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Kwando Sightings Report - January

 

Kwara Concession

Lions in Kwara Concession

The first day of January and we began with a great sighting of the four big lions – the “Zulu Boys” - resting under a candle pod acacia. About five kilometers away, there were another two males, also resting up. On the same day, we also saw three cheetah hunting and killing a baby common reedbuck. A hyena was watching the events unfold from nearby, and stole the kill from the cheetah.

The same lions and cheetahs were seen over the next few days, as well as a leopardess with her very young cub – last month she had a den site close to the boat station, and this month she moved the den a little further to the west. The mother and the cub are extremely relaxed, and we were able to have wonderful sightings of them, with the cub often playing about near his mum. 

The Kwara concession is known for its good sightings of predators, including lions, wild dogs, leopards and cheetahs. However, on the 7th of January, one type of predator ruled the day: cheetahs. There were three separate sightings of cheetahs on the same day: A female with a sub adult male, another female with her two sub-adult cubs, and a solitary male. The two small families were resting up in an area fairly close to each other, whilst the male, in a different area, was feeding on a warthog.

Not so many sightings of wild dogs this month – but our most regular pack has had some individual members disperse, leaving a total of eight in the pack. They were seen a few times, including near the Bat Eared Fox den.

A youngish elephant was killed by five lions along the Machaba East road. Quite an amazing sighting. The lions fed on it for two days and then moved off, allowing the many vultures that had been waiting fairly patiently in the background, quickly arriving to squabble and hiss over what remained.

Unusually for this time of year, it is quite dry… this means a lot of game is attracted to the remaining waterways and lagoons, and with hardly any long grass, predators are still easy to see. The elephant herds are still around, and there are big groups of water birds feeding at the ‘fish pools’ – the waterholes that are slowly drying out.

 

Lagoon Camp

Lagoon Elephants

Early January, and the lions were on the move: apart from a single female that was seen a few times throughout the week, the other lions had headed west, following the large herd of buffalo that moved in that direction. In their absence, the intruder males came into the Lagoon area, and started to make themselves at home. The male lions were seen several times, and seem to have focused on killing warthogs at the moment. Towards the end of the month, the lions were on the move again – walking as much as 32 kilometers in one night!

The wild dogs still frequent the area, but the pack of 23 has split. This is a normal part of the social system of wild dogs, and allows for more junior dogs to start their own packs, becoming alpha male and female, or joining up with other dogs and diversifying the gene pool. The remaining pack began with 14 (9 adults and 5 puppies) and then reduced again to 11. They could hunt more than enough on their own, with their main prey being warthogs and young impalas.

At the beginning of the month, there were lots of breeding herds of elephants in the area, with young babies. As we finally started to get some rain during this month, the herds began to move off though the woodlands to the mopane scrub. Solitary bulls and bachelor herds remain, but the breeding herds will come back soon. Although the buffalo herds have dispersed from the main drive area, a large group remain in the valley to the west.

General game was very good, with giraffes, wildebest, impala, eland, and lots and lots of zebras. Bat eared foxes, jackals, and several types of mongoose were seen as well as caracals, african wildcats and porcupines on night game drive. 

And a great sighting one morning of a young honey badger, proudly scurrying along the road with a leopard tortoise in his mouth!

Lebala Camp

Wild Dogs at Lebala

Nature is harsh. And sometimes we don’t realize how harsh it is until we witness the events ourselves. As part of their safari, most guests are keen to see a kill. The guides know that for many, when confronted with the reality, seeing a kill will actually be very very traumatic.  Predator kills are rarely quick and clean cut.

Wild dogs, which have a reputation for being ‘cruel’ killers, as they don’tzkill their prey by suffocation, but by tearing it to pieces. However, they are very very fast, and the warthog was dead within a minute. Within 7 minutes, there is normally nothing left of the animal. Something to bear in mind when considering the larger predators hunting techniques…

Just a few days before, two males lions had cleverly managed to stalk an adult warthog, using a tree as cover to come up on it unawares. One male grabbed the neck and held it to suffocate it, but a warthog neck is very thick, and it takes a long time to suffocate… the other male could not wait, and begin eating from the back. Soon after, the first male couldn’t hold his hunger any longer, released the neck and began eating as well.  For seven minutes, all that could be heard was the screaming warthog, until it finally succumbed. Its one of the most distressing sounds that you can hear in the animal kingdom, and it chills you to the bone. Sadly, in nature, there’s not often happy endings…

The month continued to produce plenty of lion sightings including a male and female mating at the beginning of the month. Hopefully, more cubs are  on the way! We did happen upon two lion cubs along the BDF turnoff – no mother in sight, but lots of tracks around, so she must have hidden the cubs and gone off to hunt. We also regularly saw the four lionesses in the area, working together in their attempts to hunt.

The lionesses and the wild dogs met up at one point, when we were following the dogs hunting. They had not had any luck flushing game, but suddenly stopped and stared in one direction. Not too far away, were the four lionesses staring back at them. Both parties decided that it was easier to do nothing on this occasion, and they moved off without a confrontation.

