Skubies Blog 2019

View from our camp at Lunda, looking towards Ruaha National Park over the river.


Sorry for the delayed Blog, but life has been full over that last months. But we are back and flying is in full swing! The Southern Tanzanian Elephant (STEP) team has expanded, but just as enthusiastic, passionate and driven as before. Great to be working with them again.

Our mission has changed somewhat in that we are no longer operating in the National Park, or in the Rungwa Game reserve, but are based on the Eastern edge of the National park in the wildlife management area (WMA). 3 years ago hunting was permitted, but its value as a buffer zone, between the park and habitation, has been recognised, as has the need to protect it from any illegal activity, such as poaching, tree cutting, livestock grazing or honey poaching. The animals are not as plentiful as in the park itself, but our aerial surveys show that herds of Elephants, Buffalo, Giraffe, Zebras, Water Buck and Impala are using it regularly and even staying there for the long term.

We are working with STEP funded rangers from the nearby villages. ..Village Game Scouts. The main task of these rangers is to patrol the protected area and apprehend any poachers etc. which either they, or we, have located. However, as our camp is just on the other side of the Ruaha river, there are still wild animals around, including Lions, Hyena and Hippo, so we have a ranger protecting us with a loaded gun at all times, sitting up all night by the camp fire while we sleep.

Stalwart ranger crew with us along side our aeroplane (click to expand)

Well that gets the serious stuff out of the way! Clearly there is more to life in camp than flying and catching the bad guys. The camp is fantastic. Our tent is right on the river with sunsets each day to die for and mosquitos who are trying to aid us in that purpose! We are thankful for the bats that come out each night, but they are just not taking the job seriously. Large red marks on arms and my legs prove that they are failing! Hey guys - eat more!

But the beauty of being on the river is that over time, you begin to recognise the same birds and animals with whom you share this part of the planet. We have the Pied King fishers who go to work at the same time each day, diving into about 10 inches of water to catch the fish. Pretty good timing. Plus there are the Wattled Lapwing couple fossicking about in the reads and the Drongo flapping about trying to avoid the Fish Eagles who are also fishing. Then there are the two troops of baboons who provide daily entertainment as they cross too and fro in front of the camp. The young ones try to leap and dance over the water trying to avoid getting wet at all costs, while the big males slowly stride across just to prove how tough they are.

However, the arrival of the Vervet monkeys has changed our casual approach to living at the campsite. These little beggars, as cute as they are, are thieves! Now the food tent and the rubbish bin need a guard of their own. Seriously I can see them in the trees with pen and paper, working out diversion strategies and plans of attack, while they sneak around the camp.

On the food front, we are doing pretty well, even without a fridge. Our Ozzie Jaffle Iron (like a camping waffle using the coals of the fire as demonstrated by Richard and Chuck)) has been embraced by the team, as can be shown by the look of sheer pleasure on Hamisi and Lapondo's faces! (Hamisi is a student, training to be a nature guide and Lapondo is our driver come camp aid) Well maybe they weren't sold, but Frank, our main contact at STEP, has taken it on with full gusto, cooking up variations for the team, which are adventurous to say the least. Anyone for peanut butter, onions tomato and egg jaffle?

Life at never dull at camp, what with the daily visits of a variety of animals. However, it is not until you are woken at night by the sound of a lion roar do you understand why he is the king of the savannah. It is not only loud, but seems to reverberate throughout the entire river valley. When it is just metres away from your tent, you do feel slightly vulnerable. Needless to say the guard was doubled for the next few nights just in case.

The main picture of a pangolin is because it is a rare site. Even people who have lived in the bush for years have not seen one. However, our rangers did! They showed it to us so that we could video it and then we let it go. Pangolins are on the brink as Africa-China trafficking persists unabated. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world, with more than a million snatched from the wild in the past decade, according to IUCN estimates. The Chinese and Vietnamese use the scales for traditional medicine( oh yes along with tiger and lion parts, donkey skin, rhino horn, etc). They boil off the skin to eat the meat and use the blood also. Seriously it makes my blood boil!

Daily chores at camp involved refueling the plane, washing it, 'burping' the engine to get the oil flowing, and collecting wood for our nightly fire. Whenever we returned from our aerial patrol, the rangers would be there to briefed on any activity. They would then decide a plan of action. Their investigations very often resulted in the apprehension of poachers, but sometimes the distances involved meant that they were too late to the scene of the crime. We hope next year to train them on the use of our air to ground radio system to enable quicker reaction time.

The villagers keep their livestock in 'bomas' that are generally made from Acacia thorn trees. The land is totally barren where the cattle and goats have overgrazed.

Women carrying wood is a common site on the village road

Buying parts at the village 'hardware' store.

The photos below show illegal cattle grazing within the WMA( Wildlife management area) and the burning of illegal bomas that were used to hold the cattle overnight. We also discovered a lot of timber cutting which destroys the habitat for the many animals that are now entering this newly reclaimed area.

The rangers do 20 days of ground patrols each month, covering up to 30km a day. Stumbling across poachers can be dangerous. A poison arrow was shot at one of our rangers and sadly we did not catch the culprits. In another park patrolled by STEP, a ranger was stabbed and died as result . At least this time they caught the poachers and found their automatic rifle.

We were also notified of men with dogs entering the WMA at night. The rangers camped the night where they believed they would catch them and we gave them aerial support in the morning, but we did not catch them. There is always next time!

The time finally arrived for us to say goodbye to our now almost dry river. We held a Bob Marley and Jaffle party with the rangers, who enjoyed the opportunity to let their hair down...what there was of it! Potential sponsors 'Future for Elephants' also visited to meet the rangers and ourselves and now we can only hope that we can raise enough money to continue to support STEP and this fantastic initiative. If you have any spare change around it only costs about $4,000 per month to keep 30 rangers in the field. A small price to pay for the preservation of the habitat needed for the future of not only elephants, but all animals, insects and birds..

Goodbye Mbomipa Lunda,

Tutaonana mwaka ujao.

(See you next year)

Now off to Ruaha National Park for a few days, then Zanzibar for some serious R&R.