Singita Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park | September 2018

September has been an incredible month here at Singita Kruger Park. Spring has arrived and the temperatures have started to soar again. One day we recorded a maximum temperature of 41 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit). The mornings have been mild and we are generally still wearing fleeces for the first hour of the drive, but then as the sun rises and it gets hotter and hotter we have had to peel off
the various layers of clothing. The bush is still looking very dry and most of the trees are still bare. However, some trees, such as the long-tailed cassia (Cassia abbreviata), the weeping boerbean (Schotia brachypetala), the knob-thorn (Senegalia nigrescens) and the sneezewood (Ptaeroxylon obliquum) have been in full bloom and have been attracting lots of insects and birds. The weeping boerbean and the flame creeper (Combretum microphyllum), in particular, produce lots of nectar and have been attracting a lot of avian visitors.

The grass is still golden in colour and we are only expecting it to green up once the rains arrive.

We are very fortunate that we still have thick swathes of grass in the concession, which has been providing good grazing for the animals. There is very little water left and the pans up in the hills have long been desiccated. There are still a few pools in the N’wanetsi riverbed and these have been attracting a lot of general game, particularly late in the morning and in the early afternoons. The water in these pools has been drying up and as they have gotten smaller and smaller the fish have been trapped there and have made it easier for the piscivorous birds to catch them. We have therefore had a few sightings of accumulations of storks at some of these pools as they feast on the fish. With the arrival of spring quite a few of the migrant birds (predominantly the intra-African migrants) have started to arrive back in the area. We have already had sightings of Klaas’ cuckoo, yellow-billed kite and even the pair of Wahlberg’s eagles that usually nest near the N’wanetsi River to the north of the camp have returned. This pair of eagles is quite unusual because it consists of one dark brown bird and one white bird (a rarer colour form of this species). We always look forward to their return as it heralds the changing of the seasons. We have also noticed a slight increase in the numbers of invertebrates and reptiles, and we’ve spotted a few scorpions hunting on the roads after dark. Fortunately, we do not see these creatures in the rooms or on the boardwalks. All in all, we have had some incredible sightings this last month. Some of these sightings and individual species are detailed in the report below:

Buffalos: We have been very fortunate with buffalo sightings this last month. Buffalos are considered to be bulk grazers and require a fair amount of grass to eat (they are big animals – large bulls can weigh up to 800 kg). Buffalos can occur in large herds, even up to a thousand individuals, and therefore do require large stands of grassland in which to live. Grazing animals are usually water-dependant and require fresh water to drink on an almost daily basis. Since we still have thick stands of grass in the concession this has allowed herds of buffalos to remain throughout the winter months. The water that has remained in the pools of the river have attracted these animals into the concession and we have had regular sightings this last month of a herd of at least two hundred individuals and another herd of approximately 30 animals. We have also had a few sightings of the Shish Pride of lions attempting to hunt these big bovids, which are this pride’s favourite prey species. On the 1st of September, after a few days of unsuccessful attempts, the Shish Pride managed to kill a large bull. Towards the end of the month one of our guides witnessed the herd of buffalos returning to the area, where a few bulls and cows came right up to the place where the bull had been killed and stood there silently for a while, as if they were paying their respects to a departed friend.

Elephants: A high number of elephant sightings have been recorded for the past month, the majority of these have been of breeding herds that were found feeding or moving towards the rivers where they were enjoying a drink or a swim. With the increase in summer temperatures, and with the only remaining water being around the fast drying pools of the N’wanetsi and Sweni rivers, the pressure on the last pools is increased by the thousands of animals and birds that rely on it to quench their thirst. Many of the pools are turning green with algae, and the massive crocodiles are lying in ambush ready to leap out at any suspecting prey animal that might not be cautious and alert enough when they come down for a drink. The evaporation of the water, has already caused vast sections of the river to turn into dry sandy patches, and to the untrained eye it might appear that there is very little water available for the animals to drink.

Enter the biggest land mammal on the planet: the African Elephant. Elephants are known to have a very keen sense of smell, reportedly even greater than that of dogs, and it is this superpower of theirs that enables them to detect ground water that is found deeper underneath the surface of the earth. With their trunks they meticulously smell out the underlying water, before using their massive front feet and legs to dig deep holes through which the clean water can syphon. The trunk is then used to suck up the fresh clean water to drink. Occasionally they will even spray some of the excess water and wet sand over their massive bodies to help them regulate their body temperature.

Many other species will benefit from this behaviour, and often zebra and impala will come to these holes after the elephants have left. Earlier this month, a young male leopard was found in close proximity to where the elephants were digging in the riverbed. We watched as he sat on the Rhyolite ridges, staring down at the grey giants as they were drinking from a freshly dug hole. After they had left, he cautiously snuck past the massive pachyderms, before disappearing into the hole with only the white of his tail being visible as he was lapping away at the fresh clean water, proving once again the importance that elephants play in the ecosystem.

