Written by Isaiah Banda
In this newsletter, I take you on a journey into what happened this month on the reserve. You will get to see the incredible wildlife sightings in March of the year. Best of all, Mother Nature did not hold back after the rains and spoiled us with some beautiful scenery in and around the reserve.
March has come and gone in the blink of an eye and we quickly moving out of our hot summer months and into the slightly cooler season of autumn. We can already feel the cooler temperatures in the mornings and the evening which is a welcome reprieve from the intense heat making being out on safari in the bush just that much more enjoyable. As fast as March passed us by, it was full of exceptional game viewing, especially with the big cats with us having a number of lion and cheetah sightings, wild dogs, elephants, eland, and general game.
The element of surprise is what makes every trip to Mabula unique and unforgettable. Nature doesn’t follow a timetable, which means that safari on the reserve is always an exciting experience. Picture this… It’s early morning, and the sun is just starting to peek over the Mabula plains. The birds are already in full song as you enjoy a quick cup of coffee and dunk a rusk before bundling with a poncho in your safari vehicle and off you go for the much-awaited Mabula Safari experience. Our knowledgeable guides will guide you through the fauna and flora of our reserve.
Before you’ve even left the lodge, you can see antelope and zebra grazing peacefully as they enjoy their leafy breakfasts. As you go along, you just never know what the morning’s commute will hold.
Along the roadside, on the road or around the next corner, you are bound to be pleasantly surprised to come across Mabula traffic of all shapes and sizes – warthogs enjoying a rejuvenating mud bath after the rains, giraffes snacking on acacia leaf or two, maybe even an elephant trying to decide whether walking in the veld or walking on the road is the better option today. This is just a mere taste of what your safari will be on Mabula.
The Lions have kept us entertained this month
Finding lions on safari is always something that gets your heart racing. Not just because they are part of the Big 5, but because of their stature. All those great tales of power, strength, and majestic size. That overpowering feeling that you are so close to a creature that is able to take down something as mammoth as an African Buffalo can send chills down your spine. I guess they are not referred to as “Kind of the Jungle” – or bushveld for nothing
You can imagine my excitement when I found fresh tracks of a lioness with her two cubs. If you did not know, lion cubs have pretty large feet, which they slowly grow into. Because of this, I could tell that the impressions on the ground alluded to young cubs as well as an adult.
After following for a couple of minutes, we found them walking along the road on Bottom Serengeti, they went off the road into the plain, we decided to go onto Rooibos extension to wait for them. Our prediction was right, they crossed Rooibos extension and took us to a zebra kill that looked like they killed it earlier in the morning. Males were still eating on the carcass. I suspect lionesses and cubs left males to get to the water and we caught them while they were going back to the carcass.
Interestingly was that when we arrived, males were tolerating one another and eating together, as soon as the dominant male saw lionesses and cubs approaching, he turned against his brother and began to give him a smack until he decided to runaway and leave the carcass.
Cubs ate a little on the carcass and begun to chase each other around. It is normal for the cubs to be so playful. Each of the young lion cubs instinctively went for the neck of the other. It truly was great amusement, viewing these playful practice sessions of little hunters in the making. The two eager bundles of furred energy made their way down to the grass few meters from the mother. Just like children. The dirtier, the better.
The cubs took turns tackling one another on the cleared area, with young growling sounds coming from them getting cuter and cuter as their play progressed. We had been watching this scene for some time and did not notice the sun had already gone up on the horizon and getting hot.
Soon the mother and the other lioness joined the fun, by chasing each other. One cubs climbed on a tree as the two lioness were walking to a dense section of dense Acacia trees to get a very good shade as the sun was getting too hot for them. Soon enough all became quite silent, and the cub growls died down, possibly signally that they had dozed off after a very fun filled morning of walking to the water and back, eating, and playful practice pouncing.
