Written by Isaiah Banda
You look around you and far on the horizon the clouds build, there’s a lot of energy in the air, the towering cumulus clouds growing, literally before your eyes, bubbling and bulging higher and higher into the atmosphere.
Later as the sunsets, you may be lucky enough to see the light show as the static builds in the interior of these clouds, lighting these behemoths from within in spectacular blues and purples, a stunning contrast to the red and gold hues of the setting sun.
Wild dogs update
As guides our senses are one of our key tools when out on safari, just like animals, we want to use our hearing, sense of smell as well as sight. All cylinders are firing as we search the bush for answers. Many of these answers can be found by simply reading the behavior of the animals too.
My curiosity was drawn back to the impalas, some sitting and others standing at attention in front of my vehicle. Ears backward, chest upright as he stood dead still sniffing the air. A feeling of anxiety fills not only the body of this ram but mine too. The ram shoots off in the opposite direction followed by other rams!
In my periphery, I catch sight of a flash of white that dashes through the bushes at lightning speed. His slender build and dappled coat are a dead giveaway; the large unmistakable ears dance through the long grass and the wild dogs are on the move.
Coming around the corner, I am brought to a stop at the sight of a large group of pups, huddled close together, waiting, watching.
My excitement builds as the pieces of the story fall into place. One dog, two dogs, five dogs dash across to the road. The hunt is on! Wild dogs are proficient hunters, although brutal in their pursual and take down, it’s a special sight to witness these magnificent predators in action. Making use of the cooler weather to avoid overheating, they set the pace for the morning’s sighting.
One of the most endearing characteristics of the African wild dog (painted wolf) is the bond between pack members, particularly when they have pups in their midst. While typically only the dominant female will breed each year, every individual cooperates in raising the next generation, bringing food back to the den for both the mother and the youngsters.
African wild dogs are cursorial predators, they run through the vegetation and flush out their prey, pack members are often separated while hunting. The adults that catch the prey will start feeding, which allows them access to the most nutritious organs first until the rest of the pack members catch up. Pups are granted exclusive access to the carcass as soon as they arrive.
The adult dogs will sit back and wait “patiently” for their opportunity to feed. This is in stark contrast to most other social predators, where access to food is generally determined by rank and strength. For example, lion cubs that arrive at a carcass will have to fight for their place at the dinner table and often have to wait until the pride adults have sated their initial hunger.
Once the painted wolf puppies have eaten their fill, the dominant members of the pack will feed, followed by the next youngest in line. This confirms that painted wolves do follow an age-based feeding system. Consequently, older, and less dominant members of the pack may find little meat remaining by the time they get the opportunity to feed. Despite this, there is little overt aggression around kills, even from the dominant pair.
For any predator, hunting carries an inherent risk of injury. For the wild dog, high-speed chases ending in a struggle with prey can result in broken bones, torn ligaments, and myriad other potential injuries. So, if older pack members are unlikely to get priority access, what incentivizes their participation given the potential risks involved?
Older dogs are motivated to actively participate in kills to feed before the younger pack members arrive. However, there are occasions when the pack is separated during the hunt. If remaining pack members are unaware that prey has been caught, the painted wolves responsible for the kill will feed for a while and then circle back to recruit the rest of the pack. This speedy arrival of the rest of the pack likely ensures more eyes and ears on alert for kleptoparasites and larger predators like lions, which are a significant cause of natural wild dog mortalities.
This system also ensures that the pups are provisioned while they cannot hunt for themselves. The dominant breeding female is also guaranteed access to valuable carcass parts once the pups have fed. In packs where intra-pack relatedness is high, the subdominant pack members gain by helping to raise litters of close kin. We are very lucky to have wild dogs on our reserve and also denning for the first time. We learn new things every day with the dogs and it is fascinating to see them every time we go out on safari.
Lions feeding on huge eland bull.
We started our afternoon safari following up on lion tracks we found in the morning, but we had no success in finding any lions that morning. From the tracks we had found, it was clear they went to an area called Kliphuis. Our hopes were all bought down as the tracks kept moving all over the place showing that they were very hungry and hunting. We decided to have our sundowners and take it further after the sundowner.
