A Wonderful Wildlife Update from Savannah Lodge!

August has been an incredible month filled with amazing interactions, special sightings and so much more. We are now officially in the second half of the year and with this comes the anticipation of Spring and hope of future rains.

August is traditionally known as the windy month and this year was no different. The warm wind dries the parched earth even more, as the valuable sources of water become scarcer. The attraction of game to these remaining water sources has been an important factor in much of this month’s viewing.

The elephant activity around the lodge continues to delight guests, as the herds come from far and wide to enjoy the fresh, clean water. They have the ability to smell water from kilometers away and the herds will rely on the older matriarchs to lead them to the freshest sources of water.

The big bulls have continued to provide incredible viewing throughout the month as well. Their relaxed nature around the vehicles and docile behaviour, allows for incredibly close and intimate sightings of these gentle giants.

It is an amazing experience to be able to see elephants using their unique trunks for drinking. With an estimate 150 000 muscle units in their trunk, they are able to hold between 8 and 10 liters of water at a time. Contrary to popular belief, elephants do not drink through their trunks – they suck water up into their trunks and then spray it into their mouths.

The Sand River has continued to flow through the dry season, although it is drying up significantly in some parts. The days are still cool in the early mornings and it only starts to warm up later. Large pods of hippos are still enjoying some sunbathing on the banks of the river and crocodiles, who are cold-blooded, also have to bask on the banks to raise their body temperature to increase digestion.

The Mhangene pride have been more sporadic in their visits this month, spending majority of their time in the central parts of their territory further east of us. On one occasion the pride had made a buffalo kill close to camp and utilized the waterholes in front of camp regularly, as this was their closest water. The Ottawa male continues to be a dominant feature of the pride as he expands and solidifies his dominance of the Eastern sections of the property.

As would be expected at this time of year, the remaining waterholes become a focus for most of the action. The wild dogs have been seen heading straight towards watering sources as they leave their den site, firstly for a drink and secondly for the possibility of prey which congregate around the waterholes! This often leads to incredibly exciting adventures while following them on the hunt.

Wild dogs are known as one of the most successful predators in the bushveld and with the pressure of extra mouths to feed, we have been seeing them hunt with more intention than ever.

The interactions between hyena and wild dogs have been a standout this month. The hyenas are a constant presence wherever the wild dogs are, thus making it incredibly difficult for the dogs to successfully keep their kills. On numerous occasions we have seen the hyenas chase the wild dogs off their kills.

As far as interactions go, a herd of buffalo versus a pack of wild dogs has to be one of the most interesting ones. We arrived to this sighting one morning, as the confident and cunning pack of wild dogs were maneuvering their way around a breeding herd of buffalo in a playful and taunting manner. This interaction played out for a few minutes, with the back and forth of wild dog and buffalo. Click here for video footage of the interaction.

The wild dog pups finally emerged from the den and we can confirm that there are eight pups in the litter. The pack has already moved den sites and the youngsters have started to get more active as they are now close to two months old.

With the open clearings continuing to dry up, many animals take the opportunity to enjoy a well-deserved dust bath. For wildebeest, this dust bathing, serves a vital purpose as it is a way of transmitting chemical signals to the ground which marks an individual’s territory. The clearings also provide grazing and safety for many more other animals.

As with last months white-headed vulture sighting, we had another unusual bird for this area of the Sabi Sand – the Kori Bustard. In South Africa, the estimated population of Kori bustards varies from 2000 to 5000 individuals. These birds are mainly terrestrial, meaning they spend most of their time on the ground. They do however, fly when they need to and are in fact the heaviest flying bird in the world. Their preferred habitat is dry sandy areas with short grass and they are omnivorous. On this occasion one was trying to find the nest of a pair of crowned lapwings, who harassed it constantly until it had moved far enough away from the nest.

Unlike wildebeest and impala, some animals do not have a strict breeding season. Rhinos and giraffe, for example, have a gestation period of 15 months and will give birth at any time of the year. We have been incredibly fortunate over the past month to see some of these youngsters around the concession.

Boulders and her two cubs continue to provide some of the best leopard viewing on our concession. She has been seen on numerous occasions taking her cubs to and from kills with a mandatory stop at a waterhole giving the opportunity for some great photographs.

It has been rather unusual that Boulders has not been hoisting many of her kills lately. This leaves room for scavengers, like hyenas, to challenge her for the prize.

On one occasion we were lucky to find all three leopards together with a kill, which we presume she had just lost to hyenas. We arrived to witness hyenas feeding on the kill and the three leopards lying not far off, watching the intruders. Suddenly one of the cubs crouched down, staring intently into the distance at Ravenscourt approaching. It was clear that his intention was to steal the kill back from the hyenas but luck, however, was not on his side. The hyenas fought back and all four leopards scattered in separate directions.

