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Written by Isaiah Banda

Just like that, we have made it to December. It’s as if someone waved a magic wand and everything turned green. But seriously, within a month the reserve has taken another beautiful turn in the cycle of seasons and we are well and truly into summer. With the first rains of the season under our belt, the reserve has broken out into abundant greenery. With over 80mm of rain we received, sightings have been plentiful and special as the animals gear up for summer and are widely spread out all over the reserve.

Ukulima Female Cheetah killed at the age of 13.

We regret to inform you that our Ukulima cheetah female died a few days into November. She was killed by, what looks to be a leopard. Reserve Wildlife Monitor, Triston Govender tracked her until he came to the remainder of her carcass on the southwestern reaches of the reserve.

The reserve team along with one of our wildlife vets managed to locate the two surviving cubs thereafter and they have been moved to the safety of the predator boma. Their futures will be decided upon in conjunction with the Cheetah Metapopulation management in the next while.

This female cheetah has been phenomenal on the Mabula reserve when we speak of great cheetah sightings. Guests and guides were entertained by her while out on a safari. Around the lodge area, we were always alert when we heard vervet monkeys calling, we knew that she is either in the lodge area or just outside the lodge fence looking at the nyalas inside the lodge.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) started the Cheetah Metapopulation Program in 2011, which is when Mabula received a coalition of two adult brothers, followed by an adult female in 2013 and two years later our first litter of cubs were born. In 2016 our resident female was relocated and was replaced by the Ukulima female who became part of the Mabula family until 2023 November when she was killed.

Since 2015, there have been over 20 cheetah cubs born on Mabula. Cheetahs reach sexual maturity as early as 20 to 24 months and are reproductive throughout the year. According to EWT, cheetah that have been relocated from Mabula “…now roam freely in eight reserves located across most of the provinces and a variety of biomes”.

The goal of the EWT Cheetah Project is to manage the Southern African cheetah in a way that maximizes their genetic diversity and range expansion. A cheetah cannot be relocated to an area that contains relatives of the animals about to be introduced.

With the assistance of EWT, Mabula will be able to source a new female. The reserve management division will keep us posted on the way forward, with cubs and the introduction of a new female on the reserve.

Guided bushwalk on Mabula Game Lodge.

One of my favourite activities on the reserve is a guided bushwalk. To walk along a path on the same earth where generations of elephants have trodden, to inspect the track of a giraffe or even cheetah, that had padded by exactly where you are standing, and to have the peace and tranquillity of nature all around you is something very special to experience.

After the thrills of finding and photographing big animals and small animals, often very close to the vehicle on morning safaris, a relaxing guided bushwalk after breakfast is a serene activity which allows you to feel a connection to nature, to feel like you are walking amongst the wildlife, away from the confines of the vehicle and the noise it creates.

Walking in silence along a game path listening to the sounds of the bush all around you is a humbling experience. Being relatively safe in a safari vehicle, you appreciate all you see, but you can only really connect to nature when on a bushwalk. When you are down on the ground, you really notice how every part of the ecosystem works together in balance.

A nature walk allows guests to experience aspects of the bush that can’t be appreciated fully from the vehicle, to look at and learn about tracks and signs, trees, flowers and grass, invertebrates, reptiles and smaller animals, birds, and much more.

You are also immersed in the sounds of the bush, birds singing, the low rumbling of elephants communicating, the soft chirrup of a group of mongoose as they forage, the iconic call of the African fish eagle, the high-pitched buzz of the cicada, rustling of leaves in the wind or the hooves of a herd of wildebeest as they scatter from a disturbance.

If we are lucky enough to experience the thrill of seeing a large animal on foot, which may be viewed safely if conditions allow. Safety is a priority, carrying a rifle in case of the worst-case scenario in an encounter with a dangerous animal, however, a multitude of safety precautions are followed to avoid a serious confrontation. These safety aspects include safe areas to walk, avoiding thicker areas, wind direction, warning sounds of animals and birds indicating the possible presence of a dangerous game animal, and tracks and signs, to name a few.

If ‘dangerous game’ animals are encountered, we may be able to approach from a safe distance and view their behaviour. The best way to do this is to approach, view and retreat without the animal ever knowing you were there. This approach is safest and also allows the animal to continue its natural behaviour without interference.

