Written by Isaiah Banda
If anyone asks what my favourite season is, I’ll always reply with, “It’s so difficult to choose really, there is something special each season.
It’s the change into each season that steals my heart, that small peak in the environment before the full change sets in. The bright green palette of lush summer slowly starts to fade, allowing for the most vibrant colours to be birthed. As I drive, the autumn leaves look so inviting and warm. The air is definitely cooler, crisper. Smothering your cheeks and the tips of your fingers in a deathly cold grip, its grasp is diminished when you come across your first sighting for the morning. Winter certainly brings about a new meaning of life. As vegetation becomes scarce, opportunities for predators rise and death reeks through dry valleys. We experienced very cold weather down to minus 5, a cold we have never experienced in my years on Mabula.
The highlight of this month was a sudden radio call by one of our guides, Liam Dormehl, “All stations I have wild dogs on Peltophorum corner.” It was quite strange hearing it since we have not had a confirmed wild dog sighting on the reserve in a long time. And everyone seemed not to believe it until he brought pictures.
I have been on Mabula for over 14 years and have never seen or heard of a wild dog sighting on the reserve. However, 2021 proved to be our year of wild dogs, even though it is not a big pack. It was very exciting to see them and they have spent time on the reserve providing beautiful sightings for our guests for the whole month. We are hoping they will stay longer and enjoy the reserve with us. African wild dogs, also known as painted wolves or Cape hunting dogs, are one of Africa’s most endangered predators. The African wild dog is unmistakeable among the medium-sized carnivores. Characteristic features are the large rounded ears, long legs, bushy, broadly white-tipped tails and shaggy coats with blotches of black, yellow and white. Like a human’s fingerprint, across their distribution range, each individual has a unique pattern. They can weigh up to 27 kgs with the male being much heavier than females.
African wild dogs prefer woodland and broken woodland habitats and are also associated with open plains and open savannah woodland. Wild dogs tend to avoid dense forest vegetation which often limits their hunting abilities, which mainly consist of them using their speed and endurance to take down their prey. African wild dogs are highly social, cooperative breeding predators and packs may consist of a single dominant unrelated breeding pair, their offspring, and non-breeding adults who are either offspring or siblings of one of the breeding pair and which help to raise the pups.
A wild dog pack is a well-coordinated, efficient hunting unit and the members are interdependent. The young, or pups as they are referred as, occupy a particularly privileged position, to the extent that, after the first few weeks the mother is not essential to their further upbringing, for members of the pack either carry food back to the den site or regurgitate the food for them. Pups are raised in excavated burrows, which they use as den sites, usually taken over from other species such as aardvark, foxes and porcupine.
Pups are usually born between April and September, with a peak during the dry season in late May and early July. This midwinter period comes at the end of the Impala rut, when out of condition males are more readily available as prey, and coincides with a high concentration of antelopes around waterholes. The gestation period is around 72 days, with an average size litter of around 8-10 individuals.
Vocalization is a big part of communication for wild dogs, many of which have different meanings and are used for different purposes. The best-known call of wild dogs is the musical ‘hoop-hoooop’ used by members of the pack to relocate one another, particularly when the pack has been scattered during hunts. With their heads usually hanging down and their mouth almost to the ground, this particular call can carry up to three or four kilometres. Another form of vocalization takes place before a hunt when the pack gets excited and almost psych up others, or when killing, feeding and mobbing other predators and is expressed by a high pitched, bird-like twittering.
African wild dogs are prolific hunters, with the majority of the hunts taking place during the cooler times of the day, early morning and late afternoon. Hunting is done by sight and consists of the pack trotting through open plains, occasionally splitting up into denser vegetation to flush out any potential prey, with little to no stalking taking place. Once the potential prey is sighted, a high-speed chase follows, with the pack once again splitting up, trying to corner the prey.
We are hopeful they will make the reserve their permanent home. If they spend a few more days here and explore the reserve, they will realise that reserve is like a haven when it comes to the prey species available for them to hunt and enjoy. We will keep following them on the reserve and see where they end.
