hwange

World Elephant Day

Yesterday (12 August)  it was World Elephant Day and I thought that what we saw last week at Ngweshla pan in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe is a suitable scene to remember these amazing animals that the more I watch, the more I get entertained and admire.

I owe my increasing interest for these animals to my daughter (the intermittent Senior Editor of this blog) who, from very young age was fascinated by these animals and gradually “educated” me to appreciate them.

I hope you will find the video fun!

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An antisocial lion!

Bush lions are normally tolerant of vehicles, even the open tourist ones. The only aggression we have seen was related to times when mating was taking place and the male normally leaves no doubt about how close you should be! The situation can be different on foot when the utmost care is needed where these cats are concerned to avoid accidents.

While checking in at Main Camp in Hwange National Park, we were warned of the existence of a new lion: Mopani[1]. The lion, explained a sign placed at the booking desk by the “Lion Project”, came from an area devoid of tourists and it was aggressive, charging vehicles! Siduli, another male, and two females accompanied it. We were also shown a video taken from a tourist vehicle being chased by Mopani and learnt that one of the females was in heat and mating with one of the males. We thought that Mopani’s progeny was assured and planned to keep our distance from him!DSCN9991 9.04.30 PM copy

The lions had taken residence around the Main Camp area so we were delighted at our luck, as we were sure not to miss them! “Cecil may have gone but in comes Mopani!” was our thought!

Although recently arrived from a longish trip, the possibility of spotting one of our all time favourite animals made us drop our luggage at the lodge and drive off in search of lions. We found the two females at Dom pan. They were clearly different: a paler one and a darker one. The latter appeared to be the older of the two.

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After watching them for a while, a male came out of the bushes and greeted the darker one while the other moved away a short distance. Were we about to witness some mating? Not so as Mopani, who we assumed was the dominant male, only rubbed heads with the female and then moved off in the direction it came from, leaving the female pair alone until the day ended and it was time to get back to our lodge before the mandatory return time of 18:30hs.

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We did not need to plan our next day activities as finding the lions again and spending time watching them was the only option! As a friend of mine says, “we slept in a hurry” and we were up before 06.00hs. No need for alarm clocks! We drove straight to Dom pan, as we believed that they would not have gone very far from there. On our way we realized that several migratory bird species were present at Hwange at the time. These were Crowned Cranes, Abdim and Woolly-Necked Storks, African Kites and Amur Falcons to name but a few!

We had little time for bird watching as the lions had killed a young elephant at Dom pan during the night and the two lionesses were feeding on it! After this find, most of our activities during the visit centred round Dom pan where we spent a lot of our time. We watched the lionesses feeding and interacting for several hours and I present you with a number of pictures and a video, as these are better than words. We only left them to return to the lodge for lunch and a rest.

When we came back during mid-afternoon, only the paler lioness was by the carcass. A search of the surrounding area revealed two lions laying together a few hundred metres from Dom. They were the mating pair: the darker female and a male that, to our surprise carried a radio collar. As we doubted that Mopani had one, it could only be Siduli. Clearly the lion that acts most ferociously towards cars is not necessarily the dominant when it comes to affairs of the heart! It was then clear that the male we had seen the day before was Siduli and that Mopani was hidden from view somewhere! But where?

Luckily my wife was with us as, if there was someone that could spot it, it would be her. And spot it she did, to our amazement, again! The wild-looking Mopani had been lying low under some bushes, unseen by anyone (except my wife) until then. It remained unobserved by our fellow game-spotters with the exception of another lady that clearly shared my wife’s eyesight. We thought it better that it remained unseen and got used to cars if it is to remain in a tourist area so we did not reveal its whereabouts.

As Mopani was still not willing to socialize and remained sulking under a bush, we focussed on the others. Mating in lions is a long-lasting affair as the pair remains together and mating takes place often for a few days, while the female is still receptive to the male[2]. This was clearly the case, as they remained “occupied” for the rest of the time we were at Hwange. That left the other lioness guarding the elephant carcass and Mopani hidden from view! After a while it was time to move off.

We drove to the Nyamandlovu pan as our daughter is very partial to elephants. Despite the abundance of drinking water all over the area, we were extremely lucky to witness the visit of a herd of about fifty animals that, as usual, appeared suddenly as if the product of a magic tree-to-elephant metamorphosis. The result was about one hour of one of the greatest shows on earth: elephants enjoying life at a water hole! There were about five family groups, each led by a matriarch and composed of its progeny, including some really young and tiny babies that were the centre of our attention.

The elephants not only drank but also entered the water where many were seen frolicking about and playing as only elephants are able to do among wild animals! It seemed to us that the latter were at risk of drowning while entering the water with their huge siblings and that they were under even more danger while swimming among them! Somehow they managed to keep their tiny trunks above the water and their mothers were extremely protective and they were always in close contact and ready to assist them!

The three resident hippos felt very uncomfortable at this sudden disturbance and two moved to the very centre of the pan while the third moved to the shore where it put up brave stance against the elephants, only to return to join the others as it was not at all respected by the excited pachyderms! Again, a picture gallery and videos are better than my limited power of description to let you know what took place.

The elephants’ joyfulness in the water delayed our return so we only drove past Dom pan, catching a glimpse of the lions who unwittingly startled a herd of 30 odd elephants intent on drinking from the pan, who retreated in a cloud of dust as soon as they caught sight of the lionesses. We arrived late at the gate where we were told off by a rather grumpy lady game ranger! The justification for our tardiness did not go far with her, clearly used to all sorts of excuses from people arriving late to camp!

The following morning, as expected, the lion pair continued their courtship, the pale female was still guarding the carcass and about fifty vultures (white-backed, white-headed, hooded and lapped-faced) were waiting on the side-lines for her to leave it. While in waiting, the Lappet-faced vulture was seen having a snack by pulling and cutting the dry tendons and sinews from an older dry elephant carcass that other vultures also shared once it opened up the hard bits!

Mopani, the antisocial, still preferred to remain out of sight! We can only hope that he starts turning into a more car-tolerant lion by accepting their presence as part of his daily life. Who knows, maybe one day he could become Cecil’s successor.

 

[1] To name wild animals or not to name! This is the question… for which I have no clear answer!

[2] Both leopards and lions have the same mating procedure. They can mate as often as every fifteen minutes for up to five days. This is the consequence of weak sperm and mating-induced ovulation.

Sleeping rock python

Our final visit to the Zimbabwean bush before leaving for South America took place from 8-10 January, and it was shared with our daughter who is also leaving for Italy later this week.

As usual, we enjoyed our safari in one of the jewels Zimbabwe has to offer. Learning from previous experience, we stayed at Main Camp as time was short and camping during the rainy season is not really a comfortable option! We were correct as it did rain and the sky -thankfully for the hitherto dry Hwange- was waterlogged so we expect and hope that the rains will continue.

Although there were a number of interesting observations during the trip, I will start with the one I feel “inspired” to write about, while I think about how to present the others to you.

Several memories of my past experience with African Rock Pythons (Python sebae) came to my mind when, on reaching the top of the Nyamandlovu viewing platform we were warned that there was a python in one of its corners!

My experience with rock pythons on safari is very poor. In fact, until this find I had never seen one in a national park or game reserve! My only encounters with these magnificent creatures were in Kenya, either first hand or through pictures and/or stories. I recall seeing a picture of a really humongous python (most often and most regrettably killed) that had swallowed a goat at Intona Ranch in the Transmara. It was probably about five metres long and about six people held it up for the picture. That was interesting but a real pity.

On a more optimistic note, we once met a Swiss fellow “safarier” at Meru National Park, also in Kenya in the 80’s, who told us the story of a python swiming towards his little daughter who happened to be near the water. The moment it approached her, the snake stopped swimming towards her! He also mentioned that when he kneeled next to it, the snake resumed its approach, only to stop again when he stood up, suggesting that there is some size-assessment from the python when stalking its prey.

Apart from stories and pictures, I also remember two first hand encounters. On one occasion, while staying at Elsamere[1] in lake Naivasha on a bass-fishing trip in lake Naivasha, other guests spent their time looking for pythons at the lakeshore! I was really sceptical about python-collecting so I was really surprised when two -albeit small ones- were found! I should also add that luckily they were small as my friend Paul jokingly hung them around my neck with the obvious result that I carried the scars of 2 python bites on my upper torso for a few days! I can testify that pythons bite at least as hard as laboratory rats!

The second encounter was when, perhaps inspired by the above incident, Jim, my wife and I decided to go on a python-safari! Jim was a good friend with whom I shared a liking for snakes. My wife does not like snakes so she came for the walk, hoping for a fruitless search! Our trip took us to Hell’s Gate[2], long before it was declared a National Park.

We did enjoy a magnificent walk along the gorge and dry riverbed. It was there, at a narrow, shady and wet passage between narrow cliffs that we found a young rock python that had recently moulted and was shiny and healthy. As until then, finding the python was just our pretext for the walk, we were as amazed to find it as I am sure the snake was to see the three large primates walking towards it!

Enough reminiscing and back to the present safari! The Nyamandlovu pan viewing platform offers a magnificent view of the water and the action that is always present there. This time the action was clearly inside it! The empty half of the platform was clear proof of the snake’s presence, fear of snakes prevailing even among animal lovers who preferred to pack themselves at the other end!

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The young  rock python wedged in a crevice of the platform, head down.

We were really thrilled by the news and moved closer to have a good look. The snake was a juvenile. It was comfortably wedged head-down in a gap of the railing, apparently enjoying an afternoon nap[3]. We took a few difficult pictures and sat in the empty corner next to it leaving it alone, happy to watch it every now and then while focusing on the events at the pan.

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Regret the leg but it is only for comparison!

Amazingly not one of the several occupants of the platform came to have a look at the snake although all of them were aware of its presence. They preferred a packed platform end while we remained undisturbed at the “snake end”!

Needless to say that the snake did not move while we were there! It was still in exactly the same position when we left at the end of the day, still enjoying life. We were a bit concerned about it being rather vulnerable but hope that it will find its way and we will see it again.

 

[1] Elsamere Conservation Centre was the home of George and Joy Adamson for a time and it has accommodation facilities.

[2] It was named by Gustav Fischer and Joseph Thomson in 1833 after its narrow cliffs.

[3] Although snakes do not have eyelids, they still sleep by being able to close their pupils and sleep.

Hippo disclosure

While searching for suitable pictures to post in Instagram (#bushsnob, just in case you are curious…) I found a picture of communal defecation by hippos at Masuma dam. As I have recently -and entirely by virtue of being observant- become involved with facts about hippos that will probably change the way we look at them, I thought this short post was justified.

5 - Hippo rescue attempt at 2 second view

Hippos chasing crocs to get at the impala carcass!

There are many great stories about animals in Africa and, although I learnt this one some time ago, it had been stored in a part of my brain that I no longer have access to, because of all the new activities I am involved in (the real reason will not be disclosed!).

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A hippo “tusker”. Note the left tusker also protruding in the upper lip.

Anyhow, apparently when the world was created, God, as you can easily imagine, encountered many problems. A lot of them God solved immediately but several remained, perhaps because God was busy solving the important ones. Among these was the “Hippo problem”. The latter found itself in a dilemma about its lifestyle that required a consultation with God.

“God” hippo said, “I know you have created me, but what do I do now? What do I eat? Where do I live?” A busy God did not have time for individual animal bellyaching so, from the top of his head said: “Well, you will live in the water but you will eat grass”. Surprised Hippo repeated “I will live in the water but I will eat grass?” This did not make too much sense to it as it had seen his reflection in the water: big mouth and big teeth! “How am I going to convince fish that I will not eat them? They will not let me enter the water!” he commented. Still busy, God told Hippo to make a plan!

Hippo left God’s office deep in thought and organized a meeting with the fish to convince them of his life plan. “I must prove to the fish that I have not eaten them!’ thought Hippo, and he met with the fish and eventually they came up with a pact: Hippo could spend the days with them in the water if he could prove he was not eating them. Hippo would prove this by spreading its dung each time, to prove to the fish that he was a trustworthy neighbour! Hippos still do to this very day.

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Hippos defecating together in the water.

As you know, hippos spin their tails while defecating to distribute their excrement over the greatest possible area and, contrary to what I thought, hippo defecation occurs in the water and it is not rare to see fish following them. Male hippos in particular are very precise in the spreading of their excrement!

Funnily enough, I do not remember having witnessed a hippo peeing! Apparently they pee backwards and are known as are retromingent animals.

Enough of hippo’s bodily functions!

A “new” hippo

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Those of you who have read this blog on 22 February 2015 (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/) and watched the videos I posted later (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/hippos-from-hell-the-videos/) would remember the extraordinary observations that the hippos present at Masuma dam at Hwange National Park were actually eating Impala meat. A reminder below:

This observation was so incredible to us –seeing it happening in front of our eyes without previous knowledge- that it was almost the sole topic of conversation for the rest of the trip! It was only after we returned and I found an earlier record of a similar event also observed at Masuma almost 20 years earlier[1] that my mind relaxed, but only for a short while. What we thought that happened it was what actually took place! I believed that the observations were of great importance and that they merited further follow up!

