After dark we sit around the campfire listening to the sounds of the Namibian bush. Our guides, François de Wet and Neil Bone, are reminiscing about the time their friend Dave got dragged by a hyena. He survived.
"Never sleep with your head away from the fire. That way, the hyena will only get your feet," François says. We are more than 100 miles from the nearest electric light, close to Namibia's northern border with Angola and deep in the bush of an area called the Caprivi Strip.
Around us is the belt of forest land that lies between Mudumu and another national park, Mamili, which is closed to visitors.
This 500-square-kilometre territory between the parks is home to 6,000 cattle-herding people. Every year they lose one in 20 of their livestock to lions, hyenas and leopards.
That is where François and Neil come in: biologists working to understand predator behaviour and to solve the problems without shooting the carnivores. The rest of us are volunteers whose money, and to a lesser extent muscle and brain, keep the project going.
The normal model of African wildlife tourism follows a tried-and-tested formula in which animals are seen at close quarters, accustomed as they are to motor vehicles and the relative safety of the parks. Enjoyable as such trips may be, the locals never resolve those two different equations: on one side, national parks dedicated to foreign consumers, on the other underdeveloped communities.
Bridging the gap
In Caprivi, Biospheres Expeditions is trying to pull off that complex piece of African algebra, bringing locals, tourists and wildlife scientists together.
A few days before our night camp, I walked with three other volunteers through the forest with François. The area we were in was a "conservancy", around 150 square kilometres of bushland managed by the locals. They assess the stocks of wildlife and any problem animals — cattle killers usually — and sell hunting licences to foreigners (a trophy lion costs the hunter around £8,000 or Dh48,505).
After our walk François hands us over to Julia, who needs helpers for her community survey.
The plan is to drive to a village meeting, where we will go through a questionnaire on the subject of problems regarding predators.
Our meeting begins under an acacia tree where a group of men have gathered.
"How to solve the predator problem?" I ask. "Shoot the hyenas," he says.
Often that is what happens. Wild animals do not observe park boundaries: They wander outside, kill cattle and get killed. Many also undergo annual migrations: Twice a year the Caprivi sees around 11,000 ele-phants pass through the Angolan highlands and the Botswanan swamps.
"We want to find out what kind of improved kraal construction is possible and whether it will deter predators," Julia says.
On the way back, we spot a genet, a small and beautiful cat-like creature, and a pair of roan antelopes, statuesque beneath a tree. François says: "There is just one lodge in the area and there is no electricity or piped water. If we can improve cattle kraals and deliver some sort of predator early warning by radio collars, there is still hope," he says.