Breakfast on my doorstep
I’m a new ranger at Kapama and have been guiding here for about 3 weeks. One morning, I was woken early by the loud, unhappy screeching of a guinea fowl, but it was only when I left my room on my way to work in the pre-dawn gloom that I very nearly stumbled over the reason for its distress: a Verreaux’s eagle-owl on the ground right in front of my bedroom door, its feathery meal clutched in its talons, but as I walked closer to the sighting the guinea fowl saw an opening and managed to escape while it sidestepped the large bird of prey.
I glanced back at the eagle-owl, which was nowhere to be seen. I gave a step forward to have a look at the injured little guinea fowl and all of a sudden I felt a wave of air rushing through my hair. As I looked up I watched as the eagle-owl swooped down unseen from the roof and instantly injured the guinea fowl only two metres away from where I was standing. Noticing my presence the owl took off, carrying its breakfast to an African Thorn tree at the nearby waterhole.
It was amazing to get close enough to admire the eagle-owl’s big pink eyelids, mottled feathers and its sheer size. Later that afternoon it flew away from the waterhole, taking what remained of his prized kill with him, I wondered if it was taking the remains of the guinea fowl to its nest. In persuit of its nest, I followed while respectively keeping my distance. The sound of chirping chicks became more evident and at about 15 metres from the waterhole the owl started to slow down as if it was about to make a landing. My eyes caught a stick nest (constructed by other birds), I couldn’t see if there was any chicks inside, but the sound was clear enough to hear the little owls, the eagle-owl has landed, passing the food into the nest.
As you might know by now, the Verreaux’s eagle-owl or giant eagle-owl (Bubo lacteus) is a large, nocturnal, African bird of prey. It is Africa’s largest owl and the third largest owl species in the world, and a close-up encounter such as this is incredibly special. Interestingly enough, it hunts at night for mostly small to medium-sized mammals, like monkeys, hares, and hyraxes, as well as birds up to the size of a bustard, so a guinea fowl would be a perfect light meal.
It’s not every day you see these magnificent nocturnal hunters, especially in the middle of the day and so close and on the ground, but no matter what the situation, if you encounter a Verreaux’s eagle-owl, stop what you are doing and enjoy the special sighting, you never know where the eagle will land next!
Written by: Matthew McDonald
Kapama River Lodge
Wildlife’s natural instinct prevails
If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you should always expect the unexpected, especially if you are working in the wild. Every typical day at the office can instantly turn into an exhilarating day with multiple adrenaline rushes. I have had a few experiences like this, but what I experienced the past week was by far the most incredible experience in the bush.
One summer’s day we sat in Kapama River lodge surrounded by trees and live birdsong, suddenly, I heard an ear-piercing sound and as strange as it might seem it sounded like a cow. “Since when do we have cows at Kapama?”, I asked myself. Muddled by the question I jumped out of my chair and sent it flying back into the wall. I ran out of the office and down the wooden walkway to find the origin of this strange yet familiar sound. A lion is preying on a buffalo at the Wellness Centre!”, Marelize, Kapama River Lodge receptionist, said eagerly.
Sabelo, Kapama River Lodge barman, overheard our conversation and said, “Well, what are we waiting for?” We ran towards the Wellness Centre, anticipating that we were going to see this sighting up close. Out of breath and struggling to get hold of my camera, I never thought twice about what might happen once we got to the Wellness Centre.
We stood in awe at the rim-flow swimming pool overlooking the waterhole. What we were expecting to see was far from what we saw; this was a sight like no other. Three buffalos wandered into the waterhole, where a hippopotamus had hidden its youngster. The hippo stood in the water with a buffalo in its mouth and at the same time the other two buffaloes were fighting off the hippo. The hippo, with its natural instinct, had instantly noticed that her youngster could be in harm’s way.
After a few minutes the buffalo managed to escape from the hippo’s death-grip, and we were relieved that it was over, or so we thought. We noticed that the hippo’s sharp teeth had pierced through the buffalo and thus the buffalo sustained extensive abdominal injuries.
As we recalled the unexpected sighting of that summer’s day we became aware of the beauty that lies underneath the cruel nature that occurred at the waterhole – wildlife with its natural abilities to protect its own.
Written by Darren Mdhluli
Watching scavengers consume the remains of a rhino
Not long ago, one of our mature rhino bulls injured a young female rhino to such an extent that she died of her injuries the next day. It was a very sad event, more so because the poaching of rhino in South Africa for their horns is an ongoing and escalating problem, despite authorities’
best efforts. Sad as it is, this is not an uncommon occurrence – mature rhino bulls sometimes underestimate their strength and cause massive injuries to other younger and less aggressive individuals.
The carcass was moved to a quiet spot on the reserve and our ecology team removed its horns to keep it from attracting unwanted attention. Since we seldom have entire rhino carcasses at out disposal on the reserve, I decided to put up a trail camera nearby to record any interesting interaction and to record the whole breakdown of the carcass. I was not disappointed, and I am delighted to share what I captured throughout the consumption stages.
It did not take the keen-eyed vultures long to realise that a feast was waiting. Within twenty minutes there were white-backed vultures perched all over the vicinity, making sure there were no predators around before digging in.
White-backed vultures are the most common in the area, but in the five days it took for the carcass to be cleaned up we were lucky enough to see four other species as well. It was interesting to see how late some vultures fed into the night.
A Spotted Hyena made an appearance at nightfall, which was expected, but two unexpected visitors showed up in the night too – the bull that injured her and another young rhino.
The vultures were there early and a tagged white-backed vulture also joined in on the feast – his yellow tags are clearly visible on the photo. These marker tags help researchers tracking vulture numbers and movements all over South Africa and into our neighbouring countries.
