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

December 26, 2013

3's a Crowd

          The harsh shrill of a francolin alerted us to the fact that a predator loomed close by.  We circled the block a couple of times with no luck before abandoning our hunt in favour of a well-earned cold beer as the Botswanan sun slowly sank beneath the horizon.  Francolins are rarely wrong however and with darkness falling over the landscape, we hoped that its shroud would give the predator the confidence to show itself.  We carefully returned to the spot of the avian alarm calls, this time armed with a spotlight, hoping to catch a glimpse of the eye-shine that might betray an animal’s presence.  Pulses raced and necks craned as the spotlight swept the undergrowth on either side of the land rover.  Suddenly, 2 pin pricks of light met our eyes from the bush and after some great driving from TT, our experienced guide, we managed to find a way into the darkness to investigate their cause. 

          Lying below a large tree, a satiated female leopard watched us carefully as we maneuvered the car into the best position. The spotlight bathed her velveteen coat in soft yellow light and the majesty of this elusive predator was revealed to us all.  The Leopard ID Project has visited Machaba before on the basis of its high leopard population but this was what we had come for, an unrecorded individual to add to our database.  In the shadows close by lay the remains of an impala carcass that had fallen foul to the silent assassin that dozed peacefully before us.  The hind quarters had been devoured as well as some of the nutritious internal organs but perhaps a good 40kgs of welcome protein still remained.  The female had eaten her fill for now so we switched off all of the lights and sat in the silent darkness, listening to sounds of her pant and the distant splashes as hippos emerged from their watery resting places to roam the plains in search of fresh grass. 

          A rustle alerted us to the fact that she had risen from her slumber.  Still we kept the lights off, reveling in the unknown as we listened to the fallen leaves quietly crunch under her pads.  The sound approached the vehicle.  Pulses raced as the crunching stopped next to the car, the leopard investigating her dinner audience, feeling bolder and more comfortable now that the ally of darkness enveloped her.  It was a truly wondrous moment, and collectively we held our breath until, satisfied that we posed no immediate threat, the soft footsteps abated.  The leopardess moved away through the undergrowth, our spotlight now illuminating her progress as the apparition melted into the bush beyond the reach of our spotlight.  

          We left the area in the hope of finding a marauding hyena that might catch the scent of the dead impala but were momentarily distracted by an agile genet as it foraged in a tree close by.  As we pulled away, to our surprise, we were met by the imposing sight of a male leopard as he stood in the road before us, long whiskers accentuated by the light as it danced across his form.  His nose raised, he sniffed the air and made a beeline to the impala.  Hardly believing or luck, we quickly returned to the kill and waited for his inevitable arrival.  Eyes glinted before us but this time belonging to a hyena that had also caught wind of a free meal.  As hyena’s educated nose led it to the feast, the male leopard appeared from the shadows and grabbed the impala by the neck before effortlessly hoisting it into the tree and out of the hyena’s reach.  Blood dripped down the bark of the tree and the moment was immortalized by a bloody paw print, highlighting the path of his ascent.  The male, content that his prize was now safe, ate for a few minutes before also disappearing into the night.  We returned home about 2 hours after our fellow safari goers, still thanking our luck to have witnessed such a sighting but excited to return the next day to view the next chapter of the story.

          The Leopard ID Project group was out a good half an hour before the other cars, eager to return to the scene and watch the male enjoying his spoils.  The bush is an unpredictable environment however and what met us as we pulled in to the area was a surprise to us all.  The remains of the carcass hung in the tree but no male leopard was to be seen.  As we scanned the tree however, we saw the female from the night before draped across a branch.  Although satisfied from her night’s feed, her eyes kept wandering to the branches above her.  As we followed her gaze, we discovered an extra chapter to an already amazing series of events.  High above us, a sub adult leopard also straddled a tree limb, belly bulging.  Why the male had left the kill we will never know but at least now we knew why the female had vacated the area the night before:  she had gone to fetch her next generation and lead it to the kill.  