Luckily, establishing contact with Joseph Dudley (Joe), the responsible of the observations and publication, was straight forward and he replied to my message telling him of our experience within 24 hours! The possibility of some collaboration to write our observations was considered from the start. Later on Joe realized that there were a few reports and that it was worthwhile attempting a joint paper. On 20 October 2014 he wrote: ” I think that it would be good to connect the dots between these three recent observations ………..”[2] This was the start of Joe’s efforts to put together the people that have had experience on hippo carnivory and although he asserted to me recently (2 December 2015) that ” It was your contacting me after your experience in Hwange that pushed me to made this paper happen…” the idea of the joint paper and the effort of writing and coordinating it was his! My contribution to the exercise was minimal and I could safely say that I was only the straw that broke the camel’s back!

Civilities aside, Joe managed to put together a group of people with complementary expertise and steered it to the publication of a paper that I believe will change the way we look at hippos in the future[3].

In brief the paper postulates that hippos, an essential species within their ecosystem, should be considered not as obligate herbivores as at present but rather as facultative carnivores able to consume carcasses from other animals. Carnivory is not an aberrant behaviour confined to certain instances but a behavioral trait that takes place throughout the hippo’s distribution.

The accelerated rate of transmission of the deadly zoonotic disease anthrax recorded among hippos as compared with other animals is attributed to their habit of consuming meat from various animals, including the hippos themselves. This fact can have important implications for a better understanding and better management of future anthrax outbreaks not just in wildlife populations but, much more critically, in humans. The publication is receiving a rather wide coverage by the world press that I include on a separate page for reference. See: Hippo carnivory press coverage.

Just today (10 December 2015) Joe sent me a video from YouTube that I think is very timely as it rather eloquently shows hippos consuming a zebra and fending off crocodiles while doing so. You can watch the video below although it may be a bit too strong for some. Please accept my apologies but I think it is within the very interesting subject of this post.

I end this post with a picture of a hippo taken on the Kavango river during our recent trip to Namibia that I will cover soon. Does it not look too fierce to be a herbivore?

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[1] Dudley, J.P. (1998). Report of carnivory in the common hippo Hippopotamus amphibious. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 28, 58-59.

[2] At the time he had additional information on the subject from other colleagues.

[3] Dudley, J. P., Hang’Ombe, B. M., Leendertz, F. H., Dorward, L. J., de Castro, J., Subalusky, A. L. and Clauss, M. (2015), Carnivory in the common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius: implications for the ecology and epidemiology of anthrax in African landscapes. Mammal Review. doi: 10.1111/mam.12056. The paper can be downloaded free from the following link for the next couple of weeks: http://wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/mam ffollhttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mam.12056/abstract for the next two weeks and then the Abstract will remain there.

 

DIY Eagle

We spotted the large but simple nest at about 100m from the road between Main Camp and Nyamandlovu pan in Hwange National Park, (Zimbabwe) when we visited this park last July. We looked for its owner for a while and, a couple of hundred metres ahead, we found a suspect: an adult Martial Eagle perched on a large acacia tree at about four metres from the ground. To find the largest African eagle is always exciting as they are great hunters and able to kill rather large prey.

We stopped to take pictures and, as usual, we took the first one from a prudent distance and with the engine on, before getting a bit closer for better ones. We stayed put as we noticed that there was something odd. “Look!” one of us said, “it is entangled in a thorny branch” We all looked and, true to the observation, the eagle seemed to be hooked on thorns and making frantic movements with its head to release itself.

The only picture of the Martial eagle.

The only picture of the Martial eagle.

Awe-struck and concerned we forgot about pictures and started speculating on the sighting. Some of us maintained the entangling theory while others thought that it was catching or eating something. We all agreed, however, that something odd was taking place! We could only watch and wait…

After a few nervous minutes we noted that, apparently, the eagle did not have a prey. Immediately she also, somehow miraculously, stopped shaking its head and looked quite totally unconcerned. However, it was still holding a longish branch!

In fact, it had never been tangled or eating but in the process of cutting a thorny branch and it had just completed the task! Without more ado, the branch was placed in its talons and off it went, landing on the nest we had seen earlier!

A subsequent Internet search did not reveal a record of such behaviour. Although I believe it to be known to specialists in birds of prey, I reported it here just in case as it was an interesting, if anxious, observati