A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers

- Pink Floyd


Adventure Travel

May 26, 2017

Finding Barefoot Paradise on Mafia Island – Part 2

In search of the remote and unique, Sarah Kingdom discovered a scuba divers’ utopia with some of the world’s richest reefs, an incredible diversity of tropical fish—and even a rogue gang of hippos!.


Sarah Kingdom

For Part 1 of Sarah’s (not so simple) journey to get to the ominously named Mafia Island, head here.

Given its location and the presence of the marine park, it’s fairly obvious that the bulk of activities on Mafia Island are centered on or around the water. Most of the outstanding dive sites in Mafia lie within Chole Bay, a vast circular enclave of over 50km², off the South-East coast of the island, where the water depth ranges from 5-27m and there is a tremendous variety of coral, fish and other marine species.

“A definite snorkelling highlight of Mafia is the whale sharks.” Photo by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

With the tides, Chole Bay empties and refills every six hours and it is this continuous exchange of water that has kept the bay a haven and protected the coral from damage and coral bleaching by the El Nino which obliterated corals in other parts of the Indian Ocean in 1998. Over 50 genera of coral, more than 460 species of fish and five different species of turtles have been recorded in the waters around Chole Bay. There are excellent examples of giant table corals, delicate sea fans, whip corals, and huge stands of blue-tipped staghorn corals, large predatory fish and turtles are common and are surprisingly unruffled by the appearance approaching divers.

Photo by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

I learned to scuba dive many years ago, but it had been a long time since I had last dived. We are not talking brass diving helmet and lead boots times, but still long enough ago that I felt I had quite probably forgotten most of what I had once known. A trip to Mafia however, would not be complete, without visiting its underwater world. Fortunately I was able to do a quick refresher course and given the green light to don wetsuit and tank. We managed three truly beautiful dives, all inside Chole Bay, and saw an incredible array of various fish, corals, and other sea life.

From the minute we boarded the traditional wooden jahazi/boat to head out to the dive site we knew we were in for a treat. The captain cut the engine and unfurled the sail with an enormous seahorse emblazoned on it. Our multilingual dive instructor talked us through some last minute instructions and then we lay back, in the sun, on some thoughtfully positioned, enormous deck cushions and sailed our way out to the reef. Everything about diving on Mafia is fabulous, from the boat ride out to the dive site, to the amazing experience that waited for us beneath the surface of the water. Stingrays to barracudas, giant clams to tiny anemone fish, trigger fish, angel fish, butterfly fish, trumpet fish, star fish, vibrantly coloured corals and enigmatic turtles, right down to the minute colourful nudibranchs and leaf fish, I could go on… we saw it all.  

Different to the scuba, but just as spectacular, was the snorkelling in Chole Bay.  It was hard to believe how much there was to see just below the surface of the water, with only a mask, snorkel and fins. A deep breath and some vigorous kicking and it was easy to go down and investigate lobsters hiding between rocks and sea urchins bristling between soft corals. Everywhere I looked there were vibrant, shimmering fish darting about; a mesmerising display of colour and movement passing before your eyes as you drifted past.

A definite snorkeling highlight of Mafia is the whale sharks, and if you are there at the right time, October to February being the best, you can swim with these gentle giants just a few hundred metres off shore. There are only a handful of places in the world where whale sharks are known to visit all year round, and Mafia is one of them (though spotting a whale shark out of the prime season is rare). Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, maturing at about 30 years old, often living into their 60s and known to reach sizes of up to 14m. Swimming with them is a truly awesome experience. Whale sharks are generally solitary animals, however aggregations are found in several locations around the world including Mafia. The sharks come to Mafia to feed on zooplankton and the eggs and larvae of breeding fish and crabs. The World Conservation Union lists whale sharks as ‘vulnerable’ and at a high risk of extinction in the foreseeable future and the WWF has been funding a whale shark research programme on Mafia since 2012.

Boats out to the sharks are able to move quietly and visitors can hop in and snorkel to get a closer, underwater, look at the gentle giants. The locals call the whale sharks Papa Shilingi; ‘papa’ meaning shark and ‘shilingi’ meaning coins, because the bodies of these beautiful creatures look like they are studded with coins. Whale Sharks are in fact identified by their individual ‘spot patterns’ which are much like human fingerprints in that no two are the same. Tourists spotting whale sharks are encouraged to upload photos and sighting information to the WWF website, to help track the animals.

Photo by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

In the unlikely event that you do eventually tire of the underwater world of Mafia, or perhaps have just become a little too waterlogged, then there is an abundance of things to do on dry land. Another organisation involved with wildlife preservation in the archipelago is Sea Sense, who have been working in partnership with local communities to promote and protect marine turtles (green and hawksbill) by training local villagers in conservation, and employing them to monitor and protect turtles who nest on the islands.

Sea turtles have been nesting on Tanzanian beaches for over 150 million years and between June and September it is possible to see this amazing phenomenon for yourself. We took a 30 minute ride in a traditional wooden boat to Juani Island, where we moored at the base of some of the biggest and most beautiful baobab trees I have ever seen. We walked across the island, through dense rainforest, to the eastern beach where we witnessed, and counted, 87 newly hatched baby turtles make their instinctive and somewhat erratic scramble from the white sandy beach to the warm Indian Ocean Waters. As they reached the water’s edge some of the waves proved a formidable obstacle and a number of the babies were, quite literally, swept off their feet and deposited, on their backs, further up the beach and had to try again. By this stage a couple of the hatchlings were clearly having second thoughts and halfway to the water’s edge they turned around and tried to head back to the nest. It was very tempting to reach out a helping hand and save them the ordeal, but it is strictly forbidden to touch or interfere with them in any way. Eventually they came to their senses and we felt like proud parents at a school athletics day as they finally reached the water and disappeared. On average only one in every thousand of these babies will survive to adulthood, but those who do, will return to the waters around the islands to mate and the females will lay their eggs on the very same beach where they hatched 30 years earlier.

Since Sea Sense set up operations in 2001 over 2,100 turtle nests have been protected and 140,000 hatchlings have safely reached the sea.

Photo by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

Located between Juani Island and Mafia Island is tiny Chole Island. Chole is a fertile island with a population of about 1,000. Its inhabitants make their living from boat building, fishing and some limited farming. You reach the island via a ten or fifteen minute trip on a traditional wooden boat and you can do a short walk around the island, through the villages. Living, as I do, in rural Zambia, a walking tour of the village was not particularly unique for me but there were a number of sites to see, one of which was the trees full of Comoros fruit bats (flying foxes) excitedly chattering and squabbling, as they started to wake up before their nightly foray to forage for food. The other interesting thing we came across on the island was a selection of ancient ruins, some Arabic and stretching back as far as the 12th century and some much more recent German ruins from the 19th century. These ruins hint at a past that stretches back to early Omani slave trading days. Nature has reclaimed much of the ruins and many of the walls are now smothered with dense foliage, overgrown with giant figs and in danger of disappearing under plants that have grown from seeds dropped by bird many years ago. It was interesting also, to catch a glimpse of Tanzanian island village life, and see some of the traditional wooden boats, called jahazis and ngalawas, being built.  

Hippos may well be a common sight in Africa, but they are not at all what you expect to find on a tropical island. Nevertheless a rogue gang of reclusive and seldom spotted hippos can, in fact, be spotted in a network of lagoons the north western part of Mafia Island.  Nobody knows for sure how they got there, but the best theory behind their presence on the island is that they washed over during floods, from the Rufiji Delta on mainland Tanzania. The waters between Mafia and the mainland are relatively shallow, in the grand scheme of things, and believed to have been even shallower in the past, making this ‘flood water’ theory plausible.  The first record of hippos on the island comes from the late 1800s, and today there are still a handful of them. Years of inevitable inter-breeding in a small population and probable malnutrition have led some to some suggestions that these are pygmy hippos, but there has been no research to back this theory up and it seems pretty unlikely… most likely they are simply inbred and hungry!

All good things must come to an end sadly, and after six magical days on Mafia it was time to leave. As we headed to the airport we were already planning our return. Mafia is one of the most unique and perfect destinations you will ever find, with some of the richest reefs in the world and an unparalleled variety of corals and incredible diversity of tropical fish. The sand is white, the water is warm, the people are friendly and welcoming, but best of all Mafia is perfect for solitude, nature and complete relaxation.

For Sarah’s recommendations on where to stay on Mafia Island, read Part 1.

Feature image by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

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Dec 07, 2018

The Lilayi Elephant Nursery: The Story of One Orphan, and 11 Years of Conservation.

The Orphanage provides a sanctuary for defenceless calves, who are the victims of poaching, human conflict or, occasionally, natural abandonment. The catalyst was a single elephant called Chamilandu.



Sarah Kingdom

2007, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.

A one and a half-year-old elephant is left alone and helpless when her mother is shot dead by poachers. The orphan calf is taken to what is now the Game Rangers International, Kafue National Park Release Facility to be raised. Healthy, but understandably traumatised, Chamilandu, as she was named, struggled to come to terms with the loss of both her mother and extended family. Suffering nightmares that had her screaming aloud in her sleep, it took a great deal of love and attention from dedicated keepers to give her the reassurance she needed to adjust to her new life.

In the intervening years, Chamilandu has grown into the matriarch of the orphan herd. Mothering and comforting the younger orphan calves as one tragedy or another has brought them to the orphanage. She has recently started to demonstrate her desire to live independently in the bush; going on longer and longer forays alone, away from the release centre. Seen interacting and mating with a wild bull in the park, a positive sign that she is ready to create new ‘family/friendship’ bonds and is preparing herself for a life in the wild… the ultimate goal of her rescuers all those years ago.

Learning new skills

We first saw Chamilandu on a game drive in Kafue National Park, Zambia’s oldest and largest national park and one of Africa’s wildest. We were on our way to the Release Centre to see the orphan herd coming in for their lunch break after a morning in the bush. The group were close to the road and the keepers were tucked out of sight, allowing the small herd to graze freely, but still be under their protective surveillance. Chamilandu, wearing radio collar in preparation for her anticipated ‘move’, was in a playful mood. Getting closer and closer to us, shaking her head from side to side in a slightly comical fashion, as we slowly reversed the car. Eventually slipping past the herd we went ahead to await the groups’ arrival.

one elephant killed every 15 minutes!

Met at the Release Centre, we were first shown the ‘kitchen’ where bottles are filled with the correct ‘recipe’ for each youngster and then escorted to the main Elephant Boma from where we could see the orphans ambling ‘home’. ‘Home’, an enclosure of about 10 hectares, is located on the bend of a river and fenced to make it predator proof. Once the elephants got close to the boma, they picked up speed and were soon clamouring at the gate, to be let in for their bottles and piles of pellets that form their lunchtime feed.

Elephants in Africa are under serious threat, primarily due to large-scale poaching for ivory and also as a result of conflicts arising from elephant/human interactions. It is estimated that 25,000 elephants are being killed in Africa every year… this works out at approximately one elephant killed every 15 minutes!

Bonding time… forming new relationships

Having visited the older orphans in Kafue, I was keen to visit The Elephant Orphanage Project’s Lilayi Elephant Nursery, which is situated on a 650-hectare game farm on the outskirts of Lusaka. When under the age of three, young elephants are extremely vulnerable and dependent. Most will not survive without both their mother’s care and her nutrient-rich milk. The first port of call for any orphan rescued anywhere within Zambia, is the Lilayi Elephant Nursery, and it is here that these fragile babies are looked after twenty-four hours a day – a milk dependent orphan requires a bottle of its special formula every three hours! Trained keepers care for and watch over their charges constantly; taking them on daily ‘bush walks’, feeding them and staying close at hand to provide reassurance when the babies are in the stables at night. These keepers play a vital role in the emotional and social recovery of the young elephants, and become the ‘mother figures’ the babies desperately need. Elephants are tactile and highly sociable and the keepers become the orphans’ ‘new family’, maintaining physical contact with the babies, talking to them and showing them the same affection their wild elephant family would. As the orphans gain more confidence, human contact is gradually reduced and they are encouraged to turn to the other elephants for comfort, rather than the keepers. This is an important part of their rehabilitation.

The orphans need to be watched over at all times; they need to be covered, with blankets when cold, rainwear when wet and natural sunscreen (like a mud bath) when out the sun, for the first few months of a baby’s life. Baby elephants are difficult feeders and their minders need endless patience to encourage them to drink sufficient milk for growth. Like humans, baby elephants also need toys and stimulation, and so distractions and entertainment have to be built into their daily routine. An elephant will only thrive if happy.

A muddy orphan waits for rescue.

As soon as calves can be weaned from milk (approx 3 years old) they are moved from Lusaka to the Release Facility in Kafue National Park, where they join older orphaned elephants. Here they learn to live more independently and spend much of their time wandering freely through the bush. The Kafue Release Facility is adjacent to the ancient Ngoma Teak Forest where there is a 1,000 strong local elephant population, maximising chances for the orphans to integrate with other elephants and gradually move back into the wild.

12th June 2018 and the latest rescue baby joins the Elephant Orphanage Project, with one of their most rapid response rescues to date. In the early hours of the morning, an alert was raised that a six-month-old calf had been found abandoned in Livingstone. The baby was quickly rescued and transferred to the nearby ‘Elephant Café’, where it was stabilized, fed, watered and calmed by the presence of the other elephants (who are resident at the ‘Café’). Meanwhile, the team in Lusaka worked rapidly to fly a purpose-built crate down to Livingstone. The baby was then mildly sedated and crated, ready for her upcoming journey; a two-hour flight to Lusaka followed by an hour-long drive to the Elephant Nursery, where she was safely tucked up in bed by eight-thirty that night.

The little calf initially known as #43, in honour of being the forty-third elephant assisted by EOP, has now been renamed Lufutuko (Tuko for short), which means ‘survivor’ in Tonga, the local language. She is still very vulnerable and traumatised. Safely in the orphanage, she is getting to know her keepers and being regularly fed specialized milk formula. Like all the young elephants at the orphanage, she has a long and difficult road ahead to overcome the loss of her family, learn how to integrate and socialize with other elephants and ultimately grow into a healthy adult who will hopefully ultimately walk free.

Spending some time getting familiar with the bush.

It costs a lot to raise an orphan and give them a second chance at life… a lot more than you might think… from a rescue, to release and beyond, including post-release monitoring and research. Rescues alone can vary widely in cost depending on the area the calf is found. In some instances special vehicles, boats or even planes need to be hired, add to that scout and tracker fees, then vet fees, which can include quarantine, sedatives, blood tests and various medications and don’t forget the cost of ‘manpower’. An ‘average’ rescue can be in the region of US$2,500. And once an orphan is rescued costs continue to mount. With a staff of 27 at the Kafue Release Facility and another 17 at the Lilayi Elephant Nursery, wages are not an insignificant cost to be factored in. Feeding, veterinary, maintenance, communications… the list goes on. There are 18 orphans currently being cared for between the two facilities, each costing approximately $35,000 a year… the Elephant Orphanage Project has an operating budget in the region of $600,000 a year, which is an enormous struggle to secure.


The Elephant Orphanage Project was established in 2007, with critical and on-going funding from the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Olsen Animal Trust, with the mission of rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing orphaned elephants back into the wild. The Elephant Orphanage Project is part of a conservation initiative developed and operated by Game Rangers International, a Zambian, non-profit NGO.

You can visit the Lilayi Elephant Nursery, which is just a 35min drive from the centre of Lusaka any day of the year between 11.30 and 13.00. At 11.30 a staff member gives a short talk about the orphanage and you can visit the viewing deck which is an ideal vantage point for watching the elephants feed and play. Note that given the ultimate goal of releasing the elephants back to the wild, visitors are not permitted to touch the elephants. Cost: Adults K50, Children ages 12-18 K20, Children under 12 free. Every Monday entry is free.

If you want to venture a little further off the beaten track, then you can visit the Elephant Orphanage’s Kafue Release Facility in the southern part of Kafue National Park, 12km along the South Nkala Loop from Ngoma (location of the National Parks and Wildlife Headquarters). The closest places to stay when visiting the release centre is Konkamoya Lodge or HippoBay Campsite and Bushcamp [email protected]

For further information about Game Rangers International and the Elephant Orphanage, in particular, visit the Game Rangers International Website.

As with all conservation projects funds are always in short supply, any donations can be directed here.

Finally, you can also follow the project on the Facebook page.


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