Monday, 14th of August – Big paws
Today I was lucky enough to be so close to a lion that I could measure the size of her paw against my hand. AP, DNPW and ZCP together put a VHF-satellite collar on lioness LLi-281.
We gathered at the location our colleague was still watching these lions from (after a whole afternoon, night and morning of following them). ZCP vet Dr. Kambwiri Banda then darted the lioness and after ‘she was down’ we all moved in to put on the collar and help Dr. Banda with health checks and sampling. I was on breath-counting duty, which means I had to watch the breathing and inform the vet about any anomalies. Meanwhile I still had plenty of time to be mesmerized about the situation I was in. I was sat next to a beautiful adult female lion. I was touching her, stroking her fur, talking to her, I could see every hair, every muscle, her claws, her paws, every detail. It was amazing!
After an hour of being under, the vet administered the reversal drug, which woke her up and after a few minutes of drowsiness and imbalance, she was lovingly greeted by her sister and adopted child (nephew). The reunion was beautiful and showed perfectly the strong bond these lions have. For over 10 minutes they did not let go of each other and kept rubbing their heads and bodies together as if LLi-281 had been gone for days.
Thursday, 17th of August – Roll it gal
I’m at a den watching a hyena mother lovingly nurse her 2-3 month old black cub. The cub is suckling happily, squeaking sometimes when it won’t go fast enough.
Another slightly older cub (4-5 months) is watching jealously. His mother is not around but he would like some milk too. He’s trying to get in on it next to his younger friend. Hyena mothers nurse their own offspring only and momma is having none of it. She snaps in his direction and he backs off a bit.
He is determined though and soon approaches again. Again the nursing mother snaps at the cheeky cub and again he backs off. Still not enough of a warning, the little culprit tries again. Alright, that’s it, momma is done. She is fast to raise her head and give one more good snap to the cub standing at her tail. Because of the force behind the upwards-backwards move she rolls over on her back. For a moment, all I see is 4 hyena paws up in the air, then… she’s gone. Leaving her cub looking around in utter confusion. A few seconds later her confused head, covered in sand, appears. She was bedded on the edge of the den burrow and has rolled straight into the hole. She climbs out, casually pretending nothing has happened and lies down again far away from the edge. While I struggle to not burst out laughing, her cub continues its happy suckling and the older one has understood the message, he beds down a few metres away and falls asleep.
Friday, 18th of August – When kickass motorbike carnivore researching goes wrong
I am out on the motorbike again, planning a den visit at the Mutata clan. I am hopeful, some days ago I found a place that could possibly be a new den and I hope to find some new cubs or hyenas we haven’t seen for a while.
On a not so bumpy short grass plain I speed up a little bit and I look around to find the familiar shape of a walking hyena. When I look back down I see a massive hole (they are dug by wildebeest to lay in), it’s too late to do anything and I know: I’m screwed, this is not gonna end well. The bike goes down into the hole, my body is thrown forward, same moment the frontwheel goes up again out of the hole, but my face is still there… My head, eye and cheekbone hit the handlebars full speed and I’m thrown on the ground. The first seconds I see nothing and I freak out, thinking I have shattered my eye socket and/or just partially blinded myself for the rest of my life.
I start to blink and soon have visual of the world around me, my scattered fieldgear and the motorbike on its side next to me, the engine still running. I switch it off and try to sit up. I’m fine. My eye hurts and starts swelling immediately, but I’m fine. I’m even thinking that I can climb on the bike and ride back to camp, but I stop myself from doing that, not a great idea. So I grab my radio and start calling ZCP base. When I hear my own shaky voice and feel the pain around my eye I start to cry my eyes out (haha… joke), because I realise how damn lucky I have been to be fairly ok. After some communicative detours (thanks Papa Mike) I reach Daan and within 10 minutes he comes to my rescue. He gives me some first aid care, together with a colleague who came to help, he loads the bike on the car and we drive back to camp. With an icepack and a ‘Happy plaster’ (this one has watermelons on it) I am sent to bed. I have the first black eye of my life and, because of the swelling, it’s a struggle to keep it open. But I know for sure that from now on that is exactly what I’ll do every second I am on that bike!
