During the late dry season, when tourism is at its peak, the Mana Pools camps and lodges are packed, and there are vehicles and people everywhere. Not for nothing has the Circular Drive been nicknamed “the racetrack” by older Mana hands, with zillions of wannabe “wildlife photographers” tearing about the place, on and off-road. It’s a nightmare for anyone with any sense of wilderness values.
But how many of these visitors realize what they are actually seeing? The famed dry-season wildlife concentration on the Mana “floodplains”* – is a nightmare for wildlife as well. They aren’t there because they want to be. They have to be there, because of water and fodder shortages elsewhere. And fodder swiftly becomes scarce on the floodplains, as well, under this immense pressure. Grazers and browsers are weak, ill-nourished, and under great stress. Furthermore, the females of several species are pregnant, in preparation for giving birth at the onset of the rains.
“I think this is one of the most poignant photos I’ve ever taken. It’s November 2007, right at the end of a long, harsh dry season. Momma is alive – she got up some time later – but she’s exhausted from the strain of finding enough food to survive, in temperatures that rose to the mid-40’s; and her calf’s concern and anxiety are plain to see.” Dick Pitman
If you visit Mana at this time of year remember that it’s all about “energy”. Think about it. For example, every time you drive round a corner and a group of impala, buffalo, zebra is startled into moving out of your way, that’s an expenditure of energy they can ill afford. That energy has to come from food. And there’s very little food around.
The problem, of course, is that wildlife tourism (and the marketing thereof) tends to focus on spectacular gatherings of wildlife; and the Mana floodplain is one of very few spectacular dry-season “concentration areas” for wildlife in the entire Zambezi Valley.
The remainder of the Park – the hinterland – is mostly unattractive to tourists, except for the very few natural occurrences of perennial water (as at Chitake Spring) or a handful of “pumped pans” (which can bring their own ecological problems). Otherwise, much of this hinterland consists of rather featureless mopane and other woodland, such as the dense vegetation type known as ”dry forest” to the biologists, and “jesse bush” to most local people.
All these “back-country” areas are, however, of critical importance to wildlife in general, because there’s no way that 40sq km of Mana floodplain could support even a fraction of the Park’s wildlife year-round. When the summer rains begin, many wildlife species disperse throughout the Park where natural – but temporary – water is abundant, and forage plentiful.
At this time, the floodplains can be almost deserted, except for the resident impala and an occasional elephant bull. Later in the year, though, the back-country pans dry out, and the forage is slowly diminishing. A slow tidal wave of wildlife begins to move back to the Zambezi in general, and the Mana floodplains in particular.
This is because, firstly, there is water, both in the Zambezi and in the actual Mana Pools themselves. Secondly because, in stark contrast to the sands of the Zambezi Valley hinterland, the Mana floodplains consist of fertile silts that support lush grazing that has been largely untouched during the rainy months when wildlife has been dispersed throughout the Park.
Thirdly – and most famously – because of the Winterthorn (Faidherbia albida) woodlands that have developed on these silts. These amazing trees have a so-called “reverse foliage cycle”: they shed their leaves in summer, and grow them again as winter approaches. So they represent an irresistible supply of dry-season browsing, and develop an abundance of highly nutritious pods, beloved by elephants in particular.
The result is that during the late dry season, a good deal of the 2000 sq km Park’s population of herbivores is crammed into the 40 sq km of the Mana floodplain.
And so, too, are most of the tourists.
Meanwhile, top predators – notably lion and wild dog (the current obsession) – are very well fed indeed, but are under a different form of stress: that of being hounded 24/7. They’re well fed, unlike the herbivores, but don’t get a moment’s respite, from dawn to dusk. Always people following; people watching, often in droves, in vehicles or on foot.
That’s stressful for any species, especially with the other current tourist obsession in full spate – the “close encounter”. Most whale-watching operations have approach limits of 50 or 100metres; maybe it’s time to consider something similar for some of Mana’s wildlife species. Google the whale-watching restrictions. You may not like them, but they prioritise the welfare of wildlife over the convenience of tourists. It’ll also make you realise just how much freedom we have in Mana. Sadly, that freedom is increasingly abused.
In other words: stop being a mere “tourist” in search of the spectacular and think biology instead. Try to visualise things from a buffalo’s (or impala’s. or zebra’s) point of view: you’re hot, tired, weak from hunger and desperately searching for such scraps of food that still remain, with the constant threat of the predators always around, waiting to pick you off. Act accordingly, with sensitivity and understanding. Think about what’s really happening, when groups of animals feel compelled to move out of your way when you are driving, or out of your car and trying for that “special” photograph.
And analyse, with a fresh eye, those “beautiful” photos of hazy blue Mana woodlands with Boswell up on his hind legs. See, instead, the bare ground and high browse-lines out of reach of everybody else!
It’s very different, at other times of year. You may or may not see wildlife in great numbers. But the herbivores you do see, from elephant to impala, are well-fed and in good condition – in stark contrast to the weak, thin and exhausted animals you see during the mid- to late dry season. Lions emerge from the thickets they’ve retreated to, in the dry season, and lie about on the roads.
Often, too, the Zambian hills stand out clear and green against a backdrop of blue, sometimes with beautiful cloudscapes and sunsets; and – a real bonus – you may even be the only people in the Park.
Sally and I have given up visiting during the peak tourist season, because – in our view – it’s become a circus. But we’ve have made off-season pilgrimages for years now. Have a look at the video I made a couple of years ago – “Mana in January”, if you haven’t already seen it; at https://youtu.be/AOYnd6OzO2U; also scroll down through the pics on “My Favourite Photos” at http://zimconservation.blogspot.com/.
– Dick Pitman –
* More correctly called “alluvial river terraces”, but it’s a mouthful, and the term “floodplains” has become entrenched in Mana terminology. A true floodplain is seasonally inundated, which the Mana “floodplains” aren’t, except for isolated instances as – for example – the low-lying Zambezi frontage east of Mana Mouth.