Masai Mara – eclectic second day-part one

The Masai Mara is one of the most incredible wildlife reserves that I have ever had the good fortune to visit. The abundance and diversity of wildlife together with the vastness of the plains take you into another sensory world which is spellbinding.

“As one who has often felt this need, and who has found refreshment in wild places, I attest to the recreational value of wilderness.” ~ George Aiken

We were based at Wild Eye’s Enkishui camp which is located about a kilometre up river from the Purungat bridge and ranger’s office in the Mara Triangle section of the Greater Masai Mara. This camp is at the southern end of the Mara Triangle. With the camp being located in the reserve we were able to be out of camp and into the reserve by 6h00. Enkishui is the Masai term for “life”.

“Wilderness is not defined by the absence of certain activities, but rather by the presence of certain unique and invaluable characteristics.” ~ Nick Rahall

There are many elephants in the Mara Triangle which tend to remain in family and breeding herds because of the high density of predators. With so much food available for the predators there is a low likelihood of the elephants being attacked. Nevertheless, the elephant mothers remain very protective of their young.

A large, life-ravaged female Spotted hyaena, possibly the matriarch. She had two companions both of which appeared to defer to her. Hyaenas span out during the day and lie in thick tuffs of red oat grass and wait for an opportunity to hunt or steal food.

We had been wandering down Claire road and turned off to follow a well used track when we found a single lioness lying in the grass wet with dew. As you can see there are few trees out on the open plains so the lions have to sleep in the grass out in the elements. 

“To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname empire; and where they make a wilderness they call it peace.” ~ Tacitus

The flies are a constant source of irritation for the lions. They seem to gravitate around the lion’s face and neck possibly because of the moisture and minute traces of blood from kills they have recently fed on.

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The lioness we saw was keeping a low profile while two nomads were passing some distance off.

The two young males must have been recently kicked out of their pride by their father. The lion lying down seemed to be slightly older than the other male judging by the relative development of their manes.

The two nomads headed straight for the thick vegetation and rocks on an inselberg. There they had a vantage point to see potential threats and potential food.

“We look up for inspiration, down for desperation, right and left for information.” ~ Anonymous

The vastness of the plains in the south west of the Mara Triangle give your soul room to breathe. This was a view looking north west onto the Oloololo or Siria escarpment in the far distance. This part of the triangle did not have a lot of game when we were passing through, but at times there are vast herds of wildebeest and zebra that pass through.

Further down towards the Tanzanian border and the Serengeti, the plains are dotted with Balanites also called desert dates. These trees dotted across the vast plains give the Mara its name which means “spotted” in the Masai language.

We spent some time down along a drainage line close to the border where a female leopard had been spotted but we never got to see her well enough to take any photographs. Others in the Wild Eye group, in different vehicles, managed to get some wonderful images of the leopardess climbing up one of the trees along the drainage line.

On our way back to the Mara river we passed four sub-adults and an adult Masai giraffe walking along but just below a ridge on their way down to the river.

Eventually we decided to head back to the Mara river where there is always action. Being the “short rains” season, the sky was pregnant with moisture. It created some wonderful colour for our backgrounds. This female Masai giraffe had come down to the river. She had her gaze fixed on something on the other side of the river. Giraffe are known to cross the Mara river but not alone and not on this occasion.

The Mara river snakes through the Masai Mara National Reserve on its way into the Serengeti and eventually to Lake Victoria. It was flowing strongly from recent rains up on the the escarpment. The banks of the Mara river were steep and created a real challenge for the wildlife before they even tried to cross the fast flowing river. This was the scene looking north up river.

This was the view of the river looking south down the river. We had stopped close to “Figtree crossing”. The fig tree had fallen over some time ago but this is a section of the river where the wildlife frequently cross, so it has retained the name.

The vastness of this place is quite intoxicating. The river draws everything toward it. Grazers need to cross it and predators are drawn to the grazers wishing to cross it and we humans are drawn to the unfolding drama and spectacle of the scene and wildlife interaction.

“Fate whispers to the warrior “You cannot withstand the storm” and the warrior whispers back I am the storm.” ~ Unknown

In the quiet times, you have a chance to be still and witness the enormity of this place and become aware of its natural rhythm. It is driven by the seasons and weather. It drives a multitude of animals to follow an annual migration from the Masai Mara to Ndutu below the Ngorogoro crater in Tanzania, braving crocodile infected rivers and prides and clans of predators waiting for them either side of these dramatic crossing points. The overwhelming majority of them complete the journey to produce the next cycle of migrants.

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

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – male lion crossing the Mara river

This was one of the more unusual sightings in the Masai Mara during my trip with Wild Eye in October last year. October is usually the tail end of the major herbivore migration. Despite the timing I was fortunate enough to see several dramatic Mara river crossings.

“Being brave isn’t the absence of fear. Being brave is having that fear but finding a way through it.”~ Bear Grylls

The crossing described in this post was the most unusual of them all. It was around 6h00 and we were out early as we had seen the wildebeest massing on the east side of the Mara river the evening before. It is unusual for wildebeest or zebra to cross the river at night. The crossing looks terrifying enough in the daylight without trying it at night.

“Without courage we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” ~ Maya Angelou.

The terror is instilled by the fast moving current and the huge Nile crocodiles which lie in wait for their prey to cross. This particular morning the wildebeest and zebra had been progressively moving down Lookout hill toward the Mara river. The river was flowing fast and was a rich muddy colour.

“Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.” ~Winston Churchill

By this time, Scar, the iconic leader of his four member coalition with Morani, Sikio and Hunter, had died. We caught sight of a large male on the other side of the river at around 6h00. The sun was still behind Lookout hill. I am not sure which of the “musketeers” he was, possibly Silko. He was walking along the east bank of the Mara river when he caught sight of two lionesses lying in the wet grass about 100 metres away from the river on the west side of the Mara river.

He immediately decided to cross the river to meet up with them. He walked along the bank until he found a gully to climb down to the edge of the river. That would have been the only way to get down to the edge of the Mara river because the banks were so steep and deep.

The bank on the east side of the Mara river, in fact on both sides, is steep and must be around 20 to 30 metres deep.

Having successfully descended the steep side of the Mara river, he walked a short distance at the foot of the steep bank until he found a suitable crossing point.

“The river has great wisdom and whispers its secrets to the hearts of men.” ~Mark Twain

The snarling face showed he was quite well aware of the danger that lurked in that fast flowing muddy water. Despite the danger, with little hesitation, he stepped into the water.

The wake in the water created by him entering water showed how fast the water was flowing.

He was clearly a powerful swimmer but the fast flowing current forced him to swim diagonally down from his point of entry.

“Rivers flow not past, but through us; tingling, vibrating, exciting every cell and fiber in our bodies, making them sing and glide.“ ~John Muir

It is hard to imagine the amount of adrenaline that must be have been coursing through his veins as he swam across the river knowing only too well the danger that lurked below the surface of the water. He had the advantage of being solitary and silent.

He eventually found purchase on the river bed on the east side of the river. Even that meant he was not out of danger. In that depth of water a large croc could easily have attacked him.

As he walked out of the river on the west side he looked around constantly assessing whether there were crocs advancing towards him.

“A river is water is its loveliest form, rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart.” ~Roderick Haig-Brown

Having climbed up to the top of the western bank he stopped to assess whether there were any other males around.

You can see from his wide eyes that he was wary.

“Have the courage to take your own thoughts seriously, for they will shape you.” ~Albert Einstein

He eventually walked up to the two females who seemed to know him but did not seem over joyed to see him.

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” ~ Helen Keller

His flehmen grimace signalled that he was assessing the condition of the females and whether either was in oestrus.

