It averages three to four metres in length, but can easily grow up to six metres long – that’s the southern African python. It’s massive – but even though it’s South Africa’s biggest snake, it’s very elusive and rarely seen in the wild.
Earlier this year, I was lucky to see an adult python on an evening game drive near Kapama Karula. This was definitely not a common sighting. Even more unusual to see was that the python had caught a young impala, which it was in the process of swallowing.
Contrary to popular belief, pythons don’t kill prey by crushing it, and in fact don’t break any bones in their prey when they constrict it. Pythons usually ambush their prey, latch onto them with powerful curved fangs and then wrap themselves around the prey, causing it to die of cardiac failure.
At the sighting, we watched as the python very slowly swallowed more of the impala. The antelope’s head and half of its body had already been swallowed, leaving only its hind quarters still visible. Guests on the game drive were left speechless, seeing such a huge snake eating an entire impala whole. Next morning when we returned to the same spot, the python was no longer there, and wasn’t seen again.
Two months later, however, during an early morning game drive in the same area, we discovered python remains – quite likely the same python. It’s a mystery how or why the python died, but hyena and leopard are on our list of suspects. This rarely seen snake provided us with two very unusual sightings: one in life and one in death.
Baby animals are always a hit, and watching their different stages of development is fascinating for everyone on a game drive. Cheetah cubs were a recent addition to the Kapama wildlife family, and there was great excitement and anticipation to watch the tiny cubs grow into adult cheetahs. As a ranger and field guide, I was lucky to see them for the first time when they were just a few weeks old.
Cheetah cubs have similar colouring to honey badgers, which serves to deter predators from attacking them – as honey badgers are one of the most vicious animals in the African bush. It was a first for me, to see an adult cheetah being followed tenaciously by what looked like four miniature honey badgers.
One night, the female cheetah took down a sizable impala ram, and it was quite a feast for her and her two remaining cubs. We saw them feeding on the carcass the following day too, but that night hyenas stole their kill and, in the process, killed another one of the cheetah cubs. Now there was just one cub remaining.
The next morning, when we found the cheetah with her only surviving cub, she was calling desperately for the others, and not paying much attention to her only living cub. This was not a good sign at all. While she was mourning her dead cubs, she was neglecting to feed or care for her remaining cub. By the following day, it too was dead.
As a first-time mother, this cheetah didn’t know how to handle so many cubs, and brought them out from cover and into the open too quickly. This is likely one of the reasons why they didn’t survive very long. The African bush brings many surprises, and there are not always happy endings. I am sure, though, that she has learnt important lessons through losing her entire litter of cubs, and this cheetah will be a much more successful mother next time round.
Written by Angie Seeber, River Lodge
Edited by Keri Harvey
It was precisely to the day the middle of winter, and it was freezing. I set out with my trusted tracker, David, for a morning game drive with guests from Germany, Italy and South Africa. Though there were diverse cultures and languages aboard the vehicle, everyone wanted to see “something special”. As a field guide or ranger for five years, I understand that “something special” is interpreted differently by each person.
Quickly, there was consensus that finding the big male lion, Madoda Ngala, would certainly qualify as something special – he is the King of Kapama and extremely elusive. So with great enthusiasm, we set off to where his tracks were last seen. Two hours later, we were still searching, and I was growing doubtful we’d find Madoda Ngala that day.
“Let’s stop for hot chocolate and biscuits,” I said to my guests – but before they could answer, I heard the distinct and frantic alarm call of an impala. It wasn’t far away either. We decided to postpone drinking hot chocolate and investigate the impala distress calls. A pride of five sub-adult lions was the reason for the impala’s alarm – which is a great sighting, but not the “something special” we were after.
Then I noticed that the lions were not the least bit interested in the noisy impala. Their inexperienced hunting skills and the alert impala meant that a kill was unlikely, anyway. Yet the lions were very distracted by something else. One puzzled-looking lion was playing with a ball in the grass. It wasn’t a ball at all, though, but a rolled-up pangolin – one of the rarest and most elusive animals of the African bush.
It’s scientific name is Manis Temminckii, and the small mammal’s body is completely covered by interlocking scales made of keratin. These scales also easily make up 20% of the animal’s weight. This rare and magnificent animal is very seldom seen, and then certainly not in the grasp of a lion.
I can only guess that the pangolin must have come across the lions, and as soon as it detected the possible threat, it rolled itself into a perfectly formed ball, protected by its armour-like scales. This armour is formidable and impenetrable to the lions’ claws and teeth. More than anything, the young lions were intrigued by this bizarre ball of scales, and seemed to be trying to figure out what exactly this animal was.
