Big game: hunting for dinosaurs in Zimbabwe's wilderness

Lisa Grainger in The Telegraph (UK) • 14 November 2015

It is 4.30pm on a Thursday in September, and my party is getting crotchety. We have been travelling through the African wilderness since dawn. It is 35C outside but, because we are low on fuel, we have turned the air conditioning off, raising temperatures literally and metaphorically. It has not rained for six months, and the scene resembles a set from Badlands: a seemingly never-ending view of fire-blackened earth, leafless trees and sunburnt grass. Tsetse flies are making meals of our sweating flesh. And although we have been travelling through the adjoining Mana Pools National Park, we have not seen a single creature for hours.

That is not because game is in short supply. Chewore Safari Area is one of Zimbabwe’s best-known hunting concessions, and is renowned for its (fast-disappearing) bull elephants and lions. But like us, we figure, the animals are probably trying to avoid hunters. Besides, we are not here to game-spot, but to visit tracks of creatures that became extinct 65 million years ago: dinosaurs.

Although some significant contributions had been made to the fossil recordby such great names as Geoffrey Bond and Mike Raath, Zimbabwe was not well known for palaeontological finds. Unlike Kenya and South Africa, where several hominid remains have been found, and Tanzania, where in the early 1900s dozens of dinosaur skeletons were excavated and transported to Berlin, Zimbabwe’s rocks had not yielded much to whet international palaeontological interest. Until 1984, that is, when an Australian hunter, Mike Aldersey, looked down in Chewore and saw prints of a creature far larger than he expected – and three-toed.

Unsure of what they were, he reported them, and when the news filtered back, a geologist from Zimbabwe’s Geological Survey was dispatched. What Tim Broderick and his wife, Patricia, saw, he tells me from his garden in Harare, was ‘extraordinary’. Sunk into a floor of sandstone were 14 dinosaur prints, ‘like nothing we had seen before in southern Africa’.

Having made maps of the precise position and size of the prints, in 1990 and 2001, the couple went back with a South African palaeontologist, Prof Theagarten Lingham-Soliar. To date the group has documented more than 100 dinosaur prints in the area, including one trackway incorporating 45 contiguous prints. It is these we have come to find.

Unlike in Tanzania and North America, where museums have been built alongside significant palaeontological finds, in Zimbabwe very few people have seen the prints. They are certainly not easy to spot. If it were not for the hand-drawn maps made by the Brodericks and the Harare-based sedimentologist Ali Ait-Kaci, and a single rusted dinosaur’s spoor sign plonked at a sandy junction, we would have no hope of spotting them.

In this remote part of Zimbabwe, other than hunters and AK-toting anti-poaching rangers, there is nothing but elephants, buffalo and, we have been warned by Lingham-Soliar, lions, which drooled at him from a clifftop when he was last here.

Having parked on the side of the Ntumbe River, and accompanied by an armed national-park ranger, we set off along the wide, dry riverbed. Within a few minutes, a whoop fills the air. Clearly stamped into the grey sandstone are the footprints of what was undoubtedly an enormous prehistoric creature.

About 16in long and 12in wide, each footprint has three toes. We can clearly see that the toes were curved, with joints and claws. From examining the distances between the prints, we can deduce that the beast walked on two legs. And in one spot, where there is an indentation between two parallel prints, we see an indication that it had a balancing tail.

It is almost certain, Lingham-Soliar says, that the beast was an allosaurus: a predecessor to the Tyrannosaurus rex and the dominant carnosaur (or two-legged carnivorous dinosaur) of the late Jurassic age. ‘Of course, we can't say for sure, because they are only footprints,’ he adds. ‘But those three toes are very distinctive – almost like giant birds’.’

The monster’s feet are almost three times the size of mine and, according to Ait-Kaci, it would have stood about 10ft high, with a 40ft-long body. Its most frightening attribute would have been its 40in-long head, featuring two brow horns and large jaws with 4in-long, sharp, serrated teeth.

Most interesting to palaeontologists, though, is evidence that the creatures hunted in packs. Walking further along the riverbed, staying out of the bush to avoid modern-day carnivores, we come to a second set of prints. Like the first set, these were made by a three-toed, bipedal creature. But here there are dozens of prints of varying sizes, some overlapping. ‘What that shows,’ Broderick says, ‘is not only that they were made at the same time, but that these creatures were working together. The smaller ones indicate that there were probably babies about.’

What the dinosaurs were probably doing, all the experts agree, is hunting. Precisely what they were chasing was a mystery until 2001, when Ait-Kaci made an extraordinary discovery nearby – a single, enormous round dinosaur print.

Although we have been given a vague description of the print’s whereabouts, we struggle to locate it. Until, as the sun starts to set, we suddenly spot it: a 35in-wide sunken circle, with four toes – and in a dry stream-bed nearby, seven other similar footprints found later by Patricia Broderick. These giant imprints, Ait-Kaci says, are not just the footprints of an enormous herbivore – probably the brachiosaurus, whose bones have been found farther east in the Zambezi Valley – but the only prints ever found in sub-Saharan Africa of a dinosaur of this kind.

Unlike the carnivorous allosaurus, he explains, this monster was a long-necked, four-legged plant-eater and was gigantic, its 50-ton body about 98ft long. Its footprints are so big, we note, that if someone small curled up, they could fit inside one.

We do not stay to try this out, though. It is getting dark, and we are nervous about lions. Later, sitting around a fire at the nearby hunters’ camp, we hear them roaring just over the river, then the trumpeting of elephants and the whoop of hyenas. It feels so primeval here, we agree, that it would not be too surprising if a dinosaur walked out of the bush.

There are no Jurassic Park moments that night; we are 145 million years too late to see a dinosaur in the flesh. But in the morning, when we stop to climb a rose-hued rocky island in a dry riverbed, we find the partially articulated skeleton of one. Most of its bones are still encased in stone. But on the surface, where the rock has been eroded, we can see a pair of thick bones that look like a human fibula and tibia, rows of what look like ribs the size of a cat’s, and a long line of tiny blobs resembling a tail.

This, Ait-Kaci says, is one of many massospondylus skeletons found in Zimbabwe – a small pro-sauropod creature that lived about 200 million years ago in the Triassic period.

Since 1913, when the first bones were discovered in Zimbabwe, he says, all sorts of species have been found in nine different regions, from an entire skeleton at Sentinel Ranch, near Beitbridge, and a 38in-long Jurassic femur in Gokwe, now housed in the University of Zimbabwe, to a species found nowhere else in the world, Vulcanodon karibiensis, discovered on an island in Lake Kariba in 1969.

Until 10 years ago, most of the discoveries had been made by local enthusiasts. But since then, experts from the Natural History Museum in London, North Carolina’s Duke University, James Cook University in Queensland, the Ohio State University College of Medicine and the Smithsonian in Washington have all been to visit. Material recently collected from the Chitake River bone bed, where partial remains of some 40 individuals of the small late-Triassic coelophysis dinosaur Syntarsus rhodesiensis have been recovered, has been taken to the Smithsonian and Ohio fossil labs. The conclusions reached, Tim Broderick says, he is not yet allowed to reveal, but they will be, he admits, ‘very interesting to palaeontologists all over the world’.

An expert from London has also recently visited the southern shores of Lake Kariba, where in the last five years enormous teeth, Triassic sauropod bones, the armoured dentition of lungfish, fossil forests and Stone Age tools have been found. No other journalist has ever been to see them, so we head off on the second part of our dinosaur hunt.

It is an eight-hour drive and a 90-minute boat ride across the world’s largest manmade lake from Chewore to Musango camp, where the amateur fossil-hunter Steve Edwards has lived for 24 years. This part of the world, neighbouring Matusadona National Park, feels like dinosaur country. The only creatures we spot are of two dinosaur-related species not wiped out in the mass extinction 65 million years ago: a prehistoric-looking crocodile, and the silhouettes of birds in a petrified tree.

‘This place really does feel ancient,’ Edwards agrees, as he shows us a collection of Stone Age and Iron Age finds from two sites nearby. His most precious discoveries are locked away in glass-topped wooden cases (previous guests have apparently had nimble fingers). Neatly labelled are the jaws of a prehistoric lungfish, the lower mandible of a 250-million-year-old relative of the crocodile, a couple of 3in-long thecodontial teeth alongside smaller serrated ones from a carnivorous dinosaur, fossilised dinosaur dung and bits of dinosaur vertebrae.

We are keen to see exactly where Edwards has found these remains, so he takes us out on the lake on his boat. Half an hour away, he pulls up and encourages us to look carefully in the red dirt on the shore. Within a couple of hours we have spotted a third of a dinosaur tooth, bits of fossilised bone, lungfish mandibles and enormous fossilised logs.

The reason the remains have been so well preserved here and in the Zambezi Valley, Edwards says, is that when tectonic-rift movements during the earth’s evolution changed the course of rivers, vast amounts of silt and sand were dumped on top of organic matter, preserving it. It is only today, as rock is eroded by wind and water, or lake waters drop as they have at Kariba, that the treasure is revealed.

The problem is that it may not be there for long. While some bones have been removed by scientists, still entombed by rock so that a proper picture of the palaeoenvironment can be established, others are being removed bytreasure-hunters who do not realise that fossil-collecting is illegal in Zimbabwe, or being weathered by fierce rain or rivers. ‘Bones that I found a couple of years ago on the island in Chewore were no longer there when I last visited,’ Ait-Kaci says. ‘Either the rock had broken off, or they had been swept away.’

Because rivers change course, he adds, prints such as the ones we saw could soon be covered. ‘You were lucky to see them – only about 100 people ever have. In an ideal world, they would be protected. Having found them after they’ve been hidden for millennia, it would be a tragedy if they vanished again.’

Hopefully, they won’t, says Patricia Broderick. Thanks to international academic institutions visiting the country, and teams of local enthusiasts and students, supported by the national parks and museums, she says, ‘palaeontology is alive and well in Zimbabwe’. When bones are found, visitors are generally dissuaded from touching anything, and the site is protected and documented. Then, once scientists have concluded their research, all Zimbabwean fossils are returned to the Natural History Museum in Bulawayo.

Not that the Brodericks have to go to Bulawayo to see evidence of Zimbabwe’s great Jurassic age. In case the dinosaur footprints were covered with river sand or, worse, removed, the couple made two concrete casts of each print – one set for the Zimbabwe Geological Survey and the other for their garden – before the moulds went to the museum. ‘Zimbabwe has its own Jurassic Park,’ Tim Broderick says, looking down at the replica prints winding through his garden. ‘These are a nice reminder.’

The original article appeared in The Telegraph, 13th November 2015 

Photographs taken by Simon John Owen.

To see the dinosaur footprints in Chewore and the fossils in Lake Kariba, contact the following:-

Zim4x4 - self-drive wilderness tours in the Zambezi Valley led by Dick Pitman, author, committed conservationist and founder/former-Director of The Zambezi Society 

Musango Island Safari Campon its own Lake Kariba island, run by experienced owner, pro guide and passionate fossil-hunter, Steve Edwards.

 

 

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