Sunis in the Sand Forests, Sables in the Woodlands

Mark Haldane is an inveterate ‘birder’ – a birdwatcher who is likely to plant his binocular to eyes and run straight into a tree while trying to get the next glimpse of whatever he might have seen in the branches overhead. Mark’s passion for birding comes as a shock to some. He is known to most people as a Professional Hunter who backstops his clients when facing dangerous game. He does this with his .470 Wesley Richards double rifle, a firearm capable of dropping anything that might wish to turn a client and himself into a pile of goo. But, Mark’s passion for watching birds is just the tip of the iceberg. “I love to be with hunting clients who ask me to stop the Land Cruiser so they can photograph a dung beetle. Or, who want to know what plant they are looking at. Or, who start waxing lyrical when they see a beautiful sunset on the way back to camp.”

Mark’s love for nature means he understands the complexity of trying to restore Coutada 11’s entire ecosystem and thereby contribute to the restoration of the Zambeze Delta sensu lato. If restoration and conservation efforts in Coutada 11 and beyond impact only a restricted set of available habitats, ‘edge effects’ would degrade the environment of interest. What that means is that there must be a buffer between degraded environments – those impacted strongly by human activity – and the conserved habitats. The distribution of habitat types in nature is almost always mosaic in form. Like a mosaic’s many-colored pieces, ‘red habitats’ abut ‘green’, ‘yellow’ and ‘purple’ ones. If conservation does not focus on all the ‘colors’ simultaneously, the mosaic will be reduced to the bland white of human occupation. Mark intuitively understands this concept, and my hunts for two very different animals on a recent Safari reflect the application of this understanding to Coutada 11.

He was an old, old male, my first, and likely last, trophy Suni. Blind in one eye, with a large chip out of the bottom of one horn and with extensive, smooth, secondary growth – so-called ‘posting’ – at the base of his gnarled headgear, the little male had been through the wars. Sunis live no more than 13 years even in captivity. This Suni must have pushed the upper limits of natural survival in his Sand Forest home. But, if he had been born a mere 20 years earlier, he likely would have lived a much shorter life, ending in a poacher’s wire snare. In fact, even during this ram’s 10 years-or-so lifespan, he would have had to negotiate paths peppered with poachers’ traps and snares. A Suni is its own worst enemy with regard to poachers. Males mark their territories with dung middens – meaning they defecate in the same place over-and-over. They also use the same pathways within their home ranges.

The Sunis’ dung piles and worn trails are like a fluorescent sign for poachers when they are placing their snares and traps. The effectiveness of the poachers in reading these signs is well-known, and can be devasting for Suni populations. A mere month before my hunt the Zambeze Delta Safaris anti-poaching team raced into a poachers’ camp and found nearly 100 dead females, males and young Sunis piled in heaps around the open glade. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out how quickly unfettered poaching would clear out most of these tiny relatives of cattle from an area.

In less than 10 minutes we made our way through the band of forest, reaching the edge of a Pan that stretched hundreds of yards in all directions. Julian raised his binocular and almost immediately lowered them. He mouthed the words in my direction, “The bull is there. He’s lying down.” He motioned me to come to where he was standing. Sidling up to Julian he gestured to where the bull was lying in the grass on the far side of the pan. The bull, like a jersey cow and Suni, being a ruminant, was chewing his cud while keeping a watchful eye on his wives and kids. As is usual for the Pans during the Mozambique wet season, grass up to eight feet in height filled this huge open area. This meant that the intervening vegetation mostly hid the Sable bull and his herd of cows, young bulls, and calves. I didn’t have much time to wait for the bull to stand, and when he did, I quickly fired my MG Arms Custom-built rifle chambered in 7mm Remington Magnum. The bull dropped to the shot.

I have never seen a more beautiful trophy. Though sad at the taking of a life, I knew that hunters paying for the privilege of taking a mature Sable bull was the reason that the Sable Antelopes in Coutada 11, in a bit over 25 years, had grown from a population of 30 to over 3000. Each year, the government restricts permits for Sable bulls to 25; those permits are very expensive and the funds raised go into the anti-poaching efforts, while the meat goes to feed both the Sena villagers and the international hunters. All through my Safari, I marveled at the lack of wastage of protein. From each of my animals taken, Julian, Francisco and Dolish saved every piece of meat – including all the internal organs. I am not a huge fan of stomach, but as I watched the care taken by our Trackers to clean every scrap of grass from Sable bull’s stomach, I realized in Coutada 11 I was in the minority!

Excerpt from Mike’s Upcoming Book: BRINGING BACK THE LIONS: International Hunters, Local Tribespeople, and the Miraculous Rescue of a Doomed Ecosystem in Mozambique