For more than two decades, Wilderness Safaris has devoted its conservation tourism model to the people and wildlife of Zimbabwe – that land between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers, of savannah mosaic, of roaring torrents and warm people.
In the north-east of the country, the Zambezi Valley is truly mystical, and its grandiose baobab trees have mesmerized safari goers and traders on its historic gold trail since the 15th century.
Some say that the gods planted the baobab tree upside down, as its branches resembles its roots. Baobabs are magnificent, easily recognizable and have many uses, including medicinal. It acts as a landmark for orientation, the bark of the baobab is used for making carpets, while the fruits are edible and are used to make a local brew.
In this ancient valley, remnants of pots and flints are still to be found, telling tales of long-gone African villages – mud structures dissolved to soil, the wood eaten by ants; however, the baobabs remain steadfast. These trees have something profoundly magical and spiritual about them, especially given they can grow for a thousand years, surviving all kinds of conditions, including drought.
Situated on the eastern boundary of Mana Pools National Park, Chikwenya is a photographer’s paradise as it looks out over an open floodplain and the broad Zambezi River, with a backdrop provided by the mountains of the Rift Valley escarpment.
“Mesmerizing” is just one of the superlatives heaped on this place, where shafts of dappled sunlight stream through a canopy of giant trees, and imposing elephant, eland, and buffalo walk quietly while the wind whispers through the trees.
There is one specific baobab tree on the banks of the Sapi River, just a short distance from its confluence with the mighty Zambezi River. This tree played an important role in the lives of the locals. The tree had many functions over time, from providing refuge from marauding warriors to grain storage silos, as well as sleeping quarters for children. Bolts were placed within a hollow baobab in order for the lookout to climb up to the top of the tree. The sentry could see far and wide and warn others when raiders were spotted. Doors were carved as entry points, which would be closed so well that without careful observation, the entry point was undiscernible, protecting all life inside the big tree.
Another fascinating use for the valley’s baobab trees was the burial of chieftains. These burials were accompanied by rituals of singing, dancing, drumming and feasting. In 1940 a female chief, Chikwenya, was buried in one of these baobabs. Some of her regalia was also buried in the hollow, and this treasure included spears, bows, arrows, skins and clay pots. Chief Chikwenya’s brother was buried just off Chikwenya Island, right across from the present-day site of Chikwenya Camp.
Local folklore has it that on some occasions the grave could be seen from outside; however, if the spirits were not happy about the intentions of the visitor, it would be covered in a mist, hiding it from the naked eye. Today we find solace in knowing that deep inside that massive tree lies Chief Chikwenya, our joint custodian of this historic place.
Although it is an ancient tree, it is still very much alive. There was once a gaping hole in the side of the tree. The ancestors took their local brew to the grave in order to appease the spirits, and over the years the hole gradually closed.
Elephants love the bark of the baobab, and occasionally pull at it, and peel it off. Chief Chikwenya’s tree has been spared by the elephants for more mystical reasons. Not only is it guarded by the spirits, rumor has it that black mambas also keep guard over the tree. Baobabs are naturally now considered important as mausoleums in the Zambezi Valley.
In partnership with Capmount Lodges, Wilderness Safaris returned to this remote concession bordering Zimbabwe’s world-famous Mana Pools National Park in October 2018. This impressively diverse concession must surely rank as one of the most beautiful places in all of Africa.
By Eddie Mudzimu
From a land where we are all deeply connected to the earth’s natural beauty – and in a time when the world is longing to emerge from a devastating pandemic – comes a uniquely Zimbabwean expression of pure spirit and joy!
The Hide Safari Camp in Hwange shows off not only a few surprising dance moves but the strength and resilience of all Zimbabweans, in this happily infectious video. Tinashe Makura’s wonderfully elevating song, “Roar Zim”, inspired us to stand up proudly in the wilds of Hwange – and we invite you all to “Simukai! Stand up and sing! Let your voice be heard today.”
Roar, Zimbabwe, roar!”
As we come to the end of what has been a bumper rainy season for most of our concessions in southern Africa, we are pained by the fact that so few people have had the privilege of sharing this season of abundance with us. I know it’s a small consolation, but you can follow this link to see a few photo albums to give you a taste of what it has been like out there over the last couple of months.
From a travel perspective, the impressive speed and scale of vaccine roll-outs, in the US and UK in particular, are reviving our hopes of welcoming guests to our camps in the coming high season – and with the excellent rains behind us, the bush should be looking more spectacular than ever.
In terms of our Impact focus, we are still supporting our Conservation Heroes through the ongoing distribution of food hampers to needy families in our communities. It’s hard to believe that we’ve been running this support for a year already, but the numbers show just how important these efforts have been.
On a more exciting note, I’m proud to tell you a bit about our latest project in Rwanda, centered around the expansion and reforestation of Gishwati-Mukura National Park in the west of the country. Home to an isolated group of about 35 chimpanzees, Gishwati Forest has lost 98% of its area since the 1970s, resulting in severe environmental degradation, including landslides, erosion, loss of biodiversity, flooding and silted rivers, causing a loss of livelihood in local and downstream communities.
In 2019, Wilderness Safaris purchased 10 hectares of land on the border of the national park, which, in time, will be donated to the park. With our partners Forest of Hope Association and the Rwanda Development Board, we founded a nursery that has already propagated 10 000 saplings. All the trees in the nursery are found naturally in Gishwati Forest and, with some 9 679 already planted, will quickly contribute to the restoration of habitat for the birds and wildlife, including the eastern chimpanzee and Endangered golden monkey.
Working with local trackers, we have also initiated a monitoring and habituation program for the resident chimpanzee population. Not only will this help us to understand and protect these animals, but, in time, we aim to develop a chimpanzee-based tourism offering in Gishwati. Through our proven conservation tourism model, we believe that this precious forest and its wildlife can be protected and expanded, and deliver tangible benefits to the people of the region.
If you’d like to join us in this exciting initiative through helping acquire more land for the park, or assisting the reforestation efforts, please feel free to get in touch with us for more information.
By Dr Neil Midlane, Wilderness Safaris Group Impact Manager
The joy of a photographic library as large as we now have at Angama is that you can easily look back over the weeks, months and years. Memories get triggered, stories unfold and sometimes predictions can be made. Read more about last week at Angama and the new Map Room coming soon to this, already, amazing African Safari destination.
After a 2-week break, away from the Maasai Mara, it is wonderful to be back. There is something soothing, reassuring and altogether special in the knowledge that regardless of how mad things may be in the world, life in the Mara maintains her beautiful rhythm.
From the minute I got back into camp I was desperate to get out into the park. I could see from the South Camp deck that there were a number of fires across sections of the Mara Triangle.
This year, we have already received half of the average annual rainfall, and so it has been too wet for park management to arrange significant controlled fires. However, from a rainfall perspective, this year pales in comparison to last year. Can you believe that it has been a year since the monumental floods hit this area? I will never forget watching the Mara River burst its banks, as roads turned into streams.
It was also this week a year ago that the Bila-Shaka Males (aka Six Pack) arrived in the Triangle. They had crossed the river near Main Crossing and had killed a hippo. We could not believe it when we came across these new males. We spent much of the lockdown period watching as they took over numerous Triangle prides, establishing themselves as the dominant force in the area.
Over the last year, these males have managed to conquer huge tracts of land, seemingly avoiding large-scale confrontations with other males. They started with the Paradise Pride and then moved northwards taking over the Mugoro Pride, the River Pride and lastly, the Angama Pride. And that is just on this side of the river. Who knows how many ladies they entertain on the Greater Reserve side? Perhaps one of our readers can let us know.
On my first drive back and the one year anniversary of these males in the Triangle, I managed to find them again, this time mating with the solitary Swamp Pride lioness. In one year they had taken over 5 prides! Incredible.
The following morning, I returned to the same area along the river to find 4 of the Bila-Shaka males, feasting on a recently killed large buffalo bull. In my opinion, they are the most fearsome coalition in the Mara at the moment, and I savor every second I get to spend with them.
Down south along the Tanzanian border we have the Inselberg males. Dare I say a show-down between these two groupings would be the most epic battle ever. They continue to avoid each other for now…
Whilst driving around looking for lions I promise I do look for other things. Regularly, I will stop the car and sit patiently at areas that I know are productive from a bird point of view. The following 4 bird photographs were taken over the space of about 15 minutes from the exact same position.
Here at Angama we are big supporters of the Mara Raptor Project and I can’t help but take photos of noticeable birds of prey. The most glorious of course is the martial eagle. This particular individual is a male from the Inselberg pair. He has a tiny remote transmitter on his back that allows the Mara Raptor Project to track and analyze his movements.
There really are few landscapes more beautiful than the Mara Triangle. The characteristic flat-topped Balanite trees, the backdrop of the Oloololo escarpment, the vast sky and sea of pristine grass. Even without animals it is magnificent.
As the 21st century progresses, our fight to protect our planet is becoming increasingly urgent. Last year, wildfires blazing in the Arctic Circle set new emissions records, the Atlantic hurricane season raged stronger than ever before, and we came to the end of the hottest decade ever recorded.
From your elegant, elevated ‘nest’ at Uganda’s safari destination Bisate Lodge, as the magical mists lift, gaze out on two extinct volcanoes, Bisoke and Karisimbi. Where legendary primatologist Dian Fossey ran her research station, Karisoke, in the saddle between them, honoring both their names. Where she nearly single-handedly helped save the mountain gorilla from extinction. Where today you can hike through the rainforest, up to nearly 3 000 metres, to visit Karisoke’s haunting ruins and Fossey’s grave, next to her beloved gorilla, Digit. Where the gorillas, now numbering more than 1 000 throughout the Virunga massif, await you – your allocated family, who for one precious hour will deliver one of the most astonishing encounters of your life.
Rwanda has become one of the most thrilling safari destinations on the continent, and Bisate – on the edge of Volcanoes National Park in the country’s north-west – is arguably its crown jewel. Opened in 2017, it already has 29 awards under its belt, and continues to inspire superlatives.
Bisate Lodge’s gorilla trekking is just one adventure here to be combined with a community visit and golden monkey trekking
Gorilla trekking is the star attraction, but Bisate offers a host of other adventures, some in the park and others on lodge property. Such as golden monkey trekking; birding; the Dian Fossey hike; scaling Mount Bisoke; exploring the nature trails around the lodge and the impressive reforestation project; or a visit to the Guardians of Gorillas village nearby, run by former poachers-turned-conservationists.
Or, at the very heart of Bisate’s being, a visit to the local community, a group of villages collectively called ‘Bisate village’, whose people and the lodge have a symbiotic relationship. Many of them helped build Bisate, work there today, and have a significant role in its future. When you hear the sounds of village life rising from below, chances are you’ll feel welcome, integrated, and definitely in Africa.