Winter months on Mabula are months where we get to see some of the animals we sometimes battle to see. It gets cold earlier and sometimes during the day it remains cold on some days. When you drive around the chances of finding an aardvark or even aardwolf sunning themselves are very high. It was not long when our guide Marguerite Strydom decided to take a drive down the North-Eastern side of the reserve around Tpa plain with the hope of finding an aardvark. Now, this is what I call being in the right place at the right time with the right equipment. This is one animal that we always miss especially in summer. We get more sightings of them during the winter months especially this month. The aardvark is mainly a nocturnal mammal with a very shy nature. The aardvark is very easily recognizable as it sports a long thin-ish nose and a tapered tail. The rest of the aardvark is quite bulky and individuals can weigh up to 70kg. They have purpose-built muscular front legs armed with long-nailed digits designed for scratching and digging. The nose is soft, rounded and furry with denser hair around the nostrils itself.
Aardvark has a greatly refined sense of smell and has a long sticky tongue which is used to swallow insects with little or no chewing. They have peg-like teeth and an interesting feature is that these teeth are not covered in enamel and a stomach designed to break up insects much like the gizzard of a bird. Aardvark has thick and hard facial bristles to protect their eyes during digging and large rotatable ears which are designed to hear predators but are also specifically manufactured for digging as they conveniently fold away so no dirt can get into them.
Aardvark can dig with great force and their dwellings can have up to 8 entrances and be as deep as 6 meters below the ground. The burrows are designed to be wide enough to accommodate just the aardvark as to keep larger predators such as leopard, lion and hyena out. Aardvarks are also mainly solitary animals and only the female are accompanied by one, occasionally two young of different ages. Their claws are also designed for excavating their food. Aardvark droppings are a rare sight as they dig a shallow scarping in which they defecate, they then use soil to cover the dung. The dung pellets are oval in shape and contain termite and ant heads and soil particles which they cannot help but digest when they forage and dig for food. Aardvark’s diet consists mainly of ants in the dry season when they are most active and termites in the wet season when they are more active. Foraging in a peculiar manner, they zig zag across the veld plains smelling out columns of termites moving above ground. Aardvark will forage on the same mounds and will mark their favourite eating spots by secreting from their groin glands. Being mainly nocturnal aardvarks are usually back in their burrows before dawn and will only on some occasion come out after a very cold night to catch some sun.
Discarded burrows of an aardvark are utilized by many mammals, reptiles and even a few birds. The aardwolf benefits greatly as it does not have the digging capabilities of the aardvark and will actually feed in the wake of the aardvark. Aardvark are not dependent on water, as they obtain enough moisture from their diet, however, if water is available aardvark will consume water regularly. They are solitary animals and will only be seen together for mating purposes. Aardvarks have a very good sense of smell; this is used to determine the presence of termites.
Once food has been established, digging will begin, once a hole is completed the aardvark will use its tongue (30 cm) to find the termite nest. Above ground termite mounds are approached differently, an exploratory hole is made to establish where the heart of the nest is. Digestive enzymes in the saliva is swallowed with the meal which assists with digestion. Aardvarks do not chew, they do not have canine nor incisor teeth however the 20 tubular teeth near the back of the jaw never stop growing. The nose is protected against dust and insects by the hair inside of the nose. The skin is thick and thus assists against bites. Soldier termites secrete terpene and in large amounts will affect the liver of the aardvark.
Cheetah is another species that are so special on Mabula. They have produced excellent sightings for our guests since introduced on the reserve. Let us take a closer look and learn some about these magnificent cats. The vernacular name, cheetah, is derived from ‘cītā’, which in turn comes from the Sanskrit word ‘citra’ meaning variegated, adorned or painted. The generic name, Acinonyx, is derived from the combination of two Greek words: ‘akinitos’ meaning unmoved or motionless, and ‘onyx’ meaning nail – therefore a rough translation would be ‘immobile nails’, a reference to the cheetah’s limited ability to retract its claws. The Latin word ‘jubatus’ means having a mane or crest, i.e. crested. As the fastest land mammal in the world, the cheetah is a marvel of evolution.
They usually make use of vantage points that are elevated when resting/hunting. They are naturally poor climbers but will stand on sloping tree branches or termite mounds to look out for prey or enemies such as lions. Cheetah communication is very interesting and is considered a vocal felid. It purrs when content or when greeting known individuals. They also growl, which is often accompanied by hissing and spitting, this is usually when faced with danger or when annoyed. They moan or yowl when the danger increases. Agonistic vocalisations – a term that denotes a combination of growls, moans and hisses that is followed by spitting – is more conspicuous in cheetah than in other large cats. In addition to spitting, the cheetah hits the ground with its front paws. It also bleats – a sound similar to the meow of the domestic cat.
