South Africa

Smart cats

Before we even got to Twee Rivieren in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park last October, for some reason, Lola and Frank had convinced their Spanish friends that we were good at spotting lions! Although my wife is good at spotting any game -including lions if they are around- I was somehow taken aback by being attributed such a fame that generated baseless expectations… maybe I oversold myself…

So, when we arrived at Twee Rivieren there were anticipations and I was overwhelmed by the responsibility that had landed on my shoulders…

Luckily for me, it was the visitors themselves that found the lions. Well, at least they overheard the whereabouts of the lions! So, all we needed to do was to follow our visitors’ advice to find them and in this way avoid a sure embarrassment!

The lions in question (two males) were, of all places, about one hundred metres outside the camp gates and, according to our night safari guide, these pair come to this area every few weeks so we were fortunate to see them.

The predators were near the camp’s waterhole where they had killed a gemsbok a few days back so we set off to find them as soon as we had an opportunity.

It was not hard to find them as, in addition to the gemsbok that we did not see, the night before they had also killed a wildebeest and the latest kill was rather obvious!

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The kill happened very near the camp. Behind is Twin rivers staff accommodation on the Botswana side of the park.

Apparently, the cunning cats have learnt to use the strong camp fence in their favour by cornering their prey against it. Clearly this had happened in this instance as the victim was still somehow entangled in the fence where first one and soon both were seen feeding.

Place of many elephants

It is clear that the more places you see, the more you learn and the more you realize the little you know! Enough of philosophical exertions and focus of the post, I hear you thinking!

Climbing Wrights’s tower to look at the Mwenezi river below spurred my curiosity about who Mr. Wright was but also about the general area where the Gonarezhou[1] National Park is located. The Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area was created on 9 December 2002. It took another four years for parts of the fence separating Limpopo in Mozambique and the Kruger national parks to be removed allowing important movement of game across the hitherto fenced area. Things move slowly in conservation!

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Wright’s tower.

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The sign in Wright’s tower.

Although in April 2014, Mozambique and South Africa signed a memorandum of understanding on biodiversity conservation and management of the area, particularly addressing rhino poaching in the Great Limpopo area, Gonarezhou is lagging behind in this integration. There are, however, fresh hopes that the unique agreement, signed in 2016, between the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to form the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust may facilitate further integration.

Allan Wright was a district Commissioner in Nuanetsi, the District where Gonarezhou is. He arrived to the area in 1958 and declared himself to be an “ardent conservationist”. After a quick exploration of the topography, soils and plants found in the area he was convinced that it was “…From and agricultural point of view the whole area was in the lowest category, almost a wasteland…”.

So, the plans to divide it into farms for African farmers were gradually scrapped and his intentions made clear when he proclaimed:

Before me, as far as the eye could see, was the vast, empty Gonakudzingwa Purchase Area – ’empty’ only in the human context for it teemed with animal life … the great wilderness looked mysterious, haze blue, inviting. What a heritage! What a wonderful national park this south-east corner of Rhodesia would make.”[2]

So, Mr. Wright managed to persuade the then Government of Rhodesia not only to spare the area from farming but also to give him funds to develop it. He describes his time at Nuanetsi in two books [3]. Mr. Wright’s efforts survived the years to come after his retirement and eventually crystalized in the creation of the Gonarezhou National Park in 1975.

Considering the Gonarezhou in the larger context of the Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area, the point where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe meet is known as Crook’s Corner. Suspecting that the name had its reasons, I investigate it further and this lead to the unraveling of some interesting facts!

It was because of its “tri-national” characteristic that Crook’s Corner attracted a number of outlaws that found the facility of moving among the three countries very advantageous. Apparently, the exact location of Crook’s Corner is on an island very close to the place where the Luvuvhu River flows into the Limpopo, near to the Pafuri area of the Kruger National Park.

