Coauthored by Brenda Walkenhorst, Audubon Zoo, New Orleans, Louisiana and Melinda Voss, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Cincinnati, Ohio
We are participants in Earth Expeditions, a master’s program offered by Project Dragonfly at Miami University and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. Our mission is to build an alliance of individuals with first-hand knowledge of inquiry-driven, community-based learning for the benefit of ecological communities, student achievement, and global understanding.
It was Monday night and we headed into orientation for the Waterburg Conservancy Game Count, that would take place early the next morning. Here we found our partners for the 12 hour count. We also found out that 12 hours was only the half of it. Dr. Laurie Marker generously offered the opportunity to spend a full 24 hours counting wildlife. She asked for volunteers and after a moment of hesitation we both shot our hands up. 24 hours in the bush, with wildlife was too tempting to pass up.
We went to bed dressed, with our bags packed for the 4am wakeup. We sprung from bed and walked to breakfast in the freezing cold, half awake, with sleeping bags. By 4:20am there was a fleet of vehicles waiting. The CCF staff starting shouting out names of waterhole locations. It was a pandemonium of groggy volunteers shuffling around and loading up vehicles, nervously anticipating what the next 12 to 24 hours might be like. We were ready to storm the blinds. We loaded into pickup trucks and to our surprise we found out we had a third partner- Heldreth a 17 year old student from Otjiwarongo, Namibia.
Our trio was dropped off at our waterhole in the pitch black. They gave us our box of food, water and two rolls of toilet paper (this might seem excessive, but the chili dinner the night before was delicious). We climbed into the blind and organized all of our precious supplies. This included selecting a strategic location for our bush toilet. The count was to start at exactly 6:00 am. We were poised and ready with binoculars, pencils, field guide, and data sheet in hand, waiting to see what the waterhole would reveal.
At 6:10am we spotted a jackal, then oryx, a flock of guinea fowl, warthogs, kudu, a lone steenbok, slender mongoose, hammerkop, francolin, and then came the baboons! We were spotting animals everywhere. Heldreth started out silently, probably a little concerned about the two giddy American women sitting next to her. Maybe she had never seen two women so excited about wildlife? Soon Heldreth was spotting animals and participating.
Silence was of the utmost importance so that we would not scare any wildlife. We did have an occasional giggle, exclamation over an exciting animal sighting, and some unfortunate feedback from the chili the night before.
The 12 hours flew by as we witnessed the drama of the waterhole play out. Some prey animals cautiously risked a quick drink or taste of the salt lick, while others, like the warthog, bravely trotted onto the scene with tails raised.
As dusk settled in, baboons started to gather across the waterhole. We began to notice they were organizing. The dominate male was barking orders and sentries slowly began to maneuver towards our blind. Our anxiety increased as we noticed the baboon scat littering the floor of our refuge. With hearts racing, we locked our binoculars on a small crest waiting to see if they would approach. Our adrenaline surged as we saw the first baboon come over the crest. All of a sudden we heard the sound of the CCF truck. We knew we were safe!
The CCF staff picked up our new friend, Heldreth, dropped off supplies and gave us some words of wisdom. We felt prepared for our next 12 hours in the bush…
We watched the CCF truck driveway and hunkered down for the night. As the temperature quickly dropped we crawled into our sleeping bags and perched ourselves on the bench seat. The moon was full but visibility was not great. Melinda spotted an oryx at the salt lick. She turned on her small flashlight to record the information and the oryx bolted. Lesson learned – no flashlights. We had to depend on our other senses.
We sat silently listening to animals approach. Melinda said “listen! I hear a leopard growling. It’s close.” Brenda laughed “that’s my stomach and the chili.” It was time to really concentrate.
We sat in the cold and listened for animals. We used our binoculars to peer into the darkness but it was too difficult to see. We decided to take turns sleeping. Melinda was first. She had the better sleeping bag so in theory she could sleep a little more soundly. After a few hours of tossing and turning on the loose floor boards of the blind Melinda took the post. Suddenly to the immediate right in the bush she heard a loud commotion. It seemed something was causing major havoc within the menacing baboon troop from earlier. It ended with a loud scream and then warning bark from the dominate male. It’s safe to say something had a late night snack on a baboon. Later Brenda heard a rustling in the bush and then a warthog scurried right under the floor boards of the blind. She could feel him pass right under our back!
6 a.m. approached and the count was ending. We were cold, but happy that we had made it 24 hours alone in the bush. To celebrate we applied a little war paint and enjoyed the rising sun over the waterhole. We heard the CCF truck approach. We got into the warm truck and left our waterhole in a cloud of dust. There was some upbeat kwito music playing on the radio. We looked at each other, wearing our war paint, and knew that we had experienced something only a few people on earth would ever experience.