impala

Moonlit Elephants

As usual, things did not go according to plan! Masuma dam -in Hwange National Park- had changed slightly. A small and shallow bay had been formed to the benefit of the thirsty animals, in particular the impala, who could now drink in relative safety as the crocodiles could not ambush them like last year.

The new drinking place made it safer for animals to drink. Philosophically, the crocodiles decided to sun themselves.

The new drinking place made it safer for animals to drink while the crocodiles wait.

This change in the architecture of the dam meant that the crocodiles (we counted six of them) were almost invariably sunning themselves on the banks of the dam in an apparent forced fast. There is no need to be concerned about them not eating, as they are able to survive long periods without food.

Hippo conversation!

Hippo discussion.

The sixteen hippos were also there. They behaved as one expects hippos to behave: most of the day time spent inside the water coming out for a “service” (sun, the occasional mud wallow and attention from oxpeckers) by lunch time and going out of the dam in the evening to graze. To achieve this they were forced to queue for sometime to squeeze between the drinking elephants! They spent most of their energy chasing each other inside the water snorting loudly and they were quite adept at showing us the end results of their digestion!

Hippos involved in "social" defecating...

Hippos involved in “social” defecation…

We arrived at Masuma at lunchtime. We spotted a few elephants drinking on the opposite side of the dam but no fresh water was being pumped in.

Elephants drinking before the pump was turned on.

The camp attendant anticipated my question telling me that lions were walking around the dam the night before and he did not dare to walk to switch on the pump! Needless to say that I obliged when he asked me for a lift to get there! While driving, keeping an eye for lions without seeing any, I learnt that a donor was providing diesel for the pump. “Once the pump is on the elephants will come” proclaimed the camp attendant after the engine started puffing. He also informed me that a full tank of diesel would operate the pump for twelve hours. “Twelve hours would take us through most of the night”, I thought while I mentally thanked the benefactor and hoped that the camp attendant was correct in his prediction.

All shyness lost when getting close to the water!

All shyness lost when getting close to the water!

Fortunately, as predicted by the camp attendant, the first elephants started to arrive within an hour of our return! Whether they smelled the fresh water or associated the pump noise with fresh water I could not say but the latter seems the most likely. The fact was that they made a beeline for the pipe producing the fresh water, ignoring the rest of the dam if possible! However, as the place got more and more crowded, the incoming families had to wait until those that had arrived earlier satiated their thirst or enter into the dam and drink less clean water.

The arrival of the first elephants took place at about 14.00 hours. By then we had already set up camp so we were ready for one of the greatest sights on earth: herds of thirsty elephants coming to drink! Your eyes get tired of gazing towards the confines of the bush that surrounds the dam and you need to stop for your eyes to rest. A few seconds later, when you resume your watch there they are as if they magically appeared in front of your eyes! They come out of the bushes in what appears to be a slow motion walk.

The miracle continues as more come into sight. Their slowness does not last long as, with raised trunks, they sniff the fresh water and their pace gets gradually faster as they approach it. It all ends with them breaking into a run to cover the last few metres, the baggy trousers that are their back legs flapping! Their run ends at the water’s edge where they drink showing their pleasure by shaking the water with their trunks and spilling it all over the place while drinking. Sometimes their run takes them into the water where they not only drink but also proceed to frolic like young humans!

Smelling us!

Smelling us!

Although we are used to seeing large herds of thirsty herbivores coming to a water source, they do so in a rather apathetic way. There is nothing like that when thirsty elephants smell water and I can assure you that their emotions show!

Once in the waterhole, their immediate thirst abated, the animals become quiet while making the best of the available water. They do vie for the best position but they do so rather discretely. Normally the larger animals occupy the best spots. These are bulls that come either singly or in small groups and join the drinking party for a while and then leave the way they came: on their own as normally they only join the female family units when there is one on heat.

At sunset, the show continued unabated.

At sunset, the show continued unabated.

Sunset with elephants dusting themselves.

After bathing it was dusting time to cool off.

Occasionally youngsters manage to squeeze in between the tusker behemoths and timidly at first but quite boldly later manage to stick their small trunks into the right spot to get a share of the fresh flowing water. Loud squealing indicates when one of them oversteps the mark and is put back in its place with a shove! Adults show each other respect and only rarely do their interactions go beyond posturing. Overt aggression rarely takes place, and on the occasions that is does, it is normally short-lived. After an initial head clash, often quite violent, one of the rivals withdraws tail up and maintains a prudent distance thereafter! We saw this happening a few times at Masuma.

It is usually a rather gently affair.

It is usually a rather gently affair.

On occasions, however, things do go badly as shown by the chunks of ivory found at waterholes. The most extreme outcome I have ever seen is the skull with a hole made by a tusk on display at the Letaba Elephant Hall in the Kruger National Park. Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumi” in Swahili means “When elephants fight the grass gets hurt”, a very accurate proverb to describe what you see in these situations! We saw quite a serious confrontation at Kennedy 2 dam near Ngweshla but, luckily, one of the bulls gave up before things got out of hand and the dust eventually settled.

Ocasionally things get out of hand.

Ocasionally things get out of hand.

Their great strength is evident.

Their great strength is evident.

DSC_0003 copy 2

DSC_0004 copy 2

Eventually they separated.

Eventually they separate and the “loser” moves off .

The elephant parade at Masuma continued throughout the whole afternoon and well into the evening. They paid no attention to the noisy arrival and departure at dusk of large numbers of banded grouse.

Elephants drinking at sunset.

Elephants drinking at sunset.

We stopped watching them for a while to have dinner but their noise stayed with us, as the herds were a few steps from our elevated camp. With dinner over it was time to go back to observe them again with the fading light. They were clearly wearier and their trunks rose more often to smell us and confirm our presence. Belly rumbling also became more frequent and louder. I was aware that the latter is believed to be a communication method among elephants but I did not know that the rumbling moves from animal to animal in a herd, in order to make sure that it reaches the last individual in the herd. Fascinating stuff!

A night picture of the dam with drinking elephants. I applied the Picasa "I am feeling lucky" command to get light into the picture.

A night picture of the dam with drinking elephants. I applied the Picasa “I am feeling lucky” command to get light into the picture. Even the stars can be seen better!

The original picture, above.

The original picture, above.

After a long while we were getting ready to go to bed when the moon started to illuminate the bush across the dam so we decided to wait a while longer. It was well worth it! The moon was almost full and it cast an eerie light over the moving dark grey masses. Absorbed by this rare vision we remained on the watch and for a while forgot our sleep. We stayed with them until they started to move off and only a handful of bulls remained until about 2 am. It is probable that their withdrawal matched the end of the pump’s diesel and their departure brought calm to the dam and we could enjoy a silent African night for a while until the lions started to roar in the distance!

The following morning, apart from the fresh droppings, nothing gave away what we had witnessed a few hours earlier.

Hippos from Hell

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

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

A "panorama" view of Masuma Dam.

A “panorama” view of Masuma Dam.

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

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

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

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

A Crocodile attack at the Impala drinking area.

A Crocodile attack at the Impala drinking area.

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

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

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

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

The Crocodile with the Impala at Point 2.

The Crocodile with the Impala at Point 2.

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

Insert pics 5 and 6

The Hippos "rescue" attempt at Point 2.

The Hippos “rescue” attempt at Point 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hippo moves towards the Crocodile at Point 3.

A Hippo moves towards the Crocodile at Point 3.

The Hippo tug of war with the Crocodile!

The Hippo tug of war with the Crocodile!

The Hippo tries to bite the Crocodile.

The Hippo tries to bite the Crocodile.

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

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

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

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

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

The Crocodile are attacked again after arriving at Point 2.

The Crocodile are attacked again after arriving at Point 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] I was excitedly filming the scene!

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

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

and

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

Crocodiles and Impalas

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

Masuma panorama

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

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

normal impala drinking

A herd of Impalas drinking at the dam.

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

Croc attack 7 (after)

A crocodile slowly approaching the drinking Impalas.

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

croc in position

The Crocodile starts to sink.

croc sinking

The Crocodile is barely visible now and about to disappear.

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

Croc attack 1

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

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

Croc attack 2

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

Croc attack 3

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

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

Croc attack 4

The Crocodile returns to the water after the failed attack.

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

croc carrying impala small

A Crocodile swims away carrying the Impala.

croc with impala

The Crocodile holding the impala after drowning it.

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

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