Currently: Reminiscing about last night under the stars watching elephants be elephants
Back into Zimbabwe after a curiously long border crossing, we made it to our next destination of Hwange National Park just in time for a sunset safari, the first of three drives in the matter of 18 hours.
Our local guide’s heritage is Dutch, but his ancestors came to South Africa in the 1600s and moved to Zimbabwe 200 years ago. A native Zimbabwean, Jordan entertained us with his South African accent and cheeky attitude.
Into the park we went, eyes pealed for some big cats. We felt our chances were pretty good since Hwange is Zimbabawe’s largest and most wildlife-packed park with over 14,500 square kilometers.
When you’re out on safari, you’re looking for the big five. The rhino, elephant, leopard, lion, buffalo are the hardest animals to hunt on foot. Hwange is missing the rhino (more on this later…), but we were on a mission to see the big cats, aka leopards and lions.
The big animals must have also been on vacation, because we saw almost none. The zebras and baboons were a highlight. At least we had another incredible sunset on the books.
After a quick dinner, we were back on it again for a night drive. Since the park closes at sunset, we drove to a fancy lodge with a watering hole.
While the drive itself was incredibly chilly, we saw a few animals by the spotlight. It was a very Africa moment, staring up at the stars in an open-top safari vehicle. The Milky Way was sparkling and the skies included Mars, Venus, and Jupiter.
At the watering hole, we witnessed two families of elephants foraging for minerals by digging with their feet. Fun fact, elephants have a preference to be right or left-“handed.” It was weird that they were watching us as much as we were watching them. They seemed a bit wary of us as they had two babies to protect.
Our second day involved a morning game drive on the hunt for another cats. The animals were still pretty sleepy from all that nighttime activity, so we only saw a few new animals. As is part of the overlanding life, we rolled with the punches when our truck broke down.
Just outside the park we visited the Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) project. Painted dogs are not related to domestic dogs and have these large, adorable oval ears with a coat that looks like paint was splattered on them.
The dogs used to be 500,000 strong, roaming across a number of countries. The numbers have dwindled due to heavy poaching and a general lack of awareness of conservation efforts for these animals. The numbers range between 6,000-7,000 nowadays. Hwange is home to only around 150 of them.
The project’s mission is to highlight this problem and build a conservationist attitude in the next generation.
A main reason as to why painted dog exists is because people still buy the meat from these poachers, because they don’t realize the crisis that exists. It’s basic economics. If people don’t buy, poachers won’t poach.
To highlight the plight of these dogs, the PDC told the true story of one painted dog, Eyespot.
This story starts in Hwange, where Eyespot was born alongide nine siblings. His mother, Necklace, was the alpha female. Only the alpha male and alpha female mate in a pack. It is then the entire pack’s job to help raise the litter.
Eyespot grew up surrounded by his family, until one day him and his brother Arrow were ready to leave the pack. It was during this nomadic time when the conservation center put on a tracking collar to help save Eyespot and his family’s lives. The tracker was not only used to follow him within the environment, but was reinforced with steel spikes to protect his neck against snares.
One day the pair was by a waterhole when they came across Crescent, a beautiful alpha female, and her sisters. Snares set by poachers had killed Crescent’s mate. She ended up choosing Arrow as her partner. The alpha pair mated and Eyespot helped raise two of their litters and became quite the hunter.
Tragedy struck when Crescent was laying in the den with her 13 puppies. The hunters ran into a line of traps set by poachers. Arrow was the first to be caught, and when the others came to help him, they were also caught. All were strangled to death except Eyespot, because his tracker protected him.
Eyespot now hunted alone to feed Crescent and her puppies. Crescent left the puppies sooner than she normally would have to help hunt but her leg was caught in a snare. Since the hunting strategy depends on a group of dogs working together, chances were slim that Eyespot alone could catch enough prey to feed the whole pack. Researchers said Eyespot had less than 50% of raising even one puppy by himself.
An extraordinary hunter, he managed to kill a kudu by himself three times in one month. The two raised four of those puppies and another litter the following year. Unfortunately, he crossed into a farmer’s territory, who had an impala he was trying to protect. The farmer shot Eyespot and destroyed the collar.
Unfortunately, this is the reality faced by the painted dogs.
The more I learn about the wildlife, the more intrigued I was about its conservation. I was glad that Dragoman donated a part of our kitty to the project to continue their important work in protecting this endangered species.
You can also do your part by donating online if you feel so inclined!