Predator Biologist: Grassland Bushman Lodge report

May 12th, 2008, 11:47 PM
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Predator Biologist: Grassland Bushman Lodge report

I am way overdue to finish my Tanzania report so sorry to skip ahead but I can knock this one out in one shot while Tanzania still requires quite a bit of time to finish.

The last week of April I traveled to Grassland Bushman Lodge, which is west of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and a good bit east of Ghanzi. This was a work project and I was supported generously by Footsteps in Africa who paid for my air from Joburg to Maun and to the lodge, and by Grassland Bushman Lodge who hosted me for no charge, treated me like family, and provided tremendous technical support for this project. The first part of this report will summarize my work since I think it is of interest to many of you but in my 6 night stay I was able to do all of the typical tourist activities as well so I will detail the tourist experience too.

My purpose for going was to do the preliminary work for a predator research project that will hopefully develop into a long-term conservation program focused on predator rescue and release. Other than the lodge concession of 10,000 hectares, the area is dominated by cattle farms. There is great conflict with predators, especially with lions and wild dogs which cause a high number of cattle losses. Because of the real and perceived threat predators are persecuted and a high number are killed annually, this is one of the big reasons for the ban on lion hunting, because farmers are legally destroying large numbers of lions.

Grassland Bushman Lodge is owned by the de Graff family who are now 5th generation farmers who first arrived about 120 years ago from South Africa as the British government encouraged settlers to prevent Germany from getting a hold of Botswana. This family is a fascinating part of the experience as they have lived on the land so long and have had a side by side relationship with bushmen who have worked on their farms for a long, long time. Willie de Graff who is the patriarch of the family speaks two bushmen languages fluently and used to go on 18 week cattle drives through the CKGR. I met his 82 year old mother who opened the first general store in Ghanzi when she was just 18 and she still runs it! His daughter Neeltjie (pronounced Nee-yelkie) is managing the lodge with her husband Tiaan and she speaks fluent Naro bushmen and is a licensed guide who worked in the Delta for many years at Ker and Downey camps. Their 3 and 5 year old daughters also speak Naro bushmen. Willie began the predator rescue project about 5 years ago by capturing predators in a cargo net to prevent them from being shot. There are regulations that limit use of tranquilizers to veterinarians so this unorthodox and quite courageous method has had to be implemented. A number of predators have been captured and relocated back into the CKGR. Some of them headed right back to the farms leading to some being shot and others being recaptured and housed in 11 hectare enclosures at the lodge and currently lions and wild dogs are being kept in these large captive enclosures and guests can drive in to see some of them (walk in with the wild dogs).

When I traveled to Botswana in November I was told about this project and the ongoing conflict that was making it difficult to accomplish the rescue and relocation that was the original goal and I was asked if I would be willing to consult on the project and think about some solutions. As predator/livestock conflict has been a problem for decades all around the world it is a truly daunting challenge. I did lots of research and found some techniques that make some measures of improvement but then I found an incredibly interesting technique that made a lot of sense to me called Conditioned Taste Aversion (CTA). It involves an ancient evolutionary wiring to protect species from ingesting substances that harm them, which is critical with about 5,000 poisonous plants and numerous poisonous animals on the planet. If you have ever had food poisoning or even waaayyy too much tequila you will relate to this. If you introduce an undetectable agent that makes an animal sick when it ingests a certain food there is a subconscious process that stores memories of the scent and taste to a primitive area of the brain and the treated animal then forms an aversion to that food. The sickness we induce is so mild it is not even visible to an observer and the animal will typically eat other foods after about 30 minutes. It has been demonstrated that this aversion can extend to the avoidance of live prey as well and this has been successfully done with wolves and coyotes. Evidence suggests that the process will work with virtually any animal but it has never been tried with lions or any of the other African predators. I am now very busy in the process of working with the world’s expert on this technique to design a proper study using the captive animals at Grassland Bushman to prove the method and then extend it to field applications with free ranging predators. Soon as we complete the design I will have the difficult task of finding sufficient funding to make it happen but I am extremely excited to be working on this project.

Now onto the tourist review.

Lodging: Grassland Bushman has chalets of concrete with thatch roofs and tile floors. At first look it is not the typical kind of Africa style that I choose but they are very efficient for the Kalahari environment. They actually tried tents when they first opened and it was sweltering hot at times. My chalet stayed surprisingly cool during the heat of the day and remained perfectly comfortable during the cool of the night. They are roomy with comfortable beds. Bathroom was very small but had a flush toilet, hot shower, and sink so everything you need.

