Enter 2017

Hello. I am still alive. And still in Africa. I  have been letting this blog slip down my to-do list constantly, but will try and catch back up to a somewhat regular schedule. For now here is another photo-dump post, because I have a growing backlog of pictures and not enough time to write much about them.

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Moving on up

I intended to update again soon after my last post but the last couple of weeks have been very busy. When I got back from Kruger on my last week off I discovered one of my colleagues had resigned to go and guide for the lodges on the reserve, and my boss offered me her old position. I didn’t have to think about it for long before accepting. It’s a promotion, and it’s much more science focused than my old role. In fact the job is called Science Officer so it doesn’t get much more sciencey than that. I am basically now in charge of managing all the science aspects of this wildlife research project. Which is pretty exciting and a tiny bit terrifying. It does mean that finally, 7 years after graduating with a science degree, I am actually in a job doing science. Got there in the end.

I officially took over on the 28th September and the first job I had to tackle was writing the annual report. This is pretty huge and coincidentally always seems to be the first thing a new science officer has to do because the old science officers always mysteriously quit right before it’s due. It has basically been my entire life for the past 12 days but I finally finished it today so I’m feeling pretty good right now.

I’m also feeling pretty good because, even with having missed half of my scheduled drives over the last week in order to get the report done, the run of sightings we have been having has been absolutely bonkers.

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I can never get over how pretty this lion is. He should be in cologne adverts for lions.

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A rock python, my first of the season and the biggest I’ve seen – 4 metres long and at least 20cm in diameter at its thickest section.

The first crazy sighting I had came courtesy of Khwezi the cheetah. We found her one day just walking in the road towards us and she pretty immediately stopped and lay down, so I parked up. We were all chatting while we watched her laze about and it got onto the subject of her hunting, as it frequently does. One of the volunteers on the back had just uttered the words “I’d love to see her chase something.” when a duiker trotted out from the bushes. Khwezi went from static to running faster than my brain could register it. She chased the duiker around the back of the car, caught up to it within 50 metres, and took it down right there next to us. I’ve seen Khwezi chase things before, and I’ve seen her just as she’s finishing killing something, but that was the first time I’ve ever witnessed a full hunt from her and it was all over, from the duiker first appearing to stone cold dead, in less than 60 seconds.

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Not even 6:30am, and without breaking a sweat, Khwezi gets herself some breakfast.

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Kori bustard, the world’s heaviest flying bird. They only appear on the reserve during the breeding season and last year I kept missing them so this was my first sighting on Karongwe.

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African hawk eagle

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LF4 looking regal as ever

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One of LF4’s year-old cubs

A few days after seeing Khwezi’s kill I had probably one of my best drives yet. First I found the elephants and we had Fumbe, one of the bulls, walk within a metre of the car, which is always a good time. Then we spent ages looking for LF4 and, just as I was about to give up, found her and had her walk down the road towards us and lead her four yearling cubs in a single file parade past the car. We headed up north next to try and find a pair of mating leopards that had been called in. We had no luck there, but did come across Khwezi after giving up on the leopards. Amazingly we had a near repeat of the previous time I’d seen her, as another volunteer commented on how they’d love to see her hunt and almost immediately Khwezi chased a bushbuck we hadn’t even seen. It and she ran up a steep bank and we lost sight of them so I had to turn the car around and follow the road up. When we relocated her she was having a standoff against a different bushbuck which ended with the bushbuck chasing her. They might commonly be dinner for her but when one decides to stop running away and start running at her she wisely gets the hell out of there, because they might not be large antelope but their horns can still do some damage.

So that was a pretty unusual thing to see, and we were all happy with the drive so far and ready to call it a day. But on the way home we came past a female leopard, Maatia, in the process of strangling a bushbuck of her own. She must have caught it and brought it down literally a minute before we got there, and she was out in the open no more than 6 or 7 metres from the road. We couldn’t believe our luck. She finished killing it, took a minute or two to catch her breath, and then dragged it away from the road and stashed it in a bush. 5 minutes sooner or later driving along that road and we would never have seen her.

