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
Watching a python devour a nyala in camp
The earth shook as Reazert (my tracker) banged on my bedroom door.
“Hang on, I’m coming.” I said, getting off my bed slowly.
“You know the African rock python?” He asked.
“Yes…” I replied, thinking he was losing his mind. It was one of the few animals I had never seen in the two years I’d been living and working in the bush.
“Well hurry then!” Reazert bolted back towards camp, calling “RUN!” over his shoulder. Confused and more than a little concerned that it was some elaborate prank, I eased out of the door and watched him leave.
He stopped and beckoned urgently. “Run, Francois! There is an African rock python that just bamba’d (killed in Shangaan) a baby nyala outside camp!”
That was all it took for me to turn into the fastest man alive – Marvel would have hired me in a heartbeat! A python alone would have been a dream come true, but very few people get to see a large python on a kill. I bolted to the car to grab my camera.
“Under your seat!” came the shouted suggestion from Reazerd, who was quickly becoming a distant blur. I grabbed it and went full throttle, quickly catching and overtaking Reazert before skidding to a stop at the realisation that I had no idea where I was supposed to be heading.
I looked around. Only in a safari lodge are you likely to see staff members from all over camp running toward a dangerous animal on a kill. I spotted Aneen, our assistant head ranger, and watched as she pointed towards the spectacle – but there was nothing there.
“Where did he go?” We all searched desperately for one breathless minute that felt like forever. Deon, one of the chefs, took the opportunity to frighten the life out of Adolph, another ranger, by running his hand over his knee. If swearing were singing, Adolph would have given even Miley Cyrus a run for her money!
Then I spotted it. The snake had reappeared from under some foliage and slithered past us to chorus of camera clicks. Filled with joy, tinged with sadness for the young nyala, I witnessed one of the thrilling relationships nature has to offer – the one between of predator and prey.
All of us – four rangers, three trackers and the kitchen head – huddled nearby and watched as the 3 metre-long African rock python devoured the baby nyala before making her way back to her lair. After a meal that size we knew we’d be lucky to see her again within the next six months, if ever.
It was pretty incredible to everyone there, no matter how many times they’d seen one, but for me – my first – it was beyond amazing, and I thank my lucky stars that it was real and not the prank I was expecting at that first excited rattle on my door…
Written by: Francois van Rhyn
Kapama Southern Camp
Lazy lions and a little luck (not for the buffalo…)
Kapama Private Game Reserve is vast and its lodges are generously spaced across the property, so wild animals from the reserve frequently come into contact with the camp borders and are spotted by guests and staff. These sightings can be some of the most memorable and exciting for everyone lucky enough to witness them, especially when predators are involved. We recently had one such amazing sighting on the outskirts of Buffalo Camp.
Cape buffaloes love water and can usually be found close to perennial water bodies, wading into the water to cool down in the hot Limpopo climate, so we weren’t surprised when the small waterhole in front of Kapama Buffalo Camp attracted a lone buffalo bull, which lay down in the shallows. At about the same time, Buffalo Camp rangers and their guests followed a pride of lions, two mature females and their five sub-adult offspring, into the area. As they came across the buffalo in the water, everyone prepared for some action.
In an attempt to evade an attack, the buffalo moved deeper into the water. Lions don’t enjoy getting wet, so this was a good plan – at least it would have been had the buffalo been able to wait out the patient pride. Unfortunately (for the buffalo), the entire pride parked off under the trees at the back of the camp, near the staff accommodation, and kept their eyes on their prize. One curious sub-adult male approached the fence to investigate the gathering crowd of staff members watching the show, but eventually lost interest and retreated to the shade. When the worst of the afternoon heat had subsided, they all moved back to the edge of the water to wait out the tired buffalo. Eventually, after many hours of standing in deeper water, the old bull moved back into the shallows to rest, and no sooner had he laid down than one of the lionesses pounced for the kill.
The pride feasted, providing a spectacle and great photographic opportunities for the four days it took to consume the carcass. Incredible moments occur when you’ve got the wild on your doorstep, and this is one we aren’t likely to ever forget.
A nyala dominance display
As a field guide, spending time with wild animals and observing their behaviour is always special, no matter their species or size. One animal that has always fascinated me is the nyala. Nyala bulls in particular have a very interesting way of asserting their dominance, and we happened to come across two bulls in full display while out on a recent drive.
‘’What are they doing?’’ my guests asked, understandably intrigued by the long fringe of hair standing to attention along each animal’s back.