Spotted hyenas: Spotted hyenas are seen regularly in the Singita Kruger concession These are quite incredible, often misunderstood,
creatures. They are often associated with death and there are, therefore, quite a few superstitions about these animals amongst the local people. In African myths and stories spotted yyenas (also sometimes called Laughing Hyenas because of the hysterical giggling sound
they make when they are excited) are often creatures that are chosen by witch-doctors as “familiars”. It is even said that certain bad / evil magicians are able to change their form into that of a hyena so that they can travel long distances at night without being noticed. Spotted hyenas have incredible stamina and can travel long distances without tiring. In our concession we have at least four different clans. Two of these clans have had active dens this last month. The Nyokeng Clan are presently utilising a cave in the Granophyre Ridge as a den. This den is very picturesque and is fairly close to camp. We have had some amazing sightings of the young cubs playing around the mouth of the den this last month. The other known active den is in the far north of the concession. Here the Nongo Clan is utilising an old aardvark burrow in the basalt grasslands. There are presently three older cubs at this den. Unfortunately, this den is quite far from the camp and usually by the time we arrive in the area, in the morning, the heat of the day has increased to the point where the youngsters have already taken shelter inside the cool burrow. In the afternoons there is not enough time to get that far north into the concession. At the end of the first week of September the Shish Pride managed to kill a big male giraffe near the western border of our concession. This carcass attracted at least six hyenas and, once the lions had finally left the kill, the hyenas cleaned up and consumed the last remains.

Lions: Singita Kruger must, in my opinion, be one of the best places in South Africa to view lions. We are very fortunate to have regular sightings of these powerful, apex predators.

The two main prides that we see in the area are the Shishangaan Pride (also known as the “Shish Pride” or the “Northern Shish Pride”- (to differentiate it from the “Southern Shish Pride / Shishangeni Pride” which is another pride of lions that live in the south-eastern part of Kruger National Park, near the public rest camp known as “Crocodile Bridge”) and the Mountain Pride.

The Shish Pride is the larger of the two main prides in the area and at the moment it consists of 14 lions, including the famous “White Lion”, which is a rare leucistic colour form (according to the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary “Leucism is an abnormal condition of reduced pigmentation affecting various animals (such as birds, mammals, and reptiles) that is marked by overall pale colour or patches of reduced colouring and is caused by a genetic mutation which inhibits melanin and other pigments from being deposited in feathers, hair, or skin”. This pride was a lot larger a few years ago, but due to the large number of individuals in the group it split up and one portion thereof moved further east and are very seldom seen in the concession now. The portion that we see has a territory that extends out of the concession and these lions are therefore not always here. We may see them for a few days and then they head out of the concession and may be gone for sometimes more than a week at a time. This pride seems to prefer hunting and feeding on buffalos and when the larger herds of buffalos are seen in the concession it gives us hope that we may find the pride following behind them.

We have had some great sightings of these cats this month. Right at the beginning of the month a large herd of buffalos was seen in the concession and the Shish Pride had followed them in. We were lucky enough to see the lions attempting to hunt them, but they were initially unsuccessful. The next day the lions got lucky and some our guides were fortunate enough to watch them isolating one of the bulls and bring it down in front of the vehicles. Watching lions, or even any other carnivore, hunting and killing is not everybody’s cup-of-tea. Prior to killing this buffalo the members of the pride were looking quite skinny and in poor condition. After feeding on the buffalo the lions lay around, with full bellies, looking quite content before heading towards the edge of the concession again. Fortunately for us, just as the lions were about to leave the area, they came across a large male giraffe that they managed to kill, right next to our western boundary. We did not witness this hunt as it occurred at night after the afternoon drive had ended, but it did mean that our guests had some more opportunities to watch this pride. In between bouts of feeding some of the individuals went down to a pool in the river to drink water and on one of these occasions they met up with a herd of elephants, which took exception to the presence of the large cats in the area and promptly chased them all around. It just once again proved that the lions are not the true “kings of the jungle”.

After finishing off the giraffe kill the Shish Pride then left the concession, following the buffalos and we only saw them again much later on in the month. We then initially found them quite close to the lodge. They started walking north along the banks of the N’wanetsi River. Three of the pride members remained behind just north of the camp, as they had obviously been involved in a fight prior to coming into the concession and had new injuries, and it seems that they were not able to keep up with the pace of the rest of the members of the pride. One of these females had a very swollen front paw and a young male had new bite wounds on his rump and inner thighs. The pride carried on heading north and we left them eventually resting in the shade of a large leadwood tree near Ostrich Fly Camp. The next morning, we found them feeding on a wildebeest near Ostrich Open Area. The previous day we had seen a wildebeest in that area that was limping badly and we assume that it was this wildebeest that the lions had killed. There were also quite a few hyenas that had been attracted to the area as well as a few jackals and lots of vultures. We watched as the lions finished off the meat and then as the scavengers came in and claimed the rest of the carcass after the lions had left. At one point a hyena had managed to pick up a discarded leg and was chased around the open area by another hyena that wanted to steal the treasure from it. It was great to watch.

We have had many good quality sightings of the Mountain Pride this last month. The territory of this pride lies 99% within the concession and the Mountain Pride are therefore the most reliable pride to look for. At present the Mountain Pride consists of three adult females, one subadult female, three older cubs and three very young cubs (just over two months old). One of the large Shish Males tends to like to follow this pride around and is often seen in their company. This has not always been a good thing for the pride as he often steals the kills that the females have made.

