hwange

Zimbabwe (post Covid)

The two years we spent confined to our farm in Salta, Argentina, increased our desire to come back to the African bush. Luckily, we got vaccinated and, gradually restrictions were lifted and we started planning our exit from there by the end of 2020.

To get from Salta to Uruguay, apart from crossing the Argentina-Uruguay international border you need to traverse four Argentinian provinces: Santiago del Estero, Chaco, Corrientes and Entre Ríos (each one of them about the size of Uruguay!). Usually, the trip is long but trouble-free but during the pandemic situations differed in each province and it was only in September 2021 that all places were open to private cars, if you carried a negative PCR.

Eventually we found ourselves in Uruguay where we spent a month with the family before journeying to Rome to visit our daughter and later to Spain to have a long desired family Season holidays.

Finally, the 8 January 2022 we left Europe and travelled to Harare where it was great to see Nic, Gabriela and Ana Lucía again as all our earlier plans for travelling in Zimbabwe with them were dashed by the pandemic. So, we soon found ourselves plotting some joint safaris to recover the wasted time!

After searching for options and considering that we are in the rainy season, we settled for meeting at Masuma Dam in Hwange National Park. With Ana Laura, a Mexican visiting friend, they would come from Victoria Falls. We would travel earlier and spend a few days at Robins Camp [1] where we got a good special offer for a few days stay.

As usual when we travel to Hwange, we spent a night in Bulawayo after driving the first 440km. The next morning we continued to the park by following the main road to Victoria Falls. Although the trip was rather uneventful, we noticed that our car engine coughed a few times while on the road to Bulawayo but it kept going. We did not think much about it as we thought that the car was suffering from some fuel dirt accumulated over the two years we did not use it.

As we were going to the southern part of the park, this time we turned into Hwange town. We found that the area adjacent to the park is now dominated by coal mining and these activities had changed the road layout. As a consequence, while traversing the various mining fields, a sight belonging to the industrial revolution rather than today’s modern world, our Google maps stopped showing us our road and we took a wrong turn.

After a few kilometres we realized that we were heading back to Hwange town! We stopped one of the coal-laden lorries and the driver confirmed that we needed to go back and follow the road until we reached a boom that would be open for us to cross. To make matters more interesting, our car started to misfire again, something I attributed to the rough road shaking the fuel tank and sending dirt up the fuel line.

A superficial check-up, as it is normal in these cases, did not show anything obviously amiss (meaning that the engine was there!) so we decided to go on as the fault was not constant. After negotiating the boom, the road reappeared in our Google maps and then we followed it until we got to Sinamatella to report our arrival. Another 60km further we finally reached Robins camp, almost at gate closing time!

The National Parks office at Sinamatella. Unfortunately, the camp is derelict at the moment.

We had not seen Hwange as green as it was now since an earlier visit in 1999 at about the same time, when it was not only green but also very muddy and we got stuck in a couple of spots trying to reach some of the waterholes around Robins. The dense tree growth and very tall grass did not bode well for animal viewing. In fact, we only saw a handful of zebras and a few impalas, and we only heard an elephant when it trumpeted, scared by our car and giving us a fright back. Luckily, it did not charge!

To see the park so green added to our enthusiasm for being back as it seemed that trees were re-growing after the heavy damage that the elephants had given them during early severe dry seasons. Despite the abundant of vegetation, almost entering Robins camp we spotted a leopard walking on the road Infront of us.

It was probably a young adult by its slender appearance and it wasted no time in disappearing in the tall grass. We enjoyed a moment of joy at such a find at the end of our journey that we thought bode well for our stay. It also made us forget, albeit briefly, of our spluttering car engine!

Five minutes later, at the camp, we mentioned our encounter to the National Parks lady ranger in charge of the Robins office who expressed her surprise. Before we left the office she said: “Please, come back tomorrow so that you can enter this in our sightings book!”

We settled down at Robins and we were its sole guests, so we had all attention to ourselves for the first two nights and then four more people arrived! Our room was not luxurious but it was what we needed after the long journey.

A view of Robins camp. The tower, where the small museum is found can be seen behind the trees.

The presentation of the room offered some lovely details such as the great towel arrangements with our bath towels, courtesy of Ntombizodwa, our kind room attendant.

Herbert George Robins [2] farmed in this area until his death in 1939 when he bequeathed his 25,000 acres “to the people of Southern Rhodesia” He lived alone, with his loyal staff and great Dane dogs. At the start of WWI, he bought “Little Tom’s Spruit” in the northern part of HNP today (Little Tom today). Although despondent with his purchase at first, Robins persevered and managed to keep 1700 head of cattle between 1915 and 1925 when he decided to convert his cattle ranching into a game reserve that was very popular at the time.

This initiative greatly helped the establishment of Hwange National Park (HNP). A controversial figure, Robins fought for Rhodes’ British South Africa Company against Lobengula in 1896 and in 1902 ventured into the then Belgian Congo and Angola in search of minerals and diamonds. Eventually, Robins paid the price for this adventure suffering from sicknesses related to the hardship he endured.

Robins was, undoubtedly, a character with his abundant bushy beard that gradually turned white as the years passed. He was not concerned about what he wore and did not change his clothes often. He was frequently seen with a knitted white cap, a pyjama shirt, khaki trousers and high boots. He would wear an old Stetson and shoes when going to town!

A small museum still keeps some of Robins belongings and the large telescope and pictures of him looking down a microscope indicate that he was involved in some studies or observations although I do not know of what precisely although astronomy is an obvious one.

Gradually Robins became tired with the visitors and their attitude. In addition, his health was deteriorating and, in 1933, he signed a document donating his land to the Government and he got more isolated. He eventually died on 28 June 1939. His homestead became the present Robins Camp and he was buried in the camp.

Robins grave at the camp.

Although we visited the camp briefly in 1991 while living in Zambia, we only stayed in Robins about eight years later. We returned to the camp in 2018 when its renovation was being completed by its present private management. Unfortunately, the new camp could only function fully for about one year when the Covid 19 pandemic shut all tourism activities in Zimbabwe.

We found the lodge very comfortable, and we had a room with a double bed and en suite toilet. The abundant hot water coming from a solar geyser. The garden was kept in great shape and, although there is a waterhole nearby, being the rainy season, the grass was very high to see much in terms of animals coming to it.

We were looked after by very helpful staff headed by Lazarus, the new Manager. He kindly let the camp mechanics to help us to keep the car going. So, after a few scares when it just stopped, we kept going, hoping that it would not die at a remote place as we did not see another visitor driving around during all the time we were there!

The park in general had a new look for us because we are now at the end of the rains and the foliage and grass were rather exuberant, in marked contrast with our earlier visits during the height of the dry season. The roads to Little and Big Tom’s were too muddy until our third day at camp when we were told that it was possible to reach the former.

We toured the area following the track that crossed several swampy areas with treacherous black cotton soil that had been used by elephants during the rain and transformed it into an elephant road where the car juddered along while we tried to avoid the deeper footprints. We knew that the elephants were there but we could not see them because of the tall grass so we focused on saving the car! Amazed by the depth of some of the footprints, we stopped to peer down some of them and it was clear that the ellies had been buried up to their bellies.

Rather frustrated with Little and Big Toms, we decided to explore an area known as Salt pans where we had better luck. Although elephants were still absent, we (or rather Mabel) spotted two cheetah and a few hyenas as well as many vultures feeding on a buffalo carcass by the salty water. So, there was action at that spot!

The salt pans.

Coming back to the camp (rather late as usual) I was startled by Mabel telling me the usual “stop!” followed by “reverse” to what, also as usual I replied, “what is it?” “I saw a cat in the grass”, she replied. I reversed looking for a large cat but did not see any, but she had seen it and she now had it in her binoculars. “I think it is a wild cat” she said [3]. I still could not see anything although I had now stopped looking for a lion!

“Knowing you, you will need to look through the roof hatch to see it” she said. I manoeuvred inside the car to perform this operation at my age! Eventually I managed to get in place and, following Mabel´s instructions, I just saw a brownish outline in the grass that, after intense observation through my binoculars became a small cat, slightly larger than a domestic cat! It was indeed an African wildcat (Felis lybica).

It was another feat by Mabel that spotted such a small and well camouflaged animal in thick grass while driving at 40 kph! While watching the cat, we were surprised that it tolerated my spastic movements inside the car that took place about four metres from it, I became convinced that Mabel can find anything. When I asked her the (silly) question of how she saw it, she simply said “I saw its ears”. I had nothing much to add apart from admiring her eyesight yet again.

Before departing Robins we got the fuel filters cleaned and we set off to find our friends Nic, Gabriela, Ana Lucía and a friend of theirs from Mexico called Ana Laura. We headed for Masuma dam, our favourite place in Hwange where we had spent some amazing times in the past [4].

Before leaving Robins, a kind driver gave us the contact of a mechanic at Sinamatella that he was sure would help us and, expecting an issue with the filter, I asked our friend Nic to bring a new one from Victoria Falls. So, I got in touch with Musa the mechanic and arranged to meet him the following day at Masuma dam to see what could be done with the engine before returning to Harare.

So, we travelled to Masuma still suffering from the spluttering engine, but we got there and met our friends at the right time to set up our camp for the next four nights. Because of the absence of visitors, we were allowed to camp overlooking the dam and there we set up our tent as well as Ana Laura´s. Despite not having experience camping in Africa, she was very relaxed and survived the experience without hitches.

Gabriela, Ana Lucía and Nic slept on their car roof tent, and they had the advantage of moving their “bedroom” to a place of their liking. Apart from some excellent Mexican tortillas brought by Ana Laura, food was mainly pasta (by Mabel) and barbeques (by Nic). As usual, the smell of the roasted meat attracted hyenas that called nearby but too shy to approach us, to Ana Laura´s disappointment that had not seen them before.

The dam was the fullest and greenest we had seen. As usual the hippos were there but, unusually, we saw very few elephants (not more than twenty the whole time!) and those that came did so very briefly and drank as far from the viewing platform as they could!

We entertained ourselves watching other animals, particularly a small flock of Crowned cranes that had taken residence at the dam and that, every so often, flew across it, probably in search of food. However, the absence of elephants drinking day and night while disappointing was a good sign that there was abundant water and food all over and that they had dispersed throughout the park.

Eventually Musa the mechanic arrived and dealt with the car. It was “bush mechanics” at its best! Apart from being nice, he came with the necessary tools and soon he had diagnosed the problem: the second filter was too old and blocked (it was not replaced at the recent service) and the diesel would not flow through it normally. Anxiously I asked if he could fix the problem to what he replied, “If the problem is between the tank and the engine, Musa can fix it, if not we are in trouble”. He did mend it and the car is still going well at the time of writing, a month later.

Game drives still did not show elephants but one morning we had a beautiful view of a leopard, again spotted by Mabel, that was relaxing on a rock by the side of the road but still hard to be seen. Unfortunately, Nic, Gabriela and Ana Laura, not surprisingly, drove through despite my attempt of calling their attention flashing the car lights. Luckily, their daughter Ana Lucía was with us during that drive and enjoy the sighting as she was looking forward to finding a spotted cat!

A close up of the young leopard.

On the day of departure, it was our time to miss a pair of lionesses spotted by our friends. When they told us what had delayed them, we immediately turned around and, following their indications, we found them resting under the shade of the mopane bushes. I am not sure how we missed them this time!

Portrait.

From Hwange we drove to the Matopos National Park, a place we have visited in the past and that we usually overlook despite its beauty. We stayed two nights at the nice Big Cave lodge [1] that offers an amazing setting, having been built on the actual rocks and making use of them as part of the buildings.

The Bushsnob writing this post at the lodge.

The service was excellent and the staff helpful and pleasant. Our room offered a magnificent view to the rocky hills, particularly beautiful at sunset (see above).

We had our sundowners high up on the hot rocks that were, apparently, very good to relax the tired backs of those who tried laying on them between beer sips. That, combined with some great sunsets followed by some amazing stargazing when the clouds allowed, had a positive impact on the team members.

Mabel, the Bushsnob, Ana Lucía, Gabriela and Ana Laura enjoying sundowners on the “warm rocks”.

We drove into the game area of the park mainly looking for rhino and found a rock formation known as “The mother and child” and later a group of rangers on patrol. We arranged to take two of them with us to try to find some white rhino that they had seen earlier that day. They went off on foot looking for the animals while we waited for their return having our lunch.

Mother and child. An amazing rock formation at the Matopos National Park.

Eventually one came back to inform us that the animals had moved. We parted company with the now “lone ranger” as he was sure that his companion would return to find him there. He was right as we found the second ranger walking back towards his colleague a couple of km further.

We left for Harare, as usual, wishing that we could stay longer and we made it back without problems, our car preforming normally after Musa´s intervention.

[1] The opinion about Robins Camp (https://www.robinscamp.com/) and the Big Cave (https://www.bigcavematopos.com/) reflect our independent views and they are not an endorsement from our part.

[2] Data on H.G. Robins taken from Haynes, G. (2014). Hwange National Park. The forest with a Desert heart. The Hwange Research Trust. Gary Haynes, 2014; all rights reserved. 226p. This is the best account of the creation of Hwange National Park that I had seen.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2022/03/31/spot-the-beast-82/

[4] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/10/08/elephants/, https://bushsnob.com/2019/10/09/dust/

Spot the beast 82

Driving around Robins camp in Hwange National Park we spotted this beast, the first one we have found in Zimbabwe. If you looked carefully you may have spotted somewhere in the picture. Below I present you with a close-up where you can see that it is an African Wild cat (Felis lybica).

The following (bad) picture shows some of the characteristic markings of this kind of cat.

I will further ellaborate on this finding in my next post on Hwange National Park.

World Elephant Day

Yesterday (12 August)  it was World Elephant Day and I thought that what we saw last week at Ngweshla pan in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe is a suitable scene to remember these amazing animals that the more I watch, the more I get entertained and admire.

I owe my increasing interest for these animals to my daughter (the intermittent Senior Editor of this blog) who, from very young age was fascinated by these animals and gradually “educated” me to appreciate them.

I hope you will find the video fun!

An antisocial lion!

Bush lions are normally tolerant of vehicles, even the open tourist ones. The only aggression we have seen was related to times when mating was taking place and the male normally leaves no doubt about how close you should be! The situation can be different on foot when the utmost care is needed where these cats are concerned to avoid accidents.

While checking in at Main Camp in Hwange National Park, we were warned of the existence of a new lion: Mopani[1]. The lion, explained a sign placed at the booking desk by the “Lion Project”, came from an area devoid of tourists and it was aggressive, charging vehicles! Siduli, another male, and two females accompanied it. We were also shown a video taken from a tourist vehicle being chased by Mopani and learnt that one of the females was in heat and mating with one of the males. We thought that Mopani’s progeny was assured and planned to keep our distance from him!DSCN9991 9.04.30 PM copy

The lions had taken residence around the Main Camp area so we were delighted at our luck, as we were sure not to miss them! “Cecil may have gone but in comes Mopani!” was our thought!

Although recently arrived from a longish trip, the possibility of spotting one of our all time favourite animals made us drop our luggage at the lodge and drive off in search of lions. We found the two females at Dom pan. They were clearly different: a paler one and a darker one. The latter appeared to be the older of the two.

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After watching them for a while, a male came out of the bushes and greeted the darker one while the other moved away a short distance. Were we about to witness some mating? Not so as Mopani, who we assumed was the dominant male, only rubbed heads with the female and then moved off in the direction it came from, leaving the female pair alone until the day ended and it was time to get back to our lodge before the mandatory return time of 18:30hs.

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We did not need to plan our next day activities as finding the lions again and spending time watching them was the only option! As a friend of mine says, “we slept in a hurry” and we were up before 06.00hs. No need for alarm clocks! We drove straight to Dom pan, as we believed that they would not have gone very far from there. On our way we realized that several migratory bird species were present at Hwange at the time. These were Crowned Cranes, Abdim and Woolly-Necked Storks, African Kites and Amur Falcons to name but a few!

We had little time for bird watching as the lions had killed a young elephant at Dom pan during the night and the two lionesses were feeding on it! After this find, most of our activities during the visit centred round Dom pan where we spent a lot of our time. We watched the lionesses feeding and interacting for several hours and I present you with a number of pictures and a video, as these are better than words. We only left them to return to the lodge for lunch and a rest.

When we came back during mid-afternoon, only the paler lioness was by the carcass. A search of the surrounding area revealed two lions laying together a few hundred metres from Dom. They were the mating pair: the darker female and a male that, to our surprise carried a radio collar. As we doubted that Mopani had one, it could only be Siduli. Clearly the lion that acts most ferociously towards cars is not necessarily the dominant when it comes to affairs of the heart! It was then clear that the male we had seen the day before was Siduli and that Mopani was hidden from view somewhere! But where?

Luckily my wife was with us as, if there was someone that could spot it, it would be her. And spot it she did, to our amazement, again! The wild-looking Mopani had been lying low under some bushes, unseen by anyone (except my wife) until then. It remained unobserved by our fellow game-spotters with the exception of another lady that clearly shared my wife’s eyesight. We thought it better that it remained unseen and got used to cars if it is to remain in a tourist area so we did not reveal its whereabouts.

As Mopani was still not willing to socialize and remained sulking under a bush, we focussed on the others. Mating in lions is a long-lasting affair as the pair remains together and mating takes place often for a few days, while the female is still receptive to the male[2]. This was clearly the case, as they remained “occupied” for the rest of the time we were at Hwange. That left the other lioness guarding the elephant carcass and Mopani hidden from view! After a while it was time to move off.

We drove to the Nyamandlovu pan as our daughter is very partial to elephants. Despite the abundance of drinking water all over the area, we were extremely lucky to witness the visit of a herd of about fifty animals that, as usual, appeared suddenly as if the product of a magic tree-to-elephant metamorphosis. The result was about one hour of one of the greatest shows on earth: elephants enjoying life at a water hole! There were about five family groups, each led by a matriarch and composed of its progeny, including some really young and tiny babies that were the centre of our attention.

The elephants not only drank but also entered the water where many were seen frolicking about and playing as only elephants are able to do among wild animals! It seemed to us that the latter were at risk of drowning while entering the water with their huge siblings and that they were under even more danger while swimming among them! Somehow they managed to keep their tiny trunks above the water and their mothers were extremely protective and they were always in close contact and ready to assist them!

The three resident hippos felt very uncomfortable at this sudden disturbance and two moved to the very centre of the pan while the third moved to the shore where it put up brave stance against the elephants, only to return to join the others as it was not at all respected by the excited pachyderms! Again, a picture gallery and videos are better than my limited power of description to let you know what took place.

The elephants’ joyfulness in the water delayed our return so we only drove past Dom pan, catching a glimpse of the lions who unwittingly startled a herd of 30 odd elephants intent on drinking from the pan, who retreated in a cloud of dust as soon as they caught sight of the lionesses. We arrived late at the gate where we were told off by a rather grumpy lady game ranger! The justification for our tardiness did not go far with her, clearly used to all sorts of excuses from people arriving late to camp!

The following morning, as expected, the lion pair continued their courtship, the pale female was still guarding the carcass and about fifty vultures (white-backed, white-headed, hooded and lapped-faced) were waiting on the side-lines for her to leave it. While in waiting, the Lappet-faced vulture was seen having a snack by pulling and cutting the dry tendons and sinews from an older dry elephant carcass that other vultures also shared once it opened up the hard bits!

Mopani, the antisocial, still preferred to remain out of sight! We can only hope that he starts turning into a more car-tolerant lion by accepting their presence as part of his daily life. Who knows, maybe one day he could become Cecil’s successor.

 

[1] To name wild animals or not to name! This is the question… for which I have no clear answer!

[2] Both leopards and lions have the same mating procedure. They can mate as often as every fifteen minutes for up to five days. This is the consequence of weak sperm and mating-induced ovulation.

Sleeping rock python

Our final visit to the Zimbabwean bush before leaving for South America took place from 8-10 January, and it was shared with our daughter who is also leaving for Italy later this week.

As usual, we enjoyed our safari in one of the jewels Zimbabwe has to offer. Learning from previous experience, we stayed at Main Camp as time was short and camping during the rainy season is not really a comfortable option! We were correct as it did rain and the sky -thankfully for the hitherto dry Hwange- was waterlogged so we expect and hope that the rains will continue.

Although there were a number of interesting observations during the trip, I will start with the one I feel “inspired” to write about, while I think about how to present the others to you.

Several memories of my past experience with African Rock Pythons (Python sebae) came to my mind when, on reaching the top of the Nyamandlovu viewing platform we were warned that there was a python in one of its corners!

My experience with rock pythons on safari is very poor. In fact, until this find I had never seen one in a national park or game reserve! My only encounters with these magnificent creatures were in Kenya, either first hand or through pictures and/or stories. I recall seeing a picture of a really humongous python (most often and most regrettably killed) that had swallowed a goat at Intona Ranch in the Transmara. It was probably about five metres long and about six people held it up for the picture. That was interesting but a real pity.

On a more optimistic note, we once met a Swiss fellow “safarier” at Meru National Park, also in Kenya in the 80’s, who told us the story of a python swiming towards his little daughter who happened to be near the water. The moment it approached her, the snake stopped swimming towards her! He also mentioned that when he kneeled next to it, the snake resumed its approach, only to stop again when he stood up, suggesting that there is some size-assessment from the python when stalking its prey.

