Some unfortunate news to start with, as just a just a few days after my last post Khwezi lost her cubs, for the second time. We weren’t sure what happened to the first litter but this time we do know – they were found by the lions. Lions are the joint number 1 cause of fatality in cheetahs (alongside humans) so this is not a big surprise and not unusual, but it’s still a massive disappointment. The cubs were doing so well and growing fast, and Khwezi was being a very attentive mother, so we had high hopes for them.
The main thing is that she is fine, either she was away from the den or managed to run quickly enough when the lions showed up. It is a shame to lose the cubs but would have been terrible to lose Khwezi, so it is a huge relief that she wasn’t harmed. We were all cursing the lions when it happened, but as soon as I saw them again I realised I can’t hold any bad feelings towards them. It’s frustrating, but they’re just being lions. You don’t get to be the apex predator of the savanna by playing nice with the other carnivore species.
I spent my latest leave with with my brother and sister-in-law who came out to visit South Africa for the first time. We had four days together in Kruger and had a great time. We got all of the Big 5 including two good leopard sightings and some nice, close rhinos, lots of ellies including babies, a new bird for myself, and not one of our lion sightings were sleeping.
Green woodhoopoe. Their long, decurved beaks are used for probing inside trees for insects. This was the first time I’ve seen it in action.
Big old elephant mumma with a wonky tusk
We stopped at a huge crowd of cars and got boxed in for a dead impala in a tree and a fat leopard deep in the bushes. After a while though he decided to come closer to the road and lie where we could see him.
We stopped at Mazithi dam and I mentioned how I often see lions there. After watching crocs and hippos for a while we started to leave, when two lionesses approached through the grass, had a long drink, then disappeared again.
One of the highlights was our second leopard sighting, which Kylie spotted at the side of the road after I had managed to drive straight past it. I braked and reversed, and was worried it would run away because we had stopped so close, but he just looked at us for a moment and then crossed the road a few metres from our bonnet. Then instead of disappearing straight into the block he walked parallel with the road so we could drive with him for a while. He sat down a couple of times, posing nicely, until eventually heading off into the bush. He was so relaxed, and as it was a dirt road we had him all to ourselves for most of the time until one game drive pulled up behind us (in contrast to our leopard the previous day where we got boxed in amongst probably fifteen cars on one of the main tar roads). Definitely my nicest Kruger leopard so far!
Another highlight for me was the night drive we booked on. Kruger has a sunset curfew for self-driving so the only way to see it at night is by booking a guided drive on an open game viewer. I’ve done this once before, when Jess and I went earlier this year, and all we saw were some genets. This time we got a brief hyena and a side-striped jackal, and then near the end found a male lion lying near Renosterkoppies dam. That was pretty cool, but even cooler was when he got up and started roaring as he walked away from the dam. Lions roaring up close is one of my top experiences to have in the bush and I’ve never heard Kruger lions roar before because they really only do it at night. It was great to hear and I was psyched that Andrew and Kylie got to hear it while they were here. Then another male joined in, and after losing sight of the first lion for a while we eventually found him again just as he met up with his brother, who promptly flopped onto the ground and rolled around on his back next to the car. We had them for a while as they walked slowly down the road, coming up close on both sides of the vehicle. There were a lot of people on the car and I really enjoyed hearing how excited people were getting. When you spend so much time around these animals it’s easy to forget how thrilling it was when it was new, and I love being reminded of it.
Those were two of the standout sightings, but we had a lot of very cool moments with the smaller stuff too. just sitting watching giraffes or zebras, or seeing a fish eagle getting mobbed by small birds at a dam. As well as herds of elephants surrounding the car, and rhinos peacefully grazing beside the road. I love Kruger to bits (if that point hasn’t been driven into the ground in this blog already) and it was so much fun sharing it with family, like it was last year when my parents came out. In fact I think my favourite moment was probably the noise my brother made when we saw our first elephant, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard him make before.
