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.