          At approximately just over a year, the cub was still being provided for but soon would be forced to cut its mother’s apron strings and become independent.  This was evident by the way in which the mother hissed and spat at her prodigy, her biological clock telling her that their separation was imminent and that she must prepare to bring another generation into this world.  To bring a poignant closure to the story, a hyena arrived on the scene, circling the tree looking up at the meal suspended way above his reach.  The hyena did not stay long for it knew that it had been bested by its old nemesis and quickly exited the area unperturbed by this setback, in search of other opportunities.

          We left the 2 leopards happily digesting their dinner, blown away by the complexity of this illusive animal’s life, and the excitement of recording 3 new individuals for the Project database.  We had seen the full circle – a female with a fresh kill, an opportunistic male reaping the rewards, and then the icing on the cake, a sub adult in tow.  These were only 3 of the 10 different leopards identified on this trip but was most definitely one of the highlights!  It was a sighting that no of us will ever forget and yet another reminder that the wilds of Africa are a demanding, yet rewarding place.  A place where competition is rife, even between predators of the same species, and the battle for their survival never abates.

November 21, 2013


          As the stifling heat began to relent and the Sun sank lower on the horizon, a pack of southern Africa’s most endangered and efficient predators began to move.  Black shapes began slinking through the shadows; oversized ears standing to attention as they honed in on the gentle rustling of the dry grass close by.  The impalas continued to feed quietly in the failing light, blissfully unaware that they were in mortal danger as the shadows enveloped them.

          Suddenly the lead dog broke from its cover, rifling towards its quarry with blistering speed.  The rest of the pack swiftly joined the chase and streaks of black lighting covered the ground with consummate ease as the gap closed.  The impala however live their life with the constant fear of predation and their honed reactions gave them a head start as the chaos ensued.

          For the next few minutes, our guests watched in awe as the hunt progressed.  Impala stotted in all directions, kicking their legs out behind them in a ploy designed to distract and confuse.  The dogs came close on many occasions but this time, the impala’s survival instinct outweighed the canine onslaught.  Their fleet footed gymnastics were able to keep the rampant predators at bay but the sighting was still one racked with excitement and tension.  The age old battle of predator and prey raged for perhaps 5 minutes until the dogs abandoned their chase.  Unperturbed by this night’s failure, the dogs retreated into the shadows from whence they came to regroup and re-strategize for their next hunt that would no doubt be launched soon.

          We lost sight of the hunters as the shadows deepened and the fading sunlight was swallowed by the blackness of the African night.  The darkness accentuated their distant chirping calls as the pack members found each other, and their patiently waiting pups in the aftermath of the battle.  We pulled over to enjoy the last rays of light close to a waterhole and toast another amazing sighting.  Blackness had now overcome the day and our own hearing was honed to compensate.  Echoes of the dog’s chirping had faded and we sipped gin and dry lemon, each losing ourselves in the still tranquility of the night.        

          A noise close by; a ripple of water and the faint sound of sand being disturbed caused us to turn on the spotlight.  The water hole was bathed in yellow light and to our wonderment, no more than 50 metres away, the dogs softly lapped water to quench their thirst now that the hunt had subsided.  The dogs were oblivious to our presence and continued their routine as we watched on.  There was nothing to say or do except take in the spectacle.  

          The bush theatre had given us a spectacular encore that none of us will ever forget.  The world is a balancing act of opposing forces and emotions.  We had been privy to see the dogs in full flow not 30 minutes earlier and the spectacle itself was exhausting to watch, but now, the beauty of the natural world righted that chaos by delivering us an emotionally charged and moving scene as they frolicked by the water’s edge, displaying great tenderness as they groomed each other and cemented their bonds.  No one said anything. We simply took in the moment and I have no doubt that we will all remember that beautiful spectacle forever.

August 1, 2013

The Bush Gods

          The bush:  Nature's mosaic.  The environment that surrounds us is a perfectly balanced amalgamation of all things great and small.  From the microscopic bacteria to the largest tree, each individual performs independently, yet coexists in perfect harmony.  However, sometimes I wonder if there is not more to it; a bigger picture that we seem to ignore due a lack of empirical evidence and scientific explanation.  As a psychology major, I recall the modules on social psychology and group consciousness and there are moments in the bush where its inhabitants seems to work in tandem to achieve such a universal effect.  I joke that it is the bush gods at work and whilst this is a tongue in cheek explanation, it sometimes does seem like the bush itself has a sense of humour, and an ironic one at that.  I have lost count of the number of times that I have made a finite statement and within seconds, nature proves me wrong!  Suddenly, it seems as if the background noise is more than just the sound of birds and insects calling, but the collective consciousness of the bush chuckling at its belittling of me!

          The same goes for sightings on some days.  When the pressure is on to find a particular animal that the guests want to see, it feels like the harder you look, the less the chances of success.  Luck certainly plays its part and one of my favourite quotes is from Gary Player who said that the 'harder I practise, the luckier I seem to become.'  A perfect case in point happened just the other day.  My guests and I had seen everything with the exception of the illusive leopard and although we had multiple sets of tracks, we failed miserably to locate Africa's spotted enigma in 3 hours of trying.  Unperturbed, we tried again that afternoon and for a further 2 hours, we toiled unsuccessfully seeing very little else en route.  Finally however, the bush decided to relent with the cruel withholding of its most sought after possession and we were rewarded with a wonderful sighting of Sand River as he melted in and out of the long grass close to Little Bush Camp.

           We returned to the lodge later that night ecstatic, but I felt exhausted as the weight of the pressure was removed from my shoulders.  The next morning: my guests' last, the pressure was now off and I was prepared for a nice relaxing drive where we could spend some quality time with the smaller things that really make nature tick.  However, the bush had other ideas.  A misty start to the morning meant that the air was thick and humid.  We all assumed that the taste in the air was merely water vapour but in hindsight, I believe it was a manifestation of irony itself!  Perhaps in an attempt to right the scales of a fairly unproductive previous day (prior to the leopard sighting), or simply to reward us for our hard work, or perhaps even just to spite my safari plan of a quiet morning, the bush gods showered us with special sightings. 

          The list of sightings is too long to be recounted in this blog but suffice to say that we saw the big 5 without even trying, not to mention a host of general game and other treats.  So much for a quiet drive....  The obvious highlights were the cats and we sat dumbstruck, with comical smiles on our face as Mandleve and her cubs chose to perform for us in the road.  The two cubs looked skinny and the mother  took some persuasion to part with their milk.  With the demise of Mandleve's last cubs from starvation about 2 years ago still fresh in my memory, I hope they get some real protein soon but in the mean time, we delighted in their antics.  Perhaps Mandleve had her orders to put on a show for us from the bush gods but was not in mood?  But whatever her issues that morning, suffice to say that she had got up on the proverbial wrong side of the bed.  The cubs suffered serious chastising in the form of menacing growls and bared teeth, but the innocence of childhood is compelling and eventually their cries of hunger caused their mother to relent, if perhaps only for some peace from their wailing!

          No sooner had we left the sighting, beaming with delight at the spectacle, a leopard was spotted (if you excuse the pun) a few hundred meters up the road.  In fact, there were 3 leopards seen that morning....the irony of tracking 1 for 5 or 6 hours yesterday was lost on none of us!!  Having marvelled at the battle hardened Sand River the night before, we were now graced with the power of Xihangalas as he marched down the centre of the road, scent marking and calling as he went.  This has long been my favourite leopard on Sabi Sabi - he is the perfect example of a male leopard.  He would be the feline equivalent of the newly crowned sex symbol for women everywhere, Channing Tatem (young, fit and handsome:  or so my wife tells me.  Repeatedly I might add!).  Xihangalas certainly fits the bill and in fact it sometimes seems like a miracle that he doesn't slip on the self confidence that seems to ooze from him!  All of the above made for a spectacular sighting and guests now had pictures of this magnificent creature in the sunlight to add to their portfolio form the night before!

          The drive continued along the same vein until we crawled back into the lodge, exhausted after our morning of 'concentrating on the small things.'  Not that we were complaining.  Far from it in fact!  Irony or no irony, the bush is an amazing place and nothing can be planned or predicted.  As we often say to guests that demand to see the big 5 on day 1, if you want guarantees, you must go to the zoo.  Here, we let the 'powers that be' do the planning and we merely view what it chosen to be shown to us.  The bush is what you make of it and the rewards are there to be enjoyed, whatever the occasion.  The emotional antithesis of searching for a leopard for 6 hours one day and then having everything handed to you on a plate on the next is what makes the wild so exciting.  I have been doing this for 7 years now and every day is different but equally exciting.  Who knows if there is a higher power at work deciding what should be viewed but for the last few days, I say thank you to the bush gods and long may they reign!

April 17, 2013

It Takes 2 to Tango

          In a recent poll of the most iconic animals in Africa, the giraffe surprisingly destroyed all its competition by an overwhelming margin.  Nothing in the bush causes more oooh’s and aaaah’s than the elegant giraffe.  Sometimes it reminds me of bonfire night in England where there are massive firework displays and the cacophony of explosions is complimented by the appreciative noises from the enthralled crowd.  It is difficult to put one’s finger on the attraction of nature’s sky scraper but perhaps it is its uniqueness?  There is nothing in this world like a giraffe.  Its closest relative is the okapi which is only found in central Africa and seen by few.  It is also an odd animal with a slightly elongated neck and stripes like that of the zebra down its rump.

          If not its uniqueness, it must be its awkward, yet elegant grace.  Those long legs move with consummate ease and enable the giraffe to travel at surprising pace even though its strange gait of moving both left legs and then both right legs makes it look rather unstable.  The way that the neck rocks as it walks is mesmeric and I like to describe it as nature’s lava lamp.  It seems to have the ability to de-stress people by merely watching it carrying out its business.  If giraffes had jobs, the giraffe would surely be a counsellor or therapist!  Men, women and children alike seem to melt in their presence and a dumb grin spreads unconsciously across their faces as they lose themselves in this strange creation.

          It is odd to think that such a graceful animal has a violent streak in it but one must remember that this is the wild and there are things to fight for: survival and genetic success.  Giraffes are capable of killing with a single kick if defending themselves and many a lion has fallen foul to a skull shattering, flailing limb.  The only way to ensure genetic survival is to find a mate and that must be achieved through dominance, and that means combat.  As a giraffe ages, calcium is deposited on the skull to make it heavier, more robust and a more effective weapon.  The thick ossicones (horns) that protrude from their heads are used to great effect as they are swung at their opponents with surprising force.  Impacts can be savage and giraffe have been knocked unconscious in these exchanges before!

          Yesterday afternoon, we were privy to watch a heated exchange between two young males as they vied for the affections of a nearby female.  They stood side by side, jostling each other for position and swinging their necks with incredible ferocity.  The flexibility of their necks defied belief as they wound up blow after blow like a medieval knights wielding a mace.  Perhaps even more impressive though were the defensive manoeuvres as the combatants deflected and avoided each other’s club-like skulls.  It was a strange spectacle to witness as we were torn between marvelling at the veritable ballet of the dancing necks, and shocked by the brutality of the exchange.  The thuds rang out through the bushveld and winces of empathetic pain could be heard coming from the audience as their notion of a peaceful and docile animal were shattered.

          Even after 7 years, I often see things that I have never witnessed before, and this exchange was no different.  The two giraffe seemed to have different tactics; one preferred to swing downwards and concentrate on the flanks, whilst the other took the low road and swung upwards into the stomach like an uppercut.  However, at one point, the latter giraffe got his head caught under the leg of his opponent and as he raised his neck, the other giraffe found himself in a rather ungainly position!  It resembled the giraffe equivalent of yoga as the one giraffe balanced precariously on 3 limbs as his fourth was raised aloft by the other.  The serious nature of the guests was suddenly replaced by amusement as the two struggled to free themselves as they stumbled through the undergrowth.  After the incident, the combative nature of the exchange died down, perhaps both parties willing to compromise for now and rest their hyper extended limbs!  I have never seen a giraffe do the splits and now that I have, the spectacle will stay with me forever!

          It was a wonderful sighting full of intrigue and emotions as the guests got to absorb the beauty of the gentle giant, yet had to re evaluate their presuppositions of tranquillity as the heated battle raged.  Harmony was quickly restored however thanks to the rather light hearted and comedic ending to the exchange and we left the sighting grinning from ear to ear.  Once again, the complexity of nature had revealed itself but somehow, even in the midst of a brutal confrontation, the giraffe had left us with a sighting we would never forget and warm fuzzy feeling in our hearts.