Written by Isaiah Banda
The seasons are starting to change once again here at Mabula, with early morning temperatures slowly starting to increase as Spring approaches and we can see the Dombeya rotundifolia in full bloom. This lovely tree gets its English common name, wild pear, from the masses of white blooms which appear before the leaves in early spring. It bears a resemblance to a true pear (Pyrus communis) in full flower. However, it is no relation of the pear tree, which is in the Rose family (Rosaceae) like the peach and apricot. A reminder to all of us here that summer is approaching.
I often like to start off a safari by taking a moment to sit in silence and watch the sunrise with my guests. Not only does this give us a chance to listen out for any alarm calls or territorial calls, but it gives us a special chance to welcome a beautiful new day and to appreciate the natural world around us.
August is the month that we celebrate two very special animals, World Elephant and Lion Day.
Mabula Lions for World Lion Day.
In celebration of World Lion Day on the 10th of August, I thought I would share interesting facts of lions with you, while bearing in mind that the lion dynamics, more so now than ever, are constantly changing and surprising us, but one thing for sure is our lions certainly provide some amazing sightings overall.
It’s during these bouts of playful behaviour that lions develop important skills and strengths that help them hone their hunting and protection abilities. Not to mention, it’s rather entertaining for both us and them as well!
Just like human children, life for a lion cub is all about play. So much more than just a fun way to pass the time, play also helps little lions develop and grow. By running, climbing, and wrestling, they practice their gross motor skills and develop physical strength and coordination. Play is also enriching for their minds. Mental stimulation triggered by playing with each other and a variety of toys, which could be anything from a stick to daddy’s mane, builds big, clever brains. Social play like chasing, roughhousing, and playing keep-away with each other is important for bonding. The pride that plays together, stays together!
Play also helps our budding predators practice and hone their stalking and hunting skills. When is the best time to catch our lion cubs at play? Your best bet is to catch the Mabula pride first thing in the morning or much later in the day, avoiding the heat of the day when the lions are most likely to just be “lion” around as they need to conserve all the energy for later when they hunt.
World Elephant Day.
August 12th is World Elephant Day – a day to not only celebrate these gentle giants of the bush but also a day dedicated to the preservation and protection of the world’s elephant population.
If elephants didn’t exist, you couldn’t invent one. They belong to a small group of living things so unlikely they challenge credulity and common sense.
The moment you catch a glimpse of these grey giants walking on the road towards you – an instant love affair with these creatures will begin. With the engine of safari vehicle switched off and in gleeful silence, a herd of elephant slowly make their way past you.
Low rumbles reverberate around you as they communicate with each other, and you finally get a chance to notice their rough textured skin and smooth magnificent tusks.
And then suddenly, they are gone, nowhere to be seen, leaving you with a feeling of absolute peace. And now you wait in anticipation for your next elephant encounter, as you realise that with every moment spent with them a deeper connection grows.
There is nothing that reduces us to our proper dimensions more rapidly and completely than spending long periods of time in the company of elephants. This is an animal that fills the sky, that can block out the sun and that allows you to feel small. When they contact rumble each other you can feel the tremors beneath the soles of your bare feet. When they flap their ears, it reminds you of the sound of thunderstorms slowly building momentum in the distance, on a hot Mabula day.
This Elephant Day we pay tribute to these magnificent beings. May we always know the privilege it is to be in the company of elephants. Here at Mabula we appreciate every moment we spend while watching them on our safari vehicles with our guests.
Update on Wild Dogs on the reserve.
This month we have been very privileged to see these beautiful creatures. It looks like they have chosen western Mokaikai as their preferred area to den. They have now been in the area for two months, moving out for hunting and then returning. Fingers crossed that there will be pups soon. This month they have produced beautiful sightings especially on the later afternoon safaris.
Since they have now settled on the reserve and they seem to be enjoying themselves, I thought it would be appropriate to share with you a little more about these fascinating creatures. Especially now that there might be pups on the reserve.
