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!

February 27, 2014

Making a Splash!

The New Year signifies the height of summer and with it, a bounty of resources for the inhabitants of South Africa’s biological wonderland.  Myriads of animals gorge themselves on the nutritious, lush vegetation spawned by the life giving rain that falls regularly during this period and revel in the swelling seasonal water holes.  All creatures need water to survive but there is one land animal above all that relishes these moist oases that pepper the African savanna: the mighty elephant.          

Elephants love water.  Not only do they need up to 150 liters per day to survive but they spend many hours a day indulging in mud baths that not only help to cool the skin, but also act as protection against the relentless African sun. Even though the elephant comes complete with its own air conditioning unit in the form of massive veins under the surface of its paper-thin ears, it still struggles with the conditions.  Elephants don’t sweat like we do and they don’t pant like dogs, so they are wholly reliant upon their ability to control their internal temperature by any means necessary.  What better way to do this than by indulging in a cooling swim.  

           When nature has equipped you with a permanent snorkel, why not use it to its full?! Elephants are no happier than when faced with water.  Herds and individuals alike will often break into a run at the sight of water and the younger members of the herd trumpet with delight at the prospect of nature’s cooling elixir.  It’s reminiscent of a party of children squealing with delight as they arrive at the local water park.  Not only is the water refreshing, and a welcome relief to sapping ambient temperatures, but it is also fun!  For the smaller individuals, the fear of what may lurk beneath the shadowy waters is often enough to quell their enthusiasm, but bull elephants will throw caution to the wind and stride into the depths, enveloping their massive bulk, sometimes even submerging completely and rolling around in delight.

          Elephants are such great entertainment to watch at the best of times, but the sight of one of nature’s titans frolicking in the water is enough to put a smile on even the most experienced safari goer.  Even though we will never completely understand what goes on in the brains of these gentle giants, their reaction to water is a manifestation of pure delight that even we, humble visitors to their life, can interpret.  Regardless of the size of the expanse however, elephants can become very protective over their water.  They do not like to share their playtime with others, even those that reside in the cooling refuge throughout the day. 

          Hippos are often seen as a comical animal.  Their short stumpy legs make them seem ungainly and disproportionate on land but their command of aquatic life is highly specialized.  Few animals will argue with a 2 ton hippo whether on land or in water but the elephant is more than happy to antagonize these often feared individuals.  In fact, they almost seem to enjoy this game as they regularly chase the innocent residents from their domain.  It’s nice being the biggest fish in the pond!

          We often equate elephant behaviour with those of our own and an elephant enjoying a swim is a perfect example of this. On a hot day we like nothing more than a refreshing dip in cooling waters and age goes out of the window as adults and children alike frolic in the revitalizing relief. Even the most mature and reserved of us suddenly find great enjoyment in the simplicity of throwing a frisbee or ball once in the water, and elephants are no different. A simple branch can be the cause of a great game that seems to bring huge joy to these intelligent aquaphiles

This time of indulgence and relish will not last forever however and soon, the life giving rains of summer will give way to the dry winter months and all animals will once again be cast into an annual struggle to find enough food and water.  For the time being though, we will continue to delight in the antics of this complicated and fascinating animal. 

February 9, 2014

Xikavi - The Provider

          Imagine having to leave your young children at home alone for prolonged periods while you head out to search for food; a quest that might take days to accomplish. Imagine leaving your children exposed and alone in a rough neighbourhood whose occupants wouldn’t think twice about securing a quick meal or at least removing competition.  Imagine a home where you have no dead lock, no home security system, no friends to call on to babysit and no police force to ‘protect and serve.’  Couple all these terrifying factors with children who are born with a natural independence and rampant curiousity and you have a recipe for disaster.  The life of a leopard mother is tough.  Despite all these terrifying thoughts that she has to contend with, the need to procure food outweighs all of the potential risks and each time that she returns to her cubs, the discovery that one or all of her offspring have perished is very real.

          Animals however are blessed with a narrow mindedness that we will never be able to fully appreciate.  Their life is simplistic: find food for yourself; find food for your cubs and protect them from the dangers that lurk in the African bush.  We have no idea how strongly animals feel loss but it is something that every leopardess will have to learn.  With mortality rates as high as 80% in some areas, the chances of raising one cub to maturity is slim, but a leopard’s biology means that she will never give up until her final breath escapes her beautiful body.

          Xikavi is stunning leopard from the western sector of the Sabi Sands and she is in the midst of this eternal struggle as we speak.  I have been fortunate enough to follow her progress over the last few months thanks to frequent visits to the area and have experienced both heartache and loss watching her try to provide for her new family.  Around 4 months ago, Xikavi introduced us to her 2 beautiful cubs.  Alas, 2 quickly became 1 due to, what we believe, to be a snake bite.  I was privy to witness a heartbreaking scene about 3 months ago when we followed her to her den site where she found 1 happy cub eager for her return, and 1 lifeless body.  Her attempts to revive her lost cub were in vain and we watched in heart-breaking sympathy as its sibling nuzzled and nudged its former companion trying to understand its motionless.

          Despite her loss she had no time to wallow in self-pity and regret.  Her last remaining cub needed her more now than ever before, and for the last 3 months, Xikavi has dutifully provided for her legacy.  The thick undergrowth, fueled by the summer rains, has given her the ability to disappear.  Her perfect camouflage allows her to become one with her surroundings and on this occasion, nature’s silent assassin made no mistake.  As we rounded the corner, we were met with the somewhat gruesome sight of a half-eaten impala hanging in the fork of a tree.  No leopard was to be seen, but the bush’s opportunists had already arrived.  An elegant yet powerful Bataleur eagle occupied the kill, using its strong beak to tear flesh away from body.  Every animal must suffer the same eternal need to survive and, in the wild, an unattended carcass does not remain unattended for long.

          Soon after we arrived, movement distracted me.  Like a mirage, a sleek form was slowly taking shape as it weaved effortlessly through the dense undergrowth.  When it saw that its hard-earned food had been compromised, it leapt from the shadows, bounding with ease up the tree like a velveteen simian.  The troublesome Bataleur erupted from the branches in a cloud of feathers as it sought refuge from the razor sharp teeth and swiping claws.  Xikavi had returned from quenching her thirst and reclaimed her prize.  We watched in awe as she negotiated the tree limbs with the poise of one quite at home in the treetops and settled down to watch her feed.

          The sighting was not for the faint hearted however.  The antithesis of nature is all around us, and the majestic sight of this beautiful creature feeding high above the ground was neatly coupled by the demise of the impala.  As she maneuvered the carcass, various internal organs were loosened and began to emerge from their host’s body, culminating in the sickening thud as the stomach slowly succumbed to its own gravity and landed on the floor only meters from us.  Despite the obviously revulsion felt by most, this is life.  The impala would not live, but its sacrifice would go far in replenishing essential energy for its killer, and more importantly, for her cub.  Although we did not get to see the other beneficiary, the other vehicles did say that after dark, Xikavi returned to the kill with her cub in tow and the 2 of them were able to feast in peace.

          Despite the odds and the danger, Xikavi continues to do everything in her power to supply her cub with the nutrition and safety that it needs to grow.  Should she be able to provide for it for another 18 months, her biological clock will tell her that the time has come for the cub to move on.  The cub will not understand why the apron strings are being cut so painfully but it will be the first of many lessons as it embarks on its lonely life of solitude.  Xikavi will receive no thanks for the duties that she performs but she will have done all that she can do.  Her thoughts now will be focused on repeating her actions and continuing to expand her genetic reach.  The life of any mother is hard but to be a single mother in the midst of the war zone that is the African bush must be supremely taxing.  Xikavi, I salute you. 

