Dispatches for August 2004:
Click on a date (below) to read expedition reports.
August 2, 2004: Lake Ngami
|1. August 2, 2004
2. August 3, 2004
3. August 5, 2004
4. August 7, 2004
|5. August 9, 2004
6. August 10, 2004
7. August 14, 2004
8. August 17, 2004
|9. August 21, 2004|
10. August 24, 2004
12. August 31, 2004
We crossed the culverts of the Nhabe River and water was gushing through, heading south into Lake Ngami. That nice clear water that has been filtered through the Okavango was fast uprooting trees that have grown up in that river bottom over the past few decades. A closer look at this river also revealed lily pads, catfish, frogs, and an abundance of other aquatic life.
We drove fast to stay in front of the dust. The landscape here is a floodplain that is covered in a nice pattern of camel, thorn acacia, grass, cows, horses, and goats. You feel like you are driving on an ancient lake bed that even the oldest bull elephants in this region cannot remember containing water. In no time we reached what is now lake edge. It looked much bigger now than it had from the air just a few days before. It reminded me of the reservoirs that I used to play in as a kid in California. We hung a left at lake's edge as we started a search for the clouds of quelea birds we'd glimpsed from above. Marabou storks, herons, and egrets were about the only birds to be seen at this point. We drove all the way to the channel mouth and still no quelea. As the sun set and we drove still farther, I saw a few lanner falcons, Hartlaub's babblers, yellow-billed hornbills, and clouds of insects that we prayed were not mosquitoes. We decided to camp near where the channel and the lake met because that's where we'd seen a major concentration of birds earlier and there was a patch of brown grass where we could pitch our tents. As the noise of the engine disappeared and our ears adjusted to the ambient sounds, we picked up two distinct, pervasive tones. One sounded like the hum of a high-tension wire and the other like a waterfall. We discovered what the first was almost immediately: swarms of the biggest mosquitoes I think man has ever known. These things were like the 747s of the mosquito world. In about five minutes they'd covered our legs, arms, and heads. The sounds of setting up tents and chopping wood made it hard for me to focus on the second sound, so I took a walk in the direction I thought it was coming from. The sound led me right to the edge of the lake, where I could hear waves of whishing. It was birds, thousands, maybe millions of birds swarming to roost. There were now streams of quelea coming to roost over my head, flying low and fast over the canopy like a fast river over flat rocks. I could feel the power of these flocks even though they sounded like they were more than a mile away.
August 3, 2004: Masses of Queleas — Watch Video
About a mile up the lake we could see smoke in the air, avian smoke that only a few types of birds make like starlings in Europe or the red-billed quelea. Now we were frantic. We had just hit the jackpot. The roar of the flocks dampened the purr of the Land Rover's diesel and when it went silent we felt as if we were under a torrential waterfall of sound. Every tree along the bank was quaking, covered with thousands of birds. They moved in circular motion, accumulating to the breaking point in the trees when there wasn't another possible perch. Then you'd hear the deafening whir of another flock lifting off into the million or more birds that were in constant motion over the water. They would descend in waves of tens of thousands, flutter in the water, and then take off a few seconds later to join the circular pattern of birds. We watched, half stupefied, half hypnotized, as this smoke cloud almost completely blocked the horizon from view. They were flapping and chirping simultaneously, making a deafening whirr and seemingly racing to a finish line that never came. I ventured into the acacia forest. On a normal day this is already an eerie place with this dry dusty grove of trees with more white thorns than leaves. As I walked through this forest I could feel a strong vibration as tens of thousands of birds moved a little bit out of the way. The overwhelming presence put butterflies in my breath as thoughts of Alfred Hitchcock kept popping into my head. I made it to the other end and my energy was spent. I felt like I had been in a wind tunnel for a couple of hours or in another world that was almost inescapable.
Later on we went back to Maun, but there was no Peter Ragg. We got through on the radio. The word is that Peter took off from the Santawani strip to come to Maun and about eight nautical miles out the oil pressure went to zero. Sound familiar? They immediately turned back to the strip without incident. They changed the oil and found metal flecks. He thinks it is just normal wear and tear. In any case, the news of the day is that it's time for yet another rebuilt Continental engine. I'm glad I wasn't in the plane again. I like keeping my heart in my chest not in my throat.
August 5, 2004: Wild Doggies
By the time we hit the third giant aardvark hole, I knew Patrick was a wild man. Driver, passengers, cool box, GPS, and seats had all flown into that suspended animation of negative g's for a moment before landing back with a crash. I held on as we jumped another dead acacia tree trunk and smashed through another patch of wild sage with a cloud of dust billowing from this patch of Kalahari scrub. After about three tries I got it out before my jaw was jerked shut: "Whhhhat is the name of this paaaack?" "Mohohelo," Patrick said, lighting another Peter Stuyvesent butt and yanking the wheel to miss a mopani stump. "That looks like a truck stopper," I said. "Dead in your tracks," said Pat as he gunned the engine through a patch of sand. It was like a dirt track rally, and this beat-up, 15-year-old Land Rover that sounded like it had glass packs, was up to the task. The dog's den was 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) into this patch of the Santuwani concession.
The official designation of this chunk of land is ccc42. It is one of many pieces of Botswana allotted by the government to the local tribe as its source of revenue. It is on the tail end of the Okavango fan. It's not much to look at. The soils are a fine sand with a mixture of low, dense mopani and acacia flats with the occasional pan. If it were in the Central African Republic or Sudan, it would just be one more little postage stamp of anonymous, empty savanna, but Santuwani is full of life—elephants, giraffes, herds of buffalo, impalas, wildebeests and kudu. The river is full of hippos and fish that hardly anybody fishes.
There is a hunting operation, an ecotourism lodge, a tented camp run by a weathered Zimbawean guy named Nigel, Tico McNutt's wild dog research camp, and a lion research camp. The hunting quota allows for 12 elephants. Add to that a quota for leopards, buffalo, and all the other plains game along with revenue from the tourism and it adds up to over $500,000 a year for the population of about 300 people who live here. Many of these are employed in the concession lodges. The elephant safaris sell for $65,000 apiece, and a bed in Starlings camp goes for over $100 a night, so there is plenty to go around for the white professional hunters and the odd Zimbabwean farmer who has pitched up in Botswana over the past few years.
We closed in via our GPS waypoint, marking the Mohohelo den site. The last time we came here we had discovered the wild dogs had moved. Pat said they had been at this den for about six weeks and were due to move. The fleas get thick underground and the pups start scratching, so the dogs move on. I would imagine that game also starts to get a bit scarce, even though these guys can travel more then 15 miles (20 kilometers) for a meal.
There are 20 adults in this pack, and at last count eight pups were left. The alpha female, Agate, had started with eleven but three had died. Finally, we pulled up to the den. It had three well-worn entrance holes, two on one side of this ancient termite mound with an escape hatch out the back. Pat said the entrances were too steep for the pups, which may have contributed to the deaths of the three missing ones. The amazing thing about these dens is they are clean—no bones, no excrement, just tracks and tons of fleas. Pat said the cleanliness is "to keep them hidden from lions and hyenas. Lions love to kill wild dogs." He pulled his foldable radio antenna out, jumped on top of the Land Rover cage and tuned to Agate. We could hear a faint beep, beep, beep, contact, maybe two kilometers to the south.
We were off. The trick to traveling through this bush, besides being fearless, and in particular being fearless about destroying your car, is to know the hardness of each tree, the depth of holes, and the path of least resistance. Pat saw a dense canopy of mopani. "Hellhole, we'll never get through that." He spied an ancient river bed, and we headed for it. Pat revved the engine as we crashed through a downed trunk about six inches in diameter. "Acacia" he said, "eaten by the ants." We caught a wheel in an aardvark hole as we fell back to our seats. "Damn ant bears are all over this place."
We hit a wall of mopani scrub, which we started to flatten like a combine in a cornfield. The gears were getting a workout. Then the engine died. The amazing thing about these Land Rover drivers is they don't sit there cranking away on the starter. They hop out over the door, open the hood, and start diagnosing the problem like a field surgeon in combat.
