Ruaha – Land of Giants

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By Ryan Green

On my first ever visit to Kwihala Camp in Ruaha National Park I had an inkling of what to expect after reading the reports from people who live and work in Ruaha and watching Owen Prumm’s amazing film about the lion and buffalo conflicts that occur at the end of the dry season (watch the preview here). I had three days to see as much of it as time allowed and was thrilled to come across so many incredible vistas and encounters with wildlife.

I wanted to photograph Ruaha’s vast and rugged landscape and its inhabitants the best way I could, but I understand the limits of being a visitor for a short time and expectations being set too high on what you hope to achieve.

So loaded with cameras and gear, I stepped off the plane into the searing heat of Msembe airstrip, where the dry air of late October made shimmering mirages over the landscape. This is the best time for game viewing. Animals congregate close to the dwindling sources of water in the Great Ruaha, Mwagusi and Madonya Rivers. The uncomfortable heat is a trade off with the excellent wildlife viewing you can expect in this iconic park.

With only a fraction of the park’s 20,000-odd square kilometres being utilised for game drives, I still only saw very few other vehicles while out on safari, comparable to being in a private concession elsewhere. I really enjoyed the company of the guides, Pietro, Festo, Lorenzo and Marius, and each of them has a passion for the wilderness and the magic of Ruaha that is obvious to all who encounter them. Sandy is an excellent and efficient manager, as well as a genial hostess.

The images below capture magical days of a truly unique and special place that will stay with me for a long time.

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The river may appear dry, but the elephants know that there is water just below the surface. They dig down to it, and then slurp away. After the elephants leave, other animals are then able to use these holes to access the water.

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Giraffe, zebra and baboons utilising the water holes dug by elephants on the

Madonya Sand River.

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Ruaha sunset, featuring a trio of the park’s iconic trees: Acacia Tortilis, Hyphenae Petersiana Palms,and the ubiquitous Baobab.

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Ruaha is known for its Baobabs, but I had no idea there were so many. I think I saw more of these incredible trees in one day than I have ever seen before. They spend 8-9 months of the year completely bare and then at the end of the dry season put out large white flowers that bloom at night, and only last a day. At the same time, they begin to produce leaves that will eventually grow into a thick canopy.

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Some trees just budding out with leaves, the others still bare.

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A male lion rests in the shadow of the branches above.

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We came across a large herd of buffalo resting in the shade of a grove of Tortilis trees.

Close by, a pride of lions dozed below a Rain Tree, keeping a wary eye on the herd.

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A little further on, we found these four females and a cub, resting off

what must have been a big meal.

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Ruaha has one of Africa’s largest concentrations of lions. This male wears the scars of a recent

territorial battle with another male.

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Another pride lies in wait for the unwary, scanning the white-hot glare of the dry riverbed.

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A large and colourful Agama Lizard

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A baboon feeding on the fruit of a Sausage Tree (Kigelia Africana).

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Monochrome zebras.

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Bat-Eared Foxes are normally very shy so it was a real treat to discover a den close to camp with very relaxed adults and puppies. The three puppies played outside of the den in the cooler temperatures of predawn or evening.

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The pups venturing out from their den.

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A tiny Dik-Dik antelope.

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A magnificent herd of Eland, the largest of the antelopes, with an

endless Ruaha vista behind them.

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A male Black-Faced Sandgrouse guards his cryptically coloured chick.

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A baboon mother and baby basking in the early morning sun.

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Giants of Ruaha : the park has Tanzania’s largest population of elephants,

estimated at 15 000 animals.

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Baobabs have the ability to heal and grow over the scars created by elephants.

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The landscape just seems to go on forever…

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And changes dramatically from place to place.

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On my last night, I saw Furaha (Joy in KiSwahili), a female leopard with her kill in a tree.

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This is a land of giants, and of a scale so great that one visit will never do it justice.

Impressions of Ruaha National Park

By Judith Rosink, Asilia Sales Manager, East Africa.

Judith recently had a whirlwind tour of the Asilia camps in Tanzania, and here she shares her impressions of a day at Kwihala Camp in Ruaha National Park with us.