Although there were other brigands, Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard placed it in the world map. Barnard sought refuge there from his illegal activities related to hunting and poaching, two activities very difficult to tell apart in the 1900’s. “The one who swaggers as he walks” that is what his Shangaan nickname Bvekenya meant, arrived there in 1910.

Bvekenya’s derived his living from hunting and or poaching mainly elephants for ivory as well as illegally recruiting labour for the mines (known as blackbirding) as well as trading animal skins. It was a tough life, persecuted by police and exposed to malaria! Bvekenya functioned illegally over vast large tracts of Portuguese East Africa and Rhodesia, successfully running his ivory past the law.

It seems that Bvekenya was a bit of an oddball, to put it mildly and, during the twenty years that he operated in the region, based at Makhuleke, he carried out a number of interesting exploits, from taming a herd of eland for milking to praising lose the beacon indicating the frontier so that he could move it to “migrate” his camp to a different country according to which one was after him! A larger than life character that T.V. Bulpin immortalized in his book “The Ivory Trail” [4].

More amazing still were Bvekenya’s conservation ideas that led him to suggest the creation of a Trans-frontier park at that time (1900!)! It would take over one hundred years before the politicians in the various relevant Governments agreed on the issue and it is still unfinished!

Bvekenya’s hunting ground included the present Gonarezhou National Park. In that general area he shot a number of large elephants for their ivory. It is believed that he was not a careless hunter and that, before killing an animal, he would check the dung with his Shangaan trackers to ascertain the age of their quarry. Only elephants that had passed their prime would be shot and then nothing was wasted as the meat would be consumed by the local people.

Despite his hunting experience Bvekenya was mesmerized by the sight of a particular animal known as “taller than the trees” in the local Zulu language: Dhlulamithi! Bvekenya met this very large tusker while hunting somewhere in Gonarezhou or nearby, at a muddy pan. The bull elephant towered over the large herd he was with. The ivory that Dhlulamithi carried touched the ground while it walked, leaving grooves in the sand behind its path! Bvekenya attempted a shot at the giant but, luckily for Dhlulamithi, a younger bull that walked in front of it at the fatal moment was hit and Dhlulamithi got away unscathed.

Bvekenya never forgot Dhlulamithi and, while still hunting and or poaching other animals, he kept following it. It took Bvekenya many years to find it again and when he did, towards 1929, he had it in his rifle sights but did not shoot the animal exclaiming “Let it live”.

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Tusk size and shape varies with the areas. This bull in Hwange National Park carries thick but rather short tusks.

Whether this took place or not is an issue of debate as other chroniclers claimed that Bvekenya -an inveterate commercial ivory trader- would not have missed such a tusker. This thesis is supported by the appearance in 1932 -a few years after Bvekenya ‘s retirement- of two humongous tusks that were claimed to be Dhlulamithi ‘s that were eventually auctioned in London. The tusks weighed 73 and 73.5 kg and their origin is unclear. They are meant to be now at a London Museum.

Luckily, there still are elephants carrying heavy ivory roaming in the Kruger National Park and, with patience they can be found at the various watering points, particularly in the Northern part of the park [4]. Whenever I see one of these colossuses I hope that Dhlulamithi ‘s genes are still present in them!

These two “friends” were leaving one of the waterholes in the north of the Kruger National Park.

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Masthulele seen at the Letaba river  (Kruger National Park), together with the tusker below, the largest tuskers I have seen so far.

If lucky, next time I see these colossuses I will remember this story and hope that what I see still carries Dhlulamithi’s genes that will be passed to future generations.

The above, seen by the bushsnob in 2014, is no longer an unknown tusker! (In this regard, see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/a-tusk-task-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/unraveling-the-tusker-mystery/ and the next post coming soon!)

 

[1] “Place of many elephants” is the Shona language is the more accepted meaning of Gonarezhou. It is also translated less often as “sacred place of the elephants” or “elephant’s tusk”.

