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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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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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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Leopard and lion wage silent battle

With the Murphy family as my guests on the game drive vehicle, we were making our way to an area south of Southern Camp. I knew there were three lions in the area, but I clearly told the Murphys that while they may see lions, leopards were elusive and they were definitely not guaranteed of seeing them. My words weren’t cold when we spotted a female leopard lying down in the open, relaxed as could be.

Leopard retreating from lion threat

Leopard retreating from lion threat

Somehow, I instinctively knew she was not alone. Shortly after we spotted her, the leopard got up and crouched into a stalking position. But there was no prey in sight. What she was actually doing was cautiously making her way out of the area, as she was intruding on lion territory. She knew it and a resident lioness also knew the leopard was about – and wanted her out of her domain. If the leopard didn’t leave of her own accord, she’d be forcefully chased out.

When leopards feel threatened by another predator, they will either try and make their way out of the area or find a tree to climb for safety – out of the reach of lions. This exact scenario played out the very next morning on our game drive.

Not long into our drive, we came upon a male leopard up a tree. He was not there willingly either – the lions lying around the base of the tree had clearly chased him up as he was a threat to their territory. In the same way, leopards often drag their kills into trees to keep them out of the reach of opportunistic lions and hyenas. But today’s sighting was different, and there was no kill in sight. It was simply a territorial battle.

Sometimes, finding the unexpected is just plain luck – and, of course, being in the right place at the right time. Finding leopards is never easy because they are solitary and elusive; finding them two days in a row is something special; and witnessing a silent territorial tug of war is an extremely rare sighting indeed. Something unforgettable for us all.

Story: Adolph Niemand – ranger at Southern Camp
Photos: Lily Murphy
Edited by Keri Harvey

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