Up close and personal with lions
It was the 22nd of August 2015 and I can vividly recall how beautiful the hot and cloudless spring afternoon had been. I was manager and host for the evening at Kapama River Lodge, and earlier that afternoon I stood on the boma deck and watched as two young male lions lazily flopped down on a small island in the dry riverbed after drinking from the waterhole. From my vantage point, they seemed as harmless as two big house cats dozing the day away. Little did I know that they were not alone – their whole pride was waiting in the wings for the show to begin.
After dinner, when all the guests were sound asleep, I walked towards reception and suddenly we all heard a very loud and sudden shout. I rushed toward the riverbed and found one of the guides, face to face with a lioness in camp! One glance told me that the whole pride was inside the lodge’s fenced area.
It was a strange combination of feelings that gripped me as the guide backed away and made his way back to safety: I kept my head and instructed the guide to check on all the guests and ensure that they stayed safely in their rooms.
Once our head of security arrived, we discovered what had happened – the pride had chased a giraffe right into the camp fence. The lions had followed the giraffe in and made their kill in darkness.
Our first priority was to get the lions out of the lodge as soon as possible. Our head ranger, Liezel Holmes, and some of her rangers, the reserve manager, head of security and their teams joined us in an effort to move the giraffe carcass back outside the fence line perimeter. The lions were still within the boundaries of the camp, but the hope was that they would follow their kill once we were all out of the way. It took nineteen men to move the giraffe carcass.
The scattered pride eventually returned to feed off their hard-won kill, and for the remainder of the week our guests were treated to some spectacular in-house game viewing. No TV documentary could ever match the feeling of being in camp with a pair of binoculars and a proper camera lens, and what better way of watching a pride of lions feed than from the cool water of the swimming pool or the comfort of a lounger?
Each day we watched the carcass dwindle, and soon it was light enough to drag off to the shade at the dry river’s edge. Four days later, having eaten their fill, the lions abandoned their kill to the hyenas and vultures and by the sixth day there was nothing remaining but a hollowed out skull and a scrap of skin.
The rest, as they say, is history and the 22nd of August 2015 is a day I’ll never forget.
Written By: Thomas Ndobe
Kapama River Lodge
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.