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Safaridude

Pendjari National Park, Benin - January 2015

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Safaridude

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A western roan antelope bull

 

 

So, Serengeti Shall Not Die and long shall live the Okavango. Sure, I vote for that. But what of the lesser-known, truly unappreciated wilderness areas of a different Africa?

 

The Anglo-centric safari world is practically ignorant of “French Africa”. It is easy to dismiss French Africa altogether in the name of safety if one imagines it as an undifferentiated pool of chaos and political instability. Stepping back from “Palin-ism”, however, there are gems to be found in French Africa. Benin is one such gem (by the way, do you even know how to pronounce it?). And Benin’s premier park, Parc National de la Pendjari, just may be the last intact, still-functioning West African savanna park that offers a safe and uncomplicated visit.

 

Given the dearth of information on the park and on the logistics of a visit, the initial research required was painstaking. Once in touch with Jolinaiko Eco Tours (which provided the guides and the vehicle) and Pendjari Lodge, however, the planning was smooth sailing. With Jolinaiko’s old reliable Nissan Patrol driven by Ben Mensah (a Ghanaian who speaks primarily English and dabbles in French) and with Boris Medatinsa guiding (a native French-speaking Beninese who speaks good English as well), I stayed six nights at Pendjari Lodge in January 2015 (more detail on all the logistics later).

 

Look at the distribution maps of any number of savanna mammalian species of Africa, and you will invariably see most of East and Southern Africa well blotted and a narrow band of blot from Sudan/Chad/CAR extending west to Senegal. This narrow band is pinched between the southerly tropical breezes of the Congolese Forest/Atlantic Ocean and the desiccating northerly blasts from the Sahara Desert, resulting in a perfect “tweener” climate accommodating savanna biomes similar to those in East and Southern Africa. Numerous physical barriers (such as the highlands of Cameroon) to terrestrial animals along this narrow band served to separate the gene pools of these animals, creating morphological differences among same species – resulting in the familiar species such as elephant, buffalo, lion, etc., looking a bit funny (?) in the heart of West Africa.

 

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Buffalo

 

Pendjari National Park is part of the much larger WAP (W, Arli (sometimes “Arly”) and Pendjari) complex spanning Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. Pendjari lies within the Sudan-Guinea savanna zone and is characterized by densely wooded, tall grass savanna and open floodplains on poor soil – comparable to the miombo woodlands and dambo grasslands of Zambia or Tanzania. The seasons are reversed in Pendjari, however, with the dry season lasting from November to April. The mythical Harmattan winds blow from the Sahara Desert to the Gulf of Guinea between December and February, producing variably milky skies in their path. And although its intensity wanes by the time it reaches southern Benin, Harmattan is responsible for a thin layer of fine dust on the floors of the seaside hotels in Cotonou, the commercial capitol of Benin located on the Gulf.

 

A safari to Pendjari invariably commences at Natitingou, a northern outpost reachable from Contonou in a full day’s drive. “Nati” is a bustling town, the last of the kind before open space unfolds to the north. (Maun, Botswana was once Nati-like, I imagine.) The road from there to Pendjari skirts the Atacora Mountains, which are the source of the Pendjari River. The unassuming park entrance at Batia is reached in two hours from Nati, with another 60km to go to Pendjari Lodge.

 

Pendjari Lodge (not to be confused with Pendjari Hotel, which is an old but still usable government-run establishment on the Pendjari River) is ideally situated between two primary dry season watering spots: (1) the Pendjari River and its various lagoon offshoots; and (2) Mare Bali (“Mare” is French for pond), which is a small sump area lagoon that holds water all year. As a practical matter, nearly all game drives in Pendjari occur on the quasi-circular circuit encompassing Pendjari Lodge, Mare Fogou/Mare Diwouni, Mare Sacrée/Mare Canard, Mare Yangouali and Mare Bali (see map below).

 

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Map of the park hanging from the mess area of Pendjari Lodge

 

(South of Mare Bali, there are no watering points and thus scant game; east of Mare Fogou, the roads are impassable in spots; and west of Mare Yangouali, the game is skittish due to the general lack of vehicle traffic.)

 

At the start of each game drive, a decision is made whether to push northward toward the Pendjari River and the lagoons or head south toward Mare Bali. Either way, thick Combretum/Terminalia scrub for the first several kilometers gives way to more open woodland. Northbound from the lodge, the landscape opens up decidedly near the Pendjari River, where western kobs, warthogs and black crowned cranes forage on the floodplains dotted with baobab trees. Elephants seem to prefer this better-watered area more so than the south. Southbound from the lodge, the road passes a few hills on the way to Mare Bali, where the thirsty animals and birds of the dry interior gather. There is an observation deck at Mare Bali, and countless hours can be spent observing hippos, crocodiles and western kobs, along with a multitude of water-loving birds.

