Tag Archives: Duba Plains

A Worthy Cause – Rhinos Without Borders

The LEO Chronicles got its start talking about Big Cats conservation. Today I am broadening the conversation to bring awareness to an important African wildlife initiative currently underway where time is of the essence. Rhinos without Borders is an expansive project being undertaken by Great Plains Conservation and &Beyond, two extraordinary eco-tourism travel organizations who each operate safari camps in Botswana. Evan and I have been fortunate to visit Great Plains Conservation’s concessions at Zarafa, Selinda and Duba Plains. Great Plains also has concessions in Kenya, while &Beyond’s properties can be found in ten African countries as well as five countries in Asia. Dereck Joubert, CEO of Great Plains, and Joss Kent, CEO of &Beyond, are leading by example and stand in solidarity to save the rhino from its current path towards extinction.

Speaking from our own experience, in our three trips to Southern Africa, which includes two visits to South Africa and two to Botswana, we only saw rhino while visiting the Mala Mala reserve in South Africa (which is in close proximity to Kruger National Park). We were incredibly fortunate on one morning to come across a mother rhino and her young calf, who our guide estimated to probably be about a month old. Needless to say, he had not yet grown that coveted horn…

Baby Rhino & Mother - Photography by Evan Schiller

Baby Rhino & Mother – Photography by Evan Schiller

Rhinos are dying at a rate of at least one every eight hours. News outlets are reporting the recurring atrocities of rhino poaching on the African continent, particularly in South Africa where the majority of rhino can be found, and sadly, easily killed. As of the end of July at least 622 rhino have been killed in Africa, with approximately 2/3’s of those deaths occurring in Kruger National Park.   The rhinos are killed solely for their horn, which Traditional Asian Medicine purports to provide certain healing qualities, including everything from reducing fever to curing cancer (this has been scientifically proven to be false). Asian demand for rhino horn, particularly in Vietnam, has fueled the black market (in this case “Black” market literally means “Death” for the rhino). Last year over 1,000 rhino were killed, so at the current rate of three rhino deaths per day, it can only be assumed that a similar number will be reached in 2014. More sobering is that professionals on the ground, like Les Carlisle, a long-time Group Conservation Manager at &Beyond, believe that the rhino death rate is probably UNDER-estimated by 20% because not all killings are reported or even discovered. Poachers are highly sophisticated, heavily armed and technologically savvy. Their job is made easier in South Africa where the animals are clustered in parks and private reserves located near more densely populated areas than exist in Botswana. As I researched this epic problem, I was also shocked by the accounting of the number of wildlife rangers who have died at the hands of poachers.  A National Geographic Daily News article that came out June 27, 2014 titled “For Rangers on the Front Lines of Anti-Poaching Wars, Daily Trauma” quotes Sean Willmore, the President of the International Ranger Federation and Founder of the Thin Green Line Foundation, as saying that worldwide, at least two rangers are killed every week in the line of duty. StopRhinoPoaching.com, which specifically tracks poaching in Africa, reports that a minimum of 54 poachers in South Africa were fatally wounded in shoot-outs with anti-poaching units in 2011 and 2012. This number increased to 50+ in 2013 with the majority occurring in Kruger and a smaller number in KwaZulu-Natal. A further 30 poachers have been shot and killed in shoot-outs so far this year. Bottom-line, rhino poaching is a dangerous and deadly business for everyone involved, but most deadly for the rhino and its ability to survive as a species.

Mala Mala Momma & Baby Rhino - Lisa Holzwarth

Mala Mala Momma & Baby Rhino – Lisa Holzwarth

Baby Rhino & Oxpecker - Photography by Evan Schiller

Baby Rhino & Oxpecker – Photography by Evan Schiller

Rhinos are at their Tipping Point: We are losing rhinos to poaching faster than the rate at which rhinos can reproduce. The white rhino gestation period is 16 months and a new calf birth usually occurs every 2 to 3 years, while the black rhino’s gestation is 15-16 months with a new calf being born every 2.5 to 4 years. It should be no surprise that given a rhino’s size (1800 to 2700 kgs for the white and 800 to 1350 kgs for the black) that their gestation period is one of the longest in the animal kingdom. (And by the way, white rhino and black rhino are both gray.)  Besides the size differential, the main difference between the two species is the shape of their mouths. White rhino have broad flat lips for grazing, while black rhino have pointed lips for eating foliage.  The IUCN SSC’s African Rhino Specialist Group estimates that there are probably 20,000 white rhino left on the African continent, almost 19,000 of which can be found in South Africa. They estimate that the total African black rhino population is approximately 5,000 of which 2,000 are in South Africa and 1,750 are in Namibia (these population numbers were as of December 31, 2012).  Poaching has been growing 39% a year from 2008 to 2013. If this keeps up, the IUCN SSC’s African Rhino Specialist Group projects that the tipping point could be reached somewhere in the 2014 to 2016 period. Given that it is most likely that rhino kill rates are underestimated, we are probably already there. This chilling scenario is not hyperbole.

Making a Difference for the Common Good. It is the intention of this joint venture, working with the support of Africa Foundation, to relocate at least 100 rhino (both black, Diceros bicornis, and white, Ceratotherium simum) from high density/high risk poaching areas of South Africa to Botswana where population densities are significantly lower and poaching is virtually non-existent. The translocation would also create breeding diversity, strengthening the rhino gene pool by creating new stock in a safer long-term environment with the intention that the Botswana national herd might reach 400 rhino by 2016 (it currently stands at approximately 75). This will not occur naturally, but only by taking immediate action like that envisioned by Rhinos without Borders.

Putting the Plan into Action. The Rhinos without Borders team of experts believes that to acquire and translocate 100 rhino to Botswana will cost approximately US$7 to $8 million. The absolute number is somewhat fluid and will depend on how many animals are freely given to the cause (this includes private landowners and/or national parks donating their animals with the intention to make them safer, versus purchasing rhino at the annual South African Wildlife auction). The general plan is to acquire young adults in the ratio of 1 male for every 4 females, but this will ultimately be determined by what is offered. Transportation of the animals is also a large factor in the financial equation and there is talk of the possibility of plane capacity being donated to help with the safe transport. If not by plane, the rhinos will be moved via truck. 40% of the funding is projected to be used for the capture, transport, bomas, quarantine and release of the animals. The balance, 60%, will go to continued conservation, protection and monitoring of the animals. The team will continue to work closely with Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, the Department of Wildlife and the Botswana Defense Force to ensure the safety of the animals in their new environs. It is the intention of Rhinos with Borders that after three years the translocated rhino and their offspring will become the responsibility of the people of Botswana to proudly protect and grow.

Mala Mala Rhino family - Lisa Holzwarth

Mala Mala Rhino family – Lisa Holzwarth

Opportunities to Donate!!!!

Rhinos with Borders is supported by, and donations can be made through the following organizations:

Great Plains Foundation, a US public charity contributions to which may be tax deductible for US federal income tax purposes under Section 501 (c) (3) of the US Internal Revenue Code. Visit: www.greatplainsfoundation.com

Africa Foundation, a separate independent organization registered with the South African Revenue Service as a Public Benefit Organization (PBO) and as a Nonprofit Organization (NPO). Visit: http://www.africafoundation.org.za

Africa Foundation (USA), a US public charity, contributions to which may be deductible for US federal income tax purposes under Section 501 (c) (3) of the US Internal Revenue Code. EIN 88-0461880. Visit: www.africafoundation.org

Africa Foundation (UK), a separate independent organization registered with the UK Charities Commission. UK registered Charity Number 1092616. Visit: www.africafoundation.org

Great Plains Conservation has also generously donated its green season beds (for travel between November 1, 2014 and May 31, 2015) under an initiative called Zeros for Rhinos. Guests can elect to stay at selected Great Plains Conservation Camps and donate the cost of that directly to the Foundation towards this rhino effort.

Please check out this link to Rhinos Without Borders which includes a special message from Dereck and Beverly Joubert discussing the importance of this very special project: http://eepurl.com/0bXWn

Evan and I firmly believe in Rhinos Without Borders and the people driving this effort and we are making a personal donation to support this important and worthy cause.

Take us to Botswana! - Lisa Holzwarth

Take us to Botswana! – Lisa Holzwarth

“Safari, Interrupted…” or “Vehicular Chaos, Part II” or “All Hail to Massey Ferguson”

Submarine or Land Cruiser?

Submarine or Land Cruiser? – note the extended air intake valve to the right of James

November 18 – Afternoon Game Drive 

Despite the fact that we left camp at 3:45pm, our Afternoon Game Drive did not officially begin until after 5pm… and just to make things a bit more interesting, James 007 found a way to “rope” other guests into our vehicular activities.  Since Duba is located in the northern reaches of the Okavango Delta, water plays a significant role in almost everything that you do, some parts of the year more than others – like in November when the Delta is just beginning to rise due to the start of the local rainy season.  The water will continue to increase in the coming months as it begins to flow down from the Angolan Highlands about 1500 miles to the north (the Okavango flood season usually reaches Duba sometime in May).

Bird's Eye View of the Delta

Bird’s Eye View of the Delta – Lisa Holzwarth

To get out to the open plains, the most likely place to find the buffalo herd, you need to drive through water channels (some of them a tad deep) – this is part of the normal course of business.  From the picture above you can see dry, white areas which are some of the many “islands” aka, higher drier land dotted amongst the many channels comprising the Delta.  The Duba vehicles are specially equipped to maneuver through some of these water channels – many times with even the hood of the car coming close to being under water – all made technically possible by strategically positioning the air intake valve about three feet above the hood.  I always get a kick out of these water-crossings – sometimes you get to see a crocodile swim by your door… Despite the fact that the guides make these crossings daily, they still need to be careful and sometimes, despite the best-laid plans, things don’t always work out.  Bottom-line, we weren’t ten minutes out of camp when we found ourselves mired in mud with water just shy of our hood – and running along the floorboards of the vehicle (there are drains in the back just to counter this sort of issue, so our camera equipment quickly found a place on our laps).  Evan was wondering out loud if we could sink further but we soon understood that we were already sitting at the bottom of the channel with one of the four wheels wedged in an even deeper hole.  I began to rethink the phrase “hitting rock bottom” and realized (at least at Duba) that hitting rock bottom would be fortuitous – the lack of fortune lies in our “hitting mud bottom”.

James radio’d for assistance and another guest vehicle, commandeered by Spike, came to our rescue.  Spike seemed to get the short end of the stick this afternoon – he was the one who had to wade barefoot into the channel … Spike’s guests waited nearby on foot, and on the watch, for WILDlife, while Spike cautiously drove closer to us so that the tow-rope could reach us and be tied to our vehicle.  Before we knew it, Spike’s vehicle was also stuck!  The ultimate rescue occurred with a Massey Ferguson tractor, powerful enough to apparently get out of anything with relative ease – it was only a matter of additional minutes before we were on dry land again – and then (finally) we were off. Unfortunately, the tractor-pulling event proved to be the major excitement of the afternoon.  The lions and buffs were quiet so we spent a bit of time with the elephants.  Always a favorite of mine.

Dust Bath - Photography by Evan Schiller

Dust Bath – Photography by Evan Schiller

Late Afternoon Snacking - Lisa Holzwarth

Late Afternoon Snacking – Lisa Holzwarth

Elephant Glow - Lisa Holzwarth

Elephant Glow – Lisa Holzwarth

The Duba Chess Match – where’s Bobby Fischer when you need him?

November 18 – Morning Game Drive

James "007" in Action - Lisa Holzwarth

James “007” in Action – Lisa Holzwarth

High Drama & Vehicular Chaos, aka “The Moment We had all been Sweating for” – When we found the buffalo herd that morning, the lions were only 100-200 yards away.  Imagine these lions quietly circling the flanks of 1000+ edgy buffalo.   Six of the Tsaro Pride (including the 20 year-old Grandmother – a note about that later) and five younger lions, including the 2010 female cub (now a sub-adult), were in the early stages of mounting an attack.  The energy was high on all fronts – including that of the photographers.   The posturing is amazing to witness and experience. The lions are aggressive and bold, but so are the buffalo.  Given the buffalo’s size, they are not easy to take down and the big bulls work together to protect themselves and the herd.  The action started in the midst of some dense shrubbery and we initially thought that the lions were going to get lucky, but in fact, one of them came out of the shrubs with a gash in its side.

The drama was increased by some unfortunate “vehicular chaos” – imagine if you started and stopped your car every few minutes, every day that you drove it.  What kind of problem would you ultimately expect to encounter – perhaps one with your starter???  Well that is the name of the game on safaris – guides are constantly starting and stopping the vehicle – as they move closer to and further away from the animals.  We unfortunately experienced some severe starter problems just as the Chess Match was getting underway, so in the midst of the lions chasing the buffalo and then getting chased themselves, we found ourselves jumping from one vehicle to another in the midst of this action to make sure that we didn’t miss the real action!  Martin came to the rescue with a fresh vehicle so all was well. James 007 wanted to make sure we were getting the right action shots so he was yelling “SHOOT THE BULL! SHOOT THE BULL!!”.   This was my first attempt at “action” video and I have so say I am neither Ron Howard nor James Cameron – at least not yet…  Unfortunately you can’t ask for a “Take II” on the Duba set…  I am glad that Evan kept his “eye on the bull” and got some amazing photos of the experience. The lions worked together and for what seemed like a split second, one of them did jump on the back of a bull, but the buffs quickly closed ranks, heading off the ability for the lions to really join forces and pull the bull down – Advantage Buffs.

The Chase - Photography by Evan Schiller

The Chase – Photography by Evan Schiller

The Chase Continues- Photography by Evan Schiller

The Chase Continues – Photography by Evan Schiller

The Chase III - Photography by Evan Schiller

The Chase III – Photography by Evan Schiller

The Hunt - Photography by Evan Schiller

The Hunt – Photography by Evan Schiller

Waiting - Photography by Evan Schiller

Waiting – Photography by Evan Schiller

Chess Match - Photography by Evan Schiller

Chess Match – Photography by Evan Schiller

Lion Jump - Photography by Evan Schiller

Lion Jump – Photography by Evan Schiller

Lion Jump Sequence - Photography by Evan Schiller

Lion Jump Sequence – Photography by Evan Schiller

Bottom-line, despite their efforts, the lions came up short – no kill and some injury, though nothing life-threatening, this time anyway.  This is a normal occurrence for the Duba lions.  While you will find them occasionally feasting on warthog or tsessebe or lechwe, the buffalo are their primary food source, a particularly dangerous source, each and every time.  Interestingly, our guide at the Savute Safari Lodge in Chobe National Park told us that the Chobe lions steer clear of the Cape Buffalo and would never consider pulling out the Duba playbook and executing on that strategy.

Going back to the 20-year old matriarch for a minute – James 007 said it really is quite phenomenal to have a 20-year old lion in our midst.  He also said that the Duba lions live a somewhat “protected” life, given the general isolation of the Duba Plains camp in the Okavango Delta, that is, if they survive their day-to-day combat with the buffalo…

Water Break - Photography by Evan Schiller

Water Break – Photography by Evan Schiller

While so many guests want to witness a “big kill” (and we were fortunate to see that occur here in 2010) – I was fascinated watching the “Chess Match” strategy play out today and did not really feel the “need” for a climactic finale, of course, the lions would have preferred a totally different outcome.

Evan Becomes “One with the Dung” – When the action subsided and the protagonists headed for the shade, we headed down to the Hippo pool to cool our own heels (metaphorically speaking that is, under no circumstances would we consider putting our feet in or close to the water – for fear of becoming a crocodile treat).

