The Needle Points At 42

The needle points at 42. Or would if the scale went that high. But it stops at 40 and beyond that there is simply a white space. During the past few days the red needle has spent much time pointing at that blank space and now I estimate that – had the scale continued beyond 40 – the reading would be 42. It is 9.15 in the morning and the air temperature in the cabin of our small plane is 42°C (for our American readers, that is 107°F). The elephants that we are counting are also feeling the heat – small herds are frequently to be seen gathered in whatever shade is provided by isolated large trees. Often these elephants are lying down. Charles, the pilot, comments that elephants lying down seem to be more common than during his flights over the park in previous years. We speculate what this might say about their body condition. 

However, there is not much shade for the (presumably) hot and tired elephants, because most of the trees and shrubs are leafless. Our new high tech gadgets also seem to be suffering from the heat. The thermometer is in a shaded position but our gadgets – some coloured black and all positioned by necessity at the very front of the cabin – are often in the direct sun. A cable connection fails again. It consents to start working once more a few hours later, in the relative cool of my room.

Aerial survey photos from one of the many Census team flyovers. 

Aerial survey photos from one of the many Census team flyovers. 

We are surveying the elephant population of northwest Matabeleland in western Zimbabwe. The survey area is centred on Hwange National Park, but includes safari areas, forest lands, smaller national parks and communal lands to the north, east and southeast of Hwange. The northern boundary is the Zambezi River and the international border with Zambia, and the western boundary is the international border with Botswana. The survey area contains Zimbabwe’s most numerous population of elephants but the last survey was seven years ago. We want to know their current status, hence this survey. It is still underway as I write.

Three weeks ago, we completed a survey of the elephant population in the Sebungwe, that region of northwest Zimbabwe that lies directly south of Lake Kariba. The survey area is a mixture of communal lands and Parks & Wildlife estate. Thanks to the generosity of Gary, a former colleague, and his employer, we were comfortably accommodated on the shore of Lake Kariba. Fay, the volunteer catering manager, and Christina, the cook, ensured that we were well fed. A very serviceable airstrip was no more than a kilometre away. Large generators provided electricity (and hence ice and cold drinks) much more reliably than the country’s power companies could supply electricity to the nation’s capital. There was just one snag with Kiplings as a survey base – it set a high standard for food and accommodation that was going to be extremely difficult to match during future surveys!

We ate our meals watching hippos graze along the shoreline. At the water’s edge, basking in the sun, were large crocodiles, each a potential man-eater. On our first morning, we received the news that a houseboat crewman was killed by lions the previous evening as he moored his boat on the shore of Matusadona NP, which was just across the bay. Elephants often fed around the our lodge at night and, for safety’s sake, I drove the kitchen staff to their houses every evening after supper. This was not pristine Africa - that disappeared long ago and, anyway, the huge lake in front of us is manmade. But wild Africa it certainly was.

There was a problem early in the survey. We had a new GPS receiver for the pilot. Well, that was the problem - we did not have it, the international courier company had it. It took them a week to move it 25 kilometres from the airport to suburban Harare. They delivered the express package seven days after I paid the customs duty and three hours after the survey plane flew out of Harare. Our networking started. There was long-term friend Ken who often works in the area, but his next visit was more than a week away. Luckilyt his boss was in Harare, flying out the next day and landing at our base in two days. Fay delivered the package to him with a speed that was orders of magnitude faster than that achieved by the courier company. Two days later it was in our hands and the pilot was a happier man. Although our midday rest was cut short by a quick read of the manual and a crash course in using the new toy.

It is more years than I like to confess to since I flew my first survey of African wildlife. But the years, numerous surveys and even more numerous problems encountered during them, have enabled me to formulate my own set of laws that govern surveys. But, of course, sod’s law trumps them all. So it was sod’s law (or perhaps it was my poor planning) that determined that the aircraft would need a 100-hour check – which takes three days – as the weekend started. The crew needed a rest but a break of five days is always a worry: it might rain, causing the elephants to move between survey strata already surveyed and those still to be surveyed, or vice versa. Or an observer’s family member might get sick or worse, requiring him to rush off on compassionate leave.

But our luck held. It didn’t rain and no one got sick. The plane returned (one of those laws says that this is never guaranteed - the 100-hour check involves looking for problems). The plane brought more supplies – drinks, meat, fruit, vegetables. It also brought Fay who had come to check on the catering. And, I suspected, to make sure that the green vegetables that she sent previously were not rotting in the bottom of the fridge...and to test her new swimsuit in the pool. Did I forget to mention the pool? Sorry, but I did say that this survey base was going to be difficult to equal. Very difficult.

We rigged the plane again with our survey equipment – brackets, rods, rangefinder, cables. We needed to recalibrate the search strips. But it is windy next to one of Africa’s largest lakes – dust had covered the whitewash numbers that were painted two weeks earlier. We recalled the casual labourers who did the job first time and they worked fast. The numbers scratched in the sand were still there – they just needed a new coat of whitewash.

Three days later the Sebungwe survey was complete. The first such survey for eight years. I was pleased, it was a ‘good’ survey. I knew that there were no problems that might have a major impact on the interpretation of the results. And even as we flew the survey, we knew that the results were going to be interesting.

Interior of a plane for the Selous flights. 

Interior of a plane for the Selous flights. 

But there was no time yet for number crunching. The next day, Fay and I drove to Harare. The road over the Mapongolas hills is atrocious. In town, our vehicle had a well-earned service. While I was away, Ian had gathered up the fuel drums used in the Zambezi Valley. They were refilled with avgas, loaded onto a lorry and sent on their way. At least this time the road was a tar surface all the way. Just a week after we completed the Sebungwe survey, the survey team and the fuel arrived in Hwange. That was October, the hot dry season. The time of the year when, before mid-morning, the needle points at 42.