I woke to the sound of The Circle of Life, Broadway version, at 5:30am. Waking up to Lion King music is the most appropriate way to start the day in Africa, if you ask me. Half awake, I put on clothes, brushed teeth, put on deodorant and was out the door and on the way to the workshop before 6am. The sun was just starting to cast light above the horizon but was still a few hours away from actually warming the air.
In my last semester at Texas Tech University studying Zoology, an opportunity to volunteer at a game ranch in Africa landed in my lap. So, just over 3 months after my graduation, I found myself on a game ranch in Zimbabwe preparing two land cruisers for the day. We checked oil, water and tire pressure levels before fueling up the vehicles. The functionality of the vehicles was especially imperative that day.
It was the first day of the road strip count, an important population count used to estimate the density of plains game. The count took place over three days. Two vehicles each drove two big loops, covering the majority of the property, per day. The two loops are further divided into 5 routes to cover all of the habitat variation on the ranch. River and west route cover the north and western portion of the property while black, gusu and ingwe loop around the southern half of the property. The road strip count has become an annual tradition for Rosslyn Safaris at Cawston Block. This year on the 20th road strip count the biologist who started it, Vernon Booth, made an appearance.
Once the cruisers had been fueled and thoroughly checked, we divided into two teams, one for each vehicle. The team on the white cruiser consisted of Mr. Booth as the scribe, JP (a South African student studying Nature Conservation) as the driver, Mr. Johnstone (founder of Rosslyn Safaris) as a passenger, and Thomas & Mandla (the game scouts) were spotters. Just after 6:30am, they headed off to drive the black, gusu and ingwe routes, in that order. My group took the green cruiser. There was Howard driving, Brian and Frank spotting, and I was the scribe.
The three game scouts (Howard, Brian and Frank) and I headed off to start the river route then proceed to the west route. I handed Frank the rangefinder so he could get the distance of each animal or group of animals from the vehicle. When he turned it on and looked through the lens, it didn’t work. No worries I thought, I brought a spare battery just in case. I grabbed the rangefinder to quickly change the battery… Except this rangefinder took 4 AAA and I brought a 9V. I grabbed the only one that took AAA. Its not the first day if everything goes smooth. I had spare AAA batteries and the extra rangefinder just around the corner where I was staying so we got it all sorted within a couple of minute’s.
Back at the start, I recorded the start time, odometer reading, the date and route. Before I finished jotting all of the numbers down, Frank already had the rangefinder up to his eyes.
“Warthog. Number is 2. Distance is 23.” Mumbled Frank. I continued to write all of the data in the respective column on my printed template held down by the clipboard in my lap. Brian then leaned over the sundial-like contraption secured to the top of the cruiser like a billiards player lining up a shot. He looked down the adjustable needle to get the angle at which the animal was first seen.
“85 angle” said Brain. As soon as he saw me finish recording, he tapped the roof of the cruiser and we were on our way.
Impala. Bushbuck. Warthog. Zebra. Wildebeest. Eland. Sable. Each time the game scouts pointed into the bush I was amazed. Even after knowing the exact distance and angle to look, I still had to strain my eyes just to see what the actual species that they saw was. Most of the time I could only see a few alert ears, unless they were in the open field, nowhere near the actual herd size of double or triple what I saw. It was incredible how they could spot and accurately count the antelope herds through the veil of bush surrounding us. There were times that first morning where I couldn’t even see what they were pointing at. They could of said it was a herd of unicorn and I would’ve blindly recorded it because there was no way I see through the thick cluster of thorn trees and golden grass. When Brian would ask if I saw it, half the time I would say yes… then ask what species we were looking at!
Even after living in the bush for a month, there are still certain things that baffle me every time. One such thing is seeing a Giraffe. To me there is just something special about seeing these biological skyscrapers in the wild. They stare at you with these huge curious eyes, until you encroach a bit too much and they clumsily gallop into the bush. You would think that the tallest animal on earth would be easy to spot, but they aren’t. They can easily blend in with the trees during the dry season when the bush is covered with all the shades from yellow to brown. Many times I was staring right at one less than 100 meters away, but never saw it until it moved. Meanwhile, the game scouts are spotting impala at 300 meters away or more in the same conditions.
The river and west routes took us all morning to drive. Then after a lunch break we switched routes with the other group. We drove black, gusu and ingwe while they drove the routes we did that morning. The afternoon was the same expect it covered different ground. The game scouts continued to spot thing I couldn’t see while I wrote it all down.
It wasn’t until the 2nd day when I was actually able to spot (almost) all of the animals. By then I started to understand how to look for the shapes and movement within the bush. On the third day, I even spotted a few animals before the game scouts!
After driving all the routes 6 times total, forwards backwards then forwards again, we had a combination of nearly 1,000 sightings over 455km and 19 hours. Some of the more notable for me included a herd of 31 sable (seen twice on consecutive days), a herd of 80 impala with 10 kudu, wildebeest spotted (by the game scouts) 500+ meters away, a black backed jackal in the middle of the day, duikers, and many giraffe just to name a few.
I also saw many of the more elusive birds including a scretarybird, a kori bustard, a spotted eagle owl, a gymnogene and a bateleur.
From all of these recorded plains game sightings a program calculates a population density estimate of the various species from the distances, angles, and numbers that we recorded. With accurate estimates, the wildlife at Cawston Block can continue to be properly managed.
~ American Volunteer – Sam Stroupe.