General game was great, with big herds of elephants, lechwe, a herd of wildebeest almost permanently stationed in front of the camp, giraffe, lots of zebra, and of course the common impala.

Nxai Pan Camp

Nxai Pan Elephants

Elephants still abound, with the lack of consistent rain, they are frequenting the pumped waterholes to drink. One week in January produced the hottest temperatures that we have ever experienced in Botswana – reaching up to 46 degrees C (114.8 degrees F) in the shade! (It’s exceptionally rare for us to reach 40 degrees C (104 degrees F)…) Water pumps were running 24 hours a day to try and ensure that the game had access to sufficient water, as both four legged and two legged mammals took strain.

And sadly this year, due to the drought, the zebra migration has not yet arrived in Nxai Pan. January is usually the peak of the numbers for zebras, but this year they have failed to arrive. Whether they will arrive in February or March is solely dependent on whether good rains arrive.

The big pride of fourteen lions was found along West Road, hunting giraffe. They were unsuccessful on this occasion. Whilst the ladies were out hunting, two male lions rested up near one of the camp sites (luckily unoccupied at the time), looking pretty hungry. Had the pride managed to bring down a giraffe, no doubt the two males would have made a dash for a share of the meal. A few days later, the whole gang of sixteen was seen together.

We also came across the two sub-adult cheetahs – away from their mum for a change – attempting to hunt close to the South camping grounds. They hadn’t quite honed their skills well enough for a successful hunt; however, practice makes perfect.  The next day, the mother cheetah was found on her own near the Wildlife Camp.

Tau Pan Camp

Giraffe at Tau Pan

Tau Pan area is looking beautiful and green at the moment, after having some reasonable rains in January – more than other areas. This has attracted lots of general game to the area, to enjoy the good life. However, the taller grass and availability of water is making it harder to see the predators.

After more than six years of the Tau Pan pride of lions being firmly established in the area, they are becoming harder and harder to see as the intruders from the Passarge area attempt to take over the area. As a result, the Tau Pan Pride have changed the times that they visit the camp waterhole, sneaking down at night to drink and not vocalising, in order to not attract any unwanted attention from the intruders.

A lioness was seen with five cubs about 8 kilometers from Tau Pan camp. They were attempting to hunt, but were not successful whilst we were watching, though there was plenty of game in the area. All the lions’ stomachs looked very empty….

A leopard was seen at the aptly named Leopard Pan in the middle of the month. Two cheetahs were lying down at the pan on the edge. The male cheetah then crossed the pan and headed north, before lying down again under the large trees at the edge.

On an afternoon game drive back to camp one day, an aardwolf was also spotted, coming out for its night-time feed of termites. 

The first day of January and we began with a great sighting of the four big lions – the “Zulu Boys” - resting under a candle pod acacia. About five km away from there were another two males, also resting up. On the same day, we also saw three cheetah hunting and killing a baby reedbuck.  common reedbuck. A hyena was watching the events unfold from nearby, and stole the kill from the cheetah.

The same lions and cheetahs were seen over the next few days, as well as a leopardess with her very young cub – last month she had a den site close to the boat station, and this month she moved the den a little further to the west. The mother and the cub are extremely relaxed, and we were able to have wonderful sightings of them, with the cub often playing about near his mum. 

The Kwara concession is known for its good sightings of predators, including lions, wild dogs, leopards and cheetahs. However, on the 7th of January, one type of predator ruled the day: cheetahs. There were three separate sightings of cheetahs on the same day: A female with a sub adult male, another female with her two sub-adult cubs, and a solitary male. The two small families were resting up in an area fairly close to each other, whilst the male, in a different area, was feeding on a warthog.

Not so many sightings of wild dogs this month – but our most regular pack has had some individual members disperse, leaving a total of eight in the pack. They were seen a few times, including near Bat Eared Fox den.

A youngish elephant was killed by five lions, along the Machaba East road. Quite an amazing sighting. The lions fed on it for two days, and then moved off, allowing the many vultures that had been waiting fairly patiently in the background, quickly arriving to squabble and hiss over what remained.
Unusually for this time of year, it is quite dry… this means a lot of game is attracted to the remaining water ways and lagoons, and with hardly any long grass, predators are still easy to see. The elephant herds are still around, and there are big groups of water birds feeding at the ‘fish pools’ – the waterholes that are slowly drying out.

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Conservation in Action Series: Soul of the Elephant

Conservation in Action is the multi-part blog series highlighting various projects in Africa, blending responsible tourism with community development and environmental conservation. Stay tuned as we travel across the continent to spotlight incredible tourism companies who are working to preserve some of the world's most treasured ecosystems and produce the future generations of environmental stewards. 

Part 1: Soul of the Elephant - A Film by Derek and Beverly Joubert

CampMoremiEle

How can documentary films, such as Soul of the Elephant, be used as instruments of change? This was the topic of discussion that filmmakers, Derek and Beverly Joubert, addressed during their discussion panel at the Sundance Film Festival held in January. 

As honorary Botswana citizens and National Geographic Explorers-in-residence, they have spent decades using the medium of filmmaking and photography as a podium to speak about conservation. With the escalating level of emergency, they have focused on Africa's elephants and rhinos (every 9 hours a rhino is killed in South Africa and 45 elephants across Africa Source: Great Plains Foundation). Their safari company, Great Plains Conservation, in partnership with fellow safari company &Beyond and Africa Foundation, have translocated nearly 100 rhinos through Rhinos Without Borders into the safekeeping of Botswana from South Africa where tumultuous poaching and corruption have resulted in a massacre of rhinos in recent years. All through the month of November, they were sharing video footage on their Facebook page of what it takes to move a rhino. 

Their overall goal is to eliminate demand entirely. Similar to the campaign slogan of Wild Aid: "When the buying stops, the killing can too." This is no small feat when killing demand requires changing perceptions of billions of people in a market as strong as the illegal drug and weapon trades. 

“'With this platform, we can have real and important conversations,' they said of the power of the visual medium, calling their films 'campaigns without pause...[If you] deliver a message with dignity, you can get there,' they said with hope, noting that young people specifically do not desire to be part of the problem, but rather the solution. Currently at a tipping point in history, the Jouberts assert that 'things can go very bad OR we can change things.'" Source: Fusion.net

The film, Soul of the Elephant, journeys through Kenya and Botswana, featuring stunning footage of their private concession areas as viewers bear witness to the incredible social behaviors and connections of elephants. If viewers can gain a new appreciation for elephants, if they can feel more connected to some distant land, if a compassion for these magnificent creatures emerges, then perhaps we have a shot at saving this keystone species and the ecosystems that it helps to balance. 

The for-profit Great Plains Conservation has the separate Great Plains Foundation, which was established for the sole purpose of working towards conserving Africa's fragile ecosystems. With over 1 million acres of private land, the tourism approach ensures a sustainable stewardship where wildlife can be monitored and visitor volume can be managed. This is not a new or unique concept, but a powerful one nonetheless. It is a concept that embodies so much of what the safari industry must do. Whether we support conservation for our love of nature and passion for Africa or out of a self-serving interest to secure the future of the industry, the end result is the same when we support companies that go to such lengths to fight for the wildlife. And, of course, as we have seen from years when tourism volume was low, the presence of the tourism industry is one of the greatest weapons to protect Africa's wildlife. 

Don't miss the Joubert's interview with Ellen Degeneres on the Ellen Show Monday, February 1, 2016, discussing their latest film, Soul of the Elephant. Watch the full program from PBS Nature Below:

Great Plains Conservation Camps

Botswana

Duba Plains Camp

Zarafa Camp

Selinda Camp

Selinda Explorers Camp

Selinda Canoe Trail (This Year it's a walking safari due to low water levels)

 

Kenya

Ol Donyo

Mara Plains Camp

Mara Toto Camp (closed until further notice due to flash flooding)

 

Stay tuned to learn more about featured projects and conservation initiatives that you can support on your next trip to Africa!

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Kwando Sightings Report - November

There’s an almost incessant hum in the air – ga gona pula ga gona pula…. There’s no rain! Temperatures soared, with many records beaten, regularly reaching over 40 degrees during the day, when 35 degrees is more the norm.

In and around Maun, the wildlife merges with the domestic… elephants move along with cows on the river banks, breaking fences to get to the juicier vegetation (with the cows and goats following in their trail…). A leopard is found in someone’s backyard, and crocodiles that are getting too big for their own good in the shrinking river, are relocated to areas more suitable, up to the top of the delta. Everyone, is waiting for the rain.

Kwara Camp

Leopard in a tree at Kwara Camp

Lions were seen nearly every day, and cheetahs almost as regularly. The Tsum Tsum area was very productive, for both of these predators. The cheetah with her three cubs was seen often, and once we saw them in the company of a male cheetah. They were all very relaxed together, and the male was interested to see if the female was ready to mate. It appears not, as after a while the male left them and headed north.

The pride of eight lions (3 females and 5 young) were seen most often, and regularly hunting. They were joined by the two black maned lions, and together they killed a buffalo. They spent several days together eating this. The female lion with two subadult males was also seen regularly – one of the young males has had an unfortunate interaction with a porcupine – several quills were stuck in around his neck! We were also lucky enough to see leopards mating. They had a kill waiting for them in the branches of a nearby tree.

A hippo died - probably of natural causes – at Pelican Pan, so it became a feeding frenzy for the local carnivores. Three males lions and a lioness spent time feeding there, and several groups of hyenas joined in as well.

An unusual sighting of a large number of hyenas (over 10) feeding on a red lechwe as well as a female leopard!

Some of the summer migratory birds were a little slow to arrive this year, with the late rains. The call of the woodland kingfisher is so distinct, the first day you hear it, you realise how many months it has been since it was last here… Normally arriving in early November, they didn’t arrive in force until the end of the month. How they know the rain in Botswana is delayed, before they set off to travel here, is a mystery. It must be something like Heathrow airport grounding all flights on the first day of school holidays. Every kingfisher waiting at the departure point, fluttering their wings, frustrated, looking at the “departures board” (the sun? the moon? The stars?), and then a mad rush with everyone taking off when the all clear is announced. Well, at least they made it this year, if somewhat tardy.