This was going to be my first time to visit this National Park — I had read a lot about it and had been told that it would be very remote and completely different to the parks in the so-called Northern Circuit of Tanzania. We were only three passengers in the plane; a Dutch lady with her daughter were my travel companions and coincidentally, they too, were going to spend a few nights at Kwihala Camp. Upon our arrival at Msembe, we were warmly welcomed by our guide who offered us cold drinks while he arranged our park fees. The drive from the airstrip to the camp was 17 km, and since we had been delayed by an hour we had to go straight to camp. The landscape on the way was stunning- changing every five minutes from open plains to areas full of wild date palms, to beautiful woodlands.

When we arrived, Michelle the relief manager was awaiting us with a snack platter lunch, and while the two other ladies prepared themselves for their afternoon game drive I took some time to investigate the camp.

At around 19h30 we were all invited to have a drink at the “bush television” fireplace, where the most delicious snacks were offered. Pietro the guide insisted for the whole group to have dinner below the stars, so a large dining table was set up outside. Dinner was served by candlelight, and the meal was absolutely mouthwatering!

Afterwards I went to my tent for a good night’s sleep – I did not close the curtains because I really enjoy experiencing bush life and woke up to every single sound I heard to see what was surrounding me. Something small was scratching my canvas almost the whole night. I could not see what it was, but I suspected it would be a gecko. The next morning I had to wake up very early to go on a game drive with Pietro and the two other Dutch guests. After only ten minutes of driving, (it was still dark and we were using a flashlight), something large came out of the woodland – it was a very relaxed mature leopard who was obviously on his way to hunt. We tried to follow him but after 30 minutes we lost his tracks. It was too dark to take pictures but the memory will always remain with me.

We continued on our way, and witnessed the most amazing sunrise. Half an hour later we saw a group of young male lions courting a lioness. Unfortunately our game watch was brutally disturbed by some other tourists being noisy so we had to leave. It was our luck that after ten minutes we spotted another male lion, and he was not alone – in fact he was very much in love, courting a lioness! We followed them, as when they are mating, the act will usually occur every few minutes, and go on for days.

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Afterwards, both of them were drinking water at a waterhole when the lioness decided to walk away. Suddenly we heard the roaring of another male lion close by. The first male did not hesitate a second and started running towards the sound. We followed, and found the two males fighting. Being in the same territory, these two males would have known each other, most possibly being members of the same coalition. In such a case, the two lions would have established a hierarchy of dominance long before, and the fight was merely to reassert this claim, and wouldn’t result in serious injury on either side. Had the battle been for territory, the outcome would have been far more violent, possibly even fatal.

The first male won the battle, and then he continued his courtship of the lioness.

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Since we had left camp without breakfast, Pietro found us a beautiful spot close to a riverbank, with elephants walking around us. We had a late breakfast laid out on the bonnet before we continued on our game drive. Lorenzo (one of the other guides) called to report that a leopard had been spotted on a rock, and we set off on our next mission. It took us an hour to reach it but sadly, by that time the battery in my camera had died!

At 4pm we left again for a game drive and came across a herd of elephants in what appeared to be a dry riverbed. By using a combination of extraordinary sensory perception and experience passed down over generations, these animals have learned to perceive where water lies beneath the surface of the sand. At a point where it is shallowest, they dig a perfect hole, scooping out sand with their trunks until they can access the cool water below.

From where we sat, we could even hear the sound of the water slurping into their trunks, which made for a spectacular sighting!

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This phenomenon is not unique to Ruaha’s elephants, as it has been seen in many dry areas of the continent; but it is a testament to the incredible intelligence and adaptive abilities of these animals.

Continuing on our way, there was another surprise was waiting for us. Two male giraffes were measuring up who was the strongest, showing off by slapping their tall necks against each other. This is a dominance display where the combatants pound each other using the full force of their necks: with a combination of considerable weight and momentum, their heads and horns become sledgehammers, and it happens that giraffes knock each other out, and in rare instances are killed from these blows.

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Moving on, we tracked a pride of 14 lions feasting on a giraffe. In Ruaha, the lions are known for their large pride numbers, and this forces them to take on bigger, more dangerous prey: a giraffe is a considerable prize, and would provide enough sustenance to last them at least a few days.

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We then returned to camp for another delicious candlelit dinner below the stars, and later as I lay in bed I thought how incredible it was for me to have experienced so many exciting encounters in just one day!

The following morning it was time for me to pack and get ready for my journey back to Arusha, completely blown away by this incredible place – I will definitely return, that’s for sure!

