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The glossy mob

Edited by Keri Harvey

Snakes are always a hot topic of discussion among guests and visitors to Kapama. They mostly want to know what types of snakes inhabit southern Africa, which are venomous, and whether they occur around the lodges. As guides, we love seeing these beautiful creatures – either from afar or up close – and snake sightings always make for riveting conversation around the fire at night.

I recently hosted a group of guests with diverse and refreshing interests. During their stay, we ticked their bucket lists of animals and birds, but one determined gentleman still wanted to see a snake.

That’s not a usual request, but it had my full attention. So, whenever we saw snake tracks on our games drives, we stopped to see the direction and type of snake that had passed. Yet, every game drive ended without any snake sightings. I could see how passionate this gentleman was about snakes – and even more so when I told him they were more difficult to find than leopards.

On our last morning drive, as we slowly returned to the lodge, I turned up a less-travelled road where a leopard had been spotted just days earlier. Feeling hopeful, we drove slowly past the dam, checking thoroughly. There was nothing – not even a paw print. So, we turned to head homewards.

Starling mobbing a black mamba

Starling mobbing a black mamba

Then tracker Alfie Mashale spotted a snake track. He looked at me with excitement, but said nothing. We knew it was close by, from the shrill alarm calls of some Cape glossy starlings (Lamprotornis nitens) behind us. As I reversed the vehicle, we spotted the birds mobbing something in an old leadwood tree – something long, dark grey and very shiny in the morning sun.

We immediately knew what was happening – the starlings were defending their brood from a predator. A black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) had climbed the dead tree and found the baby starlings nestled in a hole. The birds were simply reacting instinctively by mobbing the snake. (Mobbing in animals is anti-predator behaviour, occurring when individuals of a certain species work together to attack or harass a predator, usually to protect their young.)

The guests were awestruck by the hysterical birds mobbing the snake. The spectacle was just amazing to observe and photograph. We watched the natural drama unfold for about 20 minutes, before the snake disappeared into the hole and stayed there. The adult starlings calmed down after that. It seemed they realised they had lost their chicks to the mamba. It was incredible to witness, but certainly a little sad at the same time.

In reality, this is the way nature operates, and the guests all agreed it was an awesome way to conclude their safari experience. The gentleman interested in snakes was quiet all the way back to the lodge. Once there, he said it had been one of the most fantastic experiences of his lifetime. Not only did he see a deadly black mamba, but he witnessed an unusual mobbing scene, too. In the bush, we need to expect the unexpected – that we know for sure.

Written by Angie Seeber, ranger at River Lodge

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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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