Lagoon Camp

Wild dogs hunting at Lagoon Camp

The Northern pack of dogs was seen regularly, with good sighting of hunts and feeding. One of their kills was a baby roan antelope – a rare kill for them.

Several male lions were sighted in the area. This is creating problems for the females with cubs, as they face the danger of these intruder males killing their cubs if they get hold of them. On the 12th of the month, we found a female with four cubs, but within 10 days she had lost them all. On the 26th, she was seen mating again with one of the Chobe males. The resident males are still hanging around, and battling with the Chobe boys often. Male lions, as big and impressive as they appear most of the time, can sometimes look a bit insecure and as if they are feeling sorry for themselves: following the sound of roaring, a male was found lying down, and calling to his colleagues (who weren’t answering…).

Again, good sightings of female leopards, including one that had killed a young tsessebe and was feeding on it, and another with an impala kill up a sausage tree. Male leopards are very shy and we seem to only be able to see them at a distance, or in the quiet of night. The two male cheetahs made a quick visit to the area, staying for a day or so, before moving off again to the north west section of the concession, and then returned a week or so later to hunt. By the end of the month, they had disappeared again.

The big herds of buffalo have split up, and we currently remain with the bachelor herds and solitary males. The bulk of the numbers of buffalo have moved off in search, literally, of greener pastures: any where that there has been the possibility of rain, and new grass growth. There are, however, still lots of elephants in the area, including lots of breeding herds.

Good birding with the carmine bee eaters still at their breeding sites in the banks of Kwena Lagoon, and the other summer migratories having arrived.

Lebala Camp

2015 Nov Lebala

We came across the pack of 23 wild dogs at Half Way Pan, and followed the dogs for about half and hour as they moved quickly through the bush. All the dogs were on the hunt for prey, and senses were at their peak. Sadly for them, they did not manage to flush out any game, and they moved off still searching. A few days later we found them again hunting, this time managing to catch two impalas at the same time one morning. The very same day, the dogs arrived in camp in the afternoon, and killed a kudu, quickly demolishing it.

The pride of ten lions is very productive at the moment and has had great success with their hunts. One day we found them eating both a wildebeest, and a warthog as a side dish! Even more lions are on the way, as we came across two couples mating for several days in the middle of the month. Hopefully, in another 90 days, there were more little cubs to add to the pride.

Little warthogs were not so lucky - a very newly born baby was being fed on by a female leopard and her cub. A few days later, we watched the whole hunt of another warthog by five lions – starting with the stalking process, the kill itself, and then the crunching of bones as everyone digs in.

Nxai Pan Camp

Ostriches with their babies at Nxai Pan Camp

It’s the right time of year for many to have their young – the springbok are grouping together, nearly ready to all give birth within days of each other. Ostriches already have lots of tiny fluffy chicks, following their parents around as fast as their little legs can carry them.

It was also a predator filled month: almost every day lions were seen, and often with the addition of either cheetah, or wild dogs – sometimes both, as well as hyenas! You would think with up to 19 lions roaming around, other predators would be in scarce supply, but there is plenty of space (and food) for everyone. The normal pride of 16 lions (10 sub-adults and with six adults, was joined by the one female with her two young cubs. The main waterhole was their choice resting place. A giraffe carcass was particularly enticing for all of them, which made them move between the waterhole and the wildlife camp. With 19 lions feeding on a large, old giraffe, there was something for everyone! (including a few good photos for the guests!). Whenever they moved from the main waterhole, other animals would sneak in, including the cheetah mother and her two sub-adult cubs, finally able to quench their thirst.

The small pack of dogs – two males and three females - was also seen at the wildlife camp. They also came to the Nxai Pan camp waterhole several times to drink. They appeared for several days, just at sunrise, a perfect time for them to be able to get to the waterhole and get a drink without so many elephants.

The camp waterhole has also been attracting spotted hyenas, coming individually, and in groups of up to five at a time. It’s difficult to negotiate the way around the elephants to get a drink, so this required a lot of patience, and a long time of waiting for the right chance.

Following on from last month, the elephants continued to congregate. The pump for the park main waterhole failed for a short time, making the situation tougher still. With the camp pumping water as fast as it could, any overflow was quickly turned into a mudbath by the elephants. Still not happy with that, nor happy with the queuing system, their attention turned again to the camp. What an elephant wants, an elephant gets, and for this reason, we sadly had to close the camp to re-lay almost an entire camps-worth of water pipe, sewerage systems, and elephant-prevention systems. On the second day of closure, the rain arrived. Perhaps only a start, but it is enough of a signal that there will be water pools somewhere else, and the next morning, not an elephant was seen! They returned, of course, but not in the numbers that required a “damage to property” insurance form to be filled out.

Tau Pan Camp

Lions at Tau Pan Camp

A very relaxed male leopard opened the month for us at Tau Pan waterhole, quenching his thirst.