Evan at the Hippo Pool - Lisa Holzwarth

Evan at the Hippo Pool – Lisa Holzwarth

The Hippo Pool - Photography by Evan Schiller

The Hippo Pool – Photography by Evan Schiller

A Big Hippo Hellooo - Lisa Holzwarth

A Big Hippo Hellooo – Lisa Holzwarth

James and Evan debating who can run faster if chased by a Hippo - Lisa Holzwarth

James and Evan debating who can run faster if chased by a Hippo – Lisa Holzwarth

The hippos weren’t that active, so after a bit of a coffee break, James decided to turn up the adventure-meter with an up-close and personal photo session with the elephants.  We parked near a big dirt mound as the elephants were coming our way.  Then we got OUT of the vehicle and waited for the elephants to pass, taking pictures the whole time.  Being on the ground was AMAZING – I will share my short video here. It really gives you a sense how close we were and the elephants’ size.  Did I tell you how much I love the elephants??  Notice how the adults are always protecting the young ones…

Evan really wanted a LOW ground shot and because everything was happening quickly he threw himself down to prepare for the entourage – only after they had passed did we all realize that he had thrown himself into a mound of elephant dung (not too bad, at least on a relative basis – elephant dung is pretty darn dry – just happy for our sake that it wasn’t buffalo dung he threw himself in – let’s just leave it that buffalo dung is a lot more “moist”).

On the Ground - Lisa Holzwarth

On the Ground – Lisa Holzwarth

The action continued after the departure of the elephants as we then found a lioness and her two sub-adult offspring, devouring a red lechwe in a big muddy area.  James ventured to guess that the lechwe had been killed by a crocodile the day before, but the croc had been unable to move the lechwe back towards the open water.  The lions have no problem scavenging if they feel like it and the mother and two cubs (male and female) wasted no time in devouring the lechwe.   It was most interesting to learn that this mother was in fact, Ma di Tau (the “Mother of Lions” and the star in Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s movie, The Last Lions).

Ma di Tau and Cubs - Lisa Holzwarth

Ma di Tau and Cubs – Lisa Holzwarth

Safari Physics Corollary: Increased Heat = Decreased Activity

November 17, 2013

I keep expecting Kathleen Turner and William Hurt (i.e., the 1981 movie drama “Body Heat”) to show up in camp for a sundowner cocktail – the movie segue continues as the temperature hovers around 100 degrees Fahrenheit…  My pillow is drenched in sweat and I am trying to visualize how cold it must be in Connecticut right now – hoping the imagery will somehow cool me off.

The day heated up quickly and the lions and buffalo had moved apart.  We saw two sets of lions and everyone was sleeping quite heavily.  No apparent kill since we left them yesterday.  The young cubs from the previous afternoon were nowhere to be seen in the morning, BUT we did get to see one of our 2010 cubs – she is now 2+ years old, very big and strong but with a “bad” right front foot.  She heavily favors it after a long rest, but ultimately puts more weight on it as her walking continues.

Yawn or Roar? - Lisa Holzwarth

Yawn or Roar? – Lisa Holzwarth

The afternoon proved slightly more fruitful from a photographic perspective as the cubs were out again, but high temperatures maintained the lethargy status quo among man and beast.

Sentinels amongst the Lethargy - Lisa Holzwarth

Sentinels amongst the Lethargy – Lisa Holzwarth

Downward Dog - Lisa Holzwarth

Downward Dog – Lisa Holzwarth

Lion Practice - Photography by Evan Schiller

Lion Practice – Photography by Evan Schiller

In the downtime of the afternoon heat we also got a bit of family-tree history on the Duba lions – James 007’s version of “Ancestry.com”.  There were six original lions in the Tsaro Pride including the grandmother that we have mentioned – James calls her “Tumor” because she has a large growth on the back of her neck, Tumor’s sister and the three daughters of Tumor (including “Silver Eye” who has a lead role in Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s movie, “The Last Lions”).   Four adult lionesses produced twelve cubs and ten survived (five males and five females).  The father of the cubs, sometimes described as the “Prime Minister”, is technically known as the Skimmer Male.  He is the son of the illustrious “Duba Boys”.  The Skimmer Male, in his fight for dominance, injured the Duba Boys in a serious fight which weakened them – they were ultimately killed in an altercation with the buffalo.  The Tsaro territory is approximately 6-7 kilometers in size.  I sometimes got a bit confused when the Tsaro Pride was being described, part of my confusion was that you rarely saw the 19 together – instead they had three sub-groups and sometimes the mother of the two young cubs was off hunting with others so the family dynamics was not as straightforward as one might expect.  The three sub-groups included (1) Silver Eye and two other adult lionesses and two sub-adults, a female and a male, (2) Four adult females, two sub-adults and two male cubs, and (3) two female adults, one young male and two young females) so 5+8+5=18+Skimmer Male = Tsaro Pride.

We also were fortunate to see some tsessebe youngsters hanging close to their mom.

Got Milk? Tsessebe family - Lisa Holzwarth

Got Milk? Tsessebe family – Lisa Holzwarth

And when things get a bit quiet with the big creatures – know that Evan always make the best of things and captures the beautiful essence on the aviary front – I apologize that I left my reference book, “Birds of Southern Africa”, at home so I need to go back and remind myself of this one’s name.  A big thank-you goes out to Dr. Luke Hunter, President of Panthera – for letting me know that this beautiful bird is a Crested Barbet and the picture above was one of tsessebe’s, not lechwe’s (as I had initially posted).  While Luke is known to be a Big Cat expert, his expertise goes way beyond the Cats, and I, for one, very much appreciate it!