January 3, 2014

Old Friends

          Over the past 7 years I have been fortunate enough to witness countless wildlife sightings and events and each and every one of them holds a special place in my heart.  It’s so difficult not to anthropomorphize and become attached to individuals and family units when you spend 8 hours a day with them.  It’s like watching a fly on the wall documentary where life events unfold in front of my eyes and all I can do it witness them happen.  There is exhilaration and heart ache on a daily basis as the predators especially wage their immortal battle against survival.  

          When you have spent a prolonged period of time in one area, the characters of this soap opera become like old friends and you become emotionally entangled in their plights.  For 3 years I watched the southern pride of the southern section of the Sabi Sands ply their trade and dominate the lion dynamic with unerring power; but earlier this year my time in that area came to an end and I bid farewell to my adopted family with whom I had spent countless hours viewing. 

One of the young Southern Pride males decides to hone his hunting skills

          The mighty Southern Pride has recently undergone a variety of change with the sub adults becoming more and more independent and forming regular splinter prides as they battle to find food for so many mouths.  Recently I was fortunate enough to catch up with some of the members of this magnificent pride as they made a rare foray into the western section where I was freelancing for a few days between other commitments.  It was an emotional moment for me when I heard the radio crackle to life and inform me that my old friends had been located close by.  I made a bee line to the sighting, my heart racing with the anticipation of seeing how Father Time had treated these youngsters that I had watched being groomed into independent hunting machines.

One of the young Southern Pride males at around 18 months old

The Southern Pride, lead by Mandleve, in their prime

One of the many cubs I saw during my time with the Southern Pride

          The 8 or so members that had trekked far from their pridelands had been drawn by the unmistakable smell of decomposing flesh.  It is not only the predators that wage war against each other.  Survival is imperative in every organism and sometimes threats must be forcibly removed.  A raft of hippos is made up of a dominant male and his harem of females; but young males within this social structure will only be tolerated for so long.  As their size and testosterone levels swell, so does their threat to the dominant male and from time to time, the dominant male must flex his muscles.  That day it seemed, the biggest fish in the pond had dealt out a warning to all that his status as king was not up for debate.

Eating a young hippo is tiring work!

2 of the Southern Pride females feast on the hippos carcass

          A 4 or 5 year old hippo is a welcome wealth of protein for a hungry pride and the southern splinter cell made full use of this opportunity.  The rain lashed down on us as the lions gorged themselves on the fatty meat and guests were transfixed by the brutality and simplicity of life in the wild.  Trying to explain my emotions are harder than I anticipated.  I felt a strange comfort and feeling of normality watching the pride enjoy their spoils.  It’s strange how close you become to wild animals and to see the size and power of the maturing males, males whom I had watched grow from only a few weeks old filled me with a strange sense of pride.  My overwhelming thought was whether or not they would recognize me, my smell or my voice.  Surely a familiar scent would find its way to their nostrils or a tone or pitch would resonate within their sensitive ears…  Secretly I was hoping for some moment of recognition; some sign that the time we shared together had left some sort of mark on these dramatic predators.  But alas, nature does not have time for remembrance and I had fallen into the old trap of becoming too involved with my work.

One of the young males peers out from behind a glistening spider's web, his face black from the mud surrounding the hippo 

A young male keeps watch for any pesky hyenas

The young males are maturing into beautiful specimens

          There indifference to my presence may have been a bitter pill to swallow for a moment but I am not na├»ve enough to expect the impossible.  The simple fact that I had the opportunity to view these behemoths of the Sabi Sands lion dynamic was reward enough.  It was a moving moment to be able to see how these once young, defenseless cubs had matured into powerful and graceful adults.  Soon it will be time for them to move further afield, to leave the battle grounds of male competition and live below the radar until they have finished their development, possibly returning to claim their own kingdom.  I have no idea when or where this might take place but I hope to be able to share in this, their greatest challenge.  To follow a wild animal throughout the trials and tribulations of their life is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  I look forward to news of their impending rise to power and long for the time that I can see the next generation of kings. 

Through the eyes of the Southern Pride I have shared so much