How the extended drought is affecting our game viewing

Sabi Sand | August 2016

A colleague of mine, Ian Mey, recently wrote a very good article, in which he alluded to the fact that the current drought should not be viewed in a negative light, but should rather be seen as part of the natural cycle of things. I agree with him wholeheartedly, but having said that, both Ian and I are hoping that the coming spring and summer will see the drought being broken with some substantial rain.
Our game viewing here at Singita Sabi Sand has certainly not suffered at all as a result of these two dry years. In fact, in many ways, the viewing has been quite exceptional.

The first example that springs to mind is the hippopotamus viewing. With several of the large waterholes north of the Sand River having now dried up completely, large numbers of hippo have had to base themselves elsewhere, and there are currently two main spots where there is sufficient water to support large groups (“rafts”) of hippo. One such spot is Castleton Dam (on the Mobeni watercourse directly in front of Castleton Lodge), where one can usually find about 14 or 15 hippo. More impressive, however, is Pious Crossing on the Sand River, just upstream of Ebony Lodge, where on a regular basis we are seeing well in excess of 40 hippo! There is usually a good deal of jostling, romping, rolling and porpoising among the hippo if they are in the water, which is hardly surprising, as there must be so much competition among them. Interestingly, these 40-plus hippo often leave the water around mid-morning and make their way to the sand banks, where they bask in the sun for a good few hours, many of them lying down, but some apparently sleeping on their feet. Sometimes, if our timing is right and we are patient, we can be fortunate enough to witness the impressive spectacle of all these hippo returning to the water again in the mid-to-late afternoon.

I can confidently say, without hesitation, that the hippo viewing that we have been experiencing near Pios Crossing over the last few months, by a long way surpasses any hippo viewing that I have previously had in 24 years of guiding! That said, however, it should be remembered that these hippo are not having an easy time of things. Apart from the fact that they are competing with each other for limited water, there is also far less grass available to them than in the past (hippopotami, of course, are bulk grazers), so they are having to travel quite far in their nightly grazing forays. They have, understandably, lost some condition, simply from not getting the quantity or quality of grass needed to keep them in their prime. There is inevitably a higher level of stress than normal within the hippo community, and many individuals have been forced out of the bigger rafts, finding relative peace in some of the smaller, borehole-fed waterholes across the reserve. When tracking, or taking guests for walks, guides and trackers obviously need to be very careful to avoid encountering hippo out of the water.

While most other herbivores still seem to be doing remarkably well, buffaloes are also starting to show signs of struggling to cope with the drought. Sub-adults and young adults in their prime are generally looking good, but some of the very young individuals and the older ones (particularly old females with calves still suckling) are showing visible signs of a drop in condition. Essentially considered to be bulk grazers, the relative scarcity of attractive grazing has led to many buffalo resorting to supplement their diet with browse material. A drop in condition of buffaloes makes them more vulnerable to attack by lions, and the statistics reveal an unusually high number of buffalo kills.

While grazers (and to a lesser extent browsers) are finding conditions tough, predators are making the most of the fact that some of their potential victims are not quite as strong or fit as they would normally be, and thus it is a period in their lives when the carnivores are mostly doing very well.

Whether or not it is related to the drought and the good hunting conditions, an unusual situation has been witnessed among a pack of painted hunting dogs (I prefer this name to “wild dogs”), where two females in the pack have pups. More typically, just a single female, the alpha female, produces pups, or if a second female does give birth, her pups are usually killed by the alpha female, so that all the pack’s energy and efforts can be concentrated on raising the pups of the alpha female (which theoretically should have the best genes.) So far, however, it seems that the alpha female, whose pups at the time of writing must be about 4 months old, is absolutely fine with the fact that there is a second female with pups, probably almost a month old now. Could it be that both litters will be raised? Time will tell!
Remarkably, the Sand River continues to flow. Just a trickle at this stage, but considering the fact that we have gone through two consecutive drought years, this is quite surprising. We certainly hope for some good early rains this spring (September or October), which would have a most dramatic effect on the grazing, and would probably also ensure that the Sand River does indeed continue its flow for another season.