November 2021

The Circle of Life

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The Circle of Life

November has been a month of contrasts, with it being the birthing time for many of the antelope species. We have been fortunate enough to share in the joy of baby impala and wildebeest taking their first wobbly steps. We have also witnessed a variety of predators taking advantage of hunting the new arrivals who are still unfamiliar with all the dangers their environment can bring. Many of the prey species have evolved to try and minimize the loss of their young to predators while they are still at a vulnerable age.

In late summer, adult impala males start to leave their bachelor herds in response to the shorter day lengths. Their testosterone levels start to increase, and they set up territories which they actively defend against intruders. This is in anticipation of the breeding season, also referred to as the “rut” that starts around the month of April. After a gestation period of around 200 days, the females give birth. We are generally able to spot the new arrivals easily (even though the lambs stay hidden for a day or two before joining the herd), by searching for females who have separated from the herd to give birth. The afterbirth attracts a lot of attention from raptors and vultures, and can in turn attract large predators to investigate a potential meal. Once the lambs join the herd, they tend to form nursery herds within the group, and herd vigilance manages to alert the group of any potential danger.

Due to all of the pregnant females lambing within a relatively short period of time, it also decreases the odds of their young being singled out by potential predators like southern African pythons, wild dogs, cheetah, leopard, lions, spotted hyenas and even adult male chacma baboons.

Although plains zebra foals can be born at any time of the year, in Kruger National Park approximately 85% of births will occur in late spring or summer (October to March). The foals are able to stand within ten minutes of birth, and are able to walk and run within the hour. Predators are more successful if they are able to separate the young foals from the herd, as the stallion will defend the herd by running at the rear, and will kick or bite any attackers. Mares will also defend their foals in a similar manner.

Blue wildebeest calves are similar to the plains zebra foals and are also known to be “followers”. They are able to stand within five minutes of birth, and are able to keep up with the rest of the herd within a day. In the Kruger National Park, blue wildebeest start mating in April until June, with births occurring from November- December. Females are also known to actively defend their calves against predator.

Even though elephants breed throughout the year, the birth rate is generally higher in late spring and early summer. We have been fortunate enough to see little calves weaving in amongst the adults, as large breeding herds have crossed our concession in the past month. The calves entertain themselves with swinging their little trunks around in circles and investigating anything that crosses their path. We have watched them frolicking in the mud and waterholes, and just having fun exploring. Elephant mothers fiercely protect their young, but on occasion they can be separated and become prey to lions or spotted hyena. On the 7th of November, we found the remains of an elephant calf being fed on by vultures. The cause of death was unknown.

Lions also give birth at any time of the year. We are very fortunate to have some young cubs in the Mananga Pride at present. It is always a joy to view these cute balls of fluff. Young animals are often active as they need to build up their muscles either in order to chase prey or to be able to avoid predators. They are also very curious and inquisitive, often chasing each other around or play-fighting amongst each other. These cubs are at the age now where they are starting to eat meat, but are not completely weaned yet and so we are still seeing them suckle from the adult females.

Brian Rode
By Brian Rode
Senior Field Guide