Mana Pools

The water elephant

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

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

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

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

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

dscn5491-copy

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

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

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

elephant-poilu-du-zaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dscn9919-7-02-44-pm-7-01-05-am-copy-12-58-08-pm

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

 

[1] Donated to the Madidi National Park.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daring parents

It seems that the Three-banded plover (Charadrius tricollaris) has a knack for living dangerously or rather incubating dangerously.

I rarely find ground birds’ nests. In fact, I have only found two so far and both belong to this little plover!

The first nest I found was at the Maputo Special Reserve in 2011 near Milibangalala while driving through a stretch of road between the woodlands and one of the swampy areas. There, by the shore and almost on the road, we noted the nest as the bird stayed on its eggs up to the last minute until we almost drove upon it and only then it moved a couple of meters to wait for the danger to pass so that it could return.

p1010653-three-banded-plover-11-10-37-am-copy

The first nest in Mozambique.

We spotted two eggs (the normal number) rather large for the bird’s size that looked very much like round pebbles and melted very well with the ashy background.

We found our second nesting bird at Mana Pools this past August and I have already given an advance of it at an earlier post[1]. This time the nest was about one kilometre from the Zambezi River but probably nearer some of the pools. As with the nest in Mozambique, the bird would run off a couple of metres away when we drove past and return to the nest soon afterwards.

Again, there was no nest to speak of and the two dark grey eggs had been laid on the ground in a small area of about 7-8 cm across, among some stones at the very edge of the road. After watching the nest for a while we noted that there were two birds taking turns to sit on it. As soon as its shift was over, the relieved bird did not stay and flew off, probably to feed and drink although we did not see where it went.

Although the birds sat on the eggs, they were also seen standing over them as if shading them from the direct solar heat. At some stage we observed the absence of both birds for a few hours and became concerned that we or other cars passing had disturbed them. The following day we saw them back. In the absence of the birds the eggs are extremely difficult to spot among all the small stones.

It appears unlikely that such a seemingly unsafe choice of nesting site would be successful as the eggs were completely exposed in the absence of the birds. Further, the birds themselves do not seem to offer much protection to the many predators, scaly, feathered and hairy that roam around the area, not to mention the stones thrown by passing cars. Despite these apparently large odds against them, the strategy must work as they are fairly common!

As a note of interest, searching the web I found an account of this bird’s nesting habits in Eritrea written by Stephanie Tyler while she and her husband -Lindsay- were kidnapped by guerrillas in the north-east of the country [2]. Her interest on the birds and the observations she made while being held captive are remarkable. She also stresses the bird’s tolerance to the approach of humans, their failures with the incubation and rearing of the chicks as well as the first observation that the Three-banded plovers are multiple brooded or able to raise more than one brood of young in quick succession. We can say that Three-banded plovers are tough parents!

A video that shows the nesting behaviour of the birds and the “change over” their nesting duties.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/spot-the-beast-12/

[2] Tyler, S. (1978). Observations on the nesting of the three-banded plover Charadrius tricollaris. Scopus 2, 39-41. If interested on the details, the original communication is here: https://archive.org/stream/scopus2197east/scopus2197east_djvu.txt 

 

Spot the beast 11

dscn9951-copyI know, this is a difficult one. I give you a closer view below to see if you can spot it…

dscn9951-copy-3Still, all you can see are the two bush tracks joining , dust and trees? What about below?

dscn9951-copy-2You should be able to spot it but here it is:

dscn9952-copy

dscn9950-copy

A Three-banded lapwing (plover) sitting on its nest and quite well camouflaged. I will expand on this finding on a future post.

 

The “hoo” call

After watching Big V and the other elephants until the light faded, we decided to get back to our lodge, as you are not allowed to drive in the dark. Shortly after the turn off to our lodge my wife heard a strange call. As it was unusual we stopped and listened.

At first we thought that it was an owl or some other large bird. Whatever its origin,  we were sure that we had not heard it before so we decided to retrace our “tyre marks” and see if we could spot the originator.

We returned to the main road and, immediately, my wife spotted three ghosts that, as they got closer, gradually became  African wild dogs (painted dogs) walking in the dry bush. We stopped, watched and listened. Suddenly, one dog crossed the road in front of us and started emitting the sound we have heard earlier. It was a plaintive sound repeated three or four times. The call was repeated a few times and then the dogs got together again and walked into the darkness.

The only option I had to record the sound was to take a video and hope that the sound if not the image will reflect what we heard. The results are a dark video with the wild dog call repeated three times.

Later on I learnt that when wild dogs get separated from their packs they get very concerned and in these situations they emit the call we heard that aims at getting a reply from the pack in order to reunite with them. This call is known -rather appropriately- as a “hoo” call.

So, what we saw were probably three dogs trying to re-join their pack by hoo calling. Later on we learnt that there was indeed a pack of about twenty dogs roaming around Mana Pools at the time so we probably saw three members of that group.

After that, we lost them but their plaintive call got “recorded” in our minds.

The hoo call (and the bad video!):

I am sure that you will agree with me that you do not expect such a sound to come from a wild dog!

Pachyderm GO!

Apparently there is a new, rather hazardous, cell phone game going around in selected places of the world, mainly the “developed” part of it where “players” follow creatures called Pokémons that somehow materialize in their cameras. Amazing technology that I hope can eventually be used for the good of humanity. But this is just another of my idealistic hopes.

In Zimbabwe, away from it all, as usual we decided to go in search of real creatures and, having our two children with us (knowledgeable on Pokéscience), we went to the bush where they assured us Pokémons do not yet dwell. We chose Mana Pools National Park, a jewel among the Zimbabwe parks. We were in for a surprise!

At some stage during our game drive I saw some elephants and stopped the car to watch them with the naked eye, together with my children. My wife, however, looked at them through her tablet to catch the best images of them. At some point, one of the elephants started to walk straight for the car.

I was enjoying its closeness when my son decided that the beast was too close and asked me to move a little to feel safer. My wife in the meantime continued trying to catch the beast.

DSCN9919 copy

Seeing that my wife was still looking through her device totally oblivious to the animal’s proximity, I started wondering whether she was watching the same beast that we were or if she was actually trying to throw a Poke Ball at a Phanpy[1] or a Donphan?

After the incident my wife explained that she did not realize how close it was until I moved the car. The creature had come within a couple of metres from us before I drove off but she said that she had managed to capture it.

We are all looking forward to get home to see what she caught!

 

[1] Phanpy is a small, blue elephant-like Pokémon that evolves into Donphan, a gray, elephant-like Pokémon with a thick, black band of hide running down the length of its back and extending to the tip of its long trunk.

 

Follow up: The situation was clarified later and, luckily for Mana Pools, this is what she actually saw:

DSCN9950 copy

 

 

 

 

 

Mistaken for carrion…

At a hot Mana Pools it was either me roasting some meat or eating from tins as my wife, usually an excellent cook, was feeling too hot to get involved in any heat-generating activities she was busy engaged in the opposite; cooling off with the aid of water and fans in order to survive another day! Resigned and lazy (independent from the heat), I lit a small fire taking some coals from the Tanganyika hot water boiler just at the time when the temperature started to go down.

I am an atypical Uruguayan. I am scared of horses and unable to ride them or -worse still- do a good asado[1]! Hearing only words of encouragement coming from the shower room I attempted at overcoming my shortcoming and managed to get a good fire going. I soon re-confirmed that one thing is to have a good fire and another is to use it well! I did not, as usual as the nice sirloin piece was well cooked top and bottom but very alive inside, even for us that like our meat rare! Anyway, we ate the better cooked pieces while leaving the rest too roast for a while longer until we managed to have a fairly decent dinner.

On account of the ambient temperature, the after dinner routine at Muchichiri was to seat outside by the river to listen and attempt to identify the many bush sounds that are heard in Mana Pools. Ocassionally the sounds or footsteps would be heard very close needing an inspection with our searchlight to identify the responsible both out of curiosity and self-preservation. The main “culprits” would be hippos but elephants and a number of antelope were often found around the lodge. At one stage we caught a slight movement between us and the river and we found a relatively scarce white-tailed mongoose scurrying through the undergrowth.

