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!

January 19, 2011

Recent Happenings

As usual I shall spend the first part of this entry groveling for apologies for the fact that it has been weeks since I last updated.  Things at Sabi Sabi have finally quietened down after a hectic Christmas period that saw the lodge rammed full for weeks on end.  In the 3 weeks before and after, I think I only had one of two sets of guests that spoke English as a first language!  This gives you some idea to the cosmopolitan flavor that has graced us over the festive period.  It has been fascinating to share so many experiences with different people and whilst giving an informative game drive in say, Russian, is not my strong point; the animals have a tendency to speak for themselves!  In times like this we of course rely on some guiding basics – hand signals, impressions and animations.  Not to mention the now accepted safari terms such as Simba, Zazou, Timone and Pumba.  We have the lion king to thank for that although convincing some people that they don’t talk and sing can be a challenge!!
So, on with the updates from the reserve…  The most exciting blanket news is that the other day we had about 50mm of rain in one night which may not sound like much to some of you in European climates, but for us, it was devastating!  The dry riverbed in front of the lodge that has not seen any action since before I arrived in June almost burst its banks.  We were stranded on one side of the river, unable to pick up and drop off guests for flights and transfers.  Game drive was cancelled that morning due to unsafe conditions and the next day, Bush lodge was limited to only land on the eastern side of the river.  The river crossings, usually empty, were a raging torrent of about 3 metres of water cast down from a dam busted dam outside the reserve.  Lion Sands had to be evacuated due to their proximity to the Sabi River and we had an extra 40 guests for breakfast that morning!  We watched the river rise literally 2 metres in the space of about 5mins as the ‘tidal flow’ powered its way down the channel.  However, 2 days after the event, the river is now empty and normal service is resumed although rainfall is still forecast for the coming days so we wait with tender hooks to see if a marine guiding qualification would have been more suitable! 
Africa is a continent of extremes and it still amazes me to see Mother Nature’s wrath in its full glory.  Rainfall for the year is expected to be around 550mm and with another 3 or 4 months of rainy season left, we are already around the 400mm mark.  Global warming maybe but statistically we have not seen a dry year since the 1990’s.  This in itself has an impact on the population numbers in the parks.  Most noticeably an increase in herbivores and decrease in predators.  Population dynamics shows us that more rain means more healthy animals.  And healthy animals are harder to catch!  More specialized hunters such as the cheetah and wild dogs need to be able to pick off the weak, sick and injured to sustain their populations.  With the increased rainfall of recent years, is it any wonder that both these predators’ numbers have suffered…?
Young male rhino enjoying the lush grass

The rainy season has inevitably brought with it familiar faces and new arrivals.  The bird life at Sabi Sabi has picked up with the summer migrants returning to their breeding grounds.  The Wahlbergs eagle and woodland kingfishers now common sights on a drive, with the latter calling incessantly throughout the day.  The parasitic cuckoos are also back in their droves and not a day goes by where we don’t witness a bird chasing one of these trespassers away from their nesting sights.  Arguably the most beautiful of our birds is also back in huge numbers.  The carmine bee eater, bathed in reds and pinks is a regular arcing through the skies, picking off invertebrates on the win, with incredible agility. 
The stunning Carmine Bee Eater

2 yellow billed hornbills engaged in morning displays

Red billed oxpecker perched atop a white rhino

The rains have brought with them food and shelter and the animals have responded to this increase in resource availability but strengthening their numbers.  Most antelopes coincide their breeding season with the onset of the rains for this reason and the bush is awash with exuberant youngsters.  The impala crèches have formed and the wilderbees herds are now dotted with fawn coloured fouls.  Nature’s ability to produce a perfectly formed miniature version of their parents is amazing.  Within hours these new arrivals are running with the herd.  Borne into the ultimate struggle for survival – for these young ones are the first to be picked off.  It is like ringing the dinner bell for the myriad of predators, small and large, that flourish in this area.  Baby impalas hanging from trees are now a common sight and I was lucky enough to witness 6 lions reducing a baby wilderbees to nothing more than a few scattered bones in a matter of minutes yesterday.  Brutal it may be but all animals endure the same fight on a daily basis, it’s just the diet that differs – one animal’s loss of life is paramount in extending the life of another’s.

The next generation of blue wilderbees

 The predator population has undergone many changes in the last few months.  The lion pride has split up into 2 distinct groups now that the young ones have been forced out by our new dominant male.  With 5 young males among them, it is only a matter of time until competition forces them to move away completely and establish their own territory.  However, this dispersal means that there is room for a new generation and Sabi Sabi has been blessed with the arrival of 2 young male cubs.  In addition to these, we are positive another lioness has recently given birth but is still keeping her cubs in isolation, and that 2 more could be pregnant!  The new additions have been seen fairly regularly and there is nothing more awe inspiring than seeing these two, 3 month old cubs, playing with their mother.  One has to pinch themselves that these little bundles of fluff will grow up to be one of the world’s most feared predators.  Survival rate due to deaths from hyena and leopard remain very low – only about 10% make it to maturity.  But the mother is well experienced and her track record is very good so we watch with hope as we delight in the progress and growth of our new arrivals

Our new arrivals (photo by Rika)
Lion cubssuckling from lioness (photo by Rika)
Young lioness quenching her thirst from one of many puddles

The leopard population, Sabi Sabi’s trump card, has also taken a few unexpected twists.  If you recall from a previous update, one of our two cubs was killed by a new male a few months back.  He has now established himself as the new chief of the eastern sector of our property and is venturing ever deeper into it.  This has caused the mother of the one remaining cub to pull out all the stops to avoid him, foe he will kill the last cub in order to mate with her himself.  She has been seen all over the property of late and even been spotted making forays into the neighboring properties too.  This is not good news for our sightings but her maternal instinct to protect the cubs is strong.  Our existing dominant male has been pushed out due to the young pretender’s arrival and is rarely seen.  His son, also a common sight close to bush lodge has also been forced out and is now being spotted close to little bush camp quite often – well beyond the current movements of the new male.  Time will tell how this all plays out but with the lions popping out cubs and being spread out over the property, leopard sightings have been hard to come by of late.  They are masters of clandestine activity and when they don’t want to be found, it is very difficult to change that!

Being stared down by a female leopard

Female leopard surveying her territory from a marula tree

Female leopard draped over a marula tree

The lonely life of a leopard

Huge male leopard at sunset

Huge male leopard at sunset
 Elephant sightings have seen their usual drought for this time of year, though with the onset of the fruiting of the marula trees, we are seeing them return in their droves.  Most males are feeling amorous at this time of year and all of us have had close calls with musth bulls of late.  One particularly testosterone charged male recently killed a male rhino by running him through with his tusks.  This was a black and white reminder that these behemoths of the bush should never be underestimated!  The resulting activity at the carcass was great though with multiple hyenas and hundreds of vultures feasting on the remains.  It still amazes me that a 2 ton rhino can be reduced to skin and bones inside of a week.  Nature’s clean up crew is the most efficient known to man!
Buffalo bull testing female's urine by making the 'Flehman Grimace'

So, the future looks bright for Sabi Sabi.  We will watch with fascination the dynamics of the resident lions and leopards as they continue their never ending power struggle and fight for survival.  The bush looks in great condition - lush grass, colourful wild flowers and sweet tasting fruits are abundant.  As ever, nature is providing the perfect environment to raise the next generation of wildlife.       
A rare picture of a serval - a smal nocturnal predator