The ALERT (African Lion and Environmental Research Trust) team recently travelled back to the wilds of Mana Pools National Park to join the Wildlife & Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ) group for the annual game count.
Every year some 200+ volunteers meet at Nyampei camp along the banks of the Zambezi River to split into teams and venture out along transects divided over the 45km2 floodplain of Mana Pools. The aim of these 2-6km long transects are to count all mammals and birds sighted and provide WEZ with yearly information on populations.
What is unique and so alluring about Mana Pools is that transects are done on foot and so one can truly find themselves immersed in one of Africa’s last true wildernesses.
The ALERT team arrived with a horde of camping equipment on the 13th of September, battling the blistering heat and tsetse flies. After setting up camp and catching up with fellow game counters an early night’s rest was needed.
Slumber under the dazzling moonlight was soon interrupted however after an inquisitive hyena stole another camper’s cooler bag and toilet paper… the bag and toilet paper were retrieved but the contents of the bag unfortunately did not make it.
Walks began early on the 14th and were dominated by visuals of elephants lolling their way to the river through the dappled golden sunlight of their favourite apple-ring acacia trees (Faidherbia albida).
En route back to camp for breakfast the keen eyes of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) scouts joining the team spotted a sub adult lioness trotting through some thick jesse bush. Shoelaces were retied and water bottles grabbed quickly as the team followed the scouts into the bush for a better visual. Three sub adults were spotted – a female and two males, presumably spending the morning away from their natal Mucheni pride that had been spotted on another nearby transect early in the day.
In between the morning and afternoon walks the ALERT team ventured back out into the park for more wildlife spotting and a refreshing dip in the Zambezi to cool off from the +40°C heat. The team were lucky enough to spot a well known ‘big-tusker’ fondly called ‘Curly’ and another elephant chum enjoy some acacia pods by stretching onto their hind legs; behavior famous amongst the elephants of Mana.
That night the team eagerly set up a camera trap in hopes of catching a glimpse of the previous evenings offending hyena. When morning came the footage was quickly browsed through over coffee revealing stills of a shadowy hyena and a curious cow elephant. The team had been kept awake for most of the night by the chorus of howling hyena and shrieking zebra giving rise to suspicions of a kill.
After the second day’s morning count word soon spread through camp that a buffalo kill had in fact been located c. 1km from camp being guarded by two adult male lions. With the ALERT research vehicle the team headed straight to the scene and were pleasantly surprised to recognize the two lions from a mid morning excursion on last years’ trip.
The coalition are thought to be the ruling males of the Mucheni pride but with no sign of any lionesses it appeared the two boys had thrown the ‘lazy male lion’ rule book out of the window and sourced dinner themselves!
One member of the ALERT team stayed with the males the entire afternoon watching them struggle with full bellies to keep cool before quenching their thirst from a nearby stream. Once night began to fall the vehicle headed back to camp and the team decided to try and strategically place their camera trap where the lions just might pass by close to camp.
The following morning coffee was spat and spluttered as the team’s luck had paid off. After a lumbering hippo had posed for some images the two lions were snapped slowing making their way past the team’s camp back to their pride.
38 different lions were located over the 48hour count; all of different ages and genders suggesting there is a healthy and growing population on the floodplain.
Mana Pools National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and holds a special place in many visitors’ hearts. Unfortunately the area is under threat. Fortunately many are working to combat these insidious threats including WEZ and the Save Mana Pools group.
It is crucial efforts like the annual game count are continued to ensure wildlife populations are monitored closely and therefore conserved effectively. ALERT would like to thank WEZ for inviting them once again to assist with the count and look forward to next year.
Whilst staying at Nyampei camp the ALERT team was taken to the newly built Mana Pools community hall and medical clinic funded by the Australian Embassy of Harare and the Tashinga Initiative. On hearing news about the new pre-school group starting at the hall ALERT and Antelope Park donated bags full of pre school goodies and look forward to supporting this project further in the future.