I didn't sleep a wink last night. Unseen creatures scratched around our cabin, and while I knew they couldn't get in, it still put me on edge.
We rushed around to load up the plane, and were in the air by eight. About half an hour later, we landed to the southwest of Khwai at Santawani wondering if anyone would actually come to get us. Lani and Tico had exchanged emails with our itinerary, but we hadn't been able to tell him that we were going to be a day late - no phones in the bush. As we unloaded our luggage, all we could do was hope that someone would show up to get us. A few minutes later we heard the tale-tell rumble of a 4x4, driven by Matt Swarner, a graduate student working at the camp.
The Botswana Predator Conservation Program camp is located near the south gate of the Moremi Game Reserve, which puts it closer to water than our previous stops. The first thing I noticed was the greener and shadier landscape. The camp itself is more like a real camp than any of the other places we'd stayed. A collection of tents and homemade, wooden structures comprise the lodging for Tico, his wife Lesley, and their two little boys. The camp also has room for visitors and a small support staff.
>>Watch a video about Predator Compensation in Africa
We ate breakfast and brought Tico and Lesley up to speed on the details of Gudigwa. Lesley, an anthropologist who works with communities in the area, was very interested in the progress they were making. I asked her about community land ownership and the challenges trusts like the BCCA face in managing the profits from the camp. Enterprises like the Gudigwa lodge can potentially bring in a lot of money, but because the villagers have little experience managing large sums, it can be challenge for them to invest their funds wisely. There is always a chance that certain members of the community will manipulate the distribution of funds in their favor.
Tracking Wild Dogs
After breakfast, Tico and Lesley set out in their plane to find the general location of collared dogs in the area. While they were away, Matt showed us a database he built that helps them keep track of the data they collect from monitoring wild dogs.
"We used shortwave radios to keep in touch, and used radio antennas to track the dogs."
Two hours later, Tico and Lesley return. They had located several packs of dogs in the vicinity of a dried salt pan.
We waited until late afternoon to track the dogs on land. It's best to try to find them before they start hunting in the evening, when it can be difficult to find them on the move. Matt went out in one truck to find one pack, while we set out with Tico and his family to locate another. We used shortwave radios to keep in touch, and used radio antennas to track the dogs.
>>Learn more about the technology that makes this research possible
We started at the salt pan. Lesley slowly panned the antenna, as we strained to hear the clicking noises through static of the receiver that would tell us that a pack was near. Nothing. We made a broad loop around the pan, occasionally stopping to listen for the signal. Still nothing. We worried that either the receiver wasn't working or the dogs had moved out of the area already.
Meanwhile, Matt had found a group of dogs, so we decided to catch up to him. As we headed back to the salt pan, we squinted into the landscape hoping to find some dogs, and sure enough I spotted one relaxing under an acacia tree. We approached the small group of four or five as they rested, their distinctive round ears twitching to swat away flies.
Hunting With the Pack
Back at the salt pan, Lani and I climbed into Matt's truck so Lesley and Tico could take the kids home. Soon we were back to listening for the faint clicks transmitted from the radio collars. When we eventually found the pack, Matt immediately started counting.
This was a pack of 16 and they were all there. Matt explained that the adult female, Agate, is the mother of the yearlings in the pack. We'd been there only a few minutes when each dog got up to hunt. That's when Matt noticed that Agate was limping, which would likely prevent her from hunting successfully. This was sad news because she is one of only three dogs in this pack old enough to hunt, and by far the strongest. When I asked Matt what might have happened to her, he said that likely she'd been bucked or taken a big fall.
We chased the dogs for a while hoping to catch a glimpse of them snagging their prey, but eventually we lost them as the sun started to set. Tracking them again by radio proved fruitless since they were on the move. At one point, I spotted something that looked like a dog, but as we approached we realized it was a hyena (Hyaena brunnea). Not wanting to stir this guy up, we carefully moved away and headed back to camp.
"Hunting in Botswana is not without its controversy, so it's good to know that there are tourism alternatives like the Gudigwa camp that celebrate what Botswana has to offer rather than take it away."
Back at camp, Matt told Tico the sad news about Agate and headed to the office to record the info from today's sightings.
Last Day in Botswana
The next morning, Tico and Lesley flew back to Maun with the kids. They checked for dogs on their way, but didn't find any along their flight path.
I accompanied Matt in the morning to search for the dogs on land, but without a general idea of where they might be, we were unable to find them.
The sky began to darken and we could see rain off in the distance, so we decided to head back. On our way, we passed a guy from a local lodge that specializes in photography excursions. He knows Matt and about the wild dog research, so when we stopped to offer our polite hellos, Matt asked him if he'd seen any dogs. No sightings, so we continued our way to camp.
As we neared the south gate of Moremi, we passed another Land Rover filled with tourists from the hunting lodge. Just the day before, Botswana's wild game hunting season opened, so this would be an ongoing site throughout the winter. Hunting in Botswana is not without its controversy, so it's good to know that there are tourism alternatives like the Gudigwa camp that celebrate what Botswana has to offer rather than take it away.
That afternoon Matt drove Lani and me to Moremi to watch an African sunset over the water. Along the way, we said our goodbyes to herds of elephants, impalas and zebras, finally settling at a spot about 30 feet from a small pond filled with hippos. From the roof of the truck we watched the hippos watching us as the sun set over the delta.
Update: Since our trip to Botswana, Agate has recovered and given birth to a new litter of puppies. The rest of the pack is doing fine.
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