Sunday 20th of August – When the urgent meets the unexpected
The camping trip we are on since yesterday (wildebeest counts again), will last for a few nights. During trips like this we go to the absolute middle of f**cking nowhere, we live and work outside and say goodbye to the very few luxuries we have, including a toilet. Luckily, Daan and I are very open about our inevitable courses of mother nature.
And so it happened today that around noon we were on our way to the next collared wildebeest that had sent the receiver into a beeping fit when Daan announced he was going to look for a nice spot to take a dump. We are driving through a scattered woodland and in the distance he sees some palmtrees that seem like the perfect bushtoilet. I am on the roof of the car which makes it difficult to communicate while driving, so naturally I think I misheard when I hear my boyfriend shout: ‘CHEETAH!’
Me: Sorry, WHAT?
D: I said: CHEETAH!
D: Over here San, RIGHT WHERE YOU CAN SEE THEM!
And indeed… I change my gaze from far distance to 20 m ahead. Right under Daan’s proclaimed bushtoilet-trees I see 3 pairs of cheetah-eyes looking at this weird big car with a person on top. It’s cheetah 180 and her 2 cubs. 180 recently received a new collar that only sends out VHF signal on certain days, making it extraordinary to find her on days when the VHF is off… Such as today. What a coincidence to just see her right there, under the trees that we were only driving to because they seemed a nice place for a shit! We look at the 3 dozing cheetah for a while and then turn around, off to find a new spot.
Monday, 7th of August – Lunar eclipse
Through the trees I see the moon in the night-sky. She is supposed to be full today but she looks a bit odd instead. As if someone took a bite out of her. I get up and can now see the moon clearly, there is indeed a shade over her. ZCP team is in the kitchen and excited I shout: ‘hey guys, I think there’s a lunar eclipse!’. Everyone comes to see it and phones come out to check whether there should be that eclipse tonight. Our slow internet gives confirmation surprisingly fast; yes there is a lunar eclipse. But here in the bush you don’t need internet to find out, all you really have to do, is look up at the sky every night.
Tuesday, 8th of August – A legend dies
A sad day for Liuwa: Lady Liuwa has left us.
Lady, the last lioness, who survived on the plains all by herself for over 7 years.
Lady, the lioness that kept defying the odds.
Lady, who took care of Sepo, who came from Kafue, and showed her where to go and how to hunt on the plains.
Lady, who helped Sepo raise her cubs, playing the role of babysitting granny every time Sepo went to hunt. In return, Sepo took care of Lady during her retirement, when she was no longer able to help in the hunt. It is this bond that has helped both Sepo and Lady survive for years.
Lady, who became an estimated 17 years old, instead of the lion’s average: 14.
Strong Lady, the guardian of Liuwa. She defied the odds time and time again, she touched many souls, became the pride of Liuwa and the foundation of Liuwa’s new pride. Now it is time for her well-deserved rest in peace, leaving Liuwa in good paws.
PS: Lady is the star of documentary The Last Lioness, if you can look it up I’d totally suggest it, it’s pretty cool, tells Lady’s story and has some pretty images of Liuwa too.
Wednesday, 9th of August – Worried
Any person working with wild animals will tell you that forming an emotional bond is, the worst thing you can do. Whether we like it or not, nature will take its course and she doesn’t care more or less about our favourite animals. An emotional bond will give anyone unnecessary grief when the time comes for that particular animal, even though we know very well that “that’s nature”. Despite that, I can’t help seeing an animal and trying to figure out its character, wondering what it is thinking when we follow it for hours and how it communicates to its fellows or us. So when an animal we follow regularly, disappears off the radar, I’m worried. I can’t help but think of all possible scenarios, since we don’t have one a single clue of what could have happened. But "that's nature".
