Monday, September 17, 2012

A Wild Dog's Tale

A Wild Dogs Tale

Last year the NHFU embarked on a new project - filming a lone wild dog in Mombo (a Wilderness Safari concession at the Northern tip of Chief’s Island). It is a story of how an area that used to hold the greatest packs of dogs recorded in the wild now has but a single individual dog. Nobody is entirely certain as to how she came to be alone and what happened to her pack, but the general consensus is that the large pack gradually split into smaller units, which moved further south. This dog (a female) was seen on a number of occasions over a few months with 2 other dogs, and eventually she was only seen alone. The assumption is that lions killed her 2 companions, leaving her the sole surviving dog. At this stage she has been living alone for over 3 years and she doesn’t seem to be suffering any obvious ill effects of her isolation as she appears to be in good condition. 

We are intrigued as to how she is managing to survive and indeed thrive in one of the most lion dense areas in Botswana. By all accounts, wild dogs do not fare well on their own. Her success may be due to the unusual relationship she develops with families of jackals. We don’t understand completely how this assists her in surviving, apart from the obvious mechanism of providing more eyes and ears to alert her to danger. It does seem that this relationship with the jackals fulfills a vital social role though. She has also found herself a place within the pecking order of a clan of hyenas. She relates to one hyena in particular and this individual will often accompany her on hunts and they spend considerable time in close proximity to each other. She shows an inordinate tolerance for hyenas in most circumstances, apart from when there are jackals pups around.

It is perhaps a testament to her character that she has survived so long, as she does seem to be a particularly feisty individual. Brad has observed her chase a leopard away from her jackal friends and once saw her make a bold run at a lioness, until she realized that that sort of behaviour has zero survival value and she fled in the opposite direction.

Dogs are notoriously difficult to follow and film and the project has had its challenges, but it has certainly been interesting. National Geographic Channel is in the final stages of post-production and the film should be released at the end of the year.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

60 Minutes USA

And then 60 Minutes USA arrived, with our new hero, Anderson Cooper. They came from 3 different countries (USA, Britain and South Africa) with more gear than we have ever seen before and proceeded to take over the camp. 
Both the 60 Minutes crews (Australia and USA), being news crews, are comprised of strong people who usually work in extremely challenging conditions and have seen some stuff during their careers.  Each and every one has fascinating stories to tell. We were enthralled and appalled in equal measure by some of the things we heard and I feel I can safely say that we were all in awe of what they have done. It amazes me that they, correspondents and crew, are not more cynical considering the things they have been through. 

As with 60 Minutes Australia they came to find out more about how diving with wild Nile crocodiles has increased our understanding and appreciation for these animals, and how this has contributed, and is contributing, to the study and conservation of crocodiles. This year we are continuing our work with Dr Adam Britton into genetic variation in the Nile Crocodile populations and the implications for conservation throughout the Okavango River Basin. Beyond the machismo of crocodile diving there is a very real benefit and people are starting to see this. But more about this later.

Anderson showed us he had been born without a fear particle when he most casually confronted more than one too warm crocodile head on in less than fabulous visibility. After a tough first day we managed to have a number of good encounters and we believe that when he left he was beginning to view crocodiles as we do - beautiful, awe-inspiring and impressive. They are the apex predator in a finely tuned system that would collapse without them and, as with sharks, have received bad PR over the years. This is understandable to an extent as rural people and crocodiles will always be in conflict, however as we learn more about them we hope to be able to minimise this conflict where we can.  

Saturday, July 7, 2012

NHK Japan

After 60 Minutes Australia we hosted NHK from Japan who came to do some interviews with Brad to promote the Earth-Touch “Diving with Crocodiles” and "Underwater Okavango" programmes which are about to be aired in Japan. Their focus was primarily Brad’s long family history in the delta and his grandfather’s history of crocodile hunting. The crew of 3 arrived with broad smiles (which they kept for the entire shoot) and only 1 request: that any people filmed on boats had to be wearing life jackets! With much hilarity and a fair bit of sniggering Brad duly donned his. There was some debate as to whether he should wear his life jacket over his wetsuit (just before he plunged into the croc infested waters) but after some consideration Hisako relented and ruled that only people without wetsuits on boats need wear life jackets.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Croc diving season 2012

Croc diving season 2012 started on a high note with some fabulously cooperative and camera happy crocodiles all performing well for the wonderful Liz Hayes and crew from 60 Minutes Australia. Much to our surprise (and theirs) we managed to tick every item off their rather extensive wish list - including a scientific first - without any fuss and they left with happy memories, big smiles and a good show in the bag.

Here is the link:

Once again we are here with Dr Adam Britton and we have managed to show that it is possible to get a genetic sample from a crocodile in its natural habitat without causing it any pain or angst, or in fact without it even noticing.
Adam arrived with the desire, and the tools, to cut a tiny portion off the top of a tail scute of a wild croc underwater. We all knew that in theory it could work and were thrilled when he succeeded on his first attempt with a very obliging 2-metre specimen and all cameras rolling. We, and the crew, were even more thrilled when on his second attempt he succeeded in cutting a tiny portion off the tail scute off an enormous 4 metre plus male crocodile. It really is that easy to obtain vital genetic information on crocodiles without putting them through the trauma of capture and manhandling on the boat. So the plan is to keep going to ultimately build up a database of information that will give us valuable information about the genetic variation in these crocodiles.
This year (with 5 shoots in 6 weeks) we have wised up to the amount of work involved and have Richard Uren in tow - mainly so that Brad and I can do all the glamorous bits in front of camera and he can do the hard slog behind the scenes – which is proving to be an excellent decision.
So far Richard seems to be enjoying it despite being dive guide, dive assistant, cameraman, camera assistant and occasional kiddies toy all in one. He proved that he has the temperament for the job when on his first orientation dive in the Nxamaseri channel he and Brad totally unexpectedly encountered an itinerant 4 metre croc head on at the bottom of a deep dark hole. In 10 years of diving Brad and I have never seen a large croc in the channel and Richard demonstrated much presence of mind considering this was possibly the last thing he expected to see on this dive.
Trying to get warm before diving on the coldest day of the year.

Being glamorous for camera

Dr Britton ready for action

Richard being guinea pig in the comms masks

Richard having survived the experience

Team 60 Mins Australia

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

At Abu

Earlier in 2011 Brad and I paid a whirlwind trip to Abu Camp, now run by Wilderness Safaris. The camp had just been revamped and was looking extremely fabulous. The last time I had been there was 8 years ago when I was pregnant (unknown to me) with Rio, so I was really looking forward to going back.

It was a working trip and very short, so we didn’t have much time to play or get the kids used to being around the eles as much as we would have liked to. Since our visit Wilderness Safaris (who have taken over the management of the camp) have done away with the usual protocol of chaining the elephants when in the boma. The transition has apparently gone very smoothly, putting many people’s minds at ease. There has also been another baby born to the herd since we were there. Definitely time to go back.

Monday, January 23, 2012

More crocodile stories

Brad with Amos

Also during croc season 2011 we had the privilege of guiding well-known Big Animal photographer Amos Nachoum and his rather colourful set of clients, amongst whom was John Abramo. He provided us with the most hysterically funny moment we have yet had underwater. This clip speaks for itself.

I suppose to the layman it is more terrifying than entertaining, and there is no doubt that John was terrified for a fleeting few moments, but this incident is made funny by the personalities involved and the build up to it. It happened towards the end of a long and entertaining week where John had consistently been the only diver who wasn’t jostling to get the close up picture. He was usually to happy to take a back seat, even on some occasions sitting out a dive or only getting in the water once the others had had their shot at it. He was content to sit on the boat and photograph birds rather than enter the fray.

On this day John was in the B team i.e waiting for the A-type A teamers to finish doing their thing. They had a great dive and were happy enough with the results to let the B team go ahead eventually. Once in the water the team had a fabulous few minutes with the crocodile before she decided to leave. As it happens, John was directly in her path.

To his credit he kept his camera firing until he could press the shutter no more (due to being completely squashed), and the results are spectacular. He is now the proud owner of truly astonishing pictures of crocodile belly scales and returned home with the closest of close-ups.

Needless to say the mirth on the boat continued for hours afterwards.

I must add that 99% of croc dives proceed without event. In fact this incident and the one mentioned in a previous post entitled “Swimming with Crocodiles” are the only ones we have ever had.

Another one of Amos’ clients was Daniel Botelho, a truly brilliant and inspirational photographer and general all round nice guy. (In fact the nicest guy - who also happens to have the nicest father - and I do realize that is a hell of a statement to make). Some of his pics from the trip are on his website

Amos, Brad and Daniel The Magnificent

Here is a link to some footage Brad took of Daniel face to face with a crocodile: