Written by Isaiah Banda
Firmly in the grasp of winter, the bush is looking sparse, and animals have been moving far and wide to find food and water. Predators have been actively hunting throughout the reserve and we have been lucky to see lions, wild dogs, and cheetahs. Wild dog sightings have been very low this month as they have been in the Southwestern part of the reserve. We are hoping they will den very soon in that area.
There is nothing quite like the excitement and anticipation of your first game drive. The wind in your hair and the scent of the bush whizzing past as you set off. This experience is what draws our guests to stay at Mabula Game Lodge. With passion driving them, all members of our safari guide team are here to give you the best game viewing experience found on the reserve.
It was one late afternoon, the sun was about to set and the plan was to find lions that evening. It was quiet in the bush, we were just starting our late afternoon safari. We had been driving for a short while when suddenly in front of us we found two giraffes on Cussonia. Cussonia is the name of one of the safari drive roads in the reserve that crosses through an open area, Cussonia plain. The giraffe were in that area feeding.
They looked so funny as if they wanted to kiss each other, which made my guests burst with laughter. One giraffe was chewing on a bone, the other once noticed and moved towards it to see if she cannot get a share. It was so funny seeing that, especially for my guests as it was the first time for them. The sighting was so special to us as often we don’t see that behaviour because it is rare to see a giraffe chewing on a bone.
In summer giraffes have enough food but in winter they do not as most of the trees that giraffes like to feed on lose their leaves. In winter sometimes giraffes will also find old bones on the ground and chew them for calcium. It was interesting to my guests as they noticed that behaviour for the first time, but they had heard about that from other safari drives that they have been on.
On that exciting sighting, we spent about 15 minutes and after that, we continued with our safari as we know that the bush will not show us everything at the same time.
Awesome sighting with our pride.
Lions sleep! I am going to break this expectation for you, lions sleep close to 20 hours a day. This means you are more likely to view a sleeping lion before you are lucky enough to watch them yawn, stretch and start moving. Do not get me wrong, you will never forget it and yes sleeping lions are still an impressive life-changing sighting.
While you wait, listen to your guide pointing out the smaller details. Watch the cubs playing and learning their hunting skills even more closely, with defying details that will help you appreciate them even more. Now that’s a way to look at lions!
When the temperatures are slightly cooler, the weather cloudy or raining, or it is early morning or early evening – they are predominantly active. When you think about it – they are being rather smart operating during these hours. Firstly, it is so much more pleasant to move around when it is cooler. Secondly, imagine that your eyesight is at least six times better than your prey at night – why wouldn’t you use that to your advantage
Lions have captured our imagination for centuries. Stars in movies and characters in books, lions are at the top of the food chain. The Swahili word for lion, Simba, also means “king,” “strong,” and “aggressive.” The word lion has a similar meaning in our vocabulary. If you call someone lionhearted, you’re describing a courageous and brave person. If you lionize someone, you treat that person with great interest or importance.
The best time to spend with a pride of lions and get a true sense of their behaviour would be later in the evening or very early in the morning. This is when they are going to get up and move around. Should an opportunity to hunt present itself – the odds are stacked heavily in their favour. Knowing this we decided to spend an evening following a pride after sunset.
What a sighting we had! Although a gruesome scene, finding these kills is a massive rush like no other – to see the most animalistic impulses to feed come out in raw experience makes the heart rate fly. Finding these lions on a zebra kill was no exception!
It is also not every day that we get to see scenes like this on the reserve although we do see them sometimes. The sun was about to set and we were wrapping up our safari drive when a chorus of frightened zebra barks echoed from out of the block just west of Bottom Serengeti plains.
It was the sounds of meat tearing off the bone, coming from within the thick bush, that gave away these big cats’ exact location. We followed our ears into the dense block and soon stumbled upon the carnage: lions on a zebra kill. That is why it is so important to stop the engine and listen to the sounds around you. You will be surprised at how much you can hear around with your engine not running.
Lions are generally not that hungry all the time. They hunt when it is needed, otherwise, they stick to their spot and take a rest. However, an adult lioness requires an average of 5 kg of meat each day. In the case of adult lions, they require 7 kg of meat on average. This is not the case in reality. There is a difference between need and greed as lions are opportunistic hunters also.
For their greedy attitude, they can eat up to 80 kg of meat in just one seating! If a lion can’t eat that much, he takes a nap for a few hours. Then comes to eat again. However, they need a significant amount of energy during hunting and killing an animal. It can be said that the spirit of hunting boosts a lion’s appetite. That’s why they are generally seen as more hungry after completing a hunt.
Cheetah sightings on the reserve.
