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Pafuri and plans for the year: The monster survey has began

The great Kruger Park leopard photographic survey has begun. The thought of covering the whole Park is overwhelming, but exciting at the same time. I now work with Kaizer Mathebula. Kaizer is a trained field guard and he knows the bush very well. On Saturday February 13 we arrived at the Pafuri Section, which is the northern most section of the Park. Along the way we came across a stranded man who was trying to cross into South Africa through the Park. He asked us for water but we didn’t have any and said we would take him to the authorities who would in turn help him. Apparently he had not drunk water for three days. This made it easy for us to try and convince him to come with us. He agreed to our proposal and so we took him with us, and later that morning we handed him over to Sergeant Tshabalala, who took forth the proceedings. The important thing is that he got his water. While we sat with him and Sergeant Tshabalala it dawned on us that the man had had enough and was keen to go back home. He told us that at one point he could not take the pain from the thirst anymore; and when he was asked about the dangers of walking in the Park unprotected he said because of the thirst, he was ready for anything, but was disappointed when the elephants and buffaloes ignored him. It turned out that he had a sense of humour and this made everyone laugh and he just sat there looking down and scratching his forehead.

Later that morning we met with the Pafuri section ranger, who said that most of her game rangers were already out in the field; as such Kaizer and I couldn’t get started with work. In addition they were busy with construction, meaning that accommodation was not possible for us. This was a bit of a challenge since I needed a place to charge batteries for the cameras as I had a few that still needed to be charged. We left the section ranger’s house to go and look for a place to stay and to charge the batteries. We found a camp site just outside Pafuri gate and we arranged that I would pitch my tent there while Kaizer would stay with one of the guards for a while. The camp site didn’t have any electricity…ouch, so we drove to the nearest village, Bennde Mutale (Bennde is Venda for Bend and Mutale is the name of the River that runs through the village). The village therefore is situated where the Mutale River bends. Our plan was to knock on the first house that we came across and since I can speak Venda, we would try and ask for help.

[caption id="attachment_1642" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="River gorge in Pafuri"][/caption]

We drove to one of the houses and found a young lady (Livhuwani), whom I asked if it was okay for us to charge the batteries. She said she didn’t mind but we had to wait for her mom to get permission. We said we would wait, but then I had to take Kaizer to a place where he would sleep and then I would come back and hopefully the lady of the house would be back. When I got back she was there and I was able to tell her about my problem. I said that I was willing to contribute towards the amount of electricity that the batteries were going to take. She said it was fine and so my problem was solved and the family charged all the batteries for me. I became good friends with the family and they were very friendly and took me as if I was one of them. Sometimes after work when I went to pick up charged batteries for the following day, they would share their meals with me. Sometimes we had maize meal and Mopane worms, which I gobbled greedily unaware that they were scraping the skin off my palate, and the one day we had locusts. Later when I had to leave and I went to bid the family fair well, the lady (Emily) said it was like one of her own children was leaving.
[caption id="attachment_1632" align="aligncenter" width="200" caption="Hlongwane left and Kaizer right"]Hlongwane left and Kaizer right[/caption]

Lesson learned: eat Mopane worms singly!

Out in the field work was fun. Kaizer and I took to the field with great enthusiasm and on that first day we went out with the corporal of the Pafuri section, Corporal Hlongwane. We went out and we were lucky to find leopard tracks where I had intended to be the first station. We later walked for about two kilometres to place another camera in the next block (according to the map). We decided to walk along the dry river bed. After 1 kilometre Kaizer instructed Hlongwane and I in an animated fashion to stop immediately. We both looked at him as if he were a mad man with question marks on our brows. He pointed in front of us. Right there, about 50 metres from us, sat the most beautiful animal I had ever seen while walking on foot. Yes you may say it….it just sat there facing the other direction and oblivious to our presence. There was tremendous amount of excitement in my heart; I wanted to scream with joy, but had to bottle all that inside. That was hard because I was on the verge of exploding. Inside I was having a good heart to heart talk with myself as I needed to explain and account to myself why I didn’t bring the camera. To this day I have no answers. Yes, I can proudly say I stood behind the king of stealth for a good five minutes without being detected (probably three in real time). We then decided to give the unsuspecting handsome fellow a wide berth and go around him. I wanted to sit there and watch him for as long as possible, but didn’t like the prospects of having to stay there alone without the protection of man pack; just in case I get detected. I therefore obliged, but with a heavy heart!

Lesson learned: Always carry the camera with you, no matter how heavy it is.

On our way back from placing the cameras we almost walked in to a breeding herd of ellies. That was a scary encounter because Corporal Hlongwane changed direction really fast pulling me by my shirt in the process and the intensity on his face was telling me that we were in a grave situation. I have never seen a man change direction that fast. We had to climb on to the nearest rocks as soon as possible or face the tuskers. Stupid me, I resisted because I wanted to see what was so scary that everyone had to move in a hurry. Coporal Hlongwane was not impressed and called me about five times before I looked at him. I reluctantly followed with my heart beating like jungle drums (yeah I could hear my heart pumping) and he told me that he had seen the ellies. The ellies were standing right in front of us and I didn’t even see them. It later occurred to me when we were away from that area that Corporal was once attacked by an elephant and was lucky to survive the assault, hence the respect.

Lesson learned: respect the wilderness always!

It took us about seven days and almost 1500 kilometres of driving to deploy 100 cameras. The walking was wonderful and sometimes we had to walk in the rain, but it was fun and a wonderful thing to have experienced. I hope that we will have plenty of leopard pictures, which will help us quantify leopard abundances in the Pafuri section of the Kruger National Park. Next week we will pace another 100 cameras in Punda Maria section and I hope that we will be successful in our plans. I have also attached a map of the park and our work plan for the year. If we stick to the dates, the survey will be finished by mid March 2011.

[caption id="attachment_1637" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Figure 1. A map of the Kruger National Park showing areas where we intend to survey for leopards during 2010. "]Figure 1. A map of the Kruger National Park showing areas where we intend to survey for leopards during 2010. [/caption]
[caption id="attachment_1638" align="aligncenter" width="279" caption="Table 1. Camera trap plan for the year 2010."]Table 1. Camera trap plan for the year 2010.[/caption]

About the Author

Nakedi joined AWF in 2007, working in the Limpopo region, where he's from. Nakedi's initial work was focused on studying the great cats to shape conservation strategies to benefit communities he's known all his life. In 2014, Nakedi moved on from the Limpopo region, becoming AWF’s Congo landscape ecologist.

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