Hippos

The Chongwe confluence

After the traumatic experience of the riots, things calmed down for a while. Mabel came back with the news that her pregnancy was going well and she was happy that we were going to have a baby girl. We decided to start exploring Zambia, starting from places relatively near Lusaka, before the pregnancy advanced and our travel got reduced.

Among the items we “inherited” from the earlier project was a mechanic to maintain the vehicles called Des. It was through bringing the cars to him in the outskirts of Lusaka that we got to know him and his wife Mary very well. We spent a few Sunday lunches together with a number of their friends, including businesspeople and hunters, among others.

Amid their close friends was Chris, a son of a Scottish father and a Zambian mother that was a very prosperous businessman, owner of the largest petrol station and spares shop in Lusaka. From the start we realized that we got on well and it did not take too long to discover that we shared the passion for fishing and we became friends.

He was a very kind man, very supportive of our efforts to enjoy Zambia and it was him that arranged for our rubber dinghy maiden voyage at the Kafue Marina and participated from the exercise with great enthusiasm.

Assembling the rubber dinghy for the first time at the Kafue Marina. The Kafue River is in the background.
Testing our new rubber dinghy.

Chris knew every fishing spot in Zambia, and he kept boats in several of them so that he did not need to tow a boat whenever he wished to go fishing! Apart from Kafue, he had boats in Kariba and lake Tanganyika, to name what I recall now. One day, he invited us to join him at a place known as the Chongwe confluence. We happily agreed to meet him there travelling by land in our now repaired Land Cruiser while he would get there from the Kafue Marina.

So, we left early on a Saturday and followed his travel instructions taking the road to Chirundu (the border with Zimbabwe) and turning left a few kilometres before to enter on a dirt road (now the RD491) towards Chiawa. We drove on and we came to the Kafue River where we waited for the pontoon to arrive as it happened to be going towards the opposite shore. We joined the other cars in the queue and had a few “mates” [1] while we waited.

When the pontoon arrived we paid our fee and boarded it, together with the other cars. The crossing was quite picturesque as the pontoon was operated by a couple of guys that would pull from a rope and move it across. Of course, the passengers were free to join in the effort to make the trip faster! Luckily, there was not much of a current and the operaton was successfully completed after about thirty minutes.

The human-powered pontoon.
Mabel pouring hot water to our mate during the crossing.

Leaving the Kafue River behind we drove through a narrow dirt road for a while until we came to the Zambezi river where the road turned left and from then on we drove along the river following its current. After a while we passed what looked like a derelict farm with a number of windmills in the water. Apart from pumping water from the river, we could not think of anty other reason for their existence but we did not stop to investigate as we were anxious to get to our destination.

After a long but beautiful drive along the river where we saw planty of game, including many elephants, we go to the confluence and found Chris. He was already fishing while two of his employees were busy cutting the very tall grass and collecting the rubbish left there by other careless campers to enable us to camp in comfort. Although we were meant to be at the Lower Zambezi National Park, its existence was still in its infancy.

We were on the Zambezi river shore at the point the Chongwe River entered it, a place renown for its good fishing. I believe that there is a luxury camp there nowadays [2]

Chris loved fish and he knew a place where Tilapia [3] were abundant. He told us that the fish congregated at a particular spot where tree branches came down to the river offering shelter to the fish that stayed there, probably feeding on the muddy bank. He explained to us that the river there formed a “gwabi”, a place where the water turned against the main current and fish liked.

He sat on a canvas chair with his rods pulling fish out. He had the system well oiled: another of his sidekicks was gutting them and dropping them in a frying pan without delay! We could see that there was already a good pile of freshly fried fish. I realized that Chris loved fishing more than I did and that he not only enjoyed the actual fishing but loved to eat his catch as well.

We left Chris to continue getting our lunch and went to a place where the grass had been cut to set up our camp. A number of large trees offered good shade in the campsite and we were the only occupants, apart from a few elephants busy pulling tree branches that largely ignored us. We joined Chris and his men for a purely Tilapia lunch that, even to me that I am not fond on fish, tasted delicious, probably because they were fried as soon as they came out.

After a good siesta we took off on his boat after tiger fish (Hydrocynus vittatus). We trolled along the banks with a couple of rods with shiny lures traying to get the attention of this carnivorous fish. Tigers are fast and ferocious predators that would attack the lures violently and eject them when jumping outside of the water. We had a few strikes that we missed but still we enjoyed the action. Luckily, by sunset I hooked one that I managed to land. It was my first tiger fish, and a reasonable one as well so I was extremely pleased and so was Chris that had skipped the boat for me to get it!

My first tiger fish.

