Written by Isaiah Banda
This year continues to produce very welcome rainfall into June. Over 600mm has fallen since January, with a record of 271mm in April. In this usually dry area, we are always thankful for rain as it is the baseline requirement for an abundance of animals. Bedrock and soils which have remained stable over millions of years, together with rainfall which is unpredictable and therefore not stable, are the main variables in primary food production for grazers and browsers.
In short, good rain years produce a good yield, which in turn leads to an increase in grazers and browsers due to an abundance of food and surface water, as well as providing more cover to hide their vulnerable offspring. The increase in available prey species in turn bolsters the predator populations, and so the cycle continues. Rainfall is thus the headstone of the abundant and diverse game that our guests get to enjoy at Mabula.
A generous rainy season does however come with its challenges, as roads and infrastructure do need some extra repair in these times. Our Reserve Management Division have done a sterling job and most of the damage to our road network has been repaired, making for “smooth” sailing on safari.
The seep and drainage lines are still running with water, unheard of in June, the bush is lush and green and the animals are in great condition. There is something exciting about the arrival of the winter months at Mabula. To feel the Mabula summer heat slowly fade away and make room for crisper, refreshing morning air is always a welcome change. Winter here at Mabula is definitely my favourite time of year.
As you set off on safari you can probably see the beginnings of the sun rising, greeting you with brilliant hues of orange and red as the sun slowly ascends into the sky. The wind in your hair has a good chill to it but that’s the part that wakes you up and makes you feel alive as you snuggle a little more tightly beneath your poncho. If you happen to drive past the main dam, you will see the mist rising off the dam, giving the morning that eerie sensation that makes a winter safari so special.
You start to hear the bird songs as the bush awakens to the dawn of a new day. A great moment on a morning safari is when your guide finds a beautiful spot to stop and enjoy a well-deserved beverage break. You’re able to stretch your legs and warm your fingers around a steaming mug of coffee. You also start to feel the soft rays of the winter sun lightly caressing your face and announcing its arrival.
We had an opportunity to view one of our biggest crocodiles on the reserve. It was on an afternoon safari when we decided to head down to the south to Ngulubi dam, the second largest dam on the reserve. It is not every day that you can get close to crocodiles outside water and be able to even count all the teeth inside its mouth.
Every animal always tries to avoid a crocodile’s territory in an attempt to not be caught in its powerful jaws. These ruling reptiles can flash their jaws in no time and their immense power can kill an animal within minutes, however, a crocodile’s physiology is much more complex than the animals of the reptilian world. Crocodiles are dangerous predators in the animal kingdom, able to live on both land and in water.
A crocodile’s straight body helps it to swim easily. While swimming, its webbed feet work to propel its heavy body through the water. For such a physical structure they can turn fast and make sudden movements in the water with great ease. A crocodile can effortlessly move in shallow water thanks to its webbed feet. Their flat body helps them easily hide underwater. While submerged under water they close their nostrils, blocking water from entering their noses.
Crocodiles have two holes on each side of their skull, it is called a diapsid. Unlike other reptiles, crocodiles can’t stick out their tongues. Their skin is smooth on two sides of their bellies, in contrast, their backs are covered with large and hard scales, called the osteoderm. This hard layer protects the inner skin. Using their back, they can absorb heat to keep their inner body temperature warm. Like lateral lines in fish, the crocodile’s osteoderm layer helps them to sense any kind of movement in the water.
Crocodiles have slightly curved, conical teeth lining both sides of their jaws. Most species have around 60-70 teeth, but some may have up to 100 crammed into their jaws.
Unlike alligators, who have broad jaws, crocodiles have narrow mouths, with an upper jaw that’s slightly narrower than the bottom jaw. When a crocodile closes its mouth, nearly every one of its teeth are visible – both on the top and bottom jaws. When an alligator closes its mouth however, only its top teeth are visible. Additionally, the fourth tooth back in a crocodile’s mouth is massive. This tooth juts distinctly into the side of the upper jaw, creating a dent called a constriction. Crocodiles can live up to 75 years that’s a long time for teeth to last, which is why the crocodile has 4 to 5 backup sets.
Teeth are frequently lost or broken, only to soon be replaced by a new tooth that grows from beneath the old tooth. When the new tooth is ready, it simply pushes the broken tooth out of the socket and–voila, a perfect set of pearly whites. It’s important to remember that crocodiles, while they are predators and can injure or even kill humans, are not evil. They are incredible creatures, with amazing mouths full of immense jaw muscles and teeth, and they deserve our respect.
Lion dynamics at Mabula this month.
The lion dynamics here at Mabula have once again taken a positive turn since the last report making for fantastic viewing and a chorus of roars throughout the night. Lions are the most social of all wild felid species and are often most affectionate to their like-sexed companions. However, lions are known to use licking and nuzzling as a way to strengthen social bonds.
Nuzzling is not a sign of affection but is more likely used to establish a social bond or attachment to assist with survival. We humans tend to anthropomorphize or attribute human characteristics or behaviour to animals. We thus describe such behaviour as affection rather than a matter of survival.
Lions are apex predators at the top of a food chain and have no natural predators, except for humans. Lions can only run quickly in short bursts and do not have good stamina. This is why they are skilled at stalking to get close to their prey before starting their attack. They mainly hunt mammals, particularly wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, warthog and giraffe.
A single lion is capable of bringing down a zebra or wildebeest. Larger prey, such as buffalo and giraffe, are riskier and require a group effort.
Our guides are often asked, “why don’t wild lions attack us in open safari vehicles?” We are able to get close to lions on our safari due to predator-prey dynamics. Our safety relies on the safari vehicle being larger than any animal that a lion would usually attack as prey. Our guides are also trained and experienced in animal behaviour and never put guests or lions in a dangerous position.
This month we celebrated the longest-necked animal with World Giraffe Day.
Giraffes truly are spectacular creatures that are often very highly sought after by many first-time safari-goers and even return guests. Well, I don’t blame them. No matter how many times one has been on safari or how many times one has seen a giraffe, they are a masterpiece of Mother Nature. So intricately designed in so many ways and always a pleasure to see them.
This large male giraffe strolled across an open clearing on rainmeter plains. Giraffe are extremely graceful animals. Sometimes just sitting and watching them go about their day can be very entertaining. This alone makes a quintessential Mabula moment.
I would like to highlight the sheer magnificence of these jewels of Mabula. Not only are they the tallest land animal on Mabula with the longest necks and longest legs, these animals can run up to 60km/h with an 11kg heart pumping blood 2 meters up to their heads at a blood pressure double that of humans.
This requires them to have the thickest skin of any mammal to contain the pressure and ensure it does not pool in their extremities. They also have the largest eyes of any mammal, searching for their next acacia tree to wrap their prehensile blue-black tongue around the leaves. Born at 100kg they can stand within minutes.
It is essential for a giraffe to keep its head up. This increases the chances of spotting predators, it also links directly to their habit of not resting much during the day. Giraffes will feed for about 18 hours in a day and sleep for only about 30-45 minutes. Isn’t that interesting? Imagine sleeping for 45 minutes a day! The other hours are spent moving and wandering and ruminating as they find new trees to browse on. The males will also follow herds of females with an oestrus cow present.
One other really interesting thing about a giraffe is the extensive development of a ligament known as the ligamentum nuchae. This ligament allows the giraffe to passively keep its head and neck upright with very little muscle action and energy expenditure.
Despite all the Wow! facts about giraffes, it only takes looking at their beautiful patterns, awkward gait, towering height and sheer size to be in awe of them. Even though I, and most likely other safari guides have seen giraffe each and everyday since we became guides, we feel privileged to see them each time we come across them. Happy World Giraffe Day.
