The one, the only... Chobe National Park, Botswana!

We were on our way to the famous Chobe National Park, in northern Botswana.  This visit was somewhat troubling for me.  In May, Botswana's president had announced an end to a five year ban on elephant hunting.  Elephant hunting?  There were calls for a boycott against Botswana.  Botswana is a bright spot for African savannah elephants, with over 100,000 in the country.  The proposal was to permit around 400 elephants to be killed by trophy hunters, who presumably would pay $30-50 thousand dollars to kill each of these animals (at $40,000 each, that would come out to $16 million).  There's roughly an equal number of elephants being poached for their ivory each year in Botswana.  

I'm going to editorialize on hunting elephants for a moment.  Just scroll down to the white rhino photo below to skip my ramblings.

But the overall populations of both forest and savannah elephants in Africa are in steep decline (especially with forest elephants). And did you catch the recent news on the impact of even small numbers of forest elephants on carbon sequestration?  Today, savannah elephants are estimated to number 370,000 in 18 countries, with a third in Botswana (116,957–142,043).  Poaching seems to be accelerating, and currently the decline in the continent-wide population is estimated at a rate of 8% per year.  Botswana's elephants are important.  People in Botswana are important as well. My thoughts...

•  Killing 400 elephants from trophy hunting probably won't impact the overall population, although elephant families are highly sensitive to the death of older females, and killing elephant matriarchs will have impacts on the numbers and behaviors of many more elephants.  Think trophy hunters are going to be happy with paying $40,000 to shoot a 10 year old elephant teenager?  An elephant with a broken tusk?  Trophy hunters want... a trophy. One elephant hunt website states, "Elephant hunting is done mostly on foot by following promising fresh spoor until the animal is sighted. It is then determined if the tusks are of satisfactory trophy size. Usually this type of hunting involves hours of walking only to be disappointed by a large bodied small tusked bull."  In other words, these hunters aren't focused on elephants terrorizing villagers, or damaging crops, or wandering half-crazed because of bullet or spear injuries.  Hunters want a trophy!

•  As the elephant population across Africa shrinks, pressure will increase on the remaining strongholds for elephant populations, including Botswana.  There is no one who expects poaching to decrease.  So hunting mortality will be additive to poaching mortality.  And as ivory demand increases, legal and illegal mortality will also increase.

•  "After diamonds, tourism is Botswana’s biggest foreign-income earner."  This quote notes the vulnerability of the Botswana economy to calls for a boycott.  

•  For the life of me, I can't fathom why an ethical hunter is willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to shoot an elephant from 200 yards.  Having now visited these wildlife-rich areas, mule deer hunting in Utah's west desert or pig hunting in Hawaii involves more talent and skill.  Here, it seems to be closer to canned hunting... drive to where your guide knows there will be an elephant (probably on a heavily used, centuries old path to water), wait for an elephant, and shoot.  Maddening! 

•  Elephants have a complex social and emotional life.  I've come to the conclusion that a person who would hunt an elephant for recreation would also be the type of person who would hunt a Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) because it would make a great trophy.  And elephants have been on Earth longer than modern humans.  Elephants actually watched us evolve into H. sapiens.  Hey elephants... what do you think of us now?

Well, those were my thoughts as we visited Botswana.  But on the way, we stopped at a small white rhino sanctuary.  The few rhinos there received 24/7 oversight by armed rangers.  That's the only reason there are ANY rhinos here.

The general explanation for the "white" rhino name is that it was a mistranslation of a Dutch word for "wide"("widje") referring to the wide lower lip.  But there are other theories dealing with behavior, that white rhinos tended to be located in areas with lighter soils, and wallowed in them, giving them a lighter color than the black rhino.  The origin probably is a combination of these things.

Caroline standing with armed rangers, who protect the white rhinos all day and night, every day and every night.

Getting our visas at the border crossing.

Taking a ferry across the Zambezi River into Botswana.  Note the huge bridge being built to facilitate the transport of copper ingots by trucks.  As I understand it, there is a multi-day wait for these trucks to get loaded on a ferry for crossing.

Unlike the other camps, which involved long drives to remote sites, our lodging this time was at the Jackalberry Chobe in Kasane.  How do I describe it?  The Jackalberry was a 5-star lodging facility designed to mimic a bush camp.  It was built on the edge of the Chobe River, so the rooms were on stilts to allow water to flood underneath them during the rainy season.  All I can say is... wow.

The view of the Chobe River from our room. Caroline is pointing to a pied kingfisher.

The bed!

Lisa after a day traveling.  "Where's my glass of red wine?"

Then, the safari in Chobe National Park!  Elephants and lions and leopards, oh my!

Lion track on the road.

A hour before I took this photo with my iPhone SE, we had watched a small herd of cape buffalo walk by us 1-2 kilometers from here.  There was one calf.  Here, the lioness had captured that same calf (I presume), and was letting her cubs figure out what to do with it.  The calf was still alive, and moaned every time it was shaken.  The cubs seemed puzzled, and spent most of their time licking it.  The lioness would eventually pick up the calf and drag it a few meters, with the cubs following.  Then, the licking would recommence.  Eventually, the lioness carried the calf (still alive) into the scrub and we left.

This is my photo of the calf (center) that I believe was caught by the lioness an hour later.

Time for a boat trip and sundowner on the Chobe River.

We just couldn't get enough of watching the elephants, and seeing them walk and swim in the Chobe River was a real treat.

If you want to understand the culture of elephants, there are a number of good books on the topic.  I use Beyond Words, by Carl Safina, in my Living With Wildlife course.  He focuses on the work of Cynthia Moss.

Here's an adventure.  We were driving and we passed a male impala.  As we passed, our guide noticed that it was focused not on us driving by, but on something on the other side of the road.  With his experience, he stopped, backed up, then drove forward again.  The impala snorted a few times, and didn't seem to pay any attention to us.  Suddenly, there was a crashing of branches in a tree above us, AND A LEOPARD JUMPED TO THE GROUND right next to our Land Rover and walked off!  Apparently, the impala sensed that a leopard was in the area (or saw it in the tree) and was reacting to it.  We drove underneath it 3 times without noticing.  Sorry for interrupting your hunt, leopard!

The hungry leopard departs.

I was always amazed by how easily giraffes could "hide" in the bush unless standing in an opening.

See the giraffe?

Seeing a lilac-breasted roller was always a treat.

A much better photo (not my own).

Vervet monkey
 Whew!  This was a long blog, with my editorializing and Chobe being so rich in wildlife experiences.  But I have to mention two more adventures.

We decided to walk to the main business district in Kasane from Jackalberry Lodge.  We were told it was about 3 kilometers, but after 40 minutes, we knew we still had another 1-2 km to go, and we turned back, as it was around 5 PM.  As we were walking back along the road, a truck with 3 young men stopped and yelled (a concerned yell) that we shouldn't be there.  "It's dangerous!"  We thought he was talking about the traffic, but we soon realized that we were walking through a "wildlife corridor" where elephants, hippos, cape buffalo, and other animals walk from the river to the conservation lands... and it was evening, the time animals begin to move.  We hurried our pace, but in front of us a warthog crossed the road and... stopped.  It looked at us, then at some piglets still waiting to cross to... dad?  mom?  It wasn't moving.  We decided to give it a wide berth, walking as close to a fenced area as we could.  Then Caroline noticed a sign on the fence... the fence enclosed the Kasane Prison.  Well, the warthog eventually recrossed the road to join its "sounder," and we continued our walk.

Again, our guide was marvelous.  

Caroline practiced yoga whenever possible.

At Jackalberry (and most other camps) staff would sing songs of welcome and of friendship when we arrived and departed.

Okay, here's the last adventure on this trip.  We boarded a small 12 passenger plane to fly to a grass airstrip in the Okavango Delta.  The doors were closed, and we were ready to taxi.  I put my hand in my pack and it came out sticky.  "What the...?"  My external battery pack was overheating, and had melted through a plastic bag and some gum (thus, the stickiness).  I shouted, "Captain!"  He turned, and I explained that a battery was overheating.  He took it from me, and walked almost a kilometer to the fire station at the end of the runway.  When he returned, he thanked me for bringing it to his attention.  Oh, yeah.  I was really looking forward to a smoke-filled cabin somewhere over the Okavango Delta!  Now that would have been an adventure!


The elephant has a large brain because there is so much to remember in a lifetime of being an elephant.


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