Guests should not be nervous to experience a bushwalk though due to the possibility of bumping into potentially dangerous animals. We as trail guides uses precaution and knowledge to ensure that dangerous encounters do not occur. Awareness of the environment and knowledge of the inhabitants of the bush is paramount for a trails guide, so that one knows animals are ahead before the animals know you are there.

I have had wonderful encounters with my guests where we have watched the natural behaviour of animals with them being unaware of our presence. A most recent occasion was watching a coalition of cheetah just after they caught a Tsessebe. We approached them using vegetation to hide us, the wind in our favour, until we were so close to them.

I could see the fear in my guests eyes, very concerned about their safety. However the cheetahs were not even worried about us but concentrating on their meal. We watched them using their skill to feed on the carcass, opening up to access the internal organs before going into the hind quarters. At one stage they forgot they are brothers as they started quarreling with each other.

Cheetah have twelve incisors, six on each jaw, four canines, two on each jaw, four molars, two on each jaw, and ten premolars- six on the upper jaw and four on the lower. It was facinating to see how each of those types of teeth were used by these two cheetah, something we heard about and we got to experience ourselves this time and it was so exciting.

It was not long before their bellies were full and they left the carcass and went and lay in the shade to take a nap. After watching them quietly for 30 mintutes, we moved away and left them to carry on with their daily activity which will be to stand up and eat again and again and there is only scraps remaining for the scavengers. They have to eat as quick as possible so that when scavengers arrive they have had their share already and avoid injuries. What a sighting it was.

Even if we were not so lucky to encounter cheetah on foot on this particular walk, there were a multitude of fascinating creatures to see and learn about! I love coming across smaller, more overlooked creatures, such as dung beetles, chameleons, termites, spiders and reptiles. Feel the concrete strength of a termite mound, and wonder at the amazing organization of the termite community. To really appreciate the intricacy of a spider web, or the perfection of a bird in flight is something else.

Inspect the newspaper of the bush, the tracks and signs that animals leave behind. And not just animals, my previous guests will remember how I have caught them out with the track of a clump of grass blowing in the wind and leaving a perfect semi-circle in the sand!

Tracks tell you a story, who walked there, who chased who or followed who, who walked that path afterwards, who left a territorial scent mark and who broke off a branch or rubbed their muddied skin on a tree stump. It is fascinating to read the tracks of the bush. These don’t only include footprints, also signs such as scent markings, rubbing trees or posts, dung middens, scrape marks, even bent over grass where an animal has walked, or a faint mark of claws scratched against a tree.

Sitting quietly in the shade for a moment, you will realize that there is life all around you. The inflorescence as a variety of grass species tickle your legs. You see out of the corner of your eye the movement of a small lizard scuttling over sun-baked rocks. And the birds!

Forever a bird song in the air! The comical “guwayyyy” of the grey go-away bird glancing down at you, a soft rising toot of the tiny pearl-spotted owlet from the hidden branch of a high tree, the cackling cacophony of the green wood-hoopoes as they search for insects in holes and under tree bark, the knocking of a woodpecker, the “kisshhh” calls of oxpeckers that signifies an antelope or perhaps a big game animal.

At any time of the year a bush walk has something special to offer. If you walk in summer you will be able to witness the stunning display of wild flowers, or inspect natural waterholes for tracks of animals such as terrapins or frogs. A walk in the dry winter months may allow the sight of a herd giraffe moving to a waterhole to drink.

Elephants drinking and swimming Nyathi dam.

As the sun began to rise, casting a warm, golden glow over the bush, accompanied by my eager guests, we embarked on our morning safari.

Our mission for the safari was straightforward: to find the pack of wild dogs, which were last sighted on the northwestern reaches of the reserve. Little did we know that a herd of elephants would turn this into an unexpected and remarkable morning

While driving through the hills in the northwestern reaches of the reserve, we saw some beautiful animals both big and small. We encountered a dazzle of zebras drinking water at Segwagwa dam. And we were able to witness a remarkable and famous zebra crossing on guarry road.

We also saw giraffe, tall and elegant, feeding along pump house plain. It was good to see quite a good number of them from young to adult.

The plain was full of impalas, dancing gracefully in herds as they woke up to the cool morning air. We watched many of the males chasing the herds of females around to ensure they were accounted for and didn’t drift away towards other males’ domains.

But it was the humble dung beetle that stole the show. With the warming weather, these industrious little creatures have emerged in droves. A massive ball of elephant dung rolled down the road ahead of us, a testament to nature’s intricate balance. We took a closer look and noticed two dung beetles on the ball. One doing all the hard work rolling the ball along the road and the other just holding on for dear life.

The dung beetles have been out in swarms and make for fascinating sightings! Generally, you will see a dung ball being rolled by the male, with the female clinging to the side.

After enjoying the show from the dung beetles, we followed the telltale signs of fresh dung of elephants along the road, and it became evident that we were closing in on a magnificent encounter. The heart-pounding anticipation was palpable.

We ventured further, rounding a bend, and there they were, a herd of elephants, silently standing in the middle of the road, and they decided to sand bath.

Their direction was clear. Slowly but steadily, they made their way towards a watering hole. With an eager smile, I turned to my guests and told them. “These elephants are heading directly towards a waterhole, for a drink!”

The first elephant arrived at the water’s edge and filled its trunk to pour the water into its mouth! And then another two female ambled up to the waterhole to quench their thirst. As the minutes passed by, more elephants joined the scene, all eager to secure their position near the water. And before we knew it, the rest of the herd stormed towards the water. This was a breathtaking moment observing elephants unperturbed by us and completely drawn by the waterhole.

The elephants approached the waterhole with great determination. They queued up patiently for their turn to drink. The rhythmic sounds of sipping and splashing filled the air, as they drank and enjoyed themselves in the water.

A frenzy of pushing and shoving ensued by the elephants to get to the muddy edge of the watering hole. After taking several trunk fills of water, then it was a moment we have all been waiting for, seeing them walk into the water as they begun to swim, elephants are excellent swimmers and I will not be shy to say these excellent swimmers are better than myself.

Elephants swim by moving all four legs while their massive bodies help them to float and their trunks act as a snorkel. They generally swim with their face above water but their mouths submerged while their trunk allows them to continue breathing. Despite their weight, elephants are great swimmers, an exercise they thoroughly enjoy.

As the day continued to warm up, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy. We watched with delight as these gentle giants had a good time in the cool waters, a privilege of nature that left my guests and I in awe. We watched as the last member of the herd had its final sip and then walked off along the road.

Time spent with elephants is certainly never time wasted at all! I love spending time with elephants in the bush because they are incredibly entertaining, and sincere and have a huge presence. Just being around them can be breathtaking. They remind me of the rawness of the wild, and I’m grateful for the unique connection we share with these gentle giants.

Elephants love to play with mud and water. The mud keeps their skin cool. Their big ears also work like fans. The elephants flap these to keep themselves cool. Mud baths serve a critical purpose for elephants.

Under the harsh Mabula sun, the heat and UV radiation can be deadly and with their few hair and sweat glands they have to find other ways to cool off. Romping around in the mud not only cools them down, but provides a protective layer to shield their body from the sun’s rays and it is also relief them from insect bites.

Some of our water pans are bone dry which resulted in some amazing sightings at the bigger dams, needless to mention the waterhole in front of lodge still has water which is utilized by general game. Apart from the common residents, elephant were seen at night quenching their thirst at the waterhole by the lodge.

Though we may not have found the wild dogs on this particular morning, such a sighting of elephants always brings an enormous smile to my face. It’s a testament to the unpredictable beauty of a safari here at Mabula.

We were fortunate to receive our first rains quite early in the month. Even though it was only over 50mm up until now, we’ll take any drop we can get. We are hoping for much needed rain in the months to come as the area is extremely dry at the moment, with veld fires raging on some of our neighbouring reserves.

Another ecological engineering of Mabula, the Hippopotamus.

In the heart of Mabula’s diverse ecosystems, the mighty hippopotamus emerges as an unexpected yet influential force shaping the environment. Hippos are common on the reserve. We have a few dams where they can be seen, currently two dams are favoured by hippos during the winter months being Mvubu dam and Ngulubi dam, while in the summer months they use almost all our dams. While often recognised for their imposing size and semi-aquatic lifestyle, hippos hold a lesser-known title as ecological engineers, contributing significantly to the intricate balance of their habitats. I had the opportunity to share my knowledge with my guests about the importance of hippos on the reserve.
Ecological engineers are species that greatly modify their environment, influencing ecosystems and biodiversity. Hippos, found in Mabula’s waterways, play an integral role in shaping both aquatic and terrestrial landscapes. The existence of hippos as both aquatic and land-dwelling mammals is key to their engineering ability here at Mabula.

During the night, these semi-aquatic animals move towards the land, grazing on grasses and other vegetation. This grazing behaviour not only sustains their massive size but also shapes the landscape by trimming vegetation, thereby affecting plant growth and species diversity.

On average, hippos eat about 40kg of food each night, which is about 1 to 1.5% of their body weight. This feeding is done in about 4 to 6 hours of the night when the hot sun is not scorching down on their sensitive skin. The true impact of hippos, however, becomes most evident during the day. As the day heats up, hippos head back into water bodies, seeking shelter from the sun. While submerged, they engage in a distinctive activity that earns them their ecological engineering badge, which is defecation.

Hippo dung, a blend of digested grasses, is launched into the water, providing vital nutrients to aquatic ecosystems. These nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, enrich the water, stimulating the growth of algae and other microorganisms. In turn, this abundance of life becomes a primary food source for various aquatic species, from fish to invertebrates, forming a complex food web.

Waterholes become nutrient hotspots for vegetation due to the nitrogen deposits from the hippo dung. Moreover, their dung acts as a natural fertiliser, often carried downstream by currents, benefiting flora and fauna along the riverbanks. The deposition of hippo dung results in nutrient hotspots, promoting vegetation growth and fostering diverse habitats for other animals, thereby enhancing biodiversity in these riparian zones.

Interestingly, the very act of hippos wallowing in the water also contributes to their ecological impact. Wallowing creates depressions in riverbeds, forming small pools. These pools provide shelter for other aquatic organisms during dry seasons when water levels recede, thereby ensuring survival during harsh conditions.

The hippopotamus, with its large presence and seemingly simple lifestyle, stands as an unsung hero in Mabula ecosystems. Through their seemingly mundane activities of grazing, defecating, and wallowing, these charismatic creatures sculpt landscapes and foster biodiversity, earning their rightful place as nature’s under-appreciated ecological engineers. We appreciate every moment we spend watching them with our guests.

Once under the surface, essentially holding their breath, they can walk around for roughly five minutes before having to come up for air. This is done in one of three ways: simply walking to a shallower point in the water source where they can remain standing with just their heads sticking out the water.

By standing on their back legs and pushing their head up towards the surface, by launching themselves from the bottom up to the surface, filling their lungs before slowly sinking back down. Pushing their way to the surface in deeper water taking a breath and slowly returning to the bottom, this is in fact not swimming as they cannot propel themselves along the surface while doing this.

What is a wild dog?

I had guests that arrived at Mabula this month and asked me this question “What is a wild dog” and it is a fair question. As most of what you see on social media platforms is generally about the Big 5 like lions, elephants, buffalo, and leopards, naturally, wild dogs, also known as Cape Hunting Dogs or Painted Wolves are often overlooked because they may have simply not been heard of before and not all game reserve have the luxury of having wild dogs like Mabula.

As a guide, you always want to teach and inform your guests about the wildlife but the best for me is when we are lucky enough to encounter wild dogs. Show my guests something out of the ordinary, something they do not know of or have not even heard about. It is very common to see their reaction, and the quizzical look of “What is this animal?” When you start explaining what wild dogs are and how rare it is to see them, you draw the guest’s attention immediately.

Wild dogs are primarily diurnal, but often exhibiting crepuscular hunting behaviour meaning they hunt early mornings and late afternoons, but with any predator this is not always the case and hunts may happen at any time. They are extremely successful hunters. Camouflage plays a minor role in their hunting strategy, unlike a leopard or lion who rely heavily on their camouflage and their tactic is one of surprise rather than long distance chases.

Adult dogs rely on this endurance running to chase down their prey, which means that prey species, from something as small as a hare, all the way up to wildebeest are often run to the point of exhaustion and chases can carry on for kilometres but will stop if the chance of success is slim. When they are chasing down prey, they can maintain a speed of ±56km/h for several kilometres, all this through thick bush and undulating ground which is incredible!

