It was precisely to the day the middle of winter, and it was freezing. I set out with my trusted tracker, David, for a morning game drive with guests from Germany, Italy and South Africa. Though there were diverse cultures and languages aboard the vehicle, everyone wanted to see “something special”. As a field guide or ranger for five years, I understand that “something special” is interpreted differently by each person.
Quickly, there was consensus that finding the big male lion, Madoda Ngala, would certainly qualify as something special – he is the King of Kapama and extremely elusive. So with great enthusiasm, we set off to where his tracks were last seen. Two hours later, we were still searching, and I was growing doubtful we’d find Madoda Ngala that day.
“Let’s stop for hot chocolate and biscuits,” I said to my guests – but before they could answer, I heard the distinct and frantic alarm call of an impala. It wasn’t far away either. We decided to postpone drinking hot chocolate and investigate the impala distress calls. A pride of five sub-adult lions was the reason for the impala’s alarm – which is a great sighting, but not the “something special” we were after.
Then I noticed that the lions were not the least bit interested in the noisy impala. Their inexperienced hunting skills and the alert impala meant that a kill was unlikely, anyway. Yet the lions were very distracted by something else. One puzzled-looking lion was playing with a ball in the grass. It wasn’t a ball at all, though, but a rolled-up pangolin – one of the rarest and most elusive animals of the African bush.
It’s scientific name is Manis Temminckii, and the small mammal’s body is completely covered by interlocking scales made of keratin. These scales also easily make up 20% of the animal’s weight. This rare and magnificent animal is very seldom seen, and then certainly not in the grasp of a lion.
I can only guess that the pangolin must have come across the lions, and as soon as it detected the possible threat, it rolled itself into a perfectly formed ball, protected by its armour-like scales. This armour is formidable and impenetrable to the lions’ claws and teeth. More than anything, the young lions were intrigued by this bizarre ball of scales, and seemed to be trying to figure out what exactly this animal was.
It wasn’t long before the young lions lost interest and wandered off into the bush, dumbfounded by their morning encounter. The small pangolin had outwitted a pride of five lions, and when they left, it quickly unrolled itself and sauntered off into the nearby bush with the characteristic sound of its scales rubbing against each other, like armour plating in motion.
Neither David nor I could believe this incredible sighting. I quickly explained to my guests that this rare sighting of a pangolin was without doubt the “something special” of the day – but seeing lions play with a pangolin is a sighting so unique it defies description. Most game rangers, after a lifetime in the bush, will never be privileged to see such an encounter between two species. Many will never even see a pangolin. Then it was time for hot chocolate and biscuits – and plenty of excited conversation.
Written by Jeffrey Mmadi – Buffalo Camp Ranger
Edited by Keri Harvey
I have been a game ranger for six years, and every morning when my alarm clock wakes me I wonder what sightings and surprises the African bush holds for the day. It’s mid-winter, and cold as I gingerly get out of bed to prepare for the morning game drive. I can see the setting moon through a gap between the curtains, and the stars wink at me from a distance. Outside is still dark and completely silent.
As we depart from Buffalo Camp for the morning game drive, I look back to check on my guests sitting on the vehicle. It looks like everyone is wearing every single item of clothing they brought along on safari. They’re bundled up with clothes layered like onions – beanies, scarves, gloves and double-lined jackets. The unspoken belief is that if we persevere through the cold of this winter morning, the African bush must reward us. “Let’s go,” they say enthusiastically, from beneath the blankets, which are the final layer for warmth.
It’s not long before my trustworthy tracker, Foster, points out clearly visible lion tracks in the road ahead. There’s not one, not two, but many tracks, and they are all fresh. It seems this pride, like us, was up early and on a mission of their own – despite the cold winter morning temperatures.
Before long, we are rewarded and find a pride of eight lions. They are alert, curious and also cold. Some move cautiously closer to the vehicle, and in their amber eyes I can see they are intrigued by the vehicle’s engine radiating welcome warmth. One lioness in particular seems laser-focused on the vehicle but, an instant later, her whole demeanour changes. Eyes, ears and body are suddenly on high alert. I see a similar and instant change in every single member of this pride, and then I also notice a herd of wildebeest not far away. They seem edgy and unsure of their next move; surely they must sense danger nearby.
I soon realise that the vehicle is serving as support in the lions’ plan to ambush the wildebeest, and before long they explode from behind the vehicle in different directions towards the herd. The sudden burst of energy, the swift and agile movement of their limbs and the seemingly choreographed hunt is almost too fast to follow. The guests gasp as the lions charge towards the panicked wildebeest herd.
And then… success for the lions. A wildebeest falls and the lions have breakfast, as the African bushveld starts waking up around us. Our reward, in turn, is an outstanding sighting and an unforgettable experience for each person on the vehicle.
The moral of the story: sometimes your warm and cosy bed is not the best place to be on a cold winter morning in the African bush. Just a little discomfort and cold can yield enormous reward, like witnessing a lion kill.
Written by Joe van Rensburg – Ranger, Buffalo Camp
Edited by Keri Harvey
When we left the lodge for the morning game drive on 2 June 2014, elephants were top of mind. We wanted to see the giants of the African bush, and just five minutes into the drive my hopes were raised. I saw a disc-shaped print in the sand. It was the size of a dinner plate. Right next to it lay a pile of dung, still steaming it was so fresh.
I immediately stopped the vehicle, got out and pointed out the footprint to the guests on the game drive. “Do you know what this is?” I asked them with a knowing smile. Answers of “giraffe” and “rhino” came firing back at me, and then finally one guest said it: “Elephants.”
“Yes, yes,” I answered animatedly, “and the dung is so fresh, we can definitely follow the tracks.” A soft cheer came from the back of the vehicle as guests couldn’t contain their excitement. They knew an adventure had just begun.
I thought it wouldn’t take long before we found the elephant herd, but I was very wrong. The elephants were on a mission of their own, searching for another elephant herd in the area. Two-and-a-half hours later and a strong cup of coffee to modify my search plan, and then suddenly we heard a trumpet from deep in the bush.
“What was that?” a guest asked curiously. Tracker Cazwell Mmola answered back: “Elephants. And they are close.” We quickly packed up the coffee picnic and rushed in their direction. An open patch appeared in the bush and there they were: a herd of majestic African elephants, quietly drinking water from a small mud pan. Some guests sighed in relief, others in wonder, and cameras clicked in the excitement of the sighting. We stayed for 20 minutes, soaking up the experience and then left the herd to continue their daily routine.
The American gentleman sitting behind me, tapped me gently on my shoulder and said: “This truly was a morning dedicated to following Africa’s giants.”
Written by Rassie Jacobs, ranger: Kapama River Lodge
Edited by Keri Harvey
We knew they were around. For a week or two, we’d seen their tracks on a couple of occasions, but at such a young age their mothers are extremely protective and like to keep their bouncing newborns secreted away in areas of cover. Rhino calves are something very special to see in the wild.
Now, between two and three months old, the little rhino calves are gaining confidence and becoming inquisitive – much like any other toddler. While still keeping a very close eye on their youngsters, their moms, too, are starting to let them explore more of their new world.
On game drives, we rangers always keep a good distance from young calves and any newborns in the bush. This allows them to comfortably habituate with our presence, rather than feel harassed or threatened by humans on a vehicle being near them.
With silent awe, I – along with my guests – watch as the curious young rhinos start edging away from the safety of their mother, and slowly move closer to our game viewing vehicle. Then suddenly the young ones realise how far they have ventured from mom, quickly bounce around and bound back to her for protection. It is a memorable sighting for everyone.
With the continued threat to South Africa’s rhino populations, I always try to impress upon my guests how fortunate we are to have any rhino sightings at all, and that I often fear that my future children may not be able to enjoy this privileged experience in the wild – unless some drastic changes occur.
In 2013, South Africa lost 1 004 rhinos through poaching, and by the end of May 2014 over 400 rhinos have already been killed for their horns. In the face of such alarming tragedy, it is particularly special to witness the miracle of two hopeful little rhinos curiously exploring and navigating the challenges of the first phase of their lives. With their continued drive to survive, and with the ongoing protection of their vigilant mothers and the countless people who fight on their behalf, maybe there is still some hope for the future of these prehistoric animals. Rhinos have walked the earth for over 60 million years.
Story by Kevin Samuels, ranger: Kapama River Lodge
Edited by Keri Harvey