“They’ve got goosebumps”, I replied, causing a few laughs, but went on to explain that the technical term is ‘piloerection’. Dominant males raise their long, dorsal hair-fringe and lift their fluffed up tails over their rumps, exposing the maximum amount of white colouring in order to appear larger. Unlike giraffes and many other herbivores that fight each other for territory or females, nyala bulls that perform this full-out display almost always win without coming to blows.
Piloerection can be seen on impalas as well, but not as a display of dominance. On cold mornings you’ll see them lift the hairs all over their bodies to trap a layer of heat while they wait for the day to warm up.
Like most of the guides here at Kapama, I’ll never get tired of sharing sightings of interesting animal behaviour like this with my guests.
Written by: Chane Blignaut
Some cats just don’t like to share
In Kapama, we’re lucky to have a couple of relaxed resident leopards that carry on about their business as if we’re not there. One such leopard, a female, was recently spotted enjoying a hard-earned impala kill with her two cubs, high up in a tree and out of reach from the hyenas lurking below. Leopards with kills often stick around for a few days, so the morning after this incredible sighting we decided to head off early with the hope of spending more time with them.
Bleary-eyed, wrapped up in all manner of jackets, blankets, scarves, and gloves, and clutching hot water bottles to fend off the crisp winter chill, we set off into the pre-dawn darkness. As we approached the huge jackal-berry tree where the previous night’s show had taken place, we scanned, but didn’t immediately spot her. If it weren’t for Freeman, my tracker, and his well-honed leopard spotting skills, we might have missed her.
“Over there.” He pointed, casually. We turned as she melted into view against a backdrop of exposed granite rock. We approached slowly, trying to get the morning sun behind us to maximize the golden light that makes wildlife photography so rewarding at this time of the year.
But something was clearly not right. She was moving away from the jackal-berry tree, but kept glancing back, and as she got closer we noticed that she was injured. The small laceration on her stomach area didn’t seem to slow her down, but she wasn’t as fit and healthy when we had left her the previous night. Why was she injured? Where were the cubs? And why did she keep looking behind her?
All three questions were answered with the sudden appearance of a very large male leopard with bloodstained jaws. He had obviously stolen her kill and she was injured in her attempt to protect her cubs.
As the leopardess moved away, calling softly for her unseen cubs, he stalked out from behind the jackal-berry tree, scuffing the ground with his hind legs and spraying to mark his territory. As if she’d had enough of him, she bolted past the vehicle and disappeared down into a dry riverbed. Not 15 meters away from our vehicle, the large male growled angrily as he watched her leave.
Over a warming coffee stop in a patch of sunlight, we mulled over what we had just seen and tried not to worry about the missing cubs. Sometimes, the most incredible and memorable sightings are those tinged with sadness, but we all agreed that it’s generally best to trust nature’s way and to be thankful for the opportunity to witness it.
Written by: Garry Bruce
Kapama Southern Camp
Note: The cubs are still alive and well and are well on their way to being as relaxed as their mother.
A giraffe affair
We often spend our guests’ final drives checking off any animals on their lists we haven’t yet found. One of my favourite animals to watch and photograph is giraffe, and recently we’ve come across a few male giraffes in the behavioural act of ‘necking’, a kind of dance between two giraffes flinging their necks at one another. Sometimes it’s between two young giraffes play-fighting like brothers, but sometimes it’s the real thing.
Male giraffes use their necks and heads as weapons to establish dominance, and males that win necking bouts impress more lady-giraffes and have greater reproductive success. There are two types of necking: low intensity necking, where combatants rub and lean against each other and the male that can hold itself more erect wins the bout, and high intensity necking, where combatants spread their front legs and swing their necks at each other, attempting to land painful blows with their short, stubby horns or ‘ossicones’. The power of a blow depends on the weight of the skull and the arc of the swing, so contestants need to dodge blows and counter with well-aimed swings of their own.
A necking duel can last more than half an hour, depending on how well matched the combatants are, and although most fights don’t lead to serious injury, there have been records of broken jaws, broken necks, and even deaths. After a duel, it is common for two male giraffes to caress and court each other, with the victor even mounting the loser in a show of dominance, proving he is the more ‘manly’ of the two.
It’s easy to sit and watch them for long periods, forgetting the time and violence of their unique dance. Their necks swinging and their long legs moving through the dust to a rhythm only they can hear is absolutely mesmerizing, and when their song is finished, they move off as if they hardly noticed us or the flashing of our cameras.
Giraffes are very iconic animals in Africa; extraordinary creatures that really make guests feel part of our true African wilderness. When you visit us the next time, be sure to ask your ranger to stop and appreciate them for the incredible animals that they are, and if you’re lucky enough to see them “necking”, watch them dance!
Written by: Angie Seeber
Kapama River Lodge