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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Eternal Enemies

We have all seen the breath taking events that unfold on TV when we watch channels like Discovery and National Geographic.  Inevitably we come into the industry of Guiding and every day you wake hoping to see something similar to show your guests.  It takes the film makers that produce these documentaries years and years of time and money to eventually get that perfect shot or perfect opportunity for some awesome footage.

My four guests Bob, Janet, Georgine and Kevin spent three nights with us, we had our share of big 5 sightings and we were having a blast.  On our second night out we decided to go and have a look around the Hyena den at Rooibok Dam to see if they were out.  We sat there for about fifteen minutes and two cubs popped their heads out of the den. The adults were not visible but we could hear them vocalising in the bushes not too far away from the den. I radioed the lodge to let them know we were going to be late for dinner as we had quite some activity around the den when the parents eventually emerged from the thickets. Spending twenty to twenty five minutes with the whole clan interacting and vocalizing, going through different greeting rituals and all sorts of behaviour you don’t get to see very often, had my guests stunned.

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We eventually left the den at about 7:45 PM which is quite late considering we were all the way in the North Western corner of the property.  Driving over the Dam wall still talking to my guests about how lucky we were seeing all that interaction, my tracker Raezert  Mthambini indicated to me that he can see eyes in the road up ahead.  Four sub-adult male lions ranging from 1 year to 2 and a half years old came walking down the road straight toward the Hyena den. The oldest one of the four was on a mission and nothing was going to stand in his way of getting to those Hyenas.

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People spend their lives trying to get their timing right to see what was about to unfold right in front of our eyes, on the dam wall of Rooibok Dam stood 11 adult Hyenas and the four Lions were walking straight toward them. The oldest Lion was intent on showing these Hyenas who was boss. He started scraping himself on a thorn bush trying to get his scent in the air and also urinated on the ground scraping his back paws through the urine to as if to tell the Hyenas that this area belongs to him. The Hyenas had their tails in the air and the most amazing sounds were coming from them again trying to intimidate the Lions. We were right in the midst of a full on standoff.  I told my guests that our dinner will be very late, as we were not going anywhere.  Three of the lions went down to the water to have a drink but the oldest of the four had his sights on the Hyenas and was adamant on teaching them a lesson.

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After their drink the other three realised it was getting serious as the other male started growling and showing a lot of aggression toward the Hyenas.  Everything went silent at exactly the right time, the oldest male Lion charged toward the Hyenas and they all scattered in different directions over the dam wall. We approached the dam wall slowly and stood on it waiting patiently to see what happened next. The Lion came back onto the dam wall and continued his territorial “marking” giving soft growls in between.  It took the Hyenas about  5 minutes to regain courage and step back out onto the dam wall and this time the Lion wasted no time and gave another full on charge scattering  the Hyenas again.

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This happened about four times and we lost sight of the Lions and Hyenas. My guests asked me if that was that and I told them that I thought it was the end, and all of a sudden a loud growl came from the thick bush right next to the vehicle, the Hyenas had got hold of the youngest of the four lions, words cannot describe the noise that either the lion or the hyenas were making but to say the least it was very unpleasant.

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Hearing this noise obviously the older males responded and a big fight occurred in the bush next to us, unfortunately it was too thick and dark so all we could do was sit and listen, not that we were complaining. Everything went silent again and all four Lions came out of the thickets, one was a bit injured but it didn’t look serious, they all lay on the dam wall looking back at us and putting the battle to an end with the Lions winning this round.

In my life I have never thought I would have the privilege to see a sighting like that unfold in front of my eyes… I am BLESSED to say the least!

Jacques Jordaan
Head Ranger Southern Camp

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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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Giraffe stand-off

Hyena in the grass

Hyena in the grass

On an early morning game drive out of River Lodge, Lot Makhubele spotted the clear tracks of a male leopard imprinted in the sand road. He slowly climbed down from his high seat at the front of the vehicle and started explaining to guests the difference between male and female leopard tracks. The male leopard’s tracks are bigger and the shape is slightly rounder than that of the female. Male leopards are always solitary so there’s only one set of tracks, whereas there are often cub tracks close to the tracks of female leopards. Guests were amazed that Lot Makhubele could tell the sex of an animal just from its tracks, but he really can.

For about a half an hour we followed the leopard tracks, until he turned off the road and into the bush. It was inaccessible to us in a vehicle, and I was still explaining this to guests when Lot Makhubele spotted a female giraffe staring down at the ground. It may not sound significant at first, but giraffes usually stare fixedly at one place when they have seen a predator. So we were excited at the possibilities.

As we drew nearer, we found a clan of about 10 hyenas lying in the grass staring back at the female giraffe. Then, to our amazement, we saw a baby giraffe lying dead at its mother’s feet. It appeared the young giraffe had died during the previous night, and its mother was protecting its body from the encroaching hyenas. As the hyenas moved closer, the giraffe fended them off. They hung back for a few minutes and began slowing approaching again. And so it went on for at least an hour. The giraffe stood her ground and we eventually left the sighting.

On returning an hour later, the giraffe was still guarding the body of her baby from the hungry hyenas, and it’s possible she had stood there doing this all night before. However, when we returned the next morning, there was no sign of the event. Not a single bone of the baby giraffe or a shred of evidence remained.

Hyenas have a bad reputation, but are essential in the ecosystem and keep the bush clear of carrion. They are unusual and interesting animals, so it’s no surprise there are also plenty of myths and superstitions about them. It was previously thought that hyenas are hermaphrodites, but it turns out they are not. What is true is that female hyenas are heavier than males, more aggressive and socially dominant. Two pups are usually born to a litter and they are born ready for action – with their eyes open and canine teeth developed. So no time is wasted of keeping the bush clear of carcasses.

Story by Clement Kgatla – Ranger at River Lodge
Edited by Keri Harvey

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