The Great Wildebeest Migration is well known to be the earth’s largest overland migration. Millions of these weird ungulates accompanied by about 200 000 zebras, instinctively traverse about 2 900 kilometres in a clockwise direction from the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area in the south of Tanzania, through the Serengeti National Park and north towards the Maasai Mara reserve in Kenya. The treacherous, and seemingly courageous, crossing by the animals of the croc-infested Mara River is visible evidence of just what a powerful force nature is.
Here are some lesser known extraordinary journeys that occur in southern Africa…
Join OnRoute in exploring the unexplained – and some as yet unexplored – natural wonders of our region.
Between May and July, billions of the southern African pilchard or “sardines” spawn in the Agulhas Bank and move up into the warmer waters along the east coast of SA. The numbers are said to rival those of The Great Wildebeest Migration and create a massive feeding frenzy for other sea creatures.
This crazy phenomenon occurs between October and December. An estimated 10 million ginormous straw-coloured fruit bats with a metre-wide wingspan that inhabit the great forest of the Congo converge on a relatively small evergreen swamp forest inside Kasanka National Park in Northern Zambia. Set against the dramatic sunset skies makes it easy to mistake them for birds!
“We know elephants can move long distances and that these movements often coincide with changes in season, but whether or not these movements were migratory was hearsay,” says Professor Rudi van Aarde, Chair of CERU and supervisor of a new study from the Conservation Ecology Research Unit (CERU) at the University of Pretoria, one of the largest studies into whether elephants really do migrate.
• The study comprised of movement data collected over 15 years from 139 savanna elephants distributed across seven southern African countries.
• Migratory movement is defined as to and fro movements between two non-overlapping seasonal ranges.
• Of the 139 elephants, only 25 showed migratory movements.
• Of the 25 elephants, only six migrated more than once during the period they were tracked.
• [Drum roll…] So, do elephants migrate? Evidently, only some elephants migrate, and possibly not every year, highlighting the adaptive and flexible behaviour of elephants, as well as their spatial needs.
Understanding elephant migration
According to Michael Mole, co-author on the paper, that some elephants were able to travel over 100 kilometres beyond international borders speaks wonders and points to the amazing conservation initiatives employed by many governments and organisations striving to maintain functional space and connectivity between and around national parks.
Many migratory individuals were in protected area clusters including Etosha National Park (Namibia), Chobe National Park and Moremi Game reserve (Botswana), Hwange (Zimbabwe), Kruger National Park (South Africa), North and South Luangwa (Zambia), and the Quirimbas National Park (Mozambique), yet moved beyond national park boundaries (IUCN category I Parks) and 11 migrations crossed international borders.
This functional space and connectivity could best be seen in northern Botswana, where 15 elephants migrated. The national parks and surrounding protected Wildlife Management Areas form a vast and mostly undisturbed heterogeneous landscape. “At a time when long-distance dispersals are disappearing, this research underscores the importance of northern Botswana’s landscape to support some of the world’s longest large mammal migration,” explains study co-author Dr. Mike Chase, director and founder of Elephants Without Borders.
But the study begs the question: are national parks big enough to adequately protect elephants? Elephants that are moving beyond protected areas are at a higher risk of poaching, and increasing human populations and habitat fragmentation are the biggest threat.
So, can more be done? “Understanding the spatial requirements of species can help better inform the establishment of functional protected area networks,” Purdon says. “In this way, conservation areas across Africa can be large enough to effectively conserve large-scale ecological processes such as migration.” And that would be a reason to celebrate. Especially if you’re a migrating elephant!
Photos: Rudi van Aarde
Many people visit Victoria Falls without knowing about one of its most impressive sights: moonbows, or lunar rainbows. These are rare natural atmospheric phenomena that occur when the moon's light is reflected and refracted off water droplets in the air.
Vic Falls is one of the few places on earth where this occurs regularly due to the ever-present spray in the rainforest, and where it can be witnessed with ease. If you visit when there’s a full moon, be sure to check when Victoria Falls National Park is open for lunar rainbow tours.
Travellers who flock to Mauritius for the white beaches, stunning warm coral sea and balmy tropical weather may be too focused to notice the island that sits 2 000 kilometres off the South African coast has an extremely convincing “underwater waterfall”. This counterintuitive feature is, of course, an optical illusion where sand and silt have generated a dramatic underwater hill which looks like water falling underwater.
The discovery of Mount Lico is the latest in a succession using Google Earth since 2005 by Professor Julian Bayliss. First he discovered the largest rainforest in southern Africa at Mount Mabu in Zambezia Province, northern Mozambique. Since then, he’s been using Google Earth to explore inaccessible and remote regions of Mozambique and beyond. He first noticed Mount Lico on Google Earth back in 2012 but it took many years of planning and research to organise a full-scale scientific expedition to the site.
What immediately struck Bayliss when he first looked at Mount Lico on Google Earth in 2012 was a volcanic-like structure with a basin of dark green forest in the middle. The surrounding land was heavily disturbed and cultivated but the forest itself looked intact and unspoilt. Such a scenario could only be down to two factors (or a combination of both): that the forest held spiritual value and was, therefore, left alone by the local communities; or that it might be actually very difficult to get up to it. If the latter, then the forest was very special as sites with little or no human disturbance are very rare on this planet!
In 2017 Bayliss finally visited Mount Lico through two reconnaissance visits – in February 2017 (the end of the wet season) and in early November 2017 (end of the dry season). He needed to find the correct route through hours of travelling via dirt road, fallen bridges and river crossings in order to get to the site but, importantly, he also wanted to see the forest on top at the two climatic extremes. To this end, he bought a drone and was delighted when it confirmed the forest was in good condition.
Bayliss then organised a full-scale scientific expedition to properly investigate the site. Initially, this was planned for about 10 people but quickly grew to some 28 people including scientists from around the globe, logistical support skilled in planning expeditions, and a film crew. Most of the people had worked with Bayliss in some capacity over the last 30 years, and all of them were experienced in working in Africa. Included were also Mozambican scientists from three institutions in Mozambique.
The expedition was finally delivered in May this year. A truly international team, in conjunction with the Mozambican authorities, assembled at the base on Mount Lico where a camp was made. Two of the UK’s best climbers, Jules Lines (a famous free climber) and Mike Robertson (a well-known stuntman), scaled Mount Lico without too much difficulty and set up the necessary ropes. A satellite camp was made in the basin and close to the crater edge and over the course of two weeks, the scientists moved up and down investigating fauna and flora found in this unique site. Results are still awaiting final analysis but already a new species of butterfly (caught by Bayliss) has been confirmed. Most importantly, for scientists to study a site with little or no human disturbance is an incredibly rare and unique opportunity!
More results are expected...
View more photos of the expedition at http://julianbayliss.co.uk/lico
See more about the largest rainforest in southern Africa discovery at Mount Mabu at www.youtube.com/watch?v=mni8mSS4KDU
Julian Bayliss https://julianbayliss.co.uk