I would not have known it if National Geographic hadn’t sent an email notice, but it’s worth mentioning that today is World Lion Day!
In their words…….
“Today is World Lion Day, a day of celebrating the fearsome roars, handsome manes, and adorable cubs of one of the most iconic animals in the world. Lions are incredible creatures: athletic powerhouses and apex predators.
They’re also facing dizzying declines in their population that they are powerless to stop.
Even one lion killed can destabilize an entire region’s prides. And these days, poaching, retaliatory killings, and habitat loss are killing off lion after lion.”
So in our brittle world even the king of beasts is under threat.
Lions by the dozen? Now that’s not your every day sighting!
Being in Kasane, northern Botswana in early July this year, with no specific commitments for the afternoon and with Chobe Game Reserve a stone’s throw away, it seemed like a good idea, to say the least, when my colleague Stuart suggested an afternoon game drive along the Riverfront section of Chobe.
Later in the day it’s preferable to first head west along the tar road towards Ngoma gate and then make your way back from there, which puts the setting sun behind you and makes it a lot easier for spotting, which we duly did.
By about 3 pm we were in Chobe, travelling along the river road in an easterly direction back towards Sedudu gate, the sun comfortably behind us and happy about the prospect of a couple of hours of prime game viewing ahead.
We were immediately rewarded with a group of elephants drinking in the river shallows, then making their way up the bank towards the bush.
Travelling along the sandy track, we encountered constant bird life in numbers that I cannot recall having seen before – the bumpy track was abuzz with Doves, Spurfowl, Guineafowl and others, to the point of almost running over them, while the pools formed by the receding river were crowded with waterfowl. But this drive was not about birding, for a change, so I had to suppress my desire to shout “STOP!” each time I spotted an interesting bird, hoping that my restraint would be rewarded with exciting game sightings.
The “usual suspects” were all present – Kudu, Giraffe, Zebra, Impala, some groups of Banded Mongoose, plenty of Elephants and around 400-500 Cape Buffalo on the opposite side of the river, where they know they are safe from marauding lions.
But the sighting of the day, or even the year, belonged to a pride of Lions that we first saw in the distance, almost a kilometre away, when we stopped to check why a lone vehicle was stationery and what those beige blobs nearby may be.
Binoculars were raised to eyes in a flash and high fives ensued when we saw that they were indeed lions, prompting us to make our way along the riverside track with subdued haste, excitement building all the while.
We approached carefully so as not to disturb the scene and for the next 20 minutes enjoyed the sight of 4 adult lions and 8 juveniles interacting.
The adults were quite relaxed and lying around while the juveniles walked about trying their best to look like fierce lions but only succeeding in drawing a few ‘aaahs’ from us.
Lion cubs have white spots on the lower parts, while their initial greyish woolly coat changes to the adult tawny colour at about three months and the white spots gradually fade as the youngster ages. My guess is these cubs were between 6 and 12 months old.
A Giraffe poking his long neck above nearby bush added a frisson of tension to the scene and moments later the lions sensed its presence as first one adult female then the others moved in its direction.
When the young male stood up as well, we noticed it had a pronounced limp from some previous injury to its leg – he gave a low growl and immediately the youngsters, eager to follow the adults, were “called back” and stayed near the limping male, who seemed to have been left in charge while the other adults went to suss out the chances of a giraffe dinner.
After a while, the adults returned, possibly having assessed the opportunity and decided against pursuing it further. By this time the day was starting to run out as the sun headed towards the horizon and we moved away to leave the scene to the several safari vehicles that were approaching, sated with one of the best lion sightings we have ever had.
We came across Elephant, Buffalo, Jackal, Sable Antelope and a pack of Wild Dogs …….. and that was before we entered Chobe National Park!
Kasane is a small town on the far northern border of Botswana, its claim to fame being that it is the gateway to Chobe, one of the great African game reserves. It is also an unpredictably wild town – elephants and other wild animals occasionally wander through the residential area, often at night and the locals are in the habit of setting off thunderflashes to scare them off.
