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Couthada 11 - Mozambique


Doug Macdonald

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Doug Macdonald
 
The purpose and background of my journey to this area of Mozambique was through my colleagues and contacts in the world of safari and conservation, I was asked to go and have a look at their specific area of involvement which is Couthada 11 - I am not sure an exact translation of this name but the "Couthada's" are the hunting concession areas around Mozambique which are all numbered - and this particular one is surrounded South and West by other Couthada's and then on the East you have the Marromeu National Park and much further West is Gorongosa National Park and then in the North flows the Zambezi River at the end of it's journey to the Indian Ocean - You can see how big these areas are when all joined together on the map.
So the main reason for the visit, was to see how it would be possible to include Couthada 11 and the Zambezi Delta into a photographic safari itinerary. They are very aware of the sensitivity of the hunting market versus the photographic section, so this is my challenge knowing how polarizing that discussion can be and I appreciate that it is often a discussion that is much like religion and politics....however it can not be disputed that the success these guys have had on rebuilding the fauna and flora of the area and then managing it with the communities is extraordinary during the 25
odd years they have been there. This article by National Geographic  is worth a read and will give you some more information on what is happening there and their current flagship project of the lion relocation project.
 
So that's the back ground and let me show you what is there and what we saw and did here.
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From the map here you can see how big an un-fenced wilderness area it is and ultimately animals in Gorongosa NP can side step villages and a few rough roads to make it through here so they are anticipating for example, that it wont be long before wild dogs roaming in search of new areas from Gorongosa, where they are doing well, and will arrive here in the Couthada's and vice - versa , this could already be happening. I asked my young guide if he had ever seen a wild dog there - he had little English, and I little Portuguese, so the pictures on my mammals app was our basis for discussion,  but he was positive he had, but I could not really ascertain when and where - so who knows?
 
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The most efficient way to get there is to start off in the coastal port town of Beira - there is an International airport that receives currently flights from Johannesburg and Addis Ababa so not too complicated. You then travel by Helicopter to the camp with a flight time of about 70 mins very easy and a wonderful way to get into camp.  You get a much more detailed look of the countryside as you go which is essentially totally flat - sheets of water - small islands of trees and river lines, all very similar to the Okavango Delta and you see this as you take off from Beira -  however it is all populated by people as you fly and evidence of the charcoal trade and subsistence, nomadic type farming is everywhere which when you compare to where you are going is very noticeable._DSC3405.JPG.5aba7e93c4c523ae9fe846ec962f6115.JPG
 
As you start to get closer to the Couthada's the villages thin out and the woodland returns, which gives you a sense of what these areas may have looked like not that long ago._DSC3415.JPG.71d267a5bdb233758eadf5d108387992.JPG_DSC3416.JPG.99d1c8caf7870382dded27ac6ec67775.JPG

 

 

Inside Couthada 11 and much of the surrounding areas, seems to be a similar story of habitats in this very low and flat landscape. There are I think two dominant habitats ,these are the wide open flood plains and then the sand forest areas and both of these have smaller habitats within them, which all adds to the diversity here.

The open flood plains are covered by various grasses and then when it rains, like at this time of year, you have a shallow sheet of water over the grasslands, and then through this area you have more permanent ancient river-lines that standout as lines of papyrus and phragmites reeds. Scattered through the flood plains are small Islands which I imagine formed in exactly the same way as those in the Okavanago Delta and they are covered with Borassus and Ilala Palms, Figs and other typical riverine trees.  It is out on these Islands and inside the papyrus that the elephants have found their sanctuary.

 

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The Sand Forest areas stand in stark contrast to the flood plains and there are mostly very narrow transition zones between the two. Some of the older woodland here is magnificent but unfortunately it does contain some high value timbers like Panga Panga - Millettia stulmanhii , from an export perspective and also for the local charcoal trade as this is the primary source of energy and income for many. But this is more the situation outside of Couthada 11 and in the port town of Beira you see the many trucks arriving with raw hardwood timber and charcoal, and this pressure is quickly encroaching onto areas like the Couthada's - not only here but many parts of Africa have the same story.

Within the Sand Forest areas you have these open wetlands some have a more permanent water supply than others but they were interesting to walk around and sometimes when chasing various sightings I ended up walking on floating banks of grass which does slow down your enthusiasm a bit as your boots fill up with water.

 

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Another major factor inside these areas are the villagers that live here. I am not sure the exact legalities of this but I think I understand correctly that inside the Couthada's there should be no - one there, however after many years of civil war, the collapsed infrastructure of Mozambique, fast growing populations, little to no management and regulation, people have just naturally moved into these areas which is a real challenge for the management. It is very difficult to move people out of an area as there is often very little desire to want to move, understandably, and they have been there for so many years it is very complicated. So working with the communities and finding areas they can move to and concentrate people into certain areas and then support this with schools, clinics, clean water, admin etc, to try and have a less random scattering and expansion of people through the area seems to be the policy at the moment. But this is a slow and negotiated process supported and initiated by Zambeze Delta Safaris and their supporting NGO's like the Cabela's Family Trust.

 

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The slash and burn type farming is evident in many places to grow cassava and make charcoal. However in areas where villages have moved the regrowth is quite impressive all of this adding to the habitat diversity of this area. 

 

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Another major part of the influences on the habitat here is that created by fire - this again is a very complex discussion that has many components, some good some bad, but for the purpose of this report I wont go into all of that. However the fires set by humans both in and outside of the Couthada's every year come right through the grasslands and are almost impossible to stop.

 

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Just North of Couthada 11 runs the Zambezi River and although not part of Couthada 11 it does form the Northern boundary to this whole area of Couthadas extending right that way through to the sea and it's delta area. I was very fortunate to be given the opportunity to fly over the Delta area so we could see what the situation was and how best to build this into a safari here. 

 

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Following the river on its last few kilometres before reaching the sea was fantastic but in my mind I had it as being much wider, how much of that is related to the controlled flow that it now has as a result of all the hydro power stations up stream is hard to know but you can see as you fly around what appear to be old channels of the river - whether these are very old and just part of the natural flooding and siltation and now dry or the managed flow has allowed them to dry I can't say but they are clear from the air.

 

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Where the Zambezi actually reaches the sea there is a lot of Mangrove on the Southern side of the delta which is a very important habitat with lots of science relating to this that I am sure you would be aware of - however north of the Delta where most of the people live this has largely been cut out for fuel. Again how much the Mangrove range is related to managed flow of the Zambezi I cant say but I cant think that this reduced flow has not had an effect on the extent of the Mangrove forests.

 

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On the day we went up there we wanted to try and time it so we got there at low tide but unfortunately there was a number of rain storms around that we had to dodge and fly around so we could not achieve the low tide plan and I was only allowed to run around on the beach and do some quick birding for 10 mins, but I got some nice sightings in the very short time I had and did tick a long standing empty box on my bucket list of places to see.

 

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So that is the basic of the habitats covered - let me move onto the camp I stayed at - Mungari. It is located right inside the Sand Veld Forests and a fair way away from the wide open grasslands for a number of reasons but the principle ones being that it is away from the potential of fire and the associated dangers of that and these low lying wet coastal areas of Mozambique have a lot of mosquitoes, but where the camp is - yes there are the usual creepy crawlies but it was never a problem while I was there even being there during the rain season.

 

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Mungari camp itself is a fairly standard safari camp with large walk in safari tents - double or twin bedded - attached toilet and shower with hot and cold running water all plumbed in, a fire-pit where we would meet for drinks and snacks before dinner and then a large dining area - communal dining table - open bar and even WiFi, not very fast but was fine for a few messages, but not really any downloading of anything else. The food itself was good home-cooked style of food but always plenty and Chef always with a big smile ( he's from Zimbabwe so we had some good chats )

 

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The wildlife populations here are impressive and I wont go into all the survey numbers and quotas but these are conducted annually and is all part of the ongoing research for their flagship project of the relocation of 24 lions from South Africa. These aerial counts are also what is used to set the hunting quotas for their hunting season and allocations to the villagers. The rebound in animal numbers here has largely been achieved through intense management and huge cost in terms of anti-poaching teams, a constant aerial presence and community support. It is impressive when you walk around behind the scenes to see the amount of equipment that has been bought in to support the management of the area - Motorbikes, Helicopters, 4x4 Vehicles, and a fleet of military type vehicles that look like baby tanks, which are capable of pushing through the submerged vegetation and papyrus so that essentially the whole area is accessible to management at any time of year. All of this is privately funded from the hunting revenue of Zambeze Delta Safaris , the Cabelas Family Foundation, The Ivan Carter Wildlife Alliance and I know there are some others but cant remember all of them. I always find it sad across Africa that so often these sort of projects receive only lip service and rubber stamps from Governments but little actual financial input. I wont go on about that as that can take me awhile.