On another occasion when Boulders failed to hoist her kill to safety, she lost it to a young, unknown lioness! Being the ultimate opportunist, she took a chance when the lioness was lying some distance from the kill and managed to steal it back and drag it under some rocks not too far away. Again, she chose not to hoist the kill and she lost the kill for a second time to the lioness not long afterwards!

As they move towards independence, the two youngsters have been spending more and more time by themselves. They have started making their own small kills and fend for themselves. On one occasion the young male was seen on his own with a stolen civet kill, which he actually did hoist away from danger. Unfortunately it was badly decomposed already and after leaving it to go for a drink, he did not return to it.

Ravenscourt continues to be on constant patrol, seen throughout the month as he explores and expands his territory. As a result, many of the other males have been seen less this month, as Ravenscourt cements his dominance in the western sector.

Thamba made a brief appearance on the property this month. He has been moving further east, towards Torchwoods territory. He has been seen mating in our neighbouring concession, which could this be a sign that he is starting to become a more dominant feature further east.

Dewane has continued to live the nomadic lifestyle and is in surprisingly good condition. He has been using his experience to avoid any conflict, successfully making kills and generally keeping a low profile.

Basile has been under a lot of pressure from other leopards this past month. With the continued movement of her den site and moving her remaining cub to and from kills, she seems to have lost her remaining cub. This is unfortunately the sad reality of a female leopard’s life and is not unusual to lose litters.

The male cheetah seems to have settled into the western parts of his new home-range. He has been seen more frequently this month, scent-marking and using fallen over dead trees to survey his new territory.

Cheetah are perfectly adapted for hunting in large open areas. Although these areas are not common in our concession, we have seen him on a few occasions chasing impala out in the open. He did not succeed every time, but we did find him on the odd kill.

The incredible cheetah viewing continued when two young cheetahs appeared on the concession towards the latter half of the month. For those who were here in August 2018, these are the same male and female youngsters that were seen with their mother. They are now just over two years old and the sibling duo caused quite a bit of excitement around the reserve, as they moved through the area without the protection of their mother.

A mother cheetah will generally leave her cubs to fend for themselves anywhere from 16 to 24 months old. As their hunting skills are better together than alone, the siblings will stay together until the female reaches sexual maturity (around 3 years old).

The Ottawa pride has been spending majority of their time around the river.  The older cub is around seventeen months now and beginning to develop a mane, but still has the patience to teach the younger cubs a lesson or two.

The Matimba male coalition is sadly down to one male. The male that was struggling was found towards the latter half of the month, having eventually died of old age. The darker maned male and the last remaining Matimba, still seems to be in relatively good condition and continues to follow the pride. The inevitable question is how long can he hold the territory without the assistance of his brother.

We have also seen some of the rare and unusual sightings this month. Cape Clawless Otters are usually found in and around the perennial rivers where they feed on fresh water crabs, fish, frogs and worms. We were therefor completely surprised when we first saw tracks and then the otter around Savanna! This is about ten kilometers from the nearest river and for the next two weeks we had regular sightings of the otter in the dams at the camp, as well as slightly further afield. This must have been one dispersing, looking for new territories as the Sand River continues to dry.

A rare sighting of an African Wild Cat, as well as two separate sightings of pangolin is surely going to make those who have been coming to Africa regularly jealous beyond words! Both of these are on most people’s bucket list and get even the most experienced of guides very excited when they are found!

As we approach Spring, we look forward to longer, warmer days with more incredible game viewing to share with you all.


An unexpected visitor

Recently we have been extremely lucky to have a pack of wild dogs join us on Kapama Private Game Reserve in South Africa. The African Wild Dog, or “painted dog” is listed as endangered on the IUCN RED LIST and is the second most endangered mammal in Africa. With home ranges of up to 1000 square km and almost always on the move, together with numbers thought to be less than 5000 and not even 300 in the Kruger area, you can imagine the excitement amongst the rangers.

The first time I heard them being called in, I was very confused. When rangers talk about animals over the radio, we use the local Shangaan names for the animals. I heard them call the wild dogs by their Shangaan name, I had to ask my tracker Godsave, what was being called in, as it was a first for me. Once I knew what the species was, my heart rate and excitement skyrocketed.

The ranger that had spotted them earlier said it looked like they were ready to be on the move again. Now just keep in mind that when wild dogs are on the move, they can travel incredible distances in a short period. So, I knew that keeping up with them would be extremely difficult. But with hopes still high I made my approach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luckily, they decided to hang around the dam for a bit longer and as we arrived, we got to see them. I was so excited, and my excitement filtered through onto my guests. I had no words and couldn’t speak; my guests were very understanding because they realized how special it was to be a part of this pack’s morning activities. You realize something is truly special when your ranger is at a loss for words and takes out their camera to capture the moment.

