Another month has come and gone here at Mabula, and winter has really started showing its teeth as we have hit a new yearly low of -5 degrees Celsius. The cold winter air thrust upon your face as the dawn breaks is the perfect way to get the day going.
The variety of our sightings over the past month have been incredible as our larger predators are taking full advantage of the long cool mornings and we have seen lions moving around late into the morning, covering huge distances in search of prey.
They have been increasingly successful during the month, and we were lucky enough one morning to come across a zebra kill on whole owner road. We had found them just after bringing down the zebra and had not started eating. My guests were so happy as it was their first time visiting South Africa and Mabula, their first safari and they almost got to see a live hunt.
Lions take any advantage that comes their way. If opportunity allows them to hunt during the day, they will use it and hunt. We have seen on few occasions this month hunting in the middle of the day. With it still being winter, it is not as hot during the day as it is in summer.
Despite being part of what is essentially a team, everyone will jealously guard the bit of meat they are feeding on. One of the females keeps a close eye on the other female while gnawing on the zebra’s hind quarters.
The mother of the sub adult lionesses didn’t seem too interested however and had most likely already eaten her fill. Young lions take full advantage of every feeding opportunity they can get, which means consuming every scrap of edible meat from a carcass.
One of the truly incredible moments while on safari at Mabula is when you observe a pride of lions stalk up to a prey, explode from the grass, pounce on the startled zebra, and wrestle it to the ground. Although we were not there to witness how a lion will bite and jump on the back of a zebra or even a buffalo.
While it is a team effort, there’s usually a lion with its jaws locked around the zebra’s neck, crushing the windpipe. Have you ever wondered to yourself how much strength it takes to asphyxiate a zebra? Or maybe you have asked, what is the bite force of a lion?
While their bite force might not seem impressive, lions can pull off some incredible displays of power with their teeth. Lions are the largest of Mabula’s “big cats” currently. As one of the most iconic denizens of the Mabula plains, lions have an aura around them of regality and fame or infamy.
A bite force is important for lions. A lion’s bite force is the amount of force they apply through their jaws and teeth. These animals need a strong bite force to cut, rip, hold onto, kill, or chew their food. A lion’s genetics also influences its muscle development. Aside from genetics, what the lion ate and what injuries they might have sustained during their lifetime, particularly to the face from fighting or by prey defending itself, play a role in determining a lion’s bite force.
If there is pain in a tooth or the mouth from an abscess, wound, or rotten tooth, a lion will be less likely to bite at its full potential, which, over time, might reduce the lion’s effective bite force resulting in muscle atrophy and loss of strength.
There are two main muscles responsible for most of the bite force are the temporalis and masseter. The pterygoid muscles play a lesser function but also contribute. A lion’s teeth and jaw bones affect the bite force. Lion’s teeth are perfectly designed for cutting into meat and crushing smaller bones.
Two teeth categories are particularly important, Canines – the quintessential teeth for killing prey and slicing into the meat. Carnassials – these teeth are modified premolars and molars designed to slice meat and crush bones. The teeth in a lion’s mouth have different surface areas, resulting in different amounts of pressure exerted when a lion bites.
A highlight of this month was the female cheetah emerging with three cubs as she had disappeared for quite some time with no sightings. The mother cheetah was found in the late afternoon, with three tiny cubs right infront of the lodge entrance.
Raising of cubs by any of the predators we see on Mabula is never a small feat especially with other predators like brown hyenas, wild dogs and leopards, there is a constant competition between the predators. As such, the cubs often succumb to the jaws of a different species than their own.
Luckily, not only do we have a good diversity of our fauna, but we also have a high diversity of our flora. What this means is that there are areas where some of the species further down the predator hierarchy can find pockets of space where they too can be successful in raising their cubs.
After a gestation period of 100 -110 days, a female cheetah will gave birth to a litter of cubs. Cheetahs have, on average, between three and five cubs in a litter. They are born blind and helpless, and so, for the first six weeks of their lives, they are kept very well hidden in the long grass of the open savanna of Mabula.
