LION RESEARCH IN THE OKAVANGA DELTA

  • Posted by Eric Lowry
  • January 28, 2014 11:46 PM EET
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The research team was trying to discover why lions survive FIV in the hope of finding a cure for human HIV. Animal medical experts had come from Singapore, Italy, Australia and a number of colleagues from the USA, including one from the National Cancer Research Institute there. One of the ways to fund this research was to host twenty tourists at the camp a year, two at a time. My wife and I had flown from London via Johannesberg to Gabarone, then Maun, where we climbed into a Cessna 205 four-seater plane for the short trip (2 ½ hours by car!) at low altitude providing fabulous views of the delta.

Poomph! We woke with a start. Poomph! Another loud bang. Now we were wide awake. Our tent was one of several making up this lion research camp in the Okavanga Delta. It was another glorious sunny November morning. Elephants had entered the unshielded camp. They were enjoying a meal off trees surrounding one of the research team’s tent. Dane was a hostage inside.

Werner, one of the South African assistants, had designed and made a potato gun for just such a situation. Its telescopic looking barrel was worked by the explosion of hair spray projecting a potato at high velocity. One had hit an elephant on the leg and he and his friends had taken themselves off allowing Dane to emerge. Elephants are a two edged sword: magnificent sight but very destructive. We saw acres of land decimated by their habit of tearing down scrub and uprooting trees.

The research team was trying to discover why lions survive FIV in the hope of finding a cure for human HIV. Animal medical experts had come from Singapore, Italy, Australia and a number of colleagues from the USA, including one from the National Cancer Research Institute there.

One of the ways to fund this research was to host twenty tourists at the camp a year, two at a time. My wife and I had flown from London via Johannesberg to Gabarone, then Maun, where we climbed into a Cessna 205 four-seater plane for the short trip (2 ½ hours by car!) at low altitude providing fabulous views of the delta.

We landed on a ‘runway’ in the vicinity of Kadum. Luckily some tsessebes (plain antelopes) removed themselves from the runway as we landed. When I say a ‘runway’ it was only recognisable as such only by two fire extinguishers hanging on a piece of wood at the end of a flat piece of scrub. No buildings whatever spoiled the landscape. An elephant family with a very young baby strolled by. This part of the Okavanga, being plains in the dry season, was traversable at slow speed by 4x4 vehicles much of the time along deeply rutted tracks.

On our second day we watched the team carry out a biopsy for the first time on a male lion. Lionesses they had done many placing a collar around their neck allowing the aerial on the 4x4 to pick up the signal from the collar. The driver could then drive straight to the animal without hours of searching, often a long way off the ‘road’ through scrub. The strategy is to carry out a biopsy on each collared lion every six months in order to increase understanding of their body cycle and blood count. An identity card of the markings on each lion’s face built up from photographs permitted identification of the specific animal. The lions acquired names such as ‘Elvis’, ‘Pulani’ and ‘Kakas’.

Carrying out a biopsy means a long day. The first step is to find a good position to fire a dart at the animal’s rear which puts him to sleep. Once he is prone the team scare the other pride members away by banging on car doors. Then they start by lifting him on to a tarpaulin to keep him warm before each person commences the tests allocated to him or her. One vet is allocated to tend to the lion and ensure he remains in good shape throughout the process, for example feeding him oxygen and ensuring he remains properly hydrated. Two of the team have to stay behind and watch the lion for six hours after the work is done to ensure that he comes around and with no ill effects sets off into the night. Our job had been as guards on the vehicle roof in case the pride thought of returning to the scene. Before setting off we were allowed down from the vehicle to have our photo taken beside the magnificent specie.

In between the lion research work we could go on safari wherever we pleased driven by an assistant. The golden coloured grass mixed with the green around the many watering holes. This and the variety of trees made for a stunning landscape. In certain countries to see an animal one scrambles for a position among hundreds of minibuses full of tourists. We did not meet a single other tourist in nine days. As a result we felt all the more remote, peaceful and privileged. Sheer safari bliss.

Surreal were giraffes peering at us over treetops. Naturally we saw at least two prides of lions installed in their “territories”. The saddest picture was of an emaciated old male lion in need of a liaison with younger lions to get him food being rejected and chased away by a pride of lionesses. Prides take no passengers. Burchill zebras (identifiable by having a black stripe between the white stripes) with wildebeest who had snowy egrets eating insects on their backs, impala dancing delightfully here and there, snorting, huffing and puffing hippos swimming or more likely standing in a beautiful lake. Monkeys sat eating in the trees and baboon families were walking along the plains some grooming each other. The magic worry tree is used to make toothpaste and if the branches are opened to make toothbrushes. Odd looking is the sausage tree. Its long rectangular “sausages” are seen hanging from branches like upside down termite hills.

The birdlife was at its most colourful among small birds within the camp but there was also much to enjoy of larger birds out on the plains. Saddle billed storks are truly magnificent in flight, rufous cheeked nightjar, open billed stork and kingfishers on just one evening drive. On another such, tiny dabchicks swimming on a lake, a Blacksmith Plover with black head, black and white wings and a Blackeyed Warbler with yellow vents under the wings seemed like turbochargers. In the camp red headed and golden weavers with their one hole entry along the sides of nests hanging astonishingly on a thread from the branches like decorations on a Christmas tree.

It was 22nd November 2003 and we received an early Christmas present. Those driving back from shopping in Maun brought with them a tape of the Rugby World Cup Final between England and Australia. We gathered in a tent—Americans who had never seen a rugby game and were in need of explanation of its strange rules, one Australian, South Africans and myself an Irishman desperate to see an England win. Fortunately we did not know the result. Once it reached extra time we must have disturbed the Okavanga population with our screaming and advice to the players and referee. Jonny Wilkinson’s drop kick settled the match and we celebrated an English victory with Coca Cola.

On one drive to Pompom Pontoon we came upon a fast running deep stream. Our young South African driver, Jacob, was a born optimist and attempted a crossing that required a canoe which our 4x4 quickly proved not to be. Stranded on a hidden sandune with frony wheels well dug in it took ninety minutes of mainly Jacob’s effort to extricate the vehicle. My wife avoided being involved in the work by staying rooted to her spot on the roof. A fish eyed eagle sitting on a nearby tree had his thoughts of a meal interrupted by us foreigners. What a gorgeous sight he made circling us and returning to his perch. The driver took a celebratory swim with the fish in the stream. That was one occasion when we were glad to reach the peace of our tent, at least until the next Poomph!

Eric Lowry

28 January 2014

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