When thinking about Tanzania’s wildlife areas, most people focus on the Serengeti and Ngorogoro — the wide open, quintessential grassland savanna, and places with lots of tourists.
In the south, however, there are some lesser-known but far larger and wilder parks — the Selous and Ruaha. I have always been keen to explore them, especially after reading Peter Matthiessen’s Sand Rivers.
The Selous Game Reserve is named after Captain Frederick Courtney Selous, the famous big-game hunter and British military man who was killed by a German sniper in World War I. His simple grave can be found near where he died, in an area of the reserve known as “Beho Beho”.
At 55,000 square-kilometres, the Selous is one of the world’s largest protected areas, and it is a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is unfenced, and the entire ecosystem extends into northern Mozambique.
Its vastness means it’s a hugely significant stronghold for a number of species. There are more lions here than across the whole of Kenya. The endangered African wild dog needs huge tracts of land to establish a viable population, and the Selous features the largest.
You can therefore imagine my delight when I was invited to run a training session for a team of guides at a lodge there. I flew from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam, and the next day I was on a domestic flight bound for one of the many dirt airstrips in the reserve. The lodges tend to close in April and May for the long rains, as no planes or vehicles can get in or out.
The extended El Nino, however, was writing the script this year, so conditions were apparently “touch and go”. Our hair-raising landing took us steeply through thick cloud, touching down in puddles of mud and onto a skidding halt.
I was staying at Azura Selous, a lodge in the north-western sector, on the banks of the great Ruaha River. Azura’s 11 huge rooms are a combination of canvas and stone, and they are spread along hundreds of metres of river frontage. All come with a plunge pool, outdoor shower and air-conditioning.
A favourite with honeymooners, the lodge does really well with its personal touch; it ensures, for example, that no two dinners are ever eaten in the same place, be it by the pool, the riverbed or out in the bush.
The river is stuffed full of hippos and their paths criss-cross the lodge grounds. They provide a daily drama with regular scraps between bulls, and there was even a new calf born into one of the local families while I was there. Needless to say, there are askaris that accompany guests to and from their rooms after dark.
The Selous is in the northern extent of a huge vegetation zone known as miombo woodland that extends into Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique. It really feels wild. The scale of the place, thicker bush and the lack of tourists, means that animals can be harder to find and are skittish at times.
But we did see lions regularly as well as the resident pack of wild dog, plus a leopard and a large numbers of herbivores. What struck me the most, however, was the distinct lack of elephants. I saw one large bull on a few occasions, a regular gentle giant around the camp. There were also tracks and droppings for others, but in low numbers.
There is a dark reason for this. The Selous-Niassa ecosystem has been a major ivory poaching hotspot. What was one of the largest populations with a high of 106,000 in the 1970s, was decimated to around 8,200 in 2014 — the majority killed in the past four years alone. The black rhinos are all but gone, too. The guides told me of only one sighting, five years ago.
Poaching levels seem to have stabilised, I’ve been told. Cynically, it could be that the remaining elephant population is so spread out that poachers are struggling to find them. Apparently Ruaha is in the crosshairs now.
Management of this vast area is a challenge. A tiny proportion of the reserve, mainly to the north of the Ruaha and Rufiji Rivers, is open to photographic tourism. The rest is divided into large ‘blocks’, managed as wilderness or leased to hunting operators.
I am told the trend now is that many hunting blocks are being converted to photographic ones each time leases are up for renewal. Even more controversial than hunting, a section in the south was also recently hived off for uranium mine operations.
As I flew out the other day, the weather was much finer and only then did I truly get to appreciate how vast and wild this place really is. Despite the challenges, the Selous still remains a wilderness where there are areas rarely, if ever, accessed by people.
It’s great knowing that such places still exist.