Seeing Spots

Of all the African animals, it seems the poor spotted Hyena has the worst reputation. Various films, like Disney’s The Lion King, and a place in the “Ugly 5” have only made this worse. One of the common defamation is that they are scavengers, stealing most of their food from more honorable species like Lions. Some claims have even been made that they dig up graves in search of human corpses. (Seriously inaccurate.) It’s high time someone stood up for these incredibly social and intelligent beings.

It was a beautiful autumn evening drive and my guests had been so fortunate to have already experienced the excitement of the big 5. I decided to test our luck one more time and take a drive past the currently active Hyena den on the reserve. Hyenas are predominantly nocturnal and so I timed it so that we would get there about half an hour after sunset when they would hopefully be gathered around the den. 

About 30 metres from the den I switched off the engine and slowly rolled the game viewer down the sloping road so as not to frighten any potential cubs playing outside. I was so keen to show my guests these fascinating animals that I found myself holding my breath. Then suddenly out of the darkness a very large spotted Hyena appeared.  I recognised her as the matriarch by a substantial tear in her right ear. We followed her down the road and were welcomed by the most magnificent sight; two young cubs (pups is also an acceptable term for young Hyena), one sub-adult, that I estimated to be between 6 and 10 months old as well as another adult female Hyena.

Hyena clan sizes vary considerably, ranging from just a few to over 130. The spotted Hyena have been found to have particularly enlarged forebrains, the region involved with complex decision making, as well as a vocal repertoire several times larger than that of other hyenas and even lions.

Each Hyena uses smells, sounds and visual clues to recognise other members of the clan and we watched in awe as the two tiny cubs bounded over to their mother, pushing each other to find a teat. They suckled for a minute or two with the mother still standing and then one went on to sniff and even lick the genital area of his/her mom.

It is notoriously difficult to sex a hyena due to their reproductive anatomy. The female genitals are elongated to form a fully erectile pseudopenis through which they urinate, copulate and give birth. This is caused by unusually high levels of testosterone in the females, which dominate over the males with their size and aggression.

We watched as the females slowly left the den site, probably in search of food for the night. Spotted hyenas only scavenge 50% of all meals and are quite successful hunters, able to bring down prey the size of a fully grown Wildebeest.

Having two growing cubs, she would need to make sure she feeds regularly to provide them with nutritious milk. The playful cubs remained instinctively at the den, rolling around and play fighting with one another. We felt so privileged to be able to view them in such intimate moments. It was obvious they were tiring, and one lay down to rest while the other snuck back into the safety of the den. We decided that it was time to head back to the lodge for another delicious dinner.

I looked back at my guests who were all smiling ear to ear, definitely satisfied with such a beautiful sighting and their perception of this poor misunderstood animal forever changed.

Story by Buffalo Camp Ranger Monika Malewski


Why Do Zebras Have Stripes?

For over 150 years the function of a zebra’s stripes has intrigued scientists, with a number of proposed theories including avoiding predators, better heat regulation and a social function, yet there is still no agreement between scientists.

Now a new study by the University of Bristol, published in the journal Plos One, has provided additional support to the one theory that zebras’ stripes act as a deterrent towards flies and other blood-sucking parasites, which confuses and discourages them from landing and taking a bite.

Researchers from the University of Bristol and UC Davis, USA, spent time on a horse farm in Britain where they investigated the behaviors of tabanid horse flies around captive plains zebras and uniformly colored domestic horses using video analysis techniques.

Professor Tim Caro observing zebra behaviour in response to biting fly annoyance



They discovered that the stripes don’t deter horse flies from a distance, with both zebras and domestic horses experiencing the same rate of circling from the flies. However, video analyses revealed differences in approach speed, with horse flies failing to slow down on approach to zebras, which is essential for a successful landing.

Professor Tim Caro, Honorary Research Fellow from the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “Horse flies just seem to fly over zebra stripes or bump into them, but this didn’t happen with horses. Consequently, far fewer successful landings were experienced by zebras compared to horses.”

Dr Martin How, Royal Society University Research Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences, added: “This reduced ability to land on the zebra’s coat may be due to stripes disrupting the visual system of the horse flies during their final moments of approach.

