February is normally the month that we receive our highest monthly rainfall and this last month we did receive a fair amount. Towards the end of the month we started receiving warnings, from the weather department, that we were going to receive a lot of rain as Cyclone “Dineo” was just passing by Madagascar and was fast approaching the Mozambique coastline. Since Singita Lebombo is situated approximately 160 kilometres from the Indian Ocean (and the Mozambique Channel) we were fully expecting to get a downpour. The South African National Parks were getting ready to deal with any emergencies that could possibly occur as a result of the cyclone. Fortunately, as the cyclone hit the mainland of Mozambique it lost a lot of strength and was downgraded to “tropical low pressure cell”. This meant that, although we did receive some rain, we did not receive anything like what we were expecting. In fact, most of the precipitation was in the form of drizzle and light rain. This has done wonders for the bush. The grass and vegetation has grown tremendously and the bush is looking thick and the grass is tall and in full seed. Areas that were completely bare and sandy a few months back are green and lush. It is very pretty. As a result of the increase in the amount of grass many of the grazers that moved away during the dry period have returned and the general game has been awesome, with many zebras and wildebeest in the concession. This month has also been phenomenal in terms of the diversity of birdlife that we have seen, with at least 194 species recorded.
Buffalos: We have seen buffalos almost daily. The three main herds that we have been viewing have been fairly large, numbering over one hundred individuals, and with all the lush grass to feed off it is possible that we may now see even bigger herds. With all this grazing material in the concession it is possible that these herds may join up! During the drier, leaner months, they tend to break up into smaller herds just to ensure there is enough feed available, but in more favourable conditions they prefer to be in herds as large as possible (with the idea of safety in numbers).
On a few occasions these herds have been pressurized by the Shishangaan male lions, who have trailed a herd in hope of a potential meal, pushing them as far south as Ndlovu Lookout. This is only a few hundred meters away from the lodge. Ndlovu Lookout is much further south than where we usually look for buffalos, which tend to be seen more regularly in the far northern sections of our concession.
Elephants: The elephant viewing has been fantastic this month and, fortunately for us, they have been a lot more prevalent than what were used to in past Marula seasons. We say this is because our concession has very few Marula trees (Sclerocarya birrea) and the fruit of these trees is highly sought after by elephants when they are ripe. Unfortunately, this fruit was made infamous for the wrong reasons; it was believed that animals, elephants in particular, commonly get intoxicated by consuming these fermenting fruits. This misconception came about after a movie depicted numerous animals, including elephants that consume marula fruits and supposedly became intoxicated as a result. Due to the large size of an elephant and because food passes through the gut of an elephant fairly quickly it is highly unlikely that an elephant could become inebriated from feeding on marula fruit. In fact, the digestive system of an elephant does not facilitate the fermentation of fruit within the body of the elephant. It was supposedly later discovered that the animals in the movie were in fact drugged in order to appear drunk. Elephants are, however, very important in the dispersal of marula seed since the fruit often passes through the gut of an elephant completely intact. It is also believed that this passage through the gut of the elephant stimulates germination of the seed (due to the heat within the stomach) which is further facilitated by the fact that the seed is deposited in a pile of compost!
Many people will tell you that elephants are bulk feeders and that they eat un-discretionally as much as they can, of whatever they can. Elephants are, however, extremely fussy about what they prefer to eat and it makes sense (imagine trying to control and maintain your body weight when you weigh as much as an elephant does, just by feeding off vegetation). This is why Marula fruit is so sought after. Marula fruit contain four times as much Vitamin C as an orange and the pulp contains citric and malic acids, as well as sugar, which are all vital to keep animals as large as this going. Furthermore, it is known that a single Marula tree can yield as much 1 000 kg or even 70 000 individual fruits in a single season!
Normally, at this time of the year we do not have as many sightings of elephants as we have this last month. Usually when the Marula trees come into fruit many of the elephants move to other areas within the Kruger Park where these trees are more common, particularly to the west of the park where the granitic soils favour the growth of these trees. This month we had a total of 150 recorded sightings of elephants. In comparison, last February we only had 80 recorded elephant sightings.
Another interesting thing that we have noticed with regards to the elephant viewing this last month is the large number of bull elephants (particularly musth bull elephants) that have been seen in the area. Musth is a physical and hormonal condition that male elephants periodically enter where their testosterone levels increase dramatically (supposedly up to 60 times the normal levels). Bull elephants that are in musth characteristically exude a moist secretion from temporal glands (glands on the side of the face) and leak a green, strong-smelling liquid from their genitals. Bull elephants in musth often exhibit aggressive behaviour. Musth is therefore synonymous with an increase in male steroids. Bull elephants that are in prime condition are thought to voluntarily bring themselves into musth in order to compete with other males for mating rights. It is possible that the large swathes of green grass have attracted the herds into the area and therefore the bull elephants have followed the females. The guides here have also considered that in the past few years the condition of the veld has not been particularly favourable for breeding and that now that there is more grass in the area the females are physically in a better condition and therefore are possibly coming into oestrous, which is attracting large numbers of musth bulls.
Spotted hyenas: The cubs at the Nyokeng Den have now gotten to an age where they are not restricted to the densite and we are no longer seeing them as regularly. Although this is a testament to the females who have managed to raise the cubs it also means that we are not having as regular sightings of these charismatic animals. The den along the H6 public road is still active and many guests are still treated to good, close sightings of the hyenas when we travel to or from the airstrip. One morning when we went to the airstrip we noticed a young wildebeest calf that had been killed by a male leopard and had been placed up in a large Marula tree. The next morning we headed out early back towards the airstrip with the hopes of seeing the leopard. When we arrived there we discovered that the carcass had fallen out of the tree and was being devoured by two hyenas.
Lions: We, once again, had amazing sightings of lions this last month. All in all we had 62 recorded sightings of these large cats during February. Lions were seen almost every day. Fortunately for us, due to the long grass the lions have been walking on the roads a fair bit. The majority of the sightings this month have been of the Shishangaan Pride. It appears that the two portions have joined up again. After the big fight that occurred last month between the Smaller Portion of the Shish Pride and the Southern Males we assumed that two of the sub-adults had been killed by the larger adult males. This month, however, we came across the two missing sub-adults. They were seen in the area between the S41 and Dumbana Pools a few times. Unfortunately, over the course of the month we saw these two lions a few times and they were literally getting thinner and thinner each time we saw them. Without the rest of the pride (who had moved much further north and west away from where the conflict had occurred), and because of their age and inexperience in hunting for themselves, they were obviously not feeding and towards the end of the month they were looking anorexic. Skin and bones. It was very sad to see them. One morning we found one of the sub-adults lying in the grass at the side of the S41. He was looking terrible and could hardly even lift up his head. We thought he was going to die that very day. By the afternoon he had disappeared and we thought it was over for him and yet the next morning we found him again, closer to the river, still alive. Towards the end of the month we saw the Shish Pride again and miraculously the two sub-adults had found the rest of the pride. The pride had obviously caught something during the night and they all seemed to have full bellies, including the two sub-adults.
The rest of the Shish Pride (both portions) have mainly been moving towards the west of the concession. At the beginning of the month fourteen members of the Shish Pride were seen feeding on two young wildebeest. A few days later the pride were seen again feeding on a wildebeest. This time it was an adult wildebeest that they had killed. Unfortunately for them the adult Shish males had become aware that the pride had killed the wildebeest and they came and usurped the kill, causing the pride to move off from the area. Towards the middle of the month seven sub-adults from the Shish Pride were seen feeding on an elephant carcass. It is not likely that the lions killed the elephant, but rather that it died from other causes.
The white lion from the Shish Pride was seen a few times this month and his wounds (from the encounter with the Southern Males) seem to be healing. Fortunately for him it was quite early on in the month that he managed to re-connect with the rest of the pride.
The four Shish males are still doing well and were seen on a few occasions this last month. They have been moving throughout the concession, obviously defending the area against other males (including the Northern and Southern Males) who seem to be moving further into the concession. Towards the beginning of the month we found the four Shish Males far west of the concession. We saw one of them again a few days later feeding on a buffalo. He was with some of the females from the N’wanetsi Pride (we do not normally see these lions as their territory is far west of our concession). The three females all had full bellies and had obviously fed before the male arrived and took over the kill.
The Northern Pride were also seen entering the concession a few times this month, mainly in the area of Cassia and Mbatsane Firebreak. On the 19th of February we saw the four Northern males towards the north-west of the concession.
The Xhirombe Pride were seen on at least three occasions. The Xhirombe male is still with the two females and they are all healthy. When we saw the females we were fully expecting to see them lactating as a few months ago we watched them mating with the Southern Males. Surprisingly, their teats were not swollen and they obviously either did not conceive or lost the cubs shortly after they were born.
Cheetah: The stars this month have been a particular female cheetah and her five cubs. Right at the beginning of the month Joffers was watching these cheetahs as they were moving through the long Signal Grass in the northern part of the concession. The grass was very tall and the female was constantly jumping up onto fallen tree trunks in order to get a better view around. The cubs were trailing behind the female, following her as she searched for potential prey. Finally, she spotted some impalas in the distance and she immediately headed in their direction. She slowly stalked up towards them and then when she got close enough she started sprinting. She raced after the impala and managed to grab it by the throat pulling it down into the long grass. Very exciting viewing! These six cheetahs were seen on at least two more occasions during the month, in the far northern area of the concession.
One morning Giyani was crossing the N’wanetsi River near the Poort (towards the south-east of the concession) when he located a coalition of two male cheetahs. They were very shy and immediately headed for the hills. That afternoon Walter went back to the area where the cheetahs had been seen in the morning and found quite a few vultures descending into the dead trees near the river. Upon investigating he managed to re-locate the two cheetahs again. They were busy feeding on an impala. The carcass was almost finished and the cheetahs were full-bellied.
Leopard: Leopards have been very elusive this month, as a result of all the long grass in the area and the low visibility due to the green vegetation. Nonetheless, we did have at least nine recorded sightings of leopard during the month of February. On the afternoon of the 4th Collen and Chantelle were viewing a breeding herd of elephants near Dumbana Road when they noticed the white flash from the underside of a leopard’s tail moving through the long grass. It was a female leopard (possibly the Sticky Thorn Female). She crossed the road in front of them and the next thing a cub stuck its head out of the grass right behind her. The cub followed the female for a short while and then the mother leopard left the youngster in the bush near Monzo Pan. The cub hid away in the thick vegetation and the adult female carried on heading east into the hills. After dark, Collen was heading back to camp when he found the female leopard returning to the area where she had left her cub. She had obviously gone to the hills to fetch her second cub, as it was following behind her. Towards the middle of the month the guides found this female and her two cubs again. They were resting near Green-Apple Hill (quite close to where they had been seen earlier on in the month).
Later in the month Daniella was on her way back to camp when she found a leopard feeding on an impala that it had hoisted into a tree. She called Lebombo and informed the guides of her find. In the afternoon Sean headed off to see if he could re-locate the leopard. He was lucky enough to find her and while he was watching her a herd of elephants walked past the leopard without even noticing it was there.
Towards the end of the month a male leopard was seen in the western parts of the concession lying up in a large Marula tree with a carcass of a juvenile wildebeest that it had obviously cached in the tree.