Chobe National Park and its amazing elephants

DSC00139 copyI got home from my safari with Ujuzi and Dickerson Park Zoo a few days ago, but still have lots of memories to share.

Before returning home, most of our group went for a day trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana for more animal viewing. Chobe has several factors that make it a premier safari destination:

  • The Chobe River creates a unique ecosystem with an abundance of wildlife, and safaris via land vehicles or boat offer equally productive animal viewing.
  • The park has a spectacular elephant population numbering in the thousands. Visitors have a very high chance of seeing entire herds of elephants at work and play.
  • Chobe National Park is one of the few places one regularly sees hippos on land during the day. They do this because they’re competing with elephants for food. Getting out of the water during the day gives hippos more opportunities to graze and helps make sure the elephants don’t get all the grass.
  • Because of the river, birdwatching here is good all day, not just in the early morning and late afternoon hours.
  • The park is on the border between Botswana and Namibia, and is just an hour’s drive away from Victoria Falls, which itself is on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. You have your pick of countries to stay in when visiting Chobe.

Our group started out the day with a drive from Victoria Falls to Chobe National Park. It didn’t take long to get through Botswana’s border control, and we were outside the park at 9 a.m. We spent the next few hours on a river safari, with our two guides pointing out a lot of remarkable wildlife we hadn’t seen yet on this trip, such as African fish eagles and black herons, or hadn’t seen up close, such as hippos and a baby crocodile.

What  surprised me most was how many land mammals we could view from the river. We saw Cape buffaloes, kudus, and a red lechwe. Most of all, we saw elephants—probably close to a hundred of them, and many up close as they played and drank on the shores of the river.

Read moreChobe National Park and its amazing elephants

Featured Organization: David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Orphaned elephants learn to socialize and play with each other at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Orphans' Project, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo taken by Kathryn Kingsbury on an Ujuzi safari.
Orphaned elephants learn to socialize and play with each other at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Orphans’ Project, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo taken by Kathryn Kingsbury on an Ujuzi safari.

Born from one family’s passion for Kenya and its wilderness, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world.

At the heart of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s conservation activities is the Orphans’ Project in Nairobi, which offers hope for the future of Kenya’s threatened elephant and rhino populations as they struggle against the threat of poaching for their ivory and horn, and the loss of habitat due to human population pressures and conflict, deforestation and drought.

To date the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has successfully hand-raised over 150 infant elephants and effectively reintegrated orphans back into the wild herds of Tsavo East National Park. Many healthy calves have been born in the wild from former-orphaned elephants raised by the Trust.

Many safari-goers enjoy spending a day or two in Nairobi upon arrival in Kenya to adjust to the time difference. A visit to the orphanage is a wonderful way to learn about elephants and have a chance at close interaction that would be impossible in the wild.

Links:

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Visitors watch a feeding at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Karen, Kenya.
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A curious elephant checks out a visitor at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Karen, Kenya.
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Caretakers watch over baby elephants at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Karen, Kenya.
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A baby elephant plays with a branch at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Karen, Kenya. This is important practice for adulthood, when trees and shrubs become an important source of food.

Tanzania: A 24-7 Wildlife Experience

Photo taken by Jennifer Johnson on an Ujuzi safari to Tanzania.
Photo taken by Jennifer Johnson on an Ujuzi safari to Tanzania.

Jennifer Johnson of Wisconsin has been on safaris before, but her trip to Tanzania with Ujuzi stands out as the best. “Every day something happened that you thought couldn’t be topped. And then the next day, something happened that topped it.”

Johnson went on her Ujuzi safari in November with a group from Henry Vilas Zoo, Madison, Wis. “This trip was about a 1,000 times better” than a previous safari she had gone on with a different provider, Johnson says. “We saw twice the animals. The wildlife was more abundant, and we were closer to it.”

She credits Ujuzi’s  planning and expert guides – Modi Magesa, Chris Magori, and Shadrack Didah – with making the trip such a success. “Our guides were fantastic, very easy to talk to, and very knowledgeable. They were very safe and very educated about all the animals,” she says. The guides’ familiarity with wildlife enabled them to anticipate good viewing opportunities. For example, Johnson’s guide led her group to watch a pride of lions successfully hunting a zebra, then bringing out their cubs to eat it.

Photo taken by Jennifer Johnson on an Ujuzi safari to Tanzania.
Wildebeest graze in Ngorongoro Crater. Photo taken by Jennifer Johnson on an Ujuzi safari to Tanzania.

Johnson also got close-up views of a leopard, a rhino, many elephants and elephant calves, and migrating wildebeests. One park she especially enjoyed was Lake Manyara, a lush green forest and waterway where hippos, baboons, flamingos, and other birds were plentiful. “If anyone’s a birder, they’re going to want to go to Lake Manyara,” she says. “I don’t even know how many species of birds we saw there.”

Another highlight of the trip included a night drive where she saw serval cats, honey badgers, bat-eared foxes, and baby hyenas.

The safari experience continued at the lodges and camps where the zoo group stayed. Johnson especially enjoyed Tarangire River Camp, which is perched on the banks of an ephemeral riverbed in north-central Tanzania. “There were elephants in the riverbed digging for water, so you could go outside and look over the bank and watch them” at lunch or before the sun went down, she says. At night as Johnson fell asleep, she could hear elephants roaming about and lions roaring in the distance. “When you’re sleeping and you can hear the animals outside, it’s having an experience twenty-four–seven.”

Photo taken by Jennifer Johnson on an Ujuzi safari to Tanzania.
Photo taken by Jennifer Johnson on an Ujuzi safari to Tanzania.

Her group also enjoyed a presentation by the African People & Wildlife Fund about “living walls” – fences created from living native trees and acacia thorns. Maasai people build these fences  around their livestock areas to protect them from predator attacks. Before the living walls were in place, carnivores attacked Maasai livestock in the Tarangire area about 50 times a year, and communities killed 6 or 7 lions a year to protect their livestock. Where living walls are being used, human killings of lions, cheetahs and hyenas have dropped to zero.

Johnson enjoyed the safari so much that she’s already planning to return to Tanzania in 2016. “I’ve never been on a trip before where I loved something so much that I wanted to go back to the same place again,” she says. Her next trip is also a joint venture of Ujuzi and Henry Vilas Zoo and will include a visit to Rwanda, where her group will track mountain gorillas.

Photo taken by Jennifer Johnson on an Ujuzi safari to Tanzania.
Photo taken by Jennifer Johnson on an Ujuzi safari to Tanzania.

“The Finest Trip of My Life”

Bill Starr has jumped out of airplanes. Every year, he goes fishing in Alaska among wild bears. But he says no experience compares to a balloon ride over the Serengeti: “There were animals as far as the eye could see – wildebeest, zebra, ostrich, hyenas. Nothing tops that. I could tell you about that balloon ride until the cows come home, but you really have to see it to believe it.”

Starr, who lives in Billings, Montana, went on an Ujuzi safari to Tanzania with his wife and six friends in February. It was his first trip to Africa, and he’d spent much of the previous year reading about Tanzania and its wildlife to get ready. “But nothing can prepare you for it,” he says. “The trip was beyond my expectations. It’s one thing to look at pictures of animals. It’s another thing to be standing there with them right next to you.”

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In Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a male lion walked right up to his group’s slowly moving vehicle to inspect it. At Tarangire National Park, they came upon a pack of 27 African wild dogs – a sight so unusual that even their guide was over the moon at the encounter.

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While staying at Kikoti Safari Camp, located on a scenic hill outside of Tarangire National Park, the group took a morning hike in the camp’s wilderness reserve. They saw baboons, impala and even a Cape buffalo. A guide carried a spear in case any of the wildlife became hostile, but all of their encounters were peaceful thanks to the guides’ experience in wilderness treks and reading the body language of animals.

Starr’s group also took a night game drive, allowing them to see many animals rarely seen during the day. These included bush babies, tiny nocturnal primates with huge eyes and a baby-like cry; and springhares, rodents that look like a cross between a kangaroo and a rabbit but are not directly related to either.

Staying at a mobile tented camp called Zebra Camp was an integral part of what made the safari so memorable, says Starr. The camp moves with the wildebeest migration, and Starr’s group spent three nights there while visiting the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti. “The Zebra Camp was outstanding. There is nothing that can top living next to the Serengeti in a tent, and the service was excellent.”

Even though the camp moves frequently, it was incredibly comfortable – with real beds, showers with hot water, chemical toilets that were cleaned out daily, and electricity from a generator. Even though it was in the middle of the wilderness, the service and incredible food were on par with with a luxury hotel’s. “We had a fantastic chef,” he says, recalling the sculptures that the kitchen staff would carve out of the melons they served at breakfast.

Starr says he would recommend Ujuzi “to anyone planning a safari to Tanzania. It was the finest trip of my life. We saw every animal that we desired up close and personal. And our guides, Modi and Amini, were excellent. We felt like they were family by the end of the safari. ”

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Thank you to Bill’s friend John Traeger for allowing us to share some of his photos from the trip!

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Elephant Orphanage Saves Lives


National Geographic has made a fascinating video about Daphne Sheldrick’s elephant orphanage, which takes care of young orphaned elephants until they are ready to be re-released into the wild. The Nairobi orphanage is a favorite destination among Ujuzi safari goers to Kenya. I had the opportunity to visit it in person last year and it was truly a life-changing experience to see these gentle youngsters – some as tall as me! – learn to eat and socialize together.

See a sample itinerary for a safari that includes a visit to the orphanage here.

See a newborn wildebeest walk for the first time

It’s amazing what you can see on safari: wildebeest giving birth, cheetahs on the prowl, and elephants taking mudbaths are just a few of my favorite sights. To help share the wonders of East Africa, Ujuzi has a YouTube channel that features some memorable moments from Ujuzi safaris. To give you an idea of what the channel has to offer, I’ve included the two most-viewed videos below.

You can watch more videos on Ujuzi’s YouTube channel. Let me know which is your favorite! Have videos of your own to share? Send me an email!

