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!

June 23, 2012

Another One Bites the Dust

          After a recent spate of cold weather, the bush gods dealt us a break with a relatively mild morning and we decided to take advantage of the slightly warmer temperatures by leaving early.  My guests we on their final game drive of their 2 night stay and we were yet to have a good quality lion sighting, so expectations were high and the pressure was on.  This morning however, luck was on our side.  Not 10 minutes out of the lodge, my tracker, Zulu, spotted shadows moving in the dark morning light and we went in to investigate.  To everyone’s delight, the cloudy night had given the lions the advantage of complete darkness and as we approached the shadows, the scene of yet another successful buffalo hunt was revealed. 

One of the Kruger males shakes his mane.  The slow shutter speed made for a nice effect

The Kruger males' appetite is unsatiable!

          The Southern Pride are buffalo experts.  During my 2 year tenure at Sabi Sabi, I have witnessed them feeding on buffalo carcasses more than any other animal, and that is no mean feat.  The buffalo is the most fearsome of the big 5 for many reasons but perhaps the most prevalent, in this instance, is their huge strength and massive adrenaline yield.  They exhibit adrenaline levels approximately 300% that of a similar sized animal and are therefore notoriously difficult to bring down.  Our pride however, have developed hunting strategies to counteract these qualities and are regular slayers of this feared beast.  Every pride will learn from their elders specific skills for hunting certain prey and the Southern Pride have made buffalo hunting their forte.

2 lionesses share the spoils of another successful hunt

The entire pride tuck into the buffalo whilst the young cubs play in the foreground

          By the time we arrived on the scene, the lions had engulfed most of the meat and their swollen stomachs betrayed their greed.  This did not stop them from trying to cram more protein rich meat into their bulk and the pride we still clustered around the shrinking prize as their razor sharp carnassials sliced through the soft flesh.  Every now and again the males decided to reinforce their dominance of the situation by snarling and growling at the pride as they fought over the remaining meat.  The sound that comes from a male lion during exchanges like this strikes fear and respect into the heart of all watching and leaves no doubt of the immense power they possess. 

After chasing off the females, this male decided that sleeping on the food was the best way to keep it safe!

          As the older members of the pride squabbled over the carcass, the 2 young cubs amused themselves by practicing their hunting techniques on each other.  These skills will be critical in shaping them into the fearsome hunting machines that will grace the bush, and they delighted us by leaping on each other and frolicking in the grass only meters from our land rover. 

A elder sibling playfully bats one of the 3 month old cubs

Full of energy, the 2 youngsters practised their take downs

          In great news for the pride, and us, after we departed the sighting I heard reports that another female had arrived on the scene accompanied by 2 more young cubs!  We had feared the worst after a marauding buffalo herd had found their den site a few weeks ago but I am delighted to report that we have 2 healthy new additions to the Southern pride and the proud mother choose today to introduce them to their extended family.  Although I was unable to get any pictures of the new arrivals, I hope to do so in due course and will keep you all informed of their progress.

One of the cubs takes a moment to take in his surroundings

The rounded belly of the female is a good sign for the cubs as they suckle whilse she sleeps

          The rest of the morning was filled with the usual wonder of the bush as we bumped into a crash of 5 male rhino as they cut a swathe through the dying grass in their endless search for nutritious fulfillment.  For me, the most exciting part of the remainder of the drive was witnessing a juvenile martial eagle harassing a pair of petrified steenboks.  Although not fully mature, the strength contained in the talons of a martial is more than enough to subdue our smallest antelope.  The eagle made a couple of aerial forays whilst attempting to secure a substantial breakfast but its inexperience was no match for the lightning fast pint sized antelopes as they darted to safety. 

A juvenile martial eagle surveys his hunting ground from a dead tree

          We returned to the lodge in high spirits after another amazing morning in the bush and attacked our breakfast with similar relish to that of the lions.  Excited chatter filled the breakfast table over the demise of another buffalo at the hands of the Southern pride and what the future holds for the next generation.  I watched from the sidelines, content that my guests were preparing to depart Sabi Sabi on a high and that their experiences over the last few days would stay with them forever.  This vicarious joy is one of the most rewarding parts of being a guide and I now look forward to seeing what adventures the bush has to offer to my new arrivals.           

