Winter is in full swing now and the Winter Solstice has just passed. Days are finally starting to lengthen again. The mornings have been crisp and chilly and when the cold fronts blew in some cloud cover from the Cape we had mist lying in the valleys as the sun rose above the Lebombos. It is so moody when one goes out in the early hours with the mist swirling through the trees. A shadow of a giraffe or an elephant beckons in the vegetation and all the birds are quiet, waiting for the heat of the sun to burn away the cloud and bring some warmth. The baboons are funny to watch first thing in the morning as they all come out of the trees and sit hunched up on the ground in the sunlight, trying to get rid of the shivers of the night and get some energy to go and find food out in the veld. Squirrels also come out of the holes in the dead trees and bathe in the early morning light, happy to have survived another dark night in the dangerous African wilderness!
Many of the trees still have a few leaves (although most of them are going yellow now) as we have not had any seriously cold spells, although what remaining grass there is golden-brown and all the nutrients have been pulled down to the roots. The Central Depression is completely bare of grass now. The N’wanetsi River still has some pools, particularly near the weir and at Dumbana, but the water levels are dropping. Hyena Pan, in the hills, has dried up and there is now no standing water in the hills. Gudzane Dam is completely dry and we have resorted to pumping some water at Pony Pan, which is attracting a fair amount of general game, particularly impalas and giraffe.
Buffaloes: We have not seen many buffaloes in the concession this month due to the lack of grass. The larger herds have moved to areas where the grazing is better. There have been small groups of Dagha Boys visiting the river near the N’wanetsi Crossing and near Hyena Pan (when it still had water). The name ‘Dagha Boy’ is a South African colloquial term meaning a person who works with cement. It usually refers to builders. Since the male buffalos that leave the large herds and either travel alone or in small bachelor herds tend to enjoy wallowing in the mud, they often have a grey covering on their skins that looks like cement has been spilled all over them. When large male buffalos get to a stage where they are big enough and strong enough to do without the protection of the large herds they often leave the herd and live a more sedentary life in areas with good grazing and near water. Although these animals are extremely dangerous they are still vulnerable to attack from lions and therefore are quite suspicious of any movement around them and do not hesitate to charge any perceived danger. It is these large bulls that have gained the nasty reputation that they have (for being very aggressive) and were, in the past, often referred to as ‘black death’ by the historic ‘Great White Hunters’. Many a hunter came to their demise when hunting these formidable creatures and even today guides that operate in areas where these animals occur have great respect for them.
On the afternoon of the 5th of June we were busy trying to track down the larger portion of the Shish Pride. Margaux had just come around the corner near Ostrich Link Fly Camp when she spotted the lions near the N’wanetsi River. She had just called in the sighting when a large male buffalo came running up the embankment towards her vehicle. This Dagha Boy was being followed by the pride of lions that Margaux had just located. The lions surrounded the buffalo and it charged them a few times before it decided to try and take refuge behind her vehicle. Obviously Margaux could not allow the buffalo to come towards the vehicle, as it would pose a danger for both her and her guests, particularly because the lions were trying to bring it down. She moved the vehicle and the lions surrounded the buffalo again. We thought that the lions would most certainly be successful, but the sub-adults were obviously quite fearful of the bull and ‘pussy-footed’ around it. The buffalo took advantage of the hesitation of the lions and managed to shrug off the few lions that were trying to grapple with its rump. The buffalo then ran in a northerly direction away from the lions, and before the cats knew what was happening it had disappeared into the thick bushes. The lions then attempted to relocate the buffalo, but were unsuccessful. We were so sure that the buffalo was going to meet its end that afternoon and if it were not for the lack of experience of the sub adult lions it probably would have. Luckily for the buffalo it managed to escape and, therefore, live to see another day. Amazing!
Leopards: The leopard viewing during June was phenomenal for this area. We had at least forty-nine recorded sightings of these elusive cats during the month.
The Ndlovu Male was by far the most prominent leopard in the concession this last month. He was seen regularly in the area from Dumbana Rocks, along the N’wanetsi River, to the weir in front of camp.
At the beginning of the month he was seen near ‘Fig in the Leadwood Tree’, lying on the bank of the N’wanetsi River, watching some waterbuck. The waterbuck were slowly moving closer and closer to the large cat and we were expecting something to happen, but in the end the waterbuck slowly drifted away from him again and we left him sleeping there.
On the 4th Margaux was driving on Sisal Line, close to the Nyokeng Valley when she found the Ndlovu Male walking east towards the Mozambique border. She followed him for a short while and he then started sniffing in some bushes to the side of the road. He then proceeded to pull out an impala carcass from the shrubbery. Margaux assumed that perhaps another leopard (she had seen some female leopard tracks in the area before she spotted the male) had killed the impala and then had hidden it in the bushes and the Ndlovu Male had sniffed it out and stolen it. Later on in the day Collen watched as he dragged the impala into a tree at the base of a rocky cliff. That evening we found him resting nearby the carcass and while he was lying there two spotted hyenas from the Nyokeng Clan arrived, having smelled the decaying meat. The leopard sat up immediately and stared at the hyenas, that did not see the leopard lying there. The hyenas could see the carcass up in the tree but were unable to get access to it and then left.
On the 10th Margaux found the Ndlovu Male walking inside Mozambique, on the other side of the border fence, although he had returned into the concession by the 13th . A few days later we found him near ‘Croc View’ waiting to ambush impala as they came down to drink water. On the 18th the guides were lucky enough to find him near the N’wanetsi River with an unidentified female leopard. Love was in the air and after a short while the two leopards were seen mating, accompanied by lots of growling and the male giving the female love-bites on her neck. These two leopards were seen mating again in the afternoon.
This last month we also saw the N’wanetsi Male (the Ndlovu Male’s rival) a few times. The territories of these large male leopards seem to overlap very close to the camp. The territory of the Ndlovu Male tends to be centred along the N’wanetsi River to the north of the camps, whereas that of the N’wanetsi Male is centred along the river from where it turns east towards Mozambique.
The Xinkelengane Female (possibly our most relaxed female leopard) was not seen very much this month. She seems to be moving further north in the concession than she normally does and was found, towards the end of the month, feeding on an impala that she had placed in a tree to avoid other predators such as lions and hyenas from stealing it.
At the beginning of the month Brian and his tracker, Charles, were investigating the alarm calls of some francolins in the vicinity of Hyena Pan. They had both gotten out of the vehicle to check out a thick set of bushes near the drainage line when Charles spotted a tiny leopard cub running up the steep embankment. It disappeared into the vegetation and was not seen again. We assume that this could be a new cub of the Nhlangulene Female. How exciting!
Cheetahs: We have not seen many cheetahs this last month (a total of eight sightings were recorded by the guides).
A single male was seen a few times along the H6 public road between the camp and the staff residence. Possibly the same male was seen in the vicinity of ‘Gumba Crossing’ at the beginning of the month. A female with four cubs was also seen on the S37 on one occasion. A different female was seen with her three sub-adults feeding on an impala that she had just killed near Shishangaan one morning. Two adult male cheetahs were also seen on two occasions in the northern areas of the concession.
Elephants: We have had some good elephant viewing this last month and have seen these great grey beasts almost every drive. We often see them in the late mornings coming down to the water to drink along the N’wanetsi River. With the lack of grass they have been knocking over quite a few trees in the hills to get to the nutrient-rich roots. On the 3rd of June a large male elephant was seen chasing a leopard away from the water near ‘Euphorbia Crossing’. On the 22nd a female elephant and her calf were seen chasing a pride of lions around in the ‘Sticky Thorn’ thickets.
Lions: The Lebombo Concession is well known for lion sightings. The guides have reported seeing lions on at least seventy-nine occasions this month. Lions were seen almost every day.
The main prides in the area are the Shish Pride (both the smaller portion and the larger portion of the Shish Pride – with the white lion), the Shish Males (the dominant males in the area), the Mountain Pride and the Xhirombe Pride. On occasion we also see the Northern Pride, the Southern Pride and the Collared Pride (who spend most of their time in Mozambique). Other lions are sometimes seen on the public roads.
With the dry conditions in the area the hippos are struggling with lack of standing water and grass to feed on. Many of them are in poor condition and some of the prides of lions in the area have started taking advantage of the fact that the hippos are weaker than normal and are hunting and killing them. This is very unusual for this area. At the beginning of the month the smaller portion of the Shish Pride were seen feeding on a hippo near ‘N’wanetsi West’. On the 13th this same pride was seen attacking a hippo near ‘Xinkwenyana Crossing’, but the hippo was lucky enough to escape from the big cats with only a few deep gouges on its rump and back. On the evening of the 23rd three of the large Shish males were witnessed attacking and killing a sub adult hippo. Barry Peiser was one of the guides who witnessed this incredible scene and describes it later in this report under the heading Other Interesting Sightings.
The Larger portion of the Shish Pride seems to have lost a few of the younger males. These sub-adult male lions are now of the age where they should be leaving the pride soon. It is possible that some of these young males have now left or (hopefully not) been attacked by other big males in the area. The sub-adult male white lion was seen on a few occasions. He is still moving with the rest of the pride and is looking healthy. On the afternoon of the 15th the larger portion of the Shish Pride were seen hunting a porcupine, but they were not successful and the porcupine managed to escape. Unfortunately some of the lions learned an important lesson from the large rodent and were seen leaving the area with quills stuck in their necks and chests. The smaller portion of the Shish Pride seem to know these spiky creatures better and were seen feeding on a porcupine on the afternoon of the 25th.
We have had a few sightings of the larger Shish Males this month. It does, however, appear that one of the five males is missing and we are only seeing four of them now. The grumpy male, who often charges vehicles, has been seen a few times with the Mountain Pride. He seems to have injured one of his back legs and was seen limping. On the 8th one of the Shish males was seen feeding on an impala that he had caught. On the morning of the 26th the males were seen again feeding on an impala.
The members of the Mountain Pride are doing well and the seven cubs are growing up quickly. They have been seen on a few occasions in the northern, hilly areas of the concession. The grumpy Shish Male has been seen in the company of this pride a few times this last month. On the 17th the Mountain Pride were found in the hills feeding on an adult waterbuck. Two days later they were seen with three of the large males feeding on a buffalo in the same area.
The Xhirombe Pride seems to have split up now and the two females have been seen separate from the male. He is now of the age where he will need to leave the area or face the wrath of the larger, dominant, territorial males. He is now going to be facing a difficult time in his life when he will be wandering large distances and avoiding dominant males in the areas through which he travels, until he builds up enough strength and muscle in order to be able to confront them and possibly take over their territories.
Spotted hyenas: The Nyokeng Clan have provided some amazing viewing this month. There are at least five small cubs at the den-site now. Three of them are still black in colour and are less than three-months-old, whereas the other two have just started getting their spotted coats. We have seen them regularly at the mouth of the cave that they are using as their den, either suckling on the adult females or chasing each other and playing together. The H6 den site has also been active this last month, with at least eight individuals seen on a few occasions, at night.