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!

December 22, 2011

Arboreal Artistry

               The key to a successful existence in nature is avoidance of competition.  This is especially true in the highly competitive world of the carnivores.  In order for a species to thrive, it must occupy its own ecological niche.  What is an ecological niche you might ask?  Perhaps the best way to describe this is using a business parallel (before the chirps come flying in, I know that this is a highly unusual simile for me, of all people, to draw upon!).  If everyone came out of education qualified in plumbing, the market would be saturated and the majority would not be able to put their skills to good use.  Those lucky enough to get a job in the first place would struggle to make money due to having so many competitors.  Therefore, with our ability to become qualified in a multitude of skills, the workload is spread over many areas and thus more businesses are able to coexist.
               The same is true within the animal kingdom.  If every animal ate grass, there would be no grass left.  If all predators ate the same size prey or operated at the same times of day and in the same habitat, only the strongest would survive.  In our case, the lion would be the only large predator roaming Africa.  Nature has combated this by giving us a great array of shapes and sizes, each of which specialize (occupy an ecological niche) in a particular way, allowing them to coexist.  Let’s use our major draw cards as an example: lions take large prey; leopards take medium sized prey.  Lions do most of their hunting in the dead of night; leopards at dawn and dusk.  Lions prefer hunting on open plains; leopards prefer thicker vegetation close to rivers and drainage lines.  As you can see in these 2 species, although they are both carnivores and big cats, their behaviour enables them to avoid confrontation where possible.
The Selati male skulks along the banks of a drainage line close to Bush Lodge

               The other threat that that predator face here is kleptoparasitism.  Long word yes, but it has a simple meaning – having your food stolen!  All predators will use force to chase off opponents and take the food for themselves.  Once again, how can they eliminate inter-specific competition (competition between different species)?  Hyenas have become highly cooperative, lions have become social and leopards have developed the ability to climb trees.

The Nottens female takes a rest during her patrol

Selati male enjoying a comfortable spot

               Most people would agree that the leopard is by far and away the most beautiful animal we are graced with here at Sabi Sabi.  Their habituation levels mean that we are in the enviable position to get up close and personal with these magnificent beasts on a regular basis.  The stereotypical ‘perfect’ sighting of a leopard is to see one lounging in a tree.  Their ability to drape themselves over the branches is unparalleled.  It seems that no matter the shape of the tree, they are able to find the perfect spot every time.  It is like sinking into your favourite couch to watch TV after a long days work.  You body instantly moulds into the fabric and the contentment is overwhelming.

The Little Bush female gazes over her domain from her perch

Time to move on for the Selati male

               Climbing into a tree is one thing but to navigate the branches and to climb down is often another thing entirely.  It is not impossible to see a lion in a tree but it is hilarious to watch one try and get their paws back on to solid ground.  The king of the jungle is often reduced to looking like a frightened kitten when presented with the challenge of climbing down a tree.  Thankfully, the need for heavily protected fireman is not necessary and, usually, after a lot of inching, slipping and general ungainliness, the lion is able to fall from its perch. 

An elevated viewpoint allows Nottens to survey her territory

               The leopard however has none of these problems.  This angelic looking killing machine is able to weave through the lattice of vegetation with consummate ease due to its lighter body weight and disproportionately long, thick tail.  The latter is used for balance as it glides from limb to limb.  Not only this, but the leopard possesses a locking mechanism in its wrists that allows it to support its body weight without the wrist ‘breaking’ under its own body weight.  This particular adaptation is essential for a fluid dismount.  The speed at which it can maneuver and descend a tree is mind blowing.  The leopard is the big cats’ most perfect gymnast and its grace and elegance in the canopy would make even Nadia Comãneci look merely average.

Little Bush descending from a knobthorn

She shows no fear as her claws and locking wrist bone allow her to leap from the tree

A perfect dismount

               The last few months have seen a great rise in the number of leopard sightings in trees.  For most of the year, the only times I was lucky enough to see this wonderful spectacle was if the leopard had stashed a kill out of the reach of marauding hyenas.  To fit in with the tone of the opening gambit of this entry, this ability is a perfect mechanism to deal with the inter-specific competition by keeping your food away from hungry, more powerful jaws.  It is all part of the ecological niche occupied by the most successful of the big cats and goes a long way to explaining why they are the second most widely distributed feline on the planet after the domestic house cat! 

A fallen marula proves the perfect place to get a lay of the land

               But now, with the trees supporting more shelter due to their heavier summer leaf load, the leopards are often seen utilizing this shade to avoid the potent African sun.    For a photographer, this is a dream come true.  I am still awaiting the perfect shot – leopard, sunset and unobstructed foreground and background but any time I get the chance to witness the spectacle it is enough to take my breath away.  Certain combinations in life have a perfect symbiotic harmony: The Beatles, Laurel and Hardy, roast turkey and cranberry sauce, Megan Fox and cut off denim shorts… But perhaps none is more aesthetically pleasing than a leopard resting in the folds of a marula tree.            

The grace and elegance of the Little Bush female needs no further explanation

December 18, 2011

Creatures of the Night

               One of my favourite parts of safari is the brief but always exciting nocturnal excursion.  Unfortunately we only get limited time to attempt to find some of Sabi Sabi’s rarer, shyer inhabitants due to dinner commitments but there are no rules in the bush and you never know what you might stumble upon.  Often this part of the drive is quiet unless you are lucky enough to bump into a cat or hyena but there is always just the faint hope of catching a glimpse of some of the more illusive members of the wildlife community.

The ever oppoortunistic hyena out of the prowl

              The lack of animals seen during nature’s shroud of darkness can be put down to a variety of reasons.  Perhaps the 2 most obvious are the high cat population in the area that will either eat, or out compete smaller nocturnal animals; and that we have been conducting safaris in this area for about 30 years.  It is probably no surprise then that the animals have adapted their behavior to avoid us.  Let’s also not forget that there are numerically fewer night time dwellers and most are either solitary or in small family groups.  However, when the powerful spotlight picks up a set of reflecting eyes in the distance, my heart always starts to race.  More often than not, it’s a daylight animal but every so often we chance across a jackal, genet, civet or bushbaby. 
               One of the most common sights on the night drive is the chameleon.  Once you know what to look for, a chameleon is easier to spot than you realize.  However, it takes a honed set of eyes on the tracker seat to locate them whilst driving.  They are a slightly paler colour than the surrounding leaves and thus standout a little within the vegetation.  The reason for this is complicated and not having a phd in chemistry I can’t give the full details, but in a nutshell, the chameleon’s colour changing ability is helped by a reflective layer of cells beneath the skin.  During daylight this layer is able to pick up the surrounding colours and alter the skin accordingly.  At night, there is no surrounding colour to reflect and therefore the skin doesn’t know how to react and becomes a creamy ‘blank canvas’.

A flap necked chameleon grasps the vegetation

               The lesser bushbaby is always a firm favourite amongst guides and guests alike.  They are simply incredibly cute and the way that they bounce around the trees like a pygmy kangaroo on speed is hypnotic.  They are often found around acacia trees in the winter as they supplement their diet of insects with acacia gum.  Their close relative, the thick tailed bushbaby is seen less frequently in our parts but can be heard sometimes as night.  It sounds like a crying baby and is a very eerie sound if you don’t know what you are listening to.  These two form the entirety of Southern Africa’s nocturnal primates.

A lesser bushbaby stares into the caera with its huge eyes moments before launching itself from the branch

               As an avid birder, I am always on the close look for an owl during these early hours of the evening.  Mainly thought of as crepuscular animals, which means most active just after dusk and before dawn, they have always struck me as one of the most beautiful creatures in the bush.  To have an owl swoop past you only a few metres away and to not hear a sound, is quite a surreal experience.  The leading edges of their flight feathers are not rigid like most birds, but fluffy to allow the air to diffuse through them and limit excess noise from friction.  They also have asymmetrical ears to allow them to hunt more effectively.  Sound reaches each ear at minutely different times and this allows the owl to form a 3-D map of exactly where the prey is, without the need for clear vision.  Whilst they have very good night vision, this is due to massive eyes and multiple rods within them, they lack the ‘tapetum lucidium’ or reflective layer that gives the retina a second chance to process the image; and enables us to view the eye shine with the spotlight.  Therefore, these 2 adaptations are essential in their habits – to hear well and also not to make too much noise yourself!

A spotted eagle owl looking imperiously down from its perch

               Every now and again, we hit nature’s equivalent of the jackpot.  There are a big 5 of nocturnal animals that we as guides get very excited about.  The last time I bumped one of its members, I lost the ability to explain anything to my guests as I flapped around like a girl, making incoherent babbling noises as I fumbled with my camera!  Ben’s nocturnal big 5 are as follows: Aardvark, Pangolin, Honey Badger, Caracal and Serval.  To give you an idea why we get so excited by these hidden gems of the night, here is the number of times I have seen each in the wild in 6 years of guiding:
Aardvark – 7 times
Pangolin – Once
Honey Badger – 3 times at Sabi Sabi, perhaps 10 in total
Serval – Unknown but not more than 15
Caracal – Twice

A rare picture of the illusive serval cat

The very relaxed serval gives us the eyes before continuing is night of hunting

            Most of these sightings are brief and poor quality and I fear that the majority of guests lucky enough to view any of the animals mentioned here do not realize how lucky they have been.  If nothing else, they will remember the ridiculous antics of their guide and maybe our reaction will at least persuade them that they have seen something special.  The bush at night can be a daunting place and the excitement of not knowing what’s around the next corner will never grow old.  Even viewing cats and hyenas after dark is a totally different experience.  To know that they can see you perfectly in almost complete darkness and that you have truly entered their domain is a humbling experience.  Admittedly photographic opportunity is limited but the experience and accompanying fear should more than make up for that.

The Selati male confidently strides past the land rover allowing us to take in his beauty

December 13, 2011

A Tall Story

The lowveld is home to one of the richest ecosystems, in terms of biodiversity, to be found on the African continent.  Perhaps the most unique and recognisable of these miracles of design is the giraffe.  If you take the big cats out of the equation, it is easily the animal that we, as guides, receive the most requests for.  In fact, a recent survey to establish people’s perception of what they considered the most iconic animal in Africa turned up surprising results:  the giraffe romped to victory by an overwhelming margin, eclipsing even the odds on favourite, the lion.  One can only marvel at the evolutionary adaptations that have enabled the tallest animal in the world to flourish.  Its elegant design means that it can feed on leaves that none other of its antelope relatives can.  Therefore, while the smaller antelope such as impala, kudu and, bushbuck compete for food at the lower levels, the imperious giraffe can happily browse at a relatively uncontested level.  Its only rival at this height is of course the elephant but their varied diet and penchant for grass during the wet season means that the competition is negligible.

4 Giraffes emmerge from the surrounding bush in a tangle of necks

               The giraffe’s unique design might enable it to dominate this ecological niche but it comes at a price.  The physiological adaptations in the circulatory system have had to evolve to combat the challenges of supplying and controlling the blood flow around such an unnaturally shaped body.  A common misconception is that the heart is unusually large to facilitate the pumping of the blood up the neck, to the brain.  Recent studies have shown that the heart is no bigger in size in relation to other animals.  In fact, all animals have a heart that weighs approximately 0.5% of their total body mass.  What the giraffe’s heart does possess however, are thicker walls, and it is here that the giraffe is able to generate the pressure needed to scale the heights of the neck to the brain.  The giraffe also possesses a remarkable network of valves at the base of the brain that can control the flow of blood.  This is imperative to avoid blacking out when bowing down to drink for example.  This organ, known as a ‘rete miribile’ counteracts the forces of gravity and ensures that the flow of blood remains regulated. 
               The list of other evolutionary adaptations are far too numerous to mention in the blog but suffice to say that the giraffe is probably one of nature’s most ambitious engineering products.  The lack of similar animals living anywhere in the world today is testament to that fact.  Its closest relative is the okapi of central Africa but this in itself is a very odd looking individual – a cross between a zebra, horse and giraffe, I encourage you to check it out!
A stretch of giraffe glide across the horizon

               For fear of lowering the worryingly intellectual tone of this blog (having just read it so far…), let’s be honest, the giraffe is just really really pretty!  The elegant structure we have discussed already, but let’s not forget their luscious lashes.  They are the envy of every model, but as with everything, they serve their purpose: the giraffe love both buffalo thorns and acacia trees.  Both are heavily armed with thorns and spines; and so while they may look like a fashion statement from a Vogue magazine, they in fact protect the eyes and allow the giraffe to feed more safely. 
               Beautiful and docile animals they may be, but when the chips are down, males are capable of delivering fearsome blows with their horns.  Officially termed ossicones, these protrusions are in fact only cartilage when born and take up to 5 years to fully fuse to the skull and turn to bone.  Calcium is deposited on the skull throughout a male’s lifetime and this manifests itself in the bald caps to the ossicones (and also lumps of boney material on the forehead and above the eyes.)  This allows for greater weight and therefore greater impact during fights.  The momentum generated from swinging such a long neck is huge and during a full bloodied exchange, the impact can be enough to knock an opponent off his feet!

Two young males engage in a mock sparring session

The ever present oxpeckers are displaced from the giraffes during the exchange

               Full on fights are rare to witness but often we are graced to see young males sparring with each other.  This behavior is essential in learning the techniques to one day challenge for mating rights.  The images of entwining necks that follow are as close to art that one can experience in the animal kingdom. Each move is easily countered by the opponent and the flexibility of the necks during these displays defy belief.  One cannot help but sit mouth agape at the beauteous movements of the ensuing ballet.  It is like watching the rehearsal for a fast paced martial arts movie scene where the participants practice in slow motion.

The oxpeckers scatter as they try to evade the swingng necks

After the fight, the youngsters rub necks as if to assure each other that are no hard feelings

Regardless of this element of violence within their society, to watch them glide through the bush with their gentle rocking motion remains one of life’s great experiences.  They are a true enigma of Africa – grossly out of proportion, yet wondrously elegant.  Men and women of all ages react with the same child-like delight and all tend to have a dopey smile on their face while they watch.  It reminds me of a baby being confronted with a colourful and musical mobile for the first time.  Merely watching them float from tree to tree as they browse brings with it a sense of relaxation – they are nature’s equivalent of a fish tank or lava lamp.  As a guide, one often doesn’t need to comment on their actions; and sometimes to say nothing is the best commentary of all.