Incidentally this is only the third time I have ever seen Maatia. The first was almost exactly a year ago, and on that occasion she killed a kudu right in front of my car. Needless to say she is one of my favourite leopards on the reserve.

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Ellies sharing a drinking hole, which they dig in the sand with one foot to reach the fresh water sitting just below the surface of the dry river

You never know what you’re going to get day to day in the bush. Sometimes it’s so quiet, and sometimes it’s generous. This week it’s been very generous. The day after this awesome drive brought us a one-of-a-kind sighting. LF3 has been largely unseen for the past month as she has been denning with her new litter of cubs, but this week they were seen for the first time. Myself and Hopkins were on drive at the time and patiently waited our turn, as we have to give the lodge vehicles priority and obviously everybody wanted a chance to see these new baby lions in the reeds. I’m thankful we had to wait, because it was only after everybody else had left that LF3 decided to bring her cubs right out of the river where she is denning, as if she wanted to show them off to us.

I have seen very small lion cubs before in Kruger, but not very close. We spent half an hour with LF3 and three of her cubs as she walked them back and forth across the road, passing withing metres of our cars, picking cubs up and carrying them directly towards us. You could not have asked for a better view. Hopkins and I kept looking at each other with stunned faces, unable to believe what we were seeing. Eventually she just turned around and took them all back to the den. They haven’t been seen since.

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Every day in this place I’m reminded how lucky I am to be here. I don’t know how a person could ever get bored or become complacent. You really can’t predict what you will see from one minute to the next. Spend enough time here and you experience things you never imagined could be real for you.

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If pictures speak a thousand words, here’s a thesis

Another photo-dump post as it’s been a long delay since my last update and there is too much to catch up on.

My last week off was spent in Kruger with my old placement buddy who is now an official work colleague. We decided to go up north, where neither of us have been before, as we wanted to do some birding. Northern Kruger is a lot quieter than the south, with fewer roads and people. You generally get fewer sightings of the standard exciting stuff like big cats, but the birding is good and you are more likely to see rare antelope or the big tusker elephants. Our trip was very successful, with both of us getting a decent number of new birds, plus rare antelope and one of those tuskers.

The highlight for us both was sitting at a waterhole watching a flock of red billed queleas. These are small, finch-like birds, and are the most abundant bird species in the world, thought to number as many as 10 billion across sub-Saharan Africa. They are considered a serious agricultural pest due to their tendency to aggregate in huge flocks and devastate crop fields like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to accurately count the flock we saw at the waterhole but by the end (as smaller groups kept arriving) there must have been around 2,000 birds. Which is still pretty small, flocks of these guys can reach millions of birds. They would all periodically take off together and fly around in a mesmerising, shifting pattern above us. It was amazing to watch, and hear as the sound of so many birds moving at once was just like waves washing up on a beach. Definitely one of the best things I’ve seen. I uploaded a video to youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Ec9x4IZQNU) It doesn’t quite do it justice but you get the idea.

After three days north with Hopkins I went back by myself and spent a day trip around the Satara area, and then three days south. It’s the longest continual period I’ve spent in Kruger and it was a productive week. All in all over 7 days I saw 15 new bird species, two new antelopes, my first proper tusker, tiny hyena cubs, mating lions, a white lion (one of three known in the Kruger area), the best elephant sighting I’ve ever had, a cheetah with three cubs, two wild dog sightings in one day including pups, and my first ever Kruger black rhino. As well as a lot of cool smaller stuff like honey badgers, a daytime civet, crocodiles fishing, and awesome bird sightings.

So yeah, I’ll write more later in the week but for now here’s some pictures.

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Young waterbuck

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Sub-Zero

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LF4 watching to see if vultures were going to try and steal her zebra

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Senegal lapwing

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Juvenile bateleur with a scrub hare kill

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Adult bateleur picking over an old piece of bone

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My first ever tsessebe sighting

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Our tusker enjoying a mud bath

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The S100 lion pride, which includes the white sub-adult male. White lions are unique to Kruger and there are currently only three known. I have seen this guy once before but much further away.

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Second rare antelope sighting – my first ever sable

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Mating pair of lions

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The best elephant sighting of my life. A herd of 30 or so at a dam, mud wallowing, playing, chasing baboons. Including this tiny calf.

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Magpie shrike

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Young ellie with weird ears that are folded the opposite way to usual

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View from the high point of the H10, one of my favourite roads in the park

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Water thick-knee

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One of the luckiest sightings I’ve ever had. I have waited so long to see a black rhino in Kruger.

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A spruit crossing that puts you eye level with a dam wall gives an awesome perspective on Africa’s two most dangerous mammals

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A pack of 19 wild dogs, including 12 pups. This was another complete fluke of a sighting. I ended up sitting there for three hours.

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Unzoomed view of the dog sighting. The pack were lying in the shade of that tree, across a river. If other cars hadn’t already been stopped there I would never have seen them.

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Hyena cub, probably about 6-8 weeks old.

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One of my favourite things about Kruger is how calm the animals are, and the opportunities for photos of things I see all the time but which never usually hang around long enough for pictures.

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Golden-tailed woodpecker

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Saddle-billed stork preening

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Grey heron with a platanna (clawed frog) for lunch

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Love Kruger

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Keep on keeping on

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.

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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.

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Big old elephant mumma with a wonky tusk

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Do you think she can hear us?

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Spotted hyena and cub, lying near a den where I saw cubs last year. I wonder if they’re of the same family.

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My first ever African wood owl

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Tawny eagle with its dinner, which I think was some kind of spurfowl

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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.

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LF4 apparently finds us boring

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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.

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Taavi is the relaxed one of Tlatlani’s cubs

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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.

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I have been running a small mammal study as part of the internship program. Our most common capture so far has been bushveld gerbils.

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Short-snouted elephant shrew

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Dwarf mongoose

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Taavi again

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Winter days

Midwinter is here. In the lowveld that means average daily highs of about 25°C and nightly lows around 6°C, morning mists, lots of sunshine with a chilly breeze, and dust. So much dust. Winter is the dry season and right now it’s the driest it’s been in a century.

It’s been an eventful few weeks on the reserve. We said goodbye to all our long term volunteers and a new batch arrived. Just before the changeover though we got a different new addition, in the form of a baby duiker which I named Dinner. He had been handed over to the reserve manager by a family who I suspect originally took him out of the bush (whether because they wanted a pet, or thought he was abandoned) and then decided against keeping him. So he ended up with us. Sadly, if predictably, he didn’t last very long. Baby antelope are supposed to be raised by their mothers on her milk, not by some well meaning but inexperienced humans using human baby formula. We tried our best, following instructions from a wildlife rehabilitation project we are partnered with, but the little guy got sick with diarrhea not long after arriving and his condition quickly went downhill. One of the staff members has worked in a vet’s before and wanted to try giving him subcutaneous fluids which may have saved his life, but sadly he died about 10 minutes before people arrived from town with the necessary equipment.

It was a shame but rather than getting sad it mainly made us all angry that someone had taken this guy out of the bush where he belonged and made him our responsibility.

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Dinner, the day he arrived

In much happier baby news our female cheetah, Khwezi, gave birth to a new litter of cubs on Saturday 2nd July. There are five this time and things are already going better than her first attempt with two cubs who only survived five days. The new batch are ten days old now and looking fatter and stronger every day. Khwezi is also behaving differently, spending all of her time denning except for when she needs to hunt, in contrast to when she had the first litter she spent a lot of time away from the den. It seems like the mothering instincts have actually kicked in this time.

 

There is a long and nerve-wracking road ahead, with no guarantee that any of these cubs will make it to adulthood, and the older they get the harder it will be for us if they die. But the privilege of being here and able to see them progress is something I never would have imagined. It is without doubt the crown jewel of the experiences I’ve been so lucky to have since coming out to Africa.

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African barred owlet

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Z4, who we found investigating a dead impala left hanging in a tree by a leopard. Maybe she was frustrated by the kill being out of reach or maybe she smelled blood on the tree, as she took the branches in her mouth and shook them.

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Awesome aardvark seen on fence patrol. My first time getting one on camera. Very happy 🙂

We’ve also hit a speedbump in some of our research this week, specifically relating to the hyena that we track, Z5. He was last seen about two weeks ago, and for several days after that we would track his signal to the same block but not be able to see him. We thought this meant there could be a new den there which he was hanging out at, and one day myself and Kutullo decided to walk in and investigate as he hadn’t been seen in so long. We spent quite a while walking in circles around this termite mound where the signal seemed to be, gradually getting closer and closer, sure that any second he would notice us and bolt out of  hiding. But he never did, and as we continued getting closer we got worried he might be dead, and then confused as we were just a few metres away and still couldn’t see him. Then I spotted it – his tracking collar lying in the dirt, apparently chewed through. Which explained why his signal had been in the same place for so long.

So now we can’t track a hyena any more, which is disappointing. All the time and effort spent raising the money to get one collared and it only lasted 5 months. We have yet to see Z5 since finding the collar so are left hoping he is okay, and scratching our heads over how exactly he managed to remove it.

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My last sighting of Z5

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The discarded collar. It’s made to be extremely durable and is reinforced with thick metal wires, but that’s clearly nothing against the jaws of a hyena.

I’ve had a couple of really nice lion sightings as well this week, after not really seeing them much for a while because they’ve been hiding in rivers. A few days ago we found one of the lionesses relaxing on top of a rock in the afternoon sun. As we sat with her all of her cubs gradually appeared from the bushes and joined her on the rock. They were playing, rolling around and climbing on top of her, which was really nice to see. The next morning we found them again not too far away. We saw the two lionesses chase an adult giraffe, and then all of the cubs climbing a termite mound and playing. It’s been so long since I’ve had quality lion time, and the cubs are getting so big now, so it was really nice to see.

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LF4 and cubs

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Hello

After such a long break there’s no way I’m remembering and writing down everything that has happened, so instead here is a photo dump. They say a picture is worth 1,000 words so imagine this is actually a very long post.

Karongwe

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Subby, showing off his missing upper-left canine

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Lesser bushbaby. Only time I’ve seen one out in the day. It was struggling to fit through a hole into this tree.

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Mutumba

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045 lf4 cubs

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LF3’s new scars, from leopard fighting

046 dwarfies

Dwarf mongooses

045 coucal

Burchell’s coucal

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Thick-tailed bushbaby

045 buff

046 matumi

Matumi, seen for the first time in a year

046 impala

046 khwezi roll

046 khwezi river

 

Kruger

045 kudu

046 roller

Lilac-breasted roller

045 dwarfies

046 lions

046 tortoise

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045 crowned

Crowned hornbill

046 leopard

Male leopard rubbing his head in dung

046 hyena smile

046 kingfisher

Giant kingfisher

045 ele phuza

046 hyena baby

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046 baboons

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046 baboon

047 tawny

Tawny eagle

047 agama

Blue-headed tree agama

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Pride seen by the main road on my way out of Kruger

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Same pride were on the same road on the way back in two days later

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Black-crowned tchagra

047 pikeymonkeys

Ververt monkey eating my lunch, which it stole from my car because I left the window open. Oops.

047 megacroc

047 lionsrock

047 giraffe phuza

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Lioness with the smallest cubs I’ve seen, about 1 month old

 

I will attempt to get back to some kind of normal update schedule from now on.

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To those who wait

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Khwezi. The coolest cat on the reserve

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Tswalu. He’s pretty cool too.