Wild dogs are social animals and live in what is known as a pack. Packs can vary from a few dogs to larger groups of just under 30 dogs. Wild dogs are cooperative breeders which means only one pair, the alpha pair, does the breeding. On the rare occasion that the beta female does have a litter of pups, these are either killed or stolen by the alpha female. The beta pair moves into the alpha position in the hierarchy if anything happens to either of the top dogs.
The denning of wild dogs takes place towards the end of the rutting season of impala, usually in May. There are large numbers of male impala that are worn out from the intense competition of the rut and these weakened animals become an easy target for the dogs. Den sites are often abandoned aardvark holes in termite mounds and these sites offer protection for the growing pups. Litter size varies with 8 pups being the average, but litters of up to 21 pups have been recorded.
An adult dog is left to guard the den while the rest of the pack goes out to hunt. Once a hunt has been successful, the dogs involved will quickly consume their kill, only taking around 15 minutes to finish off an impala (depending on pack size). The meat will then be safely transported in the bellies of the dogs back to the den.
On arrival at the den the pups will beg the adults, often licking their faces to encourage regurgitation. Whole chunks of meat will be brought up and eaten by the youngsters, as well as the den guardian who had remained behind. This process will take place until the pups are roughly 2½ months old. At this stage they will start to move with the pack. During hunts the youngsters will struggle to keep up with the adults and sometimes become separated – but they will then use scent and hearing to relocate the rest of the pack.
If this fails the pack will come to find the youngsters, or pack members that get split up during the hunt will take them back to the kill. The cooperation of these dogs is crucial to their survival and allows them to take down bigger prey than they would manage if they were solitary hunters. When the pups are young the dogs will stay put in a relatively small area, hunting, eating and then running back to the den to regurgitate food for the pups and the den guardian. The den needs to be moved every so often to get relief from the parasite loads that build up during their stay.
Update on Mabula Buffaloes.
African buffalo may be active throughout the day and night depending on weather conditions. They are social and live in herds which consist of related females, and their offspring, in an almost linear dominance hierarchy.
The basic herd is surrounded by sub-herds of subordinate males, high-ranking males and females, and old animals. The young males keep their distance from the dominant bull, which is recognizable by the thickness of his horns. During the dry season, males leave the herd and form, bachelor groups. Two types of bachelor herds occur: ones made of males aged 4 to 7 years and those of males 12 years or older, which we get sightings of them all over the reserve, especially around Modjadji area during the winter months.
During the wet season, the younger bulls re-join a herd to mate with the females. They stay with them throughout the season to protect the calves. Males have a linear dominance hierarchy based on age and size. Since a buffalo is safer when a herd is larger, dominant bulls may rely on subordinate bulls and sometimes tolerate their copulation.
When chased by predators, a herd sticks close together and makes it hard for the predators to pick off one member. Calves are gathered in the middle. A buffalo herd responds to the distress call of a captured member and tries to rescue it.
African buffalo make various vocalizations. They emit low-pitched calls to signal the herd to move. To signal to the herd to change direction, leaders emit “gritty”, “creaking gate” sounds. When moving to drinking places, some individuals make long “maaa” calls up to 20 times a minute.
When being aggressive, they make explosive grunts that may last long or turn into a rumbling growl. Cows produce croaking calls when looking for their calves. Calves make a similar call of a higher pitch when in distress. When threatened by predators, they make drawn-out “waaaa” calls. When grazing, they make various sounds, such as brief bellows, grunts, honks, and croaks.
I always make jokes when with my guests and refer to buffaloes as bank managers. If you look at the way they look at you, even a new born baby buffalo looks at you like you owe them money.
Secretary birds makes their first appearance again after few months’ absence on the reserve.
There is one special tree on Mabula which catches everyone’s attention when driving past it, there is a good chance of seeing a secretary bird perching on it. It was on an afternoon safari while searching for lions and found the pair on an acacia tree in the middle of Serengeti plains.
The secretary bird is a bird of prey, but unlike other raptors it has long legs, wings and a tail. The single species of its family, the bird gets its name from its crest of long feathers that look like the quill pens 19th century office workers used to tuck behind their ears. The bird is basically dove-grey in color, with black on the wings, thighs and elongated central tail feathers. The short, down-curved bill is backed by an area of bare, red and yellow skin.
In addition, the long legs are feathered halfway and have the appearance of breeches. The face is bare and the tail feathers are long and shaggy. These largest terrestrial birds are furious hunters. Unlike other hunting birds they don’t hunt from the sky, rather they hunt on the ground. Interestingly these birds use their legs to hunt. Their legs are designed in such a way that it acts as a strong weapon to use in hunting.
After a few hours of sunrise, secretary birds fly to start their hunting, they can generate a 195 N kick force which is five times more than their body weight & hard enough to kill their prey. The stomping method is usually used by the bird while hunting big lizards or snakes. With such a furious kick force, it can kill its prey in only 10-15minutes.
Their unusually long legs which are nearly twice as long as other ground birds help in the unique stomping hunt method and with an exact time of just 15 milliseconds, can crush the skull of a snake even faster than you blink. Earning the title of “devil’s horse” secretary birds are fast runners. The speed helps them to trace their prey, they can run very fast and can travel 18km per day to hunt.
After catching their target, they usually stomp on their back or sometimes strike with their bill. Once the prey is dead the bird will swallow it completely. While attacking their prey they will spread their wings and raise the feather crest on the back of their head. Secretary bird couples can be spotted on the top of acacia trees on the Mabula savannah gently stroking each other in the mating season.
Usually, males try to attract females in the mating season. Male secretary birds usually give croaking calls while displaying their beauty to attract a female. They will also perform aerial shows and dance around with their wings outstretched to attract a female for mating. A female secretary bird can give 1 to 3 eggs and she will lay every 2 to 3 days. The eggs hatch respectively in order with which day it was laid, the eggs are hatched by the females only.
As a hunter bird for both invertebrates and vertebrates, the secretary bird is famous for hunting snakes. Secretary birds maintain the balance of ecological health by hunting both the prey and predators. For example, the secretary bird eats both rodents and venomous snakes. As this bird is a terrestrial, it kills the prey on foot. The secretary bird feeds on insects, rodents, mongoose, lizards, tortoises, crabs, small birds, bird eggs, hares, small and medium-sized mammals.
Update on the Mabula ox-like antelope.
Eland, an ox-like antelope, is the largest antelope species on Mabula. They are a sight to behold, and I can say that they have a dignified and majestic look to them. They are usually quite shy and run away if they sense danger is near. Eland are one of my favourite animals to see. I was very lucky one afternoon on Rainmeter plain with a big herd grazing on the plain.
Eland can stand between 150 centimetres to 190 centimetres at shoulder height. Females weigh between 400 & 600kg, less than males which weigh between 700 & 1000kg. Despite their massive body size, eland are athletic jumpers and can easily clear fences of 2 metres if startled. Eland belongs to the spiral-horned antelope family along with the kudu, blesbok, and nyala. Both male and female eland have horns. The males are short and thick while the females are long and slender.
The eland is an herbivore whose diet is a mix of grasses, leaves and fruits. They spend most of their time in sparse forests and savannah grasslands where they feed in the early morning and late afternoons and ruminate and hide from predators during the daytime. They feed during these times when the moisture content is higher in the foliage that they eat. They will also use their hooves to dig up roots and bulbs that are underground to supplement their nutritional needs.
Eland do not have to drink water regularly. They get the moisture that they need from the food they eat or from simple water conservation techniques. They produce very concentrated urine and dry faecal pellets so that their bodies do not discard unnecessary moisture. They will stand in the shade on very hot days and can allow their body temperature to rise by a few degrees and then disperse the heat after dark when it is cooler.
If you listen closely to when they walk by, you will hear a distinct clicking sound as they approach. This comes from their hooves, which spread out and click back together under the animal’s great weight. The Khoi San people value this animal when it comes to their religion and traditions. Eland is used in many different traditions. Eland is called upon in prayer by shamans in the bushmen trance dance which is said to give the shaman power. Many bushmen paintings are found in parts of South and Southern Africa which will include paintings of eland, highlighting the importance of this animal in their everyday lives.
Female elands are a tawny or fawn colour, sometimes going light grey as they get older. They have a small flap of skin under their neck which is known as a “dewlap”. Male elands are a darker, blue grey, turning almost black as they age. Males have a large dewlap. The purpose of the dewlap is to help with thermoregulation in arid habitats. The thick neck on a male eland gives them the power to push other males off-balance during fights when they are looking to breed with females.
Members of a herd allogroom one another on the head, neck and rump areas, all the places that are hard to reach. They are also very particular about grooming themselves and will regularly rub their heads and bodies against trees. Eland has a symbiotic relationship with cattle egrets, a medium-sized white bird that follows them around as they graze. The cattle egrets benefit from insects kicked up by the antelope as they move through the grass.
One of the unique features of an eland herd is the presence of a nursery for the calves. When the herd is endangered by predators, the huge males take the lead positions, protecting the calves and pregnant females behind the fortress of giant males.
Mabula’s fascinating predators.
The cheetah is one of the most fascinating predators in the Mabula Private Game Reserve ecosystem. To see cheetah walking across the plains of Mabula is so fascinating, especially seeing them on Mannekamp plain: long-legged and slender, graceful like a model on the catwalk.
The amber-colored eyes of this cat have always particularly impressed me. More than anything else its their style that make them so impressive: its grace, its physique, its incredible maneuverability and speed, its manner of raising its young, its uniquely patterned coat and its communication. All in all, a particularly impressive beauty.
A cheetah is all about acceleration. Their extraordinary speed makes them a deadly hunters. The cheetah quickly accelerates with its front legs to reach speeds of more than 100km per hour. Their flexible spine and long legs catapult the big cat forward in jumps of more than seven and a half meters in length.
It is inevitable that with this extraordinary body with extraordinary abilities behind it, the cheetah will intercept the path his prey is taking. Anyone who is fortunate enough to witness such a hunt will never forget it.
Even for cheetah mothers, it is difficult to raise and protect all their young ones. Many are killed by lions and hyenas or perish in the heat or cold. Sometimes they are abandoned by their mothers if she cannot hunt enough prey to feed all of them.
There are a few females who can raise their cubs with astonishing success, like our mother cheetah here at Mabula. She has been a super mother. This “super mother” is excellent hunter and kills an animal almost every third day especially now that cubs are depended on meat. At the same time, she knows all the tricks of the bush and even manage to hide her little ones when they were still vulnerable to wild dogs and hyenas and other predators on the reserve.
Although cheetahs are the fastest land animals, the species cannot survive on its own, many of these cheetah cubs die before they grow up, especially on areas that have many predators. Hyenas kill them from hunger and lions and leopards kill them for competition. Recently our mother cheetah lost one cub, for the first time since she arrived on the reserve. We don’t really know what happened, it might have been killed by another predator or while on a kill.
Anyone, including myself, who has seen a cheetah while on safari, will be fascinated by its grace, speed and unique appearance. It would be more than a pity if the chance to see them were to disappear. We at Mabula pride ourselves with amount of work that the reserve has done for these magnificent animals and being able to contribute towards cheetah metapopulation that is managed by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).
Zebra stallions fighting
It can come as a shock to many of our guests to see the violent side of some of their favourite animals, especially animals who aren’t normally associated with such behaviour. I have been waiting for a long time to experience it myself and to be able to capture this moment.
From lions and other predators, one expects a certain amount of aggression, as their carnivorous nature requires it, but from those species which one normally views as relatively peaceful it can be quite a surprise.
High up on Mabula guest’s list of animals they most desire to see, zebras aren’t often thought of as being aggressive by nature, but fights for dominance between stallions can be savage, with tails being bitten off, bones broken and some fights even going to the death. A male zebra walking around with only a stump for a tail may well be presumed to have lost it to a large predator, but the most likely culprit is in fact another zebra. They have fiercely sharp teeth, and a well-placed nip from a strong jaw can easily result in the loss of a tail, or at least a portion of it.
Whilst our sighting recently did not involve a fight to the death, nor indeed two dominant stallions, it was certainly wild enough to get the heart racing. Two young males from a bachelor herd were engaged in a serious bout of sparring. No females were at stake and my guess is that the two were testing each other as a prelude to striking out and attempting to win females of their own, but despite the non-serious nature of the fight, it was certainly enough to get our pulses racing and our shutter buttons clicking.
These play-fights will help prepare these young males for the real thing when they attempt to establish harems of their own. Using both hooves and teeth to fight, a variety of wounds or injuries could potentially be inflicted. They will often attempt to bite each other’s rumps and tails; zebras will sometimes be forced to tuck their rear ends in to keep out of the way of their rival’s jaws.
Whether lion or dung beetle, each species out there is engaged in a constant battle for survival and to reproduce. No matter how seemingly insignificant an organism’s place may appear on the tree of life, the drama for the individual is every bit as intense, whatever its size. For supposedly peaceful herbivores like zebras the same holds true. Their lifestyles may appear benevolent, but things can get heated very quickly.
Aardwolf marking territory and covering dung too.
One afternoon I was lucky enough to find an aardwolf busy marking its territory and covering its dung. Like other hyaenids, aardwolves are territorial and mark their territories by scent – from the secretions produced in their anal glands. Males in general, scent-mark more often than females to establish territorial dominance and attract potential mates. When they feel threatened, aardwolves will raise their mane to make themselves more physically intimidating. Unlike their larger cousins, aardwolves are generally silent unless threatened, producing vocal sounds ranging from a soft clucking sound to a loud roar.
Although aardwolves repeatedly visit the same latrines, they do not use it for territory and home range marking as do the spotted and brown hyaena. Each territory contains an average of 20 latrines, an oval clearing of approximately 1×2 m. The dung has the distinctive odour of the termite diet. Therefore, most dung is covered with sand to prevent confusion when following the scent of its prey
Sundowner while enjoying a sighting of hippos.
Hippos are highly gregarious, interacting often and tolerating close contact when they are in water, and often lying in a heap when resting ashore each day, warming themselves up in the sun, but when they’re out grazing, usually at night, each animal becomes its own independent and unsociable unit. Females with offspring are the exception and are inseparable.
Due to their size, they’re largely immune from predators on land, hence they don’t herd together for safety like the ubiquitous impala. When they’re in the water they tend to cluster. Hippos will rest, bask in the sun and digest food by day, commuting out into the grassy open areas to feed by night. Using the same paths or hippo highways to and from the waterholes, they can cover anything up to ten kilometres before returning to their favourite waterhole before dawn. With every season, grouping patterns and densities change. With more habitat available in the wet season, they spread out. During the drier months they gather in larger groups, territorial turnover is high, and competition is at its peak.
Most of us take this for granted but to see hippos in such great abundance is something to be greatly appreciative of. For them to flourish there are two essential requirements: water deep enough to submerge in and nearby grassland, both of which are plentiful here at Mabula.
Well, that’s all for this month, as you can see it was extremely productive when it comes to safari sightings. Hopefully this carries through to next month. All we can do is sit back and watch Mother Nature at work.
Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.
Images courtesy of: Isaiah, Kanya, Tshepo and Frans.