Brick walkways connect the 8 chalets to the main area. There are actually 4 individual chalets to one side of the main area and then two newer duplex chalets to the other. They appear to be about equal standard in all. Meals are taken under a roof with views out to a flood lit waterhole in front of the camp. Pre and post meal there is a nice fire pit to sit around that is much closer to the waterhole. Meals are solid comfort food, not a gourmet extravaganza like at some camps but everything was good and in a couple instances like fried chicken and lasagna it was really excellent.

The waterhole is the real wildlife highlight of the Lodge. The concession has very healthy populations of all the typical Kalahari ungulates and other species. At the waterhole there is a nightly parade of eland, oryx, wildebeest, and kudu. Other species like zebra and springbok come with less predictability. There is also a brown hyena who travels a circuit that includes the waterhole on a nightly basis. It was seen on 4 of my 6 nights and on one very fortunate encounter as I sat by the fire it passed slowly by only about 25 feet away! I am virtually sure it came by the waterhole the two nights that we didn’t see it but it could have been later or while we were eating and just missed.
Bushman activities is what the lodge is most known for and rightly so. As mentioned above Neeltjie speaks fluent Naro bushmen and she grew up in the company of quite a few of the bushmen in the area so she knows them and their culture very well. It is quite likely that her and her sister are the only guides in Botswana who can truly speak the language and that is a huge advantage when doing the activities as she can really translate what they are saying to one another and translate for your questions to get the answers from the people instead of giving her guess as to their answer as most guides do on bushmen activities. A good example is she told them I was the lion researcher and some of the people laughed and told her they thought I would be much older than I was.

I did a group walk with 14 bushmen including women and children and even babies. This is unique as most bushmen activities in other lodges only involve walking with a couple of men. The group walks along and whoever wants to share something interesting will call you over and explain whatever. The group also gathers traditional food sources as they are walking. It is wonderful to see the children interested in what is going on and some of the older children share information with you. In this way a large part of the foraging knowledge and culture is being passed down instead of being completely lost. After a while we stopped and they made a fire, a contest between the men and the women using different techniques. Men with sticks and women with a flint striking method. The women won the contest and there was a lot of funny smack talk going on. They had collected about 10 different foods that were then prepared with the fire and we had the opportunity to eat them along with the bushmen.

Later in the day we went to an area with traditional bushmen huts and had an afternoon of recreation. The men had a contest that involves throwing a stick to bounce of a mound of grass with the goal of it bouncing off and traveling the greatest distance. Again I had the chance to participate and joined in the line waiting my turn. My first throw pretty much missed the mound all together but by my third turn it glanced off at least as far as some of the boys. The women played a game of tossing a fruit to one another in a kind of follow the leader style. Then there was a jump rope using an eland strap and some traditional dancing.

On a different day I took rode horses with two bushmen. At that time I was the only person at the lodge so Neeltjie went to Ghanzi for supplies so it was just me and the bushmen. We had a bit of a language barrier but it was quite fun to ride in the Kalahari with just myself and a couple of bushmen. The nice thing here is they can accommodate any level of rider so it is appropriate for novices like me and they have some outstanding horses and the staff all ride on the farms so they are quite skilled too. I believe you can arrange to do multi day camping trips even. I did have a couple of adrenaline filled moments. Early in the ride there was a puff adder and I had to quickly maneuver my horse away from it so that it wouldn’t catch a bite in the leg as it was only about 6 inches from where the horse was. Then as we returned to the lodge for some reason the bushman in the lead started riding along the fence to one of the lion enclosures (they are big enclosures and usually it takes minutes driving around to even find the lions) and all of a sudden our horses started to bolt and I look back to see a 3 year old male lion in a dead sprint coming toward us – luckily the fence is good! It was quite terrifying to see a lion running at you like that and I can imagine making a stand on foot is a very difficult thing to do. Fortunately I was able to hold onto my horse and calm it down after a short gallop away. I am sure that kind of thing never happens with Neeltjie guiding but since it was all fine it was actually one of the highlights of my stay.

I did a number of game drives and this is the current weak point of the area. Most people stay for 2 nights and do the 2 bushmen activities, ride horses, and visit with the captive predators and never game drive thus the area is infrequently driven and the animals are less habituated than in most safari areas. Eland are almost always very shy any way but the oryx are quite wary too. There are still plentiful sightings but many of the animals tend to quickly move to a far distance before stopping. In some ways it is great to see animals in a more typical state than the heavily habituated style that has become the norm but it is harder to get good photos. Another issue is predators are largely absent and those that are in the area tend to be very secretive due to the danger of the farms. The outstanding viewing at the waterhole helps compensate and it is a good place to see the desert ungulates but at this time it is not the best place for Kalahari game drives. I think if it gets more visitation with more game drives it will improve and I am hopeful that our predator project will eventually lead to more predators in the area.

I did make a drive outside the property into an area called the No Man’s Land. This is a 70 km wide swath of public land that serves as a buffer between the CKGR and the farms as well as the lodge concession. Bushmen are allowed to live in this area and allowed to hunt there. I drove past a small settlement and they are ranging livestock there. Hunts no longer include the traditional stalking bow and arrow method but rather the bushmen ride horses and spear their prey. Other than the official designation of the land it is very typical of the landscape inside the park and there is a wonderful valley that intersperses with long open area and thick brushy habitats. On the road we found a predator highway of tracks with leopard and brown hyena tracks everywhere and some cheetah and lion as well. The area is sometimes very good for cheetah but when we visited the springbok were all gone and thus the cheetah with them. I thought this area was fantastic and definitely a good place to explore for anyone doing a longer stay at this lodge.

One last treat to mention is that there are captive lions on both sides of the lodge and they roar frequently throughout the night. It does not feel quite the same as when you are in a camp in the Delta with free ranging lions but I found it very pleasurable anyway to have the nightly chorus of lions reverberating around the fire and through my chalet.

My first two nights there was one other couple visiting the lodge and my next four nights I was the only guest in the lodge. They do run a quite successful campsite on the property that is very popular with self-drivers on their way in or out of the CKGR. When the Lodge is not full the self-drivers are able to pay to do activities and may have a drink at the bar but they do not get meals and the campsite is far so you never know they are there. This was interesting to me that the lodge was empty. I keep reading that people think Botswana is so expensive and yet this very nice lodge, which has a rack rate of $375 at the time that I was there and offers arguably the best bushmen experience available is empty. Interestingly when I was leaving a special camp was being set up by Wilderness Safaris for a high dollar round the world National Geographic group of 26 (I think) coming to experience the bushmen culture and see the predator project which I think speaks volumes to the quality of the experience being offered here.

Summary: For people looking for a true Kalahari experience centered on bushmen culture and seeing the typical Kalahari species this is an outstanding place to go. The opportunity to ride horses is unusual and a huge plus. It also offers beautiful captive lions and wild dogs that you can see at close range and by doing so you will be supporting a project that hopefully will become a model for predator conservation in livestock areas. It is also a tremendous value of a first rate lodge and activities for 2008 rates of $475 high season and $355 low season.

Photos can be found on my site at bgiven.zenfolio.com

Click on the Grassland Bushman album. I recommend double clicking on the first picture to scroll through with captions as opposed to the slide show.
PredatorBiologist is offline  
May 13th, 2008, 12:10 AM
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Hi Bill

Your photos were most enjoyable, so thank-you - absolutely love the variety of things - especially would love to see the puff adders.

I sort of remember a discussion of what to call this group of men, women and children - did you find out what is their preference?

Kind regards

Kaye
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May 13th, 2008, 12:32 AM
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sniktawk
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Hi Bill,

Yet another very interesting report, how do you find these places? Where did you see the wild dog, it seems very early for pups, perhaps they do things differently in the CKGR.
What happens with the lions?
I should imagine the reason for not being very busy is that nobody knows about it and it is probably well off the beaten track, where exactly is it?
 
May 13th, 2008, 09:26 AM
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skimmer
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Bill,

Very interesting reading and thanks for sharing this.

It seems that this lodge is promoted by Desert and Delta.


Greetz,

Johan
 
May 13th, 2008, 10:35 AM
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Beautiful pics Bill! Sounds like a very interesting place to stay- and to be on foot with the dogs is amazing! Hope your project proves successful.
Thanks!
matnikstym is offline  
May 13th, 2008, 04:34 PM
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Thanks Kaye, we were unbelievably lucky with the mating puff adders! The people in this area definitely prefer to be called bushman/bushmen, which was consistent with what I have been told at Deception Valley Lodge and with the most recent readings I have done.

Ken: I have spent a good bit of time looking up virtually every property in Northern Botswana to try and uncover some good values but in this case it was Footsteps in Africa and the Lodge that reached out and asked me to assess their situation so I simply got lucky with this find.

The lodge is in a very unique location as it is about 70 km west of the CKGR and 80 km northeast of Ghanzi, I read somewhere that the next closest lodge is 100 km so it is the only lodge on the west side of the Resere until you get around Ghanzi. It is a small detour though for self drivers heading for either of 2 entrances into the CKGR and the lodge is very favorably reviewed in the Shell Botswana guide that is apparently a well used resource for self drivers so the lodge is well known by a lot of self campers but not so exposed to the typical fly in safari goer. It was just a 45 to 50 minute flight from Maun so it was about the same as flying out to the Makgadikagi Pans. On my way out we had to go to Delta Camp and were there in about an hour.