The saga that began last month continued on, with the three young intruder male lions chasing the territorial male again. They were also seen along the eastern firebreak, marking territory in an attempt to claim it as their own. The two females with five cubs still venture down to the waterhole, but are very cautious – one was injured when they were harassed at the end of the last month by the same intruders. Mid way through the month, things got even more confusing, when the three males were seen near the old borehole, with two lionesses. The males were mating with one of the lionesses. In the meantime, two “resident” male lions were resting not too far away at the waterhole – not looking very comfortable about the whole situation.

Several cheetah sightings, including two shy males in the Deception Valley Area, one relaxed male close to the old borehole near the camp, who was seen for several days.

A very unusual and lovely sighting of a family of spotted eagle owls… a mother owl with her two youngsters in the branch of a tree, and another adult – perhaps the father – high up in the top branches.

Lots of general game in the area, including the oryx – several of which look heavily pregnant – springboks, hartebeest and wildebeest. Green patches of land are starting to show, in spite of having hardly any rain at all. And for the first time in over five years, there has not been a fire in the area!

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Secrets of Botswana's Green Season

Secrets of Botswana's Green Season

I'm sitting at a swanky cafe that actor Heath Ledger opened just before he succumbed to a deadly cocktail of prescription drugs. It's a narrow brick building with French bistro tables and a long bar that serves the various needs of the stylish patrons in the hipster epicenter of Brooklyn, NY. I order the Moroccan scramble with a cup of coffee. "We don't have coffee," the hipster waiter whines through his bushy mustache, "Would you like an Americano?"

"That's fine," I say with a sideways smile and a distant sigh. The circadian rhythm of this giant ant colony where millions live on top of each other in a daily grind of survival, where the struggles to pause and appreciate the minutiae of the present moment are ever present, where choices and cultural complexities overwhelm the senses was all the more potent after returning from the wilderness of Botswana. Don't get me wrong, I love an Americano. I love fancy coffee, and I love the finer things that civilization offers. However, I longed to return to the simplicity of waking with the sun's first glow; to hear the building cacophony of birds, savor a cup of hot coffee from the deck overlooking the lagoons of the Okavango Delta; each day the same rhythms with new surprises unfolding in a saga of life and death.

ChobeImpalaNursery

 

December in Botswana is typically one of the less visited months as the rains arrive for the season. It is characterized by afternoon rainstorms, intermittent blue skies, and stunning sunsets. While it is possible that rain might interrupt a full day the country averages 300 sunny days per year, and while the Okavango Delta appears tropical it sits landlocked by the arid Kalahari Desert. The first rains may not be desirable to visitors, but they are welcomed in celebration both by locals as well as the wildlife, signaling the end of the dry season's death grip. This year, because of El Nino, the rains were almost a month late leaving October and November a brutal, stifling heat that served a death sentence to many animals who failed to reach the last access to water and the lowest water levels the country has seen in decades. All struggled save the vultures.

In Setswana, the word for rain is, "Pula," which not surprisingly also happens to be the name of the country's currency. Rain—the gift from the heavens—brings life.

We arrived to Botswana a week after the first rains, and like magic the seemingly lifeless branches and dry sand were transformed into green sprouts of acacia, mopane, leadwood, and carpets of green grass. Days-old impala calves huddled in the sanctuary of their nurseries. A lone sable antelope pranced through the grassy hills, galloping and bucking in celebration. With water available away from the rivers, the 20,000-strong herds of elephant disappeared from the river's edge in search of fresh vegetation. The staccato calls of woodland kingfishers—arriving with the first rains—announce the end of the months of suffering. It is a beautiful time to experience this dynamic wilderness, which has the resiliency to transform one week to the next. While the wildlife volume that attracts so many enthusiasts to Botswana drops in abundance as the rains begin, the subtleties and surprises of the green season are remarkable.

Sable Antelope in Chobe National Park

 

The trip began with Chobe National Park—an area that rivals the size of Switzerland. We stayed along the riverfront at Chobe Game Lodge.  From this access point visitors can venture out by game drive or boat without the time limitations imposed on camps who must queue outside the entrance gates. The lodge is also set apart by its sustainability ethos. It features Botswana's largest grey water treatment plant and is the first lodge to go completely solar powered including converting their boats and vehicles to electric. To keep the permit inside of the national park they must show their efforts to invest in the local communities and in the environment. In doing so Desert and Delta Safaris is well ahead of the curve. Glass bottles are recycled into sand to create bricks that rebuild the lodge and surplus is donated to the nearby villages, biodegradable waste is composted, cubes of aluminum are sent to Tin Collector, they feature the only all-female guide team certainly in all of Botswana and possibly in all of Africa, of the 400 citizen staff they employ they regularly send their most promising to Disney's hospitality school for further personal development, and every camp is managed by a local Botswanan. I came to realize that throughout the trip that Desert and Delta Safaris, which includes Chobe Game Lodge, highlights their staff as a key asset to the company, investing in their personal success not because they have to but because they believe in their people. Albert, the guide for the eco tour, broke ground on Chobe Game Lodge in 1972 and has remained with the company since. The bartender at Savute Safari Lodge has been with the company since 1984.