June 10, 2012

Rise of the Rhinos

One of the most frequent questions I am asked during a starlit dinner at the lodge is ‘what made you get into guiding?’  A genuine passion for wildlife is the obvious answer and very true, but there are many vocations in which one can be involved to simply scratch that itch.  What I truly love about my job and what helps me get up at 4.30am every morning is that no two days are ever the same.  The unpredictability of the bush is its biggest gift.  Every morning is a blank canvas and the desire to get out there and see what today’s sunrise has brought with it is more than enough motivation to leave the comfort of a warm bed!

A rhino mother and calf graze in the morning sunrise

After a successful few days of safari, I decided to conduct today’s afternoon game drive in an area of the reserve known more for its topographical beauty than its animal density.  Unknown to us at the time however, my guests and I were in for a treat.  As we rounded a bend in the road we inadvertently found ourselves in the middle of a warzone.  Male rhinos are territorial animals and the dominant male will have to defend his interests regularly to ensure mating rights and a safe environment for his offspring to grow.  The ensuing battle was fascinating and we were gifted front row seats to something that felt like a scene out of Gladiator.

The dominant male fends off another attack from his younger challenger

The setting of the skirmish was picture perfect.  The rhinos were engaged in conflict within a natural amphitheatre of a high banked waterhole.  Iconic fever trees lined the arena and we settled in to watch only about 15 meters away from the action with the rhinos so wrapped up in their engagement they seemed oblivious to our presence.  For the next 30 minutes we watched with jaws agape as a younger male launched raid after raid against the dominant bull.  Water is nature’s life blood and it seemed no coincidence that the battle was being fought on wet turf.  With the dry season coming, the most sought after territories will contain water. 

The challenger mounts another offensive

The dominant male stood firm in the water repelling repeated attacks from his smaller foe.  The rhinos’ battle cries were audible from afar as deep booming growls accompanied the clashing of horns as they jousted with each other probing for the killer blow.  Each time the larger male got the better of his adversary, the challenger retired a few meters, scent marked in a sign of defiance and rallied to attack again.  Mud and water erupted from beneath their huge feet as 4 tons of prehistoric aggression clashed in the shallows making for a wonderful spectacle.  We watched with mouths agape as this epic encounter continued and finally after about 40 minutes the loser accepted his fate and melted off into thick bush.  After a successful defense of his territory, the winner basked in his own glory by submerging his massive bulk in the muddied water.  I almost felt like standing and applauding his victory in true coliseum style but with his adrenaline levels still spiking, we chose to leave him to celebrate in peace before he considered us a threat to his dominance!

The victorious male celebrates his victory by rolling in his hard fought waterhole

The mud covered male stands proud in his defended territory

As the sun began its inevitable descent behind the distant little Drakensburg Mountains we were presented with a final treat.  They say that the best things come in small packages and on this occasion, this oft over used phrase could be no more poignant.  Greeting us around the corner was a rhino cow and her newborn calf.  Everyone is aware of the plight that faces the rhino at present and to witness the next generation is the epitome of hope for the species.  In 6 years of guiding I had never seen such a young rhino.  He could not have been more than 3 days old yet his level of boldness was endearing.  The mother’s high levels of habituation gave him enough confidence to cautiously investigate this intruder into his new life and we watched in silence, afraid to move or make a sound in case we spooked him and destroyed such a special moment.

The next generation looks one under the watchful gaze of is mother

The newborn rhino explores his surroundings

The contrast in size is almost unfathomable.  Weighing in at about 90kgs, it seems impossible to comprehend that he will tip the scales at over 2 tons in the future.  There was no evidence of even a horn on his nose as he unsteadily evaluated us from the safety of his mother’s side.  High pitched squeaks accompanied his investigations.  Whether they were an attempt to communicate with this strange animal in his midst or cries of reassurance to his mother we will never know but our hearts melted as one in the face of such delicate beauty.  There was not much I needed to say to my guests as the picture truly spoke for itself and as the female moved away from the road with her legacy in hot pursuit, we decided to leave them in peace and moved on in silence as we all soaked up a wonderful sighting.

A tiny bump is all that hints at the magnificant horn that will hopefully follow

It is days like this that epitomize the joy of being a guide in Africa.  I have seen rhino many times but every sighting is different.  Interactions between species members all culminate in different behaviours and outcomes.  Sightings of the younger generation carry with them joy but hint at the forthcoming battle the individuals and species must face as they struggle to survive.  Nonchalance is a guide’s biggest enemy and especially when considering a critically endangered species such as the rhino.  The day I become complacent about seeing one these prehistoric throw backs is the day I move on.  If that day ever comes, I would consider myself not worthy to be in such an enviable position and it would be selfish of me to deny that opportunity to other more passionate guides in waiting.  Every sighting is a gift and should be treated as one.          

A mother and calf beautifully reflected in the water

A territorial male embarks on another patrol

A curious calf leaves the protection of his mother to investigate our landrover

June 4, 2012

Unsung Heros

          Big 5 fever is an ailment that has spread its tentacles into every corner of the guiding industry, especially in the terms of advertising and marketing.  Within the competitive world of the lodge environment, the lure of quality big 5 sightings is splashed across brochures and websites with gusto.  Guests flock to marquis lodges with huge expectations and are often not disappointed.  As guides though, it is our job to try and dispel some of these expectations and replace them with an appreciation of the bigger picture.  If all we did was talk about 5 animals during a three night stay, guests would leave their respective lodges rather unfulfilled I wager.  These animals may well be the main attraction but without their supporting cast, none of their existences would be possible.  Perhaps the animal most often overlooked on safari is that of the humble impala.
          Impala litter the landscape like ticker tape at a Mardi Gras festival and are often treated as such.  I myself am equally at fault having driven past many a herd on my way to larger profile animals.  I do pride myself however in spending time with these oft ignored delicate antelope.  As far as I’m concerned, if a species is present in such monumental numbers, there must be a good reason.  If one delves beneath the surface of these beautiful creatures, a myriad of behavioural and physiological adaptations can be uncovered which help to explain their phenomenal success.

2 young males spar with each other, honing their skills for crucial battles to come

          The impala population has two great peaks in activity during the year.  The first is known as the ‘rut’.  For 4-6 weeks each year, usually beginning around May, the males of the species engage in territorial battles to secure seasonal breeding rights.  Many encounters are settled merely by intimidation and confidence but often, rams come to blows using their horns as effective weapons.  Injuries are rare and these confrontations more commonly manifest in tests of strength as they lock horns to gauge each other’s resilience.  The strongest of the rams are rewarded with the prime grounds with which to woo their respective females. 

2 males battle for suprmacy as another watches from the sidelines

          This harem dynamic may sound like Christmas to some but the male impalas are constantly defending their interests and trying to herd their females together.  Hugh Hefner, regardless of all his countless years of experience with members of the opposite sex, would be out on his feet in no time!  Impalas produce one of the most out of character noises during this time and their growls and snorts echo across the African savanna at all hours.  To the uneducated, these growls are often misinterpreted as predators and cause much fear and excitement.  The snorting of the impala is synonymous with their alarm call and is thus thought to scare the ewes into staying together.  Genius!
A  male attempts to herd a fleeing female

          During this breeding period, the male spend most of his energy mating, defending and herding and therefore loses condition quickly.  This allows other rams in the area the chance to overthrow him.  This is very common phenomenon and during a 6 week period, it is usual for a group of females to see at least 4 suitors.  This is nature’s way of ensuring a greater genetic diversity, especially when one considers that impala ewes have a 98% conception rate!

Perfect miniatures

          A specific breeding season leads to a specific lambing season and come November/December time, the bush comes alive with a flood of unstable, perfect miniatures.  This saturation effect is perhaps the impala’s best defense mechanism against predation – safety in numbers.  The youngsters form delightful crèches and frolic across the lush tall grass.  This is now the height of the rainy season and the nature’s blood has brought with it sufficient food, water and shelter: the perfect place to raise vulnerable offspring.
A group of small impala fascinated by something....

          Although often disregarded, the impala is perhaps one of the most beautiful animals to grace the African bush.  Finding a poorly conditioned impala is like looking for a girl that doesn’t rate Dirty Dancing as a fine film… (Don’t even get me started on that one!!)  Their 3 toned coats radiate health and cleanliness and this is vital to staying in shape and possessing the ability to evade predators.  They are not privy to some miracle product to keep their hair shining like a L’Oreal model but have a couple of wonderfully simple evolutionary traits that enable them to keep so well groomed.
          First, the teeth in the lower jaw have a slight gap between them and have a small amount of give in their sockets.  These teeth can then be passed through the fur like a comb to facilitate the removal of all animals’ nemeses: ticks.  A healthy impala may only posses around 500 ticks.  This may make some of you cringe and start itching uncontrollably at the thought, but spare a thought for the old buffalo bulls who can easily house over 100,000!  Not only do they groom themselves, but they also engage on what we call allo-grooming, whereby members of a group will partake in mutual grooming, rather like monkeys.  This is highly unusual in antelope species.

2 female members of a harem groom each

          There are, however, areas that an impala cannot reach and none of their friends seem willing to reach either: the anus and groin.  It is here that many ticks congregate due to the moist, softer skin and therefore pose a problem for the bashful impala.  Nature as always though has come up with a very novel method of removal.  The impala have a black ‘M’ emblazoned on their rumps (which has given rise to the rather unfortunate nickname of ‘The MacDonald’s of the Bush’).  If one was to watch impala for any length of time, one would also see that they swish their tail from side to side every few seconds.  It takes a few moments for ticks to attach to the skin and thus, the swiping tail bats them to one side and the ticks invariably end up on the black stripes either side of the rump.  Black fur absorbs heat and therefore makes an uncomfortable environment for the tick, forcing them to move further round on the flanks to avoid the relentless tail, and this puts them within range of the impala’s comb.   This is of course only a theory but it makes perfect sense!      
          Good conditioning means for speedy escapes and this enables the impalas to reach 80km/h flat out and cements their place as one of the most prolific jumpers in the mammalian kingdom.  They are capable of covering 12m in a single bound and can reach heights of over 3m!  The list of adaptations is beginning to add up now but one must also take into account that impalas are mixed feeders and are equally happy eating grass or leaves.  This means that food supply is never really an issue and when a species is prevented with near unlimited resources, they will always flourish.          

The boldest female takes to air to clear a water hazard

          These adaptations all contribute to the phenomenal success of the impala and allow predator numbers to flourish as they constitute the staple diet for many of them.  They are the carnivore’s equivalent of grass.  In fact, if left unchecked, the impala population is estimated to increase 40% each year!!  The fact that their numbers within the Kruger area remain relatively constant shows you just how many are sacrificed to facilitate the biodiversity of the predators present.

Impala stare out over the bush searching for danger

          The success of the species had seen numbers in the area rise to somewhere in excess of 150,000 but this massive influx comes at an environmental price.  One single impala eats more than 3 times more than the average elephant compared to their body weight.  Add to this that impalas are selective feeders and one can quickly see that availability of food for other species is in jeopardy.  Take the graceful kudu as an example.  They are able to browse on leaves up to around 2m in height but in an area plagued by impala, they perhaps only have only 30cm left to choose from after the impala have eaten their fill.  Their overgrazing can also lead to bush encroachment and thus less diversity of plant life and less animals that can profit from it.  The best method of control seems to be a natural one as culling in simply too expensive and time consuming.  In the past few years, Kruger national park has closed multiple artificial water points with the hope that the water dependant impala will suffer.  Without sufficient resources at their disposal, their condition will diminish and therefore make them more susceptible to predation.  The strategy seems to be working and the latest census sees impala populations at a mere 100,000.

A kudu females cleans her nose

          Although not given due credit by guests and guides alike, the impala is an integral member of the natural kingdom.  They are the foundation stone upon which the higher profile animals are able to build and because of that, any guide that drives past impala without stopping to explain their crucial role within the ecosystem or at least to appreciate their beauty is not doing his or her job properly.  The biodiversity of the bush is made possible by many elements all coming together in perfect harmony and the impala are the carbon that binds the veld together and therefore should demand huge levels of respect.  Carbon may be the most common and overlooked element on the planet but lets not forget that if the molecules are rearranged, you get a diamond….