The Elephant Shrew

On a recent trip around Zimbabwe, we stayed a few nights in the Matapos National Park, just outside of Bulawayo in the south of the country.  This park is renowned for its huge boulders, balancing on top of each other and is also where Cecil John Rhodes is buried.

It was here that we came across these shy little creatures, darting between the rocks.  We decided to settle ourselves down and see if we could get a better look at them, and of course a few photos.  Sure enough, it didn’t take them long to peek their long noses out from behind the rocks and carry on in search of their food.

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These rodent like creatures are one of the ‘Small Five’, and are located in rocky outcrops around the country.  Although they may look like they belong to the rodent family, they don’t, but share their ancestory with the Hare family.  These cute critters hunt both day and night searching for ants and similar small insects.  It can easily be seen how the elephant shrew got its name; the long nose or snout being an obvious feature.  This ‘trunk’  which it uses to smell its food in termite mounds and ant holes, wiggles about as it catches scents in the air and on the rocks.  Once its trusty nose leads it to the insect hide out, it uses its little front feet to dig out the dinner.  These creatures are unusual in a few ways.  Firstly, they have 40 – 42 teeth, about twice as many as the normal 20 usually found in a rodent type creature.  They have an extremely long tongue which can reach over its ‘trunk’ and clean itself after eating.  Secondly the elephant shrew has elongated hind legs which has resulted from the fusion of metatarsals and allows fast and efficient bounding movement which allows them to sprint and bounce over the rocks to escape their prey.  They also use the hind legs to communicate, by drumming them on the ground to sound danger or alert others.

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This little guy had found a rivulet of rainwater running down the rock face and was tentatively taking a drink before heading off again in search of food.

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A skilled opportunist!

While staying in a mobile camp on the Chitake Springs river bank in June this year,  our wonderful guests, Holger and Gabi from Munich, captured this amazing footage of wild dogs trying to capture some pork for lunch, but losing out to a skilled opportunist..  They have kindly allowed us to share it with you.  Enjoy!

Film making in Hwange National Park

Sean has been lucky enough to be involved in helping find exciting subjects for the filming of a documentary in Zim.  He has guided the crew in Matusadona and Hwange and has so enjoyed showing off our spectacular country.  Check out the hostess, Kristina’s, blog, https://kristinaguberman.wordpress.com/. They have sadly finished their filming but wow have they had some amazing adventures!  We look forward to the finished product!!

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Hwange in the Dry Season

The drier months are upon us now, as all moisture is slowly sucked out of the savannah landscape, with the tall grass turning browner by the day.   Gone are the wild flowers that popped up like little gems in amongst the waving Cats Tail Grass, or the mosses and sedges on the edge of puddles.

The landscape is very different now, but no less beautiful.  The water holes are the place to be with big and small flocking to stand their turn to drink.  Sitting at one such pan in Hwange National Park in September, provides us with hours of entertainment.

First along are a herd of dusty and travel weary elephants, covered with a fine layer of dust.  They are spotted in a distance by the cloud of dust that precedes them through the chest high Mopane trees on the other side of the pan.  As they catch the scent of the water, you can see their pace increase, the little ones of the herd hurried along by eager adults.  As they reach the life giving water, they fan out so each individual has a place at the waters edge.  Lots of slurping follows as litres of water is hovered up into the trunk – an average size trunk can hold 4 to 5 litres of water – to be transferred to the parched mouth.   Elephants need about 200 litres a day to survive and as their food content is mostly made up of leaves, grass and twigs, drinking is very necessary.   The youngsters take the opportunity to wade into the shallows and splash about, enjoying the coolness of the water.  Then the mud bath starts, with an older adult scooping up dollops of mud and splashing it across her body.  This helps get rid of insects by providing a protective layer of mud that hopefully they can’t bite through.   It also protects them from sunburn!

Soon enough a herd of impala follow the grey giants down to the water to take their place at the waters edge.  The pretty Impalas are skittish and are always on the lookout for a threat so theirs is not a relaxing drink but a quick one and they move off to a safer location.

There are not only the fourlegged visitors to the pan, but also the feathered kind.  A flock of Red Billed Quelea swoop in and land 50 strong on the muddy surface.  They look like a constantly moving carpet, each little bird trying to get their fill at the waters edge before being jostled away again.  Suddenly a Comb Duck who considers this pan his, dives down on the middle of the lake, frightening all the little birds away as they rise up in a cloud of feathers and indignant cheeeeepppps!

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In Hwange, the water holes or pans around the park are not natural and are mostly fed by pumps.  The area, with it sandy soils, doesn’t hold much surface water past the last rains.  So the water holes need to be maintained to ensure that the animals have sufficient water.  The Friends of Hwange Trust is one such organization that looks after the pumps.  This organization was setup to assist National Parks with providing much needed water to the numerous pans around the park.  The pumps used to be diesel but have slowly been upgraded to solar pumps which are able to keep up with the demand of this precious resource slightly better.  Go to their website for more information http://friendsofhwange.com/

Tussling Zebras

As the season dries up and the dust becomes a constant feature in the air, the advantage of this is that the sunsets become even more beautiful – if that is possible!?  And then when you have animal subjects providing you with some interest in the sunset, it lends itself to a great photo opportunity.

One such evening, after our usual gin and tonic sundowners in a quiet spot, we were winding our way slowly back to camp in Hwange National Park, when we happened across two young Zebras tussling not too far off the road.  They were positioned perfectly with the sunset almost behind them and were kicking up enough dust to create a beautiful background.

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The young geldings were testing each others strength, practicing for when they would be old enough to try and defend their own herd.  This play fighting enables them to develop their fighting skills, although at this stage it is only a fun competition, not the life and death situation when they have their own herds.

The Burchell’s or Plains Zebra is one of the most numerous and successful herbivores and is found from southeast Sudan to South Africa.  These black on white striped horse lookalikes all have their own set of stripes, each individual is as unique as a fingerprint. The Zebras are highly sociable with a dominant stallion with anywhere between 2 to 6 mares.  So tight is the family bond, that if a member gets lost, the stallion will go looking and calling for the straggler.  He will also defend his ladies and their offspring from all threats and when an individual becomes injured or sick the rest of the herd will slow its pace to accommodate this.  With a life span of 20 years, stallions can stay fighting fit for some 15 years, so losing his family in a fight is unlikely, so the up and coming stallions usually acquire their own ladies by stealing fillies from other herds.

The squealing and snorting that the play fighting youngsters were uttering carried far in the slowly dying evening, but they soon tired of their game and joined the rest of their herd to ready themselves for the night ahead.  We took that as our signal to leave and carried onto camp with some beautiful photos to remind us of their game.

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The Little Things….

While guiding guests around the bush when the “big game” is plentiful is relatively easy, as let’s face it that is what the majority of people travelling half way across the world come to see, our glorious African Elephants and Cape Buffalo, the awe inspiring predators and tall and elegant Giraffe, to name some.  But sometimes no matter how hard us guides try to find these magnificent beasts, they are not always compliant, grazing or browsing within easy access just for us to see.   The lion calling during breakfast  urging us all to scrambled into vehicles and dashed out in search of it, has now stopped!!  And we are now left driving around hoping to catch a glimpse of it.

In these situations, we have to find something else to interest the now disgruntled guests who left half their breakfast going cold on their plates back in camp as they dashed out in search of the creature calling so seductively earlier.  We point out the huge Marshall Eagle wheeling about in the sky overhead as it searches for its own breakfast, or the gracefully grazing herds of Zebra and Impala, with their little ones prancing and dashing in amoungst theirs mums legs as they enjoy being alive.  But these don’t do the job of placating them.  And then we hit gold!!!

Driving past a huge fallen tree I spot a little brown head pop up and disappear again, then another and another.  We switch off the engine and sit as still and quiet as possible, the guests not terribly sure what we have stopped for yet.  Then as the silence stretches out the curiosity of the residents of the fallen log gets the best of them and one, two, three, six, ten little brown pointy faces pop out of various holes in the log.   The braver of the family stick their shoulders out and finally emerge completely revealing the Dwarf Mongoose!!  I have come to appreciate these little creatures, they delight even the most grumpy guests.   As we sit still and as quiet as possible for a bunch of excited humans being entertained by the little brown mongooses in front of us, more and more appear until we count about 20.  This is Africa’s smallest carnivore which lives in social groups in old termite mounds, fallen trees and thickets.  They are strictly diurnal and start and end their day by sunbathing and socializing.

They relax slightly in our presence, although there is always the look out who keeps an eye on their surroundings, ready to issue a call of warning should danger approach.  They begin grooming each other and scratching the dust and mites from their coats, rubbing their long bodies along the log for a good rub.  Little jaws full of sharp teeth yawn wide, while a little ‘peep peep’ is heard constantly from different members of the group.  Little ones tumble around play fighting each other, and generally disturbing the adults early morning routine.  Suddenly we are aware that the peeping as turned to a ‘churring’ sound and as if as one they leap of the log and move off into the grass to start the foraging for the day.  They scratch around in the dirt like chickens, looking for bugs, lizards, scorpions, baby mice and anything else they might fancy.  Although they search in a group, each mongoose forages for itself and will defend its tasty treasure fiercely, but all keep in contact with constant vocalization.

The pack is led by a dominant pair, they are the only members that breed, and the offspring are cooperatively looked after by the pack. The dominant female leads the pack while the dominant male is in charge of pack security.  Some mongoose families have formed symbiotic relationships with birds, such as the Fork Tailed Drongo, who will act as look outs for the creatures and who are rewarded with the insects that the pack dislodge while foraging.

We sit enthralled by these little creatures, while they kick up dust, interacting with each other, the youngsters easily spotted in the pack as they seem to cause the most havoc!  Slowly they disappear in to the grass and just their little peep peeps are heard until those also disappear from hearing.

The Night Critters

Catching on camera, the shy creatures of the night is extremely difficult, not only in the technical sense, all the low lighting and camera shake that makes the task a tricky one.  But also the fact that you need to be dedicated and forfeit some shut eye in order to catch them out and about.  A way round this is a camera trap set up on a frequented water hole or path.  The national parks don’t allow you out after dark so this is the perfect way to catch those critters that appear after the sun has gone down.

We came across a lion kill that had been left for whatever reason, and decided to put up the camera trap for the night and see what came down to feed on the buffalo.  The night time visitors included Spotted Hyenas, Side Striped Jackels, African Civets and surprisingly a Ground Hornbill early in the morning.

Whereas the Hyena and Jackels are often see during the day, the African Civet is a very rare sight before dark.  These creatures are similar to the raccoon although are slightly larger, with a black robbers mask on a pale head.  The body colours vary from buff to grey, with black stripes and spots.  These creatures are omnivorous, scavenging around for anything they consider delicious, and are loners, males keeping a well marked out territory.

Another common nocturnal creature is the Large Spotted Genet pictured at the top of the page.  These beautifully marked creatures bring to mind the stoat, but being a bit larger.  They, too are omnivorous, but are a lot more agile that the Africa Civet and can be seen pouncing on mice in the long grass and chasing potential dinner up into the boughs of trees.

Chameleons

Zimbabwe is home to the Flapnecked Chameleon (pictured above) which has the queer ability to change colour before your eyes.  Research shows that this is due, in part, to two layers of skin containing nanocrystals which can be tensed or relaxed and thus reflect/absorb different wavelengths of light.  So when the chameleon is relaxed the cells are close together reflecting short wavelengths which are blue, together with the yellow pigment of its skin, it appears green.  When stressed the layer of skin contracts moving the crystals further apart and reflecting the longer wavelengths which are the reds and oranges, making it seem darker.  Generally research has found that males tend to be able to change colour more dramatically than females to enable them to seem more dangerous when fighting other males.  The females and juveniles tend to be more mellow colours allowing them to stay camouflaged better.

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Their other incredible feature is their really long tongue, which shoots out of their mouth accelerating from 0 to 6m per second!!  They use it to grab unsuspecting insects in the little sucker cup on the end, retracting the muscle back into the mouth along with dinner.  From slow mo video footage it has been estimated that the chameleon’s tongue is almost twice the length of its body!

In fact this whole creature is queer, from its zygodactylous feet (meaning two toes facing forward and two toes facing backwards), its seemingly uncoordinated eye balls, its horned brows and snout and the wavering, juddering gait it employs as it makes it slow and painful way along the branch.

Chameleons are surrounded by superstition in the African culture and are not best liked, being associated with the devil and being able to deceive mankind with its changing colours and its ever rolling eyes!