At 4.30am I became aware of the first sounds of movement; by five Nyamepi Camp in Mana Pools National Park was alive with torch light and chatter as 200 or so counters prepared for the day ahead. In the faint dawn light sleepy campers moved towards the information desk, set up under an ancient Natal mahogany, to collect the mornigs recording sheets. Compasses, GPSs, pencils, cameras and thermos ﬂasks were packed and team members rounded up, then vehicles of all descriptions set off for the ﬂoodplain. As the morning’s game count got under way, the sun’s soft light had just started to tint the earth in colours that are uniquely African.
Established in 1963 and declared a World Heritage Site in 1984, the 2 190-square-kilometre Mana Pools National Park forms part of the vast wilderness that is the Zambezi River Valley. It lies more or less halfway between the Kariba Dam to the west and the Mozambique border to the east, and stretches 50 kilometres back from the Zambezi River to the escarpment, which rises a thousand metres up from the valley ﬂoor. The park lays claim to 50 kilometres of stunning river frontage, where immense sausage trees and Acacia Albidas provide food and shade for the healthy elephant population. It was here that, until the early 1960s when the effect of the dam wall at Kariba began to be felt, the waters of the Zambezi would annually ﬂood into the park. Nowadays, the ﬂoodplain is mostly dry and only old alluvial terraces and former islands sporting mature African ebony and Natal mahogany trees serve as reminders of a submerged landscape. Still, during the rains Mana Pools becomes waterlogged, pools are seasonally flooded, and only the more adaptable mammals, together with park staff, remain. When the land dries out after the rains, usually four main pools are left (mana means ‘four’ in the local Shona language), but only the largest of these, Long Pool, has not yet completely disappeared during the dry season.
Surrounded by hunting concessions, Mana Pools appears to provide a refuge for many game species, notably impala, buffalo, waterbuck and zebra, as well as predators such as lion, hyaena and wild dog. Hippos occur in large numbers – too large, some say – and the elephant population hovers around the 200 mark. Most of the time, the animals are little disturbed by humans; there s only one access road, which varies from reasonably driveable to extremely corrugated, and apart from a few small luxury camps the facilities for visitors are basic, but adequate. At the main public camp, Nyamepi, there are three ablution blocks, Water taps, barbecue pits and an office — no shop, no fuel, no electricity and no fences. More often than not, elephants and hyaenas in the camp outnumber the monthly tally of 12 or so humans.
That all changes come September, when volunteers from around Zimbabwe congregate at Nyamepi to take part in the annual Mana Pools game count organised by Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ; formerly Zimbabwe Wildlife Society). The brainchild of Jane and Kelvin Hein and Paul Stidolph, members of the Makonde branch of WEZ, the game counts began in 1993 as much to attract‘ more people to the area as to record wildlife numbers. WEZ was already running a successful annual game count in Hwange National Park in north-western Zimbabwe, where volunteers stationed at a particular point in the park counted game over a 24-hour period. The Heins decided to model their counts on the static ones at Hwange, but they also knew that Mana Pools would lend itself to a more mobile operation. After all, this is the only national park in Africa where visitors are permitted to walk unaccompanied by a ranger or guide. Here it is perfectly feasible, if not a little scary, to park your car and wander off into the bush in search of elusive wildlife. Accordingly, counts on foot were introduced at Mana Pools, and they have proved to be not only successful but also very popular.
The game count occurs over the weekend closest to a full moon in September, before the oppressive heat of October sets in. In its first year, the Heins set up 26 static counts at various water sources throughout the park. However, an analysis of the results showed that some of the more remote locations were not frequented by large game, so they decided that some of the teams could be better utilised elsewhere. Now there are about 12 static counts, including four teams positioned along the two kilometres of water supplied by Chitake Spring, a perennial water source for game away from the river.
But it is game walks that make up the largest part of the count with, in 2004, 200 people formed 37 teams of between four and six members. Each team walked four different transects in the central ﬂoodplain, an area of 45 square kilometres, with the result that each transect was covered four times by different teams. All the teams started from the fringe zone of mopane woodland south of the Zambezi and walked due north, finishing on the riverbank. Although short in distance – ranging from three to six kilometres — each walk lasted between two and four hours, depending on how long was spent observing and recording the game seen.
Teams were spaced 500 metres apart and each one counted game 250 metres to the left and right of its transect line. Not only were the type and number of animals seen recorded, but also the time at which they were seen and the direction in which they were heading. This ensured that the same animals were not counted twice if they happened to overlap more than one transect line. If the animals were close to the 250-metre boundary, a question mark was added to indicate that the team was uncertain whether they ’belonged’ to it or to the neighboring team. Additional information, such as the sex of the animals and the number of juveniles present, was also noted.
Moving 200 people around the park to 45 different starting points was an interesting logistical exercise. The twice-daily walks only set off at 06h30 and 15h30, but the teams counting furthest from camp had to leave an hour and a half beforehand to get to their starting point on time. Experienced counters often took a designated driver who dropped them at the start of the walk and waited for them at the end. Adjacent teams regularly hitched a ride with these drivers, so it was not unusual to see 12 people crammed into the back of a Landcruiser or pick-up. Less experienced participants, like us, took two vehicles and left one at the ﬁnishing point, as we didn’t want to miss out on precious walking and spotting time. It was somewhat bizarre to see apparently abandoned 4x4s scattered through the park.
Teams allocated to parts of the floodplain where lions and large buffalo herds are known to occur could be accompanied by one of the 12 national park rangers or by a professional hunter or guide who had also volunteered to join the count . The far east of the ﬂoodplain, where we walked, is normally prohibited to visitors and here, because the bush is denser and the game more ﬂighty, we were joined by a very enthusiastic and informative national park guide. Thankfully, we had no potentially dangerous encounters, but others on the count did. Lulled into a false sense of security by the proximity of the river and of Nyamepi Camp just a hundred metres away, two women almost stumbled onto a pair of sleeping lionesses. In a previous year, a lion charged some walkers and the guide was forced to ﬁre a warning shot. Only when a second shot was ﬁred did the lion abandon its charge, just 10 paces from the walkers. There have been many narrow escapes in the count’s 12-year history but, amazingly, only one hippo has had to be shot.
There have been other marvellous, but less stressful, moments on the walks too. This year, a group on one of the furthest transects from main camp was lucky to observe a 20-strong wild dog pack with eight pups. Our group had excellent elephant, eland and kudu sightings, and had to make a wide detour to avoid a lone cantankerous buffalo. Nor are animal encounters reserved solely for walks — this year a pride of lions took a nocturnal stroll through Nyamepi Camp! Lions in that part or the park are unusual but elephants and hyenas are not, and the annual inﬂux of counters at Nyamepi tends to disrupt their routine. One morning we watched an old bull elephant – his patience perhaps stretched by the humans dawdling over breakfast under ‘his’ tree — casually reach up and pull down a large branch, smashing one of the group’s trailers in the process.
The camp’s resident hyenas are notorious and we were warned about their nocturnal pilfering. Even so, dusk on the first night saw one group of counters lamenting the loss of all their meat when they realised that a couple of mischievous hyenas had pulled their cooler box down the embankment. They could reclaim it, empty and slightly chewed, only in daylight the following morning, when there was no danger of bumping into a hippo or crocodile. In the small hours of the second night we were all kept awake by a series of dull thuds that turned out to be made by hyenas forcing open the lid of a freezer. Having succeeded, they made off with all the frozen food inside it.
Over the years, the count has shown that animal numbers have remained constant in most cases and have even increased in certain species, such as impala, buffalo and eland. The two main buffalo herds now number around 300 and 600 respectively. or the duration of the two-day count, the talk was about the game seen and adventures experienced – a welcome change from usual topics of discussion in Zimbabwe. Novice or veteran, office worker or safari guide, all participants were there to enjoy and do their bit for the conservation of Zimbabwe’s wildlife and environment. Friendships were made and renewed, and we all talked about coming back next year to be charged by lions, eaten by mosquitoes and woken at 04h30. What more could one ask for from a weekend away?