The mother will move them from one den to the next, which may come in the form of a thick clump of grass, a fallen tree with some undergrowth, or occasionally in some rocks but these are not abundant in the open grasslands where the cheetah roam. The mother has to leave the cubs alone when she goes out to hunt. During these first few weeks, the cubs are incredibly vulnerable to predation from other carnivores.
With cheetahs being at the bottom of the big predator hierarchy and the nature in which they raise their young, it is extremely difficult for a mother to raise her young to adulthood. There are so many threats out there that would likely kill a cheetah cub if it came close to one, and across Mabula, there are a few of said threats. Wild dogs, leopard and hyena populations are growing high, all of which would not give a second thought to killing the young and helpless cheetah cubs.
Due to the cheetah’s preferred habitat and hunting grounds of the wide-open grasslands, ideal dens such as beautiful mountain outcrops, clusters of boulders, or thick riverine vegetation, are few and far between. Forcing cheetah mothers to rely mostly on long grass and clumps of thick branches of a fallen thorny tree as a den.
There is no crevice or place to hide apart from hunkering down in the grass hoping to go unnoticed. After surviving the first few months with their mother secretly visiting them to nurse, they begin to give off their own scent. They, therefore, are not able to stay in the same area for too long, so the mother will start to move them around more.
It is also at this age that they will begin to eat meat and now risk traversing the grasslands with their mother while she searches for prey or if she has been successful, she will return to collect them and take them across to feed on the carcass. Now, while navigating this daunting world, the cheetah cubs are only just able to stumble over the long grass and would automatically flee in all directions should any threat catch them off-guard. This is highly stressful for the mother as she is then unsure where the cubs have all run off to and makes it easy for the threat to pick off a cub that is bounding through the grass with little ability to get away.
All in all, without dwelling on the difficulties of a mother cheetah trying to raise cubs, it was breathtaking to find this mother with her three young cubs walking down the road right in front of my vehicle. The cubs were slightly scared of the vehicles however soon they will be relaxed with safari vehicles while exploring the reserve.
When the cubs reach the age of around 18 months, they will have gained as much experience as they can from their mother, and they will start a life of independence. They would spend a few weeks together away from their mother, after their mother has left them and, depending on their sex, will either separate completely if they are all females or form a coalition if they are males.
Once the mother has left the cubs, she will start to look for a mate again and will potentially raise another litter. Until then, we will still have many more sightings of the three of them together.
The buffalo have taken advantage of the still-saturated landscape because of all the late rain we received. We have seen them coming together to making one big herd to protect each other when the bush is not dense anymore. Currently they spend most of their time in the central parts of the reserve being two boreholes, main dam rocky road and hunters dam areas.
These are boisterous and unpredictable animals. Cape buffalo don’t provide any warning. They appear to be peaceful, chewing on cud and staring at the safari vehicle. And then they charge. Buffalo will trample anything that gets in the way.
Buffalo lives in herds of anywhere between 10 and 200 individuals, dependent on the availability of food and water. They travel in herds as this protects them from predators and because they are gregarious animals. Matriarchs lead the herd made up mostly of cows and their calves. One or two dominant males join these herds and take their pick of the females during mating season.
Veteran bulls graze on the outskirts of the herd. They offer protection against apex predators but don’t have the strength or desire to fight for mating rights. It’s relatively safe to encounter these harem herds on safari. They are peaceful, social, and affectionate groups of animals when viewing them on a safari vehicle.
Just don’t upset them or appear as a threat, which can happen by flashing the camera or getting too close. Young bulls leave the herd by the time they are three years old. They join up with other young bulls, forming bachelor herds marked by aggression and testosterone.
Despite their somewhat antagonistic reputation, buffalos are convivial characters who continually communicate with each other. They make a beautiful range of sounds, although most on safari you only hear are grunts and mumbles. Communication is via a complex mix of gargles and grunts, with meaning conveyed by volume and pitch. Mothers gargle to their calves and warn the herd of danger.
African elephants, gigantic in size and highly socially intelligent, preside over the whole Mabula Private Game Reserve. Moving in one herd, these giant animals are a formidable force, led by matriarchs, communicating using advanced vocal and non-vocal means.
Elephants play a crucial role in maintaining their ecosystems, yet their declining numbers may result in an upset to this delicate balance. These majestic creatures are fascinating and complex, with surprising capabilities. They also hold the title of plenty African ‘accolades.’ They tower over the Mabula grasslands at around 3 meters tall and mow down trees under their 6-ton weight as they walk.
Their impressive size is one of the most well-known facts about elephants. But did you know that it takes over half of their life, around 35 years, to reach full size? An elephant’s trunk is highly dexterous and has many functions. It is essentially a really long nose with upgraded features. Elephants use their trunk for smelling, breathing, trumpeting, and drinking. Their trunks have around 40 000 muscles, making them very useful, and highly sensitive.
Aside from the standard nose functions, elephants use their trunks to grab things like branches of delicious leaves, and to spray themselves with water to provide relief from the heat. On the tip of an African elephant’s trunk are two opposable extensions, much like fingers. These ‘fingers’ allow elephants to pick up smaller things such as the delicious marula fruit.
How thick is elephant skin? Thick enough that it would take a lot of insults to offend an elephant. An elephant’s skin is around 2.5 cm thick and covered in wrinkles. These wrinkles help to keep the animal cool by retaining water. In fact, the cracked and wrinkled skin retains up to 10 times more moisture than a smooth surface. This comes in handy under the scorching African sun. It helps to regulate the elephant’s body temperature and prevent dehydration.
Elephants may have thick skin but it’s not as tough as it looks. Their skin is quite sensitive, especially to the sun. These intelligent creatures use their trunks to spray mud and dust over their bodies, which protects their skin from the sun. The natural sunscreen also protects the elephants from parasites.
The impressive ivory tusks are incisor teeth that appear when an elephant is around two years old. Female and male elephants both have tusks, though males’ tusks tend to be larger, these protruding incisors never stop growing. Elephants use their tusks to assist with eating by stripping bark from trees and digging for food and water. They also use their massive tusks for fighting or defence.
What I like the most about elephants is they like to talk, however we cant always hear it. Elephants are extremely intelligent creatures with intricate social dynamics. They communicate in a variety of ways and are very vocal animals, yet have means of non-vocal communication, too. From the quintessential trumpet call to squeals, snorts, rumbles, and screams, elephants use more than 70 vocal calls to communicate with their herd.
However, they also make use of vocal calls that have such a low vibrational frequency that humans cannot hear them. This vibrational sound is so powerful that it can travel over long distances. It’s a useful call for communicating with lost herd members. Aside from vocal communication, elephants use up to 160 gestures, expressions, and visual signals to communicate. This includes cuddling each other with their trunks and smelling one another.
Elephant herds are matriarchal, meaning that the cows lead the group. The matriarch is typically the oldest and largest female in the group. She oversees the rest of the herd, which consists of multi-generational females and their calves. These family units are known as breeding herds. Male elephants, or bulls, are usually solitary. However, they do sometimes join up with other bulls in a loose coalition. Males stray away from their herd anywhere between the ages of 10 to 19 years of age.
You can imagine that elephants need a lot of food to fuel their massive bodies. They spend their entire day, around 12 to 18 hours eating! So, how much do elephants eat a day? An adult on average consumes over 300kg of roots, grass, fruit, and bark. As for the calves, they drink almost 10 litres of their mother’s nutrient-rich milk every day for the first six months of their lives. After that, they supplement their diets with vegetation, yet aren’t completely weaned until two years old. Mature African elephants are also thirsty animals, drinking up to 150 litres of water daily.
African elephants are a keystone species, as they assume the role of ecosystem engineers and are a vital cog in their environments. Elephants Mold their environments in such a way that allows other animals to thrive. Using their tusks, elephants will dig up riverbeds in the dry season creating springs of water that other animals enjoy. They are also important seed dispersers as they spread seeds through their dung. Zebras, wildebeest, and other grazers benefit from elephants uprooting trees and thereby opening the plains.
Zebras are remarkable animals; a sweet look-alike mix between a horse and donkey. Their black and white pyjamas are highly recognizable and make them stand out in the Mabula savannah.
Did you know that every zebra has unique stripes? A zebra’s stripe pattern is like human fingerprints and no two are ever the same. But why do zebras have such unique stripes? And how do zebras get stripes when horses do not? Even today, we don’t have a definitive answer to these questions.
Encountering a zebra herd is one of Mabula’s most iconic experiences. These magnificent mammals stand out from the grass, a mass of black and white stripes framed against the wilderness. But underneath these black and white stripes, zebras look just like horses.
It is only their fur that is striped. Zebras start with white fur. Special skin cells transfer the black pigmentation from their skin, therefore making stripes. This is a similar process to other African mammals. African cheetahs only have spots on their fur, all giraffes have the same light tan, yet every giraffe species has different patterns on its coat.
You can observe this in foals. Young zebras do not have black and white stripes, but soft brown markings instead. Basically, the skin pigmentation only fully transfers when the zebra reaches 18-24 months. Zebras split from horses around 3 million years ago. The two species remain so similar that they can breed together. Skin pigmentation can explain how each zebra gets its stripes. But how did they evolve to have stripes in the first place?
Zebra’s unique stripes help to keep a zebra cool. Black and white absorb sunlight differently. When air hits the black stripes it flows faster, because black absorbs heat. Then the air slows down when it reaches the white stripes, this creates air currents and when these currents collide, they form swirls of air, just like a fan, the stripes are a form of thermoregulation.
Zebra stripes are also a natural defence against biting tsetse flies. Black and white stripes confuse the tsetse fly and camouflage the zebra. Therefore, zebra stripes are unique not only as a defence against lions, but against the diseases brought by biting flies.
Their stripes prevent predators from identifying an individual. They can see and smell the herds but at times struggle to catch one. Zebra will typically huddle together in close-knit herds. This contrasts wildebeest herds, which are spread out over large distances. Black and white is not a good camouflage for green grass. However, when the herd moves it causes something called motion blur. The black and white stripes merge into a single mass, making it difficult for predators to locate a target.
The patterns confuse and obscure. The stripes blend and overlap and flicker. It can become so confusing that a predator might not be able to make out which way the herd in running.
With a name as strange as ‘wildebeest’, it is no wonder that many people don’t know much about these animals until they are on a guided safari drive. Although they can be very dangerous when stampeding, they are a vital part of the Mabula ecosystem.
The name ‘wildebeest’ is quite strange for anyone who doesn’t speak Afrikaans. Wildebeest translates to ‘wild beast’, and if you see the face of this animal you might begin to understand why.
These animals might not be the prettiest on the reserve, but they are still worth seeing when out on safari. As the name suggests, this animal is not going to win a beauty contest any time soon. The characteristically large face is what you first notice when seeing a wildebeest for the first time. Don’t let the name mislead you, these animals are not blue. The name ‘blue wildebeest’ refers to the silvery-blue sheen of the animal’s coat.
Like with many large animals, blue wildebeest are herbivores. The wildebeest’s favourite food is the short grass found all over the reserve especially on plains like rainmeter, long winding, Mannekamp, Mvubu and Ngorongoro plains. Although they prefer grass, when there is a shortage, they will switch to eating foliage from shrubs or trees, their largemouth allows them to grab large tufts of grass at a time. These animals are often found living alongside zebras. Zebras eat the top, less-nutritious grass, which helps reveal the greener grass that the wildebeest prefer.
There are many animals that would gladly make a meal out of this large herbivore. These animals are abundant, making them a perfect target for lions, cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs, hyenas, and crocodiles. The most dangerous time for wildebeest is when they are young. Newborn wildebeest must keep up with the herd within minutes of birth. Any delay can mean an easy meal for predators lurking nearby.
These intriguing animals have been calling the grasslands of Mabula their home for many years and will continue to do so for many more. Whether you opt to see them on any of the plains on Mabula Private Game Reserve, there are plenty of places to find them here on Mabula.
Warthogs might not top the list of the fastest animals on Mabula, but they can still run at up to 55 km/h. These unique creatures have had to adapt to their harsh environment here on Mabula, where lions, wild dogs, leopards, and many other predators could be lurking behind the next bush. Warthogs often get forgotten or ignored when out on safari. I feel these animals deserve more attention thanks to their speed, acceleration, and unique behaviours.