[2] Quoted from from Wolmer, W. (2007). From Wilderness Vision to Farm Invasions. Conservation & Development in Zimbabwe Southeast Lowveld. James Currey, Oxford. 247p.

[3] Wright, A. (1972). Valley of the ironwoods: A personal record of ten years served as District Commissioner in Rhodesia’s largest administrative area, Nuanetsi, in the south-eastern Lowveld (unknown publisher) and Wright, A. (1976). Grey Ghosts at Buffalo Bend, Galaxie Press. Both books are out of print.

[4] Bulpin, T.V. (2011). The Ivory Trail. Protea BoekhuisEds., 4 edition. 240p.

 

Postcript: Apart from T.V. Bulpin’s The Ivory Trail book I recommend to visit the following links that will provide you with more detail, if interested:

https://www.africahunting.com/threads/the-legend-of-dhlulamithi.15191/

http://www.pendukasafaris.com/history/remembering-bvekenya-country-life-february-2003/

 

Spot the beast 19

Back to Africa for a while while I develop another story from “Out of Africa”. Poor internet connection and farm work… are attempting against my productivity.

This is not a difficult “Spot the Beast” but I thought it is a nice situation to challenge your power of observation. I would be worried if you cannot find it within the first 10 seconds…

Here it is:

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I hope you agree with me that she was not only beautiful but well placed to see what was happening!

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A few more pictures of her:

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Easy pickings

Last September, after a few early morning drives at the Kalahari Transfrontier Park, we took it easy for a couple of days, visiting the waterholes late in the mornings and afternoons. The day before our departure from our last camp, Twee Rivieren, I suggested to go for an early drive but my wife preferred to continue relaxing so I went on my own. It was a bad idea as, somehow, the whole camp shared this thought and the only road out of the camp was a dust cloud, despite the 50kph speed limit.

Aware that the morning had not started as I dreamt, I drove slowly until I found a waterhole to stay and wait for the travelers to quiet down as it usually happens. I stopped after about 20km at the Rooiputs waterhole. I was alone there and, as expected, soon the traffic died down and I could enjoy some dustless tranquility.

Apart from a few gemsbok staying a couple of hundred metres from the water and a lone jackal that was clearly mice-hunting in the dunes at the back, the waterhole had been completely taken over by birds. I spotted a good number of Namaqua sandgrouse on the ground and decided to take a few pictures of them.

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The trees around the water were laden with small birds, mainly red-billed queleas, sociable weavers and red headed finches among others.

There were also a great number of laughing doves and ring-necked doves. The latter were in such numbers that it was like a curtain of moving birds that often obscured the water source as they flew in and out.

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Hundreds of doves were “queuing” on the nearby trees to get to the water. Most of the time the available water was literally covered with birds and every now and then an explosion of birds flying in all directions followed a perceived threat. Often these were false alarms and the scared birds returned to drink immediately.

It was following one of these bird explosions that I saw a tawny eagle in the midst of the doves. When I spotted the eagle it had already caught a dove and it soon landed to eat it. “This is incredibly easy”, I thought and decided to stay there and wait for more action. When it finished eating it flew away but I was sure that it would come for more. It did.

Unexpectedly, the eagle did not return at great speed, just flew above the doves, lost altitude and then it entered the “dove cloud” and, almost effortlessly, grabbed another dove with its talons and landed to pluck it and eat it!

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It all happened too fast for me and I only managed to take pictures of the raptor feeding about twenty metres from me. After eating, the eagle flew away again and landed on top of a nearby tree followed by a large retinue of small birds busy mobbing it.

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I continued watching the birds’ drinking dynamics when, after about ten minutes, the eagle (or another one?) repeated the operation and, again, caught another dove! After its third dove, the eagle flew to the same tree and then I saw a second eagle. Further inspection revealed that the clever eagles were nesting about fifty metres away, taking advantage of the easy pickings that the waterhole offered them!

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As they only need to fly a few hundred metres a day to get a full crop and feed their fledglings, I started wondering -like with the Scottish pigeons of my earlier post-about eagle obesity!

Luckily, my fears were dispelled as the next time one came for another pigeon it looked really mean and I did not detect any accumulation of fat round its waist!

 

The water elephant

For hundreds of years humanity has discovered and classified the organisms that inhabit our planet. However, even today we continue to find new species. These are not tiny insects but fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, some even very large!

In 2004, while we were working there, United States scientists discovered a new species of monkey in the jungle of the Madidi National Park in Bolivia. The ape, of the group of the marmosets, was placed in the genus Callicebus. Following a novel initiative, its species naming was the result of a contest in Internet won by the Golden Palace Casino. This institution paid U$S 650,000[1] for the name Callicebus aureipalatii that -in Latin- means Golden Palace![2]

So far in 2016 several new species have been found. Some of them are small animals that can be considered difficult to see. However, this is not the case of the seven-metre long Black Whale defined as a new species this year. The finding is so recent that it still does not have its scientific name![3]

In addition, there is a new shark called Ninja lantern shark (Etmopterus benchleyi), found in the sea near Costa Rica in 2015.[4] Again, United States scientists studying aboard the Spanish research vessel Spanish B/O Miguel Oliver, discovered it. The species name refers to Peter Benchley, author of the novel Jaws.[5]

So far we have dealt with the amazing animals that have been discovered. But what about those animals suspected to exist but that we have not yet found? Cryptozoology is the study of animals -“cryptids”- that are believed to exist. The example that comes immediately to mind is “Nessie” the Loch Ness “monster” in Scotland that, despite a long search, continues to be the epitome of the elusive creature.

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However, other instances exist of other beasts that had been seen but never confirmed. One of them is supposed to dwell in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and the information comes from a professional hunter called R.J. Cunninghame. This experienced hunter became world famous when he shot dead a hippo that attacked the then US President Theodore Roosevelt while on safari in East Africa in 1909.

A Frenchman named Le Petit told Cunninghame about Water Elephants that he saw in 1907 during his five-year stay in the Congo. Le Petit saw them for the first time while traveling through the river in the wetlands between Lake Leopold II (now Lake Mai-Ndombe) and Lake Tumba.

The first time he saw just a head and a neck that appeared on the water surface. His companions, natives of the place, told him that what he had just seen was a Water Elephant. Later he saw the animals again. This time they were five and he allegedly watched them for about a minute. He described them as between 180-240cm tall with relatively short legs and curved backs, elephant-like.

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The water elephant by artist and writer Philippe Coudray. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Their heads were ovoid and elongated with a short trunk of about 60cm in length (tapir-like), but no tusks were seen. Their skin reminded him of hippo skin but it was darker. They walked with an “elephantine” gait that left footprints in the sand with four separate toes. This was the last time they were seen as they quickly disappeared into deep water. His fellow local companions reaffirmed Le Petit that the animals were common in that area and that they spent much time in the water, like hippos.

Interestingly, in the same general area another animal is reputed to exist, known as the Mokele-Mbembe, a creature believed by cryptozoologists to have a prehistoric look similar to “Nessie”. Although several expeditions have searched this area of the Congo, none have found it or the Water Elephant.

However, the Water Elephant existence came to the fore again when in 2005 a pilot flying over Lake Tumba apparently spotted them again. The animals seen would fit the description of Le Petit!

Not many scientists believe that a beast of this size can still be unknown to science. However, the Congo region -like Bolivia and others- has surprised us earlier with the discovery of other interesting creatures. You may also think that what Le Petit saw were African Forest Elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), considered as pygmy elephants for quite some time but now as small specimens of L. cyclotis. This is unlikely for an experienced observer.

Le Petit’s description would fit that of the Moeritherium if the latter had been taller than its estimated one metre height.[6] Philippe Coudray, who I thank for his permission to use his picture of the Water Elephant, theorizes that elephants regarded as extinct -such as the Water Elephant- could still exist. He bases its reasoning on the finding of a tusk with a reverse curvature to normal elephants in 1904 in Ethiopia. The fact that the tusk was not fossilized would indicate that the animal did not live so long ago. The cryptid species postulated would be smaller than a prehistoric elephant known as the Deinotherium.

During our safaris we have seen elephants with weird-looking tusks.

THis year, while visiting the Kruger National Park, we spotted an elephant with one of its tusks pointing downwards so these tusks are still on live elephants! It reminded me of the Deinotherium-like cryptid!

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Did the Water Elephant ever exist or what Le Petit saw were the smaller forest elephants? The area of Congo where they could be is still difficult to access so a final solution to the mystery may yet take a long time. In the meantime we can only wait.

 

[1] Donated to the Madidi National Park.

[2] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/7493711/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/internet-casino-buys-monkey-naming-rights/#.V7brlZN97-Y

[3] http://www.livescience.com/55623-new-species-black-whale-in-pacific.html

[4] http://www.oceansciencefoundation.org/josf/josf17d.pdf

[5] https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etmopterus_benchleyi

[6] http://carnivoraforum.com/topic/9742488/2/

Note: This post is a translation and adaptation of an article published in the Spanish on-line Muy Interesante magazine. If interested see: http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/el-elefante-de-agua-y-otros-animales-que-no-sabemos-si-existen-721474540407

Nota: Este artículo es una traducción y adaptación de uno publicado en la revista Muy Interesante. Si tiene interés vea: http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/el-elefante-de-agua-y-otros-animales-que-no-sabemos-si-existen-721474540407

Baobab myth?

I am sure that we all agree that baobabs (Adansonia digitata) are special trees. To see these true behemoths of the vegetal world in the African bush is always visually attractive and these trees have an important contribution to human as well as animal food security.

A large number of “famous” baobabs are scattered throughout Africa and Walker (2013)[1] has done a great job documenting forty special baobabs in Southern Africa while writing about his life devoted to conservation.

I have always regarded them as primeval trees that would take hundreds if not thousands of years to reach their monumental sizes. That is why what I saw after crossing the border from Botswana into South Africa shook the foundations of my baobab world…

This year we decided to do our annual trip to South Africa through Botswana for two main reasons: to avoid the normally chaotic border post at Beitbridge and to see more of Botswana. After spending the night in Palapye we crossed the border at Martin’s Drift and, after the event, we congratulated ourselves for the choice as, dealing with the border, only took a few minutes!

Still enjoying the “high” that an easy border crossing gives you we came across a farmstead with an access road lined by trees! Well, you would be thinking that the border crossing really affected my mind as most farms have such an entrance! Not so. The trees were fully grown baobabs! In addition, the land surrounding the farmhouse was also littered with the giants!

 

The trees I saw were not baby baobabs, not even teenagers! They belonged to my “adult baobab” category that includes trees that are hundreds or even thousands years old. Did early settlers plant the trees? Considering that the first Europeans arrived in the Limpopo Province (then the Transvaal) in 1836 via the Great Trek this could be possible. However, I believe that the trekkers had other more pressing activities than planting baobabs! This is confirmed by the finding of the first gold fields in the Transvaal fifty years later.

It was also unlikely that the trees, like the famous Morondava’s Avenue of the Baobabs in Madagascar were the remnants of a far greater baobab forest which existed in the past and not planted on purpose to grow as an avenue.

So, the mystery of the Limpopo baobab avenue remained in my mind throughout the journey through South Africa. It was only when back in Harare that I found time to Google the name of the farm and learnt that it is a hunting company[2]. Keen on finding out the origin of the trees I sent them an e-mail but I did not get a reply. I continued searching.

While looking up the issue, I remembered that a good Italian friend had bought really ancient olive trees that were moved from Southern Italy to his farm near Rome where they were planted! Apparently a trench is dug around the tree to uproot it, one side every year, then it gets pruned and, in about 4 years, it is ready to be “transplanted”. Could something like that be done with baobabs? The answer is yes!

There are 380 transplanted baobabs at the Lost City forest at Sun City, the heaviest weighed 75 tons at the time of the move! De Beers Venetia mine has relocated 110 baobabs to avoid them being damaged by its mining activities and, more recently, a large baobab in Musina, South Africa was moved from the new Musina Mall parking area and placed in a roundabout a few hundred metres away[3].

So, in the absence of a response from Choronga Safaris we can only say that there is a farm in the Limpopo Province of South Africa with an amazing baobab-lined entrance that, regardless of their origin is amazing but that we suspect that the trees were placed there rather recently.

I nearly fainted when, after this baobab revelation, I went out to have a look at the one I planted two years ago in a strategic place of the garden. There it was, about 60cm tall and starting to sprout. Although healthy, its growth is almost imperceptible and it still looks like a bonsai!

Seeing my pathetic project, I was tempted by a transplantation and a few baobab candidates I know came to mind! However, I abandoned the idea as it felt like cheating! I have planted the baobab for future members of the family to enjoy it and I will stick to this idea.

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My “bonsai” baobab in Harare. The ruler is 30 cm long.

Well, to tell you the truth, the possible cost of a transplant really persuaded me not to do it so I will increase the amount of water it gets although I do not think that this will accelerate its growth. The only certainty is that I will not be able to drink tea under its shade.

 

[1] Walker, C. (2013). Baobab Trails. An Artist’s Journey of Wilderness and Wanderings. Ultra Litho (Pty) Ltd., Johannesburg. 287p.

[2] Choronga Safaris. Accessed on 7 October 2016. http://www.chorongasafaris.com/

[3] De Beers (2016). Moving story of a giant baobab tree. Accessed on 21 October 2016. https://www.debeersgroup.com/en/building-forever/our-stories/moving-story-of-a-giant-baobab-tree.html

Predators’ Eden

Having stressed the negative consequences of a drought like the one the Kruger National Park is going through in the previous post (3/10/16) it is now the time to mention one of the positive aspects of this situation for the game-spotter.

The lack of grass transformed the thicket into a very dry wooded savannah. In addition, the riverine areas that usually offer some cover to herbivores were now denuded from a lot of the vegetation so there was a lot of visibility. Most animals were near the river as most need to drink regularly so most of the “action” took place there.

Even without the assistance of the existing apps[1] we were able to find lions and leopards in numbers that are usually unthinkable, even for my wife.  11 September 2016 will go down in our bush lore as the day of the cats! In the morning, during a 20 km drive we spotted three different groups of lions, two separate leopards on trees and two walking by the river! We almost did not stop when we found a hyena walking by the road! As if this would not have been enough, after (my) siesta time, we revisited the nearby causeway over the Lower Sabie River to see if anything remained of the zebra being fed on by crocodiles of the day before.[2]

We crossed the bridge but found no trace of the zebra. As usual, there were a few cars on the bridge so we decided to turn around and, after re-crossing the bridge, to do a short drive following the river to enjoy the evening. By the time I had turned the car around all other vehicles had gone and we were on the bridge on our own, a rare occurrence.

As the bridge is narrow, I was paying attention to my driving when, just before ending our crossing, I heard my wife saying, “Look!” A leopard had just appeared out of nowhere on the shore of the river. I switched off the engine and we both grabbed cameras and took the pictures we could as the animal did not stop much and never took notice of our presence while it crossed the bridge just in front of us!

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The first picture of the leopard.

It was a large male and its right hind leg was apparently painful as it was limping.

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The sighting did not last more than three minutes and, by the time a few vehicles arrived to the bridge (that we were totally blocking), the leopard had moved off and it was hardly visible, although it had been spotted by others! I decided to move on and “share” our find only to realize that the car was dead! Suspecting a disconnected battery terminal I got out of the car to fix it. Although it did not take much time to get the car running again, by the time we moved off, the leopard had already disappeared and I was probably the least popular driver in the park!