They chirp or stutter-bark when excited. This vocalisation can also be used at social meetings, during courtship, or in attempting to find one another; the chirp of a mother searching for her cubs, which sounds more like the yelp of a dog than the chirp of a bird, can be heard up to 2 km away. Churring resembles a growl and has the same purpose as chirping. Cubs bickering over a kill makes a sound called whirring, the pitch of which rises with the intensity of the quarrel and ends on a harsh note.
Cheetahs can be found in a wide range of habitats and ecoregions, ranging from dry forest and thick scrub through to grassland, the distribution of their prey may influence their habitat preferences. Ideally, an open area with some cover, such as dispersed bushes, because it needs to stalk and pursue its prey over a distance, exploiting its speed. This also minimises the risk of encountering larger carnivores. They will drink when water is available hence the presence or absence of this resource is not an essential habitat requirement. Cheetahs have large home ranges within which there is a specific area which they prefer and will return to. On Mabula we have different habitats and terrain that we have seen cheetahs exploring and favouring them all, they have been successful with prey species in all these areas. When it comes to food preferences, cheetahs are diurnal predators (hunt during the day) to avoid the risk of the presence of larger predators. Although they are diurnal, they prefer hunting or moving around in the cooler morning and late afternoon (crepuscular).
For a hunt to be successful cheetahs need to get as close as possible to their prey, before starting the final sprint, making them accomplished stalkers. Cheetah hunt in open areas; however, they make use of any form of cover available to them or simply just walk towards their prey freezing immediately upon detection. They will try to get within 100 m of their target before embarking on a chase and mostly choose prey that is isolated from the rest of the herd. Once in chase, they will run after the prey for only a short time so they must ensure that they are able to gain on their prey almost immediately to trip it with their paw and lastly ensure a throat grip. If this is not possible the cheetah will abandon the chase. Here on Mabula, females prefer to hunt impalas and subadult kudus while males have got quite a variety of species they prefer, ranging from zebra foal, young wildebeest, impalas and kudus to mention a few.
Although cheetahs are relatively large in size, they avoid targeting fully grown adult ungulates such as wildebeest, zebra, buffalo and eland, although we have seen the coalition here on Mabula taking down an adult female eland. This is mainly due to the fact that to pull down these animals requires a large amount of strength, which the cheetah lacks. This is also to avoid the risk of getting injured. A coalition of males may cooperatively pull down a larger target, but will still go for younger animals first.
Cheetahs, unlike many other African predators, rarely scavenge. They are very picky eaters and usually skim the meat from the surface of the carcass. They usually eat the heart and liver and discard the intestines, bones and skin. Due to being specialists in speed, they lack defence mechanisms against larger predators such as lions, hyena and even vultures, which makes them susceptible to kleptoparasitism – a form of feeding in which one animal takes prey that was caught or collected by another animal. Cheetahs are usually exhausted after making a kill and only feed once they have caught their breath again.
Cheetahs have highly variable social system that varies by size, sex and age, which impacts their spatial requirements. The social organisation of cheetahs is unique in comparison to other felids. Females live alone or with dependent cubs, whereas the males live in stable coalitions of two to three males, usually brothers, but also unrelated males. Compared to coalitions formed by male lions where only one dominant male will mate with a female throughout the oestrus period, female cheetahs will mate with as many males as possible (polyandrous). Interesting isn’t it?
Listening to a herd of elephant’s rumble through the bushes as they feed, the anticipation was rising. We couldn’t help but fear that their slow, sluggish movement would result in them approaching long after the sun had set.
