By Tony Park
What’s the longest you’ve spent at an animal sighting on safari? Half an hour? An hour? Two?
Try 24 hours some time. It might sound like a chore (perhaps a bore), but trust me, it’s incredible fun, and, for an author and wildlife-nut like me, inspirational.
The Hwange National Park game census, better known as ‘the count’, is the longest-continually running wildlife census in southern Africa. Last year, Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ, formerly the Wildlife Society) notched up an impressive 50-year anniversary, and my wife and I celebrated our 20th count.
The concept is as simple as it is wonderful and (for some) challenging – to sit by a waterhole or spring or stretch of river for 24 hours and do nothing but count every mammal that comes to drink. What makes the count truly unique is that the vast majority of folks who take part are ordinary people, like you and me. One does not have to be a scientist. Though for the researchers based in and around Hwange, the annual census is a goldmine of information, particularly sightings of rare and endangered wildlife.
The annual census takes part in late September or early October, from midday to midday over the last full moon of the dry season. The theory is that ground water in the semi-arid wilds of Hwange will have shrunk enough for most water points to be covered by observers, and that all animals will drink at least once in a 24-hour period. Being forced to sit still and record the comings and goings, drinking habits, condition, species, age-range and sex of every animal that wanders along brings an entirely new dimension to traditional game viewing.
The count is open to anyone (16 is the official age minimum) and pre-Covid teams came from around the world – my wife and I are Australian, but live half of each year in Africa. The 51st count did go ahead in 2020, albeit with fewer teams than normal.
Membership of WEZ is compulsory and a fee to count is charged, but this is offset by generous discounts from National Parks on accommodation for the three-day period of the count. Teams assemble on night-one for briefing, count over the second day and night, and there is a de-brief and socialising around the campfire on the third night.
Teams – at least two people, ideally four-to-six – are assigned their counting spot at random in one of three administrative areas, Main Camp, Sinamatella, and Robins. Lucky volunteers may score a popular hide and waterhole teeming with a non-stop procession of game, while others might get a half-dry seep (spring) in the middle of nowhere.
Paradoxically, even a ‘slow’ count can be rewarding. It is amazing (trust me) how grateful one can be to see a solitary impala ram, or a tree squirrel, after hours of watching nothing. On the flipside, it can be incredibly hard work trying to count and sex a herd of 1000 buffalo after being kept alert by a prowling pride of lions.
Best of all, for me, is having the time to observe interactions between species. I’ve seen some amazing things, from a leopard walking in the shadow of a roan antelope (using the roan as cover to stalk an impala), to blacksmith lapwings dive-bombing baboons. Bird species are recorded during the census, though not counted.
Also for me, there’s time in between counting to think and write. Some of the scenes I’ve witnessed and experienced, such as an elephant sticking its trunk through the window of my Land Rover, and a lioness charging a metre from the front bumper, have made it into my books.
Taking part in the count is inspirational, and not just for writers. It’ll quite possibly make seeing an impala – a beautiful animal – the highlight of your day.
Tony Park is the author of 18 thriller novels set in Africa and part owner of Nantwich Lodge. Visit www.tonypark.net for more.