"It isn't the gas," Pat said. "Died too abruptly." Just to make sure, he yanked the fuel line off one of the carburetors and told Mario to crank the engine. High-octane gasoline came pouring out of the tube like an irrigation hose right on to the overheated engine block. It looked like pouring water onto an overheated griddle, instant boil. Explosion was the first thing that came to my mind. Pat stuck the hose back on and then went for what he thought was the problem, a loose coil lead. He pulled it off, blew on it, pushed it back on snuggly with the blunt stump of his index finger. (He had lost the end of the finger to a cobra bite.) She fired right up. It was like a Botswana version of a Formula 1 pit stop, and we were back in the race.
We checked on Agate, and now there was a steady thump, thump, thump, like the radio was recording her heartbeat. He felt we were close and slowed to a creep, checking with the radio almost constantly now. We spotted a lone mopani about ten meters (30 feet) high, and sure enough the figure of a dog emerged from the grass, then another, then we were looking at about ten dogs, heads up, those big round ears forward. They checked the car out for about a second and slumped right back into their afternoon nap. We didn't see a den or pups. We made a circle around the dogs and the mopani tree. Nothing.
Pat wondered if the pups had all died. Maybe the den was somewhere else. We made a second go around the wagon train, giving the dogs a little wider berth, and simultaneously we saw it, a termite mound with some holes. "That's the den," Pat said. But we still didn't see any pups. We decided to stay put near the den and wait.
I had seen a brochure in the tent back at dog camp that was entitled Africa's Painted Hunting Dog. I had asked Pat what the name signified. "Wild dogs," he said. I understood immediately that this is what we should call them—wild dogs. Pat said that some wildlife biologist from Zimbabwe had started calling them the African painted wolf. Guess "wild" was too wild for some people when they see these gentle creatures, or maybe they wanted to distinguish them from feral dogs that roam dumps and crowded neighborhoods.
Pat explained there had been a meeting six years ago where it was decided that the name "wild dog" would be retained. I certainly vote for that. "Wild" means range where you want, it means on your own, it means being able to live as your species has evolved to live. For wild dogs it means ruthlessly, skillfully, and almost playfully killing wild animals every day and living as seminomads in a tight pack.
I asked if dogs attack humans, and Pat said, "There has never been a recorded attack by wild dogs on humans." Pat said that any dog that asks for food in a pack is given food through regurgitation. What about dispersal, I asked. "The pups from one year assemble into all-male and all-female groups and leave the pack. The females don't go so far but the males have been recorded over 300 kilometers (200 miles) from their home." He told me about a dog that showed up at their place in Zimbabwe with a radio collar on. The closest place this dog could have come from was the Limpopo River, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) away.
Drinks were served out of the cooler: beer, coke, apple juice, southern Africa style. We sat in the car. I ask Pat about getting out of the car and watching these guys from the ground. He said, "If you get out of the car, the dogs run." It was like being in a drive-in movie theater. The dogs ignore you, just like the characters on the silver screen do. After too many hours cramped in that place you start to get antsy. I understood now why I had seen an exercise machine back in camp owned by one of the researchers.
What is even more eerie is that there is no communication between the car and the dogs, not a gesture, not a smile, not a wag of a tail. This is the way it needs to be if we are to really learn about these wild animals. Tico McNutt understands that. Here is a guy who built this camp out in the middle of the Okavango Delta, has a wife and a couple of kids living in the bush for all these years, and has resisted building a direct relationship with the animals he loves.
Some would say that he really doesn't do conservation. What they don't realize is that he is able to tell the world what is happening with the wild dogs here. He can talk to the government about dogs, he can talk to communities. People complain about species-based conservation, but if you have the wild dog guy and the lion guy and the elephant guy, and so on down the list, then many of the key species are taken care of—and that helps protect overall habitat. That is essential.
Finally we heard a whimper in the den; they were in there! These pups have been weaned on Land Rovers around them but still need some time to be comfortable about this enormous creature showing up at the doorstep. The time went on. We looked at the vultures that were waiting around for scraps, about 30 of them. They were capable of waiting all day for a scrap. I was beginning to feel the same way in the Land Rover.
Around 16:30 we had a puppy. We counted only five. Eight minus three is five, three dead in a week, that's high. Then we spotted a puppy carcass. There was a fresh leg with sinew and bones but no flesh. We spotted an empty cranium and a few other parts. It looked like that dog died last evening, probably picked clean by vultures.
The fifth puppy out of the den had become a serious runt. He looked like he had rickets. He was wobbly and dirty and had crusty eyes. The brothers and sisters were tugging at him. We called him Gimpy. After we watched about a ten-minute bout of his getting nipped by his brothers, Pat said, "Look, he's dead." A minute later, there was movement. He got up and wandered around aimlessly. Pat said sometimes just before they die they get a burst of energy. Maybe this was it. When he lay down, his body jerked with every breath. He was hurting. We wondered if he was getting any food.
The afternoon wore on and Pat said, "They are going to greet." I don't know what greeting in wild dogs looks like, but my eyes are peeled. The adults came running over to the pups yelping and kind of twittering. They had their heads down and ears back as they greeted the pups by kind of putting their heads down among them and licking and whimpering on both sides. As others arrived this went on between adults. There were those that were cowering as they approached others, keeping their head low and licking the jowls of the dominant ones. Then one that was greeting the pups regurgitated and a big lump of flesh erupted from his mouth. The pups whipped it up. They tugged here and there and were seeing who could get the most, but there was no fighting. Even Gimpy had a mouth in on the five-way tug, but he wasn't strong enough. Others regurgitated and the dogs sat with the kids for a while. Finally, not long before nightfall, it was time to hunt. They don't hunt every night or morning, but Pat figured they would. Some were of looking out over the sage and grass to the south. One went farther and looked intently to the south as if to say this is the direction. Others followed, the pups followed. The pack broke, and soon the pups along with Agate had returned. The mother usually doesn't go hunting. She, too, gets regurgitated food.
We followed the band to the south. "They're going for the buffalo fence. They like roads. It's about a two-kilometer bash. Let's go," Pat said. We caught up a couple of times, but then they hit a wall of mopani and they were gone.
August 7, 2004: Gimpy — Watch Video
We were up early. I was going to go out with Peter and Beverly Pickford, wildlife photographers who have done books on the landscapes and people of these parts. We wanted to see what was happening with the wild dogs.
Gimpy was still alive. We had found an easier way via a hunter's track that came north off the buffalo fence and passed a couple of beautiful pans. As a driver, Peter had the mindset that if you get stuck out here, you never get out. His Land Rover was well kept, and his driving was slow and methodical. The den was only about a kilometer from the last pan.
We saw five pups standing up high on a termite mound, ears round and erect. The black spots were now tan. These guys would be big enough to hunt in a few weeks, and they looked like they were ready to try. They stared at the truck as it pulled up for a few seconds and then just kind of went back to being puppies—wrestling, chewing on grass culms, and sticking pretty close to the den. We didn't see Agate or any adult, for that matter. We thought it strange that she had not come up with the pups to see the car. Gimpy was looking a bit more energetic. He was even joining into a few tussles and wagging his tail. His breathing was still halting but not nearly as bad. He was still not nimble on his feet, and we thought that he would have lots of catching up to do if he was going to be able to join the run when the last den was abandoned in a couple of weeks.
Beverly called out, "Here come the dogs." They were bounding over the sage and grass in strides that looked like about ten meters (30 feet). Pat figures that a wild dog's top speed, thought to be half of what a cheetah generates, is highly underestimated. The dogs were already giving that shrill tweeting and whelping. Their heads all the way back to their ears were covered red in blood. Normally gentle and cooperative, the blood-covered dogs reminded me of warriors coming back from battle.
As the dogs bounded into camp, you could see how they couldn't wait to provide for the pups. It was a race to be the first to give, the first to provide. The pups lost no time in whimpering and crowding around the first dog to arrive. That dog put its head down and gave a heave. Out popped an enormous chunk of perfect haunch meat. It looked like it was delivered from a butchery. All five pups tucked in like spokes on a wheel hub, tugging away for a chunk. There was no growling or nipping, just tugging. Because of the size of the piece, even Gimpy got a good-size chunk, and another and another as the other dogs provided similar slabs of meat and entrails. One of the males got a big chunk of liver, and Gimpy looked happy with half a spongy, pink lung. It was hard to tell what animal it was, but from the looks of how deeply their heads had gone into the body cavity we guessed impala.
