Written by Isaiah Banda
Spring has sprung here at Mabula, and although we still await the first real rains of the season to brighten everything up. The bush may be tinder-dry, and the daytime temperatures may be rising, but that doesn’t stop spring from making its arrival known! There are signs of new growth everywhere we go at the moment, from the gradual appearance of fresh buds on trees and shrub. Game viewing on the reserve this month has been phenomenal.
Recently I had the privilege of taking a moment to myself while out in the bush and appreciated an often overlooked yet incredible natural phenomenon. A simple moon rises. Sitting there with a dramatic moonrise to the east contrasted by an intense, radiant sunset to the west, I felt caught between two cosmic forces. And that got me thinking…
Have you been out on a safari and noticed that the full moon looks huge as it rises? Well, no it has not got bigger because you are on a safari. It just appears bigger and brighter because of a combination of three factors. So, it is just our mind playing tricks on us, making us think that the size of the full moon changes during an evening!
With the moon being an ever-present object in the night sky, it is quite easy to overlook. Don’t let that stop you, and on your next safari, ask your guide about the phase and size of the moon. Not only can it be quite humbling in giving some perspective as to how small we really are, but it will also give you an appreciation for the complexities of what is often overlooked. Let me stop there and leave the rest for your guide on your next safari here at Mabula.
Safari Highlights on Mabula this Month:
Our dominant male taking advantage of the safari vehicle shade to move away from the sun. it is normal for lions to use safari vehicle shade if there is not b/ any other shade around them.
My first ever Sandgrouse sighting on the reserve.
One morning while out on safari I happened to take my eyes off the road for a moment and noticed two inconspicuous little birds sitting on the edge of the road, a pair of Double-banded Sandgrouse.
Often overlooked because of their mottled brownish back feathers that help to blend them into their environment, I decided to use this opportunity to share a little more on these subtly beautiful birds. The male Double-banded Sandgrouse has a black and white forehead band and bolder yellow around the eye.
Often seen in pairs, you can easily distinguish between male and female by looking at their chest. The male has a distinct double band of black and white across the chest, hence their name, and the female has a heavily barred chest. Both have yellow around the eye with the male being slightly bolder with a black and white forehead band.
As with all sandgrouse, the double banded will carry water to its chicks by means of belly feathers. As the chicks cannot fly, parents need to supply their chicks with moisture. After soaking his chest and belly feathers in water, the male will fly to the nest and chicks to let the chicks’ drink. This is also done by females, but to a lesser extent, due to females not having the same number of absorbent feathers as males. The double-banded sandgrouse drinks and collect water at dusk. Just a taste about sandgrouse birds. On your next safari ask your guide to show you this fascinating birds.
Mabula Wild dog Update
Trail Cam pics at the new den site, In the central west of the Reserve which is inaccessible by road revealed the alpha female did breed this season. Alpha female and her sister were translocated from the free-roaming TOOG Area Breeding Pack earlier this year to bond them to two free-roaming males already on the reserve and form a new, stable breeding pack.
During the bonding process, an alpha pair quickly emerged and were observed mating shortly after being paired together. This is the first litter for the 2-year-old alpha female and the first litter of African wild dogs to be born here on the reserve.
After a nine-week gestation, finally our alpha female has given birth, the first time on Mabula game reserve. This will go down on the reserve history. The atmosphere among the guides on the reserve is overwhelming when talking about wild dogs. All the guides are competing to be the first one to sight our wild dogs’ puppies.
Four to eleven pups are born in a den that provides protection from the elements and other animals. Dens may be in soft ground under rocks, logs or other debris, or in logs or other hollows. Pups are suckled for 4-6 weeks and weaned at four months.
Will keep you all posted as we obtain more pics and info regarding litter size and movements.
Update on the Mother Cheetah and cubs.
It was one morning when we have just left the lodge on our morning safari. The first animal we found was a mother cheetah and her two cubs who feeding on an impala ewe. That they might have killed a few minutes before we found them.
For the last few months, we have had the privilege to photograph and view the female cheetah and her youngsters, now aged around 12 months old. We have watched them grow and learn to stalk and hunt.
We have watched them encounter other predators, like brown hyenas, wild dogs and leopards, while also being chased off their kills and manage to make it through it all unscathed, and only lost one cub since mother cheetah was introduced to Mabula. Although these three cheetahs have made up the majority of our cheetah viewing, male coaliton on the reserve have been adding to the already incredible viewing.
However, this majestic big cat, the cheetah, is one that is sometimes overlooked. One that is put at the bottom of the hierarchy, below lion, hyena, leopard and even wild dog. In terms of strength, power and brute force, it is definitely lacking but many other critical features of this cat have kept help it to thrive in a very predator-rich environment.
