On an early morning game drive out of River Lodge, Lot Makhubele spotted the clear tracks of a male leopard imprinted in the sand road. He slowly climbed down from his high seat at the front of the vehicle and started explaining to guests the difference between male and female leopard tracks. The male leopard’s tracks are bigger and the shape is slightly rounder than that of the female. Male leopards are always solitary so there’s only one set of tracks, whereas there are often cub tracks close to the tracks of female leopards. Guests were amazed that Lot Makhubele could tell the sex of an animal just from its tracks, but he really can.
For about a half an hour we followed the leopard tracks, until he turned off the road and into the bush. It was inaccessible to us in a vehicle, and I was still explaining this to guests when Lot Makhubele spotted a female giraffe staring down at the ground. It may not sound significant at first, but giraffes usually stare fixedly at one place when they have seen a predator. So we were excited at the possibilities.
As we drew nearer, we found a clan of about 10 hyenas lying in the grass staring back at the female giraffe. Then, to our amazement, we saw a baby giraffe lying dead at its mother’s feet. It appeared the young giraffe had died during the previous night, and its mother was protecting its body from the encroaching hyenas. As the hyenas moved closer, the giraffe fended them off. They hung back for a few minutes and began slowing approaching again. And so it went on for at least an hour. The giraffe stood her ground and we eventually left the sighting.
On returning an hour later, the giraffe was still guarding the body of her baby from the hungry hyenas, and it’s possible she had stood there doing this all night before. However, when we returned the next morning, there was no sign of the event. Not a single bone of the baby giraffe or a shred of evidence remained.
Hyenas have a bad reputation, but are essential in the ecosystem and keep the bush clear of carrion. They are unusual and interesting animals, so it’s no surprise there are also plenty of myths and superstitions about them. It was previously thought that hyenas are hermaphrodites, but it turns out they are not. What is true is that female hyenas are heavier than males, more aggressive and socially dominant. Two pups are usually born to a litter and they are born ready for action – with their eyes open and canine teeth developed. So no time is wasted of keeping the bush clear of carcasses.
Story by Clement Kgatla – Ranger at River Lodge
Edited by Keri Harvey