Mana Pools late dry season - what are you really seeing?

Dick Pitman • 11 October 2019

During the late dry season, when tourism is at its peak, the camps and lodges in Mana Pools are packed, and there are vehicles and people tearing about the place, on and off-road. Not for nothing has the Circular Drive been nicknamed "the racetrack" by older Mana hands. It's a nightmare for anyone with any sense of wilderness values.

But how many of these visitors realize what they are actually seeing? The famed dry-season wildlife concentration on the Mana “floodplains” (more correctly “alluvial river terraces”) is a nightmare for wildlife as well. They aren’t there because they want to be. They have to be there, because of water and fodder shortages elsewhere. And fodder swiftly becomes scarce on the floodplains, as well, under this immense pressure. 

Grazers and browsers are weak, ill-nourished, and under great stress. Furthermore, the females of several species are pregnant, in preparation for giving birth at the onset of the rains.

If you visit Mana at this time of year remember that it’s all about “energy”. Think about it. For example, every time you drive round a corner and a group of impala, buffalo, zebra is startled into moving out of your way, that’s an expenditure of energy they can ill afford. That energy has to come from food. And there’s very little food around.

The problem, of course, is that wildlife tourism (and the marketing thereof) tends to focus on spectacular gatherings of wildlife; and the Mana floodplain is one of very few spectacular dry-season “concentration areas” for wildlife in the entire Zambezi Valley.

The remainder of the Park – the hinterland – is mostly unattractive to tourists, except for the very few natural occurrences of perennial water (as at Chitake Spring) or a handful of “pumped pans” (which can bring their own ecological problems). Otherwise, much of this hinterland consists of rather featureless mopane and other woodland, such as the dense vegetation type known as ”dry forest” to the biologists, and “jesse bush” to most local people.

All these “back-country” areas are, however, of critical importance to wildlife in general, because there’s no way that 40sq km of Mana floodplain could support even a fraction of the Park’s wildlife year-round.

Here's how it works. When the summer rains begin, many wildlife species disperse throughout the Park where natural – but temporary – water is abundant, and forage plentiful. At this time, the floodplains can be almost deserted, except for the resident impala and an occasional elephant bull.

Later in the year, though, the back-country pans dry out, and the forage is slowly diminishing. A slow tidal wave of wildlife begins to move back to the Zambezi in general, and the Mana floodplains in particular.

This is because, firstly, there is water, both in the Zambezi River and in the actual Mana Pools themselves. Secondly because, in stark contrast to the sands of the Zambezi Valley hinterland, the Mana floodplains consist of fertile silts that support lush grazing that has been largely untouched during the rainy months when wildlife has been dispersed throughout the Park.

Thirdly – and most famously - because of the Winterthorn (Faidherbia albida) woodlands that have developed on these silts. These amazing trees have a so-called “reverse foliage cycle”: they shed their leaves in summer, and grow them again as winter approaches. So they represent an irresistible supply of dry-season browsing, and also, at this time, develop an abundance of highly nutritious pods, beloved by elephants in particular. The result is that during the late dry season, a goodly percentage of the 2000sq km Park’s population of herbivores is crammed into a mere 40sq km of Mana floodplain.

And so, too, are most of the tourists.

Meanwhile, predators – notably lion and wild dog (the current obsession) – are very well fed indeed, but are under a different form of stress: that of being hounded 24/7. They’re well fed, unlike the herbivores, but don’t get a moment’s respite, from dawn to dusk. Always people following; people watching, often in droves, in vehicles or on foot.

That's stressful for any species, especially with the other current tourist obsession in full spate - the "close encounter". Most whale-watching operations have approach limits of 50 or 100metres; maybe it's time to consider something similar for some of Mana's wildlife species. Google the whale-watching restrictions. You may not like them, but they prioritise the welfare of wildlife over the convenience of tourists. It'll also make you realise just how much freedom we have in Mana. Sadly, that freedom is increasingly abused.

In other words: stop being a mere “tourist” in search of the spectacular and think biology instead. Try to visualise things from a buffalo’s (or impala’s. or zebra’s) point of view: you’re hot, tired, weak from hunger and desperately searching for such scraps of food that still remain, with the constant threat of the predators always around, waiting to pick you off.

Act accordingly, with sensitivity and understanding. Think about what’s really happening, when groups of animals feel compelled to move out of your way when you are driving, or out of your car and trying for that “special” photograph.

And - talking of photography - analyse, with a fresh eye, those “beautiful” photos of hazy blue Mana woodlands with Boswell up on his hind legs. OK, we all take such photos. But see, as well, the bare ground and high browselines out of reach of everybody else!

It’s very different, at other times of year. You may or may not see wildlife in great numbers. But the herbivores you do see, from elephant to impala, are well-fed and in good condition – in stark contrast to the weak, thin and exhausted animals you see during the mid- to late dry season.

Lions emerge from the thickets they’ve retreated to, in the dry season, and lie about on the roads.

Often, too, the Zambian hills stand out clear and green against a backdrop of blue, sometimes with beautiful cloudscapes and sunsets; and – a real bonus – you may even be the only people in the Park!

Dick Pitman, the founder-chairman and former director of The Zambezi Society has spent the last forty years writing about, flying over and helping to conserve the Zambezi's wild areas.  

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