The Passing of a Matriarch


By Andrew Field – Follow on Twitter
Flickr_Andrew_XIOur fleeting exchanges with nature allow us to reflect on how we handle the real world, but sometimes we are jolted into a sense of reality when nature turns on itself. A short while ago I was privileged to spend yet another period in Mana Pools and be with the wild. For a few years now, I have been an occasional observer of the most amazing union between the ‘grandmother’ lioness of Mana Pools and her issue, a healthy lioness we shall refer to as the ‘daughter’.

Incredibly, the older lioness has survived these last few years almost entirely due to the presence of her offspring despite the duo being ostracised by the main prides of the park. The old girl was toothless, incapable of hunting, and reliant on the younger animal. It is estimated the old girl is about 16 years of age. Each visit there is a mission to find this couple, a personal charge in a way, to be sure the old girl is all right.

Grandma Lioness_2013_06_02_9122_768x474px

Occasionally there are additions to this mini pride, in the form of cubs, usually two, and it is delightful to spend time with them, if one can. Last year there was a single surviving cub, named Bertie. Sadly, the record of survival for cubs is slim. While the dominant males from the main prides sire these cubs, they become easily victim to a nasty trait in paternal males and other predators in the park.

On my recent arrival at my normal ‘digs’ in the park, Goliath Safaris, I was told that the old girl had last been sighted a couple of days back, but that she had been deserted by the daughter. In all probability the grandmother would have succumbed by then. Saddened by this news, the days that followed were spent mostly on lion spoor, looking for a pride we know as the ‘Spice Girls’, or the males, ‘The Backstreet Boys’, ever hopeful we would stumble upon the tracks of the grandmother and daughter.

Our first encounter with the pride was a small hunting group, a skittish bunch of young males and a female, but they didn’t stick around to greet us. In fact we had little chance with a young bull elephant seemingly chasing them off his patch. A little later in the day, approaching noon, we received a report of a sighting of the old girl. Excited and eager, we trekked to the approximate location and set off looking for more spoor, but no sign was found. We had been given poor directions.

While travelling back to camp for our siesta, we were blessed with an accidental sighting of the old girl from the vehicle, quite near where we had seen that flighty pride on the hunt. We stopped and moved in on foot to observe her. The old girl had aged so much since last seeing her… she was definitely on her last legs, thin, bone structure protruding, exhausted; just wanting to lay peacefully and die. She offered us a permeating growl, akin to the purr of a Harley Davidson, but was really quite disinterested with the invasion of her space. No sign of the daughter or any cubs was apparent.

Astonishingly, there lay nearby the lioness a carcass of a dead honey badger, a ferocious little beast which would never have been easy prey and which, clearly, the old girl had neither hunted nor killed. Was this an opportunity discovery? Not likely, scavengers abound here. Then, how did the old girl manage to acquire this food? Did that jumpy hunting pride leave her with this food? We’ll never know, but I would like to think they did.

We sat a short distance from her, tolerating the occasional soft roar and growl… I know the others, like me, were silently bidding the old matriarch farewell; her survival was numbered in hours rather than days… a few tears were scuffed away. So strange how we build such compassion for these beasts, which would happily rip us apart in their prime, but we do. There is a telepathy of acknowledgement; almost a psychic inner feeling between man and beast. We slowly, yet sadly, withdrew… this was our last sighting of the grand old lady of Mana.

A few days later, we had stumbled across a large pack of wild dogs and spend time with them, photographing the pack and individuals… our sojourn was interrupted by a large lioness moving through the area, in the late afternoon, offering a deep penetrating calls which would be heard for miles, perhaps seeking other members of the pride.

The dogs moved defensively towards her in a large pack and we followed some distance behind. The solitary lioness broke into an opening and showed herself. It was the ‘daughter’ without doubt! We will never know if she was calling for her mother or perhaps already mourning her loss, but clearly she is alone now. There was no sign of Bertie. The dogs retreated as if offering respect.

There is no confirmation of the old girl’s passing, I pray it was peaceful. Hopefully the daughter will integrate back into the main-steam prides of Mana and continue her normal life, else her own survival will be brief. Her fascinating dedication to the upkeep of her mother, against many harsh odds, is a truly wonderful and exceptional demonstration of the human-like love and bonding that all we know so well.