Elephant are as unique and amazing as they are necessary in our ecosystems. Descended from the mammoths, elephants today are the largest land mammals on the planet. They can live to over 60 years of age and they travel in matriarchal herds, led by the oldest female. Elephants also have a positive symbolic meaning in different cultures all over the world and are considered a symbol of good luck, power, success, wisdom and experience. Elephants are highly social animals and they are also considered to be a symbol of loyalty, companionship and unity. Let’s explore a few life lessons we can learn from elephants…
The core of elephant society is the matriarchal unit, led by the oldest female and other female elders. These females are able to maintain cohesiveness amongst the herd in a way that seems almost miraculous. This is because they are expert communicators, with most of their communication taking place as infrasonic vibrations not detectable by the human ear. The herd remains connected through this and other audible communications, and the wise matriarch keeps all the individuals of the group focused on the common goal at hand, whether it be trekking to a distant waterhole, digging up edible bulbs or supporting a younger female giving birth for the first time.
Even though elephants can weigh several tons, they manage to walk very softly and quietly. The grace with which elephants move is mesmerising to watch, and reminds us to walk through life gracefully, leaving as gentle a footprint as possible on our planet. Elephants are known for their cooperation and working effectively as a team. They are intelligent and can sense when another elephant needs help, and they know how to work together. For example, adult elephants have often been documented using teamwork to rescue a baby elephant that has become stuck in mud.
Although elephants are highly social animals, they are also self-aware. Elephants are able to recognise themselves in a mirror, an ability shared only with great apes (including humans) and bottlenose dolphins. This reminds us that we can embrace our individuality, our personal gifts and talents, while remaining connected to our family and community in a healthy way. Elephants remind us of the old adage, “Enjoy life!” Elephants often take time out for enjoyment, especially at waterholes where even the adults splash around in the water with youthful abandon. To anyone who has watched elephants engaging in such activities, it is obvious that the elephants are purely having fun! Elephants truly remind us that it’s often the small things that count, and to enjoy them whenever we can!
In elephant societies, females have always been viewed as the leaders. Elephants live in matriarchal groups, typically led by the most knowledgeable female. She is also usually the oldest because she knows where to get food and water and how to handle any dangers the herd might face. The group is composed of mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, and young sons. After they are at least 10 years old, the boys leave to join a group of bachelor males or strike out on their own. In elephant societies, males aren’t believed to contribute much outside of breeding.
Through the ages, the African elephant has captured the imaginations of people across the globe. No species has received more attention than the elephant. Not only is it the largest land animal, but its intelligence, extraordinary communication, similar lifespan to humans, strong sense of family and its uncanny ability to understand death have fascinated philosophers, poets, scientists and the general public alike. On your next visit to Mabula our guides will be quite happy to share this information with you. There is so much to learn about these animals every day.
With the cold weather we experience this month that dropped as low as minus five, a much-needed coffee break as we wait as the sun starts to break through the cold air; a stop to appreciate an exciting sighting. Freshly ground coffee or even a steamy hot chocolate is on offer. Guests and guides indulge in great conversation and share in the excitement of the safari. Soaking up the sounds of the birds and sometimes the general plains game that remain feeding nearby.
I’m reminded of one magical afternoon. Setting out in search of buffalo, we knew that they would be making their way to main dam for an afternoon drink. I had decided that we will, later in the safari, go past main dam and wait for them to come drink, and was probably the best decision we made for the afternoon, even though they did not get to the water. There is simply nothing more rewarding than watching the beauty of a winter afternoon come together so wonderfully.
Weighing in at not too far short of a ton, the African buffalo has a reputation for being big, bad-tempered and dangerous, I sometimes refer to them as a bank managers, they look at you like you owe them money. While solitary buffalo can be unpredictable, they are usually relatively docile when in a herd aside from their tendency to stampede when alarmed. Buffalo’s primary predators are lions. They are protective of their weaker herd members and will often form a defensive circle around sick or young animals when under attack and frequently attempt to rescue other buffalo who have been caught by lions.
Basically, they’re bosses, which is also the name for the portion of the horn directly above the head. As the buffalo ages, this part (the boss) becomes harder. The older the buffalo, the more of a boss he is. Their skin is sensitive to the heat and they will feed early in the morning, as soon as it becomes hot buffalo will rest under the trees in shades and start ruminating. Late afternoon they start feeding again. They will mostly sit facing the direction they will be moving to when they start with their feeding. It is very important to avoid dense areas when doing safari bush walks as the chances of bumping into resting buffaloes are very high. Birds such as oxpeckers are very important to take into consideration when you hear them calling and making noise as they will be warning animals of an enemy.