The Guide Team with marketing director Walter Smith at Chobe Game Lodge

 

With our lady guides, we ventured out from the lodge by boat, making our way west along the Chobe River, observing troops of baboons on the shoreline, hippos peeking out above the water, and crocodiles basking in the warm sand. We explored the park by safari vehicle, encountering lovely bird species such as the pearl spotted owl as we passed along the riverfront to Serondela on our way to check out a pride of lion who made an attempt at hunting a group of cantankerous old Cape buffalo.

Lions hunting Cape buffalo

 

Departing Chobe, we made our way to Kasane Airport for our bush flight to the Savute Airstrip. On arrival, we were met by our guide, Metal, a longtime resident of Savute and aptly nicknamed, "The Professor," for his encyclopedic knowledge of the bush. Whether we were learning about the medicinal properties of wild sage, ageing a leopard tortoise by the rings on its shell, or observing the social behavior of wild dogs, Metal had a remarkable gift of making even the most underestimated plant or animal fascinating. Because the rains arrived a week before, we were also witnessing the procession of thousands of zebra on their annual migration from the Linyanti Marshes into Nxai Pan, passing through Savute along the way. Two zebra males viciously battled amongst the herd, entangled in a sinuous display of strength. Further down the road, we encountered a pack of six African wild dogs who were new to the area. They relaxed along the water’s edge before moving into the road ruts for more napping. We chatted with a member of theNatural History Film Unit crew in the process of creating the six part series, Big Game of Thrones, which is being completely filmed inside Savute. This is one of four films produced in recent years featuring the area including Africa's Fishing Leopards and Africa's Giant Killers. Returning to camp in the evening, we ate dinner on the deck overlooking spot lit waterholes frequented by elephants. Our gracious hosts from Savute Safari Lodge serenaded us in preparation for our family style dinner, whisking away two of the diners for a private birthday celebration. After dinner, we retired to the campfire and then finally to bed. From my bedroom, I could see the spot lit waterhole that had attracted over ten elephants, barely lit by the light then silhouetted by the darkness beyond.

Zebra fighting in Savute

Wild dogs at rest in Savute

Giraffe drinking in Savute

Elephant drinking from the Savute Safari Lodge water hole

The next morning, we bumped into the film crew again in the spot where he witnessed the same six nomadic wild dogs take down an impala that had sought shelter beneath his vehicle in the early morning hours before anyone else had left camp. Afterwards, we watched a procession of elephant through the grasses, communicating with each other in baritone rumbles and omni-directional sound waves too low for the human ear to detect.

We returned to the Savute "International" Airstrip for our bush flight into the Okavango Delta, arriving to the Xugana Island Airstrip where we jumped onto a boat for our cruise through the channels to the Xugana Lagoon and Xugana Island Lodge. As we approached the dock, the camp staff greeted us with a wave and offered fresh juice as we climbed onto land. We enjoyed a brunch of eggs to order with fresh vegetables and salads as paradise flycatchers and black-headed orioles hopped through the trees. We then climbed back into the boat for our ride through the narrow channels to Camp Okavango—a complete rebuild scheduled for completion by April 2016. While both Camp Okavango and Xugana Island Lodge boast barefoot comfort, Camp Okavango's extensive network of platform decking keep visitors suspended in the trees where they can enjoy the breezes, views, and luxury accommodations while Xugana Island Lodge offers a down-to-earth feel with sand between your toes as you walk from bedroom to shoreline. After a very rainy tour of the island—the only rain to impact an activity during our stay, we returned to the boats to head back to Xugana. Finding a sandy embankment with low water levels and devoid of crocodiles, we hopped out of the boat for a swim in the Okavango River. The warm water, filtered from grasses along the way through the Delta from Angola, was refreshing and relaxing. We watched as the flocks of black winged pratincole soared overhead arriving for the season from as far as Siberia.

The group hosted by Desert and Delta Safaris

Camp Okavango in the Rain

Camp Okavango Construction

In the evening, after returning to camp, we were surprised by the camp staff with appetizers at sunset from the floating pontoon in the middle of the lagoon. We watched the sun set from across the water, chatting with friends over gin and tonics, and enjoying the sound of the croaking frogs. Arriving back to shore for dinner, once again, the staff serenaded us, and this time with an exceptionally entertaining rendition of frog sounds. The choir created a beat while a particularly athletic young man hopped around croaking like the frogs that sing every night in the lagoon. With a vibrating wail (ululation), the lead chef rallies her chorus into the next song and dance, beckoning us to join as they pass by. We paired off, dancing with a staff member who labored over our dinner to reach the dinner table for our al fresco, lagoon-view evening. It seemed the staff was enjoying their night as much as we were, proud to share their culinary talents and their rich cultural heritage.

Lunch at Xugana Island Lodge

Xugana Island Lodge at Sunset

In the morning, we set out by boat through narrow channels to Palm Island for a walking safari with our guide, Allen. In single file, we explored the palm-scattered grasslands, watching the red lechwe lurk through the grasses, backs angled from their oversized, powerful hindquarters. We climbed onto termite mounds for better views of grazing elephants and played with the honeycomb-structured skull of a Cape buffalo. Allen explained the medicinal uses of milkweed which contains natural coagulants, the opposing qualities of euphorbia, and why elephant droppings are used as a cure-all. We continued walking until Allen was radioed by our other group who spotted a male lion in the distance. Upon further investigation, we discovered the hippo kill and the rest of the pride engorged in their bounty. The excitement of seeing them on foot is indescribable and guaranteed to raise your heart rate. We approached with caution and maintained distance from a hilly vantage point to keep an eye on their movements. The pride was satiated, and so began their mid-day siesta. 

walking safari with Desert and Delta

A lioness rests after gorging on hippo

A beautiful ten-minute bush flight from the Xugana Airstrip dropped us into the heart of the Moremi Game Reserve. From the plane, we could see elephants, hippos, and the waterways surrounded by greenbelts that slowly fade into savannah. After landing at the airstrip, we passed kudu, impala, zebra, and bushbuck before reaching camp. On arrival, we enjoyed a delicious lunch of chicken avocado bake, curried chickpeas, and fresh salad. We then continued to Camp Xaxanaxa for a site visit, an impromptu cannonball competition in the camp pool, and a detailed explanation of the hilariously destructive nature of baboons before the camp hired a full-time baboon lookout. Back at Camp Moremi, vervet monkeys curiously pressed themselves against the windows of my room, peering in as I freshened up for the evening game drive. We explored the area with the hopes of finding leopard. While the evening drive was quiet, we succeeded in finding a skittish leopard and a couple more lions in the morning.

Vervet Monkeys at Camp Moremi

Beware of Crocs at Camp Xaxanaxa

Elephant at Moremi Game Reserve

Lion at Moremi Game Reserve

Our final stop was Leroo la Tau, meaning "spoor (print) of the lion." Situated on the banks of the Boteti River, the area is a major wildlife corridor and provides one of the few permanent water access points in the Makgadikgadi Pans. The best way to beat the mid-day heat at Leroo la Tau is to sit in the hide to observe the animals that come to drink, enjoy a dip in the pool, or submit to the heat's coercion into a mid-day nap. Once the heat breaks, it is out on the safari vehicle to cruise the riverfront. Hippos, sparring elephants, giraffes, zebra, kudu, and more all make their way to the river to quench their thirst. On the hill's crest, we encountered two male lions—one with a dark black mane and the other with golden locks. They were accompanied by two females, one of whom was lactating but had been mating with the golden maned-male for the last week. Presumably, her cubs were killed otherwise she would not be in estrus. The second female was doing her best to reject the advances of the dark maned male. She had three cubs, two males who were casually nearby and a missing female. The dark maned male continued to try and separate the female from her cubs while she balanced aggression and submission to keep him away. Surprisingly, he is believed to be the father of the cubs, and as such the young boys had likely never witnessed this behavior before. His instinct to procreate while he is still young was overtaking him, and the lioness was desperately keeping them separated. This continued from the top of the ridge to the river below, the cubs unaware of the danger and their father battling his carnal instincts to destroy them in order to trigger estrus in the mother. In the distance, the young female leapt across the river scattering giraffe in her wake. It is unclear why she was separated. The guides presumed that because the females haven't had an opportunity to hunt for them yet she may have tried to find food for herself. She did not return to her siblings.

Lioness protecting her cubs

Lion on the prowl

Lioness at the waters edge

 

Late in the evening, we left them to make our way back to camp. In the distance, we could see a bonfire in the grassy riverbank; nearby, a cocktail bar with chairs encircled by the game vehicles. We chatted around the campfire watching the beginning of the flight of the termites—a one-day event brought on by the first rains as the females leave their colony to find a mate and create a new one. The termites are harvested and eaten year-round by the locals, many of whom enthusiastically claim it as their favorite food. The flight of the termites is a day of celebration in Botswana, and so I consider it a blessing to the end of our trip. From the fire, we could see the termites building in the coals, attracted by the light. Wings had dropped to the ground as they succeeded in their mission.

Lioness at the waters edge

From the campfire, we continued towards dinner. The camp surprised us with a beautiful bush dinner decorated with soft lit lanterns and beautiful table setting. In the distance, in rows of two, the staff entered clapping and marching rhythmically as they approached our dinner table. We were encircled by the singers, every single staff member from Leroo la Tau was accounted for. Some wore their chef hats with white robes while others in casual shirts and jeans. It didn’t feel like a performance, but rather a celebration. They gathered us from our chairs, and while we didn't know the words we learned the dance moves as we circled the dinner table. At the end of the song, we were seated for dinner. It was a beautiful night filled with new friends, delicious food, and clear starry skies.

In the morning, we found the spoor of honeybadger, brown hyena, and the lions but we were not able to track them down. Without fail, safari leaves loose endings that will inevitably fuel one's hunger to return, and this was no exception.

Lioness at the waters edge

Lioness at the waters edge

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Kingdom of the Tiger: India Safaris

Within one of the greatest human densities on our planet lie sanctuaries for wildlife where the relics of Gondwanaland endure. Although separated by the Middle East, the Red and Arabian Seas, and the Indian Ocean, there remains an incredible parallel between the wildlife of the Indian Subcontinent and Africa. Rhinoceros, elephant, wild dog, lion, leopard, antelope, and wild pig—while evolutionarily distinct—call both regions home. It is indisputable that Africa remains the world’s great wildlife haven in sheer volume however few realize that India boasts three of the four panthera species of cat, two bear, three wild ox, eight deer species, 1,225 species of birds, and is considered to be the birthplace of the wolf.

monkeys

In the central province of Madhya Pradesh, Kanha and Bandhavgarh National Parks are two of the most well-established areas for consistent tiger sightings, and as with all apex predators, where you find tigers you also find an umbrella of biodiversity. Kanha is famous for its mature sal trees and beautiful, grassy maidans. Bandhavgarh—an ancient fortress—boasts precipitous plateaus, rolling hills, and stone relics of its dynastic history leading back to the 1st Century B.C. 
 
They are popular regions for safari and at times can feel crowded, although regulations have further restricted the maximum vehicle numbers. Tigers are the main act, and are seen about every five days on average. Due to the park’s mature trees and dense vegetation, safari in India is exclusively on-road driving and requires some patience if you want to avoid zipping around from water hole to water hole in search of tigers. Tigers, by nature, are elusive creatures that require expansive territories so they cannot be expected to be found in great quantity. We were fortunate to spot one tiger in each park. Our best tiger sighting was in Kanha where we spotted a tigress calmly sauntering down the street towards our vehicle—the only vehicle nearby. After walking the road for a while, she quickly lept into the dense forest followed immediately by a cheetal (spotted deer) calling in alarm and darting across the road with its tail in the air. 
 

Female bengal tiger in Kanha National Park

 
Bandhavgarh proved to be very fruitful for sloth bear. We encountered a female with her cub and a brief sighting of a third bear in the remote Zone 3. We were able to observe the well-habituated female and her cub as she dug for insects deep in the earth.
 

Sloth Bear in Bandhavgarh National Park

 
Birding is excellent in India with an abundance of migratory birds and fifty endemic species. We saw owls and eagles every single day of the trip. Vultures are steadily returning after a population plummet from domestic cattle prescription pain killers, which have since been removed from the market. Much like Africa's lilac-breasted and Eurasian rollers, the Indian Roller boasts brilliant shades of blues, and of course no one can forget the magestic Indian peafowl. 
 

Owletts

Indian Roller

 
From Madhya Pradesh, we continued to the far eastern province of Assam to experience the “Ngorongoro Crater of India.” Kaziranga National Park’s tourism season is only a few months long before the floods from the Himalayas reclaim the area. It is a haven for one-horned rhino, so many that it is easy to forget they are endangered. The Brahmaputra River creates white sand embankments and vast waterways and is one of the few areas in the world where you can see otter and rhino in one setting. 
 

One Horned Rhinos spotted along with river otters

 
The tall elephant grass makes spotting tigers very challenging, but we were fortunate to observe a male traversing the water’s edge from a watchtower at sunset. Our naturalist guide, who spotted the tiger, was beaming with pride and satisfaction as many guides spend decades in Kaziranga without a sighting.
 
A favorite past time in Kaziranga is elephant back safari. While this is a must-do novelty, it is actually an excellent way to get up close to the one-horned rhino and experience the height of the elephant grass. Plus, the baby elephants follow their mothers through the ride and when you walk down the stairs after disembarking, they often greet you with their dexterous trunk! We visited just after Holi Festival, and some of the elephants still had remnants of their paint from the celebration. As a public holiday, there were no rides that day, so the mahouts had decorated their revered animals just for their own celebrations. One afternoon, returning from the park to the Diphlu Lodge, were joined a mahout as he bathed his elephant—a daily ritual for them.
 

one horned rhino on elephant back

monkeys

 
After two weeks on safari, we all agreed that we could have spent another two weeks exploring the cities and rich cultural heritage of India. There is far too much to do in one American-sized holiday, and while many people say I.N.D.I.A. stands for "I'd Never Do It Again," we were protected from this sentiment through our wonderful hosts and the respite from city chaos that the parks provide. 
 
Tips for India Safaris:
 
  • An interest in a diversity of species, especially birds helps to appreciate this unique wildlife experience. The parks are isolated islands of wilderness surrounded by civilization and so the mammal species cannot be found in such abundance as in Africa. This makes it all the more important to accompany a guide who can interpret and find the wildlife.
  • The parks are closed on Wednesday afternoons. While many people plan to be traveling this day so as not to miss out on any park activities, it’s also a great time to visit a local village, go for a hike, or visit a tea plantation. 
  • Tiger permits are broken into zones in each park. While some zones are sold as premier locations, it is impossible to predict the movements of the wildlife months in advance. Make sure you plan well in advance and request a variety of zones so you are not in one area—or even on one road the entire time.
  • Quality varies drastically from camp to camp and day to day. Select camps that can offer good quality naturalist guides to join you on every game drive. The drivers and park guides are on a constant rotation through the union and quality is more difficult to predict, so having a good naturalist guide with you is very important.
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