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!

May 23, 2012

Drama King

          Minutes of painstakingly deliberate stalking had placed the leopard only metres away from its prey.  His eyes bored into the steenbok with burning intensity.    His tail twitched with excitement.   Leg muscles bulged and rippled in anticipation.  The time was now.  The silent assassin exploded from the grass in a blur of orange and black.  To the naked eye its spots seemed to melt into stripes as the leopard covered the distance in a blink of an eye.  The unsuspecting steenbok stood no chance.   A muted wail from the antelope and a swift rustling of grass the only sounds that broke the silence of the African bush.  The hunter’s jaws clamped hard around the neck of the steenbok, stifling any further cries that might alert keen ears to his prize.  Within seconds the ordeal was over. 

The male leopard checks to make sure his kill went unnoticed

          We watched as the powerful cat gripped its prey and dragged it deeper into the bush.  Finally he settled at the base of a tall marula tree and allowed himself a moment’s rest.  He scanned the surrounding area to ensure that his hunt had gone unnoticed by the seemingly omnipresent hyenas.  Satisfied that he could enjoy his meal in relative peace, he set about plucking the fur from the steenbok with his perfectly occluded incisors.  We approached to about 10 metres to watch the aftermath and received a look that warned us to keep our distance.  The dominant male from the east is normally very relaxed around vehicles but with the scent of fresh blood in his nostrils and adrenaline still coursing through his veins, his demeanor had changed.  He never showed aggression towards us but one did not need a PhD in animal psychology to interpret the occasional glance he threw at us.

"Keep your distance...."

The bloodied face says it all

          The long grass that he had chosen to cloak his meal prevented us from a graphic viewing but the blood stains on his face told the story it their own words.  It was like a throwback to the old horror movies when directors gave the viewer a taster of the action and let their sub-conscious do the rest.  His meal was not to be enjoyed in total peace however as both a crash of rhino and a herd of elephants meandered through the area while we watched him eat his fill.  The latter passed us by with trunks raised, their sensitive noses no doubt smelling the plight of the steenbok.  They showed no great interest in investigating further but their behavior left little doubt that they comprehended the outcome.

A young elephant calf raises his trunk as he moves through the area 

The eye of wisdom

          As night fell, the cool air began to carry the steenbok’s fate low across the landscape.  Shadows came alive as the hyenas emerged from their dark resting places, ready to embark on their nightly patrols.  Soon enough, the scent was detected and sensitive nostrils honed in on its source.  The solitary leopard however had experienced this phenomena many times before and like any successful organism, had learned.  It was no coincidence that he chose the base of this marula tree to feast.  His ears twitched as he heard the grass rustling.  His keen eyes picked out the looming hyena as it made a bee line for the meat.  Without a moment’s hesitation, the leopard grasped his dinner and powerful legs propelled him into the lower branches.  The hyena beaten, it could do no more than hop around the base of the tree in a vain attempt to match the leopard’s arboreal mastery.  Acceptance of his failure came quickly however and the hyena settled down under the tree to wait with the patience of Job, for one mistake from his more agile foe.

A hungry hyena looks on

          The victor draped himself over the branches, his limber body easily absorbing the contours of the tree.  A leopard’s ability to make a seemingly impossible position comfortable is unmatched in nature.  How such a muscular creature can become as malleable as a piece of play-doh is one of life’s more beautiful conundrums.  Content with his aerial advantage, the leopard spent equal time rewarding his hard work and snoozing in the folds of the tree.  Occasionally he shot a glaring glance at the squatting hyena below him but confident in his manouvervability, he never really looked worried.

The leopard finds time to check on his nemesis from the branches

The leopard enjoys his kill in peace

Another check on the activity below him

          Bathed in the glow of the spotlight, the leopard’s velveteen fur took on a hypnotic hue; the background diminished as our eyes focused on one of the visual wonders of the world.  We watched in awed silence as this master of concealment and grace cemented his place in our hearts as one of the most beautiful sights in nature.  We returned the next morning, eager to top up our memories but the enigma of the African night had lived up to his reputation and vanished. 

The leopard surveys the branch for a comfy spot to digest

The uncanny ability of a leopard to find comfort anywhere

Lounging around

          Seeing him again would have been amazing but perhaps would have diminished the magic of the night before.  If I close my eyes, I can still see him draped in the branches, the same way that a bright image is burned on to the retina when the lights go out. The leopard seems to be born with an innate sense of drama in its psyche and it is this gift that makes every sighting so special.

A vision in the darkness

Still digesting

A beautiful portrait

May 15, 2012

Kings of the Jungle

A crisp autumn morning greeted us as we left the lodge with the sky decorated in subtle hues of red and orange as the sun began its daily ascent over the horizon.  Our breath caused puffs of condensation as we exhaled the fresh pure air that only those of you that have experienced the bush could appreciate.  The day promised much after news that a hippo had been fatally injured during a mighty territorial battle the night before filtered through to us on the radio.  Such a feast was sure to attract much action over the coming days and we were eager to see what was to transpire.
As the sun cast its warmth over the bush, breathing life into the new day, the first raptors took to the air, effortlessly gaining altitude as they rode the thermals to survey the landscape.  Their keen eyesight soon picked out the large carcass and their immediate descent to the scene rang the dinner bell to their associates.  Within the first few hours, hundreds of vultures arrived on the scene, dropping out of the sky with their landing gear down to enjoy the spoils of the hippo’s demise.  The gashes sustained from the unfortunate hippo’s encounter the night before allowed them easy access to the soft flesh beneath the thick skin although on closer inspection, a large puncture wound told the whole story.  We theorized that the hippo, whilst mortally injured, had been run through by a particularly aggressive elephant, its tusks creating an irreparable wound channel deep into his flank.

One of many white backed vultues takes to the sky with our arrival

Vultures bicker with each other as the pecking order is established

The scavengers wasted no time as they tore into the hippo’s hide.  Vultures squabbled and fought over the 2 tonne carcass, their bloodied heads and cackling threats making for a wonderful spectacle as they slashed at each other to stand their ground: a true depiction of the harsh reality of life in the wild.  One animal’s misfortune had provided a multitude of opportunities for nature’s clean up crew to satisfy their needs.  With their crops full and their bellies swollen, the vultures milled around ground zero, littering the surrounding landscape with their presence.  Although dominated by the ever present white backs, many of the smaller hooded vultures also tried their luck, darting in and out of the melee, trying to avoid their more powerful cousins.  We were also delighted to record a few cape vultures amongst the sea of feathers.

A bloodied vulture looks down on one of the hungry hopefuls

As night fell, the vultures took to the trees and against the sunset, their silhouettes made for an eerie spectacle.  Like a committee of undertakers, they watched and waited, for they knew that nightfall would bring with it more dangerous competition.  Sure enough, as the shadows fell, the first hyenas entered the playing field.  Drawn by the promise of a free meal they arrived, sensitive noses held high, no doubt attracted from many kilometers away as the stench of death was swept across the bush by a subtle breeze.  That first night, only a few of natures’ most efficient sets of jaws ate their fill, their huge bite force enabling them to slice through the tough hide like a hot knife through butter.  The surrounding area was surprisingly quiet and devoid of the characteristic whooping and cackling of the hyenas as they chose not to announce their find to others and keep the windfall to themselves for now.

The powerful jaws of this hyena make short work of the hippo's thick hide

By the time the next morning came however, the predatory hierarchy had reached its next stage.  In the ethereal early morning light, we were greeted by the sight of the 14 members of the Southern Pride, their faces caked in blood and their bellies filled to bursting point.  The majority of the pride lay close to the hippo panting heavily, trying to get oxygen into their bodies to aid in the digestion. The cubs however were seemingly insatiable as they tore into the carcass with no remorse.  With the soft underside now completely open, the cubs we able to fully disappear inside the dead leviathan.  The hair on their faces was matted together with a mixture of dried blood and the fermented grass from the hippo’s stomach.  One by one they merged from the gaping cavity, their stomachs so bloated that they could barely keep them from dragging along the ground, and flopped down close to their prize.  However, every few minutes, eyes full of blood lust that only hungry cubs can exhibit, they would drag themselves back to the buffet table and force more of the protein rich meat into their extended stomachs.

A bloodied face watches us from within the carcass 

A hungry cub relishing their good fortune

Cubs emerge from within the hippo's stomach

By now 4 of the females had decided to leave the hippo, seemingly unimpressed with the food on offer and went in search of fresher meat.  They were followed for some time into the southern part of the reserve but lost in a particularly rocky area where no vehicles could follow.  One female was left behind on babysitting duty to ensure that the cubs were not denied more of their breakfast and to no doubt be present to repel the ever present threats of the circling vultures and opportunistic hyenas. 
With the arrival of nightfall, the hyenas, their boldness fueled by the cover of darkness, began their offensive.  We watched in the light of the moon, spot lights turned off, to immerse ourselves in the confrontation.  Their battalions, now far outnumbering that of the remaining lions, began to approach the battle field.  Their whooping war cries escalated to a crescendo as, one by one, they voiced their intentions.  Their challenge echoed around the surrounding area as they attempted to intimidate the cubs and their guardian.  However, the remaining female would not be intimidated.  Time after time, she launched herself at the loitering hyenas, growling and spitting, her superior size enough to send them scuttling back to the shadows.  However, hyenas are nothing if not persistent and within minutes, they rallied and approached the carcass once again.  We were sitting in the midst of a war as the interlopers stormed the fortress of the lions.  In scenes reminiscent of 300, the lioness and her young troops repeatedly repelled the hyenas’ advances and this continued deep into the night.

Matted, bloody fur clings to this cub as the sun begins to rise

Possession is 9/10's of the law....

With claws extended, this cub keeps a watchful eye on the loitering vultures

All this noise however did not go unnoticed…  The following morning when we arrival so survey the carnage from the battle that raged the night before, we found the cubs and female lying up away from the carcass and no hyenas on the scene.  As we approached, the smell of the decaying hippo filled our noses causing some guests to gag as the stench was wafted towards us by the wind.  Guarding the carcass and making light work of the remaining tough skin were the 2 Kruger males.  No doubt drawn to the area by the sounds of the previous night’s carnage, they now monopolized the remaining spoils; their superior size and strength enough to encourage all onlookers to keep their distance. They tore into the hide, neck muscles bulging as they ripped chunks of decaying flesh from bone.  Watching the saga unfold, and the level of respect given to them by their challengers, it became clear why they have been coined kings of the jungle.  Often considered lazy, it is at times like this when their true nature is evident and we watched with a modicum of fear and respect as they restored order to the chaos.  The look in a male lion’s eye when protecting a meal is one of the most intimidating sights in the harsh world of survival.  It’s as simple as kill or be killed.

The Kruger males eat their fill

The brothers check their surroundings for approaching competition

The story did not end there though.  After leaving the males, we went in search of a large herd of buffalo that had been seen close to the river.  With some good work done by Zulu, my tracker, we found them grazing in some thick bush alongside one of the drainage lines that snake through Sabi Sabi.  We patiently waited for them to emerge on to an adjacent open area and sat quietly as about 200 head of buffalo appeared from the surrounds.  I placed the land rover at the far end of the clearing so as to experience the full drama of the herd approaching us.  As we waited for the bovine floodgates to reach us, a rustle in the grass attracted our attention.  As we examined the area, we noticed 4 feline faces perfectly camouflaged in the drying grass intently watching the brown mass in their wake.
We could almost see them salivating as their favourite quarry was heading straight into their trap.  Eyes focused, muscles tensed, they waiting without a sound for the right moment. The buffalo’s progress was slow and I could cut the atmosphere with a knife.  For a few long minutes, the lionesses waited, bodies pressed flat into their cover as the unsuspecting buffalo approached the playing field.  Eventually one lioness led the charge.  She exploded from her cover, sending the buffalo stampeding in all directions in wild panic.  Soon she picked out her target: a calf that had become separated from the bulk of the main herd and now found itself in no ma’s land.  Now that the lioness had her goal in sight, she closed the gap quickly and within seconds was snapping at the heels of the bellowing calf.  With incredible agility, she leapt on the back of the calf, her weight and momentum sending them both crashing to the ground.  She clung on to her catch trying to clamp her strong jaws around the calf’s throat to stifle its petrified screams as they tumbled through the grass in a cloud of dust. 

A lioness launches her offensive

Oxpeckers scatter as the lioness sigles out her prey

However, the calf’s cries had not gone unnoticed.  In a wonderful display of unity, a few members of the herd quickly forgot about their own plight and rushed to the aid of their fallen comrade.  Faced with a sea of angry buffalo brandishing unparalleled levels of aggression and some of the most feared horns in the animal kingdom, the lioness was left with no option but to release her meal and run for her life as the tables were turned.  Many a lion has been killed by a protective buffalo and fleeing was her only option.  After evading the rampant rescue squad, she padded back to the rest of the group and they settled under a tree to wait out the harsh African sun, no doubt planning their strategies for the coming darkness.
We had been lucky enough to witness a plethora of incredible interactions and confrontations.  From the unfortunate demise of one male hippo, a whole play had been written for us and we are the silent observes as the main characters fought for centre stage.  The best part about all of it is that the script out here is spontaneous and infinite.  There are no stage prompts, no predictable storylines and the participants have no direction.  It is reality TV at its best.  The harshness of nature is both shocking and inspiring and to have front row seats twice daily is a worth the price of admission alone. 

May 4, 2012

Size Does Matter

          Anyone who has spent any significant time with me the bush over the years should know that although I love the intricacies of the natural world, one animal stands out from that plethora of diversity.  If I had my way, I could happily conduct a three hour game drive with only the company of the elephant.  No other animal that graces this planet carries with it such a presence and such a range of emotions.  It is a humbling experience to be a silent observer as these huge animals glide softly though the bush carrying out their daily activities.  The cats of course carry with them a huge appeal.  We are all drawn to the their predatory nature and thrill of seeing nature’s most basic needs being fulfilled but their habitual narcolepsy often disappoints.  Elephants however never fail to entertain.  Their huge diversity of behaviour and interaction among their groups is always engrossing.

This bull simply refuses to move as we round the corner and find him blocking our path

          A few days ago I was privy to watching once such drama unfold which, from an ethological point of view, was a goldmine for monitoring the behavior of these gentle giants.  The saga unfolded as we approached a dry riverbed that snakes its way through Sabi Sabi’s reserve.  Dust bathing in the sand, against a backdrop of a magnificent granite boulder and its sycamore fig companion, was a small group of elephants, but more were emerging from around the bend in the road.  Standing a good metre above the largest female however, was a huge bull.  His sunken temple and impressive size suggested he was well over 30 and in his prime.  Although not in musth (his reproductive state) yet, his involvement suggested the presence of a cow in estrus; and soon enough, we watched him investigate a substantial pool of urine.  He pressed the tip of his trunk to the urine and proceeded to blow the scent particles into his mouth, or more, specifically on to his vomeronasal organ located in his palate.  This organ allows him to analyze the scent and evaluate the reproductive status of the provider.

The herd continues to emerge from the bush before descending into the river bed

          During his investigations the herd passed him by and melted into the bush with the minimum of fuss expected from these surprisingly soft footed giants.  However, as is usual in the social structure of elephants, soon the younger males appeared on the scene.  These teenagers are beginning to spend more and more time away form the core of the herd as they slowly develop their more solitary tendencies.  This slow process usually involves them travelling behind the rest of the herd, spending larger periods of time away from the group until gaining independence between 16-18 years of age. 

          However, they did not expect to find a 6 ton roadblock in their path.  One by one they came around the corner and found their way blocked by the superior specimen.  Rather like a motorway pile up they almost bumped into each other as the tailback increased, with no one bold enough to ask the obstruction to move.  In a passive display of dominance, the larger bull simply stood his ground as if inviting anyone brave enough to push past him.  He made no aggressive actions towards the uncertain teenagers but his presence was enough to deter them.  Having no other way around him due to a sand bank, an alternative was needed.  The younger males evaluated their surroundings for a time, milling around awkwardly, until one young male had a brainwave.

Ungainly but ingenuitive...

A successful dismount
           Elephants are not designed to tackle steep slopes but with no other options, the most resourceful individual opted for a more adrenalin fueled approach. Cautiously he approached the sand bank and maneuvered himself into position so that he could slide down it in the prone position.  We watched with amazement as the highly entertaining spectacle unfolded and soon, one by one, the younger bulls cascaded after the first.  It was reminiscent of a group of children faced with the perils of a slide for the first time and we could almost see their self satisfaction with having come through their ordeal unscathed.  We could not help but smile with delight at the comedy and I even felt a strange sense of pride at their ingenuity.

This young bull decides to up the ante and try a longer slide

A caravan of elephants slide down the bank into the riverbed

          One young male however was unwilling to attempt the intimidating looking sand slide and chose to try and slip past the road block.  In a wonderful exchange, the larger male seemingly challenged him to a test of strength to earn his passage.  Again, with no visible aggression, the mismatched pair locked tusks as the underdog tried in vain to remove his nemesis.  We could almost hear the bull chuckling to himself at the plucky challenger.  After a few minutes of this unmatched scrummaging, the clear winner merely stepped aside and allowed the youngster right of passage.  Fueled but he surely felt was a victory, he then approached us and gave us a show of bravado, just in case we didn’t see his mighty scalp, before trotting off in search of his friends to no doubt boast of his success!

The larger bull humours the youngster in a game of push and shove 

After proving his point, the dominant bull allows the tenager to pass

          The whole episode lasted for about half and hour and what made it even more special was the fact that it was a private performance for just us.  It was a truly intimate experience to witness such a range of behavior at such close range.  I felt like I had gone through the whole experience with the animals.  They are such emotive creatures, often chastised for their destructive abilities, but the complexities and intricacies of their social interactions can offer us great parallels into to our own dynamics.  My job as a guide is to interpret behavior to guests but in this instance, I think we all left the sighting with our own stories and memories of an enthralling encounter; and who am I to influence or corrupt a person’s most precious gift: their imagination.