Monday 11th of September – Just another day
06.15: All fieldgear charged and packed, coffee ready in my thermo-mug, off I go to South clan den where I find 3 hyena cubs, 2 mothers and 1 cockroach in my half finished coffee. After surpressing the urge to vomit, I drive around to find more hyenas, then return to camp.
10.00: Back in camp I have to sort through all my photos and ID the hyenas that I’ve seen.
12.00: We have a lot of apples left and I HAVE to do something before they go rotten. So I decide to make apple crumble. But the struggle for butter and eggs is real here, so I make a vegan version with a dough of flour, sugar, peanut butter, coconut oil and some vanilla extract.
14.00: With a belly full of my very filling apple crumble I do some more office work.
16.30: Packing the fieldgear again, ready for another round of fieldwork, I’m going to South clan again.
17.00: GODVERDETERING&^%$& I scream out over the empty plains (those are very bad Dutch swear words).
On my way to the den I had to cross a stretch of tricky tall grass which covered the mongoose family’s burrow that I am now stuck in with my front wheel. This wouldn’t be a problem if I could get the engine started and ride out. But I have kicked about 20 times now, tried all the tricks that I know, but the engine is not even giving a hint of willingness to start again. The alternative is lifting the bike out, but that’s really not that easy for a lone person surrounded by plains, these things are heavy you know… As usual I have thought ahead of all scenarios and already looked around for firewood, water, etc. because in one of the scenarios I see myself camping out here.
So after my Dutch swearing cry of frustration, I curse the animal that dug this burrow once more, quickly apologise (it’s not really his fault I got stuck), have some water and get ready to kickstart again. I count to 3. And…. BRM……… BRM…… BRM….BRM.BRMBRMBRMMMMMMMMMMMM (that’s the sound of the engine). I smile, pat myself on the shoulder, carefully drive the front wheel out of the burrow and then get the hell out of there before I end up in a serious fight with the Mongoose family. When I finally get to the den I find 2 happy cubbies and everything is all smiles again.
20.59: So tired! I go to the bathroom to brush my teeth, look down and find a scorpion in the sink. Luckily we have more than one sink.
21.01: I hear a hyena behind the bathroom. So I’m extra careful when walking to the tent.
21.05: I have not reached the tent yet when I hear the bin being pulled down. The hyenas are in camp, the wrecking has started.
21.30: Listening to the sounds of 1 or several hyenas chewing the bin. They have probably dragged it away and it will be a great search tomorrow to find it back. That is, if it’s still in one piece.
01.23: A spine chilling scream wakes me up. It’s a vervet monkey. I can’t quite make out what is happening but it kind of sounds as if it’s being killed… The next half an hour I spend on thinking what could have happened out there.
5.30: As I get to the kitchen I notice that the bin has indeed vanished and all evidence of it once being there is some plastic scattered around that was inside it once. After a little search I find the lid of the bin outside of camp. The bin itself will be subject of a bigger search later. Now it’s time for a new fieldday!
Wednesday 13th of September – Happy anniversary to me
Today is my 1 year in Zambia anniversary. Today especially I think about the endless hours of hard work, the countless frustrations, all the hurdles I’ve had to jump.
I think about the hurdles that were too high and made me go flat on my face.
I think about the times I hit rock bottom and didn’t believe in my own capabilities anymore.
I think about the things that have pulled me down while I was struggling to stay on the surface.
I think about the beautiful things that helped me back up again, one of them being Daan whom I’m so fortunate to share all of this with.
Today is about following dreams, hanging in there and making them happen.
Today is about the big middle finger you can give the world sometimes and realising: YOU fucking did IT.
Just under 2 years ago I hit one of the rock bottoms described above and I was ready to give up on my dream of working in conservation, because I thought I couldn’t do it. It taught me something really important about failing, which I was convinced I was doing all the time. Below is part of the blog I wrote back then (the whole story is very long but can be read here).
So here’s the thing about failing. Essentially you can’t. Every time things don’t go the way you want, it opens doors of opportunity. You’re forced to find detours and alternative routes to your final destination. Those alternatives may not be the prettiest, fastest or most convenient ones, but at least your knowledge about the many ways that lead to dreams, goals and Rome increases. And so, bit by bit, you learn to get off the main road and find the detours that are worth taking. Suddenly you find yourself looking at the most beautiful street art, screaming from the highest mountain, chatting to a new friend or sharing your food with the friendliest stray dog.
