Dogs in the midst of the cats

We were in Sabi Sands reserve in South Africa in late August 2020, let out of lockdown. It felt just like the end of a long term at boarding school. At last we were again able to travel to our beloved bush places. The bush experience washes away all those urban tensions and allows you to be present in the moment. It is a place where all your senses feel alive.

I was part of a group of avid photographers who spent five days in Sabi Sands hosted by Wild Eye. The weather was heavily overcast and drizzling. for most of the time. It was cold, and once on the game vehicle and moving we got properly wet and the cold turned to freezing. The weather did not matter, we were in the African bush with our cameras to photograph the scenes and the wildlife, and we were determined to work with the light we had.

“Africa is known for her heat, dust and wild things, and she is unpredictable. This journey was damp and cold but speckled with many wild things. The rain brings life to a winter-dried bushveld but territorial boundaries are washed away and new imperatives must be asserted.” ~ Mike Haworth

Sabi Sands has a high density of predators. There are daytime predators like cheetahs and wild dog, and nocturnal predators like lions, hyaenas and leopards. We did not get to see civets and genets at night mainly because the weather was challenging for much of the time. We did get a glimpse of a white-tailed mongoose but it was too far to photograph at night.

The guides on the vehicles were in radio contact with each other communicating the locations of sightings and fresh tracks to each other. The combination of radio contact and tracks meant that we had a high chance of finding those elusive cats.

“The voice of beauty speaks softly; it creeps only into the most fully awakened souls” ~ Nietzsche

On our third day our guide, Greg, got a radio call that a cheetah had been seen next to the Sabi Sabi airfield. In the cold and drizzle, we drove to the airfield to see what we could find. We found a lone sub-adult male cheetah. A family of cheetahs had been seen in this part of the reserve for the previous few days. The family comprised four sub-adult males and their mother.

While we were parked next to the airfield watching this lone male cheetah, a little spell of serendipity presented itself out of the cold overcast early morning. Out of the bush behind us came a pack of wild dogs. They wandered along the edge of the runway for a short while and eventually got sight of the young male cheetah. Numbers count in the bush and so does size. The dogs started trotting toward the cat. This looked like it would turn into an interesting test of speed versus numbers.

All of a sudden, behind the cheetah we were watching, another cheetah dashed off to the left. In an instant, the cheetah we were focused on followed. Within seconds we heard the cry of a duiker as one of the cheetahs caught it. I am not sure how the duiker gave itself away because they are usually nocturnal and it was caught around 8h00 in the morning.

As soon as cry of the duiker was heard, the pack of wild dogs gave chase. Within seconds we were after the dogs and the cats through the bush in the game vehicle. If you need a little loosening up after being in an urban environment for too long, try being shaken up on a game vehicle driving off-road through the bush after wild dogs and cheetahs.

After following the chase for about five minutes, we caught up with the cheetahs and wild dogs. The cheetahs had killed an adult grey duiker.

“Being out on a game vehicle is bewitching. You are out in the open under big skies, the wind in your face. Your imagination is flooding with expectation. Your senses are overflowing with kaleidoscope of scents, sounds and colours.” – Mike Haworth

The grey duiker prefers woodland with plenty of undergrowth and thickets, preferably near water. This vegetation provides food and shelter. This duiker is solitary, except during the mating season. It likes to forage in early mornings and late afternoons until after dark and may linger longer on cool cloudy days, which is probably why it was still out and about when the cheetahs saw it. Much like a steenbok, this small antelope will wait until the last moment before running away. On its way it puts its head down and uses its characteristic jumping and swerving tactics. When not caught by cheetahs, the grey duiker lies down in dense shelter, underneath shrubs or in tall grass during the hottest part of the day to rest.

When we stopped the vehicle, we found the cheetah family, a adult mother and four sub-adult males around the carcass and the wild dogs surrounding them. I was amazed at how quickly the cheetahs had tucked into their meal. With the chattering wild dogs surrounding them it was easy to see why.

Wild dogs have an irregular, mottled coat, with patches of tan, black, brown, white, and yellow fur. Each animal has its own unique coat pattern, and all have lean physiques and big, rounded ears.

The African wild dog is the most endangered large carnivore species in South Africa and the second most endangered in Africa after the Ethiopian wolf. 

The wild dog is the only local canid to have developed a pack system. The pack is led by a monogamous pair and they are usually the only ones to breed. We did not see any youngsters and the dogs were moving around so much I did not notice the alpha female and whether she was still suckling.

“Nothing but breathing the air of Africa, and actually walking through it, can communicate the indescribable sensations.” ~ William Burchell

When we found the cheetahs the wild dogs were all around them making their excited high pitched chattering sounds. Wild dogs seldom bark like a typical dog but often make an excited twittering or chattering sounds. Wild dogs have more kinds of yelp/squeals, whines, moans, growls, and barks in their repertoire than have been reported for other canids.

The wild dogs had scared one of the sub-adult males up a fallen tree trunk. The rest of his siblings were tucking into their breakfast. It is interesting is see the different characters in the same wildlife family group.

The dogs were patient despite being greater in number. Eight dogs and four cheetahs on the ground (with attitude) and the balance was set.

The sub-adult cheetahs held their ground but were nervy and kept looking up to see where the wild dogs were.

Eventually, one of the cheetahs, after having fed well, went over to his brother to give him support. The dogs were jumping up and down wanting the two to come down onto the ground.

Eventually the “treed” cheetah came down the tree with support from his siblings.

“Why is it you can never hope to describe the emotion Africa creates? You are lifted. Out of whatever pit, unbound from whatever tie, released from whatever fear. You are lifted and you see it all from above.” ~ Francesca Marciano

The fourth sub-adult male cheetah climbed down from his “dog box”, but he never got to feed. Shortly afterwards, the other young male feeding on the remains abandoned the carcass leaving the left overs to the wild dogs. In an instant, like vultures, they were all over the carcass. Within seconds the dogs had ripped apart what was left of the carcass and each member pulled away to munch on its own piece of the remains.

The cheetahs also backed away having fed well. A duiker would not sustain the cheetah family for more than a day, and one son was still hungry. One of the wild dogs ran around the back of the anthill to check that the cheetahs had actually backed away.

The cheetah family regrouped a few hundred metres from the kill site. The family sat together and began to lick the blood off each other’s fur.

It was a peaceful scene with a mother and son cleaning the blood off each other after the kill.

This was another example of how adaptable these predators are in the bush. I would never have thought cheetahs would have hunted in their relatively thick bush but they appeared to be quite adept to their surroundings.

“Forget your voice, sing!
Forget your feet, dance!
Forget your life, live!
Forget yourself and be!” 
Kamand Kojouri

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

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