Murder in the Troop Photo Essay: Along the Zambezi River
The Mighty Zambezi
Rising from a marshy bog in northwest Zambia, the Zambezi River's trickling waters gather to form Africa's fourth largest river, after the Nile, Congo, and Niger. Carving its way 1,600 miles and through six countries, it drains an area of over half a million square miles before emptying into the Indian Ocean. Along the way, the river transforms from placid flat water to fierce, raging torrents to the magnificent, plunging cascades of Victoria Falls, one of the great natural wonders of the world. Hundreds of species rely on the Zambezi's life-giving waters, keeping to the rhythm of the seasons for their survival.
As it is the largest living land mammal on earth, a glimpse of the African elephant inspires excitement and reverence. Remarkably adaptable, they make their homes in a variety of habitats, from lush, deep jungle to vast, open plain. Along the Zambezi, there is a good possibility of an encounter with a small matriarchal family group, consisting of an older female and three or four offspring, with their young. As most elephant behavior must be learned, the very attentive mothers keep their offspring with them for many years. If you spot a mature bull male visiting the family group, chances are that he's looking for females in estrus.
Africa's largest snake, the African python, slinks through the rolling grasslands of the Zambezi savanna. This reptile boasts an average length of 15 feet and can weigh over 200 pounds. Pure carnivore, it eats a variety of animals, ranging in size from small rodents and birds to monkeys and impalas. It coils its massive body around its prey, killing by constriction. The ligaments around its jaws stretch like a rubber band so that it can swallow prey several times the diameter of its own head. As it swallows, strong stomach acids break down the food completely. If the meal is hearty enough to sustain it, the python may go a year without another.
From the treetops to open veld to the water's edge, communication is key to survival in the Zambezi river basin. And perhaps no creature exercises its right to express itself better than the chacma baboon. If you enter their territory, you may hear them before you see them. Sensing danger, they will emit a series of barks and shrieks to alert their troop-mates, sending them to safety. Among the most highly socialized of animals, chacmas live in large groups of up to 100 strong that adhere to a strict hierarchical structure. The troops are led by a dominant male, with subordinate males and females arranged in a definite "pecking order." Though they feed primarily on fruit and leaves, chacmas are omnivores and will roam the veld for grass, insects, roots, and eggs before returning to resting areas in the trees during the late afternoon. Here, a troop gathers at a water hole.
The grasslands of the Zambezi floodplain are a great place to spot the African, or Cape, buffalo. As grass forms most of their diet, limited food supply plays more of a role than predation in keeping herd population numbers in check. Without fresh green vegetation, this gargantuant grazer, which can top 1,500 pounds, can become quickly malnourished, more so than other ungulates. As buffaloes are inefficient at regulating body temperature, you will most likely find them in the shade or wallowing in mud during the day, and feeding at night.
Tread carefully as you walk along the banks of the Zambezi, as crocodiles are usually found in large numbers patrolling the waters. This "master assassin" carries a ferocious reputation as a cold-blooded killer, armed with reptilian intelligence and the most powerful bite on earth. Its massive jaws, studded with 70 sharp, conical teeth, can exert a crushing force of 13 tons. An idle, yet stealthy hunter, the croc lies in wait in the shallows, concealing itself by remaining mostly submerged but for its eyes, ears, and nostrils. When unsuspecting prey appears, the brawny beast uses its massive tail to help vault itself at lightning speed, five feet or more out of the water, to snatch the unfortunate animal.
This slender, graceful antelope can often be seen browsing on vegetation at the edge of a Zambezi woodland or drawing long, cooling drinks from the river. Impalas are never too far from a water source, especially in the dry season, when they need to drink daily. Impala young are easy prey for other animals, often killed by baboons, jackals, eagles, pythons, and cats. Sensing danger, impalas "explode" in a confusion of zigzag leaps, bounding over and across their companions in order to baffle predators. A swift high kick of their hind legs is thought to release scent from the glands on their heels, enabling them to stay together or find each other.
At night, under the cover of darkness, the leopard is primed for the kill, surveying its prey from the trees. Once it sights its victim, it will stalk silently before pouncing, taking the animal down in a flash of claws and jaws, with a fatal bite to the throat or the back of the neck. After getting its fill, a leopard will cover the remains of the catch with grass and sand, and return to it as needed. When competition appears, the leopard will cache the kill high in the fork of a tree, out of reach of other, ground-dwelling predators. Though antelope is the primary meal of choice, this omnivore is highly adaptable and will feed on everything from fishes to foxes, beetles to baboons.
Red-billed queleas are the world's most abundant bird species, with an estimated adult breeding population of 1.5 billion. They roost in colonies so massive, they have been known to break even the thickest branches of the trees they inhabit. At first light, hundreds of thousands of these birds leave their roost and take wing to feed. A remarkable sight, the queleas swim through the sky in dense, highly synchronized waves, rolling over the savanna in a cooperative search for a suitable feeding ground. But the huge, nomadic flocks are not always a welcome sight -- especially to farmers. As the birds are primarily grass seed and grain eaters, they will often descend by the hundreds of thousands onto a field, rapidly devastating the crops.
What this creature lacks in grace and beauty is made up for by its extraordinary adaptability. Warthogs are the only pigs able to live in areas without water for several months of the year; their ability to maintain a body temperature that exceeds the norm helps them to conserve moisture that might otherwise be used for cooling. Living in family groups called "sounders," warthogs are often seen on their front knees, digging up roots and grasses with their snout. High-set eyes enable them to keep a lookout for predators even when feeding. Though their razor-sharp tusks are formidable weapons, their main defense is to flee. Fast sprinters and able jumpers, warthogs will run from danger with their tails held high like a tiny flag. This is thought to serve as a signal to keep them all together.