January 5, 1994
It was twenty years today that Mark and I arrived in Africa. We had planned to stay three years, but that was before we saw lions yawning and stretching at sunset. It has not all been easy, as you know, but elephant poaching is down by 95% in North Luangwa. So, it has all been worth it.
Last night a soft noise just outside the cottage awakened me. We were sleeping on the floor trying to avoid the heat, so I had to look up at the window. But the window was black; I could not even see the starlight. I thought maybe a huge storm had moved in. But then the blackness moved. The elephant, Cheers, was standing five feet from the cottage, and as he glided silently passed the window, the stars appeared again. I like to think that this was our anniversary present.
The elephant news continues to be good. The September census confirmed that the population is increasing slightly. Almost every group of females has at least one newborn infant, and we are very hopeful that recovery has begun. We will continue to monitor the situation this year, and keep you posted.
For several years, the male elephants, Survivor, Cheers, Long Tail, and a few others have been coming into camp feeding on the marula fruits and soft green grass. But last October, for the first time, a female elephant walked right into camp with her new infant. The two wandered among the cottages, the adult feeding on the Combretum bushes, the infant staying so close to its mother's side, it seemed to be attached. They did us the honor of visiting for several days, and then continued their migration to the mountains. It was a real sign to us that the elephants are feeling safer. And thanks to all of your help, they are safer!
Mark continues to fly anti-poaching patrols in the chopper, and the game scouts are working better than ever. We must not let up our guard, but for now poaching is under control. Therefore, we have had more time to conduct lion research. As in many parks in Africa, North Luangwa is surrounded by hunting areas. The hunters are allowed to put bait on the borders of the park. These attract leopards and lions, drawing them out of the park where they are shot for trophies. We are concerned that too many of the North Luangwa lions are being killed in this way, so we have radio collared some of them. By monitoring their movements and mortality rates we can collect reliable data on the impact of baiting.
Miombo, a male lion, inhabits the plains just west of the Luangwa River. Early one morning Mark located the lion by airplane, and then we flew to his position in the chopper, so that we could make closer observations on the ground. Mark landed on the grassy plains, which, after the early rains, looked like a golf course spotted with herds of zebra, wildebeest, and impala. Shouldering our packs, radio antenna, receiver, and binoculars, we walked off in the direction of the lion. The heat and humidity pressed down on us, and scores of sweat flies buzzed around our faces.
We have located lions literally thousands of times, but usually in a vehicle in the desert. The terrain is so rugged in North Luangwa that we have to walk to the lions. This presents several problems. Many Luangwa lions have been shot at by poachers or hunters, so they react negatively to people. Usually they either charge or run away. We did not want to frighten Miombo, and we also did not care to be charged by him. As the 'beep, beep, beep' on the radio grew louder, informing us that the lion was very near, we entered a small woodland. Moving our heads back and forth, we searched the thick bushes ahead for any sign of the lion. The radio signal seemed to be coming from many different directions; either the lion was walking around in the thicket, or the signal was bouncing off the trees. We kept easing forward, turning our heads to and fro. Now and then I also looked behind us. I was expecting Miombo to burst out of the bush in full charge at any second. Suddenly, we saw him ahead. He was like a log, flat on his side, sound asleep. He had not heard us approach and had no idea that we were standing 25 yards from him. We walked a few steps closer. The lion sat up. We froze. He yawned, scratched his head with his paw, yawned again. He lay back down and went to sleep. We investigated a wildebeest he had killed on the plain and made notes. We crept silently away. Miombo never knew we were there.
As we have said often, we cannot do our job alone. We have had a lot help. Two of the people who helped us the most through some very rough times are Tom and Wanda Canon. They volunteered for our project for two and one half years, and were always ready for any task. Tom has been know to drive over the scarp mountains in the middle of the night to deliver poachers, and Wanda did everything from teach conversation to balance our budget. They have had to return to Dallas, and we will miss them very much. Thank you, Tom and Wanda, and "Shalenipo!"
And the Canons are not the only ones to help us. you do! For the last three years, we were very fortunate to have a large grant, but it is almost finished. Now we must depend more and more on your contributions to keep the project going. After our last letter, we received more contributions than ever before. That was our best anniversary present of all! Thank you very much.
Cheers from the valley.