My second ever tracking flight! I have many animals to find but mostly our collared wildebeest. We need to know where they hang out so that Mboo and Dean can find them from the ground and do herd counts and other important stuff. The first 1.5 hours of the flight we find frustratingly few collars. Until we get more east. Finally. That's where they all are. From the air we see herd after herd and my receiver is going crazy. Which is then in turn driving me crazy with all those beeps. When we land after 2.5 hours in the air, I have a big smile on my face. Flying is awesome, but finding what you're looking for is definitely a bonus.
Thursday - peanutsauce
My Zambian sister Anna and I are having a bit of a discussion about the following (life or death) question: should you chop green beans before cooking them or not? I'm saying chopping is a waste of energy, I'm too lazy for that. Anna doesn't agree, her argument (easy eating) is a good one. However, we don't end the discussion in agreement, also because it’s such an uninteresting topic. But now that I've just catapulted peanutsauce into my nose by failing to eat a way too long green bean, I am tempted to say Anna is right. She's right, I'm wrong. Chop your beans, people.
Friday - WAAAAH
Sitting with sleeping Cheetah. It's just past midday and it's super hot. So our very own LCH-439 and her 2 cubs have flopped down in the shade and I've done the same. They look around and nap, I read a book and write the above. Then all of sudden there is a burst of panic. I hear some ruffling as the 3 fearsome predators fly up and run away. I don't understand the commotion but I fly up too and get ready to follow them. then stop to look around all dazed and confused. It was birds... 6 birds landed in the tree above their heads. Scary moments in Liuwa.
Sunday – Flying again
I don't know if this is the same for my colleagues, or maybe they just don't tell me about it but... I fall. I fall regularly. I would almost go ad far as saying: I. Fall. All. The. Time. Its actually quite a miracle I've never gotten more injured than a black eye and the odd bruise. So often I slip away in the loose sand, bump into a deep road I didn't see coming, get launched by a termite mound, etc. You get the point.
Take today... I'm looking for hyenas and decide to go to that hilly thing near that pan in the distance, from where I can scan for collars.
I approach it, look at the ground to find my way, realise too late that I'm now driving on an old porcupine den, see the collapsed tunnel that I'm about to drive into, can't change my course anymore, front wheel goes in, motorbike is stopped by the sudden dip, with a well-meant and rather surprised "f*ck!" yours truly is launched forward, and then sideward, foot gets stuck under the falling bike and so yours truly swings back and falls to the right. In addition to the boob-bruise, I now also know its possible to have a bruise on the side of your foot, people.
In a rather uncomfortable and really impossible position, surrounded by my bag and gear, I lie there for a moment, softly swearing and laughing at myself of course, as usual. My receiver (and therewith me) is still attached to the aerial which is still attached to the bike and as the icing on the cake, my right foot is stuck under the 120 kg motorbike of which the backwheel is much higher than the front wheel.
Because I always think in worst case scenarios I realise that if I can't free myself I will have to lie here in this painful position for at least an hour before someone can come to lift the bike off me. Let alone the embarrassment of course... Ain't gonna happen, hell nah! So I take off as much gear as I can and throw it to the side. I'm starting to lift the bike and wriggle my foot and eventually I manage to free my foot and get up. From there on it takes me another 5 minutes to lift the bike up, get it straight, and kickstart the thing. Another 5 to start it eventually, drive out of the ditch, and collect my poor Field gear. I'm exhausted. But off we go, find those hyenas.
It’s 13.00 hrs and (fucking finally) we have made it to Salwela camp! Our plan had been to leave Matiamanene camp at 6.30, which, in theory, would have gotten us to Salwela 3 hours later. But as is so often the case here in Liuwa, nothing goes according to plan and a few things will break, giving you a proper delay and teaching you some life lessons on the way. We stopped 6 times to put away and repair various things on the car. But now that we are here I’m relieved and proud that we pushed through.
You may or may not remember from last year that Salwela is our “North camp”. Our base when the wildebeest have migrated up North, from where it is easier to find the animals. Now with the drought, the wildebeest have moved North almost a month earlier than last year and that’s why Peter and I are here for the night.
After fixing the issues that were making our lives difficult, we go out. With the tall grass and the herds moving around constantly it’s difficult to find wildebeest and eventually we return to camp a little disappointed that we have only done 4 counts.
I forget about it in the evening though. Once we sit around the fire, Peter, myself and the camp attendant (his name is Super, no joke), I can only realise how special this is. It feels like we are the last three people on the planet and even if we were, we wouldn’t know as there is no internet, no phone reception, no radio, nothing. And so we sit, share stories and food and gaze up at the stars.
I ask Super what the people in the villages here will eat, now that all rice- and maize crops have failed and there is no fish. With an ironic smile he tells me: “Nothing. They will be hungry.” So I ask how they will survive. He tells me that some villages will struggle but other villages do have food such as cassava and sorghum and the people from the struggling villages can buy some food. To put things in perspective for you all: They can buy food using the money they make out of the sale of reed mats. One mat in Kalabo costs 15 kwacha, that is 1 euro, and I don’t even know how long it takes to make one, let alone to transport it or how many they sell. Then to go and buy food, they need to walk 3 to 4 hours to other villages.
I hear all this and I think about how fortunate we are to have food every single day, three times a day. And how much we take it for granted.
I need you to remember this when reading the next story, as it might be upsetting.
Thursday – Being heroically stupid
Today is a better day. We left camp before sunrise and are now covering much ground and are finding herds and collared animals too.
We have picked up a signal that leads us to one of the few pans that still holds water, where we find a big herd of wildebeest. As we approach, the herd calmly moves out of the water. Peter (sitting on top of the car, tracking) points out something weird to me. In the pan, struggling in the mud are three wildebeest. We inspect them more closely and come to the shocking realisation that all three have been snared (trapped with an iron wire) around the neck. The other end of each snare is attached to a heavy log of wood. Every time the animals try to pull, the snare tightens around the neck and they basically strangle themselves.
Snaring is a horrible method of poaching as it is silent (often unnoticed), indiscriminate (not only wildebeest, but any animal can be caught, such as Bola) and most importantly: the animal dies a gruesome, slow and painful death.
(Safety disclaimer: The people in this story are conservationists with an extreme inability to watch unnecessary animal suffering. This makes them quick in their decisions and actions but also stupid to the max. The actions taken in this story are dangerous and when attempting anything like this, it’s advisable to come up with a safer plan. DO NOT try this at home.)
We try radio calling Control to alert a scout team, but we can’t get through and so it’s on us to help these animals. And so we take off our shoes, roll up our pants, grab a leatherman and into the mud we go. Sinking knee-deep into mud and wildebeest faeces, we wade to the first victim. As the animal is weak, we can get close without a problem and although she panics, she’s unable to get up and so we can do what we have planned. Peter sits on the log to stop her from dragging it away and I get to work to cut the snare while the wildebeest is dramatically kicking mud in my face. More difficult than it sound as a leatherman is really not strong enough, but I cut, squeeze, pull, twist and pull again while spitting out muddy water. Then the last wire snaps and, feeling the pressure on her neck lift, the wildebeest gets up on her feet and runs out of the pan, to the safety of the herd. I’m ecstatic! The wire is no longer cutting and choking her anymore and hopefully it will fall off. Her chances of survival have increased drastically. Hopefully that’s one wildebeest saved.
We quickly set our minds on saving damsel in distress no. 2. This promises to be a bigger challenge as this one has managed to drag the log out of the pan and into the tall grass. Although she is falling down every two steps, this wildebeest is rapidly moving away from us so we have to be fast. As we walk up to her we make a quick but (admittedly) not very thought-out plan which has Peter sprinting to catch up with her and jumping onto the log and me diving onto the snare to start cutting in quite the same manner as the first one (replace mud with dry sand and dust here). However… This is a stressed out and injured animal and those are the dangerous ones, kids. So… While I’m trying to get a grip on this snare, the wildebeest struggles up on her feet. As I see this and her fast move towards me, I half get up too but I’m too late. She headbutts me full-force (right in the chest. Bitch.) and I fall backwards into the grass that can best be described as a field of wide needles in this time of year. As I sit there, confused as fuck and shaking from adrenaline, Peter grabs the Leatherman and continues to cut that damn snare, while I check my body for injuries. Surprisingly, and much to my own relieve, I’m fine. No horns have pierced my chest, no hooves have trampled my limbs, all I have is a wound on my wrist that bleeds as if someone opened the tap. As the blood drips down my fingers (this sounds dramatic but really, it’s a tiny wound), Peter cuts the snare and wildebeest number two gets on her feet and runs to the herd. YES!!!
I quickly clean my not-so-life-threatening injury and we wade back into the pan to find suffering animal no. 3. As we move closer we see that she is no longer breathing. Carefully we wade up to her and have to conclude that she is no more. A lifeless eye stares up at the sky, blood covers her mouth, the snare has choked her and she must have bitten her own tongue. So sad, so unfair.
I’m happy we managed to save two wildebeest that day and now that management and law enforcement are aware of our ordeal, this particular pan will be checked often for new snares. I am fine, the wound on my wrist has healed and I’m giggling every day when I see the massive bruise on my boob (did you know it’s possible to get a bruise on your boob, ladies??). However, I do realise that I’ve been lucky. Next time we will make a safer plan, I promise. Sorry mom.
It’s been an emotional week with lots of excitement about the birth of my little nephew Julien and also a bit of sadness about leaving the Netherlands after 4 amazing and super busy months. This emotional rollercoaster makes it extra hard to go through the security gates at Amsterdam Schiphol airport. But I take a deep breath, hug my parents goodbye and turn around. Back to Zambia I go.
My last flight (out of 3) lands at 9.30 am in Lusaka and I quickly clear immigration (hooray for work permit). An extra victory dance is in place when both my bags appear on the luggage belt unharmed. After some quick things in town, the taxi driver takes me to Caz and Kevin’s house, where Daan is to welcome me back. The rest of the day I spend helping Daan, eating one of my last restaurant meals for a while and resting.
I spend another day in Lusaka and where I get to catch up with my friends Caz and Kevin whom I pick up from the airport. Good to catch up after not having seen them for over 4 months!
I’m lucky again, there is no need to rush to Mongu as I will only be able to enter the park tomorrow. And so I take the ‘late’ bus, which leaves the busstation (my most hated place in the whole of Zambia) at 10.00 hrs and eventually get to Mongu at 19.00 hrs (not in a rush either) and spend the night in Country Lodge.
First some food shopping at Shoprite Mongu, then it’s an hour’s drive to get to Kalabo by taxi. I pop into the AP office to say hello to some people and then meet my colleague Teddy after over a year of not seeing each other. Together we cross the pontoon and drive into the park. After 2 hours of sand, dust and catching up, I finally reach my destination. My home: Matiamanene in Liuwa! After 4 days of travelling I couldn’t be happier to be back. I'm ready for a busy dry season that promises many new adventures. Bring it on. I’m back in the game!
My first motorbike fieldday in 4 months! I have only one goal: Must. Find. Hyenas. So I set off early and drive to the Mutata area. On my way I see the lions from a distance as they casually stroll away from the kill they made overnight, leaving 5 feasting jackal with the scraps. As I approach the carcass to take samples, the lions decide to turn around and move back to their kill. Because neither me, nor the jackals plan to be next on the menu, we bolt and make room for the mighty Liuwa pride.
I arrive at the Mutata den only to find out that it was abandoned and they moved. That is a bit of a bummer as I’m now fairly sure I won’t get to see any cubs today, but I’m still determined to find some adult hyenas and maybe even their new den.
After covering about 40 km I’m almost starting to get disappointed with myself. Have I really lost my hyena tracking skills in 4 months of absence? The answer is no. Because just after I decided to head back to camp I see the familiar shape of a hyena head sticking out of the yellow grass. I’m over the moon when I approach and find out it’s LHY-525 (Muloho), one of the hyenas I’ve seen the most last year, and a female whom I recognise as LHY-076. Even though they are sleeping in the blistering morning sun, I still spend some time with them, just because I’m so happy to see them.
At the same time I realise that I will continue to struggle to find hyenas these next few months. The park has barely had any rain this rain season and it shows. It is incredibly dry, dusty, yellow and there is hardly any pans in the south that hold water. As a result most wildebeest have already moved up to the north, followed, by most of the carnivores. We will see what this year will bring, but it will be different and interesting for sure.