It’s a funny thing… when we’re on the ocean we crave the bush, and when we’re in the bush we crave the ocean! I guess our two great passions for the sea and the land are in constant competition with each other and this creates opportunity for many adventures!
So, this past October at the end of our 2015 shark season, Chris & I got all our camping kit together and loaded our 4x4 for a month long trip to Zimbabwe. This was to be our third visit to Zim and would take us on a route of 8,500 kilometres, the entire length of 3 countries’ national roads as well as many dusty gravel roads.
We have found ourselves drawn to a particularly special place that is Mana Pools National Park, located in The Zambezi Valley in Northern Zimbabwe. What makes Mana Pools a standout wildlife destination is that walking in the bush and amongst the wildlife is permitted. This creates a completely unique and highly intimate experience of wildlife observation and gives fantastic photographic opportunities.
These opportunities are coupled with an incredibly beautiful area of which the highlight is an amazing assortment of massively old Acacia, Fig and Mahogany trees. The tree canopy is nearly perfectly manicured to an exact level as browsed by eland, kudu and elephant creating deep corridors for breath taking scenes.
Victoria Falls & Hwange National Park
Before making our way up to Mana Pools we stopped at one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls, as well as Hwange National Park.
October is at the end of the dry season but even so The Falls, otherwise known as Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders) was extremely impressive as we stood gazing at her immense power and appreciating her cool expansive spray in the close to 40 degree heat.
Hwange National Park is famous for very high concentrations of elephants and again being here at the peak of the dry season means there is a chance to see multiple herds of elephants gathering together at the water holes. We spent the late afternoons at one particular waterhole that seemed the most popular. The park had very few visitors, we are guessing this was due to the heat, and as such it was just ourselves and our travel companions that got to experience no less than 300 elephants coming to drink in a 3 hour period.
One actually needs to sit back and think about that number…that is a huge number of elephant in one small area! The politics were extremely interesting to observe. I don’t know a huge amount about elephant social dynamics but it appeared that some herds were more dominant than others. Two or three herds would drink together whilst other herds patiently waited their turn off to the side of the waterhole. I was fascinated by one particular small herd that had been waiting a very long time. They all quietly stood there in their little group with no herd member wondering off. The other herds around them would go in for a drink as a herd would move off and make way, but still this little group stood patiently waiting.
The waterhole was very open and this gave us good observation of any new herds approaching the waterhole. In the distance we saw a herd of about 50 elephant fast approaching. As they stormed in all the other herds gave way to them. It was quite obvious that they must have been the powerhouse on the block to arrive and immediately gain access to the water. And in the background the small little herd maintained their patient wait with no argument at all… I am pleased to say that they did finally get their turn and managed to enjoy a much deserved drink!
Mana Pools National Park
After overnighting between Hwange and Mana Pools in order to catch the Rugby World Cup semi-finals between South Africa and New Zealand, we needed a wild dog sighting to pick us up after the South African defeat!
When it comes to wild dog sightings Mana Pools is one of the very best parks in Africa, and this is another very good reason for Chris & I to spend so much time here. We were not to be disappointed. In 12 days we encountered them a total of 17 times…
There are so many experiences I could write about and share with you but there were a few definite highlights.
Morning Bush Walks with the Dogs
When a pack of wild dogs comes into an area there is a science as to how to make the most of the sightings for the following days. We had very good luck to arrive in Mana with a pack of 24 wild dogs in the greater area, but the misfortune that our arrival coincided with full moon. Although wild dogs are known to hunt at night using the full moon we didn’t know to what extent they did in Mana Pools. It turned out quite a lot, which meant late afternoons were for sleeping and resting, rather than hunting!
Under normal conditions the dogs will hunt in the almost predawn light followed by eating, playing, drinking and then settling down under the shade of a big tree before the heat of the day kicks in. It’s normally very difficult to find them before sunrise so you hope that you can pick up on them either drinking or moving to their resting spot.
Once you have them located in the morning they won’t move far during the day and this gives one a good opportunity of finding them for the late afternoon hunt.
As we discovered, the full moon almost completely changed their behaviour and although we saw the dogs during our first few days it was almost always as they were laid up, and not doing too much.
As the moon began to wane the dogs became more active and we got to see a number of incredible hunts just as the sun was setting.
Wild dogs are right up there with being one of my favourite animals. It’s incredible to watch how they work as a team. Everything they do is for the benefit of the pack which is quite the opposite of lions. The pups are the primary concern and as such they are extremely well looked after. This is to ensure that the pack continues for generations.
They have baby sitters for when the rest of the pack goes off hunting and they are always the first to feed at a kill.
When the dogs go off hunting, the pack will break up as each hunting dog goes on its own mission. Something that always astounds me is that if a single or a couple dogs make a kill, they may initially eat a small amount but very shortly after this, they go in search of the rest of the pack so they too can share in the kill.
They are extremely social animals and it is a great joy to watch the puppies playing together as well as with the adult dogs. The puppies will take a nap, wake up and beg for food from the adults who obligingly regurgitate.
So, with all this interaction between pack members, for me they are simply the best terrestrial animals to spend time with.
We were fortunate enough to find them a couple of times in the early morning (albeit after a hunt) which transpired into walks in the bush with them that were just magical. We were able to find them of our own accord by tracking their spoor and watching prey behaviour which meant we had a number of hours with them on our own which is always a privilege.
When walking with the dogs in the bush you need to be ready for a flexible route. They’ll start in one direction and then something will make them change their minds, sometimes doubling back on themselves. Some dogs will sprint off as others stay behind to play and a short while later they’ll all merge back together again. They’ll stop and rest for 10 minutes and then decide that no, they are not quite ready for that yet, and the whole pack would be off again.
All the while we would be trying to keep up with them whilst at the same time carrying heavy photographic gear, and with the temperature constantly climbing… it was quite a challenge for me!
Eventually they will settle down in the shade of a big tree and they will allow you to sit close to them. I love this experience of watching a tail flick here and there; a couple of dogs nuzzling up to one another and a little bit of misbehaviour between the pups. 60 to 80 meters is normally a comfortable distance but the dogs will be very clear about letting you know if you get to close. One short, sharp and clear warning bark will be given and is of course quickly obeyed.
Needless to say, these walks and spending quiet time with them was an absolute highlight but of course, being passionate about predators always comes with a price. You need to face up to what they need to do to survive and sometimes it can be quite traumatic.
Wild Dog Baboon Hunt
Mana Pools is well known for the Nyankasanka Wild Dog pack hunting baboons. This hunting behaviour is not seen very often and to be honest it wasn’t an event I was particularly keen on witnessing. Since it was the Nyankasank pack we were spending time with, it was bound to happen. If you are a sensitive reader I suggest you don’t read this next description. It is however very interesting behaviour and I feel I need to share it.
We had just spent a beautiful late afternoon with the dogs on the floodplains of the Zambezi River. The soft light was glorious and the floodplain was teeming with herds of impala, water buck, zebra and herds of elephant. We had found the dogs laid up in the roots of a large tree and close to a drinking pool.
As the late afternoon sun began to dip we followed them as they moved along a river gulley and up along the ridge as they emerged in and out of the tree line. Unfortunately dusk was approaching and we soon had to leave them to return to camp.
By the time we reached our cars, the pack had run in our direction firmly on the hunt. Before we knew what was happening we could make out dogs charging through the bush, dust flying everywhere and in hot pursuit of what we would soon find out to be baboons.
One of the local guides had stopped just in front us… he had come across 2 dogs that had just brought down a baboon.
The troupe of baboons had been caught completely by surprise and there was a huge amount of petrified shrieking going on as they attempted to run for cover. The wild dog pups could be heard making highly excited chittering amongst them and adult dogs were scattered everywhere around us as they chased baboons. The atmosphere was intense to say the least.
