Life dawns for an elephant

Edited by Keri Harvey

It was when the sun saluted the earth that we started our early morning drive, but stopped soon afterwards to soak up the colours of sunrise close to Southern Camp. As we watched the new day dawn, helmeted guinea fowl darted past, calling: “Such good luck, such good luuuuuck. Good luck!” Or that’s what it sounded like.

We were slowly driving on towards the river when the tracker spotted fresh elephant spoor. But before we could finish chatting about the circular tracks of the animal, we heard the elephant herd nearby. They had gathered on the sandy banks of the Klaserie River, which cuts through Kapama, and the tracker motioned me to keep going in that direction.

Elephant calf at Kapama

Elephant calf at Kapama

As we drew closer, we saw the herd wasn’t on the move. Instead, all the senior cows were standing still and looking at us. We were momentarily confused. Then one younger cow started straining her body and leaned heavily against a jackalberry tree, as if borrowing strength from it. As she turned, a flood of warm fluid burst from her rear, washing and cleansing her flanks while she held her breath. The effort caused her tail to rise and, at that moment, there was a deluge of steaming liquid that accompanied the amniotic sac. It contained four slippery truncated legs, an elongated tubular nose and a rotund little body. The large ears seemed glued to the side of its perfect head, and in a single movement her calf plunged onto the river bank. Cautiously, with her right front foot, the cow touched the motionless calf still cocooned in its birth sack. The calf kicked its tiny feet in response and all the elephants present gathered around to welcome the newborn baby to the world.

As the young mother moved slightly forward, it was an opportunity for us to take rare photos of an elephant calf just a minute old. But the matriarch was unimpressed with us. She drew close to us and shook her head as a sign of her disapproval, so we retreated out of respect and gratitude for witnessing the miracle of new life.

As we moved, a yellow-brown tree squirrel edged out cautiously from between the jackalberry trees. The tiny animal’s long, bushy tail flicked nervously as it searched for seeds from the tree. He picked up a single seed and held it in both front feet, as if praying. It was at the same moment that an African fish eagle also announced his presence in this wilderness theatre and applauded: “God bless them! God bless them! God bless them all!” I don’t believe it wasn’t our imaginations, but an auspicious bushveld welcome for the newborn elephant calf.

Written by: Betheul Sithole, Southern Camp ranger

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Silent procession of marchers

Processionary worms

Processionary worms

Recently, an American family of four were my guests at Kapama Karula. Their two daughters were aged six and 10 years old, and when I asked who had special interests, I was told that Chloe, the six-year-old, loved caterpillars. She loved them so much that whenever she found a worm or caterpillar, she would name it.

I told her about processionary worms, but that they were more active in summer and the rainy season. I promised I’d do my best to find some worms for her to see while we were out on game drive. It was a beautiful warm afternoon in the bush when I spotted a hairy chain on the ground. The worms were going, well, who knows where – but they were all going together, joined in a single line head to tail. It’s really an unusual sight.

Processionary worms

Processionary worms

Chloe couldn’t wait to get out of the vehicle to take a closer look at these interesting creatures. Before long, we were all on our hands and knees looking at the long line of worms and taking photos. Colly Mohlabine even had to pose next to the worms, so that Chloe could prove to her friends back home that this happened on a real safari. I think Chloe would definitely have chosen to see the caterpillars long before the Big Five, and I don’t think a line of caterpillars has ever been showered with so much attention.

These creatures are actually the caterpillars of the processionary moth, a very gregarious species that lives in community on food plants. Whenever they need to move to another tree, the worms join together head to tail and move in procession – like a thick silk thread. The procession can be metres long, and is thought to be a defence mechanism, because the line of worms looks more like a snake or stick. Predators such as birds are less keen to attack such an imposing line of caterpillars. So the principle of ‘safety in numbers’ works for caterpillars too, not only herds of wildlife.

Written and photographed by Collen Mokoena, Kapama Karula ranger
Edited by Keri Harvey

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