Hippo spotting in Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe (Scott Kinmartin)
Article Words : Lyn Hughes | 13 February

Wildlife spotting in Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe

Elephants, rhinos, leopards, fish eagles - all unforgettable beasts in unimaginable abundance. That's Zimbabwe says Lyn Hughes

It had been a long and very dusty day. I needed that shower. Just as I was lathering up, I heard a shriek from the adjoining room. “The water’s stopped!” came the cry, and sure enough, within seconds, my gushing shower became a pathetic dribble. Ensconced in towels I sat with my equally soapy, sticky neighbour and patiently awaited the verdict. “Hippo,” came the message. “Trod on the tank!”

Yes, the hippos at Sanyati, on Lake Kariba, certainly have a reputation for being troublesome. We were introduced to an enthusiastic little terrier, named Woof number 3. “Woofs 1 and 2 got killed by the hippos,” we were told. A photograph on the wall in the restaurant shows another close encounter between canine and hippo – which we were pleased to hear did not end so tragically.

But if the dogs have to watch out for river-dwelling menaces, then other domestic animals have their own problems. “I take my dog everywhere,” said the lady transferring us from the airport to an awaiting boat, “Ever since a leopard ate my two cats.”

Leopards are notoriously difficult to see, preferring the seclusion of trees and rocky outcrops, such as the magnificent balancing rocks of Matobo National Park. This is prime leopard country, whose scenery has haunted me ever since my first visit several years ago. The history of the area is almost palpable and the rock formations, cave paintings and magnificent views all combine to exert a powerful fascination.

This time, the leopards remained elusive, though we did see plenty of their favourite prey – klipspringers (the antelope equivalent of a mountain goat), and dassies, also known as rock hyrax, (the rat-sized relative of the elephant).

Rhino refuge

Matobo is also one of the best places in Africa to see sable antelope and black eagles. But most significantly, it is the home to heavily-guarded herds of both white and black rhino.

Talking to Janet, a rhino researcher, the enormity of the task of protecting the rhino came home. Janet had worked for a couple of years at Zimbabwe’s largest national park, Hwange, and had watched the population drastically reduce due to poaching.

At Matobo, it was easier to confine and protect the rhinos and, to everybody’s delight, nine baby rhinos had been born in 1994. But there’s no room for complacency even there – as Janet had said, “The rhinos need all the friends that they can get."

Elephant conservation: a delicate balance

The prospects for the rhino looks bleak throughout Africa, but there is at least some cause for optimism for that other great African mammal, the elephant. Indeed, if one symbol epitomises the contrast between an East African safari and a similar excursion in Zimbabwe it is old big ears.

The open savannah of Kenya and Tanzania is certainly the place to see huge herds of plains animals, but if elephants are your bag, then Zim is your place. The country never did suffer from the devastating poaching that hit East Africa in the 70s and 80s, and in fact has resorted to culling in an effort to keep the numbers at a ‘manageable’ level. And here lies the issue at the heart of Zimbabwean conservation, one that arouses the greatest passion and the cause of many a heated debate around the dinner table.

It may seem, in view of Zimbabwe’s failed attempt to have the CITES ban on trading in elephant products overturned, that elephants have become just another harvestable resource in Southern Africa. But the elephants have a champion in the form of Alan Elliott – one-time professional hunter and now a staunch supporter of elephant rights.

Hunter turned protector

Based on the Hwange Estate, just outside Hwange National Park, Alan has devoted over 20 years to a single herd of elephants. During that time it has grown from a handful of frightened individuals to a healthy group of over 300. Concerned for their future, Alan approached President Mugabe to grant protection and they are now known as ‘The Presidential Herd’.

To Alan they demonstrate how elephants should be treated and living proof of his controversial views on their conservation. He believes that left alone, elephants will manage their own numbers, and whilst many regard large numbers of elephants as being destructive to the environment, Alan does not share this view.

 

In the opposite corner to Alan, but also claiming to have the elephants’ best interests at heart, are scores of other guides, conservationists and scientists. The majority argue that, unlike East Africa, they have never had a serious poaching problem and so they have to manage elephant numbers. ‘Manage’ typically being a euphemism for culling. But culling, as well as being contentious, is expensive, requiring a large team of experienced hunters that can take out a complete ‘family’ group as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Zimbabwe argues that to fund this activity, and indeed to fund the National Parks, they should be allowed to sell elephant by-products, such as elephant meat and skin, if not in ivory.

“We have to put a value on elephants, make them a resource”, said one experienced guide, Nick. “That way we can raise money for managing them. Lack of money means that most of the pumps at the water holes in Hwange National Park are not being maintained. In one area only 3 out of 8 are working.” Elliott counters, “I believe that elephants are worth far more alive than dead – tourists come here just to see them.”

“What’s better,” asked another elephant-lover, “10,000 starving elephants or, having carried out a cull, 8,000 fit and healthy ones? Have you ever seen an elephant starve? It’s a terrible sight.” Yet Elliott refutes this opinion, “Elephants are destined to die from malnutrition from the day that they are born because their molars eventually wear out and they can’t digest their food properly and die. People in East Africa will tell you that it is a dignified way to die; they have their family around them and they comfort each other.

“The scientists say the elephants have to be culled and they should know what they’re talking about,” said one guide. But do they? The message that I picked up is much less certain. Nobody really knows how many elephants there should be, or even how many there already are.

“I don’t believe we know how to count elephants yet,” claims Alan, “In fact it’s a very difficult thing to do. Some of the official figures for Hwange, where I live, are obviously way too high. In 1990 they said there were 32,000 elephants, but a a count three years later found only 22,000. So their statistics are wrong, their arguments are fraud, and I feel that the civil servants need to do their homework.” Alan is now funding his own research in the Hwange area – but freely admits that it will be many years before any conclusions can be reached.

It’s easy to understand Alan’s passion and commitment when you see where he lives. Shortly after arriving at one of his lodges, we set out in a jeep to Kanondo Pan, a nearby waterhole and mineral lick. To our delight there was a small group of ‘Presidential’ elephants there, including Skew Tusk, one of the elephants that Alan had first forged a relationship with when he arrived in the area all those years ago.

Having been spared the terror of culling and poaching, the Presidential Herd has little fear of humans, and in some cases are on even more intimate terms. Reaching into the back of the jeep, Alan took a handful of the Acacia pods that he always carries, and offered them in his open palm. With no hesitation the elephants took it in turns to unfurl their trunks and gently take the proffered treats. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the manners and gentleness of Alan’s friends.

Later that evening I quizzed Alan over a drink, but after a while he got frustrated at the questions and taking my arm, led me out into the night. We stood quietly, my eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness, and watched the activity at the nearby waterhole.

“Just look at those elephants,” he whispered. “People ask why I want to save them – they should come out here and see for themselves.”

Unique encounters

Encounters with elephants come in many forms in Zimbabwe, every one of them special. A few days after the intimate meeting with members of the Presidential Herd, came an unexpected encounter on a quite different scale, on the banks of the Zambezi.

Staying in a small lodge a couple of hours away from Victoria Falls, we headed out on a late afternoon game drive with no great expectations, just happy to be out in the bush as the evening light turned the yellow grass to a burnished gold. Suddenly, as the sun touched the horizon, a large dark shape loomed on the track ahead. A very large dark shape.

The jeep edged slowly forwards and the engine was switched off. As we sat quietly another elephant appeared. And then another and another. Within a few minutes there were dozens on either side of the track, about 90 in all. “The biggest herd that I’ve ever seen here”, said Richard, our guide, as they moved almost silently by. It was pleasing to see the enthusiasm in someone who meets elephants on a daily basis. For me, there was nothing quite like the spine-tingling thrill of being so close to these massive, intelligent animals.

