HI, and welcome to my blog! I am a field guide in a private game reserve in South Africa and below you will find stories and pictures of my amazing job!

November 16, 2010

Life in the Fast Lane

My wonderful fiancé witnessed this story and has asked me to put it into my words on her behalf. ..
Streamlined and elegant, the cheetah strode purposely down the road in front of us.    The late afternoon sun glinting off his eyes, giving them the impression of polished amber; his velvet coat glowing gold in the receding light.  His long legs and slight frame hinting at the explosive power that lay beneath them.  His eyes, perfectly adapted to diurnal hunting, scanned the bush on either side for his next meal.  Driven by the need to find food, and constantly aware of the stronger competition that might take it from him, the cheetah leads one of the harshest lives of Africa’s most revered predators.  Rarely is he able to finish a meal without the interruption of hyena or lion. 
                Today he was hungry.  His beautiful eyes betraying the need to eat as they analaysed every inch of the landscape, searching for potential prey. His sharp vision soon picked out a herd of impala casually grazing close to a waterhole.  Instantly his demeanor changed.  With delicate precision, the cheetah circled his prey.  His deliberate approach borne out a life of missed opportunities and experience; the ability to see but not be seen essential in his success as a species.  Keeping plenty of cover between him and his folly, the cheetah finally settled in the lengthening shadows of a knob thorn to plan his attack.  Between him lay a no-man’s-land of short grass affording no cover.  For some of the larger predators this would be an unassailable obstacle but this would pose no problem for the blistering speed of the cheetah. 
                Like a sniper, trained to observe for hours and wait for the perfect moment, he watched the movements and actions of the impala.  His long thick tail, so important for balance and maneuverability at high speeds, twitching occasionally, the only sign of his growing excitement.  Finally, the trap was set.  Inching forward, low on his belly, the cheetah positioned himself, ready to strike.  Like a coiled spring, toned muscles rippled as they tensed for action.  We waited, breaths held for their release.  We knew we were about to witness something special.  A cheetah in full flight is rarely seen by people in the wild, especially in the thicker savanna vegetation we have at Sabi Sabi.  They have had to develop new hunting strategies to compensate for less room to operate at high speeds but this time, the cheetah had worked the opening that nature had designed it for.
                Without warning, the attack came.  Like a bullet from a gun, the cheetah exploded from his concealed position with acceleration that defies belief.  Faster than the top production cars on the planet, the cheetah hit 60mp/h inside 2 seconds.  A bolt of black and gold streaking across the grass.  A feat of natural engineering doing what natural selection has chosen it for.  The lightweight frame, enlarged nostrils, non retractable claws for grip all working in perfect harmony to propel him towards his target.  The impala saw him coming and fled, they themselves so aware that danger can come from any side at any moment.  For a moment the cheetah looked beaten but then he hit the afterburners…  With so little time to get up to speed, the impala stood no chance with the proximity of the attack.  Legs pumping like pistons, massive strides eating the ground beneath him, the cheetah singled out one of the ewes and employed the classic ankle tap.  The over sized dew claw clipping the back leg and sent the impala stumbling into the turf.  Like a flash, the cheetah was on top of her, strong jaws clamped down on her neck stifling any cries that would alert other predators and cutting off oxygen to the already exhausted impala.
                We watched in awe as the entire event unfolded in front of us in the blink of an eye.   However, we were not the only audience to this performance.  As the cheetah lay beside his prize, panting heavily, trying to get air back to his oxygen-starved limbs, 3 rhinos now approached the spectacle.  With no real predators to worry them, they approached the scene with apparent curiosity, their poor eyesight unable to resolve the situation to their satisfaction.  A sighting is always magnified by having interactions between species.  It lends itself to the bigger picture, rather than just witnessing individual characters go about their business.  Though out gunned and giving away about 2000kgs in body weight, the cheetah stood its ground, ready to defend his kill against these armoured giants.  Nose to nose, with only a metre or so separating them, the cheetah stood resolute over his kill, hissing and spitting at the spectators.  Seemingly perplexed by this fiery little adversary, the rhinos soon moved on no doubt chuckling at the plucky little cat’s defiance.
                With the battle won and his prize defended, the cheetah settled down to a well earned meal.  With relish, his sharp jaws opened the soft flesh of the hind quarters and began to replenish some of the energy expended during the hunt.  But this unbelievable sighting was not over for us yet!  From the tree line skulked the unmistakable figure of a spotted hyena.  The cheetah’s arch nemesis.  We knew instantly that all the hard work would come to an end with the arrival of nature’s principal scavenger.  Quite capable of hunting for themselves, but brilliantly adapted to reap the rewards of others’ labour they cheetah knew that his prize was lost.  Resolutely he stood his ground, trying to get as much nourishment as possible before the inevitable happened.  We know that death and taxes are inevitable, but in the cheetah world, its death and hyenas!  For a moment, we thought that the two would share the spoils but with a look that could kill, the hyena took one bite and casually dragged his plunder away.  The cheetah knew it had met its match and merely watched, before turning away and continuing his unending fight for survival.
                Watching this filled me with so many emotions.  The excitement of witnessing my first ever kill will live long in my memory but the interactions that followed will make this unforgettable.  To see just one of the 3 principle characters in this soap opera would have been special in itself but to see them all was special.  Of course we were rooting for the cheetah.  It is not often we see this fascinating animal and get to marvel at its abilities but also to see its weaknesses first hand.  To possess such blistering speed means sacrificing strength – a point perfectly highlighted in his decision not even to defend his kill against the more powerful hyena.  It is no wonder that experts say that cheetahs would be extinct by now if not for man’s intervention.  The irony is that with the creation of national parks, larger predators have flourished in an arena that favours the strong.  Cheetahs need wide open spaces to utilise their speed and the ability to avoid competition.  Out competed and out muscled by all its adversaries, the cheetah must rely on good fortune and the ability to adapt to its new surroundings.  This takes time, and with such limited numbers left, the question is, do they have enough.

November 6, 2010

Belated Update

The rains have come!   Ok, so we’ve only had one storm but what a storm…  Each year it’s the same and each year I am taken by surprise by the shear force of Mother Nature’s cycles.  6 months of drought had left the veld looking dry and desolate.  Skeletal tree trunks littered the landscape like forgotten gallows.  Grass crunched underfoot as though walking through a giant bowl of dry cornflakes; and the animals were pushed to breaking point in their daily struggle to find food and water.  Oh how one night can change that.  The rain fell with such force that visibility was almost zero.  Roads became waterways as the massive volume of water jostled its way to the lowest points.  Lighting bolts shot from cloud to cloud as the sky was lit up, leaving their images momentarily burned on my retina as I struggled to see the road.  Thunder boomed, echoing all around me and I could not help flinching with each shot, pulling my shoulders up and my neck as far into my (alleged) waterproof as possible, rather like a child does when hiding from an unseen night time monster.  The hope of keeping dry a long lost memory as I negotiated the waterways back to the lodge. 
The first downpour of the season was however welcomed by all, as finally the areas of the reserve ravaged by fire during the winter will be able to transform themselves from lifeless patches of blackened ground into lush blankets of green grasses.  These first drops of nature’s blood will also prompt the trees from their winter torpor and encourage them to break out in a cacophony of greens.  Insects have begun to emerge from their winter hiding places and are already being a nuisance on night drives as they are attracted to the spot lights.  Along with our invertebrate contingent, the migratory birds are returning in their droves.  Their enthusiastic calls echo through the bush from about 4am as breeding rights and territories are established.  Even conducting a conversation over dinner has become an ordeal as we compete with the chorus of frogs jostling for the best acoustics in the lodge water features.  After just one night’s rain, the bush has come alive!
Ok so I may have got carried away a little - the last few days its been 40 degrees in the shade and I have melted like a Mr. Whippy in a microwave but it will be back….
Anyways, enough small talk about the weather.  So, what else has been going on?  We have seen a spate of baby elephants of late.  One was even seen still with afterbirth clinging to its baggy grey skin.  I make no illusions that they are my favourites and any of you who have been on game drive with me can probably attest that I spend more time with them than any other animal.  I find them fascinating to watch, so emotive and intelligent. These little elephants always put a smile on my face – they are so determined to be like Mum and attempt to copy her every move.  Unfortunately, they spend more time stumbling over obstacles in their way as they try to keep up with the herd.  No matter how unstable and uncoordinated they may be, they still find time to try to intimidate the land rovers, approaching purposely with ears outspread, only to lose their nerve and race back to the safety of Mum.  If only they stayed so small and cuddly forever!
The big news within the lion community is the return of two males last seen here a year or so ago.  We think they have come from the Kruger park side and the other night attempted to stake a claim on our property.  Unfortunately for them, they chose to let out their first territorial bellows about 300m from our current dominant male.  He is huge and in his prime, muscles rippling like a lava lamp on a spin dryer!  No sooner had he heard the calls of these trespassers, he tore across the open area between them at an impressive speed and went crashing into the intruders.  We lost sight of him as he crashed through the bushes between them but left no doubt in the beating he handed out as the two interlopers fled in his wake.  Uninjured but beaten, they have been lying low the last few days but have not left the property.  Only time will tell if these pretenders to the throne of Sabi Sabi’s lion pride have what it takes to depose the current king.
The saddest news greeted us mere minutes before the downpour hit us.  An omen perhaps, but as one of our guides rounded the corner, he was met by the sight that we all feared might come.  In the road stood a, before now, unseen male leopard.  Clamped in his powerful jaws and being shaken like a rag doll was one of our resident male leopard cubs.  At 9 months, his chances of survival were improving by the day but sadly, nature had other plans for him.  The likelihood of any predator cubs getting to 1 year old is around 10% so his demise was not unsurprising.  I was unfortunate enough to pull into the sighting as the male began to pluck its prize – leopards being one of the few predators that will eat their own kind.  It was a harsh lesson in the ways of the bush and in natural selection.  Here we sit, surrounded by the glory and beauty of the natural world, but one tends to forget the more unpleasant, but necessary processes that make it all possible.  We have since seen the mother and the other cub alive and well so hopefully she can give all of her attention to ensuring its survival in the months to come. 

With the bad weather and a lack of significant skill, I don’t have any really good photos to share but have tacked on a couple I quite liked.  Will be in touch again soon!