With the carcass still very much intact, it wasn’t strange for one of the giants of the vulture world to make an appearance: the lappet-faced vulture. It was nice to see that there are still a few around. A serious tug of war for scraps took place between an vulture and a black-backed jackal, with the jackal realising quickly that it wasn’t a battle he was likely to win. That evening was marked by not one but two spotted hyenas coming for dinner.
This was by far the busiest day around the carcass. It was in an advanced state of decay and easily accessible for any scavengers who wanted an easy meal. Hooded vultures were present alongside the more common white-backed vultures and Cape griffins, and all of them tucked in gustily. Unfortunately, the lappet-faced vulture didn’t show up again.
In the evening, the carcass was once again visited by a single hyena – probably the same female that frequented the carcass the previous evenings as well.
The carcass was still a hub of activity, but the number of vultures had decreased. I was delighted to find a white-headed vulture on some of the photos as they are among the rarer and endangered vultures.
With not much meat remaining, only a few hooded and white-backed vultures remained until sunset, and that night the same hyena arrived to dine alone on what she could find.
This morning I found only three vultures hanging around the leftovers, and I got the feeling that it was all over. I’ve decided to leave to camera for another 24 hours, but I am not getting my hopes high for much more activity. What is left is pretty much dead skin stretched across an empty skeleton, and except for a couple of smaller scavengers who may come to scatter the bones, the bulk of the work is done.
Watching the gradual breakdown of such a large animal has made me realise again what a massively important part scavengers, and especially vultures, play in the natural environment. By getting rid of decaying meat they ensure that there is no spread of diseases and by cleaning up in and around dead carcasses they play a vital role in keeping the environment healthy. It was sad to see only one lappet-faced and one white-headed vulture come around, as I remember a time not too long ago where you would find at least three or four of these endangered species of around a carcass. Due to ongoing conservation efforts by a myriad of wildlife organisations and safe areas like Kapama Game Reserve, I am hopeful that we can get these vulture numbers to steadily increase over time.
It was indeed sad to lose a rhino, but very interesting to witness what goes on after such an event. Luckily in this case it died of natural causes – a privilege fewer and fewer rhinos will get because of man’s arrogance, ignorance, and insatiable greediness.
Written by: Johan Esterhuizen
Kapama Souther Camp
Even mongooses love sunbathing
When you think of an African safari you can’t help but think of the heat. Out here in the South African Lowveld, however, winter mornings and evenings can be bitterly chilly.
On one such morning, just as the sun was rising and the air was warming up, my guests and I noticed movement on a tall dead tree. Naturally, we stopped to have a good look with our binoculars.
It was a band of dwarf mongooses scrambling up and down the tree, searching for the best spot in the sun. These adorable little creatures had just emerged from their cosy den in an old termite mound at the base of the tree, and their antics in the bare branches above were their way of warming up after a freezing night for a day of hunting for insects, eggs, and lizards.
These beady-eyed, sociable creatures are cute and entertaining at the best of times, but on this morning as we sat curled up in the vehicle much as they were in the tree, we couldn’t tear ourselves away from their cuddling, grooming, and tumbling play.
Smiling, we left this little band of sun worshippers to their sun-loving ways.
Written by: Mark Burns
This last week we have been greeted by incessant rain. While it is much needed for the bush and the animals, guests arriving to what they expect to be a hot and sunny Africa often meet it with apprehension. Most expect it to ruin their safari experience, but this is only true if you let it! Although it has rained at least a little on all 3 of my guests’ game drives so far, it hasn’t affected their mood whatsoever. On the contrary, we’ve been having a blast slipping and sliding down the very wet roads on our determined quest to find the animals. We’d been lucky enough to have an awesome elephant sighting, watching in the rain as the herd with a couple newborn babies were playing and wallowing in a freshly formed and constantly expanding mud pan. Even the lions, which sometimes like to hide under the cover of thick bush in such weather, were considerate enough to have killed a wildebeest right next to the road, affording an incredible sighting of our big male lion feeding on his catch. So despite the rain, we were lucky enough to still have a lasting and memorable safari experience over the last couple days, with even a little extra added fun and adventure!
Story by Kevin (River Lodge)
Animals, just like humans, have personalities. Think about your dog at home – some days your dog is beyond excited about anything and the next, he might be laying in his basket, having what we as humans would call an “off” day. As rangers, we constantly see the behaviour of the animals and their reactions to different situations. These situations could include the weather, environment around them or hormonal influences. We have so many guests asking us everyday whether all the videos they have seen about animals attacking people are true, and whether things like that happen to us. Even though we do see many amazing things, we have been taught to be aware of our surroundings, especially when we are out in the bush. People who are going on safari for the first time are usually quite nervous and underestimate the sheer size and power some of these animals have. I have had many guests who are full of confidence while we’re driving around, but as soon as we’re near some lions, they’re suddenly pushing themselves as far into their seats as it will allow. Our animals are beautiful, and no doubt, could instill fear in anyone, but, if you know how to pick up the subtle hints they give off as warning signs, your safari experience (whether in a private reserve with a qualified ranger, or when you are driving yourself around a national park) will be more amazing than you could have ever imagined. When you are ready to go on safari, keep in mind that the animals have good days and bad days, too, and try pick a place where you will feel comfortable enough enjoying them from a distance where you and the animals feel happy. Don’t ever push animals, because then you could just land up being the star of yet another video on the internet. Enjoy your safari, and remember that the animals are not dangerous – only the people who don’t know how to behave around them!
Story by Angie (River Lodge)