Zimbabwe tingled my spine on many occasions

 

It’s a beautiful country with a quite special array of wildlife, and offers a variety of low-impact, small-group options. Transportation around the national parks is in open jeeps, typically holding no more than half a dozen people. Escorted bush walks are allowed in most of the parks and reserves, and although you see less game you do get a chance to feel part of the bush and take a look at the smaller things that otherwise you may miss; the ants, dung beetles, hippo droppings...

For the rather more adventurous a three- to seven-day canoe and camping trip along the Zambezi offers quite different views of wildlife. And for those preferring more comfort, safari lodges and camps in Zimbabwe concentrate on quality, rather than quantity, and the experience tends to be a personalised if expensive one.

Not that the traveller on a more limited budget is necessarily excluded as National Parks frequently have lodges and campsites at more reasonable rates. But for those wanting exclusivity, relatively luxurious lodges and camps are popping up on private land often bordering national parks. All have limited capacity – some taking as few as 6 or 12 visitors at a time, and often with a 1 to 1, staff to guest, ratio. Many of these are owner-managed and meals are often taken together, at a communal table.

Even in these upmarket lodges one certainly feels close to nature as the accommodation tends to consist of individual cabins or chalets, often rustic in style. In Kanondo, outside Hwange National Park, we even stayed in tree houses. Walking back to your room at night can be a rather daunting experience when you can see large shapes lurking in the dark, or hear peculiar sounds on the path ahead. The openness of the accommodation can have other disadvantages as I found back at Sanyati on Lake Kariba, where a vervet monkey appeared early one day and tried to relieve me of my breakfast.

That same morning, after a welcome shot of caffeine, it was time to head out for an boat trip into the Sanyati Gorge. For 20 minutes or so we whizzed along, huddled into our jumpers because of the unexpected chill, waking up large troupe of baboons, snoozing on the rocky bank.

Eventually, our guide Neels pulled the boat into a side channel and stopped the engine. Suddenly all was quiet and we sat thawing out in the growing warmth of the early morning sun. Neels looked around and with no explanation started making a loud, rasping “cah, cah” sound. “Here he comes!” he said, looking back towards the main gorge.

It took a minute or two to spot the huge black, tan and white fish eagle swooping in. Settling in a bare tree on the nearby bank it arrogantly surveyed us as we squinted back through our binoculars. Reaching into the bottom of the boat Neels pulled out a fillet of fish and threw it into the water. A minute passed. And another. And another. Eventually, almost languidly, the eagle condescended to leave its perch and scooped up the fish in its talons.

Unforgettable reverie

The vision of the fish eagle joined the many other memorable images I was to take from Zimbabwe. But after all the spectacular encounters with wildlife, it is one final morning aboard a canopied boat on Lake Kariba that sticks most in the mind.

With the engine turned off we watched a group of glossy but truculent buffalo, as the gentlest of breezes caressed our skin. Drugged by the tranquillity and the intensity of the colours around us, we soon fell into a deep reverie. “It’s the sky that I miss,” one former resident had said to me and I could see what he meant as its sheer immensity struck me that morning. The water was an even more vivid blue and full of ghostly trees, gradually petrifying, reminding us that the lake is in fact a dam.

On shore, the earth was a burnished red-ochre, with lush green vegetation at the water’s edge. A lone waterbuck stag disappeared over the horizon just as a family group of a dozen or so elephants came down to the water’s edge to drink and bathe. Cattle egrets darted around, one narrowly missing the stamping foot of an elephant, and a pair of glorious carmine bee-eaters, a gaudy, dazzling crimson perched on a nearby log. As my ears tuned in to what seemed such a quiet scene I became aware of the quiet lapping of the water, a squelch as a baby elephant struggled out of the mud, the soft sound of giant ears flapping.

“Imagine the landscape without elephants,” Alan Elliott had commented. On that still, sublime, Zimbabwe morning I simply couldn’t.