 

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I am not sure of exact numbers but I am sure very similar when you look at similar models that are photographic based. Having the bulk of your employees employed from the local communities as is here, and combine all their salaries and guest tips etc. it does add up to a very useful sum of money that gets added into the local economy every month and this then becomes an integral part of the community and their well being, and the trickle down economics through to those that are not directly involved does happen and all this really does help make these areas a success.

 

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As mentioned already the relocation of the 24 lions from South Africa has been their most high profile story and there are a number of articles and documentaries done about this, like the National Geographic one I have put the link to above which will give you a lot more details on that so I wont labor this point, all I can add is that these lions appear to be thriving, about 70 lions now, and settling into specific territories and habits. At the moment this growing population of lions is targeting for the most part warthogs, there are hundreds of them here and these lions just sit on the edge of the flood plain and wait for the warthogs returning from feeding to their burrows and they get ambushed, all very easy. They are monitored daily by a Predator research specialist based in camp and a really interesting guy to talk to as he seems overwhelmed with all the things that he sees and would love to know more about in this area to understand it and link it all together, but keeps having to slap himself to keep his focus and resources focused on the predators. One of the fascinating stories also of the lions is that how as soon as the ladies arrived a male lion that had never been seen before was there almost immediately, where he came from no-one knows but is now well established and dominant there now.

 

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The wildlife here as mentioned before is in great number especially the open plains grazers - African Buffalo, Common Waterbuck, Plains Zebra, Southern Reedbuck, Sable, Oribi, Lichenstein's Hartebeest, Warthog - but what is interesting to me was that there are some species that you would expect to have recovered well but for whatever reason have remained in relatively small numbers - a good example of this is Hippo, Impala and Kudu - all of which have absolutely beautiful habitat to be in. Still much to be learnt here on the environment which is why they are building a permanent research facility here where specialists in various spheres can spend months here at a time and learn how it all works and what needs to be done to protect it.

 

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From the air when going over the floodplain area you really then get a perspective of how much wildlife is here - have a go at doing an aerial count on these species.

 

Common Waterbuck

 

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African Buffalo

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Plains Zebra

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Eland

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Then when you get to the forested areas I cant think of any other place that I have been to in Africa where you can see Red Duiker, Nyala, Blue Duiker and Suni in such number, they really are very successful here. Along with these antelope there is also your Mongoose species, Civets, Genets, Sun Squirrels, Blue Monkeys, Chacma Baboons and very interestingly Palm Civet, which is way outside of it's previously recorded range, which has now been adjusted accordingly. You also see the small cats, Serval and African Wildcat and I am sure there will be Caracal here as well. Spotted Hyena and Leopard are also here and I am not sure about Jackals - as mentioned before the young man showing me around had not much English and when I showed him pictures of Jackals he shook his head at those but Wild Dogs he nodded his head at.... so I am not sure and have much to learn._DSC3506.JPG.9acc0a4e0ccdb73428da1b98f48e4554.JPG

 

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I also spent a bit of time trying to record the smaller creatures - The birds, butterflies and dragonflies. One of the most sort after species here is the African Pitta which normally arrives mid November and although they had been heard around before I got there they went silent when I was there so it remains on the bucket list however I was able to tick well over 150 species of birds in the short time I was here and got some new birds for my life list like the White Chested Alethe, Chestnut Fronted  Helmet Shrike, Woodward's Batis, East Coast Akalat and Cardinal Quelea, there are so many different habitats here that it really is a tremendous birding destination.

 

Dark Backed Weaver

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White Chested Alethe

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This is a Black Emperor Dragonfly - Anax tristis - Africa's largest species of dragonfly at 120 - 140 mm long - they really are very distinctive buzzing around the grasslands and shallow pools.

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Red Basker 

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Lucia Widow

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If Butterflies are your area of interest there is also plenty here to keep you busy, I am no expert in this field but enjoy getting pictures of them and working them all out, they are amazing and beautiful creatures with amazing details which does challenge you when trying to identify them, especially the little ones, like this Tailed Meadow Blue 

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Mirzah Blue

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Cream Striped Swordtail

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So there you have it I think that gives you a good idea as to what this environment and destination is all about, but this is an unfolding story and there is more to learn here and discover as these areas have had nothing like the same research focus as many other wild areas in Africa. One of the parts however that was different for me here that does give it a very different feeling to many of the well known photographic areas of Africa was there was no wide spread and random presence and sightings of elephants, they for good reason, have found sanctuary deep inside the papyrus and on the remote islands but I am sure as time goes, and as I saw, 4 young elephant bulls far outside of the reserve exploring, that they may become more commonly seen but this will not happen anytime soon. But there is a lot more to this place to be learnt, seen and discovered with a freedom that you don't get in a photographic area, I was always excited to be out each day and just exploring to see whatever I could big or small, feathered, scaled or furred was just fantastic. we are discussing with them now finer details on how a potential photographic safari could be done here and we will keep safari talk readers updated with this on the other forums on this site. But if you would like to speak with me more about this I will be happy to discuss - doug@dougmacsafaris.com 

 

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Edited by Doug Macdonald
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wilddog

Fascinating Doug. What a varied landscape. Always good to read about 'the road less traveled'  here on ST. 

 

Looking forward to hearing more about it in due course. 

 

Not sure the squelchy boots sound good 👢🙄 😕

Edited by wilddog
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ForWildlife

Very interesting! I've followed the 24 lions project quite closely, those lions are doing very well!

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Doug Macdonald

Yes they sure are and nice to see these real positive stories when so often it is the other way around - I wish them all the success with this.

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wilddog
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Then when you get to the forested areas I cant think of any other place that I have been to in Africa where you can see Red Duiker, Nyala, Blue Duiker and Suni in such number, they really are very successful here. Along with these antelope there is also your Mongoose species, Civets, Genets, Sun Squirrels, Blue Monkeys, Chacma Baboons and very interestingly Palm Civet, which is way outside of it's previously recorded range, which has now been adjusted accordingly. You also see the small cats, Serval and African Wildcat and I am sure there will be Caracal here as well. Spotted Hyena and Leopard are also here and I am not sure about Jackals - as mentioned before the young man showing me around had not much English and when I showed him pictures of Jackals he shook his head at those but Wild Dogs he nodded his head at.... so I am not sure and have much to learn.

 @Doug MacdonaldHi there :) Possibly ignorant questions/comments but....

 

  • How do you feel the presence of lions will impact on these smaller species such as the duikers etc.? Are these species effected by the presence of lions or are they too small/to little value to be targeted?
  • Amazing how an out of territory male lion will find a way:lol:
  • Good to hear the Elephants may come back........
  • Re the coutada itself, has it now stopped any hunting/hoping to make a change/combine the 2?
  • do you see this being brought into your trip port folio?

It sounds fabulous and I am sure, knowing what an adventurer you are, you loved it.

 

 

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Doug Macdonald
Posted (edited)

Thanks for those questions and comments let me try and answer them.

 

1. The impact of the lions is very much an unknown and this is very much part of what they want to try and understand and is referred to as the " Cascade Effect" This has two major aspects  the first being prey selection and the other territory selection related to the prey selection and how this evolves as the lion density increases - You can tell I have been talking with researchers :) . When you look at the area and the volume of animals there you would think eating hartebeest, waterbuck or sable would be a good option however they have opted for warthogs, and they have chosen to spend most of their time along the edges of the flood plain and some are living on the islands in the flood plain so they dont really come into contact with the forest related species at the moment, so their main predator in the forests I would say for the moment will remain the leopard.

2. I don't believe that there is any desire to stop hunting in favor of photographic as hunting is what they do and has proven to be a big success for their ability to manage and finance this Coutada over the last 25 years and rebuild it to what it is now. Unlike many hunting concession holders they see this as a long term project and not what they can get out of it this season which is an unfortunate aspect for many hunting concessions largely created by unstable political influences and allegiances. There are already specialist birding safaris operating here in the rainy season when the hunting has stopped - also these areas are big enough that you can be here without seeing or hearing the hunting as long as everyone knows where the other would be, should there be a hunt going on, but hunting will be for the foreseeable future their primary source of income and support. Genuine photographic or Non - Consumptive tourism is just another aspect that they feel will help in creating another revenue stream and the possibility for more employment of the communities there. This said though, is that they are under no illusion as to the potential conflict and know that there are no real examples of where the two activities have been able to run side by side successfully - however for people that like to explore new areas with the kind of freedom that hunting areas can allow and always the possibility of seeing a previously unrecorded frog or the range extension of a bird or plant and have some unique experiences then this is the type of place that would appeal and can be combined with a more regular photographic safari experience in a National Park like Gorongosa.

3. It is certainly something that we are considering and talking to them about so it is still all bits of paper and ideas at the moment as to how this could potentially work so maybe / hopefully we will be able to offer a prototype safari for Safari-Talkers and let others see what they think.

Edited by Doug Macdonald
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