Enjoy this incredible GoPro footage of our team rescuing an elephant calf stuck in deep mud in Hwange National Park.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
We have just recently had a trip up to the Falls and Hwange and while staying in Main Camp, we managed to get around to see most of the pans in the area that are now operating with their solar units. We were delighted with the amount of water that is available at the moment, and it obviously remains to be seen how the units cope during the intense heat and dry, but at least there is water at most of the prominent pans without the worry of insufficient diesel or engines breaking down.
One morning two of our party went out on a quick early morning drive and were excited to spot a big male lion and a lioness in the Nyamandhlovu area as well as a magnificent male cheetah that had been seen on numerous occasions according to the office sighting book. On a trip down to Ngweshla, we saw all the usual game – impala, kudu, zebra, giraffe, elephant, steenbuck, wildebeest – and we were chuffed to see five roan antelope roaming across the open vlei. Returning in the afternoon, we saw a group of vehicles stopped at Makwa and found the occupants all looking at a mother cheetah and her five cubs. The female cheetah was deep in the shade of an ebony tree with her five babies hiding behind her. Two warthog sauntered down to the pan to for a drink and a wallow in the mud and on returning the way they had come, the five cubs decided to try their luck at a stalk. It was amusing to watch as they rushed harum scarum out of cover while the warthogs just trotted away, looking rather scornfully over their shoulders – one could almost hear them chortling.. The cubs sat down, looking at each other with rather puzzled expressions on their faces! After that bit of excitement all the other vehicles moved off but we decided to stay put for a few more minutes. We were not disappointed as mother cheetah sat up, chirped for her cubs and began to stroll out into the open fairly close past the car. Mother cheetah -a beautiful animal who, we have been told, is the same mother that raised three young last year – then had a copious roll in some elephant dung with her youngsters leaping about her before they all sauntered off in a line further along the road. Unfortunately, with the approach of another vehicle, they soon headed off into thick bush.
During another afternoon drive, we were delighted to see water flowing under the bridge at Caterpillar and down into the old natural pan. The scene at Dopi is lovely too with water in the old pan as well as the new one. Herds of elephant arrived in their droves to drink and splash, literally pouring out of the bush on all sides, most of the herds with tiny babies afoot. The sight at the sunset was food for the soul.
It’s wonderful to see so much water available and hopefully the solar units will cope in the coming months. We look forward to participating in the annual game count soon when we will once again enjoy the splendour of Hwange.
John and Jenny Brebner