Rest in Peace old lady of Mana.

Mana Pools: Constitutional Protection of the Environment


By Andrew Field – Follow on Twitter
Flickr_Andrew_XIThe proposed Zimbabwean Constitution has specific reference to environmental rights in a clause that will give every person a right to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being. Every Zimbabwean has the right to the environment being protected for the benefit of present and future generations.

The Constitution proposes that measures be taken to: prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development. This is music in the ears for some, but perhaps it does not go far enough. Mere measures to protect our natural heritage, the flora, and all creatures great and small are not exactly a right. It should be. Things other than humans should have rights. Humans seem not to be bequeathed the right to the protection of their national heritage either.

Could you imagine a new, say fundamentalist, regime coming into power, which, in its wisdom decides that the Great Zimbabwe was never constructed by the indigenous people after all, but rather by some foreigners from the east or the north who had come to take our gold, ivory and reap the nation of its people for enforced slavery, back in the 11th Century. They decide in this realisation and in their moment of new found glory that the monument of the Great Zimbabwe should be levelled to the ground and destroyed. As ludicrous as that may seem, the origins of this national edifice are still not substantially agreed. Great Zimbabwe is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Something similar to this is actually happening in Mali right now. Sites, previously declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO are now being desecrated by religious fundamentalists who wield the power of the gun. Islamists, supposedly connected with Al Queda, who grabbed control of Northern Mali, including Timbuktu, believe centuries old shrines are idolatrous and have already destroyed seven mausoleums. The politicians of the day, whatever their cause, have effectively destroyed some of the national heritage in Timbuktu belonging to the people of Mali. It is of course an absolute disgrace.

Zimbabwe is blessed with five World Heritage Sites, three of them cultural and two of them natural. They are, in addition to Great Zimbabwe National Monument: the Khami Ruins National Monument; Matobo Hills; Mana Pools National Park, Sapi and Chewore Safari areas; and the great Mosi-ao-Tunya (or Victoria Falls). One wonders, of course, just how much protection these sites have in the face of radical politics or greedy commerce.

The authors of the proposed constitution have certainly made provisions, but they are diluted. For example, all state institutions and every citizen must endeavour to preserve and protect Zimbabwe’s heritage. Alas, both institutions and citizens are susceptible to the seven deadly sins, particularly where a regime rules with impunity to the rule of law. Many will say we have been there and some elements of government still pursue the rotten ethos.

Traditional leaders have a duty to preserve their culture, traditions, history and heritage. One might ask if in fact this obligation is somewhat adulterated, since the chiefs have mostly fallen in with the more gratuitous party’s gravy train. The risk is that only a one-sided culture, history and heritage will remain intact, with the destruction of that which is against the grain of current party philosophy, much like the happenings in Timbuktu.

Today, some citizens of Zimbabwe, perhaps aided and assisted by those in politics, seem to be out of sync with the good intentions of the proposed constitution already. They aim to satisfy their apparent commercial greed and gluttony (the type which allows one mining magnate to buy up numerous multi-million dollar properties south of the Limpopo) in desecrating a World Heritage Site, Mana Pools National Park, Sapi and Chewore Safari areas. They intend to do open cast mining of two river lines through the area. This seriously threatens our national and natural heritage.

Our would-be mining moguls seem oblivious, with their poor intentions, to their moral obligations they have to the citizens of Zimbabwe, the nation and the World at large. Perhaps this band of merry diggers should take stock of what they propose to do and relate this to the environmental needs of present and future generations. They should call it a day… if they are allowed to pursue their objectives no one can say where it will all end. There are many sandy riverbeds in Zimbabwe.

You can help… there is a petition to be signed and you could join a social media group in support of this campaign.

Visit Andrew’s Simply Wild Photography photo blog… you will not regret doing so!