New Ujuzi Video Added to YouTube

Enjoy this music video of  highlights from my recent trip to Tanzania! It was tough narrowing hours of video down to just a couple of minutes, but somehow we managed to get dozens of animals and five national parks in there. I think my favorite capture is the cheetah stalking and chasing its prey in the Serengeti. What’s your favorite footage?

Changes in Masai Mara

Lioness

Lioness at Masai Mara

Lion cub

Lion cub at Masai Mara

It’s the last full day of our trip. We decided to make the most of it with an early morning game drive before breakfast, when many animals are the most active. Our early wake up was rewarded when we came upon a pride of three female lions and their cubs resting in the shade. We kept a respectful distance and they kept theirs; the way they slowly blinked their eyes seemed to suggest that they were more interested in sleeping than in us.

Bath at Mara Intrepid

En suite bath at Mara Intrepid

Mara Intrepid outdoor seating

Mara Intrepid outdoor dining room

After breakfast, we visited Mara Intrepids Camp and Mara Explorer, sister tented camps along the Talek River. Mara Intrepids is a more family-oriented camp, open to children 4 years old and above when accompanied by a parent, and offering organized activities for kids with its Adventurers program. An electric fence surrounds the property to keep large game out.

Mara Explorer tents

The inside of a tent at Mara Explorer. The fabric hanging above the bed is a mosquito net.

Public area at Mara Explorer with excellent views of the river

The public area at Mara Explorer has excellent views of the river.

Explorer is an unfenced camp with a wilder feel. Each tent includes a secluded outdoor bath so guests can watch the river while they clean up from the day’s activities. The camp also has no fence, so wildlife sometimes wander through its grounds. While these animals rarely pose a threat, guards are on duty at all times to prevent problems.

The tent closest to the plain

This tent at Governor’s Camp has a great view of the savannah.

Huge tents at Governor's Camp

Huge tents at Governor’s Camp

We then visited Governor’s Camp, an unfenced tented camp with views of the Mara River. From the dining area and bar, visitors can often watch the resident hippos swim in the river or munch on the grass. Each tent has a large bath with shower, and most have views either of the river or the savannah.

Crossing river in our Landcruiser

Flooding meant the only way from Mara National Reserve to Mara North Conservancy was across this stream. Our Landcruiser handled the rocky crossing as well as any road.

Ostriches on the run

We encountered ostriches on our way to Mara North Conservancy.

We left Masai Mara National Reserve for Mara North Conservancy. Unlike the reserves, which are managed by local governments and the Kenya Wildlife Service, the conservancy is privately owned land set aside for conservation purposes. The land is owned by local Masai who decided that their land was better served by providing homes and passageways for wild animals than being used as year-round pasture for their herds. They receive income from the land in three ways: safari fees paid to them by visitors to the land, rent paid by lodges located on the land, and an additional occupancy fee paid by the lodges when rooms (or tents, as the case may be) are filled.

Family tent

Serian’s family tent includes two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a shared living room and veranda.

A bath with a view

A bath with a view

Once in the conservancy, we continued on to Serian Mara Camp, our lodgings for the night. Set above the Mara River, the six-tent camp offers luxury in a natural setting. The furnishings evoke the safaris of a bygone era, with the rich colors of eastern caprets on hardwood flooring and swathes of cotton setting off the colonial-style furnishings and pale canvas walls. Each tent has its own full bathroom with a rain shower and a hand-carved stone bath with river view, as well as a large private veranda.

Deck lounging at the family tent

Tamara lounges on the deck of the family tent.

Across the river is Ngare Serian, an even more luxurious camp with only four tented suites.

Genet visiting us at cocktail hour

A genet watched us from the edge of the dining veranda during cocktail hour.

We enjoyed watching hippos (as well as a genet and a tiny African hedgehog) before a relaxed dinner with managers Rosin and Adrian and conservancy shareholder Charles, one of the Masai tribal members who set aside his land for the conservancy. Charles asked us if we had any big animals in the United States and was thoroughly unimpressed when we told him we had wolves.

He laughed as if we had just told a very funny joke. After all, wolves aren’t even as big as lions, much less giraffes, rhinos, hippos or elephants.

The best we could come up with for a large North American land mammal was the grizzly bear, which we described as something like a hyena, but the size of a cape buffalo. He thought that was a bit better, but still nothing to write home about.

We also talked about changes he’s seen in Masai Mara and the the Masai culture over his lifetime. Charles has two wives, 16 children (the youngest of whom are in secondary school), and more grandchildren and great-grandchildren than he can count. He told us that while polygamy is permitted in Masai culture, it’s not required, and he has encouraged his children to have smaller families so that they can provide for their families more easily and educate their children. (Primary school attendance in Kenya is compulsory and ostensibly free, but families still must pay school fees for textbooks, uniforms and other supplies. Families who want to send their kids to secondary school must pay tuition.) He says all of his kids have decided against polgamous marriage for themselves, but he does not see this as a threat to the Masai culture. Rather, it’s a shift in cultural practices that takes into account new realities and opportunities.