November 20, 2012
“As I was going to St. Ives
I met a man with seven wives
Each wife had seven sacks
Each sack had seven cats
East cat had seven kits
Kits, cats, sacks, wives
How many were going to St. Ives?”
As we gathered up our cameras and gear in anticipation of visiting Chobe, we took note of the number of cats we had encountered to date and the St. Ives nursery rhyme came to mind. We found that we could be much more definitive about the number of cats we encountered than the oft debated children’s rhyme. Between, Zarafa, Selinda and Duba, we counted 40 different lions. And at Selinda we were rewarded with seven sightings of five different leopards. The five leopards were all female, three of which were adults. Leopard #1 was approximately 8 years old and had a five-month old cub with her. The next adult female we saw was about 4 years old and the daughter of Leopard #1. The last adult female we came across was approximately 9 years old and she was also with a cub of approximately 7-8 months old. Unfortunately no cheetahs were in the mix, though we knew not to expect them at Duba (nor leopards for that matter), given the watery terrain of the Delta and the lions’ dominance. We wondered what Chobe would offer up to us, sightings of all three were certainly a possibility.
We also were very cognizant that we were visiting an area of Africa and in particular, Botswana, where the cats are relatively plentiful. We were not blind to the fact that healthy numbers here did not necessarily correspond to healthy numbers elsewhere. Unfortunately, many safari guests do not make this connection. The reality is that lions have lost 80% of their historical range in Africa and recent surveys estimate that there may be fewer than 30,000 left in the wild, compared to 200,000 less than a century ago. Leopards, while the most adaptable of the big cats, have disappeared from almost 40% of their historic range in Africa and 50% of their historic range in Asia and the cheetah has vanished from over 77% of its historic range in Africa. It is estimated that there are fewer than 10,000 adult cheetahs left in the wild today (my statistics are coming from Panthera). More camps and guides need to make their guests aware of this crucial situation. Awareness is the first step in making a difference.
November 20, 2012 Flight to Savute Safari Lodge – Chobe National Park
We left Duba in the heat of the day. Extreme heat does not make for pleasant flying on these single engine, five-seater light aircraft planes. The Cessna 206, built in the US and known for the past forty years as the ”Land Rover of the Skies”, is as rugged as it’s four-wheeled cousin. Anyone who has spent time in a real Land Rover knows that while you can probably get yourself out of pretty much any jam, it is sans luxury (do not confuse a real African Land Rover with the ones driven in Fairfield County, CT or Orange County, CA). Bottom-line, there is no “climate control” on the Cessna 206, rather, the climate controls you. Add a bit of bumpiness and someone with a weak stomach to the mix and you are just asking for trouble. Unfortunately, one of the other two passengers (who already had been flying for an extra 20 minutes before picking us up) had eaten a big lunch before he got on the plane – big mistake for all of us. The guy was already looking pretty green when they touched down to get us – his Grinch-like shading quickly intensified as we began to ride the warm air currents towards Chobe. I am one of those people who is highly susceptible to the gag reflect – so I covered my ears and focused my attention on counting the elephants below us. I quickly lost count to the multitude growing along the Delta’s meandering waterways as they guided us back to the northeast corner of Botswana.
Chobe National Park covers almost 12,000 square kilometers of the northern Kalahari and has four different areas to explore, each with its own unique ecosystem. It is an area that has long attracted explorers – David Livingstone is known to have spent time in the area in the 1850’s. Chobe was first designated a game reserve in 1961 and then in 1968 it was named a National Park. Chobe is known for its large concentration of elephants – some estimate the number to be around 50,000, which would make it one of the largest concentrations of elephants in Africa, if not the largest. Our guide, Gwist, said the number was probably closer to 70,000 or 80,000. The herd has grown from a few thousand in the early 1990’s to its current numbers today. What makes the area so intriguing is the dynamic of the animal migrations that flow through this Park. The flow stems from long held traditions the animals have come to follow based on rain flow and the resultant availability of food. In the Setswana language, “Pula” translates to “rain”. Rain is the ultimate key to the region and life, so there’s good reason that Botswana’s currency is called the “Pula” and that when people raise their glasses to toast they say “Pula”. We soon found that we were praying for Pula like everyone else.
Why Savute? Our South African friend, Gordon Turner who runs Capescout, had recommended that we stay at the Savute Safari Lodge located near the Savute Marsh and covering the western stretch of the National Park. FYI, we had spent the early part of our trip at the Zarafa and Selinda camps which lie to the west of the Savute Marsh. Despite the relative proximity to Zarafa and Selinda, I was surprised at how different the topography and animal dynamics could be. Zarafa and Selinda consist of riverine woodlands, open woodlands and floodplains while the Savute Marsh consists more of savannahs and grasslands. The Marsh is what remains of an inland lake that dried up long ago with the shift of tectonic plates. Today it is fed by the erratic Savuti Channel, whose water supply mysteriously turns on and off for long periods of time with various plate shifts. Dereck and Beverly Joubert shot a National Geographic film many years ago called “The Stolen River”, which begins in 1982 and documents over the course of seven years the water’s disappearance from the Channel. The water returned to the Channel in 2010, once again supplying the Marsh with the necessary elixir to feed the nutritious grasses the animals so readily seek. Even in the dry season, the animals are attracted to the Marsh for nutrition. The Lodge was constructed on the banks of the Savuti Channel and offered us some absolutely amazing elephant views. Evan got some incredible shots minutes upon our arrival and just yards from our front porch. He easily captured over 150 shots before we had unpacked our bags. These two shots are absolutely adorable of an extremely young baby – perhaps just days old.
National Park versus Private Reserve? Some of the previous camps were repeat visits for us. We definitely wanted to add one last segment that would offer us a different terrain and potentially different animal dynamic. That’s how Gordon decided upon Savute Safari Lodge on the edge of Chobe. In addition to the large number of elephants, Chobe is also known for its elephant/lion relationship. In addition to the lions, it is also home to a number of leopards, many who live in and around the rocky kopjies. Gordon knew the Savute Safari Lodge owners well and thought the camp would be a good fit for us. The only disconnect for us was that the three previous camps we had visited were all private reserves which meant that there were no hard and fast rules about how early you can go out for your morning drive or how late you return and whether you follow a road or go off-road. Private reserves are all about your guide using his experience and discretion to avoid a problem before one is created – the intention being to observe the animals without creating disruption, as well as overall safety for everyone and thing involved. With national parks come specific rules – which in retrospect is understandable given that there is much greater foot traffic coming through a national park than a private reserve, but rules can also be frustrating, especially for a photographer, when they tell you how early you can enter the park, how late you can stay and most frustrating of all, that you can’t go off road to track! For the past ten days we had derived incredible joy and satisfaction by following cat tracks off-road for hours on end, many times to be rewarded with finding the cat who belonged to those tracks. We soon discovered that in a national park, you can track a cat only until it goes off-road. From that point on you technically have reached a dead-end unless your guide circles round to another road on the other side to determine if the cat continued on in that direction. Sometimes you get lucky, but not always. Gwist was a particular stickler to the rules – his phrase for going off-road was “abandoning the law”. Again, I appreciated his concern – if a guide is caught “abandoning the law” for any number of infractions, he could lose his guiding license and face financial fines. We grinned and beared it as best we could, but it was not without an occasional grumble on our end. As I reflect back on this segment of the trip, it all worked out in the end. We captured some great shots. I think a lot of those shots were the result of our persistence and patience while others were derived from a little bit of luck. All things being equal, we probably would opt for private reserves, but I feel there will still be some very special national parks in our travel future.
What happens when the “Rainy Season” is missing the Rain?
First Afternoon Game Drive – November 20, 2012
No surprise, we were the first out at 3:30pm for the afternoon game drive. The rainy season was extremely overdue, and the ramifications of the delay soon became sadly evident.
Gwist took us into the Marsh and introduced us to two of the five male lions in this particular coalition whose territory we were now in the midst of. These guys were both between 5 or 6 years old and Evan and I think they are actually larger than the Skimmer Male at Duba (who, to date, was the biggest guy in our eyes). As we learned, while the Duba lions eat buffalo, the Chobe lions aren’t afraid to take down elephants.
The afternoon proved to be a difficult one. The elephants had descended upon the Marsh for sustenance. Some had managed to bring their young.
But it was the first time we were faced with watching elephants literally dying of starvation. We wondered if the young ones we were watching today would make it. The delay of the rain by over a month was limiting the growth of the grasses and other vegetation necessary to sustain life. The elephants were depleting their stores of body fat and were not getting enough nutrients from the sparse vegetation left in the area. A lot of the mopane trees had been stripped bare – what a difference to what we had experienced with the mopane and overall vegetation near Selinda and Zarafa.
It was sobering to see elephants, who had dropped to their knees without the strength to get up, dying in that position. That afternoon we counted six among the dead in our travels. Imagine the stench of multi-ton corpses. The sight and smell lingers. Gwist says there are probably about 20,000 elephant living in this general area of the Park. This was certainly a time when the predators had easy pickings. And for all of you who are wondering what happens with the tusks given the world’s (and especially Asia’s) demand for ivory, the Park Rangers make note of the fallen elephants and ultimately remove the tusks so that they are not a temptation for others. We were told that they are stored by the government so that they do not end up on the world market.
In addition to the two 5 or 6 year old males, we also got to see two younger male lions (probably around the age of 2.5 years old). The younger males are in the midst of being pushed out of the pride by their mother who has now apparently finally begun to accept this Group of Five coalition as the dominant males in the area. The younger males are no match for the coalition and are of the age where they will now need to strike out on their own.
As I lay in my bed that night I listened to the elephants down on the riverbank splashing in the little bit of water running through it and prayed for Pula.