It wasn’t long before the young lions lost interest and wandered off into the bush, dumbfounded by their morning encounter. The small pangolin had outwitted a pride of five lions, and when they left, it quickly unrolled itself and sauntered off into the nearby bush with the characteristic sound of its scales rubbing against each other, like armour plating in motion.
Neither David nor I could believe this incredible sighting. I quickly explained to my guests that this rare sighting of a pangolin was without doubt the “something special” of the day – but seeing lions play with a pangolin is a sighting so unique it defies description. Most game rangers, after a lifetime in the bush, will never be privileged to see such an encounter between two species. Many will never even see a pangolin. Then it was time for hot chocolate and biscuits – and plenty of excited conversation.
Written by Jeffrey Mmadi – Buffalo Camp Ranger
Edited by Keri Harvey
I have been a game ranger for six years, and every morning when my alarm clock wakes me I wonder what sightings and surprises the African bush holds for the day. It’s mid-winter, and cold as I gingerly get out of bed to prepare for the morning game drive. I can see the setting moon through a gap between the curtains, and the stars wink at me from a distance. Outside is still dark and completely silent.
As we depart from Buffalo Camp for the morning game drive, I look back to check on my guests sitting on the vehicle. It looks like everyone is wearing every single item of clothing they brought along on safari. They’re bundled up with clothes layered like onions – beanies, scarves, gloves and double-lined jackets. The unspoken belief is that if we persevere through the cold of this winter morning, the African bush must reward us. “Let’s go,” they say enthusiastically, from beneath the blankets, which are the final layer for warmth.
It’s not long before my trustworthy tracker, Foster, points out clearly visible lion tracks in the road ahead. There’s not one, not two, but many tracks, and they are all fresh. It seems this pride, like us, was up early and on a mission of their own – despite the cold winter morning temperatures.
Before long, we are rewarded and find a pride of eight lions. They are alert, curious and also cold. Some move cautiously closer to the vehicle, and in their amber eyes I can see they are intrigued by the vehicle’s engine radiating welcome warmth. One lioness in particular seems laser-focused on the vehicle but, an instant later, her whole demeanour changes. Eyes, ears and body are suddenly on high alert. I see a similar and instant change in every single member of this pride, and then I also notice a herd of wildebeest not far away. They seem edgy and unsure of their next move; surely they must sense danger nearby.
I soon realise that the vehicle is serving as support in the lions’ plan to ambush the wildebeest, and before long they explode from behind the vehicle in different directions towards the herd. The sudden burst of energy, the swift and agile movement of their limbs and the seemingly choreographed hunt is almost too fast to follow. The guests gasp as the lions charge towards the panicked wildebeest herd.
And then… success for the lions. A wildebeest falls and the lions have breakfast, as the African bushveld starts waking up around us. Our reward, in turn, is an outstanding sighting and an unforgettable experience for each person on the vehicle.
The moral of the story: sometimes your warm and cosy bed is not the best place to be on a cold winter morning in the African bush. Just a little discomfort and cold can yield enormous reward, like witnessing a lion kill.
Written by Joe van Rensburg – Ranger, Buffalo Camp
Edited by Keri Harvey
When we left the lodge for the morning game drive on 2 June 2014, elephants were top of mind. We wanted to see the giants of the African bush, and just five minutes into the drive my hopes were raised. I saw a disc-shaped print in the sand. It was the size of a dinner plate. Right next to it lay a pile of dung, still steaming it was so fresh.
I immediately stopped the vehicle, got out and pointed out the footprint to the guests on the game drive. “Do you know what this is?” I asked them with a knowing smile. Answers of “giraffe” and “rhino” came firing back at me, and then finally one guest said it: “Elephants.”
“Yes, yes,” I answered animatedly, “and the dung is so fresh, we can definitely follow the tracks.” A soft cheer came from the back of the vehicle as guests couldn’t contain their excitement. They knew an adventure had just begun.
I thought it wouldn’t take long before we found the elephant herd, but I was very wrong. The elephants were on a mission of their own, searching for another elephant herd in the area. Two-and-a-half hours later and a strong cup of coffee to modify my search plan, and then suddenly we heard a trumpet from deep in the bush.
“What was that?” a guest asked curiously. Tracker Cazwell Mmola answered back: “Elephants. And they are close.” We quickly packed up the coffee picnic and rushed in their direction. An open patch appeared in the bush and there they were: a herd of majestic African elephants, quietly drinking water from a small mud pan. Some guests sighed in relief, others in wonder, and cameras clicked in the excitement of the sighting. We stayed for 20 minutes, soaking up the experience and then left the herd to continue their daily routine.
The American gentleman sitting behind me, tapped me gently on my shoulder and said: “This truly was a morning dedicated to following Africa’s giants.”
Written by Rassie Jacobs, ranger: Kapama River Lodge
Edited by Keri Harvey