IMG_0260 copy

From the lodge my wife caught the bushsnob napping again, oblivious of the passers by. With the night visitors was different…

The mongoose gone, my wife read and I wrote notes for this posts. I got quite involved in what I was doing so when I heard a hushed “Have you seen it?” Coming from my wife I lifted my head with it still inmersed in my writing. The spotted hyena was looking at me from very close quarters, quite a shock when you do not expect a visitor like that! “!@#$%^&* its huge” was all I could profer. It was indeed a very large hyena that was looking at me from inside the camp light circle!

Although my wife assured me that she heard it coming and got a whiff of its pungent smell for a while, I was caught totally unawares. I experienced a mild panic attack as many years had passed since I had another similar encounter. All I managed to say was “ssshhhhhh”, the kind of noise that -in our culture- is usually reserved to scare away chickens! It was a pathetic and out of place gesture but it worked mainly because the hyena did not have hostile intentions towards me! I am sure it realized that, despite my years, I was yet to reach full carcass status! As usual, it moved off fast but remained around camp until we retired to bed.

The hyena did visit our place a couple of times later on as documented by a strategically placed camera trap (below) while I was safely in bed and inside my mosquito net on the top floor of the lodge, feeling like a safe animal!

 

[1] Roasted meat on the fire.

Spot the beasts (easy!)

While in Mana Pools last October most game were by the river. During one of our rare inland sorties we came across this sight. It looked rather battered and suffering from the heat as much as we were!

DSCN8433 copy

 

We also found this little beast at Hippo Pools, also in October.

DSCN8002 copy

 

And here are the beasts “revealed”:

A fox.

A fox.

 

DSCN8003 copy

A tree frog.

The fox was after this fellow:

An African hare.

An African hare.

And this fellow was after the tree frog!

A green grass snake.

A green grass snake.

The ways of nature!

 

Harare, 15 October 2015.

 

Hot nights

We confirmed once again that Mana Pools in October is hot, really hot, specially from 12:00 to 16:30 hours. During that spell all you can do is to find a shady spot and sit it out whilst hoping that the Zambezi breeze continues to blow removing the warm air that your body generates. Frequent applications of water help as the evaporation refreshes you, at least for a few minutes. Luckily the air humidity is very low so at least you are not soaked wet.

IMG_0273 copy

The bushsnob enduring the heat while enjoying the view.

To have the sight of a beautiful but “out of bounds” river with clean water running a few metres from you is really counter productive! To make matters worse, when the hippos look at you with their exaggerated mouths, they seem to smile while enjoying the cool water!

Zambezi dusk.

Zambezi dusk.

DSCN8571 copy

Hippos enjoying the coolness of the river seem to be smiling at you.

Although the Zambezi offers nice sandy banks and beaches, you will enter its waters at your own risk. The latter is rather high as, if you are lucky to remain undetected by the numerous and some really huge crocodiles, you may pick up the invisible but equally bad Bilharzia parasites.

A Zambezi hazard.

A Zambezi hazard in wait.

The heat affects all and for the game is a tough time. The inland pans are dry and the last blade of desiccated grass has been consumed, transforming the Zambezi terraces in the proverbial dust bowl. Luckily the park has many trees that provide shelter to the animals that remain there from the blistering sun, mainly the greater kudu that still manage to find nourishment by browsing.

Greater kudu browsing under the shade.

Greater kudu browsing under the shade.

Although the trees offer good shade, their fruits are by now almost exhausted. The pods and flowers from the apple ring acacias and sausage trees respectively are very few now and the amount available does not justify the effort the animals require to collect sufficient to live upon. The fruits from the sycamore fig trees are ripening fast but they are being quickly consumed by birds and monkeys alike so that they hardly hit the ground!

DSCN8441 copy

A fig tree showing its beautiful trunk.

Even the apparently dry baobabs are being consumed, mainly by elephants!

The elephant bite!

The elephant bite!

Both Chisasiko and Long pools still  have lots of water but it is brackish and not liked by all. Although we have seen impala and waterbuck drinking there, we are yet to see an elephant! Chine pool, now just a green ribbon, attracts plains game as it seems to be fed by a fresh water spring. We did not see how Green pool was but I suspect that it is also getting dry[1].

A rather dry Chine pool with a slender mongoose in the tree roots at the back.