Duba Crested Barbet- Photography by Evan Schiller

Duba Crested Barbet – Photography by Evan Schiller

Duba Sunset Redux - Lisa Holzwarth

Duba Sunset Redux – Lisa Holzwarth

How many Lions will “007” find in Duba Plains?

Answer:  Pussy Galore (that’s for all you James Bond fans, ie., “Goldfinger”).

The picture below represents THREE generations of lions from the Tsaro Pride – Grandmother, Mother, Granddaughter and Grandson

Fearsome Foursome - Photography by Evan Schiller

Fearsome Foursome – Photography by Evan Schiller

Duba Plains – November 16 (Afternoon)

The flight from Selinda to Duba took all of 30 minutes on our six-seater plane.

Evan’s quote of the day, “Is it my imagination or are the tents getting smaller?”  Ironically, we had started our safari at the most luxurious of the Great Plains Botswana concessions (Zarafa) and had been working our way down to their most “rustic”.  And by the way, “rustic” is a relative word as we still were nicely situated on an elevated platform with a thatched roof above our canvas tent which housed a four-poster bed with canopy, desk, chair and bureaus, electrical outlets, as well as indoor plumbing.

A trip to Duba Plains offers a different safari experience.  This was a return trip for us – the first trip in 2010 was truly life-changing and an inspiration for our work today.   The first thing you need to understand is that Duba Plains is located in the northern reaches of the Okavango Delta, north of the Moremi Game Reserve.  It is on a 77,000-acre private concession.  Duba Plains partners with the Okavango Community Trust representing the communities of Seronga, Gunotsoga, Eretsha, Beetsja and Gudigwa.  The premise for the partnership is that conservation advances rural development by promoting the management of natural resources by the local community, and if the benefits outweigh the costs, than the community is more likely to use sustainable livelihood strategies, ie., choosing to promote an ecological photographic safari rather than a hunting camp (you can only shoot a lion once with a gun, but you can invite guests to shoot with cameras every day for years to come).   You wouldn’t know about the Community Trust, per se, but for the fact that someone from the Community rides upfront in the vehicle alongside the Duba guide to make sure that the guide is respectful of the concession and the animals living there.  The community representative in essence acts as a second guide in the vehicle and is a wealth of information.  Mikopi is the community representative at Duba Plains and we have been fortunate to have him accompany us in 2010 and 2012.  This was made extra special by his incredible memory and amazing eyesight – pointing out to us the particular sub-adult lions on this trip that in 2010 were just a few months old (of course his memory might have been heightened by the fact that we had headed out in 2010 on a bleak morning in the pouring rain only to return a “mere” 8 hours later (are you beginning to see a pattern to Schiller/Holzwarth game drives?) – and the only reason we stopped that day two years ago was because we had used up all of our memory cards and my right hand had started cramping from holding down the camera shutter for so long… We used one of Evan’s Duba cubs pictures as the cover shot for our September 2012 fundraising event – and now we were back to see the cubs again!  The two pictures below were 2010 pictures – “Hugs” being our cover-shot for the fundraiser.  Two of the three cubs in “Scrum” remain with the pride today.

Hugs - Photography by Evan Schiller

Hugs – Photography by Evan Schiller

Scrum - Photography by Evan Schiller

Scrum – Photography by Evan Schiller

The 2010 Duba trip is a story unto itself, suffice it to say that a particular mother lion and her three very young cubs (our first lion cubs) got us hooked on Big Cat conservation.  We saw first-hand how difficult it is for the lions (extrapolated to all Big Cats) to raise their cubs to adulthood.  Despite the fact that the “King of the Jungle” is at the top of the food chain, life is not taken for granted and each day brings its own set of challenges to the Big Cats.

Duba Plains is an island in the Okavango Delta and, depending on the time of year, will determine where and how deep the water may be.  Duba is a combination of open plains and permanent waterways.  In 2010 we visited in mid-December, about four weeks later than our 2012 trip.  The water was much higher in mid-December than November and this affects the whole dynamic of the animal interaction.  (Our personal preference, in retrospect to timing, is December).

Back to my point that a trip to Duba offers a different safari experience… when you go to Duba, you go primarily for one reason – to see the interaction between the Duba lions and the Cape Buffalo.  FYI – “60 Minutes” featured Duba Plains in a November 2012 story on Dereck and Beverly Joubert and their work with bringing awareness and saving the Big Cats from extinction.  It is also the setting for the Jouberts’ 2011 film, “The Last Lions” and their 2006 film “Relentless Enemies”.

When you go to Duba Plains you will most likely have the opportunity to meet the Tsaro Pride and the Skimmer Pride of lions.  There is also a group called the Pantry Pride but I believe their numbers have significantly dwindled.  The largest and strongest of the three is the Tsaro Pride numbering about 19 (if you also include the large male known as “the Skimmer Male”, since that is where he originated).  You will also inevitably meet the herd of Cape Buffalo that I would guess number over 1,000 (don’t hold me to this, I can’t count that fast).   Unlike other safari camps, when you arrive in Duba you immediately go looking for the buffalo herd, because when you find the buffalo, you find the lions.  The Cape Buffalo are the lions’ primary food source and over the years the lions have adapted to the habits of their prey.  Given that the Cape Buffalo weigh on average between 300-900kgs, they are significantly larger than what most lions in other areas focus on to eat (typically, impala, reedbuck, red lechwe, etc.).  When you come to Duba you will also notice that the lions are about 20% larger than other lions you hopefully have been fortunate enough to see.  And, unlike at other camps, the Duba lions swim, as well as hunt, during the day (when the buffalo are on the move) and sleep at night, when the buffalo sleep.  It is amazing to get out early in the morning to find the Buffs still resting on the ground, the largest of them flanking the edges of the herd with their horns all pointing out towards the waiting lions.

Sunrise with the Buffs - Photography by Evan Schiller

Sunrise with the Buffs – Photography by Evan Schiller

If you are interested in seeing a “big kill” – and be careful what you wish for, there is a good chance you will see such a thing if you get yourself to Duba.  In 2010 we were fortunate to see the large Skimmer Male take down, single-handedly, a large pregnant female buffalo.   She did not die quietly, they never do.   The strength of both animals was incredible.  In most cases though, the lions hunt together and on our 2012 trip we were quite fortunate to witness the amazing “Chess Match” that ensued between six members of the Tsaro Pride and the buffalo herd (more on this exciting interaction next post).   The lions ultimately pick a target, usually a younger buffalo or one that has found itself on the outer reaches of the herd and work as a group to bring it down.  What ends up blowing your mind is how aggressively the herd fights back as a team, often outflanking the lions and forcing a retreat, many times with the lions licking their wounds.  Life is not a cake-walk for these big cats…

When it is too hot, the buffalo and the lions rest and the action subsides.  In addition to the lions and buffalo, you will inevitably also have the opportunity to see crocodile (remember you are in the Okavango Delta), elephant, hippo, giraffe, and red lechwe.  We were also lucky to see the elusive bat-ear fox and the rare aardwolf.   You will not see wild dogs here, nor, for all practical purposes, will you see leopards (apparently there may be one here, but it is rarely seen).  The wild dogs, leopards and hyena are not part of the Duba equation because the lions are such a BIG part of it.  We noticed in other concessions that where/when the lions were extremely active, it was more difficult to find the leopards, and especially the wild dogs.  Nor will you see cheetahs, though that is as much because of their incompatibility to the watery terrain as it is to the lions’ dominance.  The lions are definitely at the top of the food chain and their presence and activity make all the difference in the world to how that food chain functions.

Aardwolf - Photography by Evan Schiller

Aardwolf – Photography by Evan Schiller

Bat Ear Fox Family - Photography by Evan Schiller

Bat Ear Fox Family – Photography by Evan Schiller

Real-life action with James “007”: Another leading and colorful character in the Duba story is the larger-than-life personality of long-time guide, “James 007” (James Rawdon).  James has been guiding at Duba since the concession opened and is a wealth of knowledge and stories.  He knows these lions’ habits and behaviors intimately (and I would venture to guess, they know his…).  It is rare that a guide stays at any one camp for years on end, but James is from the community and his devotion, love and respect for the Duba Plains concession is self-evident.  In addition to being masterful with and around the animals, he is also an expert on “guest relations” and I would guess over the years he has accumulated almost as many guest stories as he has animal ones.  One of the challenges of hosting multiple parties in a single vehicle is that everyone has their own agenda and, yet, every day everyone has to agree on (1) what time we depart on the morning game drive, (2) how long we watch a particular animal, (3) which animal we decide to track/watch (this is less of an issue at Duba), (4) how long we stop and when we head back for lunch and dinner.  You can just imagine a vehicle chock full of entitlement and what a guide must maneuver through on a daily basis… this leads me to rationalizing for you why Evan and I felt it was money well spent to hire a private vehicle, thereby circumventing the need to compromise on our mission.

Private Vehicles – to be or not to be? And the Great Compromise:  We had been incredibly fortunate in 2009 and 2010 that we happened to find ourselves with either like-minded photographers or by ourselves with our guide in the open air 4-wheel drive vehicles.  We made the calculated decision for this trip that it would be the better part of valor to pay the added expense of getting a private vehicle so that we would have 100% vote on what we tracked and how long we wanted to stay with a particular animal.  This proved to be well worth the extra expense for us on this trip given that we have a lot more patience than the average guest and we were very intentional on what and where we wanted to place our attention.  Given some logistical issues, we unfortunately found ourselves on our initial two game drives at Duba without a private vehicle…

Now – to the Afternoon Game Drive: Upon arrival at Duba, we quickly unpacked our cameras and headed out to join the other guests who had already left that morning on what was to be an all-day drive.  We met up with everyone for a beautiful buffet lunch on the open plains with the Cape Buffalo grazing in the foreground (of course the lions were also in the general vicinity, but it was hot and the guides felt comfortable that they weren’t going to stray too far in the heat of the day – that being said, they didn’t want anyone of us to venture very far either (including to relieve themselves).  I have never been a fan of peeing in bushes so I continued to avoid exposing my backend to any surprised creature – man or beast).

