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Life in Chobe National Park

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It's only 65 km from Victoria Falls in Zambia to Chobe National Park in Botswana, a mere one hour drive if all goes well. But you can never be sure how long the trip will take.

We pulled into the tiny town of Kazungula and lined up for the ferry across the Zambezi River. Our Toyota Land Cruiser was dwarfed by the massive rig beside us – a semi- and full-trailer loaded with scrap iron destined for Francistown. Small tourist-vehicles like ours are given priority but the lineup of big rigs was at least a kilometre long and the ferry can take only one truck at a time. The resulting delay can take up to a week. And how do a bunch of bored truck drivers spend their time? Not surprisingly the truck-route through Kazungula is sometimes referred to as HIV alley.

The South African Medical Research Council recently conducted a study of the role that mobile populations, such as truck drivers, play in the spread of HIV throughout Africa. They found that 56 per cent of the drivers they poled were HIV positive and few of them did anything to protect the sex-workers they engaged along their route or their wives and girlfriends back home.

The location of the Kazungula crossing is a legacy of 19 th century African colonialism. In 1884 the colonial powers convened an "international" conference where they sat down with a map of Africa and proceeded to parcel out the "Dark Continent" among themselves. Most of the negotiations involved pen-and-ruler decisions made in the absence of any Africans. As a result present-day Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe all converge at Kazungula, and the border between Zambia, and Botswana, the shortest international border in the world, is only 45 metres long. Not only that, but this miniscule common border lies smack in the middle of the Zambizi River, creating a bottleneck that forces all north-south traffic between Botswana and Zambia to funnel through the tiny Kazungula Ferry.

Once across the Zambezi we had clear sailing along secondary roads to our camp in Chobe National Park. Our route took us through sparse mopane forest dotted with termite nests that rise from the dusty red soil like giant sand castles. Many of the trees are missing branches and others are toppled over, their roots still clinging to the earth. In places the forest is reminiscent of WW1 photos of no-mans-land – every tree stripped of its foliage, not by shrapnel but by elephants.

No one knows how many elephants there are in the park but most authorities put their number at well over 50,000. During the dry season, when most of the surrounding countryside is parched, the big pachyderms and a host of lesser animals congregate in the wetlands and marshes of the Chobe River floodplain, making it one of the most exciting game-viewing areas in Africa.

Chobe National Park embraces 11,000 square kilometres of wilderness, one of the largest protected areas in Botswana. But the park is rapidly becoming a victim of its own success. During the 1970s and ’80s rampant poaching drastically reduced the population of elephants throughout Africa. A nucleus of several thousand animals in the Chobe River area escaped the slaughter and Botswana's rigorous conservation efforts have since helped the herd grow to the largest concentration of elephants in all of Africa. But the big pachyderms are rapidly destroying the forest and the herd may well have outgrown the carrying capacity of the park. Some authorities have proposed a cull, and suggested that its cost could be financed through sale of the ivory. This is violently opposed by other groups who feel that an ivory market, no matter how well regulated, would lead to a renewal of poaching. So far the matter is unresolved and while the experts ponder their fate thousands of happy elephants continue to thrive and enjoy the moist luxury of the Chobe River pachyderm paradise.

As soon as we were settled in our new camp the eight of us piled into an outboard skiff for a cruise along the river. David, our guide and boatman, guided his small craft expertly through myriad, reed-lined channels, pausing every so often to point out some exotic creature: a malachite kingfisher, its large head and massive bright red beak out of all proportion with its small iridescent body, a baby Nile crocodile basking on the bank with its mouth wide open, a snakebird trying to swallow a fish too big to go down its long skinny neck. And before any of us even saw them David throttled back and swung the boat to avoid a pod of hippos. Only their eyes and nostrils projected above the dark surface but their huge powerful bodies just below the surface are a constant danger to small boats. In fact hippos are responsible for more human deaths than those caused by lions or any other big-game animal in Africa. Because many of the native boat people are unable to swim, getting dumped by a hippo is often fatal.

A family of wart hogs scurried along the shore. Behind them a large group of antelope (springbok, impala, and bush buck) paused at the edge of the forest before venturing down to the water's edge for a drink. They paid no attention to a large baboon digging roots and grubs from the bank.

The river is a maze of channel-ways and low islands and on almost every island a herd of elephants is feeding. On our way out to the nearest herd we passed a large group of water buffalo bedded down in the long grass. Except for the vicious hook of their jet-black horns they could have been a bunch of domestic cattle. "Don't let that fool you," said David, "they are mean and unpredictable." He was not the only one to caution us about approaching these wild bovines. They have a reputation for charging without warning or provocation.

David slid the skiff onto the muddy bank of an island only a stone's throw from where a group of elephants were feeding. They seemed oblivious to our presence until we crossed some invisible line that defined their space. If we got too close one of the largest in the group would turn and face us with ears spread and a stare that said "back off right now" – and we didn't argue.

I counted 23 elephants on our island – a mix of adults, juveniles and a few small calves – and the groups on other islands appeared to be about the same size. Elephants are highly social, living in herds made up of a matriarch, her female offspring and their calves. In their early teens juvenile males leave the family herd and join groups of bachelor bulls. Females mature at about age 12, mate with the dominant bull from a bachelor group, and become the matriarchs of new family herds.

According to Wildlife Africa, each adult elephant consumes about 250 Kg (550 pounds) of food a day. As we watched them daintily plucking tufts of grass with their long flexible trunks and carefully shaking dirt from the roots before popping the morsel into their mouths I wondered how many hours it must take to pack in that amount of hay. In fact elephants eat almost continuously and just about any vegetable matter will do – leaves, twigs, and bark as well as grass, reeds and roots. They start life with six sets of molars, but grinding up that volume of silage takes its toll. The last set is usually worn out after 50 or 60 years and, unable to feed, the animal dies of starvation.

As the sun dipped into a layer of clouds just above the horizon the herds abruptly stopped feeding and began making their way toward the river. It was as though someone had yelled "OK guys dinner's over, time to go home." In fact that may well have been what they were saying to one another as herd after herd left the islands and began wading ashore. We humans just can't hear them. The powerful infrasonic calls of elephants, their rumbles, grunts and purrs, are well below the threshold of human hearing. But recent research indicates that these low frequency sounds are how elephants talk to one another. Bioacoustic research by a Cornell group has discovered that elephants, like whales, can communicate over great distances and the same techniques and acoustic arrays used to study marine mammals are now being used to learn more about the language of elephants.

One by one the herds entered the river, youngsters clinging to their mother's tails, and waded to the opposite shore. When they emerged their bodies bore the sharp line of the high water mark – two-tone elephants, black below and dusty grey above. As they disappeared into the forest we headed back to camp ourselves just in time to see hippos leaving the river for their turn to feed on the lush Chobe River grass.

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