Leaving Vundumtiki Island is always very hard. This expedition was only two weeks and left us gagging for more on the last day. We had already delayed by two days due to difficulties in accessing many of our nest boxes in the deep grass and overgrown bush. Hard work that thankfully kept us out there. Even getting out to the nest boxes was almost impossible. What used to be a simple main road has been turned into a maze of alternate routes through the dense mopane woodlands. Most are just zig-zags between trees and cannot be seen at night. Winching, digging, hacking was part of each journey. Today, nature has human beings on the run in the Vundumtiki area, erasing all the roads, reclaiming lost decks and camp remains, and flushing water across the only road that is in use. Neil Gelinas from National Geographic Missions Media came up with the frequently used statement of acceptance: “Nothing is easy in the (African) bush!” There was no use in fighting it, the only solution was blissful surrender. The wilderness is claiming more territory as the cutting, burning, crushing, sweeping and cultivating hand of man stays away from the island for another year… The breeding pair of Pel’s fishing owls now announce their dominion over this island every night. Before they were too afraid of our inquisitive gaze. This is now their private island.
The Vundumtiki wilderness has become a grand place again, 10 years after the last hunting rifle was seen in the area and 5 years since the last tourist took a photograph. In 2002, Wilderness Safaris saved this island from the hunters that had established themselves there and built Vundumtiki Camp. This awesome camp was to become the busiest camp in the Okavango Delta, but still struggled to cover costs due to the high price of being 2-3 hours drive from the closest airstrip. Today, we do research into cavity-nesting bird, mammal and reptile communities and the application of nest boxes as conservation tools, as well as assist Wilderness Safaris in the complete rehabilitation of the island. During each research trip we do “chicken runs” across the entire island, removing all snare wire, building material, trash and anything else that does not below there. In 2009, we found over 20 snares on the island. This year we found none. You could see it in the behaviour of the animals, the lechwe, baboons, kudu, giraffe, the birds on the island. This place had been cut off by record floods and lost roads for the last 2 years. Nature is taking over again and the wilderness is coming to life again as the animals take ownership of this place again.
A short mokoro trip or walk around Vundumtiki, a few days observing the resident tree squirrels, woodland kingfishers, baboons, barbets, babblers, fishing owls, lechwes, kudus, giraffes, hippos and Meyer’s parrots, is all you need to see that all these island residents know each other personally and work together. They all have existing agreements with each other, ranging from foraging together to ensuring that we never encounter each other or else… The only loners are the hippos and the only residents prone to significant infighting are the baboons and fish eagles. We had always seen the impala, baboons and lechwes lazing around together in mixed groups sharing vigilance for predators and taking maximum advantage of summer food resources. This made sense: food and security. In the forest, we have always noted the partnership between forest birds, like green woodhoopoes and babblers, and the local squirrels, whereby they all work together to announce dangerous intruders, like a mongoose or snake, before expelling them. Map Ives (Wilderness Safaris Botswana) once explained the meaning all the different squirrel calls to us and how they related to the other members of the forest community. His experiences in the wilderness had taught him the intricate behaviors of the animals he spent time with. It is only through quiet appreciation of the wilderness that we realize in our souls that we ARE part of this forest community, this ecosystem, this continent, this global community… If we want to be? It is our choice.
In 2007, we camped at the site of the old hunting camp and were met with an aggressive and unaccommodating local community with frequent baboon raids and problems with insects and rodents. In 2009, we moved to a site on the far tip of the island. The lack of massive roost trees above us was compensated for by the amazing view over the floodplain. Since day one we have been accepted at this site and this relationship has developed to having a small troop of baboons and three kudu spending their evenings close to camp. Over the years Chris has spent many hours with the baboons with great results, no raids and night watchmen to alert us to any threats. On three evenings this year we were lucky enough to witness sleeping arrangements being made between the baboons and kudu. The baboons had been hanging out below their roost trees for about an hour and by sunset most had climbed to their assigned roosts. Each evening three or four juveniles remained on the ground below the tree in the twilight until the three kudus arrived. When the kudus came into sight the baboons would get up and walk very slowly towards them, sitting down briefly before the kudu walk up to them. While the baboons still sat the kudu would walk up and dip their heads in unison in the direction of the baboons, who at that moment get up and turn towards the roost. The baboons would act as look-outs through the night and kudus would watch out below. Each morning the kudus would lead the baboons out the open floodplain at sunrise, almost in payment for the night time security. Everyday partnerships like this become clear to you, hundreds and hundreds of them, everywhere you look in the wilderness. It makes you wonder why we have almost no commensal relationships with other species? Today, our interaction with the natural world has changed from being as a dominant, tool-wielding member of a community to a manager that doesn’t need to answer to anyone. One of our only pure relationships with nature are the strong bonds that we form with our pets, considering them as companions and not resources or points of interest. In realizing my growing number of responsibilities as a human on this remore island, we began checking each baboon alarm call and looking for the snake that the squirrels were worried about, while pretty much staying out of everyone else’s business. We were the big, dangerous security guards that could not be trusted and should only speak when spoken to, which was never. Its hard to be at the top, but feel like your at the bottom.
Our final days of research revealed more bushbabies and squirrels in the mopane woodlands and completed the data set necessary to publish the findings from the first 5 years of this 10 year project. The lessons we learn in the Okavango Nest Box Project will allow us to more effectively protect cavity-nesting bird, mammal and reptile communities in degraded forests throughout the African subtropics, where deforestation rates are twice that of the rest of the world due to an out-of-control charcoal industry, regional droughts and fires, and the ravages of rampant logging on the continent. There is no doubt that the amount of dead wood available to cavity-nesting communities is declining across the continent and we are learning to overcome this shortfall before these bird, mammal and reptile communities collapse. We have decided to do this research in the wilderness so that the designs and prescriptions for artificial nest boxes are so effective they outcompete natural and excavated nest cavities as potential nesting sites. We are now applying the findings from the last 5 years to support the Cape Parrot Project (See: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/12/16/upholi-want-a-forest-rescuing-africas-most-endangered-parrot-from-extinction/), which erecting 600 nest boxes in degraded Afromontane forest patches across the Amathole Mountains. This ambitious project aims to support a population recovery in all cavity-nesting birds and mammals in the study area after over 150 years of logging left them with few nesting opportunities. Knowledge gained from the wilderness, saving endangered species in degraded habitat.
The drive back to Vundumtiki took us two days and left myself and Chris too tired to even enjoy the beers that we ran to at the Bridge Backpackers in Maun. The track was brutally wet and we only made it to a small pan about 35km from Vundumtiki Island out in the mopane wilderness to the north. We had a problem with a screaming air-conditioning pump that had not been used in years, but still worked and had to check it every hour or so. On our second check on the first day we heard a beautiful territorial call by a male leopard about 50m away. Primal and powerful. We then picked the tracks of four big male lions, the coalition that had been patrolling and calling up and down the main roads and elephant paths north of Vundumtiki for the previous few nights. This bush was raw and untouched. That evening I felt more at peace than I had for many months and looked forward to the journey ahead. The next morning was magical with frogs and insects we had not seen before and a stunning sunrise backdrop. The change in our LandRover from clean and sparkling in Nata before the expedition to looking more like a termite mound bears testament to the trials we faced en route to and from Vundumtiki. We would do it again in a heartbeat…
Links to previous blog posts from the recent expedition to Vundumtiki Island: