Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Zimbabwe - Painted Dog Resurrection

African Painted Dog
I'm going to tell this story as I remember it and what I felt as it unfolded, others who witnessed it may have a slightly different perspective. It is one of the most remarkable experience I've ever had in the natural world, and I'll bet anyone there that day (and there were many) will tell you the same. Before you continue on and get too sad, this story has a happy ending.

African Painted Dog, or African Wild Dog, is native to sub-Sahara Africa and was once widespread and common. Today it is endangered with an estimated population of just 7,000 individuals. How endangered you might ask?  Well, if the current rate of decline continues, it will become extinct in our lifetime. For those of us who travel to this part of the world to see animals, it is a high priority sighting. We had a slight chance to see one at various places earlier in our trip (and didn't) but Somalisa Camp would be our best chance. When we arrived at Somalisa we told guide Michael that dogs were our most wanted animal. He smiled and said he could probably help us out.

It turns out that a pack of dogs had made a kill of a Kudu just the day before at a waterhole a few kilometers from the lodge. The dogs were lounging at the waterhole all day and Michael had seen them earlier in the morning. As a smart guide he made no promises, nor did he even tell us of the previous day escapades. Guides who make promises that can't be kept don't do well in the industry, and Michael is a smart guide. What I didn't mention in the previous post when I introduced Michael is that before he came to Somalisa ten years ago he worked for the Painted Dog Conservation for 10 years and has a special affinity for Painted Dogs.

Susan and Michael quickly bonded because of the dogs and their conversation as we drove toward the waterhole. Michael realized that Susan really wanted to see a dog and told us that there was a chance at the waterhole as we drove out. As we neared the waterhole Michael received a call on the radio. To add to the suspense, and tease Susan a little, moments before that waterhole came into sight Michael told us the dogs weren't there. We rounded one more corner and saw a whole pack of dogs laying next to the waterhole. Yippee!

When you get a lifetime opportunity to see a special species at length, you make the most of it. We stayed parked in our bush limousine for an hour and watched the highly social dogs lounge around, bathe, and just be dogs. In this pack there is one female (suspected to be pregnant) and five males. One of the males had been kicked hard the day before by the Kudu and was obviously hurting quite a bit. He struggled somewhat to move about so we nick named him "Limpy." We heard that he stayed underwater so long after the kick, they thought he had drowned.  After he pulled himself onto shore, one of his pack mates brought him chunks of meat to eat. The hour went by all too quickly but we treasured the experience.

After everyone was satisfied we moved on to continue our game drive. A short distance up the road Michael stopped the vehicle and grabbed his binoculars. Somehow he picked a lioness out of the grass and trees at a distance of at least 400 meters. It was amazing spotting and we quickly realized we were riding with a pro. There was a reason all the other guides call him "Magic Mike." Michael studied the cat for a minute then turned to us, "A dog is going to die today." He could see even at that distance that the cat was looking right at the pack of dogs at the waterhole. He asked if we wanted to see what happened next, knowing that it could end in tragedy, but we all agreed. He got on the radio and notified all the other game vehicles in the area of what was happening. Guides work together this way to share the excitement.

Michael turned the vehicle around just as the lion started walking through the grass toward the waterhole. We kept pace. 

By the time we reached the edge of the waterhole three other game vehicles were parked there. We pulled in to a good spot along the line of the lion's track. She literally walked right next to us with a tall stand of grass blocking the dog's view of her. The dogs didn't have a clue...

She crouched...

And lept...

All hell broke loose. In two strides she had a dog (Limpy) by the throat. All the other dogs went crazy, barking and yipping, and running about. But they didn't give up. I would have thought they would run away with one of their own clearly dead, but they didn't. The dogs continued to harass the lion while she carried the dog around by the throat; it's head hanging at an odd angle. After more than five minutes we heard a horrible crunch; as if she had finally broken its neck.  We all sat there and watched, greatly saddened by the death of a dog. All I could think about at the time was how this would affect the rest of our time there and how sad Susan would be by the death of a dog she had already grown to love.

What happened next is a bit of a blur to me, partially because of what occurred and also because we were blocked from some of the action by the tall grass and other vehicles. Under constant pressure from the dog pack the lioness dropped Limpy and charged two other dogs. I distinctly remember the panic I felt, and remember saying out loud, in quite a distressed voice, "Oh no, not another one." They all went behind a parked vehicle, out of our view, and as I understand it she made a lunge for a dog but missed.

The next thing I know the lioness came around the vehicle and is standing in front of us again, moving toward the spot where she dropped Limpy. I looked around and counted six barking dogs. Five on one side, and one on the other. What? Were there seven dogs to start and we didn't know about one while we watched the pack earlier? It quickly became apparent to all of us that while we were watching the lion chase the other dogs, Limpy scurried away to safety. He wasn't dead! That thick patch of fur on the throat and his pack mates had saved him.  We all sat there in total shock, then elation as we figured out what happened. The dog pack had acted like a family.  They harassed the lion until she dropped Limpy.  He then scampered out of range and looked to see that the rest of the pack was okay.  Once he verified that he took off running. The rest of the pack covered for their injured mate while he made his escape.  We saw his head come up a quarter of a mile away.  Once the pack saw this, they took off after him and headed for the bush. The lioness brushed it off and came down to the waterhole for a drink as if it was nothing but a lazy afternoon in Africa. She wandered off after a while as we continued to process what we had seen.  The dog pack moved far away and were not seen for the rest of our stay.

The sun was setting so we pulled all four vehicles into a group and the guides got out the coolers full of evening refreshments. We all stood around and shared a cold one, and talked about the dog that lived.


Monday, March 18, 2019

Zimbabwe - Somalisa Camp

Grey-crowned Cranes
From Camp Hwange we moved on to Somalisa Camp for three nights and the conclusion of our trip. Two of the Camp Hwange guides drove us to a meeting point where we were picked up by another game vehicle from Somalisa for the duration of the trip. Somalisa Camp is in the eastern part of the park and would be our best chance to see endangered African Wild Dog. As with Camp Hwange, Somalisa is a luxury safari camp with its own guides and beautiful lodge. Right away we picked up two great birds - Southern Pied Babbler and Southern Ground-Hornbill. 

Southern Pied Babbler

Southern Ground-Hornbill

And just a short distance out of camp the driver found a leopard lounging on a tree branch, with a kill of fresh impala stashed above.

The schedule for the rest of our time there would be a game drive in the morning, back to camp for lunch and a rest during the heat of the afternoon, then another game drive in the early evening. Our first afternoon game drive after arrival induced the most spectacular encounter of the Africa trip, so I'm saving that for a final blog post after this one. 

Our personal game drive guide was Michael, an experienced spotter and birder. He has been with Somalisa Camp for ten years. Each of our drives on our two full days produced lots to see and many new bird species for our lists. We really enjoyed our time with Michael, and really appreciated his good humor and the wealth of knowledge he shared with us on birds, animals and habitats. Thank you Michael!

Typical bird list for a game drive morning

Some highlights from our drives:

Our safari limo

Our guide Michael explains the complexity of baby elephant poop. It was fascinating!

Chacma Baboon on predator watch

Chacma Baboon

Bradfield's Hornbill

Bradfield's Hornbill

Broad-billed Roller
Big bull elephant

Common Waterbuck

Common Waterbuck

You get really close to animals on a game drive

European Roller

There are some wide open spaces in this part of Zimbabwe

Hooded Vulture

Sunset at the end of our first full day

Magpie Shrike

Purple Roller

Red-billed Spurfowl

Southern Carmine Bee-eater

Southern Carmine Bee-eater

Southern Carmine Bee-eater

Southern Carmine Bee-eater

Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill

Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill

Swallow-tailed Bee-eater

Woolly-necked Stork

Bradfield's Hornbill

Amar Falcons were abundant during their migration back to Europe for northern summer
During our afternoon breaks there were always Elephants at the lodge waterhole. We were able to sit on the deck often within feet of drinking elephants. There were several baby elephants that were less than a week old. Too cute!

Baby elephant nursing
On our final evening a crew from the lodge drove out to meet us for "Sundowner" drinks, and brought the whole bar it seemed! It was a nice touch and we really thank them!

And what a sundown it was!

We left then next morning for our trek back to Victoria Falls and our flights home. Michael was kind enough to drive us to the pickup point, birding and game viewing our way there. Fantastic! We had a very close encounter with a pair of male lions. Too cool. 

Most animals totally ignore game drive vehicles
This kitty foot is the size of a dinner plate

We were really close!