Dams are the most popular places for guides and guests during the winter, this is the best time of the year to see hippos outside the water in the sun during the day. They are a common sight in the waterways of Mabula, often found in pods of up to twenty, especially at the Mvubu dam. We are lucky to have a healthy population in our waterholes. A hippo spends the majority of its life in water or mud, only leaving it to graze on land after dusk.
Male hippos are territorial, and like buffalo, can be exceptionally aggressive when provoked. Don’t be fooled by appearances; despite their cumbersome size, hippos can easily outrun humans! They are one of Africa’s most dangerous animals. Hippos have webbed feet, large canine tusks, and the ability to secrete a kind of natural sunscreen. Despite their size, a hippo will eat just 1-1.5 percent of their body weight in a day. Hippos cannot breathe underwater and need to resurface every 3 to 5 minutes to breathe and can do this even when they’re sleeping.
It seems unlikely that hippos can float, given that they’re the third-largest land mammal, weighing between 2200 – 3600 kg, well they can’t! They actually walk or stand on underwater surfaces. Fascinatingly, hippos can close their nostrils and this means that the bulky 45 kg calves can suckle underwater.
However, they usually come out of the water to graze for a couple of hours at night. They can cover up to 10 km of grassland while munching grass. Despite their short, stocky legs and bulky weight, hippos are fast and they can reach speeds of up to 30 km/h on land. Keep your eyes peeled when you pass our watering holes while on safari on your next visit to Mabula. Frustratingly, it’s common to see only a hippo’s nostrils and ears poking out above the water now and then during the summer months.
There is nothing as impressive as watching a fully grown male lion in his prime and roaring. They are equipped with large manes that serve to protect the neck region during fights and give the appearance of a much larger and more intimidating individual. The size and darkness of their manes may also be an indication of higher testosterone levels, making males who possess these more desirable by females and therefore tend to sire more cubs.
One of the most iconic animals on Mabula is a lion, also known as the king of the jungle. Powerful, majestic and fiercely beautiful are just some of the words used to describe them. Lions are one of the largest members of the Felidae family and are also the most social of all the big cats. They live in groups called prides, made up of anywhere between five to twenty members. Prides mainly consist of related females and their offspring, as well as dominant male(s).
I have also found watching the dynamics between females quite interesting. Being the only sociable of the big cats, this complex communal lifestyle comprises two to sometimes twenty or more related females. This allows them to hunt more successfully and gives them the ability to monopolise territories that often run through rivers and watering holes where prey species often come to drink.
Here at Mabula, we have a dominant male coalition, which mates with the females. Male lions also patrol their territory and will scent marks with their urine on trees and rocks to ward off any intruders and/or competition. The unmistakable sound of a lion’s roar can be heard up to eight kilometres away. The roar is often used to ward off unwanted visitors and as a communication tool to call other pride members. There is no sound in the bush like a lion vocalising right next to the vehicle – a sound so powerful you often feel it more than you hear it as it echoes through the bush.
It can be difficult to imagine the contrast that takes place throughout the year, the change from life to death in both wildlife and vegetation. Completely ripping up the very existence of life and rebirthing it all over again. But the process in between, the changeover, is extraordinary to witness. A special place to be any time of the year.
July is one of the most famous and popular months on a South African Calendar. The 18th of July marks the birthday of the South African icon, Nelson Madiba Mandela. He is celebrated throughout the month with men and women donating their 67 minutes doing charity work in honour of our Madiba. Nature shows us that the seeds of every plant lie dormant throughout winter. A seemingly vast and dead landscape springs back to life after a period of aridity followed by spring rains. We see this change in nature happen year after year.
Just when we believed that this year will be different, and our sacred wilderness will be brown and dead forever, life begins to slowly and persistently return. And not only does it return, but it also becomes beautiful. Bright greens take over from dry browns. Burnt sections of earth sprout anew with fresh grasses. Flowers bud and bloom, pollinators begin to return and spread new life. Life, like hope, lies dormant, but it returns. That’s what nature reminds us of. If you truly love nature, you will find beauty here at Mabula. From all of us here at Mabula we wish happy birthday to the late icon of South Africa, Happy Birthday Madiba.
Thank you to guides, Frans, Nuria, Apollo, Charne, Marguerite and Mariana Buys for sharing their pictures.
That is all for this month, until next month again
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.