A rather dry Chine pool with a slender mongoose in the tree roots at the back.

As expected, most game now gathers around the only permanent source of water, the Zambezi river. Adjacent to it the plains are still green and teeming with animals grazing intensively in a fragile and unstable truce between different links of the food chain. There are thousands of impala within a kilometre from the river as well as buffalo, eland, zebra and waterbuck that have also moved residence to this true “food land”.

Buffalo taking advantage of the grass by the river.

Buffalo taking advantage of the grass by the river.

Impala by the river.

Impala at Mana mouth, very close to the Zambezi.

Aware of this, the area is now also the home of the predators. These range from water and land birds consuming prey that gets caught in small pools or drying mud to hyenas, leopards and lions on the prowl for larger animals.

A grey mongoose searching for food in the drying mud.

A large grey mongoose searching for food in the drying mud.

A ground hornbill also taking advantage of the dry river bed.

A ground hornbill also taking advantage of the dry river bed, feeding on what looked like snails.

The elephants dot the plains with the relaxed attitude that their size allows them. They are all over the place. There are family groups composed of a matriarch and her progeny as well as bulls in small groups or preferring their own company.

DSCN8537 copy

Game drives inland only find the ocasional heat-enduring animal so game watching focusses on the river area where being comfortably seated with open eyes normally rewards the observer with good finds. We were well placed at Mucichiri lodge, a two floor building offering an open upper deck from where a great view of the river was available. While hippos were always in the neighbourhood either in or out of the river, impala and waterbuck grazed under the shade.

DSCN8253 copy

Muchichiri lodge seen from the river side.

The birds were busy nesting, anticipating the rainy season that it is just round the corner. In addition to spur-wings and Egyptian geese, the bee-eaters were very numerous, both white-fronted and carmine. They were busy going in and out of their burrows in the alluvial banks of the river found on the oposite margin.

DSCN8714 copy

A few times a day they their constant chirping noises ceased for a few seconds and then all would take off screeching loudly in alarm as some threat approached.The most common predator seen was the Yellow-billed Kite (Milvus parasitus). The latter would come from high and then gradually descend as it approached the river banks. Although birds did all possible to disuade the attackers, the kite would continue relentlessly on the hunt and it would  suddenly swoop down fast and land, either on the banks or on the trees near our lodge. Twice I saw it catching fledglings and land nearby to eat them. Once prey was taken, the predator was quickly forgotten by the birds that will soon return to their socializing, clearly showing “short memories” or being resigned to the inevitable!

The kite feeding.

The kite feeding.

By mid afternoon Mana Pools was a furnace with the shade offered by the large trees and the hot wind as the only relief. Luckily the lodge has a bathtub and a shower and we took turns seeking refreshment until the sun power finally slacked and we slowly revived. It was time for the evening game viewing drive and, on return, a barbecue kept simple and managed from a distance to avoid getting too close to the fire!

At night the wind dropped and, unfortunately, the little that blew got stopped by the mosquito net. The consequence was that sleep was hard to find. Fortunately there was a full moon and the animals outside the lodge were very active. We are surrounded by impala and waterbuck while the hippos grazed in the grassy banks, their bulk easier seen while they walk about as true lawn mowers.

DSCN8740 copy

The full moon gave us good light.

The full moon gave us good light.

The elephants also passed by in numbers, as usual, in total silence but rather obvious to us sitting only a few metres from them! Loud calls preceded the arrival of hyenas checking for some left overs before embarking into their longer missions in search of substantial prey. Lions were only heard once and far away, clearly hunting much further downriver.

While watching and listening to the Mana inhabitants the temperature eventually dropped to “sleepable” levels and we went to sleep aware that we needed an early start to our game drives the next day, before the heat would set in. Looking at the clear sky we could be sure that on the morrow we could find anything, except rain. 

 Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, October 2015.

 

[1] You will note that I now know the names of the four pools, courtesy of a helpful park ranger that we met during this visit.

Showering “al fresco”

As days passed the temperature at Mana Pools continued to rise. The morning of the 19th of September it was already oven hot at 06.00hs so the decision on what to do was easy as the moving car seemed to be the coolest option available. We planned a longish route as we wanted to re-visit a rather remote dry river bed close to the Rukomechi area. When the hot wind started to blow dust on us we knew that it was time to leave the camp!

