Saturday, May 4, 2019

Finding wildlife is easy at Etosha National Park


Majestic elephants are common sights in Etosha National Park in Namibia.
Namibia’s premier wildlife viewing destination is a huge expanse of savannah in the northwest part of the country. Etosha NationalPark is one of the oldest and largest parks in Africa and hosts a plethora of large mammals and spectacular birds. This is true despite the fact a huge salt pan, remnant of a huge lake that existed two million years ago, covers a fifth of its surface area, and this shimmering white expanse is extremely inhospitable to living things.
Actually, it’s the Etosha Pan for which the region is most famous and the park is named. Almost entirely devoid of vegetation, most game gathers along the rim (especially to the south) of the pan which makes viewing wildlife a bit easier. About 50 natural and manmade waterholes attract a variety of species and allow for excellent viewing when staking your spot nearby. When the rainy season begins in November, the animals seldom need to visit the waterholes along the tourist routes, congregating instead in large herds on the grassy plains.
The arid Etosha salt pan is easily visible from the air.
Four of the “Big Five” of African wildlife (lion, leopard, elephant, and black rhino) can be spotted among 114 species of mammals here. Because there is little water, species like buffaloes, hippos, or crocodiles to not live in the park. The best time to visit is during the winter months of May-October (our trip is in July) because vegetation is sparse and temperatures are lower.
Small planes take us from one camp to another.
A stop at Desert Rhino Camp, more basic than the last but a center where professional trackers record information about the rare desert-adapted black rhino, gives us the opportunity to follow trackers on an expedition and mark our first sighting of a “Big Five” animal before heading to Etosha.

Fantastic view from our cabin in Ongava Lodge and Reserve in Namibia
Following our fifth and sixth flights on puddle-jumper planes in Namibia, we eventually arrive at Ongava Lodge and Reserve, a luxurious hilltop lodge set high on a ridge inside a private game reserve with resident white and black rhino and a busy water hole. This private game reserve adjoining Etosha is a conservation success story that developed when local families turned unproductive cattle ranches into a prolific 74,000-acre haven to rehabilitate and reintroduce wildlife.
Female lions drink while they wait for the male to
eat his fill of their recent giraffe kill.
Following a late lunch, we embark on a game drive through the Reserve and soon spot zebras grazing on the sparse grass. Our first really exciting sighting was a group of lions with their fresh kill of a giraffe. Three lionesses and one male lion had hunted and killed the giraffe when it came to drink at the water hole. The male feasts on the fresh meat and growls if the females came too close. So they wander over to drink—and provide us with excellent photos of their reflections in the waterhole.

Different species co-exist peacefully in the wild.
Soon another truck comes by. Since the guide is an employee of the Reserve (our guide is employed by the tour company Natural Habitat) he is allowed to have a rifle which is required if anyone leaves the safari vehicle. They had spotted white rhinos—the color refers to the mouth—so we join their group as they exit the vehicles and walk towards a group of a dozen rhinos coming across the plain in our direction.
White rhinos approach our group of travelers before meandering
another way.
We hold our collective breath and creep along as the rhinos meander through the tall tan grass, so close they can look us in the eye. Fortunately--because rhinos can be extremely dangerous if they decide to charge--these deem us harmless and wander off in another direction. Another amazing experience!

Back in the vehicle, we spot more plains animals like zebras, Oryx, springbok, impala, and many vibrantly-colored birds.
Cabins in wildlife camps are often basic
but comfortable, although some are fairly
luxurious.
We spend another full day at Etosha National Park, where springs around the salt pan draw a plethora of game including red heart beast (the fastest antelope species), black-faced impala, elephants, black wildebeests, ostrich, zebras, spring bok, Oryx, and kudu. Our cameras keep clicking even as we remind ourselves to stop and just watch the action in nature.

Multiple species of wildlife will drink at water holes at the same time, but they are always on guard checking for predators. Not surprisingly, impala, antelopes, and ostriches move out of the way as we watch a large bull elephant approach a waterhole. While he isn’t a life threat, his sheer size is intimidating to other animals. Watching the elephant splash, blow bubbles, and suck water into his trunk, curl it upward, and lift the trunk to squirt water into his cavernous mouth is fascinating. His movements are slow and deliberate—necessary for such a large body.
A bull elephant splashes water on himself.
At another water hole we spend about an hour observing a family of 13 elephants, including moms and babies, as they march over the savannah toward the water. Young elephants play “tussle trunks,” a game where they appear to be trying to decide what the trunk is good for. As they begin to leave, the matriarch elephant keeps everyone in line while walking with the group, even the newborns. And before long another group of elephants comes across the savannah to the water hole—more than 30 in an hour’s time. What a thrill to see such a spectacle!

A family of elephants leaves a water hole.
Another highlight of our day in Etosha National Park is watching two giraffes walk in smooth, graceful movements toward a water hole. Giraffes are very cautious as they cross the plain and approach the water hole, stopping often to sense if danger lurks. They drink one at a time because when they bend down on their knees to drink giraffes can’t get up fast to run if prey should strike. Because they are more vulnerable, they do not scare other animals away from the water as the elephant did.
Giraffes are vulnerable to prey when bending down to drink.
The interaction of these animals in nature is fascinating to watch, so we take our time at different spots, soaking in the tremendous opportunity that we are privileged to have.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

 

 

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