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The Caprivi


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In September 2008 I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in Namibia helping Lise Hanssen with her field work. This is a report on my trip. Please note that I've been kind and skipped some of the more gory photos (such as buckets of rotten meat and maggots).


Lise’s camp is in a beautiful location - on the very edge of the Kwando river floodplain with views out across it. The flood levels are quite high at the moment so the flood plain is flooded and a shallow channel runs past the edge of the camp. In terms of facilities at the camp, then that's easy to describe - there are none. The camp is a campsite which is still in the early stages of being developed and which as yet has no toilets or water supplies. Toilets at the moment consist of the "dig a hole" type. Drinking water has to be brought in from elsewhere, but water from the river channel serves for washing clothes and dishes. It also helps Bliksem cool off as he loves paddling in there and hunting for frogs as well as swimming in a couple of deeper bits. Luckily the channel is shallow and clear and most importantly is crocodile free.




Two views of the camp




The next morning involved a trip to Katima Mulilo (around 2 hours drive away) to see the state vet to discuss baiting. Because of a foot and mouth disease outbreak in Kavango region all movements of meat were severely restricted which had prevented us bringing meat from Windhoek to use as bait. At the time of the trip, no meat was allowed from East Caprivi into West Caprivi and beyond - and vice versa. The state vet advised that we could take meat in as long as it was purchased from the butchers as this was all checked and proved to be FMD free before going on sale. Once we bought the meat we would have to get it sealed with a veterinary seal then he would issue a permit as it was a special case. Despite the fact that buying meat in this way was going to be far more expensive than other options, it was the only way we could start baiting so we chose to go ahead. I purchased a large piece of cow (just over 23Kg) which we then got sealed and obtained the permit. We then did some shopping for a couple of essentials, had some food then drove back to camp. On the way back we stopped at a roadside stall to purchase some meat. A cows stomach, heart and liver were purchased to go into a plastic tub and rot down to produce a foul stench that we could use to make scent trails. We dropped the tub of meat at camp then drove into West Caprivi to set the bait. The bait was tied to a tree using yellow straps and ratchets to stop the hyenas from dragging the bait away - the idea is to keep them at the bait long enough for them to be darted and fitted with radio collars.




On the way back from setting the bait we stopped in at Susuwe to have a few drinks with various people from WWF and IRDNC who were in the area carrying out the annual game counts. While we were there, Simon Mays let us know a Hyena which had been hit and killed by a vehicle a few days earlier had been taken away by local bushmen to eat, but had eventually decided not to eat it and had thrown the carcass into the bush not far away. We decided to check it out the following morning when there was sufficient light to see.


The next morning we searched in the area where Simon had said the hyena had been dumped, and with some help from Simon and an MET ranger we located the hyena carcass. It was swollen and rotting and was already starting to smell strongly. Hyenas had chewed away a part of the rear end. To identify the age of the hyena accurately Lise needed to remove the head so we could remove the skull. This allows the teeth and skull to be examined later for growth and wear to identify the age of the hyena. Lise therefore had to cut the head off a very unpleasant smelling hyena carcass with her leatherman knife. Back at camp this was added to the tub or rotting meat to speed the decomposition up and allow us to remove the skull. When we added it, a large number of maggots emerged from inside the eye sockets, attracted by the contents of the tub.

We then decided to move the bait we had placed the night before. It wasnt rotten enough yet to smell much, so moving it to near the hyena carcass would be better as the rotting carcass was already attracting hyenas to the area.



The bait at the new location


That evening we sat at the new bait site for a couple of hours to see if any hyenas would come. Nothing came, and as it was now too dark to dart anything we went up to Susuwe for a braii with the people from WWF and IRDNC who were still in the area.


The following day was spent dealing with emails and other office type work, then in the afternoon we checked the bait and it was clear that something had fed on it after we left. Spoor showed that a leopard had fed on the bait, and that a hyena was also present. A professional hunter who has worked in that area advised that the hyenas are very wary as they've been shot and persecuted, so they wont come anywhere near a vehicle. We therefore decided to relocate the bait the following morning to an area where we could leave the bait in a position that would allow us to approach unseen on foot.