We spoke with Ingrid Baas, Wilderness Safaris Rwanda Operations Manager, and Ally Bauer and Jason Glanville, Bisate Lodge Managers, about why Bisate deserves all of its awards, and more:
What makes Bisate special? What are the activities/services offered and the highlights of a stay there, the aspects that guests really seem to love? Do most guests come to see the mountain gorillas, or are their interests more diversified?
(Ingrid) First of all, the breathtaking view! Bisate itself is situated within the amphitheatre of an eroded volcanic cone, the elevated main area and rooms gazing directly onto the slopes of 3 711-metre high Mount Bisoke. Next to it – often shrouded in cloud – is Karisimbi, at 4 507 metres the highest volcano in the range. Beyond, in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, sits the rugged peak of Mikeno. Climbing above the lodge to the hilltop plateau gives 360-degree views of the entire Musanze District, and looking eastwards views of the other three volcanoes in Volcanoes National Park (VNP) – Sabinyo, Gahinga, and Muhabura.
Secondly, Bisate’s sophisticated architectural and interior design, rooted in Rwandan building tradition as exemplified in the design of the Royal Palace of the traditional monarch at Nyanza. (I’ll say more about the lodge’s design in a minute.)
Thirdly, the reforestation project that has seen more than 50 000 indigenous trees planted from saplings grown in the on-site nursery. Guests are able to visit the nursery and spend time with the Bisate agronomists to learn about the reforestation project and the various species of trees. Guests will also be gifted a sapling during their stay, which they will have the opportunity to plant, with the help of our nursery team. They will also receive a tree-planting certificate with the GPS co-ordinates of their tree. As a result of the reforestation, many different wildlife species have returned and are now resident on the property; these include golden monkey, tree hyrax, serval, side-striped jackal, Egyptian mongoose, and numerous bird and butterfly species. Guests staying at Bisate will truly feel that they are immersed in the forest, with a tree canopy full of birdsong embracing them.
What recommends Bisate further are the activities on offer – diverse, bucket-list experiences. Firstly, of course, gorilla trekking in the VNP, one of the most special wildlife encounters one can possible have. But also golden monkey trekking, community visits, stunning nature trails, trekking to Dian Fossey’s former research station, and climbing Bisoke volcano.
Last but definitely not least, as I should probably have started with this, is the remarkable Bisate team. Many of our guests have mentioned that the highlight of their stay is to get to know the staff and experience their heartfelt and genuine service, from shoe cleaning to the delicious food and drink, from the in-room massage treatment to the attentive small gifts in the rooms. A stay at Bisate is made complete by the staff who welcome each guest as part of their family.
Definitely seeing the gorillas is a main reason for guests coming to Bisate. But it’s the whole package – all of the above – that makes Bisate.
(Ally) There are so many things that make Bisate special! We have a genuinely warm, kind, hard-working, and fun team who c
reate a magical atmosphere at the lodge. The design and interiors of the lodge are magnificent, and true reflections of Rwandan style and culture. Bisate is just such a soulful place. Bearing witness to the growth and establishment of a forest is incredible. Most guests come to see the gorillas and golden monkeys, but also find themselves enjoying our nature trail, nursery visits, and tree planting with our agronomists.
(Jason) Bisate is unique; it has such a different feel to other lodges on the continent. One thing that strikes you as you drive into the property is the change of scenery. Passing the community farmlands, you get a good sense of what Bisate used to look like. Once you first glimpse the lodge, you see the vegetation change into what you would expect of a forest. The reforestation of the area is in plain sight. The lodge buildings are striking, yet seem to effortlessly blend into the lush surroundings.
Most of our guests are blown away by the people they meet here, the generous smiles and warmth that greet them. All our staff value the guests and their experience with us.
We have an exceptional nature trail that offers guests the chance to escape the world and take in the views of the national park, either on their own or with one of our nature guides.
One of the most special Bisate experiences: we encourage guests to plant at least one tree while here, such a valuable, lasting way to remember their journey.
What do YOU most love about Bisate?
(Ingrid) Bisate has it all, an amazing team of staff, the conservation of the area through the reforestation and the rehabilitation, a very strong connection with the community and through this some of the best community commitments and projects, plus the unique design and fantastic service. Pure luxury with a strong purpose that all guests love. All employees at Bisate, including myself, are proud to be part of such a special lodge.
(Ally) The beautiful view in all directions, constantly changing as the clouds move by. My favorite is when the clouds form caps over the tops of the volcanoes.
(Jason) I feel the connection between nature and humanity here. Compared to other safari lodges located in more remote parts of Africa, the experience here blends the two in a way that people can grasp and touch. When you look and listen closely, you can feel the presence of nature, but there is always a reminder that we are still part of the community. You pass the children playing in the potato fields and see the cattle grazing nearby, and then out of nowhere a jackal pops out from the side of the road. Our camera traps are such a great way to see what goes on behind the scenes. I think people would be surprised by what animals are around. It emphasizes the importance of conserving the area, and of connecting the community to that mission.
What does the name ‘Bisate’ mean?
(Ingrid) Bisate means ‘pieces’, referring to the pieces of volcanic rock found all around the lodge’s site – an eroded volcano, with part of the crater still visible. The area surrounding Bisate Lodge is called Bisate, including Bisate village.
The volcanic rock is used in many of the design elements of the lodge, such as the pathways, wall cladding, shower tiles, and the fireplace finishes in the villas and main area.
(Jason) One of the first things you see when you arrive here are the volcanoes. They play such an important role for the area and are all connected to one other. Although most of them are dormant or extinct, the area that Bisate is situated on was once a much bigger volcanic cone that erupted many years ago. You can see evidence of this throughout the area. The community uses the rocks for building, and we used them in building our lodge. That’s what the name refers to, all the pieces of rock that were strewn over the area. It’s a great story that reminds us of how this place came to be.
Please talk about the wildlife experience at/around the lodge. The gorilla and golden monkey treks in Volcanoes National Park, as well as other wildlife viewing/sightings potentially available to guests – and any particularly thrilling/interesting wildlife encounters that you, the guides, and guests have had.
(Ingrid) Gorilla trekking is an incredible encounter. One cannot help feeling a connection with the gorillas, such gentle giants. Your allotted hour with the gorillas makes you feel humble and privileged as they allow you to be in their presence and part of the family interaction. With much other game viewing, you might have fantastic sightings, but from a game drive vehicle and therefore disconnected. With the gorillas you are on their level, either standing or sitting down while the gorilla family just minds their own business. The close relationship in our DNA is undeniable when you look at their hands, their facial expressions, or how they interact with each other – for example, holding and caring for a newborn.
The golden monkeys are fun and active. When visiting a group of golden monkeys in the park you will see a big group at the same time. They are beautiful monkeys and very photogenic. It’s difficult to get a picture of them sitting still, as they’re usually jumping and climbing. Through the reforestation efforts at Bisate and the growing forest and bamboo, it is now possible for guests to see golden monkeys at Bisate too. A small group of golden monkeys is regularly sighted around the lodge, but since they’re still a bit shy the best place to see them up close and to take that photograph will be in the park.
Besides the activities in the park, guests can participate in birding and the search for other wildlife on the Bisate property. There are a number of walking trails available; the distances are not very long but the terrain is hilly and scenic, with the hilltops offering magnificent vistas across the area. From certain points on a clear day one can see all six volcanoes in the Virunga massif. There is a wide range of wildflowers, and beautiful forest lobelia, hagenia, hypericum, and dombeya trees. Part of the trail goes through a bamboo forest. At certain points along the trail guests will see our community beehive project, with both traditional and more modern beehives. Besides many birds and butterflies, on the property guests have the chance of seeing chameleon, side-striped jackal and, as mentioned, golden monkey. Serval frequent the property, regularly seen on the lodge’s camera-trap images. The signposted walking trails are available as a self-guided activity, though guests can also be accompanied by a Bisate guide. This is a wonderful opportunity to relax, take in the surroundings, and enjoy the outdoors, and in the cooler, wetter months knowing that your comfortable villa has a cosy fire warming it up for your return.
(Ally) Gorilla trekking inside Volcanoes National Park has to be one of the most personal wildlife experiences a person could have. Trekking through the forest, you are truly immersed in the gorillas’ natural habitat. What the gorillas share with you in your allotted hour with them is nothing short of amazing. It becomes clear that each gorilla has its own unique personality.
Golden monkey trekking inside the park is fun, and generally not strenuous as the monkeys’ preferred food is bamboo – found mostly at the lower altitudes. Because the golden monkeys live in large groups, there’s a lot going on, a lot to see. You find yourself watching a particular monkey doing something entertaining, only to be interrupted by another monkey coming close to your feet to grab a bamboo shoot.
Due to the ongoing reforestation at Bisate, as Ingrid mentions, we have seen the return of many mammal and bird species to the property – each generating great excitement among staff and guests alike.
(Jason) With our reforestation and camera trap projects, there have been some really memorable wildlife encounters. But one that stands out was seeing a tree hyrax for the first time – not a species I expected to see at Bisate. The treks in the park offer an incredible opportunity to get up close to some of Africa’s most iconic mammals. Guests often come back with stories of how they didn’t expect to see the gorillas in such an intimate way. The photographic advantage of being so close and on foot also gives people insight into the daily lives of the gorilla family they’ve been assigned. It truly is a life-changing encounter. Aside from golden monkeys, the other species of animals you may see in the park include buffalo, elephant, and bushbuck.
What are some of the key bird species of Rwanda that guests can expect to see?
(Ingrid) Guests will be able to spot different birdlife from the comfort of the balcony of their villa or while relaxing on the balcony of the dining area. Of course on the lodge’s several nature trails the chance of seeing various birds improves. White-starred robin, variable sunbird, Augur buzzard, yellow-bellied waxbill, and different weavers are common.
(Ally) Rwenzori double-collared sunbird; black-headed waxbill; Augur buzzard; streaky seed-eater; brown-necked parrot.
(Jason) Being a high-altitude and unique biome compared to other Wilderness Safaris locations, this areas boasts some specials to look out for. The endemic species of the Albertine rift that have been spotted on the property include the Rwenzori batis and Rwenzori double-collared sunbird. Another exciting family of birds that frequent the grassland areas here are the waxbills. We have several species to look for, but my favorite are the yellow-bellied waxbills. They resemble the swee waxbill found in southern Africa. We have a few specials that are migratory. One of my favorite birds on the property is the white-starred robin.
How does the Bisate experience complement a visit to Magashi? And how will it integrate with/complement Wilderness Safaris’ upcoming new camp in Gishwati?
(Ingrid) Visits to Bisate Lodge, Magashi, and in future Gishwati, will complement each other perfectly. All three destinations are luxury experiences without being pretentious, with the same eye for detail, intimate atmosphere, and personal service from the attentive staff. Their guests will all be treated to excellent guiding, delicious meals, and beautiful, comfortable rooms. However, the design and overall experience at each camp are totally different, in combination giving our guests all that Rwanda has to offer. From the safari experience (including the chance to see large mammals and predators on game drives and boat cruises) at Magashi, to chimpanzee trekking in a mountain forest at Gishwati, to Bisate Lodge with the gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park, and much more.
