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Author: FOH Team

Hwange at Easter – 2017

Hwange at Easter – 2017

It was great having the opportunity to go to Hwange Main Camp over the Easter weekend. Having not been up since December and before the main rain had fallen, it was wonderful to see the park so lush and green with water still lying everywhere. Most of the natural pans were filled with grasses and sporting beautiful purple, pink or pale yellow water lillies.   On closer inspection, most of them also had bobbing heads of water birds and their young – several flotillas of white-faced and knob-billed ducklings as well as one lot of white-backed ducklings, red billed teal and little grebe chicks, three lesser moorhen chicks being overseen by a watchful mother, several African jacana chicks of varying ages, two fluffy Kittlitz’s plover chicks being herded along the road by the parent birds near Nyamandhlovu, Egyptian geese with goslings and a few teenage spurwing geese were seen. All along the roads we came across coveys of game birds with varying aged young and the groups of helmeted helmeted Guineafowl we saw had also bred well with lots of young birds amongst the crowd. We have never seen so many Southern ground hornbills swanning around the open vleis. At Makwa there were at least six black-headed herons plodding about and although we saw several pairs of grey crowned crane, we only saw one youngster near Livingi. Food looks plentiful at last and the Acacia erioloba trees are absolutely LADEN with pods so we are sure that will be a big draw for the elephant herds later in the season.

 

We spent our first full day driving down to Ngweshla. We had a rather uneventful trip down, passing a few giraffe, a big breeding herd of elephant in the forest just before the Sinanga turn off, several zebra and impala herds, watching two large bull elephants emerge from the tree line to munch away in the Kennedy vlei, one of which had an impressive set of tusks, and admiring a black backed jackal which had dug a comfy hole for itself at the K2 pan and was sleepily catching a few warm rays. The Ngweshla vlei was surprisingly quiet, with not much to be seen although a large herd of buffalo had apparently just moved off towards the Wilderness area. Finding out from other game viewers that the road through the Mangas had been fixed up and as we had wanted to check up on the water particularly at Manga One, we returned to Main Camp via the “back route”, which has been fixed up and was pleasant going for a change. Again, we didn’t see much apart from another big breeding herd of elephant but the water at Manga One is good and the solar units there doing their bit. Jambile waterhole has filled up nicely and people staying there over the weekend ended up having lion shambling around camp in amongst their tents during their last night! One of the solar unit pumps at Dopi was hit by lightning but was speedily repaired, and both units are doing a great job with the pans nice and full. We had heard that a leopard cub had been seen at Caterpillar in the morning but didn’t expect it to be still hanging around as we arrived at Caterpillar in a bit of drizzly rain. To our great surprise, there was the young cub walking along the road and on seeing us, it went off into the grass on the side of the road. After coming very close to the vehicle and inspecting us with a yellow glare, it shambled off to take cover from the rain under one of the ebony trees. What a beautiful animal with a magnificent coat! We felt sure that it was waiting for its mother to return and although several other vehicles came and went, it didn’t seem too perturbed. We were rewarded after about an hour when the cub started moving off towards the teak forest on the far side of the pan and we finally saw the mother wedged motionlessly in a tree, obviously having called to the youngster who was now bumbling through the long grass and weeds towards her. We soon lost sight of both of them but oh, my goodness, what a treat! Getting back to camp, we had an armada of eight giraffe sail past our lodge just on the other side of the fence, their long necks and heads silhouetted against the last of the evening light.

 

The following day we had another fairly uneventful morning driving down to Boss Long One. The new solar unit there is pumping into a small pan while the large natural pan at the back is full of water. Over a cup of coffee, we watched two combating giraffe having a necking session, a small herd of zebra with one very pregnant looking mamma and two black backed jackals loping around before settling down in the sun. On our way back just before the Nyamandhlovu turn off, we came across a lovely Roan female looking a bit nervous and only realised as she moved off that she had a very young calf with her – in the long grass, we could just make out the long ears bobbing along close behind her. At Nyamandhlovu there were always zebra, wildebeest and impala present as well as a growing herd of waterbuck, one of the dams had a really small baby that spent a lot of the time nursing. And we got to see an incredibly beautiful boomslang (if snakes can be “beautiful”!!) draped motionlessly in a batch of blue bush right next to the road. We also saw the Martial eagle on the nest near the turn off and she is obviously incubating at the moment. Along the loop road we came across the smallest baby steenbok we’ve ever seen, standing on wobbly legs in the middle of the road. We only had a fairly fleeting glimpse of it before a panicky mother shot out of the long grass and shepherded her youngster back into cover. In the afternoon we went down to Makwa in the hopes of seeing lionesses with half grown cubs that had been seen on and off over the previous few days but had no luck. According to one of the guides with his group of tourists, we apparently missed seeing a pack of 14 wild dogs seen at Sinanga where we had just been and seen nothing!

 

On Easter Monday we decided to go lion hunting again to see if those illusive lion would come to light. On our way through the gusu, a side-striped jackal ran along the road ahead of us for some way, obviously reluctant to go off into the long wet grass. In an open area just before Makwa, we came across a herd of sable with calves – one of which was very young – along with a small herd of zebra and two black backed jackals. Arriving at the main Makwa pans, we were greeted at the baboon spa as the primates sat in the early morning sun, preening and gleaning with rapt expressions on their faces while some of the youngsters got up to mischief. A couple of giraffe glided past as a large herd of impala came out of the scrub along with two wildebeest. A dainty mother warthog with two youngsters trotted across the road in front of us and later we saw a grumpy old boar with a HUGE set of tusks. One of the crocs was out on the bank sunning itself, the pans were bustling with waterbirds and game birds while a group of seven ground hornbills were perched at first in an old dead tree, having a good preen before setting off with their doop, doop, dooping around the place. The area was teeming with activity but….no lion! Not that we were disappointed – we had a brilliant and entertaining morning.   In the afternoon, we went along the Whitehills road to check out the water along that route. Mabuya Mabena was looking great and although the pan is fairly grassy, there was a lovely batch of waterbirds hustling and bustling. Again, we didn’t see an awful lot but it was a very pleasant drive. We were sad to see that the Guvelala platform was once again in a tatty looking state with one of the doors ripped off. However, the pan was nice and full although devoid of any game and very little in the way of birdlife.

 

On our final morning, before packing up to return to Bulawayo, we took another drive down to Makwa. This time, the pan and surrounds were pretty empty of any game but we did have a honey badger scuttle across the road in front of us. While having coffee up in the platform, a small group of impala emerged reluctantly and took to standing on a high point, nervously looking about before finally settling down. We wondered if perhaps the dogs had been about with the lack of animals around. We thought we’d try our luck again and travelled back past Caterpillar and Dopi but saw nothing much except a duiker.

 

It was fabulous being back in the park and wonderful to see it so flush. We were astounded at all the youngsters we saw – both animals and birds. It was also great to see so many families with children enjoying the park, it being school holidays as well as Easter. There is still a lot of hard work going on in the background and once again, we should like to thank all the folks responsible for the sponsorship, donations and continued support.

 

John and Jenny Brebner

 

 

Hyena Snare Removal – Hwange National Park

Hyena Snare Removal – Hwange National Park

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Darted hyena

While investigating the carcass of a dead elephant in the Guvalala Pan area we noticed what appeared to be a snare around the neck of a hyena that was lying in the waterhole to cool down during the heat of the day. It was difficult to be certain it was a snare because the mud had obscured visibility around the neck area and the hyena ran off before we could get close enough to confirm.

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Snare clearly visible

 

It seems that the adult female elephant had died a natural death probably as a result of old age compounded by lack of adequate food as well as heat stress due to the soaring ambient temperatures. Her death however had provided an ideal “bait” to attract hyenas and hopefully an opportunity to find and dart the animal with the snare.

 

With the help of Ranger Antonio we returned after dark to try to find the unfortunate hyena. It is difficult and dangerous to dart a free-ranging wild hyena. Hyenas are incredibly intelligent and seem capable of quickly differentiating between a harmless photographic tourist and a person trying to shoot darts at them. Once they realize your intention they keep their distance and stay out of range of the dart rifle making it almost impossible to get close enough for the shot. If you are fortunate enough to get a dart in, the hyena will generally take off at a run for the 4-6 minutes it takes before the immobilizing drug takes effect. During this time the well-camouflaged and fast disappearing backside of a hyena can be exceptionally difficult to follow at night with a spotlight and binoculars as the animal races through long grass and scrub vegetation. Any attempt to follow the fleeing animal in a vehicle only serves to speed up the chase.

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Cutting the snare

For this reason the vast, open stretches of Kalahari sands surrounding Guvalala Pan with such open visibility at this time of the year provided a perfect landscape for this darting operation.

 

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Lioness visiting the Pan

 

The next important considerations were for the security of the darting team and the safety of the immobilized hyena. These concerns were validated soon after the sun had set and herd after herd of thirsty elephants materialized from the darkness and silently made their way down to the Pan to drink. In no time there were more than 100 elephants drinking, wallowing in the mud and milling about in the open area around the Pan. If this danger wasn’t enough, a lioness also appeared for a drink of water and wandered around the Pan for some time before disappearing into the surrounding tree line.

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Some difficulty removing the snare

After carefully weighing up all these risks and safety concerns the snared hyena suddenly came into range and without hesitation a light plastic Daninjet dart was dispatched and lodged gently into her exposed shoulder.

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Cutting out more of the snare

The snare wound was an old one that had healed almost completely around the neck except for a few areas where the buried steel wire was still protruding out of the skin. It took some time to delicately cut and remove the snare from under the skin and clean the wound.

 

Many people might think it crazy to work until midnight on Sunday evening in a dark and remote area of the Park near an elephant carcass surrounded by an unknown number of lions, 17 hyenas and more than 100 elephants but for us it was a privilege. Despite receiving a number of very close visits from curious hyenas and inquisitive elephants throughout the evening they were never aggressive and it was only while treating this immobilized hyena that we experienced how gentle and understanding all these wild animals can be. We never once felt threatened and we soon learned that their approaches could easily be deterred with a few gentle and respectful words…. Fortunately we never had to try this on the lioness, as she didn’t reappear.

 

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Treating the snare wound

The entire operation was carried out without disruption and the hyena woke up soon after the antidote was administered. She immediately ran off with members of her clan to continue feeding on the elephant carcass.

 

As is often the case when darting carnivores, this hyena chewed up and destroyed our Daninject dart and needle. These essential pieces of equipment need to be replaced as soon as possible but this is easier said than done as they’re not available in Zimbabwe and will have to be sourced in South Africa.

 

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Administering the antidote

We extend grateful thanks once again to the Friends of Hwange Trust and the Hwange Conservation Society (UK) for kindly providing the wildlife immobilizing drugs and necessary wound cleaning solutions used.

Paul and Stéphanie de Montille

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jericho has Died

Jericho has Died

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Jericho
Image taken by Chris Collyer

 

We are very sad to confirm the death of Jericho. We are still waiting for the details, but don’t believe there was any foul play involved.  He was a majestic old lion that lived and died in the wild – just as it should be. Adieu old fellow, you will be greatly missed by the many fans and visitors to Hwange that knew you and followed your life.

Hwange Game Count 2016

Hwange Game Count 2016

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Elephants approaching the pan
Photo Dave Dell

 

Each year, the anticipation and excitement around Bulawayo of the up coming Hwange game count is palpable and wherever one goes during the weeks leading up to it, the question is asked “Are you going on the count this year?” Well, would we miss it? Not if we could help it.

 

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Female Ostrich with chicks
Photo Dave Dell

We were amazed at how much drier the park had become in the month since we had last been up there. Just about the only green that could be seen were the beautiful Acacia eriolobas – covered in new green leaf, most already showing a fuzz of yellow pompoms, they offered welcome, deep shade at midday for the elephant – and the delicious looking but lethal patches of umkauzaan (Dichapetalum cymosum), or gifblaar as it is also known. There were a few Lonchocarpus nelsii out in bloom, covered in a haze of delicate lilac. Otherwise, it was dry, dry, dry.   On our way down to Ngweshla to join our party, we stopped off to admire the new platform that is now up at Makwa. We passed a huge herd of buffalo, numbering around 900, just off the road, the outriders all fast asleep and mounds of bodies trying to shelter under what little shade the Ordeal bushes (Erythrophleum Africanum) afforded or for the lucky ones who had found better shade under a few enormous Umtshibi trees. (Guibourtia coleosperma).

 

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Sable in the vlei
Photo Dave Dell

Driving through to our pan in the Wilderness concession the following morning, was a little better organized than last year and no vehicles appeared to falter in the deep sand. Our team had been delegated Scotts pan and we found a suitable spot under a very nice shady tree for the duration. On arrival there was a herd of 33 sable antelope lying in the vlei, having already had a drink and they only left later in the afternoon as it was cooling off. Elephant came down in droves, of course, and around the periphery of the pan were some herds of zebra, a couple of herds of impala as well as a troop of baboons. One group of zebra had a tiny new born foal afoot and there were several occasions during the count that the poor harassed zebra mother had to protect her baby from some aggressive males seemingly from another herd, obviously trying to get at the foal, each time causing a huge ruckus, dust and hooves flying. Overnight we saw three huge eland and two porcupines along with spotted hyena, duiker and a lone male giraffe in amongst all the elephant coming down to the pan. A leopard was seen just after dark trying to sneak in for a drink but was initially chased off by the elephant. It was spotted again having another attempt but unfortunately, a Wilderness vehicle with guests out on a night drive came along and interrupted its quest. We could just make it out in the headlights streaking off into the bush some way off.   On our first day, we were kept entertained by an amazing number of raptors popping in for a foot dabble and a drink at the pan. We enjoyed the sight of a lovely Tawny Eagle, and at one stage had nine Bateleur eagles visual. There was plenty of interaction in the air, on the ground and perched in the trees. Two males, one at the water and one balanced in a tall tree close by were certainly showing off, fluffing out their wings, puffing up their chests and throwing back their heads to call. There were several juvenile birds in various stages of maturity and plenty of aerobatics with some spectacular diving and jousting on the wing and more vocalization – what stunning birds they are. On the second morning of the count a strong wind blew up, making most of the animals nervous. Four roan antelope, two females and two youngsters, tentatively approached the pan along with a magnificent sable bull but they were soon sent flying back into cover when a vehicle full of tourists drew up.   Another herd of roan came in while a few kudu cows drank – the whole lot being put to flight by one of the zebra altercations. As we were leaving, the same four roan and the sable bull were making a second attempt to come in for a drink.

 

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Majestic Bateleur Eagle
Photo Dave Dell
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Tawny Eagle
Photo Dave Dell

Getting back to Ngweshla was a rude shock as there were SIX safari vehicles FULL of guests in camp, with one of the vehicles parked RIGHT in front of the gate blocking off all other traffic. Another lot of visitors, mostly counters, were sitting in the shade of the eriolobas just outside of camp. Fortunately, it quietened down after a while and we could return to camp for a much needed shower and a late lunch. We had a rather noisy night with streams of elephant continually visiting the pan. We did hear lion and early in the morning, six adult lion were seen moving silently past, round towards the back of the camp. We had the most amazing sighting of some of them, particularly a stunning female with two tiny cubs, probably only a month to six weeks old. Mother lion was lying on an anthill with the two cubs playing and tumbling around her. A second lioness and a young male lay along a game trail close by affording everyone a great photo opportunity before they all moved into some blue bush (Diospyros lycioides), where they were all but invisible. Our trip continued at Kennedy One for two nights, again hearing lion, most likely Jericho as he was in the area. The first evening while watching at the pan, a group of about seventy elephants were suddenly spooked by we know not what and dashed off at an alarming pace. Its amazing how there was very little noise as they galloped off and which of the animals had given off the alarm? On our last afternoon, we went through to Mbiza, mainly to see how well the solar unit is working there. The water level is great and although we didn’t see much in the way of game, it was still an enjoyable drive.

 

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New cubs at Ngweshla
Photo Dave Dell

We are sure we are preaching to the converted but we just have to say that we were very disappointed and dismayed at the continual criticism of the solar units that have been put in place throughout the Main Camp area in particular and at Sinamatella and Robins. We really would appreciate it if those criticizing would take into account the huge amount of effort and finance that has gone into drilling new boreholes so that there are two solar units at each pan if possible and then putting up the solar units themselves along with all the casing, piping, stone, cement etc., etc., that is needed for the site, not forgetting please, that all this has to be transported up to the Park as well. Most people obviously have NO idea how much finance was put into trying to keep Parks supplied with diesel in the past, often only to have it stolen from the engine sites. Parks was, unfortunately, not keeping up with the supply so a vast amount of donor money was being spent on supplying fuel. In the past, as soon as the count was finished, the pumping would stop, because there was no fuel available. Yes, we are aware that the solar units don’t work at night but…at least there is SOME water instead of none and why not use one of our most valuable natural resources! Two solar units at each pan pump the same, if not more water in a day than an engine running 24/7. And think how much less pollution is emitting into the atmosphere and the surrounding soil. There is a LOT less maintenance involved once the unit has been erected with no more refueling to be done. It does remain to be seen how the pans cope during the next couple of months but once again, better some water than none. It should also be remembered that the Park has experienced a particularly harsh year or two as the rains have not been good.

 

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Big Zebra Bully
Photo Dave Dell

Most of the Main Camp visitors/counters will have seen the new platform at Makwa. Here again there has been a lot of criticism about it but hey, everyone…surely it’s a step in the right direction and SOMETHING has been achieved. Plans are going ahead to resuscitate the Guvalala platform with work having started there and hopefully with a better supply of water once the two solar units are sorted out, it will become a popular overnight stop once again.   Please spare a thought for all those amazing people who are working their guts out to keep things ticking over in the park.

 

Thank you to the organizers of the count and hopefully we will see everyone back next year!

 

John and Jenny Brebner

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Young Boy at Ngweshla
Photo Dave Dell