Despite their size and stature, these warthogs are very quick. The first time you see a warthog take off is always a wonderful surprise. Not only do they go from zero to 55 km/h in a flash, but warthogs’ tails immediately shoot towards the sky. One second, they will be walking around, searching for their favourite warthog food, and the next second they will have disappeared from your vision. These alert animals are always on the lookout for predators, ready to sprint away at a moment’s notice.
Warthog babies are some of the cutest things you’ll see. Called piglets, they are born after a 5-to-6-month gestation period. These adorable animals are still very small at birth and require 20 months before they are fully grown. Although they gain mobility fairly quickly, they have a long way to go before they are as fast as their parents. During this time, piglets are at their most vulnerable and prone to predation from a variety of animals – including eagles.
Compared to the predators that warthogs are up against, they aren’t that fast. Lions, wild dogs, hyenas, leopards, and cheetahs can all outrun a warthog. They are also significantly slower than the other prey species on the reserve like, wildebeest, impalas, and other species.
Impalas are one of Mabula’s most recognisable symbols. But hear the word ‘impala’ and what immediately comes to mind? An antelope that can be seen everywhere on the reserve. Sometimes it is a challenge to find these impalas due to predators currently on the reserve.
The impala finds itself midway up the ranks within the antelope brethren, regarding size, weight, and stature here on Mabula. This animal’s smooth and silky fur is somewhat prized. Males have chicane-shaped, sloping horns that give an aura of splendour, and a majestic appearance of pomp and pretense. A marvellous sight to savour and behold. With the slightest whiff of unwanted company, the impala will bounce to safety. So, while they are a very common safari sight, we are very lucky to have beautiful sightings of them and a very close distance also.
Males are aptly known as rams, perhaps because of their tendency to tussle and tangle horns with other males. This takes place at the start of the dry season when testosterone levels are high. Female impalas are referred to as ewes and, as is the case with a multitude of land-dwelling species, they are dwarfed in size and status by their male counterparts. Impalas are on the dinner menu of many big cats, especially cheetah, wild dog, and leopards. These 60 km/h speeds are not sufficient for the impala’s survival, so stealth and slyness are other tools it keeps in the locker for their survival.
The impala adopts a zig-zag trajectory to help its enthusiastic escape. Many of its known predators trump the impala in speed, size, and overall strength. Impalas focuses on the attributes at its disposal. It uses a solid sense of balance and astounding levels of agility to chop, change, faint, fake and step its way to safety. Impalas are proud owners of a colossal leap, both forwards and up in the air, making it nature’s most eligible jumping athlete. Whether sprinting, springing, leaping, or launching, it can propel itself quite remarkable distances, all in the name of self-preservation.
Impalas spend most of their days eating. They subsist on a simple meat-free diet, preferring some of the smallest vegetation available on the Mabula savanna – grass shoots, herbs, and shrubs. The plentiful nature of grass means finding food is rarely a challenge. It’s finding water that the impala must learn. Known as mixed feeders, impalas also have an innate versatility to adapt to their surroundings and switch between grazing and browsing. In short, the impala will gnaw through most of the greenery it finds. As ruminants, impalas possess four separate stomach chambers which expertly extract all nutrients found from their food. This advanced form of multi-stage digestion means that the impala really does get the maximum benefit from every bountiful bite.
When forced to flee from the herd during a chase, the impala has a miraculous ability to release a scent from glands in its heel. This is to attract the rest of the herd so they can all regather and regroup.
Mabula is a beautiful reserve that offers some amazing safari sightings. It calls to the wild at heart and daring of spirit. But more than that, its beauty moves all those who set eyes on this magnificent lodge and reserve. Sundowner stops are always the best. Guests have a choice of their own drink while watching the sun going down behind the horizon.
A Mabula sunset is a sight to behold. It’s true, Mabula showcases some of the most spectacular skies. Then, there is the added magic of Mabula’s diverse wildlife, open plains, beautiful view from dickshill and Christmas hill. It’s something you must see for yourself.
There are so many interesting things to learn about animals found on Mabula that I can share with you but for now I am going to stop here.
Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.