The clouds have started to build in the skies this last month. The bush has been very dry and there are only a few pools in the N’wanetsi River. We have had quite a few blistering hot days and on these days the general game has been accumulating along the river, in the late mornings and in the afternoons, close to the last standing water. As the animals have gathered closer to the water this has attracted the predators, in particular the lions, and we have had some awesome sightings of them this last month. Some of the trees are starting to bud and form leaves, but the visibility has still been good. The grass is still golden in colour and has been crushed or eaten in quite a few areas, although the basalt grasslands still have a thick grass layer.
Many of the migrant birds have returned and the swallows have been seen hawking insects over the plains again. Towards the end of the month we heard the distinctive call of the woodland kingfisher, a signal that summer is here.
The red-chested cuckoos have also been giving their loud “Piet-my-Vrou” calls from the tall trees on the banks of the N’wanetsi River and the pair of Wahlberg’s eagles that nest every year north of Singita Lebombo Lodge are back again. The impalas have started giving birth to their babies. They are very cute and are all legs and ears. A few minutes after birth they can already stand and follow their mothers. By next month all the rest of the pregnant ewes will have dropped their young and the baby impalas will be gathered in crèches – a beautiful sight. A few drops of rain fell earlier on in the month, although it sank straight into the ground and did not raise the water levels in the river pools at all. It did, however, cause a few bulbs to push up flowers and we were delighted to see a few bright crimson fireball lilies and ground lilies, as well as a few beautiful bright white spider / moon lilies.
As the ponds have reduced in size there has been a large concentration of crocodiles at these last drinking spots. At Dumbana there are at least forty crocodiles in a water body barely bigger than a suburban swimming pool. It has made it quite hazardous for the animals to come and drink and the game has had to be quite vigilant for the presence of predators both in the water and in the bush surrounding it. The rains will soon arrive and the bushveld will go through a radical transformation. There has been a buzz in the air as summer approaches. The veld needs the life-giving rain and all the animals and plants have been waiting in anticipation… and finally, right at the end of the month, the lightning flashed in the sky and the thunder rumbled as the heavens opened up and the rain poured down and, briefly, the roads turned into rivers.
Although the buffalos were absent from the concession during the first half of the month, the second half certainly made up for it and we had some great sightings of these huge bovids. There has been a herd of between 200 and 300 individuals that have been coming on to the concession to drink at the last remaining pools in the N’wanetsi River, before returning back to the basalt grasslands of the west. Unfortunately for them the lions have been quite active in the concession and each time the buffalos come in there has been a good chance that the lions could attempt to kill one of them. The buffalos have been constantly on the move, in and out of the concession on an almost daily basis. We have also been seeing two smaller herds – one of these herds (of approximately twenty individuals) has been moving around in the hills in the central-northern part of the area, while the other herd (of approximately 15 individuals) has been seen in the area near the Granophyre Ridge. This small herd has been coming down to drink at the river to the east of camp. One morning, however, they made the mistake of coming to drink at Dumbana Pool and on the way back from the water they encountered two of the dominant male lions in the area. This left the herd with one less cow.
Elephant sightings have been fantastic again this last month. Due to the lack of water in the area we have seen numerous of these amazing animals coming down to the last pools to drink and bathe. It has been surprising how many of the herds that we have been seeing have tiny calves that are obviously only a few days old. They are extremely cute as babies, wobbling along, trying to figure out how to get all four legs moving at the same time. When they are still very young they also have to learn how to use their trunks. Initially, it seems, that they see it as an attached toy that they swing around all over the place. They do not seem to have any control over it. For at least the first six months they are unable to suck water into their trunks and then put it in their mouths to drink. When they come to drink water at the pools they have to put their mouths directly into the water. One morning we had an incredible sighting of a baby elephant at Puff Adder Pool. It was obviously the first time that the calf had been to water and, as it arrived there, it immediately lay down in the water with its head almost totally submerged. Fortunately, the mother was close at hand and quickly lifted the baby’s head up with her trunk and feet so that it did not drown. It was a hot morning and as the rest of the herd finished drinking and bathing and started to move off the mother had to cajole the youngster into leaving the cool water. It was having such a good time there and just did not want to leave and head back into the heat again.
