Fun fact numero uno: the collective name for zebras is a dazzle of zebras.
And I thought I was extra.
Zebras are especially social animals, living from small harems to large herds. Their closest relatives are donkeys and horses, however unlike these two species, the zebra has never truly been successfully domesticated. There were once attempts to train zebras for riding, since they are more resistant to African diseases compared to horses. However, majority of these attempts failed due to their unpredictable nature and tendency to panic under tension. TL;DR wouldn’t recommend – their kick can break a lion’s jaw.
Zebras I found to be easily the most peculiar animal to see in the wild. They just don’t fit in! It may sound daft, but I just did not quite expect those stripes to be so high contrast.
Upon first glance, one may see a white animal with black stripes, which is a common mistake, particularly due to the deceiving white underbelly. However, embryological evidence has proven that the animal’s background colour is in fact black, and the white stripes and bellies are simply additions. These stripes are created due to a combination of different factors, creating a unique pattern adorning each individual animal.
As you can tell from some of the photographs that I managed to capture, these creatures are incredibly picturesque. Whilst I was photographing them, it was as if they were posing; each formation seemed perfectly structured.
After sighting one of these for the first time in the wild, I could not imagine how these stripes could have come about – what kind of survival advantage could they provide? A wide variety of hypotheses exist to account for the evolution of the striking stripes; the most convincing two relate to camouflage.
- Vertical stripes may aid zebras in hiding in tall grasses by disrupting the outline, like in the case of the tiger. Also, at even just moderate distances, the contrasting stripes merge into an apparent grey.
- Stripes help confuse predators via motion dazzle – when a group stands or moves closer together, it presents an optical illusion with a large mass of flickering stripes. As you may remember from one of my lion chapters, a larger, static shape makes it difficult for a lion to pick out a target. In fact, this technique was actually mimicked by ships and employed extensively in World War I. The technique is aptly named dazzle camouflage.
Zebras essentially look like giant walking barcodes. I say this both literally and figuratively, as their unique pattern allows different members of the herd to differentiate one zebra from the next. In addition, conservation groups actually can scan these stripes to track individual zebras, so as to monitor species populations and growth.
Their main threats in the wild include poaching for their hunting skins, as well as habitat destruction. In saying this, they are very versatile, able to inhabit grasslands and savannahs, to mountains and even coastal hills.
Final (very) fun fact: zebras communicate via high-pitched barks – it is actually one of the most unexpected and hilarious noises that you will ever hear. When a predator or threat is sensed in the area, a zebra will bark loudly.
See here – you’re welcome.
One of my fondest memories actually was when KB, our tracker, mimicked (clearly a little too accurately) the noise and essentially had a full conversation with an extremely confused zebra.
So, finally – why did the zebra cross the road?
Because it was a zebra crossing.
Oh boyyyy it’s been a while! Apologies, friends – I had a bit of a realisation coming to the end of semester that I should probably take university a bit more seriously for just a moment.
Our women’s health and paediatrics rotations are now done, and as intense as they were, I can’t imagine studying anything else more stimulating. Oddly slightly sad to have finished, but glad to be on a little family getaway in Bright at the moment. Super refreshing to be out of the usual uni-work-sleep-exercise routine and experience some snow, fresh trails and amazing food, bevs and company for a few days.
I was thinking – let’s take a little break from all these elephant escapades and talk about my absolute favourite animal in Africa for a bit; the cheetah.
From the very beginning of our trip, this was actually the number one animal on my checklist that I was dying to see.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of animals in Africa, the first two that come to mind are the cheetah and the rhinoceros. Strangely, the cheetah actually does not constitute one of the big five (the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and cape buffalo). In fact, this name was coined by game hunters, as these were known to be the five most challenging animals to hunt on foot. Nowadays, however, this term is most frequently associated with African safari company marketing.
Despite this, the cheetah is not to be underestimated. It is capable of spotting its prey at ridiculous distances. It is capable of reaching speeds of 110-120 km/hr. Only behind the African wild dog, it is the second most successful predator in Africa.
When tracking these elegant animals in the dusty savannah, KB was able to differentiate the cheetah’s paw prints from other wild cats, such as the leopard. Unlike other big cats, their paw prints are always accompanied by claw marks in the sand, as their claws are not retractable.
After scouring the vast plains of Moremi, Khwai and Savuti, I had essentially given up hope.
We deliberately explored ideal habitats for cheetahs – vast, short-grassed landscapes with the occasional termite mound to mount and appreciate a better view of potential prey. However, like the leopard, these are very elusive creatures. These are the most anxious of all the cats, as although the fastest and the most agile, they are also the weakest and the slenderest. They have a unique build with a flexible neck, and an especially keen eyes and sense of smell. Cheetahs position themselves downwind to sense predators well in advance, steering well clear of lions.