We sat for a while just observing their behavior and what they were doing. What made this even more special, was not just a pack of wild dogs, but we could see young pups with them as well.

The pups were having an absolute blast of a time trying to pull a stick out from the water, they eventually got it right and proceeded to play with it, just like most dogs would.

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the adults just ran around sniffing the ground and making sure the pups were well behaved. After a while, I managed to regain composure and could then explain a bit about these incredible animals to my guests.

– Pups are born in a den and remain there for the first 3 months
– All pack members help take care of the pups
– Wild dogs are regarded as one of the most successful hunters with a success rate of over 80%
– As they have so much stamina, they chase their prey over large distances tiring them out
– The weakest fall behind and become prey
– Females are generally bigger than males
– The coloured pattern of each dog is unique and is used for individual identification
– They lack dewclaws on the front legs, unlike other canid species

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After admiring them for a while suddenly the adult individuals ran towards the pups and they were all interacting with each other by rubbing themselves against one another. That happened for a brief moment and they all got up and ran off into the distance.

We tried to follow them but like I mentioned before, they can travel long distances in a short period, so it was difficult to keep visual. They then disappeared into the bush, but we got to be a part of their morning routine, even if it was only for a short time.

Story and photos by River Lodge Ranger Brian Dann & Tracker Godsave


Shining a Spotlight on the Painted Wolves

It’s hard to believe that Africa’s beautiful painted wolf (African wild dog) is still stigmatized in spite of its endangered status, but that’s the cold truth about these beautiful, but highly efficient predators with both formal and informal livestock farmers across the continent still regarding them as a pest.

Indeed, in South Africa of old, the painted wolf (its name comes from its latin name, Lycaon pictus) was persecuted, shot and killed with the government rewarding such actions with 5 shillings per animal! Thankfully those days are consigned to the history books and anecdotes of yesteryear and today, here in the Balule Private Nature Reserve, we are always extremely glad to see them, which we do frequently on our game drives. Or even driving along the R40 north of the small town of Hoedspruit which dissects a major portion of their local range!

 

Painted wolf crossing the road, African wild dog

 

 

Here at Sausage Tree Safari Camp we are currently spotting a small pack of three painted wolves with seven pups in our area, which are always a special sighting for our guests. The reserve’s research team also recently collared an alpha male in our area, so we are fortunate to be ‘in the thick of it’ when it comes to dog activity.

There is no underestimating the critical role that painted wolves play in the ecosystems they inhabit. Their presence helps to regulate prey species and, as a result, help to shape entire vegetation landscapes. They are Africa’s most successful predator in terms of kill rate, and also its rarest. Their fascinating and intricate social system is also the subject of much research and through this we have discovered that they are one of the few species that actively looks after their sick and old, highlighting an incredible bond that all pack members share.

Packs can be large with up to 30 individuals, but only the alpha female usually breeds, although sometimes (depending on conditions) the beta female will also produce pups, but the alpha female will raise them all nonetheless. The role of the pack is to look after the alpha male and female, with the betas waiting in the wings to step in if the alphas are lost. It’s a strict hierarchy that drives potential new alphas and betas off on their own, splitting large packs to form new, emerging packs. Once they reach maturity it is the males that tend to stay within their family pack, while the females leave to form or join new packs.

 

Painted wolf puppies, African wild dog puppies

 

Painted wolves range over huge distances, only staying in one spot when they den and the pups are born. They breed seasonally, with pups being born usually in the dry season when the hunting conditions are at their best. When the pups are ready to eat solid food they are given priority when the pack makes a kill, even over the alpha pair, so that they grow as quickly as possible, enabling them to keep up with the pack and speed up the process of leaving the den site.

It’s been known for a single pack to range over as much as a 1,500 km distance, which is why seeing painted wolves is such a privilege. That is an enormous home range, so let’s put it into perspective: imagine an area the size of Greater London, home to some 7.5-million people. This huge city would only be able to support only one or two packs of painted wolves!

Because of this huge range and their need for space, the loss of habitat is a major concern and perhaps the greatest threat facing the painted wolf.

Fortunately for us, we tend to see them once a month or so, and usually more regularly in summer because of the plentiful prey species – especially impala. Of course, their presence in our area depends on other predator activity and we find that if we are seeing a lot of lion and hyena, painted wolf sightings tail off.

 

 

African wild dog, Painted wolf

 

 

Their coats are something to behold. Each of the spotted, mottled patterns is unique – like a fingerprint. Their large, round ears are perhaps their most distinguishing feature and allow for exceptionally acute hearing that can pick up the calls of other pack members over long distances.

Everything from hares and warthog to impala and kudu is on the painted wolf menu, and they have even been known to hunt larger species such as buffalo –concentrating on the immature and weakened animals, as well as calves. They are exceptionally intelligent hunters and display remarkable hunting strategies that see some members flank prey while others fall behind or take up ambush positions further ahead.

Ultimately, this beautiful, clever canid is part of our wilderness landscape here in Africa and the priority for several large conservation organisations that are working together to secure its future. So the next time you stroke your pet dog, or rub its tummy, think about its African ‘cousin’ out here in the wilds of Africa – our very own ‘wild dog’.

 

 

Two painted wolves playing, African wild dogs playing

 

 

 

 

 


A Very Spotted Safari

We were ready to set out on our evening safari from River Lodge and everybody made sure they had a warm jacket packed in. Although we are officially in South African Spring, the evening air still packs a slight bite as the sun begins to drop.  As we set out on our way I was asked a question – “Can we try and find things not often seen?”

Now as difficult as it is to grant a request like that I was smiling because I knew about a Leopard that was seen on a kill during the morning game drive and I was confident it will still be in the same area.  So that was the initial plan my tracker Collin and I decided upon. We slowly made our way to the area and hoped that luck was on our side. When we got to the area the Leopard was not there and the excitement started to drop.

Now what?

We decided to try and go to all the nearby water sources, and see what nature had in store for us. Nothing was found near the water sources so we decided to go back to the kill site and follow the tracks from there. But that was not necessary! When we arrived at the kill site the Leopard was back! Excitement as always because Leopards are solitary and very elusive. They almost try “not” to be seen.

 

 

 

 

It was already time for sundowners by now so that’s just what we did. Of course, everybody still talking about the amazing Leopard sighting! After drinks, we were lucky enough to bump into some Spotted Hyenas. They were not just Hyenas, but young Hyenas suckling on their mother. Hyenas are one of those ‘Have to see animals.’ They have a very interesting social structure with the females being bigger and stronger than the males, yes with Hyenas the ladies are in charge. Also, the Hyenas have a ranking system, it has also been seen that young females will babysit the young of others to score points as a favorite to be ranked higher at a later stage. The lowest ranking female is still higher ranked than the highest-ranking male. Unlike lions, Hyenas will not let another female’s cubs suckle on them, only their own.

 

 

 

 

On the way back home, we spotted yet another secretive animal, a Large – Spotted Genet! Genets are some of the less known cat relatives found in Africa and are considered solitary animals. They respond defensively by arching or rounding their back and lifting their hair to make them seem bigger.

 

 

 

 

After spotting the last animal that was when one of my guests said “Now that was a spotted safari”! Referring to the spots of the Leopard, the Spotted Hyena and the Spotted Genet.

Story and photos by River Lodge Camp Ranger Francois with Tracker Collin


A Head to Head!

Coming across two male giraffe in a clearing, on an African game drive with my guests from South Africa’s River Lodge, started off to be quite relaxed or seen as a normal sighting of two “long necks”. As we approached, we discovered that there was more to this meeting than we thought. These two were sizing each other up!

Giraffe males will stare at each other to either intimidate the other into submission or determining where to place the first blow. Male giraffe will make use of their necks and heads as powerful hammer action tools to either unbalance or knock down the other individual in order to establish dominance. The neck is supported by powerful muscles and reinforced ligaments.

This action is commonly referred to as necking, but in fact is known as ‘sparring’. ‘Necking’ refers to the behavior between males and females during courtship or bonding. Younger males have also been observed displaying this behavior, but more for practice to use when they are older.

The sparring session between two males will not determine dominance over a herd but rather over mating privileges when a female giraffe goes into oestrous. The two males will continue swinging their head and necks at each other in the hope to land a well-placed blow that will either knock them over, knock them out or encourage them to submit defeat and move away. Giraffes are not predators and will not kill other animals. Their huge skeletons do require more calcium and phosphorous than they can get from eating leaves, so are known to eat the bones of other animals to supplement their diets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hitting their heads against each other causes the hair on top of the ossicles(horns) to rub off and cause their skulls to grow bumps. The bold horn tips are also an easy sexing tool because female will have black tuffs of hair on their ossicles. Giraffes still only have seven vertebrae in their necks – the exact same number of bones as a human neck!

These two males went about their business for a good 20 minutes with a few well-placed blows that could be heard from a distance. The commotion even attracted some onlookers. Other giraffe had ring side seats to this showcase of dominance. Even some blue wildebeest stopped to watch for a few minutes while passing by.

 

 

 

 

 

After a while the smaller bull gave up and moved away in submission with the ‘champion’ following him to make sure that this matter was dealt with. Both males made their way back to the tree line and continued feeding now that dominance was determined.

Story and photos by: River Lodge Ranger Ian De Weerd