“Cheetah!” It’s a cry that can raise anyone, even teenagers Callum and Ross Jenman out of bed at 6am.
Guests at Nantwich Lodge, in the wild north-west of Hwange National Park, stood on the lawn outside the main communal building and watched, in awe, as a cheetah wandered up to the camp waterhole, just a few metres from where they were standing, and drank.
Although the 2021 Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ) Hwange National Park Game Census, commonly known as the game count, hadn’t yet begun, it was a good omen for the 24-hours we would spend from midday that day, to midday the following.
Held over the last full moon of the dry season, the game count is the longest continually running wildlife census in southern Africa. The count is not just about numbers. Researchers studying endangered species, such as cheetah, wild dog, lions, and leopards find the annual census report invaluable.
For my wife, Nicola, and me, this was our 21st game count – for Callum and Ross, and mother and father Sandra and Garth, it was their first time. Excitement and expectations were high after the big cat sighting at dawn. The count has become the highlight of my time in Africa every year and I’ve only missed two since 1998 – one for a war (I served with the Australian Army in Afghanistan in 2002), and one for a pandemic (2020).
For first-timers the pre-count briefing, held at Robins Camp by WEZ Matabeleland president, Stuart Johnston, there’s a stern reminder to brush up on one’ animal knowledge. ‘Jackal’ is not good enough when recording an entry – it’s either side-striped or black-backed! The count forms ask for the gender of an animal, if identifiable, so we also go through the differences in elephant (females have a squared-off forehead, males are rounded), as well as some local specialities in the Nantwich area, such as roan and sable antelope.
The count is unique in so many ways. Being forced to sit still in one place for 24 hours. This brings a whole new dimension to game watching – it’s amazing how much excitement the appearance of an impala can generate. Also, counters are allowed out in the bush after dark.
Teams can find themselves on a stretch of river, at a dam, or a natural seep. It’s the luck of the draw – they may be on a rocky patch of bare ground, under a big tree, in a brick-and-mortar hide overlooking a dam or, like us, on a wide, shady stoep (verandah) under Nantwich’s thatched roof.
While the cheetah was exciting, and we had lion sightings either side of the census period, the highlight for me, as a shareholder in Nantwich, was the steady parade of plains game – giraffe, kudu, impala, and the elephants. We counted 467 animals Nantwich, an old national parks rest camp, had been abandoned for many years before we took it over and rebuilt it. The game was unused to people and, as a result skittish. Since re-opening, though the animals have rediscovered Nantwich and learned, again, that humans mean them no harm.
Taking part in the count
Anyone can take part in the Hwange Game Census, as long as they join WEZ and complete the required booking forms, which include specifying where in the park they want to stay. WEZ membership is US$50 per family for non-Zimbabweans and significantly cheaper for locals. There is a game count fee, but the Parks and Wildlife Service offers discounted entry fees during the count period.
Suites at Nantwich Lodge will be offered during the 2022 count, once the dates are finalised, usually in the February before the count. The census itself takes place either late September or early October each year.
To join WEZ and register your interest for the game count go to www.wezmat.org