We drove a further 100 meters down the road into a more open area and what unfolded before our eyes was a most graphic event.
A young baboon had found himself in the middle of nowhere land. It was open ground and it had nowhere to take refuge as a dog came bursting through the bushes and spotted it. It was a foregone conclusion as the dog locked onto its prey and despite a number of side stepping moves by the baboon, the much faster dog was easily onto it.
The dog unfortunately was not able to kill the baboon instantly as they do impala so it could only hold onto it by its teeth until another dog came to assist in the kill. The young baboon was fighting so hard for its life in as raw a way as I have ever seen. The sound it was emitting was terrifying and tragic at the same time. It managed to escape a number of times but each time the dog would easily recapture it.
At this time a large adult male baboon starting running towards the dog and young baboon and I felt sure that it was about to chase the dog off. In fact I was desperately hoping that it would come to the rescue. We can only assume that the adult male did not dare put itself at risk as there was no rescue attempt at all.
Eventually a second dog arrived and together the 2 dogs began to pull the baboon apart whilst it was still alive. This was all happening just 50 meters in front of us and it was absolutely awful to watch and listen to. Even as I averted my eyes the noise left me in no doubt as to what was happening. In fact, taking in the horrific scene we couldn’t stand it any longer and purposely drove away.
At this time I looked up into the thicket and 3 three dogs had just caught another baboon. In the trees close by more shrieking could be heard as a fourth baboon had been caught.
It was absolute chaos and the baboons seemed to be clueless to the onslaught and how to defend themselves or escape. There were a number of trees close by and I still can’t understand why they didn’t run up them in order to avoid the dogs but I suppose this is the balance of nature.
I have witnessed so many predatory events, especially between sharks and seals, but if anything, it has made me softer in seeing things like this. I guess it’s because the hardest and worst thing for me to witness is an animal that is deathly terrified and afraid.
It’s interesting to know that the BBC had just spent the previous 11 months in Mana Pools trying to film an event like this, unsuccessfully. I suppose we were either lucky or unlucky that we found ourselves in the heart of the action. I am also reasonable enough to realise that this would not have been an isolated event. The dogs are deadly machines and baboons are something that they hunt on a regular basis in Mana Pools.
Generally with wild dog kills you come across kill events moments after it has happened so it’s never as graphic as this was. However, I think the event also affected us as much as it did because we are not desensitised to seeing a primate being hunted. Palms, arms, legs and heads are just too close to human beings.
I can honestly say that this is one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen and I have no wish to ever see it again.
Over the next few days we came across the dogs having killed baboons (but thankfully never the actual chase and kill) and still the baboons seemed defenceless against the dogs. They seemed unaware of the threat the dogs posed and the dogs took complete advantage.
The next encounter is not a graphic event so it’s safe to keep reading!
It’s about a hunting event we witnessed that shows how incredibly efficiently the pack works together. It was late afternoon but this time instead of sitting with them we decided to wait ahead of them to try and anticipate where a chase may possibly take place. Chris was spot on with the area he chose to wait and as we watched with our binoculars trained on the pack, they slowly made their way towards us. They shortly broke away from one another as each dog selected its own area of bush to flush. There were a number of impala and this time round they were the prey target.
Some interesting information about impala is that they will never issue a warning call when they spot a wild dog, they just start running. They know that their warning call will alert the dogs to their presence and quite frankly the best defence is to run out of the area undetected. Whilst springbok “pronk” to evade their hunters, impala “hobby horse”. This method allows them to cover a large amount of ground in just a few paces as well as reaching an impressive height as they propel themselves forward.
The two dogs that were heading in our direction zoned in on 2 impala that were just in front of them and in no time at all we witnessed the impala hobby horsing directly towards us, followed by the 2 dogs that were hurtling down the road just behind them.
My heart was pumping with adrenalin and this heightened my senses. The sound of the dogs running just 20 meters from us was akin to racehorses on a racetrack as they pounded past. In a blur all four disappeared into the bush.
A few minutes later we heard terrific trumpeting of an elephant and of course immediately went to investigate. The 2 dogs had just brought down one of the impala very close to an elephant mom and young calf. The female elephant had gone into protective mode and this was the source of the ear piercing noise. I was quite surprised to see that the dogs took little notice as they began to feed. The feeding consisted of only a few mouthfuls before pack mentality kicked in… the meal was to be shared.
The dogs broke off in two different directions in search of the others. The dog we followed came upon the pups and their baby sitters and on hearing the news that a kill had been made the pups went crazy with excitement. The reunited dogs gathered together in a tight circle, chittering together with tails wagging madly. If you haven’t spent time with wild dogs before you need to listen to a YouTube clip so that you can understand the level of excitement. Listen here.
The hunter then led these members to the kill site that was a few hundred meters down the road. The pups had just started to feed as the second hunter dog was returning. However, instead of continuing to feed, the pups and adults all broke away from the carcass to greet and welcome back the returning dog. It was such a joyous reunion and very touching to witness as they had only been away from one another for about 20 minutes; it looked as if it could have been a lifetime!
They then all returned to the kill to feed even though the full pack had not reunited (there were a few dogs still missing). By this stage it was getting close to the end of dusk and we needed to get back to camp. As we were preparing to leave we heard a contact call in the distance. (This is also well worth listening too – listen here. It’s a single sound that can travel at least 2 kilometres and enables pack members to locate one another.
Upon hearing the contact call all the dogs leapt up and immediately left the area in search of the others, no doubt to bring them back to feed.
That late afternoon encounter was such a perfect display of how a pack works together to ensure each member’s wellbeing and survival and was a privilege to witness.
Wild Dog Discipline
The final piece of behaviour I am going to share clearly depicts how well disciplined each member of the pack is and how well defined each dog’s role and duty is.
It was late afternoon and yet again the dogs were sleeping and drinking next to the same pool of water. Waiting ahead of the pack had worked so well the afternoon before we decided to take this chance again.
After drinking the pack set their route on the thicker bush away from the river. Our view became the emergence of the entire pack as they walked over the rise of the bank straight towards us. It was a phenomenal sight and quite breath-taking watching this many-parted-machine begin to kick into gear.
As I mentioned earlier each dog has a role to play. There is of course the Alpha male and female who are the breeders; there are the pup’s babysitters that take care of them before they are big enough to join in the hunts; and other dogs are the primary hunters. There also seems to be one dog in particular who will always lead and dictate where the pack should go and when they should begin moving. The command is very clear as the scene can change in an instant from frenetic playing and begging to the pack on the move, as was the case in this encounter.
Chris & I lay on the ground photographing the pack as they moved very close to us before carrying on their mission. One dog was particularly curious of Chris and gave him a close inspection! Once they had passed us, we drove further on to try get ahead of them once more.
Before I talk about the next scene I do want to note that there was a large herd of about 300 impala in the vicinity. We have the advantage of height and being able to see what is around us which the dogs do not have. As such they never picked up on the herd of impala. The Impala however were extremely wise. They had spotted the dogs and not one of them issued a single sound as they quietly and quickly moved out of the area…it was fascinating to watch.
We managed to get ahead of the dogs but as they often do there was a sudden change of direction that took them away from us and across a beautifully wide open piece of grassland.
We didn’t know it at the time but this was the last sighting of the dogs during our Mana Pools visit as they began moving out of the area they had “worked” the last week and relocating to a “fresh” area.
The puppies must have been told to keep quiet and keep in line, and they obeyed to an absolute tee as the baby sitters carefully monitored them. The vitally important lead dog proudly trotted at the front of the pack, each member staying in place, no sounds made and complete discipline kept. I will close my eyes and forever remember this sight of the pack as they slowly moved in almost single file across the grassland… 24 dogs strung out in a tightly held line…wow, what a memory!
Click here for Zimbabwe Trip: Part 2