In twilight we returned to camp, guided by the fire and our lights, had another Tilapia dinner and, as usual in Africa, we went to bed early for a well deserved rest after a long drive an a very exciting fishing day.

As it often happens, things did not work out as planned.

A couple of hours later we were woken by a leopard started calling very close from our tents and, although it was not a threat for us, it was a rather loud leopard! As the calls continued, we decided to find it. So, Chris and us got in our car and started to drive around trying to reach the place of the calls that now, as usual, stopped! We drove for a while but nothing appeared in our headlights.

We were about to turn around when we caught a glimpse of a spotted hyena running through the thicket and we followed it through the bushes until we came to an area next to the river (about a couple of hundred metres from our camp) where there were a number of racks made with sticks that had been recently used to dry meat and, before we could think what meat it was, we bumped on a large hippo head lying on the ground.

The hyena was after the meat that was left on the head and the leopard was also part of the action but we were not sure on what capacity. We knew that we would not spot it after our drive with headlamps and spotlight and we returned to our camp. Fortunately, our sleep was not interrupted again.

The following morning, we were up early for a sightseeing tour of the Zambezi. It was the first time that we had a chance to appreciate the unmatched beauty of this “mighty” river that traversed very dry country and it was its lifeline. The water was unbelievably clean (at least for our standards) and it contained bright specs that we learnt to be suspended mica particles.

Zambezi River view.

The deep parts of the river showed a dark green hue while the many sand banks were brownish and carefully avoided by our skipper. There were a number of islands between us and the opposite bank that was Zimbabwe, where no motor boats were allowed as the area was protected and it included the Mana Pools National Park, a place we would come to know in the future.

Seeing the windmills, now from the river, we express our perplexity about them to Chris. He was quite amused while hetold us that this had been the farm of someone called Winston that, in the mid 80’s, had convinced President Kaunda that he could make oil from grass! The machines -probably operated by the windmills? – were crushing grass at one end while oil was coming out of the other! The President, convinced by the project manager, had travelled by helicopter to visit the farm and even gave Mr. Winston a Zambian diplomatic passport! The latter was probably deported once it was discovered that the oil was coming from a jerrycan! [4]

We saw lots of game. While the groups of hippo were rather abundant and often loud, there was also game along the river banks where the ocassional crocodile could be seen basking. Apart from the large numbers of elephants, we also spotted many impala and buffalo as well as several troops of baboons. There were also many interesting birds in addition to the expected fish eagles that dotted the shore perched on top of their favourite trees. The African skimmers (Rynchops flavirostris) were great fun to watch while flying a few centimetres above the water with their longer lower mandibule -extremely sensible to the touch- in the water. The moment it encountered a surface fish, its beak would snap shut and fly off to process its prey.

The morning passed very fast and it was soon time to return to camp, pack and start the return journey. Chris would stay longer for an afternoon fishing as his return by boat was much shorter and he wished to store a few more fish to take home.

We had gone through a great experience and we decided that the place was worth another visit.

[1] Mate is a traditional South American drink made by soaking dried leaves of the “yerba” plant (Ilex paraguariensis) in hot water and sucked through a metal straw from a container typically made from a calabash gourd.

[2] See: https://timeandtideafrica.com/time-tide-chongwe-camp/

[3] Several Tilapia species occur in the Zambezi River. For details see: https://zimninja.org/zambezi-river-fishing/

[4] See https://zambiareports.com/2015/03/26/chama-oil-if-only-it-had-become-reality/

Cannibals!

I already described hippos competing with crocodiles to eat their impala prey at Masuma dam in Hwange National Park [1] and this observation was part of a comprehensive publication on the transmission of anthrax among hippo populations [2].

5 - Hippo rescue attempt at 2 second view

Hippos trying to get an impala carcass away from the crocs.

The 2018-19 rainy season in Zimbabwe was very poor and Hwange National Park was no exception receiving much less than its 576 mm yearly average. So, during a visit in mid-September 2019 the park was very dry and several of the pans were drying or already dry.

This situation was also severely affecting some of the dams that require pumping to keep an acceptable water level. Both Nyamandhlovu and Masuma dam pumps were hardly able to cope with evaporation and elephants’ thirst despite working full time.

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Only one hippo was seen at Masuma of the usual number of about sixteen individuals that we had seen during earlier visits. We believe that the missing hippos had moved to Mandavu reservoir, a much larger water body situated 15km away.

So, we went to visit Mandavu and noted a large number of hippos still there as there was plenty of water. While observing the hippos we noted a dead one floating close to the shore opposite to the picnic site and, as expected, there were a number of crocodiles surrounding it.

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Hippos and crocodiles around the dead hippo carcass. Credit: Julio A. de Castro.

There were also a few hippos and they were feeding on their dead relative!

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Hippo feeding on the carcass. Credit: Julio J. de Castro.

Joe Dudley has mentioned to me that he believes that hippos are not able to open up a carcass and that they depend on natural fermentation or on other carnivores to do so in order for them to feed. It is likely that the crocodiles had eaten part of the carcass and the hippos were taking their share. The hippos were seen pushing the carcass and submerging to later emerge chewing and swallowing.

After about one hour the wind started blowing the carcass towards the centre of the lake and the hippos did not pursue it, staying at the opposite shore with their pod.

This is not the first report of hippo cannibalism [3] but the present observation adds the Mandavu reservoir to other areas in Africa where this phenomenon has been reported.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/

[2] Dudley, J. P., Hang’Ombe, B. M., Leendertz, F. H., Dorward, L. J., de Castro, J., Subalusky, A. L. and Clauss, M. (2016), Carnivory in the common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius: implications for the ecology and epidemiology of anthrax in African landscapes. Mammal Review 46 (2016): 191-203.

[3] Dorward LJ (2015) New record of cannibalism in the common hippo, Hippopotamus amphibius (Linnaeus, 1758). African Journal of Ecology 53: 385–387.

 

NOTE: This post has been adapted from the following publication: de Castro JJ, de Castro M, de Castro JA, and Ruiz Teixidor P. 2019. Hippo cannibalism. Biodiversity Observations 10.14:1-3. https://journals.uct.ac.za/index.php/BO/article/view/828

 

 

 

Windsurfing with hippos

As you will learn later, I took up windsurfing during our holidays at the Kenyan coast but I never got beyond the beginner’s level, basically due to lack of practice.

There are two fresh water lakes in the Kenya Rift Valley, Naivasha and Baringo. The former is a weekend destination for many people in Nairobi that we use to call “water babies”. The lake was not a reserve and it was open to people to sail and fish at will while staying in the various luxury hotels spread along its shores [1].

Lake Baringo is much further away to the dry north and to get there requires quite an effort and it is not really suitable for a weekend break. We visited it sometimes as a stopover when heading for other destinations and perhaps twice as our final destination.

Lake Baringo has an area of 130 square kilometres and the Molo, Perkerra and Ol Arabel Rivers are the rivers that feed it. It has no known outlet but it is believed that its water seeps through the bottom into some underground current where it finds an impermeable layer. There are over 470 species of birds there, occasionally including migrating greater flamingos as well as a Goliath heronry located on a rocky islet known as Gibraltar that is an amazing sight!

baringo island camp

Island camp.

The lake was believed to bee free from Schistosoma parasites and also that its crocodilian inhabitants, because they were not disturbed, also did not bothered swimmers and sailors. The hippos, however, were “normal” and it was advised to give them a wide berth, as there were quite a number, particularly near the shores. Despite this potential danger the local Njemps fishermen moved about the lake in tiny boats and rowed with some special paddles that they fitted in their hands!

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Young Njemp rowing in the lake.

We always camped at Robert’s Camp and we spent time walking and driving around the lake in search of some of the rare birds that were present there. One occasion we shared the camp with some colleagues from Muguga that were keen on sailing and they had also brought their windsurfing gear.

They insisted that I borrowed it to have a go. I put forward the excuse of the low temperature of the water trying not to mention my concern for the hippos and, to a lesser extent, the crocs but they insisted.

I had seen the abundant hippos present at the lake and pointed this out to them but they convinced me that, as far as they knew, there had never been an accident with either hippos or crocs. Seeking consolation in the way the Njemps fishermen move around the lake, I thought that the windsurfing table must have been at least twice the size of their boats and, therefore offer more protection in case of an attack.

So I bit the bullet and ventured into the lake! It all went well starting in the open water, far from the shore and eventually my friends, seeing that I would manage on my own, went on sailing, faster than me and soon I was forgotten by all!

JC windsurfing from slides 1 copy

Preparing to start.

After about an hour of sport, not being really used to it, I got tired and decided to head back to our camp. This meant coming closer to shore where the hippos were! Luckily I managed to sail in the right direction and eventually I got within a short distance from our camp. Now I needed to get there! This was easier said than done.

Between me and the camp there was a shallower area that could only be negotiated through a narrow canal and there, in the middle of it, a pod of hippos were doing whatever hippos do when they are inside the water as a family!

I was in a tight spot and quite concerned! I decided to do an exploratory approach to the beasts to see how they would react to my presence and then stop. I did so at about twenty metres from them and they replied with some grunting but nothing else happened. I took this as a half-hearted warning to the semi-naked human that was approaching them.

The situation was becoming tricky but in what I now regard as a foolish (but rather courageous) move, decided to go for it and gathered speed, trying to keep to the side of the channel where I saw no hippos.

