Written by Isaiah Banda
Happy New Year everyone!
I hope the Festive Season was a magical one for everyone. This month we celebrate a fantastic start of the new month and new year with the lush greenery that adorns the landscape of Mabula Game Reserve currently. With a healthy amount of rain falling thus far saturating the earth, the grasses send forth emerald-green blades while culms extend skywards donning their inflorescences. Shrubbery and trees dense with foliage are the perfect backdrops.
When is the best time to visit Mabula? We often get asked this question knowing that the answer will vary depending on the personal preference of our guests. Each month offers something different, and every season unravels new panels of colour, the presence of different forms of life and of course, a change in weather. This means that you’ll have to visit Mabula more than once, and preferably at different times of the year, to truly get a sense of your favourite season here at Mabula.
Now turning to the actual wildlife at the core of each image, elephants, hippos, giraffes, and buffalos are thriving and loving the summertime pleasures of food everywhere you look and water never too far away. Dung beetles enjoy this time too with an abundance of their favourites available. Baboons have been actively seen more often on safaris.
Klipspringers have been climbing high up on the roof of the lodge to enjoy the beautiful views of our reserve. All making for great photographic opportunities for those who love photography.
The cheetah is one of our predators that have been doing very well this month, with superb sightings of both the resident males and the mother cheetahs with her cubs.
We were very lucky to find all the cheetahs together one morning on Kwaf Highway. The cheetah lifestyle is completely different from other predators. Females live and hunt alone while males form a coalitions of two or more, unless if they were born without a brother. Finding them all together could only mean one thing. Mating time.
One of the best activities not to be missed is to participate on our cheetah tracking experience, it is an activity of its own. Guests get picked up at the lodge and head out to a possible cheetah area. We will stop and begin to track them. On this particular day we were tracking the mother cheetah and her cubs.
At about 50m ahead of us we were greeted by a purring sound under a nutrient hotspot. Looking under the trees, we couldn’t see anything at all. But the sound was definitely coming from the nutrient hotspot. We decided to approach closer to see if we could get a visual on them. I let the guests guess what was happening and what do they think, there were quite a few guesses among them.
As we were walking closer to them, we could hear how the sounds changed from a soft purr to an aggressive attack as the cubs started attacking the two males, protecting their mother. We walked around the tree and there they were. This was the first time for me to see the new males and female together. We could see how the two males were competing to see who will be the first one to mate with our resident female. She has done very well in raising her cubs.
It was amazing and intersting to see how these two males were so inexperienced when approaching the female. The moment the female stood up and walked away they would all run together to get to the female first and she would slap them in return.
Cheetah sightings are incredible to anyone who stays here at Mabula and we savour every sighting that we get everytime we are out on safari. The fact that we are able to track and veiw them on foot is so incredible. We are proud the be part of the cheetah metapopulation managed by Endangered Wildlife Trust.
Soon the males relaxed and left a female for a moment. The cubs were still not happy with the males as they saw them as intruders and enemies. And it was our time to call it a day and leave them in their own space. Our guests enjoyed every moment watching the cheetahs interact with each other. Make sure on your next visit to Mabula you book yourself on a cheetah tracking experience.
Mabula Wild Dogs
The dogs have a much more obvious approach to their movements. This month they have been hanging on the northern side of the reserve, surprisingly in an area called TPA. Very unsussual for them to choose an area like that. Perharps due to the lack of leopard activity. I think since I have been here at Mabula for over 16 years, I have seen leopard activity in this area three times.
One afternoon while out on safari on the northwestern side of the reserve around Nyathi dam, we came to a sound of happy wild dogs. Normally when we hear this sound we know they might have made a kill and are busy feeding. We decided to loop around onto Nyathi road to witness what is happening. Just around the corner there they were. Parents and pups busy feeding on a wildebeest kill. Ohh yes killed by dogs.
What a sighting. Although we did not see the actual kill, it was still great to see how they intaracted with one another around their meal. These are areas where they are mostly successful with prey. Especially with wildebeest that are old and those territorial males that are mostly solitary wihout the support of a herd.
We have been very lucky with regular sightings of the wild dogs traversing between the western and northern sector of our reserve.
Update on our Elephants
One of my all-time favourite sightings is to simply watch and observe elephants while feeding, witnessing pure joy as they completely ignore our presence while we are sitting there on safari vehicle watching them going about their daily activities.
For the first time in many months the elephants have begun to explore the whole reserve. It has been almost eight months since they visited Danie Joubert area. This area is dominated by thatch grass and lots of acacias.
It is imperative to keep in mind that elephants are extremely intelligent and each individual has a distinct character.
Although there will be exceptions to the rules, the common signs of a warning are bush-bashing, dust-throwing, trumpeting and other vocalizations, open ears and an intimidating presence, all of these can be considered warning signs.
The ears are pinned back and head and trunk are lowered. Ultimately, the key lies in the intelligence of the animal and how they will react to the ‘target’ and unfamiliar actions, and a conscious decision is made.
Elephants rhythmically flap their ears but not in an expression of anger. Being an animal of such a large size, with no sweat glands and a dark body colour, elephants flap their ears to cool the body and rid themselves of irritating insects.
Update on Mabula Buffaloes.
It may be because of the lack of rain that we are not seeing the large herds of buffalo move across the savanna, but we do not forget our old buffalo bulls that stay so stoically in the rivers. As they stare us down in their seemingly stern looks, they slowly chew their cud and keep an eye out for any approaching danger.
Buffalo are gregarious and live in mixed herds that can often reach numbers that exceed 500 individuals. The strength of the herd is greater than the sum of its parts. There is safety in numbers and these huge herds can be beneficial when trying to fend off a pride of hungry lions. Rather than holding territories, buffalo have home ranges that they are constantly moving through.
Their home range is determined by the access to water and grazing value. A herd will have multiple family units or clans within the greater whole, made up of closely related cows and their offspring. These family units will move together in tight formation, the leading females of each clan establishing a direction for the masses.
Within the herd, buffalo bulls are ranked by their age and size. Bulls will become sexually mature around the age of five years old but will only be granted the opportunity to mate when they hold a more dominant position when aged around seven or eight years old.
Buffalo bulls have a massive role in protecting the herd from any predators as they are larger and stronger and a lot more aggressive than the females.
Once they have passed their reproductive prime, they tend to struggle to keep up with the herd’s movements and start to fall back, eventually deciding to leave the herd and begin a more solitary lifestyle.
As mentioned above, buffalo bulls move into a solitary way of life once passing their sexual prime. They will leave the herd and head towards areas with a constant water supply. The TPA dam is a very popular place to find these older bulls, who are sometimes seen in smaller bachelor herds or individually
The thicker vegetation around the river beds means there is great grazing and constant access to water, without having to cover great distances in search of either. Although this may seem like it is a wonderful life for the older bulls, there isn’t the protection of the herd anymore, and they become very vulnerable to predation. So, these bulls give up safety in order to not be on the move as much, but the unfortunate cost of this is that they become a hot target for lions.
And that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to the complex social dynamics involved in buffalo herds. Spending time with these magnificent animals is and will always be one of my favourite things to do here at Mabula. The sights, smells and sounds will always capture my interest.
Hippo haven on Hunters dam.
For the first time in few years hippos have come back to Hunters dam. This dam is not the favourite dam for hippos on Mabula since it is very small. After good rains we received since the beginning of the rainy season, this dam 100% full. I was surprised to see hippos in the dam on one afternoon.
Hippos live in waterways such as wateholes and dams of Mabula. Their skin may be thick but it is extremely sensitive and can easily burn or dry out in the sun which can reach up to 37 degrees celcius. That is the reason they spend most of their day in the water or mud to keep cool, wet, and protect their delicate skin.
When basking on the shore, they secrete an oily red sweat-like substance that moistens their skin, repels water, and protects them from the sun and germs. Hippos often nap in the water during the daytime. A subconscious reflex allows them to push themselves to the surface to breathe without waking up so they can sleep without drowning.
When hippos defecate in the water during the daytime, their dung which is rich in nutrients, washes through the waterways and delivers important elements like nitrogen and phosphorus to other species in the ecosystem.
Giraffes on Mabula.
Giraffe are the tallest living land animals, the largest existent ruminants, and one of the most eye-catching members of African wildlife. They’re an animal that guests from all over the world are most excited to see, and we’re lucky enough to see them on the majority of our game drives. It comes as a big surprise then, that little research has plunged into the complexities of the giraffe species.
Giraffe are non-territorial and sociable, living in loose open herds. At any given moment a giraffe may be in a herd composed of all males, all females, females and young, or of both sexes and all ages – or alone if it is a mature bull or cow guarding a new calf. There are no leaders and minimal coordination of herd movements. There is very little structure to a group of giraffes.
Being so tall allows them to take advantage of an untapped niche of abundant food in the tree canopy. With no competition, apart from elephants, giraffe are classically known to feed on acacia leaves. Extremely high in protein this food source is highly sort after.
Using their 40 cm long prehensile tongue and nimble lips giraffe can easily pick in between the sharp thorns or spiky branches. Even though they are careful they do sometimes eat the thorns, but with their incredibly rubbery lips and mouth they don’t even seem to notice.
Although acacia is their preferred food, giraffe will feed on many other plants and bushes. However, they do utilise some odd sources to supplement their diet. A practice called geophagia is when animals will eat soil to obtain trace minerals such as salt, that are missing in their usual diet. Eating soil sounds strange, but giraffe have also been known to practice osteophagia, where they obtain extra calcium from chewing on bones!
Having such long necks, traditional butting heads is not an option for giraffe. They have adapted a unique fighting style that is more elegant and beautiful, however, serious fights can end up in serious injuries and sometimes even death. The giraffe stand side by side, facing the same direction. They then take it in turns to swing their heads like battering rams aiming to hit the other in the hindquarters, chest or lower neck area with his ossicones (horns).
Bush bar setup.
Your safari is not complete without a bar setup in the bush. Guides will stop at their favorite sundowner stop for a bush bar break. You will be treated to drinks of your choice while watching the sun go down behind the Waterberg mountains.
Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.
Images courtesy of: Isaiah Banda, Frans & Tshepo Loni, Alexander, Mashudu and Moneya.