While we were busy with sundowners’ drinks a call came in on the radio informing us of a lion sighting not far from where we were another guide Tshepo. Hearing his excitement on the radio I could pick up immediately that he found lions with a great sighting, “all stations I have lions feeding on a huge eland kill”. We quickly packed up everything and rushed to the scene, hoping to get a great sighting of lions feeding. And yes, it was indeed a great sighting.
When it comes to lions on a kill, it is always a sight to see. Though cruel and harsh, the interaction among them keeps you on high alert. Sometimes two of them fight over a piece of meat while they have this huge animal to feed on.
Most of the time this is where injuries and scars occur on them. They will first open up the animal to have access to its rich organs of the animal. This moisture is also used as a substitute for water. After eating if there is no water available around them, lions can last up to four days without drinking water.
Although were did not see the actual kill, for my guests it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience as some of them have never seen lions eating prey. Soon after they started taking turns in eating as the internal organs were all finished, the male walked away leaving the cubs and females eating. He went to lie down in the shade and began to give us a big yawn before he eventually fell asleep.
It was then the female’s and cubs’ turn. Normally females will let the cubs eat and they will eat after, with the eland being very big the females were feeding together with the cubs.
After the guests were happy and had enjoyed the sighting to the fullest, we left them and went back to the lodge for dinner. The following day we decided to go back to see how far they got with their meal from the previous night. Lions were still in the same area and we were in for more entertainment from cubs. They were so playful and running around chasing each other.
For now I am going to let the pictures do the talking.
Our dominant male looking at herd of zebras in a distance and followed with him performing flehmen where the lioness was lying.
Playing is very important for the cubs as they grow up. This is where they learn all the survival technics. The impalas in the background could not even be concerned about these lions.
They decided to chased each other up the tree. I was surprised they still had as much energy after they had very good meal the previous day.
While the cubs were so playful, the male and females were busy yawning and trying so hard to keep their eyes open. There is no way of falling asleep while the kids are running and making noises around you.
Like with domestic cats, it is very important to lie next to one another touching each other. It makes the family bonding very strong among them, and no intruder will come between them
It was then followed by the male and female mating and separated from the rest of the pride, mating takes place every fifteen minutes, over five days. We are hoping we will soon have new cubs joining the pride.
What spectacular sightings we had.
Sensational Safari Sightings.
While safari drives are unpredictable by their very nature, a handful of usual suspects make more than regular appearances. So, when you come across one of the more unusual species, it makes it even more special.
One afternoon we were aiming at looking for buffaloes. They were last seen on the southern side of the reserve. One of the best ways to track animals or understand what’s going on in the wild around you is to observe the habits or behaviors of the animals you can or can’t see.
As we made our way to a section called rain meter plain, I could sense something was different. This area has an open “plain” and is usually frequented by wildebeest, red hartebeest, zebras, and other games. However, on this specific afternoon, they were nowhere to be found. Everything seemed eerily quiet. I mentioned to my guests that there might be a predator in the area.
After a short search, my suspicions were confirmed. However, it was not one of the animals I had been expecting. Cheetahs are one of the most successful hunters on the savanna but their kills are very often stolen by larger carnivores or predators that hunt in groups, leaving them vulnerable.
As cheetahs are solitary animals, the female also takes care of herself and her cubs, ensuring their survival, she will feed and care for them up to 18 months old. Cheetahs are normally active during the day, especially in the cool of the early mornings and evenings, because they hunt by sight and because their main competitors, lions, and spotted hyenas, are generally active after dark. They also hunt by the light of the full moon, and male cheetahs patrol their home ranges for long periods on moonlit nights.
Elephants move to southern side of the reserve.
It has been quite some time since elephants have moved out of the northern side of the reserve to explore other areas, they indeed caught us by surprise.
We set out to go look for the elephants on the early morning safari. We had a clue as to which area to start looking for them. They were last seen on the northern parts of the reserve in the area called Tambotie dam. We found tracks of them on modjadji plain heading towards the golf course area. We decided to follow up and see where we will find them.
One could see by the tracks that they were on a mission to get to a different area. We went over the golf course until mokaikai area where tracks dissapeared into the block to the direction of the Mvubu dam. We drove around the block, just around the sharp bent, there were elephants about to cross the road. I quickly stopped and positioned the vehicle into the perfect spot for the guests to have a beautiful sighting.
They were about to cross the road in Mvubu dam direction. After a few minutes, they crossed the road in front of our vehicle. This was a perfect place for the photo opportunity.
During the night elephants can cover quite a long distance walking and feeding, on Mabula they like to explore mountainous areas at night. It is during those times when the reserve is quiet from vehicles movements and they can travel without being disturbed. After they crossed the road we decided to loop around to get to Mvubu dam and wait for them to come down to have water hopefully they will enter the water and take a swim to cool down on a hot day.
Although we had all hoped to see them swim, they had their own agenda and did not swim that afternoon. Nonetheless, it was a great sighting to see them cross the road and move to the dam.
Update on Mabula Buffaloes.
Buffaloes are often considered the ‘under-whelming’ item of the big five. But there’s a lot more to them than what first meets the eye. If we take a look at a large breeding herd, which can easily number over a thousand individuals in some areas, we are met on the surface by a mass of lumbering bodies and a constant bellow of deep grunts and groans.
However, beyond this, what you’ll find is a fascinating and intricately structured herd system that closely resembles that of our democratic human society. Associating in a herd benefits countless species in the wild and generally arises through their efforts to increase their security and shared resources. As is the case with humans though, whenever their are a large number of individuals co-existing, systems need to be put in place that lend themselves to the smooth running of the herd or society and allow the animals or people to coordinate their day-to-day activities and avoid unnecessary conflicts as much as possible. This we see more often on Mabula among our buffalo herd.
Watching individual buffalo within a herd, we can quite easily observe them as they establish and reinforce their social status with subtle signals of body language, vocalisations and even odour – all of which we as humans can also be seen responding too amongst each other, albeit on a more subconscious level. Furthermore, ecologist Herbert Prins, who spent years observing buffalo behaviour, formulated a theory that the large herds of buffalo in fact have a rudimentary voting system to determine the direction they move in.
Buffalo are very water dependent and will drink at least once a day if they can. It’s vital that the herd doesn’t wander too far from a sufficient water source and that they stick to as good pasture as possible.
The dry season can be a difficult time for the buffalo herds. This is the season in which the knowledge of the older individuals comes into play and when the strength of the herd will protect the younger and weaker animals from predators. If it wasn’t for the herd mentality, many buffalo wouldn’t make it through the dry seasons.
The knowledge of female buffalos is integral to the survival of the herd and success of the following generations. A fair amount goes into this decision making as these large herds feed in cyclical routes through a home range area, doing their best to avoid other buffalo herds. They need to consider rainfall, topography, vegetation types, habitat, availability of water and even soil types all while avoiding areas that have recently been grazed; be it by another herd or themselves.
This requires local knowledge which would have been learnt by these ‘pathfinder’ females as they grew up in the same herd, learning from their elders. Their knowledge and guidance then benefit the herd as a whole, particularly the younger individuals who are inexperienced in finding suitable grazing and water.
While some of the benefits of herding are fairly obvious, such as safety, others may require a bit more observation to fully appreciate. Next time you find yourself sitting with a large herd, take a bit of time to watch the restless females and hang around to see who wins the vote that afternoon.
Christmas breakfast at Shaya Moya.
It is Maula tradition that every Christmas breakfast and lunch are very special for all our guests. Breakfast is served at Shaya Moya venue; Shaya Moya means a place with very soft wind that occurs all the time.
Coffee break on a successful morning safari.
Nothing can beat a morning coffee with Amarula after a great wildlife sighting experience. Stopping next to the dam with hippos and crocodile. Entertained by hippo calls to welcome you at their favourite spot, now that is so special.
Sundowners on Mabula is not to be missed.
Your safari is not complete without a sundowner stop. Guides will always choose a beautiful area on the reserve to setup to have a drink of your choice. Being a glass of wine or whiskey, even gin and tonic while watching the sun disappear behind the mountains, confirming the end of another glorious afternoon safari.
We were spoiled this month by a beautiful rainbow after a thunderstorms and lightning that started just before we departed for our afternoon safari. We had to delay the safari by half and hour to wait for the lightning to stop. The rainbow appeared while we were on Rainmeter plain.
Guests enjoyed a later afternoon drink whilst watching the cloud formations of a frontal system build on the horizon.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish all our guests, friends and family beautiful Christmas and a prosperous new year. May 2023 be the best year for all of us. See you all next year again.
Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.
Images courtesy of: Isaiah Banda, Frans & Tshepo Loni, Heinrich, Mashudu, Paul and Andrew.