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Project Update May 2008

May 23, 2008

Edward Muchuchuti spent 18 years at Tashinga, the National Parks base adjacent to Starvation Island, before he retired in 2006. With Jealous and I embarking on our "world tour", I knew that Edward was the man I wanted to keep an eye on the dogs on Starvation Island, know one knows the area better than he does, so I felt confident that I had left that critical aspect of the project in good hands. He didn't disappoint me. Visiting the island each week with a couple of National Park scouts to check on the welfare of the dogs, observe their behaviour and check the island for snares that may or may not have been set by local fisherman. Edward kept meticulous notes; a good habit learnt during his years with National Parks making it relatively easy for me to determine what was taking place during our absence.

He phoned me the day Jealous and I got back from our travels, eager to share the news that he had just seen the dogs hunting successfully. We were happy with the progress being made and talked enthusiastically about the forthcoming denning season, which is always our favourite time of the year.

Edwards next phone call, two weeks later, caused me to drop into my chair as if I had been punched in the stomach. Two dogs were missing. He had been on the island as usual, however due to National Parks deployment schedules he had been unable to stay. During the brief visit he had only seen three dogs and was making plans to get back on the island as soon as he could. I stressed the urgency of this and frustrated by the common sense advice to restrict ones own travel during the tense election period, I sat and waited. Edward phoned again four days later. There were only three dogs. Alpha male Ulaka and alpha female Notch, were missing. Edward had seen the three surviving dogs hunting a waterbuck only to lose it to a huge crocodile. The level of the lake was higher than it had been for some years and there were many crocodiles occupying the small bays on Starvation Island. They followed the dogs as they hunted and Edward was convinced that crocodiles had accounted for the missing dogs.

I didn't doubt him. However I wanted to be sure, so sent Jealous to investigate further, while I drove to Harare and then to Kariba to organise a boat, unconcerned now about the advice against travelling. I discussed the situation with Greg, as I found it hard to believe that crocodiles would catch two of the dogs. However the other scenarios of the two having swum off the island or having denned early did not make sense either.

I met up with Jealous and Edward on the island. Jealous confirmed that there were only three dogs and that the crocodiles were a menace. He smiled as I insisted that we search the island one more time. He has worked with me for many years and knows that I am possessed with the same determination as Greg and won't give up until I absolutely have to. In temperatures of over 40 degrees, we searched the island for any sign of the missing dogs. There was nothing.

We then searched around the island on the boat, listening for the signal from Ulaka's collar. Still nothing. It was time to report to National Parks so I instructed the boat captain to get us across to Tashinga and asked Jealous to continue to listen out for Ulaka's collar. Half way across the lake, some 2km from Starvation Island, Jealous picked up the signal !! Though we circled around and around, we failed to detect the signal again. We were mystified. Had Ulaka swum of the island and drowned? Did crocodiles swim so far from the shoreline? Maybe poachers had killed the dogs and thrown the collars in the middle of the lake? So many questions. I needed more help to solve this and so called for a helicopter, knowing that I would definitely pick up the signal from the air. A helicopter is not cheap to hire and we don't exactly have a budget for such things, however I needed answers.

The helicopter arrived two days later and we flew over the island, increasing the circumference of our search ever more. We flew up and down the mainland, checking the areas that I thought the dogs would end up at if they had swum. We flew over the area where Jealous had picked up the signal two days earlier. Nothing. I instructed the pilot to get us back to the island and as we flew in to land I picked up the signal. We circled the spot, hovering low over the water and only saw crocodiles. We landed and walked down to the bay, which was the same one where Edward had witnessed the crocodiles stealing the dogs kill some weeks before. There was no sign of the crocodiles, presumably scared away by the helicopter. There was no signal either! I got in a small boat and paddled around the bay, searching for the signal from the collar. Jealous can't swim and doesn't like the combination of small boats and big crocodiles, thus he stayed on dry land watching as I searched, perched perilously on the bow of the small rowing boat. I could not pick up the signal again and so concluded that the collar must be inside the crocodile, forcing me to accept that Ulaka was dead. The collar on alpha female Notch, had stopped working some time ago and so her fate remains a mystery, though she probably met the same fate as her mate, Ulaka. Being the alpha pair, they had perhaps, unwisely, tried to defend their kill from a crocodile and met what must have been a very violent and unpleasant end.

I now had to turn my attention onto the three survivors and consider if it was wise to leave them on the island. Edward had seen them make a kill, however I again wanted to see for my self that they could cope. Days went by with failed hunts until we finally saw them catch a young waterbuck. The crocodiles were close at hand, however this time the dogs fed well. After they had finished eating I dragged the remains up into the tree line, well away from the waiting crocodiles.

I did not want to remove the dogs from the island. I reasoned that we would not catch the survivors if lions had killed two of the pack and added to this was the likelihood that the female, Arrow, was probably pregnant. Immobilising her would almost certainly kill the unborn pups. So the three survivors remain on the island and we have stepped up the monitoring, with the help of the ever-wiling staff at Tashinga. I have been back to the island again and the three continue to do well, though the lake also continues to rise.