On day eight of the safari, the 11th December 2017, after we had just about resolved ourselves the the fact that this just may not be the trip when we would be able to witness this magnificent animal, we stumbled across not one, but TWO males lying in the grass in the dappled sunlight being filtered through a tree.
The males were laying in a particularly regal manner, resembling the Egyptian sphinx. They both had beautiful markings on their faces, as if black lines had been perfectly painted to connect their eyes to their mouth. The spots covering their agile bodies were differently-sized, unlike the leopard’s rosettes.
They were picture perfect, but alert as ever. They lay in almost perfect symmetry, looking in opposite directions and scanning the grassy plains, capable of turning their long necks 180 degrees around. If one were to close its eyes to doze, it would be fore no more than a couple of minutes. One eye would remain slightly open, and they would not even allow their heads to rest on the ground. Without the aggressive build of the lion or the ability to climb trees and flee predators such as the leopard, they may never be at complete ease.
At one point, one of them sat up, as if in first position with its hind legs and its front paws just in front, propping him perfectly upright. It began walking towards the tree under which it was just laying, and one could truly appreciate their different build compared to other wild cats, with their taller hind legs. The male investigated and marked his territory on the tree, before perching himself on the termite mound to yield a better view of his surroundings. I felt as though I was watching NatGeo documentary – he was that perfect.
As we have already established in my previous posts – elephants are exceptionally social, playful, but also highly protective creatures. In fact, I have personally witnessed their defensive behaviours well before my African travels.
In Sri Lanka, elephants charging our open safari vehicle when threatened was not rare occurrence. Of course, it would be those very moments when the engine would fail to start. I suppose that was just nature’s way of keeping us on our toes.
I look back and laugh now, remembering how the whole thing simply felt like I was reliving an exciting scene from Jurassic Park, minus the plummeting rain and old-school phones. Only now do I actually realise how absolutely dangerous those circumstances would have been. The unpredictability and power of these mighty creatures.
Forgive me for a moment when you’re reading this – I promise I’m not about to delve into a full-blown VCE English essay! – but the manner in which elephants behave is hugely shaped by both their physical and psychosocial environments. They are very similar to humans in this respect.
The renowned phrase, “memory like an elephant,” actually originally came from the fact that elephants have large temporal lobes. For those less excited by neuroscience and anatomy than I, this is the outer or lateral lobe of the brain, which allows us to create long-term memories.
Elephants are renowned for their ability to recognise individuals that they have not seen for prolonged periods. This contributes to their social instincts.
BACK TO BOTSWANA
What I found incredible in Botswana was how absurdly close we were able to marvel at these creatures. KB would drive us right up to herds, and occasionally, we would even find ourselves parked right in the middle of about 200 elephants. (Check out ‘Tip 9’ to read more about KB’s love for these majestic mammals).
However, the clear difference in temperament between the Sri Lankan and African elephants can be attributed to the disparity in the elephant-human relationship in those regions. The elephants in Africa appeared so much more playful, and only occasionally perturbed by the presence of a vehicle in the vicinity. This is thanks to decades of minimal contact with humans, as well as positive experiences due to minimal poaching and land conservation. The elephants are consequently less fearful and more at ease in their natural habitat.
Botswana is renowned for its spectacular wildlife and pristine wilderness areas. It has one of the highest conservation land ratios in Africa, with more than 25% of its land mass being set aside for reserves and parks, so as to preserve the country’s natural heritage. In addition, unlike other African countries, it is actually winning the war against rampant poaching.
Botswana is a peaceful country, and sauve à a small misunderstanding with its northern neighbour, Namibia, regarding a small island in the Chobe river, there are very few instances where its highly-trained military has been employed in an incident of potential conflict.
From an elephant’s perspective, Botswana is a sanctuary. Something that I was so lucky to have been able to witness that perfectly demonstrates this was on a cruise on the Chobe river. This river delineates Botswana and Namibia. Because poaching at night is common in Namibia, Botswana provides these mammals with a safe haven during those vulnerable, dark hours, thanks to the ruthless anti-poaching military. Hence, each evening, the elephants cross the border and traverse the river in single file, using their trunks as snorkels. This formation allows them to help one-another cross, especially the young calves, which are yet to have trunks long enough to reach the water surface at the deeper points of the river. An absolutely incredible sight!
But the magic did not quite end there. Once on the Botswana side, some of the male elephants remained in the river. Fascinated by their own buoyancy, they would comically climb on top of one-another in play. I honestly could not believe my eyes.
Today’s post is going to involve many not-so-fun facts about elephants and the ivory trade. So, prepare yourself with a cup of tea and a snack, sit back, and prepare yourself. Don’t worry – many more light-hearted elephant stories are coming your way. The following piece is intended to provide you all with a bit of background information, so as to explain what makes the temperament of the African elephants so different to those that you may have already seen, particularly in Asia.
On the other hand, if you’re after more of an elephant pick-me-up, check out my previous post.
Botswana is presently home to approximately one third of Africa’s elephant population. Unfortunately, in the past, Botswana has tackled severe poaching, however within the last few years, there has been significant investment in the protection of the country’s wildlife.
I was once watching this documentary about elephants in Africa, showing a mother and her calf as part of a herd, which was battling a great drought. The calf eventually became too weak to continue along the elephant highway, and lay down, giving in to its natural circumstances. The mother elephant was then presented with a choice – to remain with her calf and die without the support of her herd, or to abandon her baby and survive.
The mother urged her calf on, but remained, sacrificing herself, unable to desert her baby. Although at first glance, this behaviour may seem to be discordant with natural selection, it certainly illustrates how beneficial these evolved social ties must be to our survival as a more developed species.
With this in mind, if we value human rights, we should also value animals that have the same or similar level of sophistication that we do.
Although some organisations claim to cull animals in an effort to establish a sense of equilibrium between animals and resources, for the ‘greater good,’ this neglects the psychological health of the species. Elephants being as intelligent as they are, are traumatised by these events. Familial separation and witnessing the massacre of family members is devastating. Elephants can actually go into a depressive state, refusing to eat or move.
The ‘culling’ of elephants is both cruel and an unnecessary guise fuelled by greed and the lucrative ivory industry.
THE IVORY TRADE
Tusks: a pair of modified incisors, growing to weigh dozens of kilograms.
Purpose: to aid an elephant in a variety of essential day-to-day tasks.
To humans: ivory holds great value for no good reason, being used for intricate carving, trinkets, chopsticks and jewellery.
It is an absolutely ruthless and terrifying industry. Ivory dealers employ armed poachers with automatic weapons, who target and massacre large herds of elephants. Their tusks are subsequently hacked off with axes and chainsaws.
The market for ivory is currently greatest in Asia, with China having the highest demand for ivory. Although the international trade of parts of elephants has been illegal since 1989, the demand for ivory in certain countries has continued to stimulate the illegal (but also unethical) trafficking and elephant poaching. Tens of thousands of elephants are still killed each year, solely to steal their tusks. The level of these killings have been shown to occur at unsustainable levels relative to natural population growth in certain areas.
Bans on currently legal, domestic trade are still in the works in many countries. Arguments in favour of continued trade in countries such as Australia, include “but what about when we want to sell Granny Flo’s old grand piano with ivory keys?” A pretty pathetic and selfish argument for the continuation of such brutal and heartless treatment of such intelligent creatures.
As a public display to advocate for this cause, nations around the world seized tonnes of illegally-trafficked ivory, since the international ban of 1989. These confiscated stocks were publicly destroyed by burning and crushing. Such events have taken place in the US, UK, France, Belgium, mainland China and Hong Kong, and has served a symbolic purpose – to devalue ivory and bring attention to the fact that the murder of elephants can never be justified, even in legal markets.
On a more positive note – as of the 31st December 2017, China’s legal, government-sanctioned ivory trade will come to a close, with licensed ivory carving factories and retailers being shuttered. China and the US have both agreed to “near-complete” bans on the buying and selling of ivory, except for a very limited number of antiques.
This is indeed a significant step forward. It simultaneously sends a message to the general public that these countries value the life of elephants more than ivory carving culture.
Until this moment, I have been relatively discrete regarding my blog. However, from the very few close people with whom I have shared it, I have received really heartening feedback. I genuinely appreciate each one of you who have taken the time to check it out. Despite how quiet I have kept it, I am proud of my photography and writing, and excited to have this space and this opportunity to share some of the beautiful things that I have been able to experience on my travels with all of you – whether it be with those of you who are yet to traverse Africa, or those who have, to whom I hope to provide a bit of a fresh and unique perspective. I’d absolutely love to hear about yours!
Some of my readers have communicated that they really enjoy how informative my posts are. Although I do occasionally browse National Geographic and touch on a bit of research regarding the different species about which I write, the bulk of it is based entirely on what I saw with my every own eyes out on the African savannah, as well as verbal information gathered by KB, our tracker, who has had a lifetime of experience in Botswana.
However, before I continue, I must admit that I do have a confession to make. I am famous for using this famous tactic of avoidance when I feel somewhat shy or uncomfortable. Although many have commented on the high quality of information on my blog, it has really highlighted to me that I tend to hide my personality behind a wall of information and long sentences.
So, without further ado, here’s to being brave and stepping out of my oh-so-snug-and-cosy comfort zone. Below is one of many little vignettes about elephants that are about to come your way. I say many, because one could certainly write a novel about the idiosyncrasies and beauty of these mammals.
“An elephant never forgets.”
“Memory like an elephant.”
I think we have all stumbled upon these saying somewhere in our lives, but let me tell you, they certainly hold true.
I have been lucky enough to have seen elephants from the time that I was a baby, but like many things in Africa (and goodness, I hope I don’t bore you with the number of times I say this – definitely deserves a hashtag), the elephants in Africa are #somethingelse.
