Masai Mara – nomads

There comes a time in a young male lion’s life when he get kicked out of the pride. He becomes a nomad. This happens to virtually all young male lions. These nomads are part of the group of 25% of lion cubs which survive their first two years of life. According to documentary wildlife filmaker and conservationist, Dereck Joubert, only about one in eight male lions make it to adulthood.

“A quest of any kind is an heroic journey. It is a rite of passage that carries you to an inner place of silence and majesty and encourages you to live life more courageously and genuinely.” ~ Denise Linn

At about two to three years of age, young lions are no longer tolerated by their pride. Their mothers are ready for their next litter of cubs and their fathers begin to see them as a threat to the stability of the pride. If there is a pride take-over, juvenile males are likely to be forced out of the pride at an even younger age just to stay alive. This sometimes also applies to females, particlarly if the pride is getting too large. Nature has its very own methods of keeping the gene pool diversified and healthy.

“The very essence of instinct is that it’s followed independently of reason.” ~ Charles Darwin

There are very few instances where fathers form coalitions with their sons to dominate a territory. A notable exception was Notch and his five son coalition controlling the Marsh pride up in the northern part of the Mara triangle in the Masai Mara National Reserve.

Usually, after being evicted from the pride, young male lions either roam alone and land up scavenging until they learn to hunt, or, disparate young males come together to form coalitions. Sometimes they are brothers and cousins, other times they are young males who decide to cooperate because it is easier to hunt and defend themselves as a team than on their own. The eviction process is harsh and initially the young males do not seem to understand why they have been banned from their family group. It is an ancient, if unceremonious, rite of passage.

Nomads are very wary. They know they are trespassing. Perhaps it is their father’s turf or another unknown male’s territory. Either way, if they are found, there will be big trouble and life lessons will be taught swiftly and violently.

Frequently, as the nomad walks through another male’s territory he will stop and just look and listen, scanning his surroundings for any sign that the owner of this piece of hunting ground is awake and onto him.

Male lions mark their territory. The odour must be distinctive. These two young nomads were deciphering the chemical messages by drawing the odours through the Jacobson organ in the roof of their mouth which give them the “grimaced” look. These chemical messages appear to give the recipient a clear sense of the size, strength and age of the messager’s owner.

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” ~ Charles Darwin

These nomads might be physically big and strong but they have still to build that inter strength which comes from self belief. Consequently, they are frequently reassuring each other by head rubbing.

Even as nomads, at times the cub in them is revealed. Some brief respite from the realisation that life is rushing in.

“Self respect, self love and self worth, all start with self. Stop looking outside yourself for your value.” ~ Rob Liano

There are moments in the bush when we as human’s can identify with what that young male lion is going through. No words are necessary.

“Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.” ~ Dorothy M. Neddermeyer

Each lion has a different character. Some are brawlers, some are lovers, some are confident and others not so much. It is apparent that confidence in a male lion is acquired. In his nomad years he learns the value of cooperation, he also learns independence by learning how to hunt and defend himself. It is these strengths, knowledge and skills learnt through testing himself against the world that he matures into a self assured full maned male lion, capable of sustaining his own pride.

This was another coalition of three nomads, around three years old. They were up river from the previous three younger nomads that we found a few days earlier. These three nomads were older, bigger, stronger and had more confidence. They were in Scar and Ziggy’s territory along this stretch of the Mara river. They knew they were trespassing but did not seem to fussed about it.

The dominant male in the coalition of three seemed the most confident and relaxed. The other two were less so, and lay in the croton bushes partially hidden on the edge of steep bank down to the Mara river.

“Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” ~ Suzy Kassem

This confident young male lay on the banks of the Mara river surveying the land as if he owned it. Perhaps starting to get a sense of what it feels like to rule a territory.

“Confidence is when you believe in yourself and your abilities, arrogance is when you think you are better than others and act accordingly.” ~ Stewart Stafford

Nomadic males entering a pride male’s territory inevitably affects cub survival and mating access. Success rates of nomadic males gaining tenure with a pride increases with age and coalition size.

Nomadic males can even regulate populations through their dispersal patterns, territorial structure, and reproductive strategies. Usually, lions live in permanent female groupings (prides) that maintain exclusive territories and are temporarily defended by male coalitions. Males compete with each other for prides and nomadic coalitions in an attempt to oust the resident male or males.

Nomadic takeovers are the primary drivers of natal dispersal, resulting in large variation in dispersal age, with higher mortality among young lions, and infanticide by nomads tends to mediate population growth. Source: Lion population dynamics: do nomadic males matter? Natalia Borrego

For maturing males to survive their nomad years, they have to be fit, strong, and must have learnt the ways of the wild. All of these skills together with the confidence that comes with survival lessons well learnt will be needed to take over and maintain their own pride.

“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” ~ Rumi

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara lions – Scar, Bob Marley and family

I visited the Masai Mara in early November last year. I have never been to the Mara at that time of the year. Most of the wildbeest migration had passed and the rains had begun so that time had the potential to deliver low productivity, difficult photography. The one thing that I was sure of was I would witness the circle of life.

“Your soul awakens your mind. Your mind makes your choices. Your choices manifest your life. Your life is your lesson. Your lessons create wisdom. Your wisdom enriches your soul.”
~ Karen A. Baquiran

I was particularly interested to see the Mara with dark thunderstorm skies as backgrounds against verdent green plains and hills of the Oloololo escarpment. I was also intrigued to see how the predators, especially the lion prides, were doing after the main migration had passed through two months before. I was very pleasantly surprised on both counts.

“Returning to the same place can bring new insights, new awareness and greater depth of understanding and appreciation. When wandering with nature everything is always changing providing new opportunities to learn.” ~ Mike Haworth

I joined several other enthusiastic photographers from all around the world at Wild Eye’s Mara bush camp located on the Mara Triangle bank of the Mara river. The bush camp is located in the croton grove about a kilometre up the river from the Purungat bridge and district gate, right in the south east corner of the Mara triangle.

Source: MasaiMaraTravel.com

To see active lions you need to be out and about in the Mara by 6h00 as the lions are ususally looking for some shade and a place to rest and sleep for the day between 7h00 and 8h00. Given that most of the zebra and wildebeest had already moved on down into the Serengeti on their journey through Tanzania towards Ndutu in the south where the wildebeest calve on mass around February each year.

The good rains, before we arrived, had transformed the Mara into a blaze of verdant green. Most of the wildebeest and zebra had moved on, though surprisingly there were still several large herds around. The lion prides had scattered, moving away from the river to follow the grazers. The rain had filled up many of the seasonal drainage gullies, called luggas, and created numerous small ponds which meant the grazers had plenty of places to drink in this vast space.

This first image is of one of Scar’s coalition partners, “Bob Marley”. He was also a massive male lion in his prime but had an easily identifiable growth on his top lip just below his nose. I have never seen this on a lion before and never got to find out what caused it.

Even though we were out on the Mara at 6h00, the time we allowed out of camp, by the time we found Bob Marley and his two lioness on a zebra kill it was mostly eaten. The lionesses must have killed the zebra during the previous night. Bob Marley’s stomach shows he got his lion’s share.

A couple of cubs were clearly impressed with their father but he remained aloof despite advances by the cub to solicit some fatherly affection.

Bob Marley wandered down to the lugga at the bottom of the hill to where there was shade and water leaving the lionesses and cubs to sort themselves out.

One of the two lionesses lay next to the zebra kill while her growing son was still getting stuck in.

This young male looked like he took more than his fair share of the zebra, judging from the size of his belly.

Full belly or not, this young male full of blood and mud was having great fun chasing off vultures.

One lioness was the last to reluctantly leave the zebra carcass even though there was little left. The next phase of diners were waiting all around. Two pairs of Black backed jackal and a variety of vultures including White backed, Lappet-faced, Griffon, and Hooded.

Once the jackals and vultures finally managed to get access to the zebra kill, it was a free-for-all brawl. In the midst of the squabbling vultures was a pair of Black backed jackals. These jackals did not seem too concerned about the larger vultures such as Lappet-faced and Griffon vultures. Success favours the bold.

“The devil whispers ‘You can not withstand the storm’. The warrior replies ‘I am the storm'”.

Late in the afternoon, we moved down to the Mara river to find more lion activity. It was almost dark when we had found Scar, and Ziggy close to where we had left them sleeping in the shade next to the river in the morning, so we knew the rough area they were likely to be in. I used a flash because of the low light. Even with full power and a MagMod Magbeam flash extender I could not effectively light up Scar because of his distance from us.

“The greatest fear in the world is the opinion of others, and the moment you are unafraid of the crowd, you are no longer a sheep you become a lion. A great roar arises in your heart, the roar of freedom.” ~ Osho

When we arrived, we found Scar aggressively marshalling two of the young males in his pride. He exerted his dominance in no uncertain terms. After he had sorted out his sons, he wandered down to the edge of the Mara river and began to roar. Even the hippos kept their distance.

It was clear the lionesses and cubs were scared of him. Once Scar began to teach his sons who was boss the lionesses and cubs quickly moved out of the way.

Scar has a marked limp on his rear right leg. Apparently his leg tendons were damaged in a tangle with a buffalo. The damage has not stopped him and he has held onto his dominant rank in the pride.

We left Scar lying on the bare sand bank next to the Mara river because it was getting too dark to photograph and we had to be back in camp by 19h00.

Current estimates for lion populations suggest there are as few as 20,000 lions left in the wild, with less than 2,000 left in Kenya. Their numbers have dropped by nearly half in the last two decades.

“To hear a male lion roar as the light fades at dusk will send shivers down your spine. A prime memory is awakened welling deep from our genetic past. That gut-wrenching roar will resonate like thunder in your chest leaving you feeling breathless. Through the power and intonation the message is clear and the shiver reminds you that the darkness favours this warrior.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike

Seasonal changes

I really enjoy going to new places to photograph wildlife but there is something revealing about going back to the same place over and over. Helen and I do this when we go to Marievale bird sanctuary. This is a wetland with a wonderful diversity of birdlife about 45 minutes drive south of Johannesburg in South Africa.

“I believe the world is incomprehensibly beautiful — an endless prospect of magic and wonder.” ~Ansel Adams

What makes it so interesting is that there are marked seasonal changes in the bird sightings, breeding colours and behaviours. The changing water levels in the wetland dictate that you can see quite different selections of birds at different times of the year, according to the water levels.

On this occasion we visting Marievale in mid-October, which is early spring in South Africa. The maturing male long-tailed widow birds were just starting to grow their long tail feathers but many of them were still plumed in their brown winter colours.

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” ~ Joseph Campbell

The more mature male long-tailed widow birds had already grown their long luxurious black tail feathers and there body plumage had mostly moulted from the winter browns to their breeding black.

The male long-tailed widow birds wasted no time impressing the females and chasing off rivals from their patch of grassland.

This long-tailed widowbird had all but shed its winter colours and was declaring his territory from a old dead stem of statis.

When displaying the long-tailed widowbird has a slow exaggerated flight. It is designed to show the female widowbirds his male prowness, his long tail feathers and flashy epaulets.

The water levels in the reed and marsh areas were still low in early spring which allowed the smaller waders to get to work on the muddy banks along the shallow waters. This little stint was busy foraging for small invertebrates in the mud. It is a very small wader which breeds in Arctic Europe and Asia, so is a long-distance migrant, flying south to Africa and south Asia in non-breeding times. 

The numbers of this species depend on the population of lemmings. In poor lemming years, predatory species such as skuas and snowy owls take Arctic-breeding waders instead.

“Nature has its own rhythms and laws and it is always very patient with everything that it accomplishes. Growth requires time, patience and peace, and nature knows this best. As we admire the works of nature, we can learn how to enter the same natural flow.” ~Spirit Button

The water was still shallow enough in the deeper sections for this glossy ibis to forage. These long decurved billed waders prefer wetlands, marshes, muddy lake-shores and flooded grasslands.

This glossy ibis had moulted into its summer breeding colour which, in good light, are gorgeous. The glossy ibis is a tactile forager, probing the riverbed with its long, decurved bill. Its long bill is adapted to the removal of long prey (e.g. worms) from mudflats. The decurved bill is inserted into crab burrows in marshes and mudflats and into gaps under rocks next to the water’s edge. Curved bills penetrate further than straight ones into both types of cavity. Curved bills are also capable of greater rotation at maximum penetration. These ibises will eat insects, snails, crabs, frogs, and small fish.

“The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration.” ~ Claude Monet

The flora at the water’s edge was starting to come out in bloom offering a greater variety of insects upon which to feed. Although we only saw individuals, glossy ibises nest in colonies, often nesting together in mixed heronries with other species.

Summer visitors such as the ruff had also arrived all the way from Russia. This migratory bird did not have its breeding colours which it takes on back in Russia. Ruffs from Siberia tend to migrate down to southern Africa and India. The maximum distances known to be traversed in a single flight is 4000kms.