We are well-known for great cheetah viewing and this month was no exception. Most of these sightings have been of our residence female cheetah and her youngsters. These cheetahs are very relaxed with safari vehicles and make for fantastic viewing.
One afternoon we had a beautiful sighting of them resting in the shade of a large-fruited bushwillow tree just outside the lodge entrance. As the heat of the afternoon started dissipating cheetahs started to get active and walked right past the entrance of the lodge causing a traffic jam for the guests checking in at the lodge.
They decided to sleep right in the middle of the road. On Mabula our animals have a right of way, if they decided to sleep on the road, we leave them and they move at their own time.
It was not long after they decided they had delayed traffic enough and moved off the road to carry on with their hunt. It is sad that she lost one of her cubs, for the first time since she has been on the reserve, nonetheless she has been a very good mother to her surviving cubs.
The zebra is one of the iconic animals of Mabula and is one of the creatures that people on safari are keen to see. They are extremely beautiful animals, with their black and white striped patterns. Zebra belong to the family Equidae and the plains zebra, which we find in our area, falls in the genus Equus. They are diurnal, black and white, striped, plains-loving, grass-munching horses of the Mabula plains!
Zebras and horses belong to the order Perissodactyla (odd-toed ungulates). Perissodactyls all share hooved feet and an odd number of toes on each foot, as well as mobile upper lips and similar tooth structures. This means that zebras and horses share a common ancestry with tapirs. One of the most noticeable things about zebras are the black and white stripes, which do not seemingly blend into the environment. Guests often asks why the zebras have this colouration and patterning and this is not an easy question to answer.
Zebra find the stripe patterning attractive and are easily able to identify other zebras from the stripe patterns. The stripe pattern of a zebra is individual to that zebra (very much like a fingerprint) and can be used to identify specific animals. Mother zebra will position herself between her newborn foal and the rest of the herd so that the foal can imprint on her pattern.
The stripes of a zebra form disruptive patterning, which breaks the outline of the animal. This can be used to deter predators, particularly when the zebras band together when chased by lions. In this case, with all the stripes blending with those of the other zebras who are close by, it could be difficult for a lion to separate each individual from the mass, causing it to be more difficult to visually isolate one zebra in order to leap on it.
There is a theory that the stripes could have a cooling effect on the zebras. Black colouration tends to attract heat, whereas white reflects heat and light. The juxtaposition of the stripes is thought to cause air movement around the zebra, which could help to cool the zebra down. It is thought that the stripe patterns confuse the compound eyes of biting flies, such as the tsetse fly, and studies have shown that flies do not like to land on stripy surfaces.
The social system of plains zebras is very interesting and reads like a bit of a soap opera. Zebras are gregarious animals and live in small family groups, or harems, consisting of one stallion and his mares. Male zebras are slightly larger than females, weighing up to 350 kg and can be identified by their much thicker necks and a thin black stripe between the buttocks. In the wild, zebras usually live to be between 20 to 30 years old. When resources are good in a particular area different family groups may join up with other family groups and are then referred to as a “dazzle of zebras”. Even within the dazzles one can easily differentiate between each of the various family groups, who tend to stick together. In each harem the lead mare generally leads the family and decides where they go (although the stallion may direct her if he decides that they need to go elsewhere).
The stallion usually follows on behind the harem and protects them from predator attacks (a good kick from a zebra could possibly break the jaw or other bones of an attacking lion), or advances and attentions of other male zebras. Bachelor males either live alone or with groups of other bachelors until they are old enough to challenge a breeding stallion and elope with one of his fillies. These fights can be quite vicious and involve a lot of rearing, kicking and biting. Zebras have powerful jaws and sharp incisor teeth and the results of bites can be seen on the numerous male zebras that have no tails anymore.
It is always a pleasure to see these unique and interesting equids in their natural environment. Zebras are truly iconic African animals. One of those amazing creatures that represent savanna systems.
Wildebeest sightings this month on the reserve.
You will notice on your safari adventures here at Mabula that you might come across a herd/harem of wildebeest or one lonely bull. This is because wildebeest bulls will hold a territory, typically on an open grassy area with a sand patch used for a stomping ground. Males then actively mark the area with pedal glands in between their hooves which will leave a scent when walking, stomping or scraping an area, as well as a preorbital gland just under their eye (which you can see with the naked eye) where he will scrape up against rubbing posts, bushes and shrubs or even roll around in the sand and mud. You might also notice piles of dung in certain areas – this is what we call a midden or “lek” and is also a form of marking territory
Females on the other hand will have what is referred to as home ranges. The female will move from area to area looking for the most ideal place that has good resources and a strong bull to mate with and raise calves. Once females arrive, he will then try his best to herd the females and keep them, chasing out any unwanted intruders. A female wildebeest will have a gestation period of 8 – 8.5 months, giving birth to one calf weighing ± 20kgs. The baby wildebeest is one of the most precocial (developed at birth), being able to get up and join the herd in a couple of minutes, no doubt an adaption for their traditional migratory behaviour.
