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WHAT TO SEE IN HWANGE BROWN HYENA The brown hyena is among several species found in Hwange that are more typically associated with the arid west. Its presence refl ects the Kalahari sand that underlies large tracts of the park, infl uencing the ecology. RED- BILLED HORNBILL The male red- billed hornbill - a familiar character in Hwange - uses mud to seal the female into the nest hole. She remains there throughout the incubation period, receiving food from her mate through a narrow slit, and breaks out only when there is no longer space to accommodate her. ildebeest, their eyes glinting in our infrared lamp, trundled forward oblivious to what lay beneath. Hushed with anticipation, we watched the lioness crawl forwards. There is a reason why local wildlife rangers call the tall vegetation here ' adrenaline grass'. Blankets drawn across our knees against Hwange's cold night air, we wondered if they'd sense her before it was too late. Suddenly, with an explosive sound, the wildebeest stampeded, thundering into the dark. Motionless, the big cat had lost its chance. It doesn't take long to discover that Zimbabwe's wildlife experiences remain some of Africa's best. Before I'd left the UK, acquaintances speculated gloomily on the country's wildlife: " Hasn't it all been poached or eaten?" Poaching has been problematic, especially on private wildlife reserves and former hunting concessions. Zimbabwe's national parks have also seen losses, but a rich biodiversity remains thanks to dedicated staff who have battled on despite scarce resources. Hwange has long been the fl agship of the nation's national parks. Covering a staggering 14,651 square kilometres in western Zimbabwe, its vast expanses of Kalahari sands host swathes of savannah woodland, teak forests, camelthorn stands and open grassy plains. By right, Hwange's arid environment shouldn't host such prolifi c wildlife, but pumps have been used to fi ll artifi cial waterholes. These fi nite sources intensify and condense nature's struggle for survival and provide drama like nowhere else. And there's little chance of encountering the crowds seen in Africa's other signature parks - sightings of other tourists while on game drives here are as rare as spotting an elusive pangolin. When I drove into Hwange at Main Camp, just 22 vehicles had entered that week. Considering the park was receiving 200 fl ights per day a decade ago, the change is staggering. But you won't fi nd any visitors complaining! As I arrived at the renowned safari camp The Hide, I met my fi rst fellow visitors, a party of Australians. " You just missed a lion, mate," exclaimed Eammon, a Perth native, as he pointed towards the vlei overlooked by the open- fronted restaurant. I silently cursed, but The Hide quickly assuaged my disappointment. All it took was a sundowner in my hand, and a comfortable seat to watch a gathered herd of elephants gurgling and spraying mud at the private waterhole. A superb evening meal followed, and stories from the day were swapped over a trusty teak table that must have heard it all before. I retired to my homely tent and as I lay in the darkness, senses heightened, I listened to a fi ery standoff between lion and elephant. The evening encapsulated everything a safari should be about. With 400km of roads, Hwange is ripe for self- drive. The next morning I ventured further south into the park, bisecting mopane and acacia bush towards Ngweshla Pan. I repeatedly stopped for elephants - not a surprise considering Hwange's estimated to have 40,000 of them, a staggering fi gure. I braked suddenly for turbo- charged kudu and eland, saw majestic glossy- coated sable bulls, and photographed so many giraffes in one location that they resembled a forest. With so much wildlife all to myself, emotions ran high. More than feelings of luck, I felt a strong sense of privilege. I dropped by Somalisa, a rustically charming bush camp camoufl aged by acacias. It's owned by Beks Ndlovu, a former guide who is one of Zimbabwe's new breed 16 Travel Zimbabwe December 2009 Hushed with anticipation, we watched the lioness crawl forwards. There is a reason why local wildlife rangers call the tall vegetation here ' adrenaline grass' Hwange National Park ERIC GAUSS

SABLE Hwange has one of Africa's largest populations of sable antelope. A bull's lethal curved horns may reach 120cm in length. He uses them in combat with territorial rivals, and will go down on his knees in order to sweep sideways at an assailant. In this way sables have been known to kill lions. Left to right: What are you looking at? Spotted hyena and vultures start to clean a kill; Longing for more, is this a young elephant's attempt at pickpocketing?; Cleaning house, a hungry lion scatters a crowd of young entrepreneurs. It wasn't long before some elephants, raising their trunks like periscopes, sniffed out water in the plunge pool above them and cheekily drained it. " They do that everyday," sighed the camp's young hostess, Bella. What really impressed me about Hwange was that throughout Zimbabwe's leaner years a battery of impressive research and conservation has been ongoing. Conservationists haven't sat back twiddling their thumbs. Near Main Camp, the Painted Dog Conservation ( PDC) charity's opulent new interpretation centre ( funded by Disney) is impressively informative, and can easily fi ll a visitor's morning or afternoon. Guests experience the rare treat to see African wild dogs, an IUCN Red List Threatened Species, in their 30ha enclosure that houses orphans or those undergoing rehabilitation from injury. Project manager Peter Blinston explained how fi ve adorable little three- month- old pups came into their care. " Their alpha female was killed by lions and we didn't think they'd survive," he said. " Now they're prospering well while being fostered by parent dogs." Blinston explained Hwange has around 150 of Zimbabwe's estimated 750 African wild dogs, yet they face huge challenges from snaring and lion predation. Ironically, the dogs' vulnerability to lions may be linked to the success of another Hwange research project, which has seen the big cat's population fl ourish. Biologist Dr Andrew Loveridge told me about the radio- collaring programme they started in 2003, which confi rmed lions were wandering into neighbouring hunting concessions and being shot. This led to the National Park refusing lion hunting permits in neighbouring concessions. Since that 2005 decision, the numbers of male lions - the hunters' favourite - have risen at least seven fold in the park. Later, I also got the chance to see the new Hwange Environmental Research Development ( HERD) project in action. A wide- ranging programme administered by Centre National de la Recherche Scientifi que, HERD doesn't study single species; rather, it looks more holistically at predator- prey relationships. It researches everything from zebra population dynamics to the ecology of hyena's foraging. Roger Parry and his wife Jessica, of the Wild Horizons Trust, are darting and collaring animals for this study. I joined them and watched Roger expertly zap an impala, before fi tting it with a new radio receiver. " There's been some hugely positive research and conservation carried out here in recent years," Roger explained. " Now we need tourists to put much- needed revenue back into the national parks." ? Mark Stratton stayed in Hwange National Park with thanks to The Hide ( www. thehide. com) and Hwange Safari Lodge ( www. africasun. com). CHEETAH Cheetah favour open areas of Hwange, where good visibility and fl at terrain suit their high- speed hunting technique. Their non- retractile claws are unique among cats and function like a runner's spikes, allowing more traction during the chase. BATELEUR EAGLE The bateleur eagle is one of the most distinctive sights of Hwange's skies. Its name is taken from the French for tightrope walker and describes the tilting fl ight with which it searches for prey. ERIC GAUSS ERIC GAUSS