Right time, right place

Just when you think it couldn’t get any better!

Written by: Liesa Becker

“So, Richard and I might have a little surprise for you”, I told my guests as Richard, my tracker, and I shared a hopeful smile.

It was the last day of March and we had spent our afternoon drive quietly watching impala, zebra and giraffe and discussing interesting trees and their uses. We could have driven to a more productive area, but as we were setting off I heard that Kapama’s latest additions had been spotted: brand new lion cubs! Knowing what a treat this sighting would be for our guests (and ourselves!), Richard and I had opted for the chance to spend some time with them, even if it meant a quiet start to our drive.

As we approached the western side of Mongoose Dam we spotted two lions, part of the Guernsey pride, then as we got closer, two tiny young cubs emerged from behind a termite mound, chasing one another around under the watchful gaze of their mother and sub-adult big brother.

The dynamics of a lion pride are fascinating and the interaction between its members is always entertaining, especially when there are little ones. These playful, three-month-old cubs were more boistrous than ever; endless bundles of energy stalking and pouncing on one another and their unbelievably tolerant big brother. Despite the difference in age and size, he indulged their antics, and even seemed to enjoy the attention. Their mother lay off to one side watching over her offspring and emanating self-satisfaction.

It wasn’t necessary to explain to our guests how fortunate we were and how special this sighting was. It certainly made my personal list of top lion sightings, and as we left to allow other guests a chance to share the experience, I knew that even if we saw nothing all the way home, this would be a most memorable drive.

The smile that that thought generated had barely formed when one of my fellow rangers, Christo, called in a pangolin sighting close by. A pangolin, for those who haven’t heard of them, looks like what you might get if you crossed an armadillo with an anteater, and spotting one is at the top of every ‘bush junkie’s’ wish list. Pulling in beside Christo’s vehicle, I invited the guests to jump off to get a closer look at this shy and elusive creature.

The young pangolin curled up in the road took my breath away. I am pretty sure our guests thought I was close to crazy when they witnessed my reaction, but I couldn’t help but get emotional. Calmly and carefully, I picked it up and he slowly uncurled himself, giving us an oh-so-slight peak. Many who live and work in the bush all their lives have never seen one – I certainly hadn’t – but to hold one was a dream, one I’d never thought to have, come true.

We stopped for drinks a little later, accompanied by a stunner of a sunset, and the thought of how lucky I am to be able to have this amazing job, to see these incredible things and share them with others, brought me close to tears.

I always say and will always continue to say, a game drive ultimately boils down to being in the right place at the right time and for us, this had been a day full of both.

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Rare pangolin encounter

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.

Rare pangolin at Kapama

Rare pangolin at Kapama

“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.

The pangolin rolls into a ball in self-defence

The pangolin rolls into a ball in self-defence

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

 

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