposite end.

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The crocodile feeding on the submerged carcass.

The slow approach of a hippo to the area where the carcass had been shaken apart came as no surprise to my family and I, all well aware by now of our earlier observations on meat-eating hippos at Masuma dam![1] We watched while the hippo approached and searched the area with its head submerged. Suddenly it lifted its head and chewed on what appeared to be a piece of the carcass that it had found! This was a very interesting observation, as we had not seen any of the three resident hippos engage in this activity before, despite having spent many hours there!

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The hippo starts approaching…

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Eating a chunk of the carcass that the crocodile left.

After munching on its find, the hippo left the area jumping in the water in a rather funny display that probably expressed approval at what it had just eaten! Fortunately I managed to take a picture of the crocodile (regrettably only after the carcass shaking took place…) and of the hippo finishing its snack and merrily moving off!

 

 

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/hippos-from-hell-the-videos/ Muy Interesante also covered this issue: http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/los-hipopotamos-pueden-comer-carne-921450193942

Hippos from Hell

In an earlier post I described how Crocodiles[1] were stalking and catching Impala at Masuma dam[2]. What I did not mention yet was what happened next. You will not regret reading on!

Masuma Dam is located in the Hwange National Park (18°43’52.20″S 26°16’47.82″E). The observations described here took place on 13/10/14 from 10.00 to 12.00 hours and on the 15/10/14 from 09.00 to 12.00 hours. The dam is about 120 by 100 metres and it has a roughly oval shape with the viewing platform located on one of the longer parts of the oval.

A "panorama" view of Masuma Dam.

A “panorama” view of Masuma Dam.

The time of the observations correspond to the end of the dry season. At this time of year many animals come regularly to drink at the dam. Apart from elephants, Greater Kudu, Waterbuck, Impala, Zebra and Warthogs were seen everyday. We also saw large flocks of guinea fowl, various doves, vultures, kites, buntings, starlings, among others. At the time there were sixteen resident Hippos, both adults and young animals as well as at least six mature Crocodiles.

Map of Masuma Dam showing the various places mentioned in the text.

Map of Masuma Dam showing the various places mentioned in the text.

Impala herds drank mainly in the morning, mostly at Point 1 in the drawing. Aware of this daily event, Crocodiles were observed to ambush the Impala by positioning themselves across the small bay where the antelopes drank. Usually one of the Crocodiles would approach the Impalas in full view up to 1 to 1.5 metres from them. This created noticeable nervousness on the part of the Impala but they would gradually calm down and drink. The Crocodiles would remain immobile for a few minutes and then slowly sink and completely disappear. Most of the time, the Impala continued to drink and moved off and the reptiles remained quietly submerged.

A Crocodile attack at the Impala drinking area.

A Crocodile attack at the Impala drinking area.

About two or three times in a morning, the hidden Crocodiles lunged towards the Impala. As soon as the swirl that precedes the attack was noted, the Impala scattered in all directions (including into the water!). The most common outcome was that the Crocodiles failed and went back to the water empty-jawed. On one occasion a young animal was caught from its leg and, after a short struggle, it was drowned. This happened only once out of 8-9 attacks we witnessed.

The Crocodile swims away with the freshly caught Impala just before it was chased by the Hippos for the first time.

The Crocodile swims away with the freshly caught Impala just before it was chased by the Hippos for the first time.

While the struggle between the Crocodile and the Impala was taking place, two Hippos approached the area and were seen chasing the Crocodile. The latter submerged and took off while the Hippos lost interest and we speculated on their noble “rescue” attempt.

The Crocodile with the Impala at Point 2.

The Crocodile with the Impala at Point 2.

Ten minutes later the white belly and legs of the Impala came to the surface at Point 2 and caught our attention. A Crocodile held the dead antelope and others came to feed on it. This, again, prompted a swift response from the Hippos, who came back and confronted them quite aggressively.

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The Hippos "rescue" attempt at Point 2.

The Hippos “rescue” attempt at Point 2.

Another view of the Hippos' "rescue" attempt at Point 2.

Another view of the Hippos’ “rescue” attempt at Point 2.

The subsequent struggle involved a Hippo pulling from a leg while the Crocodile pulled from another part of the animal. As the Hippo did not have a good grip on the leg (its teeth and mouth do not facilitate tug of wars), the Crocodile retained the Impala and, again, swam off with the carcass (or part of it as we could not see if it was split or broken up) towards Point 3 in the drawing.