Elephants are Environmental Engineers
We have been treated to beautiful sightings and experiences of elephants on the reserve. They are now a common sight and we have loved spending time with the bustling herd. The abundant sightings we have had this month have been out of this world. Watching them feed and walking on the road infront of the safari vehicles has been magical.
No one can argue that watching a herd of elephants is not fascinating, not only in terms of observing their behaviour but also admiring their unique physical features. From their sheer enormity in size, the dexterity of their trunks, the complexity of their skin and stunning long eyelashes, the list just goes on. Currently Modjadji area is the place to be when you want to spend time with elephants. They like exploring the Modjadji mountains where they would not usually go during the summer and rainy season as there is an abundance of food for them on the flat areas.
As elephants make their way through the landscape in search of food, they thin out young trees that are competing for space, water, and light by consuming some and stepping on others. Elephants must eat about 5% of their body mass every day to sustain themselves, and so naturally they have large appetites. This means that they dramatically reduce the density of vegetation wherever they go.
The trees that are left behind uneaten and unbroken, however, have a massive advantage over other trees in the bush. They have much better access to light and water thanks to the elephants thinning out the surrounding vegetation, meaning that they grow taller and larger than other trees. Therefore, wherever elephants wander, they stimulate the growth of larger trees.
These trees, which we call late-succession trees, store more carbon in their biomass (roots, trunks, branches, and leaves) than the trees that would have grown in their place. All trees capture carbon in their tissue equivalent of about 25kg a year, but because of the greater height and overall size of late-succession trees, there is more tree biomass capturing more carbon in these trees than in those that would have grown in their place without the presence of elephants.
It is always exciting to sit among a large herd of buffalo, staring in awe at their sheer abundance, size and behaviour.
Buffalo are still prominent on the reserve. After the great rainy seasons and the resulting flush of grazing and ample surface water, huge herds have congregated and they are now exploring the Northwestern parts of the reserve around Modjadji area. The dry season can be a difficult time for the buffalo herds. This is the season in which the knowledge of the older individuals comes into play and when the strength of the herd will protect the younger and weaker animals from predators. If it wasn’t for the herd mentality, many buffalo wouldn’t make it through the dry seasons.
There is never a dull moment in a herd like this and it enables plenty of opportunity to sit back, relax and soak in raw Mabula! Buffalo live in herds and by living in large herds and eating the taller coarse grasses, buffalo play a vital role in the ecology of the grasslands. Many of the smaller grazers are unable to digest the tall grasses, and the tall grasses may prevent them from getting to the shorter, more palatable grasses in the absence of buffalo.
Buffalo are non-territorial and extremely sociable animals, living in large mixed herds. These herds will consist of largely females, their young, and then a number of dominant bulls. The hide on a buffalo bull’s neck is as thick as 2 inches in some places; which protects it during battles with other bulls for dominance. They are bulk grazers and need to keep moving. Having a home range means they can keep moving, which allows the grazing to recover whilst they are in other areas.
Older males tend to leave the herds and spend most of their time alone or in small groups. They prefer to find places usually around water with thick bush to shelter. They are known as ‘dagga boys’, a slang term for mud, and refers to the fact that these old males enjoy much of their time relaxing in mud baths.
The knowledge of female buffalos is integral to the survival of the herd and success of the following generations. Next time you find yourself sitting with a large herd, take a bit of time to watch the restless females and hang around to see who wins the vote that afternoon.
Did you know that even cheetahs can climb trees?
Graceful and elegant are words often used to describe the species of feline commonly known as cheetah. These cats are not as big as the Panthera genus which includes leopards, lions and tigers but despite its comparatively small size, the cheetah enters the ‘big cat’ hall of fame for being the fastest mammal on earth. Occurrences which are special in any way happen in the bush every day. That’s why our guides, who drive out into the bush with our guests every day for safari experience, never lose their passion.
This month our mother cheetah and her cubs entertained guests, especially the cubs who had lots and lots of energy to play. One special show was when the cubs chased each other and even climbed a tree, something that you don’t see happen very often. Not as strong and secure as a leopard, but still quite adept, these wonderful cheetah cubs jumped in the tree, while their mother, lingering under the tree, was as astonished as we were. Still, seeing these slender cats with their long legs balancing on the tree stem was very special, though it was not easy for them to make their way down again.
Another reason that cheetah might climb trees, especially adults cheetah, is to get better visuals of the area which assists them in their hunting strategies. You will mostly see them using termite mounds and even fallen tree stumps.
While the cheetah is the fastest mammal on the planet, the initial months of the average cub’s existence are fraught with danger, especially where they grow with other apex predators presents. The animal relies on its speed for survival as well as sustenance. One thing that helps the cubs when they are still young is their honey badger like coat. Their first few weeks of life they are helpless and not powerful, becoming lethal predators once they reach adulthood.
They are also among the most elusive of the wild big cats – and can be particularly tricky to spot when they are protecting their young. Moreover, they are rarely seen climbing trees, but our lucky guests at the Mabula Game Lodge were treated to this rare display earlier this month, as the cubs took advantage of a wild seringa tree on Dunhill drive.
Ploughing machines of Mabula.
Warthog are one of the most common animals on Mabula. They are seen everywhere when out on safari on the reserve. I usually call them the ploughing machines of Mabula. They use their snout to dig out the roots for feeding. There are lot of things we can learn from these animals.
A warthog’s key identifying feature is its two pairs of tusks protruding from its mouth that are curved upwards. The lower pair is significantly shorter than the upper pair, and the tusks rub against each other when their mouth opens and closes. These tusks are not for digging, but for fighting with other wild pigs, these lower sharper ones can cause quite some damage in a fight.
Along with their tusks, warthogs also have mean-looking upper canines, which can grow to a length of 25 centimetres. Warthogs tend to live in the abandoned homes of other animals, such as aardvarks. They are predominantly peaceful, passive animals and won’t fight for their choice of home, rather hunting down a disused space. Warthogs are primarily herbivores and feed on herbs, roots, bulks, bark, plants and grass. Their large snouts help them to smell and dig up roots to feed on.
Occasionally, they will chew on dead animals, bugs, and worms as they forage. In the dry season they go months at a time without water. Warthogs typically wander to graze during the day, mostly mornings and evenings.
Warthogs kneel on their front knees to feed because they have short necks and relativity long legs. They have adapted by developing special kneepads. Warthogs allow birds, such as yellow-billed hornbills, to perch and eat parasites that live on their bodies.
Update on Mabula’s Painted Wolves
The wild dogs of Mabula continue to showcase some of the most phenomenal wildlife sightings one can usually only hope to see and experience on a safari.
The African wild dog is known by many names, including Cape hunting dog, African hunting dog and painted wolf. Although it is a member of the Canidae family, it is in fact the last surviving member of a separate genus – Lycaon. Its scientific name, Lycaon pictus means “painted wolf”, which refers to the animal’s irregular, mottled coat, which features red, black, brown, white, and yellow fur.
Each dog has its own unique coat pattern, with long legs, big, rounded ears and a white-tipped tail, which also helps members of the pack find each other during a hunt. It is not only their coats that make them special. They each have individual characters, distinct skills, and their own idiosyncrasies. All wild dogs share a sense of fun, a gentleness of soul and a co-operative spirit, which makes them one of Mabula’s most enigmatic creatures.
Unlike other dogs, which have five toes on their forefeet, these canines have only four toes per foot and no dew claw. African wild dogs are deeply social and to them, the pack is everything. These packs are usually dominated by a monogamous ‘alpha’ male and female breeding pair, with the female occupying the top slot. A single pack can comprise of as few as two and up to more than 30 painted dogs.
The alpha female chooses where her pack will build their den and excavates it with the help from her pack. The female may also choose an abandoned aardvark lair for her den, making sure it is heavily disguised and will also create more than one emergency escape route. The female’s pups are also cared for by the entire pack.
Our dogs have recently bonded since the males are from the Thuli block and females are from the Waterberg area. They now have very strong family bonds and spend all their time together. Social interactions are common, and the dogs communicate by touch, actions, and vocalisations.
Their priority is always to protect their pack; pups get first feed after a kill, ‘aunties’ act as pup-sitters for other mothers, and if a wild dog becomes ill or injured, their pack-mates rally round to care for them. Wild dogs have also been seen mourning lost family members. The species communicates well, which relates to their strong bonds. For this purpose, they make use of thin bird-like calls and a deep haunting hoo…hoo…hoo call, distinctly different ear positions, and they also change their body posture to communicate with one another.
Wild dog do not compete with hyaena and jackals for food, as they are not scavengers. Instead, feeding on medium-sized antelope such as impala and other grazing animals, as well as larger prey like zebra, the dogs usually follow a herd of animals until one of the animals becomes separated.
They will then chase this animal until they catch it or it eventually drops from exhaustion. They start to feed immediately without a killing bite, always choosing fresh prey that they have killed themselves.
They rely heavily on their acute sense of hearing, which seems to be more important than their sense of smell. If a pack member gets separated from the group, they can communicate over great distances by ‘hoo-calling’, where they drop their muzzle close to the ground and emit this haunting sound, which can be heard several kilometers away.
It also helps that they have large and flexible bat-shaped ears. You will notice that their ears are never still, even when sleeping, all the time detecting the sounds of approaching danger or potential prey.
When catching its prey, the lead hunter will attempt to immobilise its victim, by grabbing its nose or ear. Next, after the rest of pack joins the hunt, the trapped animal is literally ripped apart in a few seconds. Wild dogs have specially adapted curved, blade-like lower teeth, different to other canids, to enable the quick shredding of carcasses as the risk of losing their prey to lion or hyaena is very real.
Their hunting method minimizes the suffering of their prey, and spoils are shared with the whole pack. Soon after the kill, the pack will erupt into a series of high-pitched squeaks. This may be an expression of excitement, but more likely it is to alert other pack members that a meal has been secured.
We have been very lucky to find them mating several times this month. That is great news for us as we can expect pups soon. Wild dogs mostly hunt medium-sized antelope of around 50 kilograms in size. Here on Mabula we have seen them hunting impalas, wildebeest and even steenbok.
Birds of Mabula.
Birds have ecological value as important elements of the natural system. Birds provide insect and rodent control, plant pollination, and seed dispersal which results in tangible benefits to us. On Mabula we have over 300 species of birds where some of them migrate and some stay on the reserve throughout the year.
Mabula is situated in the savannah biome. The savannah biome is the largest biome in South Africa. It is easily identifiable as a grassy landscape with widely spaced trees. This biome is incredibly important to raptor species and other birds species too in South Africa. Bird species typically found within Mabula include secretary birds, rollers, raptors and many more to name a few.
Mabula is a birders paradise, with several dams located throughout the reserve providing the ideal opportunity to catch sight of the teeming birdlife. Our guides are knowledgeable of the bird species residing in the reserve and happily share their insights with guests
Whether you set out on a safari drive or on a guided walk, bird watching is such a relaxing activity. In order to get the most from your safari experience, please remember to pack your bionoculars.
Once again, the quality of game viewing has been excellent, even in the dry winter season. Let’s take a look at how sightings were this month from our guides, which illustrates the probability of seeing wildlife in the Mabula bush on safari during your stay with us: Elephants 90%, Buffalos 80%, Lions 95%, Leopards 10%, Cheetahs 98%, Wild dogs 70% and general game 100%.
That’s it for this month. We can’t wait to see what happens in May.
Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.