Before long, the pups were completely satiated and practically immobilized. Even Gimpy's stomach had that well-inflated basketball look to it. These dogs were full. The four arrivals took a rest, faces still red from the kill. They kept a look out for the others, going to sentinel posts from time to time to scan the landscape to see if somebody was about to come in, but generally the scene was lazy. There was a single white-faced vulture that had hit the jackpot here. There were a surprising number of scraps around, and her crop was full.
It must have been well over an hour later when we saw more dogs bounding toward the camp. I can't imagine being an antelope trying to escape 20 pursuing dogs. They came rushing in and greeted the pups and the other dogs. But there was not a whole lot of regurgitation. They must have sensed that the pups had had plenty to eat and were probably saving it for later. Agate arrived in the last wave of dogs. The very last dog arrived with something in his mouth. He looked extremely proud to have won this prize. Quickly it was in possession of the pups, who had found a toy. Peter figured out that it was a steenbok head with neck skin. What better toy for a predator! The pups were charged up, pulling and running and playing some serious tug-of-war. Gimpy was right in there, tugging away. We could feel his life's juices starting to flow again. We were rooting for him.
As the sun got high in the sky, it felt downright hot. We decided to pack up and leave these dogs. I felt a real connection to them. The night before one of the females came right up to the car and stared up intently at all of us in the car. She was communicating, she was trying to tell us something specific that we didn't understand, but we were definitely being treated like part of the pack. As we pulled away, I wondered if Gimpy would make it, and even if his siblings would. They still could be wiped out by hyenas or have a den collapse.
On the slow road out, we found a large herd of giraffe at the pan. That afternoon I was off with Pat for the night to look for another pack of dogs. We located the dogs via radio, but they were on the move and in dense mopani so we aborted. On the way back through the Moremi Game Reserve we saw a pod of about 30 hippos in a pool with four-meter-long crocodiles. There were groups of lechwe and impala. A breeding herd of about 30 elephants passed us by. This is what the world should be like. Ecosystems should be allowed to be wild and yet humans need to live. Even with six billion of us on the planet, I think that places like Botswana show us the way. We can make it happen. No doubt in my mind.
August 9, 2004: Chobe National Park
August 17, 2004: The World's Second-Largest Migration
I told Peter Ragg yesterday that we needed to be in Kasane, way up in the northeastern part of Zambia, by 15:00 to meet Mike Chase. We were going to spend three days with Mike and Kelly in the park before we head off to Zambia. At 11:00 Peter decided that he had to go to Maun, and Patrick, I am sure, was thinking I did not want him driving that car to Maun, especially considering that Peter has never driven there, only flown in about a thousand times. They have been making daily runs there for days, trying to solve Peter's blown engine problem. He is getting a new engine sent down from Munich; he has a guy there who always keeps one on hand for him.
Mario got back to camp at 14:00. We were not going to make Kasane by 15:00. I hadn't seen the new setup and was not used to it yet. A box has finally been installed with good connectors for the camera, GPS, and computers, with aviation circuit breakers instead of 99 cent in-line fuses from China. The other addition is the same modification on Peter's plane, a camera hole that basically forms a cubby in the bottom of the glass door rather than something external that I can't get my hands on in case of malfunction. These were the two things that were driving me slowly down the road to insanity.
I hadn't been in the plane for about five days, and it felt funny getting back into the swing of things. I wondered if I would even know how to set up the computers again. No sooner did I get close to the new modification on the door than I put the edge of the Plexiglas right through my forehead. It is this long-brim Patagonia fishing cap I wear—it's like a horse wearing blinders. The door hangs lower, and I found that out the hard way.
Finally I was in the seat and switched all systems on: the moving map computer, on and software functioning; the camera computer on; the firewire, power, and serial cable to the camera, connected; camera, on; GPS ,1 on; GPS 2, on; plane power, on; camera software, up; camera fired successfully; moving map with fix; GPS data captured to image; all systems go and we are ready for takeoff—miraculous. This board is sweet, integrated directly into the control panel, with four independent circuit breakers.
We took off, and about 30 minutes out of dog camp we started to see elephants, lots of elephants. They were all crowded around the pans, hundreds of them. There would be 40 in one, 20 in another. They were moving west now from the Zimbabwe border to the Okavango Delta and the Chobe River, the dry season range. There must be thousands of them out in the middle of Chobe National Park, making their way north and west.
We made a beeline from the dog camp to Kasane because we were late. It was interesting to see the Kalahari acacia meeting with the mopani and the Okavango vegetation. That graded into the teak forests closer to the Chobe River. We were in a transition zone between four eco-regions. There are no humans out here except the 4x4 roads that tourists take. Amazing, you don't even think about poachers out here.
We arrived at almost 16:00 at Kasane, and Mike wasn't there. We gave him a shout, and Kelly showed up a few minutes later. She was driving around town picking up a few last things for the trip. She was enjoying being the mother bee, I think, even though she didn't give me the impression that she is too tame. She said she would go fetch Mike and we would be off. They showed up in ten minutes, and we drove from the airport.
At the main paved crossroad there was fresh elephant dung. Then I saw two warthogs, mama and baby, right in town. Apparently elephants wander down the main street all the time. We entered the park, using Mike's research permit, and drove along the waterfront. The first thing we saw was a group of about 50 elephants, watering themselves and cooling down a bit. There was also a pod of about 40 hippos. Once we had focused on the elephants, I completely spaced out on the hippos. How could I forget 40 hippos? We saw some puku, a cob that only occurs here. That was a first for me on the ground. We made our way farther in, and Mike really got excited. He could see a herd of about 50 sable antelope up ahead. These guys are pretty rare throughout their range, but Chobe has hundreds of them. We filmed these antelope for about 40 minutes but then had to get going. Otherwise we were going to be illegal driving in the park after 18:00. Mike is a Botswanan through and through. He just meets his fellow countrymen and starts in fluent Setswana, and any problems that may have existed just go away.
We came to a curve in the road where Mike's parents have a bush camp in the park since they have a concession. Mike drove right down this enormous elephant trail that went straight. It was at least two meters (seven feet) wide, as if someone had built a road through the park. We were going to camp out where we wanted, unheard of for the average tourist. But because Mike is Botswanan, he can do it. We set up the camp, they cooked a Braie with Bourrie sausage and a fresh tilapia of about two kilograms (four pounds) that Mike had fished out of the Zambezi River the day before. He said there are lots, but the Namibians in the Caprivi Strip fish a lot and so there isn't fish nearly like there used to be. We had salad with feta cheese, noodles, and choice of cold drinks. This is the southern African hospitality at its best.
Elephants can be heard trumpeting all around us. Mike told us around the campfire of the movements of the elephants we were collecting data from. The one up in Namibia covered a couple of hundred kilometers along the Caprivi Strip and had gone about 80 kilometers into Angola. The other one was on the Zimbabwe border for a long time and made his way to the Khwai River, where we found him in just three days. He had traveled about 300 kilometers (200 miles), an amazing distance. Mike told me that his father had been to Lake Ngami and had seen the spoor of three bull elephants. Sure enough, those elephants somehow had gotten wind of the water in Ngami and made their way there. It's going to be fun to hear how many there are by the end of the season. I love being around this many elephants. Tomorrow we tour Chobe and meet Mike's parents.
August 10, 2004: Abundance in Nature
I woke up. Unlike on some nights, I knew where I was—in Chobe National Park, northeastern Botswana. I also knew what I was hearing—the unmistakable pant of a lion. The pant of a lion is not like the purr of a kitty cat. It is a rhythmic roar at low volume. Problem is, you can't quite make out how far—or how close—it is. I looked at my watch: 1:25 a.m. I could hear elephants trumpeting down by the river, breaking off branches of Rhodesian teak trees. I thought that I might want to move my "tent," which is actually just a mosquito net with supports. We were camping on an enormous elephant highway that we drove that Land Rover down this afternoon. It looked like a surveyed cut line and was the major thoroughfare for what Mike Chase says is thousands of elephants that feed in the Chobe River floodplain, about a mile away. I thought I might move closer to the Land Rover. I fell back to sleep but was awoken shortly by the raspy panting of a leopard. These guys come to check you out. I didn't want to have to keep waking up all night to verify and monitor the cracks, pants, howls, hoots, roars, and trumpets of the night. Somehow, one thin ply of no-see-um proof gauze didn't seem sufficient in the face of this large-mammal chorus. The security of being close to a one-ton chunk of metal would put me back to sleep.
