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A day in the life of Zambia’s wildlife

In the late afternoon we drove out the dense tree cluster which hosts the camp. This tented camp is situated in the central south Liuwa Plain. The usual breath-taking moment as one drives out of the tree cluster and one gets the first glimpse of the real open plains extending to the south and west.

Stalked by storms on Liuwa Plains

A couple of large thunderstorms were stalking the plains to the south and east of us and we would have to keep an eye on them to see which way they were moving. These storms are called cumulo-nimbus, they have dark blue bottoms and occasionally aurora like feathered heads showing the colours of the rainbow through reflected, crystallising air. Very Large thunder storms are common in Zambia during the rains. They are majestic and rise to over forty thousand feet on occasion. The erupting clouds, like pillow larva produce amazing air currents and when looking carefully it would not be unusual to see ‘dots’ against the white of the clouds as large birds of prey and vultures carefully use some of these air currents for ‘surfing’.

As we drove along the sandy track, lines of blue wildebeest going down to drink scattered ahead of us or raced to cross the track, tossing their heads and lashing their tails like wild horsemen. Watchful oribi broke away – running then doing their characteristic pronk which enables them to see over the grass during the dry season. There is quite a good joke relating to this type of behaviour. Anyway we won’t go into that now and so on with our safari in the plains of western Zambia. We were exploring to the east of camp to investigate activity at one of the hyena den sites which had recently been re-occupied.

We approached the hyena den which is situated on a slightly raised bit of ground with a commanding view. These dens sites are used repeatedly over the years as they are generally above the seasonal flood level. Three watchful spotted hyena were nearby. Then’ a very good spot by Jo’ of a number of unusually rounded ears some distance off. The ears turned out to belong to members of a pack of seventeen wild dog resting in and beside a small pan on the edge of the short grass plains. The pack comprised nine pups of around five or six months and the remainder, adults. We were able to approach in stages till we were in good photographic range. I always think they look like bundles of washing with their different blotches of white brown and black. It took us almost half an hour of intense watching to finally come up with the seventeen dogs in this small pan, as there were so may heads and bodies and sometimes more bodies than heads. New heads kept popping up in unexpected places.

A number of the larger dogs were watching a herd of wildebeest with calves some distance away. The calves drop from October through to December in the Liuwa. The dogs watched intently with their heads held level and ears drawn back and down. They then began trotting towards these wildebeest and in doing so they passed within ten or so yards of a territorial bull wildebeest. He stood unmoving and after the third dog passed menaced those following to give more himself more space.

Suddenly the adult dogs began to run. An excited shout from us. With their tails streaming behind them, they literally took off like rockets. Wildebeest began moving to escape and protect their calves and in the distance a large rumbling could be heard from what was now a very impressive specimen of the cumulonimbus variety complete with an outstanding display of birds foot lightning. The wind freshened in our faces and the evening light was glorious against the back drop of the approaching storm as we too followed the hunt complete with cries of ”where are they?”. “There they are!” A lot of wildebeest were on the move and it was difficult to see the dogs, now moving at great speed and quite spread out amongst the wildebeest.

When we left, the young dogs were in a teenage huddle and quite unperturbed by the dramatic events taking place. Leaving them behind, we raced to follow the hunters who by now were some four hundred meters away. They had taken a young wildebeest and were busy finishing it off as we approached. Two or three of the adults trotted back quite a long way to see what was holding up the pups. The pups were being threatened by a few hyena from the den and were engaged in what appeared to be a game of touch or avoid touch. The adults put the hyena to flight and as we watched from the kill there came an unusual yipping noise. Looking back the youngsters were spread out, running at full speed towards us and giving off the most amazing vocalisations. As they approached, racing each other to the kill some of the adults moved to greet them and they were almost overwhelmed with the complex mobbing greeting and adoration from the youngsters. This noisy frantic behaviour, besides being a greeting which it undoubtedly was, also causes the recently fed adult to regurgitate for the young ones to feed. The youngsters then also tore into the remaining carcase. The hyena pack from the den, following behind the pups, were intercepted by some of the adult dogs and a fast and furious melee ensued just behind our vehicles. More dogs joined in chasing the hyena and on occasion seemed to nip the posteriors of the hyena.

We suddenly realised that we in turn had been successfully stalked by two large storms. The one we had been watching advancing from the south and now another had moved in to block our retreat from the north. A hurried flapping of rain coats and covering of cameras ensued and we rushed away ahead of one storm into the teeth of the other. The down currents from the storm were quite variable, some icy, others were quite warm. We managed a quick glance at the hyena den in passing to see a tiny pup with its lone protector before racing off down our sandy bush track into a maelstrom of wind rain and what seemed to me quite a lot of flashes and bangs. Our retreat from the plain into the refuge and shelter of our tree island was most welcome.

All the different and vivid images of this unusual afternoon were quite compressed, the plains with wildebeeste, the hyena, the dogs, the kill, the amazing afternoon yellow orange light with magnificent back drops, the rather speedy ride back and the amazing storm . Whew another day in the tropics!

More by this author – and the Robin Pope Safari team – at their own blog site. Look for back numbers to read more reports.

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