On the other hand males decided to part ways, with one male lying next to the carcass and the other male decided to go to Marula Pan away from his brother. There is nothing more magnificent than seeing a powerful adult male lion, resplendent with his impressive mane encircling his head and to hear them roaring also. Such an alpha male, in the prime of his life, is often seen patrolling the boundaries of his territory with fierce determination. Muscles bulging as he strides along, confident, strong and intimidating.
This behaviour is the world of an alpha male: defending the pride’s land by marking the area with urine, and a thunderous roar to warn off potential prowlers. If needed, he will do battle to defend his territory and his pride. The life span of a lion therefore tends to be short and for the most it ends ungraciously and abruptly.
His paws the size of a standard dinner plate, one blow and you know you’re done for, enough to send tingles down your spine. Adult males can live up to 12 years of age, however on Mabula they sometimes live up to 18 years since there is no much competition and fights among them. I ussualy say they have disagreements among them and they other one will just move away from the other.
Did You Know?
“After the younger lions kill the dominant lion and become the new alpha males, they must win the hearts of the females. A sad and vicious action then follows when the new males kill the cubs of the females they take over. This is known as infanticide. This is done so that the new bloodline can get into the pride.” On Mabula luckily we did not experience that when we introduced our males in March 2021 since there were no cubs. Males won the hearts of females without killing any.
A Surprisingly thrilling morning on the South of the reserve with Wild dogs
What started off as a very average game drive (if such a thing exists), ended up being one of my most memorable drives on Mabula to date. I woke up to the usual early buzz of my alarm clock, followed by a strong cup of coffee. My guests had no idea what lay ahead of them this morning. Admittedly, even I did not expect to see what nature had in store for us on this beautiful summer morning. I had been driving a couple from the USA around the Reserve for the last 2 days and we had been fortunate enough to see most of the animals.
This was their final morning drive and so I wanted to make it extra special. Not long after setting off, we received word that 2 Wild dogs had been spotted on the on the south of the reserve. I stepped on the accelerator and we quickly made our way to the last know area they had been seen. Listening to the reports of the direction these dogs were going, I decided to take a daring risk and made a loop to wait ahead of them onto Tebogo’s road, hoping to catch them running head on towards us. There is nothing quite like spending time with wild dogs while they are on the move. Yes, it is an intense fast-paced sighting that is often very difficult to keep up with them, but if you manage to pr have things play out in front of you, it can be so rewarding to see how they thrive in the chaos.
After what felt like hours because of the anticipation, but realistically was only a few minutes, I let out a squeal of delight causing my guests to almost jump at the surprise. As luck would have it the pair of wild dogs emerged from the brush. They slowed down and then stopped right next to our vehicle, sniffing the air before continuing their patrol, or perhaps they were on the prowl for their next meal. They were moving fast so I made a quick U-turn and followed them along the road. They truly are an artwork of colours; shades of brown, black, gold and white perfectly painted to create a well-camouflaged predator.
Due to the possibility of forming large packs with great stamina, they have the highest success rate of all predators, running their prey to exhaustion and consuming an impala sized prey in less than 20 minutes. We admired them for quite sometime, as they ran between the road and the bush, flushing out small antelope that darted out of harm’s way. Feeling adequately satisfied and completely amazed, we left the dogs and headed on for a warm cup of coffee on a beautiful spot on Kai Dam.
This was my first time locating them on my own after sighting was lost and I know it won’t be the last. The future is bright for this pair of Wild Dogs and I can’t wait to one day possibly find a female for them. They have produced wonderful sightings since their arrival on the reserve.
Mabula’s keystone species
As the largest land mammal, elephants play an important role in balancing the natural ecosystem. Elephants are therefore known as a “keystone species”. Keystone species are those that provide vital ecosystem services which are essential for the survival of other species in the ecosystem. Without these keystone species, the ecosystem would be negatively affected or cease to exist. So how do elephants contribute to the Mabula ecosystem and why are they important to the ecosystem on Mabula?
When water becomes scarce, elephants create small waterholes when they dig to access underground water. They use their feet and trunks to create holes in the ground to access the water. These elephant-made watering holes are then available to elephants as well as smaller animals who may not have been able to access water in times of drought. This we see most of these puddles around the whole owner plain.
When elephants travel to different areas they disperse seeds in their dung. This helps to generate new plant growth as seeds are dispersed meters away from where the plant was initially eaten. Elephant dung is rich in nutrients which makes it the perfect fertilizer. This allows seeds to germinate and grow. The seed dispersal allows for new plant growth which eventually creates new habitats and food for other species.
Elephant dung also creates a food source for dung beetles. Once dung beetles find a fresh pile of dung, they feed on the nutritious solids and fluids contained in the dung. Dung beetles also lay their eggs in the dung balls that they roll. They will then bury these dung balls underground where their larvae can feed and grow. When they bury their dung balls, the dung beetles loosen the tightly packed soil and dig to the layer of soil where plants begin to grow.
The cycle continues when mice and honey badgers feed off the submerged beetle larvae. Elephants, therefore support the survival of the dung beetle population but also assist with the survival of other species such as the honey badger. Many people do not think of the dung beetle as a creature that is important to the ecosystem. Although this creature is only a small part of the ecosystem, it is vital at keeping the dung at manageable levels. If dung beetles did not have their food supply from the elephants and they did not exist, the absence would be noticeable.
There is not much that can stand in an elephant’s way and we often think of them as being destructive creatures when they break down branches and push trees over. This “destructive’’ nature is however vital for the environment and other species. The trees and branches that they push over may not have been accessible to smaller animals, so this helps to ensure that smaller wildlife has access to food. When elephants push down trees to feed, they create habitats for smaller species of animals.
These fallen trees create smaller, micro-habitats for species like lizards and spiders which enables smaller species to co-exist together. When they push over trees and trample over vegetation, they create clearings that allow lighter to reach the ground thereby helping low-lying plants to grow and thrive. This also maintains plains and open areas which we refer to as the Savannah biome and enables plains game such as antelope, zebra and buffalo to have access to quality grasses that they prefer. Perfect example of this on Mabula is Modjadji area around top road and middle road.
As one can tell. Elephants play a vital role in the ecosystem and without these animals, the ecosystem would not thrive. It is clear that the presence of elephants benefits the fauna and flora in an ecosystem. Conservation programmes and game reserves that protect elephants are in essence not only looking out for the elephants themselves but also for the plants and animals that depend on them too.
Elephants, Marula fruits and the Pleasant smell of Marula Fruits on the reserve
The summer season in and around Mabula Game Lodge is characterised by a beautiful lush green mixed with the different beautiful colours of flowers and trees around us, and there is always an abundance of fruits that are edible to humans and animals alike, one of the main fruits we see at this time of year are the fruits of the Marula trees. The Marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea) is a widely grown plant here on Mabula. The Latin name in essence means ‘hard’ and ‘nut’ which refers to the hard stone-like pip found within the fleshy fruit. The strong-flavoured fruit it bears is edible and contains four times as much vitamin C as an orange. The fruits can also be processed to make jams, jellies, and beverages such as fermented beer that is commonly made. The most popular South African liqueur “Amarula” is also made from the same fruits as the Marula tree. The seeds, which used to be unused, are now the source of Marula pip oil. This oil is perfectly odourless and tasteless and has skin hydrating properties amongst other uses.
It is due to the elephant’s love of the fruits that these trees are so widespread. Elephants are mainly, but not completely, responsible for the seed distribution of these trees and due to these large animals, that cover much ground throughout the days and nights foraging, the seeds can be found in their droppings many miles away from any Marula trees in sight.
Daily, we are now witnessing a great deal of elephants moving from one Marula tree to another taking advantage of the fruits before the season is over, and the people in local villages are currently doing the same!
Antelope Species on Mabula
The eland, an ox-like antelope, is the largest antelope species on Mabula. They are a sight to behold and one 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. The Eland can stand between 150 centimetres to 190 centimetres at shoulder height. Females 400 – 600 kilograms weigh less than males 700 – 1000 kilograms. Despite their massive body size, Eland are athletic jumpers and can easily clear fences of 2 metres if startled.
Eland belong to the spiral-horned antelope family along with the Kudu, Blesbuck, 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 a herbivore whose diet is a mix of grasses, leaves and fruits. Here on Mabula they spend most of their time on the plains like Rainmeter, Reginald, Ngorongoro and Modjadji plains, 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.
If you listen closely to when they walk by, you will hear a distinct clicking sound as they approach. This is thought to come from their hooves, which spread out and click back together under the animal’s great weight. It is believed that this is where the Khoi San people of South Africa developed their language from as they have several clicks in their language. The Khoi San people also value this animal when it comes to their religion and traditions. The Eland is used in many different traditions. Eland fat is used in marriage to anoint the couple getting married. The 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.
The silent hunter of Mabula
When visiting Mabula many of our guest’s dream of seeing the magnificent Big 5 and by all means, the Big 5 are an iconic piece of the Mabula puzzle, but the graceful cheetah is just as special as any of them. Due to their nature, cheetahs are not considered to be dangerous.
Typically, they would avoid conflict and instead of standing their ground to fight like the Big 5, they would flee dangerous situations rather than run the risk of potential injuries, which could be a death sentence when they are sharing a reserve with other predators. They are therefore often pushed off their kill by a variety of other predators such as lion, leopard, hyena and even a jackals. Cheetah tend to gorge themselves on the meat of their kills, usually consuming the rump first, followed by the liver as these are extremely rich in nutrients, before their prized kill may be stolen away at any given time.
In addition, the cheetah is built more for speed than power and often when making a kill it takes a bit of time to kill the prey species, whose distress call could attract other hungry mouths. The cheetah capitalises on hunting during the day in order to avoid pressure from the much larger nocturnal predators of the night and their prey species range anywhere from a small rodent all the way up to a wildebeest. Here at Mabula we have seen them hunting as big a Eland and sub adult zebras. Cheetah may not be the strongest, but it certainly is the fastest of all land mammals. With a streamlined head shaped like a bullet, it has a near aerodynamic design. The Cheetah’s anatomical design is further enhanced by a collar bone which acts like a shock absorber during sharp turns in the chase. Any good runner believes in quality foot ware, and since the cheetah’s claws are not fully retractable like most of the cat family, they rely on their claws to gain traction during the chase.
Mother Cheetah has been hanging around the central part of the reserve with her three cubs the past few weeks. The cubs are almost six months old and are doing very well, thus putting a lot of pressure on her to provide food for three growing youngsters. The young cheetah are not yet able to hunt and to make things even more difficult for their mother, they trail behind her and often give her position away. Female cheetahs are solitary animals and have no help in raising their young. They often have big litters as the young ones don’t always survive, allowing for at least one or two individuals to make it to adult hood, on Mabula mother cheetah has 100% successful rate where cubs made it to adulthood. This particular female is an excellent mom and has previously successfully raised her cubs before this current litter. She has been able to keep her youngsters safe from other predators who will often kill them if given a chance.
Cheetahs are active during the day and this gives them a slight advantage over predators like lions and spotted hyena, which are mainly active at night. While the lions and hyena are sleeping the cheetah is able to do it’s hunting and eat its kill in peace. At night the cheetah will go up into the rocky outcrops or the thickets to sleep, staying well out of the way of other predators.
Myself and my guests we have been very lucky this month with the mother and cubs close to stables where she caught impala few minutes before we found her. Nontheless it was great expereience to see her and cubs feeding on the impala ewe carcass. It is not often that you find cheetah with a fresh kill and watch cubs trying to cut the carcass open while the mother is watching them.
The following day on afternoon safari we decided to follow up on them to see what will they be busy with. We couldn’t find them at the spot where they made a kill. I decided to go and check rainmeter plain which was not far from the kill happened. It is always amazing when the plan work out exactly as predicted. We found them on the southern side of Rainmeter plain. Cubs were playing with one another and also playing with the mother who was not keen on playing along.