Although I thought I was going fast, I am sure I would have been dead meat if the hippos wished to go for me. Luckily, they only watched me pass and snubbed me by showing me their fat rear ends! Eventually I managed to hit the coast at full speed and felt very relieved.

JC windsurfing from negatives 1 copy

Going for it.

When my colleagues returned to collect the table I was already relaxed and kept the incident of the hippos to myself.

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Evening at lake Baringo.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/11/23/lake-naivasha/

Tsavo West National Park

A large male leopard was the first animal we saw when we entered Tsavo West National Park for th first time. This immediately placed this park among the top in Kenya, even before we saw anything else! After that, we visited it many times as it was relatively close to Nairobi and ideal for a weekend escapade. It never disappointed us as, apart from fewer tourists than Amboseli, Tsavo West had a number of attractions, all of them framed by some of the most magnificent scenery I have seen in Africa.

Sunset Tsavo W like fire copySunset Tsavo W copyTsavo W 2

Although we camped at first, we soon discovered the Kenya Wildlife Services self-catering lodges in Ngulia and Kitani. The latter became our favourite: cheap and quiet. It was simple but roomy, well located and with a great verandah. In addition the bungalows were close the Poacher’s lookout a great place to take in the immensity of the park and with great morning views of Kilimanjaro. We stayed there most of the times we visited.

Tsavo West map

Map of Tsavo West showing the places mentioned in the post. Kitani at the bottom with Mzima Springs nearby and Chaimu volcano near the scenic Rhino valley.

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The area around Kitani at dawn.

Although, compared with the Maasai Mara and Amboseli, Tsavo appeared as devoid of animals, gradually you learnt to find them and it was one of the best places to see lesser kudu, klipspringers, fringe-eared oryx and gerenuk, apart from the expected large game.

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A sleepy lioness pondering where to go!

The exception being black rhinos that had by then already disappeared. In addition, it was a bird paradise and, during the rains, although some of the roads were treacherous, the flower blossom was stunning!

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Getting stuck with the kombi was not too hard and this happened sometimes when the rains were heavier than usual. I recall when, in desperation, I dug under the spinning wheel and placed our BBQ grill to get some grip! The result was disastrous as the grill was ejected far into the bush and we did not have barbeques that time! But these were exceptional days and usually the roads were dry red dust as it did not rain that much.

Tsavo W stuck with paul rossiter

The red soil turned to mud in the waterholes and gave elephants and buffalo an interesting look that blended them well with the surrounding redness of the area.

Tsavo West was not only large but lots of it was very broken terrain, product of the intense volcanic activity that the area suffered eons ago. More than sixty species of mammals, four hundred species of birds and one thousand plant species are found at Tsavo.

Of interest is that to the north of the Mombasa road the park, being drier, belongs to the Somali type of environment while the South is of the Maasai type. The result of this was that species that are normally separated by hundreds of kilometres such as the Somali (Struthio [camelus] molybdophanes) and the common ostriches (Struthio camelus) are both found there [1]

Our favourite view, apart from Kilimanjaro were the Chyulu hills and the Shetani lava flow, one of the first things you see when you enter through the Chyulu gate. Shetani means ‘devil’ in Kiswahili and it was named by the locals when they first saw fire erupting and flowing on the ground some five hundred years ago, as they believed that it was the devil himself emerging from the earth! The Shetani black lava flow is 8 km long, 1.6 km wide and 5 meters deep.

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The Chyulu hills as seen from the road to Kitani.

The Chyulu hills are also the source of the water for one of the best-known features of Tsavo West: Mzima springs. The hills are composed of volcanic lava rock and ash, which is too porous to allow rivers to form. Instead, rain and mist penetrate through the rock, and may spend many years at an underground “lake” before emerging fifty kilometres away at the springs.

We went to the Chyulus and camped in one of the hundreds of small volcanoes, where the only track we found took us. At the time there was nothing there and we not only needed to cut the grass to make our camp site but also to carry all the necessary water as, although misty and wet in the mornings, there was no surface water. Although we had great views from there, wild animals were scarce and we did not enter the Shetani caves, not for fear of the hyenas that are believed to dwell on them, but for lack of proper lights to do so.

While on the subject of volcanoes, the last major eruption is believed to have taken place around two hundred years ago and, apart from some of the still black hills at the Chyulus, there is another black cone at Tsavo West itself: Chaimu, also of relative recent origin.

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The view from the Chaimu cone.

Coming from Uruguay where the highest peak is just over five hundred metres, we had never set our feet on a volcano, leave alone a recent one! By then our knowledge of vulcanology was zilch as we had only seen Sicily’s Mt. Etna from the plane! It was extremely interesting to see how the lava had solidified forming long black ribbons of rock that could be extremely sharp and hard and so fresh that there was only incipient vegetation.

Walking on the cone was rather dangerous as the floor was not stable and you were likely to slip and fall on razor sharp rocks. Despite this and the warning sign that you could meet dangerous inhabitants while climbing, our friend Luis managed to persuade us to go for it. I must say that we did enjoy the steep walk and the views from the top and that we only saw scattered hyena dung but did not meet any dangerous animals.

The first we heard of Mzima springs was through a couple from Britain: Ken and Betty that were at Muguga with us and with who we later shared a couple of outings. They had been walking towards the springs when they came face to face with a lioness. Luckily they did not run but stood their ground until the lioness moved off. Then they managed to slowly retrace their steps and, once they reached the safety of the parking area and still shaken, they mentioned their encounter to the Game ranger on duty. “Oh, there are usually two of them!” was the reply! Our friends did not return to see the springs that day!

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So, it was with that story fresh in our minds that we first visited Mzima Springs. We got the “all clear” from the ranger on duty and followed the same footpath that Ken and Betty had followed. Although we never came across any lions that first time we had difficulties with rather vicious monkeys, both baboons and vervets and, somehow, Mabel was surrounded by them and had to use her binoculars to defend herself and come out of a tight spot!

The path to the springs was indeed lionesses-free and what we found amazed us as few places had so far. The walk took us through the usual red dryness of the area and then, suddenly, we were surrounded by lush vegetation while the noise of running water became more audible.

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Hippos at the top pool.

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Mabel about to find something!

Eventually we got to an area where you could see several springs gushing out of the volcanic rock that produced crystal clear and cold water. The various water channels gradually converges following a gentle slope and some way down formed the first of the pools. The water there was still crystal clear and we could actually see the hippos under water while crocodiles sunning themselves in the shores.

Amazingly 227,000 cubic metres of water gush daily from the various springs. The water had been filtered during its 40 kilometres traveled underground from the Chyulus. The Mzima waters start running as a stream and then get blocked by solidified lava, disappear underground two kilometres downstream and resurfaces again to later join the Tsavo river that, in turn, it reaches the Galana River. Since 1966 the springs’ water supplies the coastal city of Mombasa.

In this true oasis the fever trees were spectacular and full of weaver nests to the point that the branches seemed not to be able to support them all. There were also fruiting trees such as date and raffia palms, waterberries (Syzygium cordatum) and fig trees grew near the water, their submerged roots absorbing nutrients to be transformed into fruits that fed the various primates and birds. We spotted vervet monkeys, baboons the rare Sykes monkeys (Cercopithecus albogularis) while hearing the calls of the fish eagles and seeing flashes of colour as the various kingfishers darted from their perches to the pool and back.

At the various pools the hippos did their part to sustain the food chain by grazing outside the water and coming back to defecate in it. A number of invertebrates will feed on the dung and these are, in turn, preyed upon by fish and the latter by cormorants and terrapins.

The springs were made famous by Alan and Joan Root documentary “Mzima: Portrait of a Spring” filmed in 1969 and much later Alan directed a Survival Special “Mzima: Haunt of the River horse” in 2003. Below I include a clip of the latter.

Attribution: Clip 1 of Mzima: Haunt of the River Horse (2001). Filmed by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone and Directed by Alan Root. Survival Special.

Apart from the hippos Mzima Springs offered water to a variety of animals such as zebra, buffalo, giraffe and various antelopes as well as elephants. It soon became our favourite spot and we spent many hours contemplating it while enjoying its relative freshness compared to the usual heat of the area.

An observation hut to facilitate watching what goes on under water was built in 1969. We spent many hours in it waiting to catch a glimpse of hippos underwater. This was not easy and we ended up watching lots of fish turning around the thick glass with the occasional sighting of terrapins and cormorants.

tsavo w mzima sp

None of these distracted us from our primary objective that remained to spot hippos underwater, the way the Roots had seen and filmed it. Eventually, before we knew all the fish by name!, we managed to have a couple of great sightings in eight years, two every four years of waiting!

However, when it happened, it was such a spectacle that I still remember it vividly. It started when we spotted a moving floating papyrus island that moved. A while later a hippo appeared very close stepping gently and slowly on the bottom of the lake while it passed in front of us and slowly vanished, followed by a few dozen fish!

The second sighting was a female with a young that, again, walked in front of the observation window and, again moved off getting lost in the mud that their passing rose. But not all was sweetnes in the Mzima hippo world.

One occasion we arrived and an agitated ranger warned us that two males were fighting at the top pool and that we should be careful when approaching the area. We heard their splashes and loud gruntings way before we got to the pool so we knew that they were inside the water so we approach them slowly and carefully.

The pool was totally changed as the water was getting muddy because of the stir that the two behemoths had created. It was clear that this was not the usual face off that lasts a while and then one of the opponents leaves the fighting area. They were goring each other ferociously while some other hippos were close to them and it looked to us that it was a fight to the death or at least until one of them was severely injured.

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We watched for a while and left as it was a really bloody afair and not nice to watch particularly if you, like us, liked hippos. However, the following morning we returned to see the results of the fight but the pool has returned to normal. We did not find traces of what had happened and certainly we did not see a dead hippo anywhere so we still do not know what the outcome was.

Unfortunately in 2009, a severe drought killed most hippos at the springs and they were no longer at the top pool when I visited Mzima springs in 2012. Luckily, the large hippo pods that were present downstream were still there and, apparently, thriving.

While planning one of our visits to Tsavo we learnt of a small little camp by the Athi river known as Bushwhackers. In Nairobi we found Mrs. Jane Stanton, its owner, and she gave us valuable information on how to get there following the turn-off at Kibwezi on the Mombasa road.

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Resting at Bushwhackers.

From Jane, who was about to retire after almost 30 years of bush life by then, we learnt that Hugh Stanton came out to Kenya as a small boy in 1907 and started collecting animals for museums. Afterwards they started Bushwhackers as a game trapping camp for museums and zoos and that Martin and Osa Johnson [2] used as their base in the 1930’s while visiting Kenya during their pioneering film-making in Africa.

At first we found the place rather disappointing as, not being a reserve or national park, was being encroached by people and, apart from baboons and vervet monkeys, no other mammals were seen. The exception was, according to Paul, a large male eland that would come down to drink after midnight when things were dead quiet. I never knew where he got that story and we could never confirm it.

We soon realized however that, despite the absence of land mammals, there were still hippos and crocodiles as well as a large numbers of birds and insects that were worth watching and also it offered an entry point to the Athi River and great walks through its sandy bed.

We visited the place often afterwards and we could see, by the photographs that decorated the reception area, that years back it had been an area where large mammals did flourish! Still there were interesting creatures like the angry baby spitting cobra (actually spitting at us!) that we found at the bottom of a river pit and that we rescued despite its anger!

Genets often visited us at night. They managed to squeeze through the chicken wire to get at our food and refuse and they often woke us up when they knocked things in the kitchen of our simple reed-walled bungalows. On one occasion a mother with two tiny replicas of her came earlier than usual and they were a joy to watch

 

[1] See: http://kenyabirdmap.adu.org.za/index.php

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_and_Osa_Johnson#Osa_Johnson’s_The_Big_Game_Hunt

 

Hippo drama

The drought that Southern Africa is experiencing this year was evident already during our visit to Mana Pools in September. Despite the Zambezi River providing sufficient water, grazing was the main issue as the riverine pastures were very low and the patches of green left were those that are inedible.

Browsers and grazer/browsers were still in good shape but large grazers such as hippos and buffalos were already walking longer distances to get to areas that still had grass cover and these were dwindling fast. The hippos’ normal timetable was visibly altered as we “bumped” on several walking far from the water during the mornings and afternoons when, during normal years, they are in the water or sunning themselves by it.

Despite the Mana Pools “warning” the situation we found in the Kruger National Park (KNP) -Lower Sabie and Satara areas- was worse than expected. According to Swemmer (2016)[1] rainfall at Phalaborwa, one of the KNP’s camps, during 2014-15 was 255mm (the long-term average being 533mm) and the 2015-16 figures are extremely low. Two consecutive years of very low rain, combined with very high temperatures is regarded as rare and extreme. It is even likely that this drought will be the most severe since records started to be collected in 1954!

Different views of a very dry KNP (pictures by Mabel de Castro).

The consequences are there for all to see!

In the dry season the park usually has reasonable grass cover. This year there was almost no grass to be seen! The consequences of this could be immediately seen as few live hippos remained in the Lower Sabie River and the nearby Sunset dam. The ones we found looked rather strange and rather long-legged as their normally bulging bellies had shrunk enhancing their legs’ length! In addition, their skin hanged in folds, a consequence of their loss in body condition.

I regret that some of the pictures are disturbing but I need to show what was taking place.

We also noticed that the hippos did not move much and grazed on whatever they would find near the water bodies. As grass was scanty, they would just gradually weaken and die. Buffalo were also having a rough time and we only saw small groups looking thin. Interestingly, in some areas, both hippos and buffalo were doing better.

