Winter is here now and the temperatures are dropping in the nights and early mornings. We are leaving on the game-drives just before the sun comes up all dressed up in fleeces and jackets. The grasses are turning golden brown and many of the leaves on the trees have started to drop now. The skies have generally been clear and the stars at night have been fabulous. The aloes around the lodges are all in flower and are attracting lots of sunbirds. The male sunbirds are very pretty with metallic blue or green plumage. They are attracted to the flowers of the aloes because of the high nectar content. The impala lilies are also coming into flower now and the beautiful pink and white blooms really lighten up the bush in the places that they occur. These plants are characteristic of the Lowveld area and have been planted in many of the public camps in the Kruger National Park. They add colour to the drabber winter landscape. The water-level in the N’wanetsi River is dropping now and there are many dry patches. Most of the temporary pools in the bush and in the valleys are completely dry now. Fortunately, the deeper ones are still holding water. The summer rains, earlier on in the year, filled up Gudzani Dam and we believe that the water will carry through the winter. Because of the amount of water in the dam it has attracted lots of game to the area. The migrant birds have now left the area and are on their way on the long journey north again. Although the numbers of bird species in the area have dropped (which is normal for the winter months) the grass is still thick and lush and this has allowed the button-quail and harlequin quails to remain for longer than they normally do. There are also still thousands of queleas in the area, taking advantage of the last grass seeds, and the roosting area near the granophyre hills is still spectacular in the late afternoons. It is amazing to see thousands of these small birds crammed onto the branches in the knobthorn thickets and, in the mornings, there are streams of birds that fly across the skies, heading to the grassy plains.
Our wildlife review for the month of June is as follows:
Buffaloes: Buffalo sightings have been incredible during the month and with the water drying up, we can expect the sightings to increase. At one point, we had more than three separate herds in the concession at the same time with herd sizes varying from anything around 50 to over 300 animals. These herds have been seen throughout the concession. The lions, Shishangaan pride in particular, have shown a lot of interest in following and hunting the big herds. It is a risk for the lions to hunt
buffaloes but it is a worthy reward if they are successful. With so many mouths to feed in the pride, buffalo are definitely a ‘favourite’ prey species for the lions. Let’s hope this unwanted attention doesn’t scare the buffaloes away!
Elephants: With the N’wanetsi River slowly becoming one of the only water sources in the area, we are entering that wonderful period where we are seeing large congregations of elephants along the river. It is almost guaranteed that after a morning of adventuring on our concession, the pre-breakfast leg back to the lodges will be punctuated by high quality elephant viewing, as they head to the water to slake their thirst. The excitement that comes with the feeling of the cool water on their bodies and in their mouths, is very often expressed through trumpeting, sparring and wallowing, bringing smiles to the faces of all concerned.
We are very pleased to report that there have been no deaths or injuries on our concession, and all of the elephants we have seen appear to be in good health. They are changing their food sources, however, as most of the grass on the concession has begun to die. This means that it is not uncommon for a guide to round a bend, only to find a pushed over knobthorn tree with clearly chewed roots.
Another interesting observation is that we are seeing plenty of elephant bulls in musth. Our collective thought is that this bears testament to the high levels of food available to the elephant cows, bringing them into breeding condition and thus driving the bulls into musth. This certainly has kept our guides on their toes, and sometimes makes for an exciting game drive.
Spotted Hyenas: There were at least 10 recorded sightings of spotted hyenas this month. There is currently a hyena den-site that is on the H6 road, not too far from the lodge, which has allowed some great viewing. There are even a few new cubs that have been born into that clan recently. Another den-site has been discovered in the far north of the concession and there are at least two cubs there. The den in the Nyokene Valley has not been active this last month. After the Shishangaan Pride hunted three buffalos, there were multiple spotted hyenas that were seen approaching the carcasses the next day, in hope of stealing a small meal.
Lions: ”Lebombo, the land of lions” certainly lived up to its name this month. With 69 sightings during the month and spread across all three of the main prides. On a few occasions, all three prides were seen in the course of a single day.
The Shishangaan pride made up the bulk of the sightings this month, and most of those being of the large group of 19, surprisingly with all the sub-adult males still present! There were so many quality sightings but one definitely stands out as a buffalo hunt we were lucky enough to witness. We had watched them throughout the day lying up on a rocky ridge above a small pan. During the course of the entire day they moved all of about 50 metres and looked lethargic at best, hardly batting an eyelid at some kudus and impala who came down for a drink. But at dusk a large herd of elephants passed through which looked to startle them a bit and with their heads finally up they noticed a herd of around 50 buffalos moving in their direction. After what we had seen during the course of the afternoon we didn’t expect too much but stayed anyway hoping to see a little action. What would transpire in the next half an hour no one could have ever predicted! All 19 lions went from zero to full out in a few minutes and without the slightest attempt to stalk they ran directly into and after the herd, with absolute chaos ensuing. They ended up successfully targeting and bringing down three different adult buffalos at the same time! Nineteen lions are without doubt incredibly strong and powerful but buffalos are no slouches either. What is maybe more impressive is that by midway through the next morning’s drive there was almost no sign that anything had happened. The three large Shishangaan males got wind of what happened and came for their share which meant that between them and the 19 lions there was nothing left less than a day after it had all happened!
The Mountain pride have been a little scarce compared to last month. They are slowly moving further north again and with the Xinkelengane drainage holding water very well to the north this is definitely a good move to be away from the big pride. The only thing which is not in their favour is how the ”Grumpy” Shishangaan male is almost constantly with the pride, adding extreme pressure especially when there is a kill. For the most part they are doing well, the entire pride and female cub looking extremely healthy.
The Xhirombe pride have only made up a few sightings and only seem to come into the concession when the bigger Shishangaan pride are not present. At this point, there are only the single (very old) lioness and her last male cub who is now around four years old remaining. There is a thought that maybe the younger lioness has separated herself from the pride because she has small cubs of her own. If that is the case it will be her first litter and of course very exciting for us.
This last month we have also had a few sightings of two unknown young males. These two males have been seen in the vicinity of the lodge and in the southern parts of the concession. We don’t know how long they’ll stick around, but we are enjoying the odd sightings and vocalizations around the camps at night.
Cheetahs: This month, there were at least four different sightings of cheetahs, a sure sign that with the dying grass, they are coming back onto our concession. On two occasions, we viewed a coalition of two males and on the other occasions, we viewed a mother with two cubs.
An interesting sighting of cheetahs this month was had on the S41 road, whereby the mother and her two cubs were seen resting and feeding on an impala that they had killed during the day. Unfortunately, they made the kill nearby to a spotted hyena den-site, and the next morning, one of the spotted hyenas was seen dragging a cheetah carcass. We are not sure what exactly happened, but assume that the hyenas did in fact kill one of the sub-adult cheetah cubs. With only one cub left, we hope that this cheetah mother will be able to raise it to adulthood.
Leopards: Seeing a leopard is always one of the highlights of a safari. They are as special as they are elusive, and therefore we have been absolutely over the moon with both the quality and regularity of the leopard sightings over the last month. We have seen kills, we have seen an interaction over a kill between a male leopard and a lioness, and we have discovered at least one new leopard cub. It really has been the most amazing period.
There has been regular viewing of a couple of female leopards both around the sticky thorns, and another that is seen from Puff Adder Pools all the way up Ntsibitsane, to the Sisal Line. Both of these leopards have slightly older cubs, probably in the region of about four to five months old. Both animals are fairly relaxed and we are able to have fantastic views of them, sometimes sharing in very tender playful moments between mother and cub. Many a tracker, guide and guest have returned home,
smiling from ear to ear, after having been absorbed in one of these mesmerising encounters.
An early June morning is cold and clear, and one of these we all set out into the adventure of the unknown, not having any idea what the bush would show us. It so happened that that particular morning, mother nature would show us something none would soon forget:
It started with one of our vehicles investigating impala snorting in agitation. When the view opened up after the bend in the road, there was a female leopard holding a kicking male impala by the throat. Startled by the sudden arrival of the vehicle, the leopard then released the impala. Our guide immediately backed the vehicle away as to avoid interfering and very shortly the female returned and completed the kill, in front of some humans whose minds were completely blown away! When the impala had completely expired, the female leopard began to drag her prey up the hill under cover of a stand of thick brush, where she felt comfortable enough to begin feeding. She remained there giving us all tantalising glimpses of her beauty as she moved in amongst the shadows and leaves.
Hearing about the sighting, Sean Bisset, one of our guides, tried to get there to share this experience with his guests. When one is heading to a leopard sighting, there are not many things that can distract you, but one of these is a lioness running across the road in front of you, her stare and attitude intense and battle ready as she ran. She headed straight across the road and then up the almost sheer cliffs that mark the beginning of the Lebombo Mountain Range. The reason for this energy sapping climb soon became apparent, as she made a beeline for a tree overhanging the drop in which a large male leopard prepared himself to defend his hard-earned kill. The scene was set for the dramatic encounter between the two. Although much smaller, the male leopard was confident in the tree, and his low growls and snarls rumbled off the walls of rock as he successfully kept the lioness at bay. The interaction continued for approximately forty-five minutes before the lioness gave up and went to lie, frustrated on the plains below.
That afternoon, we returned to the scene to find the roles reversed. The male leopard lay away from the kill with the lioness feeding on the impala in the tree! Though she was able to climb that tree and feed on the kill, it must be said that she lacked the grace, poise and balance of that magnificent rosetted cat. The whole episode, set upon the dramatic cliff faces of eastern Kruger is something we will all be forever grateful we were able to witness.
There is one more moment that we must mention, and we have possibly saved the best for last: the finding of the Xinkelengane female’s new cub(s). Through the hard work tracker and guide combo, Solly, and Wessel, the Xinkelengane female was found in the Mhlagulene ravine, about midway up our concession. The sighting was incredible to begin with, as the leopard walked along the ravine, which is decorated by age-old ebony trees and red rock shelves. The female leopard then turned, and began to clamber up the rocks until the view was lost. Though still revelling in what they had just seen, all concerned were thrilled to notice some movement in the rocks, possibly signalling the return of the leopard. She did return, though this time, she had something small in her mouth! Down the cliff face she moved until finally she was close enough to reveal that she was carrying a tiny little leopard, limp and trusting in its mother’s powerful jaws. She then turned and walked through the dappled light, down a pebbled drainage line, straight towards the privileged few who were lucky enough to be on that Land Rover that day. After coming within a few metres of the vehicle she then walked off, with all her feline grace and motherly pride, up the ridge and into the rocks. We have not seen the cub since that day, nor do we know if there are more, but we now know that somewhere, in the burning rocks of the Lebombo mountains, is at least one little leopard who, should things go well, will etch his or her story in to the rich legend of this ancient wilderness we call the Kruger National Park.