February has turned out to be a month of stark contrasts. Those visiting at the beginning of the month were met with desert colours, dry riverbeds and dust. Those who visited us at the end of the month were lucky enough to witness the N’wanetsi River as it began to flow again, cutting the deepening green of the new growth with the shimmer of mercury silver. It is quite extraordinary to see how quickly the bush changes once even the smallest bit of rain falls, let alone after heavy, long-lasting downpours. What was brown, red and dry, is now green, blue and growing.
This year, February will go down as the month in which the most rapid and drastic changes occurred in regards to the overall interlinked and intertwined system that is the N’wanetsi Concession, in the Greater Kruger National Park. With the rains came the insects, the wetland birds, the increase of standing water, the dispersal of game and immeasurable beauty.
The massive concentrations of game that we had around the Weir, Puff Adder Pools and Gudzane Dam at the beginning of the month are no more. Although abundant water can make game viewing slightly more complicated at times as animals disperse, the rains have brought welcome relief to the vegetation that was put under so much pressure due to the high density of game around select pools of water. Now the recovery can begin.
Buffaloes: We are pleased to report that it has been easier to find buffaloes this month than last. There was even one sighting of a herd of more than forty individuals at the weir. It is fantastic to see more of these large herbivores around as it means that large prides of lions might be in pursuit of them.
There is also a herd of approximately 15 male buffaloes and one female that turn up fairly regularly in the southern portions of the concession. We have also been seeing single buffalo bulls, or ‘dagga boys’ as they are very respectfully called.
At the time of writing, there were 24 buffalo sightings throughout the month. The February rains were heaviest on the East of the Kruger Park, and as the grass begins to grow more on our concession than in the western regions, we hope the large herds of buffaloes will come our way.
We have already seen the beginnings of this trend, and the excitement is palpable amongst guests and guides alike.
Elephants: February’s schtozphentic change from dry to wet has been mirrored by the elephant viewing, with elephants on every corner at the start of the month, then much more dispersed towards the middle of the month, and then once again returning for the growing green grass as we approached March. Before the rains came, the lack of standing water anywhere else in the area, besides the N’wanetsi River and Gudzane Dam, meant that there were quite literally hundreds of elephants gathered at these points. The sights and sounds of these spectacles were quite something to behold, and will be remembered by those who were there, for many years to come.
Rain is perhaps the greatest of all the many blessings that are bestowed upon us by the bush, and there was much rejoicing when it fell. There was a downside to this, however, as it brought the end of the large concentrations of game around the water. Water was everywhere, and the elephants were free to move wherever they wanted in search of food without being shackled by the need to return to the same water source a few times each day. When this happens, they tend to decimate the vegetation near the water, but now that they can move further away, they can access food sources that have been left untouched for months. The herds are now widespread, making viewing somewhat more sporadic.
This development, coupled with the new growth that is coursing through the bush at the moment, means that the elephants of the Kruger National Park will soon have vital nourishment flowing through their viens.
The end of February meant the return of the elephants. This time they gathered on the N’wanetsi Concession for the lush green grass, rather than in a desperate search for water. It always amazes us how the wheel turns.
Spotted Hyenas: As spotted hyenas are by and large creatures of the night, unless there is a regularly visited den or a kill, they are only sighted by pure chance. We are lucky in that sense that we do come across them often enough for most guests to leave saying that they have seen one of these mysterious beasts.
We have had a few sightings of leopards with hoisted kills in trees, which are wonderful opportunities for hyena viewing. In fact, approximately 50% of a hyena’s diet is sourced from scavenged food. They generally wait patiently below these treed carcasses for scraps to fall or for the leopard to drop the prey. This is a very clever strategy as the hyena is using almost zero energy while it waits, but stands the chance to reap a rich reward should the kill fall.
The Xinkelegane Den is still the most reliable place to find hyenas, with as many as seven individuals seen there on some occasions. It will be interesting to see if the clan chooses to remain there after these heavy rains, as the den is not elevated above the ground, and may be prone to flooding.
Lions: As always, we had great lion viewing with over 76 sightings recorded over the last month. Lions were seen almost every day, with the exception being on days where torrential rain prevented us from driving off road to track these big cats.
On the morning of the 5th Margaux and Jacques Louw (Concession Manager) set off on a routine patrol when they noticed lots of hyena tracks going up and down Park Road. This sign indicated that there must be a kill in the area, and shortly after the discovery of hyena tracks, the prominent pug marks of lion were seen, leading them to the Shish Pride that had killed a giraffe right next to the road. The pride was feasting on their kill, providing brilliant photographic opportunities to all guests in camp. This carcass also attracted numerous vultures, including the super rare Egyptian vulture.