 

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A typical scene at Mare Bali -- a female western kob watering with crocodiles around

 

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Black crowned cranes on a floodplain near Mare Fogou

Edited by Game Warden

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michael-ibk

Looking forward to this very much!

Edited by michael-ibk

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Gregor

I like it, this will be an interesting report :)

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egilio

I've been looking forward to this!!! Great start :) . What a black face that roan has!

Edited by egilio

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Game Warden

More!

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Bush dog

And now that you speak french, "excellent début, encore s'il vous plaît"!

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Kitsafari

Great stuff from an inteprid explorer.

 

are those crocs juvenile or is that the full size of the crocs? if the latter, they're rather small!

 

love the pix of the buffalo. they look so different (hippie buffaloes with the grass hanging from their mouths!) from the intimidating cape buffaloes.

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Bushfire

will be following this !thanks for sharing !

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Safaridude

@@egilio

 

That black mask is characteristic of western roan bulls. Wait till you see some of the others I have for you!

 

 

@@Kitsafari

 

Those are juvenile crocodiles. I found the buffalos in Benin most interesting. So many different variations. More strange looking buffalos to come.

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Soukous

Super start @@Safaridude, I'm looking forward to following this TR.

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graceland

Great start to what I expect to be a tantalizing safari as we have come to expect from Safaridude!

 

Speaking french on safari - c'est magnifique.

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JohnR

I've also been looking forward to this report to see what I missed by going to see the slaving centre at Ouidah on the Atlantic Coast when I was lecturing in Porto Novo in 2005. We were told that the unrest in Burkina Faso made it too dangerous to go to the parks in the north.

 

I fell in love with the country. The people were very friendly and we could wander around the town at night without being molested by beggars. The bars were playing reggae mostly from Cote D'Ivoire and that was my introduction to the music of Tiken Jah Fakoly.

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offshorebirder

Ah bon, un autre rapport de voyage de @@Safaridude.

 

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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Safaridude

Rather than recounting every detail of my days spent, I will take a different approach in this TR – of focusing the report on some mammals and birds seen and unseen in Pendjari.

 

Western roan antelope – Surely this subspecies must be the most spectacular example of an already spectacular species. The western roan ranges from Chad/CAR westward to Senegal. The bulls develop a pitch-black “face mask”, which extends down to the throat. Some mature specimens in the extreme west of the range (from western Nigeria to Senegal) can develop brick-red coats. Unlike their cousins in East and Southern Africa, western roan antelopes are plentiful where they occur. I saw roan on practically every drive (often multiple times per drive) and in every habitat from thick bush to open grassland. The first brick-red bull I saw took my breath away. Crocodile Dundee’s famous “that’s not a knife…” quote applies here. To all the non-western roan antelopes: “that’s not a roan! This is a roan!”

 

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Western kob – With the white areas of the face and throat less conspicuous, this is a duller version of the Uganda kob. The western kob is ubiquitous and relaxed at Pendjari, occupying floodplains and lightly wooded savannas close to water. This is the most visible and approachable of the mammals at Pendjari. I even saw a lek (a social system in which the males come together and engage in competitive behavior in order attract females).

 

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Western hartebeest – If there ever is such a thing as an attractive hartebeest, this one might qualify. The western hartebeest is similar to the lelwel hartebeest except the former, like the hirola, betrays a facial white stripe, which connects the eyes. The horns are massive and U-shaped when viewed from the front. Interestingly, most of the sightings were in fairly thick woodland. A couple of different groups of western hartebeests came to the Pendjari Lodge waterhole daily.

 

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Korrigum – Sometimes referred to as western topi and locally called, damalisque, this is the largest subspecies of topi, dull in coloration with very long horns (though I failed to see a properly long-horned specimen). The korrigum is a critically endangered subspecies, as its traditional stronghold, northern Cameroon, is in a state of geopolitical turmoil. Pendjari harbors perhaps 50-100 of these animals. I was privileged to have encountered them five times, though the sightings were generally from afar. The korrigum proved to be the shyest mammal in Pendjari. Only the continuing protection afforded by Pendjari might sustain the korrigum in the future.

 

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Hads

Great stuff safari dude .looking forward to the next update.

Hads

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TonyQ

@@Safaridude

Fascinating - great to see these different variants.

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Sangeeta

Not that I've seen very many, but THAT is indeed a roan! Truly Spectacular Coloring. The baby hartebeest is adorable.

 

Super start, @@Safaridude - eagerly awaiting the rest. Also, would love to hear just a little bit more on the logistics.

 

This is also a very interesting observation you make about Anglo and Franco -centric safari Africa. I think much discovery awaits those who explore these franco-centric areas now.

Edited by Sangeeta

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michael-ibk

About the Franco-centric part - are there really many French tourists going there? Instead of places like the Mara or the Delta? And I´d like to echo what Sangeeta said about logistics. Good to see that your antelope desires were fulfilled, and that roan really is a magnificent animal!

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Sangeeta

I am sure most francophones also frequent the Mara & Delta type Anglo areas much more, Michael :) but still, probably many more francophones than anglophones visit francophone Africa - possibly because of language issues and also because of less well established safari industry. But I remember those lovely videos posted by Jeremie recently - all in French.

 

@@jeremie and other francophones on ST - would love to hear your thoughts on this, but possibly on a diff thread so as not to hijack this one?

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jeremie

I am sure most francophones also frequent the Mara & Delta type Anglo areas much more, Michael :) but still, probably many more francophones than anglophones visit francophone Africa - possibly because of language issues and also because of less well established safari industry. But I remember those lovely videos posted by Jeremie recently - all in French.

 

@@jeremie and other francophones on ST - would love to hear your thoughts on this, but possibly on a diff thread so as not to hijack this one?

 

As far as I know (I have never done any safari in Africa), French people usually go on safari in Eastern Africa as well as Southern Africa. The difference is that they do no go a lot in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Okavango, Namibia, Kruger, Northern Tanzania and Kenya are the usual destinations.

Senegal is a cheap destination, this country receives lot's of tourists form France, thus I am really surprised to see Niokolo Koba is totally abandoned as it could be a major safari destination provided management, law enforcement and access would improve.

 

Pendjari is the most famous park in the former French Africa, but is unfortunately little known in France. It seems this destination is only known from hunters. The park receives incomes from the neighboring hunting blocks and donations from the EU. Access is currently a problem. Well the park is underfunded anyway and this is apparently one of the problems there.

 

I have personally encouraged APN to look for Niokolo Koba as a potencial site under their management, given it's enormous size, the presence of western lions (it is one of the last 4 LCU's for this sub-specie according to Henshel), and the presence of the critically endangered western lord derby eland. I think the WAP Complex should be regarded as another option for APN, in 5 yo 10 years it could be too late. Remember that Comoé in Cote d'Ivoire, a 20.000 km2, has seen all it-s fauna wiped out in the last two decades. So sad.... Hope one day it could be restored, but I think it's now too late as it's full of pastoralists...

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jeremie

@@Safaridude I would be particularly interested to receive further information about logistic and costs options for a visit of Pendjari. I am considering a visit of this park in the next few years. I guess you have visited other interesting spots on the way to the park from Cotonou.

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Game Warden

Hoping that @@Safaridude will round off his report with an overview of logistics involved...

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Safaridude

@@jeremie

 

Protecting Niokolo-Koba would be a dream. I don't know if it will happen though. I hear it is vastly depleted.

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Safaridude

Harnessed bushbuck – This bushbuck is found in Central and West Africa and is so named because of the attractive harness-like patterns on its sides. I had many sightings of harnessed bushbuck, but most of them were fleeting glimpses. A couple of them were confiding enough for decent photos.

 

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Male

 

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Female

 

Nagor reedbuck – This is a West African bohor reedbuck. Compared to the East African bohor reedbuck, it is smaller in body size and horns, duller in color, and lacks the black stripes on the forelegs. Surprisingly, nagor reedbucks were highly visible and relaxed.

 

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Sing-sing waterbuck – This is a West African defassa waterbuck. The sing-sing waterbuck is slightly redder in color and shows much less white patterns on the face.

 

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Buffalo – Perhaps the most interesting animal in Pendjari. Those who are “aggregators” argue that there are ought to be only two subspecies of buffalo in Africa – Cape buffalo and dwarf forest buffalo – while acknowledging that there are various intermediate forms occurring in Central and Western Africa. Jonathan Kingdon would list three: Cape buffalo, dwarf forest buffalo and western buffalo (a catch-all for all the intermediate forms). Others who are “splitters” would argue for Cape buffalo, dwarf forest buffalo, Nile buffalo, Central African savanna buffalo and West African savanna buffalo (the last three representing the various intermediate forms between Cape and dwarf forest buffalo). According to the splitters, the Pendjari buffalo is West African savanna buffalo.

 

These buffalos in Pendjari are decidedly smaller than Cape buffalos but larger than dwarf forest buffalos. The horns are more similar to those of dwarf forest buffalos, curling outward then upward, with the frontal boss absent or nearly absent. There are interesting color variations even within a same herd. Black to dark grey is the norm, but about 5% of the individuals I saw possessed reddish brown coats.

 

Herds of 30-300 were seen. The largest herd of about 300 was encountered near Mare Bali. There is an interesting thread on buffalo in Zakouma, Chad, for comparison.

 

 @@inyathi

 

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Edited by Tdgraves
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