Photography and story: Nicholas Dyer
In early November 2019, Nick Dyer led an exclusive nine-day photographic safari in Hwange and Mana Pools National Parks in search of the elusive painted wolf.
Limited to six people and staying with African Bush Camps, it was action packed from start to finish. Join the excitement day-by-day as Nick recounts this experience illustrating the story with his photographs.
ABC’s Somalisa lies well within the Kennedy Pack’s territory, but these five painted wolves have not been seen around the camp for several weeks. It can be a challenge in Hwange to find the wolves because their territories are vast. This can make for some very long, tedious and bumpy journeys to try and find them.
I believe in giving my guests a fantastic all-round safari experience on my Painted Wolf Safaris and avoid a dogged pursuit of the wolves when they are not in the vicinity. We will have plenty of opportunities to see the them later on this trip and I don’t want them to spend a whole day in a vehicle, only to miss out on something incredible nearby.
Thus, we head out just before first light towards the previous night’s crime scene to try and find the lions. It is not hard – they have barely moved. The remains of the buffalo have been dragged into a bush while the fat-bellied cubs play a macabre game with the severed relics of the carcass.
The rising sun paints the lions with golden-hour light on which photographers’ dreams are made. Our game viewer falls silent to the concentrated clicks of seven focused cameras.
As the lions entertain us, the impact of the severe drought becomes increasingly apparent. Untouched carcasses lay strewn across the ground, desiccated by the November sun. It seems that baby elephants are particularly struggling.
Zimbabwe is host to the second largest elephant population in Africa, over 40,000 of which live in Hwange. There is no natural permanent surface water in the park, and it relies on man-made boreholes, solar pumps and dams to supply water. These are being tested to the limits in this devastating drought, although it is not the lack of water that is killing the herbivores, but the dearth of food on which they graze. The predators, on the other hand, are enjoying abundance.
In the afternoon, we head to a waterhole, whose life-giving solar pump is maintained by African Bush Camps and quenches the thirst of countless elephants. In these desperate times they are running a diesel generator at night to keep it going 24/7.
On our approach we notice a small herd of ellies to the left with one apparently sleeping. We get closer and realise that he is dead and looking at his body and the surrounding tracks, his death is very recent, perhaps in the last hour. With his mourners in the background, it is very painful to witness.
The waterhole itself is crammed with over 100 elephants, each queuing for a chance to get near the source, rudely dominated by the largest bulls. Their thirst is palpable and despite the crowd, more elephants stream down the hill to join them.
We drive over to photograph the newcomers against the dying sun. Behind me I hear an unearthly scream coming from the herds. Automatically, I swing my camera around to see a flash of red among a dense mass of bodies. My brain is slow to process what I am seeing but I start photographing instinctively. It takes a little while for me to register I am witnessing a cow elephant giving birth.
Beneath the mother’s blood drenched thighs lies the body of a baby elephant, the amniotic sac wrapped tightly around its head. It is not moving; motionless in the forest of legs and trunks of its mother and concerned aunts. We fear the worst and I doubt any of us can withstand another distressing scene.
The legs and trunks start to gently prod the still baby and we realise they are trying to remove the sack from its head. It is taking a long time and we hold our breath in empathy.
A little kick from a yellow footed leg sparks hope. Then a wriggle and a few more kicks and a little trunk escapes the confines of the sack to take in its first breaths from mother earth. He’s alive! The surrounding ellies take it in turns to prod and push and poke the little babe and encourage him to life.
The sac is eventually removed, revealing a little head with matted hair, a tiny trunk and a sleepy eye. We are flooded by relief and a deep sensation of joy. We watch mesmerised for an hour as the baby struggles to get to its feet. Countless times it rises and falls, despite encouraging shoves from the adults. We strain our eyes through the descending darkness to eventually see him stand shakily to his feet. He waddles uncertainly over to his mother’s teat and takes his first few gulps of her milk. We release a cheer in relief.
Our drive back to camp is in total darkness and we each quietly ride a bi-polar-coaster of emotions; the horror and sadness of a drought induced death, swirled around by the joy and hope of a new life.
Suddenly Dickson slams on his brakes and flings the game viewer in reverse. “There!” he exclaims in a whispered shout, “Under that tree!”
We follow his spotlight and see some shiny creature under the tree, “Oh my god, it’s a Pangolin!” In all my time in the bush I have only seen one once before. What an extraordinary first 24 hours to this safari – and we haven’t even seen a painted wolf yet.
About Nicholas Dyer
Nick is an award winning wildlife photographer, the co-author of the acclaimed Painted Wolves: A Wild Dog’s Life and Chairman of the Painted Wolf Foundation. His passion is for painted wolves and he has spent the last seven years following the packs in Mana Pools on foot. He now leads Painted Wolf Safaris so people can get to experience and understand these enigmatic and endangered creatures.
Visit Nick’s website here
Join me on my annual ‘Walking with Wild Dogs’ safari with African Bush Camps and enquire below. For the itinerary details, visit African Bush Camps’ website.
Please contact me if you would like to discuss creating a bespoke and unique painted wolf adventure