You should be able to see these little sprouts of joy in mid-November/December time here at Mabula, as that is our rainy season, providing mom and baby with enough food and cover.
African rock python on the reserve
One afternoon my radio sounded with this message, “stations, I have located an African rock python”, from Tshepo, one of my fellow guides.
The Southern African rock python is the fourth largest snake on the planet, behind the green anaconda at number one and the Burmese and reticulated pythons. They are specialist ambush hunters laying in wait for an unsuspecting animal to approach within striking range. They are non-venomous although they are equipped with many sharp hooked teeth perfect for grasping their prey and holding them in place as they wrap their powerful bodies around their prey and constrict them to death.
They tighten their coils whenever their victim breathes out and in addition to asphyxiation, the cause of death may include cardiac arrest. With no limbs to help dismember their prey, they are required to swallow it whole. Rather than dislocating their jaws, they (their jaws) are connected by flexible ligaments that expand to accommodate large meals, they then “walk” their jaws over their prey, slowly consuming it whole.
Pythons are beautiful snakes covered in cryptic patterning of alternating dark brown, tan and cream, providing them with excellent camouflage. They are shy animals and will usually try to avoid any contact with man. As fairly slow and sluggish snakes, they may retaliate in defense if threatened by man and it is always advised to avoid interfering with them in their natural habitat, especially if they have recently eaten as any disturbance or stress may cause them to regurgitate their meal that they have worked so hard to obtain. One of the more unusual snakes in terms of breeding as they lay anywhere between 20 and 80 eggs at a time that develop with the help of their mother as she actively incubates them.
She may lie outside in the sun to warm her body and return to her nest where she will wrap her warm coils around them as they develop. She does not bury her eggs or abandon them but rather lays them in an underground burrow, termite mound or cave where she will tend to them for the entire incubation period of about 90 days. Once hatched she will provide some form of protection until they are large enough to fend for themselves. Southern African rock pythons grow slowly but may reach, or in some cases even exceed lengths of 5.8m and weigh up to 80kg. Females will grow larger than males and they are able to live to up to 12 years. As young they have many predators including leopard, Southern ground hornbills, secretary birds, lions, crocodiles, monitor lizards and honey badgers although their greatest threat by far is man
My memorable sighting was one morning, we were following our pride of lions on the eastern side of the reserve by Whole Owner Plain when we noticed something on the grass that looked like a piece of a pipe. As we drove past, we stopped to investigate we found two African rock pythons moving in an aardvark hole. With lions infront of us we had to choose between following lions and watching rock python. Due to python being special we decided to stick with them instead. The one python bided its time until the coast was clear before it proceeded to cross the road into the safety of an aadrvark hole.
Updated on our wild dogs pack on the reserve.
It has been quiet this month with wild dogs as they have been on the south-western parts of the reserve where it looks like they found a suitable area to den. We are looking forward to seeing pups very soon. They have been hunting in that area all the time and returning to one spot in a mountainous area. One morning we were very lucky to find them busy feeding on warthog kill that they made earlier before we arrived. While we were there black-backed jackals started hanging around also to see if they can scavenge on the remaining bones. It was the first time since the arrival of wild dogs on the reserve to see jackals close to them.
What a magical morning! Due to their nature, wild dog sightings are often brief, a fast-paced glimpse of them as they race through the landscape, before vanishing into the vegetation where we are unable to follow. To have been able to spend some time with them was incredible.
It was a real privilege to study the interactions amongst the members of the pack and between the dogs and scavengers, whose presence was a reminder that in the bush nothing goes to waste. Memories that I will treasure and a pair of lucky socks that might or might not have been washed since!
Sundowner with hippos on Ngulubi dam
There are two things that most of our guests think when they talk about a Mabula safari… Stellar sightings and sublime sundowners! But, imagine having sundowners with the hippos!
The tradition of an ice-cold beverage as the sun dips below the wild horizon is a truly iconic part of the safari experience on Mabula. No matter the season, this is a memory that our guests here at Mabula always hold close and treasure forever.
That wraps up another month and as the year flies by we eagerly await to see what August will bring.
Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.
Images courtesy of: Isaiah, Kanya, Tshepo and Frans.