In Sri Lanka, a large proportion of the land’s elephants are domesticated, and although there still are many in the wild, I really didn’t see them as anything particularly special until now.
In the sub-Sahara, the elephants are stony grey in colour, much larger, and appear hugely more primitive. They have these fan-shaped ears, and both male and females have tusks, unlike the Asian elephants, whereby only the males possess ivory. What’s also super interesting, is that elephants are actually right or left-tusked, which is illustrated by markedly increased wear undoubtedly visible on their preferred tusk.
I actually recently finished my medical rotation in paediatrics, and I had always thought until now that handedness was a human-specific feature, but it is actually quite primitive! Even humans demonstrate this quite early in development – as early as 18 months – which is one of those things that tells you it is a surprisingly basic skill.
Anywho, back to elephants.
Upon chatting with KB at the beginning of our safari adventures, I was initially surprised to discover that his favourite species of animal to observe in Botswana are elephants. More than anything, he enjoys watching the interactions between animals of the same species, particularly elephants and baboons, more so than simply sighting the different species themselves. I guess once you’ve just about seen everything, it is the magical behaviours that begin to intrigue you. I could even pretty safely say that there is no other species like the elephant when it comes to this.
I find the manner of these creatures fascinating. Again, I’m not entirely sure whether it is my recent paediatric/gynaecological/obstetric learning or my ovaries that speaking on my behalf when I’m giving these examples (apologies to my awkward dad reading this). For instance, one of the beautiful things that witnessed that I will never forget, was watching the most adorable baby elephant flailing its trunk around, desperately trying to grasp a vine draped over its disproportionately large ear, before successfully seizing and consuming it. I’m not entirely sure how to portray in words exactly how cute it was. Maybe it was more of a ‘you-had-to-be-there’ moments. In case that did not quite suffice, here is a photo that captured the moment.
Sticking with the theme, here are some more fun facts for you. Elephants are lead by a matriarch, and have very complex, large social structures – usually composed of females and calves, whilst males typically live in isolation. One single calf is born to a female only once every 4-5 years. Gestation periods for elephants are the longest of any other mammal, lasting 22 months! Imagine having to carry a foetus around in your belly for almost two years. Although not completely against the potential idea in the (very) far future, the idea of a 9-month ordeal of physiologically supporting both myself and another tiny human is already a relatively intense commitment.
Below is a video that I took of the first herd elephants that we saw upon our Botswana travels. I recommend watching it until the end – I can assure you that it does not disappoint.
SPOILER – read this only after watching the video!
Note how menacing and defensive the big boy is at the tail of the herd. He had us absolutely speechless upon his exit. This is the typical behaviour of a parental figure in the presence of their young. Elephants have very cohesive, tight familial ties. I’ll be writing more about the reasoning behind these defensive behaviours, how the temperament between African and Asian elephants differ, along with my theories for these differences in my next post, so stay tuned!
PS. If my attempt at a cliff-hanger wasn’t incentive enough, there’ll be plenty adorable and irresistible photos and videos of elephants on my travels in said post. See you there.
Firstly, can we please just acknowledge how bizarre-looking giraffes really are? Thanks to their towering legs and long necks, giraffes are the world’s tallest mammals. It was actually for this reason that I was really looking forward to seeing them in the wild, more than any other animal! I mean, can you imagine just driving down a road and looking to the left to see such a tall, spindly animal munching on an acacia tree? Maybe if you are reading this from sub-Saharan Africa, this may not seem too out of the ordinary, but I can guarantee you that it is pretty astounding for us metropolitan Australians.
I could not help but wonder as to how their long necks came about. There are various different evolutionary theories. Some say that this trait has been naturally selected for as in conjunction with their exceptional vision, it provides them with the ability to spot predators at great distances across the African savannah. Others believe that it provides them with the evolutionary advantage of reaching and browsing foliage on treetops out of reach of other species. Their ridiculous half a metre-long tongue also certainly helps with this!
The latest postulated theory is that it is a result of sexual selection; that is, these long necks evolved in males as a way of competing for females through demonstrations of attraction (similar to other species such as peacocks) in courting displays known as ‘necking.’ Considering that females developed this trait too, unlike peacocks, whereby the luscious tails do not appear in the peafowl counterparts, this is unlikely.
Nevertheless, being 4 metres tall comes with a cost. Female giraffes also give birth standing upright, which means that their newborn calf endures a rather rude welcome into the world by falling from a high of almost 2 metres. Therefore, they have evolved two hair-covered horns, which are actually projections of their skull, called ossicones. This protects the newborn’s brain during the birthing process. Interestingly, their neck also consists of only 7 (very elongated) vertebrae, which is the same as humans, mice, and many other mammals!
