Masuma dam

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.

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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!

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Moonlit Elephants

As usual, things did not go according to plan! Masuma dam -in Hwange National Park- had changed slightly. A small and shallow bay had been formed to the benefit of the thirsty animals, in particular the impala, who could now drink in relative safety as the crocodiles could not ambush them like last year.

The new drinking place made it safer for animals to drink. Philosophically, the crocodiles decided to sun themselves.

The new drinking place made it safer for animals to drink while the crocodiles wait.

This change in the architecture of the dam meant that the crocodiles (we counted six of them) were almost invariably sunning themselves on the banks of the dam in an apparent forced fast. There is no need to be concerned about them not eating, as they are able to survive long periods without food.

Hippo conversation!

Hippo discussion.

The sixteen hippos were also there. They behaved as one expects hippos to behave: most of the day time spent inside the water coming out for a “service” (sun, the occasional mud wallow and attention from oxpeckers) by lunch time and going out of the dam in the evening to graze. To achieve this they were forced to queue for sometime to squeeze between the drinking elephants! They spent most of their energy chasing each other inside the water snorting loudly and they were quite adept at showing us the end results of their digestion!

Hippos involved in "social" defecating...

Hippos involved in “social” defecation…

We arrived at Masuma at lunchtime. We spotted a few elephants drinking on the opposite side of the dam but no fresh water was being pumped in.

Elephants drinking before the pump was turned on.

The camp attendant anticipated my question telling me that lions were walking around the dam the night before and he did not dare to walk to switch on the pump! Needless to say that I obliged when he asked me for a lift to get there! While driving, keeping an eye for lions without seeing any, I learnt that a donor was providing diesel for the pump. “Once the pump is on the elephants will come” proclaimed the camp attendant after the engine started puffing. He also informed me that a full tank of diesel would operate the pump for twelve hours. “Twelve hours would take us through most of the night”, I thought while I mentally thanked the benefactor and hoped that the camp attendant was correct in his prediction.

All shyness lost when getting close to the water!

All shyness lost when getting close to the water!

Fortunately, as predicted by the camp attendant, the first elephants started to arrive within an hour of our return! Whether they smelled the fresh water or associated the pump noise with fresh water I could not say but the latter seems the most likely. The fact was that they made a beeline for the pipe producing the fresh water, ignoring the rest of the dam if possible! However, as the place got more and more crowded, the incoming families had to wait until those that had arrived earlier satiated their thirst or enter into the dam and drink less clean water.

The arrival of the first elephants took place at about 14.00 hours. By then we had already set up camp so we were ready for one of the greatest sights on earth: herds of thirsty elephants coming to drink! Your eyes get tired of gazing towards the confines of the bush that surrounds the dam and you need to stop for your eyes to rest. A few seconds later, when you resume your watch there they are as if they magically appeared in front of your eyes! They come out of the bushes in what appears to be a slow motion walk.

The miracle continues as more come into sight. Their slowness does not last long as, with raised trunks, they sniff the fresh water and their pace gets gradually faster as they approach it. It all ends with them breaking into a run to cover the last few metres, the baggy trousers that are their back legs flapping! Their run ends at the water’s edge where they drink showing their pleasure by shaking the water with their trunks and spilling it all over the place while drinking. Sometimes their run takes them into the water where they not only drink but also proceed to frolic like young humans!

Smelling us!

Smelling us!

Although we are used to seeing large herds of thirsty herbivores coming to a water source, they do so in a rather apathetic way. There is nothing like that when thirsty elephants smell water and I can assure you that their emotions show!

Once in the waterhole, their immediate thirst abated, the animals become quiet while making the best of the available water. They do vie for the best position but they do so rather discretely. Normally the larger animals occupy the best spots. These are bulls that come either singly or in small groups and join the drinking party for a while and then leave the way they came: on their own as normally they only join the female family units when there is one on heat.

At sunset, the show continued unabated.

At sunset, the show continued unabated.

Sunset with elephants dusting themselves.

After bathing it was dusting time to cool off.

Occasionally youngsters manage to squeeze in between the tusker behemoths and timidly at first but quite boldly later manage to stick their small trunks into the right spot to get a share of the fresh flowing water. Loud squealing indicates when one of them oversteps the mark and is put back in its place with a shove! Adults show each other respect and only rarely do their interactions go beyond posturing. Overt aggression rarely takes place, and on the occasions that is does, it is normally short-lived. After an initial head clash, often quite violent, one of the rivals withdraws tail up and maintains a prudent distance thereafter! We saw this happening a few times at Masuma.

It is usually a rather gently affair.

It is usually a rather gently affair.

On occasions, however, things do go badly as shown by the chunks of ivory found at waterholes. The most extreme outcome I have ever seen is the skull with a hole made by a tusk on display at the Letaba Elephant Hall in the Kruger National Park. Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumi” in Swahili means “When elephants fight the grass gets hurt”, a very accurate proverb to describe what you see in these situations! We saw quite a serious confrontation at Kennedy 2 dam near Ngweshla but, luckily, one of the bulls gave up before things got out of hand and the dust eventually settled.

Ocasionally things get out of hand.

Ocasionally things get out of hand.

Their great strength is evident.

Their great strength is evident.

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Eventually they separated.

Eventually they separate and the “loser” moves off .

The elephant parade at Masuma continued throughout the whole afternoon and well into the evening. They paid no attention to the noisy arrival and departure at dusk of large numbers of banded grouse.

Elephants drinking at sunset.

Elephants drinking at sunset.

We stopped watching them for a while to have dinner but their noise stayed with us, as the herds were a few steps from our elevated camp. With dinner over it was time to go back to observe them again with the fading light. They were clearly wearier and their trunks rose more often to smell us and confirm our presence. Belly rumbling also became more frequent and louder. I was aware that the latter is believed to be a communication method among elephants but I did not know that the rumbling moves from animal to animal in a herd, in order to make sure that it reaches the last individual in the herd. Fascinating stuff!

A night picture of the dam with drinking elephants. I applied the Picasa "I am feeling lucky" command to get light into the picture.

A night picture of the dam with drinking elephants. I applied the Picasa “I am feeling lucky” command to get light into the picture. Even the stars can be seen better!

The original picture, above.

The original picture, above.

After a long while we were getting ready to go to bed when the moon started to illuminate the bush across the dam so we decided to wait a while longer. It was well worth it! The moon was almost full and it cast an eerie light over the moving dark grey masses. Absorbed by this rare vision we remained on the watch and for a while forgot our sleep. We stayed with them until they started to move off and only a handful of bulls remained until about 2 am. It is probable that their withdrawal matched the end of the pump’s diesel and their departure brought calm to the dam and we could enjoy a silent African night for a while until the lions started to roar in the distance!

The following morning, apart from the fresh droppings, nothing gave away what we had witnessed a few hours earlier.

Fearless bee-eater

While at Masuma dam, we spent sometime identifying a bee-eater that we had not seen before. Fortunately at least one pair was residing at the dam’s campsite and we had time to have a good look and classify them as swallow-tailed bee-eaters (Merops hirundineus). As my new Roberts VII Multimedia Bird of Southern Africa App says, “The deeply forked blue tail is diagnostic”.

The first picture.

The first picture.

The birds were using two trees from which they would launch themselves in search of prey and come back to the same perch to either try again if they failed or to eat the unfortunate insect if successful. Having watched them for a while we decided that we needed a good picture.

My son is keen on bird watching and wildlife photography so he was given the task of taking “the picture” of the new bee-eater. He approached the birds and took a few shots. Not happy with the results, he tried to get a few steps closer and he got two good shots.

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While moving forward still he saw a fly landing on the side of his shorts but he paid no attention to it as his eyes were fixed on the bee-eater. However, when he was about to shoot, the bird disappeared from the viewfinder. Before he could react he felt more than saw a touch on his shorts where the fly was and, to his surprise, he saw the bee-eater flying away with the fly in its beak! Luckily, he reacted fast and took a picture of the fly being eaten by the bird!

The bird with the prey caught on my son's shorts!

The bird with the prey caught on my son’s shorts!

I have seen garden birds coming to feed on people’s hands or even landing on their heads to feed from there but it was a first to see a wild bird being so daring!

Hwange National Park

Last year I reported on our stay at Shumba Picnic site in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe (see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/watched-at-shumba/) as well as the observations we made on the struggle we witnessed between crocodiles and hippos for the impala carcasses at Masuma dam (see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/hippos-from-hell-the-videos/).

Hippos were not interested in Impala meat this time!

Hippos were not interested in Impala meat this time! (Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

(Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

(Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

After our return from that safari we immediately booked the Masuma dam campsite so that we could stay closer to the action and see if we could observe something additional in the crocodile-hippo saga that caught our interest earlier. We also booked a place in Main Camp as we were sure we would have fun with elephants at Nyamandlovu pan. We knew that the elephants were plentiful there and we could watch them and enjoy their antics!

THis time there were lots of elephants at Masuma dam. (Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

This time there were lots of elephants at Masuma dam. (Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

We even saw pink elephants... (Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

We even saw pink elephants… (Photo by Julio A. de Castro & Mariana Terra)

As part of our “discovery drive” we also camped in the Ngweshla pan campsite as it has a reputation as the best place to camp in Hwange and is a place where predators are often seen because the area surrounding the various pans and water holes found there is quite open, a change from the thick bush of other areas in the park.

The safari took place between 22 and 29 July 2015 and I describe its highlights in four posts:

Fearless bee-eater

Moonlit elephants

Encounter with lions, and

Ngweshla cold.

 

I hope you will enjoy them.

Behind our backs

While we were engrossed watching the Crocodiles ambushing the Impalas at Masuma dam, lots of things were taking place around us. On the first day there, a snake was coming down exactly where my wife was sitting at the viewing platform! To say that she does not like snakes is an understatement, so she moved out of the snake’s possible path rather fast! I did not make things better when I identified it as a possible Boomslang!

A couple of days later, while focusing on the waters-edge going ons, one of the Picnic Attendants called our attention to another snake act! This time they were two snakes, similar to the one seen before. Their behaviour indicated that they were mating. Basically the process involved the two snakes sliding together throughout the viewing platform as one, the female? moving away while the other one, the male? tried to come into contact with her. Once that was achieved they started to shiver and twist around each other.

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The snakes moving in.

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Picture by Tom Milliken.

The process took about 30 minutes during which they were in command of the viewing platform as the human occupants were always at the opposite end, keeping an eye on their movements. The latter were rather fast and, as we suspected them to be the dangerous Boomslangs, there was no time for jokes while giving them a wide berth. At one stage they were mating at the door and several people were seen to leave the platform through any possible exit in order to get things from their cars or go to the toilet.

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Eventually their courtship took them outside and they were last seen twisting in a nearby tree.

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They finally moved outside. Picture by Tom Milliken.

If such a thing as “relief post factum” exists, we need not have worried as, with the benefit of time and a good snake guide, they were identified as a pair of the slender Spotted Bush Snakes (Philothamnus semivariegatus). They are a rather common and harmless snake endemic to Africa that feed on lizards, tree frogs and geckos.

In light of this excitement, I promised myself to add an extra kg to our already heavy camping gear and include the snake book in the future!

Crocodiles and Impalas

The events described were observed at Masuma Dam in the Hwange National Park. The dam is about 120m by 100m and it has a roughly oval shape. Water is continuously pumped to the dam from a nearby borehole making it an essential water source for the animal population in the surrounding area.

Masuma panorama

The time of the observations -13 to 16 October 2014- correspond to the end of the dry season. Elephants, Greater Kudus, Waterbucks, Impalas, Zebras and Warthogs were regular visitors, together with large flocks of Guinea Fowls and Vultures, to name the most frequent and common. We also counted 16 Hippos and six Crocodiles.

The preferred drinking place was a small bay located towards the Southern part of the dam (seen on the left of the picture above, at the back where some Impalas can also be seen). Most antelopes drank from there, particularly the Impalas that would come throughout the day in herds of various sizes. The figure below shows a typical drinking scene in that bay.

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A herd of Impalas drinking at the dam.

As soon as a herd started to drink, usually one of the Crocodiles would swim towards them. They did so in full view of the antelopes and stopped at about 1 to 1.5 metres from them.

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A crocodile slowly approaching the drinking Impalas.

On seeing this the impala would withdraw from the water’s edge for a short time but gradually calm down and return to the water’s edge to resume their drinking. The crocodile would remain immobile for a few minutes and then slowly submerge and, eventually, disappear completely.

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The Crocodile starts to sink.

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The Crocodile is barely visible now and about to disappear.

What followed next was really unpredictable. With the Crocodile (we assume that there is only one!) submerged the Impalas would continue to drink, although very fretfully. Most of the time, the Impalas will get their fill and move off without incident. However, approximately two or three times in a morning a sudden swirl in the water will be the only thing that preceded a violent attack by a Crocodile by lounging itself at the Impalas, moving its head sideways while biting in an attempt at catching one.

Croc attack 1

The Impalas’ first reaction at seeing the water starting to move.

As soon as the impala saw the water movement preceding the attack, they scattered in all directions, including jumping into the water in order to avoid the Crocodile.

Croc attack 2

The Crocodile attack is taking place, the Impalas scatter in all directions, including into the water becoming very vulnerable.

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The Impalas escaped the attack this time, including the male inside the water.

The most common outcome was that the crocodile(s) failed and went back to the water empty-jawed.

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The Crocodile returns to the water after the failed attack.

On two occasions, however, animals were caught. We witnessed one kill while the other one took place just before our arrival and saw the Crocodile swimming with the dead antelope. The Impala we saw was a young animal and it was caught from a foreleg. After a short struggle it was quickly drowned.

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A Crocodile swims away carrying the Impala.

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The Crocodile holding the impala after drowning it.

During the time we were at the dam, the Crocodiles caught two Impalas out of eight attacks witnessed.

There was also an extremely interesting follow-up to the kills but for that you will need to wait for a while!!!