Written by Isaiah Banda
Thunderstorms, swarms of insect activity, rolling clouds, the big, the small, the fierce and the docile, this month shows it all from the safari department. The summer migrants are back, and the elephants and giraffes and thriving with the new leaves bursting through. and the predators are living up to their name with the leopards featuring in a few amazing sightings and pictures for our guests on safari.
Summertime in the bush is my favourite time of year as it is time for new growth and new life. The rains have come and with it bring an array of life. Birds are returning from migration; Dung beetles are back with full force and tortoises are emerging from a long period of aestivation.
Life is bursting at the seams all around us and we are just weeks away from having hundreds of impala lambs running around Mabula Reserve. Knowing that this is around the corner gets everyone excited.
Impalas are the most prevalent antelope that we see at Mabula and a large majority of this success lies within their breeding strategy along with being mixed feeders, and highly athletic and adaptable animals.
My first leopard sighting with pictures
Mabula is well known for having leopards that are very shy and always moving away quickly from safari vehicles. One afternoon I decided to stay in the office to do some admin work. I was lucky enough that I kept my radio on and on scan to hear what guides are seeing out on the reserve. Suddenly I heard on the radio one of the guides, Deborah, calling “All stations I have Ingwe sighting on Whole Owner Plain.” This area is on the northern side of the reserve and most of the guides were already out of the area and went to the southern parts looking for wild dogs.
Without hesitation, I jumped in the vehicle and headed to that area hoping that I would get a sighting. And I was lucky enough to find a male leopard sitting down very relaxed and bordered by vehicles. Leopards are by nature secretive animals, stealthy, solitary and adapted to a variety of harsh terrains. Lately, leopards are beginning to appear more often and producing great sightings for our guests. I still remember my first leopard sighting it was only for two seconds and it had disappeared before I could even take out my camera.
More often we see leopards and they are becoming more relaxed with vehicles allowing for incredible sightings. I was so privileged to be able to capture these pictures. I enjoyed the experience for more than an hour before the next vehicle arrived and I then moved back to the lodge. This is one of the males that has been producing great sightings lately on the reserve.
Wild dogs pups make their first appearance on safari
This month we have been very privileged to see these beautiful creatures. They have moved their den onto the centre of the reserve. It is normal for them to move den to another area more often. This is the beginning of exciting times for us as we watch these little ones grow on the reserve for the first time in the history of Mabula.
Wild dogs are most active during early mornings, as soon as it is light enough to locate prey and late afternoons in the last bit of sunlight. During the hottest time of the day, they will rest in the shade, but will rarely let an opportunity to hunt pass them by.
To have the opportunity to observe our four wild dog parents, who successfully added six puppies to the population, go about caring for their adorable puppies, is priceless.
Getting to see African wild dogs in their natural environment is always a special occasion. We were fortunate enough not only to encounter wild dogs and puppies but to get the rare opportunity to see their behaviour when they have puppies.
African wild dogs make use of burrows in old termite mounds, providing a safe place to hide and nurse their puppies for about twelve weeks.
Wild dog pups are weaned at five weeks and from then they take meat from their parents, which is regurgitated by the adults after returning from a morning hunt. The puppies are so cute, looking like little black and white furballs, swarming together with great excitement while making the most adorable twittering sounds when they see their parents coming back from hunting where they left them.
Although they are a member of the Canidae family, they are the last surviving member of a separate genus – Lycaon. Its scientific name, Lycaon pictus means “painted wolf”, which refers to the wild dog’s irregular coat pattern, which features red, black, brown, white, and yellow fur.
In terms of the African wild dog’s physical appearance, each dog has its own unique coat pattern, with long legs, big, rounded ears, and a white-tipped tail, which also helps members of the pack find each other during a hunt. It is not only their coats that make them special. They each have individual characters, distinct skills, and their own idiosyncrasies. All wild dogs share a sense of fun, a gentleness of soul and a cooperative spirit, which makes them one of Mabula’s most enigmatic creatures.
African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) are one of the most endangered mammal species in the world. They are highly social predators that live in packs. They have one of the highest hunting success rates of any carnivore species, where almost 85% of all their hunts end in a kill. These are my absolute favourite animals currently on the reserve.
Lions Feeding on Zebra Kill
We set out with one goal, to find a male lion since we had only seen the lioness and cubs. This was my guests’ last wish before they would return home. Looking for the smallest sign or track, we kept our eyes open, focusing on the bush where zebra had been alarm calling earlier. Then there they were. The whole pride together includes the sub dominant male who is most of the time walking by himself. This time he was with the pride. And came into my mind that it could only be due to one reason. They might have made a kill. And I was right about my judging.
You could feel the excitement in the vehicle from the guests. Now even more focused as we moved slowly through the bush, we could feel that we are getting closer. And then there he was, dragging a zebra kill to a shady area under the tree. It’s amazing to see how strong these creatures are.
When it comes to lions, hunting strategies are calculated and unique. They usually stay hidden in the grass or behind shrubs allowing the prey to get closer. They make stealthy and slow movement towards their prey. After getting to a chasable distance, they charge upon their prey quickly in order to paralyze their prey, lions bite the back and nose and break their windpipe after the attack.
Lions are extremely patient when it comes to hunting, they have the experience to keep patient because most of their prey is faster than them. They can stay hidden in the grass for a long time waiting for their prey to come closer. Sometimes they can spend several hours waiting, which shows their extremely patience when it comes to hunting.
Lion hunting strategies are different according to the size, strength, and aggressiveness of the prey. Lions use a co-operative strategy for big animals. While attacking zebra, buffalo, or wildebeest, they first encircle or cover the herd from all the side. After they get closer, they charge upon the group. Mostly, lions prefer to attack the weaker, older ones and the calves for better conversion.
When attacking the herd of gigantic animals like buffalo, lions do not hide. Lions surround the herd of buffalo and create chaos causing them to separate. But it can be a risk for a lion’s own life as African buffalos are aggressive and bulky.
After separating and chasing, they attack the far separated one by jumping up onto the back of the buffalo and biting the end of the spinal cord. When the prey slows down, the lions from different sides attack and jump up to the prey. Lions scratch and bite the backbone of the prey to damage the bone marrow.
After feeding on their well deserved meal, they all began to dose off and fall asleep, and it was our time to return for our breakfast at lodge. What a morning and great sighting of lions entertainment for our guests and of course myself too.
The mother cheetah and her cubs, along with the coalition, provided amazing sightings this month once again. You could hear the excitement on the radio whenever the cheetah mom and her two cubs were found.
The conservation status of cheetahs varies from vulnerable to critically endangered, so seeing three of them together is extremely special. Cheetah cubs will stay with their mom until they are about 18 months. They learn how to catch prey at the age of 6-12 months, but still rely on mom for hunting most of their food. By the age of 12 months, they will help their mother with hunts.
This month all our cheetahs have been spending time on the central parts of the reserve and have been successful in hunting impalas. Currently these central areas are rich with impala population which makes it much easier for them to hunt. Although grass has been growing aggressively around the reserve, these areas have short grass and shrubs which makes hunting a pleasure for these cheetahs.
One thing we prides ourselves here at Mabula is the beautiful sightings we get from these cheetahs. Very relaxed with safari vehicles which gives our guests marvellous experiences on safari.
Update on Journeys and Towers of Mabula.
Perhaps the ultimate icon of the Mabula savanna, the giraffe is an unmistakable land mammal known for its long neck and spotted coat.
Giraffe came out in big numbers this month. Their hotspot area was the southeast of the reserve along Dunhill drive. Considering the length of its neck and legs, the giraffe’s body is quite short. The giraffe sees in colour and its eyes are located on either side of its head, giving it a good view of its surroundings and any approaching predators. Moreover, it has a sharp sense of hearing and smell, another defence against predators, while it can also close its nostrils during sandstorms and against ants.
A giraffe’s coat is characterised by dark blotches on lighter hair. With age, male giraffes may become darker, and while calves inherit spot patterns from their mothers, each giraffe has a unique coat pattern that sets it apart. Underneath their spotted coats, however, the giraffe is actually grey in colour, with a skin that is quite thick and allows it some protection from thorns.
Notwithstanding their long necks, giraffes may also bend down and feed on shrubs and grasses. All in all, they feed and ruminate for most of the day, consuming a total of about 34 kg of foliage every day. However, the giraffe actually needs much less food than other herbivores as the food it does get is much higher in nutrients, while its digestive system is extremely efficient.
On your next visit here at Mabula and when out on safari, keep a lookout for giraffes arranged in groups of calves watched over by one or two mothers. These calving pools are often colloquially referred to as giraffe creches and they allow the mothers to feed elsewhere while a trusted individual keeps a lookout for danger.
