Game count in Hwange September/October 2020
With a name rather like a secret undercover operation, Covid-19 has thrown the world into a spin, with an untold number of events having to be postponed or abandoned. So, there was much delight when WEZ Matabeleland received permission to go ahead with this year's 24-hour static game census. Despite many of the usual international and SADC visitors unable to attend, it would seem that there was good support from Zimbo teams and members found relief and pleasure in getting out of seclusion and into the bush. The count took place on the 30th September - 1st October 2020.
The veld was very dry and the dearth of browse and grazing close to most of the pans meant animals came down to water rather wearily as well as warily. We had expected to see great numbers of elephant, so it was surprising to see relatively few for this time of the year and elephants drinking at most of the pans were doing so with mannerly grace. Being hot, there were usually a few large pachyderms wallowing, splashing and enjoying the cool water, especially in the late afternoons.
We set up camp for a couple of days before the count at Kennedy 1 picnic site and took a drive down to Kennedy 2 the first afternoon. We were astounded and delighted to find a massive herd of about fifteen hundred buffalo stretched out for some five kilometres along the Kennedy Vlei. Long single file strings of the bovines kicking up huge clouds of dust plodded along, a beautiful sight against the setting sun. They had obviously done a fair amount of
drinking out of the pan at Kennedy 2 and most of what remained was soupy, smelly, liquid mud. Many came down to the pan for a wonderful sloshy wallow before joining the rest of the enormous herd that was gathering in the bushes on the other side of the road.
At Sinanga the following morning, we arrived to find two handsome young male lions lying on an anthill close to the pan. As a result, we didn't expect to see much else, but it heated up and the two young fellows had a cool drink then moved away to find shade. A herd of zebra, festooned with yellow-billed oxpeckers, came to the pan, followed by three warthogs, a lone impala ram and well over fifty kudu that lingered around the periphery of the pan for ages before bravely but cautiously approaching the water - a perfect bush scene.
That evening, while at Kennedy 1 pan enjoying a sundowner and chatting to Daffy and some friends who were staying at the Hide, we were thrilled to spot a leopard sneak in for a drink. There was a small herd of elephant at the pan, so the cat was very alert and when chased back into the dry trough we could just make it out peeping over the side. It slaked its thirst then moved off to sit at the base of an ebony tree, motionless.
As we moved in closer, it slunk down off the mound and with an amazing and sudden turn of speed, snatched up a hapless banded mongoose that was carelessly loitering close by. With head held high and its prize firmly clamped in its jaws, the graceful creature vanished into the scrub.
We only saw one eland at Ngweshla, a lovely bull which didn't linger to be admired, but just past Somamalisa we had a gorgeous sighting of five eland cows with their calves of varying ages crossing the vlei.
The drive south through to our counting venue at Secheche was fabulous. The skyline along the ridges of the road was lined with a dusty mauve from hundreds of Philenoptera nelsii in full bloom, occasionally interspersed with the bright green canopy of spreading Acacia erioloba.
Further along at Ngweshla there was a never-ending stream of animals coming to the pan to drink - roan, sable, kudu, impala, zebra, elephant several giraffes and numbers of entertaining baboons. Early one morning, we heard lion roaring on both sides of the camp and as dawn was breaking three lionesses stalked past the pan pausing briefly for a drink before moving on. The big girl in front disappeared but we managed to follow the other two and found where they had flopped down in the shade, so enjoyed seeing them several times during the day.
During our count, we noted nine different mammal species - elephant (of course!) kudu, impala, zebra, warthog, black-backed jackal, spotted hyena, roan antelope and one enormous lion. The lion was seen sauntering along the tree line in the moonlight at about quarter to one in the morning and was huge with a massive dark mane. He broke into a trot and then suddenly took off at speed, disappearing into the bushes on the far side of the pan. We surmised that he must have been the reason for the elephants being so vocal during the earlier part of the night.
Just before cut-off time at 12 noon the next day, a large herd of thirty-five kudu with eighteen magnificent bulls carrying significant spiraling horns came down to drink, accompanied by a fairly large herd of impala. It will be interesting to see what the overall elephant numbers are for this count as we heard news of storms brewing in the northern areas of the park, with fearsome winds and some heavy and much-needed rain received in places.
Birding throughout our time in the park was rewarding. Some of the migrants had already returned and several large brown blobs perched atop trees sometimes took a while to identify. There were Yellow-billed kites aplenty, swooping and turning on the wind, and a magnificent Steppe eagle perched near Manga 3 glaring regally about. Several Kori bustards sauntered to and fro in the Ngweshla surrounds as a couple of puffed up males strutted around doing their best to attract the ladies, their boom-boom-ba-boom resonating clearly through the night. Red-crested korhaan could be heard all over the place during our drives and we had sightings of severa lmales doing their aerial display and plummeting back to earth. A recently returned migrant, a striking, colourful Broad-billed roller, noisily swooped over the water to sip from Sinanga pan being harassed by an equally noisy Lilac-breasted roller.
Marico, White-bellied, Scarlet-chested and Marico sunbirds flashed jewel-like in the trees and bushes enjoying the bounty of new blossom and were also seen daintily gracing the birdbaths at various campsites. A tagged Lappet-faced vulture accompanied by a White-headed vulture zoomed in for a drink at Ngweshla one lunch time. We have learned that the Lappet was originally tagged in Bloedkoppie, Namibia in October 2019 and was last recorded at Gemsbokwater, Namibia in February of this year.
An ostrich pair with a brood of cute, straw coloured chicks pottered around near Manga 3 and a delightful covey of at least seven Coqui francolins crossed the road in front of us, their gorgeous plumage camouflaging them almost immediately as they disappeared into the dried grass and fallen leaves on the side of the road.
On arriving at the Secheche pan, we were greeted by a superb pair of African Hawk-eagles perched in a tree overlooking the pan. Luckily for us, we didn't have to count the doves - Ring-necked, Emerald- spotted and Red-eyed- the bushes and trees the following morning were laden with an incredible number of feathered bodies. We logged 52 different bird species during the actual count, while our overall count for the trip was 152.
The water situation was generally not too bad for the time of the year with the solar units, some of them hybrid and being pumped with generators at night, doing their job despite the pressure of animals. We found no evidence of elephant casualties that often occur at this very harsh time of year, and thankfully, recent early rain seems to have averted the possibility of that this year.
There was great consternation over Nyamandhlovu pan which Parks staff had requested be pumped empty for dredging. Work there is currently ongoing.
It's time now to reflect on what needs to be done in the months ahead. Necessary maintenance and planning are always ongoing, none of which is possible without much generous support. Heartfelt and humble gratitude to all of our loyal donors.
Friends of Hwange is committed to preservation of the Park and its wildlife. Contributions are always most gratefully welcome.
Many thanks to Jenny Brebner for this report, assisted by Paula Dell. Images courtesy of Dave Dell.