Recovery and renewal: the return of wildlife tourism in Zimbabwe

Her amber eyes, cocooned in wrinkles, seem to hold all of time. “She remembers it all — the good and the bad — and will pass the lessons learned on to her family,” whispers Scott, looking at the matriarch elephant standing before us on the dirt road. Coyly peeking out from behind her flank are five others: teenagers, toddlers and a newborn. One stands with its leg motionless in mid-air. Then the limb starts to rock gently back and forth. “See that,” says Scott. “That’s displacement behaviour; they’ll sometimes do the same by picking at leaves, but not eating them. It means they’re unsure.”

Minutes pass, each of us observing the other in complete quiet, save for the flick of a tail, or fan of the ears. “They’re not running — this is a good sign,” remarks Scott, with a pleased nod, as these wandering grey mountains melt back into the bush.

Until three years ago, this area — the Sapi Concession, in the far north of Zimbabwe — was a hunting ground, and, according to conservation manager Scott, the experience has left mental scars on much of the wildlife here, particularly the lions and elephants. But in 2016, the government leased the 463,000sq mile concession to eco-tourism operator Great Plains Conservation, which converted it into a private photographic reserve; a fine example of how the safari scene is evolving in Zimbabwe.

Conservation organisations are leasing adjoining parcels of land to create ever-larger wildlife corridors and visitors have the unique chance to see, and be a part of, these efforts in their infancy.

Many travellers presume peak wildlife sightings like this are rare in Zimbabwe because poaching was rampant during Robert Mugabe’s almost four decades in power — a period marked by political instability, corruption and a floundering economy. They imagine it’s not a superior safari destination. But that’s a mistake. Safaris here are among the most affordable in Africa, wildlife sightings aren’t marred by hoards of other tourists, and the guides are among the best on the continent, thanks to their rigorous four- to seven-year training.

“Did you know you can tell the age of an elephant by its dung,” says guide, Cosmo. When they lose their molars, food is digested less, so the more bits,” he says, poking a finger into a sun-baked ball of poop, “the older they are.”

We’re inside the Chikwenya Concession, a two square mile swathe of land south of Mana Pools National Park — named after the four oxbow lakes formed by the meandering Zambezi river (called ‘mana’ in Shona language). This permanent water source attracts many large animals, including all of the Big Five except rhinos.

But it’s the two concessions on Mana’s southern border — Chikwenya and Sapi — that offer a different safari experience. Located across the river from Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park, together they’ve created a huge area through which wildlife can move freely. And it’s here where travellers can learn about conservation in more detail, as well as having a more bespoke safari experience.

It’s just Cosmo and me, as my elephant lesson continues. “They use infrasounds to communicate,” he says. I shoot him a confused look. “Stomach rumbling! It can travel up to 15km.” Our 4x4 is parked a good distance from three bachelors. “See how his tusk is pointing down,” says Cosmo, indicating the mismatched ivories of the largest. “They grow in unique ways just like ours,” he says, grinning to reveal his own buck teeth.

We rumble on, the last of the sun’s heat melting the fading light into a paint-box smudge of purples, pinks, oranges and blues. In the distance, the pew-pew call of a black-backed puffback sounds like a ray gun being fired. Rounding a corner, we find more elephants moseying down to the river’s edge to syphon off the now liquid-gold water. While waiting her turn, an elephant does something I’ve never seen before. She rocks back and, balancing on two legs, starts stripping the leaves from a tree. “Mana Pools and this area are unique for this behaviour — they’ve done it to adapt to the arid environment,” explains Cosmo.

Finally, we return to the new Chikwenya Camp. Meaning ‘scratchy,’ it’s a nod to the name of the last chief in the area, who, in 1915, was buried inside the bowels of a vast baobab just a few miles from camp. Beneath a star-studded night sky, I wander back to my luxury tent and run a bubble bath. I can hear a hippo munching grass outside as I soak, and wonder if leopards or lions are also prowling around my canvas fort.

Sure enough, there are prints in the sand the next morning. We don’t find their owners, but by 10am the heat has risen enough to let white-backed vultures take to the air; eyes down, talons splayed wide, half-a-mile high. Cosmo points out mopane and baobab trees. The former release tannins into the air when being eaten to alert others to change the taste of their leaves, while the latter’s seeds can be roasted for coffee, he explains.

We spy a waterbuck amid the bushes. “Know why he has a white circle on his butt?” asks Cosmo. “Because he was the first in Noah’s Ark to sit on the toilet seat.” I can’t help giggling as we continue across the floodplain.

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