The bait after a leopard had fed on it


The following morning we went to move the bait only to find that it had completely vanished. Spoor showed a number of hyenas had been there, and they had simply pulled on the meat until the nylon webbing straps had given way. These straps are extremely strong, so for a hyena to snap it gives an idea of how powerful they are. As well as taking the bait, they had also either eaten or carried away the rotting hyena carcass without leaving any sign that it had ever been there. After finding the bait gone we spent several hours scouting for suitable baiting sites where we could hang the bait out of the reach of the hyenas so they couldn't take it away, and which also allowed us to exit the vehicle some distance away and to approach unseen on foot. We identified an ideal looking spot which we marked on the GPS and returned to camp. While travelling back to camp, Lise got a call from a professional hunter working in East Caprivi. A client of his had shot an elephant, and the PH was offering us a piece of the meat to use as bait. We agreed to travel to the hunters camp the following day as long as permits could be arranged. Because elephants are a protected species then transporting the meat or other parts of the carcass without a valid permit is a serious offence. When a trophy hunter shoots an elephant or other animal the meat is donated to the local community - which in the case of an elephant is a large amount of meat which is a big help to very poor communities. The Professional Hunter is able to keep some meat for use as baits, and can make arrangements with the community to keep some more meat which in this case was donated for Lise's conservation work.

That afternoon was spent checking for other possible baiting sites in the West Caprivi. We had to make detours to avoid flooded areas where the road is impassable, and also to avoid a bush fire. As the rains were due in a few weeks then there are fires all over the Caprivi as people burn the bush to clear fields. There are also fires set by officials to get rid of overgrown dry vegetation safely as leaving it to catch fire naturally could result in a serious fire rather than a controlled burn. The atmospheric conditions seemed to help control the fires as during the day they burned fiercely with smoke rising into the atmosphere, but at night the smoke didn't rise very far and stayed near the ground like a thick fog, and the fires also died down. The smoke did make it hard to breathe on occasion and irritated the throat, so on our way back to camp we stopped at the "Cheap shop" shebeen near Kongola. A shebeen is a cross between a local shop and a bar and typically has loud music blaring out late into the night.


The next morning we set off to the hunters camp. When we got to Katima Mulilo we stopped at the state vets office and checked about permits. We were told to collect the meat then bring it back to the vet to be sealed with a special veterinary seal and a permit issued (as we'd done with the beef). We then headed East till we reached the Botswana border at Ngoma. Shortly before the border post we turned off onto an unsigned dirt track and headed east till we eventually reached the hunters camp on the banks of the Chobe river with a beautiful view of Botswana just across the river. The professional hunter gave us some paperwork to prove the meat had been donated to Lise and giving details of the permit under which the elephant had been shot. We were then shown the meat and given help loading it into the back of the Hilux. The meat was a piece of trunk from near where it joined the head. I was stunned by the size of it - I couldn't put my arms around its circumference, and despite being only a foot or two in length was extremely heavy - maybe 50Kg. I commented that the hyenas wouldn't drag this away easily but the PH said he'd seen a single hyena drag an entire elephant head for over 100m !! After loading up we headed back to Katima Mulilo and purchased a ground sheet and some cable ties so we could wrap the meat and fasten it up ready for the veterinary seal to be attached. We then headed over to the state vets office to get the seal and permit. We then decided to treat ourselves to a proper cooked meal and stopped for burgers (as the camp has no refrigeration facilities meat is off the menu unless its tinned as fresh or frozen meat goes off very fast in the African heat). After sharing our burgers with Bliksem we headed back to camp for a well deserved sleep.