Also, because a giraffe’s brain is 2 metres above its heart, it has to be powerful and muscular to counter the effect of gravity. For sufficient cerebral perfusion, the heart needs to pump the blood at a pressure higher than any other animal. Hence, although the cause remains a mystery, there must be significant payback to keep giraffes’ necks so long.
The giraffe’s stature may also be disadvantageous in that it is both difficult and dangerous for a giraffe to drink at a watering hole. So as to do so, they must splay out their legs and awkwardly bend down, making them vulnerable to predators.
They also have an interesting gait pattern, whereby two legs on the same side (left or right) of their body move at any one point, which leads to balance complications whilst trying to move quickly.
Their favourite cuisine are acacia trees, and in plentiful regions, one may see large groups of these giraffes dispersed. Interestingly, the apt term for a collective group of giraffes is a ‘tower’ of giraffes whilst stationary, however they are termed a ‘journey’ of giraffes when on the move. They have disorganised family structures, and may be separated by large distances, although they may still be within each others’ sight.
Giraffes also have peculiar sleeping habits. As someone who adores their 9-hour restful nights and appreciates naps that border on hibernation, I cannot help but envy the sleep patterns of animals in the wild, which have evolved very differently. For giraffes in particular, sleep comes at a much steeper price, and hence, these herbivores, along with even successful predators, do not sleep as deeply, nor in one long stretch, as we do.
Adult giraffes stay awake most of the time to remain constantly alert for predators, rarely sleeping for any longer than 5 minutes at a time. They sleep for less than 20 minutes per day in total, which is sufficient for their functioning. This is the shortest sleep requirement in the entire animal kingdom.
As you can see, these are exceptionally peculiar animals with so many unique animal traits to be appreciated.
Sometimes I question whether or not I am in fact 23 in moments like this, when I realise that internally, I cannot help but refer to different African animals as their Lion King alias. I have already written about the hyenas, crazy Ed being one of them, and ‘Zazu,’ which just sounds so much nicer than ‘red-billed hornbill’. Now, I am about to tell you all about Pumba, our favourite warthog.
At first glance, they may seem to be extremely unattractive, and I certainly would never have expected to have developed the soft spot that I have for these animals. I think it just comes down to the fact that they just have so much personality. Just like Pumba, they trot around characteristically with their tails cocked straight up into the air, and they love to wallow in the mud to regulate their core temperature. They are easily spooked, and so when given the option of fight or flight, their response is almost nearly always flight, as they search for an abandoned aardvark den to use as a hidey-hole and inhabit.
Although common animals in Africa, I can safely say that I never took them for granted. I found everything about them charming – the way that they would trot off into the distance with a little feather-duster tail stuck straight up like a pipe-cleaner, how they would sharpen their tusks and groom themselves by rubbing their bodies vigorously against an old tree stump, as well as the seemingly endless number of entertaining perfectly-coiffed hairstyles that they manage to rock. Seriously, though – that mane.
Their main predators include lions and leopards, from which they protect themselves by fleeing, or even sliding backwards into a hole, such that they are in a position to utilise their formidable and sharpened tusks in their defence at the entrance. Warthogs, although grazers, may also engage in ritual fights, charging straight on and clashing heads, which may be violent and bloody.
The name –no surprise– comes from the wart-like pattern covering their bodies. Both males and females possess four tusks, the only difference between the two being that males have a pattern of four warts on their faces, with only two in females. They live in family groups, usually with one female and her young, whilst males live in isolation, joining groups only to mate.
Interestingly, a female only has four teats so as to provide milk for her young, and consequently, she may only give rise to four young at most, with each piglet possessing its ‘own’ teat. They suckle exclusively from this teat, and even if one piglet dies, the others will leave the available teat alone. Interestingly, warthog sows have also been known to foster and nurse piglets if they lose their own litter – they are classed as ‘cooperative breeders,’ and it has been confirmed that this phenomenon is not the result of mistaken identity or milk theft; just plain altruism.
Absolutely gorgeous little mammals, they do not score even nearly enough camera time to what they deserve.
Click here for some extra sunshine in your day.
Let us now discuss Africa’s most elusive predator – the leopard. These wild cats are masters of stealth, and are certainly the most coveted sighting on safaris – ask any tracker, driver or safari enthusiast. As described in Londolozi’s blog, they epitomise Africa; the sighting of one is never guaranteed, and the allure of this spotted animal is representative of the allure of the continent itself.
They prefer to hunt under the cover of the night, utilising their highly-adapted night vision and hearing to their advantage. In addition, unlike lions or wild dogs, where the entire pride or pack aids in raising and protecting the offspring, leopard mothers still have to hunt, protect and raise their cubs single-handedly. Members of this species prefer to remain in solitude, with the exception of mating or raising their young.
I must admit, I have been quite spoilt in having previously experienced the presence of this magnificent animal from a young age, having frequented national parks in Sri Lanka, such as Yala, which boasts the highest density of leopard compared to anywhere else in the world, but is also home to the largest of them all. In saying this, however, I never cease to be amazed by their immeasurable beauty.