So along about 2 a.m. I moved my tent to the side of the vehicle and slept through to six. This time it was elephants, closing in fast, that woke me. I did one of those quick sit-up-and-open-your-eyes-as-fast-as-you-can movements, thinking I was about to see the sole of a large, leathery foot. Not quite, but they were right around the bumper of the Land Rover. These were young bulls, so only about three tons and nine feet (three meters) tall, and they were on the move. I grabbed my video camera and started to take pictures. They feigned not noticing me but I sensed they knew exactly where I was. This overnight camp with tents, vehicles, fireplace, and all kinds of stuff right on their highway was a curiosity for them.
Elephants know they are safe from poaching here (even though they are fair game for white safari hunters outside the park area to the south and east). These guys wanted to check us out. One at a time, like on a dare, these guys took turns advancing on our camp. They edged in closer and closer and stopped at about eight meters (30 feet) away. By that time Tandi, Mike's right-hand man was up. I looked over at him; he was around the fire and secure. He glanced up and smiled and went back to tending the fire, so I figured that with this brand of elephant it was okay to be ten meters away on foot. He would have been running or beckoning me back if these guys were anything but gentle. I stood my ground. The closer elephant shook his head, making his floppy ears sound like somebody snapping a huge rug with all the dust and noise. That means "I am going to let you go this time but don't try it again" in Elephant. He lumbered off, and his buddy followed. I was ready for a drink of coffee.
Finally, everybody was up. The day's plan called for an all-day drive along the Chobe River. Because the elephants have obliterated the trees, the riverfront has only caper bushes along it. We packed up our stuff and drove down that elephant highway. It opens up as you get close to the river. There was plenty of elephant spoor on the trail but we didn't see any lion or hyena spoor, although we had heard those animals in the night.
There was a group of about a hundred guinea fowl along the path. They did the chicken run reluctantly, cackling and chasing each other, as we passed. The number of guinea fowl is higher than I have ever seen. Driving to our camping spot the previous night, we passed hundreds of guinea fowl. On reaching the river, our first animal sighting was a group of sable antelope. These fellows look like the dark chocolate version of the roan antelope. There is no doubt that sable antelope are in the genus Hippotragus,
and the back-curving horns of the bull were spectacular. There were a number of calves in the herd, only months old. This antelope is now rare in many parts, but they seem to be thriving in Chobe. We had seen another herd of 50 or so last night, just a mile from the town of Kasane.
We passed warthogs and hundreds of impala, a lone waterbuck and already about 50 elephants, some chunky Nile crocodiles, marabou storks, a pod of hippos, and a fish eagle in a lone baobab tree. I approached the fish eagle with caution. They are usually skittish. I could see that he roosts here all the time; his spot was white with droppings. His was one of the few trees left standing along the river. Since the 1960s, the forest has been taken out by elephants and converted into a caper bush patch. Judging from the remnants of forest around campgrounds and lodges, the original coverage was beautiful.
Mike says that all the roosts along the river are hot property because fish eagles can't fish if they don't have a roost. Elephants are the major factor in the success—or lack of it—of African fish eagles along the Chobe River. This roost is close to an oxbow in the river and a prime location for tilapia or catfish. I moved to within about 12 meters (40 feet), and the fish eagles gazed down on me with those razor-sharp eyes but never so much as fluffed up his wings to move. Guess if you have a roost here you don't give it up just because a human is approaching.
A couple of his friends was making racket to the west, he was obliged to show he was here. The cry of the fish eagle is one of those sounds that call to mind scenes of wide lazy African rivers and a primeval abundance of wildlife along meandering, muddy banks. Our boy finally cocked his head backwards, inflated his gullet, and gave that beautiful melodious shrill cry that comes in a burst of three.
In the air, far upstream, we perceived a line of large white birds coming our way, low over the river. There was no variation in the flight path, no flapping of wings. This could only be one type of bird—pelicans, several hundred of them. The flock landed in a drying oxbow in the plain, joining an assemblage of saddlebilled storks, marabous, and several species of herons. We witnessed similar gatherings up in the Chadian Basin. There, the pelicans would form a barrage, put their long beaks in the water, and advance in an unbroken line. This tactic pushed the fish to the end of the oxbow where jackals and hyenas would be waiting for an opportunistic meal. The fish would start boiling out of the water, and there'd be an explosion of killing. All the species would descend into the shallow water and scoop, spear, and grab as many fish as possible. The pelicans' beak pouches would be stuffed with fish. I could see the bouncing of the fish against the walls of the pouches. These pelicans on the Chobe River were doing the same thing, but because the left bank, on the Caprivi Strip side, is heavily inhabited by humans and cattle, the water, instead of boiling with fish, was more like what you might call at a low simmer.
We carried on up the river and spied a large herd of lechwe, some 50 or more. This is a species that is common on these upper Zambezi plains and in the Okavango Delta. They are a kob but a big kob that looks like they have a bit of waterbuck in their blood. Farther on we saw the lesser cousin, the puku. Also a kob, this antelope looks like an immature lechwe. The lechwe and the puku inhabit the same plains, but the puku has a much more restricted range. Amazing how two species of kob can be found in this little area of Africa and nowhere else.
Upstream, we saw a cloud of dust rising from the savannah and moving toward the river. A quick check with binoculars revealed a herd of elephants emerging from the dust. It was a breeding herd—all shapes and sizes of elephants pouring out of the caper bushes. Oddly enough, the Chobe elephants have the body form of an Asian elephant—tall shoulders, head held high. In contrast, forest elephants have a low head, with shoulders no higher than the back, which is rounded at top. Chobe elephants are true jumbo elephants. I think they must be about twice as big as the ones in the forest, and their skin looks much thicker. Mike says a full-grown bull will weigh around six tons. These are true megafaunal elements, enormous beasts that were for the most part lost from the planet during the last ice age.
There are not many youngsters in this breeding herd. Mike says the drought of the last few years has taken a toll on reproduction. In the end, about 200-300 elephants streamed toward the river. As the day got hotter, the pachyderms hit the beach. We wanted to see them swimming, so we made our way to a spot where Mike says they cross into the Caprivi Strip. We came near the bank around a bend, and there were two young males in the middle of the river having a full-blown wrestling match. One would go completely under and resurface to lock tusks with the other guy. They were well matched, and their play erupted into real battles once in a while. These guys were old enough to not be herded by their mothers, and we watched them play/fight for the better part of an hour.
A female elephant decided to take a bath. She got up to her belly in the water, then, as though she were chilly, she turned and backed into the deeper water. She sat back and covered her hind quarters. Ahhhh, that was better! In a few minutes, she built up the courage to get her shoulders wet and then, finally, went all the way and put her head under. I could see that the water invigorated her. She played with another female for a while, then they both went ashore again to eat.
A group came close to the truck and it included a small baby, maybe only about a month old. They were eating the low grass that grows like a lawn on the banks of the river. All elephants I've seen use the same method to get at this grass. They kick at the soil, which exposes the underground stems. Then they wedge the tiny bit of grass between their foot and their trunk and pull up. They obviously love this floodplain grass because they are surely expending more energy to get the grass than the grass can give them.
A second group of four or five elephants showed up, and immediately a flurry of gurgles and purrs and little trumpets erupted. These girls had come to check out the new baby. It's fascinating to watch the groups come together. The visitors want to have a look at the baby, and the baby's group wants both to show off but also to keep things calm. The elephants shuffle around. The baby gets pushed about a bit and hugs close to mom. Mama challenged the truck, just to make sure we weren't going to get into the mix.
Two hours had flown by as we watched the elephants. In the meantime, the plain had filed with various groups of elephants. There must have been well over a thousand elephants out on the plain. Mike says that there are days at the height of the dry season in October when there are more than 5,000 elephants in these plains. This must be the greatest concentration of elephants to be seen anywhere on the planet right now, easily.
Now it was the end of the day. We headed back to camp. On the upper road, we had an occasional glimpse of the plain below. We spied something unusual. Mike said, "My god, Mike, look at the buffalo." I couldn't believe my eyes. We turned off right there and bombed down the hill to the river. It was as if, I imagined, we had been transported back to the American plains before the coming of the white man. The dust cloud being put up filled the golden air of the setting sun. There herd was on the move, heading to the plain to feed and settle for the night. There must have been thousands of buffalo, as far as the eye could see. We watched in awed silence until night fell. I thought about the abundance in nature when there were many fewer people on this planet. The human imprint that has covered Earth in only a few centuries has converted scenes like this, which were once everywhere, to small, constrained places like national parks. That this even remains seems a miracle. I'm grateful for a day like this in Chobe National Park. The people of Botswana deserve huge credit for preserving a scene like this into the 21st century.
