There and Back Again
December 6, 2013
By Anna Nisi (Carleton College)
We have had a great adventure the last two weeks! We headed off to Kasane, a town near Chobe National Park in the northeastern part of Botswana, on November 19th. This was exciting because Kasane and Chobe are a whole new part of the country and different landscape and habitat than we have been used to.
We spent our four days in Kasane camping next to the Chobe River, which was full of hippos and crocodiles (we saw our hugest croc yet – maybe 4 m long). We took a boat tour of the river where we saw a lot of birds, including some new species for us (like the African skimmer), and we had an amazing elephant observation. We came upon maybe 15 elephants drinking in the river, and a few subadult males were sparring with each other while an adult male was trying to flirt with a female. There were also several very young juveniles drinking from the river, who stole our hearts.
One of the highlights of Kasane for all of us was the Biodiversity Center we visited. This center is run by the Center for African Resource: Animals, Communities and Land-Use (CARACAL). Here we got to see a lot of different snakes up close (but behind glass!), including the black mamba, Mozambique spitting cobra, boomslang, puff adder, and Gaboon viper. The Gaboon viper was particularly awesome, it was huge, very thick and had a giant triangular head, and would hiss at you if you got too close. We also got to hold a rock python, a rufous beaked snake, and a brown house snake, which was an amazing experience. The biodiversity center also had four falcons (two Lanners Falcons and two Peregrine Falcons) that were being trained, and we all had the opportunity to put on a falconer’s glove and have them sit on our arms. It really was an amazing place and the staff seemed really into their work – they all knew the history of each animal that was there.
We crossed a lot of borders during our 4 days in Kasane. One afternoon we went over to Namibia for a quick drive, and the next day we crossed into Zambia to visit Victoria Falls. We had all been looking forward to this place for quite some time – and the Falls themselves were beautiful. Because we were there in the dry season, it wasn’t the wall of water that you see when you imagine Victoria Falls, instead it was a few separate waterfalls over the steep rock face, which itself was craggy and majestic. Our day to day routine here generally doesn’t involve much walking, as our research is conducted through driving transects and for safety reasons we don’t venture far outside of camp, so it felt absolutely amazing to go on some longer walks to view the falls. My favorite walk we did was a hike down to the Boiling Pot, which is a place at the bottom of the falls where the river turns rather abruptly causing the water to swirl around and look like the river is boiling. The hike up was wonderfully steep, and at the top we saw a yellow-spotted rock dassie sitting on a tree. We also sat next to several baboons and observed their behavior for a while. The dominant male was sitting only a few meters away from us, surveying his domain like a king. There were several females, one with a very young baby riding on her stomach who at one point started grooming the male, as well as several rambunctious subadults that were chasing each other around – one clambered up the tree and chased away the rock dassie. Suddenly, we heard the characteristic baboon bark, and I looked to see another group of baboons running towards the new group with their teeth bared – we were in the middle of a baboon turf war. It was over pretty quickly, as baboons rarely come to actual violence between troops because the troop with fewer adult males typically retreats before it comes to combat – I assume this is what happened here, as the original group moved out and the new group took its place. It was a really exciting day in terms of new mammal species for us, as we also saw cape clawless otters swimming in the river below us below us as we stood at the top section of the falls.
The baboons were very bold towards humans at the park. Just after we witnessed the inter-troop aggression, we saw a huge male following three female tourists incredibly closely, looking up at them, clearly hoping for a food hand-out. Later in the day, we were at the border crossing, which was a pretty crowded place with many trucks and people, and we saw a huge male baboon sprinting after a woman carrying several bags. She started screaming and several men in the vicinity tried shouting and clapping at the baboon (baboons and other monkeys can differentiate sex in humans and typically are only scared of men) but he was still undeterred. The woman threw a plastic bottle at him, and then finally a bag with an apple in it, and it wasn’t until the apple came flying his way that he stopped the chase to munch on the apple. We witnessed a lot of animals in Kasane that were incredibly habituated to humans. Our camp at the river was absolutely ransacked by vervet monkeys, who got into our food bins and stole some of our food. The warthogs living in camp were also quite bold, we had one male that hung around and kept lurking closer and closer to the food until we would shout at it, when it would retreat a few meters.
After a few days in Kasane, we traveled to the nearby Chobe Enclave, a community managed area bordering Chobe National Park, run by the Chobe Enclave Conservation Trust. This was the first time Round River had worked with this Trust, and marked the first round of standardized wildlife monitoring and training with their escort guides.
At Chobe, we stayed at an abandoned hunting camp, so there were huge animal skulls all around as decoration and a bowl of bullet shells on the table. It was kind of an odd place – it was nice to have access to a covered deck to do work and cook, but I felt a bit weird staying there with its hunting history. Animals behave very differently in trophy hunting areas than in areas where no hunting has occurred recently. In the Chobe area, most tourism revenue comes from partnerships with hunting camps, so the recent hunting ban in Botswana will result in a 90% loss in funding for the Chobe concessions. Here, animals are much more skittish and wary of humans and as a result, you see a lot less of them. In Mababe, we learned that trophy hunting can cause animals to behave more aggressively towards humans, too. The chief escort guide in that area told us that elephants are more prone to attack humans in hunting areas, as they are extremely intelligent and have long memories. Lions can also come to view humans as threats or competitors, while in non-hunting areas in our experience they have seemed truly indifferent to us.
Even though carnivore sightings were less frequent, we got incredibly lucky one morning. I was in my tent when I heard Ema saying, “Dogs! Dogs! Dogs!” and I sprung out of my tent to see a male kudu being chased by a pack of around nine African wild dogs. They ran right next to our tents, within about 10 meters of us, which was absolutely amazing to see. The dogs are such beautiful colors and kudu are such a graceful and magnificent antelope that especially in the slanting morning light it looked like something out of a dream. Seeing such a chase, especially so close, was so lucky, as some of the Chobe guides had never seen African wild dogs before. This was one of our last days in Chobe – to me this was a really special goodbye experience to all of the wildlife that we have been lucky enough to see here.
HOLIDAYS IN BOTSWANA
We were all surprised by how well our Thanksgiving dinner turned out. Our campfire Thanksgiving included: fish cakes, corn and eggs, mashed potatoes, butternut squash with brown sugar, stuffing, beets, apple pie and squash pie. The dish that took the cake (took the pie!) was definitely Ema’s squash pie, which she somehow managed to make beautiful as well as delicious despite the fact that it was cooked on a dinner plate. I think we all felt strange at one point during the day about being away from home for Thanksgiving, but we felt happy to spend the day with our Botswana family. We also got to share our meal with the three guides from Chobe, so it was nice to share an American tradition in exchange for all we have been learning about Botswana.
We are going home so soon! The transition ahead of us seems a little daunting, although everyone is excited to see family and friends again after a long time away. Many of us will face about 100 degree different temperatures at home and I think all of us will miss falling asleep to the sound of lions.
Finally, I know a lot of students who are considering Round River programs read these blogs. If this is you: come to Botswana. This program has been a truly amazing experience and I cannot express how lucky I am to have spent my last three months here doing this work. Aside from the obvious wonderful things about this program (the amazing place, the absolutely incredible wildlife you get to see on a daily basis, and spending three months outdoors with a bunch of new friends), it has been such a valuable experience to participate in actual conservation research that will be used to inform management decisions. We have all learned so much here and I think we all hope to be back someday!