Read Part 1 here.
Part 2: Wild Dogs!
Towards the end part of our stay it became impossible to stay away from the wild dogs; in fact we kept bumping into them!
We also discovered that two of the cameramen on the film crew team were cameramen that we had worked with in Planet Earth Shallow Seas and The Perfect Predator. It was quite strange to be so far removed from Seal Island and yet bump into people that we have worked with there. The wildlife world certainly is a small one!
I also have to say that despite our initial hesitation at the presence of a film crew they were in fact very obliging to the visitors in the park. We definitely did not have the same intimate, exclusive feel we are used to with the dogs but due to the 24 hour presence of the film crew it meant we always knew where the dogs were. This meant we got to see more hunts in the early mornings than what we have seen in the past. In years gone by it was fairly tricky to find the dogs in the mornings, and thus it meant that most of the hunting behaviour we had seen was in the late afternoon/early evening.
The film crew also made some pretty phenomenal observations. The most interesting and surprising to me was what the dogs were up to at night.
We had made the mistake of booking over a full moon period back in 2015 and as the dogs hunt at night we had seen no hunting behaviour over that period. This year we booked over new moon and thought we had been smart in doing so!
It turns out that the Nyakasanka Pack that the film crew were trailing were hunting every night regardless of the moon phase.
The Nyakasanka Pack is the famous wild dog pack from Mana Pools that hunts baboons. They are said to be the first pack on the planet that has leant to do this. We experienced a baboon hunt first hand last year and although I do not want to see something like this again, it certainly was memorable.
In the past year the pack has split into two and as such there are now two baboon hunting wild dog packs in Mana Pools. It is the story of these two packs that The BBC are filming as part of a new upcoming series called Dynasties.
Whilst under 24 hour surveillance it began to emerge that if the Nyakasanka Pack wasn’t successful in the early evening, or only had a small meal they would continue to hunt late into the night. Most nights they would hunt well after the sun went down and were even recorded hunting as late as 10pm. This took place even in new moon conditions. New moon means there would have been no light from the moon and it is fascinating to know that the dogs were able to be so successful even in these difficult conditions.
Wild dogs are well known to hunt under a full moon but as far as I know this predatory behaviour over new moon had not been observed before.
The Dogs are not only night owls, but seem to be very early risers as well. Apparently most mornings they would begin to wake up between 4.15 and 4.30am and shortly after this would go on their first hunt for the day. Often times they would be successful long before the sun popped its head over the horizon and thus in pretty dark conditions.
Our wild-dog-night-experience is pretty special. Three nights before we were due to leave we were sitting in our camp with a fellow photographer and friend enjoying an ice cold beer around the fire. Whilst we sat reminiscing about our afternoon with the dogs and wondering where they could be right then, we all turned as we heard the familiar and classic high pitch squeaks of the dogs’ right behind us.
In the pitch dark a dog had killed an impala about 60 meters from our tents. We hadn’t even heard a thing! It was only the returning pack coming to feast and their excitement that had alerted us to the situation. The film crew had lost them in the dark so we were able to contact them and let them know about the dogs’ whereabouts and for the next two hours the five of us had the privilege of watching them feed and having the dogs in our camp.
It really was an unforgettable sighting and I fell asleep content to be sharing our space with some extra special canine friends!
Some Amazing Hunts
Time in the field definitely increases your chances of seeing amazing behaviour and having epic encounters with wildlife, but I know that we were just truly lucky that over the 8 night period we camped at Mucheni the wild dogs used a 10 kilometer radius around our camp for both hunting and resting.
Wild dogs have large territories so it is unusual for them to spend this much time in one small area. There are probably a few factors that contributed to this. The first being a tragic event which I will get to later, and the other being the presence of lions both to the east and the west of the dogs. As such they were in a way caught in the middle and kept being pushed back into our small area.
Not only did we have the dogs make a kill inside our camp but most days they would lie up and sleep during the day within 1 or 2 kilometers of our tent. Now you know why we could not avoid them!
We didn’t see any hunts in the late afternoons but we did get to sit with them and enjoy their wakeup rituals of playing, pups begging for food and my favourite of all, the high pitched squealing of excitement before setting off on a hunt. We also had some postcard perfect sunset moments complete with the dust kicking up all around the dogs, absolutely beautiful scenes…
The mornings however were all about action.
We would wake up and after hastily getting into the car we would normally find the film crew, plus the dogs within a few hundred meters of camp. The area around us was also perfect for watching a wild dog/impala hunt as it was extremely open with little vegetation and this served to create perfect areas from which to sit, watch and wait.
The impala were prolific and it was never too long before the dogs got wind of them. There would also be little pockets of herds and if one herd was chased and had managed to escape it was just a matter of time before a new herd was targeted.
There were two events that stand out as the most spectacular we have ever seen, and took place one morning after the other.
On the first morning we were waiting in the open area when the dogs began to hunt. A wild dog hunt can only be described as complete and utter chaos. One might think the dogs hunt as a well organised pack but here it is about 8 to 12 different dogs running off in every direction, impalas fleeing everywhere trying to escape and of course in the heightened atmosphere you simply do not know where to look!
On the first morning the problem was solved for us when an impala that had just avoided one dog made a fatal error and turned back towards another dog. Her desperate escape route was to run head on towards us and by this time three dogs had now targeted her.