It was early one morning that we spotted the group of wild dogs that had just brought down a young impala, not far from the lodge at Rainmeter plains. As we watched them eating, there was always one or two heads that would be up at any one time, on the lookout for any scavengers or predators that could chase them off their kill.

Two of the adult that I captured in the picture, had arrived sometime after the others, briefly posing, and looking in my direction allowing me to take a great shot before joining the feast. This gave me one of my best wild dog pictures I have taken.

The African wild dog is a truly beautiful creature and are becoming one of the more requested sightings amongst our guests. Their elusiveness within the bush is making them a priority for most our guests when on safari drives. As a result, sightings are less common. We are extremely fortunate to have pack roaming on the reserve.

Two leopard cubs on their own.

One morning a call came through the radio by one of the guide Tshepo Loni that he has just found two leopard cubs on Top road close to Nyathi dam on their own with no sign of their mother. Few guides responded to the sighting and I decided to skip it as I was far to the south and by the time I get there they will be gone. After dropping my guests at the lodge I decided to take a drive on my own to see if I can relocate the cubs. I decided to approach from a different direction on Sandy road. I have had on many occasion where I was not ready and missed great sightings. This time I decided to keep my camera ready as I drove along on Sandy road. Currently this area has had huge leopard activity.

Unexpectedly, a male leopard walked past infront of my vehicle from the block of Sandy road in the direction of Whole owner plain and I was lucky to get two great pictures before he disappeared into the thicket. I tried to drive around to Whole owner plain hoping he would pop out on the plain. He did not show up and I decided to head to where the cubs were last seen. I started scanning around the area trying to see any movements in the trees. I stopped for a while and little did I know they were right next to me on the grass and did not notice them.

As soon as they realized I had seen them, they begun to walk away from my vehicle. These are the same cubs we sighted on the southern side of the reserve last few weeks. They produced exellent sightings. It is good to see that they are now exploring the northern reaches of the reserve. It looked like the mother left them in this area as she went hunting. Lepoard sightings are starting to increase, which is what we need for our guests visiting Mabula. To enjoy and take these memories back home.

A morning with Lake Kyle dominant male

One morning my guests and I had an incredible experience…we spent pretty much the entire morning safari with the Lake Kyle male. The morning started early as we set out to enjoy first another spectacular “Bush Sunrise” and it did not disappoint at all.

It wasn’t long before we stumbled upon the big male just 200m infront our vehicle. We approached him to get closer and get a better view and of cause pictures. After a few minutes watching him, then the unexpected happened. He started roaring. Hearing him roaring from a distance of 10m, we could feel the vibration on the vehicle. That is how loud he was.

He stood up and walked in search of his ladies, the roar was probably calling them to establish where they were so he could join up with them. It is normal for the males to sometimes move away from the pride to mark their territory and advertise themselves.

Lions are my favourate animals, they spend 20hrs sleeping and lazing around, however if they decide to do something, they will do it and that is where you will enjoy being around the presence of lions. Like with this male, we found him lying down.

Lion sightings have improved quite a lot, with both lionessess missing currently, the male has been out and about trying to find them. We suspect that both lionessess have given birth to the cubs. Everyone is waiting patiently to see how many cubs both of them give birth to.

As this year draws to a close, and as we enter another festive season, we celebrate safari adventures in many different forms. We celebrate it in our storytelling in the way we are able to explore the sequences and events that unfold around us here at Mabula.

Through our storytelling, we always try to find new ways to transport the safari experiences to you and make it feel like you are here at Mabula. Our Monthly guides newsletter have become a much-loved portal for us to bring incredible sightings and animal encounters to your home, taking you on a monthly newsletter update, no matter where you are in the world. There’s no time to be bored on a reserve as beautiful as Mabula.

This Festive Season, our Mabula Family here in the bush, wish every one of you time and space to reflect on how your life has been a wild adventure this year. I hope we can continue to inspire you to reconnect with nature, to listen to its wisdom, and to find the quiet among the flurry of activity to plan your next adventure…with any luck it will be to come and visit us!

The best way to end your safari is with a drink of your choice where a bush bar will be setup. Best experience is when you step out of your vehicle in a sundowner stop, get a drink of your choice, enjoy it while the bush sound is talking to you. That is an unforgetable experience that will go a long way.

Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.
Safari Greetings.

Photos credit to Isaiah Banda, Alexander Pouris.