The Crocodile avoided the Hippos at Point 2 and moves to Point 3.

The Crocodile avoided the Hippos at Point 2 and moves to Point 3.

The crocodile stayed at Point 3 for about 30 minutes with the Impala (or a large part of it) in its mouth until another Crocodile came and started to pull and tear at the carcass. In about a minute, a hitherto unseen/submerged Hippo[3] burst into the middle of the tug forcing the Crocodiles to scamper again.

A Hippo moves towards the Crocodile at Point 3.

A Hippo moves towards the Crocodile at Point 3.

The Hippo tug of war with the Crocodile!

The Hippo tug of war with the Crocodile!

The Hippo tries to bite the Crocodile.

The Hippo tries to bite the Crocodile.

The Hippo chases a Crocodile while the other one escapes with the Impala towards Point 2.

The Hippo chases a Crocodile while the other one escapes with the Impala towards Point 2.

The Hippo keeps chasing the Crocodile while the other one swims away.

The Hippo keeps chasing the Crocodile while the other one swims away.

While the Hippo chased one Crocodile the other one, still holding the carcass, swam back to Point 2 where it remained for another 10-15 minutes when, once more, its companions arrived and started to tear at the carcass.

The Crocodile are attacked again after arriving at Point 2.

The Crocodile are attacked again after arriving at Point 2.

Another view of the struggle for the Impala at Point 2.

Another view of the struggle for the Impala at Point 2.

Another view of the Hippo vs. Crocodile struggle for the Impala at Point 2.

Another view of the Hippo vs. Crocodile struggle for the Impala at Point 2.

The Hippos came again and were seen clearly attacking the Crocodiles and even biting them.

One large Hippo bit the head of a Crocodile, who swiftly moved away to avoid severe consequences while other Hippos were also seen biting crocodiles on different parts of their bodies. In the commotion we lost sight of the

Calm was reinstated at the dam for about 20 minutes. The next thing we noticed was a great commotion at Point 4 where the Hippos began to congregate. They were clearly competing for something and eventually several were seen apparently “mouthing” the Impala. On closer observation they were actually chewing and apparently swallowing while bone-cracking noises were heard.

After snatching the Impala from the Crocodiles at Point 2, they congregate to feed on the Impala carcass.

After snatching the Impala from the Crocodiles at Point 2, they congregate to feed on the Impala carcass.

Another view of the final stages of the Hippo feeding frenzy.

Another view of the final stages of the Hippo feeding frenzy.

Unbelievably to us, at the time of these observations, the Hippos were eating the Impala! After it was consumed the Hippos went back to their normal place and peace returned. The moment they lost the carcass, the Crocodiles did not try to recover it.

Confinement in the dam was the best possible explanation I could think at the time for such aberrant behaviour. The event appeared so unusual that, on arrival in Harare, I went straight to the computer to check the Internet. Not surprisingly, I found earlier references of similar incidents and the first report of carnivore behaviour in Hippos came from Masuma Dam![1]

As, very recently the BBC and National Geographic have both published articles on hippo cannibalism[2] I put together these observations to contribute to our general knowledge. I have also contacted Mr. Dudley and we are collaborating on the subject that may result in further work being published in the scientific literature.

[1] It was not easy to see the number of Crocodiles or Hippos involved in the various incidents described.

[2] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/crocodiles-and-impalas/

[3] I was excitedly filming the scene!

[4] Dudley, J.P. 1996. Record of carnivory, scavenging and predation for Hippopotamus amphibius in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. Mammalia 60 (3): 486-490.

[5] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/01/150123-hippos-cannibalism-animals-food-science/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Social&utm_content=link_fb20150125news-hippos&utm_campaign=Content&sf7093531=1

and

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150116-the-diet-secrets-of-hippos-herbivore-or-cannibal

To drink or not to drink!

to drink 1

to drink 2

While on the issue of impala and crocodiles, covered in the earlier entry, I jump my post queue to show you what we observed in Mana Pools National Park last week. The Impalas had a serious dilemma! Luckily for them, they could drink from the small channels while the crocodiles could only watch and wish!

Crocodiles and Impalas

The events described were observed at Masuma Dam in the Hwange National Park. The dam is about 120m by 100m and it has a roughly oval shape. Water is continuously pumped to the dam from a nearby borehole making it an essential water source for the animal population in the surrounding area.

