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-: