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Hunters Hunted Searching for carnivores in Zambia

8 October 2010

  • Dr Matt Becker and his team attach a radio collar to an immobilised hyena. Insert: A hyena that has just been shot with a tranquiliser dart.

Sure, viewing wildlife in their natural surroundings is a wonderful experience. But what if you’re looking for something a bit more hands-on? Stephen Cunliffe received the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to assist rangers and researchers in collaring some of Liuwa Plain’s carnivores during a “participation safari”

I first visited Liuwa Plain Nati onal Park in November 2008, and the overland route we followed to get there had been brutal. Driving north across Barotseland from Ngonye Falls, we endured a long, bumpy day on the vertebra-compacti ng Sesheke-Senanga-Mongu road before eventually reaching Mongu in the late aft ernoon. Aft er replenishing our fuel and food stocks, we set out to tackle the notorious seasonal track across the Zambezi fl oodplain. Thanks to the early rains, the route had provided challenging and exciti ng driving conditi ons as black cott on soils alternated with fi ne alluvial river sand, both with a strong tendency to thwart our forward progress! We took our ti me and embraced the challenges before fi nally arriving, dirty and ti red, at the gateway to the park. I soon discovered that the tough approach had been well worth the eff ort as we enjoyed the privilege of immersing ourselves in one of Africa’s fi nest wilderness desti nati ons. Indeed, on my fi rst night in Matamanene Camp, I had an up-close-and-personal experience with the legendary Lady Liuwa – reputedly the last lioness in western Zambia.

The plight of Lady Liuwa, the incredible atmosphere of the place and some genuinely world-class game viewing ensnared my soul. I had no doubt that I would soon return to the majesti c plains of Liuwa. As I now made my way back to Liuwa in July 2010, I was as excited as a kid in a candy store. Getti ng there this ti me proved to be even harder than before. An unusually wet rainy season had resulted in high water levels and the road across the Barotse fl oodplain was submerged. This necessitated a circuitous route through the Kafue to reach Mongu and then crossing by boat to Kalabo. We took a small speedboat through the labyrinth of channels and made the journey to Kalabo in three hours. Our vehicles, precariously loaded on a revamped catt le barge, chugged in eight hours later! I had come to Liuwa to join a unique “parti cipati on safari” that allowed dedicated nature enthusiasts to witness cutti ngedge conservati on in acti on. The fi ve-day safari focused on essenti al research work being conducted by the Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP). The project and the safaris were the brainchild of the African Parks Network (APN) – the not-forprofi t conservati on organisati on that manages Liuwa Plain Nati onal Park.

The aim of these unusual safaris is to raise money to support the ongoing re-introducti on and monitoring of key wildlife species in the park, while allowing a fortunate few to parti cipate in hands-on conservati on work that’s focused on tracking, darti ng and collaring specifi c carnivore species. Our group of excited wildlife junkies was entrusted to the care of an impressive team of dedicated professionals that included ZCP director Dr Matt Becker, park manager Craig Reid and documentary fi lmmaker Herbert Brauer. During the introductory briefi ng we learned that Liuwa supported a complex diversity of wildlife, including Africa’s second largest wildebeest migrati on. APN’s mission is to restore the natural ecological processes in Liuwa, and predati on is considered a key factor. Craig explained: “In striving for management excellence, we want all our wildlife decisions, such as translocati ons and miti gati on of human-wildlife confl ict, to be well informed. Our collaborati on with the ZCP will allow us to better understand the predator component of the Liuwa system. We are especially interested in the impact of key carnivore species – lion, hyena, cheetah and wild dog – on prey species, and on each other.” I had no way of knowing that the 36- hour carnivore extravaganza of a lifeti me awaited me. It all began when Craig invited me to join him for a microlight fl ip over the park in a bid to locate one of Liuwa’s wild dog packs. As we fl ew over a landscape dominated by seasonally fl ooded grasslands and woodland islands, we spotted herds of wildebeest, zebra, tsessebe and red lechwe as they clustered around seasonal pans. We even spott ed a recently reintroduced herd of buff alo, but the wild dogs were nowhere to be seen. With the sun dipping towards the horizon, there was ti me for one last roll of the dice and Craig decided to fl y along the Munde Stream. One moment everything seemed tranquil on the ground. The next, all hell broke loose. “There they are,” yelled Craig, as he banked the microlight sharply. Down below I spott ed the pack: nine dogs going hell for leather aft er a scrub hare. Somehow the hare’s zigzagging manoeuvres kept it a couple of metres ahead of the pursuing dogs. When it fi nally bolted down a hole, Craig swung south and headed for the airstrip. Upon landing, we immediately jumped into a Land Cruiser and shot off towards the spot where we had last seen the dogs. We found them sti ll digging for their elusive quarry. Eventually they gave up and set off in search of bigger prey.

We watched in awe as they terrorised herds of wildebeest and relentlessly att acked scavenging hyenas. Later the same night we awoke to the laughter of hyenas and the high-pitched twitt ering of wild dogs. We dived back into the Cruiser and sped off in the directi on of the animal cacophony. We found the dogs just as they were being chased off a kill by a huge clan of hungry hyenas. The dogs fought back bravely, but only managed to steal scraps as the hyenas tore into the carcass and gulped down the meat. In a matt er of minutes, only skin and bones remained. The dogs took off again, and we headed back to bed.

The following morning I joined Alex Liseli, a Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) scout and tour guide, for a welcome opportunity to stretch my legs on a bush walk. Alex turned out to be a pleasant and knowledgeable character. With seven years’ experience in the park, he has culti vated an inti mate knowledge of Liuwa’s fauna and fl ora. While admiring a large fl ock of watt led cranes, we were interrupted by the arrival of a small group of lions. Lady Liuwa came strolling across the fl oodplain with her two handsome suitors (recently re-introduced males from the Kafue) in close att endance. We stood in awed silence and observed the tawny cats unti l they melted into a shady woodland island to rest for the day. A couple of hours later we stumbled upon the wild dogs just aft er they had brought down a young wildebeest. We sat quietly and, with the aid of binoculars, watched them fi nally thwart the hyenas and enjoy a decent feed. By the ti me we walked back into camp, I was in seventh heaven! Aft er a quick snack, we piled into the vehicle and went to watch Dr Becker in acti on as he darted a spott ed hyena and placed a radio collar around its neck. It was fascinati ng to observe and parti cipate in Matt ’s valuable work. The grand fi nale of the trip awaited us aft er lunch. Matt planned to dart and collar one of the dogs before the pack became acti ve in the evening. We located them easily enough, but they were uncharacteristi cally skitti sh and jumpy. It seemed as if they could sense the presence of the dart gun. Aft er an hour of slow manoeuvring, Matt felt he was close enough to take the shot. We held our breath in anti cipati on.

He pulled the trigger, but the dart missed its mark. Due to the commoti on, the dogs were now awake and were preparing to hunt. There would be no more opportuniti es to dart one of the dogs, but at least we could follow and observe them in acti on. They set off with purpose, evidently not sati sfi ed with the wildebeest calf they had devoured that morning. Their body language showed that they meant business and it wasn’t long before they spott ed a disorganised herd of grazing wildebeest. The pack took off and made a beeline towards their prey. Alarm snorts erupted from the plain as the panicked animals franti cally tried to group together and organise their defences. Chaos ensued. With the dogs bearing down on them, the herd panicked and fl ed. The dogs chose their quarry wisely. They split the herd and latched onto a yearling.

The attack was incredibly efficient. With nine wild dogs attacking the poor wildebeest from all sides, it wasn’t long before it succumbed and collapsed. The dogs noisily ripped into the carcass, swallowing huge chunks of meat. The hunters knew it wouldn’t be long before the thieving hyenas arrived and wreaked havoc with their dinner, so they ate voraciously. Aft er a while, the fi rst hyena approached. The dogs managed to chase it off , but soon the whole hyena clan arrived. Outnumbered and outgunned by a superior predator, the dogs surrendered the carcass and retreated to a nearby waterhole. As the dogs lapped up water to wash down their dinner, we enjoyed some ice cold Mosi lagers. We toasted the Liuwa team who had delivered experiences beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. This was wild Africa at her very best and definitely worth the effort to get there!