YALA, SRI LANKA
My most memorable encounter with a leopard was without a doubt, in 2004, just after Christmas. This particular period may ring a bell, in that it was just after the Indian Ocean earthquake on Boxing Day that year, resulting in the devastating tsunami that predominantly affected the south and east coasts of the island. By January 3rd, there were over 30,000 confirmed deaths. Yala was in the direct path of the tsunami, leading to immense destruction. Interestingly, prior to the event, many animals seemed to have fled the area, essentially demonstrating a sort of ‘sixth sense’ possessed by the wildlife in being able to predict this natural disaster.
Despite being merely 9 years old, I still distinctly remember driving through the Yala National Park, overwhelmed by the amount of washed-up debris and sand engulfing the mainland. One afternoon, we stumbled across a young, slight leopard. We watched him desperately chase butterflies, his paws flailing in all directions. However, the highlight of this sighting was without question observing his attempt of hunting a full-size porcupine. It was a sure once-in-a-lifetime experience.
BACK TO THE OKAVANGO DELTA, BOTSWANA
Certain parts of Africa, and I mean probably only about 10% including Botswana, are privileged in being able to see leopards in this manner. This is the direct result of a combination of various factors, however the most predominant ones include an enforced prohibition of poaching, as well as sensitive viewing of these animals. By minimising our impact on the leopard population, we increase our probability of sighting them. Although rare glimpses of leopards are still possible in the remaining 90% of the continent, a long and dire history of human persecution of these beautiful creatures has ingrained an adaptive fear of humankind into the species. Therefore, it is only in certain areas, such as Botswana and other similar reserves, that we may see them behaving naturally and more relaxed in their environment.
On the 6th December 2017, we were driving in our open vehicle from the Moremi game reserve to Khwai, Botswana, when we stumbled upon various pieces of evidence indicating the presence of leopards in the area. We spotted tracks on the sandy road, which are the preferred terrain for their delicate paws, in addition to an impala carcass on a sausage tree branch (yes, that is in fact the true name for this species of tree, with no ambiguities in the name), where a leopard has dragged his or her kill for an afternoon snack whilst escaping the African sun.
We were merely driving on a main road when we accidentally stumbled across a wild leopard. Just perched under a shady tree adjacent to the gravel, there it peacefully lay. In amazement, the driver half-shouted and half-whispered, “leopard!”, screeching the brakes to a firm halt. The leopard, shy, and spooked by the vehicle, briskly stood up and started on its way to find another, more tranquil tree, only about 6 metres from its original position. However, it was not laying there relaxed – its head was crouched just below a low-hanging branch. It pierced us with its feline, yellow eyes, staring intensely and watching every slight movement. It had the most beautiful face – spotted, yet perfectly symmetrical. Beautiful rosettes markings dappled its sleek body.
Something that I appreciated from this particular leopard was its distinctly different behaviour to the other predators seen on this safari adventure. It was an exceptionally graceful animal, but also very cautious and timid. Unlike the lions, there was not a lazy bone in its body. It was an intelligent beast, able to observe and calculate its next move, whether the intent be for hunting or silently slipping away into the grasses away from our vehicle, which is exactly the route it took.
Our second leopard encounter was on the 9th December 2017. One of the trackers had already spotted a leopard (don’t mind the pun!) on the highway in Khwai – a mother sighted with her cub, however the female was solo at this particular time when we admired her. She had hidden her cub away, so that she may hunt unencumbered. KB, our tracker, predicted from where exactly in the Mophani trees she was likely to eventually appear, by employing his knowledge of the behaviour of these beautiful creatures, in addition to using the directions provided by the other tracker. Between his expertise and a touch of luck, we were able to see perfectly, and only a mere metre or so away, the most beautiful wild cat. Just as the one seen when travelling from Moremi, this leopard was agile and graceful. However, surprisingly, she was unperturbed by the surrounding vehicles. She was on a mission to find food, and did not even blink twice at our presence.
We observed her animalistic behaviours in its natural habitat – we saw her ‘flaming’, which is when a leopard opens its mouth, exposes its teeth, and inhales particles from the air so as to accentuate its sense of smell (in this case, our smell). We watched her leap up onto old tree stumps and logs, and perch herself up to yield a better view of her surroundings. She was unbelievably picturesque, with the most beautiful yellow eyes and gorgeous fluffy white, curved tail. The way in which she dexterously moved was almost as if she was posing for my dSLR camera.
She was the epitome of felinity – elegant, agile and fearless.
To read ‘Lounging Lions – Part One’, click here.
Whenever you see televised documentaries or read about brutal killings in Botswana, it just always happens to be in Savute. The marsh pride here is the star of the television series, Savage Kingdom, known to be the most vicious groups in the world, capable of taking down even hippopotamuses and elephants. Our tracker, KB, was telling us about how in the winter months (i.e. during the dry season), there is only one primary waterhole, by which the pride sleeps and hunts. Apparently at night, you can literally hear the loud battle between the elephants and the lions, and at sunrise, there is inevitably a new elephant carcass to feed their pride every three days.
On our first day in Savute, during our evening game ride, we actually stumbled across a dead hippopotamus – one of the victims of the marsh pride. It had been mostly eaten, the remainder, biltong for the scavengers. Although this environment means that there is plentiful prey available to predators, its attractiveness as a hunting ground creates brutal competition.
Predators here are powerful, but also highly adaptable and daring. They stake out hunting territories, contending with each other for supremacy. They often have to battle other species to prevent kleptoparisitism – a term that literally means ‘parasitism by theft.’ This is a form of feeding in which one animal takes already-hunted prey from another species. For example, hyenas, which may function as both scavengers and predators, as described in my previous post entitled ‘Ed!‘, are responsible for the loss of close to 20% of the food of Savute lions, according to a study from 1991. Although this does not create an immediate need for the lions, which have already fed at this point, this causes their food to diminish more rapidly, therefore forcing them to have to hunt more frequently so as to satiate the pride. Lions will therefore kill hyenas – not as a meal (they are far too low yield for this, particularly when you consider the energy required to hunt them), but rather, to eliminate competition.
Our encounter with these ruthless 14 lions, was on day eight of our Letaka safari journey, the 11th December 2017. We saw different members of the pride on separate occasions throughout the day, as they disperse and reconvene, except for the males, who are dismissed once sexually mature so as to prevent inbreeding.
Initially, we were able to see eight members, all lounging in the shade with full, panting bellies. There were six lionesses, one cub of around 2-3 years of age, and one young male with a wispy mane.
The youngest of the lions lay with its white belly exposed. It still had a striped pattern across its body, giving away its youth. The other lionesses on the other hand were the largest and most cunning that we had seen thus far, making the males we saw in Moremi appear like stuffed toys in comparison. Their coats were darker, their bodies even more muscular and larger, particularly their hind legs. The eldest of all of them, the grandmother of the pride, had large, opaque, white eyes, which, when they stared at you, sent a chill down your spine. They were not the beautiful and gentle amber eyes to which we were accustomed.
During our PM game ride, we were able to view three male lions originating from this marsh pride, which were absolutely magnificent. These were much different to the ones in Moremi – march larger in stature, with full-bodied, blond manes. They clean their manes with their rough, sandpaper-like tongue – the same tongue that they use to tenderise the meat of their prey. They were undoubtedly fearsome compared to the Moremi males that we saw on our second day in Botswana. However, it should be noted that these are of the exact same species – the differences are simply phenotypic – black versus blond manes, stature, etc. Lions live to around age 30 in captivity, however males in particular do not live this long in the wild, as they get into fights with other territorial males and acquire sometimes life-threatening injuries. Interestingly, we were able to see the same three lions, also napping, during both our AM and PM game rides the next day, accompanied by another male in the afternoon.
Later on in the game ride, we observed a group of elephants, and then visited the main watering hole in Savute, which was accompanied by a beautiful sunset. We witnessed a jackal going in to enjoy a drink, stopping every few moments to assess his surroundings, as the waterhole behaves as prime bait for opportunistic hunters.
The landscape of Savute is also quite different, as you may read about in my soon-to-come ‘Day Seven’ entry. It is composed of vast dry plains, intense heat, volcanic rock formations from the shifting of tectonic plates, as well as the Savute channel, which mysteriously dries out and lies dormant for about 30 years, and then nourishes the land for a couple of decades in between. The hypothesis for this sporadic behaviour is that the channel’s status depends on the positioning of the tectonic plates. The largest recorded earthquake in Botswana was last year in April, and was recorded to be 6.7 in magnitude. When the land is more barren, it leaves hoards of parched animals on the hunt for remaining common watering holes, a prime site for predators to hunt herds of wildebeest, elephants and buffalo. However, thanks to the wet season, grassy plains blanket the savannah, attracting insects and consequently a plethora of different bird species, and ample numbers of grazing herbivores. These plant eaters are responsible for the large number of ruthless predators in Savute.
After enjoying the scenery, we were heading our way back to our camp, when suddenly, we encountered two lionesses walking with purpose through the trees. They were the famous Matsumi – meaning huntress in Setswana – and her daughter, Matsuminyana – translating to little huntress. These two lionesses are the star hunters of Savage Kingdom, and rightly so. Matsumi herself is able to take down a buffalo single-handedly, without any assistance from the remainder of her pride. They walked without hesitation towards the marsh, completely ignoring our presence, without an ounce of fear. These hellacious animals just exuded ferocity and confidence. They had a presence about them that incited both fear and awe amongst us in the vehicle.