Another visit this month to Kasane to visit the project in which I am involved, meant another opportunity to squeeze in a visit to Chobe – this time we set out to do an early morning drive through the Riverfront section, before the day’s business began.
We set off as the sky was starting to lighten and on the short drive to the entrance gate we came across a pack of Wild Dogs, who were seemingly on a mission as they trotted along the road. Being pack hunters they would be looking for prey that they could pursue in their relentless fashion, wearing it down until the prey becomes exhausted and vulnerable to the attacks of the pack. We had seen the same pack the previous afternoon, not far from the airport and were able to get really close to them as they lazed the afternoon away in the shade of a large roadside tree, which provided some relief from the hot sun but not from the many flies that were buzzing around their heads.
Entering Chobe, we proceeded along the sandy, bumpy track with regular sightings of the animals we have become accustomed to finding –
Elephants aplenty, including quite a few youngsters, not wandering far from Mom
Buffalo – circa 500+ on the Lechwe Flats
Hyenas – a pair were making their way back from the river into the bush as we passed by
The best sighting of the morning was reserved till last. We encountered two Lionesses, strong and healthy looking individuals, as they made their way to a pool to drink (although we could not see the pool which was concealed by a deep donga) and moments after discussing the possibility of a male being nearby, a handsome male with a full mane of hair appeared and also headed towards the donga.
What followed was without doubt one of the more interesting Lion encounters I have had the privilege of experiencing, as the two Lionesses and the Lion played out a brief but fascinating series of moves. Initially the two Lionesses did a circular dance-like move in unison, as if sizing each other up, then one of them walked off slowly to the water and disappeared into the donga, The remaining Lioness and the Lion seemed to greet and gently caress each other before she too moved off towards the water, leaving the male to rest on the sandy ground and regally take in his surroundings.
Both Lionesses eventually returned and settled in different spots a distance from the male, who studiously ignored both of them as if in a huff.
The morning light lent a pleasant glow to the scene and created perfect conditions for photography as the Lions performed, oblivious to their excited audience, which by now had grown to 5 or 6 safari vehicles which arrived a short while after we spotted the first one. The photos are in the sequence taken –
The birding was limited to the “large and obvious” species for the most part –
Plenty of Guineafowl
Francolins and Spurfowl – Crested, Swainson’s and Red-billed were present in numbers
Hornbills – Red-billed, Yellow-billed, Bradfield’s and Ground all well represented
Carmine Bee-eaters are back in numbers and prominent in the sky or perching in bare trees at a few spots
White-browed Robin Chat, extra bright in the golden early morning light
A family of Orange River Francolins was a pleasant surprise and I was able to get my first photos of the mostly secretive species before they scuttled off into the bush
A truly wonderful morning’s game and bird viewing in this magical part of Southern Africa!
The Riverfront section of Chobe National Park – one of the finest Game Reserve experiences in Southern Africa, if not the whole of Africa.
I count myself fortunate to still have a part-time consultancy job as a QS, and doubly fortunate to be involved in a sizeable building project at Kasane in the far north of Botswana, on the doorstep of Chobe National Park. The project requires monthly site visits and during the few days we – that’s the professional team – spend there, we have managed to squeeze in a quick trip through the Riverfront section of the Park – all part of team building, you understand.
Prior to these recent visits, I was last in Chobe (pronounced Cho-bee) in 2000 and had good memories of this unique Park, although the intervening years had rendered my memories a bit fuzzy. So I was more than eager to renew my acquaintance with this part of Botswana and the first trip through the Riverfront section in May 2015 brought those memories from 15 years ago flooding back.
Chobe Background (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Chobe National Park, in northern Botswana, has one of the largest concentrations of game in Africa. By size, it is the third largest park in the country, after the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Gemsbok National Park, and is the most biologically diverse. It is also Botswana’s first national park.
One of four main areas in Chobe,The Serondela area (or Chobe riverfront), situated in the extreme Northeast of the park, has as its main geographical features lush floodplains and dense woodland of mahogany, teak and other hardwoods now largely reduced by heavy elephant pressure. The Chobe River, which flows along the Northeast border of the park, is a major watering spot, especially in the dry season (May through October) for large breeding herds of elephants, as well as families of giraffe, sable and cape buffalo. The flood plains are the only place in Botswana where the puku antelope can be seen. Birding is also excellent here.