Suddenly you can stop, have a rest and be grateful of what you have discovered and achieved. All by yourself.
I fucking did it… And look at me now :)
Friday 15th of September – Raneboots
Now that the dry season is peaking, hyenas struggle to find enough food and they often come into camp to wreak havoc. On Monday they stole the bin, yesterday they stole one of Daan’s shoes… The good news is, he still has the other one and can combine it with the singles of other pairs that were half taken by hyenas.
One of the hyenas that we see around camp a lot goes by the name of Rane. I have to be careful to put away my hiking boots somewhere where he can’t take them. Before they turn into Raneboots. (Daan’s words, not mine).
Sunday 17th of September – It’s Sunday!
Yesterday someone told me it was weekend. I must say, often I don’t even notice. Work on weekends is exactly the same as every other day. But there is always time for a Sunday-dance! Happy Sunday!
Monday 4th of September – A lesson in ecology and nature
A long introduction but you will definitely learn something here!
All animals (and plants for that matter) will do anything in their power to reproduce and pass on their genes. But reproduction costs energy, and to obtain energy is a never-ending job. Every animal species therefore has a different tactic to be as effective as possible, have an optimal number of offspring using the least energy.
In ecology we divide animals roughly into K- and R-species. The R-species reproduce Rapidly. They lay hundreds of eggs and then leave them without any parental care or protection. The young can go and sort the struggles of life out on their own and, needless to say, many of them don’t survive that. But even if 1% survives to adulthood, the parents have successfully passed on their genes. That 1% can reproduce again to create the next generation. Many amphibians, fish and reptiles operate this way. You know, frogs and those hundreds of tiny turtles on tropical beaches you see on the BBC.
Then there are the K species, the mammals, the birds. The species that have one or a few young at a time and provide maximum care and protection to ensure the survival of their precious offspring to adulthood. It’s beautiful how each species has their own tactics. Some spend months building a huge nest, some keep their young in a pouch, some carry it on their belly, the list is endless. And, apparently, they work. The trial and error of evolution has made sure that the effectiveness is at least big enough to, without external factors (which, unfortunately, are plentiful since the human race became too smart), keep populations stable. It’s one of the reasons I like ecology so much, everything links together and balances out (again, if disturbing factors, such as human influence are not present).
I have always wondered about some species and the protection of their young though… Take Blacksmith Plovers (a common bird species that feeds on water-edge of pans in Liuwa). Their chicks are fairly easy to see and sometimes when a potential threat comes close the adult flies up and makes a lot of noise. Useless so it seems. As if a hyena will go like: “oops this plover is obviously not so cool with me being here, let me walk around because this tiny bird will definitely beat me up big time”. BSP’s don’t seem too scared of big predators and don’t bother with protecting their chicks against them the way most K-species would do. Basically, they are noisy when it’s unnecessary and remain quiet when they actually have to switch to noise. Maybe they know they are not interesting to those predators, maybe they are naïve and a bit stupid. You can be the judge, here’s the story:
I’m in South clan and find 2 adult hyenas and 3 subadults at a pan. South clan doesn’t have abundant prey in this season and especially the subadults look skinny. There is a Blacksmith Plover with 3 chicks, feeding on the edge of the pan. The chicks are about 2 weeks old and cute with their long legs, tiny beaks and fluffy down. They are not scared of the hyenas that are not interested in them either. Several times I see them as close as 1m from each other. But then the tides turn. Suddenly, one of the subadult hyenas gets up and walks towards the chicks. He bends down and sniffs one (that doesn’t run away or squeak or anything, I mean… Hello!! Stupid??!!). He opens his mouth, grabs the chick (still doesn’t squeak), chews 3 times and then the chick is gone. One squeak is all the mother has to give in protest.
I watch the scene, I gasp for air, I bite my hand. I want to scream, yell, save the chick, chase the hyena. But I sit and watch, repeating my mantra; ‘This is nature, this is nature, this is nature’. There is nothing I can do. I have to be the observer of natural behaviour, I cannot interrupt it, whatever happens. Hungry hyenas will eat anything, even cute tiny chicks. This chick is better off than wildebeests grabbed by hyenas, at least a chick is dead in one bite.