Friday, 11th of August – Where the heck are the animals
Daan and I are out in the North for a few days. We are here to do wildebeest counts as this is the time that the wildebeests migrate far away from Matiamanene. Here in the North it is wet for longer and there are more fires which means there are plenty of new grass shoots to feed on. To reach our herd count targets, we have to go to them and find the collared individuals. A herd count mission in the North means a camping-trip; driving around, finding the herds and scanning for collars during the day, setting up camp somewhere under a tree, making a fire and sleeping in a tent at night.
So here we are, in the North, driving around and scanning like we should. But there is a minor problem… We can’t find Liuwa’s 25.000 wildebeest… We find lots of cool things all day, but the primary goal (wildebeest herd counts) has still not been accomplished much…
Until today on day 3 of the trip, by the end of the afternoon, the tides turn. We finally find wildebeest. Oh boy, do we find wildebeest! In the far distance we see 3 black dots sticking out of the tall grass, 3 wildebeest so it seems. As we get closer the number becomes bigger and bigger until we are surrounded by an estimated 8000 of them, all on that one plain. Wildebeest as far the eye can see! Liuwa may be flat but she still surprises us every minute of the day. Within 30 minutes we find 4 of the collared individuals and with a smile on our face and full of hope for tomorrow, we find ourselves a nice camping spot and have a celebratory beer.
Saturday, 12th of August – A lion’s bond
The past week has been something else. With sad things but beautiful things flowing out of them. We have witnessed something that, with my human emotions and interpretation, I can describe as: the bond of a family. A lion pride in this case. Bonds and connections that are touching, overpowering and life-saving. My human eye saw lions mourning the loss of their guide, leader and adopted family member: Lady. Young ones got themselves into a panicked situation but survived with indispensable help of other pride members that fed them and kept them safe. It was amazing to see that young lion snuggled up against 2 adult lionesses, sheltering him from the big plains. Daan has described it very straightforward: these lions just go on like they always do, sometimes they are joined by other pride-members and when they are, because they are the same pride, they take care of each other, that’s how lions work. But I like to think it is also a little bit of love and compassion they feel towards each other and each other’s offspring.
I am actually writing this on the 13th. It’s been a long day, night and new day. Circumstances have required us to keep an eye on the lions so when Daan and I returned from our North-trip yesterday, we didn’t have time to go to camp. We went straight to the lions and stayed with them throughout the night. They covered a vast distance (18 km) but did not manage to hunt successfully. When they bedded in the shade at 07.30 am, we did some wildebeest counts in the surrounding area until our colleague came to take over the lion-watch. When we finally returned to camp we were dirty, hungry and exhausted from our 30-hour workday. A long shower and nap made it all a lot better. It’s all part of the job, unexpected situations sometimes lead to broken nights and non-stop work. We don’t do 9 to 5. Ever. It’s one of the reasons why our work is so unique and rewarding. The lions are ok by the way!
Monday, 31st of July - Off we go
17.10 – with a 15 minute delay, our mini plane to London lifts us from Dutch soil. From London we will have 40 minutes to find our flight to Nairobi and from there we’ll go on to Lusaka. With mixed feelings I look out of the window at the green, organised, flat country below. It’s always difficult to leave family and friends behind and go to the other side of the equator. Everything being organised and knowing I officially reside in Zambia from now on, makes it even harder.
For a minute, I feel tears welling up in my eyes (I think it looked as dramatic as it seems).
But the excitement is bigger and I get to share it with Daan, my solid rock, my piece of peace. We are going back to Zambia. After all the hard work and stress, we are going home! I have a job, a work permit, a great boyfriend and endless exciting times ahead.
And so a big smile pushes the tears away. Here we go!
Wednesday, 2nd of August - Plants
We are driving around Lusaka in the beautiful Landrover that was donated to ZCP. We are running errands as one does in Lusaka: Driving from one place to the other, slightly stressed out, trying to do everything as quickly as possible, failing because… oh well.. Zambia, but mostly: stuck in traffic ALL. THE. TIME. On one of our missions we see a place that sells plants. I am over the moon, because for 60 kwacha I am now the proud owner of a real Aloe plant! A simple dream of several years that was always difficult to fulfil because I either couldn’t find the one I wanted, or (and this was more often the case) I knew I wouldn’t stay in one place long enough to actually watch it grow. But now I can. And in the right climate too!
Friday, 4th of August - Spider Harry
Today was the day!!! We finally got back to Matiamanene camp, our home in Liuwa. Good to see our colleagues again and everyone was over the moon to see the new Landrover. A lot of work awaited us in unpacking the fully loaded vehicle, sorting food items and unpacking bags in our tent that is becoming increasingly full.
After all this sorting, unpacking, stuffing, etc. I was craving a shower. Upon entering the bathroom, I saw that everything was right where I left it. Shampoo on the shelf, soap in its box, big massive giant spider Harry still in the corner of the shower….
BIG MASSIVE GIANT SPIDER HARRY IN THE CORNER OF THE SHOWER??!!
Now, I should probably add to this story that Harry has been haunting me since April. He started showing up randomly in different places in the bathroom right in the week that Daan was not here. After scaring the crap out of me for 4 nights straight, Harry vanished and I didn’t see him anymore. Funny enough the last time I saw Harry was on the day before Daan returned to Liuwa.
As I didn’t see him any longer, the memory of Harry faded to the back of my mind, where he became a distant image, a bad bad bad nightmare that gave me shivers whenever I recalled it. Until one cold June night, Harry showed up again. This time it was Daan who found him. Daan was excited about his sighting of such a huge spider. All I could do was stare at it in disgust and horror (from a nice distance of course). Luckily, Daan caught Harry in a container and then released it… BACK INTO THE BATHROOM. Because Harry is “harmless”. Fellow arachnophobics (fear of spiders, red.) will understand that I freaked out and had a drama queen outburst that will be remembered as the best in Liuwa history. Unfortunately for me, clever Harry then retracted into a place where he could not be caught, and my drama queen fit was to no avail.
And so I learned to live with Harry again. Apart from that one time that he jumped off the pole onto the floor and started climbing up another wall towards Daan’s towel, Harry would usually reside on the pole that is the corner of the shower. High and dry, about 75 cm from my face and tucked in enough to not get caught. How happy I was when it was time for my trip to the Netherlands. Because there is no such thing as massive, stalking, clever spiders in bathrooms in Holland.
Over 5 weeks later, I surely did not expect to see Harry in that same corner still/again, but there he was. Still massive, still stalking, still in a clever spot where he could not possibly get caught.
I will probably have to start getting used to Harry, with his massive, unpredictable, stalker-like appearance… One could possibly argue that, since he was there still, Harry died in his corner. I did not take the time to consider that. Turn tap on. Jump in. Keep watching the spider at all times. Jump out. Tap off. With unpredictable types like Harry, I am not taking any chances!
Update day later: huge spider has left the corner, Harry is not dead.
Sunday 6th of August – Back in the saddle
My first solo field-day after the holiday and all the catching up I had to do upon return. By field-day I mean: going out on the motorbike to find hyenas/wildebeests/cheetah or do another task and collect the data that comes with it. It’s funny how something that used to be routine, becomes nerve wrecking after you have broken the routine. When I prepare my fieldgear in the evening, and check it 100 times in the morning, I am still convinced that I am forgetting something. When I put petrol in the motorbike, I worry that I can’t drive it anymore, and so on…
Luckily everything goes smoothly. My task is fairly simple: I am going to the Mutata hyena clan area and find the collared individuals as well as visit the den (where the hyena cubs stay and which is also sort of a social meeting point) to see what is happening there.
When I get to the den, nobody is home. I wait for a while but soon decide to move on. In my search for the collared hyenas I cover a lot of ground and eventually find hyena 255 raising her sleepy head out of the tall grass. Soon after I find 6 hyenas (4 curious youngsters and 2 lazy adults) at a pan. After noting all the data I cover some more ground, ALMOST have a close encounter with the ground and then make my way back home.