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A friend of the enemy- A conservationist intervenes in the conflict between people and predators

In an article that first appeared in Africa Geographic, Amy Dickman, who is the director of the Ruaha Carnivore Project, shares with us the background to this challenging project and the remarkable vision of the people involved in reducing the conflict between people and predators in the village lands surrounding Ruaha National Park.

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By Amy Dickman, Director, Ruaha Carnivore Project.

When I was 10, I had clear dreams of my future – I would be a big-cat conservationist, driving around in a shiny zebra-striped Land Rover spending all my time gazing happily at lions and cheetahs. Here in Ruaha, over 25 years later, some of those dreams have come true – I am a big-cat conservationist, and our project owns three Land Rovers (although none are shiny – they are usually broken – and no-one will let me paint them in zebra stripes). However, I rarely get to spend any time watching big cats – instead, I deal with complexities that I would never have imagined, such as tribal identity, people-park conflicts, and trying to figure out how on earth we can expect grindingly poor people to bear the additional costs of coexisting with dangerous carnivores.

Ruaha is a breathtakingly beautiful wilderness supporting some of the world’s most important carnivore populations, and I feel privileged every day to work here. However, Ruaha’s carnivores are not restricted to the park, but sometimes stray into the adjacent populated areas where they cause intense conflict with local people. The Great Ruaha River runs along the southern border of the park, and in the dry season, it is a magnet for prey and predators. But, during the rains prey animals disperse so carnivores range beyond the park, often preying on poorly-protected cattle and goats.

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A Barabaig girl herds the cattle her community depend on. Understanding the value of such livestock is key to protecting predators from people. ©Andrew Harrington

When the Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP) was established in 2009, we found that about 60% of local people had suffered attacks by carnivores. This had crippling economic consequences in an area where 90% of villagers live on less than $2 a day. Unsurprisingly, people frequently snared or poisoned carnivores – either to prevent attacks, or to retaliate for them.

Furthermore, very few people saw any benefits from carnivore presence. Usually the only people who did were young warriors who could receive gifts (zawadi) from their community if they speared a lion – one of the very few ways that young men could earn wealth and status. A warrior could earn 20 cattle (worth around $4000) in zawadi by killing one lion.

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Clockwise from left: A cow fallen prey to a predator; A lion killed in retaliation for preying on livestock. Local people remove sections of lion fur for traditional use, as a kind of amulet; A leopard snared in a village. ©Ruaha Carnivore Project

In the early years of the project, most of the lion carcasses we found had the right front paw missing – a clear sign that it had been killed for zawadi, as the central claw is removed and taken in order to prove the killing. These preventative, retaliatory and cultural killings led to the highest documented rate of lion killing in modern East Africa, with over 35 lions killed in just 18 months, the majority occurring around a single village. So we decided to base our field camp there, and try to work out how we could effectively improve the situation for both people and predators.

But improving the situation depended upon understanding it, and gaining the trust of the local community, including the secretive Barabaig who are notoriously hostile to outsiders. We established a field camp near the village in 2010, but for over a year, our attempts to engage with the Barabaig failed completely. Most villagers would not speak to us, and those who did approach us were beaten up. We tried everything, and were almost ready to give up. But then, in mid-2011, it all changed. We installed a solar panel and, bizarrely, that was the breakthrough we needed. The Barabaig suddenly appeared at camp to charge their mobile phones. We would never have imagined that the way to reach this remote and traditional group would be through modern technology, but it provided a reason for people to come to camp, see what we were doing and to talk to us. More than two years after the start of the project, the Barabaig invited us to a traditional community meeting. They slaughtered a cow and said that they were ready to work with us. As a long-time vegetarian, I never imagined I would be so happy to receive a huge hunk of meat, but I was. It meant that our work could finally begin.

It became clear that the human-carnivore conflict around Ruaha was incredibly complex, involving not only the high costs of depredation, but also the lack of benefits to the community, antagonism towards the park, little knowledge about the reasons for conservation, and the fact that killing lions was one of the only ways for young men to gain income and status. So we started with the simplest thing – reducing attacks.

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A boma is reinforced with wire to protect livestock from predators. ©Andrew Harrington

Our research showed that 65% of attacks occurred in livestock enclosures (bomas), the majority of which were poorly constructed. We introduced a cost-sharing initiative to construct predator-proof bomas made of diamond-mesh fencing. To date, we have constructed over 70, and they have proved 100% effective at preventing attacks. However, some attacks occur in the bush, so we have begun trials using specially trained Anatolian shepherd dogs to guard livestock. Although the project is in its infancy, the approach seems to have promise. In addition, we work intensively with village households to teach people how to identify carnivore attacks, and how simple, low-tech measures can prevent such attacks recurring. Together these measures have significantly reduced depredation and so reduced both economic pressures on people, and the need for preventative or retaliatory killing.

 

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Amy hard at work in her field camp near a Barabaig village. ©Andrew Harrington

However, living near carnivores will always mean there are costs, and long-term conservation depends upon local people seeing tangible, relevant benefits that outweigh those costs. The villagers voted on which benefits they would most appreciate from carnivore presence, and chose education, healthcare and veterinary medicines. To improve education, RCP established the ‘Kids 4 Cats’ school-twinning programme, in which village schools are linked with an international school that can help raise funds for much-needed supplies.

We also established competitive ‘Simba Scholarships’ to enable pastoralist children (both girls and boys) to attend secondary school. To improve healthcare, the project equipped a medical clinic in the heart of the pastoralist area, with a particular focus on maternal and infant health. In terms of veterinary medicines, we worked with authorities to help provide subsidised, high-quality medicines to households that had invested in a predator-proof boma. This helps to recoup their initial costs by reducing livestock loss to disease. Although these initiatives are small, significantly more villagers now report seeing a personal benefit from carnivore presence on village land.

 

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Local people are better able to support conservation initiatives if they see tangible benefits:

1. Opening of a healthcare clinic.©Ruaha Carnivore Project 

2. A newly reinforced boma to protect livestock. ©Jon Erickson

3. Visitors to Ruaha National Park learn about the role the park plays in conservation. ©Ruaha Carnivore Project

Despite living so close to Ruaha National Park, the majority of local people have never legally entered the Park, and know little about its role. RCP now conducts weekly trips to the park for villagers, enabling them to learn about wildlife in a non-threatening atmosphere. These have been incredibly valuable, with 95% of people saying the experience had (positively) changed their attitude towards species like lions, and 99% saying it gave them a greater appreciation of the role of the park. Education is also provided through DVD nights, which are very popular, and we are now working with international partners to translate some key wildlife DVDs into Swahili for greater impact.

To address cultural killings, we partnered with Lion Guardians and Panthera to replicate the Kenyan Lion Guardian model around Ruaha. Under this initiative, warriors are trained as lion trackers and community guardians. Through this programme, they are given highly-valued literacy training, and receive a good income so they can buy cattle instead of killing lions to obtain them. The Lion Guardians receive status through their jobs and, as influential warriors, dissuade others from going on lion hunts because their jobs, status and income depend on the survival of carnivores in their zone.

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A leopard surveys Ruaha from the bough of a tree. ©Pietro Luraschi

Despite challenges at the start, we are already seeing progress. Local people are more economically secure, are seeing real benefits from wildlife, and are gaining conservation awareness. Hearteningly, the largely-Barabaig community just awarded us land for a permanent camp. And let’s not forget the animals. Carnivore killings in the core study area have dropped by 80% since 2011.

There is much we still need to do as RCP works intensively in only a few of the local villages, but we are hopeful as we go forward. My experiences in Ruaha have taught me that, although real big-cat conservation differs vastly from my childhood dreams, it is richer, more complex and more rewarding than that wide-eyed 10-year-old could ever have imagined.

To read the full Africa Geographic article, plus additional video clips and further stories from Ruaha, click here

Meet your hosts at Kwihala Camp

Guides1TrackingGuidesKwihala Camp has a well-deserved reputation for the top level of guides and guiding that guests enjoy while visiting Ruaha National Park. Here we introduce you to the personalities you will encounter when you travel to this magically remote outpost of truly wild Africa.

FestoFesto Ntayaye was born in 1974 to a father who was a game ranger in Rungwa and Selous Game Reserves. Festo accompanied his Dad on numerous patrols and thus developed a fascination for nature and the wildlife they observed. After school, Festo completed a one year course in guiding and started working as a guide in Selous Game Reserve where he conducted drives and walks, sharing his knowledge and experiences with guests. After a few years in Selous he found an opportunity to guide in Ruaha National Park, which is situated next to his childhood haunt of Rungwa. Here he honed his skills as a guide and excelled as an interpreter of all things wild. Today he is still in Ruaha and his passion for the Park is clearly visible. Festo really enjoys bird-watching as well as taking time to calmly sit and observe the events around him as they happen. “This way one is able to really get to understand how things fit together” he says.

LorenzoLorenzo Rossi was born in Italy in 1984. On completing his studies in Economic Engineering in Milan in 2009 he decided to visit Tanzania to enjoy his passion for nature. He visited Arusha and Kwihala Camp in Ruaha and then decided to make tourism and guiding in Tanzania his career. “Wild, spectacular, exclusive. Ruaha is still a mostly unexplored park. It’s the largest national park in Tanzania and only maybe 4% of it is really regularly touched by game drive routes. I have never seen a concentration of lions like here, the number of elephants is outstanding,” he says. He first took a course in South Africa and gained his level 1 in guiding with FGASA (Field Guide Association of Southern Africa), and now holds his Level 2 qualification. He loves football, tennis, fishing and just to be out in the bush. He speaks English, Italian and Kiswahili.

MariusSince 1992 Marius Swart has been passionately sharing the splendours of nature with friends and strangers alike. With a penchant for walking safaris he developed a sense of awareness and pace, which provides for an experience of being an observer rather than a participant in Nature’s flow of events. Considering himself as a generalist, as his interests are as divergent as nature itself, he thrives in discovering new wild places and piecing together the components that underpin their cycles. Preferring small groups of guests and quiet concessions, this has led him to some spectacular and unknown regions where interpretation occurs naturally and spontaneously, as the events and behaviour displayed by the wildlife are observed. Of Ruaha, he has this to say:”Besides the astounding biodiversity, topography, incredible elephant and lion encounters, it is the fact that for most part, it is not overrun!” Marius enjoys photography, adventure motorcycling and flying as hobbies when he isn’t “working”.

PietroPietro Luraschi has this to say of Ruaha: “Around every corner is a surprise, every few kilometres there is a different landscape unravelling in front of your eyes. Riverine forests, open plains, combretum woodlands, huge granite kopjes, all within easy reach. Small dirt roads moving slowly through a great wilderness, huge number of elephant making the bush alive, a hectic cat population that year after year keeps us wondering about the complexity of natural patterns, entire baobab forests with an eerie edge that speaks of ancient beliefs, all this is Ruaha, all this peppered with a constant sense of discovery.”Pietro’s passion for Africa took him to the continent first as a volunteer in the Tarangire Lion Project, a research project on the lion population in the Tarangire National Park in Northern Tanzania. He studied to become a professional guide in South Africa in the Kruger National Park, where he received his qualifications for ARH (Advanced Rifle Handling) and Level 2 qualification from FGASA (Field Guide Association of Southern Africa), the most accredited association of safari guides in Africa. He also received a qualification as a Trails Guide, again from FGASA, regarding the conduct of walking safaris in areas with potentially dangerous game. This was obtained at Beho Beho in Tanzania. He has worked as a guide and as camp manager in southern Tanzania in two of the wildest and most untouched areas in the African continent, Ruaha National Park and Selous Game Reserve. During these years he has heightened his knowledge of the bush by working for three different camps, Mdonya Old River Camp, Selous Impala Camp and Lake Manze Camp. He also speaks Kiswahili.

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From an early age Steve Roskelly has been preoccupied with wildlife and nature and his working life has been spent in the field of nature reserves, wild animals and wide-open spaces. Living in, and having travelled extensively in, Southern Africa, he realises that nature is where his heart and passion lies. Private and guiding journeys to the wilderness areas of Tanzania, Botswana and Namibia have re-enforced his keen desire for travel and the exploration of unknown habitats and their natural inhabitants. Guiding experience from open vehicles, on foot and in light aircraft, from low veldt savannas to lowland sand forests and rugged coastlines are among Steve’s repertoire of working activities. In addition to guiding, Steve has also spent time training the next generation of Field Guides based in various reserves across the Limpopo lowveld. Steve’s formal credentials include a degree in Botany & Zoology as well as top guiding and tracking qualifications from the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa. Steve’s passion for nature and photography together with his bush-skills, honed over many years as a wildlife guide, have taught him to be humble in the presence of the wildlife that surrounds us. “Ruaha is a special place with a beautiful and inspiring landscape and some of the most incredible savanna wildlife viewing in Africa,” he says.

