Searching for Zambia’s Thornicroft giraffe

I could feel his trunk brush past my head through the nylon tent, the gentle nuzzling of an elephant picking camel thorn pods from around our tent. I felt calm, completely relaxed. I could hear his breathing, the gurgling of his stomach, the rumbling chesty pleasures, the crunching of the pods, and could feel his whisker closeness in the darkness.

It’s not the first time I’ve been woken by elephants in the night. In fact, the last happened only days earlier on a sandy island, midway through a five-day canoe trip down the Zambezi river.

The Zambezi River at dusk. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

The Zambezi River at dusk. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

I was in the middle of a family quest to find the Thornicroft giraffe, a subspecies of giraffe that exists only in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, its wild population estimated to be less than 1,500.

The species got its name from Harry Scott Thornicroft, a native commissioner for the British South Africa Company at the turn of the 19th century in what was then Northern Rhodesia. He also just happened to be my great, great uncle.

A Thornicroft giraffe. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

A Thornicroft giraffe preparing for a drink. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

Nature’s adrenaline fix

It was only after emerging from the Zambezi river, sunburnt, weak-limbed and exhilarated, that we realised just how dangerous our adventure was. Our Zimbabwean guide, CB, had been pulled from his canoe by a crocodile in his early days on the river, surviving only thanks to the knife he carried.

A crocodile on the bank of the Zambezi River. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

A lone crocodile on the bank of the Zambezi River. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

Hippos pose even greater danger, because they can tip over or charge boats, jump off riverbanks into a boat and have even been known to snap a canoe and contents in half with a bite.

A pod of hippos. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

Despite being herbivores, hippos’ territorial nature and enormous size make them a bigger threat to humans than crocodiles. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

At one point, we found ourselves in the middle of huge, lurking crocodiles, three pods of hippos and a herd of elephant drinking from the bank 20 metres away. Almost surrounded! We had to retreat backwards to find a less hectic mid-channel route.

Elephants at the Zambezi Rvier. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

Elephants drinking at the edge of the Zambezi River. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

Hidden paradise

As a transition zone between southern, eastern and central Africa, Zambia hosts some unusual species, and more mammals than you can find anywhere else in Africa.

Our journey took us through Kafue National Park, Africa’s largest, most remote and biodiverse park, where miombo woodland and savannah stretch as far as the eye can see. Over five days we notched up a record 34 mammal and over 80 bird species sightings, including lions, cheetahs, serval, giant kudu, hyena, raptors and even a pangolin.

A spotted hyena. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

A spotted hyena in Kafue National Park. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

Luangwa National Park, ranked one of the best places in the world to see leopard, yielded one of the best discoveries of our trip: a huge male leopard balanced in a tree, his stomach hanging below the branches and the remains of his impala lunch strung up beside him.

A leopard in Luangwa National Park. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

Resting after catching and eating an impala. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

Read about Zambia’s conservation challenges and opportunities in part two of Pippa Howard’s Zambian adventure.