Hwange Game Count

by John & Jenny Brebner

Having unpacked and settled into our lodge at Main Camp by 4:30pm on Wednesday 30th September, we went off for a short drive to Nyamandhlovu Platform and there, along with several other visitors, saw a mating pair of lion – a beautiful female and her handsome courtier both of whom were collared. What a way to start our trip!

During our foray into the Park in August when we seemed to just miss seeing lion/leopard/cheetah, this certainly turned into the trip of the cat sightings.

In the evening back in camp, we had a lengthy chat to Pat Cox, who had, once again, very generously given of his time and expertise to fly the park along with members of the WEZ committee to check out the water situation the week before the count. He told us that there was a staggering amount of water still lying about the park and gave us a run down some of the areas and the pans. This year, Owen M…… who is in charge of the Main Camp water, had the opportunity of flying with the team which gave him a totally different perspective of the lie of the land and he was also amazed at how much water was still available in parts of the park.

Early next morning, we were again treated to seeing the same mating pair of felines, this time on the edge of Dom pan with the early morning light giving us a good photo opportunity.

We travelled down to Jambile before backtracking to Dopi and at Caterpillar we came across a herd of thirty-four buffalo. In amongst them was a collared cow, which is probably part of CIRAD’s ongoing satellite research. During our drive, it was lovely to see the eriolobas out in their full new green canopies and the veld being brightened up with patches of delicate purple Lonchocarpus nelsii.

Checking water along the way, we were a bit disappointed to see that Sinanga was holding so little water but the other pans along the way looked fine. At Kennedy One picnic site we were told that Mpofu, a favoured male lion, had been seen lying close to the pan. We had been told previously that he was in a very poor state and not expected to last much longer. Having broken away from his three sons, he’d been set upon by a pride of eight lion, and had sustained a broken leg amongst other injuries. He had, however, killed a lioness and a male in the ensuing fight. Despite his injuries, the once magnificent creature had dragged himself from Ngweshla, all the way back to Kennedy One. Although we were hoping to see him to bid farewell, we weren’t quite prepared to feel so emotional about it when we did. There he was, lying dejected in the shade, close to the road for all to see, a shadow of his former self, desperately thin and emaciated, now and again lifting a tired paw to swipe at the multitude of flies, buzzing about his still handsome although scarred face. We left him there with heavy hearts, hoping that he would succumb quickly and peacefully, all the while wishing that a lethal dose of tranquilliser or a bullet could just be administered to the poor old chap. Our second sighting of lion then was not so lekker.

Back at Main Camp in the evening, we were going to go through to Safari Lodge to call on the lion researchers, first taking a short drive along the airstrip road, past Sedina. We came across at least twenty giraffe and about the same number of impala with some of the females already looking in an interesting condition. We spotted a wild dog on the road just before Livingi wearing a red collar and on getting to the water point, we discovered the pride of four lion which had been seen there earlier in the day – three females and a young male. The male and the largest lioness were both collared. Needless to say, we never got to Safari Lodge but stayed to watch the pride stake out the waterpoint until it was too dark to see anything more.

The following morning, leaving Main Camp for the Sinamatella area, we saw the mating pair of lion strutting their stuff once again at the Dom waterpoint. We took a look at all the other pans along the way – Guvalala, White Hills, Shapi, Danga, Roan, Dwarf Goose and Shumba. On Pat’s advice, we drove on past Danga pan to take a look at Nehimba, a pan which we have not previously visited. There are a series of pans along the way, all holding good natural water and we saw a few elephant bulls at two of them. What a surprise coming out of the mopane into this large clear, grassy vlei area, in the middle of which is Nehimba pan, teeming with waterfowl – red billed and Hottentot teal, a spurwing goose, spoonbills, a pair of Southern Pochard, numerous dab chicks, a couple of common sandpipers and the ever present noisy pair of Egyptian geese. A truly amazing sight.

Driving back through the vlei, we suddenly spotted two young lion, a male with his mane just starting to show and the other appeared to be a small female although she was skittish and moved off quickly as we approached. They wandered off into the scrub and we caught glimpses of them mock wrestling each other now and again. We are pretty certain that there must have been others in the immediate vicinity.

We stopped off at Masuma to speak to the South African visitors camped there to make sure that they were happy with our team of counters muscling in on their space before heading off to Mandavu, where we were to meet the rest of our team. As we approached the dam, it now being very hot at midday, we spotted a cat drinking down by the water and on closer inspection, followed a stunning female leopard for some time as she made her way back to cover. She obligingly flopped down in the shade cast by a huge tree trunk, very close to the road, presenting a good photo opportunity before moving across the road and we finally lost sight of her amongst a pile of rocks. What a sighting to cap our previous lion sightings.

Having gathered the rest of our team, we headed back to Masuma, where we set up camp for the following three nights. Late on Friday afternoon, the guineafowl came trilling down in their hundreds to drink in great clumps before finding a roost for the night. Just as the last of the light faded, first one, then in twos and threes and then in clouds, double banded sandgrouse descended for an evening drink, some of them - the males, we assumed - dunking their chests in the clean water running out of the trough and down to the dam before they headed off again. Later in the evening, several elephant moved in to drink and we saw spotted hyena, several impala, a lone buffalo bull and waterbuck along with the resident two crocodile and five hippo, two of whom were observed mating on several occasions so there was often a noisy ruckus amongst them.

Before the count started on the Saturday morning, some of our party went for a short drive towards Shumba and encountered another pride of lion. This time four stunning animals, two males and two females, lying close to an almost dried out pan, very close to the road and some lovely photos were taken. None of the animals were collared. Some of the counters moving down into that area also managed to see them which was a treat. We’d had rain overnight and unfortunately the weather closed in for the rest of the counting period, with heavier rain overnight on Saturday. This put paid to any animals coming down to drink and we experienced a very quiet twenty four hours of game counting as did most of the teams in the Sinamatella and Robins area, with some teams seeing nothing or perhaps one or two animals. The mating hippos kept us occupied as well as the crocs feeding on something below the water which turned out to be a waterbuck as the unfortunate bloated creature floated to the surface the following day. We were also kept amused by the antics of one particular Blacksmith’s Plover who was intent on continuously chasing three threebanded plovers. We weren’t sure what his gripe was and when the threebanded plovers got the better of him, he’d irritably pick on a bit of twig, tuft of grass, mound of elephant dung or whatever he could find to vent his fury on. This behaviour continued on to the next day and we are sure it was the same Blacksmith’s plover and the same three threebanded plovers!

Our thanks go to George and Jill, Malcolm and Sue for so warmly allowing us to camp along with them at Masuma and sharing some of their travelling and wildlife experiences with us while showing an interest in some of ours. We motored back through the park and yet again, came across the mating pair of lion near Dom. By now the male was looking decidedly haggard and had several bite marks on his lower left jaw and his front left leg.

Our dismay and disappointment at having such a “bad” count, was nothing compared to the utter disgust and the appalling news when we heard what some of the Robins counters had to say about their count. Not only had they had to contend with bad weather conditions disrupting their count, but Parks, in their wisdom, had allowed proficiency testing for groups of hunters to be carried out in the Robins camp area over the same period. Counters recounted stories of vehicles travelling backwards and forwards the entire twenty four hour period, sometimes with carcasses of animals being ferried to the skinning sheds while groups of ‘hunters’ with rifles shouldered could be seen moving through the bush. Although we have this on hearsay from several different sources, we hope that ALL counters who observed any of this will put in very strongly worded statements which can be followed up on. It makes one wonder what all the fuss is to preserve and protect our animals in a “game sanctuary” and shouldn’t the Parks officials who gave this the green light be reading their very fancy mission statement that is so prominently and beautifully displayed at the Main Camp office and elsewhere? This certainly put a huge dampener on our entire trip and bodes ill for the future of our parks.

John & Jenny Brebner.

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