Although the 11th was our most productive day, over the next couple of days we continued to find predators. We also continued to have problems with our battery! So, when I needed to get out of the car to fix it next to a group of lions, we decided that it was time to take the car to Skukuza for a long-lasting solution! This we got from one the very helpful camp mechanics that, with the right spanner, tightened the nuts and ended the problem for good.

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Luckily the lions were more interested in their romance than in the bushsnob fixing the battery!

Feeling now safer, on the way back to Lower Sabie Camp my wife (who else?), continued to excel and spotted more cats! The first sighting took place after we both noticed a few vultures on the ground by the Lower Sabie River. While I was watching them my wife noted that the cause was a buffalo kill where two magnificent male lions were feeding! Frankly, I would not have seen them.

 

As road speed limits and gate closing times in the park are very strict, we decided that we needed to start our journey back to arrive to our camp in time. Our planned timely arrival only lasted a few kilometres, until my wife spotted yet another leopard!

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This time it was a female sunning itself on a rocky outcrop overlooking the river. A beautiful sight worth risking a fine from the park as we both agreed. It was beautiful to watch the animal with the evening light and we stayed there until it decided to move off and we lost it.

Aware that we were late, we prepared our usual excuse of engine malfunction (this time it was quite close to the truth!) and returned. Luckily we just managed to squeeze through as the gates were being shut!

That night, staying at one of Lower Sabie’s tents paid off. Despite the rather sad absence of hippo grunts, the elephants were noisily feeding nearby and they were very vocal. Later, several lions started roaring up and down river, their loud calls amplified at night and the chorus continued well into the night. At some stage, a leopard joined in with its own regular grunts ending in an amazing ensemble that we do not recall having heard before. We were late sleeping as did not wish to miss the wild concert!

 

 

 

 

 

[1] See the earlier post: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/09/30/animal-go/

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/hungry-crocodiles/

Hippo drama

The drought that Southern Africa is experiencing this year was evident already during our visit to Mana Pools in September. Despite the Zambezi River providing sufficient water, grazing was the main issue as the riverine pastures were very low and the patches of green left were those that are inedible.

Browsers and grazer/browsers were still in good shape but large grazers such as hippos and buffalos were already walking longer distances to get to areas that still had grass cover and these were dwindling fast. The hippos’ normal timetable was visibly altered as we “bumped” on several walking far from the water during the mornings and afternoons when, during normal years, they are in the water or sunning themselves by it.

Despite the Mana Pools “warning” the situation we found in the Kruger National Park (KNP) -Lower Sabie and Satara areas- was worse than expected. According to Swemmer (2016)[1] rainfall at Phalaborwa, one of the KNP’s camps, during 2014-15 was 255mm (the long-term average being 533mm) and the 2015-16 figures are extremely low. Two consecutive years of very low rain, combined with very high temperatures is regarded as rare and extreme. It is even likely that this drought will be the most severe since records started to be collected in 1954!

Different views of a very dry KNP (pictures by Mabel de Castro).

The consequences are there for all to see!

In the dry season the park usually has reasonable grass cover. This year there was almost no grass to be seen! The consequences of this could be immediately seen as few live hippos remained in the Lower Sabie River and the nearby Sunset dam. The ones we found looked rather strange and rather long-legged as their normally bulging bellies had shrunk enhancing their legs’ length! In addition, their skin hanged in folds, a consequence of their loss in body condition.

I regret that some of the pictures are disturbing but I need to show what was taking place.

We also noticed that the hippos did not move much and grazed on whatever they would find near the water bodies. As grass was scanty, they would just gradually weaken and die. Buffalo were also having a rough time and we only saw small groups looking thin. Interestingly, in some areas, both hippos and buffalo were doing better.

It is clear that the drought will have a severe impact on the animal population of the park but also on the vegetation cover as we also saw dry or drying trees that were also damaged by elephants searching for their own food. The re-establishment of grass, shrubs and trees will probably take years. The same applies to the animal populations that may not reach previous levels if the observed drier conditions become the norm in the future. In addition the drought will also accelerate soil erosion and modify the watercourses and other water bodies. Interestingly and somehow alarmingly, this is the first time that no Mopane worms have been recorded since surveys began in 2009 (Swemmer, 2016).

Trying to be optimistic about the future, it is possible that the current dry spell will have some beneficial impact by fine-tunning the situation to a future drier climate by reducing the herbivore populations while allowing vegetation to recover and, in a longer term, prevent overgrazing and environmental degradation.

Independently of the various possible interpretations of the impact of the drought on the environment, it is clear that even if the rains would come now, more animals will surely die before food becomes available. These are the ways of Nature, again.

 

[1] Swemmer, T. (2016). The Lowveld’s worst drought in 33 years? Understanding the long-term impacts. Consulted on 2/10/16. http://www.saeon.ac.za/enewsletter/archives/2016/february2016/doc02

 

Animal GO

I guess that the use of apps in African game parks was unavoidable as I am sure these already exist in parks in the “developed” world. Well, they have now arrived to the delight of the bush snobs (please note the space between the words) and bush executives that, not happy with looking at the sighting boards in the South Africa’s National Parks lodges and camps, required something more efficient.

A couple of years back I got the first indication that times were changing when a friend gave me -for my birthday- the app for Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa iPad Edition, 2012-2013. Although I have misgivings about using a tablet for bird identification rather than my loyal Sassol guide, I tried it. The result is that the Sassol guide is collecting dust in a recess of the car!

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I have to announce that the same did not happen with the newish apps that -like with Pokemons- show you where the animals are so that you do not waste your valuable time driving around and can go to the hot spots straight away while the normal (or now abnormal?) game viewing enthusiasts “sweat the fat drop” (as we say in Spanish) to find interesting animals!

On a previous visit to the Kruger National Park I had heard that visitors were communicating interesting finds among them through a cellphone system. So, this time I searched the apps store and found a few and even some free. I downloaded one that looked popular called “Kruger Sightings” before our visit to this park.

The app is very straightforward to use and its information comes from what the users themselves feed in. After entering the park you are visiting and the kind of animals you wish to see, the programme will give you live updates with details of what is being found, where and other details of the sighting. It reminded me of a similar app from Brazil where users enter information regarding the location of speed traps and Police check points so that motorists can avoid them!

We followed the information it provided and easily found several other people watching what was alleged to be there! A leopard was the animal to be watched at the time and, after a long wait, we managed to progress through the traffic jam until we saw some spots up a tree!

After that first experience, we switched off the app for the rest of the safari. However, many visitors seemed to be using this and/or another similar app. We observed them drive from sighting 1 to sighting 2 at the maximum allowed speed and, as with our first trial, we found them “en masse” at the different locations where animals were supposed to be! I imagine that they did not wish to waste their lunch or dinner times?

Luckily for us and other “purists”, every cloud has a silver lining! The producers of the apps had, unintentionally given the no users a great advantage. The app groups its followers around a few of the big five, mainly lion and leopard, leaving the rest of the park for us to drive around in relative solitude and being able to find animals without cars around them. Luckily, with patience, luck and good eyesight, we managed a few good sightings of our own. Of course, our they remained incognito!

I promised myself only to use this kind of apps the day I become so important that I need to jet to parks with a few hours to spare and wish to impress some important client. I think that there is no fear of this so our game spotting will continue to be done the hard way!

The future worries me though. Rocket science is not required to see the gradual decline in animal numbers that elaborate and costly surveys and studies will confirm three years from now, three years too late to take any meaningful action! I know this sounds negative but it is what we observe.

Regrettably, the present generations had not really seen how it was, as I did not see how it was either but I guess it was better than what I saw!

 

See also: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/08/08/pachyderm-go/