“Intuitions are like migratory birds, they come without a map without a reason.” ~ Amit Ray

The ruff is a long-necked, pot-bellied bird. This species shows marked sexual dimorphism; the male is much larger than the female (the reeve), and has breeding plumage which includes brightly coloured head tufts, bare orange facial skin, extensive black on the breast, and the large collar of ornamental feathers that inspired this bird’s English name. The female and the non-breeding male have grey-brown upperparts and mainly white underparts.

A Levailliant’s cisticola. These are small insectivorous birds closely related to warblers. The genus contains about 50 species, of which only two are not found in Africa. These are non-migratory birds and they prefer open grasslands, preferably along side wetlands.

A hottentot teal foraging. This is a dabbling duck which means it upends itself to feed underwater on the riverbed. The colourful teal speculums are difficult to see when the bird’s wings are folded, but these irridescent speculums can be very obvious in flight. The speculum is a patch, often distinctly coloured, on the secondary wing feathers, or remiges, of some birds, often seen on ducks

A pair of yellow billed ducks. There is no sexual dimorphism in these ducks. They are dabbling ducks and have a typical colourful iridescent green speculum on their secondary wing feathers which are only visible in flight. The male’s call is described as a teal-like whistle while the female’s call is more of a mallard-like quack.

“Many people look but few see. Looking might render the physical appearance but seeing will tie in linkages and expose complexities hidden to the glance.”~ Mike Haworth

A common moorhen foraging amongst the red algae. This is known as the waterhen, or swamp chicken, and as the common gallinule is a bird species in the rail family (Rallidae). The frontal sheild above the upper mandible is thought to play several roles including protection when forgaing, mate identification, sexual selection, and territorial defense.

The water level was shallow enough for Avocets to wade and forage in.

Once the water level deepens the Avocets disappear to other more suitable shallower feeding waters. Apart from its pied markings and blue legs, this wader’s is especially unique because of its upwardly curved bill. It feeds on mostly insects, worms, crustaceans, mollusks, fish and amphibians. Avocets sweep their curved beak from side to side underwater as they slowly walk through shallow water. This stirs up aquatic insects, crustaceans, small fish and seeds which they feed on.

“Stop in your haste. That glance is not enough. Give it a little time and you will begin to see previously unnoticed patterns and behaviours. New context and connections will become apparent. Now you are learning to see.” ~ Mike Haworth

A very busy Sacred ibis foraging for frogs, crabs and other crustaceans

We watched this Sacred ibis grab a large crab but the image was spoilt by a pair of grey-headed gulls lurking beside it in case it dropped its meal,

“Don’t just look at the bird. Look at its surroundings, look at its behaviours, look at its colours, look at the shape of its body, bill, feet and eyes. Each element will offer an insight. You will marvel at the complexity and you will begin to see.” ~ Mike Haworth

A nursery of Greater flamingo juveniles. The wind was blowing from right to left and all the youngsters were resting on one leg with their head resting on their backs. A closer look reveals that they were all awake and watching what was going on behind them. Flamingos stand on one leg because it’s physiologically easier for them to do so. The way their legs work means they can rest all of their weight on one side without having to use their muscles to maintain balance. Flamingo joints have a “locked” resting position that secures them in place — as long as they’re standing on one leg. https://curiosity.com/topics/the-real-reason-flamingos-stand-on-one-leg-curiosity/

Adult Greater flamingos feeding in the shallow spring waters at Marievale. Greater flamingos tend to feed in deeper water than the smaller lesser flamingos.

The Greater flamingo has a distinctive pinkish/white colur with red wing coverts and black primary and secondary wing feathers. The greater flamingo is a filter feeder. It uses its long legs to stir up the substrate after which it sweeps its bill from side to side to filter out its food. These flamingos usually feed with their head fully immersed in the water. They can remain, head under water, for up to 20 seconds. Flamingos pump their tongues up and down, 5 – 6 times per second, pushing the water out of their beak to generate the filtration process.

The flamingo’s pink colouration comes from its diet of shrimp and other pink crustaceans.

“Learning to see – accustoming the eye to calm, to patience, to letting-things-come-to-it; learnings to defer judgement, to encircle and encompass the question on all sides.” ~ Fredrich Nietzsche

What makes birds so fascinating is their incredible diversity, colour and behaviours. They are much more active than mammals. I can only marvel at the incredible variety of shapes, beaks and colours.

To make birds even more intriguing they are living dinosaurs. Birds evolved from a group of meat-eating dinosaurs called theropods. Over the 66 million years since the extintion of dinosaurs, birds have evolved in many ways, enabling them to survive in diverse habitats. Today there are at least 11,000 bird species.

A humble bird photography practice session can turn into a profound natural history lesson.

“Life is the blossoming of flowers in the spring, the ripening of fruit in the fall, the rhythm of the earth and of nature. Life is the cry of cicadas signalling the end of summer, migratory birds winging south in a transparent autumn sky, fish frolicking in a stream. Life is the joy beautiful music installs in us, the thrilling sight of a mountain peak reddened by the rising sun, the myriad combinations and permutations of visible and invisible phenomena.” ~ Daisaku Ikeda

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

Have fun, Mike

Samara – restoration and rewilding

One of the most impressive aspects about Samara is that the owners and managers are restoring this game reserve back to its original state. The founders of the Samara Game Reserve, Sarah and Mark Thompson, established the reserve in 1997. Their objective is to restore the reserve back to its natural state, in terms of fauna and flora diversity, which last existed 200 years ago.

Away, away, from men and towns,
To the wild wood and the downs, —
To the silent wilderness,
Where the soul need not repress its music.”

~Percy Bysshe Shelley

Samara appears to be a model of cooperation with conservation and scientific bodies to achieve the biodiversity and preservation of the four vegetation biomes in this part of the Great Karoo.

“The earth is what we all have in common.” ~ Wendell Berry

I have not put the images in this post in any sort of order to illustrate the eclectic experience in this wonderful game reserve. The first image was taken on our game drive at dusk looking toward the illuminated sky after the sun had set in the west.

Above the Karoo escarpment on the edge of the plateau looking down onto the flat Klein Karoo and the plains of Camdeboo.

Black rhinos were reintroduced in 2013 and are heavily protected. Several black rhinos were relocated to Samara under a custodianship agreement with SANParks. This initiative expands the range of the species and playing a crucial role in the growth of the metapopulation. They seem to thrive on the difficult to get to slopes of the escarpment.

The first cheetahs were reintroduced to Samara in 2004 after an absence of 125 years. The two cheetahs in the next image are Sibella’s second generation offspring. Sibella was one of the first three cheetahs introducted into the reserve. The cheetah cubs were cleaning the blood off each other after feeding on a kill.

The old farm houses have been restored and converted into luxurious lodges. The next image shows the view looking west over the swimming pool at last light.

The cheetah cubs training lesson. One of the unique features of Samara is that you are able to walk with a wild cheetah family. Perhaps “walk “is the wrong word because even when they are walking it is difficult to keep up with them on the Karoo terrain.

The inside of the manor lodge. It has been graciously restored and modernised.

Samara offers several possible unusal sightings. For me, one of the several highlights was walking with aardvarks. This is a seasonal opportunity and mainly possible in winter when the aardvark comes out to forage for ants in the late afternoon, when it is still warm.

After a busy day walking with cheetahs or rhinos or aardvarks, it is sublime to clean up and sit down in front of the fire and chat about the days activities over drinks.

Samara’s wildlife is diverse and varies dramatically in size, nature and speed.

The manor lodge provides scrumptious meals in a five star wildlife lodge setting. This makes wildlife photography very comfortable with plenty of room to relax and edit your images when you are not out walking with the wildlife.

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.”
~Jane Goodall

Samara’s elephant reintroduction in 2017 brought back these pachyderms onto the plains of Camdeboo after an absence of 150 years. Both black and white rhinos have been reintroduced.

The view at dusk looking down on the plains of the Klein Karoo off towards Port Elizabeth on the coast around 246 kilometres away.

Occasionally dinners were set outside. The setting was gorgeous, but nippy as it was winter.

“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty.”
~John Ruskin

A herd of black wildebeest on the escarpment plateau at dusk.

A view of the manor house from across the pool at night with the moon rising in a clear winter sky.

A Gemsbok making its way down from the higher section of the plateau. You can also see mountain zebra, eland, blesbok and black wildebeest up on the plateau.

Samara reintroduced lions into the reserve in 2019. This brings these predators back to this part of the Karoo after an absence of 180 years. This will of course alter the dynamics in the game reserve especially among the predators and the cheetahs in particular.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
~Margaret Mead

Samara is now a big five game reserve. The “big five” being elephants, rhino, buffalo, lions and leopards. While the “big five” has been a good marketing slogan it does not do justice to the fascinating biodiversity in this area.

A big thank you to Lou Coetzer and CNP Safaris for introducing us to this wonderful game reserve. It was a highly productive photographic trip. We spent five fascinating days in the reserve in late winter last year. There is no doubt that the seasonality of the Karoo offers very different experiences in the different seasons.

“The Earth is a fine place and worth fighting for.”
~Ernest Hemingway

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

Have fun, Mike

Samara – Cheetahs in training

On our second morning at Samara, we were up before sunrise. Fortified after a cup of coffee and a muffin, we left the Manor House Lodge in the pre-dawn light to look for the cheetah family.

“To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” ~ Aldo Leopold

After a short while our guide found the cheetah family in the low early morning light with the help of telemetry. The family was mobile in the foothills of the escarpment. The sun rose in east but we, and the cheetahs, were on the west side of the escarpment so remained in deep shadow beyond sunrise. The terrain was rough. The cheetahs were moving along a relatively steep slope, the ground was very stoney, and there was thick Karoo scrub and brush.

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”
~ Edward Abbey

When we found the family they were moving through the scrub and the youngsters were playing. It quickly became evident that we were in for some fun as Chilly was in hunting mode and on the move. The cubs regularly stopped and rested, then would have to run to catch up to their mother.

“In this quiet, peaceful time of twilight there is, in this great circle of life, an awful lot of hunting and fishing and catching and killing and dying and eating going on all around me. As the old fisherman said, ‘That’s the way with life. Sometimes you eat well; sometimes you are well-eaten.” ~ Paul G. Quinnett

The only way to follow cheetahs in this environment is to get off the vehicle and follow them on foot. This must be one of the unique features about Samara for wildlife lovers and photographers.

The cheetahs moved through the scrub quickly and at times we were left well behind. At one point we must have been about 100 or so metres behind the cheetah when we suddenly heard the pounding of hooves. As we raced down hill to see what was going on, we saw a herd of eland bolting away from us.

“Instead of buying your children all the things you never had, you should teach them all the things you were never taught. Material wears out but knowledge stays.” ~ Bruce Lee

Then directly in front of us in an open patch we saw the cheetahs. Chilly had caught an eland calf. Instead of killing it quickly she left it for the youngsters – a lesson in how to finish the kill. Cheetah cubs are usually weaned after around six to eight weeks and these cubs looked to be just over a year old so had been eating meat for many months.

It was clear the five cubs still had not yet learnt how to quickly and cleanly finish the kill. In the next image you can see Chilly lying in the grass watching the cubs tackle the eland calf.

Two of the cubs repeatedly tried to grab the calf by the neck but whenever it struggled they got a fright and one or both of them would dash away from the scene only to return seconds later.

The cubs inexperience was obvious. They had the tripping technique sorted out but the take down was lacking even with four of them on the calf at one time. It appeared that the cubs did not have the jaw strength or the stamina to hold the throttling neck grip for long enough to suffocate the calf..

“As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.” “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connnected in the great Circle of Life.” ~Mufasa in the Lion King

Every now and then we thought the eland calf had succumbed to its mauling as it just lay still. In response, the cubs would stop their aggression toward the calf and just stand around waiting for something to happen.

The smaller two of the five cubs were very skittish and easily scared by the calf’s sudden movement.

It was surprising to watch the five cubs take so long to get the calf down. In the Masai Mara or Serengeti they would never get this extended leeway. This was a privilege afforded by little predator competition at that time.

At one stage the calf managed to get onto its all-fours and move towards the scrub but the cubs were all over it. I was so impressed with the toughness of the eland calf, and despite an extended mauling by five cheetah cubs it continued to struggle to get back on its feet – quite remarkable.

Once the eland herd disappeared down the hill onto the open plains they never returned leaving this calf to fend for itself. I was surprised that the eland mother did not try to protect her calf as eland are large antelope. Eland females are known to cooperatively protect their young chasing off large predators to give the youngsters a chance to bunch together and run to safety. An eland calf will never outrun a cheetah but I would have expected to see some response from the eland females.

It was always going to end badly for the calf, with six cheetahs trying to kill it and no back up from the herd.

Incredibly, among all the disarray there were moments of quiet when the surrounding bush seemed to hold its breath.

I am not sure how long it took for the calf to finally succumb but it was difficult to watch the cheetah training in action knowing that the young eland calf was getting mauled to death. The kill lesson was taking a long time and Chilly became impatient and moved closer ready to finish the calf off.

According to Bigcatrescue.org, the cheetah is the most reproductive predator cat and after a gestation period of 90-95 days, a female cheetah can give birth to a litter of three to five cubs. This level of fertility begs the question as to why the cheetah is so endangered? It is estimated that 90% of cheetahs cubs die with in the first three months, 50% of which are killed by predators (lions, jackals, large raptors, and hyenas). The other 40% fall victim to lack of genetic diversity where there immune systems are compromised.

“If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched. Share my wildlife with me. Because humans want to save things that they love.”
~ Steve Irwin

Samara has achieved some interesting successes in regard to both of the factors which dictate the high death rate of cheetah cubs. Only belatedly, in their wildlife reintroduction programme, did they bring in lions. Importantly, the low level of predator competition has benefited the successful rearing of cheetah cubs. In addition, Samara has actively worked to achieve genetic diversification.

Adult female cheetahs are solitary unless mating or accompanied by their cubs. The mother cares for her cubs adroitly. Once she gives birth to her cubs she really has her work cut out for her. The cheetah mother must make sure her cubs are safe, feed them and teach them survival skills and how to provide for themselves.

“Think, for a moment, of a cheetah, a sleek, beautiful animal, one of the fastest on earth, which roams freely on the savannas of Africa. In its natural habitat, it is a magnificent animal, almost a work of art, unsurpassed in speed or grace by any other animal. Now, think of a cheetah that has been captured and thrown into a miserable cage in a zoo. It has lost its original grace and beauty, and is put on display for our amusement. We see only the broken spirit of the cheetah in the cage, not its original power and elegance.”

~ Peter G.G Freund

The group of photographers with CNP Safaris watching the cheetahs that day, myself included, were exceptionally privileged to bare witness to nature in its rich, raw, natural form for an extended period. Each day was learning experience for those cheetah cubs, another key to their survival.

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

Have fun, Mike

Samara: walking with cheetahs

Samara is a private game reserve in South Africa with deep roots in conservation. This private game reserve includes vast flat plains and the escarpment of the Karoo mountain complex. It has four of South Africa’s seven natural biomes. It is sanctuary to a variety of antelope, bird life and an eclectic mix of carnivores from African wild cat and Brown hyena to cheetahs and lions. Samara has developed a well-respected reputation for its conservation efforts and its Cheetah Metapopulation Programme in particular.

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

Samara’s cheetah programme started with three individuals, including the well-known Sibella. From the start Samara’s cheetah programme has been a huge success.

What I find so impressive is that the Samara team works cooperatively with university departments and conservation bodies to ensure that these highly endangered big cats are given the best chance of survival. Through the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project, Samara periodically swaps individuals with other reserves. This ensures the long-term viability of the species and the genetic and demographic diversity of the South African population of cheetahs.

“Away, away, from men and towns,
To the wild wood and the downs,
To the silent wilderness,
Where the soul need not repress its music.”
~

Percy Bysshe Shelley

We visited Samara in mid-August, which is late winter in South Africa. The sun rises lazily in the winter mornings. To walk with cheetahs you need to be up early and be in their area at or before sunrise.

Given the early start, which for a wildlife photographer is par for the course, we were on the side of the escarpment at first light. As good as the modern DLSR ISO capabilities are, I chose a little extra enlightenment with my flash.

“As I walk with Beauty. As I walk, as I walk,
The universe is walking with me,
In beauty it walks before me,
In beauty it walks behind me,
In beauty it walks below me,
In beauty it walks above me,
Beauty is on every side.”
~Traditional Navajo Prayer

Our guide used telemetry tracking to find the cheetahs. The cheetah mother Chilli, and the daughter of Sibella, had a collar which enabled the guides to find her in the thick scrub at the base of the escarpment. Without the telemetry tracking capability the chances of finding the cheetahs would have been low as they are highly mobile.

“We walked in the woods at dawn and came upon these wild ephemeral beings!!” ~ Mike Haworth

Cheetahs generally sleep at night in a safe place while the nocturnal hunters go about their business. What was unusual about Samara is that lions were only introduced into Samara in 2018. This gave the cheetahs many years to establish themselves in the terrain without major predator competition.

Chilli, the daughter of Sibella, is a capable mother and appears to be continuing her mother’s legacy. Chilli raised her entire first litter to independence, which is almost unheard of in the cheetah world, as first-time mothers are normally not very successful. Probably one of the key reasons for this was that predators like lions and hyaenas were missing until 2018 and since then the lions have remained on the escarpment’s plateau for most of the time.

In August 2019, Chilly had four sub-adult cubs. I did not take note of their sexes but I think there were two males and two females.

Chilly’s sub-adult cubs were almost as big as her but still very playful and their hunting skills still needed to be honed. We were very fortunate to watch the family take down an eland calf. This story will be the subject of next week’s post.

“The proper use of science is not to conquer nature but to live in it.”

~ Barry Commoner

One of the aspects about Samara which I found intriguing regarding the cheetahs was the terrain. This is not what I would have called ideal high speed chase terrain. As you can see from the next image at the base of the escarpment, which is where the cheetah’s seemed to have hunted while we were there, the vegetation was thick and it was very stony.

The young cheetahs dashed around chasing and playing with each other over this stony terrain but I never saw one of the cubs trip or put a foot wrong over the stones. It was interesting how well developed their spatial awareness seemed to be.

This was an image of Chilly and her sub-adult family in their environment at the base of the escarpment in the Great Karoo.

A little photographic licence showing the silhouette of the cubs playing in the early morning.

The cubs had spare energy to burn. They were very playful in the early morning but calmed down as the sun rose and it became warmer.

“The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.” ~Gaylord Nelson

One the benefits of the foothills of the escarpment is that it gave the cheetahs a good visual on the plains below.

We found the cheetah family late one afternoon resting on an earth embankment. This gave them an elevated view of the area in front of them and a degree of protection from unwanted visitors behind them.

It was not long after this photo that Julius, our guide, hurried us to our game vehicle because some of the cheetah cubs had been harassing the buffalo and they were getting quite agitated and we did not want to have to climb acacia thorn trees in a hurry with or without our cameras.

This was clearly a message post with the weekly news. These three young cheetahs spent quite a few minutes smelling all the messages left by passers by. I guess it must be the equivalent of a human finding a fascinating notice board with lots of interesting postings.

Chilly’s family chilling on a stony road along the north-western border to the reserve.

A huge part of the success of the cheetah breeding programme in Samara can be put down to the unique mothers, Sibella and now Chilly. It must also be said that they had an important break from major predator competition. What will be interesting to see is how the breeding balance changes as the predator population becomes more diverse across Samara.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~Margaret Mead

Samara is a story about conservation and rehabilitation. This has involved and continues to involve countering habitat loss, it means managing the human-wildlife conflict and unfortunately it requires serious anti-poaching measures. Management, together with the collaboration of university research and international conservation organisation efforts, have engaged in indigenous flora restoration, the reintroduction of cheetahs in the early 2000s, rhinos, elephants and recently lions. Most of these wild animals have been missing from this wild place for between 130 and 180 years.

“Like music and art, love of nature is a common language that can transcend political or social boundaries.” ~ Jimmy Carter

By bringing back several of Africa’s endangered species, Samara has taken an active role in increasing the chance of building a genetically diverse, healthy population of wild cheetah, rhino and lions in Africa.

Samara appears to be looking to recreate a long lost haven in the Karoo, which last existed 200 years ago. A Karoo where wild lion, black and white rhino, and elephant (not seen in this area for 200 years) join buffalo, springbok, eland, black wildebeest, blesbok, aardvark, brown hyaena, black-backed jackal, Cape mountain zebra, leopard, and cheetah. There are also Ground squirrel and Blue cranes ,and if you take the time to look closer so much more.

“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.” ~ Leo Tolstoy

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

Have fun, Mike

One of Samara’s secrets

We visited Samara in the Great Karoo in late winter. This semi-desert region has extremes in temperature between day and night. The semi-desert environment yields unusual opportunities.

One of Samara’s secrets is the “better than even” possibility of seeing an antbear or aardvark (Afrikaans) in the late winter afternoon.

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” ~ Roald Dahl

The antbear should not be confused with an anteaters, like those found in South America. The Giant anteater was the subject of a winning entry in the BBC Wildlife photographer of the year competition which was disqualified for featuring a taxidermy specimen. Like any authentic wildlife photographer we only show what we see naturally without human intervention. Whist every photographer creates a photograph with action, composition and background, we do not use stuffed animals to create an image – in Africa we are fortunate enough to have the real thing – though most of the time a little patience is required.

“The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those have not viewed the world.” ~ Alexander von Humboldt

This world has some wonderful and weird creatures. Just as Australia has the unusual duck-billed platypus, Africa has the usual Antbear or Aardvark. This strange looking animal is nocturnal, it has rabbit-like ears and a kangaroo-like tail. It has a pig’s snout and is an eater of ants and this strange mammal usually forages alone. The Antbear is the only species in the order Tubuliderntata and based on DNA analysis could be associated with elephants.

In Samara we were fortunate enough to see an Antbear on two separate occasions. We happened to strike the timing lucky. In August in South Africa, it is late winter in Samara. This means that the days are warm but the nights can be icy cold.

During the day the Antbears usually sleep in their burrows where the temperature is even and it is quiet and dark. The burrows are used as temporary sleeping quarters and on occasions breeding dens.

Come late afternoon in winter the Antbears come out of their burrows and start to forage. Our guide, Julius, said that you will usually not see the Antbear in the late afternoon but being winter it is warm and the Antbear is prepared to venture out when it is still light because it is not too cold. Later, once the sun has set the bush gets very cold in Samara.

Both sightings of the shy Antbear were in the late afternoon and our good fortune was attributed to the warmth of the late winter afternoon. In summer you are unlikely to see the Antbears as they only come out to forage when it is dark because it is warm enough.

“The beauty of Africa is not man made, it is natures gift to humanity.”
~ Paul Oxton

What was really special was that we could get relatively close, within five to seven metres, to the Antbear while being on foot. As with all wildlife they will tolerate you as long as you don’t make a racket and there are no sudden movements.

Once you spend a little time with these unusual mammals it becomes clear that they have acute hearing and sense of smell.

While foraging in grasslands and forests, Antbears also called “Aardvarks,” may travel several miles a night in search of large, earthen termite mounds. A hungry Antbear digs through the hard dry shell of a termite mound with its front claws and uses its long, sticky, worm-like tongue to extract the termites or ants within. It can close its nostrils to keep dust and insects from invading its snout, and its thick skin protects it from bites. It uses a similar technique to raid underground ant nests.

“Cherish the natural world because you’re part of it and you depend on it.” ~ Sir David Attenborough

Antbears are not the only mammals that eat ants. They are joined by Pangolins, and Aardwolves though not at the same time.

While Antbears have cylindrical teeth but these teeth have no enamel coating so are worn away and regrow continuously. By contrast, Anteaters are toothless. Their physical digestion is aided by the pebbles and debris that they consume when they ingest insects. They have long tongues, up to 18cm in length! Aardvarks are nocturnal while Anteaters are diurnal.

A long, sticky tongue lets antbears slurp up termites from their mounds.

Antbears are considered a keystone species, which means they are an animal that balances the ecosystem around them. Other examples of keystone species are Sea otters and tortoises. Antbears dig burrows which various species use at different times. Wild dogs and hyaenas will use discarded Antbear burrows so too will warthogs. Snakes also enjoy the cool quiet burrows.

The Antbear’s legs are short and powerful and end in webbed toes, four on each of the front feet and five on each of the hind feet. The toes end in long tough blunt claws excellent for digging burrows in the ground or holes in termite nests. The claws are reputed to be stronger than the head of a pick-axe.

Apart from being good diggers, these mammals are important pollinators for some plant species, especially the aardvark cucumber.

Antbears are nocturnal animals, and spend much of their time in underground burrows. To escape the heat, they can dig extensive burrow systems, especially during the breeding season. They are expert diggers, and tunnel systems can exceed 10 metres in length.

“Animals have hearts that feel, eyes that see, and families to take care of, just like you and me.” ~ Anthony Douglas-Williams

Antbears can be found in almost any habitat south of the Sahara Desert that has adequate insects to eat. They commonly live in bushland, grassland, woodlands, and savannas. They are not found in swamp forest or any overly wet habitat, because the moisture makes it impossible to burrow. In similar fashion, they avoid extremely rocky habitats that can impede digging.

These mammals are myrmecophagous, which means that ants and termites make up the vast majority of their diet. The only vegetation they eat is the aardvark cucumber. The Aardvark and the aardvark cucumber have a symbiotic relationship, which means both creatures benefit from the interaction.

An Antbear has thick hair around its nostrils, which acts to filter dirt when eating, and the nostrils can be closed fully to prevent dirt and ants getting in.

“We are, as a species, addicted to a story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” ~ Jonathan Gottschall

Antbears are prey to many animals including lions, leopards, hunting dogs, hyenas, and pythons. Antbears have a keen sense of hearing which enables them to detect approaching predators. If they need to escape, they can dig fast or run in zigzags. If that does not work, they can strike with their claws, tail and shoulders, and have been known to flip onto their backs and lash out with all fours.

Our two sightings of antbears were very special. This is one of the “secret seven” in South Africa. The other six are serval, African wildcat, pangolin, large-spotted genet, African civet and porcupine.

“I love and in a way need, a private secret place. It’s a kind of deep obsession, but I also love to need and be with friends and the two things often need to be together… it’s a painful conflict that will never be smoothly resolved.” ~ Morris Graves

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

Have fun, Mike

The Great Karoo-Samara

In August 2019, it was late winter in South Africa. Helen and I were fortunate enough to join Lou Coetzer on a CNP Safari trip to Samara Private Game Reserve. This was a new unique destination which turned out to be very different to our Chobe, Grumeti and Masai Mara destinations and very different to all the other South African places we have visited. Different and fascinating at the same time with unique landscapes, wildlife and interactions with the wildlife.

“Once a year go someplace you’ve never been before.” ~ Dalai Lama

The Karoo is roughly split into two sections: the expansive Great Karoo wilderness in the north-east, and the smaller and tamer Little Karoo in the south-west.

“Never let your memories be greater than your dreams.” ~ Douglas Ivester

Samara lies within the Great Karoo. The latter incorporates around 400,000 km² of semi-desert landscape, a region uniquely defined by its geography, history, geology and climate. This region is characterised by its low rainfall, dry air, cloudless skies, and extremes of temperature during the day and at night. In winter on the plateau in upper mountainous regions, the temperatures can fall to -15c. In summer in the lower lying areas the temperatures can rise over 40c.

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” ~ Oliver Wendell-Holmes

Samara is located at the foothills of the Camdeboo mountains. We visited Samara in late winter so it was nippy at night and the early mornings were crisp, but the days were warm and sunny.

There are three aspects about Samara which make it extraordinary: the landscapes are a photographer’s dream; the conservation efforts by the owners provides unique sightings and experiences with the wildlife. Thirdly there is an eclectic mix of wildlife in the park offering good sightings of several rare species.

“At first encounter the Karoo may seem arid, desolate and unforgiving, but to those who know it, it is a land of secret beauty and infinite variety.” ~ Eve Palmer

The conservation efforts have brought both White and Black rhino to the park. We were able to leave the vehicle and walk close to this female White rhino and her (alert) calf.

We walked to within 30 metres of the White rhino. This was a family group with the bull closest to us and the female behind with the calf close behind the female.

Being in the Karoo, you would expect to see springbok in this area….and they are numerous.

One of the more exciting species which we never got close to, was a flock of around 200 Blue cranes. They were very skittish and would not let us get within a few hundred metres of them before flying off. The trick was to find out where they roosted. An experience for another trip.

Being in a semi-desert region we found Ground squirrels. The males were very vocal – alarm calling when standing on their back legs.

“All of our dreams can come true if we just have the courage to pursue them.” ~ Walt Disney

One of the several unique sighting in Samara was of an Aardvark or Ant bear (as we called them in Zimbabwe). This is the first time I had ever seen one foraging in the open in daylight.

These are nocturnal mammals so it was very special to watch this Aardvark going about his foraging out in the open and reasonably close to us. Aardvark are usually very shy animals but this character did not seem to fuss about having us nearby. We had some exceptional sightings which will be the subject of another post.

Conservation of any endangered species must begin with stringent efforts to protect its natural habitat by the enforcement of rigid legislation against human encroachment into parks and other game sanctuaries.” ~Dian Fossey

After meandering around on the flat open plain section of Samara we headed up the mountains. The journey up the mountain was along steep passes. On our way up, a more unusual sighting was of a Black rhino foraging in the thick bush on the side of the mountain.

Once on top of the plateau, the view down onto the Great Karoo plains was spectacular.

Up on the plateau, as the sun was sinking, we came upon a herd of Black wildebeest. The herd would not let us get too close and bolted every time we attempted to drive closer to them.

As the evening sky darkened, the mood became quite bewitching.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

As the sun on the south side of the plateau set, the light cast a very different picture. The last vestiges of the day’s sun rays caught the protruding rocks- a last illumination for the day.

It was getting cool up on the plateau as the sun set. It was winter after all. For a photographer, winter can be a magical time to photograph landscapes because of the incredible light and colours which are created in the crisp dusty last light.

“Dark and light striking each other, vividly etching wild colors through the horizon. The charm of sunset makes me want to scurry home.” ~ Tara Estacaan

It was getting dark and time to pack up the drinks (after our sun-downers) and make our way back down the mountain to our gorgeous lodgings at Manor Lodge which took all the hardship out of this rugged terrain.

The last visages of the day were sinking in an electric blue serenade. This was the view from Manor lodge. Inside there was a large log fire burning to entice animated discussion about day’s sightings over a few heart warming drinks.

This was the first day of a five day visit to Samara with Lou Coetzer of CNP Safaris. Over the days that followed we were privileged enough to walk with cheetahs and watch them kill an eland calf and walk with aardvarks in the late afternoon and even get close to White rhino. These experiences will be the subject of my next few posts about Samara.

The vastness of the Karoo pervades your senses. In our short time there, we were introduced to a small selection of the unique animals and birds which live in this wild open place. It got cold at night, being late winter, so dinner and drinks around the fire were very welcome and the evenings were spiced by stories about walking with cheetahs, rhino and aardvark.

Heads filled with stories, we went to bed brimming with expectation about what the next few days would bring us.

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of your life is to give it away.” ~ Pablo Picasso

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

Have fun, Mike

The widow’s long tales

Mid-December in South Africa is usually a time when all the avian migrants have arrived. They add variety, colour and complexity to our avian population. Avian migrants travel further and do not have to contend with the same issues that their human species have to face.

South Africa does not have “birds of paradise”, but it does have resident birds of extraordinary beauty.

“When you look what do you see – what you have been taught or perhaps an association? In nature take some time to look, unaffected and unconditional. Watch its behaviour and you will see its intimate understanding of its surroundings – its natural intelligence. Then perhaps you will begin to see what you are looking at.” ~ Mike Haworth

One male bird which really puts on the ritz in summer is the long tailed widowbird. The family of widowbirds are so-called because they are all dressed in black. Their overall plumage is black with flashes and sashes of vibrant reds, oranges and white.

These widowbirds are seed eaters so once the summer rains nourish the grass it grows quickly producing a bounty of seeds for these birds to feed on.

“The bird of paradise only alights on the hand that does not grasp.”~ John Berry

The transformation for the summer breeding season is extraordinary. The next image was taken of an adult male long tailed widowbird in the non-breeding winter season. The males lose their long luxurious black tail feathers and their winter plumage moults to a dark streaked brown colour though they retain the red-orange epaulet on their shoulders with a white band under the red shoulder marking.

Young males at the start of the breeding season begin to grow their tail feathers but they have not yet developed their striking body colouring.

Even in the non-breeding season the males and females exhibit differences in behaviour and morphological traits. The differences become more apparent as the breeding season develops. Adult males become entirely black, including under their wing-coverts. Males’ wing shoulders are orange red and their wing-coverts white. Their bills are bluish white. Males develop their luxuriously black long tails, which contain twelve tail feathers.

Males defend territories in the grasslands with vigour and panache. Their displays are something to behold. Females have a long nesting period so survey the male territory carefully before choosing a mate. Breeding takes place from February to July, reaching its peak in March and April. Unlike the bishops and weavers, the females weave the nests, which are shaped in large dome structures with a lining of seedheads, anchored in the high grass stems within males’ territories.

“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” ~-Brandon Sanderson

The males put on an elaborate display to attract females. When perched on a grass stem, they fluff out their head and neck feathers and open their wings to look larger and more dramatic and show off their epaulets.

One less romantic explanation for why females favour long tails in males is that the expanded tail enlarges the lateral surface area of the male by 2–3 times, making him much more visible from far distances over open grassland.

When a female enters his territory, the male takes off and with a ‘keeled’ tail and starts his deliberate slow exaggerated flight and is sure to flash his colourful epaulets.

“Stories are our primary tools of learning and teaching, the repositories of our lore and legends. They bring order into our confusing world. Think about how many times a day you use stories to pass along data, insights, memories or common-sense advice.” ~ Edward Miller

Widowbirds and bishops are polygynous species. This means the male mates with many females so the females must chose carefully. Females must chose the males which are strongest with the best genes, so the only way to judge this from a distance must be their displays and looks. The grander the displays and longer and more luxurious the male’s tail feathers the more attractive – something like the length and colour of a male lion’s mane.

The long-tailed widowbird’s diet consists mainly of seeds, supplemented occasionally by insects. Watching them at Marievale Bird Sanctuary they seem to do most of their foraging in flocks on the ground and in the grass.

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” ~ Jorge Luis Borges

Southern Africa cannot offer the scientifically classified paradisaeidae, “birds of paradise”, which are known for their gorgeous colours and remarkable displays. This part of the world can offer the striking male long-tailed widowbird which has one of the most remarkable ornaments among passerine (feet adapted to perching) birds. Their tails feathers have a luxurious black sheen and can be more than half a metre long. They possess the most extreme sexual ornament among the Euplectes family of weaver, bishops and widowbirds.

“No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.” ~ Ansel Adams

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

Have fun, Mike

Elephants families

Spring in Mashatu in September is fresh but not cold. The sun rose around 6h00 so we needed to be on the vehicle heading out into the game reserve before sunrise.

“We went down into the silent garden. Dawn is the time when nothing breathes, the hour of silence. Everything is transfixed, only the light moves.”~ Leonora Carrington

After about half an hour of driving, the sun had risen but was hidden behind the dawn clouds. The bush was quiet and so were we as we came upon a small family group of elephants which were fast asleep. One mother was lying on the slope of a natural drainage ditch with her year old calf directly behind her.

After watching her quietly for a few minutes she woke up and ‘groggerly’ got to her feet.

Shortly after the calf’s mother had risen the sound on the gravel must have woken the calf. The mother looked half asleep for about 10 minutes after having woken. It did not take the calf long to find its mother’s milk and start suckling. Progressively the other members of the family started rising.

“We admire elephants in part because they demonstrate the very finest traits of human behaviour – empathy, self-awareness and social intelligence. But they way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behaviour.” ~ Craydon Carter

Later in the morning we found another herd which was making its way slowly down to the Majale river. This was a herd of females with their calves.

It was very dry so most of the bushes were crisp. The elephants were using their feet to dig out roots and rhizomes. They were also eating the bark of many of the bushes that still looked alive. The youngsters are always inquisitive – beyond survival.

The serenity and harmony of the scene with the elephant herd wandering by in the soft spring morning light was something which instils a deep sense of peace and balance in your soul.

The calves were never far from their mothers’ side unless they were off sparring with the other calves in the herd. Usually the calves were on the opposite side of their mothers to us, which is their natural protective instinct.

“Ask any guide what are you more afraid of at night on foot in the bush, a lion or an elephant. The answer is emphatic, a female elephant. She is dead quiet. Her eyes do not reflect and she is fiercely protective.” ~ Mike Haworth

Another herd, another morning. The matriarch was leading her herd down to the Majale river. I always find it remarkable that these elephants trust us enough to walk close by in single file. They obviously watch us carefully but regularly they will walk within a few metres of us.

“If you have been brutally broken but still have the courage to be gentle with others then you deserve a love deeper than the ocean itself.” ~ Nikita Gill

On our last morning, we had an exceptional sighting of a cheetah chasing down a steenbok, however, some guests on another game vehicle close to the kill scared the young cheetah away, which was very disappointing. This, however, was good fortune for a black-backed jackal which was close to the kill scene and enjoyed the unexpected rewards. After all the excitement, we drove down to the river to look for a place to stop for coffee. We stopped at a regular lookout point on a high bank above the Majale river. The river was essentially dry but for the very last small ponds of water. This was inevitably a gathering place for all the wildlife.

Often late in the dry season the last pools of water are stagnant and the elephant prefer to dig in the riverbed for water which seeps into the hole they dig, as it is cleaner. These “diggings” are life savers for much of the wildlife.

We were watching the elephants and impala from about 400 metres away, so we got off our vehicle and had a cup of coffee with muffins while watching the comings and goings around the remaining small pools of water.

It is times like this that you have to pinch yourself. You realise that you are witness to one of the miracles of the natural world – intelligence applied with peace and consideration.

“Inside us lies every possibility that is available to a sentient being. Every darkness, every light. It is the choices we make that decide who or what we will be.” ~ Charles de Lint

After the terrible times at the turn of the century around the abuse of Northern Tuli elephant calves, Mashatu has always been a sanctuary for elephants where they are cherished and protected.

We have have much to learn from these sentient beings. We will provide sanctuary and protect these beings regardless of the misunderstandings of the east.

“We do not have to be ashamed of what we are. As sentient beings we have wonderful backgrounds. These backgrounds may not be particularly enlightened or peaceful or intelligent. Nevertheless, we have soil good enough to cultivate; we can plant anything in it.” ~ Chögyam Trungpa

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

Have fun, Mike