Apart from stories and pictures, I also remember two first hand encounters. On one occasion, while staying at Elsamere[1] in lake Naivasha on a bass-fishing trip in lake Naivasha, other guests spent their time looking for pythons at the lakeshore! I was really sceptical about python-collecting so I was really surprised when two -albeit small ones- were found! I should also add that luckily they were small as my friend Paul jokingly hung them around my neck with the obvious result that I carried the scars of 2 python bites on my upper torso for a few days! I can testify that pythons bite at least as hard as laboratory rats!

The second encounter was when, perhaps inspired by the above incident, Jim, my wife and I decided to go on a python-safari! Jim was a good friend with whom I shared a liking for snakes. My wife does not like snakes so she came for the walk, hoping for a fruitless search! Our trip took us to Hell’s Gate[2], long before it was declared a National Park.

We did enjoy a magnificent walk along the gorge and dry riverbed. It was there, at a narrow, shady and wet passage between narrow cliffs that we found a young rock python that had recently moulted and was shiny and healthy. As until then, finding the python was just our pretext for the walk, we were as amazed to find it as I am sure the snake was to see the three large primates walking towards it!

Enough reminiscing and back to the present safari! The Nyamandlovu pan viewing platform offers a magnificent view of the water and the action that is always present there. This time the action was clearly inside it! The empty half of the platform was clear proof of the snake’s presence, fear of snakes prevailing even among animal lovers who preferred to pack themselves at the other end!

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The young  rock python wedged in a crevice of the platform, head down.

We were really thrilled by the news and moved closer to have a good look. The snake was a juvenile. It was comfortably wedged head-down in a gap of the railing, apparently enjoying an afternoon nap[3]. We took a few difficult pictures and sat in the empty corner next to it leaving it alone, happy to watch it every now and then while focusing on the events at the pan.

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Regret the leg but it is only for comparison!

Amazingly not one of the several occupants of the platform came to have a look at the snake although all of them were aware of its presence. They preferred a packed platform end while we remained undisturbed at the “snake end”!

Needless to say that the snake did not move while we were there! It was still in exactly the same position when we left at the end of the day, still enjoying life. We were a bit concerned about it being rather vulnerable but hope that it will find its way and we will see it again.

 

[1] Elsamere Conservation Centre was the home of George and Joy Adamson for a time and it has accommodation facilities.

[2] It was named by Gustav Fischer and Joseph Thomson in 1833 after its narrow cliffs.

[3] Although snakes do not have eyelids, they still sleep by being able to close their pupils and sleep.

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?

DSCN9972 9.11.44 PM copy

 

[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.

 

DIY Eagle

We spotted the large but simple nest at about 100m from the road between Main Camp and Nyamandlovu pan in Hwange National Park, (Zimbabwe) when we visited this park last July. We looked for its owner for a while and, a couple of hundred metres ahead, we found a suspect: an adult Martial Eagle perched on a large acacia tree at about four metres from the ground. To find the largest African eagle is always exciting as they are great hunters and able to kill rather large prey.

We stopped to take pictures and, as usual, we took the first one from a prudent distance and with the engine on, before getting a bit closer for better ones. We stayed put as we noticed that there was something odd. “Look!” one of us said, “it is entangled in a thorny branch” We all looked and, true to the observation, the eagle seemed to be hooked on thorns and making frantic movements with its head to release itself.

The only picture of the Martial eagle.

The only picture of the Martial eagle.

Awe-struck and concerned we forgot about pictures and started speculating on the sighting. Some of us maintained the entangling theory while others thought that it was catching or eating something. We all agreed, however, that something odd was taking place! We could only watch and wait…

After a few nervous minutes we noted that, apparently, the eagle did not have a prey. Immediately she also, somehow miraculously, stopped shaking its head and looked quite totally unconcerned. However, it was still holding a longish branch!

In fact, it had never been tangled or eating but in the process of cutting a thorny branch and it had just completed the task! Without more ado, the branch was placed in its talons and off it went, landing on the nest we had seen earlier!

A subsequent Internet search did not reveal a record of such behaviour. Although I believe it to be known to specialists in birds of prey, I reported it here just in case as it was an interesting, if anxious, observati