elephants

Grabbed at Chitake

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General views of the Chitake springs

We returned to the Chitake springs in the Zambezi valley exactly three years since our first visit [1]. This time we went alone, my wife and I and, luckily again, we managed to secure the very sought after Campsite 1 (we booked it one year ahead of time!).

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Aware of the “fun nights” that you spend in this amazing place, we prepared ourselves for any eventuality taking our “heavy duty” tent and planned to park our car near one of its entrances as our emergency exit, following the advice of our son, a bit worried about the “oldies” being alone in the wilderness!

The Chitake river with its springs is one of the wildest areas left in Southern Africa. There are only two campsites open to the public (although we learnt that a third campsite can be booked at Nyamepi in Mana Pools). There is also a campsite for tour operators near Chitake 1. This arrangement ensures that you are unlikely to see many people around! In addition, most of the exploring is done on foot so no much driving needed either.

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The fact that water seeps from the ground on a daily basis supports a population of game animals that dwell nearby. There are numerous buffalo, zebra, greater kudu and impala that in turn feed predators such as painted dogs, hyenas, leopards and lions. In addition there is a substantial elephant presence that files daily along the dry riverbed towards the water source.

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Buffalo at Chitake.

Campsite 1 is about two metres from the usually dry river bed and to be there waiting for “events” is an unforgettable experience that not all are prepared to take. We have camped all our lives and taken precautions in Kenya and other “open” camping places.

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The access to the river from Chitake 1.

We did not feel endangered and we knew that the only possible cause of problems would be the lions that were present in the area and we know that they respect tents. Our main concern was about the time you spend at camp in the dark as the camp is surrounded by thick bush. In particular nocturnal physiological needs were a worry as we needed to reach our long drop a few metres away!

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Our possible nocturnal target…

We arrived in the afternoon and spent some time to locate our camp in a spot as safe as we thought possible within the camping area.

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Considering the camping options.

As we had food already prepared, we were in for an early night. We set up our camera trap to “see” what was lurking in the dark around us and went to sleep. The night passed off rather calmly at camp although we heard the elephants walking nearby on the way to the water and the hyenas calling early during the night. We were probably tired and sleep came easily.

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The camp. The car was kept near the tent exit.

We were up early the following morning and all appeared well. We checked the camera trap and confirmed that there was life around our camp.

After that we decided to have breakfast prior to a short game drive as there are not many roads around the area. Then we noted that our 5-litre water container had disappeared! It was one of these supermarket transparent bottles that we had as a back-up in addition to the 40lts we had brought as Chitake does not offer any.

Although we searched the surrounding area, we failed to find the bottle! We could only speculate on the possible culprits. We discarded human interference, as thieves would steal more valuable stuff from the camp. We rejected the baboons as they do not move at night. That left us with the hyenas as the possible culprits. We heard them and saw their footprints at camp. In addition, we had had encounters with them earlier in Kenya and they can get very cheeky! We decided that the latter were likely to be the culprits but the enigma remains.

Our short morning drive took us to a bunch of vultures feeding on the remains of an impala that had clearly been killed earlier that morning. About twenty White-backed were scuffling for the few remaining meaty bits while a couple of Lappet-faced waited for their time to tackle sinews, tendons and the like.

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The rest of the day remained peaceful, contemplating the various animals coming down to drink at the springs from our camp chairs located at the riverbed that -luckily had good shade. While there we were assaulted by tabanids and tsetse flies so we needed to use large amounts of repellent and still we got hammered!

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My wife contemplating the springs from the shady riverbed.

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Tsetse and other biting flies collected from the floor of the car.

Hundreds of impala came to drink in the morning and they were joined by small groups of greater kudu and zebra. When we saw a large dust cloud rising behind the gorge where the springs are, we knew that the buffalo had arrived and they were soon at the springs satiating their thirst. Quite a sight!

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A herd of impala in the distance (the shadow at the back that looks like a predator is in fact a baboon)

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After the dust settle we could see the buffalo drinking.

As usual the day went fast and it was soon time to prepare for the evening. We were encouraged by the relative quietness of the earlier night and hoped to sleep well.

We were mistaken…

There were some early indications of trouble when, as soon as it was dark, several hyenas started to call from different places along the river. When we heard them laughing we knew that they had become excited for some reason, probably a kill although we were in no condition to discover the cause!

From the tent we started hearing elephant movement. We spotted several family groups walking rather nervously and trumpeting frequently showing that they were also nervous. As it was getting late we retired to our tent. I went to sleep soon afterwards as I have a reputation to live up to!

The next thing I remember was that something grabbed my ankle and it was shaking and pulling me! For the few hundredths of a second (or less, I do not know) that it takes to move from being sleep to some kind of alertness I thought I was a goner and that the dreaded time of being taken by a wild beast had finally come. My wife’s voice brought me back to reality: “There is a leopard there!” I muttered “Where?” thinking that it was inside the tent and taking me! I then realized that she was responsible for holding my foot on her third attempt at waking me up!

The picture soon became clear. With one hand she was keeping the torch light on the leopard through the tent window while, with her free hand, she had been shaking me for a while to alert me about the leopard sighting!

I must admit that it took me a while to recover from the severe fright and once I made sure that all my organs were functioning as expected -including my eyes- I looked where I supposed to and stared at the disappearing leopard’s eyes on the riverbed, a few metres away.