Sandy Mellett 2Sandy Mellet is a third generation Zimbabwean with a passion for nature and outdoor life. She completed her Junior and Senior school studies in Zimbabwe and then went on to train to become a qualified chef at Christina Martin School of Food and Wine in Durban, South Africa. After working and travelling for several years abroad, Sandy was very happy to return back to Africa. She branched out into Front of House management when she moved to Zanzibar in 2006. In 2012 she found her home with Asilia, managing their Zanzibar property Matemwe Lodge and Retreat for two years. She was very happy to get the opportunity to go back to the bush, which she is so passionate about, to manage Kwihala Camp in Ruaha National Park.

With their vast combination of knowledge and experience, coupled with skills ranging from photography to the art of vehicle maintenance, plus a dash of great humour, charm and hospitality, our team at Kwihala are what makes many of our guests keep returning to this amazing place again and again!

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Baobabs and other pachyderms

By Martyn Bowen

Martyn Bowen, born and brought up in Tanzania, now visits Africa as regularly as possible – his job in Europe with a sports company encompasses Africa in his area of responsibility, and he always takes the opportunity to combine business with what he sees as his obligation to bring both the magic and the precariousness of Africa to the attention of his own small universe. With the aim of raising awareness in the developing world, it is the least he could do for a continent that has given him so much. Here he shares his recent experiences at Kwihala Camp with us.

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Lorenzinis Ampullae are sensors that sharks use to sense the presence of other animals in their vicinity – supplementing the other senses such as sight, sound and smell. The use of all senses other than the obvious one of sight is a huge advantage when looking for game in the wilds of Africa. When the haystack you are looking for a needle in is the size of Ruaha National Park, then you take all the help you can. Kwihala guides Festo and Pietro and indeed the eponymous Lorenzo possess these additional senses in abundance. It is no myth to relate that the leopard Festo found was sensed rather than seen. While driving in the early morning looking for a totally different species of cat, the alarm call of the baboons immediately set off the ampullae in Festo’s sensors. Baboons don’t bark like that at nothing, and as a professional guide, one is well advised to heed the call of the wild. Firstly locate the baboons (up in the trees clearly keeping something in sight) and then switch on the other senses. When the leopard did eventually come into sight, crossing the road at a trot, the sense of satisfaction was similar to solving a particularly difficult cryptic crossword clue. The cause of the noise was a slightly built young female leopard, clearly on the move, checking scent marks at every bush, possibly scouting for evidence of the territorial male.

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Years of observation tell one that the vultures are not roosting, nor just resting but indeed waiting for the lions invisible from the road, to move on… the speed at which a vulture comes out of the sky will indicate whether he is looking for a roost or a snack. What is the instinct that tells us the buffalo may well be coming down to drink but are not alone – someone is watching them, even if we can’t see them? The behaviour of the buffaloes themselves is the best evidence.

I was lucky enough to revisit this park with my two sons having first visited as a seven year old some time in the seventies. And I have to realise that much like language skills which get rusty if not used, so are the observational skills, but constant use and observing the guides brings the old skills back to life, as well as opening up new ones.   It was just as exciting to analyse a hole in the riverbank and hear the two guides conclude it was a pangolin, not an aardvark, despite no sign of the animal in question. The birds are similar – if you can’t get a  clear view, then maybe the way it is flying will tell you whether it is a Bateleur (balancing like the tightrope walker it is named after, as its tail is too short to add stability) or a Tawny eagle or even if you are lucky, a martial eagle. The latter has a favourite food, a tree hyrax, and their favourite mode of attack is to come straight out of the sun, where they can’t be seen. Fascinating however, is to learn that scientists have discovered a special lens in the Hyrax’s eye to be able to look directly into the sun.

