via Elephants flee Zim | The Financial Gazette – Zimbabwe News by Shame Makoshori 26 Sep 2013
A TARPAULIN canopy protected us from the scorching sun in a small, ramshackle boat on the intimidating banks of the crocodile infested Chobe River.
It was August 29, 2013 in the Kasane resort town in north-eastern Botswana.
Powerful waves relentlessly pounded the light watercraft which nodded submissively after a Botswana Defence Forces anti poaching vessel sliced through the still waters at breakneck speed.
The currency swept underneath its bream shaped belly while we struggled to get to grips with its uncontrolled shaking.
Then the worst news struck.
Just as our youthful captain rolled out of the makeshift harbour into the wide open waters, limitless horizons extending into the dense savannah forests yonder, where Chobe submits into the mighty Zambezi, a snake on board took us all by surprise.
The tour had degenerated into turmoil, and our captain quickly reacted before some of us, terrified and shell shocked by the presence of the reptile within our vicinity.
It was a bad start to a memorable exploration on one of southern Africa’s longest rivers, a rare opportunity for close range encounters with a wide range of fauna and flora.
On the eventful day filled with both excitement and near fatal confrontations with deadly wild beasts, we would later be interrupted by a dangerously charging hippo determined to protect a baby, with all of us least expecting that we had orbited into harm’s way.
The hippo plunged into the waters from the edge of the politically sensitive Sedudu Island, strolled knee-deep into muddy shores and bellowed before cutting deep into the river while angling for a strike.
Our boat quaked and stunted, and the young captain panicked as he attempted to flee.
But with each ticking second, fate was propelling us towards a lockdown with the fast approaching mammal, notorious for striking small boats belly up when its peace is disturbed.
The captain tried to take off again, but the old engine muffled.
Then it burst into high speed just as the rest of the six of us had resigned.
One hundred metres away, we skidded to a halt as the hippo submerged on our previous position.
A few minutes earlier, our captain had narrowly avoided a fatal collision with a defiant crocodile that had drifted into our path, rolling past the triangle-shaped hull of the boat before he steered sideways to avoid a potentially bloody contact with the propeller.
We had watched the croc on the edge of the river snoozing, its jaws wide open, and its impressive teeth and ugly mouth on display.
Chobe River’s ecosystem is pregnant with mysteries — land and water animals fiercely compete for space. The river is a delicate habitat that has strived to strike a balance between sustaining a robustly growing animal population, lash green floodplains and a vibrant aquaculture.
In Kasane, the river becomes a twisting, broad arm of water snaking its way through swampland.
The Chobe National Park rests on its banks at this point and is home to a huge number of herbivores, especially elephant.
Chobe’s wide banks and fresh grass attract animals of all sorts, its multiple distributaries branching into scenic islands dominated by Sedudu, a source of previous territorial dispute between Namibia and Botswana.
Sedudu was awarded to Gaborone by the International Court of Justice in 1999 and Botswana’s flag proudly flies at its centre in spite of the fact that it is largely empty and of insignificant commercial value.
Straight ahead, seven herds of elephants, still only appearing like dune-shaped basalt outcrops in the horizon, moved toward the islands, one of many that roam the Chobe National Park.
Another herd effortlessly descended into the encroaching flood plains.
Within a few minutes, the incoming jumbos had reached the waters and sloshed in, forming a straight line, trunk to tail, and trunk to tail.
We sailed closer as the elephants submerged into the deep waters, with only their heads above, and their trunks stretched up like water pythons.
They paddled around and headed back ashore, their wet tusks glittering in the sun and their skin the colour of brown chocolate.
Back on land the jumbos scooped wet black mud with their trunks and sprinkled it over their bodies, an elephant’s version of Constance’s Carroll powder.
In this part of Africa, elephants are completely at home.
During the dry season, massive herds spend their days in Chobe River, drinking and bathing.
Many of them have been enduring the blistering long journey into the giant Chobe National Park from Zimbabwe, fleeing a blossoming poaching industry that has mercilessly decimated once thriving herds.
They have brought with them thousands of tourists, who arrive in Victoria Falls to view the world’s seventh wonder but are immediately disappointed by difficulties in seeing wild animals on the shores of the Zambezi.