As a young cheetah growing up out here in the Mabula Game Reserve, life is not easy as they must avoid confrontation with leopards and wild dog. However, they are doing very well in avoiding those areas that is rich with leopards and areas that wild dogs’ favours. Their beauty, speed and determination has been spoken of, written about, and photographed by many of our guests.
We truly cherish the presence of cheetahs here at Mabula. If you ask any guides or guests that have visited Mabula before, what is one of the most exciting animals to find out on safari I’ll bet the cheetah is high up on their list.
Whether it’s tracking them down, bumping into them by complete luck or responding to one that’s already been found, we all love spending time with cheetahs, and they are one of the most exciting things to see while on safari.
Soon after mother cheetahs and cubs finished feeding on an impala kill, we followed them for a little longer where they then settled under a nearby tree. The mother continuously scanned the horizon for any potential threats while cubs took a more relaxed approach. She then settled down too for a short period to gather energy for the upcoming days. What an incredible way to begin our safari!!!
Buffalo mud bathing.
This buffalo bull took the time to have a relaxing mud bath right in front of our safari vehicle. Buffaloes like to roll in the mud as it stops biting insects, it acts as a natural sun cream, and it looks like a lot of fun too.
Wallowing acts as a cooling method. Buffalo spends time lying in mud-wallows to reduce their body temperature. During the rainy season on the reserve, water collects in small pans which may have been started by an indentation as small as a single elephant footprint. Soils with a high clay content are conducive to forming long lasting mud-wallows, as rainwater doesn’t drain well from this type of ground. Wallows created in sandy soil will dry out relatively quickly.
Mud-wallows and their nearby rubbing posts are found in many areas on the reserve, their length of existence directly dependent on the number of animals visiting them daily. The semi-permanent waterholes we see spread throughout the reserve today might have initially started as mud-wallows, the pans becoming deeper and bigger the more regularly they are used.
Wallows are not “owned” by any territorial animals but are often favoured by specific species or herds. Mud-wallows are used by a variety of animals for several reasons. The animals which wallow are generally those which have sparse hair and few sweat glands on their hides, species such as buffalo, warthogs, and elephants.
A wallow in a muddy puddle is normally followed by a good scratch against a strong rubbing post. This removes ticks and other skin parasites which become embedded in the mud. A rubbing post can be a tree, a rock, or sometimes even a termite mound. Much used rubbing posts can eventually become very smooth and shiny and are easy to identify.
On many occasions, antelope such as tsessebe, blesbok, hartebeest and blue wildebeest have been seen to participate in a display called ‘mud-packing’, a practice in which males throw mud with their horns to intimidate their rivals. This mud is not acquired by wallowing, but by “horning” the ground. The mud on their horns makes the antelope look quite formidable and may have the added effect of deterring predators.
Here at Mabula, guests are always treated to the sight of animals, if not actually rolling with great enjoyment in their mud bath, walking through the bush with distinctive muddy “high tide” marks on their bodies – evidence of their recent activity.
These animals often stir up the mud with their feet, horns, or snouts before getting down for a roll.
Elephants at Nyathi dam waterhole.
Elephants by a waterhole are always amusing. They need to drink daily, but with the heat of summer, they will take any opportunity to use the water to help cool themselves down. Watching them suck water into their trunks to spray behind their ears or scooping up a pile of mud to throw on their backs is always great fun. Occasionally I’m lucky enough to watch them fully immerse themselves in the water and swim or roll around in the water playfully climbing on top of each other.
As is normal for this time of year, water becomes a constant source of action, as it becomes scarcer in the environment. The mega-herbivores are making regular visits to the remaining waterholes as they quench their thirsts. It was one afternoon where I followed herd of elephants heading to Nyathi dam, which is on the Northern side of the lodge, this time of the year it is the only waterhole that still have water for animals to drink.
They walked into Sandy block areas, and we decided to go and wait for them at Top Road to see if they will cross to Nyathi dam. With animals one has to be very patient, they take their time and walk with no rush, they sometimes come across very tasty tree and spend several minutes on the same tree feeding before they carry on to the waterhole. For us we had enough time on our side to wait for them.
Now, waterhole is where the magic happens. When you are on safari here at Mabula, in the plains and savannahs of Mabula, it is to the waterhole that the birds and wildlife flock. The waterhole is their oasis, breaking up the day’s journey. The herd came out on Top Road where we exactly thought they would cross the road to Nyathi dam.
Once they crossed we drove around to wait for them at the dam. To our surprise the dam was alive with plenty of birds, it was for the first time that I saw so many White faced whisling ducks. Perharps it is due to lot of rain received during the rainy season. Egyptian ducks are very common on the reserve and it doesn’t surprise us to find them on every waterhole on the reserve. These birds got to entertain us while waiting for elephants to arrive.