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And finally a word must be reserved for those great grey pachyderms which populate Ruaha seemingly everywhere – and under threat from those around them – I refer to the Great Baobab, majestically withstanding drought, elephants, and most importantly of all, time. How old a tree can get is a subject of some debate, but the myths of 10 000 year-old trees are probably just that – myths. They probably can live for up to 1500 years, and of all trees, are the only ones which can survive ringbarking by foraging animals – they survive the elephants who splinter off the pithy flesh using their tusks, and seemingly are never in leaf. For an untrained eye, the bare branches reaching up to the sky are dead. So many are the unique properties of this tree that some have contended it cannot be classified as a tree at all. But the memories as a kid of finding their fruit lying on the ground around the massive trunk, up to 30 40 metres in circumference, finding a stone to crack open the hard wooden shell covered in a soft fur, to reveal the white mint-humbug sized seeds inside – a treat for any kid to suck on and wince at the tart but sweet taste, full of ascorbic acid which also encourages the uptake of other nutrients in the bloodstream. And so it acts as a magnet for other species from fruit bats (who pollinate the blossoms which only bloom at night) through baboons all the way to elephants – and in Ruaha you will even find leopards in a baobab…

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And the elephants of Ruaha? Worth a blog all of their own, but suffice it to say – when we talk of using extraordinary senses the elephant is the king – a dry river bed is for them simply a challenge – for they forget the evidence of the eyes and smell which says water has not been seen here for weeks. They sense it running underground, and possess the skill to dig perfectly formed sinkholes, lifting out the sand until they reach the water far below, and sucking it up with their trunks to squirt into their mouths.   They too as a result act as a magnet for the other wildlife of Ruaha – without the elephant many other species would fail to find water, and so once more the extraordinary extra-sensory ability of one species to solve the puzzle benefits other lesser species – that is how the guides of Ruaha are to be judged – if you like Sherlock Holmes, you are just going to love Ruaha and its guides.

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Life in Macro: the insects of Ruaha.

By Marius Swart, Clearly Africa guide

Creepy-crawlies, bugs, goggos or critters are all names, which conjure up feelings of fear and panic…a need to frantically swipe and slap at yourself whilst dancing on the spot! A reason to NOT go on safari in the rainy season.

 As a kid I remember being influenced by the fear of other family members, convinced of impending death or grievous bodily harm every time an insect entered our space. It was not until I was a teenager that this irrational fear started waning due to the high survival rate of these encounters. A little bit of logic goes a long way…The abundance and diversity of arthropods in the natural world is beyond comprehension!

Mechanisms of physical adaptations regarding camouflage, defence and feeding is astounding and deserves to be marvelled at.

In Ruaha the rainy season usually commences from early December until early April. However from late November there are already signs of the approaching change, with the sudden increase in numbers of insects. A great majority of species provide a riot of colour and insanely intricate patterns in their design. Some cryptically painted to blend in and hide from potential predation and others boldly visible in very LOUD reds, blacks, whites and yellows! These vividly noticeable colours however serve a rather counterintuitive purpose.

Although strikingly apparent, these colours act as warning signs of the potent toxins present in the insect, which immediately divert attention from them. You only need to bite into an unripe fruit to quickly learn which colour means tasty and which not…

 As for feeding mechanisms there are amongst others, biting or piercing mouthparts.Those that need to crush fruit-pulp or other insects have powerful mandibles which operate like scissors while those sucking sap from plants or the innards of other insects, they have a sharp straw-like proboscis to puncture and suck with.

Once you can control your anxiety about their perceived danger, there is always something amazing to observe with insects.

Turn your fear into marvel by gradually paying attention to the less “scary” species and notice their form and function, patterns and colours.

Ask your guide to point them out and you would be amazed at the wonderful addition insects make to the spectrum of experiences to be had whilst on safari!

Happy “bugging”…

Yours in awareness,

Marius Swart.

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A large Citrus Swallow-tail butterfly visiting a blossoming Fire-ball Lily in October.

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African Monarch butterfly being enticed to investigate the little-seen flowers of a Cyprus Sedge.

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A strikingly coloured Long-horn beetle with bold aposematic black and yellow. These beetles tunnel through tree trunks and help recycle the nutrients.

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A Fly perched on top of a fresh Preying Mantid egg-case possibly dabbing up some excess moisture.

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Hovering at a Pretty Lady Cleome, this African Honey Bee searches for nectar.

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Tiger Beetles are voracious predators of other insects and thus incredibly fast and agile!

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This Damselfly perched on the banks of the Mwagusi River allowed me to leopard-crawl to very close quarters! They are incredible predatory aerobats like their cousins, dragonflies.

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A large Bee Fly sitting on one of the many wildflowers so ubiquitous of the rainy season.