The last few weeks have really been exceptional. I’ve seen a few things I’ve never seen before – like my first African wildcat, a couple of new snakes, various antelopes displaying and fighting, a new bird – and have had some insanely fortunate drives. Part of that is down to more people than usual being off last week so only three driving staff working, one of which was Kutullo who is heavily involved with our community work so is away two days of the week, meaning Jess and myself did a lot of drives. It was tiring but more drives means more chances to see things and neither of us were complaining. Especially as we both racked up a crazy number of leopard sightings. There really is something special about this reserve and we have to remind ourselves that a lot of people in this kind of job go months between seeing leopards. But despite seeing them so often I definitely never get blase about it, they just have something about them which means they are always special.

One particularly good encounter was all down to patience. Over the course of a drive I had heard several guides reporting audio for mating leopards but they were in thick bush and nobody had seen them. After everyone had left the area I felt we should try our luck so we rolled up and parked, enjoying some close-up buffalo while we waited. Sure enough we heard the noises everyone had been talking about, coming from a small but dense block between the floodplain and the elevated river road. I decided to circle the block and see if anything came up. To our surprise we immediately found one of Tlatlani’s cubs sitting beside the road, so we sat with it until it disappeared into the bushes and continued driving. No luck as we drove around but when we returned to our original spot on the high river road we looked down into a previously empty patch of grass on the floodplain and there was one of our male leopards, Mutumba. I drove back down to the floodplain for a better look and he sat in the open beside the road for a while, before getting up and walking back into the bushes. We were pretty delighted at this point, having had a great visual of two leopards, but then Tlatlani showed herself. She had been in the bushes Mutumba was walking towards and instead of just walking out she leaped/climbed up the sheer clay cliff onto the river road and stood looking down at us for a minute or two. It was an awesome thing to see, and definitely worth sitting around for ages waiting for a lucky moment.

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Tlatlani’s cub, currently with the catchy name of ‘Cub 1’

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Subzero, relaxing in the dusk

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Another boring sunset

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Marula, a female leopard I mistook for a termite mound when we found her lying in the road, and so was way too slow getting my camera out

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Khwezi eating yet again. She’s a killing machine.

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Four rhinos for the price of two

There was one standout drive in the last two weeks, my first ever Big 5 Drive with a couple of amazing sightings. After seeing some buffalo, the lions and a rhino we made our way up north to see if we could spot the elephants as I hadn’t seem them for a while. We found them feeding in an area with a lot of thick bush and I parked up, making sure to leave a gap between the car and the trees beside the road in case they wanted to pass. Sure enough after a while Fumbe, one of the bulls, walked through the gap I’d left. This gave Kari, a volunteer, a slight heart attack because she had never had them so close to the car and the way the ground sloped meant he actually picked up a bit of speed on his approach and sort of… jogged past her. She joked about needing a change of pants.

Then one by one the entire herd did the same thing, with three younger bulls at the end actually jostling each other as they each tried to pass first. I genuinely thought they were going to bump into the car and it was too much for Kari who couldn’t help herself from standing up to move away from them. This immediately got their attention and all of them stopped, lifting their trunks towards her. I spoke some reassuring words, admittedly while trying not to laugh, and she sat back down. The bulls lost interest and carried on and the herd were gone. Even my heart was racing, a pretty standard reaction to the sudden change in perspective that elephants give you, but everyone was laughing and Kari had managed to keep her head enough to get some amazing video, eyes and trunks filling her phone screen.

We were all buzzing after that encounter but the drive had a couple of special things left to offer. Driving through an open area along the river we passed a small group of nyala – a medium-sized antelope – who were behaving slightly strangely so I stopped. The lead female was very tense and stretching her neck down as if smelling something, which turned out to be a 2.5m long rock python. That was pretty cool to see, as was watching the nyala’s reaction. The snake wasn’t big enough to be a threat to the antelope but clearly she was totally confused, intrigued and unsure about this weird thing which she had probably never encountered before, and did a strange dance to get around it.