James finally gave the signal that we would start the afternoon drive and Evan and I joined a vehicle that already housed three guests.  There’s always a bit of a dance on where people sit and some spots are considered more desirable than others.  Since we were the last to arrive, we found ourselves in the last two seats (with me in the very last seat).  Given the configuration of these very low-geared, but high off the ground 4-wheel drives, the ride is never smooth and gets bouncier the further back in the vehicle you sit.  I was trying to hold onto all my gear as we bounced around for the afternoon in 100+ degree Fahrenheit heat cursing to myself.  It didn’t take long for the guests who had been out since early that day (and where there had been little action) to get tired.  The heat was getting to everyone, but Evan and I had just arrived and we wanted to find the cats that everyone had already watched all morning.  We all found ourselves in somewhat of a lose/lose situation.  It was James’ job to negotiate a major compromise (the other guests stayed out longer than they wanted and Evan and I stayed out shorter than we wanted) – perhaps he should take his negotiating skills to Washington DC and see what kind of Great Compromise he can generate there??  No one was completely satisfied, but as a hedge fund manager once said to me, a good compromise is “when everyone walks away feeling a little short-changed”.  I am sure that if there had been more action involved, the choice would have been different.  The one thing the afternoon confirmed for us is that we had made the right decision on having a private vehicle as much as it was possible.  And the reality for all you future safari-goers is, sometimes a drive is a little more quiet than others – don’t despair, part of the fun is never knowing what you will find around the corner…

Here are a few of the pictures we did capture that afternoon of some very hot, lethargic lions from the Tsaro pride.  There were two young cubs (probably about 3-4 months old you were being baby-sat by some of the sub-adults in the Pride while their mother was away – there was one particular young sub-adult male with the patience to put up with their antics while everyone napped in the heat.

Duba Cubs - Photography by Evan Schiller

Duba Cubs – Photography by Evan Schiller

Duba Yawn - Photography by Evan Schiller

Duba Yawn – Photography by Evan Schiller

Little Tsaro Guy - Lisa Holzwarth

Little Tsaro Guy – Lisa Holzwarth

Siesta, interupted - Lisa Holzwarth

Siesta, interupted – Lisa Holzwarth

“See Isaac Jump” or “What do a Black Mamba and Hippo have in Common?”

Isaac Seredile

Isaac Seredile

These two incidents happened on separate occasions, but I have to give Isaac a little bit of good-natured ribbing…

I’ll preface the stories by saying that when Evan and I share our Africa travel experiences with friends, we are inevitably asked, “Weren’t you afraid of (you name the animal) the lion or leopard jumping in the vehicle? the hyena choosing to snap your arm off?, the elephant or hippo charging the vehicle?, etc., etc., etc…”  And to be perfectly honest, I’ve never considered myself to be an uber-brave individual, so why do I always emphatically say “No, I wasn’t afraid”?  It’s ALL because of the guides.  I put my full faith and trust in these people, and, oh by the way, my life.   It’s not that Isaac, or any of his compatriots, are dosed with some extra machismo (well, maybe a little), nor are they carrying a gun (not allowed in Botswana) – so why do I feel so safe?  Bottom-line, they are smart and they never stop paying attention to our surroundings – so there is little chance they’ll be surprised.  One guide shared with us on a previous trip when asked the question about how he deals with not being able to carry a rifle – the clear answer was “a rifle can make you cocky, without the rifle you learn to avoid a problem before it becomes one”.  I think we all could take that to heart…

Anyway, back to Isaac.  Evan and I always ask our guides if there is any animal or reptile that they are afraid of.  It gives us a little glimpse into their inner workings.  And if a guide ever said that they weren’t afraid of ANYthing, that’s when I would be concerned.  So, one morning on our way out of camp, we asked Isaac if there was any animal he didn’t like.  Very quickly, he said “Snakes”.  Evan and I immediately hatched a plan – I was sitting right behind Isaac so played an integral role in the scheme.  Evan launched into the story that we had been told by another guide in Duba two years earlier.  Evan does a great job really enrolling the listener in the story – ultimately achieving the greatest emotive response possible.  In the story “Solly” is driving along a road with a thick overhang of tree branches and finds himself with a Black Mamba (one of the most deadly African snakes) in his lap after the vehicle’s tall roof knocks it from the trees.  Just as Isaac is taking this all in, I run my fingers along his neck trying to mimic the feel of a snake falling from a tree.  I was so focused on getting my timing right with Evan’s story that I failed to notice that Isaac had just lifted his cup of morning coffee when I “made like a snake”.  Isaac practically jumped out of the vehicle, but in such a controlled fashion that he did not spill one bit of his coffee (and he wasn’t using a travel cup!).  I remain in awe of his incredible control.

My second story involves a much larger, but just as deadly creature – the Hippo.  And in retrospect, I think I was getting a little payback for making fun of a guest on a previous evening who was petrified to be walking in the darkness after dinner.  One of the cardinal rules in Africa is that once the sun goes down, you don’t walk anywhere by yourself.  The guides are responsible for taking you safely to and from your tent.  One evening after dinner I was walking with one of the guides who was escorting me and a young Italian woman back to our neighboring tents.  Selinda is right on the spillway so there are always hippos in close proximity (sometimes their snorting is so loud it’s hard to sleep at night).  The young Italian woman was visibly frightened and waving her flashlight in all different directions as she scoured the darkness for danger.  In the midst of this “light show” she asked the guide if the hippos were asleep (hoping against hope) and was visibly distressed when the guide told her that this is the time, in fact, when they got very active… Needless to say after that, her “light show” became even more frantic.

Anyway, my payback ultimately included Isaac and Evan because as we were returning from dinner on the next night, we came face to face with a hippo (we found ourselves in the unfortunate position of coming between the hippo and his precious water).  The resident hippo around our tent had decided to venture a little further from the water a little earlier than usual and we startled him as much as he “startled” us.  (FYI- we were staring right into his eyes – and if we were staring into his, you know he couldn’t miss us!).  Isaac was one step ahead and stopped us in our tracks before we fully “engaged” the grass-munching multi-ton beast.  He finally gave us the all clear and told us to run – which we most certainly did.  Isaac took his own meandering route back to camp to avoid another surprise encounter.  Ah, just another day in the life of a safari guide…

Kealeboaga, Isaac!

