The solitary painted dog chased the nyala antelope out of view towards Long Pool. We heard a splash rapidly followed by anxious canine yelps. The dog quickly returned to its pack and Long Pool became a frothy mass of angry hippos and prehistoric predators.
In the centre of the bedlam a crocodile tail rotated vertically more than a metre out of the water as another ten reptiles scavenged the prey below. We had, an hour earlier, counted two nyala during our Long Pool south walk; we now needed to adjust that number to one. This, my twelfth Mana Pools game count, was proving to be just as unique as previous years.
Jane and Kelvin Hein and Paul Stidolph started the Mana Pools game count back in 1993. Twenty-one years later there are still a dozen static counts within the 2,190km2 World Heritage Site, but the majority of the participants choose to walk. This year saw 230 volunteers split into 40 teams of four to six people, walking twice daily on pre-determined transects through the Park’s 45km2 central floodplain.
Spaced 500m apart, teams walk due north from the inland roads toward the Zambezi River. They count all mammals and specified birds 250m to the left and right, noting numbers, direction, time of day and if possible the gender. Recently we have been required to estimate individual elephant sizes in matriarchal herds.
Transect walks vary in length between two and four kilometres. Some teams organise a vehicle to return them to camp but we opted to walk back to the transect start point to fully utilise our time in this special environment. Mana Pools is the only national big game park in Africa where it is possible to walk unaccompanied by a guide.
Walks commence at around 6.30am and 3.30pm and theoretically all teams travel at the same pace across the floodplain. Mana’s resident mammals, however, aren’t always aware of this idea and many a team has been delayed. We once perched on a termite mound for nearly an hour as one of Mana’s 400-plus buffalo herds passed by. Lions en route are an obvious reason to backtrack and detour and more than once we’ve had to negotiate our way around solitary bull elephants absorbed in the daily task of foraging for albida pods.
Along with the early morning starts, par for the course are intense heat, mosquitoes and Nyamepi Camp’s cool box-raiding hyaenas. Many volunteers return annually to contribute towards Zimbabwe’s wildlife and conservation, whilst having a wonderful time in an extraordinary environment.
The compiled figures provide important information to ZimParks ecologists on environmental impact and trends. This helps to ensure that ZimParks’ management interventions and planning are carried out with the most accurate information available.