It is clear that the drought will have a severe impact on the animal population of the park but also on the vegetation cover as we also saw dry or drying trees that were also damaged by elephants searching for their own food. The re-establishment of grass, shrubs and trees will probably take years. The same applies to the animal populations that may not reach previous levels if the observed drier conditions become the norm in the future. In addition the drought will also accelerate soil erosion and modify the watercourses and other water bodies. Interestingly and somehow alarmingly, this is the first time that no Mopane worms have been recorded since surveys began in 2009 (Swemmer, 2016).

Trying to be optimistic about the future, it is possible that the current dry spell will have some beneficial impact by fine-tunning the situation to a future drier climate by reducing the herbivore populations while allowing vegetation to recover and, in a longer term, prevent overgrazing and environmental degradation.

Independently of the various possible interpretations of the impact of the drought on the environment, it is clear that even if the rains would come now, more animals will surely die before food becomes available. These are the ways of Nature, again.

 

[1] Swemmer, T. (2016). The Lowveld’s worst drought in 33 years? Understanding the long-term impacts. Consulted on 2/10/16. http://www.saeon.ac.za/enewsletter/archives/2016/february2016/doc02

 

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

Hippo disclosure

While searching for suitable pictures to post in Instagram (#bushsnob, just in case you are curious…) I found a picture of communal defecation by hippos at Masuma dam. As I have recently -and entirely by virtue of being observant- become involved with facts about hippos that will probably change the way we look at them, I thought this short post was justified.

5 - Hippo rescue attempt at 2 second view

Hippos chasing crocs to get at the impala carcass!

There are many great stories about animals in Africa and, although I learnt this one some time ago, it had been stored in a part of my brain that I no longer have access to, because of all the new activities I am involved in (the real reason will not be disclosed!).

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A hippo “tusker”. Note the left tusker also protruding in the upper lip.

Anyhow, apparently when the world was created, God, as you can easily imagine, encountered many problems. A lot of them God solved immediately but several remained, perhaps because God was busy solving the important ones. Among these was the “Hippo problem”. The latter found itself in a dilemma about its lifestyle that required a consultation with God.

“God” hippo said, “I know you have created me, but what do I do now? What do I eat? Where do I live?” A busy God did not have time for individual animal bellyaching so, from the top of his head said: “Well, you will live in the water but you will eat grass”. Surprised Hippo repeated “I will live in the water but I will eat grass?” This did not make too much sense to it as it had seen his reflection in the water: big mouth and big teeth! “How am I going to convince fish that I will not eat them? They will not let me enter the water!” he commented. Still busy, God told Hippo to make a plan!

Hippo left God’s office deep in thought and organized a meeting with the fish to convince them of his life plan. “I must prove to the fish that I have not eaten them!’ thought Hippo, and he met with the fish and eventually they came up with a pact: Hippo could spend the days with them in the water if he could prove he was not eating them. Hippo would prove this by spreading its dung each time, to prove to the fish that he was a trustworthy neighbour! Hippos still do to this very day.

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Hippos defecating together in the water.

As you know, hippos spin their tails while defecating to distribute their excrement over the greatest possible area and, contrary to what I thought, hippo defecation occurs in the water and it is not rare to see fish following them. Male hippos in particular are very precise in the spreading of their excrement!

Funnily enough, I do not remember having witnessed a hippo peeing! Apparently they pee backwards and are known as are retromingent animals.

Enough of hippo’s bodily functions!

A “new” hippo

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Those of you who have read this blog on 22 February 2015 (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/) and watched the videos I posted later (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/hippos-from-hell-the-videos/) would remember the extraordinary observations that the hippos present at Masuma dam at Hwange National Park were actually eating Impala meat. A reminder below:

This observation was so incredible to us –seeing it happening in front of our eyes without previous knowledge- that it was almost the sole topic of conversation for the rest of the trip! It was only after we returned and I found an earlier record of a similar event also observed at Masuma almost 20 years earlier[1] that my mind relaxed, but only for a short while. What we thought that happened it was what actually took place! I believed that the observations were of great importance and that they merited further follow up!

Luckily, establishing contact with Joseph Dudley (Joe), the responsible of the observations and publication, was straight forward and he replied to my message telling him of our experience within 24 hours! The possibility of some collaboration to write our observations was considered from the start. Later on Joe realized that there were a few reports and that it was worthwhile attempting a joint paper. On 20 October 2014 he wrote: ” I think that it would be good to connect the dots between these three recent observations ………..”[2] This was the start of Joe’s efforts to put together the people that have had experience on hippo carnivory and although he asserted to me recently (2 December 2015) that ” It was your contacting me after your experience in Hwange that pushed me to made this paper happen…” the idea of the joint paper and the effort of writing and coordinating it was his! My contribution to the exercise was minimal and I could safely say that I was only the straw that broke the camel’s back!

Civilities aside, Joe managed to put together a group of people with complementary expertise and steered it to the publication of a paper that I believe will change the way we look at hippos in the future[3].

In brief the paper postulates that hippos, an essential species within their ecosystem, should be considered not as obligate herbivores as at present but rather as facultative carnivores able to consume carcasses from other animals. Carnivory is not an aberrant behaviour confined to certain instances but a behavioral trait that takes place throughout the hippo’s distribution.

The accelerated rate of transmission of the deadly zoonotic disease anthrax recorded among hippos as compared with other animals is attributed to their habit of consuming meat from various animals, including the hippos themselves. This fact can have important implications for a better understanding and better management of future anthrax outbreaks not just in wildlife populations but, much more critically, in humans. The publication is receiving a rather wide coverage by the world press that I include on a separate page for reference. See: Hippo carnivory press coverage.

Just today (10 December 2015) Joe sent me a video from YouTube that I think is very timely as it rather eloquently shows hippos consuming a zebra and fending off crocodiles while doing so. You can watch the video below although it may be a bit too strong for some. Please accept my apologies but I think it is within the very interesting subject of this post.

I end this post with a picture of a hippo taken on the Kavango river during our recent trip to Namibia that I will cover soon. Does it not look too fierce to be a herbivore?

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[1] Dudley, J.P. (1998). Report of carnivory in the common hippo Hippopotamus amphibious. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 28, 58-59.

[2] At the time he had additional information on the subject from other colleagues.

[3] Dudley, J. P., Hang’Ombe, B. M., Leendertz, F. H., Dorward, L. J., de Castro, J., Subalusky, A. L. and Clauss, M. (2015), Carnivory in the common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius: implications for the ecology and epidemiology of anthrax in African landscapes. Mammal Review. doi: 10.1111/mam.12056. The paper can be downloaded free from the following link for the next couple of weeks: http://wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/mam ffollhttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mam.12056/abstract for the next two weeks and then the Abstract will remain there.

 

Mana[1] Pools safari

Mana Pools National Park is found in the middle Zambezi valley. It extends from the Zambezi river in the North (Zimbabwe-Zambia border) to the summit of the Zambezi escarpment 50 km to the South. The park includes the river itself, a broad area of acacia and mahogany woodland on a belt of alluvial terraces. Although this is the area where most of the animals congregate during the dry season and therefore the most visited, the Park also includes large areas of mopane and jesse-bush (Combretum celastroides) and the rocky hills that flank the Zambezi valley. The Park and adjacent areas are regarded by many as the finest wilderness area in Zimbabwe.

Sunset at Mana Pools.

Sunset at Mana Pools.

This was our second visit this year as we had been in Mana. At that time it was cold and the animals, particularly the elephants, were still spread around in the park and therefore less abundant by the river. The absence of elephants then was largely compensated by sightings of wild dogs, lions and a leopard near our camp site.

This visit was different. It was much warmer and, as the dry season had advanced, the animals were indeed massing in the northern part of the park where water and grazing are still available. We stayed at Chitake One and at Gwaya private camp sites so we enjoyed a true wilderness feeling by being alone. Without doubt the elephants were the main actors during our visit and I hope to be able to describe the various events in an amenable way for you to enjoy.

[1] “Mana” in Shona means Four, describing the four pools that the Zambezi river left behind in its meandering.

Hwange National Park

Last year I reported on our stay at Shumba Picnic site in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe (see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/watched-at-shumba/) as well as the observations we made on the struggle we witnessed between crocodiles and hippos for the impala carcasses at Masuma dam (see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/hippos-from-hell-the-videos/).

Hippos were not interested in Impala meat this time!

Hippos were not interested in Impala meat this time! (Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

(Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

(Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

After our return from that safari we immediately booked the Masuma dam campsite so that we could stay closer to the action and see if we could observe something additional in the crocodile-hippo saga that caught our interest earlier. We also booked a place in Main Camp as we were sure we would have fun with elephants at Nyamandlovu pan. We knew that the elephants were plentiful there and we could watch them and enjoy their antics!

THis time there were lots of elephants at Masuma dam. (Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

This time there were lots of elephants at Masuma dam. (Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

We even saw pink elephants... (Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

We even saw pink elephants… (Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

As part of our “discovery drive” we also camped in the Ngweshla pan campsite as it has a reputation as the best place to camp in Hwange and is a place where predators are often seen because the area surrounding the various pans and water holes found there is quite open, a change from the thick bush of other areas in the park.

The safari took place between 22 and 29 July 2015 and I describe its highlights in four posts:

Fearless bee-eater

Moonlit elephants

Encounter with lions, and

Ngweshla cold.

 

I hope you will enjoy them.