The mornings in Botswana are very cold; the breeze has an icy chill in the pre-dawn. Even though it is famous for its beautiful lakes and rivers it is actually land locked. It is a land of contrasts and haunting beauty from the marshy rivers to the dry arid deserts. It is so peaceful in the early hours; the only sounds come from the birds waking in their nests calling to each other, harking the dawn of a new day. The prey stretch their cold muscles and start to frolic and run, the braying of Wildebeest and Zebra cut through the stillness, the plains begin to awaken. The scent of the wild sage and lippia javanica is picked up on the breeze; it is heady and intoxicating and wakens the senses. Africa has such a distinctive scent, a potent and stimulating blend of earth, herbs, plants and wildlife. It is the land of giants roaming peacefully across the plains. Where else in the world will you see a herd of Elephants marching to find water past a tiny Elephant shrew scurrying to forage for insects and seeds. From the big five to the small five to the ugly five, Africa never disappoints. The anticipation is exhilarating, what will nature give, what wonders will it unfold. As I fly in over the Chobe River the lush green of the reeds, papyrus and grasses are in beautiful contrast to the deep greens and blues of the water rippling with the activity of mammals, fish and bird life. This eco system is alive with activity but in harmony with the land. The African sun starts to beat down creating captivating shadows and highlights, the water glistens like a million diamonds and the grasses like vibrant emeralds. The landscape is as rich in colour as it is in precious stones and minerals. It is breathtaking and beautiful, nature truly provides here.
“My feet stand on African soil, my heart beats to the African drum, eyes fixed on the African sky, hands holding African treasure.”
The Chobe River at sunrise is captivating, inviting and mesmerising. The red, golds and oranges of the sunrise is reflected in the rippling waters. The grasses of the wetlands are moist with dew and the tips shine like diamonds, the sun picks out the vibrant reds, greens and purples of the reeds and grasses, the gentle sway is hypnotic as we board our boat as the sun rises to explore the rich wildlife of these waterways. The boat creates ripples on the water, the colours are like a Monet painting, a rich pallet with a blur of reflections from the islands. The small boat glides through the reeded islands teaming with bird life. Cormorants, Stalks, Ducks and a plethora of aquatic birds graze on the moist grasses. The birds are reflected perfectly in the river as they bend down to use their becks to pluck aquatic plants from the river. A small Malachite Kingfisher sits on a thin branch overlooking the river, it is looking to fish. Its feathers shine in the sun light a dazzling display of greens and blues. Its small eyes are focused on the smallest movement. It sees its opportunity and quickly flies off and dives under the cool waters and captures a small fish in its beak. Its tiny body breaks through the water as it flies with the small fish in its mouth to the other side and rests on a branch to eat its food.
In contrast two large male Hippos are fighting in the water, their pink and grey mammoth bodies thrash around, the water cascades around them creating waves, droplets fly into the air glinting in the sun creating prisms of light. Hippos are notoriously bad tempered and are always fighting in their pods over mating rights, disrespecting the authority of the dominant male or invading the males’ territory. Fighting is a way of resolving issues, they can open their mouths 180 degrees and their bite is as dangerous as a lions, it is a ferocious force of 2,000 pounds per square inch. They can cause significant injury on each other, after the fight the loser will leave the water and heal its wounds in the fresh air otherwise fish will painfully nibble at its open wounds.
Hippos are semi–aquatic and gregarious animals, they gather or form pods schools of up to 30 animals or more depending on the water level and time of season. Hippo pods consist mainly of cows and young hippos with a matriarch and a dominant (territorial) bull in control of the territory. Single bulls are also often found. Cows with very young calves often stay on their own for a few months before re-joining the pod. The rest of the Hippo pod are watching the fight, occasionally dipping their heads below the surface blowing water bubbles. They are unperturbed by the latest argument.
A Pied Kingfisher sits on a thin stalk overlooking the river, the pied birds are so named for their black and white plumage and crest with a mottled wing pattern. Like all Kingfishers it also has an unmistakable dagger beak but it is comparatively larger in size. The distinctive hunting technique of pied kingfishers has earned the species a few accolades. Not only are they the largest hovering bird, but they are also the only kingfishers with the ability to perform a figure of eight wing stroke, otherwise known as hovering. Unlike most of the birds here the Pied Kingfisher prefers a permanent home and does not migrant. They are extremely social and friendly birds. They never hunt on land, only on water so they are easy to spot from the river as their dark eyes scan the surface. The pied kingfisher can swallow small prey while flying and they do not require a perch to eat. This means that they can hunt over large bodies of water that are lacking places to sit or stand. They hunt by hovering 50-65 feet above the water and then diving headfirst (or rather, bill-first) into the water. Pied kingfishers demonstrate spectacular speed and agility on the hunt. They are fascinating to watch, its dark eyes detect movement and it flies up into the air and it is gone, plunging into the dramatic blue depths.
The islands in the Chobe River are rich in minerals and are very fertile, Papyrus grass or Nile grass grows in abundance. It grows in grass-like clumps of triangular, green stems bearing clusters of thin, bright green, thread like rays with greenish-brown flower clusters at the ends, it is mainly an aquatic plant. The Egyptian word papyrus, meaning “that of the king,” was of course pressed by the Egyptians to make paper. It gently sways in the breeze the sunlight dappled through its vibrant green stems. Iconic Sacred Ibis wades through, it is known for its role in the religion of the Ancient Egyptians, where it was linked to the god Thoth. Beautiful white feathers cover the most of the body. Blue-black scapular plumes form a tuft that falls over the short, square-shaped tail and closed wings. The flight feathers are white with dark blue-green tips. Sacred ibises have long necks and bald, dull grey-black heads. The eyes are brown with a dark red orbital ring and the bill is long, downwardly curving, and with slit-like nostrils. Red bare skin is visible on the side of the breast and on the underwings. The legs are black with a red tinge. The contrast of black and white makes them quite captivating in the bright African light.
Egyptian Goose is a member of the duck, goose and swan family Anatidae. It is native to Africa and was considered sacred by the Ancient Egyptians as well and appeared in much of their artwork and paintings. Egyptian Geese are monogamous and have one partner for life. Both sexes are aggressively territorial towards their own species when breeding and frequently pursue intruders into the air, attacking them in a series of “dog fights”. Related to the shelduck, this pale brown and grey goose has distinctive dark brown eye-patches and contrasting white wing patches in flight. Today the family waddling along the banks look peaceful but alert as they have young. Overhead Marabou stalks fly their wings outstretched. Marabou storks are opportunistic feeders and eat a wide variety of foods including carrion, they are carnivores. They also prey on a broad range of animals including fish, insects, frogs, lizards, snakes, rats, mice and birds. They have even been known to catch adult flamingos also indigenous to Africa. They are known as one of the ugly five, nicknamed the “Undertaker”, this is one mean ugly bird with its bold spotted red head and reddish pouch hanging garishly from its neck. It is among the largest birds in the world with a wingspan of 11 feet.
A stunning Rock Monitor Lizard crawls through the marsh on one of the small islands. Monitors are fearsome predators, hunting on and under the ground, in trees and (in the case of the Nile monitor) in the water. They differ from snakes in having movable eyelids and external ears, but they do have forked, snake-like tongues which they use in conjunction with the Jacobson’s organ, a fluid-filled bi-lobed sensory organ in the roof of the mouth. The twin ends of the tongue collect odour particles from the air and then deliver them to the corresponding receptors of the Jacobson’s organ, which can detect differences in strength on each tongue tip and from this gauge the direction of the scent, allowing the monitor to follow scent trails. They will eat practically anything: insects, reptiles, frogs, small mammals up to the size of domestic cats, birds and eggs and carrion. Their short powerful legs are armed with strong claws which they use both for digging and climbing. It walks slowly as it warms its body in the growing heat of the morning. Its likely focus is the Crocodiles sunbathing on bank of the river as they may have eggs the lizard can steal to eat. Like all reptiles, crocodiles are ectotherms, which mean they must gather heat from their environment. Crocodiles have developed behaviours to control their body thermostat: they bask in the sun when cool and seek shade or water when hot.
Another Rock Monitor Lizard is clinging to the side of the bank; the sand bank is crumbling as the heat dries it out. It tries to move slowly grabbing hold of roots sticking out of the sand so it does not fall into the water. Ahead is a small inlet it scurries to the opening and squeezes its body into the small opening. On the grass above, Water buck have come down to the river to drink. They are one of the largest antelopes and arguably the most beautiful especially the males. It is known for its trademark white ring around the hindquarters which they use as a ‘follow me’ sign. It has lovely long, shaggy hair and a brown-grey coat that emits an oily secretion from its sweat glands, which acts as a water repellent. Naturally shy they are quite skittish as they come to the water’s edge. They are quiet and sedentary and do not migrate they keep to a small territory. When they finish drinking they head back in the bushes away from predators.
The Chobe River is home to stunning Red Lechwe gazelle which is related to the Topi and Waterbuck. It is an aquatic African antelope and certainly enjoys running and leaping joyously through the water. The coat is greasy and water-repellent. Females have tawny to chestnut coats and look much alike, apart from minor differences in markings. Red lechwe females are the most colourful; they are bright chestnut with white underparts, throat patch, facial markings, and undertail and with black stripes down the front of their legs. The presence of mature males is advertised not only by the sweeping long horns and head-high proud posture but by darker coats and markings. Lechwes enter water to feed on aquatic grasses, an abundant resource underutilized by most other herbivores, and graze the grasses that spring up as floodwaters recede. They are quite literally “edge” species; on the widest, flattest floodplains, thousands of lechwes migrate distances of up to 80 km (50 miles) as the water rises and falls with the rainy and dry seasons. They really are stunning antelopes and thrive in this aquatic environment.
A safari of Giraffes are walking along the banks, they have come down to drink as the morning is growing hot. They walk slowly, Giraffes rarely do anything in a hurry, they enjoy observing what the other animals are doing. At the water’s edge the Giraffe must spread their legs to lower the heart when they drink, otherwise the flow of blood to the brain becomes too high and they pass out. A giraffe’s neck is too short to reach the ground. As a result, it has to awkwardly shuffle and spread its front legs to reach the ground for a drink of water. Fortunately giraffes only need to drink once every few days, as they can get most of their water from all the plants they eat. As one raises it head it sprays water from its mouth only just missing the others. A mating herd of Impala also come down to drink, the male has a limp it may have been fighting another male who wanted to usurp him. They line up at the water’s edge bent in unison to drink. The male is wary he looks for threats, when they are drinking they are also prone to predator attacks, Lions can take advantage of the long grasses to ambush hunt.
A pair of Fish Eagles is sat up in a tree overlooking the river. African fish eagles are diurnal so active during the day. They live in pairs and spend most of their time perched on branches near the water looking for fish to hunt. They are very efficient hunters so need to spend little time hunting their prey, as soon as their sharp eyes pick up the movement they swoop down and snatch the prey from the water with their large, clawed talons and then fly back to their perch to eat the catch. African fish eagles have structures on their toes called spiricules that allow them to grasp fish and other slippery prey. When the African fish eagles catch prey over ten times their own body weight, it is too heavy to allow the eagle to get lift, so it instead drags the fish across the surface of the water until it reaches the shore. African fish eagles are known to steal the catch of other bird species (such as goliath herons); this behaviour is known as kleptoparasitism. These birds communicate with each other vocally, usually in order to establish and maintain territories. Adults are mostly brown in colour with a white head and large, powerful, black wings. The head, breast, and tail of African fish eagles are snow white, with the exception of the featherless face, which is yellow. Their eyes are dark brown in colour. The hook-shaped beak, ideal for a carnivorous lifestyle, is yellow with a black tip.
Above White faced whistling ducks are flying in v a formation. As the name implies, these are noisy birds with a clear three-note whistling call and are very gregarious. They are attractive ducks with black-and-white head, rufous breast, and barred flanks. Like all whistling-ducks, long neck and legs give it a goose like appearance. Their colour is very striking against the beautiful cloudless blue sky. All around the Chobe River there is dramatic colours from animal life to plant life. The usually quite ugly Marabou stalks are looking to mate; the males try to attract females with displays of bright pink skin. There is also always drama as an African hawk eagle swoops down and catches a guinea fowl. The guinea fowl squawks as the hawk’s talons grasp it, feathers fly as it fruitlessly and frantically tries to escape. The hawk looks up, its intense eyes checking it is safe to start eating. It is quite a disturbing scene watching one bird pull out the feathers of another, but this is the wild.
The Chobe River is known for its large herds of Elephants, they thrive in the area due to the plentiful water and vegetation. A herd led by the matriarch come down to the edge they have several young calves with them. The matriarch looks for threats before leading the herd into the water to cross to one of the islands where there are fresh grasses. The water is cool and deep, as they reach the middle the young calves are completely submerged and have to hold their trunks above the water but they are guided by their mothers. The older Elephants have a perfect water line across their bodies; they are light grey over the water but a deep dark grey below. As they reach the other side the calves are helped out by their mothers as the bank is steep and slippery. The calves are playful and start running around shaking their small trunks and generally making mischief. The Elephants ignore the antics and set about the serious business of dust bathing to protect their skin against the sun. The Elephants use the sensitive ends of their trunks to scoop up large quantities of dirt to throw over them, large clouds of dust form in the air showering them and sticking to their wet bodies. The effect is very dramatic giving the mammoth size of the Elephants and the sheer quantity of dust they can create. When they are completely covered they start pulling up clumps of fresh grass and thrust it in their mouths. One of the mothers take one of the small calves down to the water’s edge to drink, she is very protective and keeps it close to her.
The sunset over the Chobe River is very dramatic, the sky is cloudless and perfect huge of dark orange. As the birds fly across the sky to roost they are perfectly silhouetted. The river is quite high and there are skeleton trees rising like spindly arms out of the river. An African Darter or Snake bird enjoys the heat of the suns last rays. It is a long and slender cormorant-like water bird that often swims with its body submerged and only the “S”-shaped neck protruding from the water. Adults are mostly black with white flecks and streaks. Males have a rusty neck and a white stripe running from the eye down the side of the head, which is duller when not breeding. Females and juveniles are muted and brown. The African Darter is widespread in freshwater wetlands, preferring placid to fast flowing water so the Chobe River is its perfect environment. It sits silhouetted on the branch of one of the skeleton trees its wings outstretched to absorb the warmth. It is an iconic scene. The air cools and the wind gently blows, the river ripples as fish break the surface. There is a peace and calmness that sunset brings, the diurnal birds settle to roost, the sound of their song as they communicate to each other is beautiful.
The sunrise over Chobe River is spectacular, the sky is clear and the intense vibrancy of the yellow, oranges and reds fills the sky. The air is filled with lyrical bird song; it is the perfect melody to the natural wonder of a new day. The drive from Kakow to Savuti is a wonderful safari in itself. Olive Baboons sit by the road side grooming each other, the look of pleasure and happiness on their faces is heart-warming. Grooming for all animals is an important way of forming bonds among individuals as well as keeping them clean and free of external parasites. It also strengthens the overall cohesion of the group and reinforces hierarchies. The usually argumentative baboons are peaceful and relaxed. As are the herd of Elephants crossing the road, they do not need to watch what is coming everything slows for them. They have an amazing way of just walking through anything, whether it is trees or objects, everything will be trampled in their wake, they have a quiet strength. The road is lined with beautiful Yellow barked Acacia, so-called because of its smooth, powdery, yellow bark, is also called the Fever tree. This Acacia has pairs of long white spines. The flowers are bright yellow balls and are followed by yellowy brown seed pods. When the early morning sunlight catches the bark it is stunningly iridescent.
The traditional villages are in harmony with the wildlife surrounding it. Lilac breasted rollers perch on electricity lines and fence posts. It is a squat large-headed bird with a lilac breast, rusty cheeks, and spring-green crown. Singles and pairs often sit on prominent perches in open woodland and lightly-treed grasslands. It has an amazing display flight which includes side-to-side rolling, which gives rollers their name. It is mostly quiet, but sometimes calls a loud guttural “gwhaaak, gwhaaak”. It is ubiquitous but arguably one of the most colourful birds seen and interesting to watch. Botswana is rich in bird life, the open water ways, marshy plains and bountiful trees are the perfect habitat. The Southern Red Billed Hornbill is a small, black-and-white hornbill with a petite red bill; male has a black base to the mandible. Pairs occur in open savanna with sparse ground cover, where they hop on the ground foraging for invertebrates. The territorial display, given with the head bowed and wings spread, starts with a series of “kok-kok-kok” notes, becoming a rolling bisyllabic “kokok-kokok”. Along the road they can be seen hopping through the bushes. Of course they are famous because Zazu in the Lion King was a Red billed Hornbill and you can see why as they have a gregarious confident demeanour.
Iconic from the film is the term Mr Banana Beak but this really refers to the Yellow billed Hornbill. They are distinctive birds affectionately called ‘flying bananas’ because of their huge bills that are yellow and look just like bananas. They feed mainly on the ground, foraging for seeds, insects, spiders and even scorpions. They may catch snakes, which they kill by bashing them on against a hard surface. They swallow their prey whole, letting indigestible parts pass through their digestive system. Interestingly Yellow-Billed Hornbills are also known to forage co-operatively with Dwarf Mongooses, catching prey items that the mongooses scratch up from the ground. In return, the hornbills alert the mongooses to danger from overhead raptors. So it is not surprising then Mongooses can be seen scurrying through the bushes. The Yellow Billed Hornbill has a very distinctive clucking call. Once one bird starts calling, the whole group will often join in, creating a cacophony of sound. They are active during the day, but mostly at dawn and dusk. They roost high in trees during the night.
Up high in the trees a Tawny Eagle looks down at the activity below, it is particularly interested in the mongoose, it is perfect prey for it. Its sharp beady eyes focus intensively, observing every movement. The tawny eagle (Aquila rapax) is a large, long-lived bird of prey. Like all eagles, it belongs to the family Accipitridae. Its heavily feathered legs illustrate it to be a member of the subfamily Aquilinae, also known as “booted eagles” due to the dense feathers around the feet. The Afrikaans name for Tawny Eagles is “Roofarend”, which means “Robber Eagle” due to their habit of stealing food from other raptors. They have also been known to steal food from humans. Another interesting bird seen often along the road is the Fork tailed Drongo, known for its fantastic cheeky mimicking. You can see it before you hear it. The Fork-tailed Drongo also known as Intengu (Xhosa), iNtengu (Zulu) and Mikstertbyvanger (Afrikaans) have forked tails shaped much like swallows and bee-eaters, used to help with quick and agile movements while in flight and chasing prey. Their tail can be operated like a handheld fan that opens and closes to either give more or less resistance, to control their flight. What is most interesting though is that Drongos are notorious thieves and mimics. The Fork-tailed drongo sometimes mimic the predator alarm calls of meerkats while they were foraging and then swoop down to steal their unearthed morsels. Of course who can forget how the drongo became “King of the birds” (read the full folklore story at the end).
Savute means “Unpredictable – Something that cannot be explained”. Savute is a remote and wild corner of Chobe National Park, it stretches from the park’s northern boundaries to the Linyanti River. The area’s main feature is the mysterious Savute Channel, which flows and dries up seemingly unrelated to the rainfall. Dry and arid for almost 30 years, animals in the area were sustained by artificial waterholes. With the Savute Channel flowing again in recent years, the region has undergone a startling transformation, reverting to its natural lush and marshy state. Large numbers of wildlife have been attracted to this rejuvenated wilderness haven. It is home to the Sable Antelope, a truly beautiful animal with its dark vibrant chestnut tinged black thick coat and white markings. The sable is a rotund, barrel-chested antelope with a short neck, long face, and dark mane. Both males and females boast impressive ringed horns that rise vertically and curve backward. When they arch their necks and stand with their heads held high and tails outstretched, they resemble horses. This flexed-neck position makes sables appear larger than they really are. The males maintain this position even when they gallop, as the arched neck is an important manifestation of dominance.
As they grow older, sables change colour. Calves are born reddish-brown, with virtually no markings. As they age, the white markings appear, and the rest of the coat gets darker — the older the animal, the more striking the contrast. Against the backdrop of the Savuti plains, their unique form is very impressive.
What is more intoxicating and synonymous with Africa than the scent of wild Basil. Just brushing past it incites the senses, of course here it does not just cover the pungent smell of carcasses if you come across one but it is used to cure snake and insect bites. The plains are stunning, the golden sand glistens under the deep blue skies. It is dry, wild and eternally surprising; the river is the draw here for the wildlife here. Water is life in Africa and the river changes the landscape here all year round. The small shifts in the tectonic plates account for the mystery of the river. The plains bloom when the water is plentiful and attracts predators and prey alike. But few places has the abundance of birds, raptors and rollers, they soar high above the plains, their calls piercing the sky. With the permanently changing climate you can always expect the unexpected, the wildlife has had to adapt and will always surprise you. The allure of Savuti is the plains metamorphoses throughout the year, from arid wastelands to luscious marshlands. Behind mountain ranges tower, rich in minerals.
From a distance, the sociable weaver nest may resemble locals weaved baskets hanging in the trees. But if you crawl under the nest and look up, you can see the entrances to the different chambers within the nest. Large twigs form the roof of the nest and dry grasses create the separate chambers. These nest colonies are found on thorny trees or palm fronds and the nests are often built near water or hanging over water where predators cannot reach easily. They are widespread and common within their range but are prone to local, seasonal movements mainly in response to rain and food availability. The Sociable weaver is certainly one of the most interesting birds; they weave one nest for the whole colony as well as for future generations. It may just be a little brown bird (LBB) but it holds the record for building the most intricate, largest, heaviest nests in the world. The nest may house ten to five hundred birds and will unlike other birds’ nests be used not just for breeding but all year round residence.
Very very small but possibly the most delightful coloured bird you will ever see, the Little Bee-eater is just very eye catchingly beautiful. It has green upper parts, yellow throat, black gorget, and rich brown upper breast fading to buffish ocre on the belly. The wings are green and brown, and the beak is black. It reaches a length of 15-17 cm, which makes it the smallest African bee-eater. Its song is as small as it is; it gives a small “seep” call.
This is a bird which breeds in open country with bushes, preferably near water. Unlike most bee-eaters, these are solitary nesters, making a tunnel in sandy banks, or sometimes in the entrance to an Aardvark den. Just as the name suggests, bee-eaters predominantly eat insects, especially bees, wasps and hornets, which are caught in the air by sorties from an open perch. They often hunt from low perches, maybe only a metre or less high. Before eating its meal, a bee-eater removes the sting by repeatedly hitting the insect on a hard surface. Such force from a small bird but witnessing it is fascinating.
Above Vultures are soaring on the vortex, it always interesting to see a kettle of Vultures as they will be looking for carcasses to scavenge and where there is a carcass there may be predators nearby who have killed it. They fly down and land on the branches of a Ballanite tree, the committee scans the plains for food. Their sinister reputation comes from the fact they have no call or song but screech and cackle to communicate but they really are fascinating raptors and are incredibly important to the eco system. Also in flight they really are quite elegant like Eagles with a large wings span and beautiful coloured feathers. Nearby a group of Baobab trees rise like giants from the earth, they are so iconic in Africa. The folklore behind this fascinating tree that seems to grow for thousands of years upside down is very different for country to country. Some say it displeased God so was thrown to earth and cursed to eternally live upside down, whereas other folklore sees it as a tree to be worshipped for its great age, beauty and unique shape. However you look at this beautiful ancient tree it has incredibly health properties that have sustained many cultures for thousands of years. An individual tree can live for a thousand years. The baobab attains a maximum height of about 23 metres (75 feet); its barrel-shaped trunk attains a diameter of more than 5 metres (16 feet). It is a favourite of Elephants who love to dig their tusks into its hard trunk.
A pair of Hammerkop bird is resting in a tree next to the watering hole. Hamerkop has large, slightly hooked, black-coloured bill, short neck and legs, partially webbed feet, large, rounded wings and short tail. Crest on the back of the head and hooked bill create impression of a hammer, hence the name “hamerkop” (“hammer-head” in Afrikaans). Hamerkop is diurnal bird (active during the day). Hamerkops are the smallest African stork. A fun fact about them is they sometimes participate in group ceremonies. As many as 10 birds call loudly while running round each other in circles. Next, a male will pretend to copulate with a female. With their crest raised, wings fluttering, a chorus of cries continues for several minutes. Only after this elaborate display, does breeding take place. These birds are famous for their strong, three-tiered nests. The nest is up to 180 cm (6 ft.) high, 180 cm (6 ft.) wide, and can weigh 24.75 to 49.5 kg (55 to 110 lbs.). It is made of sticks, reeds, grass, and dead plant stems placed in a tree fork, on a cliff or on the ground. Such a structure takes 3 to 4 months to build and they often provide nests for other species such as owls, geese, ducks, kestrels, and pigeons. Hammerhead birds are often seen perching on the back of hippopotamuses, searching for frogs. In the watering hole we see Hippos wallowing, they noisily grunt and thrash about, when they defecate they swish their tails frantically to disperse the excrement. The Hammerkop looks on seeing if their perch will be useful to them.
A tower of Giraffes is standing in a formation of four with their necks crossing over. Quiet, peaceful and unassuming they can be very affectionate with each other. Giraffes of course are the world’s tallest mammals, thanks to their towering legs and long necks. A giraffe’s legs alone are taller than many humans—about 6 feet. These long legs allow giraffes to run as fast as 35 miles an hour over short distances and cruise comfortably at 10 miles an hour over longer distances. Many young giraffes, called calves, die from lion attacks during their first year of life. Once a giraffe reaches adulthood its height is often enough to protect it from lions. Adult giraffes, however, must still be careful of lions when they are bending down to drink water or rest. Usually giraffes will drink or rest in shifts so that at least one giraffe is always on the lookout for approaching predators. The giraffes’ height and excellent vision give them a wide view of the grasslands where they live, making it easy to spot predators from a distance. Some scientists believe that other animals such as zebras, antelope, and wildebeests often congregate near giraffes to take advantage of their ability to see danger from a distance. The giraffe could be considered the early warning system of the African grasslands.
Another interesting animals grazing on the plains is the stunning Kudu. The Great kudu is a large antelope with tawny colouring and thin, white, sparse vertical stripes. Greater kudu may be distinguished from a similar species, the lesser kudu (Tragelaphus imberbis), by the presence of a throat mane. The male has long black twisted horns. Females do not have horns. Greater Kudu are highly alert and notoriously hard to approach. The common name kudu is derived from the indigenous Khoikhoi language of Southern Africa. The horns of a mature bull kudu have two and a half twists, and, if straightened, would reach an average length of 120cm. The scientific name is derived from Greek: Tragos denotes a he-goat and elaphos a deer; Strephis means ‘twisting’ and Keras mean ‘horn’. Greater kudus are one of the largest antelopes. They produce one of the loudest sounds made by antelope in the form of a gruff bark. Kudu horns have spirals, which allow males to spar by interlocking horns. The males then proceed to shove and twist until one opponent is knocked off balance and thrown down. Kudus are very alert and nervous animals. They spend nearly all their time hidden in thick bush. They usually stand very still and are very difficult to spot but when you do you cannot help to be impressed by their sheer size and fascinating markings.
The cloudless sky gives way to a stunning sunset; the sky is ablaze with vibrant orange light. Botswana is famed for its stunning sunsets and dust clouds. This mesmerising combination of light and dust is the perfect backdrop for viewing wildlife. A mammoth Bull Elephant comes down to the watering hole to drink, its long curved tusks almost reaching the ground as it marches heavy footed kicking up dust. Its shoulders are strong and broad to support its heavy skull and tusks, as it bends down slowly it is perfectly reflected in water. White Egrets fly up in front of it, their pure white feathers in stunning contrast to the dark grey wrinkled skin of the Elephant. The Bull Elephant is quite temperamental and does not tolerate others drinking around it.
Two Warthogs approach slowly to enjoy a refreshing drink after a hot afternoon, one is confident, one is shy, they nervously look up the Elephant and keep their distance. The setting sun and the cool air attracts many to come to drink, an elusive Honey Badger scurries down, it has thick black course hair with a long white mantel from its head down to its tail. Honey badgers, also known asratels, are related to skunks, otters, ferrets, and other badgers. These voracious omnivores get their name from their fondness for feeding on honey and honeybee larvae. The honey badger is notorious for its strength, ferocity and toughness. It is known to savagely and fearlessly attack almost any other species when escape is impossible, reportedly even repelling much larger predators such as lion and hyena. Bee stings, porcupine quills, and animal bites rarely penetrate their skin. It is rare to see one but the watering hole always attracts all species as the air cools.
Another large Bull Elephant comes down to drink. The Elephant is in musth, urine is dribbling down leg. Musth or must is a periodic condition in bull elephants characterized by highly aggressive behaviour and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. Testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be on average 60 times greater than in the same elephant at other times. It is clearly agitated; it swings its trunk aggressively from side to side asserting its dominance and claim over the watering hole. A lone Jackal comes down to drink annoying the Elephant; it shakes its head violently and sucks up water to spray the Jackal, who narrowly misses a complete soaking. This small dog that looks like a cross between a German Sheppard and fox is a scavenger so is quick and avoids the temper of the Elephant, it is used to this behaviour. In folk tales, Jackals are depicted as cunning, intelligent pranksters (and on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs and temples, even as gods); jackals have always been known for their ability to adapt themselves to any environment. Black-backed jackals are highly vocal. Best known for their high wailing calls – often given in the early evening, when one individual answers another until an unearthly chorus builds up – they also utter a repeated yapping when tailing a predator; a call that sometimes betrays an irritated lion or leopard. Tonight this cheeky little dog seems to be finding delight in teasing the Elephants, nibble footed, quick, cunning and intelligent, it can weave between the legs of the slow Elephant. As the sun sets behind the mountains the animals around the watering hole become perfectly silhouetted against the deep orange night sky. The moon is high and bright and reflected in the water providing perfect light for the predators’ nightly hunt. The night belongs to the wild as howls shriek through the cool night air.
The air is very cold before sunrise; the breeze carries the intoxicating scent of the wild herbs and grasses. It is darkest before the dawn and the perfect time to see nocturnal animals before the retreat to their dens and the bushes to sleep for the day. A family of Bat Eared foxes are running through the long grasses, moist with morning dew and glinting in the moonlight. A male Bat Eared fox is called a “dog,” a female is called a “vixen” and a baby is called a “kit.” The bat-eared fox diet consists mainly of insects such as ants and termites, in the rainy season and mice in the dry season. Bat-eared foxes can use their large ears to locate beetle larvae buried underneath the ground. The ears are full of blood vessels that shed heat and help keep the fox cool. They often make their dens in termite mounds which are also a good source of food for them. As the sun rises the family head back to their den, at only 18 to 24 inches these small foxes are very shy and are wary of predators. As they disappear down a hole a pack of Jackals run past, they are known to be scavengers but they are like all dogs very organised and efficient and good hunters in their own right. They take advantage of the low light to go hunting for themselves.
Kori Bustards high step through the long grass looking for seeds and insects to feed on. Their upper plumage is buff and grey, finely barred with black, which allows them to blend in with their environment. The underparts may be pale buff, white or solid black. They have only three front toes, which are short, broad and well adapted for running. Males are more brightly coloured than females. Kori bustards (males) are the heaviest flying birds on the planet. Kori bustards often walk near the zebras, antelopes and other animals that are gathered in herds to find food which means they are also diurnal animals (active during the day). Kori bustards are omnivores (they eat both plants and animals).
While most birds usually drink water by scooping up, Kori bustards suck up the water. Normally, these birds are quiet. However, when surprised, they emit a sound, similar to snore or bark. In addition, when their chicks are threatened, Kori bustards are known to give out growling sounds. The Kori bustard is one of the world’s heaviest flying birds, however, it lives on the ground and is reluctant to fly unless in serious danger.
Another stunning large bird is the Southern Ground Hornbill, two parents and two siblings fly overhead, their red and black feathers are in beautiful contrast to stunning orange sunrise. A tower of Giraffes peacefully grazing look up to watch, they are always curious of other animals around them. A herd of Wildebeest stretch and gallop warming up their muscles, showing any on looking predators how strong and quick they are. They are joined by Topi and Impala who will graze with them through the day, there is safety in numbers. The Topi are the sentries of the plains, standing on top of termite mounds to keep watch for predators. There is a mutual understanding between the prey that they protect each other, including the birds feeding around them. A mutualistic relationship is when two organisms of different species “work together,” each benefiting from the relationship. One example of a mutualistic relationship is that of the Oxpeckers and the buffalo or zebra. Oxpeckers land on buffalos or zebras and eat ticks and other parasites that live on their skin. The Oxpeckers get food and the beasts get pest control. Also, when there is danger, the Oxpeckers fly upward and scream a warning, which helps the symbiont (a name for the other partner in a relationship).
A tuskless old Bull Elephant wanders over the plains, years of wear and tear has caused them to break. Elephants use their tusks to forage, dig and carry things so without tusks the task of obtaining food will be harder. At around 60 years old, the natural death of an elephant is one of starvation. Eventually, naturally, old elephants are too weak to fight off predators or they die quietly near a watering hole, before their bodies are taken by the hungry. It meanders slowly near Leopard rock, a stunning rock formation covered in trees and foliage; the honed rocks are smooth from centuries of wind and rain. Sun bleached dead trees jut out like skeletons from between the rocks, it is very beautiful. Sitting on one of the branches of the dead trees is a White bellied Go away bird shrilly calling. These grey birds are characterized by a very distinct “G’way” call, giving them their nickname, grey go-away bird. Interestingly Turacos are the only birds to possess true green and red pigmentation and they possess semi-zygodactyl feet with 3 toes in front and one toe to the side. They are weak flyers and, therefore, only fly short distances in a dipping motion which also means they are non-migratory. You can certainly hear these birds before you can see them!
An iconic antelope in Botswana is the stunning Steenbok which is walking by rocks which is quite precarious as a Leopard could be ready to ambush it from one of the crevices. Rocks form some favourite dens for Leopards as the rocks are cool internally away from the sun but retain heat of the outside for when the Leopard wishes to warm itself in the sun. The Steenbok is a small “dwarf” antelope, with an average weight of around 12kgs (26 lbs) and a shoulder height of a mere 45 – 60cms. They are a beautiful golden brown colour, and have very distinctive, overly-large ears which look completely out of proportion to their petit heads. Steenbok are mainly browsers and eat leaves, shoots, seeds and wild fruits. They seldom eat grass. In some areas they will dig for roots and bulbs with their front hoofs. Feeding takes place mainly in the early morning. The Steenbok is a territorial and solitary animal. So you won’t always see Steenboks in groups, which is interesting for antelope, since most of them like being in a group. Once they find their mate, they will stay together until they die, they will not breed with other Steenboks. A Steenbok will leave urine and excrements as a sign that it’s their territory. They mark their territory often, which allows them to not get involved into all kinds of challenging situations often. That’s very important to take into consideration, especially for this type of animal. They are fast for their size making they quite hard for predators to catch. It is fascinating to watch their small hooves clopping over the rocks.
Dwarf mongoose are playing in the morning light under on a fallen dead tree. They are nimble and quick as they chase each other around. What are interesting about them are they like a social ‘hierarchy’ with each member of the group having a particular role to fill. Like the banded mongoose, they spend very little time in one place, moving on after only a few days. Plus every mongoose in a group helps to raise the babies, or pups. Dwarf mongooses will forage with hornbills. Hornbills will gather at termite mounds where their mongoose packs spend the night and wait for them to emerge, sometimes even providing wake up calls. Common dwarf mongooses are the smallest African carnivores. They have a large pointed head, small ears, a long tail, short limbs, and long claws. Their soft fur is very variable in colour, ranging from yellowish red to very dark brown. Mongooses mark their territory with anal gland and cheek gland secretions and latrines. Territories often overlap slightly, which can lead to confrontations between different groups, with the larger group tending to win. Common dwarf mongooses begin and end each day sunbathing and socializing with the members of their groups. The rest of the day these animals spend looking for food among brush and rocks. They communicate with each other with the help of twitters, whistles, trills, and vibrations.
Predators are quite elusive in Botswana so when Leopard tracks are seen they need to be followed. Of course it is likely by mid-morning they have disappeared into bushes or high into the dense foliage of trees, becoming the ghosts of the savannah.
Two Giraffes with calves are watching, they bend over to gaze in the bushes they may have observed the Leopard silently returning to its sleeping place early in the morning. Nearby dead trees with twisted branches lay prone on their sides, the bark gnarly and textured. No doubt brought down by Elephants crashing through the bushes, trampling and pulling down everything on their sight. They can be quite destructive. Untouched by the herd a Kalahari apple leafed tree, lush bright green leaves in a sea of dry yellow grasses grows, it is quite beautiful. There are thousands of incredibly specimens of trees in Africa; a favourite of Leopards is the thick branched Sheppard tree with its gnarly trunk and dense dark green foliage, perfect for them to drape their bodies over. Fronds of wild sage with its white and purple feathery flowers and light green leave intoxicate as its heady scent fills the air as the vehicle brushes past it.
A mating herd of Impala are grazing in the midday heat on the plains. They females are relaxed but the lone dominant male is alert from threats of predator ambush but also rival males who want to usurp him, he has a difficult role. Guinea fowl scurry around them, they are the chickens of the African plains are favoured by raptors who like to scoop down and feast upon them. Three Verreaux’s eagle-owls are sat high above of the branch of a tree. The Verreaux’s Eagle Owl is a very large eagle owl with short, tousled ear-tufts. With a wingspan of up to 6.5 feet (2 meters), they are, arguably, Africa’s most impressive birds of prey. These nocturnal birds mostly hunt at night and during the day roost in tall trees. Verreaux’s Eagle Owls live in monogamous pairs that defend their territory with calls and song, which can carry up to 5km. During courtship the birds perch near each other, producing fast stuttering hoots, bobbing up and down and flicking open the wings slightly. Allopreening is frequent. Breeding is annual, mainly in the dry season, but may stretch out to every 2-3 years, possibly according to food supply.
On the ground Yellowbilled and Redbilled Hornbills compete with Bushell Starling and Redbilled Franklin for seeds on the ground. Vervet monkeys swing through the trees peeking through the dense foliage of the Sheppard’s Tree. Mothers have young clung to the underside of them. Vervet monkey has long arms and legs (that are usually of the same length) and long tail which provides balance on the trees. Vervet monkey is diurnal animal (active during the day). Vervet monkey spends almost entire life on the trees (arboreal animal). Vervet monkeys have commonalities with humans. The Vervet monkey is a great example of a primate that mirrors some human genetics and communal aspects in their lives. They suffer from high blood pressure and uneasiness from stress as well as the use and abuse of alcohol. Their social structure and interactions within their “friend” circles and family units have provided much information on these monkeys. Males and females are physically different. The monkey exhibits sexual dimorphism in that the males are larger and heavier than the females. The male has strikingly coloured genitals; their scrotum is a bright blue. Both sexes have long arms that are close to the length of their legs and walk on all fours. Vervet monkeys spend most of their time in trees but head to the ground to forage for food. Vervet monkeys are omnivores. Males leave the group when they reach maturity. Vervet monkeys live in groups ranging in size from 10 to 70 members. As males reach maturity, they separate from their troop and move to an adjacent tribe. This migration often occurs with two brothers leaving, which is believed to be for safety from the new troop’s members. Females stay within their group from birth. Hierarchies are different between the males and females. Female hierarchy is dependent on mothering and producing offspring. New-borns are highly regarded in the troop, with all members acknowledging them in a supportive manner. Females that rear a greater number of infants gain respect and sit at the top of the female hierarchy. Younger females look to interact and help with managing new-borns more often if the mother has a high rank.
Male hierarchy is dependent on a number of factors. Fighting ability, allies, and age are the most important elements in determining their status in the group. Scientists studying the Vervet monkeys’ social structure have observed that members that are closely ranked have the most interactions, as well as family members. Monkeys that are lower in rank are more likely to be set upon by upper echelon members. Families tend to stick together and will help out if one is attacked. The lower members have less access to resources such as food, which might lead to aggression. The opposite is true for lower females who often help with raising the upper ranks’ infants. They seek to better themselves and cultivate relationships with the higher-level monkeys. This may allow them more access to resources and helps teach them about raising an infant.
A Yellow billed Oxpecker uses a scissor action to pick ticks from the bottom of a young Giraffe; unfortunately the Giraffe does not find it comfortable so tries to use a bush to brush off the bird. The Giraffe backs into the bush and rubs it bottom, the Oxpeckers strategically moves but manages to hold on. The Giraffe accepts its lot and the Oxpeckers wins. The beautiful long eyelashes on a Giraffe do have an important use. They help keep the sun and sand out of their eyes. Giraffes have some pretty full lashes which protect the eyes when eating big prickly trees called acacias. Eyelashes help the giraffes sense if they are getting too close to the thorny branches. Another interesting fact is Giraffe use their 45-50 cm long prehensile tongue and the roof of their mouths in order to feed on a range of different plants and shoots including the thorny Acacia. Giraffe saliva has antiseptic properties. So even if they do cut or graze their tongue, it’s unlikely to become infected. Additionally, male giraffes use their tongues to help them select a suitable mating partner. Specifically, they use them to detect whether or not a female is in heat.
Down at the watering hole Elephants are sucking up gallons of water. They jostle for the best position, they can be quite competitive. They are joined by Giraffe with a prominent growth on its nose. The Giraffe splays its legs as when it bends its head it cannot reach the ground. As it raises its head it sprays water in an arch narrowly missing a sounder of Warthogs. The watering hole due the dryness of the plains is a utopia for wildlife. Overhead a Kestrel shrieks, it is a hovering hunter that strikes from above. The kestrel is a common sight along wooded edges, using its razor-sharp vision to catch unsuspecting prey. Kestrels have light-brown plumage with dark spots. Males have a grey-blue head, while females are all brown. The species has pointed wings and a tail that appears long in flight and fan-shaped when the bird is hovering. A kestrel will fly into the wind and use its tail and wings to hold its position in the air. Keeping its eyes fixed on the ground, it will swiftly drop to pounce on any prey sighted. The watering hole is a good place to spot small rodents to pick off.
At sunset, the time of brilliant orange light and opaque dust clouds the Elephants congregate at the waterhole, perfectly back lit by the light. The great herd descends to drink after a long hot dusty day walking through the plains to feed. In the wild one Elephant can consume as much as 600 pounds of food in a single day. Elephants require about 18 to 26 gallons of water daily, but may consume up to 40 gallons. An adult male elephant can drink up to 55 gallons of water in less than five minutes. So it is not surprising there is competition for water.
Elephants are extremely social and gregarious, forming small family groups consisting of an older matriarch and several generations of relatives. At dusk you often see them greeting each other, the young bulls will have a friendly tussle with their trunks, the calf’s will chase each other around and the older Elephants will put their trunks in each other’s in greeting. The Elephants trumpet as a sign of excitement. All over the world Elephants are revered as a symbol of good luck, prosperity, remover of obstacles, as well as strength, power, wisdom, memory, and vitality. Watching these giants of the African plains at peace at sunset, socially, relaxing and playing give a real insight into the extraordinary life of Africa’s gardener. The sun disappears behind the herds, their trunks, tusks and tails silhouetted in the deep orange of the sunset. A matriarch stands on the edge of the herd watching protectively over her family. Her large ear flaps, it is the shape of the African continent.
The sun begins to rise; the plains are flooded with warm florid orange light. The breeze carries light dust clouds which give the sky an eerie glow as the sunlight reflects off of the particles. The sunrise is the warmest hues of a rainbow, the colours that bring gentle passion to the soul. The golden rays of the sun give a bright colour to the clouds and meadows, mountains and valleys. The sunrise marks the journey of the sun in the sky and the promise of a new day. Golden fingers of sun light lights the scene picking up the golden coat of a male Lion running through the bushes. He seems to be in a hurry maybe his pride has made a kill and he has picked up the fresh scent of a carcass. His mane is a golden halo around a strong muscular face. He has a fixed look of determination on his face, male lions prefer a slower pace, sleeping up to twenty hours a day so he is clearly on a mission. The tracks are dusty and dry so his paw prints are easy to follow, he heads into the dense bushes, disappearing into the undergrowth.
A pair of Secretary birds high step through the grasses looking for snakes and lizards to feed on. The secretary bird is also known as the Devil’s horse and appears on South Africa’s coat of arms. The scientific name of this species “Sagittarius serpentarius” means “the archer of snakes” as a result of their snake hunting skills. Secretary birds stand on a pair of long, pink, scaly legs. At the end of these are webbed feet that have thick claws at the end. They are suited more to walking than grasping. Along the back half of the body and at the top of their legs are black feathers. The front half of their long body is covered with greyish-white feathers. Along the long neck and on the top of the head are black feathers. Their face is coloured orange and surrounded by greyish-white feathers. Their beak is slightly curved and coloured grey. The eye varies from being yellow to dark brown. Secretary birds are carnivores; they will feed upon most small animals that live on the ground such as lizards, tortoises, snakes (including venomous species), hares, mongoose, small birds, bird eggs and carrion. Like many birds they will mate for life. Secretary birds are diurnal; they do not wake till sometime after dawn when they descend from the trees where they have slept to start hunting. The folklore around Secretary birds varies from country to country. For many its powerful legs often depicted in art as the spear and knobkierie (a short stick with a knob at the top, traditionally used as a weapon by some indigenous peoples of Africa) serve it well in its hunt for snakes symbolising protection of the nation against its enemies. It is a messenger of the heavens and conducts its grace upon the earth, in this sense it is a symbol of divine majesty. Undoubtedly they are elegant birds and fascinating to watch.
Another extremely successful snake hunter is the Martial Eagle. He is perched on top of a dead tree clutching a snake with its sharp talons, it peers up its piercing yellow eyes observing. He bends his head and pecks at the scales with its sharp beak. The Martial eagle is the largest eagle of Africa. The adult’s plumage consists of dark brown coloration on the upperparts, head and upper chest, with an occasional slightly lighter edging to these feathers. The dark feathers can appear greyish, blackish or even plum-coloured depending on lighting conditions. The body underparts are feathered white with sparse but conspicuous blackish-brown spotting. The eyes of mature Martial eagles are rich yellow, while large feet pale greenish and the talons black. Martial eagles are diurnal, often spending a large portion of the day on the wing, and often at a great height. When not breeding, both mature eagles from a breeding pair may be found roosting on their own in some tree up to several miles from their nesting haunt, probably hunting for several days in one area, and then moving on to another area. Martial eagles usually hunt in a long, shallow stoop. Prey may often be spotted from 3 to 5 km. On occasion, Martial eagles may still-hunt from a high perch or concealed in vegetation near watering holes. Martial eagles tend to be very solitary and do not tolerate other eagles in the area outside of the pair during the breeding season. Martial eagles are carnivorous opportunistic predators that prey on mammals, birds, and reptiles. They hunt small antelopes, some monkeys, young domestic goats and lambs, water birds such as herons, storks, and geese. At other times, these eagles may prey upon a wide range of potentially dangerous prey, such as monitor lizards, venomous snakes, jackals, and medium-sized wild cats.
Below a large herd of Wildebeest graze on the open plains, they have babies in the herd which could be prey for the Eagle. They close ranks and protect the calves within the herd. Alongside them a herd of Eland peacefully graze. The Eland is the largest African bovid, but the slowest antelope. It can only run about 25 mph, but it can jump 10 ft. from a standing start. Interestingly when walking, tendon or joints in the eland’s foreleg produce a sharp clicking sound. Naturalists think it is a form of communication in elands. It was both food and spiritual inspiration to the prehistoric hunter-gatherer peoples of southern Africa and it features prominently in rock- and cave-art across south west Africa. Giant eland are alert and wary, making them difficult to approach and observe. Males and females both have horns that form a tight spiral, though females’ horns are generally longer and thinner. Usually a fawn or tawny colour, elands become grey or bluish-grey when they get older, and the oldest animals are almost black. Males have a tuft of black hair growing out of their prominent dewlap, the fold of loose skin hanging from their neck. Adult males also possess a mat of hair on their forehead that becomes longer and denser as they get older.
Antelopes are herbivores; they eat grass, shots and seeds. They live in the large groups called herds. Antelopes have extremely developed senses which help them detect predators while they still have time to escape. Large antelope that gather in large herds, such as Impala, rely on numbers and running speed for protection. Impalas decrease their chances of attack when living in herds. They leap and scatter in all directions when being attacked to confuse the predator. In some species, adults will encircle the offspring, protecting them from predators. Most young impala are born around mid-day as this is the safest time to give birth since most of their enemies are resting. Half of new-born are killed by predators within the first few weeks of life. The impala is one of the most common and most graceful of all Africa’s antelopes. A slender, agile creature, it can clear formidable obstacles and run at speeds faster than 60km/h. They are fleet runners who can leap up to 10m in length and 3m in height. They use their tremendous speed and agility to avoid predation, and seemingly for pure enjoyment. As they also must drink every day and knowing that predators, such as the lion, frequently lie in wait around waterholes at dusk, they often drink during the hottest part of the day. At this time, the predators are at their most sluggish. Predators include lions, leopards and cheetahs. Like other antelope, the impala is constantly alert to danger and has extremely acute senses of hearing, sight and smell. They can release a scent from their glands on their heels, which can help them stay together. This is done by performing a high kick of their hind legs. The name ‘Impala’ come from the Zulu language meaning ‘gazelle’. Impalas form two herds, one a mating herd where the females gather and one male mates with all of them and protects them. The second is the bachelor herd, never too far away from the mating herd as individual males will try and infiltrate the mating herd and oust the dominant male. Two of the bachelor Impala are duelling by locking horns; they are just practicing for when they want to fight for mating rights.
A herd of Elephants come down to the watering hole in the late afternoon and start to mock fight. There is a large Elephant population in Botswana so you often see them get together with other young males and do the elephant equivalent of arm-wrestling. They figure out dominance by fighting. This fighting can range from mild, playful pushing to raging battles to the death. There is much language and ritual involved with bulls approaching one another and indicating their intention. Elephants are fascinating animals, they have small eyes and poor eyesight, but they make up for this with their amazing sense of smell, they can smell water from up to 12 miles away. Elephants communicate with one another using sound, touch and scent. Their hearing is excellent (they can hear a trumpeting call from up to 5 miles away), and they use a wide range of sounds to talk to each other. Elephants are highly sensitive and caring animals, and have been observed to express grief, compassion, altruism and play. They perform greeting ceremonies when a friend that has been away for some time returns to the group, and they sometimes ‘hug’ by wrapping their trunks together. Being extremely sensitive creatures, elephants have been known to display behaviour patterns similar to post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Female elephants spend their whole lives living in tight family groups with their female relatives. The eldest female normally leads the group. Male elephants leave the herd between the ages of 12 and 15, and usually live alone (although may sometimes form small groups with other males). Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and have excellent memories. Matriarchs rely on this memory during dry seasons when they need to guide their herds, sometimes for tens of miles, to watering holes that they remember from the past. The Elephants are joined by Impala and Wildebeest come down to drink in the intense heat of the afternoon.
A large male Warthog is protecting his family as they graze on the plains; affectionately known as Pumba (Swahili for stupid) they are quite skittish. Their scientific name is Phacochoerus Africanus also known as the common warthog. Their name comes from their ‘warts’ or protrusions on the sides of their face, these protrusions are a combination of bone and cartilage. It protects their face when they fight. They sleep underground at night in burrows that they steal from other animals such as aardvark. They do not dig their own. Warthogs mainly eat grass or will dig for roots and bulbs when it is dry. If they have the opportunity, they will scavenge on meat as they are omnivorous. They like to roll in the mud to protect their skin from the sun and from parasites the same way Elephants do. Warthogs have litters of two to four piglets however; their mortality rate is quite high due to predators. Two or three female warthogs form small sounders with their young as they look after the piglets. Female warthogs let their babies go into their burrows first, then they back into the burrow so that if anything comes into the burrow as a threat she can run out and protect them. It is a common sight to see Lions digging out a warthog burrow! They have tusks like an elephant, on their upper and lower jaws that they use to fight and defend themselves against predators. If the ground is hard, they use their snouts and tusks to lift the soil. They go down onto their wrists when they eat. It is very common to see them crawling around with their front legs bent. But when they feel threatened they run with their tails in the air giving them the nickname the Safari express!
A Beautiful male Steenbok grazes by a group of bushes. The Steenbok (Raphicerus campestris) is a small “dwarf” antelope, with an average weight of around 12kgs (26 lbs) and a shoulder height of a mere 45 – 60cms. They are a beautiful golden brown colour, and have very distinctive, overly-large ears which look completely out of proportion to their petit heads. They look like a Disney cartoon due to their exaggerated proportions and prettiness. Steenbok will eat anything from leaves and grasses to berries and seeds. If their food sources are high, steenbok may pair up for life, but in most cases these antelope are solitary creatures only coming together when they need to mate. Steenbok are also the only antelope to have toilet etiquette, they dig a hole in which they will urinate or defecate. Once finished they will cover the hole up which is useful for 2 reasons; firstly it retains the moisture and scent for longer meaning they have to mark their territory less. It also leaves less of a visual marker for predators, which is especially important seeing as they have such small territories. The predators of the little steenbok are abundant. They are hunted by all of the cat species, as well as wild dog, jackal and karakul, and have even been taken by pythons and large eagles. Steenbok have good eyesight and excellent hearing, and are adept at spotting danger. Their defence mechanism is to stand still, hiding for as long as possible. If this ploy is not successful, they will flee, running in a zig-zag pattern to escape the predator chasing them. During their dash to safety, they typically stop periodically, look back and try to hide again by freezing. They have been seen to escape and hide in abandoned dens and burrows.
As the sun begins to set a Go away bird shrieks at a Slender Mongoose, they are notorious for stealing bird eggs. As they scurry about the dry earth their red fur is beautifully lit by the sun. Slender mongooses generally live either alone or in pairs. They are primarily diurnal, although they are sometimes active on warm, moonlit nights. Slender mongooses do not seem to be territorial, but will nevertheless maintain stable home ranges that are often shared with members of related species. Indeed, slender mongooses and these other species may even den together, as most of their relatives are nocturnal. Dens may be found anywhere sheltered from the elements: in crevices between rocks, in hollow logs, and the like. Slender mongooses are more adept at climbing trees than other mongooses, often hunting nesting birds there and eggs. When mongooses get excited, the hairs on their back and tail may be raised. They can hiss at one another, as well. When they are disturbed, they usually freeze, either on just their hind legs or on all four. When threatening predators these animals will spit and growl; when two mongooses attack each other they snarl. When females see their mate during the breeding season they produce a buzzing sound. The ‘huh-new’ is a distress call. Scent-marking is usually used for territorial purposes and mate marking.
The evening sun casts long shadows on the plains. The slanting rays of the setting sun give a warm orange tinge to the sky; the sky is ablaze with the fire. The pale crescent moon shines like a silvery claw in the night sky. The sunset symbolises the completion of a day’s work and shows the passage of time. The stunning beauty of the setting sun is also symbolic of the beauty and mystery of life itself. It is a magical time on the plains as the wildlife gather at the watering hole to have a final drink before the predators wake for their nightly hunt. Elephants march through the bushes, some running eager to reach the water. There is much noise and excitement as herds meet up, wrapping trunks around each other and putting tips of trunks into each other’s mouths. The young calves enthusiastically run into the water like over excited toddlers, they want to bathe and use their trunks to splash the water around. They chase each other, often through their mothers’ legs. The water hole is completely filled with bodies, Elephants are so gregarious, you can feel the happiness. The older Elephants leave the water after sucking up gallons and dry in the warmth of the setting sun, the deep orange glow of the sun silhouettes them against the sky. They kick up large dust clouds and take large trunk fulls of dirt to throw over their wet bodies to use as sun screen. The gentle breeze picks up the dust particles and they shine in the glow of the sun. Yapping Jackals nimbly run through the sea of grey bodies wanting to drunk, their small bodies at odds with the giants. A flock of White Egrets fly up their beautiful white feathers contrasting against the dense dark grey bodies of the Elephants. This is a beautiful land of contrasts, wild, untamed and breathtakingly beautiful.
Pre dawn you will often see Lionesses returning from their nightly hunt, they leave behind the males to baby sit the cubs. However it is a popular misconception that the males do not hunt. When they are nomads they have to hunt for themselves but when they have their own pride they will mainly rely on the Lionesses. Of course if the opportunity arises and the Lionesses are away a male will still hunt. The two dominant males in this pride have caught a Warthog, no doubt the unfortunate pig trespassed near the bushes where they were sleeping. Even between two dominant males one is always the alpha and it is him that is eating literally the Lions share. Rather unusually though he is allowing his five cubs of around six months old to eat with him. You can hear the cubs meowing contentedly, their bellies full of meat and safe in the protection of their father. The male is patient with them as they eat slowly together. His long raspy tongue licks the blood from the carcass. When the cubs stop eating they stumble around the grass playing with stumps and playing with their fathers tail. He occasionally growls at them but they persist in climbing on him and batting his face. The other male lies nearby in front of a bush watching, when he sits up you can see his dark mane glowing in the sunlight. Two of the Lionesses return from hunting sit patiently by, it is now obvious they dug the Warthog out of a nearby hole as their mussels are covered in dirt but the male gets to eat first but he allows the cubs to eat with him. The Lionesses look hungry but when they try and eat some of the kill the male lashes out at them with his claws and snarls at them. One of the Lionesses manages to take the very little bit of the carcass left and lay on it until the male retreats and then eats it. The cubs follow their father and play with him, it is a real lion king moment as they climb his back, chew on his ears and flatten his mane. Some males are good fathers, even though he snarls and bares his teeth at them, it is obvious the affection he feels for them. The other cubs meow and approach one of the Lionesses to feed it.
The drive to Khwai is very dry, there are Cheetah tracks by the road but the grasses are high. No doubt they are hunting the herd of Impala grazing in the middle. The golden grass will give good camouflage as long as the breeze is in their favour. If the Impala pick up their scent they will scatter. It would be difficult for Cheetah to hunt in these conditions they need wide open plains. Two honey badgers are running to their den. Small but fierce it is no wonder the Honey Badgers are called Masters of Mayhem. A suitable title, because these badgers, or in fact weasels, are tough as nails and street wise. The honey badger is one the most fearless animals in the world, renowned for its ability to confront grown lions, castrate charging buffalo, and shrug off the toxic defences of stinging bees, scorpions, and snakes. Most honey badgers are active throughout the day, though near human settlements they may prefer the cover of darkness. They are often seen alone, though it is not uncommon to spot mating pairs. Honey badgers mate all year and often have just one cub at a time. Good at turning rock crevices and hollowed trees into shelters, honey badgers will also make homes in the abandoned dens of other animals like porcupines and yellow mongooses.
Above a Kori Bustard is flying, it has an impressive wing span; the male bird has a wingspan of 230 to 275 cm. This lengthy spread of their wings is necessary to get their massive bodies into the sky. If the kori bustard did not have wings large and strong enough to lift itself, it would be like the flightless birds which can only roam the earth. They are omnivorous and therefore eat both vegetation and flesh. When fully grown, they eat insects, lizards, and snakes for protein. While they are chicks, their diet consists mostly of insects. Their diet also consists of wild berries and the gum of the acacia tree. It is not quite clear whether they consume the gum directly or through their insect food. While these large creatures are rather shy, behaviour varies from bird to bird. They crouch or run at the first sight of danger, for which they are always on the lookout. Because flying is not the easiest thing for them, they are more likely to run away when threatened. If they do not succeed with an on-foot getaway, they take to the air with heavy, slow wingbeats. This is not the easiest thing to do, and they do avoid flying when possible. However, once in the air, they steady out and have an easier time of it. Kori bustards do not fly for long and will land soon after taking flight. Normally, within sight of their launch. They also keep low to the ground when flying.
The Khwai River is a river in Northern Botswana. It extends from the Okavango River and forms part of the Northern border of the Moremi Game Reserve. Not far from the river, on the North Gate of Moremi. It is home to an impressive number of African animals and birds. Malachite kingfisher and Little bee-eater dart amongst papyrus in the lagoons and waterways, while top predators such as leopard and lion keep an eye out for buffalo, zebra, wildebeest and giraffe amongst the long yellow grasses of the plains. In the river Hippos wallow whilst Waterbuck graze on the luscious marshy grasses along the edge. It is a perfect oasis for wildlife. Elephants walk through the water, the coolness lapping up against their hot bodies as they slowly walk to the other side to feed on my grasses. A Fish Eagle sits on the edge of a branch overlooking the river, its eyes focused on the water trying to detect the movement of a fish to hunt. A crocodile swims slowly by; it places its legs back against the sides of its body and moves forward by means of lateral wavelike motions of the tail. The water ripples around it, the motion is soundless and mesmerising.
Kalahari apple-leaf tree is beautiful, this species is restricted to the deep, sandy soil found here. This soil type is common to the Delta and is commonly found in the fossil river beds which wind their way through the clayey soils that support the Mopane wood and scrubland. These fossil river beds are very evident in Khwai. The Kalahari apple-leaf is medium sized tree with a single meandering trunk that has a wide-spreading sparse and rounded crown. The apple-leaf is usually found close to a permanent or seasonal water source. It is drought resistant and sensitive to frost. The wood of the apple leaf tree is browsed by many animals including Kudu, Giraffe and Elephant. Impala often eat the leaves from the ground. Folklore says that it is very bad luck to cut down an apple-leaf tree, to do so will result in a rift in the family. The apple-leaf has been traditionally used to make dug-out canoes. There are many traditional remedies which the apple-leaf can be used for. The roots are inhaled as a cure for the common cold and the powdered roots and bark are used to treat snake bites. The common name of the apple-leaf is a result of the large leathery leaves which when crushed sound like somebody taking a bite out of an apple. Another easily grass species in this sandveld is the White Silky Bushman grass. It is a perennial grass, soft feather-shaped hairy awns, tufts of hair at the base of the awns and at the nodes, it has a lifespan of about five years with luxuriant seed production, high grazing value. All animals, domestic and wildlife will eat the grass and it gets eaten right down to the ground. After the first rains it will sprout quite quickly, and within four weeks stand about knee high.
There is a dry pan, burnt many years ago, it is arid and dry with white sun bleached trees rising like skeletons from the black earth. We find eight Lions, four Lionesses, two sub adults and two cubs bathing in the late afternoon sun. The golden light lights up the fur and the light is captured in their golden eyes. They have full bellies from an earlier Lechwe kill. Lechwe like the Waterbuck among the most aquatic African antelopes. Lechwes are sizeable, long-horned (males only) antelopes with a sturdy build. Hindquarters are higher and more massive than forequarters, the neck is long, and the muzzle is short and rather blunt. Lechwes are unusual in having widely splayed, elongated hooves that support them on soft ground. Their lyre-shaped, heavily ridged horns are 45–90 cm long. The Lions would have most likely hunted it down at the watering hole whilst it was distracted as they are sprinters and can outrun Lions, Lions need to ambush, have the element of surprise in their side.
The sun sets behind the dry pan, the perfect orange glow of sun lights up the sky the perfect back drop for the skeleton trees to be silhouette against. A Verreaux’s eagle-owl sits on the edge of a dead tree looking for rodents to swoop down and feed on. The Verreaux’s Eagle Owl is a very large eagle owl with short, tousled ear-tufts. It is also known as the Milky Eagle Owl or the Giant Eagle Owl, it is the largest owl in Africa. It is an enormous, greyish owl with dark stripes framing the face. It has a pale, horn-coloured beak and large, dark eyes that are set off by strange and diagnostic fleshy-pink eyelids. Due to the large size of the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, they need to consume larger types of prey than other species of owls. Their diet consists of rabbits, mongoose, and plenty of types of small game. As the plains grow dark, the owl becomes even more alert to the sound of nocturnal rodents scurrying out of their burrows; it is the perfect time to hunt. A lone Hyaenas comes running past its snoot high in the air clearly sniffing out the kill. The Hyaenas will scavenge the rest of Lechwe kill when the Lions call their pride to hunt. The night belongs to the wild, the night breezes carries the sounds of the whooping of the Hyaenas, the screech of the Owls and the roar of the Lions.
The sun rises behind the tree line; the trees are perfectly silhouetted against the golden orange glow. The air is bitterly cold; it awakens the senses as it carries the heady scent of the wild herbs and the natural fragrant bark of Camel Thorn Tree. A lone bull Elephant silently walks through the trees shaking down seed pods from the Camel Thorn Acacia then sucking then up with its long trunk. The end of its trunk is as dexterous and sensitive as fingertips. It uses its mammoth bulk to press his weight against the trunk shaking it to its roots often completely breaking them so they fall over. The fearsome two pronged thorns are very sharp but the Elephants, Giraffe, Eland and Rhino alike enjoy them. Birds fly overhead their dawn chorus breaking the silence of the early morn. It is quite still and peaceful until you suddenly hear Hyaenas whooping, they are diurnal but here they tend to be more nocturnal. They are probably heading back to their dens after a night of hunting and scavenging.
Whilst it is still dark we see a beautiful graceful female Leopard resting on the branch of a small dead tree. Her eyes are focused on the bushes looking for small Antelope to ambush. Her green eyes are round in her small face. Her black rosettes are distinctive against her burnished bronze fur. She lies elegantly stretched across the branch with her long tail hanging down. The sun rises behind her, as it does the golden rays’ backlit her bronze fur, it shines in the sun. She yawns affording us a glance at her sharp canines and long raspy pink tongue. She gets up, stretches and effortlessly jumps down from the tree and walks along the sandy track to avoid the thorns in the grass. She looks pregnant and keen to hunt. A Franklin bird flies in front of her shrieking an alarm call; it warns other animals that a predator is in the vicinity. She stops often to scent mark her territory. After a while she decides to settle down in some bushes for a sleep. A small mating herd of Waterbuck graze nearby, they are too large for a small female Leopard to hunt. The large male Waterbuck snorts he can see the Leopard but is not concerned by her. He is a majestic beast with his long horns. The female Waterbuck do not have horns, their coats are golden fawn and shaggy, they have very pretty faces.
The sun begins to warm and the Leopard yawns, stretches her powerful muscles and gets up. Her beautiful green eyes scans the bushes and she heads to a sunny patch to warm up. On route she stops to defecate, she pokes her tongue out in amusing concentration. She walks off and lies in a sunny spot to meticulously wash herself. Leopards have for a long time been deemed to be elusive. This was mainly to the aggressive hunting of them until the last 1970s. They are actually the most numerous of the world’s big cats. They have also over the last thirty years become more confident and less skittish making them much easier to see in the wilds of Africa. They have the most stunning markings. Their head, chest and legs are covered in a distinctive series of black spots with a black collar of bars around its neck. The rest of its body a gleaming coat of golden bronze is covered in rosettes. Its tail is two thirds the length of its body with a pure white mark of the underside of its tip. This tail is designed for perfect balance when climbing trees. Its voice is deep, rasping like cough almost like a wood being sawn. Their habitat is mainly riverine forests and wooded areas. Leopards are terrestrial and arboreal; it is a privilege seeing them sunning themselves on rocks at sunrise and sunset. Leopards are solitary cats and only come together to mate aggressively. They hunt using their impressive powerful strength by stealth and ambush. They are capable of dragging a 100lb kill up a tree clamped between their teeth. Leopards live up to around 12-15 years.
Down by the river Hippos wallow in their pod in the refreshing water. Two bad tempered males start fighting with each other; they open their mouths wide flashing their rows of white teeth that are able to crush a man. They try and bite each other and compare their almighty bulk. The water thrashes around them creating waves. Like with many animals on the plains, fighting is the way to resolve issues. A dominant male hippo in a group (herd) will sometimes fight with other males that are disrespecting his authority or invading his groups’ territory. The fights are very vicious and will result in many painful injuries. If they have injuries in the water fish will painfully nibble at the wounds so the males will often leave the water to heal. In the water they are strong fast swimmers but out of the water they are slow and cumbersome. Often hiding in bushes it is incredibly dangerous to encounter a Hippo in the wild. They are very confrontational.
A herd Zebras come to the water’s edge to drink, it is a stallion with his harem of females, the male has a very long tail that rather unusually reaches the ground. They stand in a straight row their bodies perfectly reflected in the water. The clear blue sky is the perfect backdrop to their distinctive black and white stripes. Thermoregulation has long been suggested by scientists as the function of zebra stripes. The basic idea is that black stripes would absorb heat in the morning and warm up zebras, whereas white stripes reflect light more and could thus help cool zebras as they graze for hours in the blazing sun. Also when all the zebras keep together as a big group, the pattern of each zebra’s stripes blends in with the stripes of the zebras around it. The pattern of the camouflage is much more important than its colour, when hiding from these predators. Each zebra’s stripes are unique. Just as no two human fingerprints are alike, no two zebras have the same stripe pattern. A group of Zebras is called a Dazzle, which is quite appropriate. Zebras are vital to the eco system as they cut back old growth and consume lower quality plant matter; they increase the overall quality of vegetation in areas where they travel. Zebras play a critical role for other herbivores by clearing the way for growth of tender new leaves and grasses.
Chacma Baboons are foraging on the ground, they have very good eyesight and can pick out small seeds and berries in the grasses. Baboons are opportunistic eaters but they mainly eat fruits, grasses, seeds, bark, and roots, but also have a taste for meat. They can if lucky eat birds, rodents, and even the young of larger mammals, such as antelopes and sheep. A fully grown male Baboon can have canines even longer than a Leopards. Interestingly Baboons have an innate fear of snakes and a great memory. They are very sociable primates, living in troupes of around thirty to fifty. They are notoriously boisterous as argumentative but also peaceful and relaxed. They are sometimes referred to as dog monkeys due to their dog like faces. They have very mobile lips, cheeks and brows, and have distinct expressions for submission, begging and initiating play. Baboons make a lot of eye contact with each other and are very affectionate, holding hands, hugging, and of course, mutually grooming. The young are very playful and rambunctious, they chase each other around, play is an important part of their development and bonding.
Crossing a river out in the wilds of Africa can often be a hazardous task. A large bull Elephant is drinking from the cool waters and is asserting his authority by blocking the river crossing. Elephants are known for being quite stubborn, they will walk through rather than walk round and they will not be moved or hurried. Generally slow to anger, elephants can sometimes exhibit a violent temper, and will employ their powerful personalities to humble unwanted intrusion. If an elephant sets its mind to something, it will not waver in its commitment until the task is completed. Their intelligence combined with a formidable personality gives them a terrific advantage in the wild. He is joined by a bachelor herd of Elephants who walk down into the water throwing water over themselves. They rest their back legs and hang their trunk over their tusks. They drink quite unperturbed next to the Hippo. Some of the bulls have very large tusks; tusks of course are just teeth, upper incisors to be exact. But, given that there is also “genetic variability with regard to tusk length and thickness, with some older males having smaller tusks,” heavy poaching of large-tusked elephants can influence the biology of future generations of elephants.
Large herd of Sable Antelope come to the water to drink. They are very nervous as they have a foul with them. They see the large herd of Elephants and change direction and drink further downstream. The males are darker brown than the females; they have shaggy fur and impressive horns that curve backwards. The prey are right to be nervous a lone female Leopard is in hunting mode, she crouches low to ground to give her a good advantage however all of the prey are too large for her to hunt. She gets up, stretches her impressive muscles and springs effortlessly up a tree. She walks from branch to branch until she finds a spot where she has good leaf camouflage but gives her a good view of the bush. She positions her beautiful body over the thick branch and relaxes. Zebra, Elephant, Warthog and Impala pass beneath her but she will take her time to choose her prey. She is an ambush hunter, built for strength rather than speed so will wait patiently for the perfect opportunity.
Two Lionesses and sub adults and cubs are sleeping under a bush. One Lioness sees an Impala across the plain and decides it could be a good hunting opportunity. Lionesses most often hunt together so she walks over to her sister and they rub heads. The Lioness lays her head between the paws of the dominant female and they enjoy mutual sisterly bonding. The Lioness yawns and opens her mouth so wide the other Lioness puts her head inside her mouth. It affords is a fabulous view of her sharp canines and very long pink raspy tongue. Both Lionesses sit up their heads together to view the game. They stand up and start walking low towards bushes nearer the prey and sit down to assess their hunting strategy. There are Zebras with a foul, Impala and Elephants grazing nearby. Behind the Lionesses the cubs and sub adults wake and start to play, they enjoy tussling and play hunting biting each other’s necks and tails. The Lionesses are focused but they have been spotted and the Impala run away leaping legs stretched across the water.
The Lionesses need to hunt so they decide to follow the prey, the Lionesses jump easily across the river splashing water. The cubs however are challenged; the sub adults just about make the jump with light splashing, the small cubs however jump and fall directly in the shallow water, they jump out quickly and run to their mother. Lions do not like getting wet; the young cubs look most indignant and meow loudly at their mothers. The Lionesses ignore their whining as they are focused on the hunt. The cubs shake themselves, cascades of water droplets fly around them. They follow their mothers as the sun begins to set. The burnished orange of the sun lights the gold of the Lions fur. The Lionesses eyes are sharp and focused; they use flicks of their ear to signal to each other their hunting technique. The cubs hang back as they are too young to partake in the hunt. They crouch low in the grass as they are also at threat from predators. The Lionesses start to move forward as the sun dips below plains. The horizon is perfectly lit with vibrant red, orange and yellow light as the sky darkens above and the moon beams through.
A mist rolls over the plains; the air is cold and visibility poor. It is pre-dawn and it is still dark, the prey are cold so pronk and prance warming their cold stiff muscles. Baboons bark as they climb down from their nests in the trees, birds fly up into the sky in preparation for a day of hunting. The plains are alive with activity as the wildlife prepare for a new day. The sun rises over the delta. The water reflects the light particles, it glistens like diamonds. The heady scent of herbs fill the air. It is a peaceful time on the plains watching it come alive, wondering what tales the night held. Lion tracks can be seen, they are fresh, so they have most likely just returned from hunting. Most hunts do not end in a kill but this is a strong pride so no doubt they persevered throughout the night until they were successful. If they did make a kill the pride would have headed into the bushes to sleep in the heat of the day.
Baboons are peacefully foraging out on the plains. Periodically a male will walk over to a female who is receptive to mating and mount her. Baboons can mate all year round, though females are only sexually active during their cyclical oestrus, which typically lasts for 30 to 40 days. During a portion of this time, her rear end pads that she normally uses for sitting will become bright and swollen in order to attract males. There is no courtship, just the primal need to procreate. After mating, a baboon female has a gestation period of around six months. Typically, a female will only give birth to one offspring at a time. Other females stroll past with an infant clutched to the underside of her. The infants are pure black with large eyes; the plains are such a scary place for one so young. Interestingly their eyes are open and they are finely furred at birth with of course the instinct to grasp with hands and feet. This is important so they can cling to their mother as she runs or jumps through trees. At a few weeks old they begin to ride on her back.
Down by the river Elephants are bathing and Hippos are wallowing in the water in the dawn light. The Elephants suck up gallons of water and spray it over themselves. The water curves in a perfect arch descending on their dry wrinkled grey bodies. Hippos blow bubbles in the water as they rise above the surface watching the Elephants activity. The Elephants slowly ascend the banks to dry off and dust bath, they use the sensitive end of their trunk like fingers and gather large mounds of dust to fling over their bodies to stick to the water as sun protection. They march back to the bushes to feed. A browser is an herbivore that mainly feeds on leaves, fruits of high-growing woody plants, soft shoots and shrubs. Such animals do not feed on grass and other low-lying vegetation. Grazers, on the other hand, are animals that feed on grass, multicellular organisms like algae, and other low-lying vegetation. Elephants are one of the few animals that are a mixed feeder; they are both grazers and browsers. Given the volume of food they must consume in a day and the challenges of the plains, this would seem to be an evolutionary advantage.
A herd of Red Lechwe are down in the river chasing each other around, water is splashing as they rut and leap. They are a bachelor herd practicing their skills by mock fighting; they need to be strong to gain mating rights with the females. Their red fur coats are in stunning contrast to the blue of the river. The river is reflecting the cloudless azure blue of the sky, it is a mill pond, an almost glass surface in its reflective properties. The lake is large which gives the frisky males a wide area to run. Their hooves kick up water, as the droplets fall they magnificently catch the light. The scene is breath-taking as combat is fierce as they lock horns to test their strength. Water buck stand by the edge of water drinking, used to the antics of the young males, completely unperturbed by them. White Egrets also stand on the shoreline, they use a variety of methods to procure their food; they stalk their prey in shallow water, often running with raised wings or shuffling their feet to disturb small fish, or may stand still and wait to ambush prey.
Burch ells Starling are very chatty birds. They are long-tailed, iridescent blue-green to purple glossy starling with barred wings, and a round-tipped tail. Pairs, groups, and small flocks are resident in dry savanna, especially near thorn trees, where they have become common in camps and often associate with humans. The species feeds on the ground, walking with long strides and sitting low in trees, searching for insects, small vertebrates, and plant matter to eat. They also know when where and when to find people eating their meals so they can seduce them with their twitter and dazzle them with their plumage in order to elicit attention and ultimately food. They are very gregarious and entertaining. They are also monogamous and sedentary, so a very peaceful bird. Their curiosity often leads them to stare into camera lens to look at their reflection or even the wing mirror of a vehicle, precariously hanging on at amusing angles.
A beautiful Fork tail Drongo perches on the edge of a sun bleached dead tree with the iridescent river in the back ground reflecting the deep blue of the sky. This stunning little black bird is a common resident in and around the river. Its plain black colouration does not attract much interest from photographers but when you look beyond its plain plumage you will discover how intelligent and resourceful it is. The drongo will often be found tracking the large herbivores as they move along grazing and browsing. These intelligent birds have discovered that the larger animals will flush insects from their resting places in the grass allowing the Drongos to swoop in and catch their food. The Drongos will even hover inches from the Land Cruisers as they closely watch the rotating wheels waiting for their food to come flying out in front of the tyres. Animals in the wild have adapted well to the environment where food can be scarce. The drongo is the perfect example of this, finding new and inventive ways to survive.
A herd of Elephants are browsing in the open plains; pulling off fronds of wild Sage the heady scent fills the air. Known by the Romans as the ‘Holy Herb’, this rich herb has been shown to have a number of health benefits such as reducing inflammation, regulating blood sugar levels, aiding digestion and improving mental function. It grows bountiful and wild, both the wildlife and villagers use the herb for these reasons. The Elephants move on, they have found seed pods and are busy sucking them up. Two large bull Elephants start to use their immense bulk and weight to shake the trees to dislodge further seed pods. Elephants really are the gardeners of the African plains; they will not fully digest these pods so when they defecate their faeces will contain undigested seeds which other animals such as dung beetles and even Baboons will forage in to eat. The seeds through the dung will also germinate planting new trees. So even though Elephants undoubtedly destroy many trees as they bulldoze their way through forests they also plant many through their dung.
Crocodiles are undoubtedly intelligent and gregarious reptiles that communicate in numerous ways. A group of crocodiles in water is called a float, and a group on land is called a bask. Of course these are onomatopoeia, they really suggests what it describes. Crocodiles are very fast swimmers, which helps them catch their prey. They can swim up to 20 mph and can hold their breath underwater for around one hour. On land, crocodiles are not nearly as fast. They can only run up to 11 mph for a short distance. They are effective hunters and have the strongest bite of any animal in the world. Crocodiles are of course prehistoric carnivores, which mean they eat only meat. They can go through 4,000 teeth over a lifetime. Which is not surprising as a crocodile’s jaws can apply 5,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. Their reptilian eyes are constantly alert looking for prey; their eyes are protected by a third eyelid, while the eyeball can be drawn into the socket during an attack on prey. It also benefits from a layer of guanine crystals behind the eyes, which reflects light back through the retina, enabling the reptile to hunt even when the light is low. So do those stunning eyes really cry as suggested in folklore? Yes, the crocodile’s habitual cry reflex is an involuntary biological behaviour. It is simply a symptomatic side-effect of the effort exerted when chomping and chewing. The crocodile’s intense high-pitched hisses and huffs produce fluids, which froth and drip from the eye sockets. So crocodile tears are real, but only when they come from crocodile eyes. Hence the expression crocodile tears, no emotion involved.
Two beautiful Fish Eagle are sat on the top of a dead tree looking to fish. They are easy to recognise from the yodelling yelp of this striking raptor. Often described as the sound of Africa, the African fish eagle evokes images of lazy rivers and palm-fringed lake shores, often in duet with the grunting of hippos. The bird itself, in all its black, white and chestnut finery, is equally unmistakable. Their hook-shaped beak which is yellow with a black tip is perfect for a carnivorous lifestyle. African fish eagles are kleptoparasites, which is to say they habitually steal prey from other species. Common victims of this piratical behaviour include goliath herons and saddle-billed stork. A fish eagle’s toes are coated in sharp barbs, called spiricules, which consequently help it to grasp fish and other slippery prey. However, fish are not the only item on the menu of this versatile predator. In addition, other prey includes ducks, terrapins, crocodiles, small waterfowl and even in the soda lakes of East Africa, flamingos. It is quite common to see them fly down and grasp an unsuspecting duck in its talons. This bird’s conspicuous nature and charismatic presence ensure it figures prominently in the folklore and heraldry of several nations. Therefore you will find it on the coat of arms of Namibia, Zambia and South Sudan.
A Blacksmith Lapwing Plover is sat on the ground on covering its precious eggs. The blacksmith lapwing or blacksmith plover (Vanellus armatus) is a lapwing species that occurs commonly from Kenya through central Tanzania to southern and southwestern Africa. The vernacular name derives from the repeated metallic ‘tink, tink, tink’ alarm call, which suggests a blacksmith’s hammer striking an anvil. When Blacksmith lapwings feel threatened, they don’t hesitate to attack an intruder and produce their harsh loud call; during this, their wings are spread, the neck is extended and the bill points towards the intruder. Such a display is very helpful for these small birds and often deter predators. This particular female has every reason to be on her guard as her chicks will hatch any day. An interesting fact about lapwings is in folklore their symbolic meaning is to be found in the agro-pastoral culture, and like so many others it invokes the fertility, the rains and the health of the flocks. They tend to stay near water, spending their time in marshy areas. Alongside them a herd of Red Lechwe are also sat on the marshy banks, there are no predators around in the heat of the day so they relax enjoying the warmth.
It is rare to see Honey Badgers during the day but two are running across the plains, they stop under a fallen tree and observe the animals around them. The honey badger is notorious for its strength, ferocity and toughness. It is known to savagely and fearlessly attack almost any other species when escape is impossible, reportedly even repelling much larger predators such as lion and hyena. Honey Badgers have many reasons to be fearless. They have very thick (about 1/4 inches), rubbery skin, which is so tough that it has been shown to be nearly impervious to traditionally made arrows and spears. Honey badgers are not actually badgers. Their real name is Mellivora capensis, which translates as “honey eater of the Cape.” This makes them the only animal in the Mellivorinaegenus, which in turn is a subfamily of the Mustelinae genus. Another Mustelinaeis the wolverine, which is equally as fierce. Another interesting fact is Honey badgers can turn their anus inside out and shoot a foul-smelling liquid that would make most people choke. This kind of behaviour is similar to skunks. The scientific explanation is that an eversible anal pouch opens out and fires the pungent spray. For such a small animal honey badgers have enormous brains. They are one of Africa’s cleverest creatures, capable of tricking their captors and escaping any man-made trap. They are one of very few non-primates known to manufacture and use tools. For example, they will roll fallen tree branches into position so they can climb to a food source. If they cannot dig under an obstacle, they will build ladders to get over it. Hence why sitting and observing these two fascinating creatures is so important you never know what will happen they are around.
As dusk rolls in the Sage grass is beautifully backlit by the white light, the white soft fluffy plumes shine iridescent in the sun. It has a halo effect which is very mesmerising and ethereal. It is drought tolerant and deer resistant and grows up to five foot tall, the feathery white heads billows in the gentle breeze. It is graceful as it moves a gentle undulation like the sea. In this stunning glade herds of Kudu and Impala graze, their striking red fur in contrast to the soft white. Red Lechwe are down by the water feeding as the sun sets, the light is golden and the dust and flies create a halo giving the scene another worldly beauty. A fawn suckles from its mother; it’s a peaceful serene scene. They move out into the water the yellow, red and orange glow of the sun is perfectly reflected in the water as the Red Lechwe walk through kicking up water. The trees and bushes on the far bank are reflected silhouettes in the water. A lone Flamingo walks slowly through the water, the sun has set and the lake is pure gold, the sunset completely reflected in the water. The Flamingo is silhouetted with a perfect reflection on the water.
The early pre-dawn is dark and moody; this is perfect time for predators. The air becomes thick with the sound of the dominant male Lions roaring calling the pride to gather, it is a deep throaty noise that touches the soul. The roar of a male lion is a territorial call, used often to advertise status and whereabouts of a dominant male, should there be a rival wishing to challenge him. It may also be used as a means of communication between two members of a coalition of as to where each other are. They would have been active in the night hunting, the dark is the perfect cover to stalk and ambush prey. The Hyaenas are also returning to their dens, they can be heard whooping as they lop through the long grasses. They will often follow the pride so they can scavenge any remains from their kill. Whilst very efficient hunters in their own right scavenging is easy food, a Hyaenas jaw is designed to crunch bones and tough sinew, parts of the kill the Lions will leave after they strip the kill of its flesh. Suddenly there is a piercing almost cat like shriek, it is Jackal calling to each other, it may have been a good night for hunting for the predators. The small Alsatian like dog also follow the pride, they are small, clever and quick and will also scavenge from the kill.
The sun starts to rise behind a forest of silhouetted Acacia Trees, the golden glow is the perfect back drop. In the tops of the trees the Baboons are nesting and begin to wake. They rise and stretch and start to interact with each other. The Baboons jump and swing through the tops of the trees, they warm up their muscles in the rising sun. Two young adolescents start squabbling; they shriek and bare their teeth. The dominant male jumps into the tree and starts beating the two young boys for misbehaving. As the sun rises the Baboons are silhouetted, they look stunning jumping from tree to tree, their outline beautiful against the deep orange sky. Watching their silhouettes it is easier to focus on the way their tails curl a round, their agile flexible bodies twist and turn as they jump effortlessly from branch and branch. They walk on all fours, their tails curled in a perfect arch. Baboons are the largest monkeys, the males are impressive when full grown, their fur is thick dark olive. They are also terrestrial and diurnal, meaning that they spend most of their daylight hours foraging on the ground and in the trees, and at night they sleep in trees or on cliffs where they are safe from predators.
A mating pair of Hippos wallow in the river, they blow air through their nostrils creating bubbles on the surface of the water. The male swims over to the female and mounts her. The female hippos are forcibly submerged in the water by the male hippo for most of the mating process. Her head comes up at intervals so that she can breathe. In some cases, although very rarely, the hippos may choose to mate on land. Hippos are the only land animals in Africa that mate in water. Hippos are polygamous, meaning they have more than one mate. Only about 10% of males (bulls) have adequate territory to acquire a mate, and they win over the females (cows) through a series of faecal flinging and vocalizations the copulation is quick and quite still. Female hippos reach sexual maturity between 3 or 4 years old, but usually, do not start mating until they are about 7 or 8 years. After giving birth, a female hippopotamus will not ovulate for about one year and a half. This means that a female generally only has one offspring every two years. Around the bank Red Lechwe, Zebra and Impala graze peacefully on the moist marshy grasses. Further ahead the rumps of two young male nomadic Lions are seen dashing into the bushes, these nomadic boys will be afraid of the territorial males who would try and kill them as they are competition to the pride males. They have blonde manes usually indicative of younger males.
Further ahead we are surprised to see two male Cheetah brothers sitting in the grass looking to hunt. They are scanning the wide open plains. Unlike the other cats that ambush hunt, the Cheetah chase at high speed so need the expanse. Not far away a herd of Impala graze the perfect prey for the Cheetah. They lay in the grass but a herd of female Waterbuck disturb them, they are too large for the Cheetah to hunt. The Cheetahs get up and stretch their long sinewy bodies built for speed. The sun catches in their amber eyes, their eyes are black rimmed with the distinctive black line running down to their nose to deflect the sunlight whilst they are running. A herd of Southern Zebra with their beautiful distinctive stripes going up into their mane walk in single file down the track in front of us, it is a beautiful scene, a young foul walks between the adults for protection. On the right of them a large bull Elephant stroll through the grass with a small herd of Topi, the young bull shakes his head at us showing us his dominance. The sun is high in the sky now a deep azure blue, the sun lights up the seeded tops of the grasses and the white flowers of the wild Sage, the mixture of the heady scent of the sage and the ethereal beautiful of the glowing grasses is breath-taking.
As we drive into Moremi from Khwai we come into a marshy clearing covered in stunning six foot tall pampas grass. The long thin reedy stems are topped with feathery white seeds, the sun lights them up, a perfect heavenly white glow. Down by the river Hippos walk out of the water to graze whilst large Crocodiles warm their cold bodies on the banks. It is a relaxed place for the animals to come to drink, Red Lechwe sit on the grass, they are clearly confident Lions are asleep in the hot midday heat. Two black and white Fish Eagles swoop in over the water looking for fish to catch. On a branch of a tree a Genet Cat lounges like a domestic cat. It has retractable claws so it can climb trees and a mane of fur that runs down its head to its shoulders. Colouration varies among species but usually is pale yellowish or greyish, marked with dark spots and stripes; the tail is banded black and grey or white. Genets have large eyes with elliptical pupils. They have triangular ears of medium size which can move about 80° from pointing forward to the side, and also from an erect position to pointing downwards. Their wet nose is important for both sensing smell and touch. They are highly agile, have quick reflexes and exceptional climbing skills. They live on the ground, but also spend much of their time in trees. Genets are the only viverrids able to stand on their hind legs. They are ferocious hunters, eating rodents, birds, bats, eggs, fish, frogs, lizards and insects, such as centipedes and scorpions. They are usually solitary, except during mating and when females have offspring. Is it a cat though? It is a Cat-Like Carnivore, though they look a little like wild cats, these animals are not members of the Felidae family. Instead, scientists classify them as Feliformia, or cat-like predators. Some other members of this suborder include hyenas, fossa, mongooses. One thing is for certain they are known to enjoy the company of humans in Safari camps and can be often seen languishing in the rafters of the dining tent observing people eat. They are quite sociable and not aggressive if respected. This small ferret like cat is certainly enjoying watching he grasses for potential prey movement.
A large herd of Red Lechwe are walking through Silky Bushman grass lit by the sun; its tips are feathery and white. The stark contrast of colours is very beautiful. There is no doubt the savannah has striking contrasts. A Juvenile Harrier Hawk is being bombed by Lilac Chested Rollers as he is a threat to them. He flies low with a long wingspan and an owl like face, he is quite striking. The African harrier hawk seeks out elusive prey. With its ability to bend its legs forward and backward, this hawk can reach deep into holes or crevices and grab prey that is safe from other raptors. The African harrier hawk shows a variety of hunting skills: it climbs around on the branches of trees, using its wings for balance; it hangs upside down for long periods of time as it explores nooks and crannies for a hidden meal; it soars slowly along the edge of hillsides and ravines and scans carefully for potential prey. Unlike other raptors, this hawk is not a very powerful bird and normally settles for prey about as large as a lizard. In certain parts of its range, the African harrier hawk is known to eat the fruit of the oil palm, but mostly its diet consists of lizards, small birds, insects and rodents. It is no wonder the rollers are fretful, this intelligent bird poses a real threat to them. Above Vultures are hovering on the vortex looking for carcasses to scavenge.
A female Hyaenas sits over one of her smaller pups as another four run around her, the smaller cub scrambles out from underneath her eager now to join its siblings. Hyaenas are surprisingly one of the best mothers in the animal kingdom, investing more energy per cub than any other terrestrial carnivore. Hyenas give birth to 1 to 3 tiny jet black cubs (some call them pups, but early naturalists thought they resembled bear cubs). Hyena cubs are “precocial”, meaning they are born in a more advanced stage of development with their eyes open, teeth intact, and muscles ready to go, unlike many of the cat species where cubs are born largely blind and helpless for several weeks. Spotted hyena mothers produce extremely fat and protein-rich milk (richer than any other terrestrial carnivore) and they produce a lot of it for a long period. Hyena cubs are completely dependent on milk for the first six months of their lives and will continue to nurse for up to another year. All of that is a lot of stress on a single mother as hyenas do not cross-suckle, even between closely related females. Arguably the worst false accusation against hyenas is that they are hermaphrodites. This is completely false, but there’s a very good reason why it was thought to be true. Female spotted hyenas do in fact have a pseudopenis and a pseduoscotum, both of which are convincingly similar to male anatomy. The pseudopenis is actually her clitoris, which has evolved to mimic the male’s anatomy with the entire urogential track running through it. Females urinate, have sex, and give birth through this structure. The reason for this male mimicry is not completely understood, but likely has its evolutionary history rooted in the benefits of looking like and even being confused as a male. One idea is that during the course of hyena evolution, males were far more aggressive, so much so that females who started to mimic them in appearance, size, and even genital anatomy were more successful at passing on their genes. The female is the alpha and quite aggressive and obviously fiercely protective of her pups. Watching her play with her cubs allows us to see the softer side of this often maligned misunderstood ugly beautiful animal. The pups really do look like little brown bears. As the sun sets on this beautiful scene of parenthood, it is wonderful watching the orange glow of the sun light the soft brown fur of the pups, picking up the burnished browns and reds.
The morning is particular cold; there is an icy chill in the air, as the animal’s exhale the water vapour in their breath condenses into lots of tiny droplets of liquid water and ice that you can see in the air as a cloud, similar to fog. With the rolling mist over the plains, these fog clouds are clear against the pre-dawn dark sky. The animals are cold, their limbs stretch, perfectly silhouetted against the deep red of the rising sun. The sky is cloudless so the sky becomes a perfect blanket of dark orange fiery light, an intense African sunrise. The Papyrus grasses with their feathery tops sway in the cool gentle breeze. The delta is so still and peaceful in the early dawn. This is the wild though and you never know what to expect. Suddenly a pack of nineteen Painted Wild Dogs run past us, they are in hunting mode. They are lean and beautifully painted dogs, bronze and black like an artist has splashed paint across them. They are impressive Alsatian type dogs with large round ears. They greet each other by barking and yelling and jumping in the air. They are perfectly back lit by the rising sun orange glow of the sun.
The Painted Wild Dogs like all canines are excited by the thrill of the hunt. They gather as a team on top of a termite mound, they greet together by sniffing rear ends and mouths, licking and chewing each other. They are keen to hunt but they need to organise themselves. There is such frenzy as the younger members become unruly and over enthusiastic. The older members try and organise the hunt but as soon as a Reedbuck comes into sight, the younger pack members head off in hot pursuit. It is still pre-dawn and the red light behind them is intense, they chase the Reedbuck through the water, the dogs have strength in numbers on their side but the buck has experience, speed and agility. The cold water splashes up as they speed through the water. The bright light of the sunrise catches each droplet and shines. It is an intense, energetic chase, the adrenaline rush is palatable as the dogs want to make a kill and the buck fights for survival. It feels like the odds are stacked against the buck but it outwits and outmanoeuvres the dogs. The dogs begin to slow and pant heavily; they do not look too perturbed by the failure of the hunt. This is quite common and they have only just started hunting. They re-gather to assess their hunting opportunities. They walk together as a pack, shoulder to shoulder.
It is not long before they come upon another hunting opportunity, a small herd of Wildebeest are drinking by the river, they pick up the scent of the dogs and scatter in all directions trying to confuse the pack. Four of the most experienced Painted Wild Dogs take the lead and start snapping at the heels of one Wildebeest, it stumbles looking like it will fall and be at the mercy of the dogs which will rip it apart and disembowel it alive but it manages to regain its footing and escape them. The dogs change direction and try and bite the leg of another Wildebeest to make it stumble but once again they are outmanoeuvred. Wildebeest are intelligent animals and high on the predator hunt list so are fast. The dogs give up the chase but they do not stand still they are the move again, on a mission to hunt, they are hungry. The pack are led by the alpha female and her male, they undoubtedly have a den nearby and will also be keen to take back food for their pups.
If this pre-dawn activity had not been dramatic and exciting enough nature gives more, so much more after sunrise. The heat starts to rise and the air grows thick with dust. The Painted Wild Dogs are still hunting and on the move, there is now a sense of urgency. Suddenly we see a female Leopard with her four month old cub sitting under a bush, the mother sensing the danger grunts at the cub to escape up the nearby tree. The Leopard has a fresh Impala kill which she is guarding under a bush. The Painted Wild Dogs quickly pick up the scent of the blood, they become animated and run towards her, she is startled and hisses at them but is no match for them, she just about escapes up a nearby tree with her life. The dogs would have killed her, she is competition for food, here it is kill or be killed. The Painted Wild Dogs snatch the kill and the pack rip the Impala kill apart ravenously. The Leopard descends from the tree at a last attempt of trying to retrieve her kill, some of the dogs chase the Leopard, it is a tense scene as they could kill her and the cub, for a few moments we do not know where the mother and cub are. Fortunately once again both have escaped up the tree; they are the best climbers of all of the predators. The Painted Wild Dogs jump up on their hind legs trying to reach them but they are high in the tree. The Leopards green eyes are wide with anger and terror, she wants to fight them but she has to protect her cub. She is now up high in one tree and the cub precariously balancing on the top branches on another. On close inspection the cub looks fearless, it obeyed its mother and its flight instinct kicked in to climb as high in the tree as possible. It looks down at the dogs; no doubt this was not their first encounter with them.
The courageous little Leopard cub having managed to climb very high is now sitting on a thick branch meowing to its mother, letting her know it is safe. She has now managed to avert the attentions of the dogs which are busy eating her kill and has now climbed up the tree where her cub is and sits on the branch below furiously watching the Painted Wild Dogs take her kill. The Painted Wild Dogs eat their fill including the hair of the Impala then run off to join the rest of the pack. The Leopard cautiously gets down and retrieves some of the kill and takes it up the tree to the cub. The cub starts to eat and play with the kill. The cub is very brave and pulls the kill off the branch and drags it between its legs along the branch and positions it more safely like its mother would. All animals have to learn fast to defend and take care of themselves in the wild. The cub is now relaxed and eats heartily with its mother protectively watches on. She will defend her cub at all costs. When the Painted Wild Dog pack has departed the female Leopard calls to the cub with a series of grunts that it is safe and they descend to the ground to bond after their traumatic time. The cub is safe and incredibly brave.
We drive over the bridge of the delta enjoying the beautiful Papyrus, Silky Bushman and Reed grasses reflected in the rippling waters. A water or marsh mongoose scurries by; it is rare to see them. They can reach 28-30 inches in length and weigh up to 8 pounds. They have greyish or brown fur, and some of them have striped coat and ringed tail. Mongooses are carnivores (meat-eaters). They eat rodents, birds, frogs, insects, eggs. Mongooses are noted for their audacious attacks on highly venomous snakes, such as king cobras. A flock of seven Fish Eagles stand around the edge of the river looking to feed on the fish as two Herons swoop over. The sun is now high in the sky and the still lake reflects the deep blue of the sky. The water ripples as pond life skate over the surface and fish come up to take air. The birds fix their sharp eyes on the water waiting for an opportunity to fly down and grasp a fish.
The Painted Wild Dogs head into the forest, it is cooler away from the intense heat of the midday sun. Suddenly a female member of the pack appears, she had been left behind whilst they hunted. Soon it becomes apparent why, she was left to baby sit the pups in the den. Four fluffy brown and gold pups with bronze eyes and large round ears cautiously clamber out of the den. They yelp to the pack excited at seeing them. The pups are playful and start tumbling around; they are very young still and are unsteady on their legs. They bond and establish their hierarchy and strength through play. They chase each other, chewing on ears, biting tails and necks. Everything becomes a toy, a stick, a shrub or a discarded piece of bone. They have not grown into their pattern yet but their legs give away they tell-tale sign of the beautiful white and brown splashes of colour that will eventually cover their bodies. It is just like watching a group of domestic puppies; they love to chew and are very exuberant and energetic. However they are still young and the slightest unusual sound can send them running instinctively back down into the den. An Eagle flies overhead and calls loudly, it terrifies the pups, they know they could be carried off in its sharp talons.
The wild is an amazing place to be, one day can be quiet whereas other days the drama never stops. Suddenly we see a Warthog out in the open marshy plains it has been attacked by a Hyaena, its back leg is half eaten and it has a bloody neck. It is a large male Warthog with long curved white tusks so quite the opponent for predators. A head appears above the long grass, a large male Leopard has chased off the Hyaenas and claimed the Warthog but is cautious as the Warthog is still alive and has fight left in him and could still fight the Leopard, spearing him with is tusks. The Leopard cautiously approaches the Warthog who shockingly manages to sit up with its last strength, adrenaline coursing through its veins and threatens the Leopard. They sit facing eye to eye, the Leopard weighs up his chances and decides the risk of injury is too high and backs off, he knows the Warthog will bleed out and die soon. The Leopard has blood on his face and body so clearly he has managed to take a bite already of the Warthog.
It is midday and the sun is hot out here in the open so the Leopard retreats to the shade of the bush whilst the Warthog collapses down breathing hard, it is in its death throes. The Leopard sits in the shade and meticulously licks its body with his long pink raspy tongue. He licks his paws and rubs them over his face, he spends a long time washing carefully until all the blood is removed. He then walks over to the water to drink then returns to the shade of the bush to sleep. After a couple of hours the male Leopard awakes from his slumber under the bush and scans the marshy plain for the Hyaenas clan, satisfied it is safe he returns to the Warthog which has now finally, mercifully died. He uses his sharp canines to rip at the meaty rump, gorging on the rich bloody meat. Incongruously he bites off the tail and crunches it piece by piece including the hairy end. He licks the blood from the carcass and tenderises the flesh with the barbs on its tongue. When fully satisfied he returns to the edge of the marsh to guard over his food. He effortlessly ascends the trunk of the tree and leaps gracefully from branch to branch until he reaches his vantage point at the top where he can keep a watchful eye on its meal. He elegantly lies across the thick branch, legs straddling the branch with his long thick tail hanging down. His beautiful round green eyes reflect the bright sunlight. His body is a powerhouse of muscle and sinew. He lies down and catnaps briefly awakening to check his kill is safe. After a while he decides to descend the tree, gracefully jumping from branch to branch until he leaps down the trunk and disappears into the long grass.
A herd of Elephants are heading to the water, the matriarch ensures the safe crossing of her herd, she is heavily pregnant and fiercely protective. The river is deep as they submerge their large grey bodies into the water. He younger calves hold onto the tails of the adults in front of them, even when they are fully submerge they trust the adult to guide them through. All you can see is the tip of their trunk. As they arrive on the other bank they bodies are glistening dark grey in the setting sun, they grab trunk full of dust with the sensitive end this fingers and fling it over themselves for sun protection. Some of the younger calves roll in the dust. They are energised and excited and take time to play. As the sun sets we watch the fiery beams shoot across the sky, herds of Impala and Wildebeest enjoy the final heat.
In the distance a rarely seen Aardwolf runs across the plains. It settles on a termite mound to scan the grasses for the smallest movement. The Aardwolf (Proteles cristata) is not related to aardvarks or wolves, it’s the smallest member of the hyena family. They have long, pointed ears, slender skulls, and long necks. Like all members of Hyaenidae, the have front legs longer than their hind legs, giving them a sloped stature. Aardwolves also have a distinctive mane that grows from behind their heads to the tips of their tails and black stripes running across their cream-colored bodies. “Aardwolf” means “earth wolf” in Afrikaans. Aardwolves are also known as civet hyenas, for the secretions from their anal glands, and maanhaar jackals. Their genus name, Proteles, means “complete in front” and refers to the fact that they have five toes on their front paws and four toes on their back paws. Their species name, cristatus, means “provided with a comb,” in reference to their manes. They communicate largely through smell. Aardwolves have two anal glands that secrete a black, musky fluid that they use to mark their territories and send messages to other aardwolves. They smear these secretions on foliage to establish territories and attract potential mates. They tend to be vocal only when confronting intruders or predators. In these cases, Aardwolves may make a clucking sound, a deep growl, or a roar. Aardwolves are socially monogamous. They form mating pairs and help raise their young together, but males may mate with other females within neighbouring territories. Males and females care for their offspring together for about their first year. When pups are small, the males guard the den while the female leaves to forage for food. It is an exciting sighting; it may be heading back to its den.
As the fiery sphere of the intense red sun sets belong the horizon the sky is lit with deep orange light. It is the time of light and dust as particles are picked up dancing in the breeze giving the savannah a warm hazy glow. The bronze and black fur of the Painted Wild Dogs literally gleams in the light, their deep amber and black eyes intense. They run across the plains back to their den to rest for the night and regurgitate food for their pups. They are excited and full of energy; they have eaten and are sated. It is now time for the predators to awake; the moon has now replaced the sun to light the plains. It is fully illuminated giving an intense white light. There is nothing like an African night sky, the stars appear brighter. The darkness and no light pollution enable the Milky Way to shine and sparkle in the heavens above, with thousands and millions of twinkling stars in between. The skies really come alive every night. The night belongs to the wild; the deep throaty roar of the Lions is the nights lullaby.
The herd of Wildebeest are back lit in the sun rise with beautiful sage grasses white and ethereal billowing behind them. Some of the young males are on their knees practicing duelling with their horns. Whilst it is important for them to practice their skills it does leave them distracted and vulnerable to predator attack. They know this too well so others gallop and leap through the grasses warming their cold muscles proving their strength and speed. When the Dutch settled in South Africa, they named this animal “wildebeest,” meaning “wild beast,” due to its untamed appearance and vigorous nature. In fact, the wildebeest is better described as a reliable source of food for the truly efficient predators of the African savanna; lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, and hyenas. So it is not surprising that Wildebeest reproduce quickly and produce about 150 offspring every spring season. The herd is segregated into several smaller groups. Some of the most dominant males in the group perform elaborate mating rituals to impress all the females. Male wildebeest are referred to as the “clowns of the savannah.” This is because they perform many weird antics while trying to impress the females. Wildebeest are always moving and never stay in one place for too long. Wildebeest like to graze around during the day or night. They also like taking naps, while some keep watch for potential predators.
Also with mating on their mind pair of Side Stripped Jackal are seen running through the golden grasses. The Side-striped jackals are omnivorous, and are both predators and scavengers. They are nocturnal mammals, and are most active in the early evening, or around dawn. They will kill small vertebrates such as hares, and will also eat invertebrates, fruit, eggs, birds and even seeds. Although able to source their own food they are known to scavenge carrion using their acute eyesight, hearing and well developed sense of smell. Males and females of this doglike species are similar in size. Although timid, these jackals are strictly territorial, having very small territories of up to 2.5 sq. kms which will generally be held by a solitary jackal, a monogamous pair or even a loose family group. These territories, which are aggressively guarded, are actively marked with urine and dung. Only if it is necessary for them to find water will jackals leave their territory. They are quite noisy animals, with a call which is either a significant howl or a sharp, yapping alarm call if predators approach the area.
Two Bateleur Eagles are sat in the top branches of a tree. One of the most unique features about Bateleurs or this bird of prey is that they have a very short tail, unlike other species of birds. Male Bateleur eagles have black feathers with white underwing. Its face is bright red in colour with brown eyes, and has no feathers. Bateleur eagles communicate with one another through a variety of vocalizations like barks and screams. They are generally silent by nature but can turn very defensive if someone tries to enter their territory. They are very beautiful birds with their black plumage and orange and yellow beaks. Their eyes are sharp looking for unsuspecting prey.
By the watering hole there is a large herd of Zebra. The stallions are frisky in the growing warmth of the morning. They start fighting with each other. Biting, kicking and rearing up. Zebras are not often thought of as being aggressive by nature, but fights for dominance between stallions can be savage, with tails being bitten off, bones broken and some fights even going to the death. A male zebra walking around with only a stump for a tail may well be presumed to have lost it to a large predator, but the most likely culprit is in fact another zebra. They have fiercely sharp teeth, and a well-placed nip from a strong jaw can easily result in the loss of a tail, or at least a portion of it. Zebras have even been known to kill lions with a kick, which can be delivered by two hooves at the same time whilst on the gallop, so a serious lashing out while engaged in a fight for females could certainly prove fatal if it strikes in the right place. This has also been seen when a predator takes down a Zebra foul the mother will defend it by kicking the predator until it releases her baby. Zebra are very strong and are known for taking care of members of their herd. One of the most endearing sights on the plains is seeing two Zebra standing head to tail resting their heads on each other’s backs, bonding but also protecting each other from predator attacks by being able to look both ways.
A herd of over fifty Elephants march across the plains looking for water. Interestingly one of the young calves has been born with half a trunk. Whilst it is being protected and feed by its mother it will survive but sadly without a full trunk to browse, graze and suck up water it cannot survive long term. At the other end of the age spectrum an old lone female Elephant looks to spend her final days peacefully before dying. One of the most beautiful facts about Elephants is they with mourn the loss, even when only bones are left they will touch them with reverence. A journey of Giraffe are also heading towards the water. One of the older males is keen to mate; he walks from female to female to see if she is receptive. One of the females bends over to drink; she splays her legs and lowers her head. As she lifts her head she purses her lips purses spitting out water, the male comes up behind her sniffing her urine looking to see if she is in oestrus, it looks very comical as she is spits out the water in what looks like total shock and surprise! Unfortunately for him none of the females seem to be in oestrus, he looks most put out! Two of the younger male Giraffe start necking. They use their powerful long necks to assert their dominance over other males and impress the females in the area. They beat their necks together quite aggressively often sustaining fatal injuries but fortunately the dispute is often settled quickly. It is a beautiful utopia here with the water reflecting the deep azure of the sky, the lush marshy banks, the golden sands.
In the afternoon golden light Zebra start kicking up dust creating clouds of light reflecting particles. This is enhanced by swarms of flies creating ambiance and texture to the silhouetted scene back lit by the deep orange and red of the sunset. The sound of the Zebras braying fills the cooling air. The striking contrast of the Zebras black and white stripes against the burnished sky is so intensely beautiful. The prey start to gather in their herds retreating as there is safety in numbers. At the waterhole the herds of Elephants drink alongside Giraffe, Zebra and Warthog. Mischievous Jackal runs between legs avoiding the heavy feet of the cumbersome Elephants. White Egrets fly in, their white delicate plumage a stunning contrast to the dense skin of the grey Elephants. Elephants trumpet as they assert their dominance over the water hole and soak unsuspecting prey if they get too close. There is a rich biodiversity in the delta, the waterhole is the perfect place to appreciate his. The sun sets low behind this utopia igniting it with its burnished orange light, the wild is very challenging but incredibly awe inspiring.
The cold mornings in the delta usually sees predators coming back from their nightly hunt, sated but tired and looking for a bush to rest in before the intense heat of the day sets in or prey frolicking and fighting. Today was very different and most amusing. A mating pair of Ground Hornbills was not mating; the male had caught a Dove and was not going to share it with his mate! She was stood back a distance looking most put out. The male had it in his beak and was smacking the dove on the ground to kill and tenderise it for eating. He looked most comical with the poor bird hanging limply and lifelessly from his beak. He did not seem in a hurry to eat it almost like he was teasing his mate with this tasty kill. He smacked the bird down many times before he felt it was tender enough to swallow whole. He tipped his head back and guzzled the bird back. The look of satisfaction on his face was just incredible. I do not think his mate was best pleased though.
The idyllic scene was rudely interrupted by young bull Elephants crashing through the trees shaking their heads and flapping their ears to show us who is in charge. They were clearly in a testerone rage as it dribbled from their glands. Musth or must is a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants characterized by highly aggressive behaviour and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. Testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be on average 60 times greater than in the same elephant at other times (in specific individuals these testosterone levels can even reach as much as 140 times the normal).However, whether this hormonal surge is the sole cause of musth, or merely a contributing factor, is unknown. Scientific investigation of musth is problematic because even the most placid elephants become highly violent toward humans and other elephants during musth. The important point to note is nothing will get in their way so everything and everyone must move.
On the last morning we find part of the Lion pride in south Moremi it includes six adolescent males of around three years old almost ready to leave the pride, they will be a strong coalition. They are sat in the mud flats that used to be a watering hole but the rain failed. Their legs sink deep into the mud as they walk to find water. They have had a Red Lechwe kill so they have full round bellies. Some of the cubs are now gnawing on bones, there is nothing left of the kill. The older Lionesses have retreated to the bushes leaving the cubs to play with the remains. The cubs are very playful running around with parts of the tail and skull dangling morbidly from their mouths like a grotesque toy. They chase each other fighting over the rights to play with it. The sub adult males are incredibly affectionate with each other and rub heads and lay close. Bonding is very important to Lions; it establishes hierarchy and promotes peace within the pride. Suddenly behind the reeds a family of Warthogs come running through not seeing the Lions, two of the Lionesses who were in the bushes start to chase them but the Warthog out run them. Warthogs are very smart but also forgetful and will no doubt stumble upon the Lions later when they are in search of water. As the heat of the morning grows the Lions retreat into the bushes.
We head to Maun, the track is deep sand and bumpy, Zebra and Elephants graze in the bushes on route. Then suddenly we see a large termite mound with a bush sticking out of the top with a young handsome male Leopard sitting between the branches almost completely camouflaged. He is looking to hunt and has strategically placed himself on top of the mound to view the prey. A small herd of Impala are grazing thirty yards away, too far for him to ambush so he patiently waits for them to move closer to him. He occasionally shifts position and looks up affording us a wonderful view of his golden eyes and stunning black rosettes on dark bronze fur. He is a stunning beautiful muscular young male around three years old. He is hesitant in his hunt as he does not want to expend energy on a chase that he cannot win. He will wait until prey come nearer to him, in the meantime he has perfect camouflage. After several hours he grows hot and crouches low as he stalks out of his hiding place undetected. He decides a nearby tree will provide better coverage from the intense midday heat but a perfect viewing platform. He expertly navigates the trunk and slides onto one of the branches to rest a while. You could not wish for a better end to time in Botswana. The rich biodiversity is simply breath-taking. Whilst the wild is harsh and unforgiving, the animals are thriving, giving hope to their resurgence in numbers. This is their planet, we need to protect them.
A story to finish –
FOLKLORE: The story of how the drongo become “King of the Birds”
Shangani Folk Tales by Clive Stockil and Moppie Dalton
A long time ago, the birds decided to choose a leader. Word was sent to every bird to come to a meeting at a certain place, in order that a leader might be appointed. Messengers went out in all directions, and when Pau, the Ostrich, heard it, he thought it a foregone conclusion that he, being the largest bird, would win and he was very confident of success.
Gama the Eagle was equally confident, believing that eagles were the most important birds because they could fly the highest. The little birds could not be sure if the choice would be between stamina or intelligence, but they considered that even they had a good chance.
On the appointed day every bird arrived, all shapes and sizes and colours, from tiny Chidichi the Waxbill to Pau the Ostrich. The elders formed a council to decide which talent their leader should possess, and after much argument and discussion, it was decided that the leader would be the bird who could stay in the air the longest.
Pau complained bitterly about this unfair decision, but no one listened to him. Finally he walked off in disgust, muttering crossly that the other birds were all conspiring against him. So, even today you will find Pau living in dry, barren and open areas where there are not many other birds.
The smaller birds, who had thought they might win by intelligence, knew they stood no chance against the more powerful fliers and many dropped out. But little Matengwane, the Fork-tailed drongo, who knew he had no chance at all by relying on his own flying prowess, decided to use his intelligence to win.
When the starting signal was given, the assembly of birds rose into the air amid a thunderous flapping of wings. Matengwane picked out Gama, the largest and strongest eagle, and he gently settled on Gama’s back and crouched down among Gama’s feathers, unseen by anyone.
One by one the smaller and weaker birds dropped out, exhausted, until only a few eagles remained high among the clouds. Finally, the weaker eagles gave in to Gama, who was still unaware that he carried a secret passenger. When Gama saw that he was the only bird left in the sky, he descended. All the waiting birds started to cheer him. Then, just as Gama landed on the ground, someone shouted “Look! There’s one bird still flying!”
Sure enough, Matengwane was still in the sky and, according to the decision of the council; he must be appointed the leader of the birds.
That is why Matengwane, the Fork-tailed drongo, is the first bird to wake in the morning and the last to go to sleep at night.