While watching this we heard a familiar barking sound – the alarm call of a bushbuck or nyala – coming from the other side of the river. Alarm calls are a gift from the bush gods, especially antelope alarm calls because they are much less likely to freak out at their own shadow like squirrels and birds, so if you hear that bark you know there is almost definitely a predator around. The only question is whether you can find it. The river roads never actually go that close to the river, but it just so happens that in this place there is a small loop which goes right to the bank, so I thought I’d better check it. And sure enough we looked down into the riverbed to see Tane, a young male leopard, just chilling on some rocks.

It was a great visual because being in the river he was totally in the open, and we still had daylight to take photos by, and it rounded off our Big 5 for my first ever Big 5 Drive. So needless to say I was very happy. We sat with him for ten minutes until he stood up, had a drink, and then jumped up the river bank on the far side. I shot down to the nearest crossing and found him just sitting on the river road like he was waiting for us. He then started walking into a block, with antelope all around him barking like crazy. A big male waterbuck who was obviously braver than the smaller antelope actually charged him and Tane leaped up into a small tree to get away, before regaining his composure and jumping down. We lost sight of him then, but what a sighting. And what made it even better was no other game drive was in the area, so we had him all to ourselves for the whole time.

As if that wasn’t enough, we found Tsavo – the big male leopard of the south – just chilling next to the road on our drive home. He didn’t hang around long before casually getting up and strolling off, but it was another crazy fortunate encounter.

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Nyala females with their young. They are becoming my favourite antelope, as twice now they have led me to a leopard.

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Tane, 2 year old male

It hasn’t all been good news with the leopards, and we had a sad day on Tuesday when a tracker found the body of one. It was already fairly decomposed and my colleagues had to ID it using the spot pattern on one of the legs. To the dismay of every driver on the reserve it was identified as Scar, one of the three big males and a firm favourite of most people. He was a very relaxed old dude who was seen a lot and gave some great sightings, and he was huge and impressive.

His body was found at the base of a large tree with puncture wounds in his side. Since then one of the female lions has been seen with new scratches on her face, and she was in that area for one day last week, so we are pretty sure she is responsible. The lions have chased Scar into trees on numerous occasions, it’s what lions do, and this time it seems he was just a bit too slow. It sucks and we will miss him but that’s nature. Wild animals don’t get the luxury of dying peacefully in their sleep.

My last sighting of Scar was two weeks ago when I was on drive by myself. I found him walking in the road and followed him for about twenty minutes. He was totally relaxed as usual and not bothered by me at all and I watched him sniff and scent mark his way along his patrol. At one point he jumped up on his hind legs to rub his cheek against a tree, and later he stalked some zebra (though didn’t go for them, probably because he was already totally fat). It was great to see him in daylight being active, and I am really grateful my last time with him was so good.

It will be interesting now to see what happens with territories of the other males. We have Tanda, Scar’s son, just coming into his prime at 6 years old and who we know has had a few fights with his dad in the past, so we expect he will try to move into Scar’s old patch. But then there’s Tsavo who has a huge territory which used to include Scar’s area, so maybe he will try and claim it as well. Hopefully Tanda is light on his feet because Tsavo is massive and very experienced, so it could be a bad day for Tanda if the two of them come to blows.

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The last photo I ever took of Scar. Rest in peace buddy 😦

I’ve had leave this week. I wasn’t planning to do anything because I wanted to save some money, but then my boss suggested a day trip to Kruger and I couldn’t say no. I never regret a visit to Kruger but this one was one of the best I’ve had.

It started out pretty quiet, but with some good bird sightings and a leucistic impala which neither of us had ever seen before. Leucism is like albinism-light, where an animal produces some melanin but far less than usual. So they may not be totally white, but a lot paler than the average for their species, and they still have dark eyes instead of pink. White lions are a good example. The impala we saw looked like she had been standing in a bath full of bleach, as the dark bits were still brown but the usually pale tan bits were white. She looked very cool. The main thing I love about Kruger is that every time I go there I see something I’ve never seen before.