At the end of the first week of November we had an incredible sighting once again. The Shish Pride were camping out by Dumbana Pool hoping to catch some unfortunate wildebeest or antelope when a herd of elephants came down to the river to drink. There were some young calves in the herd and the adults were not interested in having lions near the herd. The females all gathered together and charged at the lions, who made a hasty retreat from the annoyed elephants.
Since it has been very dry there is no green grass and the elephants are still knocking over lots of trees in order to get moisture and nutrients from the roots. There are broken trees all over the concession. As soon as the green grass appears the elephants will turn to feeding on that rather, as they tend to prefer the taste of fresh green grass as opposed to the roots, leaves and branches of trees.
The hyena den at the Granophyre ridge has been active this month and we have had almost daily sightings of the clan there. The den of the Nyokene Clan (named after a valley where they had a previous den) is in a particularly picturesque location. It is at the northern end of the ridge, where there are a few fallen boulders with “caves” underneath that the hyenas are using as a den to hide their cubs. All over the ridge there are large succulent candelabra trees and some of the rocks in the area are shaped like pillars or like Obelix’s menhirs!
If one arrives at the den-site early in the morning, before it starts to get hot, it is possible to see a few of the adult females lying around outside the den with the youngsters chasing each other around or suckling. The young hyenas here are completely used to the vehicles and will often walk right up to the car with a curious expression on their faces as they come to inspect the strange visitor to their home. On a few occasions this last month we have seen more than twelve hyenas at the den-site.
We are well-known for great lion viewing and this month was no exception! All in all, we had of total of 84 recorded sightings of these powerful cats in November. At least a quarter of these sightings were of the Mountain Pride. This territory of this pride falls almost entirely within the concession borders and they are the go-to pride when we are looking for lions as we are almost certain that they will be somewhere in the area.
At the beginning of the month this pride consisted of three adult lionesses, one sub-adult lioness, three older cubs and three young cubs. One of the large Shish Males is often seen with this pride. Towards the end of the month we were only seeing two of the younger cubs. We will have to check next month to see how many of the smaller cubs are still around. Unfortunately, lion cubs have an extremely high mortality rate and we are not expecting all of the cubs to survive to adulthood.
The Shish Pride is probably the most famous pride of lions in the area. This is partly due to the fact that one of the sub-adult males in the pride is leucistic (a white lion) and partly due to the fact that this pride was extremely large. Over the last three years we have seen the numbers of lions in the pride dropping from over 30 individuals to 12, as the pride split into two separate groups and some of the sub-adults were killed by other lions.
We have had some incredible sightings of the Shish Pride (short for Shishangaan Pride) this last month. Unfortunately, much of the territory of this pride lies outside of the concession and therefore these lions can disappear for quite a few days at a time.
A few years back this pride split into two groups, one of which headed to the west of the concession and we do not see them anymore. A few of the young lions in this pride have been killed during the last few years by other lions, as was at least one adult lioness.
At the beginning of the month the pride had split up again and we were seeing a group of eight and a group of three (including the white lion). Another single lioness was seen keeping company with a foreign male (one of the Kumana Males). By the end of the month all 12 were together again.
Towards the end of the month the Shish Pride managed to kill a zebra near the Granophyre Ridge. This kill took place very close to the hyena den and it was not long before the hyenas started gathering. They immediately ganged up against one of the lionesses and there was lots of growling, whooping and giggling. All this noise attracted the attention of two foreign males (the Kumana Males) who were not far away from where the kill took place. The Shish Pride quickly managed to chase away most of the hyenas and the cacophony of sounds died away. The two big males struggled to figure out exactly where the noise had come from and the Shish Pride managed to finish off the kill before the two male lions arrived and chased the pride northwards.
One morning a lone Shish lioness was found walking along the banks of the N’wanetsi River in a northerly direction towards where the rest of the pride had been seen earlier. On the way there she managed to bump into a baby impala who she quickly killed and devoured. She then carried on walking and as she was approaching one of the remaining pools in the river she once again started stalking. She disappeared out of view and the next thing numerous impalas, kudus and wildebeest came running from the area where she had gone. The lioness did not reappear from the bushes and so one of the vehicles went in to see where she had disappeared. Suddenly, right in front of them, they came across the lioness on the back of a wildebeest. She dragged the wildebeest down right in front of the car. It is amazing that a single lioness (probably weighing less than 100 kg) can pull down an adult, pregnant, female wildebeest (probably weighing approximately 200 kg). She then proceeded to drag the carcass into the shade of a fever tree, where she rested before starting to feed. During the night the rest of the Shish Pride came to join her and feed off the carcass.
The two members of the Xhirombe Pride have also been seen a few times this month. They have been seen mainly in the area of the Poort and along the Mozambique Fenceline. The lioness is getting visibly old now and we are not sure how much longer she will be around.
The Shish Males have also been seen a few times this last month. We tend to see one of these males (Xihamham) more than the other two as he likes to keep company with the Mountain Pride. Unfortunately for them he also appropriates any kill that they might make for themselves. On the 21st he was seen feeding on a zebra that the Mountain Pride lionesses had killed during the night. This happens fairly regularly and the lionesses therefore have to work twice as hard to feed themselves and the cubs.
The other two Shish Males were seen with Xihamham, towards the middle of the month. Lying in the Depression in the central area of the concession. A few days later the two males were seen resting in the open area north of Puff Adder Pool. Later on in the morning a small herd of buffalos came down to the river to drink and on their way from the river they were seen by the two Shish Males, who immediately started following them. The buffalos then headed north for quite a while, unaware that the lions were hot on their trail. The buffalos decided to rest in the shade of a tree when the lions launch their attack. One of the males leapt onto the back of a buffalo, but was thrown off. One of the cows, hearing the distress call of the other buffalo, came back and charged at the lions. Unfortunately for her she then managed to isolate herself from the other buffalos. It was just a matter of time. She tried to charge at the lions and they evaded her sharp horns, but at one point while she was facing one of the lions the other attacked from behind. As soon as he had a good grip on her rump the other male went for her throat. The one on her rump then grabbed the cow by the leg and she collapsed. It did not take long for the two males to kill her.
On 10 November an unknown male lion was seen in the company of one of the Shish lionesses, lying on the western bank of the N’wanetsi River just north of the camp. They were possibly mating. As the day got warmer and warmer quite a few animals, including impalas, kudus and zebras, came down to drink. The lioness was obviously hungry and started stalking towards the zebras. The male, however, was not patient enough and made a rush for the zebras. They saw him coming and made good their escape. The next day we found two other unknown males in the area. After sending the photos of these lions to other Kruger lion enthusiasts we were told that they are lions known as the Kumana Males. The Kumana Males are a coalition of three male lions that were dominant in the area around Kumana Dam (approximately 28 km / 17,4 miles away as the crow flies). We were also told that, prior to establishing a territory around Kumana Dam, they were previously known as the Hilda’s Rock / Skukuza Males and that they were raised by the Hilda’s Rock lionesses in the Lion Sands Concession (approximately 70 km / 43,5 miles from us in a straight line).
This last month we had a total of seven recorded sightings of cheetahs. Most of these sightings have been of an adult female cheetah and her three youngsters. These cheetahs are very relaxed with the vehicles and make for fantastic viewing.
One afternoon they were seen resting in shade of a vachellia tree in the northern parts of the concession. As the sweltering heat of the afternoon started dissipating the cheetahs started to get active. The youngsters were running around chasing each other when they disturbed a scrub hare in the grass. As the hare was running away one of the youngsters chased it and managed to catch it. Immediately the mother usurped the kill and ate it herself, before continuing in a westerly direction with the youngsters grumpily in tow behind her.
Right at the end of the first week of November we saw a single cheetah, at a distance, lying in the shade of a tree in the grasslands along the H6 public road, and towards the end of the month we had a brief visual of two shy, young male cheetahs in the middle of the concession. These cats were obviously not used to seeing cars and ran away immediately into the hills.
We have had 18 recorded sightings of these magnificent cats this November. In the first week of the month we had at least four sightings of the Dumbana Male. This cat is possibly the most relaxed leopard in the concession at the moment. He has grown used to the vehicles as we have been watching him since he was a tiny cub. Most of the other leopards in the concession are quite shy of vehicles. This is largely due to the topography of the area. Whenever we see “new” leopards they immediately head towards the hills and the cliffs where they quickly evade the cars and thus do not get used to their presence. Unfortunately, the Dumbana Male is already at the age where he needs to move away from his mom’s territory. He will, very likely, be leaving the area soon. This will be a challenging time for him, as wherever he goes there will already be a mature male there who will chase him away and fight him. No territorial male will tolerate a new foreign male in the area that he fought so hard to keep and control. It will be a few years before the Dumbana Male will have built up enough muscle and strength to challenge a dominant male and take a territory of his own. Up until then he will have to avoid all the males and just survive until he is big enough to be able to compete with the other males.