The next morning we headed out early to our chosen baiting spot and began a long hard job of hanging the bait. The first step was to open the bundle to get at the meat. This proved to be very unpleasant as by this time the meat was stinking with a very powerful and unpleasant odour, and it was crawling with maggots - we realised then that this wasn't going to be a fun job. Because the meat was a piece of trunk, it did have one big benefit for us - we needed to thread straps through it to hoist it into the tree, and this was made a lot easier because the nostril holes ran though it, so we just had to push the straps through and tie them off to get a good secure fastening. Unfortunately lifting the meat proved harder than expected. To get the height we needed I had to stand on the lowered tailgate of the bakkie and try and use the ratchets to winch the meat up. Unfortunately they weren't strong enough to lift it, so manual lifting and looping the straps and hooks round strong branches proved to be the only option. Despite this the meat wasn't quite high enough, so Lise volunteered to do the worst job of the morning - she crawled under the meat and lifted it on her shoulders while I pulled from above and finally managed to tie it off in a suitable position. It was at this point when we were both covered in blood, slime and maggots (Lise got the worst of the maggots from going under the meat) that we realised that for the first and only time during the field trip, we'd come out without any water. This meant we were going to have to drive back to camp covered in blood, slime and maggots. Before setting off we removed as many maggots as possible and Lise used a bottle of liquid from the cow bucket to lay a scent trail, then we found something for Lise to sit on to avoid ruining the seats then we drove back to camp and raced for the water to get ourselves clean. Lise headed off for a swim while I tried out a portable shower I'd purchased the previous day and which thankfully proved to work well. After we finally got clean and put our clothes in water to soak we were able to relax for a few hours.



Lise with the elephant meat hanging in the tree


The afternoon was spent with Lise working on the laptop dealing with emails, writing proposals and reports, while I spent some time tackling the hyena head that we'd collected a few days earlier. The head can't be left to soak for too long or the teeth all fall out, so I removed it from the bucket of blood and meat and tackled the job of removing the fur and meat to reveal the skull itself. With the exception of a couple of teeth that had already fallen into the bucket, the skull was removed intact and the lower jaw in two parts.



The hyena skull - freshly removed from the rotting head


In the evening we did a quick check on the bait (untouched) and then headed off to a lodge around 30 minutes drive away for dinner with an elephant researcher who was based there and working in the area. Again it was nice to have a good cooked meal (and not have to wash up afterwards).


The following morning started with a trip to check the bait. Spoor showed that a hyena had found the bait and looked at it carefully but it hadn't attempted to feed on it - it was clearly suspicious. While we were there we used some spare rope from the washing line in camp to pull the meat up a little higher as it was sagging down on one side and could easily be reached by a hyena if we didn't lift it higher.


After breakfast we went to visit Chief Mayuni at his village. This was an informal meeting so we could look at his lion proof kraal. A formal meeting would involve a trip to the khuta with all the rituals that involves. We then did another drive through the west Caprivi looking for alternative darting/baiting spots, but the drive had to be cut short due to elephants blocking the road.




Back at camp Lise mixed up some zoletil and calculated dosages before attempting to load the darts ready for morning. Unfortunately there was a problem due to the hypodermic needles in her kit being too short. This meant a darting trip for the morning was out of the question so we planned to check nearby medical clinics to see if they had a suitable needle we could get. The darts are loaded by filling a hypodermic syringe with the drug being used and then inserting the hypodermic needle down the needle of the dart until it punctures a membrane inside the dart. This membrane hold the drug inside the dart until the dart impacts on the target when the force bursts the membrane. The hypodermic therefore needs to be long enough to pierce the membrane and also the correct thickness - too thick and it won't fit through the darts needle, too thin and it risks not being effective.


The following day was spent travelling around East Caprivi checking medical centres, pharmacies and vets for a suitable needle. Nowhere had the right size needle, but we did manage to get an IV canula (used for delivering drugs intravenously) which was just long enough and of a suitable width to allow Lise to load the darts. It seems hard to imagine if you haven't spent time in places like the Caprivi that it can take an entire day just to get something simple like a hypodermic needle, but that's the way life is there - there aren't many places where supplies of any sort can be bought, and most involve a two hour (or more) drive, and if there isn't any stock then that's half a day or more wasted.

There is also no such thing as a quick drive as you frequently have to stop to give people lifts. People in the Caprivi are very poor and there is no public transport so people get around either by walking long distances or by getting lifts from passing motorists. People living or working in the area are expected to stop to offer lifts and almost all do.



Lise drawing the tranquiliser ready to load it into a dart


The next day we left camp at 5.15am to try and reach the bait around sunrise. We misjudged the distance from the bait and stopped around 2km away instead of the 1km we had intended, so by the time we reached the bait the sun had already risen. Spoor showed lots of hyena activity but still none had attempted to feed on the bait.


The next day was an even earlier start - leaving camp at 5am. This time we had planned ahead and placed a discreet marker by the dirt track so we knew where to stop, and we arrived at the bait on foot just before the sun came over the horizon. Unfortunately the hyenas had already left by this time. We headed back to camp for a quick breakfast before we packed some supplies and set off on the long drive to Windhoek. We had planned to stop half-way but were making good time so pushed on and after 12 hours driving we finally made it back to Windhoek ready for my flight back to the UK the next afternoon.


Although we didn't manage to dart a hyena, the trip was still very productive as it confirmed that hyenas will come to bait, and also gave Lise ideas on what to change in her baiting strategy to have a better chance of success on the next attempt.

The trip was certainly not a relaxing one, but it gave me a much better insight into the realities of studying hyenas - late nights, extremely early mornings, extremely basic accommodation, and of course the smells of rotting meat that are not pleasant for those doing the work, but which are irresistible to a hyena.




Sunset at the camp (Its mandatory isnt it to include an African sunset photo ? B)

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My admiration for the tenacity and toughness of hyenas is only increased with your report. I had the exact thought as your comment when I scrolled the sunset picture into view. Your other photos were certainly different from typical safari shots. The blood, slime, and maggots covering you after hoisting the meat are also things not often read about. What a fascinating trip!

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fabulous report and fascinating reading.

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The blood, slime, and maggots covering you after hoisting the meat are also things not often read about. What a fascinating trip!


It was hard work, and the hanging of the elephant meat was the most disgusting thing I'd ever done - mainly because of the smell (rotting elephant meat smells 100 times worse than rotting beef), but it was a fantastic trip overall. Hopefully I'll get the chance to help out again in the future.


One thing I didnt mention much was the scent trails. The bucket of cow parts was topped up regularly with water and rotted in the sun. We then drained off the liquid which had a pretty appalling smell into bottles and used the liquid to lay scent trails. The problem is that having something like that around the camp does mean you have a pretty unpleasant smelling camp. Lise is planning to get a proper barrel with lid so it can be sealed which will help keep the smell down in future.

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Great report. Enjoyed reading it. I trust you kept some meat for yourself!!!! B)

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Someone has requested that I post a few of the more gruesome photos, so dont blame me - blame the lunatic who asked to see them (who shall for the moment remain nameless)


These few are showing the box of meat and water that were used to make foul smelling liquid for scent trails...


First some freshly purchased meat in the box........




Not looking so attractive after a day in the sun with some water added...




The next two were taken after adding the hyenas head - almost as soon as we added it, maggots came out of the eye sockets attracted to the meat and blood in the box...






The flesh on the hyena head was coming off in places after a few days so after taking this next shot I had the fun job of removing the flesh from the skull




At regular intervals the liquid is drained off into a water bottle ready for use, and the box was topped up with water to make more foul smelling scent.



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  • 4 weeks later...

Where is Mike Rowe now... Thats a Dirty Job...


You must have had to brush your nostrils out with toothpaste and a toothbrush afterwards !!

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The box of blood etc was only a few metres from the tents so we had the smell around camp for the entire time. The smell wasnt too bad except when we stirred it or poured off excess liquid, but even then, scarily it paled into insignificance when compared to the stench of the rotting elephant meat. :rolleyes:

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