(Ally) Already, the combination of Bisate and Magashi offers guests an amazingly diverse experience. Moving from the dramatic, often misty, high altitudes around Volcanoes National Park, east to Akagera National Park, where Magashi is, the landscape changes to rolling hills, savannah, and vast lakes, with warmer temperatures. The wildlife experience gained from visiting both Bisate and Magashi is unbeatable: not only can guests experience the endangered mountain gorillas but also have a totally holistic safari experience. Gishwati will enhance this experience even more. Where else will guests be able to enjoy gorillas, chimpanzees, and all the savannah animals within the borders of one small country? Gishwati is an amazing story of hope, perseverance, and true conservation in action.
(Jason) The experience one gets if visiting both Bisate and Magashi really ties together what Rwanda is all about. The classic safari feel of Magashi, in a warmer climate with incredible savannah wildlife, couldn’t be more different to the montane climate and spectacular mountain gorilla treks within Volcanoes National Park. Bisate offers a chance to get up close and personal with the iconic species on foot. This will also be the case with Gishwati’s chimpanzees in future, though at lower altitudes with a slightly more ‘rainforest feel’. The three destinations offer quite different experiences, thus wonderfully complementing each other for a well-rounded trip to such an ecologically diverse country, particularly for its size.
What’s your favorite time of day in/around the lodge and why?
(Ingrid) The early morning hours are my favorite at Bisate. On a clear morning you get the absolutely stunning views of the volcanoes. On a mysterious, misty morning you feel that you’ve landed in a fairy tale. This is also the best time to spot golden monkeys in the bamboo forest in front of the lodge.
(Ally) When guests return from gorilla trekking. They are usually so happy and excited that everyone wants to talk at the same time, to share their experience. Otherwise, the mornings are my best – it is often crisp and clear. I am also just a ‘morning person’.
(Jason) This really depends on the weather. We can get a lot of rain here at Bisate, expected for this area. One of my favorite moments is when the mist starts rolling in and the ambience of the lodge changes. It’s perfect for sipping on a warm coffee by the fire watching a blanket of mist moving through.
And your favorite season there? Please give us a sense of the difference between the seasons, in terms of landscape, weather, wildlife sightings etc.
(Ingrid) The weather at Bisate is unpredictable, it can change any minute. We often experience all four seasons in one day. You can have beautiful sunny weather then later, the same day, a huge rainstorm. It can be very foggy (as per the book/film Gorillas in the Mist) and sometimes suddenly a strong wind picks up. We even occasionally experience snow and hail. One minute you feel like warming up at one of the fireplaces with a glass of wine and the next minute you might be sitting in the sun on the balcony eating homemade ice cream. Being at an altitude of 2 650 metres, surrounded by volcanoes, makes for interesting weather! The area experiences high rainfall throughout the year, making it lush, green, and fertile. The most rain is likely to fall in March, April, November, and December.
(Ally) We do not really experience typical seasons at Bisate (or in Rwanda) because we are close to the Equator. There is not much change in temperatures or day length throughout the year. The main changes are in rainfall; April certainly sees the most rain. This is wonderful for all the trees that have been planted in the months prior, gearing up reforestation specifically for this time. Outside of this, though, the weather changes fairly constantly throughout each day, so the view is always changing. We have such a nice mix of sunshine, low mist, rainy days, and lovely, moderate temperatures.
What kind of community and conservation work is Wilderness doing/supporting in the area? That Bisate is involved in?
(Ingrid) Every guest will partake in the reforestation initiative, acting as a conservationist and helping to create more habitat for wildlife.
The community work we are involved in is not an easy and short answer. Since Bisate opened in 2017, its relationship with the surrounding Bisate community has grown from strength to strength. None of us would actually know how to run Bisate without the community; I believe that the community can also no longer imagine their daily lives without Bisate Lodge. The people in the community (many helped to build the lodge) feel a connection, a sense of belonging, to Bisate Lodge. They are proud of the lodge. We, lodge and community, have a mutually beneficial relationship nurtured on a daily basis.
For the initial Bisate property (the property was expanded within a year of opening), 172 plots were purchased under the supervision and guidance of the Musanze District Authority, the National Land Centre, and the Tuzamurane Co-operative. A close partnership with the newly constituted 320-member Tuzamurane Co-operative was formed, and has continued to grow ever since.
The Tuzamurane Co-operative was initially mainly involved in the lodge’s development – including the tree nursery, roads, construction and more. When the lodge opened for guests, many employees were recruited from the surrounding community, many of whom were (and are still) members of the Tuzamurane Co-operative.
On a daily basis the co-operative and Bisate Lodge work together, as the co-operative is responsible for supplying much of the lodge’s fresh produce; they also supply handicrafts. Early on the lodge set up a sewing project in their community, while a bee-keeping project was also developed for the co-operative on the Bisate property.
Our guests are part of this relationship and have the opportunity to meet and interact with some of Bisate’s neighbors, learning a little about their way of life in a respectful and authentic manner. Guests can take a guided visit to the nearby community and meet members of the co-operative, including the farmers who cultivate and sell their vegetables to Bisate. This can be organized with one of the Bisate guides; there’s no need to pre-book.
The next important project for the Tuzamurane Co-operative will be the establishment of a large-scale indigenous and agricultural tree nursery. This nursery will provide indigenous saplings to Volcanoes National Park when the park expansion begins, and will also provide agricultural trees as a food source for the community. The first phase of this project has already begun and is sponsored by guests who visit Bisate Lodge.
With many of Bisate’s employees being members of the families who originally owned and farmed the land, there are many stories to share. There is Aloys Nzabonimpa, trainee chef at Bisate, who was born at the top of the Bisate hill; Ezechiel Bangakira, security guard at Bisate, who used to farm his potatoes where the managers’ house is currently located; and Innocent Nshimiyimana, staff chef at Bisate, who was previously the chief of the Tuzamurane Co-operative and was involved in the original land purchase from the start. Innocent was out on his farmland when he met the Wilderness Safaris team investigating the Bisate property as a potential area to develop their new lodge. Together with his friends Jean Moise Habimana (current agronomist at Bisate Lodge) and Emmanuel Sekazuba (current maintenance employee at Bisate Lodge), he showed the Wilderness Safaris team around, and when it was time to start negotiating the land purchase he drove the process for the families in the community.
Bisate engages with the community through a number of projects and eco-friendly operating systems. Over 1 000 families have been supported by in-kind donations from the guests or the lodge, such as solar lights, blankets, shoes, clothing, sport outfits, school supplies for the little ones in the nursery etc.
At the request of the community, a water infrastructure to harvest water inside the park and distribute it to six villages close to the park and to Bisate Lodge was completed at the end of 2019. Some repairs had to be done after recent heavy rainfall and landslides, but these are completed and all water taps in the communities are working well. This project was completed in partnership with The Fossey Fund and the Rwandan Development Board, and now provides clean water to 5 000 people that living in six villages near the lodge. The project was fully funded through generous donations from Bisate Lodge guests.
During the COVID-19 challenges we have funded community-based medical aid for a year for 244 people in the village.
We sponsored a beehive project, with several traditional and several more modern beehives on the Bisate property. The Bisate community harvest the honey. In future we hope to have sufficient honey for the community to sell it to the lodge.
Between the months of April and July 2020, during lockdown and lodge closure resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the families most in need from five villages surrounding Bisate Lodge received food parcel donations:
– April: 157 families consisting of 565 people
– May: 156 families consisting of 620 people
– June: 158 families consisting of 634 people
– July: 166 families consisting of 723 people
Bisate works with Wilderness Safaris’ dedicated non-profit environmental and life skills program, Children in the Wilderness (CITW), through its partnership with Bisate Primary School. Impacting 60 children, the school has two active weekly Eco-Clubs. Bisate Lodge and its guests contribute to CITW Rwanda’s Eco-Clubs and learning-improvement projects. The projects have included providing Internet to the computer learning centre and library; new desks for the schools; school materials; water tanks to harvest the rainwater from the roofs; and handwashing stations to ensure hygiene in the classrooms.
Bisate Lodge has also facilitated scholarships for 80 students from Bisate Secondary School for the duration of their six-year schooling. This sponsorship includes school fees, uniforms, school bags, and supplies. The students are all former Eco-Club students who graduated from Bisate Primary School and have moved on to secondary school. They are part of the first CITW Youth Environmental Stewardship (YES) Club in Rwanda.
In 2019 we organized the very first Conservation Camp in Rwanda. Over four days Eco-Club learners from four schools in the Bisate region learned and shared more about conservation. Although last year due to COVID-19 we could not organize the Conservation Camp, we hope to be able to do this again during the next school year.
(Jason) From the beginning, Bisate has been involved with projects that benefit communities in the surrounding area – key to forming a positive relationship between us. Projects have included donations to the primary and secondary schools in the Bisate community; fixing up the water systems that feed into the community; and providing food donations to the most needy during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also work with several co-operatives in the area on our reforestation project. This is a great partnership that allows us to reforest and conserve the area, but also to help educate community members about the benefits of conservation for long-term, sustainable tourism. We have invited the local schools for tree planting and donated indigenous trees to the children to plant at home and at the school. Our indigenous nursery and bamboo greenhouse have enough supply to donate to several organizations for planting outside of the national park. This will contribute to the park expansion that is ongoing throughout the area.
Tell us about the Olympus photography experience at Bisate.
(Ingrid) Guests staying at Bisate can look forward to using a new camera, the Olympus Tough! TG 5, during their stay at the lodge (we have one camera available per villa).
On arrival guests will be offered the Tough! TG-5 and receive a complimentary SD card. The Tough! TG-5 camera features 4K video and RAW capture, and is the ultimate partner for the most challenging adventures – ideal for exploring Volcanoes National Park and gorilla trekking.
The Olympus Tough! camera is waterproof, shockproof, crushproof, freezeproof, and dustproof, ideal for adventure travel. Being waterproof, it allows you to take pictures in the often challenging rainforest weather. Its robust interior protective structure also means that if you do happen to have a gorilla sit on your camera (unlikely this will happen), you can rest assured that it will still work perfectly! The camera’s ability to deal with low light is also key to taking great images of gorillas and other wildlife in their natural habitat.
Being lightweight and easy to operate, the Tough! is ideal for hiking or to use during a visit to the Bisate community. Chat to your guide, who will be able to assist with tips or guidance – helping you capture that award-winning wildlife shot!
(Ally) These cameras are ideal for trekking because they are water-proof, smash-proof, small, and lightweight, making them easy to carry in a pocket or a backpack. Guests use them for the duration of their stay and before departing, keep the SD card with all their pictures on it. We also have two pairs of Olympus binoculars that guests can use. These are mostly used by guests who have an interest in birds; they take them along when they do the Bisate trails. These cameras are ideal for trekking because they are water-proof, smash-proof, small in size and lightweight, making them easy to carry in a pocket or a backpack. Guest use them for the duration of their stay and before departing, keep the SD card with all their pictures on it. We also have 2 pairs of Olympus binoculars that guests can use. These are mostly used by guests who have an interest in birds and they take them along when they do the Bisate trails.
(Jason) We provide guests with a waterproof/drop-proof ‘point and shoot camera’ for the duration of their stay. This is a great option for guests who are worried about taking their phones and cameras to the park, especially in the wetter months.
What items are essential for guests to bring while on safari there?
(Ingrid) Good hiking boots! And some warm clothing for the more chilly days. Bisate Lodge can provide a rain jacket, gaiters, gloves, and backpacks to the guests going gorilla trekking. But of course you can bring your own to ensure that it all fits perfectly.
(Ally) Good walking shoes/hiking boots.
(Jason) It is very much encouraged to bring good rain gear for your stay here at Bisate. The elements can be difficult to navigate through in the forest on rainy days. The most important item would be comfortable hiking shoes/boots. Treks can last for several hours and the terrain can be undulating and difficult in the mud. The park guides provide you with a walking stick and porters can help you with your belongings, but what you wear on your feet is vital to making the experience an enjoyable one.
What are your favorite areas to visit around/in camp and why? Which spots are guests’ favorites? Which places are best for sundowners?
(Ingrid) My three favorite places in the lodge are the tree nursery, with all our baby trees growing so that they can be planted on the property in future; the top of the hill taking in the beautiful view of the volcanoes; and in front of the fireplace in the Bisate lounge, sipping a caffe latte made by one of the Bisate baristas.
(Ally) I really like to take a slow walk through the indigenous tree nursery to see all the saplings growing from seeds. Our nature trail takes you around the rim of a large volcanic crater which is very beautiful, a good place to look for jackals and golden monkeys.
(Jason) The nature trails at Bisate. I often like to get out onto the trails and look for some new bird species. The trails have incredible views of the park and volcanoes. There are several benches along the way where you can sit and take in the natural beauty of the area, enjoying the sounds and sights.
However, sundowners are best enjoyed in the main area bar, close to the warm fire and intimate setting of the lodge. The sun sets around 6 pm here year round, and the temperature drops quite rapidly at night.
Please talk about the décor/design at Bisate, in the rooms as well as the common areas.
(Ingrid) The richly detailed interior exhibits surfaces and screens made from a variety of woven materials with strong resonance in Rwandan culture. Bisate’s interior design is drawn from a variety of aspects of the Rwandan lifestyle, particularly the colourful textiles and use of texture. The emerald green colour in the textiles and chandeliers is reminiscent of the verdant greens of the rainforest, as well as the vibrant markets that dot the villages throughout the country. Following through with our commitment to the principle of recycling, the chandeliers are made from recycled glass, and the ‘ibyansi’ milk jug motif is reused across a number of elements. Many of the furnishings are decorated using ‘imigongo’, an art form unique to Rwanda. The use of black and white cowhide also reflects the rural way of life in the villages, and volcanic stone is used in the fireplaces to echo the volcanoes of the adjacent Volcanoes National Park.
The design is absolutely stunning, and I don’t think we have ever received a guest who did not say ‘WOW’ when entering the main building or the villa. Most importantly, the lodge and villas feel cosy, welcoming, and warm. Guests describe their villa as their ‘nest’ or ‘cocoon’ and are so impressed by all the cultural elements and finer details.
(Ally) The inspiration for the design of Bisate Lodge is the King’s Palace, reflected in the rounded shapes of the lodge and villa buildings, the spires sticking up from the middle of each dome, and the thatching that surrounds them. Inside the lodge, lots of local materials were used, creating a truly Rwandan feel. These materials include small, red bricks; lots of volcanic rock; handmade balustrades; woven ‘shields’ on the roof; and lots of woven grass mats on the walls. The chandeliers – made from green glass and intended to look like upside-down forests – not only provide beautiful, warm light but also remind us just how inspirational nature can be. The lodge is also decorated with beautiful traditional artefacts such as ‘agaseke’ baskets, traditional milk pots, and shallow bowls. The wood-burning fireplaces create a warm ambience.
The rooms at Bisate are all nestled onto Bisate hill at various heights. Each forest villa faces in the direction of Bisoke and Karisimbi volcanoes, so each has an outstanding view. Now that our trees have had some years to grow, it feels like you are high up in the trees in the forest. Inside each room, local materials (as mentioned above) have again been used. Each room has a wood-burning fireplace, with double-sided glass so that the fire can be enjoyed from both the sitting area and the big tub located centrally in the bathroom. The volcanic rock shower comes with a great view.
(Jason) Bisate has a uniquely Rwandan feel – it’s difficult to compare to anywhere else. The understated luxury of the rooms offers a welcome, supremely comfortable experience at the end of an often challenging hike in the national park.
What is the dining experience at Bisate, and some highlights on the menu?
(Ingrid) Bisate’s cuisine is a combination of local Rwandan flavours infused with contemporary cuisine. Our produce is foraged from our very own vegetable garden and from local farmers within a five-kilometre radius of the lodge. Bisate Lodge endeavours to create an indigenous farm-to-table dining experience, with mostly fresh and local ingredients.
After hiking and trekking at the lodge or in the national park, guests can look forward to slow-cooked, hearty but healthy dishes showcasing natural ingredients. Local ingredients used in planning the menus include coffee; fresh honey and honeycomb; avocado; climbing beans; mango; kale; papaya; plantain; passion fruit; pineapple; macadamia nuts; tomarillos; and chilies.
Trying as much as possible to reduce our ‘foodprint’, we serve dishes with mostly local ingredients. We cater for any dietary requirements and individual requests are always possible. By now the chefs can make almost everything happen and create magic in the kitchen.
For many of our guests, the Bisate ‘dusabane’ dinner is one of the highlights of their stay. Dusabane means ‘coming together, and sharing together’. Rwandan culture is the central theme of the evening and the Bisate team explains to guests the use of traditional baskets and pots, the ways of traditional cooking, and how sharing food and drink is so much part of the Rwandan lifestyle. The Bisate team also performs beautiful songs and dances between the different courses, in traditional Rwandan dress.
(Ally) At Bisate, we try to champion the wonderful fresh produce that can be found growing in the surrounding areas in the rich volcanic soils. All of our pastries (biscuits, croissants, pain au chocolat, bagels, muffins, etc.) are homemade. For lunch, we start with a large, rustic salad with a Bisate dressing (very popular and the recipe is requested a lot) and a daily soup made with fresh vegetables. Some of our most popular lunch main courses include slow-cooked beef ragu with homemade parpadelle pasta; smoky chicken skewers with chapati breads, guacamole, and tree tomato and corn salsa; zucchini noodles with bust tomatoes and avocado sauce; and Ikirayi-Kinigi potatoes with Rwandan climbing beans, avocado, and yoghurt-herb dressing. Our prettiest dish is the Imboga platter, consisting of a variety of fresh, crispy vegetables; tempura vegetables; falafel balls; pickled peppers; and a variety of dips and accompaniments. We offer a variety of sorbets and ice creams, all homemade, for dessert; our chocolate ice cream is a big hit.
Our dinner menus provide guests with lots of choices and cater for all preferences and dietary requirements. Apart from meat dishes on each menu, guests can also choose vegetarian or vegan options. In the evenings, our waiters can suggest a wine from the wine list to pair well with a guest’s selection. Some of the most popular dinner dishes include: Bisate butter chicken with nasturtium raita, tree tomato salsa, and labneh; roasted butternut with squash puree, spinach, chickpeas, feta, and tahini; sesame aubergine with maple carrots, cumin puree, and spiced roasted nuts; cassava gnocchi with fresh pea puree, crispy capers, and oyster mushrooms; roasted cauliflower with cashew crème, avocado chimichurri, and pickled red cabbage. For dessert, our passion fruit souffle is the star of the show.
Guests love the ‘dusabane’ dinner and often get involved by trying to carry baskets on their heads.
(Jason) Our menu is a great blend of wholesome Rwandan food with a refined luxury touch. We offer a lot of locally produced plant-based meals for guests who would prefer a healthier option, as well as more indulgent, rich meals perfect for replenishing the body after a long trek in the park.
Does the lodge have a signature cocktail?
(Ingrid) Favourite cocktails at Bisate include the Gorilla Smash, the Golden Monkey, and the Ginger Monkey. To make at home:
2 tots bourbon
1 tot Cointreau/Triple Sec
20 ml lemon juice
2 pinches fresh mint
fresh mint to garnish
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and add four ice cubes. Shake well. Double strain into a whisky tumbler with more ice cubes. Garnish with fresh mint.
2 tots vodka
1 tot Cointreau/Triple Sec
15 ml lemon juice
20 ml sugar syrup
1 knob fresh ginger, grated
passion fruit to garnish
Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with some ice cubes, shake well. Double strain into a whisky tumbler and garnish with a passion fruit slice.
2 tots bourbon
1 tot Cointreau
1 tot lemon juice
1 tot sugar syrup
1 knob fresh ginger, grated
1 ginger slice, to garnish
Combine the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with four ice cubes and shake well. Double strain into a whisky tumbler and garnish with ginger slice.
What makes you most proud of Bisate, and working there?
(Ingrid) Since I am no longer permanently based at Bisate, I notice the growth of ‘our forest’ every time I visit the lodge. The Bisate area is returning to its natural state, and with this bringing the true forest feel, including the birds, butterflies and mammals.
For more than a year before the lodge’s opening, we started with the reforestation project, germinating over 100 000 indigenous tree seedlings each year. More than 50 000 indigenous trees are nurtured into complete independence from the care of the lodge.
It is amazing to see the progress and how the area is recovering and that is something that makes me proud every time we visit.
However, I am most proud of our Bisate team. When we started in 2017, most of them had no or limited experience in the hospitality industry. All of them have grown so much and are now confident, experienced, and skilled employees who can handle any possible challenge that might come their way.
(Ally) I am most proud of the incredible growth of many of our staff members in a relatively short amount of time, and of their motivation and dedication to achieve their goals.
(Jason) I am most proud of the conservation and restoration of the indigenous forests here on the property and surrounding area. It’s something I get to see every day and is a constant reminder of what is possible in the world. If we put our passion and focus to work, we can make a difference.
Who comprise the Bisate staff? Please tell us a bit about their backgrounds, training, service, relationships with guests etc.
(Ingrid) Honestly all members of the Bisate team are the most wonderful personalities. Aside from those I’ve already mentioned, many come from the local communities and have worked their way up at the lodge in a short time. For example, there is Benjamin Nsekuye Furaha, the F&B Manager, who started with Wilderness Safaris in Rwanda in March 2017. Benjamin’s passion for service is apparent to everyone he meets, and he is also a most dedicated conservationist. In his free time he loves to work in the Bisate vegetable gardens, looking after the fresh produce for the lodge; otherwise he spends his time on the nature trails looking for new birds, insects, and mammals. Orlane Delice Umutesi also started in March 2017, as the masseuse for the lodge. Since that time she has worked her way up to Head Masseuse and Trainee Manager, and has been appointed Floor Manager for the new Bisate Day Lounge.
(Ally) We have quite a big team at Bisate, made up of a lovely mix of people from different parts of the country.
Our security team of ten are all from the local communities surrounding Bisate Lodge. They are a strong team who take their important role very seriously. They are all honest, hard-working individuals who spend their days patrolling the Bisate property, rain or shine, day and night. They also escort guests to and from their rooms at night, lighting the pathway and chatting with the guests.
We have a team of three camp hands, also from the local community. They are the ones who walk up and down Bisate hill the most, carrying and moving anything and everything from wood for the fireplaces to guest luggage, to gas bottles and deliveries. They also chop all the wood, trim the grass on the helipad, and generally help out wherever they can.
Our three agronomists, likewise from the local community, do an amazing job of overseeing reforestation, taking care of the nursery (seeds and saplings) and the bamboo greenhouse. They also show guests around the nursery and accompany guests during the tree planting activity. Passionate about nature and the outdoors, they are most excited when they see animals on the property. Jimmy is a master chameleon finder!
Charles and Emmanuel, the maintenance team, are always busy fixing, mending, maintaining, and checking on things. From pumps, to generator, electrical, plumbing, they have it covered.
Our housekeeping team of seven make sure that each and every guest arrives to an impeccable room, clean and cosy with a nice fire going too. They also make sure that guests’ shoes and clothes after a trek are delivered timeously to laundry and returned the same evening to be ready for trekking the next day. Although the laundry team of three are seldom seen by guests, they’re highly appreciated. Guests are truly amazed when their muddy hiking boots are returned to them looking as good as new.
Our kitchen team of ten is a wonderful group of chefs, some from Kigali and others from the local community. Food can be a tough one to get 100% right as people have such different requirements and tastes, but our chefs have been hitting the nail on the head, delivering delicious food and receiving great feedback. Under the supervision of Jean Marie and Angelus, they are going from strength to strength. Jean Marie and Angelus are both excellent at motivating the team, love trying new things, and are always able to keep a cool head and calm demeanour – not always the case with head chefs!
Our service team of six are all well versed in the bar, coffee service, and dining service. They are a fun and bubbly team and get along very well with our guests. I love it when I see guests in the bar being taught by the service team how to play ‘igisoro’ (a local game). I think they often let the guests win, but they always have a good time!
Benjamin, our F&B Manager, is definitely the silverback of Bisate Lodge. He leads by example, and is an incredibly hard worker who often needs to be told to go and take a break. He is a true gentleman, ever the professional. He is passionate about gardening and growing his own fruits and vegetables at his home in Kigali. He loves to use his harvests to cook local dishes and shares his passion and knowledge with his children.
Patience is our assistant manager and an integral part of the Bisate team. She is efficient and accurate in everything she does but also has a wonderful sense of humour! She does an excellent job at overseeing the housekeeping and laundry teams and is well respected by her peers. She also calls Kigali home; when she’s there, she loves to cook and spend time with her family.
Orlane is our head masseuse but has, over the years, taken on more of a junior management role at Bisate. She has and will continue to grow in leaps and bounds. She is not only an incredibly hard worker, but one of the kindest people I have ever met. When off, Orlane often travels to Kigali to spend time with her son.
Jean Pierre, our community guide at Bisate, has also been taking on more of a junior management role. When Jean Pierre started at Bisate, he was part of the security team. He was quickly promoted to the laundry team, and then soon promoted again to the housekeeping team, and then again to community guide, followed by trainee manager. This sums up JP – on the move and going places. He has recently finished building a house in Kinigi for himself and his new wife and baby.
Jeanine is our lovely masseuse who delivers consistently great massages and also gets mentioned often by guests. She is a joy to be around and is Bisate’s number- one fan – she just loves all things Bisate and everybody here. She does not like it when there is not much for her to do and thrives when she is busy. When not in massage, Jeanine spends a lot of time in other departments, learning from others.
(Jason) We have a large staff portfolio here at Bisate. Each and every member has an important role either behind the scenes or in the service team. Each department has gone through training at some point in other fields and all strive to continue their growth here.
What feelings/impressions would you most like guests to take away with them?
(Ingrid) We know that our mission has succeeded if guests depart and feel like they are saying goodbye to friends, not to the lodge staff. Most of our guests are blown away by their experience in Rwanda and cannot wait to return. This shows in the high number of repeat guests who have already travelled multiple times to Bisate Lodge and to Magashi. Guests will take away a full experience of What the Wilderness Safaris Bisate Lodge, Rwanda has to offer!
Rwandan culture, the conservation efforts, the amazing and welcoming communities, the breathtaking scenery and fantastic wildlife encounters.
(Ally) I hope that guests leave with a deeper connection to nature as well as to the remarkable people of Rwanda.
(Jason) The first word that comes to mind is ‘wholesome’. I hope that guests leave with a greater feeling of unity with the world around them, both with the people they have met here and the nature they have to come to experience.
Looking to the future: are there any plans to change Bisate in any way, or any new, recent developments there?
(Ingrid) Very soon Bisate Lodge will enhance the guest experience by accommodating early arrivals and later departures in the new Bisate Day Lounge – the only lodge in the area to offer this service as part of our fully inclusive offering. In the Day Lounge, guests will be able to shower, change, enjoy a light meal, an in-room massage, or simply relax and enjoy the lodge’s peaceful environment. This additional facility, to be offered at no additional cost, comprises four spacious change-rooms, each with a full bathroom, as well as a welcoming lounge space. Located close to the main lodge but hidden from view, the Day Lounge will have the same feel as Bisate, embracing authentic Rwandan décor and architecture and featuring local materials such as volcanic rock cladding on the walls and locally made red brick. The informal lounge area will feature a fireplace, while the dining area will have sliding doors that open to uninterrupted views of a garden landscaped with an assortment of vegetables, offering ample space for relaxation. The boutique shop will feature a range of local Rwandan artefacts and keepsakes for guests to browse through and purchase before heading off on the next leg of their journey.
(Ally) The most exciting new development will be the completion of the Bisate Day Lounge. Construction is almost finished!
(Jason) We are always looking to develop and improve Bisate. Our reforestation efforts can always grow and go beyond the property to the surrounding areas on a larger scale. We are busy building a wonderful day lounge for our guests to enhance their complete stay here, even their departure. Our future may also see an additional lodge to be built on the property, which will add more value to the Bisate experience. With the help of the people here, anything is possible. I think everyone is on board to continue to grow this amazing product.
What is conservation?
Earths’ natural resources include air, minerals, plants, soil, water, and wildlife. Conservation is the care and protection of these resources so that they can continue for future generations. Conservation focuses on protecting species from extinction, maintaining and restoring habitats, enhancing ecosystems, and protecting biological diversity. Conservation and preservation are similar as both relate to the protection of nature. Conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while preservation seeks protection of nature from use.
Why is conservation important?
1.) To Protect wildlife
The evident reason for conservation is to protect wildlife and to encourage biodiversity. Protecting our wildlife and preserving it for future generations also means that the animals we love do not become distant memories and that we can maintain a healthy and functional ecosystem. Some species cannot survive outside of their natural habitat. Without human intervention, such as zoos and Private Safari Reserves like South Africa’s Kapama, their survival is a threat. The destruction of their natural habitats poses a real threat to their survival. Additionally, species that migrate and inhabit more than one natural habitat are also vulnerable. Therefore, the preservation of these habitats helps to prevent the entire ecosystem from being harmed.
2.) To protect Earth
3.)For human health
4.) To promote tourism
Visiting South Africa, tourists get to experience its unique flora and fauna. It includes natural habitats like mountains, hiking trails, private reserves, as well as the big five and so much more. Kapama Private Game Reserve makes significant contributions to both the local community and the environment. Tourists from around the world visit our Reserve to experience the beauty and culture of our country. This gives us a platform to educate tourists on the importance of preserving and conserving the resources of our planet, protecting endangered species, as well as how our initiatives support local communities.
If everyone decides to do their part, we can make great strides in conserving our planet and its scarce resources.
Besides our sustainability efforts in place at each lodge, our water recycling plant on the Reserve and our anti-poaching unit that focuses on protecting the endangered species residing on Kapama, we support other worthwhile causes that help raise awareness for the important points mentioned above. One such fun and sportive initiative we joined was the #BurpeesForConservation
To preserve African wilderness areas and their wildlife, Tshembo Africa Foundation and Greater Kruger Environmental Protection Foundation launched the #BurpeesForConservation challenge. This fundraiser aims to raise 1 million Rand towards conservation through burpees. For each burpee completed, R1 goes towards conservation.
Kapama’s staff from all departments and lodges took up the challenge and completed a total of 2 390 burpees. Here are our team’s efforts!
Story by: Southern Camp Ranger Lindi Taljaard & video by: Buffalo Camp Ranger Rassie Jacobs
Shipwrecks and whale skeletons are not your average African safari attractions. But then there’s nothing average about Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, a fly-in destination in northern Namibia that’s otherworldly and unforgettable.
Set amidst rust-colored crags in the Namib Desert’s famed Kaokoveld , the camp’s pale olive luxury tents peak like whitecaps on an ocean of sand. The landscape may seem empty at first, but soon reveals itself to be full of life, home to desert-adapted elephant and lion, giraffe, leopard, cheetah, hyaena, black rhino, black-backed jackal, oryx, a host of various birds, and many other creatures. Hoanib prides itself on its on-site research center, where monitoring, tracking, and other studies of elephant, lion, and brown hyaena are ongoing – a source of enrichment for guests.
Morning and afternoon game drives explore the nearly always dry Hoanib riverbed, in the search for desert-adapted wildlife. Nature walks among the dunes introduce guests to some of the area’s smaller denizens, and to plants such as the ancient welwitschia, as well as to remnants of the Strandloper – beachcomber – way of life from centuries ago. Local birding yields many rewards, including raptor species and the occasional flamingo.
The highlight of a stay at Hoanib, though, is the four-hour 4X4 drive to the coast, across the wild Hoanib River floodplain and rolling dunes to the frigid Atlantic, where the cold Benguela current collides with the warmer desert and generates the region’s famed fog. Passing through the Skeleton Coast National Park, stopping at an often wildlife-rich oasis en route, you reach the windswept shore. There awaits a fascinating and quaint museum celebrating the area’s fauna, flora and wrecks, as well as Cape fur seal colonies and bleached bones on an endlessly crashing shoreline – an eerily enchanting panorama.. Yours to explore before, weather permitting, a short flight takes you back to camp – offering a nearly infinite view of a landscape like no other.
Hoanib Skeleton Coast’s General Manager; Clement Lawrence, Sales and Marketing Manager, Wilderness Safaris Namibia and former Hoanib Skeleton Coast Manager and Guide; and Max Bezuidenhout, Hoanib Skeleton Coast Head Guide, share their appreciation of this exceptional place:
What makes Hoanib Skeleton Coast special? What are the activities/services offered at Hoanib, and what are the highlights of a stay there, the aspects that guests really seem to love?
(Clement) The camp is located in a rugged outlands bordering the Skeleton Coast National Park near the banks of the Hoanib River. Its location holds many secrets, including unexpected wildlife wandering along the riverbed. The best experience is the drive from the camp to the coast. It offers incredible changes of scenery, starting off with an almost eerie, foggy morning drive through the larger ana trees, spotting the odd giraffe or desert elephant. As the weather clears, you find yourself on the floodplains, where thick salt bushes prevail; there you might spot more rarely seen wildlife, like caracal or honey badger, if luck is on your side. A tea stop on a dune looking over the sand sea is the perfect break before you make it to the coast itself. Only once there can you understand the coast’s harshness; its rocky beaches and gusty winds feel like a different planet from where you started off that morning. Guests are spoilt with an amazing lunch and cold glass of wine on the beach, absorbing the welcome sunlight as the day warms up. To finish off the day we take guests on a short scenic flight back to camp, giving them a bird’s-eye view of what they’ve just experienced.
(Munya) Hoanib is special because of the scenery that surrounds it. The mountains, the red sand dunes, the space. The Hoanib River area is rich in wildlife, which generally surprises guests who don’t expect to see so much within a desert – the elephant herds, desert lions, giraffe, hyaenas, foxes, and oryx, among others.
Hoanib Skeleton Coast Lodge offers a coastal excursion that sets it apart from many other places. This involves a drive over the dunes to the Skeleton Coast, with a stop at an oasis en route, then a drive along the beach to see seal colonies and other sights, followed by a picnic lunch at the seaside, enjoying the ocean breeze. The trip ends with a scenic flight back to the camp, wowing guests with views of the dunes and the topography below, from a different perspective. For me what stands out from the trip is that one moment you are driving in the desert, and the next moment you are at the coast, where the desert meets the ocean! The excursion also is interesting historically: there’s a brief stop at a small museum exhibiting whale skeletons – one of the reasons it’s named the Skeleton Coast.
(Max) Hoanib is a unique place, a beautiful, isolated landscape. What also makes Hoanib special is the wildlife – desert lions, elephants, hyaenas, Cape foxes, and other species move in and out of camp. The sand dunes on the way to the coast are gorgeous, hiding away two big oases in the middle of nowhere – hot spots for the desert animals and water birds like flamingoes. At the coast there’s the Cape fur seals, black-backed jackals, and hyaenas. Aside from the drive to the coast, we offer guided walks, game drives, rhino tracking if time allows, star gazing, amongst other activities.
What do YOU most love about Hoanib?
(Clement) I am in love with the weather there. Without the wind, there would be no desert. If you understand how the desert is formed, you would know that the desert breeze carries cool air. On the warmest days you can look over to the west and see the thin fog belt, a sign that the temperature is likely to cool down. Whilst sitting around the fire after dinner, you can feel the fog droplets forming and see the camp lights becoming brighter, lighting up the moisture.
(Munya) The weather – mornings and nights are very cool because of our proximity to the ocean. You almost forget that you are in a desert. I also love how well constructed the lodge is.
What does the name ‘Hoanib’ mean?
(Munya) Hoanib means the ‘place of elephants’. It’s a Damara word and has a click at the beginning. It names the ephemeral river that periodically flows through the area. When the river isn’t running, desert elephants forage up and down the riverbed, hence the name.
(Clement) I once heard from an old Himba that Hoanib means ‘for all of us’ because in the old days the Hoanib was the one place where water was consistent and the people of the land all shared it together. He did not have Google, though. I think we should go with Munya on this one.
Please talk about the wildlife at/around the camp…what are the most ‘desired’, ‘wow’ sightings/experiences?
(Max) Day and night we have wildlife drinking from the waterhole in front of camp. Game drives happen in the morning and afternoon, but often there’s quite a bit of action in camp. For instance, one evening after supper service when I was walking guests staying in Tents 3 and 4 to their rooms… We had just left the guests in Tent 4 and were on our way to Tent 3. There we found a big elephant bull eating from the tree in front of the room. What saved us was that about six metres away, I heard his stomach rumbling. I told the guests to freeze. The elephant must have heard me speaking, and moved off through the bush. Elephant eyes do not reflect in the darkness, so it’s difficult to spot them.
Another close encounter was with lion. A new male lion called Munya had entered the Hoanib riverbed, and he was not accustomed to vehicles. I was on an afternoon game drive with a family of four, tracking two female lions who’d been frequenting the area. We were circling a salvadora bush when suddenly a huge male, this ‘new’ lion, charged us. He stopped within a metre of the vehicle, leaving a cloud of dust, and us speechless, and then departed.
(Munya) Elephants are the most common animals around the camp; giraffe, oryx, ostrich, and springbok are also widely present. Other less common sightings include zebra, leopard, and cheetah. Desert lions are on the resurgence as well, with two or three prides frequenting camp.
One day we were jump starting a vehicle in front of my room. I was being assisted by the camp chef (Steven) and a guide (Moses). Moses brought another vehicle but forgot the jumper cables. So he went back and left Steven and me there. Whilst I was concentrating under the hood, Steven said, ‘Let’s get in the car, there are lions here!’ As I turned around I saw two lionesses and three cubs approaching. We both got in the car, and waited for them to pass by. Unfortunately, I did not have a camera on me, nor did Steven. The lions strolled past and the cubs playfully tagged along.
Another time, during lockdown after dark, Moses heard jackals calling, and grabbed his camera because he thought the jackals had seen lions. He followed the sound to outside my room, and I heard him call my name. I quickly went outside. Moses pointed to the mountain behind my room. There we saw a leopard on the mountain – our first time ever seeing one in the area.
(Clement) One memorable wildlife encounter for me was at our farewell gathering for Beauranzia, our food and beverage manager at the time. I cooked a wonderful potjie, if I say so myself, which we enjoyed around a fire. We sat quietly after the meal because we all ate too much. It was full moon and the perfect goodbye, as Dr Philip (‘Flip’) Stander told us incredible stories about his lion research in the desert. It was only when one of the guides got up to put his plate in the kitchen that we noticed the lioness walking past with her three cubs. Surprisingly, we all stayed somewhat calm and moved into the kitchen, but she was not a happy lady. Or so we thought. The lioness walked away from us to where her cubs had scrambled, a manager’s accommodation. She lay down on a slope where she could still see us.
Dr Flip disappeared to his car to track where the second lioness from the pride was; it turned out that while we’d been eating, she’d quietly slipped past us and was now drinking at the waterhole. The cubs could not help themselves – smelling the fire (and my potjie) they walked straight towards it, sniffing everything along the way, ignoring their mother’s calls and gathering around the fire place. The ten of us hiding in the kitchen shoved our heads through the shade net of the door to get a better view of the cubs; it was too funny. Even more hilarious was that the moon was shining right on our faces, yet we pretended to be inconspicuous. Eventually the lioness wandered past and the cubs followed, with Dr Flip in the rear. You can see that the man knows lions better than people. We called it a night after that.
Another time in camp it was 2 am, and Charlie, our resident elephant, had wandered over to a spot right next to my room, where he decided to pull on the water pipe coming from the tanks above. He broke it off easily, having an urge for a splash of water and knowing exactly where to find it. Charlie was not going to put the pipe back after he was finished, so I had to get out of bed and sneak quietly out of my room, around the back and up a massive hill to close the tanks – otherwise guests would have no water the next day. After closing the tap, I could see Charlie looking directly at me, but he couldn’t reach me because of the steep slope. It was then I found myself talking calmly to this elephant, begging him to please go and drink at the waterhole in front of camp, reminding him that we had built it for him. He had an aggressive stance but never made any noise.
I suppose he was actually listening, or just hoped I would slip and roll down the slope. Eventually, Charlie shook his head and walked off. I thanked him but got no response. I walked down the slope, checking that he was gone before reconnecting the broken pipe. It was such a wet and muddy situation that by the time I got back to my room I was wide awake. This was where I declared that karma owes me one, big time; she always delivers in the desert. Shout out to Charlie for being such a good sport – I miss him terribly.
What are some of the key bird species that guests can expect to see?
(Clement) Endemics that can be found along the Hoanib River include Ruppell’s korhaan, and on the gravel plains we have the Benguela long-billed lark. In our warmer months the olive Madagascar bee-eater moves into the area. Along the Hoanib mouth, which holds a bit of water, we also have the odd flamingo visiting for a while before heading to the large Etosha Pan.
(Munya) Hornbills, black harriers, peregrine falcons, francolins, and guinea fowl.
(Max) Ruppell’s korhaan, hornbills, pale-winged starlings, Cape turtle dove, grey go-away-bird, masked weaver, swallow-tailed bee-eaters, and so on.
How does the Hoanib experience compare to/differ from that of other WS camps in Namibia? Would you recommend that guests visit Hoanib plus other WS camps?
(Munya) Hoanib offers not only the desert experience but also the coastal experience. Temperatures aren’t as brutal there as in other parts of the desert because of its proximity to the ocean. Most of all, the wildlife there is wonderfully unexpected and diverse; other camps in Namibia do not have as much variety.
(Clement) Hoanib’s location along the Skeleton Coast National Park tells its own story of how geology has allowed for the most interesting ecosystem to evolve and what adaptation each species uses to survive, fauna and flora alike. It offers perspective on what vast landscapes are all about, and gives chills down your spine when you notice how inhospitable it can be.
What’s your favorite time of day in/around camp and why?
(Clement) Hands down, it has to be late afternoon. When the coastal breeze reaches inland the temperature noticeably drops and the light becomes so soft it’s almost tangible. Photography is off the charts at this time; you cannot believe what you are able to capture, even with only landscape through your lens. If a lone desert elephant happens to walk against the light with the dust blowing up behind him, it is just mesmerizing.
(Munya) Evenings or more specifically sundown, because this is the time elephants often converge at the waterhole. The temperatures are cool, a westerly breeze comes through, the setting sun gives off orange and reddish hues through the mountains. It is a magical, peaceful time of the day.
(Max) I love foggy mornings, they’re refreshing.
And your favorite season there?
(Munya) For me it’s winter, when wildlife converges in the riverbed. Elephants often are seen digging there trying to get groundwater. Giraffes come closer to the camp and can be seen browsing nearby treetops. It is extremely cold at night; waking up is tough, because sleep is so good. Early mornings are spectacular because fog sits low in the camp. The sun battles to shine through; when it does, condensation droplets are a common sight at the foot of the tents.