My rude awakening took place after 3 am and we were still awake listening to the sounds of the wild after an hour. I then learnt that my wife had not slept much as the leopard(s) had been calling every once in a while and she had been trying to locate them on the riverbed (from the tent of course!). In addition there were some noisy little mice digging under the tent that she tried to fend off by hitting them through the canvas as well as hearing the monotonous calls of the Fiery-necked Nightjar (Caprimulgus pectoralis) in the distance. This bird is capable of up to 110 repetitions of its call believed to say “Good Lord, deliver us” before stopping![2].

The following morning, as expected, we were not up early. After a leisurely branch we did spend time examining the abundant spoor at the riverbed but we did not detect any signs of a kill. We confirmed that the leopard(s), as my wife mentioned, had walked up and downstream. We also found plenty of hyena and painted dog spoor as well as lots of new signs of elephant over their “highway” to and from the springs.

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Checking for activity and spoor at the dry river bed after the long night!

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Elephant footprints next to the Bushsnob’s Croc.

 

The camera trap pictures showed hyenas as well as several elephants walking during the night.

Later on, while exploring the area by car, we found a group of five hyenas resting under a shade. The same as us they were suffering from sleep deprivation as they were clearly some of the culprits of the noisy night resting!

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We spent the rest of the day exploring the river bed on foot and luckily, it appeared that all animals -including us- were drained from the previous night as the last night we spent at Chitake was peaceful and my wife recovered her lost sleep while I did my usual trick of instantly dozing off.

 

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/chitake/

[2] Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa. iPhone and iPad Edition. Version 2.4. Southern African Birding.

 

 

Wild elephants…

As we were in the Zambezi valley, after Mana Pools we decided to spend some time in an area of the river that we knew through our earlier boating experiences when we were in Zambia in the early 90s (blog posts still pending, oh dear!). A number of fishing camps are located near Chirundu town, one of the border crossings to Zambia.

We had fished in the Zambezi before and had some great fun with tiger fish (Hydrocynus spp.) so we wished to try our luck again. We know that there are large Vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis) lurking somewhere[1] that we had, so far, failed to catch (and release, of course).

The road to Jecha Camp was easy to find just before Chirundu and we managed to slip through the very long lorry queues that are a feature at borders, not only in Africa but also in Latin America.

On arrival to this true green oasis after the Mana Pools dryness, we were warmly greeted by the owners of the camp and shown to our comfortable bungalows. In the meantime we were warned that elephants were frequentl visitors. It was stressed that the latter were wild elephants, unlike the ones in Mana Pools (?). We remembered our Nebbiolo wine incident but politely kept quiet. The elephants are part of a small population of about forty individuals that live in the area and that also visit Chirundu town where they -as expected- come into conflict with the local residents.

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There were elephants all the time!

IMG_2967 copy“If an elephant approaches the swimming pool while you are there, move to the opposite side and wait” said the Manager and then added: “they are allowed to drink from the pool but not to bathe”. I immediately imagined the consequences of such an event and remembered the famous elephant in the pool scene of the movie “The Party” with the late Peter Sellers!

After arrival we spent the sunset at the hide overlooking a small stream where we spotted bushbuck and s few rats up the tree where the hide was built on. After dark we went back to camp (by car as advised) and we were greeted with the “elephants in camp” warning. We were advised to move carefully around the facilities in the dark. As we had no plans for “night walking” we were not too concerned but, indeed, the elephants were walking about feeding on the pods from the apple-ring acacia from the lawn. One of them -I thought smartly- was picking pods only from under one of the camp lights!

That night after going to bed, we heard a commotion at the back of our chalet and realized that two elephants were apparently busy unpacking our car! When we went to inspect the situation, we saw that, despite the watchman’s efforts to shoo them off, they were intent to get the contents of our roof rack! Only then we realized that we had -carelessly- forgotten our Mana Pools rubbish bag on the rack and that was the reason of their intense interest! Aware that there was nothing to be done -apart from re-collecting the rubbish the following day- we returned to bed, leaving a worried watchman that we failed to persuade to leave the animals alone!

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One of the troublemakers near the car, after the rubbish incident.

Luckily, the following morning the car was still there, intact, but we spent quite sometime collecting all the bits and pieces that they had scattered around the area!

Elephants were not on camp sometimes but rather all the time! In several occasions we were forced to move away from our sitting areas to keep a prudent distance from the pod-collecting giants that would get too close for comfort.

Although we tried our hand at fishing, only our son caught a medium-sized tiger fish after a lot of boating efforts over the two days we spent in the river. However, fishing was only the excuse to travel the Zambezi! We had a great time remembering our old days when we navigated these waters in our inflatable rubber dinghy and we really enjoyed seeing the large pods of hippo and the occasional elephants drinking and feeding at the river shore.

 

[1] From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vundu: The vundu is the largest true freshwater fish in southern Africa, reaching up to 1.5 m (5 ft) in length and 55 kg (121 lb) in weight.

 

Check in…

Some “local customers’ heading for the Reception area at Mana Pools National Park.

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Needless to say that we queued correctly while guessing what their business was!

Luckily, they seemed satisfied when they left a while after!

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Only then we proceeded to check in!

This is the beauty of Mana Pools National Park: the unexpected is commonplace.

Nebbiolo wine

Our son visits us in Zimbabwe every year during his holidays and we usually include his favourite place, Mana Pools National Park, as part of the holiday. This year we managed to get a good spot at Nyamepi campsite, just a few metres from the mighty Zambezi river.

We had not yet set up camp and we knew that we were in for a bit of “camping fun” as one of the large elephant bulls found in the park was walking about the campsite making a clear statement of who are the owners of the place.

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DSC_0424 copyWhen we saw it chasing one of the camp attendants we knew that it meant business! Luckily the charge was just a show of dislike and the man got away. The elephant walked after him into the park staff houses and nothing more was heard.

We had also been warned that monkeys and particularly baboons were worse than usual and fast becoming a real problem in the camp so we decided to ask the park for help and they allocated a guard to keep them off our tents as they have the habit of destroying them for no apparent reason! We were rather surprised when our guard came and we recognized him as the same man that was chased by the elephant earlier! Clearly they had some unfinished business among them. However, as his present terms of reference were to keep baboons and vervets away, we decided to give him a chance and we were not disappointed.

Although Mana Pools offers many attractions, we link it to elephants. I have already written in this blog about Big V and Boswell as two of the most notable of the pachyderms here. We did not spot them during our first afternoon drive but, when returning to camp in the evening, we noted that three large elephant bulls were there but we could not see them very well. However, this was nothing unusual as they are normally in camp!

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We took some of our travel tiredness away through great bush showers and it was a refreshed team that tackle dinner preparation. Of course we always enjoy a good barbeque so our son took over as he is the expert while my wife’s territory is bush pasta dishes and mine, well, I keep them merry and busy… Eventually we sat at the table to enjoy some great T-bone steak (rare) and sausages. Our son had, as a special treat, brought a couple of wine bottles from Italy and we decided to go for the Nebbiolo the first night keeping the stronger Barbaresco for a later occasion.

Nebbiolo is the grape also used for the better known Barolo and Barbaresco varieties, all from the Piedmont region of Italy. Its name comes from “nebbia” which is fog in Italian, a frequent phenomenon in the region.

Elephants, despite their size, walk in almost total silence so when we noticed the three bulls, they were within ten metres from us, just at the edge of the circle of our camp light. We knew that they were feeding on the acacia pods from the apple-ring acacia (Faidherbia albida) on the ground so we ignored them and continued enjoying our food and drink. Suddenly we heard one of them head-butting one of the acacia trees closeby and we had a shower of pods around us on which the three colossi started to feed. So far, nothing new.

However, after a while we saw that one of them stopped feeding and came under our light. Now, to see an elephant at such close quarters is rather impressive and we stopped eating wondering what would happen next while reassuring ourselves that it was only interested in the pods. Just in case, we started coughing and knocking our glasses gently to let it know we were there!

The bull, clearly the boldest of the three, took a couple of more steps towards our table! We still -but just- kept our cool while continuing making various noises to make it change its mind but, eventually, the giant was so close that my wife and son stood up and moved a couple of metres behind the table. They were wise. We all know that elephants are large but, when you meet them at close quarters, seated and at night they are really humongous!

My attempt at holding the fort lasted for a few more seconds but my nerves left me when it took another step towards me despite my companions’ efforts at stopping him by banging pots and other noisy objects. I joined wife and son at a prudent distance: the other side of the table! As behind us was the river, we were really in a tight spot! All we could do now was to watch!

While the other two elephants remained a few metres back, our visitor took a final step and it literally leaned on our table. Its trunk delicately sniffed our dinner and I thought “End of table and dinner!” but it did not touch anything. However, at some stage its trunk went to my plastic wine glass, placed its trunk over it and spilled it, probably as a protest for the poor quality of the wine ware?

The spilling of the wine was the turning point of the visit and the elephant swiftly moved towards our tents. There it tried to walk between them. As the latter were separated by a one-metre gap the potential outcome was not good. “Gosh” my son said, “if it walks through there our tents are gone!” However, realizing the situation, the elephant luckily backtracked and moved off to join its two patient mates that were still watching the proceeds from a distance.

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Our tents with one of the camp dwellers in the background.

Consulting the internet I learnt that the Nebbiolo wine has complex aromas, including roses, cherries, truffles, and mints and there can also be traces of tar, tobacco and leather. Clearly one or more of them were attractive to the jumbo.

Once the elephants moved away we resumed our dinner. Luckily the wine bottle was intact and I could refill my glass! During the next couple of days, the Nebbiolo, perceived as the new “elephant target”, was until its sad end, carefully corked and locked away in the deepest recesses of our car only to be opened after the “elephant all clear” announcement was made.

Matlakusa

You will recall that on 20 August 2014 I published a post titled “A tusk task” (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/a-tusk-task-2/) where I presented the finding of ab elephant bull that, as far as I could tell, had not been identified before. I called this animal the “Balalala tusker” as we saw it near the Balalala area at Kruger National Park.

A month later in “Unraveling the tusker mystery” (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/unraveling-the-tusker-mystery/). I reported that I got confirmation that what we had seen was indeed a new tusker that “will definitely escalate him to the top of the list when the time for the naming review comes and hopefully at that time he will be confirmed as a new bull and named“.

The naming process took a while during which I kept asking the Emerging Tuskers Project (ETP) of the Letaba Elephant Hall of the Kruger National Park for progress but I had no news for over two years. When I was starting to lose hope, on 28 June 2017, I received an e-mail from the ETP that I reproduce below.

Dear Julio,

I am sure you are convinced by now I had forgotten you. I am sorry this process took so long… I finally got the media release and approvals done and I can formally tell you now that your bull is named Matlakusa. 

It proved quiet an interesting story in the end, as once we had identified your bull as a new bull, we noted that with one of our other new bulls some of the submissions characteristics matched your bull better and we actually managed to split these sightings far more accurately after the great series of images you and another contributor provided so it actually helped link the two new bulls and discover a completely new bull and a new area for him as well.

Below is the link to the website as well as the info for Matlakusa (this is a summary of the info that is on file with the project), if you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact me.

https://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/elephants/tuskers/emerging.php#matlakusa

Origin of Name: ‘Matlakusa’ from tlakusa, in Tsonga meaning to ‘raise, lift up’, this is a large open pan and bore-hole, alongside the eastern border, southeast of Malonga in the Kruger National Park and links to this bull’s large home range. 

Range: Northern and Far Northern KNP. 

Special Features: This bull’s ivory closely resembles that of Xindzulundzulu, that it is fairly symmetrical, straight and widely splayed with a shallow curve from a side profile. The left ear holds the defining characteristics that separate these two bulls, there is a R5.00 sized hole in the tip of the lobe as well as an area of damaged cartilage at the top give a large v-shaped ‘collapse’ in the ear. A very small u-shaped notch and two R0.20 holes are visible on the middle of the lobe but only at close inspection and with the ears extended. The right earlobe had a R0.50 sized hole towards the bottom of the lobe that has recently been torn and is now a u-shaped notch with a small hole towards the inner lobe above this. Other than this the lobe is fairly clean edged. A small protrusion of skin is visible on the trunk at the top adjacent the left tusk. Visible from a side profile is a growth on the left foreleg behind the leg just above the joint.

General: Initial images of this bull from Joël and Di Roerig were identified as Xindzulundzulu due to his ivory shape. Later in 2014 a full series of images submitted by Julio de Castro [1] between Shingwedzi and Balalala created a dilemma as at the time as Xindzulundulu was known to only be local to Shingwedzi and a new bull was suspected. Additional images by regular contributor Frans van Achterbergh submitted showing his left and right side allowed the defining characteristic’s to be seen and to be able to determine that there were in fact two separate bulls. This revelation allowed two previous sightings one of which was by Ian & Deirdre Outram and the other by Forum member Lion Queen both in 2012 that were both previously thought to be Xindzulundzulu but could not be confirmed as the locations did not make sense and defining characteristics in these images were not very clear. However the receipt of the 2014 submission with clearer images could confirm these identifications. Several other images placed with Xindzulundzulu’s monitoring file could now also be separated out as being those of Matlakusa and in 2015/6 it was decided that sightings of him were sufficient to name the bull confirming his status.

Kind Regards

Kirsty Redman, Interpretive Officer, Nxanatseni Region, Kruger National Park, South African National Parks.

As you can imagine we are delighted that our contribution assisted the ETP to identify Matlakusa and separate it from Xindzulundzulu as a new tusker.

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Matlakusa showing off its ivory!

We look forward to find Matlakusa again during our next safari to the KNP next week. We hope that Matlakusa will continue to live its peaceful life for many years to come and that its ivory stays with it, where it belongs!

[1] the Bushsnob.

 

Place of many elephants

It is clear that the more places you see, the more you learn and the more you realize the little you know! Enough of philosophical exertions and focus of the post, I hear you thinking!

Climbing Wrights’s tower to look at the Mwenezi river below spurred my curiosity about who Mr. Wright was but also about the general area where the Gonarezhou[1] National Park is located. The Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area was created on 9 December 2002. It took another four years for parts of the fence separating Limpopo in Mozambique and the Kruger national parks to be removed allowing important movement of game across the hitherto fenced area. Things move slowly in conservation!

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Wright’s tower.

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The sign in Wright’s tower.

Although in April 2014, Mozambique and South Africa signed a memorandum of understanding on biodiversity conservation and management of the area, particularly addressing rhino poaching in the Great Limpopo area, Gonarezhou is lagging behind in this integration. There are, however, fresh hopes that the unique agreement, signed in 2016, between the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to form the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust may facilitate further integration.

Allan Wright was a district Commissioner in Nuanetsi, the District where Gonarezhou is. He arrived to the area in 1958 and declared himself to be an “ardent conservationist”. After a quick exploration of the topography, soils and plants found in the area he was convinced that it was “…From and agricultural point of view the whole area was in the lowest category, almost a wasteland…”.

So, the plans to divide it into farms for African farmers were gradually scrapped and his intentions made clear when he proclaimed:

Before me, as far as the eye could see, was the vast, empty Gonakudzingwa Purchase Area – ’empty’ only in the human context for it teemed with animal life … the great wilderness looked mysterious, haze blue, inviting. What a heritage! What a wonderful national park this south-east corner of Rhodesia would make.”[2]

So, Mr. Wright managed to persuade the then Government of Rhodesia not only to spare the area from farming but also to give him funds to develop it. He describes his time at Nuanetsi in two books [3]. Mr. Wright’s efforts survived the years to come after his retirement and eventually crystalized in the creation of the Gonarezhou National Park in 1975.

Considering the Gonarezhou in the larger context of the Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area, the point where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe meet is known as Crook’s Corner. Suspecting that the name had its reasons, I investigate it further and this lead to the unraveling of some interesting facts!