The remaining three Shish males are still doing well considering the fact that the strongest coalition member, the one-eyed male is not around anymore to help defend the territory against intruding males. The younger brothers still engage in serious territorial patrols and scent marking expeditions, often taking them to the West of the Concession into the main Kruger National Park. The older brother with the injured hip was seen more frequently, either on his own or with the Mountain Pride. Most likely, because of his injury, he can’t keep up with his brothers when they set off on patrol, and by staying with the Mountain Pride he can seize his fair share of any meals that the females might bring down.
The Mountain Pride were mostly seen around Gudzane Dam. Before the rains came, this was the only water source for many miles, forcing the herds of wildebeest, zebra and impala to come down to quench their thirst. This was where Henry found them one morning where they had set up the perfect ambush point between the sedges. The wind direction and angle of the sun was in their favour, but unfortunately a lone helmeted guineafowl had wandered too close to the thicket where the lions had positioned themselves, and after waiting patiently for more than an hour for the prey to come within striking range, the bird sounded the alarm, causing the herds to scatter in all directions. The lions went hungry that day.
The Northern Pride was also seen in the north, around Gudzane-North, Quelea-nest Junction. This pride is seldom seen as it is quite a drive to get to the northern sections of the property. One male, three lionesses and seven youngsters were seen on the morning of 10 February where they were enjoying a siesta under a big knob-thorn tree.
The Xhirombe Pride were also seen on a few occasions. The young female has not been seen for many months, but the young male and his mother were seen primarily around Croc View and even at the Singita Boom Gate.
Cheetahs: On the 13th of February, Jacques set off with the tracking team when he managed to find the Shish Pride. As he was the first vehicle there, he decided to stay with the pride until the first safari vehicle arrived. Whilst he was waiting he heard impalas alarm-calling close by, and as soon as the first guides arrived he went to investigate. As he came around the corner, the white belly fur of an impala caught his attention, and upon further inspection he realised a female cheetah was lying next to her freshly killed prey. The cheetah was still panting heavily, trying to recover from the chase.
As cheetahs are very rare and seldom seen, Solomon quickly responded to the sighting, as did Sean. Here they sat and watched as the cheetah, once she had caught her breath, started to feed on her kill. A vulture arrived on the scene, followed by another, and another. In a matter of minutes, several vultures started to descend to the ground. The cheetah tried to chase them away, but there were too many vultures surrounding her. The vultures’ strength in numbers allowed them to overpower the cheetah and steal its hard-earned impala kill. Another portion of the Shish Pride, that had not been found yet but must have been fairly nearby, noticed the vultures descending and decided to inspect the scene. The lions came rushing in when they realised that there might be a free meal in the area. The poor cheetah had to run away from the bigger predators. Fortunately, she managed to escape with her life, and she was found again in the afternoon, constantly keeping a watchful eye on any lions that might come back into the area.
The biggest highlight however was finding a female cheetah with four cubs. Solomon found her on the morning of the 25th, close to Rhino Skull, where she was walking around with her youngsters following closely behind. The small family have since been found on at least three different occasions.
Leopards: In contrast to last year February during which time we only recorded nine leopard sightings, we had 31 sightings of leopards for this month! This is most likely due to the fact that up until mid-February the vegetation was quite sparse and the bush was very dry, making it a little easier to see and track these elusive cats.
The biggest star of the show had to be the Young Dumbana Male. He was seen on at least ten occasions.
On the afternoon of the 3rd, Collen and Given sighted the youngster around the Sticky Thorn Thickets, where he was busy harassing two honey badgers. Honey badgers are notoriously feisty mammals, and these masters of mayhem have even been known to attack and injure lions, so it was quite a sight to see the young inexperienced leopard learning about the potential dangers of confronting the badgers. Fortunately, both leopard and badgers came away from the encounter unscathed.
The same youngster was also found on three separate occasions where he managed to kill an impala and defend his kill against spotted hyenas. JP and Sean witnessed the rosetted cat lunge itself at the hyena who was sent running with its tail between its legs. This is quite a feat as he is still a young and inexperienced animal.
An unknown leopard started to make his appearance around the southern section of the concession. He was first seen close to Border/Sisal Line junction where he had killed an impala and dragged it up into a Marula tree. This made for great photographic opportunities over several days.
On the afternoon of the 8th, several guides were following the Shish Pride around Fig-in-the-Lead when the lions inadvertently flushed a leopard that was resting in the thickets. Fortunately, he managed to sneak off unnoticed before crossing the dry Nwanetsi riverbed and disappearing over the rhyolite ridges towards Ndlovu lookout.