The flight from Jo’burg is about an hour and a half and takes you over the Mkgadikgadi pans, an amazing sight from the air.
Approaching Kasane, there is usually a good view of the Chobe River and it’s quite possible to spot Elephant even before you have landed.
So How much Game is there?
Chobe tends to exceed all your expectations – yes there are patches with not much going on, not visible anyway, but there are parts that take your breath away, like the lush floodplains filled with game almost as far as the eye can see – dominated by Elephant and Buffalo. Elephants occur here in such numbers that there are real concerns about the survival of the woodland, but Botswana has a strict anti-culling policy and so Elephant herds grow and spread unabated. Perhaps nature will intervene as it often does.
Apart from the frequent Elephant sightings, there are some other very special animals to be seen – (some of the snippets of information are from the excellent maps/brochures on Botswana by Veronica Roodt which I originally obtained for my 2000 visit)
Sable Antelope, one of the most beautiful antelope in Africa with their perfectly curved horns, which are used to defend themselves. Glossy black colouring means it is a bull, while cows and juveniles are brown
Leopard – we have been very fortunate in finding a young Leopard on two of our three visits so far, quite possibly the same individual which, on our last visit, had dragged its Impala meal into a tree. This is to prevent Hyena and other predators reaching it.
Kudu – males have those impressive twisted horns, females are hornless so the ears are more prominent
Puku – Chobe is the only place in Southern Africa where this uncommon species occurs, in small herds. Mostly found near water
Giraffe – tallest animal in the world at 5,5m. Valves in the jugular vein help to control blood pressure when they bend down to drink water. The oxpeckers love them, gathering in numbers on their long elegant necks
Zebra – no African Game Reserve would be complete without them – our kids loved to call them pyjama-donkeys when they were small, now the grandkids do it
Black-backed Jackal – Pairs form long-term bonds, as these two seem to have done
Wild Dog – if you are very lucky you may encounter one as we did, crossing the tar road in front of us, then dashing off as we slowed down. They usually move around and hunt in packs.
And the Birding?
For anyone starting birding, this must rate as one of the best places to visit – there are many larger species that are easy to see and even photograph if that is your thing. Identifying them is also fairly straightforward if you have one of the birding Apps or one of the many birding books available.
The short trips through Chobe that I have done so far have been exciting but too short and rushed to do any in-depth birding and I look forward to getting to grips with some of the more difficult to see species during future visits. Nevertheless there have been some very good sightings and photo opportunities of some of the “obvious” species – here’s a selection :
Ground Hornbill – no other reserve I have visited can boast as many of this iconic species
Red-billed Hornbill – there is a good chance you will encounter five Hornbill species during a visit – the one above plus the four smaller species being Red-billed as this one below, Yellow-billed, African Grey and Bradfield’s.
Yellow-billed Stork – occur regularly among the myriad birds that frequent the pools of the Chobe floodplain
Yellow-throated Petronia – an uncommon and not at all obvious species, this one happened to be perched near the Leopard with its half-eaten Impala
Kori Bustard – another species with a more than good chance of being spotted in the open areas with grass
Bateleur – often seen soaring high in the air, this juvenile was perched in a dry tree near the track. One unique feature is their short tail which allows it to walk backwards – useful when trying to catch a snake!
African Jacana – this one had a few youngsters in tow, cute little fluffy chicks with outsize legs
African Fish-Eagle – no great river in Africa is worthy of the name unless it is frequented by these magnificent birds of prey and Chobe has its fair share of them
Oxpeckers – the giraffes seem to attract the most oxpeckers but they are just as likely to be found on buffalo, kudu, impala
Green Woodhoopoe – often heard before they are seen, this species is less common
The Close of Day – Sunsets for Africa
I don’t think I have seen sunsets anywhere in the world that can compete with those over the Chobe river – tell me if you agree!
Can’t wait for next time!
Exploring Southern Africa's Natural Wonders and beyond