So I’m watching helplessly as the hyena makes up his mind on the taste of the one chick and proceeds to its sibling, which is up for grabs too (seriously why don’t these guys get the hell out of there? Why doesn’t the mother do anything?) and see no. 2 disappear as well. Number 3 doesn’t get time to flee, it is grabbed and soon joins its 2 siblings in the hyena’s stomach.
Mama Plover now finally starts squeaking and for a moment I think the mass-murder is going to be ended with her death, but the hyena ignores her noise, walks away and beds down as if he didn’t just mindlessly eat 3 Plover kids (it kind of makes me sick about the whole poultry-industry all over again, this is what KFC costumers do too, kind of). I’m trying my best not to imagine mama’s confusion and desperation. Instead I grab a carcass-sheet and start filling in the details of what I have just witnessed. After all, though heartbreaking and sad, it was great data and quite a special sighting. Research is so lovely sometimes.
In the morning I am in Miumi clan. I’m searching for hyenas, not very successfully today…
Until I see one hyena running in the distance and then 6 others going somewhere else, also running. I quickly take photos of all hyenas and observe that they are all coming from the same direction which surely means something has happened there, so of course I have to go and see. Soon I find 10 hyenas standing around a wildebeest-head and its skin. A kill they made between 1 and 2 hours before my arrival. One hyena is struggling to drag it all to a pan. Another one comes to help, grabs the other side and brotherly they lift the wildebeest off the ground and carry it to a pan, flanked by a youngster who doesn’t want to miss out on the fun. All 10 hyenas dig in to steal a bite.
LHY-294 (Keddy) is also there. Only recently (in April) LHY-294 got herself trapped in a snare that was tightly wrapped around her neck. She was darted by ZCP’s vet Dr. Banda and needed a lot of stitches as the snare had cut halfway through her trachea, a hole big enough for her to breathe through. Awesome to see that she is doing so well,she is still the dominant female she always was, hunting and eating well and the fattest of all. A huge scar is all the proof that remains of her life-threatening situation just a few months ago.
A few hours later I go to North clan where I hear the sound of LHY-343’s super young cubs. As I am on my way back to camp I see the red sun setting and it turns the plains into fields of orange, gold and green. It’s stunning.
Then I smell something. A vague sweet scent that disappears within seconds. It reminds me of… Belgian waffles! So now I’m craving waffles.
I’ve never craved waffles before so this is a whole new sensation. I don’t have a waffle iron, let alone the right ingredients, and there was no waffle stall in Liuwa last time I checked. So a craving is all it will be for now.
Friday 9th of September – Morning has broken
It’s 6.45 am, my hands and ears are cold and I’m trying to warm them on the engine of the bike. 30m away from me 2 female hyenas are in a deep sleep and on the belly of one of them is a small cub that has forgotten about drinking entirely and has fallen asleep in the process.
I’ve already taken photos and noted the data, so as a big red firey sun rises over the plains, I have some time for my coffee and “breakfast” (a very old breadroll with peanutbutter). I’m listening to the sounds of all the birds that are busy. Lots of chirping small birdies in the tall grass, the splashing of a duck or goose in the water of a nearby pan, a saddle-bill stork that flies over, creating a distinctive sound.
Apart from that there is no sounds but that of my own thoughts, and even that I have managed to switch off for a minute.
Another perfect morning in Liuwa!
I found this little guy on my way back!
Monday 28th of August – Fire on the plains
Zambia is a country of fire. Nobody knows exactly why, but every year ‘everything must burn’. As soon as the grass and trees are dry enough, locals won’t go anywhere without their packet of matches. There are benefits to these fires. The ash for example is very nutrient rich, add to that the space that the fire opens up and plants and grass can grow like maniacs. The Liuwa wildebeest love it, they follow the fires to feed on the new grass-shoots that sprout within days. It’s great for them, fat wildebeest everywhere, they look pregnant even if they are bulls. But that comes with a problem too. Many fires here in Liuwa are actually lit by poachers, they burn the tall grass to have a clear visual on their targets, leading the wildebeest straight into a trap.