At the end of the first week of November we found a young male leopard up in a tree with an impala kill on the western boundary of the concession (the S41 public road). He was there for a few days, feeding on the carcass. A few hyenas were seen gathered at the base of the tree hoping for scraps to fall down.
Towards the middle of the month we found a mating pair of leopards moving along the N’wanetsi River and along the top of the cliffs. The female was quite shy of cars, while the male was fairly relaxed. We believe that the female was possibly the Xikhova Female (whose cub is growing up very quickly now) and that the male was possibly the N’wanetsi Male. Unfortunately, as soon as the pair saw the vehicles the female would move towards the cliffs and the male would follow quite close behind her. A few of the guests got to see these leopards mating, but mainly from a distance away. One evening the mating pair had been found on top of the cliffs at Ndlovu Road. They seemed more relaxed than they had been the previous few days and the guests were able to get fairly good views of them. Mating leopards are fairly noisy, growling as they mate and this sound attracted the attention of five spotted hyenas that had been following them. The sun had by now set in the west and the pair of leopards, who had been slowly moving towards the edge of the cliffs, had just finished a session of copulation when the hyenas stormed towards the male leopard (the female had already found a path down the cliffs). The big tom snarled and swiped at the hyenas that were busy attacking him, but there were too many of them and he was obviously outnumbered. Realising that he was trapped, the male leopard took a final swipe at the nearest hyena and then somersaulted backwards through some branches and over the cliff. We were quite worried that he could have been injured in the fall, but the next morning when the trackers went to check out the area below the cliffs they found the tracks of the pair of leopards moving north along the edge of the N’wanetsi River. It seems that he was fine.
Later on in the month we found the Xikhova Female and her youngster feeding on an impala that they had killed near the big bend in the N’wanetsi River opposite the area known as Ostrich Fly Camp. Just the day before this Margaux and her guests had gone on a nature-walk near the confluence of the N’wanetsi and Sweni Rivers and had found a big male leopard that was busy drinking. He casually walked away as soon as he saw that he had spectators. This was possibly the N’wanetsi Male that had recently finished his shenanigans with the Xikhova leopardess.
A few days later we found the young Xikhova Male on the ridge near Xikhova Road (after which his mom was named – Xhikova is the Shangaan word meaning a drainage-line or dry gulley). As he was moving up and over the rocks on the ridge the young male leopard came across a baby impala hiding in the bushes, which he immediately pounced upon and killed.
On the morning of the big storm the guides found a leopardess hunting impalas below the cliffs near Xinkwenyana Crossing. She was, however, unsuccessful with her hunting.
Other interesting news
“As difficult as they can be to find in the wild, leopards’ legendary adaptability has fostered a belief that they are widespread both inside and outside of protected areas. As a result, the species has received little conservation attention to date but loss of habitat and prey, coupled with high levels of illegal demand for skins, is threatening the species’ existence. Panthera (https://www.panthera.org/) has, in recent years, run camera trap surveys to determine leopard density across the species’ range in South Africa. Data from this work suggest that leopard numbers are declining in South Africa by up to 8% per year. To gain a clearer understanding of behaviour and population dynamics in leopards not exposed to human persecution, Singita partnered with Panthera last year to run a camera trap survey on Singita’s private Sabi Sand concession. Following the success of this project and concerns raised about poaching threats to Kruger National Park’s leopards, driven primarily by the illegal skin trade, Singita and Panthera, in partnership with the University of Cape Town, has run four more surveys this year in Kruger, including in Singita’s Lebombo Concession”. Lucy Smyth
Lucy Smyth, a researcher for Panthera, recently came to SKNP and set up approximately 40 camera stations across the concession. You can read more about this project at https://singita.com/tag/panthera/. It was great having you here Lucy. Best of luck with your research. Other than photos of leopards (which she was quite successful in getting) the cameras also got quite a few pics of some of the more rare and elusive nocturnal creatures. Here are some of these photos taken over the last two months (shown with permission from Lucy Smyth).