We skipped breakfast but took all necessities with us to stop and enjoy it on route near the Zambezi as the drive offered a few nice shady spots. We drove until a place known as Vundu[1] point and stopped there to break our fast after a couple of hours of slow driving and enjoying the wilderness.

A gaggle of Spur-wing geese (parents and five young adults) were at the riverbank and slowly walked away as soon as we left the car.

Some of the Spurwing geese.

Some of the Spur-wing geese.

One of the adults.

One of the adults.

The heat could be felt despite the thick shade provided by the gigantic sausage trees of the riverine forest but this did not seem to bother a lone and open-mouthed crocodile basking on one of the riverbanks nearby.

Breakfast over, we moved on reaching the dry Nyakasanga river an hour later. We crossed its sandy bed and drove a while thinking that we would get back to the Zambezi but, as it is often the case, we had misread the map and in fact we were moving away from it! So, after searching for cell signal up a tree (my wife) and taking a few pictures of a baobab tree, it was time to get back to camp for lunch at an oven-like Gwaya camp.

In search of that elusive cellphone signal!

In search of that elusive cellphone signal!

The baobab tree.

The baobab tree.

The heat and dust were still waiting for us when we made it back by 13.00hs as we got further delayed examining a rather large fungus we found on a tree trunk!

A large fungus.

Fungus close-up. The bluish circle above is Nature's.

Fungus close-up. The bluish circle above is Nature’s work.

After a very light lunch it was a question of surviving the heat and dust (mainly for my wife!). She decided to have a cold shower at the small toilet/shower cabin and to remain there, away from the heat and dust for the rest of the afternoon, until the temperature dropped. She did not mind sharing the place with its tree frogs occupants. There were at least three of them and one insisted in staying under the WC plastic seat. We removed it everyday for fear of crushing it and placed it on a tree outside but it was back the next day!

My wife's vantage point!

My wife’s vantage point!

As usual, it was siesta time for me, despite the heat and dust. It was quite a feat but I managed a few minutes! The siesta over and feeling heat-hit, I hanged my sun-heated shower (I do not like cold showers!) from a tree behind our tent, open the tap and started to enjoy the refreshing feeling of water being poured over you in the open air.

I had showered for a couple of minutes and I was busy soaping myself when I heard my wife calling me, pointing towards the back of the camp. An elephant was walking, apparently, in my direction! As elephants do that all the time at Gwaya, I continued with my shower as I still needed some cleaning to do!

The elephant coming (I forgot to leave my hat on...).

The elephant coming (I forgot to leave my hat on…).

After a minute I looked again and the pachyderm was much closer! It left me in no doubt that I was the object of its curiosity! “I cannot believe this” I thought and, thinking that the soap smell was the lure, I started removing the foam and placed the soap back in its box. “#$@&%*!” I thought, seeing no change in attitude, “the blipping elephant is coming for the shower water having the whole Zambezi behind me!” I closed the tap and remained immobile and soapy[2].

It came quite close...

The elephant came very close. Luckily it stopped a couple of metres away and it had a long look at me. As it was also naked, I did not feel any embarrassment, only moderate panic and an immense wish to survive in order to remove the soap from my body and continue living.

Although I am sure that “the look” it gave me was brief, it felt long. Eventually the elephant slowly moved off as it clearly decided that my “manhood” was -naturally- no challenge to his “elephanthood”! I even thought I heard a jeering noise coming from the curious pachyderm as it walked away! My relief at its withdrawal was short-lived. The water got finished and I had to remove the remaining lather with what I wanted to avoid: cold water!

Needless to say that my wife watched all this and forgot about the heat and dust. So did I!

Gwaya camp, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, September 2015.

 

[1] A Vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis) is a catfish reaching up to 150 cm in length and 50 kg of weight.

[2] Although the elephant is shown naked, pictures of the bushsnob “al fresco” are omitted to keep this blog PG.

Elephant overhead (and it was not Dumbo…)

During one of our game drives we came across a couple of cars parked in the woods and we noticed two elephants nearby, a large bull and a younger companion, also known as an “askari”[1]. From close quarters we immediately recognized the large one as “Big V”, a well known and placid bull that a game ranger first pointed it out to us on another visit to the park. His name derives from a large notch shaped as an inverted “V” on the lower edge of its left ear.