There are many other problems to the yearly burning, such as the burning of more vulnerable species, leaving the stage for invasive (fire-resistant) species and burning of animal-species such as insects and young birds that do not have a chance to flee.
Right now, we are getting into the season for the ‘hot fires’. Every fire is hot, trust me, I know that, but because the grass and pretty much every other thing are now so dry, the fires have too much fuel to be even remotely controllable. They rage over the plains like thundering storms, demolishing everything in their path, leaving nothing but miles and miles of ash, smoke and dust of a plain that was covered in tall grass just minutes before. You can see, hear and smell them coming. When they come, it starts raining ash, even if the fire is still kilometres away, birds fly up and mammals get the hell out of there. Hopefully the other animals, the ones I cannot see from a distance, manage to find safety too. My good friend Nicola Carruthers has written a very interesting blog (one of many!) about fire management (or lack thereof) in Zambia, please have a read, you won’t regret it, here.
Tuesday 29th of August – Kleine Fietsie
Oh my oh my... How badly I want to tell you all about Kleine Fietsie. But I can't, yet. Next week I will add the story of Kleine Fietsie as a bonus. Stay tuned, it will be good!
Wednesday 30th of August – When the species meet
This morning I leave camp earlier than usual, at first light I’m gone. The reason for my excitement is the sounds I’ve been hearing in the night and morning. Hyena calls, whoops, giggles, the entire shabam. Something was going on for sure. Riding in the direction of the sounds I soon find one hyena running over the plains. He is fast and doesn’t want me and motorbike to come close so eventually one shakey picture of one side is all I can take. Later this one picture proves to be sufficient to conclude that this was a Lone Palm hyena that hasn’t been seen since March 2016. Daan has just left to go to Mongu and calls me on the radio to inform me about 13 hyenas close to where I am. Obviously I waste no time in getting there.
When I arrive on the scene, I see 13 hyenas indeed. All agitated, nervous and looking into one and the same direction. I follow their gaze and see a wildebeest carcass in the distance with 2 hyenas eating from it. But there is no way 13 hyenas will not approach and eat if the kill was made by their own clan, so I look again, carefully this time and laugh at myself. Those 2 ‘hyenas’ I had seen with my quick look are actually lions, 2 adult females to be exact. LLi-281 and sister LLi-282. Now I start to look around and see the nephews, running around, excitement everywhere. That is definitely a gamechanger. I can’t really tell whether the hyenas have been trying to steal the lions’ kill all night or, (and this is much more common than most people think) that the lions have stolen the hyenas’ kill. I want to look at the scene for much longer but first I have work to do. Photographing both sides of 13 agitated hyenas is a mission, but I succeed. I write all the data down and when I look up I notice the presence of another Liuwa resident: lion LLi-280, greeted excitedly by his sisters and young ones.
As the male lion walks to the carcass and starts to eat, some hyenas bed down, they will wait all day until the lions leave and they can have a bite of the remains of what may or may not be rightfully theirs. Others give up and walk away. Eventually I tell myself I have to go too, off to find more hyenas scattered in the tall grass of the Miumi clan area, which happens surprisingly fast. 300m later I find 6 of them.
Later, I return to the place of all the morning madness. The lions now seem to be the ones that are agitated and they abandon the carcass soon. LLi-280 leading the pride, swiftly followed by the others.
After some time I feel like they are far enough and I ride to the carcass to inspect it. No bitemarks in the neck, which is a sign that the kill was not made by lions (they choke their prey by biting the neck) making it more plausible that the hyenas were robbed last night. I will never be 100% sure but at least the hyenas can now come to eat the remaining half.
Saturday, 2nd of September – Baby boom
There is a baby boom in Liuwa. A proper one. Not human babies as far as I’m aware, just animals.
Today I saw the first vervet monkey baby of the year. Just a few days old, hanging onto its mama’s belly and happily suckling all day. In a few years, this little monkey will be part of my fitness plan, I will chase after it (and my food) all the time. But for now it’s just too adorable to watch.
The vervets are not the only ones! Many hyena cubs are born at this time which are even cuter than cute and very entertaining. Also born in Liuwa over the past weeks are baby-: