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!

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