Zimbabwe

Cannibals!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Fighting itself!

There was a “tap-tap-tap” noise in the bedroom window and we discovered that a Southern Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) was pecking at its own image reflected on the window.

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This male bird had, for the last few weeks, been busy building nests, trying to convince its girlfriend that they were nice but failing to do so, as usual in these cases.

As the bird pecked the window for a few hours, we decided to close the curtains to give it a break.

The following day we opened the curtains again, and very soon it returned to fighting with itself in an effort to keep its territory free of male competitors while trying to get his architectural skills improved.

 

I smell a rat…

When “Bella”, our Jack Russell bitch, spent about three hours fixed on the generator, we knew that there was trouble in that area of the house.

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We checked all around, including the firewood -my candidate- that was next to it without success. We did detect chewed bits of insulating sponge lining on the floor, though.

We decided to open up the generator and have a look.

We expected to find the damage to the sponge lining material but not what we found, a full nest that occuppied half of the free space inside the machine!

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I must confess that I saw the nest builder often walking in front of me while seating in the veranda writing but I did not think that the beast would get inside the generator so I chose to share my life with it!

It clearly abused my hospitality and it paid for it as todaya trap was set by Stephen means that there is one less rat in Harare!

Spot the beast 62

Today I needed to go to the garden and, as usual, I went for my Crocs shoes. When I tried to slip my left foot inside I found some resistance and I was surprised and amused to find a best inside. See if you can identify it…

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I know that it is not a very good picture but otherwise you would get it too fast!

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I am sure that you have guessed what it was:

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Understandably it wanted out of my shoe in a hurry! Soon it was released back to where it come from.

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I believe it was an African common toad or guttural toad (Sclerophrys gutturalis) of widespread distribution in Zimbabwe.

Luckily it was not a scorpion or worse!

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We are having a slow start of the rainy season this year but, searching among my pictures, I found this ones that show a beast of some sort from one of Nature’s kingdoms…

See if you can spot it!

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Here it is. As you have realized by now, it is not a giant fern sprouting but a chameleon digging its egg-laying hole with the rolled tail out!

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This is the culprit laying, darker after the effort.

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Rain bird

A few days back we have started hearing the by now familiar ‘wip-wip-weeu’ that the rain bird or red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) make endlessly at the time the rains should start in Zimbabwe. But, where have they been since their appearance last year?

 

Before I knew much about bird movement and migration, I often asked myself this question. I recall watching in awe widowbirds displaying in Northern Kenya and asking my friend Paul about their whereabouts during the rest of the year. His reply, was that they would go to the Sudd[1], a huge swampy area located in Sudan.

Sudd_swamp Credit NASA (Public domain)

Sudd Swamp -a Flooded grasslands and savannas ecoregion in South Sudan. To the left the river/wetland Bahr al-Ghazal connecting to Lake No (top). This photograph was taken during the driest time of year—summer rains generally extend from July through September. Taken from space, May 1993. Credit: NASA (Public domain).

So, every time that someone asks me now where a particular bird is when it is not seen, I say that it is in the Sudd, a very convenient reply!

The truth about the rain bird is that they are intra-African migrants that breed in southern Africa between September and March, although most arrive in mid-October and the majority are gone by the end of April.

The rest of the year they reside in Sub-Saharan Africa, in countries of Central, East and West Africa, including the Sudd wetlands in South Sudan!

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Rainbird distribution map. Attribution: BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Cuculus solitarius. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 02/11/2019.

Their preferred habitats are woodlands where they perch high up in the trees. The red-chested cuckoo is usually solitary and it takes on more than a single mate so it is polygamous. Every year they visit our garden where they are occasionally seen while they feed on caterpillars and other insects in the tall msasa trees.

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While in Southern Africa -including Zimbabwe- the rain birds practice brood parasitism by breeding through egg-laying in other bird species nests, some twenty-seven of them! The most common hosts are thrushes and robin-chats and the Cape robin-chat (Cossypha caffra), the Cape wagtail (Motacilla capensis) and the white-throated robin-chat (Cossypha humeralis) are the most popular hosts.

The cuckoo’s resemblance with a small bird of prey (like a sparrow hawk for example) scares the future parents from their nests and the cuckoo female lays the egg that, not always, resembles their hosts’. It is estimated that they lay about twenty eggs scattered in various nests every season. Then it is up to the surrogate family to raise the chick.

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A cape robin feeding an almost fully-grown rain bird. Attribution: Alandmanson [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f4/Piet-my-vrou_%26_cape_robin.jpg. Downloaded from Creative Commons on 2/11/19

A very interesting biological phenomenon helps the cuckoo chick to have a head start from the other chicks in the nest: the female cuckoo literally incubates the egg inside her for 24 hours before laying it! [1] This ensures that the chick will hatch first and eliminate the competition at the nest.

Cuckoos are great travellers, capable of flying enormous distances during their migration and, although the red-chested cuckoo covers less distances than others, it uses the same mechanisms to do so. These navigation skills are genetically passed on to their young. The latter stay behind to complete their development while their parents depart but the new generation are able to fly back north on their own to join their parents!

Now we only need good rains while we watch the cuckoos until they depart and then we wait for them to announce the rains in 2020.

 

[1] See: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-11401254

Gaboon viper

From the moment I learnt about the existence of the Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) it entered, together with the Pangolin, in my “Hall of Fame” of animals I would like to see in the wild. I saw it “live” for the first time at a snake park in Tanzania and my interest increased.

Gabon_Viper_P9240109- Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. [Attribution]. From Wikimedia Commons (2/11/190

It is a species found in the rainforests and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. Later on, reading about it I realized that it also collects a few gold medals. It is of course highly venomous and the largest member of the genus Bitis. With its record 5 cm fangs it is capable of innoculating the largest volume of venom of any snake! It measures in average between 80–130 cm, with a maximum total length of 175 cm and its body is rather large.

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Gabon_Viper_P9240109- Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. [Attribution]. From Wikimedia Commons. Downloaded on 2/11/19.

Luckily for us bush walkers they are usually nocturnal, slow moving and placid and are very tolerant, but, if threatened they can side wind and even hiss. As they ambush their prey that can be up to rabbit size, their slowness is not an impediment and they are one of the fastest snakes when they strike!

C.J.P. Ionides (1901-1968), the well known snake catcher of East Africa, would capture them by first touching them lightly on the top of the head with his tongs to test their reactions. Most did not react angrily and he would grasp them from their necks with his hands while supporting their bodies with the other and then bag them where they stayed rather calm!

As I mention Ionides, one of my favourite African historical characters, I should mention that he estimated to having caught a few thousand Gaboon vipers, and he measured the number of black mambas caught in hundreds and the green mambas in thousands. [1].

You would agree with my decision to look for them when, in the late 90s, I learnt that they were present in Zimbabwe as these snakes are rare in southern Africa. Even in Zimbabwe they can only be found in the Honde valley, located in the Eastern Highlands, between the Nyanga Nationl Park and Mozambique, in the Gleanegles forest reserve.

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So, last week we went in search for the Gaboon viper despite the misgivings of Mabel who I managed to convince that there were many orchids there that she could look at while I searched for the snake. Of course she did not believe any of it but still agreed to come!

“…After driving through the beautiful Honde Valley and the Eastern Highlands Tea plantations you arrive at … Aberfoyle Lodge … situated in a very special part of Zimbabwe. With rolling tea plantations, riparian forests and the Nyamkombe river surrounding the lodge, you feel as though you are in an oasis of true serenity…” [2] The description is accurate as you really enter into a “different” Zimbabwe with strong similarities with the Kericho area in Kenya but with much less human presence.

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Tea was established in Zimbabwe in the Chipinge area in the 1920’s and the first tea at Aberfoyle was planted in 1954 and we saw sections of the plantations that have been there from 1960-61. The present Aberfoyle lodge was the Club for the tea estate. Originally planned as an Italian villa, lack of resources and the Zimbabwe civil war changed plans and it was finally built in a simpler way and completed in 1960.

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Our first thoughts were that, although the tea plantations are rather spectacular, lots of trees must have been removed to achieve this! However, reading about how the plantations were done, the damage to the forest was more from tree cutting for fuel for the factory rather than for planting tea. This was not because owners were ecologically minded but because it was cheaper to plant in open areas than to clear the forest.

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Later, the Gleaneagles mountain reserve -located between the tea plantations and the Nyanga National Park- was created to preserve what is left of the forest. In addition to tea, coffee was also planted and most of it removed and there are also pepper plantations and new ones of macadamia trees.

We stayed at the self-catering Hornbill House, part of the Aberfoyle lodge, a house once upon a time occupied by a farm manager and excellently positioned on a hill that offered great views not only of the undulating tea plantations but also of the far off mountains. To the west Mtaka, Kayumba and Dzunzwa peaks and to the east the rugged Tawangwena in Mozambique. They were mostly shrouded in smoke from the frequent bush fires as it was very hot and dry.

As we were new in the area we thought it was a good idea to join guided walks and so we went with the lodge’s birding guide Morgan who did not flinch when I asked to go looking for Gaboon vipers! He only quietly replied: “We will try”.

In fact, we went also looking for birds as the area is renowned for having several unique bird species but we placed a ban on little brown jobs (LBJs).

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Morgan and Mabel looking at a “No LBJ”!

I am quite sure that by now you have realized that, despite the efforts of Morgan and myself, the snake watching trip failed although we covered a few miles looking for it and threading carefully on the leaf-covered floor. I am pretty sure that no snake was to be found, otherwise Mabel would have found it miles before we would have done!

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The forest floor offered excellent camouflage for our target snake!

Luckily, thanks to Morgan’s skills and despite the LBJs ban, we saw a number of very interesting birds apart from Palm-nut vultures (Gypohierax angolensis) that nest near the 9-hole golf course of the lodge. Despite being residents we only saw their nest and the birds very far away like white and black dots.

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Narina’s trogon.

We had better luck in our forst walks. We found a few Narina’s trogon (Apaloderma narina) in several places and also sightings of White-eared barbet (Stactolaema leucotis), Grey cuckooshrike (Coracina caesia), Blue-spotted wood dove (Turtur afer), Blue-mantled creasted flycatcher (Thrococercus cyanomelas), Red-capped robin-chat (Cossypha natalensis), Livingstone’s turaco (Tauraco livingstonii), Red-throated twinspot (Hypargos niveoguttatus), Dark-backed weaver (Ploceus bicolor) and Green-backed woodpecker (Campethera cailliautii).

Two views of a Cardinal woodpecker, pale flycatchers having a bath, Narina’s trogon, and brown-hooded kingfisher.

We also enjoyed finding a number of butterflies along the paths we walked. We saw a few swallowtail butterflies and, thanks to Morgan, we found them congregated by the … River that traverses the tea estate. It was just amazing to watch these beautiful creatures fluttering and sucking up some nutrients at one particular spot. Unforgettable!

 

The visit was very enjoyable despite having failed to achieve its primary objective as we not only saw several bird species for the first time but also because discovered a real gem of an area in this amazing country.

As for the snake failure, it only fuelled my hunger to find it in the wild but, in the meantime, I will invite friends on Sunday to visit the ones at Snakeworld in Harare to see them there and get them out of my system, at least for a few months until we return to the Honde next year!

 

[1] Although rare, two books deal with his life, Margaret Lane’s ” Life with Ionides” written in 1964 and published by Readers Union; Book Club edition and his autobiography “A Hunter’s Story” published in 1966 by W.H. Allen. If found, both are worth reading!

[2] See: https://www.aberfoylelodge.com/

 

Note: This post is not meant as an endorsement of the Aberfoyle lodge and it only contains the opinion of the author who was a paying guest there.

 

Piggybacked

We do have scorpions in the garden. They are small, about 4-5 cm in length and dark brown. I believe they belong to the genus Uroplectes but I am not sure. Occasionally they enter in the house where they scurry fast with their tails extended straight back, trying to get away.

A few weeks back, something that I could not see stung me while handling one of the chairs in the patio. I have been stung by bees and wasps several times but this was a different kind of pain, stronger and durable! I suspect that it was a scorpion.

Yesterday Stephen, our caretaker, brought a scorpion that he found in the garden. At first I was surprised but then, when I looked at it I realized that there was a reason. It was a female carrying its progeny on its back as scorpions do until the babies first moult. Scorpions are viviparous, producing live offspring rather than eggs.

Here are some pictures taken with my usual camera as well as with the cellphonwe super macro that my son Julio A. gave me as a present. This small gadget has been a great success for these kind of findings that require detailed pictures.

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I will re-visit the scorpions subject in the future as i have some more interesting facts and pictures to share with you.

Elephants!

As I mentioned in the earlier post Hwange National Park is going through a severe drought and some of the classical water points where wild animals usually drink are shrinking and drying up.

The hippos at Masuma (except a lone one that is there part-time) are gone, probably to Mandavu reservoir, a walk of about 18 km, not a great distance for a hippo. However, although it is unlikely that such large water body would dry up, grass availability remains the limitant and grazers such as hippos and buffaloes may be the ones to suffer most.

As for the elephants, they were congregating in large numbers at Masuma dam and Dom pan -the areas we saw-  and drinking 24/7 as it is now said. Nyamandhlovu and Masuma dams’ water levels were low and getting lower. Although usually most elephants prefer to drink from the water inlet to get the clean and fresh water, there was no room for everybody there and mostly the large individuals managed to hold their ground there. The majority were forced to drink the muddy water from other areas of the dams, a thing they would not do under normal circumstances.

Tempers were also hot and trumpeting and squealing day and night were heard. At one stage thee was some brawl that ended up with a loud crack when one of the elephants had a tusk embedded in its rump that cracked when the victim tried to move away! After a night of intense elephant traffic we found a dead young elephant near the water although we do not know how it died.

So, there was drama at the dams and pans but there was also great fun with the youngsters as usual and I just wish to show you a few pictures and videos of the action so that you can get an idea of what took place.

Videos and pictures were taken by my son Julio A., his girlfriend Patricia and myself.

Arrival

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The dust can be seen for several minutes before the thirsty animals arrive.

Drinking

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A youngster frolicking and drinking.

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Not able to use its trunk yet a baby uses its mouth!

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And then it gets the real treat from its mother!

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The amazing trunks in action.

Bathing

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Preparing the water for a mud bath!

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Mud sprinkling.

Powdering

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Hanging around

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Scratching

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Itchy belly!

When tempers flare

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A young calf scatters smaller animals before drinking.

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A tusk wound. The result of a hard push that broke the tusk of the aggressor.

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A funny moment!

Although pictures show some of the action, I also present you with a few videos to show you the atmosphere at the water holes.

First Masuma dam:

Then my son did a time lapse one evening:

 

The next two videos were taken at Dom pan, near Hwange Main camp to show the elephant numbers present there at the time (September 2019).

I really enjoy the start of the video with the arrival of the first group and the noises of the elephants.

 

A visit

On 8 September 2019 [1] I wrote in this blog: “…By far the biggest nuisance that awaits the camper in Africa is the monkeys both vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) and baboons (Papio spp.). Although the latter can be rather destructive to tents and other gear, the former can be a real menace when it comes to steal your food. They are the masters of opportunism and surprise and a distraction of a few seconds is enough for them to strike…”

A week after these words were written, we were -again- put to the test with baboons. This time while camping at Masuma dam picnic site in Hwange National Park. As the picnic sites are now practically unfenced, usually, the attendant warns you about any “special” visitor you need to watch for. We were therefore informed of the well-known honey badgers that are a permanent feature there but baboons were not mentioned.

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A view of the camp at sunset.

We had seen baboons in previous occasions and they had always been “civilized” towards us. This time they were also present at the water edge drinking and scouting the area for any easy prey they could get but we did not pay much attention to them except when one caught a dove and ate it!

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Baboons drinking in the morning.

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A baboon plucking a dove caught at the dam’s edge.

It was on the third day that the visitor came. As every morning we were enjoying our camp breakfast while commenting on what we had seen as well as our plans for the day. We have heard lions nearby and were discussing where to look for them while Mabel -the best eyes among us- was at the hide trying to spot them.

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Aggression at sunset. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

We were seated at our table, my son and his girlfriend in front of me. I was facing the camp’s area that borders with the thicket when this event that may have lasted five seconds took place. I had just prepared my bowl of cereal and fruits and was about to start eating when a movement in the bush in front of me caught my eye. A large baboon was running full speed straight at me and it kept coming!

Before I had time to warn my companions the brute had already jumped on the table, tipping it and scaring all of us, badly. While this took place and all items on the table flew in all directions I just sat there unable to move! The only thing I managed to do was to threaten the beast now looking at me in the eyes with my dessert spoon! [2]

Then it jumped off the table, I threw him my plate of cereal while I felt heat in my legs while my spilled coffee wetted them. The visit was gone in a flash and, luckily, it left us unscathed but shaken. Mabel returned to the camp after hearing the commotion and she found us re-gathering our wits and our various utensils that were scattered all over the floor. It took a while for her to believe what had happened.

This was undoubtedly the most violent experience we have had with a baboon during all our camping years. Although the baboon was clearly after food, it was a stark reminder that we are dealing with dangerous animals while we stay in the bush.

It is likely that campers had fed the baboons earlier as it usually happens but perhaps the rather severe drought prevalent in the area at the moment has pushed them to the limit. All I can say is that from that morning our breakfasts were “breakveryfasts” while constantly keeping an eye on our surroundings.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/09/08/the-joys-of-camping/

[2] My later version that I have hit the beast on the nose with my spoon and saved the day may not be very credible giving the circumstances of the event… It did good to my ego though!