The pride was, however, lucky enough to kill a wildebeest early on in the month while the male was away and thus managed to consume the entire kill without it being stolen. Later in the month the male was away from them again and the pride managed to bring down another wildebeest. Unfortunately, at the moment, the three older cubs seem to be showing signs of mange on their bodies and are not looking their best. Hopefully they will recover soon. The youngest cubs are looking great and are very cute. They have started moving around the area with the adults. The females sometimes leave them hidden while they go out hunting and return to collect them when they have killed something. This month we have seen the Mountain Pride feeding on, amongst others, two wildebeest and two zebras. We have also seen them on a few occasions where their bellies were full, but we were not aware of what they had killed and eaten.

The dominant male lions in the area are known as the Shish Males. There are three of them, including the large, male that is often seen with the Mountain Pride. The other two brothers are not seen as often, and spend much of their time to the west of the concession.

The Xhirombe Pride is named after the Shangaan (the local tribe) name for the largeleafed rock fig (Ficus abutifolia) that grows on the
ridges on the eastern side of the concession. They were named after this tree because this pride moves around mainly in the hills and rocky areas close to the Mozambique border (in the same habitat that we find the fig trees growing). The Xhirombe Pride presently consists of only two members – a male who is now reaching adulthood – and his mother. We are not sure where the younger female (the sister of the male) disappeared to and we have not seen her for many months now. We have not seen the Xhirombe Pride much this month, but on the morning of the 19th the mother and son were seen near the camp, quite close to where we had located the Shish Pride.

At the beginning of the second week of the month we located eleven lions in the far north of the concession. After much discussion amongst the guides we concluded that this was the “Northern Pride”. We do not often see this pride, as the major portion of their territory lies outside of the concession. They do on rare occasions come south and enter our area in the far north. These lions, in the past, have tended to be quite shy of the vehicles and have run away as soon as they have seen the cars. There is one lioness in this pride that is easily recognisable from the big scars on her face. When we found the eleven lions this female was not with them and because they did not seem too concerned with the vehicles we were initially confused as to which lions they were. Two days later we found them again in the grasslands of the far north. They were trying to hunt zebras, but were unsuccessful.

This last month we have had a few sightings of unknown lions in the concession. Most of these lions have been fairly skittish of the cars. Early one morning we could hear lots of roaring coming from the area in front of the lodge. Soon after the guides had headed out on drive they located some unknown lions quite close to the camp. These lions were running south, out of the concession and were being closely followed by both the two Xhirombes and the Shish Pride. It appeared that there was going to be a big fight if they all caught up with each other. Unfortunately, we were not able to witness this conflict as they headed south, out of the concession, where we could not follow them.

Cheetahs: We have been very fortunate this month to have a female cheetah and her three youngsters on the concession. They have mainly been seen in the short-grass areas of the Central Depression, the open area in the north known as Cassia Open Area and lying up on the mounds of sand at Sticky Thorn Quarry. We have seen the mother chasing impalas on a few occasions, without success, but have also found them with full bellies. The youngsters are great to watch as they often play with each other and chase each other around while mom looks on, more on potential meals or other dangerous carnivores that could be a danger to her or her brood.

Leopards: We have had an amazing month of leopard viewing this September. The majority of these sightings have been of the young Dumbana male. On one afternoon, he was found near Xingwenyana Crossing where it was soon discovered that he had hidden a carcass of a young kudu. The following morning some of the guides and trackers decided to follow up on the last position of his quarry, but once there it was soon realised from looking at the surrounding tracks that two spotted hyenas had come in during the night to steal the young leopards’ kill. From the tracks, it was determined that the leopard had fled up towards the Rhyolite cliffs to get away from the marauding hyenas. Some of the trackers set off to follow his spoor (tracks), and after trailing the animal for a considerable distance they soon became aware that another bigger leopard tom was also on the youngster’s trail. (Leopards are fiercely territorial, and especially big males will not tolerate any intruders.) Cautiously the trackers continued, fully aware that potentially two of these big cats were in the area. Their pursuit soon paid off, as both males were found in close proximity to each other.

The bigger male was found walking away confidently towards Dave’s Crossing, where he stopped to have a drink before continuing towards the Lebombo ridges. There he surprised guides and guests alike, as he managed to startle a small herd of impala, before leaping up into the air to catch an unsuspecting victim.

The young Dumbana male was also found. It appears that he managed to slip away before the bigger male caught up to him. This was potentially another important life lesson learnt about competition with future rival males that he will one day have to either avoid or take on in order to ensure his own survival and that of his potential offspring.

Towards the beginning of the month, a firm favourite but seldom seen leopardess the Mhlangulene female had made a surprise appearance after many months of not being found. She tends to spend most of her time towards the north-eastern part of the concession, where she will sometimes also venture into Mozambique. What was even more special about sighting this green-eyed beauty, was the fact that she had a special surprise to share: two precious little cubs!

Read the full wildlife report here: Singita Kruger National Park Wildlife Journal September 2018