It was because of its “tri-national” characteristic that Crook’s Corner attracted a number of outlaws that found the facility of moving among the three countries very advantageous. Apparently, the exact location of Crook’s Corner is on an island very close to the place where the Luvuvhu River flows into the Limpopo, near to the Pafuri area of the Kruger National Park.

Although there were other brigands, Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard placed it in the world map. Barnard sought refuge there from his illegal activities related to hunting and poaching, two activities very difficult to tell apart in the 1900’s. “The one who swaggers as he walks” that is what his Shangaan nickname Bvekenya meant, arrived there in 1910.

Bvekenya’s derived his living from hunting and or poaching mainly elephants for ivory as well as illegally recruiting labour for the mines (known as blackbirding) as well as trading animal skins. It was a tough life, persecuted by police and exposed to malaria! Bvekenya functioned illegally over vast large tracts of Portuguese East Africa and Rhodesia, successfully running his ivory past the law.

It seems that Bvekenya was a bit of an oddball, to put it mildly and, during the twenty years that he operated in the region, based at Makhuleke, he carried out a number of interesting exploits, from taming a herd of eland for milking to praising lose the beacon indicating the frontier so that he could move it to “migrate” his camp to a different country according to which one was after him! A larger than life character that T.V. Bulpin immortalized in his book “The Ivory Trail” [4].

More amazing still were Bvekenya’s conservation ideas that led him to suggest the creation of a Trans-frontier park at that time (1900!)! It would take over one hundred years before the politicians in the various relevant Governments agreed on the issue and it is still unfinished!

Bvekenya’s hunting ground included the present Gonarezhou National Park. In that general area he shot a number of large elephants for their ivory. It is believed that he was not a careless hunter and that, before killing an animal, he would check the dung with his Shangaan trackers to ascertain the age of their quarry. Only elephants that had passed their prime would be shot and then nothing was wasted as the meat would be consumed by the local people.

Despite his hunting experience Bvekenya was mesmerized by the sight of a particular animal known as “taller than the trees” in the local Zulu language: Dhlulamithi! Bvekenya met this very large tusker while hunting somewhere in Gonarezhou or nearby, at a muddy pan. The bull elephant towered over the large herd he was with. The ivory that Dhlulamithi carried touched the ground while it walked, leaving grooves in the sand behind its path! Bvekenya attempted a shot at the giant but, luckily for Dhlulamithi, a younger bull that walked in front of it at the fatal moment was hit and Dhlulamithi got away unscathed.

Bvekenya never forgot Dhlulamithi and, while still hunting and or poaching other animals, he kept following it. It took Bvekenya many years to find it again and when he did, towards 1929, he had it in his rifle sights but did not shoot the animal exclaiming “Let it live”.

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Tusk size and shape varies with the areas. This bull in Hwange National Park carries thick but rather short tusks.

Whether this took place or not is an issue of debate as other chroniclers claimed that Bvekenya -an inveterate commercial ivory trader- would not have missed such a tusker. This thesis is supported by the appearance in 1932 -a few years after Bvekenya ‘s retirement- of two humongous tusks that were claimed to be Dhlulamithi ‘s that were eventually auctioned in London. The tusks weighed 73 and 73.5 kg and their origin is unclear. They are meant to be now at a London Museum.

Luckily, there still are elephants carrying heavy ivory roaming in the Kruger National Park and, with patience they can be found at the various watering points, particularly in the Northern part of the park [4]. Whenever I see one of these colossuses I hope that Dhlulamithi ‘s genes are still present in them!

These two “friends” were leaving one of the waterholes in the north of the Kruger National Park.

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Masthulele seen at the Letaba river  (Kruger National Park), together with the tusker below, the largest tuskers I have seen so far.

If lucky, next time I see these colossuses I will remember this story and hope that what I see still carries Dhlulamithi’s genes that will be passed to future generations.

The above, seen by the bushsnob in 2014, is no longer an unknown tusker! (In this regard, see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/a-tusk-task-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/unraveling-the-tusker-mystery/ and the next post coming soon!)

 

[1] “Place of many elephants” is the Shona language is the more accepted meaning of Gonarezhou. It is also translated less often as “sacred place of the elephants” or “elephant’s tusk”.

[2] Quoted from from Wolmer, W. (2007). From Wilderness Vision to Farm Invasions. Conservation & Development in Zimbabwe Southeast Lowveld. James Currey, Oxford. 247p.

[3] Wright, A. (1972). Valley of the ironwoods: A personal record of ten years served as District Commissioner in Rhodesia’s largest administrative area, Nuanetsi, in the south-eastern Lowveld (unknown publisher) and Wright, A. (1976). Grey Ghosts at Buffalo Bend, Galaxie Press. Both books are out of print.

[4] Bulpin, T.V. (2011). The Ivory Trail. Protea BoekhuisEds., 4 edition. 240p.

 

Postcript: Apart from T.V. Bulpin’s The Ivory Trail book I recommend to visit the following links that will provide you with more detail, if interested:

https://www.africahunting.com/threads/the-legend-of-dhlulamithi.15191/

http://www.pendukasafaris.com/history/remembering-bvekenya-country-life-february-2003/

 

Baobab Teenager

Last week, driving around Chipinda Pools in Gonarezhou National Park, we spotted this baobab that reminded me of a youngster when growing so fast that the clothes that fit today do not tomorrow! It seems that the young and growing baobab needs another pullover to cover its belly!

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In fact, elephants had damaged the base of the tree and the absence of bark contrasts with the intact part of the trunk that shows a healthy coppery colour further up.

Elephants badly damage baobabs, particularly when food and water are scarce as they get the latter from the soft trunk. Lots of baobabs are damaged in this way and the problem is particularly noticeable in Gonarezhou.

The examples below are from Tsavo West National Park, Kenya in the eighties and Mana Pools National Park a couple of years back.

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Baobab damaged by elephants in Tsavo West National Park.

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Another damaged baobab, this time at Mana Pools National Park.

Gonarezhou three years later. Northern area

We were last in Gonarezhou National Park almost three years ago and I wrote about our impressions then [1]. This time the idea was to try the Chipinda Pools Tented camp so we booked ourselves there for five nights from 21-26 August.

Interesting developments had taken place during our absence. The management of the park had changed when on 30 June 2016 the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority signed an agreement for the creation of the Gonarezhou Trust. The latter represents a new management style for a National Park in Zimbabwe, aiming at running the park in a sustainable way on a long-term basis.

The first thing we noted was that the park can now be only booked at the Chipinda Pools office and not at the Harare Reservations office as all other national parks. Despite the distance from Harare (about 500km), the process was smooth and I soon arranged for our stay through an exchange of messages via Messenger and e-mail that ended with an advance payment to secure the bookings.

The trip went smoothly and we were not stopped at Police checkpoints at all despite the rather long distance! After Chiredzi we turned towards the park and drove through land managed by the Malilangwe Trust [2]. We wondered at the time if they would have accommodation that we could try another time [3]. We were soon at the Chipinda Pools gate where we produced our booking at the reception to a friendly lady.

As the checking of our papers was taking a while we took the opportunity to read some of the posters that explained the work on the various predators that is being carried out at the park. Our reading got interrupted when we heard the lady saying, “I have bad news!” As you can imagine, she was successful in calling our attention so we were with her in a second while we heard her adding: “Your booking is for the 21st all right but of September, not August!” and she handed me over the voucher I had given her moments before! While my heart was sinking, I confirmed my error and cursed myself for not checking the booking earlier!

It was about 16:30 hours so my wife and I looked at each other and both said the same thing: “Maybe we will need to see if Malilangwe has a lodge after all!” However, before playing that last card I asked whether there was any chance of putting us up for the night at the staff camp and then decide what we did the following morning as it was now too late to depart. I felt that I was wasting my words as the lady was on the phone and ignored my plea!

As we could not hear her conversation in the office, we waited, unaware of what was going on. The uncertainty lasted until she hanged up and informed us that she had just confirmed that the camp was full as it was time for school holidays in Zimbabwe. We were clearly in a tight spot and awaited again while she made another call before finally declaring gravely: “Sorry, no luck, we are full”.

At a loss, my jerk response was “So, we go back to Harare”, feeling rather upset with myself but ready to accept the situation and go away. Then, to our astonishment she burst out laughing as only Africans can do! “I was joking,” she said, “a colleague is coming to see if what we have would be OK with you”. After recovering from narrowly missing a heart attack, I calmed down and -internally- celebrated her sense of humour and I even managed what I thought it was a smile but probably it was a smirk!

Eventually we were shown into one of the tents that are normally used by researchers that happened to be empty. We were told that, unfortunately, we needed to share the ablutions with other people. We were so delighted with the offer that we immediately accepted it as it was for the duration of our booking! We noted that we even have our own painted dog couple residing at the tent although they were papier-mâché ones!

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Our tent.

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The veranda of our tent.

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The setting.

The camp was composed of four tents with a communal kitchen and ablutions nestled by a small stream that flowed into the Save river a couple of hundred metres down the river. The camp was well shaded and it was very well kept. We finally settled down while noting that the tent had large windows closed only by mosquito mesh and curtains so we prepared for a cold night and we were happy to have our sleeping bags with us!

That night, now relaxed, we enjoyed our dinner and, after reinforcing the provided bedding with our own warm bags, went to bed for what I thought it was a well deserved rest while congratulating ourselves that we managed to survive a potential disaster. Later during the night, we heard lion roaring while it walked by our camp and we were happy to be smug in our strong tent! The following morning we learnt that there was a lone male lion stationed near camp at the time. Despite the lion living next to camp, we did not see it, unfortunately.

We spent the day exploring the area and we took a recommended route that brought us along the Sililijo stream. As soon as we left camp we climbed a hill and had a great view of a large tract of the park through which the Runde river meanders its way towards its meeting with the larger Save river.

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The view of the Runde river.

Soon we had left the Runde river behind and, after a route that was rich in game we re-joined it near the Chilojo Cliffs, Gonarezhou’s famous landmark.

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The Chilojo cliffs. Gonarezhou’s landmark.

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Another view of the cliffs.

Among the animals we found on the way were elephants, buffalo, giraffe, impala, greater kudu and eland. Yet again we admired the numerous baobabs and realized that the plentiful rains have had a positive impact on the vegetation cover as the park was very bushy. This, of course, had a negative impact on game spotting but we did not mind that at all as it was clear that the game numbers are on the increase!

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A female Greater kudu watches us.

After enjoying a picnic by the cliffs, followed by the mandatory bush siesta we waited a while longer for elephants to come to the river but, as they did not come, we decided to return to camp. As usual, we underestimated the distance and we arrived rather late as we took a wrong turning and, near the camp, we got charged by a loud trumpeting lone elephant bull that we just managed to see. The animal was very nervous and it kept coming towards us until we finally managed to avoid it and safely get back to camp. Later we learnt that the elephant was scared because of the proximity of the male lion.

We arrived tired and looking forward to a shower, dinner and bed. However, the appearance of the game ranger in charge of tourism, stopped us in our tracks. He was the bearer of more bad news: our tent was needed for some unexpected visitors! He asked us if we would mind moving to the Mabalauta area in the southern part of the park where there was room for us at Swimuwini Camp. Aware of the well known saying “beggars can’t be choosers”, we immediately and gladly agreed and convened that we could leave at about 09:00 hours the following morning.

The next day, before departure, we had a chance to talk to other guests that told us that it was possible to drive to the Mabalauta area through the park and that it was a nice and scenic drive. This was good for me as I also wished to have a look at a place called Lion pan as, years back, I was told that it was -obviously- good for lions… So, thanking the management for their hospitality we departed at a leisurely pace towards our new camp, about 100km south.

Our drive was, as expected, interesting although we did not see many animals. A rock monitor (Varanus albigularis) that crossed the road and a Purple roller (Coracias naevius) were the only animals of note we saw although there were plenty of hornbills and other common birds as well as a few squirrels. We found elephant spoor but no sign of the pachyderms anywhere. Unfortunately we missed the GPS point where we should have turned East for the Lion pan so we decided to explore it the next time we come.

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A river on the way to Mabalauta in the south of the park.

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Most pans had water, product of the excellent rains of last year. This one is on the way to Mabalauta in the south of the park.

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A male namaqua dove.

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The rock monitor that slowly crossed the road showing us its rather long tongue.

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Close up of the rock monitor.

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/gonarezhou-national-park-safari-diary-day-1/ and the two posts that followed.

[2] See: http://www.malilangwe.org/

[3] After returning to Harare I learnt that they have a lodge called Singita Pamushana Lodge.

 

 

 

 

The water elephant

For hundreds of years humanity has discovered and classified the organisms that inhabit our planet. However, even today we continue to find new species. These are not tiny insects but fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, some even very large!

In 2004, while we were working there, United States scientists discovered a new species of monkey in the jungle of the Madidi National Park in Bolivia. The ape, of the group of the marmosets, was placed in the genus Callicebus. Following a novel initiative, its species naming was the result of a contest in Internet won by the Golden Palace Casino. This institution paid U$S 650,000[1] for the name Callicebus aureipalatii that -in Latin- means Golden Palace![2]

So far in 2016 several new species have been found. Some of them are small animals that can be considered difficult to see. However, this is not the case of the seven-metre long Black Whale defined as a new species this year. The finding is so recent that it still does not have its scientific name![3]

In addition, there is a new shark called Ninja lantern shark (Etmopterus benchleyi), found in the sea near Costa Rica in 2015.[4] Again, United States scientists studying aboard the Spanish research vessel Spanish B/O Miguel Oliver, discovered it. The species name refers to Peter Benchley, author of the novel Jaws.[5]

So far we have dealt with the amazing animals that have been discovered. But what about those animals suspected to exist but that we have not yet found? Cryptozoology is the study of animals -“cryptids”- that are believed to exist. The example that comes immediately to mind is “Nessie” the Loch Ness “monster” in Scotland that, despite a long search, continues to be the epitome of the elusive creature.

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However, other instances exist of other beasts that had been seen but never confirmed. One of them is supposed to dwell in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and the information comes from a professional hunter called R.J. Cunninghame. This experienced hunter became world famous when he shot dead a hippo that attacked the then US President Theodore Roosevelt while on safari in East Africa in 1909.

A Frenchman named Le Petit told Cunninghame about Water Elephants that he saw in 1907 during his five-year stay in the Congo. Le Petit saw them for the first time while traveling through the river in the wetlands between Lake Leopold II (now Lake Mai-Ndombe) and Lake Tumba.

The first time he saw just a head and a neck that appeared on the water surface. His companions, natives of the place, told him that what he had just seen was a Water Elephant. Later he saw the animals again. This time they were five and he allegedly watched them for about a minute. He described them as between 180-240cm tall with relatively short legs and curved backs, elephant-like.

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The water elephant by artist and writer Philippe Coudray. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Their heads were ovoid and elongated with a short trunk of about 60cm in length (tapir-like), but no tusks were seen. Their skin reminded him of hippo skin but it was darker. They walked with an “elephantine” gait that left footprints in the sand with four separate toes. This was the last time they were seen as they quickly disappeared into deep water. His fellow local companions reaffirmed Le Petit that the animals were common in that area and that they spent much time in the water, like hippos.

Interestingly, in the same general area another animal is reputed to exist, known as the Mokele-Mbembe, a creature believed by cryptozoologists to have a prehistoric look similar to “Nessie”. Although several expeditions have searched this area of the Congo, none have found it or the Water Elephant.

However, the Water Elephant existence came to the fore again when in 2005 a pilot flying over Lake Tumba apparently spotted them again. The animals seen would fit the description of Le Petit!

Not many scientists believe that a beast of this size can still be unknown to science. However, the Congo region -like Bolivia and others- has surprised us earlier with the discovery of other interesting creatures. You may also think that what Le Petit saw were African Forest Elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), considered as pygmy elephants for quite some time but now as small specimens of L. cyclotis. This is unlikely for an experienced observer.

Le Petit’s description would fit that of the Moeritherium if the latter had been taller than its estimated one metre height.[6] Philippe Coudray, who I thank for his permission to use his picture of the Water Elephant, theorizes that elephants regarded as extinct -such as the Water Elephant- could still exist. He bases its reasoning on the finding of a tusk with a reverse curvature to normal elephants in 1904 in Ethiopia. The fact that the tusk was not fossilized would indicate that the animal did not live so long ago. The cryptid species postulated would be smaller than a prehistoric elephant known as the Deinotherium.

During our safaris we have seen elephants with weird-looking tusks.

THis year, while visiting the Kruger National Park, we spotted an elephant with one of its tusks pointing downwards so these tusks are still on live elephants! It reminded me of the Deinotherium-like cryptid!

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Did the Water Elephant ever exist or what Le Petit saw were the smaller forest elephants? The area of Congo where they could be is still difficult to access so a final solution to the mystery may yet take a long time. In the meantime we can only wait.

 

[1] Donated to the Madidi National Park.

[2] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/7493711/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/internet-casino-buys-monkey-naming-rights/#.V7brlZN97-Y

[3] http://www.livescience.com/55623-new-species-black-whale-in-pacific.html

[4] http://www.oceansciencefoundation.org/josf/josf17d.pdf

[5] https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etmopterus_benchleyi

[6] http://carnivoraforum.com/topic/9742488/2/

Note: This post is a translation and adaptation of an article published in the Spanish on-line Muy Interesante magazine. If interested see: http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/el-elefante-de-agua-y-otros-animales-que-no-sabemos-si-existen-721474540407

Nota: Este artículo es una traducción y adaptación de uno publicado en la revista Muy Interesante. Si tiene interés vea: http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/el-elefante-de-agua-y-otros-animales-que-no-sabemos-si-existen-721474540407

Big V

Boswell and Big V[1]  are the best-known elephant bulls in Mana Pools National Park. I recently reported about Boswell’s skills to feed on his hind legs[2], a rather unique trick. When we witnessed an elephant feeding on Acacia pods overhead and I reported in an earlier post[3] was Big V so I have already introduced both to you.

Mana Pools this August was extremely dry, as last year the rains were not good. For this reason the area looks more as it does towards the end of the dry season in November than it should be in August: a dust bowl! I believe that the animals are in for a tough two to three months until new rains arrive, if they do as these days weather patterns have changed.

Luckily for most of the animals in Mana the Zambezi River is there and, together with the pools that lend the name to the park, they provide water and fodder to keep the grazers going while the trees such as the apple-ring acacia (Faidherbia albida) will supply elephants with browsing. The animals that seemed hardest hit at the moment were the hippos that need to consume large amounts of grass so it was common to see them walking about during late afternoon already far from the water.

While checking in we learnt that lions had been spotted around an area known as Mana mouth. After recovering from the six-hour journey from Harare and, after unpacking and organizing our lodge, we decided to go there as it is close and the sunsets there are usually beautiful, even without lions! We never reach our destination as on our way we found Big V!

With him were, in addition to his usual young male retinue, a young female and its small calf, something unusual as large bulls tend to hang out on their own or with a few askaris[4]. He towered over the lot and he was clearly the undisputed leader of the group.

In an interesting contrast to his dominance over other elephants, Big V is an extremely relaxed elephant that allows the human observer to approach him either in the car or on foot. In contrast, the younger males can be more boisterous and occasionally perform threatening displays and mock charges that remind us that we are dealing with wild animals!

On this occasion it appeared that Big V was doing some “community” work by pulling down branches from an apple-ring acacia. Clearly, for the elephants this was the equivalent of eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant!

Although Big V was not standing on its hind legs “Boswell style” it stretched and reached high up the tree, to a height the others could not. As a result of its efforts large branches were brought down showing a great dexterity with his nose (it is easy to forget that he was breathing while doing this!) as well as the damage elephants can do to trees!

He will then fed on them, including the main branches, some of which were really thick! While Big V was eating, the other elephants were eager to collect any fallen pods or small branches but from a distance as Big V’s belly rumblings were sufficient to keep them all at bay! Well, not all…

The small female and her calf approached the feeding giant ignoring his rumblings. Expecting some rebuke we were surprised to see that they slowly got closer and closer  she started to steal bits of the branch to feed. The calf was also allowed into Big V’s inner circle and managed to pick some scraps. The large bull completely ignored them!

 

DSCN0022 8.49.54 PM copyAt one stage, the female even took bits of the branch from Big V’s mouth!

The reasons for this closeness I ignore but it was unexpected and we spent a few minutes watching how it developed. Spellbound with these interactions, we forgot about the lions and when the light was fading we returned to our lodge still talking about what amazing creatures elephants are!

 

[1] This elephant has a large v-shaped notch on its left ear.

[2] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/08/17/boswell/

[3] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/10/14/elephant-overhead-and-it-was-not-dumbo/

[4] From Arabic, an askari was a local soldier serving in the armies of the European colonial powers in Africa. It is also used for security guards and the young bulls that accompany large bull elephants.