August 14, 2004: Blue Lagoon National Park
I thought to myself, "Welcome to Central Africa. When we arrived at Lusaka International Airport, the controller told us that the Zambian Air Force would like to talk to us. I could already feel oppression.
We spent the next day in Lusaka. I worked on my speech for the press and delivered it. Mario attempted to straighten out the flight permit. It did not go well. I had some conversations and was finally able to tell Mario, "Go make your flight plan. We're out of here." As I went through baggage check, the guy asks me, which of your bags has a knife. I said this one and pulled the knife out and handed it to him. I said that is for my steak, I need to have a knife for my steak. He smiled, handed me back my hunting knife and I walked out.
We were airborne and the clouds of bureaucracy immediately cleared. We were released for Zambia, and I was really happy to be exploring this country. We were headed for two parks to the west of Lusaka. One was called Blue Lagoon, the other Lochinvar National Park. I didn't know anything about them other than they were on the way to Livingstone. We were just on the east boundary of Blue Lagoon, and there were people, people, people, everywhere. There were large cattle tracks leading right into the park.
The landscape opened into a huge open marsh, with about two feet (one meter) of water. It looked like beautiful habitat. I imagined what it must have been like sometime in the past. It must have been filled with herds of buffalo and lechwe. There was a large settlement right in the marshes, maybe a hundred houses with a very large cattle trail leading out of the village into the park. There were at least three or four hundred cattle mulling around the village. We continued south to Lochinvar National Park, crossing the Kafue River along the way.
Enormous marshes, a few thousand square kilometers, spread out below the plane. I counted more cattle and could see a several hundred reddish-brown goats off to the west. I thought, no lechwe, but I didn't want to believe it. We passed over the domestic animals on this green plain, and I then saw about four hundred lechwe on a dry mound in the marsh, chewing their cud. I was happy. I was more than happy—I was ecstatic. This was really the last thing on this planet I expected to see here. How could it be that a herd this big had survived this mass of humanity on the northern end of this park?
We weren't done. There were another thousand, then another thousand, then another thousand. Then a group of 50 buffalo, and about a hundred zebra. They were mixed in with the cows. We started to see thousands of ducks and geese, whitefaced ducks, Egyptian geese, knobbilled geese. I could see large birds taking off below, marabous maybe. Then I saw they were wattled crane, a very rare bird species. There were many tens if not a hundred or so of these birds. We crossed the river to Lochinvar. We didn't see much but it was on the way to Livingstone so we decided to carry on south. On the moving map I could see that we were a bit east of the main body of water, so I told Mario to fly to the west. At the edge of the swamp I saw instant replay of Blue Lagoon. Along the edge of the marsh, toward the dry ground, there were thousands of lechwe. I couldn't really even count. I just kept ticking another thousand as we recorded data along the way. My brain was now completely overloaded. I had flown to these two little parks expecting to see absolutely nothing and now I had seen one of the most amazing spectacles of my life. There must be at least 10,000 lechwe in this system, I would guess even more. We exited the bottom of the park, and it was as if somebody had hit a switch and turned off the wildlife. Instead, we hit people again, their villages, farms, and domestic animals. We made it down to the Zambezi River east of Victoria Falls. We went to go look at this natural wonder of the world. All I could think of was lechwe.
Livingstone, Zambia, is vastly different today from the place I visited in 1994. Back then, I had tried to cross the border from Zimbabwe and got hit up by the border guard for something like $20. I pointed out all the trucks waiting at the border filled with corn from my country to provide relief to his drought-stricken and starving country. I told him to stuff Zambia and started an about-face. He called me back and let me pass without payment. Now there are hip shops with pastel facades, supermarkets, and two gigantic Sun International Hotels perched on the edge of Victoria Falls. There are billboards for whitewater rafting on the Zambezi River rapids, bungee jumping off the gorge, and African Queen trips to see hippos and crocs. People are vibrant. Their eyes and their spirits are lit up. Life is good.
The difference is because Zambia, or at least Livingston, has opened up to the world. The government has allowed investors to bring in capital at a reasonable cost and to organize things to the extent that systems have started to work and the economy has begun to grow. Ecotourism is encouraged. The white man is coming not to exploit diamonds, gold, wood, and petroleum, but to see nature in its wild state.
This openness to the world makes the ugliness of oppression, corruption, greed and xenophobia harder to maintain. The Zambian side of the river has been transformed into a relatively calm, peaceful, and prosperous place, while Zimbabwe on the other side is now a big unknown, a country that has fallen back into the abyss. Hard to believe that this place where Livingstone visited not that long ago now has swimming pools, spas, treadmills, casinos, and satellite TV with minute-by-minute news of events around the globe.
We departed Livingstone around midday and headed toward western Zambia. Our destination—Liuwa Plain National Park. This area had been off limits some time back; Jonas Savimbi had his base close to the border and ran many of his guns, supplies, and diamonds through this part of Zambia. Liuwa Plain National Park is the location of the world's second-largest migration of blue wildebeest. In southern Africa it is hard to know how many wildebeest there were before the arrival of Europeans, but it is easy to imagine them being as abundant as the bison of the plains of North America. Everyone we talk to about Liuwa Plain National Park wants information about the migration. They want to know if there are still massive numbers of wildebeest making the migration. We wanted to know, as well.
We flew along the great Zambezi River far above the falls, along the border with Botswana and then the Caprivi Strip in Namibia. There was a brand-new paved road right up the valley with fresh white and yellow painted lines on the newly laid asphalt. You could almost smell the tar. At the end of this road was what looked like a new bridge across the Zambezi River, the first one above the falls, I thought. This is serious infrastructure.
We were penetrating into a place where warfare had waged for two full decades and where everyone had carried an AK-47, where life was cheap and respect for national government was nonexistent. The South African military used the Zambezi and the entire border with Namibia and Angola and Zambia as their staging post for raids into that zone. These were men not bound by rules of society. They made their own rules. They slaughtered thousands of elephants and sold the ivory through what South Africa claimed were its legitimate markets. Now there are a number of abandoned air bases on the border.
It is almost hard to believe the Savimbi has been dead for a couple of years only and that the lawless period has come to an end, at least for now. Many people live along the border. They herd cattle and grow some crops. They survived the war years and are back to scratching a living from this enormous river valley. It is productive. The people make a living. But the work is hard.
We left the Zambezi to traverse the Sioma Ngwezi National Park. This park was used as a larder for troops and Savimbi's support teams. No doubt they killed thousands of antelope and buffalo in this park. We didn't know what we were going to find. I realized that Mike Chase was possibly flying around here. I asked Mario to radio his call sign. It was like searching for castaways in a vast sea. Mario tuned the radio to 183.4 and gave a shout: "November
Golf Oscar Whiskey Charlie Sierra, do you read?" The response was immediate: "This is November."
Mike's pilot was obviously paranoid because he didn't know us well and he was flying in that void of the corners of Zambia, Namibia, and Angola. Mike Chase got on the radio and asked what we had seen so far. I said one steenbok outside the park, two inside, that was it. They had been flying transects all morning and had seen a breeding herd of seven elephants, four bulls, a small group of warthogs, and a couple of steenbok. I told him that we had seen a few elephant trails leading north to some pans which still had some water but nothing fresh. He was still hoping that elephants from the south would find this place safe and move back in there in substantial numbers. Mike told us to take a look at the western border of the park, inside the park. He said we would find people all along the Kwando River, where elephants and other wildlife would have gotten their water in the wet season.
Thirty minutes later we hit the border with Namibia, where there was a string of villages all along the bank with a four-by-four track all the way up. Many of these folks would be Angolans and Namibians, come across to escape war and to exploit the riches of the park. I could see how the life blood of this park was cut off by the constant band of humans inside its boundaries, leaving no access for wildlife. Anything that got within several miles of this river would have been shot long ago.
We were tempted to fly into Angola. But we stuck close to the river and checked out the villages on that side. In contrast, there were very few and those huts that were there had new thatch, indicating that people were crossing back home into Angola, or maybe just across the river because soils are rested and Angola is a rich country. Funny how fast human misery turns into human opportunity.
I noticed that as we flew over villages, every person would look up. Kids would run toward the plane, not away from it. Seems folks are interested to see people coming to these remote places. I imagine that in the past, gunships were the only planes overhead. I can imagine that many of these places have seen very few white faces in the past couple of decades. The villages here have almost no corrugated roofs, just thatch. No evidence of the outside world lies about—no plastic bags, no cans.
We were getting a little late so we headed directly for Kalabo, about an hour away. We flew over a flat landscape that although not heavily inhabited is, nevertheless, human-dominated. Substantial cattle paths and villages are prominent. I discerned no game. Zambia is one of those places that completely burns its grasslands every year, and this year was no exception. Vast tracts were scorched. I can't imagine how much smoke pours into the atmosphere from these fires. The pollution must be equivalent to several major coal-burning electric plants. This is one action human could change to limit our impact on the planet.
Just south of Kalabo we could see the vast plain of Liuwa. The entire bank of this enormous floodplain is covered in one constant village for miles and miles. I was in shock. Rarely do you get a constant village, like a linear Los Angeles. Thousands of people lived here. I could see that Liuwa Plain was in deep trouble. We circled Kalabo. A major road was going in with a dike that would stretch across this enormous floodplain. Who was paying for such a project? I saw new Caterpillar D8s and land movers down there. This was another megabucks project dropped in the middle of dirt-poor surroundings.
Calling for traffic at the airport seemed unnecessary, but we did it anyway. The field was smooth. As we pulled up to the apron, we could see two dilapidated buildings. A man frantically rolled one of those ancient hand-truck fire extinguishers toward the plane. It had probably never been used since it was left behind by the departing colonists, but the wheels worked and it's the thought that counts.
Within minutes a shiny new Toyota Land Cruiser pulled up and a young South African named Greg Trollip got out. He works for Paul van Vlissingen, a Dutch industrialist who is investing in a concept that he is calling African Parks Foundation. His idea is that his company will run a derelict park for a year, get it working again, and hand it back. He has hired a bunch of South African guys and is involved in South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, and now Ethiopia. Of course, the world's larger conservation Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) look at these guys with an eye of scrutiny. We went off to Greg's house in Kalabo, which is one of those central African towns where the infrastructure is barely hanging on. All of the storefronts in town were from the colonial era. Not much goes on behind the façade.
August 21, 2004: Lions, Lechwe, and the Zambian Air Force
We are on another marathon. We had hit Chris McBride's camp some 36 hours earlier, but I already felt like I knew the man. Chris had first started working on the Savuti lions decades ago. He documented their night kills and wrote a couple of books telling the world about the nocturnal habits of these hunters who killed elephants and targeted baby buffalo. He and his wife Charlotte, who are in their sixties, have a thatch camp along the banks of the clear turquoise Kafue River. It's the kind of place I dreamed about living in before I became a vagabond. It's in the middle of one of the largest parks in Africa. You can have a pod of 40 hippos in your front yard, but you also have the conveniences of a solar fridge and satellite phone.
We were awakened at 6 a.m. with a pot of tea. We had stayed up until 1 a.m., talking of Zambian gossip and the meaning of life. The previous morning we had taken a walk at dawn. Chris still has a keen fascination of lions. Lions were vocalizing, and Chris explained that there were two pride males on this side of the river and they vocalize to show their presence and mark their territories. The males on one side were communicating with those on the other. This morning, we hopped in the boat, Chris with his cup of tea in hand, and crossed the Kafue.
On this wild side of the river there were no roads. Chris quietly loaded his Rigby .416 caliber rifle. "It's a big bullet," he said as he pulled one from his vest pocket. He likes to have stopping power at close range. He is a tall man, maybe six feet, five inches (two meters, 13 centimeters), with a face that has seen lots of sun and a head of gray unkempt hair. He whispers in the bush. He whispered that he thought the lions were upstream as he wiped his face like he has spider webs on it. But he doesn't. It's just a nervous twitch.
We came upon a Combretum fragrans tree, and Chris explained how it has this beautiful odor, which smells like cinnamon. He said this is the tree that grows at the lowest level of the floodplain. He see everything and still has a boyish fascination with nature, tempered by his decades of experience.
We walked slowly until we heard a roar issuing from the opposite bank. One of the pride males was calling. Then, maybe a kilometer (half mile) away on our side, came the answering roar. Wiping his face clean, Chris and company started a stalk rather than a walk. We stopped every hundred meters (300 feet) or so to listen. Chris was looking for tracks, but we didn't see any. There was plenty of fresh buffalo dung. Lion here seem to follow buffalo herds like Aleuts follow caribou, harvesting as they go. We had gone about 400 meters (1,300 feet) when our boy roared a loud response to his friend across the way. Chris changed the position of his rifle, from strung across his shoulder to cradled in his arms. We advanced. The lion sounded to me as if he were about half a kilometer (third of a mile) away. Then silence. Some 10 minutes later, the male on the opposite bank gave two or three vocalizations but nothing from our side. Chris was mad. He knew that our guy had spied us and was gone. We ran across very fresh lion tracks on a hippo trail that led away from the river. We followed them for a while but they faded into the grass. Chris said you have to run to even keep up with a lion's walk.
A honey guide was calling, and almost instantly we found the hive and could see that the hole had already been robbed by humans once. There have been periods in this park's history when poaching has been intense, especially for elephants and rhinos. Rhinos are extinct, and elephants are in very low numbers. Chris said there is a big project underway with Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) that has dramatically improved the situation.
We were back at the river by nine, ready for a little coffee and porridge and then a plane ride with Chris. We were leaving for Lusaka today, and I wanted to get a good look at this park. There is a huge floodplain to the northwest, and I thought we might see the famous Kafue Flats Swamp lechwe herd. I had no idea what was left of it.
We were airborne around 11 a.m. by the time I got my cameras rigged up. We headed up the Kafue and then the Lungu. Both these rivers are big and with both banks in the park. There are no villages for 50 kilometers (30 miles) around. Other than the tourist camps, which are rudimentary and barely hanging on, this is a vast wilderness that doesn't stop at the park boundary. We saw puku and impala along the rivers with three or four hippos every few kilometers, but no big herds. On our moving map, I could see we were about parallel with what they call here the Busanga Floodplain. It's a land feature that sticks out at you on satellite images.
We could see the plains opening into vast open grassland with no trees. A fresh burn covered about half of it. I directed Mario toward the burns. We saw a herd of kudu bachelors on the way, and about 15 minutes later we flew over a herd of lechwe. Funny because we hadn't seen a lechwe in the park in the past two days and here were about 400 of them just 30 air minutes from where we were camped. Then we flew over another herd and another. Zambia was starting to truly impress me; it became quickly evident that there were thousands upon thousands of these lechwe on this flat. We just went from herd to herd until you almost couldn't tell where one ended and the next picked up. I wouldn't even venture a guess—maybe 10,000, maybe a lot more.
Pods of hippos cropped up about every few hundred meters. There were 4x4 tracks up here so there is a camp up here and protection. We saw a couple of fishing camps that weren't legal, but they didn't appear to be poaching lechwe. Further up the valley, the land got drier and the lechwe ran out. We saw a nice herd of buffalo, about 300, and a herd of 30 sable antelope. We could also see evidence of a large number of animals passing through in a pattern similar to what we had seen in the Liuwa Plain—a wildebeest migration? Continuing on, we spied a couple of groups of 50 or a hundred wildebeest. It was not a migration but I wouldn't be surprised if at some time of year you can see thousands of these guys, too.
We made our way slowly back to camp. Along the Kafue River, we crossed two swamps and there were about 400 puku in each. The lechwe were not here. Seems they need big open plains. We spotted another herd of buffalo and a lone female lion walking a hippos' trail along the river and three or four pods of hippos.
We passed over camp and soon we were on the ground for our flight to Lusaka. We said our farewells to Chris who looked like he had been in a time machine. He was wiping his face and saying things like, "It gives you a totally different perspective," "first time I've seen wildebeest in years," "did you see those lechwe," "beautiful sable," "buffalo are coming up." He would be thinking of this flight for a long time I think.
I was now thinking about Lusaka with a sinking feeling. We transitioned out of the park and the fauna dropped to a low but visible level in the hunting zone outside the park and then we hit the human side of things and saw no more wild animals, nothing but burned savanna, fields, and small habitations here and there on the landscape. An hour out we flew over Blue Lagoon National Park again. Outside the park, we saw large farms and paved roads and, finally, we could see the tall buildings of the city. Amazing how humans have so systematically and uniformly covered the earth with modern infrastructure. We landed at Lusaka International Airport, and I heard those words I had been dreading, "Please report to DCA." DCA, of course, means the Directorate of Civil Aviation. What that means is that we have to reset the clock with these guys again. They are not about organization; they are about something else.
Sure enough, at the office we were dealing with a new set of DCA people and the Zambian Air Force. The first thing the guy said was: "We were wondering where this plane comes from." We were resetting the clock. We had verified our flight plan again on Monday, the previous Saturday when we left Lusaka, and the Friday. I was doing everything I could to not blow up. I knew I was sleep-deprived and irritable, so I tried to keep quiet as we showed them everything all over again. Corruption is part of life in Zambia, but I didn't know if we were supposed to be paying bribes or just getting our paperwork right.
As Mike Chase says in Botswana, "One day is one day." Finally the guys in the airport let us go, saying we had to fill out the form again because our printed version was too "crowded." It was impossible to read, I guess, in 12-point Times New Roman.
I hope we will again be in the skies toward eastern Zambia soon and never have to deal with Lusaka again.
August 24, 2004: Industrial Slash and Burn
I felt like I was in a B-17 Flying Fortress under intense enemy antiaircraft fire over occupied France as our little Cessna inched its way through billowing smoke from thousands of bush fires. The brown haze was so dense that I could look directly at the sun. I could smell the burning grass in the cockpit. We were passing over Lukusuzi National Park bound for Lundazi, nestled up along the border with Malawi. It seems as if all of Zambia is aflame. In the well-watered countries surrounding the Congo forest, the savannas traditionally are burned to "clean" them. Geologists find the carbon from this burning in the sediments of the Atlantic Ocean. Certainly, fire has been used for millennia, as the Bantu people burned their way over most of Africa.
Today, these fires have a global impact. They could well be the most destructive human practice on the continent. Below us, it looked as though nothing lived in the park. Trees were leafless, the soil was scorched black. We counted at least four well-worn paths made by humans crossing Lukusuzi National Park—typical signs of an unmanaged park.
We were just about over the strip before we spotted Lundazi National Airport. From the hundred of kids who crowded the landing, we could see that planes were a rare event in this remote part of eastern Zambia. Their clothes were worn. This place had the look of poverty. Dale Lewis, an American who has been in these parts for almost three decades, picked us up in a new World Food Program (WFP) Toyota Land Cruiser, complete with a United Nations Codan HF radio antenna. His old pick-up had 300,000 kilometers (200,000 miles) on it, and Dale does over 30,000 kilometers (20,000 miles) a year on bad roads.
Most of the buildings in Lundazi date from the colonial era and bear that distinct patina of a few decades of zero maintenance. We pulled up in front of the Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) warehouse, Dale's base of operations. There were several seven-ton Mercedes-Benz trucks parked around the building in various states of repair. The preferred model, the 1013, is called "the elephant of the road" because it survives years of arduous bush travel.
Inside the warehouse was a mountain of rice. It's called Chama Rice, and it comes from dammed creeks along the Luangwa River just outside the parks that carry the same name. It is a sticky and sweet rice, as good as some rices Japan has to offer. Next to the rice was an enormous stack of rifles. It was an incredible collection of mostly handmade black power muzzle loaders that looked like they had calibers varying from about .450 all the way up to a mini cannon of about .800. Dale laughed when I commented on the barrel size. He said, "When they shoot those things, they have to have somebody behind them bracing as hard as the can. When it goes off it takes about a minute for the smoke to clear to see if you have actually shot something." These are serious guns used to kill big game: elephants, rhino, buffalo, and the like.
Workers were busy emptying sacks of rice onto sheet metal sifters to remove dust, dirt, pebbles, feathers, sticks, and moldy grains before husking. They said they could husk about three tons a day and package them in two-kilogram (four-pound) sealed bags for the retail market. A glance at some of the graphs on the walls in the data center showed increasing production of rice, poultry, honey, and a few other commodities. I met two interns fresh from North America in the offices: Brad and Jane. Brad was Canadian, about six-and-a-half feet (two meters) tall, and Coke-bottle glasses, and Jane was a spunky blond. Both had their MBAs and were assigned to assess the business model and develop a business plan, create an organizational chart, and generally get the books in order.
Another employee showed me the inputs they provide to folks to make beehives: saws, planers, chisels, hammers, files, drills, a good little village carpentry set. He said they provide training for groups to produce hives, the more teams the more hives, the more honey, and down the road better business for COMACO. All the while there were people in and out of the building, loading rice, unloading rice, filling out forms, answering phones. I got the sense of a small company working from the seat of its pants with young energy and optimism to build the business as fast as possible. Dale explained that most of these guys he had brought up through the ranks over the years.
We headed off to the castle where we would spend the night. We were here to fly a few hundred kilometers to the north to check out the density of human settlements and cultivation up along the Malawi border. We had seen the castle on the flight in. It had been built by a Scottish colonial administrator who was either very bored or who had a Kurtz complex. Flying in, we had also seen what looked like pyramids of bricks, at least 100 feet (30 meters) tall. Dale said that this was probably cotton. We saw plenty of trucks loaded to the gills with bales of cotton and tobacco. Dale said that cotton and tobacco companies had started to move into Lundazi in the past couple of years, American, South African, Chinese, and Zimbabweans. They provide the inputs, fertilizer, and pesticides and buy up the product right in the villages. Ggins and drying sheds were springing up all over the place to handle the production, Dale said. Lundazi had the feel of a frontier boomtown, complete with drinking houses and women of ill-repute.
Over a lunch of chicken and COMACO rice, Dale explained what he was up to: "If people are not food secure then they will poach, simple as that." I thought back to the first time I visited Dale's camp along the Luangwa River in 1996. As soon as I got there I saw that Dale was on to something that most conservationists couldn't accomplish if they had all the guns and ammo they could ever use. Where Dale lived there was wildlife near the villages—elephants, hippos, giraffe, kudu, eland, hartebeest, zebra, puku, impala. I had never before or since seen wildlife living unmolested that close to humans. Dale had spent years building a program he called Administrative Management Design (ADMADE), which took safari hunting out of the hands of mostly unscrupulous white safari hunters and put it in the hands of villages. He spent years of his life building systems to pump the profits from safari hunting back into villages in return for a commitment not to poach. Conservation people have criticized ADMADE over the years as being too this to too that. I say the proof is in the pudding. Whenever you get lots of large mammals running around in close proximity to villages and no one is doing anyone else harm, this is a meaningful indicator in my book that somebody is doing something right.
Dale's new mission came from a realization that the problem was much bigger in scope than his particular piece of it. There were tens of thousands of people living in this landscape, most agriculturalists. He came to the conclusion that what conservation needs to do is bring economics back to the core natural resource base. That base must be sustained, but at the same time people must prosper, and they must have enough to eat. In this view, wildlife becomes an indicator of ecosystem health which includes water in rivers, forests, and productive soil. Dale decided embark on a scheme that only emperors, rebel leaders, or gurus would attempt. He is looking to transform human populations in large parts of Zambia into some of the first on Earth to base their entire existence on the sustainable management of ecosystems. The guns and animal snares in the warehouse were voluntarily handed over by village producer groups as part of the contract in this transformation. The rice in that storeroom is produced under sustainable practices in a paddy. The tools for bee hive construction are for ex-poachers transformed into carpenters producing honey that doesn't come from cutting down a tree.
COMACO is a partnership between the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which holds 52 percent of shares, and the franchised producer groups who own 48 percent. The WCS's 52 percent is held in trust for the community. Each producer group needs to have a land use management plan. Each group must surrender at least one gun or a snare for every member of the group. They have to have by-laws with clauses that renounce poaching and to adopt a technique they call conservation farming. Each group goes through a training course in sustainable techniques. They are given the notions of other products they can grow like chickens and fish culture fish and soybeans. Dale talks about the thousands of households that they are transforming, the depots that are springing up all over the landscape, and the diversification into other ventures like the construction of mini-lodges on the Luangwa River on choice real estate that communities own rather than selling it off to foreigners for a used truck and a song.
"So what is the incentive?" I ask. "Isn't it much more profitable to cut down free trees and kill free wildlife than take what COMACO can provide?"