Zambezi Valley Eco-System Threatened by Mining


By Andrew Field – Follow on Twitter
Flickr_Andrew_XIConservationists are up in arms, again, and quite rightly so. The latest gambit is that of the intended prospecting and exploration for heavy mineral sand deposits (HMSD) of two rivers: the Rukomechi River, along the western boundary of Mana Pools National Park and the Chewore River, along the eastern boundary of the Sapi Safari area. Both of these rivers are tributaries to the great Zambezi River and wind across the Zambezi Valley which is within the declared UNESCO Middle Zambezi Biosphere Reserve. Mana Pools is a UNESCO World Heritage site, yet mining magnets are just about to rip it apart.

There is a long history of environmental activism opposed to mineral sands mining and for good reason too. Heavy mineral sands are referred to as a class of ore deposits yielding minerals such as zirconium, titanium, thorium, and tungsten; not to mention diamonds and other gems. Precious metals may also be harvested and, with alluvial gold being not uncommon in the Highveld to the south, perhaps this is their ugly objective. Clearly, if prospectors have diamonds in mind, we know exactly in which direction this is going, and even which filthy politicians will fill their pockets.

This is the dire reality for conservationists; the underhand world of patronage politics is hard at play and usually gets its way with impunity. The indigenous venture which is at the core of this intended exploration is a company whose principals are apparently well connected in political circles and who, some reports suggest, have made much out of recent ignoble initiatives to indigenous mining in Zimbabwe. The influence of the party faithful in these matters should give all a cause for concern.

The Zambezi River – a fragile ecosystem about to be pillaged – Photograph by Andrew Field – Simply Wild Photography

Exploiting HMSD is usually in the form of ruinous strip mining and probably the most destructive method of excavation in conservation terms. Mining these resources will result in the two river lines being ripped up, down to bedrock basically, and heavy, noisy machinery and processing lines moving down each riverbed with its commensurate destruction of the flora and fauna in its path, not to mention the toxic filth of such process. Progressive miners may attempt to rehabilitate the ecosystem they usually destroy with ecologically similar species, but Zimbabwe’s nouveau indigenous miners have no good track record of this, or of pouring funds back into the local community.

Even more concerning is the fact that the Ministry of Mines has actually issued prospecting and exploration licences to a private concern to conduct business in a national park or, worse, a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, apparently without environmental impact assessment. What were they thinking? The area was set aside for the benefit of all Zimbabweans, and the world alike, to conserve the unique flora and fauna; and this purposefully excludes any human habitation or industry. Do you smell a rat yet?

Mana Pools is not without its recent controversy, involving a seemingly dodgy or at least an opaque deal, perhaps involving foreigners, politicians and those in trust or authority, along the way. More recently, construction commenced on a 24-bed Mana Pools Safari Lodge in an area that is considered environmentally delicate; despite strong objections and protestation by conservationists who know their business. Developers seem to have hung their success on a pithy, sometimes incorrect, ill-informed, and far from in-depth environmental assessment study. Clearly that rat is quite rotten.

The problem seems to be that those who protest the most about these invasions are seen or perceived as minority beneficiaries of what is about to be destroyed by those who now hold those positions of trust and authority. The current flush of bureaucrats brook no advice from experts that know and care, there is money to be made. That was the ethos of the ill fated land saga and now the business indigenisation process too.

The real trouble here is that the majority of Zimbabweans derive no tangible benefit from these fragile places, such as Mana Pools National Park, and, frankly, many may not care about their fate. Protest some may, but the cogs of contemporary politics and influence are not well attuned to what is good for all, but rather to that which is in it for them. That is why 30 tonne rigs are traversing Mana Pools’ delicate ecosystem with building supplies. That is why Timbuktu’s cultural heritage sites have been destroyed. Do the people care? Yes, the rat is dead and smelling bad.

The question is, do Zimbabweans really want to see their natural heritage being pillaged and plundered by the connected elite, the chefs? Do they much really care? If anything these remote havens of the real Africa are not within the reach of the people and herein lays the Achilles Heel of any eco-protest. It all seems a too little, too late. Much needs to be done to convince the ordinary person that his natural heritage is perilously at stake, because when all is done and dusted, river lines have been destroyed, and eco-systems have collapsed, it will be futile to say “I told you so”.

You can help… there is a petition to be signed and you could join a social media group in support of this campaign.

Visit Andrew’s Simply Wild Photography photo blog… you will not regret doing so!