“Stripes may dazzle flies in some way once they are close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes.”

Researches with horse wearing zebra-striped coat

To make sure that the effect was not caused by the difference in smell between zebras and horses, the scientists placed different colored cloth coats – black, white or zebra striped – over the horses to observe horse fly behavior. Just as before, when horses wore coats with striped patterns, they experienced fewer horse fly landings compared to when they wore single-color coats.

The research also directly observed zebra and horse behaviour in response to biting flies. Zebras exhibited preventative behaviour, such as running away and tail swishing at a far higher rate than horses. Consequently, any horse flies that did successfully land on zebras spent less time there compared to those landing on horses, with few staying long enough to probe for a blood meal.

In Africa, horse flies carry dangerous debilitating diseases such as trypanosomiasis and African horse sickness which cause wasting and often death. Therefore, it is unsurprising that zebras utilize both behavioral defenses and morphological striping to avoid horse flies.

Close up of zebra stripes

The scientists did acknowledge that the latest experiment was carried out in Somerset rather than around the biting flies of Africa, and other limitations included that the path of the flies could only be seen in two dimensions from video recordings and that the horse coats were made of different materials.

However this research provides new evidence for the theory that zebras evolved dichromatic striped coats to evade biting flies and has considerable implications for the horse industry.


An ‘Extinct’ Tortoise Found!

WHEN WASHINGTON TAPIA found a Fernandina giant tortoise on its namesake island in the Galápagos, it was like winning an Academy Award.

“For me it was the most important achievement of my life because I have been working on tortoise conservation for 30 years,” says the director of the nonprofit Galápagos Conservancy’s Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative(GTRI) and leader of the expedition. “This was basically my Oscar.”

Tapia and a team of four rangers from the Galápagos National Park—Jeffreys Malaga, Eduardo Vilema, Roberto Ballesteros, and Simon Villamar—were overwhelmed when they found the female Chelonoidis phantasticus on Fernandina, an active shield volcano and the youngest of the Galápagos Islands.

The last time a confirmed sighting of the species was registered was in 1906. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had flagged the Fernandina giant tortoise on its Red List as possibly extinct until 2017, two years after Malaga came across the reptile’s feces in the park and three years after the inauguration of the GTRI. Its designation was then changed to critically endangered.

“It was a clear indication the tortoises were still there,” Tapia says.

On this particular Sunday, February 17, the team set out at 6 a.m. in search of green patches among the island’s innumerable lava flows. It wasn’t until around midday that they spotted possible tortoise feces on a patch measuring about a third of a square mile. When Tapia saw a tortoise bed—soil had been pushed aside and there were clear prints in the dirt from its carapace and feet—he knew they were close. Malaga was the first to spot the tortoise—at first, nearly 2.5 miles away and blending into a patch of vegetation—but it was a triumph for the whole team.

“It created hope for people to know conservation is possible and that changing human activities is necessary for it to continue,” Tapia said.

The female tortoise, thought to be roughly 100 years old, was taken by the team to a breeding center on Santa Cruz Island, a decision Tapia made because the area where she had been living had few food sources nearby, and, if left on Fernandina, finding her again would have been difficult. Tortoises tend to move around a lot, and the island, at over 230 square miles, is a large area to search. Its rugged terrain, caused by abundant lava flows, makes locating animals a challenge.

But Tapia and his team do expect to find more. During their search of Fernandina they came across more tortoise tracks in soil just over a mile from where they discovered the female. Another expedition to the island is planned for later this year.

In the meantime, they’ll take DNA samples from the female tortoise and send them to Yale University, where giant tortoise specialists are located, to confirm she is a Chelonoidis phantasticus. The process could take months, but Tapia has no doubts she’s the real thing.


Know Where Your Money Is Going & Save Lives

Have you ever wondered why South Africa seems to have so many captive lion cubs, in what are known as ‘lion parks’?

The reason, in my opinion, is one that we all need to face up to: IT’S A SCAM.

The still-growing lion cub petting industry masks a sinister legal industry in South Africa. Playing with cute little lion cubs is the tip of the iceberg – it’s what you don’t see that defines this abusive industry.

When tourists and volunteers visit one of the numerous ‘lion parks’ in South Africa and enter the play pens of young orphan cubs, their instinct is to question the situation. What? Why are so many lion cubs being orphaned? And, almost without exception, they are told a lie – that the cubs’ mothers died or abandoned them. This lie is repeated again and again – in marketing material, press releases and hashtags – so much so that even good, caring people repeat the mantra and become party to the lie, and the scam. You see, these lion cubs are forcibly removed from their mothers – to feed what has become a lucrative the lion cub petting machine.

Collage of images showing people petting lion cubs

THE BIG LIE: “These lion cubs are orphaned (or abandoned) by their mother.” Image provided by Paul Tully, with owner’s permission

We can all do the research. I’ve done it for five years, both as an animal advocate and consultant in the tourism industry. Spend 5 minutes on Instagram and see for yourself. There are thousands of images of young, motherless lion cubs (plus cheetahs and even tigers) and all of them are being interacted with by tourists and volunteers.

How could it be that there are so many big cat mothers out there suddenly willing to abandon their cubs?

This does not add up. Right?

On the face of it, lion parks look like fantastic nurseries for unfortunate ‘orphaned’ cubs – offering a caring home, and eventual return to the wild. Oh, and of course there are endless streams of tourists paying to manhandle the cubs continuously throughout the day – when lion cubs should be sleeping, feeding and bonding with their mother and siblings. Instead they are passed around like binoculars on a safari game drive.

A juvenile lion jumps for bait tossed by a guide during a lion walk with tourists at Ukutula Lodge & Lion Research Centre, South Africa

An adolescent lion jumps for bait tossed by a guide during a lion walk with tourists at a lion park in South Africa © Simon Espley

The numbers

According to South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africa has an estimated 8,000 captive lions in approximately 200 breeding facilities. One can add to this an unknown number of private (backyard) breeders that operate without permits and provide an endless supply of cudly merchandise to this hungry industry.

Each of these lion parks and breeding facilities may have between 1-4 breeding females. If we take a conservative average of two lionesses per facility – that’s 200 facilities, 400 lionesses and conservatively 2,400 lion cubs born every year (assuming two litters per year per lioness and three lion cubs per litter – an extremely conservative estimate).

Lion farmers/breeders speed-breed their lionesses by removing the cubs soon after birth, thereby inducing the lionesses into estrus once more. Wild lions breed only once per year, at the most. The tiny blind cubs have now become part of the machine.

>2,400 LION CUBS BORN EVERY YEAR TO FEED THE MACHINE

Where and what are all these lion cubs destined for?

There is no documented evidence of any captive-bred lion in South Africa having been released into the wild – despite claims to the contrary. So remove that solution from the equation.

So why are these lion parks claiming that their lion cubs are “orphans”? And what exactly is the journey for that lion cub after its petting shelf life has expired? What is the link between these tiny cubs and the burgeoning canned lion hunting industry?

A typical day at Ukutula Lodge & Lion Research Centre, South Africa

A typical day at a lion park in South Africa © Simon Espley

Timeline and roleplayers: From petted to hunted

• REMOVAL OF CUBS: This usually happens after only a few hours or days after birth, when the newborn lion cubs are forcibly removed by breeders from their mothers and sold or loaned to lion parks for exhibition and petting purposes. Volunteers have often described to me the days when newborn cubs arrive by the box-load. Again the reply to obvious questions is that the mothers died or rejected and abandoned their babies

• PETTING: Each tiny cub, initially still with closed eyes, is petted by thousands of tourists keen to experience a close encounter with a cute and cuddly big cat cub. The cubs are handed from person to person and forced to pose for the all-important selfies.

• WALKING: Once the cubs reach the age of about six months they become too big (and dangerous) to cuddle, and graduate to being walked with tourists, while a handler protects the tourists from being harmed by the adolescent and sometimes boisterous lions.

• VOLUNTEER EMPLOYMENT: Local and international volunteers are tempted to South Africa, with the tantalising prospect of caring for these newly “orphaned” baby lion cubs. These naive volunteers pay for such work experience at lion parks, believing the lie that there work is important conservation work – to ‘save’ orphaned cubs and help with ‘lion research’ and/or to ‘return the lions to the wild’

• TOURISM: Local and international tourists, in their thousands, pay around R100-R200 ($10-$20) for the opportunity to play with baby lion cubs and to walk with adolescent lions, usually at the same facility. These tourists are fed the same lies.

At this stage the lion parks wash their hands of their ‘orphaned’ lions.

Hunter with a lion killed in South Africa

A canned lion hunter and her trophy

• HUNTING: After two years of tourist petting and walking, the lion progresses to the second-last stage of its usefulness. The tourism industry now has no further need for this lion, and it is traded into the hunting industry, where it is shot by trophy hunters in what is known as ‘canned hunting’. Some of the lions are sold to zoos, others are kept back for breeding, but the majority disappear into the opaque and sprawling network of trophy hunting farms that are spread across the South African bushveld. Lion parks will often vehemently deny any association with the hunting industry, claiming that they sell / trade / swap lions to intermediaries and that they have no control over what happens after that. The lion parks will simply refuse to disclose the identities of the buyers or locations of the lions’ new homes, in order to keep the lions “safe from poachers”.

There have been several exposés on various lion parks around South Africa (CBS 60 Minutes, Carte Blanche, The Guardian, to name just a few), which have uncovered these sales and permits, demonstrating how cub petting facilities are selling their lions to known lion hunting outfits.

The canned hunt attracts trophy collectors paying anywhere from $4,000 for a lioness, to $40,000 for a male white lion (hunting wild white lions is illegal). The hunt takes place in a small fenced area (often the size of half a football field), complete with typical bushveld trees, for that African feel. The lion, fresh from captivity, is released into this enclosed area – and shot. Legally the hunt organiser needs only release the lion into this area for 36 hours for it to be classed as “fair chase”.

• LION BONE TRADE: The final stage for the (now dead) lion is the selling of its bones to the insatiable Asian market for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), for approximately $1000-$1500 per skeleton.

Lion bones

© Blood Lions

Why lion parks in South Africa are scams

To avoid the usual slew of accusations and legal threats from this industry, let me be clear on one point: the lion park facilities offering tourists the opportunity to play with lion cubs are not the same entities offering canned hunting experiences. I will leave it to you to come to your own conclusions in this regard.

Recently I conducted a small research task on social media to highlight this issue.

Considering that Instagram is the go-to place for lion-petting selfies, I based my research on this platform, with the following results:

90% OF VISITORS TO LION PARKS ARE LIED TO ABOUT WHY THERE ARE SO MANY LION CUBS

Using popular hashtags and an appropriate time period to prevent double-counting of cubs, I asked my population of 100 respondents: “Did the park inform you about where these lion cubs (that you are interacting with) came from?”

Here are some of the replies. The level of deceit is obvious.

Instagram comments

Of those answers gained from my questioning 90% were similar to those above. The other 10% stated that they either could not remember, were not told by the facility or that they didn’t ask about the whereabouts of the cubs’ mothers.

To be clear on this matter: 90% of lion park visitors polled were told the lie that the park’s lion cubs are orphaned or abandoned by their mothers.

What we have here is cruel exploitation of helpless lion cubs and the scamming of thousands of tourists and volunteers every year. And this is all legal, apparently.

This must end. The lion parks in South Africa are not only fuelling the trade in wildlife and wildlife parts, blatantly scamming innocent tourists and volunteers out of their money, and ruining South Africa’s proud tourism brand name.

In March 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture barred zoos from allowing cubs under four weeks old to be petted or fed by members of the public.

WATCH: The truth about South Africa’s lion breeding industry © Dave Cohen / Blood Lions / YouthForLions

I urge and plea with South Africa’s Government to adopt a similar regulatory policy, and to ban all public interactions with big cats.

The effects of such restrictions would:

• Result in a decline in the non-conservation related breeding of big cats (namely lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards and mixed breeds);

• Create better monitoring capability of both the legal and illegal wildlife trade in South Africa;

• Ensure both local and international tourists are safeguarded from deceitful practices;

• Protect South Africa’s reputation as a respectable, responsible tourism destination;

• And repair South Africa’s conservation reputation, following years of abuse by this cub petting industry.

Instead of dwelling on the past and asking how this evil industry was allowed to mushroom and thrive, let’s take a step forward and simply end it. I believe in progress and that the South African Government, and President Cyril Ramaphosa particularly, can lead this beautiful country away from abusive industries like this.

It is up to all of us to stamp out the wrongs that we see. Please let’s start by stamping out the scam that is the big cat cub petting industry.

Opinion post by Paul Tully – animal advocate and African tourism consultant


Brothers In Arms

If you have been on safari before, you will know that cats like to sleep between eighteen and twenty hours a day. This is not due to them being lazy, but rather them reserving energy. They can be very opportunistic hunters and always need to have energy readily available if a good opportunity presents itself. Not knowing where or when their next meal will come, they cannot afford to miss a good opportunity.

This is exactly how I found a coalition of three male Lions the other morning while out on a game drive with guests, sleeping… They were resting in the shade, a little bit out of their usual territory, close to Zebra dam.

We were about to start pursuing other weird and wonderful wildlife with our Southern Camp guests when we heard the sound of a branch breaking in the distance. It was coming from behind dense bush so we weren’t able to see what caused it. However, it did interest the coalition as all three brothers lifted their heads simultaneously. The noise of a breaking branch could mean approaching danger such as an Elephant or possible prey like a Giraffe. We waiting in anticipation to see what would happen next…

The next noise we heard was a bit closer, it was a small bellow from an African Buffalo. This sparked a lot of interest in the Lions as they immediately got up and slowly started approaching in the direction of the bellow.

We followed them as they moved towards the inflow. One of the males Lions lay down behind the cover of a bush and had locked on to his target, a herd of African Buffalo making their way down to Zebra Dam for their morning drink. The Lions’ tails were twitching in excitement as the Buffalos continued towards the water. A Buffalo cow was heading in the direction of the Lions when she caught sight of the male behind the bush. She turned on the spot and started running, with the herd soon following suit. She only managed a few meters as the first male pounced on her back! The other two males were close behind and came in to help secure their meal. With amazing teamwork each Lion knew their duty, with one Lion on the throat, one holding the rest of the body secure and the other watching the rest of the Buffalo herd.

African Buffalo are well known to come back to try and save a herd member if they think there is a chance. However, with three large males on one Buffalo cow, they made the clever decision to save themselves and continue running away. The leading male expertly suffocated the Buffalo in just six minutes! This might not sound fast but Lions often struggle with large prey, taking as long as ten or twenty minutes to complete the kill.

Once happy that the Buffalo was down for the count, they proceeded to feed on the rump. Most predators start feeding there as it is the thinnest skin and therefore the easiest to open up. After all, who doesn’t love a good rump steak! 

We took a while to digest what we had just witnessed. There were some mix feelings on the vehicle but everyone knew just how lucky we had been!

Story by Southern Camp Ranger Mike Brown, Photos by Matthew Derry


Safari Attitude!

Safari Attitude (noun): A predisposition or a tendency of awesome African animals to respond positively or negatively towards a certain idea, object, person, or situation. Attitude influences an individual’s choice of action, and responses to challenges, incentives, and rewards (together called stimuli).

Not only can ‘attitude’ be assigned to human behaviour, but if you look to the animal world one could say that there are animals that have developed their own unique personalities, with many species showing certain characteristics. As a result, some animals tend to mirror human personality traits more closely than others, often leading to collective names that describe their ‘attitude’.

Collective names for groups of animals are said to date back to medieval times, which may explain why some of these names can be strange, surprising or simply amusing to us.

Rhino: a crash

In the spirit of the fancy language used by our ancestors, more modern terms for animal groups have a fun twist, like a ‘crash’ of rhinos. Visualise an angry rhino storming towards you with their sharp horns at 40-45 km/h, which is pretty fast when you consider how much weight they’re pulling. (Faster than some used game drive vehicles will go I dare to say!)

One problem though. Rhinos can only detect movement about 80 metres in front of them. Can you imagine something that large moving in concert as a group or as an individual, ploughing ahead with no idea what’s at 80 plus metres? You would think that they would be far too timid to pick up full steam, that their inability to see far enough ahead would paralyse them into immobility. But with that horn pointing the way, rhinos run forward full steam ahead regardless, which leads us to their name when moving at full speed – a crash – because of that potential.

Black rhino

Craig Powell

Buffalo: a gang or obstinacy

A group of buffaloes is aptly referred to as an ‘obstinacy’. Considering their bulky bodies, stubbornness and tendency to stay in large, protective herds (a ‘gang’), this is a prime example of a collective noun that takes its inspiration directly from the characteristics of the animal being described.

Clearly, these are hard-headed beasts. These guys have drawn a line in the sand, and they dare you to cross it. These mighty creatures were once found roaming the grassy plains of Africa in large numbers, and regardless of earlier hunting practices they have not been wiped out, and many obstinacies obstinately remain. The very nature of the word ‘obstinacy’ refers to thick, solid, conservative and outright refusal to bend their will to survive, as many a hunter can attest to!

Buffalo

Reinardt du Plessis

Hippo: a pod, herd or bloat

Now even though their group name may not sound all that terrifying, it’s their aggressive attitude that you should be wary of. Although its size makes it fearsome looking, the hippo is often one of the most underrated animals in Africa in terms of its fearless and potentially bad-tempered nature. Hippos rank as one of the largest animals in Africa and are not known for their sunny dispositions, causing more human deaths in Africa annually than lions, leopards, crocodiles, or any other of the major predators.

Hippos are highly territorial, and most human deaths occur when people unwittingly wonder into a hippo’s personal space, only to get knocked down at surprisingly fast speeds. They are especially dangerous in water and along river banks, where they guard their ground, but as long as humans keep a respectful distance there should be no trouble. Hippos will also take on crocodiles, lions, and each other, often duelling until death. As long as they are given lots of space and not blocked on their way to a grassy feeding area, all should be fine, so don’t attempt a selfie with a hippo.

Hippo

Sebastiaan Kroon

The success of our Bushwise students also relies on their attitude, but somewhat is a very different way. During the course, the students are able to view these feisty creatures from the safety of the game viewer. Should they want to specialise in Trails guiding, they will need a whole lots more training and experience to handle these animals with attitude.


An Elephant Parade

After enjoying a delightful High Tea, we headed out from Buffalo Camp for the afternoon safari drive. The plan was to look for a Leopard, one of the most elusive of the Big Five, as that was the only animal my guests had not yet seen. However, as usual the bush is always full of surprises. While we were meticulously searching for any signs of this beautiful cat, we happened to stumbled upon a large herd of Elephants.

Elephants had been on top of my guests bucket list, so they were absolutely thrilled to come across another herd of these gentle giants. We decided to stop our game vehicle and spend some time with them as they went about their business. They has a small calf with them which made the sighting even more enjoyable.

We sat and watched as they slowly made their way up the road. They came to a small ridge that they needed to cross over to continue with their march. A few of the older and bigger Elephants causally and gracefully stepped up over ridge with ease and agility. Then it was the little Elephant’s turn. It came to the ridge, ready to take on the challenge but found it slightly more difficult than anticipated.

We watched as the young calf tried its best to figure out the best way to get up. That is when we were blessed with a very special surprise. We all watched as not just one, but two of the bigger Elephants, sensing the distress of the young calf, came to its rescue. Instinctively the trunk of the older giant wrapped itself around the young Elephant to help it up. 

Soon enough, with help from the rest of the herd, the young Elephant was on top of the ridge.

Elephants are one of the most intelligent mammals with a very good memory. It is one of those creatures that you could spent the whole day watching and laughing with them as they always seem to have something to do. Unlike some cats that spend the whole day sleeping. The Elephants just made our afternoon one of the best possible sightings and drew everyone’s attention.  We all actually forgot that we were on a mission to look for our elusive Leopard. It was a wonderful moment for my guests to witness and so close to the road.  The soft chatter and energy of their excitement could be felt all the way in the front.  

As I was slowly pulling out of the Elephants sighting my guests kept asking if we could wait and watch longer. It just shows that it doesn’t really matter how many times you see the same species while out on a game drive, they might be doing something that you have never seen before. That is what makes working in bush and being surrounded by nature on a daily basis such a privilege. Nature always makes sure there are plenty of surprises for us to enjoy.

Story and photos by Jeffrey Mmadi – Buffalo Camp