The flehmen grimace is where the lion opens his mouth to draw in the air over the Jacobson’s organ in the roof of his mouth. Jacobson’s organ, also called vomeronasal organ, is an organ of chemoreception that is part of the olfactory system of amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. It is a patch of sensory cells within the main nasal chamber that detects heavy moisture-borne odour particles. The Jacobson’s organ enable’s him to perceive certain scents and pheromones. The vomeronasal (VNO) organ is named for its closeness to the vomer and nasal bones, and is particularly well developed in animals such as cats and horses. The vomer is one of the unpaired facial bones of the skull. VNO is found at the base of the nasal cavity.

This male continued to perform his flehmen grimace for a few minutes with little interest from the females.

“Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odour cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.” ~ Patrick Süskind

Having decided the swim was all for nothing, he eventually lay down a few metres from the females and tried to get rid of the flies on his face.

It was unique sighting to see a male lion crossing the Mara river on his own.

“We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.” ~ Albert Einstein

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – this is lion country

I was fortunate enough to spend a magical six days in the Masai Mara in western Kenya in mid-October 2021. This trip which was planned for October 2020 but Covid restrictions forced its postponement. I spent six days in the Masai Mara with Wild Eye and stayed at their bush camp along the Mara river which is located about a kilometre up river from the Purungat bridge.

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of the living.” ~ Miriam Beard

Our group of about ten photographers were hosted by guides Andrew Danckwerts, Mike Appalsamy and Wild Eye CEO Jono Buffy. Much fun, good photography and earnest discussions around the camp fire next to the Mara river were had by all.

“One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.” ~ Edith Wharton

I really like that time of the year because of the reduced crowds. Also, the weather was building up for the short rains from October to December. This meant the sky was filled with cumulus and cumulonimbus cloud formations making dramatic backgrounds.

“If I have ever seen magic, it has been in Africa.” ~ John Hemmingway

Mid-October was the low season because of the rains in the Mara but there was still plenty of migrating herbivores and of course the ever present lions, hyaenas, leopards and cheetahs. Both the Masai Mara and the Serengeti are wonderful areas for lions.

The lions shown in this post were seen in the first two days in the Mara Triangle. In future posts I will show many more lion images and we were privileged to even see a large male lion cross the Mara river – a crossing of a very different sort.

This young male had killed a wildebeest next to the main road a few kilometres up from the ranger’s station at Purungat bridge. He was resting when we arrived. He had probably been feeding in the early part of the pre-dawn morning. His face was covered in flies as was the carcass.

After a short while he got up and went back to feed on the carcass. He was feeding alone on the wildebeest carcass which he probably had pulled down the night before as there were no other lions around. Often lions use the storm water gully on the side of the road to ambush their prey. This tactic seemed effective as we saw a few kills next to the road.

We found this male lion around 8h30 and stayed with him for about an hour with no other vehicles around. He was watching the vultures which had already caught early thermals in the warm, slightly overcast morning.

After a full meal of wildebeest he got up and stretched and walked a short distance away from the carcass to lie down. There were no trees under which to find shade, so he just lay in the grass in the open.

When a lion relaxes it does it properly and sometimes can be seen lying on its back with legs open – probably spreading the load on such a full belly.

The following day we were travelling north west along the main road a few kilometres from the Serena airstrip when we came across a coalition of three male lions, two of which were lying in the road. The two largest and oldest males were lying in the road. This coalition looked battle hardened. The male lying down in the next image looked to be the oldest and coalition leader. He was a huge battle-worn warrior.

The high number of lions in the Mara Triangle dictate that there are frequent territorial clashes and numerous nomads looking for a home of their own. The younger of the two males lying in the road got up and proceeded to walk down the road towards us. He looked to be around five or six years old – a fully mature male lion.

“The lion is an emblem of a dream of absolute power – and, as a wild animal, he belongs to a world outside the realm of society and culture.” ~ Charles H Hinnat

The oldest male in the coalition continued to lie own the road for a while. He was huge with enormously powerful looking shoulders and a dark mane.

When he looked up you could see his aged face which was surprisingly unscarred. He was covered with irritating and ubiquitous flies. His canines were still in reasonably good condition so we guessed he must have been around seven years old.

“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.” ~ Karen Blixen

He had a full belly and looked to be in good condition. His front paws were huge.

The younger of the two males which had been lying in the road continued to walk towards us as he was on his way to a pool of rainwater which had collected next to the section road behind us. There were many zebra drinking from this pool which no doubt was an added attraction although he was he was going to drink, not hunt.

The third male in the coalition of three had found a rock to cuddle. He was out for the count and I just had to take a picture of him spread out next to the rock with one paw against it.

We travelled around the Mara Triangle and having the camp positioned close to the Purungat bridge in south of the Greater Masai Mara we were able to traverse both the Mara Triangle and the Masai Mara National Reserve, the two largest of the eight conservancies which make up the Greater Masai Mara.

Lions are obviously a huge attraction in the Mara but after the main migration had passed in August and September there were still a surprising large number of wildebeest and zebra both sides of the Mara river and especially on the north side which still had to cross on their way down into the Serengeti and Ndutu to calve in following February. With all the game around we had numerous wonderful sightings of lions which I will share in the next few posts.

“Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths? Could it be because Africa is the place of all our beginnings, the cradle of mankind, where our species first stood upright on the savannahs of long ago?” ~ Brian Jackman

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Selati’s gentle giants

Sitting in a photographic hide is a magical experience. The wildlife comes closer than you would ever have imagined possible. One minute you can be photographing Red-headed weavers and a few minutes later a massive bull elephant emerges like a phantom from the dusty Mopani surroundings and walks up to the water hole. We watched elephants drinking at the photographic hide at Klipspringer Lodge in Selati Game Reserve.

“There is nothing more energising than inhaling the tang of wilderness, loamy after rain, pungent with the richness of earth shuddering with life, or taking in the brisk dry cleanness of winter.”
~ Lawrence Anthony

There are three species of elephant in the world:

African savannah – Loxodonta africana
African forest – Loxodonta cyclotis
Asian – Elephas maximus

I saw the African forest elephant when I was in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of the Congo. This species is much smaller than its savannah cousin and it has small downward pointing tusks, both adaptations to the dense tropical rainforest environment. In the non-forest areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the African savannah elephant is found.

“Every wild thing is in tune with its surroundings, awake to its fate and in absolute harmony with the planet. Their attention is focused totally outwards. Humans, on the other hand, tend to focus introspectively on their own lives too often, brooding and magnifying problems that the animal kingdom would not waste a millisecond of energy upon. To most people, the magnificent order of the natural world where life and death actually mean something has become unrecognizable.”
~ Lawrence Anthony

As described in a previous post, the the Klipspringer Lodge waterhole is around 20 metres in diameter and about 15 metres from the hide at its closest point. This means there is just enough room for a large bull elephant to walk between the waterhole and the hide. Directly in front of the hide, about two metres away is a small natural trough of water. On two different occasions a bull elephant walked up to this trough to drink. When these behemoths walk to within three metres of you while you are sitting quietly in the hide, it is enough to take your breath away.

A mature bull elephant is massive. He can reach four metres at his shoulder and weight up to seven tonnes.

This huge bull stood at the water’s edge and started to drink while the water was still undisturbed. Successive swirls with his trunk stirred up the mud to a point where he stopped drinking and started to suck up large quantities of muddy water and sprayed it over his body.

It was mid-September so the days were warm around midday and in the early afternoon. He seemed to really enjoy cooling off and getting a mud bath at the same time. You can see the direction of the afternoon sun was directly behind the bull which cast his face in deep shallow.

In most instances, the size of these massive bulls puts off other visitors who want to come and drink at the waterhole. Not so for three intrepid kudu bulls, though they were on the opposite side of the waterhole to the bull elephant. He seemed to be happy to share the waterhole.

“I have no doubt at all that elephants are at least as intelligent as an adolescent human being. They’re incredibly smart. They have knowledge and wisdom about their own culture and societies that are far more advanced than we think.” ~ Dereck Joubert

On a few occasions a group of large elephant bulls arrived at the waterhole. It was thrilling to watch these dark giants emerge from the Mopani’s orange green and yellow backdrop. They walked in without a sound. Usually no other animals or birds dared come to the waterhole as these bulls were approaching.

The water remained somewhat undisturbed while just one bull was drinking. It was a different matter when a small bachelor herd of bulls arrived. Elephants require between 70 and 100 litres of water daily. An adult male elephant can drink up to 210 litres of water in less than five minutes.

An elephant’s trunk can hold between nine and 10 litres of water. Elephants do not drink with their trunks, but use them as “tools” to drink with. They fill their trunks with water then use it as a hose to pour the water into their mouths.

Adult male elephants live a predominantly nomadic and solitary life. When a male elephant reaches puberty, around 12 to 15 years of age, he will progressively become more independent of his family until he breaks away completely. He then either roams alone or joins a loosely-knit group of male elephants, known as a bachelor herd. The bulls in these bachelor herds can be a mix of ages. Amongst bachelor groups, young males keep the peace amongst themselves by ritualised tussling which establishes strength and dominance among themselves without the need to fight and possibly injure each other. There is usually a dominant bull in the group. Elephant bulls tend to follow the breeding herds testing the the females to establish whether they are in estrus. Family life in the elephant world is centred on females and their calves. The large bulls can be cause great disturbance in and unsettle the breeding herd.

On another day, a group of four bulls came to the waterhole to drink. There was a bluish haze to the atmosphere which seemed to darken the bulls with their backs to the sinking sun.

The trunk has more than 40,000 muscles in it which is more than a human has in their whole body. The human body has a total of 639 muscles. An elephant’s trunk is both strong and agile. It has two prehensile fingers at the tip of its trunk which are used to grab hold of objects and smaller items. It can perform multiple tasks from pushing over heavy trees to picking up and throwing objects, to rubbing an itchy eye or ear. The elephant fills its trunk with water and then pours it into its mouth to drink and also as a snorkel when swimming under water. Elephants also use their trunk for feeding and for friendly greetings and even wrestling matches with other elephants.

Due to the massive size of the elephant it has evolved several anatomical characteristics to adapt to this mass. One adaptation is the pneumatisation which is the development of a honeycomb of air cavities inside the skull bones. Pneumatisation makes the skull lighter, while still providing the necessary strength and attachment surface to accommodate the muscles. Another adaptation is that unlike most other mammals, the legs of an elephant are almost vertical under the body. These pillar-like structures have limited flexibility at the joints and are therefore suited to supporting the large mass.

“Giant beasts have ruled Africa from coast to coast for over 50 million years as they migrate to water for their families. They are masters of their universe, architects of their world. Playful young play securely in one of the most caring families in nature. They have haunting rituals and great wisdom, care and compassion. Their story is far more than statistics and ivory.” ~ Dereck Joubert from the Soul of the Elephant

The deeper you look into nature the more complexity, integration and intelligence you will find. This creates wonder, mystery and humility.

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Selati: Roan Antelope

The title of this post is not strictly accurate as we did not see Roan antelope in the Selati Game reserve. Rather we went across the main road to a game breeding farm where we saw the selective breeding of buffalo, Sable and Roan antelope. The area around Selati Game Reserve is well known for its game breeding activities.

“The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on Earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the Earth.”~David Attenborough

Roan antelope are now considered a locally rare species. In South Africa there are only about 70 in the Kruger National Park, and a total of several hundred in other conservation areas in Mpumalanga and the Northern Province and the northern Cape.

“Because it is most endangered, the Roan has become the poster species for the rare antelope’s plight. Although one of the most wide-ranging antelope species in sub-Saharan Africa, occurring from sea level to 2400 metres, its strict requirements mean that the Roan is nowhere common. ~ Mitch Reardon

We went down to a waterhole on the breeding farm on the other side of the R40 from Selati Game Reserve to see the Roan antelope and were fortunate to see four young Roan.

Roan is one of biggest antelope after the Eland, Bongo and Greater Kudu. Its barrel-chested, horse-like build gives it a powerful appearance. Their pelage is a reddish-brown colour which gives them their name. Roan are sometimes mistaken for a female Sable because of its similar shaped face and reddish colour. A closer look show different colouring and the black and white pattern is quite different.

The Roan antelope shares the Hippotragus genus with the Sable and as its greek name suggests the shape of a horse with a goat-like face. They have short, erect manes, very light beards and prominent white nostrils. The head is dark brown or black, with white around the mouth and nose, large white patches in front of the eyes and pale patches behind them. The ears are long and narrow, with dark brown hair at the tips. The horns are ringed and backward facing. They can reach one metre long in males, and slightly shorter in females. The Roan’s horns never attain the full scimitar shaped curve horn of the mature male Sable. Unlike the Sable, the Roan has long tasseled ears.

From data back in 2014, there are an observed 333 individuals existing on nine formally protected areas within the natural distribution range in northern and eastern South Africa. Adding privately protected subpopulations, there are an estimated 1 750 individuals across South Africa of which an estimated 5% of individuals on wildlife ranches were estimated to be wild and free-roaming. The proportion of mature Roan is estimated to be between 60% and 70%.

For a similar reasons to the Sable and Tsessebe, the Roan antelope population in the Kruger National Park crashed by 90% during the period 1986 to 1993. Over the past three generations (1990–2015), based on available data for nine formally protected areas, there has been a net population reduction of around 23%, which indicates an ongoing decline, though not as severe as the historical reduction.

The Roan antelope has been eliminated from large parts of its former range through Africa because of poaching and loss of habitat due to the expansion of human settlements. Habitat loss and degradation within the historic ranges are the greatest ongoing threat to Roan antelope. Their natural habitat has become fragmented caused by agricultural expansion. The game fences associated with human settlements have also contributed to their habitat reduction as have their removal from the wild into small breeding camp systems on private ranches.

“To appreciate better how a succession of changes within the rare antelope’s ecosystems coalesced to become a conservation catastrophe, it is critical to recognise that every ecosystem has it’s own special characteristics.” ~ Mitch Reardon

‘The narrow muzzle of the Roan and Sable have evolved to pluck specific clusters of leaves from grass swards. Roans feed on a variety of different grass species in different parts of their range at different times of the year. Low density antelopes such as Roan and Sable have distinct habitat preferences, their patchy distribution ranges generally occur in landscapes least favoured by the more common grazers. Source: Shaping Kruger by Mitch Reardon

Habitat suitability is declining in South Africa due to bush encroachment and overgrazing. The latter reduces grass species composition and encourages bush encroachment in certain areas of the bushveld. The game fences limit the Roans’ ability to move away from unsuitable grazing areas. Fragmentation through fencing also reduces the ability to move away from areas that become unsuitable. Climate change will most likely increase bush encroachment and dry up the ephemeral wetlands needed by this species in southern African savannahs.

“You’ll never find a rainbow if you’re looking down” ~ Charlie Chaplin

Roan antelope prefer to graze on grass but will browse if grazing forage is poor and will resort to supplementing on shrubs, herbs, and Acacia tree pods. The preferred feeding height is 15-150 cm and green shoots are often grazed down to a height of 2 cm. Roan antelope feed on grasses and other foliage in the morning and evening hours and retreat to more densely wooded areas during the middle of the day. They must drink regularly and inhabit areas where water is easily accessible.

In his book “Shaping Kruger” Mitch Reardon provided some valuable insights into the lives, habit and behaviour of a variety of animals in the Kruger National Park with chapter four dedicated to “The riddle of the disappearing Roan antelope”. In an effort to boost their numbers, the park’s conservation experts had instigated the Water for Game project in the mid-’70s, where 35 man-made waterholes were constructed, along with six dams. It was a disaster as far as the Roan were concerned. The water enticed large numbers of zebra, wildebeest and buffalo into the area and predators followed in their wake. Roan require long grass in which to hide their young, and with the grass cropped short, they were now easy pickings for lions, leopards, hyenas and even opportunistic jackals. It was the first of a run of ecological disasters to beset the park’s Roan population.

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” ~ Socrates

These two young male Roan antelope showed that this species like the Sable, Tsessebe and wildebeest get onto the knees to fight. Roan antelope males commonly fight for dominance. When fighting, Roan bulls will drop to their knees and neck wrestle and jostle by locking horns and pushing each other. The fights are more about wrestling and are seldom fatal though Roan bulls are known to be highly aggressive.

I was very excited to see Roan antelope. I have never seen one in all the years I have been to Kruger National Park. The last time I saw a Roan antelope was in the Serengeti plain in Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. The lone Roan bull we saw in Ruaha was huge and very skittish. I was very surprised to see how small the Roan were in this breeding camp. They were clearly young and were smaller than the Sable bulls in the same camp.

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
~ Stephen Hawking

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Selati: birdlife

At Klipspringer Lodge in Selati Game Reserve there is a photographic hide. It is positioned about 100 metres down the hill from the lodge. The hide looks onto a man-made waterhole. The hide is positioned about 15 metres from the near side of the waterhole and the waterhole is roughly circular with a 20 metre diameter. This means you need a short focal length lens for large mammals and a very long focal length lens for the small birds on the far side of the waterhole.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” ~ Walt Disney

Birds, like mammals, are very sensitive to sounds in the bush around the waterhole and from the hide itself. Each month the hide is in place the wildlife is becoming progressively more habituated to it, which helps the photographers.

“You will enrich your life immeasurably if you approach it with a sense of wonder and discovery, and always challenge yourself to try new things.” ~ Nate Berkus.

There is an open section around the waterhole which is about 15 metres in width at its narrowest point which provides adequate thick cover for francolin and spurfowl to run into when alarmed and for the smaller birds to fly into the surrounding trees.

We visited the hide in mid-September which is early spring in southern Africa. This means that none of the migrant birds have arrived yet. That said there was still a remarkable diversity of birdlife in Selati.

Throughout the day Crested francolin visited the waterhole with the males chasing the females around the water’s edge. Its small size and rhythmical call makes it a francolin. This francolin has a distinctive thick white eyebrow and it lifts its tail up like a Bantam chicken when it runs.

At around 18h00 each day many Double-banded sandgrouse arrived in pairs and small groups to drink at the waterhole. The males fluff out their breast feathers to absorb water which they carry back to their chicks. The water is collected by repeatedly “rocking” and shaking his belly feathers in the water. This process can take as long as fifteen minutes which makes the males vulnerable to predation. The sandgrouse chicks use their bills like tiny squeegees, “milking” their father’s belly feathers for the water they need. You can hear these sandgrouse flying in as they make a instantly recognisable call.

Crested barbets came down to drink a few times each day. They can be quite aggressive chasing other birds away from the edge of the water. Like sandgrouse we could often heard barbets before we saw them. Most birds flew into a nearby tree overlooking the waterhole to look around and make sure there are no threats before flying down to the water’s edge.

A Black-collared barbet at the water’s edge taking deep long drinks of water.

We were excited to see a Dark Chanting goshawk. It few into the trees away from the waterhole and spent some time looking around possibly for potential prey before eventually flying down to the water’s edge to drink.

Like many raptors, this Dark Chanting goshawk scooped up water with its beak. Birds generally do not have the ability to suck liquid into their throats so they fill their beak with water then tilt their head back to enable gravity to pull the liquid down their digestive tract.

Early on the second morning just after the hyaenas had stopped to drink, this dark morph Tawny eagle came down to drink. It was overcast and the light was low making the photography tricky. This Tawny did not stay long and left just as quietly as it arrived.

The arrival of birds at the waterhole was usually quiet unless it was a sandgrouse, barbet or drongo. This meant that you needed to be alert and watching the waterhole all the time. The birds arrive and departed much faster than the animals.

We only saw Red-billed oxpeckers around the water hole. Many oxpeckers arrived on the backs of impala, Sable, Kudu and Nyala. This species of oxpecker has olive-brown plumage with a vivid red eye and beak. Around the eye is a bright yellow eye ring.

A lone Red-billed oxpecker grooming itself after having been foraging through a young Sable antelope’s pelage. The Red-billed oxpecker feeds on ticks and parasites on the antelope’s hide. This species of oxpecker has a narrow bill which it uses to comb through the antelope’s hair to pry out parasites. These birds will also clean up open wounds and lesions.

After much practice we eventually managed to get reasonable images of the Emerald-spotted wood-dove taking off from the water’s edge after having slated its thirst. The five emerald spots are clearly visible among the tertiary wing feathers.

It is vital to watch these Emerald-spotted wood-doves to establish their pattern of behaviour around the waterhole when they are drinking. Without this pattern you will not consistently be able to capture these birds taking off from the waterhole. The ten primary wing feathers propel the bird through the air and the secondary wing feathers give it lift.

A Three-banded plover feeding on insects at the water’s edge. With its small sharp beak it plucks insects from the mud and the water surface. Its three distinct breast bands are clearly visible, two black and one white.

A Golden-Breasted bunting. We saw many pairs of these buntings at the waterhole. The male is instantly recognisable by its bright yellow breast. All southern African buntings have the characteristic black and white striped face.

A Groundscrapper thrush standing tall on long legs. It has a heavily streaked white breast and throat. Its face is strongly marked and its back feathers are brownish-grey. These thrushes are usually seen in pairs.

A Kurrichane thrush flying in for a drink. We usually saw individuals not pairs. This thrush has quite different colouring to its Groundscrapper cousin. It has a white belly, buff-orange flanks and underwing feathers. It has a light brown throat with a black moustache and a bright orange beak and eye-ring. This thrush loves picking through leaf litter for insects.

“Many birds have eye-rings, which are either brightly coloured feathers or bare skin around their eyes. These eye-rings are thought to convey different signals between birds. These signals may be associated with sexual maturity, age and health. They also provide birders with a vital aspect of identification.” ~ Mike Haworth

We saw this Pearl-spotted owlet fly in and land next to the waterhole. It was only the movement that caught our eye otherwise we would never have seen it as it blended into the ground perfectly.

After having spent some time on the ground, this Pearl-spotted owlet flew into a nearby tree overlooking the the waterhole. This one of the few owls that is often seen during the day. It has white speckles on its back and tail; white spots on the crown and head and brown streaks on its breast which are diagnostic. This owlet has an iconic and instantly recognisable call with an accelerating series of upslurred, piping “fwooo” notes, followed by a set of downward “puuueeeww” whistles ( Source: eBird).

It is always a thrill to see Green pigeons. They are beautifully coloured with light green body and head feathers with darker olive green back feathers. It has muted burgundy shoulder feathers. It has a pale coloured eye, red cere and pink feet with bright yellow leg feathers. This pigeon is often heard but not easily seen when it is high up in the trees because of its green colouring. Pigeons and doves are among the few birds that can suck water while their head is down so don’t need to lift their head to swallow.

The Green pigeons flew to the edge of the waterhole quickly and silently, drank quickly and flew off just as quickly and silently.

A flock of Red-headed weavers flew down to the far side of the waterhole to drink and bath. The male weaver has a red plumage on his head and throat during breeding season. The females have yellow plumage on their heads and throats. Both sexes have a yellowish-pink coloured beak.

Apart from their colourful bathing antics they looked to be really having fun. The breeding season is October to March which is when the males develop their characteristic red heads, which they use to impress females – and as a sign of maturity. Once the male has completed his nest a female will inspect the nest and, if she accepts it, she will line the nest with leaves as a sign of approval. After the eggs are laid the parents remain on high alert as the Diederik Cuckoo is a well-known brood parasite of the Red-Headed weaver.

The waterhole was frequented by a pair of Brown-hooded kingfishers. It has a brown head and blackish and turquoise wings. The wing coverts are mostly brownish-black, and the secondary flight feathers are turquoise. The rump is azure-blue. This kingfisher is an insect eater and unlike the Woodland is not migratory.

Often during the warmth of the day, this kingfisher would dive off its perch and dunk itself in the water to cool off.

“When you look at something what do you see, what do you hear and what do you feel and what were you looking for? ” ~ Mike Haworth

Another bird which is usually heard before it is seen is the Black-headed oriole. Often you will see flashes of bright yellow flitting between the trees before it eventually comes down to drink. This bird is immediately identifiable with its black head, red eyes and pink beak and most noticeably its bright yellow body plumage.

This bird prefers the acacia and broad-leafed woodland habitat and feeds on nectar, fruit and insects. It has a beautiful musical liquid call that sounds like “wholeucoo”.

Photographing birds from the hide at Selati was a treat. The birds tended to avoid the waterhole when the animals are drinking. I can only assume that it would even better with more diversity during the summer months once the migrants had arrived. For all but the raptors, you need a long focal length lens of a minimum of 600 mm and preferably 800 to 1000mm to photograph birds at the waterhole.

“Our eyes are wondrous things, but they have limits. Seeing is a much more intellectual process than looking. Perception and perspective can limit what we are looking at. That is the purpose of camouflage. Stop making a noise, pay attention and tune in. Use your ears and sense of smell to see. Pay attention to things and make the connections. When you do this the world around you will become infinitely more fascinating than you coulkd have imagined.” ~ Mike Haworth

It was fascinating to see how colourful the birds were in the the passing parade. The wonderful array of colours begs the question of whether birds see colour. The variety of colours suggest they do. A Yale/Cambridge study showed that birds not only do see many more colours than humans, but they see many more colours than they have in their plumage. Birds have additional colour cones in their retina that are sensitive to ultraviolet range so they see colours that are invisible to humans.

“Perception is your understanding and/or interpretation of people, situations and the world around you – it’s your mental impression. By contrast, perspective is the angle you are looking from – it’s your point of view.” ~ Sara Ballinger

There are times when there is so much bird activity around the waterhole that it was difficult deciding where to focus. With birds you have to pay attention all the time as they do not announce their arrival. Recognising bird calls helps in anticipating which birds are likely to come in to drink. They fly into the trees overlooking the waterhole to ensure the area is clear before flying down to the water’s edge to drink.

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew i would never see it again?” ~ Rachel Carson

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Selati: Hiding in the dark

Selati’s Klipspringer Lodge has a photographic hide which is positioned about 20 metres from a man-made waterhole. The hide is about 100 metres down the hill from the lodge. With the addition of lights and camera supports from CNP Safari, photographers can use the hide day and night.

The main purpose of a hide is to conceal the photographer from the alert eyes of wildlife. As soon as wildlife sees a person out in the open it will normally flee. A permanent hide becomes part of the environment and the wildlife becomes progressively habituated to its presence and ignores it – providing the photographers are quiet in the hide.

“Proficiency in photography techniques and composition will yield you good images. But, true passion and love for wildlife will make you a better wildlife photographer.” ~ Alvis Lazarus

There is something special about being in the hide in the dark in the middle of the bush. It is quiet and the lights focus your attention on the waterhole as the colour of the evening sky fades into a midnight blue and then a star spangled black. You are filled with anticipation about what might come to drink. It could be anything from sandgrouse to a duiker or a Sable bull, White rhino or elephant, or perhaps even a lion or leopard – you just never know.

“A good photographer records: a great photographer reveals.” ~ David Glen Larson

One of the intriguing aspects of the hide during the transition period from sunset to full darkness is that the colour of the sky changes dramatically which provides ever changing background colours while the spot lights keep constant illumination. The changing colour in the sky is reflected in the bush and the water.

Early one evening just as the sun was setting behind the hill overlooking the Klipspringer Lodge, a group of elephant bulls walked up to the waterhole to drink. It is breathtaking to see these giants approach the waterhole in the last light. They did not make a sound. Being early evening it was just a drink, not time to bath or play.

A special thrill for me was watching this band of Sable bulls come to the waterhole to drink at last light. Their massive scimitar shaped horns glistened in the last light.

“The painter constructs, the photographer reveals.” ~ Sun Sontag

The early evening light can play tricks on your senses. The intensity and hue of the light can be so subtle and sublime you have to pinch yourself. These three young Kudu came to the waterhole to drink. It was a vulnerable time for them and they were alert and very careful when they quickly took their evening drink of water.

A few Eland came to the waterhole to drink at that in-between time just before the light fades. That in-between time seems to be a moment when mother nature holds her breath as the daylight transitions into night. That in-between time can be still with not a breath of wind. The bush is quiet as the diurnal wildlife makes its way to find a place to sleep and the nocturnal wildlife is waking and beginning their evening’s activities.

As the last oranges of the evening’s light transformed into blue, a large elephant bull emerged from the gloom of the surrounding bush. He drank deeply, illuminated in the spotlights. His presence was imposing but he drank his fill in peace and walked back to feed in the bush through the night.

Duiker are mainly nocturnal. They are naturally very wary when approaching a lit waterhole in the depth of night. This Grey duiker would wander back and forth in the penumbra of the lights away from the waterhole for many minutes assessing the safety of the area. Eventually the duiker would come up to the edge of the water to drink but the stretched pose showed that he was ready to bolt at the slightest sound.

At night the animals rely on their hearing and the slightest sound from the hide will stop them drinking. They look up and assess the direction of the sound and whether it represents a threat or not. After a short while of assessment the duiker relaxes and continues to slake his thirst.

On a different night a lone Sable bull proceeded cautiously towards the waterhole to drink. After assessing all was safe he came to the edge of the water to drink. After a few minutes of deep drawing drinks he stepped back and walked off into the night.

“Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be.” ~ Duane Michals

Unexpectedly, a small herd of wildebeest came into the light to drink. They were reasonably relaxed considering they were exposed but were obviously thirsty. They drank without incident and quietly went on their way.

Without a sound a female White rhino came into the light to drink. Despite her size she did not make a sound, even when drinking.

“Between fact and context is judgement. A photograph captures the fact, the composition and frame creates the context which can have a profound effect on the opinion and appreciation.” ~ Mike Haworth

From a photographic point of view you hold your breath when three rhinos come into the light to drink. It is a time of peace when a mother brings her two calves in to drink. They are quiet, there is no fuss just peace.

At around 18h00 each evening, like clockwork, the Double Banded sandgrouse came to the waterhole to drink. They flew in with their characteristic squeaking so typical of sandgrouse. Many pairs flew in each evening. Some stayed and just rested.

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The quiet before the revelation. As a photographer you just sit quietly in the dark, swimming in your own thoughts, reflecting on all that you have seen during the day and the conversations you have had with fellow nature watchers. It is cool, not cold, but quiet. The Fiery Necked nightjars are calling in the surrounding bush. Every now and then a Pearl-spotted owlet “buuurps”.

“A photographic hide is like a studio in the wild.” ~ Mike Haworth

This male Grey duiker was clearly intrigued by the fragrance of this female. The interaction was quiet and gentle. Not pushing just quiet acceptance. The larger female got to drink in peace and the pair walked off into the night after about 15 minutes.

A male Double Banded sandgrouse resting after his fly in. In many cases these sandgrouse fly many kilometres to drink and when they have a chick to feed, they soak their breast feathers in water to take the moisture back to their waiting chicks.

A female Double Banded sandgrouse drinking at the waterhole just after 18h00. Many pairs flew in at that time to drink. You can them hear them flying in from afar with their unique and musical “kellie-wyn”.

Early one cool morning this young hyaena came to the water hole to drink. Eventually it was joined by two others from the clan. There was no noise. They were dead quiet and it watched attentively as they drank. As quickly as they arrived they disappeared, not to be seen again for the remainder of our stay.

The hide was set about 100 metres below the lodge. It was a real thrill to walk down from the lodge in the dark at around 5h30 not knowing what you would find. The feeling was the same leaving the hide in the dark at various times at night.

“I love the nightlife where we hide in plain sight and where life is rife.
From sunset to sunrise, the stage is lit with special appearances from a changing moon.
The actors are natural, experienced and unscripted.
The set is bejeweled with a kaleidoscope of colours, courtesy the weather and moon.
Beyond the lights an infinite ceiling is spangled with twinkling stars.
The music is choired with the melodies sung by frogs, nightjars and owls.” ~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Selati’s Sable Antelope

One of the main features of Selati Game Reserve (SGR) are Sable antelope. I spent a week with CNP Safaris in September last year at SGR with a group of wildlife photographers visiting the newly commercialised Klipspringer Lodge to experience its photographic hide and unique wildlife, flora and landscapes opportunities.

“The most beautiful gift of nature is that it gives one pleasure to look around and try to comprehend what we see.” ~ Albert Einstein.

The Selati Game Reserve is a large reserve, with diverse topography and biodiversity. In the east, there are large granite hills, where Verreaux’s eagles and Klipspringers can be found. The dominant vegetation types are Combretum and Mopane woodland. This habitat is well-suited to the large elephant and giraffe population found there. Special species occurring in this reserve are Sable and Eland.

This game reserve hosts several wonderful lodges nestled below and among magnificent granite outcrops and pockets of verdant indigenous flora, which provide SGR’s unique topography and lowveld vistas.

“The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” ~ Edward Abbey.

The reserve has a strong conservation orientation where its objective is to manage the area back to its original state of biodiversity while keeping the indigenous species intact and tourism impact low.

There are four species of Sable antelope in Africa : Southern, Zambia, Eastern and Giant or Angolan. The Sable species found in SGR is the Southern species. Between 1930 and 1960 in the Letaba/Gravelotte area of Limpopo, the number of Sable antelope decreased from an estimated 20 000 to 1 500. Research revealed that the development of livestock farms, deterioration of habitat and uncontrolled hunting were the main reasons for this dramatic decrease in animal numbers. Sable had been freely roaming in SGR when the reserve was formed in 1993 and SGR focused on breeding Sable as a crucial source of income to fund the nature reserve.

The populations of several herbivores in the Kruger National Park (KNP) declined further in the 1970s and 1980s, partly due to several years of low rainfall. With the increase in rainfall in the 1990s, numbers of most species increased, but the Roan, Tsessebe, Eland and Sable numbers failed to pick up. The population growth rate of Sable and Roan remained depressed despite improved rains, suggesting that rainfall was not the only contributing factor to their low recovery rate. The young male in the next image is attempting to improve the low recovery rate with a young female.

Sable antelope numbers in KNP crashed from an estimated 2 240 in 1986 to 1 232 in 1993 and again dropped to around 507 in 1999 and around 300 today. The population estimate does not include formally and privately protected areas outside the natural distribution range which expand the population of mature individuals to a range of between 643 and 857 individuals. Available census methods are not accurate enough to determine the exact size of this small population.

Over the period 1991–2015, there has been an estimated decline in KNP of 71% ; and an overall decline, based on 10 protected areas within the natural distribution range, of 65%. The KNP subpopulation appeared to stabilise between 2004 and 2012 at around 385 to 400 individuals.

There is an estimated 6 995 individual Sable existing on private game farms and ranches within and outside the natural distribution range. Less than 10% of these individuals could be considered wild (at least 68% existing in breeding camps or enclosures). The total number eligible for the Red List ranges from between 84 and 490 mature individuals, bringing the total estimate of the wild and free roaming population of between 820 and 1350 mature individuals.

Between 1930 and 1955, KNP built earthen dams to sustain water supply in the more arid central and northern parts of the park. More artificial water points were built between 1955 and 1959 on concerns of reduced access to sections of the Sabie river at that time. In the following 20 years, park management began to notice, especially along the western boundary of Kruger, that the seasonal migrating species such as Zebra and Blue Wildebeest were no longer following their summer / winter grazing routes but rather begun to anchor around these artificial water points. Sable need water daily so they also began to concentrate on the artificial water points.

“All things are bound together. All things connect. Whatever happens to the Earth happens to the children of the Earth.” ~ Chief Seattle.

The initial decline in Sable numbers was attributed to deteriorating habitat quality and increased predation pressure following the installation of artificial water points.

The increase in herbivores around the water points attracted lions and hyaenas, increasing predation. At the same time, the Zebra, Wildebeest and Buffalo probably changed the types of grass growing in the erstwhile Sable strongholds. Sable are known to be selective herbivores while zebra and buffalo are less selective and graze on all types of grass.

The Sable Antelope is an “edge” species which frequents the woodland/grassland ecotone. They are selective feeders with a preference for fresh growth grasses (40– 140 mm) of both sweet and sour species, found in mixed veld. Sable are dependent on drinking water and will drink daily so are susceptible to droughts when there is a rapid depletion in forage quality. They also do not like severe cold spells and seek out thick vegetation to shield against the cold and winds.

The Sable and Roan antelope are members of the Hippotragus family. The scientific name, Hippotragus is a composite of two greek words, where “hippo” means horse-like and “tragus” meaning goat. The Sable antelope has horse-like physical features with a long face and caprine (goat-like) ears. It has a powerful neck and shoulders. The adult Sable antelope is characterised by its glossy black coat with white under parts and white facial markings. Cows and young are dark brown in colour. Both sexes have stiff black manes along the dorsal aspects of their necks. The shoulder height of bulls is around 1.4 metres, and they can weigh up to 270 Kg. The bull only reaches full maturity around six years of age.

“Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.” ~ Matt Hardy

There is little dimorphism in body size. A mature bull is larger than a female and his scimitar shaped horns are longer and more curved. Females and juveniles form herds, while sub-adult males tend to stay with the herds for longer than other antelope and eventually form bachelor groups.

Both sexes have long horns, which are ridged, and which curve backwards. Tips of horns are smooth and sharp pointed. The scimitar-shaped horns of mature bulls can be up to 1.6 m in length. Horns on females are shorter and slimmer. A Sable’s ears are brick red at the back and shorter than that of the Roan antelope. The horn of young become visible at the age of two months.

A young sable bull. His pelage was darkening and his horns were not fully developed. His gender is evident from the penal sheath at the base of his belly.

Sable antelope occur in herds between 10 and 30. As they grow older, Sables change colour. Calves are born reddish-brown, with virtually no markings. As they age, the white markings appear, and the rest of the coat gets darker — the older the animal, the more striking the contrast.

A small herd of adult Sable bulls. Bulls compete for females and territory. The fights are ritualised. Initially they posture and attempt to show their dominance without resorting to battle. When bulls do decide to fight they drop to their knees and engage in robust horn wrestling battles.

“Photography helps people to see.” ~ Berenice Abbott

You will notice, lighter coloured skin patches on male’s foreleg knees where the hair has been worn away and callouses have formed as a result of them kneeling down to horn wrestle.

“The pictures are there, and you just take them.” ~ Robert Capa

When attacked a Sable antelope can run at speeds of just under 60 kilometres per hour for up to three kilometres. When cornered or wounded, a Sable antelope will fight back. The Sable will slash with their horns back and forth across its back at great speed in an attempt to impale their adversary. Many years ago, Dr John Condy, a family friend’s father and wildlife vet in Zimbabwe, told a story of finding a lioness and a Sable both dead but with a lioness impaled on the Sable’s horns.

The Sable together with the Roan antelope are considered rare antelope. They are both striking in appearance. The first time a Sable emerged from the trees behind the waterhole it was a real thrill to see this regal antelope approach the waterhole. It would stop and listen at the edge of the open area around the waterhole and when satisfied there were no threats it would approach the water.

Invariably the Sable would stand at the edge of the water and listen and look around again before bending down to drink. This gave us many opportunities to capture their poise and stature. The Sable came to drink every day, mostly during the day but sometimes at night. The Klipspringer hide proved to be a wonderful feature from which to photograph Sable in numbers.

“If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it.” ~ Jay Maisel

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Klipspringer Lodge, Selati

Along with a group of fellow amateur wildlife photographers, I visited Klipspringer Lodge in Selati Game Reserve in September 2021 with CNP Safaris. Selati Game Reserve had, until recently, been a private game reserve which only the land owners could access.

“A man practices the art of adventure when he breaks the chain of routine and renews his life through reading new books, traveling to new places, making new friends, taking up new hobbies and adopting new viewpoints.” ~ Wilfred Peterson

Selati Game Reserve comprises a group of like-minded conservation oriented land owners who took down the internal fences to allow the free movement of wildlife within the reserve. The reserve now has only an external fence. Selati Game Reserve is located west of Kruger National Park between Gravelotte and Mica in the Limpopo Province.

Source: tembalodges.co.uk

Selati Game Reserve comprises an area of around 30 000 hectares and has the Ga-Selati river flowing from west to east through the reserve.

“You must go on adventures to find out where you truly belong” ~ Sue Fitzmaurice

Recently several landowners in Selati decided to open up their lodges to commercial operation creating the opportunity for us to be able to visit the game reserve. Klipspringer Lodge is beautifully located against a granite outcrop which is home to a family of Klipspringers. The lodge is well appointed with a verdant oasis in the bushveld.

Below the Klipspringer Lodge, the owners have built a photographic hide. CNP teamed up with the lodge owners to provide night lights and camera supports to be able to photograph wildlife day and night from the hide.

Up at 5h30 on our first morning we were keen to see what would come to the waterhole in the early morning. We were fortunate enough to have three Spotted hyaenas visit. The sun had not yet risen and their stay was brief. In fact the sun did not show its face much as the weather was generally overcast during our stay at Klipspringer.

Although there are lions and leopards in Selati Nature Reserve we did not get to hear them or see them during our stay. Presumably there were other water sources which they found more compelling.

I had never seen an adult hyaena get down on its foreleg knees to drink water. All the while they were very alert and stopped drinking to listen at any slight sound.

Several Grey duiker came down to drink at the waterhole night and day. Duiker are generally nocturnal and quite shy. There seemed to be a pair of Grey duikers around the waterhole with several individuals coming in to drink early in the morning and at night. Only the male has horns but the female is larger than the male.

On the odd occasion when the sun showed its face the drinkers were beautifully reflected in the still water. The duiker feeds mainly on leaves, but is one of the few antelope known to eat carrion and insects.

There are 21 species of duiker and the Grey duiker is one of the largest. Duikers in the genus Cephalophus have the same distinctive body type, although the different species vary in size. They have low-slung bodies on slender legs, wedge-shaped heads topped by a crest of long hair, and relatively large eyes. Environment and habitat influence the overall body shape and colouration of animals. As a consequence, duiker living in an open habitat are longer-legged, less hunchbacked, and lighter in color (tawny or grey) than the species that inhabit dense, dark forests.

Moderate sized impala herds frequently came to drink at the waterhole. They were quite skittish and tended to easily scare each other. There are two types of impala, the Common and Black-faced. Only the Common was abundant in the woodlands of Selati.

When viewing an impala from the side you will notice a marked difference in the shading pattern on the back of the animal, which becomes increasing lighter towards the underside. This biological camouflage serves to break up the 3-dimensional form of the animal, aiding in background matching with their environment. Impala are the only antelope species to have metatarsal glands above the hoof of the hind legs. It has thought that the scent released from this gland may act as a chemical cue for other herd members to follow during a chase.

Impala tend to be most active during the day. They congregate in three distinct social groups from territorial males with their harem of females to bachelor herds and female herds. Most of the time we saw herds of females interspersed with juvenile males. There was no snorting or fighting by rutting males which is so evident during the rutting period in April and May.

The kudu found in southern Africa are Greater kudu. Lesser kudu are found in central and the drier regions of north eastern Africa. Greater kudu live in clans which are social groups of about seven to ten individuals. These clans consist of adult females, juveniles, and adult males less than two years old.

A beautiful female kudu at the waterhole – constantly alert. I have never found out why several African antelope have white lips such as the Kudu, Eland, Impala, Water buck, Reedbuck, Roan and Sable antelope. Mother nature always has a reason, I just have not found it yet.

Kudu, like Nyala, are sexually dimorphic meaning the male and female of the same species are different in physical appearance. The Kudu male has horns and the female does not have horns. The Kudu female is generally larger than a Nyala female and greyer in colour. They both have white stripes down their sides but the Nyala’s stripes are more numerous and distinct and the Nyala female does not have a ridge of white hair along her spine and a brown mane along her neck.

A Nyala bull has corkscrew horns with a yellow tip. It has a thick dark brown coat. Both male and female Nyala have white spots on their checks below their eyes. The white chevron marking between the male’s eyes is thought to be for camouflage purposes breaking up the shape of the face in the light and dark areas of a woodland thicket.

The male Nyala’s legs are particularly colourful being dark brown on his thighs, black knees and ochre coloured calves with black fetlocks and hooves. A male Nyala horns are around 70cm in length and have one to two spirals depending on its age.

A male Nyala can be particularly aggressive. Their threatening posture is to arch their back, fluff up their tails and and raise their dorsal manes. I have even seen a male Nyala threaten a Sable bull with this dominance posture.

The Nyala female has a distinctive chestnut pelage with many more white body strips than a Kudu and white spots on its belly and upper thighs.

“The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for a newer and richer experience.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Any antelope smaller than a Nyala male is a ram and larger is a bull. A similar idea applies to a Nyala female where any antelope smaller is a ewe and any antelope larger is a cow.

Although a giraffe has seven vertebra in its neck, the same as a human, each vertebra is around 25cm long. Even with its exceptionally long neck and a tongue around 46 cm in length, it is too short to reach the ground to drink of water, so the giraffe has to spread its legs and bend down in an awkward position that makes it vulnerable to predators. Giraffe do not need to drink water every day as they get most of their water from the leaves they feed on.

Looks can be deceiving. Looking at the front legs, a giraffe’s elbow (joint between humerus and ulna) is the top joint and what looks to be the elbow is in fact its wrist ( joint between the ulna and metacarpus).

Pelage patterns are important in distinguishing giraffe sub-species. The pelage is medium-to-reddish brown, broken into splotches by buff-colored borders. Blotches of some individuals (particularly males) tend to darken with age. Every giraffe has a unique pelage pattern much like a human fingerprint and does not change with age.

“The things you are passionate about are not random, they are your calling.” ~ Anonymous

Until recently, it was widely recognised that there was only one species of giraffe, and nine subspecies. New genetic research, conducted by Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) and partners, has shown that there are in fact four distinct species of giraffe, and five subspecies. All four giraffe species and their subspecies live in geographically distinct areas throughout. Source: giraffeconservation.org

The South African giraffe has star-shaped patches in various shades of brown, surrounded by a light tan colour. Their lower legs are randomly speckled with uneven spots.

Giraffe are always very cautious when approaching a waterhole. They can stand and watch wait and listen for many minutes before they are satisfied it is safe to approach the water. Male giraffe tend to be taller than females and a female’s ossicones are normally smaller than a males and tuffed with hair. This group looked to be females.

An adult bull Kudu has two complete spirals with a striking ridge on each horn. Dominance ranking between males is based on age; males emphasise their size by hunching their backs and raising their manes, but posturing usually sorts out the dominance ranking. They will only start sparring if they are equal size.

You can tell a Kudu’s age by the direction of the tips of the horns: If the tips point back and out, for instance, the male is about 3 three years old. The number of twists in its spiral horns signal its age with a fully mature male having two and a half to three full twists. The horns do not begin to grow until the bull reaches 6–12 months, twisting once at around two-years-of-age and not reaching the full two-and-a-half twists until the age of six.

Kudus have excellent vision and hearing. They communicate mostly through sight and sound. They follow each others’ scent trails. Body signals, such as flashing the white undersides of their tails, are used to indicate the movements and presence of predators. Kudus have a loud bark to warn others of danger and this can be heard for quite a distance through the thick fauna of the bushveld.

The Eland were very wary during the day and preferred to visit the waterhole at night. This appeared to be a young male judging from the stout spiral horns and emerging hair on his forehead and growing dewlap. Unfortunately he did not stay long and never came in to drink at the waterhole during the day.

It is only the young warthogs that have hair on their bodies which they lose as they get older. There mane grows down their neck and along their spine. Females can produce up to eight piglets. These piglets are favourite snacks for lions and leopards. Piglets are weaned around four months and mature around 20 months.

A male warthog with a few followers. This character has five Red-billed oxpeckers enjoying the ride. This male had particularly long tusks making him a formidable prey for any lion or leopard. The not so attractive warts on his face have an important protection role when he is fighting. Common warthogs have two upper and four to six lower incisors.

The hide turned out to be a superb place from which to observe and photograph wildlife during the day and at night. The mirrorless cameras, on silent mode, are ideal and providing photographers are not talking or rustling bags or papers, the wildlife takes no notice of them in the hide.

“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.” ~ Oprah Winfrey

A big advantage of the hide is repeat business. If you are getting to grips with a new camera as I was with my Olympus OMD-E M1X, and missed the shot or needed to refine settings, there would always be another opportunity in the next few days. The hide is a wonderful place to put your new ideas or settings into practice.

“I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” ~ Eric Roth

There was a plethora of wildlife during the day and at night with a huge diversity of mammals and birds. The lighting conditions varied enormously during the day due to the cloudy weather with intermittent patches of sunshine. The night lights created constant light at a constant colour.

“The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” ~ John Muir

My next blog is about the numerous sable antelope which are a feature of Selati Game Reserve.

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Mashatu – young wanderer

It was our last game drive in Mashatu in south east Botswana in August 2021. At that time of the year, the mornings were chilly but the days warmed up beautifully. Every morning we met for coffee and a rusk at 6h00. It was still dark and the idea was to leave camp at first light around 6h30 to be in the reserve at sunrise. It took at least forty five minutes to make our way down to the Majale river where we knew the wildlife sightings would improve. In winter wildlife is forced to congregate around the remaining pools of water in the Majale river. The leopards tend to centre their activities in this area because of the abundance of game and wonderful enormous trees to hide and lie in during the heat of the day.

“If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail.” ~Heraclitus.

We were ambling along, wondering what we would see next when we were privileged to come upon a young male leopard. At around 22 months, the sub-adult leopard should be independent of his mother. Each young male is forced out of his natal territory, away from his mother and out of the sanctuary of his father’s territory. Beyond his familiar boundaries he is forced to fend for himself. His new reality is harsh, now alone he has to survive and thrive despite many arch enemies, such as lions and hyaenas and territorial male leopards.

It is estimated that a young male, independent of its mother can venture up to 24km from his home territory in search of new areas, scouting new hunting areas while trying to avoid other predators. Leopard cubs normally leave their mother when they are between 12 and 18 months’ old. The males leave earlier, while female cubs may stay near their natal range for longer. Leopards reach sexual maturity around 24 to 28 months but rarely breed before three to four years of age. After about four and a half years, these now mature male leopards, which have survived battles, injury, hunger, conflict, and tangles with lions and hyaenas, start to challenge for their own territory. With fortitude they will progressively dominate that area and take over female leopards and their territories.

“Imagine for only a moment what this world would be like if change did not occur. You may say life was simpler, yes in some cases that is right. But just as children grow, we grow with change. Imagine trying to stop a child from growing up, it is impossible to do. Accepting change as a way of life allows you to continue to develop and move forward.”~ Catherine Pulsifer

This young male looked to be around two to two-and-a-half years’ old. Alone, he was wandering along the river course. He stopped regularly to rest and lie on fallen tree trunks. There, he would just listen and observe what was going on around him.

The colours of winter, with its browns, oranges and yellows, enabled this male leopard to blend beautifully into his surroundings.

He walked into a croton grove which provided dappled light and great camouflage. In the grove he found a sign post and spent some time reading the scents left on the tree trunk. Satisfied that all was well he sharpened his claws on the tree trunk leaving his own scent. Leopards have interdigital glands on their paws and leave their scent by reaching up to scratch trees with their claws at just above eye level.

“Sensory perception is the silken web that binds our separate nervous systems into the encompassing ecosystem.” ~ David Abram

Tree-clawing or scratching have been interpreted as conveying a variety of signals, from territorial marking to simple sharpening of claws. Scratching leaves traces of interdigital glands which act as chemical signals and the visual claw marks give an indication of the size and strength of the leopard.

This male was very active. It was not enough to read the “sign post” as had to climb the tree. Perhaps there was the faint scent of an old kill in the tree which caught his attention.

Once up the tree he had a good lookout. Leopards are supremely adapted to the arboreal habitat. Finding a comfortable horizontal branch he stopped sat down and just watched all the goings on around him.

After spending some time observing from his high lookout he decided to come back to terra firma. He then decided to walk parallel to the Majale river bank around 20 metres in from the bank. He had plenty of cover and many big trees to escape into if he unexpectedly bumped into lions or hyaenas.

It is fascinating to watch a leopard wander along the top of a river bank. It is clear he is walking through a world of sensory impulses. Smells and sounds guide him along his path.

On his way down to the Majale river he crossed several small sand tributaries which when flowing fed into the Majale. The beauty of the sandy background is that it presented the leopard in an uncluttered background. The shape of his face suggests this will be a large male leopard when he is fully grown.

“We live in a world which in some respects is mysterious, things can be experienced which remain inexplicable, not everything which happens can be anticipated. The unexpected and the incredible belong in this world, only then is life whole. For me the world has from the beginning been infinite and ungraspable.”~ Carl Jung.

In an interesting article from the Pondoro website at Pondoro.co.za. , the reasons for scent marking might be anyone of the following:

  • territorial advertising to inform other leopards of their presence.
  • a female might mark more regularly than normal to advertise her going into oestrus.

The function would be to either avoid (it acts a warning to stay away from the territory) or to find each other more easily (mating).

Scent marking can be done in a variety of ways:

  • the spraying of urine upwards and horizontally onto trees and bushes.
  • marking with interdigital glands by clawing the bark of trees just above eye level, but still easily visible.
  • marking by raking the ground with their hind claws leaving their scent with interdigital glands.
  • reaching up to prominent branches situated just above eye level and rubbing against it with scent glands on their cheeks and heads. Cats have sebaceous glands that coat their hair and skin with an oily secretion. Grooming the fur by their roughly barbed tongue stimulate these glands that are attached to the roots to release secretions. These secretions waterproof the fur, and by rubbing against something, a chemical signature would also be left behind.

These scent markings can persist for weeks. Leopards are also creatures of habit and will mark the same trees and bushes while patrolling well worn trails. A leopard scent marking with glands on the head and cheeks would be done as high as possible to try and amplify their height or size.

Leopards of both sexes patrol their ranges and scent-mark trees, bushes and rocks with urine mixed with anal gland secretions. Scraping, urine-spraying and tree-clawing are most commonly used by leopards

Eventually he walked down into one of the larger tributaries feeding into the Majale river. The landscape view shows the wonderful camouflage that his rossetted coat offers him.

After walking for quite a while he decided to lie down and rest. His resting place gave him a good view along the tributary.

He lay on the edge of the tributary for quite a while. Although his head and eyes were stationary his ears were constantly moving backwards, forwards and sideways accessing the direction and nature of the sounds around him.

In his wanderings he did not cross paths with any potential prey. Eventually as the winter morning started to heat up he climbed into a Mashatu tree where it looked as though he was going to rest for the day.

Once a leopard has settled down to sleep on an elevated tree bough it looks supremely comfortable. No lions or hyaenas can get at it. It will be a peaceful rest provided a troop of baboons do not see him.

It was a privilege to spend an hour or so following this wandering leopard. The leopards in Mashatu are, for the most part, habituated to game vehicles and take little notice of them. The game vehicles are allowed to drive off-road which allows guests to follow a leopard in its wanderings. This provides exceptional photographic opportunities.

“The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” ~ Bertrand Russell.

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike