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 30, 2012

Survival of the Quickest

          But for a few notable exceptions, animals are not known for their problem solving abilities.  Most rely on primeval instinct that has been passed on to them through generation after generation.  The knowledge of what to do and when is as natural for them as is taking their next breath.  This instinct courses through their veins like a river and they react to stimuli without thought and without control.  One urge overrides all others in the natural world however and that is maternal instinct: the need and desire to produce, provide for and protect the next generation:  to ensure genetic survival.  A mother’s ability to feed off this preordained behaviour is unsurpassed and last night, we were privy to one such event as a mundane sighting turned into a breathtaking example of just how unscripted the bush can be.

          That morning, we had been fortunate enough to find the Nottins female scouring the lush vegetation for a much needed meal.  Not only for her, but with a cub at age 8 months hidden somewhere in the surrounding area, her need to find sufficient food is essential to ensure safe passage to adulthood for her legacy.  The relaxed nature of this particular leopard allowed us into her world and we followed her as she meandered through the undergrowth searching for an opportunity that might allow her to provide nourishment for her prodigy.  The level of concentration was evident from her behaviour as she routinely stopped and scanned the area, alert to any opening that her lighting reactions and centuries of honed instinct could exploit.  Bright sunshine however is not where her advantage lies and although well equipped to prosper in any condition, her search ended in vain and we left her slumbering in the shadows as the temperatures grew to unbearable heights and we too bade a hasty exit to avoid the harsh rays of the African sun.

          Later that evening she was spotted again and I made a bee line for the area, keen to see how she had fared during the fading light and to add another chapter to my guests’ experience.  As I arrived at the sighting I was disappointed to find that visibility was very limited.  Lying deep within the tangled branches of an impenetrable thicket, the only visual was of occasional spots.  Guests craned their necks and bobbed their heads as they tried to catch a glimpse of the perfect predator, but to no avail.  Time was against us however, and after 10 frustrating minutes I decided that she obviously didn’t want to be seen and that it was time to head home. 

          However, in the bush, tables can turn in the blink of an eye.  As I was turning the land rover, the bushes sprang to life and the leopard, motionless only a moment before, exploded from the thicket only meters from us.  Hot on her tail was her arch nemesis, a spotted hyena.  The surprises were not over yet and as we struggled to comprehend the dramatic turn of events, the cause of the hyena’s interest was revealed.  As Nottins bolted to the safety of an adjacent dead tree, she carried with her in her jaws a freshly killed duiker.  With all the grace of a decorated Olympian, she scaled the tree in seconds, covering us in a shower of decaying bark dislodged in her wake.  The frustrated hyena circled the tree for a few seconds but knew he had been bettered by his more agile foe.  Nottins sat upon her perch and caught her breath as she surveyed the surroundings, stopping occasionally to ensure that her prize was securely wedged and safe from the hungry jaws loitering below.

           We were treated to a magnificent sight as she stood imperiously on a limb bathed in the yellow glow of our spotlight.  Now that the initial shock of the action had subsided and guests had been assured that we were not in any danger from the formidable cat suspended above us, reaction turned from fear to wonderment as we were able to take in the scene.  Golden eyes pierced the surrounding gloom as she ensured that the danger had been neutralized and taught muscles began to relax as a realization that her investment was safe overtook her.  The dead tree gave us a perfect view of the leopard, no leaves impeded our view and the silence was overwhelming.  The sound of her heavy panting from the exertion of the climb; the occasional scuffing of strong claws as they shifted position on the flaking bark and the diminishing rustle of the grass as the beaten hyena slinked away into the darkness from whence it came, the only sounds to penetrate the darkness.  Beauty like this is not often seen, and as a guide there is nothing that can be added that can magnify the experience.  

          The speed with which she had identified the approaching danger merely served to epitomize the levels of awareness that are essential for survival and success in this harsh environment.  From a prone position, to sitting 4 meters above the ground with her cub’s meal safely stashed had taken perhaps a second.  Without this speed and lightning reaction, the future of her offspring would have been compromised and thanks to her honed instincts, its chances of survival had been elevated once more.  She would no doubt now go and retrieve her cub from the safety of wherever she had left it and lead her investment to its latest meal.  Nottins is now 13 years old and to my knowledge has only managed to get 2 offspring to maturity in countless attempts.  The Sabi Sands has the highest leopard population per kilometer in the world and competition is rife.  In an arena like this, mortality rates can be as high as 80% and without a highly honed maternal instinct, Nottin’s genetic survival is in real jeopardy.  We hope and pray that her increased experience will serve both and her cub in good stead for the future!  

November 18, 2012

Clash of the Titans

         The harmony of the bush was unceremoniously shattered in a heartbeat.  The thick vegetation to our right was suddenly flattened as two angry rhinos erupted from its depths and emerged on to the open plain in front of us.  The previously tranquil air was suddenly filled with the clashing of horns and plumes of dust were sent sailing into the skies as these two great warriors engaged in battle.  Neither participant looked old enough to posses their own territory so the nature of the skirmish is unknown;  although no doubt linked to elevated testosterone levels as they prepare to challenge existing kings for their thrones.

          The two great beasts were so focused on their conflict that they continued in close proximity to our land rover as guests looked on in awe at the spectacle unfolding before us.  The habituation levels of the animals at Sabi Sabi afford us wonderful opportunities on a daily basis to witness natural behaviour at unnaturally close quarters, and this case was a perfect example.  To be close enough to hear the clash of horns, to be shrouded in the resulting dust cloud and to hear the puffs of exertion makes for a truly enveloping experience.      

          We watched as the two armour plated warriors were locked nose to nose for in excess of 45 minutes.  As time went by, so the intensity of the battle amplified and before long, the scale of the mammoth encounter became visible.  The contrast between the dark grey of the skin and the vivid oxygen rich blood seeping from the open wounds merely highlighted the severity of the exchange.  The hide of a rhino is incredibly tough and the presence of blood emphasized the power being delivered in the blows. 

          The exchange seemed fairly equal as each rhino took turns pushing the other back swiping with their horns, trying to penetrate the defense of the other.  Every now and again, an opening would be worked whereby the horn could be pressed into the neck of the other in an attempt to end the battle once and for all but each time the end was in sight, the advantage would be neutralized.  We continued to view the spectacle without wanting to interfere.  I felt like we were in a time warp back to medieval times watching two valiant knights jousting each other in a true test of bravery.  The tiered seating of the modified land rovers merely accentuated the vision as we, the audience, looked on, intrigued by the brutal confrontation.

          Moments later, a third young male rhino entered the battlefield, no doubt attracted by the noise and perhaps the pheromones being released during the exchange.  After inspecting the scene, he chose to remain on sidelines, another spectator to the battle.  Comically, he seemed to tire of the show not long after and instead preferred to return to his busy day of grazing in the midst of the warzone.  If anything, he seemed to show distain at having to readjust his positioning to avoid the dueling leviathans!

          Finally, after nearly an hour of combat, the two great warriors seemed to reach an unspoken truce.  The chaos that had ensued previously vanished and order was restored.  Tranquility returned to the bush once again and as the dust settled, the two rhinos calmed and turned their attention to eating, perhaps in an attempt to replenish some of the energy that had been expended during the exchange.  We left the scene of the fracas wondering how long the armistice would last but with a renewed respect for the harshness of life in the wild.  For the majority of us, we live out our lives avoiding confrontation but out here, success is dictated by brute strength and a desire to win and only the strongest will survive.

          The bush is a magical place, filled with antitheses; and as if to right the scales of the brutality that we had just witnessed, we were presented with an image of tranquility and beauty as the sun set on another emotionally fueled day in Africa.  As the sun began its descent towards the horizon, a pair of elegant giraffe drifted ethereally across the now silent warzone.  The calmness exuded by these graceful creatures was in perfect contrast to the violence that had preceded it and brought with it a perfect balance to the events of another emotionally fuelled evening.

August 5, 2012

I Am Legend

“Legend” - A person whose fame or notoriety makes him a source of exaggerated or romanticised tales or exploits.

           ‘Legend’ is a word that is thrown around all too often in this day and age but the term surmises the reign of the Mapogo lions in the Sabi Sands to perfection.  For the last 6 years or so, this notorious band of brothers has ruled the area with an iron paw.  They are true warriors and have proved themselves time after time on the field of battle.  During their prime, 6 of these magnificent specimens patrolled their territory, dispatching all competitors and striking fear into the hearts of all that found themselves in their way.  Legend has it that the Mapogo have been responsible for killing in excess of 40 males, females and cubs as they stamped their authority on their domain. Whole prides have been wiped out in their relentless march for dominance and challengers have been eaten in an act of defiance: a fate almost unheard of in the species of Panthera leo.  The former warden of the Sabi Sands has been cited saying that he believes them accountable for over 100 lion fatalities although the true number will probably never be known.  Never before has the lion population known such a force and it is stories like this that have elevated their exploits to legendary status.

          These brothers may have a fearsome reputation but in the world of the lion, they should be seen as the epitomes of what a successful coalition should be.  They have been labeled as sadistic and remorseless to mention only a few adjectives assigned to them, but their exploits have ensured safe breeding grounds and stability in an area of unusually high competition.  Their success has changed the dynamic of the lion population in this area forever and it is no surprise to me that litters are becoming more and more skewed in favour of male offspring.  This is an inevitable outcome as nature attempts to balance the scales and provide a more level playing field.

          In recent years, new and equally formidable coalitions have been responsible for whittling down the Mapogo’s numbers as territorial lines were drawn in the sand and crossed and repeated battles were waged.  The Majingilanes in the north and the Southern Pride males in the south have both had their say in the shaping of the new regime and now all that remains of the mighty Mapogo are two aging specimens known as Makhulu and Pretty Boy.  Since being overthrown by the Southern Pride males, the last of these legends have been sighted regularly on Sabi Sabi as they search for new territory or maybe just sanctuary as they live out the remainder of their days.  At 14 and 11 years of age, they have surpassed the life expectancy of most male lions and carry the scars of years of conflict on the front line.

          During my 6 years of working the bush I have been privileged to view and come into close contact with many different lions from different areas of South Africa and Tanzania but I can honestly say that I have never witnessed such magnificent specimens as these two remaining legends.  Perhaps it is the stigma attached to them that accentuates their aura but they are the most intimidating lions that I have laid eyes upon.  It is not merely their freakish size and musculature that raises the adrenaline levels and starts the heart pounding but the look contained deep within their eyes.

          Peering into those yellow abysses one can truly feel the history and experience of many a hard fought battle in which the deciding factor was not just power, but a will to survive.  Their eyes bore through you like no other lions I have even seen and I refuse to believe anyone who claims to not feel a slight pang of uncertainty when they stare back at you.  The uneasiness of their presence is something that I have never felt before when watching the Kruger males.  For fear of downplaying the current kings of Sabi Sabi, the last of the Mapogo make them look like kittens.

          It is hard not to paint the Mapogos as terrifying, evil beasts due to the wrath they have rained down on the area but I hope that they are remembered as great rulers and protectors.  They have raised the bar as to the expectations of male coalitions in so far as protecting a territory and ensuring their genetic success.  They should be seen as role models, not killers.

          In conclusion then, legendary status is hard to achieve but ask anyone who has worked in the Sabi Sands for the last 7 years and they will tell you tales of the Mapogo.  Sadistic tyrants or protective fathers?  Both could be claimed true but the fact is that their arrival heralded a new age of the lion population in the Sabi Sands.  Love them or hate them, their exploits will never be forgotten.  These tales will no doubt be embellished and exaggerated but this is how great icons are born.  Over time, these stories will become myths and myths will become legends: a fitting legacy for the most famous lions of the modern era.   

July 18, 2012

Buffalo Soldiers

          The African, or Cape, buffalo is probably the least impactful member of the big 5.  It lacks the impressive dimensions of the elephant, the prehistoric look of the rhino and could never compete with the presence and beauty of the big cats.  Let’s be frank: it’s a big cow.  On steroids!  However, what it lacks in aesthetic beauty it makes up with sheer aggression and freakish strength.  Of Africa’s most famous quintet, the buffalo is the most feared amongst rangers and for good reason.  The most relevant of these factors is their unpredictable levels of aggression, coupled with an apparent lack of any emotion.  It is possible to read the moods and temperament of most of the animals in the bush but the buffalo is a master of concealing its intentions.  They are the bush’s ultimate poker players.  The eyes betray most animals, even humans, but a buffalo’s eyes are lifeless, like a dolls eyes.  They contain no information or intention and because of that they are always to be respected.
A muscle bound buffalo bull stares back down the lens

          Herds of buffalo in the area can reach over 1000 individuals and because of this they do not hold territories dues to their constant need to graze and dependency on water.  These great black waves roll in and out of the area as they search for available resources.  During the winter, these tides of testosterone sweep through Sabi Sabi’s reserve indulging in the permanent water that resides here and bring with them wondrous sightings and fascinating social interactions, not to mention a multitude of opportunities for hungry lions!

A herd of buffalo quench their thist at a nearby water hole

Nature's life force sees the buffalo through another day

Happy hour for all ages!

          The social structure of a buffalo herd is very interesting as the composition follows a fairly rigid structure and this is one of the reasons they are a very dangerous prospect for a lion in search of a substantial meal.  At the head of the herd, the dominant males, along with a smattering of the oldest and most experienced females forge a path through the bush.  They are generals that lead the rest of the battalions strung out behind them.  The central core of the herd normally contains the females and calves, whilst the older and younger males bring up the rear.  This is typical of a protective strategy whereby the more vulnerable members are flanked by a fearsome force.

A bold dominant bull leads the herd to water

The most dominant bulls are always found at the head

Buffalo need to drink twice a day so never venture far from water

          In the summer months, large herds are slightly less common as their need for water can be fulfilled by the multiple seasonal pans that emerge during the rains. Buffalos regularly coat themselves in thick layers of mud and a large male can carry an additional 25-30kgs after a satisfying wallow.  This serves multiple purposes in so much as it acts as protection from the sun and the abundant parasites intent on feasting on their blood.  Males also partake in an activity known as ‘mud caking’ whereby they actively cover their horns in mud to presumably increase their size and thereby look more intimidating.  It seems in the buffalo kingdom, size does matter; and these fearsome armourments constitute some of he most powerful weapons to be found in the bush.

A huge dagga boy enjoys his mud pack

Mud bath anyone?

          Once male buffalos reach their early teens, their priorities change.  No longer do they feel it necessary to follow the swathe of females across the veld, but prefer to remain in one place and wait for the herds to pass through.  It is these old men that pose us such a danger, on foot especially.  They are the epitome of grumpy old men and their level of tolerance is minimal at best.  What causes this heightened aggression is a mystery but some of this behavior can surely be attributed to an unpleasantly large number of ticks that abide on their skin.  These irritations can number in excess of 100,000 per animal!  I would also be somewhat cantankerous faced with such an infestation!!  These muscle-bound bachelors have been coined ‘dagga boys’ due to their penchant for rolling in the mud (‘dagga’ is a variation on the Shangaan word for mud) and then using the soil particles as a body scrub for removing these numerous unwanted guests.

High testosterone levels mean that boys will always be boys

          The buffalo then is a bit of an enigma.  Although the least striking of the big 5, its presence in the bush commands the most respect of them all.  It comes as a surprise to the majority of guests that this bovine battering ram is considered the most dangerous animal in the bush by rangers and hunters alike.  Under that no-nonsense simplistic build however lies an animal that strives to survive.  Even after the Rinderpest virus killed 99% of all buffalo in Africa in the late 1800’s their will to survive has seen them recover to great numbers and they roam the bush like well drilled armies as they continue to multiply.  I like to refer to them as ‘bank managers’.  When they stare at you with those soulless eyes, you are left with no clue of what thoughts lie beneath that freakishly strong exterior except this strange feeling that you must owe them money… 

The largest set of horns I have ever seen in my career

July 9, 2012

Fall From Grace

          Tree climbing is a skill that most boys learn from an early age.  The sense of excitement and euphoria of being able to scale the tallest of trees as a small boy is something that I will always remember but for me it was just a way to pass the time.  I refuse to believe that my awkward scrambling to these dizzy heights held much in the way of aesthetic beauty; but there is one animal that has made it into an art-form.  Leopard cubs learn to climb trees in their first few months and it is this mastery that has propelled them to one of the most successful predators in the world.  The ability to seek refuge in the canopy and to cache food out of the reach of stronger competitors is vitally important in terms of survival.  Not only that, it also graces us with one of the most beautiful sights in nature.
          This morning’s encounter served merely to reinforce this bold statement. As we pulled into the sighting, the young male leopard was sleeping peacefully on the rocks, enjoying the residual heat trapped within them from the previous day.  His stomach was swollen with the spoils of his recent successful hunt as he breathed quickly, forcing oxygen into his body to aid in digestion.  The remainder of his meal, a young kudu, swung gently back and forth in the marula tree above him, draped perfectly across a branch.  We marveled at the strength required to hoist such a weight up the side of a tree, and the skill to negotiate such a climb with the limbs of a kudu dangling from his jaws. 
The young leopard looks up to the branches where his kudu is safely cached

          Luckily for us, the leopard chose our arrival as a perfect time to awaken from his slumber and feed again.  The leopard gazed longingly up at the remainder of his prize and then, with the explosive power of a sprinter erupting from the blocks, propelled himself 6 meters up the vertical trunk to the lower branches.  On closer inspection of the trunk, his repeated scaling exploits were revealed as the bark bore multiple scars where his razor sharp claws had given him purchase. 

The 6 meter tree is easily scaled by the agile cat

Claw marks in the bark show his multiple ascents

Perched high above loitering hyenas, the prey is safe for now...

          Seemingly discontented with the orientation of his breakfast, the young male skillfully maneuvered the carcass to a more manageable position and settled down to feed.  The lack of meat left on the kudu though forced him to continually adjust both its, and his, position and his inexperience began to tell.  At approximately 3 years old, he has only been independent for perhaps 18 months and yet to fully master the art of carcass manipulation from above.  His repeated movements heralded the sound of a potential meal for others and within minutes, 2 hyenas emerged from the surrounding bush in the hopes of profiting from his mistakes.         

Inexperience caused the young male to constantly reposition himself an the food

Watching the hyenas gather as they hope for an error

          We watched with bated breath as his constant repositioning inched the remainder of the kudu’s weight further out of equilibrium.  We silently pleaded with him to re-centre the load to avoid losing the rest of his meal, whilst the circling hyenas’ salivated at the prospect of his error.  Usually a picture of arboreal poise and precision, the leopard suddenly lost his grip and in an uncharacteristic moment of clumsiness, lost his footing too.  After face-planting unceremoniously into the lowest branch, both leopard and the kudu plummeted to the ground in a tangle of legs and spots, scattering the baying hyenas!  In typical cat fashion however, the leopard was up and ready for action seconds after hitting the floor.  As the shocked hyenas gathered their senses and closed in on his prize, the leopard regained his dignity and advantage and shot back up the tree with the kudu tightly clamped within his jaws.  The frustrated hyenas were left hopping angrily at the bas of the tree, distraught that their patience had gone unrewarded.


A unceremonious face plant as the leopard loses his grip

Bark flies as the leopard searches for traction with his claws and kudu drops from his grip

          Relieved (and no doubt embarrassed by his ungraceful dismount), the young male made sure that he would not make the same mistake twice and took the kudu higher into the tree, ensuring that the gangly limbs were well secured this time.  Once satisfied, he flashed a final look of triumph at the disconsolate hyenas and a glance to the skies in case his faux pas had been noticed by any aerial marauders, before settling down to eat in relative peace.

Safe again after rescuing his meal from the jaws of the hyenas

The leopard repositions the kudu to avoid further mishap

A quick check to see if the vultires have also been alerted

          The events of the morning were a wonderful insight into the wealth of emotions that one might encounter on a safari.  We were struck with wonder and awe at the grace of the leopard’s original ascent, swiftly followed by the primeval delight in watching a predator devour his victim; the tension of waiting for the inevitable as the kudu slipped from his grasp, and then the comedic aspect of the feline acrobat’s literal fall from grace; finishing up with relief that he was able to redeem himself, although even this was accompanied by a slight pang of disappointment for the loitering hyenas. 

          During my tree climbing exploits as a child, it pains me to admit that I have chalked up many an ungraceful dismount that ultimately ended up with me on my backside.  But as in all walks of life, we learn from our mistakes.  We learn which trees have thorns, which branches can hold our weight, and at what age we should perhaps stop our youthful fearlessness!  The same is true of the leopard.  Although possibly the most beautiful animal to grace the canopy, even the great leopard is not immune to making mistakes.  Still young, these misjudgments are essential in honing his skills for the future that will one day see him as a dominant male in charge of his own territory, and a true master of the treetops.     

The proud male surveys his surroundings, content that the kudu is well secured this time