"The trick is to identify people who are not food secure," says Dale. COMACO asks the chiefs which families in the community are chronically short of food before harvest. The company does an independent survey and, if verified, targets these families as a producer group. The deal is that you give up a gun per group or one snare per person, you write the management plan, with help from COMACO, you take the training course and meet a few other requirements, and you receive a 50-kilogram (110-pound) bag of World Food Program corn. When you pass stage two, you get a second bag. When you pass stage three, you get another bag. So a food-insecure family is looking at three or four months' worth of food in the deal. This is the catalyst. The outcome is a better income, higher agricultural production, acquisition of new skills, and a relationship with a company in which you are a shareholder.
Next day we took Dale up in the airplane. He wanted to see the people living west of the Nyika Plateau, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) to the north. Dale sensed that there was good work to be done in this area, and he wanted to check out the slash and burn. As soon as we took off and headed north the picture emerged of what he never stops harping about. On our way out of town we passed over the cotton. Just north of town we could see where the cotton was coming from. It was coming from the systematic cutting of mopani and miombo woodlands, piling that brush up, burning, planting cotton, applying copious amounts of insecticides and fertilizer, picking and moving on. We could see that the landscape was being exploited on a grand scale by this agriculture. The only choice these people had was to keep moving out and extending destructive practices into new areas.
As we went further north, away from the roads, farms faded out and the savannah was intact. People were cultivating river bottoms and leaving the savannas to wildlife. I just kept thinking that this was the same process that we are seeing in the logging industry in this part of the world. We call it cut and run. Same with these cotton producers, they are just about turning trees into money via cotton.
COMACO has a long road ahead. The forces of destruction and waste are rife on this planet of ours, and these transformations with conservation is going to take strong leadership and require real integration into economies. My friend Dale is one of only a handful of real conservationists who are willing to dedicate their lives to headaches and hardship necessary to transform the behavior of the human race.
The United States has created what is called the Millennium Challenge Account to give incentives to governments and economies that work. I wouldn't be surprised if industrial slash and burn is actually encouraged by the Millennium Challenge Account. What if we put in place an objective process such that to qualify for the Millennium Challenge Account you had to reduce the number of bush fires, which we monitor daily from space? Or if we rewarded a country that preserved certain percentages of its forest cover, which we could also monitor from space?
This would take the COMACO approach to a whole new level. Let's take the World Food Program in Zambia. Dale receives 2,000 tons of food a year to transform people who are not producing enough food, who are burning their woodlands and eating up their land, into people who will preserve resources so that they and their children and their children's children will have land practices that sustain life. Across the country in Liuwa Plain National Park people are being given perhaps the same quantity of corn and those who manage the park have no say in how, why, or where food is distributed. Surely the COMACO way is more intelligent.
Let's bring the process to the United States. Imagine a president who foresees the transformation of an oil and coal economy into a society that uses solar and other forms of renewable energy. We can learn so much from COMACO's approach.
August 31, 2004: Source of the Congo River
As we neared Bangweulu Swamp in far northeastern of Zambia, I noticed "Livingstone Memorial" on our moving map. That guy searched for a long time for the source of the Nile River. Too bad he had to die way down here looking for it. We were flying in from North Luangwa National Park and had crested the escarpment on the west side of the park. We followed the Mwaleshi, a beautiful river. As we got higher into the hills, we could see white water plummeting down the valley. Along the banks grew a tropical forest with a tall, closed canopy. The crocodiles were fewer and fewer as we went upstream, but just about every pool had a few even up there.
We hit human settlement and passed over a guard post on the west side of the park that from the air looks perfectly placed. Just as Hugo had described, the agriculture here was done in a way that I have never seen elsewhere. The guys go into the woodlands and cut down the high branches from the trees. They must be good climbers. They then drag the branches into a pile. At the very end of the dry season, they burn this pile, which provides all the nutrients necessary for a crop of ground nuts and manioc. As we traveled over this landscape, the pressure of human population was evident. More than enough people live up here to empty the park in a heartbeat. No doubt the protections put in place in those hills are the key to keeping the parks intact.
We noticed changes in the traditional tree-pruning culture. More people are just cutting down tress and pruning the branches. People are abandoning ancient land-use tradition in favor of the fast buck.
We approached the strip that is right on the south end of the Bangweulu Swamp. Fish dikes went on for miles along the contours of the water flow with sluice points every few hundred meters. We spotted that telltale series of dots on the ground that looks like the spots on a strawberry. Lechwe. This was the reason we had come to the swamp. A herd of 500 materialized, yet another pocket of abundance.
We were going to fly the next day. We were spending only a night because I lost one to malarial dreams. We landed on an airstrip and found a Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) scout. I will have to say those guys are everywhere we go. The camp was broken down. Several buildings lacked roofs. The officer immediately let me know that times are tough in the Bangweulu Swamp.
We weren't sure where we were going to stay. Soon we saw a broken-down white Nissan that used to have a cab and shocks in years past but had since become a bush buggy. A rotund, red-cheeked Englishman jumped out of the truck and greeted us warmly. "Ed Farmer," he said. He had a military belt on with a case on one side and what looked like a nine-millimeter pistol in a green cloth holster on the far side. We threw our stuff in the back of the truck. He said the dust was bad so to pack up tightly. He immediately let us know that this was about the biggest swamp in Africa after the Sudd in the Nile and that it was the source of the Congo River. We stopped by a herd of lechwe. He said, "These are black lechwe, found nowhere else in the world, about 100,000 of them on our last count."
Ed reminded me of a colonial administrator you might have found in the 1930s. He talked about how the Bangweulu Swamp should have been made a park and how he built his camp here to create a presence. He has a small NGO in Zambia called the Kasanka Foundation, whose original purpose was to rehabilitate the Kasanka National Park, which was overrun with poaching and fast becoming degraded. Its claim to fame is that it possibly contains the world's largest fruit bat concentration, maybe 10,000,000 or so that concentrate in Kasanka every year. For Ed, the Bangweulu is one of the great natural wonders of the world, but without the proper protection it is going to hell in a hand basket.
He said the camp in Bangweulu is used primarily by safari hunters. He hadn't planned it that way, but that was the way it worked out. When we got to camp, we kept a low profile because the hunters wanted to have exclusive use of the camp. When dinner rolled around, we were invited to dinner with the air of gracious hosts extending kindness to peons. There was an American and a Mexican with his son who were traveling together. There were three guides who had the look. The old man who is the brains of the operation is a grizzled guy who knows every hunter on the continent. He was wearing one of those padded camouflage jump suits that you buy from a catalog and was encouraging his American client to talk about the two animals they bagged that morning.
The American affected a very blasé attitude about the sitatunga that he had blasted that morning. It was a big one. The Mexican kid, Frederico, who didn't look to be much over 20 years old, had shot a world-class oribi that morning. I had seen the head in the trophy room, and it was a giant amongst midget antelope. The hunters seemed not really to know much about where they were. The American joked about how that sitatunga had committed suicide and they laughed about how stupid that second tsetsebe that they had shot was when it walked right up to them after the first one they blasted went down right next to him. They had come here for the sitatunga, and the black lechwe is one of those easy local animals that everyone takes home from here but it isn't considered a world-class species. They talked about their tough business deals, hiring and firing, women, and drink all through dinner. I can't understand how hunters can be so stereotypical-minded and still enjoy what they are doing.
Ed looked embarrassed at the table. I could tell that he found the dinner conversation about killing local wildlife awkward, but hunting keeps his camp running. He tried to change the topic of conservation, asking me about if I wanted to see shoe-billed storks. He said that this was the only place in Africa other than the Sudd where there are lots of them. I was more interested to talk to the hunters. The older guy knew all about Ethiopia and Sudan and Central African Republic and Chad. He had been forest hunting in Cameroon and to just about every other out of the way place on the continent.
Next morning we talked to the Mexican kid. He was obviously just along for the ride. He couldn't even remember the names of the species they had shot here, but he was obviously a pretty good shot. He said he was from Monterey but living in New York City, a student at New York University. I asked him if he had been there on 9/11. He said he had been there for a week when the towers fell. He had seen the first plane hit the tower, went to class, and by the time he came out both towers had come down. Now here he was in the Bangweulu Swamp, trying his luck on oribi. Strange world.
On to Lake Tanganyika.