We are already more than halfway through winter and the sun is starting to rise earlier again. It has been an unusually warm winter and there are still quite a few leaves on many of the trees. The grass is still fairly tall and has now changed to a golden hue. It is slowly starting to get flattened by the movements of the animals, but there are still thick stands throughout the concession. The thick grass layer has meant that the gamebirds such as the francolins, spurfowl, harlequin quails and buttonquails have managed to raise quite a few clutches or broods this year. We are still seeing batches of small chicks with the adults. Some of these pairs have managed to have three clutches. The thick grass layer has meant that there is still quite a bit of food for the grazers and we are still seeing large herds of zebras, wildebeest and even buffalos. In the hills, the grass has thinned out a bit and we have been seeing more Sharpe’s grysbok again. These are beautiful small antelope, similar to steenbok and are generally fairly difficult to see wherever they occur. The aloes have been in flower around the lodge and have attracted quite a few sunbirds, including collared sunbirds, white-bellied sunbirds and Marico sunbirds. The male sunbirds are absolutely stunning with their metallic green or blue feathers. Another plant that has been in flower this month, and that also attracts the sunbirds to its sweet nectar, is the pink mistletoe that parasitizes the knobthorn trees (which, incidentally, are also in full flower). The impala lilies are also in bloom and the beautiful pink and white flowers are very showy in the hills and some of the flat areas. The seasonal pans are almost all dry throughout the concession now and only the deeper parts of the river (in areas such as Dumbana Pool, Puff adder Pool, the confluence and the weir) still have water. Gudzani Dam is still full, as is Pony Pan. These deeper water points are now starting to attract quite a lot of game in the late mornings and early afternoons. Fortunately, it appears that these areas may hold water throughout the season until the rains come again next summer. Although the migrant birds have all left now we are still seeing some exciting species. The queleas are still roosting en masse in the thorn thickets on the granophyre ridge and it is an absolute spectacle to see them arriving in their large flocks to roost in the late afternoons. Other special birds that we have seen this last month have included a female greater painted snipe, kori bustards, ostriches, eastern nicators and martial eagles, amongst others.
Our wildlife review for the month of July is as follows:
Buffaloes: The grass in the concession is still quite thick and lush and this has attracted quite a few buffalo herds into the area. This last month we had at least 55 sightings of these formidable animals. Quite a few of these sightings have been of herds in excess of 200 animals. There have also been a few sightings of bachelor herds and lone dagha boys. These dagha boys are renowned to be grumpy and are some of the most dangerous animals in Africa. For a few days there was a really bad-tempered male that was hanging around the area of Dudu’s Crossing and he charged at few of the vehicles that came across him. Fortunately, the guides are aware of how cranky these bulls can be and so managed to avoid him. There was also one male who had an injured right shoulder that was seen loitering in the area around Xinkwenyana Crossing. He was unable to walk fast and we all knew that the day would come when the lions discovered his presence. This happened towards the end of the month when the Shish Pride managed to permanently relieve him of his pain. They fed upon his remains for two days. The large herds of buffalos have also attracted a few yellow-billed oxpeckers into the area. The yellow-billed oxpeckers are quite rare birds in the concession and we do not see them very often, although this month we have seen quite a few of them on the backs of the buffalos. Both the red-billed (which are much more common in the area) and the yellow-billed oxpeckers have a symbiotic relationship with large herbivores such as the buffalos. These birds feed predominantly on ticks and so they are often seen on the backs of animals cleaning them of external parasites. The birds benefit from the relationship by getting food and nesting material (they line their nests, which are usually in holes in dead trees, with hair taken from the animals), while the animals get cleaned and can also benefit from the warning calls of the birds (which they give when they see danger in the area).
Elephants: We have had some amazing elephant viewing this month. We have had more than 200 sightings of these majestic creatures. There have been quite a few sightings of herds in excess of 50 individuals. It is incredible to see so many elephants in one place at a time. Fortunately, this year we still have a lot of water at Gudzani Dam and in some of the deeper pools in the N’wanetsi River and this should keep elephants in the concession throughout winter and spring. We are expecting to see more and more elephants coming to these water sources as the dry season progresses. With all the large herds in the concession we have also come across quite a few bulls in musth. When bull elephants bring themselves into musth they raise their testosterone levels, in order to compete with other males for access to females in oestrous.
Spotted hyenas: The Lebombo Concession has relatively high concentration of spotted hyenas. We have at least four different clans in the area. Presently there are two den-sites that we can view. One of these den-sites is in a drain pipe under the H6 road, not far from the camp. This clan has quite a few youngsters and we often see them at night. They are often curious with the vehicles. There is another hyena den in the far north of the concession. This den is in a hole in the ground (probably originally dug by an aardvark). This is possibly the new den for the Nongo / Xinkelengane Clan. At present there are four youngsters, who have just changed from their black colouration to the spotted coats. We have still not been able to locate the new den-site for the Nyokeng Clan, but believe that they may have moved to an inaccessible valley in the hills.
Towards the middle of the month two nomadic male lions killed a giraffe in front of Lebombo Camp. This giraffe carcass attracted quite a few hyenas from the Nyokeng and H6 Clans. This sighting is described in more detail later in the report.
Lions: We have had great lion sightings this month. We have seen the Shishangaan Pride a few times and, at present, the main portion of the pride consists of 19 lions. The famous white lion is still with the pride, although we are expecting him and the other sub-adult males to leave the area soon. They are now at the age where they need to leave and find their own territories. Soon the dominant males of the area will not tolerate them anymore. The young Shish males are already having trouble with the dominant males from the surrounding territories. Fortunately, the dominant Shish males have not yet turned against them, but the time will come soon when they do. Male lions have a very hard time when they are at this age. Upon leaving their natal territory, male lions will be running from other dominant male lions until they gain enough strength to challenge and beat the dominant males of an area and take over the territory for themselves. During this time that they are trying to gain strength and muscle they cannot rely on the females to do the hunting. They have to feed themselves, and at the same time they have to avoid drawing the attention of other lions in the area to themselves. If a young male lion is lucky he has brothers who are of the same age as he and they can form a coalition and leave together. The young Shish sub-adults are in the fortunate position that there are a few young males of the same age.
The Mountain Pride have also been seen a few times this last month. This pride consists of three adult lionesses and one young female cub. They have been moving around the central area of the concession. It appears that one of the lionesses is now coming into heat and the big male who often hangs around with them has taken a serious interest in her, although she does not seem to be too keen to mate with him yet.
This month we have also been seeing two new male lions in the southern part of the concession and in the area nearby the lodge. These lions were initially very shy of the vehicles but seem to have relaxed a bit now and we have had good views of them. These two lions managed to kill a large male giraffe on the other side of the river in front of camp (this sighting is described later in this report).
Cheetahs: We’ve had at least four sightings of these beautiful animals this month. All these sightings occurred along the H6 Road, usually on the way to or from the airstrip. At the beginning of the month Jacques located a coalition of two male cheetahs in the big open grasslands close to the turnoff to the staff village. These animals were walking right next to the road. They then crossed the road in front of the cars and went and climbed up a fallen tree and marked it by defecating on it. They used the tree as a lookout to survey the grasslands for other cheetahs, possible danger or potential prey before climbing down and heading off further from the road into the plains. Later in the month two cheetahs were seen near the Shishangaan waterhole by JP and Margaux. They had made a kill, but were driven away from the carcass by large numbers of vultures that can down to scavenge.
Leopards: The Ndlovu male is one of the more relaxed male leopards in the area, but due to the long grass, thick vegetation and the fact that there have been pools of water lying throughout the hills in the past few months we had not seen much of him.
Now that the water has started drying up in the hills the animals have been attracted to the river and therefore we are starting to see him more often near the lodge. Towards the beginning of the month, Nick was on his way back to camp after dark when he found two leopards near the N’wanetsi River, fairly close to the lodge. It was a mating pair. The male was quite relaxed with the vehicles and we thought he might be the Ndlovu male. The female, however, was quite shy. She was trying to entice the male to move to a more secluded spot but since he was not worried about the cars she had to return to where he was. We watched them mating twice before we left them to their peace. Two days later Brian and Charles were heading back towards the camp in the late evening when they spotted (pardon the pun) a male leopard walking down the road towards them, marking his territory. He went and lay down next to the road and while they were watching him they heard a growl coming from the bushes behind the male leopard. The next thing a female appeared out of the bushes. She advanced towards the male and was flirting with him. They then mated right next to the vehicle, with all the guests watching. When leopards mate it is often accompanied by lots of vocalisation and growling. When female leopards or lions come into oestrous they often mate every twenty minutes or so for a few days running.
We have also seen the Dumbana female and her youngster a few times this last month. They have mainly been moving around in the area between the ridge south of Green Apple Hill and the Milkberry Ridge. The cub is doing well and is growing up quickly. He is still fairly shy of the vehicles, but seems to be getting more and more relaxed as he is getting exposed to them. Nick had an amazing sighting of these two leopards one morning as they were chasing klipspringers up and down the cliffs near Green Apple Hill.
The Xinkelengane female was also seen on two occasions this month. She was feeding on an adult male impala that she had taken up into a tree in the Nhlangulene drainage. We have not seen her cub again since Wessel saw it last month, but we are sure that she still has it hidden in the hills.