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Project Update April 2009

Apr 30, 2009

Exceptional rains have caused extensive flooding along the Zambezi River, which is now at its highest level in over fifty years.

The consequence of this for us is that the water levels on lake Kariba are rising daily, soon the water will reach the tree line on Starvation Island, reducing the island quite considerably in size, making hunting for the dogs surprisingly harder and bringing the crocodiles even closer. I have made two trips to the island in the last couple of weeks to assess the situation. I listened to Edward Muchuchuti's words of wisdom, only a fool wouldn't, as Edward has lived and worked in the area for over twenty years. I consulted with National Parks and eventually we all reached a consensus that the wise course of action would be to remove the dogs from the island. Back in Hwange, I convened a meeting with Jealous and the Rehab team to make plans. I always like to discuss such situations in full with the guys as they always have ideas and insight into the situation, which can prove invaluable. It's far from a top down decision-making process.

Thus, late on Sunday evening Jealous set off with his team to Starvation Island. I had to make another trip to Harare and took the opportunity to again visit the island, going across by boat from Kariba, thanking the sponsors who had purchased the boat for us, all the way. The water level was higher still and left absolutely no doubt that we were doing the right thing. We witnessed the dogs' unsuccessful attempt at hunting an impala. Mashambo led the way but even he could not prevent the impala from jumping into the lake. It escaped the dogs but its fate was sealed as 2 huge crocs immediately converged on it. Even our presence in the boat did not deter them as the impala was pulled beneath the water, to disappear before our eyes with little more than a ripple. One of the crocs moved towards the dogs, which were "waiting" for their meal on the shoreline. They showed a seemingly morbid fascination with the croc and I had visions of one of them being taken before my eyes. It was too much. I chased the croc away with the boat and them persuaded the dogs to move away from the shoreline.

Jealous arrived on the Monday afternoon with his team. It had taken him over twelve hours to drive the 400km. On Tuesday morning they linked up with the National Parks Scouts from Tashinga and began the exhausting process of setting up the capture nets. It took them all day in the blistering heat.

I arrived on Wednesday afternoon. It had taken me 9 hours to drive the 400km. We discussed the capture process, so that everyone understood his role, then set the bait and waited. Hungry as the dogs were, they were also suspicious and approached the boma formed by the capture nets but would not enter. A near full moon gave us enough light to see by, however we waited in vain. Weary from the long drive and exhausting heat we slept, with guards posted on the entrance to the boma, just in case. Soon after 5am the following morning, the signal went up and the curtain was closed on the boma. The dogs were inside. Our carefully, painstakingly, discussed capture was forgotten, maybe because everyone had just woken up. Men and dogs were running around everywhere. Mashambo, the fastest and smartest escaped under the nets in a flash. Jealous grabbed Njiva and I grabbed Slima. The remaining male, Lobels then escaped as well.

I immobilized the two dogs we had, cursing all the while, and they were carried down to the boat to be ferried over to the mainland and our waiting trailer. The plan was to drive the dogs back to Hwange once we had them. For this we would use our big trailer that had been prepared with a 10cm deep layer of sand and then a 2 metre thick layer of grass. The dogs would need all the cushioning we could give them for the bumpy ride "home".

With the 2 captured dogs safely inside the trailer and 2 guards placed in attendance, I went back to the island and talked with the "capture" team.

"What happened to our plan"? I asked. Embarrassed faces or blank stares greeted me.

"We will do better next time". Said one of the guys.

I pointed out that they had done well but that we now had a big problem to catch the remaining 2 dogs' as they would not come into the nets again. Ever practical and determined as they are, Jealous and Xmas took over and instructed the team to rebuilt the capture boma by setting all the nets up again in a slightly different place. Not convinced but not wishing to dampen their enthusiasm, I went to check on the 2 captured dogs'; it also gave me time to think about how we would now catch Mashambo and Lobels.

After checking on the 2 captured dogs I got back to the Island and found the team setting nets, though Jealous and Xmas were missing. They had gone to find the dogs. Taking meat with them, Xmas was hoping to entice them back to the nets using the meat to make the dogs follow him, as he has done many times at the rehab. Proud of his efforts, I waited, giving more instruction on setting the nets. Xmas and Jealous returned and told me that I should try and dart the 2 dogs. Stating that they were coming close enough for this but not actually following them back to the nets. I got my darting rifle and we went to find the dogs again.

We soon found them and indeed they came close. A game commenced with Xmas enticing the dogs ever closer, while I shuffled around looking for an angle to dart them. I wanted Mashambo first, so ignored Lobels. I took the shot and the dart bounced of an unseen twig into Mashmbos' side. He jumped away and we waited with baited breath to see if the dart had delivered the immobilizing drugs. It was soon obvious that I had failed. I recovered the dart and discovered that it was still full. It had lost its pressure but not injected the drugs, it must have hit Mashambo side on, so I was at least happy that he had not been hurt in anyway. Cursing again, I showed Xmas and Jealous and commented that I had now made it even harder for us, as Mashambo would now keep his distance. We trudged wearily back to our base camp and rested through the heat of the day. We would tray again later.

The late afternoon brings a little relief from the blistering heat. Xmas, Jealous and I again went to the dogs, while the rest of the team waited by the nets. The game commenced again with Xmas bringing the dogs' close, especially Lobels, but Mashambo kept his distance and also seemed aware that if he faced me or hid behind a tree, he was safe from the darts. We hung the meat in a tree and backed away, letting Mashambo come in and actually take a kg or so of meat. He ran away and ate it quickly. Lobels was still around but again I ignored him. I wanted Mashambo first. As I hoped, Mashambo came back for more meat. He glanced at me and presented his side as he tried to get at the meat in the tree. It was all I needed and the dart hit its target. I beckoned Xmas and Jealous to join me and with a grin from ear to ear told them that we had won. We carried our prize down to the boat and took Mashambo across to the trailer. Lobels had run away and by the time we got back it was too dark to dart him. Though we waited all night, he would not come into the nets, however it was an easy task to dart him the next morning. It was Friday now and we had all the dogs in the trailer and headed back to Hwange.

It took me 5 hours to drive the fist 90km. The always terrible road had not improved with age and late rains completed the job of turning it into no more that a rutted, pot hold, rocky trail. To call it a road is an insult to roads !! The dogs safety and comfort was the priority and after another 17 hours drive we arrived safely in Hwange. Very, very tired. The dogs had eaten the food we placed in the trailer for them and so indicated that the journey had not been too stressful for them. They settled in well at the rehab. Mashambo kept his distance, probably the least impressed with being back in our enclosures. Our task now is to find a couple of dogs to get the "pack" back up to 6 before releasing them into Hwange National Park. Ideally we would get two females, but the main thing is to have a pack of 6, which is a viable pack size.