Masuma panorama

The time of the observations -13 to 16 October 2014- correspond to the end of the dry season. Elephants, Greater Kudus, Waterbucks, Impalas, Zebras and Warthogs were regular visitors, together with large flocks of Guinea Fowls and Vultures, to name the most frequent and common. We also counted 16 Hippos and six Crocodiles.

The preferred drinking place was a small bay located towards the Southern part of the dam (seen on the left of the picture above, at the back where some Impalas can also be seen). Most antelopes drank from there, particularly the Impalas that would come throughout the day in herds of various sizes. The figure below shows a typical drinking scene in that bay.

normal impala drinking

A herd of Impalas drinking at the dam.

As soon as a herd started to drink, usually one of the Crocodiles would swim towards them. They did so in full view of the antelopes and stopped at about 1 to 1.5 metres from them.

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A crocodile slowly approaching the drinking Impalas.

On seeing this the impala would withdraw from the water’s edge for a short time but gradually calm down and return to the water’s edge to resume their drinking. The crocodile would remain immobile for a few minutes and then slowly submerge and, eventually, disappear completely.

croc in position

The Crocodile starts to sink.

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The Crocodile is barely visible now and about to disappear.

What followed next was really unpredictable. With the Crocodile (we assume that there is only one!) submerged the Impalas would continue to drink, although very fretfully. Most of the time, the Impalas will get their fill and move off without incident. However, approximately two or three times in a morning a sudden swirl in the water will be the only thing that preceded a violent attack by a Crocodile by lounging itself at the Impalas, moving its head sideways while biting in an attempt at catching one.

Croc attack 1

The Impalas’ first reaction at seeing the water starting to move.

As soon as the impala saw the water movement preceding the attack, they scattered in all directions, including jumping into the water in order to avoid the Crocodile.

Croc attack 2

The Crocodile attack is taking place, the Impalas scatter in all directions, including into the water becoming very vulnerable.

Croc attack 3

The Impalas escaped the attack this time, including the male inside the water.

The most common outcome was that the crocodile(s) failed and went back to the water empty-jawed.

Croc attack 4

The Crocodile returns to the water after the failed attack.

On two occasions, however, animals were caught. We witnessed one kill while the other one took place just before our arrival and saw the Crocodile swimming with the dead antelope. The Impala we saw was a young animal and it was caught from a foreleg. After a short struggle it was quickly drowned.

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A Crocodile swims away carrying the Impala.

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The Crocodile holding the impala after drowning it.

During the time we were at the dam, the Crocodiles caught two Impalas out of eight attacks witnessed.

There was also an extremely interesting follow-up to the kills but for that you will need to wait for a while!!!

 

 

 

Gonarezhou National Park Safari Diary. Day 2

Jackals are intelligent animals, often overshadowed by larger predators. This one was very relaxed but did not miss detail!

Jackals are intelligent animals, often overshadowed by larger predators. This one was very relaxed but did not miss detail!

27/7/14 – The Day of the Jackal

The 27th dawned unusually overcast. No lions roared last night and if they did, they went unheard as the Harare-Mabalauta drive knocked us out and we only managed to leave the bed at about 07:30 hs, not a really early start for a game drive! However, being the sole occupants of the camp spares you from being criticized by any snob colleagues… So, without any pressure we went off after a coffee.

A herd of buffalo were finishing their morning drink and heading back to the bush to feed. The sighting of buffalo never fails to transmit a feeling of things wild and tough. Although cattle-like in their herd behavior, they are reputed to be among the most dangerous bush animals. I have heard and read many stories of people finding themselves in trouble when they come across the lone males that have been chased off from the herd. A colleague, while tending tsetse traps, was chased and treed by one; once up the tree, luckily, the buffalo went away. However, very often they are alleged to hang around waiting for the “victim” to fall asleep and drop so that they can trample or gore them. The problem my friend faced after the buffalo left was climbing down a very thorny tree that he only noticed after his adrenaline level went back to normal.

We had not driven 50 metres from the camp gate when we came across some rather large and familiar paw marks on the sandy track. The lions were very close to camp and we felt bad for sleeping deeply as they must have roared well! There was at least one animal and it had walked towards the camp and its pen gate, over our yesterday’s tire marks. It looked as if it had gone down to the river for a drink. We set off with recharged enthusiasm following the watercourse and its incredible vistas.

Lions had walked on the sand, close to the entrance of the rest camp.

Lions had walked on the sand, close to the entrance of the rest camp.