“The Power of One”, a retrospective

The Power of One - Selinda Cheetah

Photography by Evan Schiller

Bryce Courtenay wrote this “coming of age” story in 1989 and yet I only came across it a few years ago.   Ironic, in a sense, as I feel in some ways I am only just now “coming of age” myself.  Better late than never… The novel, written in the first person, takes place in South Africa during the 1930’s and 1940’s and tells the story of a young English-speaking boy, Peekay, as he grows up during World War II and apartheid South Africa.  Okay, at first blush it seems like I may be reaching a bit, the only obvious connection to this blog and The Power of One being the continent of Africa, but hear me out, and besides, when Evan caught this particular shot of a Cheetah tail, the first thing that popped into my head was The Power of One.

Sometimes the slightest things change the direction of our lives, a random moment that connects like a meteorite striking the earth”. Peekay.

Evan and I made our first trip to Africa together in 2009 (Evan had actually lived in South Africa for two winters in the 1980’s playing on the South African Sunshine Tour, ie., professional golf, so he had a bit of an opportunity to explore the country and had talked for years about going back).  Our trip in 2009 was a combination of safari, golf photography and general exploration. We only spent four nights in the bush (Mala Mala – Rattray’s Camp – a private reserve sandwiched between Kruger National Park to the east and the Sabi Sands Wildtuin).  Those four days were life-changing.  To date, my attempts to articulate this experience have fallen woefully short.  There were no near-death experiences (on our part anyway) despite our many physically close encounters with lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and hippos.  I never felt afraid, instead, I had the most amazing adrenaline rush for four days running.  I just felt incredibly ALIVE, really a heightened sense of awareness on so many levels, and so appreciative of this opportunity to witness life and connect with it on such a simple, beautiful level.  On the day we left, I cried.  I cried all the way from the camp, to the tarmac and onto the plane – and all the way back to Johannesburg.  Evan and I promised each other we would return.  I still am not sure why I was crying, I think I was touched to the core of my being.  Africa hit me like a meteorite.

Sometimes in life doing what we shouldn’t is the emergency…” – Hoppie Groenewald.

I am the oldest of four kids (displaying most of the typical traits of the first born, ie., high achiever, responsible, rule keeper, people pleaser, perfectionist, and controlling).  None of these characteristics are necessarily good or bad, but they have played a role in who I have been.  The question is, will they play a role in who I will be?  I think the trait that bugs me the most, because it still has me more than I have it, is the “people pleaser”.  An adjunct to this is that I always seem to “play it safe”.  I am intent on altering this personal dynamic as I become more of aware of how it has a tendency to silently run me.

Anyway, back to Hoppie Groenewald’s advice… in the story, Peekay is given a shilling by his Grandfather with the specific instruction that it is only to be used in an emergency.  Hoppie Groenewald is the train conductor who befriends Peekay.  He is also a renowned boxer and he suggests to Peekay to bet on his fight that night.  Peekay ultimately decides “not to play it safe” and puts all of Grandpa’s money on Hoppie…. (and, FYI, he ultimately wins big).

Where is this all going?? Still reeling from the effects of the “African meteorite”, we returned home and immediately began researching Africa Safari Trip #2 for 2010.  I threw all my fiscal caution to the wind and told myself we would figure out a way to afford a two-week safari – at the time I felt incredibly irresponsible… but exploring Africa’s wildlife became “my emergency”.  Thank goodness for Evan who has an amazing way of looking at the world and its boundless possibilities.  Evan plays the role of “Hoppie Groenewald” perfectly.

Evan at Duba doing what he loves

Evan at Duba doing what he loves

He had given me the power of one, one idea, one heart, one mind, one plan, one determination”. – Peekay.

On our second trip we returned to Mala Mala  for a week with our guide, Dean Wraith.  The following week marked our first foray into Botswana and the Okavango Delta.  We traveled first to Duba Plains (owned by Great Plains Conservation and Dereck and Beverly Joubert).  We had the camp to ourselves for the first three nights but on the fourth night shared it with a group of South Africans.  The next morning we went out in two game vehicles, Evan and I in one and the South Africans in another.  Evan took a picture of a large male lion, the leader of two prides, standing next to the truck filled with the South African guests.  Known as “the Prime Minister”, he was towering and mighty.  We followed him that morning until he single-handedly made a kill of a female Cape Buffalo (no small feat).  The reason for all this background is that picture of the Prime Minister was what got the wheels in motion for everything that we are doing today.

Photography by Evan Schiller

The Prime Minister of Duba
Photography by Evan Schiller

Fast-forwarding through the details, Evan had the opportunity to meet Dereck and Beverly Joubert a few months later at the La Jolla, California premier of their movie, The Last Lions, shot, not coincidentally at Duba Plains.  It was at this meeting he learned about the dire situation faced by the African Big Cats and the real threat of extinction.  He vowed to make a difference with his photography.  He enrolled me in his plan and we have been moving forward ever since – his photography, my writing and our voices taking a stand for the Big Cats.

“PS, Say always to yourself, first with the head and then with the heart, that’s how a man stays ahead from the start”. – Hoppie Groenewald

Read the book, get inspired, take a stand, and help us save the planet.

The majestic Prime Minister
Photography by Evan Schiller