The viewing and photographing.

DSCN9998 copy

Big V coming.

We approached the animals, parked the car and got out to join the elephant-watching crowd (two people in one car!). Big V was busy chewing through an acacia branch the size of my forearm! “This is ridiculous”, I thought while I watched it in amazement as it crunched it loudly and started to swallow the splinters. While this was taking place, a game-viewing car with only one passenger came and Big V got somehow separated from the askari while we kept watching, trying to make the best of this photo opportunity.

Equipment comparison!

Equipment comparison!

The sole occupant of the newly arrived vehicle clearly thought that this was a good sight and proceeded to offload a humongous filming camera on a tripod. “This is not fair”, I thought as I tried to make do with my comparatively modest Nikon Coolpix! After spending quite a while assembling the equipment, he filmed for about one minute and they were off!

While we continued watching the elephants in awe, another two cars with South African plates arrived, full of people with spectacularly long lenses. They took hundreds of pictures at the elephants and, as soon as they arrived, they also left. I speculated for a while on a better game viewing opportunity and failed to understand where were they rushing! I still need to learn a lot about my fellow humans…

Finally we were alone. We waited as we knew that at this time of the year elephants in Mana Pools feed on the pods of the Apple ring acacia (Acacia albida) and we estimated that this was the intention of Big V as we were in acacia woodland. After a while, with calm restored, he obliged and started stretching to get at the pods, offering us some photo opportunities that are the heart of this post.

IMG_0105_2 copy

DSCN6464 copy

DSCN6501 copy

DSCN6504 copyI have some difficulties taking pictures looking at the camera screen so I use its viewfinder, a hang up from my SLR’s days! On this occasion I was so engrossed taking pictures of Big V at full stretch nearby that when I heard “the other one is coming” from my wife, the askari was almost stepping on my toes!

I was caught “between a car and an elephant” and, although I made myself as thin as possible by contracting my stomach, I could feel its body heat while busy watching his feet to avoid being maimed for life! Luckily the elephant was so focused on feeding that did not even look at me!

IMG_0083_2 copy

Before my pulse went back to normal I saw Big V coming the same way. I am not good at mathematics (in fact that is one of the reasons I became a vet!) but it was not too difficult to calculate that I have just had a near miss with a smallish bull in that spot and there was a much larger animal coming… I jumped in the car, relieved to be a coward!

The view through the mirror was a warning.

Watching events from the relative security of the car!

My wife meantime had cleverly placed herself on the other side of the car and was watching and taking pictures of my predicament while chuckling seeing me being squeezed…! Once inside the car I felt more secure and continued to shoot as the situation was amazing to miss even in fear!

Big V passed a metre from me and, once by my side its head moved towards me and I could see that he had dry skin as well as every detail of its tusks ivory quality.

My view suddenly got blocked...

My view suddenly got blocked by Big V’s dry skin!

“This is ridiculous” I thought, “what is it doing?” I thought in a kind of resigned panic as I was totally at its mercy! Before I could find an answer his head disappeared from my sight as it stretched over the car to get at a particularly attractive pod!

IMG_0089_2 copy

I prepared for the bang (and how to explain the damage to the insurance company) thinking on the branch or branches that it was going to break and bring over the car! Luckily, it only got small twigs and I only had a “leaf-rain”.

IMG_0085 copy

I am afraid that my fingers did not respond to my mental commands for a while so perhaps my pictures do not reflect proximity too well! It was fortunate that my wife managed to capture the moment, even if between chuckles.

(A brief video taken by my wife showing the situation)

The elephant munched the result of its effort fast and moved on leaving me with the incredible feeling of having been under its shadow and survived, showing how tolerant of people the elephants in Mana Pools are!

A more relaxed bushsnob, posing.

Survived! A more relaxed bushsnob, posing after the event with the askari in the background.

 

Gwaya camp, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, September 2015.

 

[1] One or more younger males often accompany older bull elephants staying away from herds and these are referred to as “askari” a word from Arabic meaning “soldier”.