In the final month of 2018, we experienced soaring temperatures as the sun baked down onto the basalt plains of the Lebombo concession. There were several days where temperatures exceeded 40°C (104°F), but with the increase in temperatures and humidity the clouds started to build. This caused massive cumulonimbus clouds to form, and with flashes of lightning and thunder rolling across the savanna, the big rains arrived. The transformation was immediate, as the dry Sweni and N’wanetsi Rivers started to flow. The Sweni’s catchment received more rain, and soon a slow sweeping trickle started to flow into a side tributary of the N’wanetsi River. The N’wanetsi also flowed, but all the dried-up pools surrounding Dumbana and Puffadder Pools soaked up the precious water, and it banked up in that area, preventing the river from pushing all the way through to the weir. Hopefully the next big storm will cause these pools to overflow, and the river will flow through, all the way to Mozambique.
The plant life immediately soaked up the life-giving waters, and the desolate patches of soil were soon covered in a fresh carpet of green grass. The new leaves of former barren branches started to push through, and almost overnight the bush was transformed into a lush canopy of green.
South African National Parks conducted a controlled burn on our concession towards the end of the month. Conditions were perfect to start a management burn. We burned a large section of land in the North West of the concession, on the basaltic plains. We use fire as an important tool to remove moribund vegetation as well as to rejuvenate the grass and promote new growth. This is highly beneficial as ashes left behind act as a fertilizer and improve the carrying capacity of the land. After a little rain, the now barren burned area is going to flush almost lime green and attract large quantities of grazers.
These large bovids made the almost ritualistic daily journey down from the north eastern Lebombos to the N’wanetsi at the beginning of the month. They provided for some fantastic sightings along the river, almost like clockwork, late in the morning. However, after the good rain we received in the middle of December, this pattern changed. The seasonal pans in the ridges filled with water, allowing the herds to stay and graze much more locally than before. Since the rain, the herds have barely visited the river. They have been replaced by some large buffalo bulls that are spending their time in close proximity to the river and taking full advantage of not having to move. They spend their days wallowing, feeding on fresh new grass and drinking from the abundant water that has filled up the N’wanetsi River.
There have also been very large herds to the west of the concession, providing guests transferring to and from the airstrip with some sensational views, of sometimes over two hundred individuals. With any luck they will start to venture towards us as the smaller pans dry up and get all muddied with a whole host of animals utilizing these small water sources.
In the days following the rain, we noticed quite a decline in Elephant sightings, especially on the wetter, cooler days. The big herds will inevitably return to the river once the moisture laden vegetation dries out, and the relentless humidity begins. This brings these giants back to the river and muddy wallows where they take full advantage of the coolness and thirst-quenching goodness that the rain has brought. During a few of the warmer days this month it has seemed as though the elephants almost instinctively know it’s going to be a hot day and have ensured that they venture towards water earlier on in the day. They make use of the cooling mud to cover their entire bodies, while the youngsters, still learning to use their trunks, comically try to replicate what they see their mothers and aunts doing. The elephants have also been using the deep-water pools around Dumbana to completely submerge themselves in order to cool down, but also simply for the joy of it! One can see the herds excitedly approaching the water, and the little calves running to keep up with the herd, a truly joyous interaction and spectacle.
There have been countless young calves that are barely visible in and amongst the grey mass of the herd. They can be seen trailing their mothers and badgering them in order to attain some milk. With over 115 sightings before Christmas alone, this month has been equally as productive as the height of the dry season!
Spotted hyena sightings have been most frequent around the Granophyre and Nyokene den-sites. A new cub was seen peeping out from the Nyokene den, which is situated amongst a dense stand of Lebombo euphorbia trees. Hopefully, this little one will soon muster up the courage to come and explore its surroundings, and we might be able to get some good viewings of this new clan member. Sightings of adults were also had often at night as they set off on their foraging and territorial patrols. It was then that their whooping calls echoed through the night skies.
During the month of December over 85 sightings of lions were recorded, with five different prides being viewed on or in close proximity of the concession. These prides included the Mountain, Xhirombe, Southern, Northern and Shishangaan Pride. Sightings of two different male lion coalitions were also recorded.
The Mountain Pride, one of the resident and most often viewed prides of the area, has unfortunately lost the three youngest cubs. They contracted sarcoptic mange from the older cubs, and this highly contagious mite infection caused them to loose condition. Sarcoptic mange more frequently affects cubs than adult lions, and it is probably related to social and nutritional stress, due to their low rank in the social (feeding) hierarchical structure. Fortunately, the three older cubs have all survived from their bout of mange, and they are still doing well and looking fit and strong.
The Xhirombe male and his mother was also seen a few times, usually close to the Mozambique border. He is looking as handsome as ever, and their bond still seems strong. It’s a wonder that these two are still together as young males tend to be evicted by bigger lions around three years of age. He is well past that time, but by sticking together, both have increased their chances of survival through better co-operative hunting opportunities, as well as through joint protection against other prides of lion and big clans of spotted hyenas.
The Shishangaan Pride was the most frequently viewed pride, with over fifty sightings of this group. This is the pride of which the white lion is a member, and he too was seen with his pride on numerous occasions. There was however a couple of days where he became separated from his family, but fortunately he managed to regroup and find them again. A young male lion wandering on his own is very vulnerable, should he get into close proximity of another pride or bigger males. Hopefully he will now keep up with his brothers as there is definitely safety in numbers.
A very interesting development is also taking place, as the Rogue males (identified as the Kumana males), have started to infiltrate the territory of the resident Shishangaan males. With the Shishangaan males on patrol towards the west, the Kumana males breached the southern boundary, and they started to make themselves at home. So much so, that they were seen mating with several of the Shishangaan females towards the area of Ostrich Link open areas.
Sometimes when new males come into an area, lionesses will go into ‘false oestrus’. This means they will show signs of coming into heat, and they will seduce the males into mating with them, but they will not necessarily conceive. The reason why the lionesses go into false oestrus, is to ensure that they are not spending too much of their energy in carrying the cubs to term, when other stronger and fitter males may come in and kill the newborns that aren’t theirs. (Male lions do not tolerate cubs that aren’t theirs, as it means the females will not come into season until the cubs are around two to three years of age, basically forcing the males to protect the genes of a competitor instead of passing on their own genetic material.) It will however be interesting to see what might happen should the Shishangaan males find out about the newcomers, and whether the lionesses will actually conceive and produce a new litter of cubs.
On the morning of the 29th, the Shishangaan males were found close to where the Kumana males had been, courting and mating with the Shishangaan females. It was apparent that they were very aggressive and annoyed, as they could probably smell the scent of the intruders. They were found walking side by side on patrol, scent marking as they went along. It was obvious that the testosterone levels were surging, as these usually docile kings were even showing agitation towards the vehicles. It’s a matter of time until the bigger and more experienced Shishangaan males will clash with the younger and fitter Kumana males. Only then, will we know who the real kings of the N’wanetsi Concession will be.
We have been fortunate enough to have a few fantastic sightings of these slender spotted cats. They have been seen wandering and hunting the wide-open areas in the north and west of the concession, on the basaltic plains. They have also been seen around the river, in somewhat thicker vegetation, and like the other dominant predators, making full use of the seemingly endless supply of baby impalas. The mother and her three cubs that we have watched growing up have made their return after a number of weeks outside the concession. They were seen hunting, killing and completely consuming a baby impala all within 30 minutes. The cubs are touching 10 months old and are just about at their mother’s size. Instinctively knowing when to hold back while she hunts, and patiently waiting for her return, possibly with a live quarry for them to hone their under developed hunting skills.
There has been another female in an area really close to where the mother and three youngsters were viewed. She was seen killing and eating a common duiker, before nervously returning west out of the concession, back the way she came.
These cats have a hard time in the Kruger Park, and in our lion dominated concession in particular. Being so much slenderer and less powerful than lions, leopards and hyaenas, they struggle to retain their kills, as well as raise cubs with the exceptionally high density of larger predators.
It has to be said that it is the season of plenty, and our resident leopards are looking healthier than ever!
One of our guides found what he initially thought to be a lioness, which upon closer inspection turned out to be a large female leopard! She was walking quickly with her head down, and all of a sudden, a second female leopard appeared. The two leopardesses started to circle one another. A low bellow was emitted from the much smaller of the two cats before she lunged at the larger female. After a quick tussle they both started moving off together, still snarling and showing aggressive behaviour. Round two then kicked off and this time the contact was much more serious, with claws out, teeth bared and ears flattened. The interesting part was the smaller of the two females was the aggressor. Once the flying fur had settled, they both walked off in different directions along the Nwanetsi River. This really is one of the most aggressive and powerful displays in nature and a few of the guides were privileged enough to witness it first-hand.
The young Dumbana male who has been walking around rather carelessly has probably felt the presence of much larger males around, and has wisely chosen to frequent the Lebombo Mountains rather than the hustle and bustle of the Nwanetsi River.
Other interesting news
The N’wanetsi Concession is known for having large numbers of lions. These powerful big cats prevent competition from other predators by killing off any other carnivores, and consequently these other species can be rather elusive with all the different lion prides roaming about. Therefore, it was a massive surprise to find a pack of six African wild dogs that had made their way onto the concession, close to the lodge. We do not often see wild dogs (which are listed as critically endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red Data Book – I.U.C.N.) in our area. These creatures are seen more often on the western side of the park where the granitic soils allow for more aardvark burrows in which the dogs den during the breeding season. Great excitement from guides and guests ensued, as these endangered animals were last seen more than six months prior.