Big cat fight

Some cats just don’t like to share

In Kapama, we’re lucky to have a couple of relaxed resident leopards that carry on about their business as if we’re not there. One such leopard, a female, was recently spotted enjoying a hard-earned impala kill with her two cubs, high up in a tree and out of reach from the hyenas lurking below. Leopards with kills often stick around for a few days, so the morning after this incredible sighting we decided to head off early with the hope of spending more time with them.

Bleary-eyed, wrapped up in all manner of jackets, blankets, scarves, and gloves, and clutching hot water bottles to fend off the crisp winter chill, we set off into the pre-dawn darkness. As we approached the huge jackal-berry tree where the previous night’s show had taken place, we scanned, but didn’t immediately spot her. If it weren’t for Freeman, my tracker, and his well-honed leopard spotting skills, we might have missed her.

“Over there.” He pointed, casually. We turned as she melted into view against a backdrop of exposed granite rock. We approached slowly, trying to get the morning sun behind us to maximize the golden light that makes wildlife photography so rewarding at this time of the year.

But something was clearly not right.  She was moving away from the jackal-berry tree, but kept glancing back, and as she got closer we noticed that she was injured. The small laceration on her stomach area didn’t seem to slow her down, but she wasn’t as fit and healthy when we had left her the previous night. Why was she injured? Where were the cubs? And why did she keep looking behind her?

All three questions were answered with the sudden appearance of a very large male leopard with bloodstained jaws. He had obviously stolen her kill and she was injured in her attempt to protect her cubs.

As the leopardess moved away, calling softly for her unseen cubs, he stalked out from behind the jackal-berry tree, scuffing the ground with his hind legs and spraying to mark his territory. As if she’d had enough of him, she bolted past the vehicle and disappeared down into a dry riverbed. Not 15 meters away from our vehicle, the large male growled angrily as he watched her leave.

Over a warming coffee stop in a patch of sunlight, we mulled over what we had just seen and tried not to worry about the missing cubs. Sometimes, the most incredible and memorable sightings are those tinged with sadness, but we all agreed that it’s generally best to trust nature’s way and to be thankful for the opportunity to witness it.

Written by: Garry Bruce
Kapama Southern Camp

Note: The cubs are still alive and well and are well on their way to being as relaxed as their mother.

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The Dusty Dance

A giraffe affair

Giraffes "necking"

Giraffes “necking”

We often spend our guests’ final drives checking off any animals on their lists we haven’t yet found. One of my favourite animals to watch and photograph is giraffe, and recently we’ve come across a few male giraffes in the behavioural act of ‘necking’, a kind of dance between two giraffes flinging their necks at one another. Sometimes it’s between two young giraffes play-fighting like brothers, but sometimes it’s the real thing.

Male giraffes use their necks and heads as weapons to establish dominance, and males that win necking bouts impress more lady-giraffes and have greater reproductive success. There are two types of necking: low intensity necking, where combatants rub and lean against each other and the male that can hold itself more erect wins the bout, and high intensity necking, where combatants spread their front legs and swing their necks at each other, attempting to land painful blows with their short, stubby horns or ‘ossicones’. The power of a blow depends on the weight of the skull and the arc of the swing, so contestants need to dodge blows and counter with well-aimed swings of their own.

A necking duel can last more than half an hour, depending on how well matched the combatants are, and although most fights don’t lead to serious injury, there have been records of broken jaws, broken necks, and even deaths. After a duel, it is common for two male giraffes to caress and court each other, with the victor even mounting the loser in a show of dominance, proving he is the more ‘manly’ of the two.

It’s easy to sit and watch them for long periods, forgetting the time and violence of their unique dance. Their necks swinging and their long legs moving through the dust to a rhythm only they can hear is absolutely mesmerizing, and when their song is finished, they move off as if they hardly noticed us or the flashing of our cameras.

Giraffes are very iconic animals in Africa; extraordinary creatures that really make guests feel part of our true African wilderness. When you visit us the next time, be sure to ask your ranger to stop and appreciate them for the incredible animals that they are, and if you’re lucky enough to see them “necking”, watch them dance!

Written by: Angie Seeber
Kapama River Lodge

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Rut season

The roars that shouldn’t scare you

Impala fightingThe impala is the most abundant species of antelope seen in the Lowveld, and many things that aren’t rare or unusual, even first-time visitors barely notice them after their first drive. They’re an attractive antelope – elegant with a pretty face, shaded caramel colouring and a striking black ‘M’ on their rumps – but they are by far the most un-photographed animal in the region. In fact, the only time they get much attention at all is during the rut season.

From the end of April and throughout May, impala rams become very territorial, barely eating between mating, fighting and marking. Their hormones go into overload, their necks thicken, their coats darken, and they exude a stong musky smell, but it’s the sounds they make that freeze the uninitiated in their tracks. Many people don’t realise it, but most antelope make sounds. Their alarm calls range from dog-like barks to shrill whistles, and in the case of impala, loud sneeze-like snorts, and for two months of every year, these quiet and unassuming antelope emit a noise much like a donkey bray and lion roar combined with a sneezing fit. It’s like something straight out of Jurassic Park, and no one who hears it for the first time believes that such a small, pretty antelope has the ability to produce such a sound.

I always enjoy the guest reaction when they hear an impala rut for the first time. ‘Is it a lion?’ is usually the first question, or sometimes ‘Is something being killed?’. Some want to run in the opposite direction, especially when they hear it at night, and nobody believes an impala is responsible for the commotion until they’ve seen it with their own eyes.

Written by: Christo de Jager
Kapama Karula

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The leopard that wasn’t

But lions don’t climb trees!

“Fresh lioness tracks” said Colly, my tracker, pointing at the perfect print in the dirt.