In preparation for their separation from their mother, the cubs will begin to partake in more hunts until they are successful enough for mom to let them venture solo. One day, she will get up to move on and her cubs will simply not follow. It sounds like a sad ending to our story, but it’s the natural way… she will leave them to be independent, adult cheetah, and this will be their own new beginning.
A much as it is tough being a mother cheetah in any natural environment, however the success shown by this female is testament to her commitment to her offspring. We look forward to witnessing her accomplishments in raising future litters and will continue to monitor her cubs into adulthood.
Two species with strong bond on Mabula
When it comes to wildlife survival is of utmost importance. If animals are ‘together’ it means many senses are put to use to protect themselves. Zebras have got good eyesight whilst wildebeest have a good sense of hearing, coupled with eyesight. Both species are grazers and prefer open plains.
Feeding together is beneficial for heightened awareness and at the same time, competition for food is not necessarily an issue. Zebras prefer taller grasses and the taller parts of grasses. They graze indiscriminately and their preferences are numerous. Wildebeest prefer short grass, with more green, soft growing parts. This is beneficial in that feeding behind zebra who crop the taller grasses, thereby make more options for wildebeest to select, who have a slightly more restricted palate.
Zebras defend themselves by kicking and biting whilst wildebeest use their horns and agility. We find a lot of zebras on the reserve because of the dominant type of vegetation; Sourveld, which is favoured by animals such as Zebra who are hindgut fermenters, lacking a suitable rumen to digest the grass they feed on. Increasing their numbers in these areas is beneficial to the grazing quality on the Reserve and the pressure they exert on the grasses, improves the quality of grazing for most other grazers including Wildebeest. Zebras are very successful because they stay together which helps to work as a team for detecting predators
Vultures visit to Mabula and their fascination for dead trees
Thanks to their association with death, carrion and other unpleasantries, vultures get a bad reputation. Their penchant for perching aloft on dead trees doesn’t help this image either. Why do they do this? Vultures serve a vital function by cleaning up the bush after predators. They don’t have a choice; they aren’t equipped for anything else. Except for the lappet-faced vulture, which can catch and eat small animals and birds, they are unable to hunt their own prey. Vultures serve a vital function by cleaning up the bush after predators. They don’t have a choice; they aren’t equipped for anything else.
Except for the lappet-faced vulture, which can catch and eat small animals and birds, they are unable to hunt their own prey. So, what does this have to do with perching in dead trees? For starters, lions and other predators are not enthusiastic about sharing their hard-earned meals.
With little defence against these predators, except a not-to-fleet-footed retreat, vultures need to stay out of the way until these much larger animals have had their fill. A dead tree is an ideal vantage point from which to view the proceedings in safety. Dead tree branches are a lot more stable than the flexible boughs of green trees.
This enables the vultures to perch more easily with their flat, chicken-like feet. With no leaves to obstruct their view, it’s also easier to see from a distance when the coast is clear. Vultures have an average wingspan of about 2 metres.
With all this flight gear to fold up, branches and twigs are a problem when landing in a tree. It is much easier for vultures to swoop down onto the bare branches of a dead tree than negotiate foliage as they come in for landing. You hardly ever come across one vulture sitting in a tree waiting for their turn at the kill. Just as we look for swirling vultures overhead to indicate a kill site during a Safari, vultures watch each other for signs of their next meal. It only takes one vulture to start their slow spiral to attract all the others in the area. A dead tree is a fine grandstand for all these birds-in waiting and can accommodate far more of them than a living one can. Since their food source is going nowhere, and adult birds have no natural predators, they have no reason to conceal their presence and can rest up in dead trees in between meals too.
The beauty of being in the bush is that you never really know what you are going to see. Sometimes you see everything, and sometimes there is less around, and this gives you an opportunity to really take all the stunning scenery around you. Then there are times when you set off with a specific goal and nature just has another plan for you.
That’s it for this month. It has been a spectacular month in Safari….
Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.