After about two kilometres we were surprised to find five jackals. One of them looked pregnant. Four slowly moved off but one remained all the time lying down, relaxing and returning our stare from time to time, its ears moving in all directions as not to miss anything. If they had a kill or were coming from one, we could not tell.

This jackal looked pregnant.

This jackal looked pregnant.

We continued on our way and saw lots of impala and some greater kudu. Although there were signs of elephant all over, we did not see any. As our earlier experiences in the park showed, it is difficult to see elephants here as they are wary of humans and tend to move at night. The sign found at Mankonde Pool encapsulates the situation clearly. It is located inside a tower of about five metres high. It says:

mankonde pools sign small

Walking around various view points, taking in the views, and walking in the dry river bed accompanied by serious stone collecting and birding took quite a bit of our time. While walking we saw hyena tracks, both footprints and the whitest spoor I have ever seen. We also saw leopard prints and what we thought were wild dog paw marks as well. All spoor looked rather fresh and we kept looking around in case the owners were still nearby and hungry!

Elephant spoor was all around us during our walks in the river beds.

Elephant spoor was all around us during our walks in the river beds.

 

Hyena dung turns white after a while because of its high calcium content. This one was very white!

Hyena dung turns white after a while because of its high calcium content. This one was very white!

We visited Muwatonga and Rossi pools. We confirmed that the former still remains our favourite spot. There, you can sit on a comfortable natural rock balcony about four to five metres from the river and take in the view. At this spot the river runs gently through rocks and wide deep pools of crystal clear water are formed. Here the crocodiles cannot hide. They are either basking in the sun or -still clearly visible- under water. The water transparency also allows you to follow shoals of tilapia of various sizes cruising slowly or just basking themselves while the fast streamlined tigerfish dart by in groups of three or four.

With its crystal clear water, Muwatonga pools are our favourite.

With its crystal clear water, Muwatonga pools are our favourite.

The frequent splashes heard and seen indicated that this is far from a peaceful pond but rather one where mistakes are paid for with loss of life. It is not rare, after a commotion is herd, to see a crocodile gulping down a fish outside the water only to submerge again when he is done. The sight is another reminder of the danger of crocodiles and the need to walk at a good distance from the water’s edge.

Crocodiles in Gonarezhou are also partial to quelea-eating. It works like this: like its insect colleague the locust, the quelea birds live in flocks that sometimes form “swarms” of many thousands flying in coordination pretty much like the starlings in the European skies. When they need to drink they land on the branches overhanging the river. As they keep landing, the birds that landed first have a quick drink and fly away to avoid being pushed under water by the sheer weight of those coming behind them that subsequently take their place. The branches get more and more crowded as more birds land, to quench their thirst.

While the birds accumulate, the crocodiles, knowing this phenomenon and remembering what they did yesterday, converge under water towards the key areas. Then, all of a sudden, the water explodes and a crocodile jumps out of the water shutting its mouth on the branch. Then for a second or two, it hangs there and then keeping its mouth firmly shut, it slowly slides gently down the branch, leaving no trace of birds or tree leaves. It then lands in the water and swallows its mouthful of prey, together with the green salad. This activity goes on for as long as the birds come to drink and, despite taking place every day, the birds still keep coming back in huge numbers, no doubt driven by thirst and short memories!

Aiming for the Malipati end of the park we continued our trip. On the way, the bird chorus suddenly got louder, giving the impression of a synthesizer being used (very similar to the “Cher effect’ in her Believe song!). We had just entered an area of cellphone signal and WhatsApp was doing its best to deliver accumulated messages to my wife’ telephone.

The road offered a few challenges.

The road offered a few challenges.

The drive ended at the bridge over the Mwenezi at the Malipati entry point. It was Sunday afternoon and some young women were relaxing and fishing under the bridge using porcupine quills as floats. The latter were working well as, after asking the usual “any luck?” question, they produced a couple of nice tilapia that I am sure ended up at their table that night. They were family of the National Parks staff posted at Malipati.

This tree will probably not be here for long.

This tree will probably not be here for long.

After a full day in the bush and with fresh memories of the wonderful river views, we slowly returned to camp. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that the right back tire was flatter but I think it was because of all the stones collected! After our shower failure of the night before, we took our revenge. Few things compare to a bush shower coming from a Tanganyika boiler and this time was no exception.

The bat came back to our chalet. This time it landed inside our empty bath, unable to climb its slippery sides and, again, it needed our assistance to fly off into the night.