But in Chobe, the impressive herds have given tourists an unsurpassed opportunity to view jumbos through a buffet of angles on the banks, on the land, in water and up close.
Tourism officials in Kasane acknowledge that the booming elephant herds in the region have been boosted by constant arrivals from Zimbabwe, some of them never returning once they cross the border into Botswana.
“Mass tourism in Zimbabwe has its own implications,” said Mokganedi Ntana, tourism development manager for Botswana Tourism in Kasane.
“Elephants are actually crossing into Chobe from Zimbabwe fleeing poaching…the poachers’ methods are cruel. Here we are strict, we are trying to control mass tourism because you put pressure on the ecosystem if you have too many lodges,” he told The Financial Gazette.
In 1994, Botswana had 70 000 elephants, but this number has increased to 212 000.
During dry seasons, Zimbabwe’s national parks run out of grazing pastures and water, triggering the migration of animals into Chobe, officials said.
“We are making more day trips into Chobe than before,” said a tour guide at Kazungula Border Post, the gateway into north eastern Botswana.
“Elephants and other animals are migrating into Chobe from Zambezi National Park because Botswana has put in place strong anti poaching measures backed by the army. There are also better grazing pastures during the dry season.”
Tour operators have been busy transferring over 150 tourists into Chobe every day from Victoria Falls, specifically to view wild animals.
The tourists combine day cruises and game drives with more extensive trips inside Botswana, which include visiting the world renowned Okavango Delta, where they have better chances of seeing leopards, lions, elands, grant’s gazelles, roan antelopes, lesser kudu, hartebeest, giraffes, crocodiles, hippos, and beisa oryx, thought to be extinct in this region.
The drive from Victoria Falls takes about 90 minutes.
A visa is not required.
Water shortages killed about 190 elephants in Zimbabwe last year.
Hwange National Park alone lost 80 elephants and 25 buffaloes due to water shortages the previous year.
Official statistics indicate that more than 100 elephants were gunned down by poachers last year; previously, jumbos had been killed by raging wild fires in the poorly administered Zimbabwean forests.
Many more have been killed by trophy hunters, triggering the exodus that has turned Kasane into a spot of intense competition for pastures and water.
“There is a market for people to be paid by syndicates to kill animals in return for ready money,” Johnny Rodrigues, Chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation taskforce, told SW Africa recently.
The onslaught on the elephant hit a sad climax three weeks ago when game rangers spotted 41 dead jumbos in Hwange National Park after poachers poisoned water sources with the deadly industrial chemical, cyanide. The number of dead elephants has reached 84.
Cumulatively 116 elephants have been killed in the giant park through poisoning since January, according to the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe.
Victoria Falls’ tourism industry has been licking the wounds.
Elephant populations have been dwindling in Victoria Falls, denying the destination of the most attractive factor of its makeup.
Tourist arrivals into Zimbabwe declined by 26 percent in 2012 to 1,7 million, from 2,4 million in 2011.
“In Chobe you are 90 percent guaranteed that you will see animals,” said Charles Chakanya, marketing director at Zambezi Explorer, the largest cruise vessel in Victoria Falls.
“Our stretch of cruises in Victoria Falls has few animals. Chobe has an easily accessible river frontage for animals. Our own Zambezi National Park does not have extensive animals as in Hwange, some 100 kilometres away, or Chobe. But it is cheaper for tourists to travel to Chobe than Hwange,” said Chakanya.
The 180 seater Zambezi Explorer mainly concentrates on sunset cruises, to coincide with the time when animals move out of the thickets onto the shores.
There are also several reasons why Botswana’s elephant population has been increasing.
During a devastating war in Angola, northwest of Kasane, which ended in 1991, ivory was part of the major source of funding for bandits.
Thousands of elephants fled the former Portuguese colony and crossed the Caprivi Strip, a slender piece of Namibia, into Chobe.
Now, the population has been bolstered by the less and less elephants crossing back to Zimbabwe once they escape poaching.
Victoria Falls’ tourism industry is significantly anchored on its once thriving elephant population.
It is a tourism crisis waiting to explode. At the rate at which elephant migration, senseless poisoning and gunning down by poachers has been taking place action may only be taken when it is too late.