Lioness playing in a treeOur guests leaned in, listening intently, as he explained how he could tell. “See the size? It’s too big to be a leopard, and too small to be a male lion. And it’s on top of my vehicle tracks, so that means she walked here after our last drive. She must be close.” I smiled at their nodding faces. “Shall we go find her?”

The answer was a unanimous yes, of course, so we set off deeper into the African bushveld in the footsteps of our elusive cat. Before long, the telltale warning ‘sneezes’ of impala and ‘kek-kek-kek’ of vervet monkeys alerted us to the whereabouts of a predator up ahead, so we abandoned the trail and rushed straight for the ruckus.

“There! At the top of that tree!” came a call from the back of the vehicle.

‘Leopard’ was my first thought – after all, lions aren’t often found in the treetops – but then I considered the likelihood of finding a leopard in the exact same neck of the woods as the lioness we’d tracked there. It’s not unheard of, but you’ve got to have a lot of luck on your side, so I stopped the vehicle for a closer look.

“They’re lions!”

Exclamations along the lines of ‘no way’ resounded in chorus from my guests, and if I hadn’t seen it for myself I might have joined in. It’s not that lions can’t climb trees, it’s just that they usually don’t. Unlike leopards, which are like acrobats – lithe and comparatively small – lions are all heavy muscle, like bouncers at a night club, which makes it very difficult for them to haul themselves up and balance. Also, smaller branches can’t hold them, so the top of the canopy is off limits.

Once we’d pulled up closer there was no disputing it though – three big lionesses, playing in a tree. Not only had we found the lioness we were tracking, but we’d caught her doing something very unusual.

Knowing how special it feels to track and find an big cat for the first time, I turned in my seat and wasn’t surprised to find a truck-full of grinning faces and quiet applause.

Written by: Christo De Jager

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Curious creatures

…that make the trees weep.

Written by: Joe Van Rensburg – Buffalo Camp

Spittle bug (Ptyelus grossus)

Spittle bug (Ptyelus grossus)

Chances are, if you’ve spent any time under certain trees on safari, you’ve felt a fine drizzle on your skin. It’s not the sort of thing that demands immediate attention, but the next time it happens you may want to take a closer look. Somebody’s spitting on you!

The spittle bug (Ptyelus grossus), also known as the rain-tree bug, occurs in bushveld areas right across the southern half of the African continent. They are gregarious in their larval and nymph stages, and at certain times of the year you might find hundreds congregating on a variety of trees and shrubs. They huddle closely together, using their drill-like mouthparts to feed on the cambium layer of their host plant and excreting a protective nest from a combination of the plant’s sap and oxygen. This foamy, processed sap insulates the nest against excessive heat and cold, prevents the larvae from drying out, and resembles spit, hence the name ‘spittle bug’. It accumulates and falls constantly, causing the ‘rain-tree’ phenomenon.

The African wattle and the apple leaf trees are favoured hosts, but spittle bugs may also be found feeding on Acacia trees and many varieties of shrub. So next time you’re under a tree in the bush and you feel a little rain on your skin, it’s more than likely a nest of spittle bugs doing what they do best. But don’t take it personally, they spit on everyone!

Written by: Joe Van Rensburg – Buffalo Camp

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A Bushbaby’s Worst Nightmare

Living and working in the heart of the African bush is a privilege shared by only a few. It’s been my privilege for 14 years – 9 as a field guide before becoming Southern Camp’s lodge manager – long enough to occasionally feel as though I’ve seen it all. There are times, however, when Mother Nature stops me in my tracks with something so amazing that I can’t help but wonder, in all my years of living out here, how much of the magic happening all around me I’ve actually seen.

One of these halting moments happened just two evenings ago, right on my doorstep.

Very distraught lesser bushbaby

Very distraught lesser bushbaby

I was spending the evening relaxing at home when an annoying squeaking sound had me frowning up at the ceiling fan spinning over my head.  To my relief, I realised that the noise was actually coming from the big old knob thorn tree just outside my front door. Naturally, I grabbed a flashlight and my camera and went to investigate.

Shining up into the branches, I was amazed to see that the odd screeching sound was coming from a very distraught lesser bushbaby. These little, wide-eyed primates are long-time residents in the trees around camp, so it surprised me to hear this particular, unrecognisable distress call.  I decided to hang around and keep searching for whatever was causing him so much discomfort.

African rock python

African rock python

It took me a while to find the troublemaker, but when I did I immediately understood the bushbaby’s distress. High up in the tree lay an African rock python, waiting for the bushbaby to move into striking range. I couldn’t see its head, but its distinctive markings made it easy to identify. It’s not at all strange to find pythons in trees, and younger ones often venture up in search of nesting birds and bats – and bushbabies, apparently. Although clearly a juvenile, at almost 2 metres long it was no small threat to the tiny bushbaby. I had never witnessed a lesser bushbaby interacting with a snake before, but now I know that strange, whining distress call that brings to mind dodgy ceiling fans translates to a very particular fear.

The lesser bushbaby kept his eyes on the python

The lesser bushbaby kept his eyes on the python

In the manner of so many prey animals, the lesser bushbaby kept his eyes on the python while shouting out his agitated warning into the night. For almost an hour, I stood outside in the dark watching him leap back and forth between the branches, just out of reach of a killing strike, wondering if it could be a clever tactic to loosen the snake’s grip on the branches so it might fall.

Another 30 minutes or so later, the bushbaby gave up and moved off somewhere safer, and not long after, the hungry python wound its way further up into the tree in search of an easier dinner.

The evening’s entertainment over, I went back inside and thanked my lucky stars for the wonders of the African bush that, even after 14 years, still manage to astound me.

And for the fact that I’m not a bushbaby.

Johan Esterhuizen,
Lodge Manager – Southern Camp

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