In the final month of 2017, we experienced soaring temperatures and the increased promise of rain. The summer sun in the early morning brought with it the call of a multitude of bird species, that were in full song throughout the month. It also got hot very quickly, and the shortage of standing water early in the month meant that a late morning drives back along the N’wanetsi River would lead to regular sightings of zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, impala and elephants coming down to the riverine area for food, water and shade. Impala lambing season is still in full swing, but the young lambs have also now been joined by many young blue wildebeest. We have also had sightings of the odd sounder of warthog piglets. Most of the migrant bird species had arrived by the end of the month, particularly after some rain that fell in the latter parts of December. With the increased amount of standing water, there has been a boom in frog and insect activity, which has in turn, brought locally nomadic bird species from near and far. We are now seeing large amounts of lesser spotted eagles, and white stork, as they feast on insects and most notably, termites as they erupt after rain. The colour scheme of the N’wanetsi Concession has now turned to a palate of greens and richer browns as the nutrients flow through the leaves of the multitude of plant species that have been watered by the rain. It is also a great time of year for flowers as they pop up within a few days or even hours after rain. As always, the game viewing has been excellent in general, with a few animals being seen in different areas and densities as their movements change with the growth of the vegetation, and the filling of the pans.
Buffalos: Changes in grazing and water has a direct effect on the distribution of Cape buffaloes. This month, this has been the only high-profile animal that we have struggled to find, with eleven sightings over the course of the month. The large herds of the grasslands had not returned at the time of the writing of this report, and the Shishangaan Pride has almost systematically picked off the bachelor groups that we had been viewing along Dumbana Loop that would drink at the pools.
A longer drive up the eastern sections of the concession would reward one with a sighting of a small breeding herd, or a bachelor herd with one or two cows around the eastern half of the concession.
The larger herds remain south of us, around the Tshokwane area of the Kruger National Park, where they are seen on road transfers and by staff going on leave. We hope that with the increased amount of standing water in the north of our concession and the ever-increased grazing mass, they will return to us.
Spotted Hyenas: There were twelve sightings of spotted hyenas this month, of which most were chance encounters at night on the way back to the lodge after afternoon game drive. On one occasion, Solomon was able to find three spotted hyenas interacting over the carcass of an impala lamb. As one would expect, the impala lamb was finished within the minute.
There have been no sightings of the spotted hyenas at the Xinkelengane den this month, though track and sign indicate that the hyenas are still active there. We think that the youngsters are now a little older and spend very little time in the actual den, though they do occasionally return to it. This also means that the adults are less likely to be anchored to the den and may be travelling much further within the territory of the clan.
Once again, there have been sporadic sightings of spotted hyenas up in the mountains, but we have not been able to put a finger on where these hyenas are denning – if indeed they do have cubs.
Elephants: Elephant viewing this month has been very interesting, as the arrival of the earliest rains has brought the herds back. Halfway through the month, almost all on one day, they returned, sometimes in massive numbers. On one occasion, some of the guides witnessed more than one hundred of these majestic animals crossing the open areas around the massive game path known as the N4, near Gudzane Dam. About half an hour later, as the sun began to climb, more than three separate herds joined each other at the water, in an awesome vocal display. By all accounts, it was quite something to behold.
Sightings of elephant herds means sightings of elephant calves, and everyone loves an elephant calf. We have been much entertained by what we have been seeing, and the playful nature of these young giants has put a smile on many a face.
Lions: As is the case more often than not in this area, we are proud to report that the lion sightings have been regular and high quality yet again. No kills were viewed this month by guide or guest, but lions were seen feeding on kills on at least four occasions. The reason we are seeing kills and feeding sessions a little less than usual we attribute to the fact that until late in the month, most of the large herbivores were still on the rich grasses growing west of the concession, on the previously burned areas. This means that the smaller prey is eaten before we find the lions in the morning, with the only evidence being pinkish jowls and full bellies.
The Shishangaan Pride is in many regards the flagship pride of this area, not only because of the massive number of lions in the pride (as many as 19), but also because the pride contains a young male white lion. Sadly, we have not seen this pride many times this month, as there have been few buffaloes to follow onto the concession. Towards the end of the month, they were seen a few times out on the H6 public road. Interestingly, the young males in the pride, who are now older than three-and-a-half-years-old, continue to live in the relative lap of luxury of life in their natal pride. They have now passed the usual age for male lions to be removed from the area of their birth, and with each month it will become more difficult for the Shish Males and lionesses to remove them, as they are becoming a force to be reckoned with in their own right.
Sightings of the Mountain Pride has been very regular this month, as much effort is made to find them in the absence of the Shish Pride. The young lioness in the pride continues to grow from strength to strength and it is not long now before we will begin to see her actively taking part in hunts. For the most part, the unusual pattern of a fully grown male lion spending nearly all of his time with this pride continued throughout the month. In the last week, however, one of the mountain pride lionesses split off from the group with the Shish Male that has a limp, giving the pride some respite from his presence. Whenever a lion and lioness split off in such a fashion, the assumption is that the lions are mating, during which the separation period from the rest of the pride can last for more than a week. At the time of writing, the lioness had not yet re-joined the Mountain Pride.
The Shish Males seem to have had an interesting time of it in December 2017. One of the older males in the coalition of four who has a bad leg, spent most of the month with the Mountain Pride, as mentioned above. His direct brother, with only one eye, has not been seen for more than a month now, and we fear that he has been killed. Adding weight to this assumption is the fact that the younger pair of males in the Shish Coalition were seen on the concession near the beginning of the month bearing severe and fresh wounds from a fight. These wounds included a clear bite mark on the shoulder blades of one of them, and the only time that lions get bitten on the back is when they are outnumbered. It is too early for confirmation, because the resilience of lions is legendary. Also, knowing the character of that individual, we would not be surprised if he walked onto the concession bearing a few new scars, but otherwise none the worse for wear.
Interestingly enough, there have been no sightings of the Southern Males at all in December. They have, however been heard from the lodges on a few occasions, adding to the chorus of the night.
Cheetahs: The mouth-watering attraction of hundreds of baby impala once again brought many cheetah onto the concession this month. Of the nineteen cheetah sightings this month, there were a few individuals that we did not recognise.
There were also some particular individuals that we saw on a relatively regular basis. The most regular of all of these is a young female that seems to have a strange affinity for the concession’s quarries, most notably Sticky Thorn quarry. We were very concerned about her at one point as she had a very serious limp on her back right leg. At the time of writing, about three weeks after the injury was at its worst, her limp was nearly completely gone. Perhaps we do not give these incredible cats enough credit regarding their resilience.
We have also seen two males along the H6 road on a few occasions during the month, though they did not make it onto the concession. One of these males continues to limp, but given that they are a coalition, he benefits greatly from the good health and fitness of his brother.
On two occasions, a female cheetah with four older cubs was seen around Gudzane Dam. On the second occasion, she was seen crossing off the concession and deeper into the Kruger National Park. They have not been seen since that day, and we hope they are doing well wherever they are.
One very special morning, midway through the month, Solomon moved through the thickets of the Xinkelengane drainage line, and when he came out onto the clearings on the other side, he was met with six faces: One was large with amber eyes and elegant dark tears staining her face. The others bore the same markings, but were much smaller. He had come upon a mother cheetah with five very small cubs. We estimate the cubs were about two months old when they were seen. They have not been seen since on game drive, but we have had reports of them on the public S100 road, which joins our concession’s western boundary about halfway along it.
Leopards: It is never easy to find a leopard, and it is always special when one is found. This challenge and its reward has seduced many a guide, tracker and guest, and will continue to do so as long as these exquisite cats roam this earth.
This month, we had twenty-five leopard sightings. What is most interesting is that it has been very hard to find the Dumbana Female, who has historically been one of our most regular leopards. We think she has moved further east into the ridges, and with the increased amount of standing water, she no longer has to come to the N’wanetsi to drink, and neither does her prey. Though it was never easy, it has been a little more difficult to find her these days.
The Dumbana Young Male has only been seen a handful of times. He seems to get bigger with each passing day, and should be approaching independence from his mother, if he has not already passed that point.
Another interesting development is that we are seeing leopards far more regularly than before up at Gudzane Dam. There is a male that lives in that area who bears heavy scarring to his face. He is fairly relaxed, though not to the same extent as the Ndlovu male. There were long distance views of this unknown male and an unknown female mating, north of the dam itself, and the vocalisations could be heard even from such a long way away.
The Egyptian Vulture: For a week-long period during the month of December, we had a very special bird soaring our skies: A juvenile Egyptian vulture. To give an indication as to the rarity of this bird, this passage from the latest Roberts Guide to Birds of South Africa should suffice:
“Status: Uncertain, few records in recent past. Possibly Palaeartic or intra-African migrants. Resident population on s Africa possibly extinct or almost extinct.”
Almost all of our guides got to feast their binocular-clad eyes on the bird, as did a few guests, though it must be said that some were a bit confused by the hype!
The smaller carnivores of the Singita Kruger Concession – The Mustelids
The family Mustelidae consists of various small carnivorous creatures throughout the world including weasels, minks, martens, badgers, wolverines, otters and polecats, amongst others. Most of these creatures are short-legged with short ears, a fairly long body and stout, broad skulls. Many of these animals have anal glands that give off a secretion that has a strong scent. In southern Africa this family consists of the honey badger, the striped polecat, the striped weasels and two species of otters, namely the spotted-necked otter and the Cape clawless otter. In the Singita Kruger Concession the dominant mustelid is the honey badger. Cape clawless otters are seen on very rare occasions in the N’wanetsi and Sweni Rivers (although usually the only sign of them in the area are the strangely-shaped footprints on the muddy banks of the rivers). Striped polecats (also known as zorillas) could possibly also occur in the area but have not yet been seen on the concession.
These creatures are also known as ratels, which is an Afrikaans onomatopoeic name describing the sounds that they make particularly when annoyed (it sounds like a rattle). Honey badgers are stout-bodied and are boldly coloured with black undersides, grey on the back and on the top of the head and a white band between the two. This contrasting colouration serves as a warning signal to any creature that may be foolish enough to mess with it. Honey Badgers are extremely tough, tenacious animals that have big attitudes and much in the way of self-defence. They are so tough that the South African Defence Force even named one of the armoured vehicles after it – The Ratel. Honey Badgers are so tough that even lions tend to avoid them!
These creatures have sharp teeth (similar to that of a dog), thick skin that tends to be loose around the body so that if another predator does get hold of them they can turn around and still fight back, long claws (like those of a wolverine) that are strong enough to break open termite heaps and open up tree trunks to get to hidden bees nests and anal glands that can excrete a nasty, noxious scent to deter any enemies (this secretion is even said to cause bees to become drowsy, allowing the badgers to raid the hives to get to the honey and bee larvae). On top of that they have an attitude that rivals that of a pit-bull. There are many stories of honey badgers confronting lions and even stealing from the carcasses that lions were feeding on, driving the lions away with their fierce attitude. There is even a story of a honey badger that confronted and killed a belligerent Cape Buffalo bull by biting off its testicles and leaving it to die from blood-loss and shock.
Honey badgers are medium to small carnivores with a shoulder height of 23 to 28 cm and a mass of up to 14.5 kilograms.
They feed on a wide range of prey items including insects, insect larvae, small invertebrates such as scorpions and spiders, birds, rodents, lizards and other reptiles including highly venomous snakes such as cobras and mambas. Danielle Drabeck, a University of Minnesota grad student, studied the honey badger’s seeming immunity to snake-bite venom and found that the badgers had genetic mutations in the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors that protect against snake venom (particularly against neurotoxic venoms that affect the breathing mechanisms of mammals). Bee stings also seem to have a reduced effect on the badger’s system.
Honey badgers are usually seen wandering around the bush either alone, or in small groups where a female may be seen in the company of her offspring. They tend to be nocturnal in habits, although we do see more of them on cold winter days, when they spend more time foraging during daylight hours and when the grass is shorter allowing for better visibility. They can become a bit of a problem in camps where they tend to raid bins and rubbish cages.
Honey badgers are known to have a symbiotic relationship with a bird called a “honey-guide”. The Honey-guide, when it has found a bee hive, will look for a creature such as a honey-badger or human and guide them to the bees nest by giving a distinctive chittering call and flying to and fro from the “assistant” directing them to where the bees are. The honey-guide is unable to open up the tree-trunk or hollow in which the bees are living and therefore relies on the badger or human to do that for them. After the badger or person has finished getting the honey-comb the honey-guide is then able to get the scraps that are left over (particularly the bee larvae, which they feed on). The San people have a customary warning that states that if a person follows the honey-guide and does not leave any scraps for the bird the next time it will lead them to a lion or black mamba.
Cape clawless otters (Aonyx capensis) are very seldom seen in the concession. They are fairly large, long animals with a shoulder height of 20 to 30 cm and a weight of up to 20 kilograms. They are generally brown in colour with white on the belly, throat and sides of the face. The fur is sleek in order to reduce resistance in the water. The Cape clawless otter has a fairly long tail and very dextrous hands and fingers (with short nail-like claws). They are generally active at dusk and dawn and can be seen swimming in rivers looking for fish, frogs, mussels and crabs. They can tolerate reasonably muddy waters, using their hands and fingers to find prey. Otters tend to avoid waters with large numbers of crocodiles or other large aquatic predators, or rivers where the current is too strong. They can also be found along the coast swimming in the sea close to the shore or in the tidal pools. They are usually seen singly or in pairs (although a female can be found with two to three young with her). Otters have been seen to steal fish from crocodiles by biting their tails, forcing the reptiles to drop their prey as they try and turn to defend themselves. The otters are quick enough to avoid the teeth of the crocodiles and sneak around to grab the fallen fish and quickly race away. This can be a very dangerous game to play!