And it was just a matter of time that we saw these gentle giants emerged from the trees coming down to the dam. We positioned our safari vehicle in a right place for all of us on the vehicle to have a magnificent view of them quenching their thirst without having to reposition the vehicle.
Elephants cannot help themselves around water. They are the Labradors of the Mabula bush. And they love water not merely for drinking, which they do a lot of – but also for playing, keeping cool and swimming. They may be the only mammals to not be able to jump but they sure can swim, and unlike us humans, they don’t need to be taught to do it. They are born with it naturally.
Unlike most animals, elephants cannot sweat to cool down. Elephants will spray water over themselves to cool off. They can spray up to 10 litres of water at a time! Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were able to do the same on those hot summer days?
Elephants need to drink daily to facilitate the digestion of the many kilograms of course material that they eat. Elephants will drink between 100 and 160 litres of water a day. They are fussy drinkers and prefer to drink clean water. Elephants often dig holes alongside a muddy waterhole to allow water to filter through into the hole before drinking it.
What an afternoon we had with these gentle giants. Just to watch them drinking and playing around the water is out of the world. One elephant was even using his trunk to stir water with an aim to clean. After they had their drink, they decided to move and disappeared into the bush. The moment everyone does not to see happen. Unfortunately, they must carry on with their daily activity like we do. It was time of us to leave also.
Update on our lions’ cubs.
This month marks exactly one year since our cubs were born on the reserve and they have been phenomenal and produced great safari sightings to our guests. There is nothing so special than seeing cubs born and grow up to adult hood right infront of you.
I can’t believe that 12 months ago they were about 1,5kg weight with eyes closed for 11 days after birth. Currently they are learning all the technics of hunting, we see one cub participate on all the hunts. Sometimes ruins all the hard work, I guess that is how we all learn. We all start by making mistakes to be successful in future.
At ten months they get weaned from drinking milk from their mother and start feeding on meat.
The mother is not so over protecting them anymore like when they were still very young, she even leaves them for 200m without calling them to follow her. While we were on a sighting dominant male started performing flehmen on the lioness. Does this mean the female is getting ready to produce another litter? That is what we must wait and see what mother nature say.
A lion or lioness exhibits the Flehmen response after sniffing or smelling the urine or faeces of another lion or lioness. The cat will lift his or her head and hold their lips back in a strong grimace for a period lasting several seconds. Cats have a vomeronasal organ, often called the organ of Jacobson located above the palate. By sniffing deeply, and then pulling back their lips, they are in fact ‘testing’ the chemical content of the urine left behind by the earlier animal.
Best hippo sighting on Main Dam.
We set out for the afternoon safari to look hippos. My guests asked to see hippos as it was the one of the animals they have not ticked on their list. Mabula have rich populations of hippos that are on almost six dams. There is one specific dam that is the best with viewing hippos. Main dam. And yes, we were not disappointed at all.
On arrival at Main dam hippos were still inside the water and one begun to yawn, and I knew we were in for a wonderful hippo treat. We stopped on the dam wall with a full view of the whole dam. Shortly after hippos begun to move to the northern side of the dam and climbed out of the water to stand outside the water. Even for myself as a guide with over 14 years experience, I never got to see hippos getting outside the water, have seen them running back inside the water but not coming out.
Hippos are extremely social and form herds of up to 100 individuals. They are sedentary in nature, typically spending the entire day resting in the water and only coming out at dusk to feed. However, during winter months they spend most of their day basking on the sun and they are mostly active at night.
Hippos are well suited to their semi-aquatic lifestyle, but interesting they cannot ‘swim’ in the full sense of the word. They rely on their huge reserves of fat to help keep them positively buoyant. They will mostly walk along the bottom of the river or lake, when they need air, they will effectively jump and use their buoyancy to float to the surface briefly before carrying on along the bottom.
Herds usually congregate in the middle of pools and are led by females. Dominant males usually rest on the outer edges of pools, where they stand to guard the rest of the herd. Males begin competing for dominance once they reach sexual maturity, which is usually at around seven years.
Males begin competing for dominance once they reach sexual maturity, which is usually at around seven years. Display of dominance is an interesting affair as it involves opening the mouth wide to show off tusks, dung showering, and roaring. Dominant males do not take well to aggressive displays by juveniles or other males and will fight if they must. Fights are common during the dry season when dams start drying up, and pools start becoming prime pieces of real estate. Fights involve clashing tusks and biting.
Hippos have a polygynous system of mating, where one male breeds with a group of females. They do not have a specific breeding season; nonetheless, most mating tends to occur between February and August. They have a gestation period of 240 days, and babies are usually born underwater. Hippo calves will live beside their mothers until the age of 7 or 8. Males reach sexual maturity between the ages of 7 and 9, while females attain reproductive maturity between the ages of 8 and 10.
Expect the unexpected!
There was great consternation amongst our guests when we came across this giraffe happily eating soil. Amidst loud laughter from the other guests, we set out to explain that while this is normal giraffe behaviour, it is not observed all that often and that we are quite lucky to witness it first-hand. The behaviour is not only limited to giraffes but also occurs amongst other herbivores.
Herbivores will resort to eating soil and bone fragments to obtain trace elements, salts and minerals that supplement their dietary requirements. The behaviour we were witnessing is termed Geophagia. This phenomenon is generally observed in the dry winter months when trace elements such as calcium and phosphorus are not readily available from their normal plant diets. The fact that we are observing this in September is most likely due to the dry conditions throughout the winter months.
A closely related feeding habit that occurs more widely across species is Geophagia. Geophagia meaning earth eating. Many species eat soil as a means of supplementing their diet with trace elements. As is the case with Osteophagia this mostly occurs during the dry session when plant material they consume lack some of the basic trace elements they require. After soil feeding the dung can have a high dirt content and result in dung that is grey in colour.
Seeing these majestic, beautiful animals in the wild always provides a thrill, but observing and understanding some of their behaviour adds richness to the safari experience.
One is always rewarded when spending time at a sighting to observe animal behaviour.
Update on the most successful antelope on Mabula.
Any person that has been on safari in Mabula will be able to recognize an impala. They are by far the most abundant mammal found here at Mabula. Often the first mammal that a first-time on safari will see is a herd of impala. This always allows me to see them for ‘the first time’ through the eyes of my guests. Their striking rufous coats that meticulously blend to fawn along their sides and pure white below; strategic black and white markings on their rump; long powerful legs that allow them to jump a staggering distance and height; ever watchful eyes and the male’s lyrate-shaped horns make them a stunning sight to see.
When it comes to success on impala tribe. If we had to measure success based on sheer numbers, then the impala has pulled an Usain Bolt on the rest of the field with a clear victory. But why are they so successful? Impalas prefer a protein-rich diet of palatable grazing when it is available. But they are not shy to switch to a browsing diet when the grasses start to lose condition in the drier months of the year.
This ability, however, of being a mixed feeder allows them the luxury of a diversity of habitat. Further to this their breeding strategy of synchronized births ensures that predators are basically swamped with too many vulnerable impala lambs to have a significant impact on the population. So they’ve essentially hit the sweet spot in both diet and reproduction strategies.
Elephants are ecological engineers, and this is quite noticeable when you spend a short amount of time with a herd of elephants as they move through the bushveld pushing over trees and ploughing their way through even the thickest brush. But if we look at the sheer numbers of impala then surely, they, themselves, are ecological engineers in their own right?
When impala browse, they are doing so by feeding on trees less than a meter high. This means that they have a significant impact on the growth rate of any of these trees and their saplings, the sheer numbers also return a lot of minerals and plant matter to the ground, and they make up most of the prey species caught by predators. This demonstrates the importance of not only one of Mabula’s giants on the vegetation and landscape but also one of the smaller mammals.
The word antelope is derived from a Greek word for “bright eyes” and impala not only have a set of bright eyes but also eagle eyes. They are the primary prey species of most predators; however, they can spot them from a great distance away and for all but the African Wild Dog, they will ‘sound the alarm’ by alarm-snorting and foot-stamping.
This is to let the predator know that they have lost the element of surprise. Wild Dogs, with their incredible speed and endurance, make the impala adopt a different strategy of fleeing with a stiff-legged athletic leap essentially trying to display their astonishing fitness to hopefully deter the predator and cast its attention to a different impala or prey. These behaviours are essential clues for guides on the reserve, to assist in finding predators and without them would make our jobs tremendously more difficult.
Heritage Day come alive on Mabula.
Heritage Day on 24 September recognises and celebrates the cultural wealth of our nation. South Africans celebrate the day by remembering the cultural.
Here at Mabula staff members dressed to the occation show casing their culture. All the staff were given opportunity to come to work with their traditional attires. It was good to see that most of them took the opportunity. What a wonderful day it was.
As we end of the first month of spring, temperatures are beginning to soar, and we are experiencing some rather hot days. This has been good as it draws the animals to our watering holes. The bush has gone through its full transformation and the browns have almost completely been replaced by greens.
Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.
Images courtesy of: Isaiah Banda & Tshepo Loni.