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Leucistic impala ewe

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For comparison, next to an average impala

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Kori bustard, the heaviest flying bird in the world

We saw plenty of elephants, including a pair of bulls play fighting in a wallow, and a trio of male lions who I recognised from a previous visit sleeping snuggled up together at the side of the road. Lots of vultures, a few buffalo, and some rhinos. On our way to the exit we also had a really nice ground hornbill sighting. I love these guys, they are my favourite birds, and I always see them in Kruger so they are a bit of a Kruger icon for me. We saw this group at the side of the road and my boss used his phone to play a ground hornbill call. Their reaction was perfect as the entire family came trotting out into the road to look for the source of this noise. I was really hoping one of the males would answer, as the sound they make is bizarre and I’ve never heard it from a real bird, but I think they were all too confused to respond.

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Ground hornbill. They stand 3 – 4 feet tall.

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An adult, on the left, compared to a juvenile

The absolute highlight of the visit came right at the end when finally, after a year and however many trips to Kruger, I finally saw wild dogs. I saw them back when I was a volunteer and have been waiting 11 years to see them again, they are always top of my list when I go to Kruger but with only around 500 in the entire park, and the huge distances they travel, it really is all down to luck and being in the right place at the right time that determines if you see them.

We were on the last road heading towards the gate and we stopped because my boss thought he might have seen something off in the bush. So as we were both staring out to the right I heard a sound on my left, and turned to see a wild dog having just run straight past my door and now quickly heading off down the road. I had thought that I would lose my mind with excitement when I finally saw these guys but it took me by such surprise that I just matter-of-factly said “There’s a wild dog.” and then started laughing at how it had come out of nowhere while we were intently staring at what turned out to be a rock.

We started to follow, and my boss matched the dog’s speed as it ran alongside the road, meaning I could get some very cool video of it running beside us. A few hundred metres further along we spotted two cars stopped, and ‘our’ dog loped ahead of us and ran between them to meet up with the rest of its pack, who were just standing around in the middle of the road. That’s about the time when my excitement caught up with me and I lost my mind a little bit at FINALLY getting these dogs.

I couldn’t have asked for a better sighting, either. If we had come across them earlier in the day they would have been sleeping in some shade because it had been a scorcher, but now it was getting dark and cooling down and they were on a mission. We followed them along the road as they hunted which was fascinating to watch. Half the pack would disappear into the bush and the rest would stay trotting along the road. A few minutes later those that had vanished would flush out some prey and chase it towards the others. Each time the antelope would run across the road ahead of us with dogs in pursuit, but every time some of the pack would hang back and stay on the road. I assume these were the older, more experienced dogs who could tell the chase was futile.

They did this two or three times and still hadn’t caught anything. At this point there was only us and one other car in the sighting, the others having left to get to gates before curfew. My boss and I had agreed to take whatever fine they wanted to give us for being late, we weren’t leaving the pack. Wild dog sightings in Kruger can easily accumulate 15 or 20 cars so just having the two vehicles there was pretty incredible. It was getting dark and the whole pack were panting a lot, and we thought they would probably give up soon as they don’t hunt at night. Then we heard the clatter of hooves on rock and saw a big male impala running down from a koppie towards the road, four or five dogs hot on his tail. He ran at full speed towards our car and leaped across the road just a couple of metres in front of the bonnet, and this time every single dog took chase. Within seconds they were gone and there was no sight or sound of any of them. We didn’t hear a kill but I am pretty sure they got that impala, all they had to do was keep it running in the dark until it tripped and they would have been on it.

My boss said it was the best wild dog sighting he’s ever had, and for me it definitely made the year-long wait worth it.

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Half an hour spent surrounded by dogs, but low light and the fact that they NEVER STOP MOVING meant this was the best photo I could get.

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