The wild dogs with pups were in captivity as well. There is interest from wild dog researchers to try and mix puppies in to supplement natural litters but you are right the timing is a little earlier than most northern Botswana packs although I heard the Khwai pack had pups at this time as well. My guess is in the Kalahari they will breed at a slightly different time but the fact is virtually all studies in Botswana for predators have occurred in the Delta/Chobe area and very little work has been done in the Kalahari which is another reason I am excited to be involved here.

We are assessing if any of the current lions can be released but it is doubtful as they have been around people too long so most likely they will live out their days well cared for in very large enclosures and serve as the start point for the research that can hopefully change the fate of many lions in the future. Attempts were made to relocate them originally but they wandered right back to farms or even the lodge.

Johan: pleasure to share and glad you enjoyed the report. The lodge is commited to Footsteps in Africa as its main marketing partner but they still take direct bookings and may well still be sold through Delta and Desert and others or that could be an old relationship, I'm not sure. I know their profile has been increasing with Footsteps and they want to keep growing their exposure.

Thanks Dennis! I am excited about the project and very hopeful for making great progress. Being on foot with the dogs is thrilling, 15 adults and 4 young pups at the moment.
PredatorBiologist is offline  
May 13th, 2008, 05:17 PM
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This is very exciting and promising--the research project and the Lodge.

I hope that lone brown hyena finds a pack or at least a mate and then he can start his own pack. What a lucky find.

You had your own Kentucky Derby in the Kalahari. How scary to have a lion running at you on horseback, even it was enclosed. But the puff adder wasn't enclosed, though.

I thought that photo was mating puff adders. What a sight!

Loved the lion face and your many people shots.

This was worth interrupting Tanzania.
atravelynn is offline  
May 13th, 2008, 05:37 PM
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Good luck with the project. It's a very interesting method you're proposing and I really hope it works in that part of the world. Has it already been used with success in that part of the world? You must be very excited by the possibilities. Power to you and all involved.
kimburu is offline  
May 13th, 2008, 06:37 PM
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Bill,

Very different perspective at this lodge. Very refreshing and your pictures show that also ........ I say anyplace that actively works towards saving the wild dog amongst other species is a thumbs up!!!

Thanks for sharing!

I'd say this is a can't miss for people that are going to be travelling into the Kalahari area in the coming years with the opening up to so many lodges!

Cheers
Hari
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May 14th, 2008, 09:48 AM
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Pred

Great photos and great work, sounds like a really interesting and hopefully revolutionary project that you are working on.
napamatt is offline  
May 14th, 2008, 03:48 PM
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Predator, Please keep us posted on this fascinating research!
atravelynn is offline  
May 14th, 2008, 07:11 PM
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This place is better known to the self drive and much closer then 100kms.

www.dqae.org/accom.htm
luangwablondes is offline  
May 14th, 2008, 09:59 PM
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Lynn: yes, mating puff adders was one sighting and then a different puff adder while on horseback -- I didn't bring the camera while riding horses. I will definitely keep everyone updated on how the research project progresses.

Kimburu: thanks for the good wishes on the project. To my knowledge no one has tried this method anywhere in Africa. We already have interest from a group in Kenya that wants to reintroduce some lions so we may be working in two places already if all goes well.

Hari: thanks for your good thoughts. It is interesting that all of a sudden there seems to be a lot more interest in the Kalahari. Not sure why now but it is magical and it will be good to have more people experiencing that area of Botswana.

Matt: thanks, the research does have some revolutionary potential and I hope we are able to realize that potential.

Luangwa: that looks like an interesting place and a good way to support the bushmen. I am vaguely familiar with the trust and it seems that they are doing a great job. When I am in the area doing my research I will have to try and venture over and check it out. It looks to be about 60 km maybe from Grassland Bushman Lodge.
PredatorBiologist is offline  
May 14th, 2008, 10:22 PM
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I noticed when looking at my pictures that I forgot one last interesting and unique experience at the Lodge. They call it the sand grouse experience.

You set up a chair around 9 a.m. in the morning at the edge of the waterhole in front of the camp. Burchell's sand grouse are spread out through the area and usually seen in single pairs on the ground. As they come to the waterhole though they circle around and one pair joins another and so on and so on until groups may number over a hundred, then a couple groups of a hundred and then perhaps a couple thousand birds are circling together and they start swooping down for drinks only touching the water for a second and then bursting back into the air. These clouds of birds start coming over you into the water and then from another direction to the water and right back straight over you. Then some birds start bellying into the water where they capture droplets under their breast feathers to carry for miles back to feed their young. It is a pretty amazing experience to see these big flocks form and then come up, down, and all around as you sit there.
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