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African Honey Bee collecting from the dangling inflorescence of Signal Grass. Note the drifting pollen particles in the breeze.

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I can’t remember what this is…if you can find it, it was sucking sap from a very toxic Calotropis plant! White milky latex!

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Elegant Grasshopper with its striking aposematic colouration.

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Elegant Grasshopper with its striking aposematic colouration.

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A young Emerald Long-horn Beetle.

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An Acraea butterfly showing orange and black warning colours. They ingest toxins from a larval food-plant which is retained in their bodies post pupation!

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A resting Dragonfly waiting for potential prey to pass within dashing distance.

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Snouted Net-winged Beetles are quite large and visible.

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Although not an insect per se, this Water Spider also astounds with its design and behaviour!

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The hatchling of a Preying Mantid braving the world.

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One of the early instars of a Weevil Beetle. The spiny protrusions are there to aid in self-defence!

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African Monarch butterfly visiting the crisp blossom cluster of a Heliotrope or String-of-stars.

Lions of Ruaha

Sharubu diaries…

By Akil Halai, Field Operations Coordinator, Asilia Tanzania

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Lions (Panthera leo – local name: Simba) are the only felines that form social groups called prides. All other cats are solitary hunters.

Prides are often described as matriarchal because more females belong to a pride, they remain long-term members, and they live longer than male lions. The life of a male lion is socially more precarious than that of a female lion. Males must win their way into a pride of females and once they do, they must fend off challenges from males outside the pride who try to take their place. 

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Kumi (left) and Grumpy, two dominant pride males

Male lions are in their prime between the ages of 5 and 10 years and often do not live long after that period. Male lions rarely remain part of the same pride for more than 3 or 4 years before more dominant challengers drive them off.

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Lionesses from the Ifuguru and Wakali prides

Female lions often give birth at about the same time, which means the cubs within a pride are of a similar age. The females will suckle one another’s young but that doesn’t mean it is an easy life for cubs within a pride. Weaker offspring are often left to fend for themselves and die as a consequence.

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Cubs from the Mwanyembe Pride

Lions often hunt together with other members of their pride. The prey they capture usually weighs between 55 and 330kg. When prey within that weight range is not available, lions are forced to either catch smaller prey weighing as little as 15kg or much larger prey weighing as much 500kg. When forced to feed on small prey, lions make the kill and eat their catch by themselves. When forced to eat larger prey, they must hunt in groups and risk injury during a hunt due to the large size of their prey.

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Females of the Wakali and Msembe prides

Ruaha National Park in Southern Tanzania holds many prides of lions. The prides I have witnessed have lions in huge numbers, up to 27 lions. I have had the opportunity to spend some time with the different prides during my 3-week stay at Kwihala Camp in the prime central area of the park. We know of 10 different prides co-existing in this beautiful landscape within their own territorial boundaries that they defend from other lions. Lions identify their territory by roaring loudly or by physically scent marking trees or rock outcrops. While female lions will hunt and kill most of the animals for the pride to eat, male lions are around primarily to defend the territory from other lion prides or nomadic male lions.

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The Ifuguru Males on a giraffe kill

Due to the fact that these prides of Ruaha contain lions in large numbers, they usually hunt big game. The Bushbuck pride & the Mwayembe pride are known to hunt giraffes and buffalos. Zebra and other medium sized herbivores are just teatime snack for such big prides!

These pictures were taken while spending considerable time in company of these beautiful cats. Many thanks to Lorenzo Rossi (Guide – Kwihala Camp) for his tireless efforts in collection of this data and his good company while enjoying game drives, and for his photo contributions portrayed in this post.

The prides include The Bushbuck pride (up to 27 lions including cubs); The Old airstrip pride (2 big males, 6 females and 4 cubs); the Kumi pride (10 Lions- Kumi means 10 in Swahili); Msembe pride (up to 12 lions); Wakali Pride (14 lions at grid W7 –Grumpy the dominant male, 4 big females, 4 sub adult males, 3 sub adult females and 2 new cubs); Mbagi pride (1 big male, 4 females); Mwayembe pride (21 lions – 1 big old male whom I call Caesar); Mdonya Juu pride (10, 3 males, 4 females and 3 cubs); Ifuguru pride (16 lions, 2 males from the fabulous four coalition still remain part of this group) and the Ikuka pride (4 females and 6 young males – near Mpululu).

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Wakali pride