Mana Pools

Spot the beast 70

To change a bit, I offer you a rather different “spot” today.

One of the main attractions of Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe (apart from the river, the light, the various campsites, the wild dogs, the elephants, the lions and I stop there naming just a few!) is to be able to walk through the park despite it holding the Big 4 (sadly the rhino is no longer there).

While walking is a great way to explore the park you must be careful as, often, you do not see the animals until you are too close for comfort and you need to be prepared to respond appropriately. This is one of the cases that seems incredible until it happens to you.

Imagine that you are walking there now, what can you see?

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What look like tree trunks, suddenly become legs and they start moving!

You had just disturbed the siesta of a large elephant and it is coming your way!

You realized that it is a bull elephant but the most important thing at that time is to back down slowly and start taking pictures through a zoom lens!

Boswell’s genes

Three years back I wrote a post about a really iconic elephant in Mana Pools known as Boswell [1]. At the time I mentioned its ability to reach heights that other elephants (and even giraffes if they would exist in Mana Pools) cannot by stretching and standing on its hind legs. I showed a rather bad set of pictures that I took on an island in the middle of the Zambezi river and regretted that the animal did not “perform” closer to us.

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Undoubtedly Boswell is the best known of Mana Pools’ elephants and it one of the classic sights of the park.

My brother Agustín and his wife Gloria had visited us in Zimbabwe in the late 90s and, to our delight, they decided to come back this year. As we had taken them to Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls in their previous visit, we decided this time to visit Mana Pools for game viewing and Kariba to attempt to fish for vundu.

In the previous visit we failed to find any lions at Hwange despite our great efforts so one of the goals at Mana was to find wild lions. Fortunately we achieved this goal and spent sometime watching them. As lions are normally sleeping and these were not the exception, we soon decided to move on and return later to see if they decide to be more active.

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Luckily, after a while in the distance we saw the unmistakable shape of Boswell and we noted that it was slowly walking towards the river and we happened to be on its path. We placed the vehicle in a discrete spot not to interfere and waited for its arrival. Luckily we were alone! Boswell was accompanied by a few more elephants, two adult but younger males, a couple of females with babies and a young male.

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Boswell.

Mana Pools was extremely dry as last year’s rains had largely failed so there was little greenery apart from the large trees. Further, the preferred food for the Mana elephants, the pods of the Apple-ring acacia (Faidherbia albida), we not yet mature so we were curious to see what would Boswell do.

As usual the very relaxed group came really close and when they were under a Sausage tree (Kigelia africana) Boswell started to lift its trunk clearly sizing it up.  Clearly satisfied with what it saw it started to stretch, arched its back and it was on its hind legs trying to secure a good grip on a branch! I desperately grabbed the camera and shot while it remained standing. After sometime we heard a mighty crack and down the elephant came with a huge piece of the tree!

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Boswell starting eating the large branch while keeping the young males away by a combination of aggressive gestures, vocalisations and, with the too daring, pushing and shoving and some trumpeting as well. It did not liked to be disturbed during its meal! Conversely, he did allow the young females some bites and did not mind if the youngster came really close to him to feed, the latter often getting between its legs!

After a while, although there was still greenery left on the branch, it moved on leaving part of its bounty behind and, while it started to find another arboreal victim, the followers got busy finishing the spoils.

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The event was repeated a couple of times slightly further from us and trickier to photograph. As the group continued its placid sojourn towards the water we moved off, very pleased with our luck and trying to explain this to our visitors.

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Perhaps we had driven five km when we found another elephant, much smaller, also feeding. We then watched in disbelief when it also stretched and stood only on its hind legs! We made a comment to a safari car that was watching the action with us and the driver told us that this particular elephant was known as Harry! We were really lucky and elephants was the conversation at camp that night, despite the visits by vervets, baboons and hyenas!

The following morning, following the tip of a kind tour driver we found a large group of lions at a dry river bed and, after watching them for a while, we continued our game drive. While commenting on the very few greater kudu that we had seen we spotted an elephant standing on two legs. As we saw it from its back we thought it was Boswell again as we could see a radio collar. In fact it was a much smaller male that clearly knew how to look for the tender leaves of the Mana Pools’ trees!

The final act in this saga was yet to unfold when we were about to end the game drive and go back to camp for a well deserved branch. A dust cloud called our attention and we saw two elephant bulls clearly settling some kind of dispute. After a while we saw that one of the contenders gave up and moved off at a speed.

The “victor” stayed put and after a few minutes it decided to look for some food. It was at that time that we saw it well and the large notch on its left ear identified it as “Big V”, another of Mana’s “specials” that we have seen stretching to bet acacia pods before[2].

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So it was Big V that delivered the final act when it also decided to go for some juicy branch and, lo and behold, before we knew it it was also standing on its hind legs!

We were now really impressed with the Mana Pools elephants and agreed that we have had our quota of elephant stretching while we can happily confirm that Boswell has been able to pass its genes to its heirs that will keep future visitors to Mana Pools amazed at their feeding habits!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/08/17/boswell/

[2]: See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/08/31/big-v/

Too close!

During our recent visit to Mana Pools National Park we saw a Yellow-billed stork (Mycteria ibis) feeding in one of the pools that give the name to the park. This was nothing strange as we often see these birds in that pool.

What was unusual was that the stork was feeding very close to a semi-submerged crocodile of a size that could have gone for it!

What else can I add? My immediate thought was that the stork meat must be so bad tasting that this is its best defence!

The water elephant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] Donated to the Madidi National Park.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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!

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

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And here are the beasts “revealed”:

A fox.

A fox.

 

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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.