(Clement) Winter, just after the rains. It is when we witness the extremes of the desert. How strong the wind can be, how much fog can roll in from the coast, and how important this is to the ecosystem. As you follow the meandering dry riverbed early in the morning the visibility is limited. The only thing you might see, for instance, is the bold elephant track in the soft sand, which the guide has pointed out. How far did he walk last night and where is he going, you wonder. It’s still foggy, and later in the dunes you see one elephant feeding on a bush; you can make out only the silhouette. Gradually all the pieces come together and it finally makes sense how the desert works.
(Max) I like the winter. Almost every day is foggy and fresh, and you can see how trees, plants, and animals get their water from the fog. In summer it is very dry, and HOT – though if it rains then it’s great to see how fast everything turns green and comes to life.
What kind of community and conservation work is WS doing/supporting in the area? That Hoanib is involved in?
(Clement) Hoanib Skeleton Coast is in a joint venture with three conservancies as part of our agreement as concession holders in the Palmwag Concession. We as a camp support the Conservancy Outpost in the Mudorib River, which monitors movements in and out of the concession itself. We have strong ties with local communities; most of our staff are from these areas. We embrace local culture as part of our brand which reflects both ways, to communities and guests alike.
The camp has its own research center where guests have an opportunity to meet local researchers and learn more specifics about the ecosystem. Emsie Verwey, busy with brown hyena research, is our base researcher and facilitates researchers in camp. This helps researchers study in remote locations as well as providing input on which areas or species are critical to the ecosystem here.
At Hoanib conservation is not just a ‘catch phrase’ used lightly. Camp staff work to preserve the pristine nature of the desert through environmental conservation efforts, including driving on designated roads (avoiding off-road driving). The guides at Hoanib embody conservation, and work in conjunction with the research centers based at the camp, the Desert Lion Conservation Project and the brown hyaena project, observing and reporting strange animal behavior as well as sightings. This data allows researchers to know if an animal is in distress, and provides vital territorial mapping information. It also helps mitigate human-wildlife conflict. Recently, Wilderness Safaris installed the (LoRa) Long Range system in camp, an effort spearheaded by Smart Parks. The technology uses long-range communication to track not only animals but also vehicles. It is a cost-effective tool, operated by solar power and gives us real-time data on the location of animals that have tracking collars.
(Max) Around Hoanib, Wilderness Safaris has worked with the Himba, Herero, and Damara communities in many aspects, looking after the animals and the environment. We avoid off-road driving and we don’t cut down trees. A lot of research is done at Hoanib, on desert lions for instance, with a project to collar them to curb human-wildlife conflict between the lions and the local people. We’ve also worked with various NGOs to help them build kraals to protect their domestic animals. Brown hyaenas are also collared and monitored; we teach guests about their importance in the ecosystem.
What items are essential for guests to bring while on safari at Hoanib?
(Munya) Sunscreen, a pullover, sun hat, sunglasses, and closed-toe shoes.
(Clement) The Skeleton Coast can be tricky compared to the rest of Namibia, which stays sunny all day, every day. Here temperatures fluctuate according to the prevailing westerly wind off the Atlantic Ocean. So guests should definitely bring a warm jacket; early mornings can be foggy and chilly. It eventually warms up, so you will need sunblock and a hat by lunchtime. When you’re sipping your sundowner in the evening you’ll again need your jacket, as the prevailing wind cools the desert all over again. If you come in winter, bring along a scarf and a beanie as well.
(Max) Guests need to bring sunscreen, sun hats, binoculars, cameras, clothes that blend in with the landscape, and memory cards because there’s a lot to photograph.
What are your favorite areas to visit around/in camp and why? Which spots are guests’ favorites? Which places are best for sundowners?
(Max) The favorite areas to visit in and around camp are the Hoanib River, the backbone of the desert and where the wildlife will be. Guests also love to sit in front of their rooms watching animals at the waterhole, and we have hills or mountains around camp that we walk or drive up for sundowners.
(Munya) Rallies is my favorite sundowner spot because it is on a hill, with a 360-degree view from up there. Other hills do not block the sun as it sets. It is also secluded. Once whilst having a staff sundowner with the managers, two lionesses strolled past us.
(Clement) Everyone loves the pool – it’s always refreshing and the best way to cool down while enjoying a beverage. The view is fantastic, overlooking the waterhole. I also love it around the fire late at night when everyone is asleep and all the lights are off. The stars are so beautiful, and if you are lucky you can feel the fog rolling in.
Please talk about the décor/design at Hoanib, in the rooms as well as the common areas.
(Munya) Totally solar-powered, Hoanib has a modern design, it’s not the typical safari-style template. Its interior is decorated in subtle shades reflecting the environment – in beiges, browns, greys, olive greens, and blues, mostly. Both the rooms and the main areas are contemporary, with light wood tones, straight lines, and flat finishes. The rooms are characterized by large glass screens as well. They are spacious, with a large glass anterior, yet also cozy.
(Clement) The colors blend in well with the desert, with soft blue accents. The camp’s simple layout gives a feeling of space – as the desert does. Local woven baskets adorn the walls, and each room has a fantastic black and white photo of wildlife along the river taken by Graham Springer.
(Max) The camp is beautifully designed, its colors blending in with the landscape. The rooms are spacious and welcoming.
What is the dining experience at Hoanib, and some highlights on the menu? Please share the various dining options, in camp and in the bush.
(Munya) Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hoanib offered the communal dining experience. There are other dining experiences available: meals in the restaurant or open air in front of the lodge facing the waterhole. The menu varies according to the season but always has nutritious vegetarian and meat options and salads. Some sample dishes from our summer menu include: honeybush poached pear and biltong salad; millet and gem risotto with tender stems and brie cheese; Namibian lamb loin served with pea and mint cauliflower mash and green beans; pan-fried kingklip with pineapple salsa, lime aioli, and coconut potato crisps; deconstructed lemon meringue pie; granadilla with meringue and mint.
(Clement) Dining under the stars is brilliant, we seize the opportunity whenever we can. Our menu is seasonal, so we adapt and incorporate new foods all the time. We focus on light, fresh, and healthy meals but also offer traditional braais for our guests. My favorite food offering is the bread rolls filled with cheese and basil pesto and cooked on hot coals.
(Max) I love the outside dining experience near the fire pit and under the stars, sometimes watching lion and elephant walking past.
What makes you most proud of the camp, and working there?
(Clement) What we have been able to contribute to the ‘family’ of Hoanib has been my greatest pride. We formed a strong team as a whole and achieved many things together, small and big. Our support of the many NGOs and governmental operations came naturally, our contributions came unconditionally – because we believe in the people we work with.
(Munya) Its location and the beautiful design of the facilities. It is one of the few camps that is close to the ocean.
(Max) It’s a beautiful camp to work at – the peace, the wildlife, and for me most of all, the landscape.
Who comprises the staff at Hoanib? Please tell us a bit about their backgrounds, training, service, relationships with guests etc.
(Munya) Most staff are from the Sesfontein area or the Anabeb Conservancy, which stretches as far as the Palmwag area. These are mixed tribes: Damara and some Himba. Most are locals who were trained by Wilderness Safaris Training Department. Guests are always curious to know where the staff are from, how long they have been working with the company, and information regarding their families.
(Clement) Most of our staff come from the local villages in the conservancies and participate in continuous training throughout our time in camp; this varies from standards to service in all departments. Staff learn so much from this training; some even grow into other positions as they develop their skill set. We have maintenance guys who become drivers and eventually guides, for instance.
At Hoanib we tried to start off with a clean slate and employ people with the least experience to give them the opportunity to grow, which has been so beneficial for all of us. We were able to implement strong principles about guests and the services we provide to them. It was an incredible journey; to see change and growth in people is so amazing. Hoanib staff are the best humans, if you ask me.
(Clement) Anyone who visits Hoanib will leave with a feeling hard to describe back home. It is hard to convey the magic of being out in the wilderness with no interference or impact other than your immediate surroundings. It gives a feeling which only the soul understands. I’ve often found myself genuflecting to the privilege the desert holds, which will stay with me for as long as I am alive. There are so many, many experiences that have humbled me throughout the time I have spent in the desert, at and around Hoanib. It is a remarkable place, and an honor to be part of it.
Written by Melissa Siebert
The African wild dog, or painted wolf, is the most persecuted predator on the continent. It is also the most elusive and enigmatic making them a not so common sighting on safari drives. However, most people are unaware of this special creature’s existence.
Here we learn more about these beautiful animals and their continued fight for survival and space in an increasingly fragmented natural environment.
Africa’s Painted Wolves
The African wild dog is known by many names, including Cape hunting dog, African hunting dog and painted wolf. Although it is a member of the Canidae family, it is in fact the last surviving member of a separate genus – Lycaon. Its scientific name, Lycaon pictus means “painted wolf”, which refers to the animal’s irregular, mottled coat, which features red, black, brown, white, and yellow fur.
Each dog has its own unique coat pattern, with long legs, big, rounded ears and a white-tipped tail, which also helps members of the pack find each other during a hunt. It is not only their coats that make them special. They each have individual characters, distinct skills, and their own idiosyncrasies. All wild dogs share a sense of fun, a gentleness of soul and a co-operative spirit, which makes them one of Africa’s most enigmatic creatures.
Unlike other dogs, which have five toes on their forefeet, these canines have only four toes per foot and no dew claw. Body weight of adults range from 18 to 36 kg (40 to 79 lb.). Females are slightly smaller than males. In a sprint, African wild dogs can reach speeds of more than 70 km per hour (44 mph).
Wild dogs are native to the African continent and wild populations cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. African wild dogs are generalist predators, occupying a range of habitats including short-grass plains, semi-desert, bushy savannahs, and upland forest. These painted wolves used to roam the whole of Africa. Now, the largest populations remain in southern Africa, especially northern Botswana, western Zimbabwe, eastern Namibia, and western Zambia and the southern part of East Africa, especially Tanzania and northern Mozambique.
A Rich and Complex Social Life
African wild dogs are deeply social and to them, the pack is everything. These packs are usually dominated by a monogamous ‘alpha’ male and female breeding pair, with the female occupying the top slot. A single pack can comprise as few as two and up to more than 30 painted dogs, but around six is the minimum for a successful hunting and breeding group. In some parks, wild dog packs can occupy a space that spreads well beyond 1 000 square kilometres.
The alpha female chooses where her pack will build their den and excavates it with help from her pack. The female may also choose an abandoned aardvark lair for her den, making sure it is heavily disguised and will also create more than one emergency escape route. The female’s pups are also cared for by the entire pack.
These dogs have strong family bonds and spend most of their time together. Social interactions are common, and the dogs communicate by touch, actions, and vocalisations. Their priority is always to protect their pack; pups get first feed after a kill, ‘aunties’ act as pup-sitters for other mothers, and if a wild dog becomes ill or injured, their pack-mates rally round to care for them. Wild dogs have also been seen mourning lost family members.
Can You Hear Me?
The species communicates well, which relates to their strong bonds. For this purpose, they make use of thin bird-like calls and a deep haunting hoo…hoo…hoo call, distinctly different ear positions, and they also change their body posture to communicate with one another.
They rely heavily on their acute sense of hearing, which seems to be more important than their sense of smell. If a pack member gets separated from the group, they can communicate over great distances by ‘hoo-calling’, where they drop their muzzle close to the ground and emit this haunting sound, which can be heard several kilometers away. It also helps that they have large and flexible bat-shaped ears, which gives them a somewhat Mickey Mouse appearance. You will notice that their ears are never still, even when sleeping, all the time detecting the sounds of approaching danger or potential prey.
The Alpha Female, Mom to Many
As with the much-loved domestic dog, painted dogs and their puppies are gorgeous. Only the alpha female carries a litter for a gestation period of 69-72 days, producing 10-11 pups of around 310 grams (11oz) each. Usually, only one litter is born per year.
The denning period lasts about three months, but wild dogs will often move to a new den after eight weeks. This may be due to the den becoming smelly, which may attract lion and hyaena. This is also part of the pups’ education, as they get to experience a walk in the big wild world before going permanently nomadic.
The puppies are weaned at around five weeks of age and become fully-fledged pack hunters at around 12 months old, though only reaching adult status at 18 months. Same-sex siblings from one pack will eventually leave to join up with those of the opposite sex from another pack, forming a family of their own. The average life span of a wild dog is 11 years of age.
A Formidable and Fierce Pack of Hunters
African wild dogs hunt in large, co-operative packs of six to 20 or more animals. An average adult painted dog eats around 4 kg (9 lb.) of carcass per day—the equivalent of around one impala per day for a 15-strong pack.
African wild dogs are among the most effective predators in the world. They use extraordinary co-operation and teamwork to pursue, overhaul and bring down their prey. As a result, up to 80% of their hunts end successfully, compared to, say, lions at 10%.
They hunt swiftly and efficiently and are mostly seen in the morning or during dusk, as well as using the light of the full moon. The pack hunts antelope by sneaking up on the herd and then running down an individual, repeatedly biting it on the legs and belly until it weakens. The wild dog can give chase for 10 to 60 minutes, running at a speed of up to 70 kilometres per hour.
When catching its prey, the lead hunter will attempt to immobilize its victim, by grabbing its nose or ear. Next, after the rest of pack joins the hunt, the trapped animal is literally ripped apart in a few seconds. Wild dogs have specially adapted curved, blade-like lower teeth, different to other canids, to enable the quick shredding of carcasses as the risk of losing their prey to lion or hyaena is very real. Their hunting method minimizes the suffering of their prey, and spoils are shared with the whole pack. Soon after the kill, the pack will erupt into a series of high-pitched squeaks. This may be an expression of excitement, but more likely it is to alert other pack members that a meal has been secured.
Wild dogs mostly hunt medium-sized antelope of around 50 kilograms in size. In most areas their principal prey is impala Aepyceros melampus, greater kudu Tragelaphus strepsiceros, Thomson’s gazelle Eudorcas thomsonii and blue wildebeest Connochaetes taurinus. Small antelope, such as dik-dik Madoqua spp., steenbok Raphicerus campestris and duiker tribe Cephalophini are important in some areas, and warthog Phacochoerus africanus is also hunted in some populations. The dogs may supplement their diet with rodents and birds. As human settlements expand, the dogs may sometimes develop a taste for livestock, though significant damage is rare, and most dogs prefer wild prey.
To Hunt or Not to Hunt? Let Us Vote by Sneezing…
Latest research by Walker et al. (2017) on free-ranging African wild dog packs in Botswana has revealed that the decision by a pack to get up from rest and hit the road to hunt as a collective pack is a democratic one, albeit with a twist – votes are cast by way of sneezes. Yes, those dogs that wish to participate in the vote do so by sneezing, and just like in company meetings, once a certain number (quorum) of votes has been reached (sneezes made) the pack will obey the results of the vote and move on. The sneezes act as a type of quorum, and the sneezes must reach a certain threshold before the group changes activity.
Furthermore, it appears that higher-ranking members of the pack must sneeze less often to achieve quorum. So, for example, a high-ranking pack member may have to sneeze just three times to achieve the same result as a lower ranked member that may have to sneeze 10 times.
This is a form of democracy, modified to reflect rank. Persistent lower ranking dogs can achieve the desired results if they are determined, and sneeze often enough. As such, the ‘will of the group’ may override dominant preferences when the consensus of subordinates is sufficiently great. These findings illustrate how specific behavioral mechanisms (here, sneezing) allow for negotiation (in effect, voting) that shapes decision-making in a wild, socially complex animal society.
One of The World’s Most Endangered Large Carnivores
The painted wolf is Africa’s most persecuted predator. A century ago, approximately 500 000 painted wolves roamed across 39 countries on the African continent. Today they are all but extinct in the west, and struggling in the east, with the most robust surviving populations in the southern part of the continent. Their population is currently estimated at less than 7 000 individuals in 39 distinct subpopulations, of which only 1 400 are mature individuals. They are classified as endangered on the IUCN’s Red List, and the population size is continuing to decline.
Causes of Population Decline and Principal Threats to Wild Dog Populations
The causes of African wild dogs’ decline are reasonably well understood and include extreme sensitivity to habitat fragmentation because of the species’ wide-ranging behavior, conflict with livestock and game farmers, accidental killing by people in snares and road accidents, and infectious disease. All these causes are associated with human encroachment on African wild dog habitat and, as such, have not ceased and are unlikely to be reversible across most of the species’ historical range.
Habitat Loss and Fragmentation
The principal threat to African wild dogs is habitat fragmentation, which increases their contact with people and domestic animals, resulting in human-wildlife conflict and transmission of infectious disease. The important role played by human-induced mortality has two long-term implications. Firstly, it makes it likely that, outside protected areas, African wild dogs may be unable to coexist with increasing human populations unless land use plans and other conservation actions are implemented. Secondly, African wild dog ranging behavior leads to a very substantial ‘edge effect’, even in large reserves. Simple geometry dictates that a reserve of 5 000 km² contains no point more than 40 km from its borders – a distance well within the range of distances travelled by a pack of African wild dogs in their usual ranging behavior.
As human populations increase around reserve borders, the risks to African wild dogs venturing outside are also likely to increase. Under these conditions, only the largest unfenced reserves will be able to provide any level of protection for them. In South Africa, ‘predator proof’ fencing around small reserves has proved reasonably effective at keeping dogs confined to the reserve, but such fencing is not 100% effective and is unlikely to be beneficial for wildlife communities in the long-term.
Human-Wild Dog Conflict
Wild dogs are perfectly adapted to their natural environment but require vast territories to survive – much larger than most other carnivore species. This increased exposure to human contact poses numerous threats to the wild dogs’ survival.
Conflicts occur when wild dogs encounter people whose livelihoods rest largely on livestock and agriculture. Unfortunately, African wild dogs are often hunted and killed by farmers who fear for their livestock. The painted dogs are also injured and killed in snares and road kills, while expanding human settlement reduces suitable habitat for them and their prey. Snares used for poaching are one of the key threats facing painted dogs today. Painted dogs are particularly vulnerable because they cover relatively huge distances each day compared to most species, and consequently encounter many more snares.
Human ignorance and misinformation are perhaps the biggest issues facing the painted dog population as local landowners believe them to be dangerous, numerous, wanton, and indiscriminate pack hunters, and thus best removed from their land.
African wild dogs are susceptible to most of the same diseases as domestic dogs and contact with human settlements exposes them to infectious diseases such as canine distemper and parvovirus. This has recently led to major population crashes in several locations. Rabies has been a major factor in recent local extinctions and infection from domestic dogs remains a huge risk. Rabies has wiped out the entire wild dog population that once inhabited the Serengeti and poses a major threat elsewhere. Canine distemper and anthrax are also threatening wild dog survival.
Competition with Other Predators
Even in large, well-protected reserves, or in stable populations remaining largely independent of protected areas (as in northern Botswana), African wild dogs live at low population densities. Predation by lions, and perhaps competition with spotted hyaenas, contribute to keeping population numbers below the level that their prey base could support. Spotted hyaenas are responsible for raiding dens and killing pups that stray too far away from the pack, probably to limit future competition. These scavengers will also often attempt to steal a kill from the pack.
Such small populations are vulnerable to extinction. ‘Catastrophic’ events such as outbreaks of epidemic disease may drive them to extinction when larger populations have a greater probability of recovery – such an event seems to have led to the local extinction of the small African wild dog population in the Serengeti ecosystem on the Kenya-Tanzania border. Problems of small population size will be exacerbated if, as seems likely, small populations occur in small reserves or habitat patches. As discussed above, animals inhabiting such areas suffer a strong ‘edge effect’. Thus, small populations might be expected to suffer disproportionately high mortality because of their contact with humans and human activity.
Hope for the Species in Africa
The Painted Wolf Foundation aims to raise awareness about this much-threatened and ignored species and support other organizations that conserve this enigmatic species in the field. The foundation ultimately aims to raise awareness about the painted wolf worldwide, increase its support base, elevate the profile of all organizations working to conserve them, raise funds for field-based research and conservation, encourage best practices and support painted wolf campaigns worldwide.
The world of African wild dog conservation is multi-faceted, and not all these approaches are obvious. A full ‘toolbox’ is required to respond to diverse problems and contexts. These tools include habitat protection, biological management, monitoring and research, rehabilitation, education, raising awareness, anti-poaching and community partnerships.
Collaborating for Conservation: Wilderness Safaris Zimbabwe and Painted Dog Conservation
Wilderness Safaris Zimbabwe has partnered with Painted Dog Conservation in this country, to help drive the conservation of wild dog, especially in Mana Pools and Hwange national parks. Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) has put together a long-term conservation model to make a significant difference to the painted dog population in Zimbabwe, and to save the species through action and education. PDC employs more than 60 people from the local villages to run their conservation programs and education and outreach programs. These efforts include an anti-poaching unit, which patrols local areas daily to provide a direct form of protection for the dogs, as well as a rehabilitation facility where they treat injured and orphaned dogs before returning them to the wild. PDC monitors more than six packs of painted dogs daily across Hwange National Park and four packs in Mana Pools and the Mid-Zambezi Region.
In 2010 there were around 100 painted dogs in Mana Pools. That number has dwindled to as few as 20. Pressure from other predators, poor soils for denning, inbreeding and increased human disturbance from tourism activities could be among the reasons for this alarming decline in their numbers. Sir David Attenborough’s 2018 series ‘Dynasties’ explores the life of a painted wolf named Tait, the matriarch in Mana Pools National Park. The series focuses on the strength and protection but also power struggles within a family, and how this relates to their external fight for survival. Here, this beloved species is shown in a different light – challenges of a dwindling environment, rival predators, politics within the lineage and human impact. The story shows the other side to these animals – they are complex, charming and in need of space to flourish.