Wild dogs in Zimbabwe

Twitching his nose like a mouse in a pantry, safari guide Henry Bundure tips back his head and inhales the air. It’s a warm morning, and a light wind carries the unmistakable waft of hippos wallowing in the Zambezi River – a putrid perfume with the sweetness of rotting fruit.

Distinctive though it may be, it’s not the scent Henry is after. His highly trained nostrils are on the hunt for a different animal, one that has earned Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park international small screen acclaim and attracted the world’s greatest wildlife documentary narrator to pay a visit early last year.

“I managed to sniff out the wild dogs for David Attenborough,” claims Henry proudly, boasting an accolade few safari guides can claim to possess. “He came here in his helicopter and wanted to see them,” explains the chatty, good-humoured Zimbabwean, who was drafted in to help guide the 93-year-old.

“Everyone thought I was crazy, but I managed to find them. They ran right towards us and lay down under a sausage tree.”

The purpose of David Attenborough’s visit was to film some final scenes for landmark series Dynasties, which aired on BBC One in 2018. It was a rare overseas outing for the national treasure, who these days prefers to spend most of his time at home in Richmond, London. But it was one that paid off.

Henry recalls he was “happy”, and they both enjoyed a sundowner of Zambezi beer.

An ambitious series, Dynasties focused on individual families from five different species, monitoring their behaviour, examining bonds and charting inevitable disputes. More than any animals, the painted wolves, or wild dogs, demonstrated the complexity of these relationships.

Producer Nick Lyon spent two years filming in Mana Pools, following the fortunes of ageing alpha-female Tait and her power-hungry daughters Blacktip and Tammy. The story ended in tragedy when Tait died, although after a decade she’d boosted a population that numbers just 6600 Africa-wide.

Now, Henry is helping me pick up where the story left off.

We set off after sunrise to track the dogs, that were last seen on the floodplain less than 24 hours earlier. Henry’s unconventional nasal tracking technique is down to the strong smell of ammonia he claims the dogs exude. It’s a result of their adaptation to hunting baboons – a new behaviour filmed by the BBC, which astounded experts and generated a scientific paper.

Today, though, we’re guided by sight. Fresh paw prints in the sand grow further and further apart, suggesting the dogs have been running. We follow them to a tangled pile of regurgitated entrails, which almost triggers my own breakfast to resurface. Along with signs of scruff marks on tree stumps and fresh pee, it’s a clear indication the dogs are around.

There are estimated to be around 110 dogs in Mana Pools, and during Tait’s reign, three packs roamed this area. After her death, Blacktip took control of the Nyakasanga pack, while Tammy took over Nyamatusi. Both, however, have suffered in the interim, and in April this year, Blacktip went missing altogether. Without their leader, the dogs are in disarray.

“We believe she might be dead,” says Henry, who describes her as an animal “who never smiled”.

Shortly after filming ended, Henry started working for African Bush Camps (ABC), a boutique collection of camps set up by Zimbabwean and former safari guide Beks Ndlovu, where the emphasis is very much on embracing wilderness – in style.

Huddled between winter thorn and ebony trees on the banks of the Zambezi River, the semi-mobile Zambezi Expeditions camp epitomises their ethos perfectly. Six rustic tents evoke the nostalgia of classic safaris; at night hippos snuffle past the canvas flaps and in the morning dewy pink light streams through seams, making me feel like a real resident of the bush.

And then there’s Henry, whose nose for locating wildlife extends far beyond his olfactory powers.

“Let’s check out the morning newspaper and find those kitty cats who were making noise last night,” he says, as we sit around a campfire watching distant mountains break through the misty morning haze and listening to the piercing squeal of fish eagles.

Of course, Mana Pools isn’t all about dogs. There are the lions, who prowl between long shafts of vetiver grass, hippos, who (according to Henry) chew on sausage tree fruit as if smoking cigars, and hundreds of elephants who come here to drink.

Not to mention the landscape: an enchanted forest of ancient trees bowing and bending to find light; a mighty river decorated with a maze of sandbanks; and a quartet of large pools created by oxbow lakes (mana in the local Shona language means four).

One of the reasons Nick Lyon chose to film here was “the beautiful backdrop”, best experienced from ABC’s newest camp, Nyamatusi.

Occupying a remote section of the park, six smart, sumptuous tents with plunge pools that take in the Zambezi, setting a new benchmark for luxury in Mana Pools.

Stars of this show are the elephants, who’ve honed a talent for balancing on their back legs to reach the leaves of acacia trees. Boswell, an ageing bull, pioneered the ‘Mana stand’, but his acrobatic behaviour has also been perfected by Fred Astaire, the dancing elephant, and Harry, a new kid on the block.

These yogic moves are an adaptation to finding water and nutrition during periods of drought, which Zimbabwe often faces.

For the dogs, survival is always a challenge. Photographer Nick Dyer has spent the past six years photographing packs in Mana Pools and is on familiar terms with them all. A co-founder of the Painted Wolf Foundation, his images have also been published in coffee table book Painted Wolves: A Wild Dog’s Life, and he now runs photographic safaris in partnership with ABC.

This week, like me, he’s in the park as a guest. I find him at a sighting of several dogs from Blacktip’s fractured pack. Given his knowledge of the animals’ movements, guides have even resorted to tracking him. “I often cover my footsteps with leaves,” he laughs.

One of the great joys of Mana Pools is that guests can explore on foot, allowing walking safaris and an opportunity to observe wildlife from a different perspective. “I don’t think I’ve taken any of my photos from a vehicle,” claims Nick.

It means most of our outings have been a ‘combo’ of drives and walks. Approaching slowly, we’re able to crouch close enough to hear the dogs pant, and when they pile on top of each other in a greeting ceremony, which resembles a winning team at the final whistle, we have front row stadium seats.

But seemingly unsure of where to run, the dogs soon scatter.

“It’s so sad to see them like this,” laments Nick, referring to the break-up of the pack and their metaphorical lack of direction. “I’m really not sure what will happen next.”

Disappearing behind a bush, several boisterous individuals are involved in a fracas and we wonder – for a minute – if they’ve made a kill. But the focus of their attention turns out to be a car mat, which they rip and tussle in a tug of war.

It’s an amusing scene that makes us smile – and proof that even though tough times lie ahead, there’s always room for play.

For more information on African Bush Camps, visit africanbushcamps.com.

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