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!

August 10, 2011

Leopard vs Porcupine: The Inside Story

Its not often I have the inclination to put up 2 blog entries so close together but every now and again a sighting comes along that justifies its sharing.  The drive started off with a stunning sighting of a female and her calf drinking from a waterhole.  I was able to position the land rover to get a great view of them quenching their thirst, reflected perfectly in the still waters. 

Mother and calf reflected in the water hole

           Then, as the African sun sank slowly over the horizon, we got the call that the grand daddy of the leopards in the area, known as Sand River, had just killed a porcupine.  It’s not often that you see this elusive spiny member of our nocturnal contingent and tonight afforded us the most graphic sight I have ever witnessed.  People always ask about the techniques used to quell such a well armoured foe and the answer is always the same: carefully!  Typically, the leopard must flip over the porcupine in order to expose the softer underbelly.  This Sand River did perfectly.  Having avoided any unpleasant encounters with the walking pincushion, he settled down to eat. 
                However, undisturbed meals in the bush are rare and with senses bordering on precognition, the hyenas soon honed in on the leopard’s dinner.  Unprepared to relinquish this evening’s nutritional treat, Sand River stood his ground, faced the competition and let out a menacing, guttural growl toward at his tormentors.  His aggression was unheeded though, and the hyenas continued their advance, minds focused solely on stealing the prickly prize.  Out numbered and out-jawed, the leopard had to take evasive action.  His gripped the porcupine in his jaws and headed for the nearest tree.  In front of one of the vehicles, he hauled the awkward meal into the branches, unperturbed by the myriad of spines that now dug into his paws and chest as he scaled the trunk to safety.

With the porcupine in his jaws, Sand River scales a marula tree

Sand River gleefully tucks into the porcupine's internal organs

          The hyenas circled the tree like sharks, chattering with excitement as they willed the leopard to drop his folly.  The leopard, now safe, was able to enjoy his food in peace.  His scissor like carnassial teeth swiftly opened the soft under parts and the hyenas’ bloodlust was briefly satisfied when a shower of entrails sloshed graphically on the ground among them.  The internal organs are the softest and most nutritional part of the animal and we watched with a grotesque fascination as the leopard ate liver, intestines and the finally the colon, looking like a starved Italian as he sucked up the organ like spaghetti, the contents of the colon being squeezed unceremoniously from its casing like a tube of toothpaste! 

Sand River stands proud and satisfied after his porcupine dinner

Sand River looking on as the hyenas gather

          After lining his own stomach, he set about the unpleasant job of removing the spines embedded in his paws and chest from the climb before finding a comfy position in the tree to digest and reflect on another successful hunt.  What a way to end the evening!

August 8, 2011

Eternal Enemies

          The beauty of a non fenced reserve is the element of surprise.  At any moment, any animals can turn up, and therein lies the fascination and intrigue of this job.  The other day, we discovered an adult male lion and 2 younger males on a fresh buffalo kill.  For the next 3 days we watched these huge cats gorge themselves to bursting point.  A male can put away 30-40kgs in a sitting and their comical appearance resembling that of having swallowed a pair of beach balls gave us plenty of amusement.

Male lion repels another hyena raid on his hard earned buffalo kill

          The presence of a large kill brought with it the inevitable hyena party.  At its peak, numbers reached about 30, yet none of them were bold enough, or stupid enough to try and steal a morsel from the ferocious diners.  Each time they plucked up the courage to form a raiding party, they were sent scurrying by the biggest of the males.  Ultimately, the coalition finished off every palatable item and the hyenas were left looking forlorn and miserable as they scrabbled over the scarce remains with the vultures.

3 hyenas keep their distance from th buffalo carcass

          Some lucky guests at Selati witnessed the wrath of the hyena gang late one night when they had an all out war with our group of females and cubs.  By all accounts, about 35 hyenas took on the lionesses, and this time they came out on top, stealing a fresh zebra kill from the females, sending them scattering all directions.  With this harassment and the presence of males that posed a threat to the cubs, the lionesses have once again retreated to the safety of the southern section of the reserve.  Sightings of them have continued to be good and all 10 cubs still continue to defy all the odds.

Blood drips from the mouth of one of the lionesses on a fresh zebra kill

The lionesses scan the horizon for their next meal

The next generation being led to less dangerous ground

3 of the lionesses keep a close eye on proceedings as they move to a new hunting ground

           It is hard not to get too attached to the animals when you spend hours every day watching them go about their daily lives.  We are privileged to watch the younger members of the community grow up in their natural habitat and we share their trails and tribulations during their battle for survival.  There is no more poignant case at the moment than that of our young male leopard.  After his torrid beginning of just escaping the same fate that befell his brother (death at the jaws of the Xihangalas, the dominant male) he has matured into a handsome young specimen.  In the last 2 weeks he has come of age and we have seen him kill his first impala with his bare claws.  The most traumatic period of his life is behind him with the arrival of adulthood but with his impending abandonment by his mother, his next test has just begun. The life of a leopard is hard and lonely and we all have or fingers crossed that his hunting skills have been sufficiently honed to see him through.

Xihangalas monitoring his territory from the vantage point of one of the many termite mounds

          In other news on the reserve, the wild dogs have since move on with their cubs and have not been seen in the last few weeks.  The den site stands empty but we still live in hope that they will return in time.  As usual, the beauty of the open system has compensated for their loss and we have had regular sightings of a huge buffalo herd with numbers estimated in the 700s cutting a swathe through the bush.  We are all waiting for the lions to discover this feast but thus far they have been left to their own devices.  It’s still very impressive to be sat in a sea of buffalo as they cruise past the car; it feels like you have been accepted into the herd. 

Buffalo bull gives the 'bank manager' stare

One of the last looks at the wild dogs before their departure

Enthousiastic young rhino gallops through the grass

          There have been some interesting happenings on the feathered front also, with confirmed sightings of woodlands kingfisher, wood sandpiper and red breasted swallows in the last week.  All 3 are migrants and not expected to return until October.  Perhaps the climate changes are finally manifesting in their behavior or maybe they just set their watch wrong this year?!  Only time will tell…

Close up of the fork tailed drongo as he follws the land rover looking for insects flushed from the grass by the tires 

Co operative breeding group of the beautiful magpie shrikes