We have been seeing so much over the last 3 days: lions, cheetahs, rhinos, elephants, kudu, impala, the list goes on and on. So I have picked the two (well, this is a very personal opinion) "best of" sightings. As I said, this is just what I would have preferred having seen myself, had I been as lucky as our guests to be out on safari.
One is an amazing nocturnal leopard sighting. The most elusive of all cats, and enigmatic of all. We see them more and more often, but one still needs some luck to spot them as close as this. We saw this big male leopard last night on Impala road. He was pretty relaxed. He sat up and watched us for a while before turning and disappearing into the thicket. One of our guests succeeded with an amazing shot also, and we published that shot on Facebook, here the link to that:
Here our tracker's shot, not bad either (ok, it's pretty bad actually), it gives one nonetheless a good idea of what an exciting close-up sighting this really was.
My other personal favorite was a SUPER rare Saddled Billed Stork (actually two, as it is a couple). Some birders will pay an arm and a leg to get a sighting like this one. Only a very few breeding couples are known in South Africa, and we are lucky enough to have one of them on our reserve, breeding successfully. What a joy! This to me is one of the biggest conservation successes on our large reserve, along with our rhinos, wild dogs and cheetahs amongst others.
Our guests had a fantastic up-close sighting of rhinos on our reserve 2 days ago. They were happily grazing away (the rhinos, not the guests), and gave our guests a great photo opportunity. We can only publish these photos 1-2 days after the sighting, in order to not give away locations (well, we don't anyway). But we need to be 100% sure and make sure they are safe. Given that they are de-horned, that should keep them safe from poachers anyway, as they have no value to them.
The elephants were seen at the four way crossing near the Essim portion of the conservancy. The whole herd was slowly eating their way down the road. Very relaxed – they posed for some photos and then disappeared into the thicket.
We also tracked the pride of Lions all the way to Diep Dam – they had caught a Wildebeest and after they had eaten they went to drink water in the inflow of the dam. Thereafter they did what cats do best and just flopped down on the sand to take a nice 16-hour nap. Welcome to Africa!
Credit to our guides and trackers where credit is due! They do find and see our lions incredibly often, despite the immense size of our conservancy of 36,000 acres in total.
Yesterday, they hit jackpot and saw both lions and cheetahs the same day. This does happen regularly, but nonetheless, what a great day for our guests! Given that there are only 300-400 cheetahs living in the wild in South Africa, such a sighting is quite something (especially if you keep in mind that South Africa is twice as large as France).
All lionesses were reunited once again with the Male, and they were on the hunt. We didn’t see if they made the kill. But Chad is sure they would have. We saw them pretty early in the riverbed near the lodge. They were heading up the Bloubergbos area (the conservancy is so large that we use the original names of the various land parcels in order to know what we are talking about) and we left them lying in the shade there.
The Cheetah brothers were seen near Big Dam. They were very relaxed and groomed each other constantly. They didn’t seem interested in much. At one point they got up, just to move to the next bit of shade – where they went back to sleep. So they must also have made a kill recently.
The Blue Headed Tree Agama. It is a lizard. And Chad and his guests saw one yesterday on our reserve.
There are 37 species of the Agama family, across the whole of Africa, ranging from sizes of 12 - 30 cm. They are generally insect eaters, and fairly common.
This specific species has only the males with blue heads, who become more prominently blue during the mating season. They are also the largest sub-species of the Agama, with a body length of 30cm, and sometimes even more. Males are larger than females, and they mate with several females in their "territory".
Surprisingly little is known or to be found about this species, and I am not sure why that is. They are beautiful lizards after all, and always impress our guests with their most unusual shape and colors. As I always say, it is not all about the Big5, most definitely not! It is these creatures that very often amaze our guests the most, and there are hundreds of curious and "never heard about them" animals around on our reserve, and that's what our guests are surprised about the most. Everyone knows the Big5, but these guys are the surprise sightings, and our guests love that. And so do we.
Many thanks to Chad for the beautiful shot!
I personally love observing and learning more about birds. I grew up with lots of budgies, and I even had them breed, which was fascinating to watch. In fact, I learnt then how surprisingly complex and fascinating their social lives are, and how much love there is in their lives. Birds are not stupid, very, very far from it! They are adorable creatures. And with over 400 species of birds on our reserve alone, there is hardly any better place on earth to observe the diversity of birdlife than here.
Chad, who is helping out as part-time ranger at the moment (we have a full camp these days), took a beautiful shot of a "Hammerkop", meaning, literally, "Hammer head". I think if you look at the photo, it is very obvious where the name came from.
The Hammerkop is a very common bird, near ponds and lakes, across Africa all the way to Arabia.
But the Hamerkop's behaviour is different to many other birds. One unusual behavior pattern is that where up to ten birds join in "ceremonies" where they run circles around each other, all calling loudly, raising their crests, fluttering their wings. Another is "false mounting", where one bird stands on top of another and appears to mount it, but they may not be mates and do not copulate. Odd!
Hammerkops also build huge nests (the bird itself is only 470g in weight approx.), up to 1.5m in size, built with up to 10,000 sticks and strong enough to support a man's weight. If there ever was over-engineering, then this is it.The construction is very elaborate, with a platfrom made of sticks and mud, and then a buildup on top. Fascinating.
They also love to build, as they build up to 5 nests/year, whether they are breeding or not. They've got to love it!
Luc is one of our very biggest fans, and that's me putting it mildly. Luc was in fact the very, very first guest we had at the lodge quite a few years back now, and he returns every 2 years. A keen photographer, he knows full well that it is hard to match the sort of quality sightings one gets here, and the support of the team to find as many photo subject as possible. And so, last week, Luc was back, and in my opinion, him and his guests have seen more than ever in the 6 nights that they stayed with us.
He has also sent in some of the prettiest photos I have ever seen taken on our reserve, and he has kindly allowed me to post some on this blog, to share them with you. Now this is professional photographer's stuff!
The photos are in low res, they wouldn't fit on the blog otherwise, but they give you a very good idea.
Yes, that's the pecking order.
A couple of days ago, we spotted the lions on a rare giraffe kill. Giraffes can be a difficult kill for lions, as they have a mean kick, and can easily kill a lion if they get a little lucky. Usually lions take on smaller prey before giraffes, but then again there are lion prides that specialise in giraffe kills. It usually takes the participation of a strong male lion to bring down a giraffe, and as our male lion is an unusually keen hunter, that really helps. It looks like he played his part in this kill too.
With a giraffe, there was enough to go around for everyone. Our guests were very lucky to witness such a rare sighting, as this kill was as fresh as it gets. Truly amazing.
And where there is a lion kill, a vulture isn't far away, hoping to get some left-overs.
So the day after (ie. yesterday) we returned to the same spot to see what had happened to the carcass, and, not to our surprise, a huge flock of vultures was feasting on the remains of this (unlucky) giraffe.
Yes, that's the circle of life. And also the pecking order.
Because of the regularity with which we spot rhinos on our reserve it is easy to forget that we are looking at one of the most acutely endangered species on earth, and most definitely in Africa. Poaching has become such an issue again that it is making international headlines. China's new wealth, coupled with ancient (and totally wrong) beliefs, is putting immense pressure on these beautiful animals. Sometimes we feel like tearing our hair out. OK, so here it is again, for all Asian buyers of rhino horn: it is the same as finger nails! Same stuff. It does NOTHING in terms of ANYTHING. Go buy Viagra, that will work, you sad people.
About 5-7 years ago only 13 rhinos were poached in the KNP area (which is the area we are in) in the whole year, but this year it is about 100 rhinos ... per month! So there is a war raging out there, protecting these animals with ever more boots on the ground, drones, patrols, car searches, de-horning. Some reserves have been properly militarised, and ours is no exception. We have patrols all over, with regular checks, and we also keep our ears open when out on safari. We also de-horn our rhinos, which is very effective. So, another message to our fellow poachers out there: no need to come here!
Our rhinos are as safe as it gets, and that's good news. Hopefully over time South Africa (where 90% of the world's rhinos live), will find a solution to this issue, such as rhino farming. In fact, I personally believe that this is the way forward. Legalise it, and make it a business, which will take the profits out of poaching. Fingers crossed!
Safari tourism also is a key driver, as it produces the required funds to protect these animals. So we are eternally grateful to our guests for contributing to the conservation of some of the world's rarest animals. No need to feel guilty for visiting here, quite the opposite. Our guests are our salvation!
Our rangers had not seen the Cheetahs for over two weeks, and that's very rare. They had also not seen the Wild dogs in a very, very long while, so they were starting to get seriously worried for their whereabouts already, when, to our delight, we spotted them on game drive two days ago.
Now we cannot seem to get enough of them. Yesterday on drive Themba, Uyai and Chad followed up on the Cheetahs and Wild dogs in the morning and afternoon. The Wild Dogs were seen on the boundary of Khaya Ndlovu and we suspect that they are on their way again – vagabonds of the African Bush. They are constantly on the move. And just before the sun set the pack started running after some Impala – unfortunately it was too dark to take any pictures and the pack moved into the thicket – we don’t’ know if they were successful or not. But what a sighting for our guests! A sighting of a Wild Dog is considered as one of those "cherry on top" sightings, as it doesn't get any rarer than a Wild Dog sighting in the African bush. I have met many rangers who have never seen a Wild Dog out in the bush in their entire careers, so that means something ...
The Cheetahs on the other had caught an Impala and their bellies were so full they didn’t dare move. They were sleeping off the big meal in the warmth of the sun. After around 15 -20 minutes they decided to get up and move – only to plonk down again in the shade of a Guarri bush. They were clearly done moving for the day.
The rule is that one should never do two blog stories about the same animal. Fair enough, that makes sense. And as we see so many different animals here at the Vuyani Safari Lodge all the time, it's never been difficult to follow that rule. But now and then, I feel like breaking my own rules.
For instance the appearance of a new baby elephant! I was very moved to see the photos of yesterday's elephant sighting. We got closer shots of the new-born, and so I just had to share this with you right away. I love the way the lady elephants are all around the little one, and protecting him from any harm, and they all seem very happy and pleased by the little monster. He (or she) seems to be having a lot of fun and is playing around a lot. Hopefully there will be a little brother or sister in the near future for him.