Do you think she can hear us?
Spotted hyena and cub, lying near a den where I saw cubs last year. I wonder if they’re of the same family.
My first ever African wood owl
Tawny eagle with its dinner, which I think was some kind of spurfowl
The last animal we saw before leaving. It crossed in front of us 300m before we reached the gate.
Back on Karongwe things stay the same while always slowly changing. The lion cubs are growing at a barely believable rate, and LF3 is due to drop a litter any day now to expand the pride some more. We have been lucky with leopard sightings recently, with Tlatlani and her cubs being seen frequently like they were back in February, though in a different part of the reserve. The cubs have names now – Taavi (suspected boy) and Tabia (suspected girl) and are growing up incredibly relaxed around vehicles thanks to how much they are seen. We have seen Tanda a few times lately as well, the newly-prime-aged son of the late Scar, and as we anticipated he is being seen much more often across areas Scar used to dominate, quickly expanding his territory now that dad is no longer around.
The elephants came to visit while I was on leave and hung around for a week or so. We have done a better job of burying our pipes so they can no longer break them in places they used to. Unfortunately they’ve now taken to just trashing the pump itself, which will be a massive problem if they end up permanently breaking it. But for now at least they’ve gone back north and left us alone.
The main new development at base is we have a new solar power system. Previously we had one set of solar panels, which provided just enough power to give us lights, run the wi-fi, and power a single plug socket so staff could charge laptops one at a time. To do any more, like letting the volunteers charge all their stuff, and fully charge the house batteries (literally a rack of car batteries in the office) we had to run a diesel generator for about 4 hours a day. This was less than ideal but sufficient, until lately when a) the generator started breaking from overuse, and b) the batteries and inverter started packing up because when the generator breaks down while charging them it messes them up. So our boss campaigned head office for a rather pricey solar upgrade, and after a long while of negotiation and persuasion it got the all clear. The new system was installed just last week. New panels to replace the old ones (about five times more efficient), plus extras for the two staff houses, and new batteries and inverters. Now we have electricity sufficient for lights, wi-fi, and all the charging we want, 24 HOURS A DAY. With NO GENERATOR. I know that doesn’t sound that exciting to most people but it is kind of mindblowing for us, being used to how it was before. I simply thought solar power was not that effective yet, and had to keep asking “Wait… we can charge stuff… even at night?”
The best part for me and my housemates is our little house of three people is on an entirely separate system to the main house, so even if the volunteers leave lights on (which they do, all the time) and leave their stuff charging unnecessarily (which they do, all the time), and run their batteries in the main house flat, we will still have power. It is literally magic.
LF4 apparently finds us boring
Khwezi doesn’t seem too affected by the loss of her cubs, and after a day or two of skittishness has returned to her normal state as a cold, ruthless killing machine.
Taavi is the relaxed one of Tlatlani’s cubs
Tabia is more attentive and cautious than her brother
We had a brief bit of rain while I was on leave. A storm that actually woke me up in Kruger, which thankfully also fell on Karongwe. It was only one night of rain but it was enough to fill most of the dams in the southern half of the reserve, most of which had been dust dry for months. Spectra dam, one of the closest to base, hasn’t had water in it since 2015! It is already dropping again but for a while at least the animals have a bit more to drink, and the buffalo and rhinos have certainly been making the most of the additional mud wallowing opportunities.
It’s also brought some green into the reserve again. It always amazes me how much, and how quickly, this place responds to the smallest bit of rain. There are areas that have been dustbowls for half a year, which look so dry you’d think they’d take years to recover, and two days after a single night of rain there is green everywhere. Not huge amounts, but everywhere. The grasses are just waiting for moisture and the moment it comes they creep back to life. It makes me hope so much that we get good rains this year, so I can see this place the way it should be in summer.
I have been running a small mammal study as part of the internship program. Our most common capture so far has been bushveld gerbils.
Short-snouted elephant shrew