Fun fact about me: my Chinese zodiac is in fact the dog – I manage to just squeeze my way out of the year of the pig by being born days before the Chinese Lunar New Year!
However, we do need to clear up the title of this blog post before we begin – despite the name, the African wild dog is not an actual dog. Despite this fact, I still could not resist drawing your attention to the coincidence between today’s topic and the current Chinese New Year Spring Festival at the moment.
Rather, these beautiful, very slight animals, with large, rounded ears, black, amber and white, dappled all over, are its own separate species. In fact, they are actually more related to wolves; a canid native to Sub-Saharan Africa. Its individual markings are unique within the pack, and serve to help the dogs to identify one another. It is no wonder why they are also referred to as the African painted dog.
Contrary to what you may expect, the African wild dog is the most successful predator in Africa – even more so than the lion. They catch their prey, usually antelope, by chasing them to exhaustion. They also hunt in packs so as to protect one another, even as adults, which is an exceptionally rare phenomenon for predators. They are also very social animals with a unique hierarchy system – they have separate dominance hierarchies for males and females, and unlike other social carnivores, it is the females, rather than the males, that scatter from the natal pack once they are sexually mature. Each pack is classically dominated by a single monogamous breeding pair, which gives rise to between 2 and 20 pups in a litter, not all of which survive. Interestingly, the remainder of the pack do not reproduce, however it is still their duty to help raise the pups, which, along with the old and the injured, are prioritised and allowed to feed first on any carcasses. This level of comradery is an exceptionally rare behaviour for mammals.
Additionally, unlike other carnivores, they do not feed on other predators. They have very few natural predators – lions are their major source of mortality, which hunt them in order to eliminate competition when given the chance. Spotted hyenas are frequent kleptoparasites.
Unfortunately, this is a very rare and endangered species, with only a remaining population of 5,000 worldwide. This is secondary to ongoing habitat fragmentation and human persecution, as farmers detest them, seeing them as pests that threaten their livestock. In addition, despite all the afore-mentioned advantages of their unique social group structure, along with these behaviours comes the burden of disease and detrimental outbreak – in particular, rabies and other diseases originating from domestic animals.
Hence, seeing them in Africa is indeed a very coveted experience. Somehow on my trip to Botswana, we were fortunate to see them on four separate occasions. Prior to our trip, I remember my mother once telling me of a blogger whom she follows, who spent an entire year in the Londolozi game park, only witnessing her first wild dog on her very last day! As our tracker, KB, said – being privileged enough to see them on so many separate occasions, both in Moremi and Khwai, gave us an inaccurate sense of how truly rare these creatures are.
Our first sighting of the African wild dog was on our third day (6th December 2017) of our trip in Botswana. The previous night, we had heard this particular male making his calls very close to our camp in Moremi game reserve, struggling to locate his pack. This was unusual, as these animals are usually active during the day. On our game drive the next morning, we found him lying nearby the road. I honestly had absolutely no idea what to expect or what I was looking for, until my mother excitedly pointed him out. I was already in such awe, and then, just to knock me off my hot, dusty leather seat, the wild dog slowly stood up, crouched the front of his body close to the ground, before letting out a loud cry, calling out to his pack. It was chilling. Apparently, this particular manoeuvre allows the sound to be transmitted to greater distances – a technique also utilised by hyenas.
Our second experience was on the 8th December 2017, when we had already crossed the river from Moremi to Khwai. We were passing a landing strip, where we spotted a pack of thirteen wild dogs – what a sight! They were accompanied by their cubs, and one of the dogs was limping. They were absolutely gorgeous, and you could really sense the companionship between them. We followed them for a while, into the thicket of Botswana’s summer terrain, watching them on the move, chasing zebras and wallowing in the mud – the latter two of which seem to be some of their preferred activities. We also watched them marking their territory, which involved rolling around and profusely watering their tracks. In addition, our tracker, KB, an expert at animal impersonations, made a couple of wild dog calls – it was intriguing to watch them all freeze, turn towards us and listen intently, as they tried to locate the sound and their potentially lost pack mate. These incredibly intelligent creatures circled around our Jeep, trying to determine the location of the ‘missing dog’, knowing that it could not possibly be inside the car. Eventually, we lost them, as despite their large number, they disappeared into the thick Mophani of the landscape, purposeful in their journey.
My third encounter with the dogs was on day seven (10th December 2017). In the midst of our 5:30am breakfast one morning, prior to our game drive, a pack of wild dogs chased two impalas – a mother and her baby – literally behind our breakfast table. We followed them out in the vehicle according to directions radioed across to KB in Setswana, but I was heartbroken to hear that it was the baby that was killed. When we found them, they had the baby impala torn to shreds, the cubs feeding off it, whilst the others lounged in the shaded grass. It was the exact same pack as that which we saw on the landing strip two days earlier. They ate every last bit of it, except for the innocent little head and the skin, which were left for the scavengers to find later that evening.