Our last trip to South Africa’s Kruger National Park was over 20 years ago on a multi-day walking trip accompanied by a ranger and tracker. Since then we, or perhaps more specifically I, have tended to see a ‘normal’ visit to the Kruger as driving round in a mobile cage to be gawked at by animals and subject to intolerable restrictions. However a recent visit has provided something of a new perspective, by being driven round by someone who was able to locate interesting sightings and in an open topped game viewing vehicle while almost being within touching distance of the animals.
This is enhanced by living in an unfenced area allowing a less adulterated experience with animals. Hence the elephants gathered at the waterhole adjacent to our chalets as soon as we arrived.
As can be seen in that photo the veld was looking really drought stricken and the local hippo which we had seen on the way in came over to our waterhole and took up residence even though it was obvious he would find very little grazing and despite there being some discussion, after initially seeing him at a nearby waterhole, as to whether he was dead or not. Out interaction increased when a member of our party left the kitchen door open and baboons (not members of our party) immediately took advantage by removing as much food as possible including a packet of potato crisps. This bag was left right next to the waterhole with the hippo. Our party instinctively picked on the most gullible and apparently weakest member of the party (natural selection at play) to go and retrieve the bag. Once I got there the hippo got up as though in two minds about whether to bother charging me or just walk off. He chose the latter option, hence the ability to write this account. However he soon came back and gave me ‘The Look’ as though to say ‘I’m checking you out buddy’.
Hippos generally adopt a pool as their base and are reluctant to move to other areas except as a result of drought, flood etc. Unlike the pool pictured they prefer one deep enough to cover their whole bodies with only eyes and ears protruding. Routes to their feeding areas tend to be fixed such that they become very distinct, especially because their mode of walking leaves a middelmannetjie1. Their preferred food is short grass which they crop very short to sometimes leave a lawn like appearance. Eating roughly 40 kg per night means that soil erosion easily occurs. The drought induced conditions pictured indicate that it would not be easy to find 40 kg of grass even for one night.
1a middelmannetjie is the Afrikaans word for the ridge that is typically left on South African single track dirt roads between the two wheel ruts.
The fact that we were in an open game viewing vehicle did not seem to make much difference to the interaction with the animals though I believe that if anyone had stood up it may have been different. In the pictures below it can be seen how the leopard made a beeline straight towards us and then sniff something on the ground alongside where were sitting only a metre or so from me. [The great majority of pictures were taken on heavily overcast days and/or close to or after sunset and one appreciated how the best photos come from hours of waiting with a tripod for exactly the right conditions.]
Later a leopard also posed prominently in a tree while an attentive hyena waited on the ground like a hungry dog waiting for a baby to drop bits of food.
Despite their powerful build leopard tend to prey on animals below 70 kg mass2 explaining why I choose to sit by small people on open topped game viewing vehicles. Impala, monkeys and baboons are favoured food. Unlike the cheetah they rely on stalking, generally followed by no more than a 30m chase. A Kruger Park study (U de V Pienaar 1969) recorded 31 species being taken by leopard but impala nevertheless comprised 78%. Female leopards are recorded as killing once every 12 days in this area, with prey averaging 10 kg (Le Roux and Skinner 1989). Males, with a weight (c60 kg) nearly twice that of females kill more frequently. Killing is mainly by throttling or breaking the spine in the neck area. Hyenas and wild dogs sometimes vie over a kill which prompts leopard to take the kill up a tree. One recording was of a leopard managing to carry a young giraffe, apparently well over 70kg, into a tree (P Hamilton 1976, Tsavo).
2This and other details in this post taken from Skinners and Smithers The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion.
Lion on the other hand attracted attention by the number of kills they made. Three buffalo in three days is surely more than one pride can eat and another pride was also hard at work. Otherwise they were quite happy to sleep off the rather large meals. The buffalo appeared rather weak because of the lack of grazing and were possibly easy targets for the lions.
Hyenas however like to put on a bit of a show and check us out as though to say they are not just bit players:
This habit of lying in pools to cool off is quite common during the day while it is at night they are most active. Females are larger than males and as with humans, in my (very) humble experience, are the dominant sex. On a one to one basis they can displace any other predator from a kill except a lion (Peter Apps Wild Ways) and as we found camping in the Namib, very nearly to our own cost, are the most likely predator to attack a sleeping human (we dispute that, counting mosquitoes as predators!).
The elephant below was the only animal to take obvious exception to us, while others digging for some bulbs, which they clearly thought to be a great delicacy, made a great performance over digging them out with tusks and feet.
Elephants need roughly 160 litres of water a day of which about 30 is used for evaporative cooling. Their ears weigh only 20 kg each but account for some 20% of the animal’s surface area and 75% of the heat loss. Because only about 40% of what they eat is digested they need some 170 kg of food a day (P Guy 1975).
With the number of kills it seemed that the vultures were far too well fed to bother to fly so driving along was like trying to get through a herd of sheep. Though the number of birds appears high I do not know of any proven correlation between numbers and average age of the party in the vehicle.
White rhino were quite common (no black rhino) and did not seem to be suffering too much from the sparse grazing though they (especially the white ones) are in any case normally slow moving without feeling the need to dash off at the least alarm.
Like the hippo the white rhino feeds on grass and crops it to quite low levels but does so during the day, spending about half the daylight hours feeding. The head is moved in an arc to feed before advancing a further step to repeat the process. Apart from the wide squared off lips for grazing another distinguishing trait of the white rhino compared to the similar grey coloured black rhino is the way the calf precedes the mother, guided by gentle nudges of the horn. In normal walking the nostrils are held sufficiently close to the ground to allow the mouth to show clearly in the spoor. Under stress though they can move at up to 40km/hour.
The toll of rhino succumbing to poachers has increased drastically in the last decade, from only about a dozen in 2007 to 1175 last year in South Africa, with demand from Vietnam cited as possibly the main reason. Horns are said to be sold to Chinese visitors or smuggled in bulk via China. With a wildlife conference in Hanoi in November the authorities made some effort to indicate concern but the Wildlife Justice Commission, a local charity, provides an example of a village outside Hanoi where they found some $50 million worth of illegal products in January, including 579 rhino horns, but still waiting for any action to be taken. (The Economist)
For interest this trip was to a private farm where the owner had an arrangement with the neighbouring fancy lodge, so the available area to drive around covered about 15,000 hectares and there was constant radio contact to identify sightings. Internal fences between farms, lodges and Kruger Park have been taken down. Nearly all the best sightings were off-track and it was interesting how these locations could be communicated between vehicles even though to get there involved ploughing through bush and trees up to 4 metres or so high with frequent diversions to avoid impenetrable areas yet we always seemed to hit the exact right spot without any problems (and without GPS which I’m sure would be scoffed at). Despite the communication between ourselves and the up to seven vehicles from the neighbouring lodge no more than three vehicles were, by common consent, allowed at a sighting. The people on the other vehicles, probably overseas people who would think nothing of paying the R11,000 a night, were mainly young whereas quite a few of our ten were around 80 and over. I can imagine the others going back to the US and confirming to their friends how old people in Africa are taken out into the bush to die.
As a final thought the following photo must be the ultimate human trap – a nice sunset, becoming gloomy and the people getting out for sundowners.
© J R B Livesey 2016