Conservation Project, South Africa

Africa, Phase II – to Mkuse (not Imflozi)

Here’s a snippet from the conservation project… and insight to life protecting endangered species in a controlled game park setting.

Aero Guest Lodge in johannesburg is much like a home away from home.  Delightful, charming, welcoming, nicely appointed, free wifi, a little family restaurant, a lovely garden with pool and other social area and free airport shuttle.  Plus the price is right at $52/night.  Beats a pricey cold airport hotel any day of the week and makes for a nice layover place between travel destinations.

 

Plane to Richards Bay where I met with the group that was later split into 5 at a fuel station where we met the trucks that’d take us to the various reserves.  The mountain range is lovely and makes me miss my days hiking, but here there is wildlife to be concerned about including, but not limited to predatory mammals, deadly snakes and spiders and whatever else calls this part of the world home.  On the truck I met my two fellow volunteers sharing the Mkuse project.  I was scheduled to be in the Imflozi reserve, but as of yesterday apparently, that was changed, so it’s Mkuse for me monitoring mainly wild dogs, but also other animals as way to minimize human/animal conflict especially as it pertains to the local villages and help oversee the restoration of threatened species in South Africa.

 

Andy is from the UK, but now lives in Germany with her husband.  He’ll be retiring soon and the two of them will head out on an 8 month journey through the southern African countries via a tented 4×4.  Andy finished her work earlier, so is here to volunteer with the dogs she loves so much having met them on 2 previous stints here.  Valerie, is a more quiet gal from Canada and will be volunteering for 8 weeks spread over a handful of game parks.  She’s just completed her first 2-week project, so is in the groove about what to expect.  I seem to be the most “virgin” of them all and I think it’s somehow assumed I somehow know what’s going on.

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Arrival was uneventful, just unloading the vehicle of food for the week and our own personal items.  It was Andy who graciously showed me around and let us choose our rooms as they are.  I’m happy to report that I scored my own room on the back side of this thatched roofed basic building from the Apartheid era.  The loo is attached to the kitchen hut and again, rather simple.  The kitchen is communal and apparently we just fend for ourselves with whatever happens to be in stock.  A week from today, there’ll be a “run” into town to pick up more provisions, where we can buy more for ourselves as we like.  I’m glad I brought some extra protein shakes and such to fill in where I can… and thank goodness there’s peanut butter!  Things are a bit old and not all in the best of condition, but hey, I’m not here for the comfort, I’m here for the wildlife experience and to be of service lending hands to the cause.  I have a bed with a mossy net and a lovely porch looking into a bit of nature… nature more touched by humans than I was used to in Botswana, but still, it is lovely.

 

As night began to fall and lightning flashed in the distance, Pippa (the main Monitor) had to head out to track where one of the dog packs was settling in for the evening.  Andy was going to help since she came with telemetry experience, and I asked to come along too.  Off we went into the humid night air with the lighting flashes sparking almost constantly behind the local hills.  We all were a bit concerned about sticking a metal rod into the air to track on a night like this, but onward we went listening for the beeps that’d guide us to the 4-pawed pack.  Many other animals were out including impala, another local gazelle, wildebeest, and earlier we saw zebra and giraffe too.  The most exciting sighting was a first for me… a wild rhino.  Not just one, but a lovely female and her little baby just up next to the truck.  It was pretty dark, so Pippa shown the red spot light on them so as not to bother the animals.  It was a special moment for me and I”m glad we stopped for a couple minutes before heading off again to track the pack.

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We found about where the pack was for the night, as they are day hunters (well, early morning and late evening) and sleep at night.  The timing was good as the lightning was flashing furiously and nearly overhead.  Flashes bolted through the sky in excited pulses, lighting up the park for moments in full color as through the sun were out.  Back at our “home” a fire was going and the other staff, Vincent and one intern, Lita, and Valerie enjoyed the show by the fire.  The electrical extravaganza and accompanying thunder claps lasted for hours, but it never really rained much, just a few drops here and there. The humidity reigned high though and with mossies around the clanking old stand-up fan will be my only air circulation in my closed up room.

 

Each person seems to be here of their own accord without any efforts to introduce one another.  Apparently, we’ll get the scoop on the project tomorrow during our initiation game drive.  But really, the staff have been here so long together researching and tracking all with conservation educations, they just go about their social life and the volunteers join or not… it’s up to them.  I know as we all get into the projects and learn more.  Soon we newbies will be able to contribute to conversation far more… or I hope so.

 

17 March (or so)

We spent the morning, all six of us (Andy, myself, Pippa, Vince, Valerie and Lita) driving madly around the park with the telemetry device in hand, to no avail.  The dogs were way off in an area where the roads don’t go.  Nice to know they have a little space to escape humans on occasion, but sad knowing snares are often hidden in such places.  We did track a cheetah with 3 cubs who’d been out of range for a few weeks.  Pippa and Lita walked in (illegally) to get a visual, but their spot was distant and the family moved on when they spotted the bipeds.

 

It’s an interesting thing being in a park like this after being in the expansive open wilds of Botswana.  I appreciate my experience there all the more and see more clearly why Alwyn loved the Central Kalahari so dearly.  This Mkuse Park is a reserve that boarders a fenced private game park on one side and very poor communities on others. The acacia brush is quite in a good part of this park giving it a lush feel, but also adding to a more closed-in feel.  Due to the proximity of humans to this “wild” park, the animals require constant management and tracking to keep them safe from other humans.  It seems invasive and rude intruding on the space of wildlife so often and so boldy, but the alternative is further encroachment by humans.

 

Our project is mainly keeping watch on the dogs, but also the more recently added lions and the cheetahs too.  These animals are most vulnerable to snaring, so require 2x/day tracking and as much observation as possible for their own protection.  Members of the pack are counted, if one goes missing it could be due to a lion or perhaps a snaring.  If the later, a rescue will ensue if possible via the park rangers.  Natural occurrences are not interfered with, but human caused occurrences are.  It’s a big daily effort to track the animals daily, departing at 4:00am each morning to get to the point they were last seen or recorded (via tracking collar on a few of the animals) the night prior.  This program is designed to fill a major gap in conservation monitoring diligently where KNZ wildlife services does not have the staffing to do so.

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This evening’s outing proved far more fruitful than this morning’s.  We headed out to where we think we tracked them this morning, by the lake and got a strong signal, the thing is to get to where they seemed to be, we had to back track out and come in on another road.  Pippa was keen to get to them, so drove like a mad woman on a caffein high over bumpy roads.  Of course those of us in the back were tossed this way and that, taking the brunt of what the road had to offer.  I knew I’d better just get used to this, as I have 2 weeks of it to look forward to.

 

We finally arrived at a most beautiful area along a small river all shaded with the towering green-trunked fever trees with high sprawling acacia branches, leaves and of course, thorns. The telemetry device beeped eagerly as we drew nearer the wild dogs, then Vince spotted the first.  Pippa was so excited to confirm the sighting and laughed when seeing one of the males, “Cash,” in the midst of some rather headed shenanigans with a lovely one-legged female (a snare victim).  He was whimpering, calling and singing out of complete infatuation with this “heated” gal.  They were literally bound at the hip and when she got tired of supporting him, she just stepped backward and sat on him.  He just stayed, so happy to be with her.  Pippa noticed he’d lost weight as a result of this obsession over the past few days distracting him from eating and hunting.  Well, soon enough she’ll be out of heat and all will be good for the next 2.5 months until she gives birth.

 

We counted about 7 animals there, then a few hunkered down with ears perked forward, others followed suite as they switched into hunting mode.  All at once in a graceful choreography of movement, all 20 members of the pack linked as one and flowed like a singular organism across the open area.  It was a beautiful sight to see.  I’d heard how the wild dogs move when focused on something, namely a potential meal and now I had a taste of their incredible connectedness.

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The dogs moved into the bush, out of sight, so we returned to the telemetry device to track them until they settled in for their night’s sleep.  This took us well past sunset and into the darkness, which turned our eyes skyward.  I reflected on the evening in Xnai Pan (Botswana) Johann shared with us stories of the southern night’s sky including things like;  Finding true south using the southern cross and the two leader stars, the bushman story of the southern cross being 4 lionesses, followed by 2 males all following a herd of giraffe across the night’s sky.  Jupiter was the first to be seen, followed by Venus opposite that near the setting sun.  Orion’s belt flanked by examples of both a new and an old star, the old red one being “Beetlejuice,” then there’s pleiades (the 7 sisters cluster) and both the Magellanic major and minor “clouds” which are actually the closest galaxies to Earth.   About 7:15 we headed back “home.”

About the park:   40,000 hectares, partly fenced, boarders another private reserve which all would love to open to this park, but the owners don’t want their animals to leave on account of lost tourism.  One often has to look at the bright side and see that at least the animals have a place to roam, even if it is far more limited to the space their ancestors enjoyed prior to the boom in human populations.  A diverse park with much open space (many thanks to those most special of gardeners, the elephants), much vegetation, a good bit of woodland and rolling hills.  Animal populations are controlled being that the park size can not expand further, but whenever possible animals are relocated rather than culled.  Some game meat is taken from the parkas a sort of trade with the locals further encourage them to protect this area.  Without parks like this, which seem to be scattered throughout South Africa, wildlife here would truly be a scarcity.   Apparently Kruger NP is by far the largest and can maintain vast amounts of life sustainably.  It’s eye opening to see all this first hand after reading so much about the situations here.  Properly utilized tourism is the saving grace to protecting wild places these days, and here it is no different.

Categories: Africa

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