The speed at which all this happens is impossible to adequately describe on paper… you are going to have to wait until the documentary comes out.
She soon came flying past us with the three dogs impossibly close behind her.
She saw the perceived safety of the Zambezi River below and dove in.
Of course the inevitable happened… the entry splash immediately attracted the attention of a ginormous crocodile and the dogs’ loss now became the patience reptilian predator’s gain.
I couldn’t watch but I know that the end fortunately came quickly.
The next morning it was exactly the same scene. Impalas scattered everywhere in their panic to avoid being caught and as we stood and surveyed the scene in front of us it was just dust, dogs and complete mayhem. The agility and speed displayed by both predator and prey was incredible.
The impalas are especially impressive as they seem to effortlessly fly through the air as they employ the hobby-horse method (a to-and-fro rocking motion) of gaining ground from the dogs. The height that some of them reach while hobby-horsing is just astounding.
We had another impala run straight towards us and two dogs right behind her. This time the impala escaped. But, a bit further away another dog had success only for an adult male lion to run out from the cover of tree line and steal the kill.
The drama was just off the scale for us, but for the dogs, impala and lion this was an everyday fight for survival.
A Tragic Event
When you immerse yourself in wildlife it is inevitable that you are not only going to see the beautiful scenes and exciting behaviour, you are also putting yourself out to see things that you really wouldn’t choose to witness.
Last year in Mana Pools a particularly graphic baboon hunt was one such moment and I didn’t think I could see something that was as disturbing as that was. I was wrong however and all I can say after thinking about the events that conspired is that it was just this dog’s day to go.
The Nyakasanka Pack had spent the day resting in a lovely shady area and towards late afternoon the pack roused and it was time for a drink.
Their normal drinking spot in this area was a little inlet from the Zambezi River and the shallow floodplain provided a safe place for the dogs to drink.
To the dogs dismay they arrived on the scene to find a pride of four lions at their preferred spot. Lions can be lethal and given the opportunity they will kill wild dogs, especially the inexperienced pups. As soon as the dogs saw the imminent danger they beat a hasty retreat.
Now, coupled with being extremely thirsty and having to run a further 2 kilometers to the next possible water source, they were also stressed from the lion encounter.
Chris anticipated that they really only had one other option at which to drink and we left the dogs so that we could set up and wait to watch them drink from a good vantage point.
From then onwards it all happened very quickly…
The dogs raced down the steep embankment of the pool and rushed in to drink.
Unbeknown to us a large crocodile was lying in wait up an impossibly small finger of water. It was so shallow and the gap so tiny I still have no idea how this croc had manged to get himself into this position.
One of the adult dogs was the first to bend down and drink and in a movement so fast if you blinked you would have missed it, the croc launched out of the water and managed to just snag one of the dogs leg.
From that moment on the dog’s fate was sealed and as much as it fought and struggled there was no chance of getting away.
Both Chris & I were so shocked and as we looked at one another we just moaned in disbelief.
Wild dog populations are currently in such a precarious position and as such I feel each individual dog is important. Did a crocodile really have to take one?
Chris & I couldn’t watch and we left before it was all over. It was taking a long time and both of us were really distraught at the sight in front of us. The whole pack had gathered tightly around the pool and some had even waded into the water in a desperate attempt to help. Their behaviour and the sounds they were making left us in no doubt as to their panic and what I can only equate to horror and grief.
It was terribly disturbing and I still feel very emotional about it as I sit writing a couple of months later.
Days later we sat at that same pool and that same crocodile made use of that same tiny finger of water as it lay in wait for its prey. At one time it was surrounded by a small herd of impala that were all completely unaware of the extreme danger.
It really makes me question why the croc had gone for the dog and yet choose not to go for the impala.
It was a tragically sad day indeed.
Chris did photograph the initial event but to date I have not looked at them and I wouldn’t feel right about posting such upsetting images.
Mana Pools, What A Place
But this is what Mana Pools does to you…
When you visit you are subjected to experiences on such an intimate and emotional level.
The exciting moments are heightened to a level I can only compare to Seal Island, and the tough things one sees have equally the same lows.
Where else in the world can you walk in the bush at your own risk and come back to your tent three times over a two week period with lions in camp, and have wild dogs feed on an impala 60 meters from your tent.
Elephants are every day visitors in camp and if you take the time you will get to know them on an individual basis.
You have the chance of seeing behaviour here like nowhere else on earth. And this is why we have already booked again for 2017.
Mana Pools…there is no other place quite like it!
The Wildlife in the Zambezi Valley Needs Your Help
I have briefly written about our fantastic experiences in Mana Pools but what I haven’t written about is the terrible poaching situation that is currently taking place in the Zambezi Valley.
It is a desperate situation and a number of extremely dedicated people are fighting with everything they have to curb the situation and save the wildlife here.
As this time of year is a time for giving I urge you to consider helping a number of very important causes. If you are interested in helping please consider The Zambezi Elephant Fund (ZEF). Chris & I have made a number of donations in our personal capacity as we can see the positive results ZEF is achieving.
This wildlife is worth fighting for, and as an individual you can make a difference.
Read about the parks visited earlier in this trip here:
Etosha National Park
Hwange National Park
Gonarezhou National Park