For the most part, giraffe herds consist of either related females and their offspring or groups of unrelated adult bachelors. However, the different groups may sometimes come together and gather in larger herds.
Elephants on the central area of the reserve.
The magnificent African elephant is the largest and heaviest terrestrial animal – and one that you will no doubt spot when on safari here at Mabula.
During winter months, we have seen elephants spending this time on northern side of the reserve area called Modjadji. This is their favourite place in winter. We are now in full swing of summer where we see elephants now spending time in the central parts of the reserve and around the western parts of the reserve. The bush is green now and the food availability is in abundance.
One afternoon I had a pleasure of spending time with our elephant herd on the western side of the reserve around Modjadji plain. It has been over 2 years that they have visited this area. I found them on the terminalia ticket where they moved out of the bushes into an open clearing. This area has recovered very well, and trees have gown very big and thick also.
With water everywhere on the reserve, in the dams and gullies, these elephants they don’t necessarily have to walk a long distance to water at a dam to drink, they can make use of these gullies to drink. They require over 100L of water to quench that thirst.
Buffalos exploring the whole reserve.
Generally, a herd of buffalo is fairly passive, and they will behave much like cows, only stampeding if one runs in the herd. It is the ‘dagga boys’, the older lone bulls that can be extremely dangerous. Lacking the protection of the herd, they feel that the best defence is attack. They are notorious for over-reacting and will charge at the slightest irritation.
Their body language is difficult to read. They show very few signs of aggression or aggravation before they charge, very rarely giving a warning charge. Once they are committed, they will follow through with the intent to injure or kill whatever has offended them.
African Buffalo are gregarious animals preferring to live in herds for most of their life. They have been known to gather in herds of thousands under favourable conditions. However, depending on the area, average herd sizes vary from 30 to 100 buffalo.
They are bulk grazers and need to keep moving. Having a home range means they can keep moving, which allows the grazing to recover whilst they are in other areas. Currently they are all over the reserve. With abundance of grass everywhere they don’t need big herds to protect one another therefore they have divided themselves into smaller herds and have scattered themselves throughout the reserve.
Mabula’s most enduring animal inhabitants.
Eland is one of the antelopes that came out in numbers this month. Being very shy animals by nature it was amazing to see that they were so relaxed with excellent photo opportunities.
The largest of the antelope family, the animal is remarkable for its striking coat and impressive, ox-like build. When it comes to staying alive in a habitat where predation comes in many forms, the eland’s coat is its greatest weapon. The tan to grey coat camouflages well in tall, drying grass, especially when the animal stands dead still, which is how it often avoids detection by predators.
Eland is a herbivore whose diet is a mix of grasses and tree leaves and fruits. For this reason, the animal mostly dwells in sparse thick vegetation and open plains where they feed in the early mornings and late afternoons, and ruminates and hides from predation.
Both a browser and a grazer, the eland grazes on the plentiful green grasses in the wet summer season, then switches to leaves and tree flowers in the dryer seasons. The eland is not one of the fastest animals on the savannah. Their top speed of around 40km per hour, which is fairly pedestrian considering it shares the same habitat as predators like the cheetah, the fastest animal on four legs.
What the eland lacks in speed of flight it perhaps makes up for with an incredible leap. When spooked, the animal can jump as high as three meters from a stationary start. It is an astonishing spring when you consider the animal’s size. It is thought that elands communicate mainly through gestures. Bulls also bark and trot back to call the attention of other members of the herd when they catch sight of a predator.
The Bush Bar set-up.
A very special part of an afternoon safari is the “sundowner stop”. Just as the sun is spreading its most generously golden colours and sinking toward the horizon, that is when you will hear the radio communication go quiet and no one is speaking on the radio. Then you must know the bar is set and ready to serve.
Each guide will choose their own spot on the reserve to set up their bar spot and offers you your favourite tipple to accompany. There are a few favourite and breath-taking spots on the reserve. My favourite spot is Dicks hill and HQS. You have the panorama view of the reserve when you are at HQS.
Just imagine the sounds, sights, and smells of the bush while having a glass of wine or drink of your choice your hand. Enjoy and cherish the beautiful scenery that surrounds you. What better sundowner can one ask for.
Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.
Images courtesy of: Isaiah Banda, Frans & Tshepo Loni.