African Hunting Dogs near Selous Impala Camp June 2009

I visited the Adventure Camps properties in early June this year. I do this every year, as I do marketing for Adventure Camps, giving out information and rates. This year was going to turn out to be a particularly eventful trip!

Cesare and Anna Giacomelli  Boniface Ernest

Cesare and Anna and Boni

I began at Mbweni Ruins Hotel, where it was pleasant to see so many friendly faces, including the Managers Cesare and Anna Giacomelli, who have returned after a year on Mafia Island.
Assistant Manager Boni was looking as well as ever too, having been recently married! It was great to see the many improvements that had been wrought in the rainy season – Anna working her usual miracle refurbishing all the rooms. The jetty had been completely overhauled and is now much in use for sunbathing, dhow trips and even for sunset dinners. Cesare is planning to set up a banda at the end of the jetty for aromatherapy treatments and facials and henna painting.

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The Gardens near the Runs Mbweni pool and beach

The Mbweni Gardens - and the pool by the beach

The gardens continue to grow – about 6 feet a year I should think!

The local fishermen who have been present at Mbweni from before the hotel was opened, are still taking their ngalawas out every day and bringing in excellent catches (which are immediately bought by the hotel kitchen and also the staff). The fishermen volunteered to convert a fishing dhow with shades and benches so that it is suitable for dhow trips to the islands, sandbanks and Stone Town and they now operate this as a successful business – it is much in demand, as are the two hotel kayaks used for trips through the nearby mangrove glades.

The Bustani Spa is thriving – set in a converted part of the ruins - it offers a calm and peaceful centre of relaxation and therapy.

Barbara Ripamonti  Matteo Cantini

Selous Impala Managers, Matteo and Barbara

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I flew from Zanzibar on Coastal Aviation via Dar and landed at Mtemere Airstrip in Selous. There I was met by a 4WD landrover from Selous Impala camp and taken on a game drive, passing by a leopard kill that had been spotted earlier. There was no sign of the leopard, and the impala it had killed lay in the shade of a Jackal Berry tree, untouched. We decided to visit again later in the cool of evening and drove on to camp, arriving in time for lunch in the cool lodge. There is a new manager this year – Matteo Cantini - and he is assisted by Barbara Ripamonti, who was at the camp last season helping Chloe, who has now moved on to manage Selous Safari Camp. They make a great team and are full of enthusiasm and energy.

Tessa having breakfast

Tessa, the wife of the owner of the camp, was there to greet me in her usual friendly and lovable fashion. She showed me some of the new decorations and innovations she had been working on with Matteo.

Selous Impala Pool  Elephant below the lodge

The Selous Impala Pool overlooking the Rufiji, and an elephant just below the lodge

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I was pleased to see that all sorts of changes had taken place during the annual April-May closure of the camp. A new sitting area and palisade are set beside the swimming pool, looking out over the river. The river bank is slowly eroding away in front of the lodge and by next year we will need to move it back, but for now the view is spectacular from the dining and lounge areas, which more often than not overlook an elephant crossing or a friendly hippo sporting in the water below, while white-fronted bee-eaters flit back and forth to their nests in the banks under the lodge.

Selous Impala tent interior
Selous Leopard 2007
Selous Impala tent interior
Selous Leopard looking down at lion on his kill
photo taken in 2007 by Pietro Luraschi

After a rest in my tent, cooled by the electric floor fan and a lengthy session in the power shower, I went to the lodge for tea. Tessa and I then headed out to the leopard kill at about 5pm, where we found Matteo holding guard – he signalled that he had seen nothing as he drove away. Our driver angled gently round the kill and there on the other side was the leopard! He was a beautiful large specimen, and he wandered over to the kill to start his meal. Looking in our archives later I found a photo by former manager Pietro Luraschi, of the same leopard in a Jackal Berry tree, perched above a lion which had stolen and was devouring his impala kill – this was in September 2007! History had repeated itself. We decided he had been disturbed enough, and drove back to camp for a sundowner and delicious dinner under the stars.

Wild Dogs feeding, Selous Brown Snake Eagle above feeding dogs

Brown Snake Eagle holds sentinel above the feeding dogs

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Next day, Matteo came running up as we sat at breakfast and with a big grin on his face said – “you know the impala the leopard killed yesterday? Well today there is no leopard there – but four wild dogs! We set out at once – the African Hunting Dog is very rare; there are more of them in the Selous than anywhere else on the continent. Even so, one is very lucky to see them.

The kill was only a few hundred yards from the camp, and we were there in five minutes. Sure enough, four heads with beautiful large rounded ears turned inquisitively towards us as we came near. We parked at a careful distance, and settled down to observe the dogs on the kill. These animals are very sociable, working together as a team. Four is a very small group, and we were delighted to see that one of the females was heavily pregnant. Our guide told us he thought she would give birth within a few weeks. Usually at that time, known as “denning”, the pack hide themselves away and its difficult to find them as they bring up the pups in peace.

A Brown Snake Eagle sat on a dead tree nearby, waiting for its turn, and a Bateleur wheeled overhead. Later Palm-nut Vultures turned up too – one wondered how they had discovered the kill so quickly. There was already very little food remaining, the hungry dogs all had very fat stomachs.

African Hunting Dogs, Selous

"Had a nice drive, fellas?"

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After a while the pregnant Alpha female stood up and headed purposefully in a southerly direction. We followed at a distance but soon lost her. Wheeling back towards the kill we spotted two males heading westwards and discreetly gave chase. Soon we lost them too and headed back to the centre of activity only to spot a fourth dog heading north. By the time she had led us a merry chase and disappeared into thin air, we realised we were being cleverly led up the garden path. This was confirmed when we returned to the impala kill to find all four dogs sitting in the shade smirking at us as if to say “had a nice drive fellas?”

Impala pack alpha female

Impala pack alpha female

The pregnant Alpha female of the Selous Impala Pack

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Soon the dogs trotted away to a nearby pool where we watched them cool off, sitting waist high in the water and touching noses with each other amicably. We left them to their own devices and returned to camp.

Champagne Sundowner  Guests arrive

Guests enjoy sundowners  Selous sunset

Sundowners on the banks of the Rufiji - guests arrive by boat

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Later I drove with Matteo to a nearby viewpoint on the banks of the Rufiji, as the evening drew close. Two boatloads of guests had gone out upriver earlier and while we waited for them to return, we set up tables with cloths, chairs, ice-buckets and champagne glasses. The guests arrived and clambered up to join us. We sipped champagne as hippos snorted in the river below and the sun turned into a red ball over the massive river.

 Young male lion, Selous  Mother and son Greater Kudu

I was sorry to leave Selous Impala next day, but as we drove past the pool we had one more glimpse of our wild dogs enjoying a dip. About half way to Lake Manze camp – normally about 1 hour drive if you don’t stop to view game – we saw a pride of lions. There were several grown lionesses and some young lions – but no older male lions. They were lying in the shade panting in the midday heat. A little further on we spotted a mother Greater Kudu with her young son, nibbling the tender new shoots of vegetation.

Richard Jones  Manze Wild Dogs kill in camp

Richard Jones, new manager of Manze camp - and the wild dog kill in camp early morning June 09

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When we arrived at Lake Manze camp, Richard Jones, the new manager was there to greet us. Paolo and Daja, who did a great job managing Manze last two years, were assisted by Richard in 2008, so he has extensive experience of the camp as well as being an excellent birder and knowledgeable guide trainer in bush lore. He was eager to tell me about a pack of four wild dogs present in the area; two of them had killed right in camp earlier that same day, just as guests were preparing to go on a walking safari. The alpha female had recently given birth to puppies and as it was not far from camp, the Manze guides had spotted the den. Richard was worried about their safety and he and Malcolm Ryen (the Adventure Camps Chief Ecologist) had already been out putting large pieces of driftwood around the site, as it was in a karongo (old watercourse, with banks that have a tendency to collapse). They had heard that some visitors to the Reserve had been getting too close to the dogs in an effort to view the puppies. Malcolm posted a request to all the camps in Selous to be careful about viewing, not staying too long or going too close, and this has been respected by them, if not by some of the self-drive vehicles that have visited recently, who many not have been aware of the dangers to the den, and the need to keep these endangered animals protected.
I was delighted to hear that there were two new packs – one near Impala with a pregnant alpha female – and another near Manze who had puppies. This will help to increase the population of Wild Dogs and ensure their survival in the Selous.

guest for lunch

"Rafiki" turns up for lunch - photo by Sepp Friedhuber

We sat in the cool thatched lodge and enjoyed a pre-lunch drink, as a friendly elephant wandered by. He has been nicknamed “Rafiki” (friend) as he is around a lot and has never been aggressive. However, the 10 Maasai askaris are always present keeping a wary eye and gently chasing off any animals that come too near to the guests.

Manze tent interior  Manze tent bathroom

Lake Manze Camp tent interior, and dressing room with shower and loo behind

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After lunch I relaxed in my tent overlooking the beautiful lake. It was comfortably furnished, in a simpler way than Impala camp, and with no electricity – this is a conscious decision of the camp builders, as the candles and oil lamps used at night give a special ambience. The bathroom is behind the bedroom area, with a dressing area with hand-basin, and behind this the space is divided into a toilet on one side (with proper flush WC) and a shower on the other – the open roof means one can shower under the sun or stars, a delightful bush experience!

Manze wild dogs  The karongo

The three sentinel dogs of the "Manze" pack, keeping guard near the karongo where the puppies lay hidden

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After tea Richard asked if I’d like to come out and see the Wild Dog den area, as he wanted to put more protective wood around it. I accepted with delight and we drove off with four of the guides to help. After a half hour drive we came to the den, close to Lake Nzerakela, and were happy to see three of the dogs sitting in the shade of a tree near a large karongo. The mother dog turned up soon after, on the other side of the dip – she was wet and muddy, and had obviously just been for a dip in the lake.

Moving driftwood Manze alpha female

Richard and guides move driftwood around the den, while the dogs look on. The alpha female then goes down to check on the puppies

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We cautiously laid some more wood around the den, and were pleased to see that the dogs did not appear to feel threatened by our presence, as long as we stayed far enough away. After this, first the alpha male, then the alpha female went down into the karongo to check on the puppies, hidden underground. We had not seen them but we had no intention of venturing nearer. We left them in peace and drove away.

A few weeks later, Roger Burrows and Jan Corlett (he is an expert on Wild Dogs - see his articles at: http://www.africanwilddogwatch.org/ visited Manze and were lucky enough to see and to film the puppies.

click here to see a short film taken by Jan Corlett of 8-10 week old Wild Dog puppies playing, at their den near Lake Manze Camp (2.4mb download)

click here to see a short film taken by Jan Corlett of the Wild Dog puppies feeding (4.3mb download)


Africa in 2007 (lhs) and in 2009 (rhs)

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I later spoke to Micol Farina, the manager of the fourth Adventure Camps property – Mdonya Old River camp in Ruaha. She was previously running Selous Impala camp and being a biologist, had made extensive notes about the Wild Dog population there. I sent her the photos I had taken of the “Impala Pack” and she was delighted to see that one of the females – the helper, was clearly from a big pack she knew of from 2006 and 2007 – because of her markings she has been named “Africa”. The alpha females of both the Impala and the Manze pack of 4, also appear to be from this group and it seems they may be sisters!

Mdonya Old River camp  Mdonya Old River tent interior

Mdonya Old River Dining  Mdonya Old River camp

Mdonya Old River camp in the Ruaha National Park

I did not manage to reach Ruaha this time, but Micol informed me that the camp is in good shape, all refurbished for the new season which has just started. So far there are no signs of Wild Dogs there, but she will be keeping a close watch for them! They have not been seen there since about 2006.

I caught the Coastal scheduled flight from Siwandu airstrip and flew back to Dar, sad to say goodbye to this fantastic experience.

Flo Montgomery
June 2009


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