In Zimbabwe, out tracking lions - or is it the other way around?

2015-09-28 10:52
File: AFP

File: AFP

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Zim poachers poison 90 elephants

2013-09-30 11:29

Zimbabwe is home to some of Africa's largest elephant herds. But poaching is on the rise and more brutal methods are being used to kill the animals.WATCH

Kariba - For over 15 years now, Humphrey Gumpo has made the African bush-lands his home and today he is held to be Zimbabwe's best guide. Now, Humphrey's elbow is dangling loosely from his jeep.

Its engine off, the off-roader silently glides to a halt in the thick grass beneath an acacia tree.

It is 05:30 in the morning. Silence. Humphrey then stretches his arm out towards the distance, his hand grasping a pair of binoculars. Somewhere out there they are lying in wait - a prowling pride of lions.

Now it's down from the jeep and following Humphrey through the bushes. On his colourful pearl-studded belt there hangs a holster and in it, a revolver. "I have never used it. I hope it still works," Humphrey jokes in a whisper.

The setting is the Mana Pools National Park, located on the Zambesi River, the fourth-largest river in Africa. In Shona, the language of the Bantu people, mana means "four" and in this part, the river has four side pools, spots where hippopotamuses feel especially at home.

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Even before dawn breaks, the powerful roar of one of the animals sounds like a small car with a souped-up engine. Soon, the birds start singing - blue kingfishers, green bee-eaters, brown rollers.

But, what about the lions? They are prowling through the bushes - and we are following them.

For a long time, Zimbabwe was a blank on the global tourism map. The forced seizures of white-owned farms ushered in the country's downfall. Famine followed, and then hyperinflation, until the US dollar became legal tender.

The economy has started to recover, with new investors chiefly from South Africa and China, but the country is still not doing well. The money keeps vanishing to corrupt officials. All this notwithstanding, tourists come to Zimbabwe and want to see its wildlife.

The animal world is now fighting for its survival. Zimbabwe has become the centre for the illegal trade in ivory, because in China ivory is regarded as a strong healing medicine. A kilogramme of ivory brings over $2 000, they say.

"The populations of elephants and lions in the parks are in danger," Humphrey says, while pointing to an elephant that has a metre-long collar around its neck. Attached to the collar is a position beacon, the aim being to prevent poachers from brutally slaughtering the animal.

Animal-protection groups in Zimbabwe are now emphasising the need to inform people under a new strategy for the tourism sector.

"We want to see more visitors come to the national parks and encourage them to learn something about the environment and wildlife of Zimbabwe," says Allain Chimanikire, manager of Mukuvisi Woodlands Nature Reserve, a private organization based in the capital Harare.

Nature and natural resources

Its volunteers work to protect the country's nature and to train a new young generation of Zimbabweans.

"For many Zimbabweans, the Swahili word 'nyama' to this day only means 'meat' or 'food,'" Chimanikire says. "Its original meaning is 'animal.' And simply too few people are yet aware that animals are of extreme importance for our future livelihood."

The aim is to educate schoolchildren about how to treat nature and natural resources. They are taken on visits to parks and stay overnight in camps, bringing them into close contact with nature.

Safari visitors too are encouraged to take part in workshops and attend lectures.

A further unique thing about Zimbabwe is that visitors may travel through the bush areas on foot without a guide, something that is not permitted, for example, in Krueger National Park in neighbouring South Africa.   This group does have a guide: Humphrey, who now shows his charges how to walk more quietly by lifting their feet and to step over, and not on, the dried branches in the thick grass. Also, one should breath shallowly.

The group is on the trail of some lions - or could it be the other way around?

From behind the high growth on the edge of a dried-out riverbed, there is an open view of a clearing. And suddenly a pride of lions goes past, less than a hundred metres away - and our private audience with the king of the jungle begins.

On the other side of the river a lion casually looks up, its eyes goldy-brown, like whiskey.

The visitor's heart is now pumping wildly, and there's that rush of adrenaline felt in every last fibre of the body. Then the lion roars, and even Humphrey takes a close look, right into the animal's eyes.

Humphrey has been a guide now for over 15 years, but you can tell by his expression that even for him, this is still a very special moment.

Read more on:    zimbabwe  |  southern africa  |  conservation  |  animals

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