In November we went out to work on a new community-based conservation project in a remote area of Northwestern Namibia called the Caprivi Delta. The approach was that a group of 12 volunteers including Nicki and I would travel to a new base camp there and help the local scientists with their work on the project. The project is working on gathering information on the local wildlife in two large areas of wilderness which form two relatively new wildlife parks. In between the parks are conservancies where the locals live in small villages. Most of the local villagers are small subsistence farmers, i.e., they have a few cattle and goats, plant a small number of crops and use fishing and plants and wildlife from the local bush to provide themselves a basic living. The people there are very poor by western standards. They have no doctor in the area, no computers or playstations, although a village may have a radio and more recently a mobile phone which is often shared! Most people have to walk to school, work or to get water.
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To get there we first flew to Johannesburg in South Africa. After staying there a day we flew to Livingstone in Zambia (blue marker on map), through which flows the Zambezi River and which has the Victoria Falls a few miles out of town. From there all the group took a bus three hours to the Namibian border where, using Land Rovers for another three hours, we finally reached the base camp on the border of Mamili Park (pink marker on map below).
When we finally reached camp we saw the huts that had been constructed earlier during the year with the help of the locals. The hut walls and roofs are made of reeds and can be built in about three weeks by the locals, who have the skills for reed construction and thatching. Each hut had one large flap which you opened up to expose a large window space looking out on the bush around, but had no glass. The rainy season started while we there and some fierce storms would blow into the camp and we would have to run around closing windows, and blocking up leaks from the heavy rain. Then the sun would come out and it would get quite hot again. At nighttime you had to sleep under a mosquito net to protect yourself from mosquitoes, although we often had bites other times in the evenings or out in the marshes.
The camp was surrounded by a fence with two wire lines containing bells. The higher wire served as a warning if an elephant was coming into the camp, whereas the lower wire served as an alarm for a less tall animal such as a hippo. There was a leopard that lived close by the camp that used to walk through at nighttime and she did not ring the lower fence bell :)! So if you were going out of your hut at nighttime, you had to shine your headlight around in the dark first to see if you could see her eyes anywhere outside. Then if you saw no eyes you could walk over to the toilets; it was a little scary initially doing that!
All our cooking was done over the fire using local Mopane wood which we gathered in the bush, as shown in the photo below, where we had been working hard cutting and gathering wood one morning. (Interestingly this Mapone wood is also eaten by elephants. According to one of our guides, when the elephants start eating some trees, the trees send out signals to each other to make their leaves bitterer so that the elephants don’t want to eat them any more. Unfortunately that also makes them frustrated and they start knocking the trees over. But that also helps with collecting the wood!)
At night time after dinner we would often sit around the camp fire and share stories from our trips from the day. As we got to know the locals, they would often sit with us too, and share their stories and local songs.
People in the group came from different places: Espen and Kurt were from Norway, Uli, Sara, Annette and Christina were from Germany, Ina, Nicki and I from Switzerland (although I was always thought of as Irish as I am originally), Ellen, Carol and Don were from the US, James from England. We also had a three person film crew (Susanne, Florian and Sebastian) from Germany with us for a week which should be televised soon on the German VOX TV station.
The project and camp had been set up by the three people shown above: Julia on left from Germany, Francois in the middle from South Africa and Peter from Germany behind on right. Julia worked with the local people in the villages to understand their needs, views and interactions with the wildlife, e.g., how much of a threat were the predators such as lion to their cattle? Francois worked on the wildlife in the park: in the picture he is preparing a tranquilizer dart before we head in to dart a lion so we can work on him (see below). Peter ran the expedition organisation and the camp; he had to be the “bad cop” to keep everything in line but he was also a “good guy”.
In the park we saw a lot of different types of animals. The warthogs would often look at us curiously before all putting their tails in the air and running off into the bushes for cover. They put their tails in the air so that the young ones don’t lose track of their parents as they run off through the long grass. As Francois explained this is one example of the “follow me” effect.
The rivers and pools could have both crocodiles and hippos in them, so one had to be careful when around them. Before I went on the trip I thought I would never be brave enough to get in such water at all, but on the first day out, I plucked up courage to wade through a couple of rivers with Francois as we had to check the floor bed to see if we could drive through them and how. Nevertheless it was sometimes scary and one had to be careful. Hippos for example are very territorial and could kill you very quickly if you get too near them; they often overturn canoes and bite the unfortunate canoer who often does not survive. The crocodile below hangs out at a local lodge in Mudumu Park and is called Nandy.
The Mamili park had large herds of hundreds of buffalo and quite a few at the edge of the herd would have the job of watching you in case there was perceived danger to them, e.g., if you were a predator such as a lion getting closer. They would allow us to get about 50 yards away and then they would often back off 10-20 yards. When they sensed there was particular danger around such as from a predator, they would form tight circles and start with the large adults facing outwards to form a guarding wall. The adults can be quite large, weighing 10-15 times that of a human adult, so they are quite formidable, and can easily kill a human or lion with their horns and weight. When the herd decides to move they create quite a commotion and dust and rumble as the herd moves off together. Sometimes we would see them when on foot and sometimes we were in our Land Rovers.
Often we would also meet smaller herds of younger bulls in the neighbourhood of the main herd, and you have to be particularly careful with them. Once we met one angry looking bull all on his own and he was rocking his horns at us and I thought he really wanted to charge us. Luckily we were in the Land Rover that time and he let us pass by eventually. We think he and others had been in a scrap with lions the previous night from the tracks around, so he was probably not in such a good mood for more unwelcome visitors.
Hippos usually stay in the water in their pools during the day and often only come out on land to eat as the evening darkness approaches, but we saw them out of water during the day a couple of times.
More usually we would see them swimming in their pools as shown in this photo below of a couple swimming near us before sunset. The males made quite loud snorting and roaring noises letting us know clearly this was their pool and their family of females. Not that we wanted to contest them for that :)!
We saw many storms approaching across the sky all round during the some of the days and also many beautiful sunsets during the evenings.
To get around we used 4 wheel drive Land Rovers: I had not driven one before and so had to pick it up based on a couple of hours practice on the first day. The driving was challenging but also fun as we had to drive off road a lot and often through a lot of water. Below I am driving through a river near camp with Nicki on top.
Sometimes we got stuck in sand or holes and it took quite a bit of effort to get us out again. Usually you had to winch the car up, and get pieces of wood or a spare wheel under the stuck wheel for traction, and then you could get the car out again. However a couple of groups during the Autumn had got badly stuck in deep water and the Land Rovers had to be sent 16 hours away for repairs in the capital city of Namibia: Windhoek. It did not help that there were animals around such as aardvark bears who loved digging holes all over the place which the wheels would get stuck in.
On one trip we got stuck in sand and water and had to put big branches under the wheels to get out. Unfortunately the TV cameraman Florian had taken off his shoes before helping push the car from behind, and stepped and ripped his foot on a sharp piece of wood as we got the car out. We bandaged him up and took him to the one local clinic in the area which had one nurse. Unfortunately they had only one needle which did not do the job well, so we had to take him back to the camp and do the stitches ourselves. The clinic also did not have crutches that he needed so Peter had to drive three hours to the nearest larger town to search for some. We all chipped in some money in to a fund to buy the local clinic needles and crutches for future patients to get better care.
One important activity of the project is the tracking and tagging of predators such as lions, leopard and cheetah. To do this we would prepare a dart gun with a tranquiliser and if we could get within ca. 20 yards of the animal and get a clear shot at a safe part of their body we could dart the animal with a dart gun which would put him to sleep for an hour or so. While the animal was sleeping, we could then put a collar on the animal and take measurements. Once the animal has a radio collar on, one can use telemetry equipment to track the animal’s movements around the area by following their radio signals. This can be useful to build up a picture of the animal’s territory, and to see for example their movements e.g., if they moved closer to the villages and the cattle. Eventually this should lead to a warning system that the locals can use to help protect the cattle, and without having the unfortunate shooting of a lion taking place to do so.
In the photo below Francois is setting up the dart gun and practicing at camp before we head out on a trip in which we successfully collared a young male lion.
We then went out in search of the lions, and after some searching around, we luckily found the group of three we were looking for feeding on the kill of a sitatunga antelope they had just made during the storm we had earlier that afternoon. There were three lions: two lionesses and the young male lion we wanted to collar, but it was difficult to get a good shot in the long grass. Luckily the male stood up at one point and Francois was able to get a clear shot at his rump, which was the safest part to dart him in. He soon fell asleep close by, but we then had the problem of trying to scare the other two lionesses off into the woods so that we could work safely with the male lion. This was not so easy however and it took us a good 30 minutes to do this, as they kept circling back through the grasses. Eventually we had to jump out quickly, carry the male lion into the trailer, and drive off a while with him so that we could work safely on him. We had to work quickly though as time had passed by and the tranquiliser was wearing off. However we had time to get the collar on him and make the important measurements. Then we waited a short distance away on our Land Rovers for him to wake up and to make sure he was OK. He was fine although after his feed and tranquiliser, he just wanted to sit there sleepily and not move off! We returned to camp and celebrated our success with a late dinner by the camp fire at midnight.
The photo below shows us putting the collar on the lion. We have covered his eyes so that he is not distressed by any light around. Because of the combination of drugs that we used, the lion does not remember the incident when he wakes up.
Once the animal is collared we could go out another day with the telemetry aerial as shown below and by following the signal, locate the whereabouts of the animal, although sometimes that can be tricky too, as the animals move around or are in deep grass or bush.
Going out tracking was another activity and we had to learn to look for tracks of the animals out in the park. Then one had to try to figure out from the shape and the length and width, what animal the “spoor”, i.e., the footprint, belonged to. Below is the footprint of a young leopard of 15 months that we identified on a walk one day.
A couple of days later after several hours searching around that region as a storm was moving in, we finally found the leopard, shown in the grasses below. He then moved a little further down the track he was in, and we followed and we stopped and looked at each other again. We did this a couple of more times, but were not successful in having an opportunity to tag the leopard, as we did not have a dart gun ready. However his mother is already tagged and he still hangs out with her, so hopefully that will be done in coming months.
On another afternoon we were fortunate to track and find a mother leopard in a tree and Kurt was able to take a great sequence of photos of her jumping from the tree. We were also able to see her later moving along through the grass with her cub following behind. That was a really great sight!
We also spent time travelling around the villages doing interviews with the local people to see what their relationships with the predators were, were they losing cattle to them?, did they fear or like them or both?, how were they protecting their homes and cattle with fences?, and could they do that better? etc. Involvement of the community is critical to the success of the project in the longer term. For example, if the local people can benefit from future tourism and have better income and healthcare, they will be motivated to support the park and protect the valuable wildlife. It is their country and they need to be empowered and rewarded in protecting and benefitting from it.
Often we needed a translator to help us with interviewing the older people. The younger people however all learn English at school so you could also talk to them in English. I worked with our guides who taught me some of the local language: Natambuka is good morning, Narashara is good evening, Talitumeri is thank you, Manjara is let’s get food, Tagwenda is let’s get going, a lion is Undavu, a hyena is Umpuru etc.
We often asked people we met if they wanted a photo taken, and the children in particular loved looking at their photo on the camera screen.
We took a photo of this family after an interview. The girls had nothing to hold so I gave them a pencil each, which they were very happy with.
We had a lot of fun with the kids in the villages and they with us. I guess we were “novelty factors”, something different that day for them. But there were always genuine waves or smiles for us as we drove through the villages, and which seemed to grow with story-passing around as time went on. There is also much hardship and suffering too – many children have lost parents to AIDS, with no drugs or medical help available locally for treating HIV infection, or even condom use for preventing its epidemical spreading.
Most animals had houses or fenced areas where they were brought to in the village at night, although they had often been freely roaming or with a herd boy during the day. This goat looked out its ‘house window’ at me.
One day our Land Rover broke down and we had to wait three hours to be rescued. We sat down under a tree at the side of the road and played cards to pass the time. As time went on we were joined by more and more passing villagers, who stopped to spend time with us. We showed them our card game and they showed us theirs. They were very happy when we gave them the pack of cards to take home to continue playing that night.
As it was getting darker they started to sing and dance, and we joined them.
I showed them how to dance a 4 hand Irish reel which they enjoyed trying very much but also found very funny. We all ended up laughing a lot together. Eventually even the herd boy and cattle had joined us on the way home too.
We visited a local primary school in Samudona of 90 children in grades 1 – 4. In Grade 1 there were 23 girls but only 9 boys; in Grade 4 there only 8 girls and 7 boys. We interviewed the principal about what problems they had with predators or other animals near the school. During September and October when the elephants moved through the area, it could be difficult for the children walking to school. At nighttime hyenas often came into the village which some children stayed in during the week, as their homes were too far to walk back to everyday. Imagine having to worry about going outside your home in the evening to come face to face with a group of hyenas!
After we interviewed the principal, all the children performed songs and a dance for us. They were very good and loved showing what they had learned and could perform for us. As school was finished we offered those in the furthest village a ride home, and I ended up with 19 very happy smiling and chattering faces in the back of the Land Rover, in addition to the 6 adults we already had! They each carried one important item: a bowl in which they received their lunch in.
On the way back we had some good experiences in Zambia, … but that is another story or post!
More Information on Project:
TV Coverage on Vox: http://www.namibia-facts.de/tv-tipps/fernsehen/article/namibia-biosphere/