Written by Isaiah Banda
The changing of season from winter to summer is quite beautiful and almost magical. The winter season on Mabula normally ends around the end of August and is followed by spring that arrives early September lasting until end of October. The summer months are from November to March, and these are also the wetter months of the year. During the transition from winter to summer the environment goes through a vivid change and as soon as the first rains fall the magic starts happening.
The highlight of this month was the discovery of our lioness den, where she has given birth to two cubs that are about five weeks old. The moment we have all been waiting for has finaly arrived. Lionesses, though, are notoriously secretive, if not about their pregnancies, then at least about giving birth. Once a lioness realizes she’s going into labor, she’ll sneak away from the pride and hide herself in a secret lair, where she’ll give birth to a litter of 2-6 cubs and stay with them for around three months, in Mabula’s case there are only two cubs. Why all the secrecy? It’s simple: survival.
The odds are already stacked against a lioness bringing a cub to term; though pregnancies last just three and a half months, and the lioness can go into estrus (a period of fertility) at any time of the year. With the harshness of life in the wild; many lion cubs starve, both in infancy and beyond. A lioness has only four teats, so litters larger than four generally won’t all survive. Once cubs have been introduced to the pride and when food is scarce, they often go unfed, meaning they regularly starve. That is part of the reason a lioness will go into hiding when giving birth; lionesses will allow any cub in the pride to suckle (they group-mother the cubs), and older cubs are as hungry for mother’s milk as brand-new-babies. If she stayed with the pride to give birth, a lioness’s milk would likely never make it to her own young. It has been long since we had cubs on the reserve. Talks among the guides at the parking bays and around the coffee station has been who is going to find the cubs first. Something we have been waiting to hear being topic of the day. I will share more pictures as the cubs progress.
A female giraffe contentedly strips leaves from an acacia tree on the Serengeti plains. She wraps her long, flexible tongue of about 45cm long, around the sharp thorns of the acacia tree branch and plucks it clean, leaf-by-leaf. She has superb eyesight and hearing, and these senses are mounted on the tallest watchtower in the animal kingdom.
This time though, she does not see or hear danger slinking towards her. Three lion’s creep towards the giraffe from the rear. The giraffe does not see the golden cats in the tall yellow thatch grass, nor does it hear or smell them until it is too late to run. One male launches itself at the giraffe, attacking the giraffe’s hindquarters with its massive paws and grasping it with its claws. Lions are the main predators of giraffes. Most of the lion claw marks are found on the hindquarters of giraffes, confirming that lions attack giraffe from behind. This makes sense because giraffe have thick skin on their neck and fronts that is difficult for lions to penetrate. Within a few minutes the giraffe was dead, and the lions started opening it up to feed.
One would think that stumbling into Mabula’s apex predator out in the wilds would be reason enough to head the other way, yet the innate curiosity of giraffes almost makes them appear to have a morbid fascination with lions when they see them, and they will often approach to what seems to us like a recklessly close distance.
Opportunity is still the name of the game for lions though, and they will take down a giraffe when they get the chance, but currently on Mabula, smaller prey species like wildebeest, zebra, kudu, and impala are so plentiful that it isn’t really worth risking a cracked skull or shattered jaw from a giraffe’s kick. An attacked giraffe kicks vigorously with its forelegs and hind legs and poses a serious threat to a lion. Adult giraffes have severely injured and even killed lions with well-placed kicks. Attacking a giraffe is risky business for a lion.
Lions and giraffes have been locked in combat for millions of years. There is still much to learn about how lions hunt giraffes. The “autographs” that lions leave on giraffes with their claw marks are one tool that we can use to confirm that these giraffes were indeed hunted by lions, however they were not successful in bringing them down.
The stomach is usually the easiest point of entry into the carcass, and this is the route most often taken by lions. It also gives them direct access to some of the most nutritious parts of the body, such as the kidneys and liver of the prey.
Lions usually rest after an initial feed, lying a short way away from the carcass so that they can still defend their kill against scavengers. They have spent seven days on the giraffe carcass on middle Serengeti plain, interesting is when it comes to time for water, they took turns going to Dickinson dam to drink water. The next one on the menu after giraffe kill was a zebra that they caught on the southern side of the reserve close to quarry pan.
One afternoon we left the lodge with the aim of finding the wild dogs on the North-western part of the reserve where they had been spotted that morning. After tracking the wild dogs for a while along Modjadji plains to Tamboti, crocodile dam, eventually we came across a herd of elephants at Nyathi dam and stopped to watch them. While watching and enjoy the sighting of the herd casually playing in the mud and some feeding, a radio call came in from one of the guides not far from us.
All stations I have Makanyane on new whole owner road feeding on impala carcass. After enjoying the elephant sighting, we headed in that direction. We knew for sure that we will find the wild dogs still in the area due to them feeding on an impala kill. The wild dogs are still enjoying Mabula since they arrived on the reserve over two months ago. While we have them let us use this opportunity to learn their behaviour and get to know them. Even if they leave the reserve, we are sure they will come back again since they are enjoying prey species available. We are hopeful that one day a female will arrive on the reserve to join the current males should they make Mabula their permanent home.
Wild dogs tend to shy away from areas dominated by lion and hyaena. Wild dogs can roam over long distances – up to 250 square kilometres – and may travel over 50km in a single day looking for food. Wild dogs are masters of the collective approach to hunting. A hunt begins at sunrise or sunset when the dogs perform an elaborate greeting ceremony, sniffing and licking each other, wagging their tails, and twittering aloud. Wild dogs will fan through the bush looking for a herd of antelope. More often than not, this will be impala. Once they have located a herd, the most vulnerable member is singled out – usually a female or young antelope. A subordinate male wild dog usually starts the hunt by trying to isolate the animal from the rest of the herd. Once the target has been identified and separated, the alpha male takes over the lead of the hunt and the deadly endurance race begins.
Wild dogs are high-stamina hunters, capable of maintaining a 40km/h pace over five kilometres and increasing this to bursts of more than 60km/h for short distances. The pack splits up during the hunt, with some dogs trying to drive the fleeing prey in a circle towards the others. If this fails, they press on with determination, taking it in relays to increase the pace, nipping and tearing at the fleeing victim each time it slows down. They literally run their quarry to exhaustion. Once the animal collapses, the dogs immediately begin feeding, even before their prey has died from loss of blood.
Unlike hyena, which feast noisily and chaotically, wild dogs are restrained and orderly at the kill. The young feed first, followed by the subordinate males and females, with the alpha pair eating at any time. Each dog awaits its turn, and if there is not enough food to go round, the hunt begins again. Subordinate females support nursing wild dog females who remain at the den. They will stuff themselves with food and then go back to the den to regurgitate the remains for the mother and her young to eat. Wild dogs have often been regarded with horror by humans because of their seemingly cruel hunting techniques – death does not come quickly to the victim, which will first be run to exhaustion and then die from a loss of blood while being devoured.
After feasting on the impala they went to TPA dam for a drink. When all of us thought they would move right away after having a well deserved drink. They decided to have a mud bath in the mud next to the edge of the water. It was really fun to watch. These wild dogs have really brought a different safari expereience on the reserve and we are grateful to have them. It is a clear sign that they are enjoying the reserve.
Although majority of the time they are staying in the mountains. They could also be following the game and using the hills to their advantage. With the current time of year, there can’t be too much grazing left on this flat, open plains, some groups of game have moved into the mountains, especially impalas and the dogs find it easier to hunt there. Wild dogs have fused middle toe-pads and it’s thought to be an adaptation to assist their stability as they run through mountainous and rugged terrain.
All in all, large and small predators account for relatively few of the total number of animals on Mabula. They are significantly outnumbered by herbivores, which can be broadly classified as either grazers or browsers, although many species do both. Grazers, like buffalo, depend on the grass for their nutrition while browsers, like the giraffe, have a diet based around leaves. In times of drought when grasses disappear, the distinction between the two can become blurred, as animals will eat any nutritious plant that they can. In fact, the two most successful mammals on the reserve are elephant and impala – they have adapted to both grazing and browsing conditions.
Generally, grazers need water at least every day or occasionally every two days while browsers get most of their moisture needs from eating green leaves and are less dependent on regular water intake. The distribution of animals in Mabula depends largely on the time of year and the quality of grazing in each area. During summer months we see plains like Mannekamp plains, Ngorongoro plains and rain meter plains have a full abundance of animals when the grasses are the most nutritious, while buffaloes prefer long and winding, mud wallow and Soweto house. General game such as impala will utilize the whole reserve.
While on Lake Kyle area, there is safety in numbers, which is why one often sees different herds of animals mingling together. The more animals there are, the less chance of an individual being eaten by a predator. Grazing animals also make the most of their collective strengths – for instance, zebra have very good eyesight, while wildebeest have excellent hearing and smell, which boosts the survival chances of both species against danger.
Grazing species often eat different parts of the grass and, therefore, do not compete directly for food. There is also inter-species communication relating to water – wildebeest are very responsive to rain and can sense it falling up to 25km away, and thus often lead other animals to water and fresh grazing. Grazing animals also help rejuvenate the veld by eating the grass. Buffalo, in particular, play an important role in sustaining the quality of grass. Because they can digest long, fibrous grasses, they often clean up old grazing areas and open the way for new growth.
Elephants, too, are conservationists, despite their reputation as being destructive, wasteful eaters. They can consume up to 300kg of grass and leaves a day, much of which is recycled into the environment and drink up to 150L of water daily. Many seeds are germinated by passing through the digestive system of the elephant, while the dung is also a handy source of manure for the veld.
Elephants, too, go crazy for new growth, often knocking trees over to get at new leaves. This is often to the of benefit fo smaller browsers as food that is beyond their normal reach becomes available closer to the ground. We see that happening more in this month as they search for the new leaves on trees.
Elephants, which can weigh up to five tons, stand about three metres off the ground, but can compete with giraffe for the top end of the browsing market because of their trunks, which can be up to two metres long. Besides giraffe and elephant, the main browsers on Mabula, kudu, duiker, klipspringer, bushbuck and nyala are also browsers found on the reserve.
On Mabula we see mostly elephants during winter months using areas around the lodge and on the centre of the reserve and figure of eight. While summer months they select one area and stay there for a few weeks before moving into another area on the reserve. Those areas are Modjadji and Mokaikai areas. A less favourate area is the south-eastern part of the reserve, probably due to not having lot of water for them to drink and swim in when it is hot.
Just as grazers can co-exist on the same grassland, browsers also eat different parts of the same trees. The top feeders are obviously giraffes, which can reach leaves that are five metres or more off the ground. They are adaptable browsers which feed on 70% of the tree species found on Mabula, but favour acacias, karees and combretum species which make up half of their diet. In spring we see the giraffe moving around the reserve eating flower buds and flowers of Dombeya rotundifolia and Lannea discolor, before putting their focus on acacias with new leaves.
Giraffe tend to lose condition during the winter because these trees drop their leaves, and they are forced to eat less palatable evergreens. These animals like the flatlands on Mabula but can be seen on the rocky slopes around rhino road and rocky roads. That’s usually a sign of the first spring flush in the acacias and combretums.
A giraffe’s height – up to 5,5m – makes it physically difficult for this animal to drink and sleep. Giraffe, therefore, usually sleep standing up, although they do lie down on occasion. They are the ultimate light sleepers, snatching extremely short doses of consistent rest. A giraffe will sleep for only about 24 minutes in a 24-hour period! They also have loose social structures and herds can vary in size, even on a daily basis. Here at Mabula, the average herd size is less than ten individuals. The biggest herd I have seen here at Mabula numbered twelve animals.
Browsers tend generally to favour the thicker bush in the northern and central parts of Mabula where the grazing is relatively unpalatable, but the nutrition held in the leaves is very good.
Kudus on Mabula are found in herds of between six and ten cows or even more accompanied by a dominant male or two. Most kudu bulls, therefore, live in separate bachelor herds. Kudus migrate extensively around Mabula. In summer, they disperse over wide areas of mixed woodland, while in winter they cluster along mountains, gullies, and watercourses where trees remain nutritious. At some stages we have even seen kudus, impalas and nyalas following baboons. Baboons climbs trees and shake of leaves which falls on the ground for these herbivores to pick them and eat. Clever animals.
Over the past few weeks, we have thoroughly enjoyed seeing the female leopard and her two cubs. They are mostly hanging around the south-western part of the reserve in the Mokaikai area. They are slowly getting used to safari vehicles and guests are enjoying viewing them. Soon they will feel comfortable with safari vehicles, but more often than not, they prefer to hide and view safari vehicles. But when approaching them quietly and silently the are very relaxed with vehicles.
September is our Heritage month in South Africa. It is celebrated all over the country and at Mabula also. For me, heritage is both individual and collective. We belong to a familial heritage but also a collective, community-based heritage that connects us – blood or no blood. Heritage is in the passing of time. In every sunrise and every sunset.
Heritage is about telling stories and passing down knowledge through generations. It’s about broadening our horizons – about dipping our toes into a multitude of upbringings, of histories, and of different perspectives of the world. It’s a way back to our past, but also a flavour to our future that we can choose to incorporate into our lives. It’s about the myriad of differences between us that actually brings us closer together. It’s in the way a father and son share hand gestures, and a mother and daughter laugh in an identical way.
But it is also in the lessons that a caretaker teaches to a small child who needs shelter or a young mind who is thirsty for knowledge. It’s the practice of learning about each other, and through our shared experience, learning about ourselves and how we show up in the world. Preserve it. Conserve it. Share it with those around you. Celebrate it. Discuss it. Learn about someone else’s.
Our heritage is not just about the blood that we share with our ancestors. It’s about the history we have shared with our humanity, and about the lessons we will pass on to our children, our community members, and the groups of people we choose as our family. To my fellow South Africans, happy Heritage Day! May you feel energised and accepted as the unique part of this colourful nation that you are.
One species in particular, which I personally hold close to my heart is the rhino, which, this month, is celebrated on World Rhino Day. Rhinos are the umbrella species that create awareness for all the others in the ecosystem, and they are in crisis. But rather than shying away from the facts and the truth, let’s embrace it, raising awareness, and, in doing so, begin to resolve the issue. Yes,
World Rhino Day does have an impact. Protection comes in the form of immediate short-term action, such as in the incorporation of advanced technology as early warning systems of any potential “foul-play”. From electrified fences, incursion detection sensors, thermal imaging, camera networks, all aiding the teams on the ground to stay one step ahead of the would-be poachers.
Education comes in two main areas, locally raising awareness amongst local communities to show just how severe the problem is and incorporating them into our protection efforts, and efforts to decipher the myths of why rhino horn has, incorrectly, become so valuable and to bring about a change of mind-set amongst the followers of these theories on an international scale. Hopefully, this magical and prehistoric animal may be around for my children to grow up with. Happy World Rhino Day!
What an incredible month! New-born lions’ cubs, giraffe kill by lions, zebra kill by lions, impala kill by wild dogs, and wild dogs mud bathing, leopard cubs and an abundance of general game sightings. What more can we ask for?
Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.
Images by: Isaiah, Nuria, Melani, Frans, Tshepo, Charne, Sharon, Apollo, and Elias