A VISIT IN THE GREEN SEASON.
ZIM4x4 made its customary rainy-season visit to Mana Pools early in January, and - unlike last year - we hit the "sweet spot."
Although it rained fairly constantly for our first 24hrs there, it then cleared up nicely. The sun came out and began to dry the roads, and soon we were able to get a good distance up the Mcheni road, albeit with a good deal of slipping and sliding.
There were baby warthogs and impala all over the place; but it soon became obvious that Mana was - to put it bluntly - stuffed with elephants. We fairly quickly got a sighting of Boswell (the famous elephant who stands on his hind legs to reach high branches). With the ground covered in dense grass he saw no reason whatsoever to perform his stand-up routine with the “albida” trees.. He was himself accompanied by a cohort of younger bulls, but they in turn formed only a small part of an overall influx both of familiar animals, such as Vee, and total strangers, some of whom were inclined to be irritable. Family groups, likewise, were all over the place, again with a very noticeable variability in temperament between placid (year-round residents) and paranoid (wet-season visitors).
What makes it all so truly satisfying, though, is to see well-fed animals after the harshness and near-starvation of the late dry season. They may not have totally regained condition by this time, but there's an unmistakeable spring in the step and insouciance of manner. The baby warthogs have the energy to rush around and play. So do the baby impala. There's a lot of amicable wrangling, both among the older bulls and the younger teenagers; and a delightful excess of energy that led the latter to challenge us more or less daily.
The only ones who may have been slightly depressed by this excess of grazing were the lions. The grass and herbs were growing rapidly, and even during our brief stay visibility deteriorated significantly. Couple this deteriorating visibility with increased liveliness and stamina among prey species, and those lions are actually going to have to work for their living, instead of living a life of easy dry-season pickings. More than once, we came across lion groups gazing out over seas of growing grass with marked lack of enthusiasm. OK, well, we may have imagined it, but it sure looked that way!
We also managed some of our best-ever sightings of species such as jackals, which may sound a bit mundane, but they are in fact exceptionally pretty little animals.
But there's a lot else to see and experience at this time, besides large mammals. The famous Valley woodlands resound with the song of woodland kingfishers which, being summer migrants, aren't present in the usual tourist season.
The dung beetles are active on the Kalahari sand roads, and we spent many entertaining times watching them battle it out over mating rights, manufacturing their dung balls, and trundling them off down the road. Similarly, dung piles were beginning to attract multitudes of butterflies. The red velvet spider-mites (see Tail-ender below) were in evidence; and wildflowers coming into bloom.
So - would ZIM4x4 undertake guided safaris at this time? No, we would not. It's impossible to predict the rainy seasons; and we're be just as likely to arrive either before this magical "window", with barely a blade of grass to be seen, or after it, when the vegetation is too high to see anything and most wildlife has gone anyway.
We could hit a dry week in Mana and be able to get around a bit - or we could sit under the thunderclouds for a week, in the pouring rain, with all the roads closed. Timings could be seriously disrupted by flooded roads (even the main Harare-Chirundu road was closed by floods shortly before our own trip). In other words: it's a gamble. But when it does pay off, it's magnificent. Have a look at our video - Mana in January on the Zim4x4 webpage on WildZambezi.com.
HUMAN & ANIMAL BEHAVIOR
It's been very obvious, this past year, that some visitors to Zimbabwean wildlife areas are in serious need either of education - or, alternatively self-discipline - as regards their behaviour in the presence not only of other visitors but - most importantly - of wildlife.
Walking by the general public, such as is permitted in Mana Pools, is a rare privilege that needs to be cherished. It is not particularly difficult or dangerous, in the open environment of the Mana Pools floodplains, as long as a few simple rules are observed; and most members of the public who exercise this privilege do so in a cautious and sensitive manner.
However, this privilege is in grave danger of being lost to the public because of the behaviour of a few extremely ignorant and selfish people, mostly masquerading as "wildlife photographers."
In 2014 wild dogs, lions, and sometimes elephant (especially "icons" such as Boswell and Vee) did not get a moment's peace during the Mana high season. Gangs of these "photographers", with vast lenses and egos to match, have been running after them, "sitting" with them all day long (within a few feet, if they can manage it); and following their every move.
To this minority, the idea of "respect for wildlife" is laughable. If the pics I've seen on social media recently are anything to go by, some members of the public have already got hold of the idea that bull elephant charges are inevitably "mock", and that any old Joe can go and plonk themselves down a few metres from an old bull and try their hand at "elephant whispering".
It may make for exciting photography, but some of Mana's lions and elephants are becoming habituated to humans as a result.
One of these would-be elephant-whisperers is almost bound to get killed in the foreseeable future. There is an endless supply of idiots, and one more removed from the human gene pool is no bad thing. Far worse, though, are the changes in wildlife behaviour that may result both from endless harassment and from over-familiarity with humans. We've already noted elephants standing expectantly inside our campsites, possibly waiting for us to give them pods. We've noted lions taking near-permanent refuge in dense thickets; we've seen interference with wild dog hunts, and heard of grossly intrusive behaviour at den sites.
Worst of all, of course, is that some innocent elephant will get himself shot for doing what elephants, under provocation, may do.
But respect should not extend only to those species capable of killing you. All wild species deserve respect - for their space, their way of life, their right to exist other than as a tourist spectacle or photographer's image. Genuine wildlife enthusiasts and photographers will always try to ensure that their activities are as non-intrusive as possible.
We need to see a radical change in behaviour by this minority of disrespectful visitors, and peer pressure exerted by the large majority of responsible and knowledgeable walkers. Otherwise, the public walking privilege - that has endured for decades - may be lost.
We are not saying that the safari operator community is totally blameless, either. However, there do exist both peer-pressure and licensing mechanisms for dealing with errant operators. Few, if any, such mechanisms exist where the general public is concerned, other than some rather distasteful Facebook slanging matches. We look forward to the structuring and enforcement of a stringent Code of Conduct, for the benefit of Mana's wildlife.
(Editor's Note: Conservation organisation the Zambezi Society, is assisting ZimParks and the Mana Pools tour operators to produce a Code of Conduct for visitors to the Park and to Chitake Springs (in the south of Mana Pools). They are asking for feedback from the public to help them do this. Answer their quick questionnaires at these links:-
Mana Pools Consultation Questionnaire
Chitake Consultation Questionnaire