Not just a cackling scavenger…
Though many think of them only as pilfering scavengers that feed off the efforts of other predators’ hard work, spotted hyenas are so much more interesting. They’re hunters as well as scavengers, and like most animals they’re fiercely protective of their young.
Guests are usually quite happy to see them, even if not so happy to smell them, but it’s unusual for them to ask to see hyenas specifically. So when guests, Mary and Mark Degut, climbed on my vehicle for their evening drive and told me to find them some hyenas, I took them straight to an active den.
We arrived in time to see a couple of pups out and about, but it was the three adults running around the den in their loping manner that immediately caught our attention. They were agitated, clearly uphappy as they loped back and forth marking their territory, so I kept my eyes open for other predators.
Before I could even say the word ‘leopard’, let alone take a picture, the culprit had zipped across the road and bolted into dense bush with three adult hyenas hot on her heels. We watched until they were out of sight and listened for sounds of a fight that never came.
Leopards, like hyenas, are well-known opportunists. Had those pups been playing alone and unprotected outside their den, that leopardess wouldn’t have hesitated before snatching one up for dinner. To be fair, if those hyenas had come across a leopard cub, they’d have done the same. This time, however, everyone made it out alive, and we breathed a sigh of relief. Naturally, it took a few moments before what we’d just seen sunk in, and another few before any of us could complete a full sentence!
It was one of those quick, unexpected sightings that only last for a second or two, but stay with you for a long time. And it was a firm reminder that for predators, including the ungainly hyena, survival is hardly a picnic.
Written by: Francois van Rhyn
Kapama Southern Camp
A giraffe affair
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
The roars that shouldn’t scare you
The 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
But lions don’t climb trees!
“Fresh lioness tracks” said Colly, my tracker, pointing at the perfect print in the dirt.
Our 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.
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