Wednesday, 30 September 2009

29th September – Grand Finale!

Tuesday morning was my last morning drive for my latest work cycle. In the shortened three week period, I did 36 drives and had an incredible 34 sightings of 11 different leopards, as well as 37 sightings of lions. I could not have had a better leopard sighting on my final drive than the one than Mbali spoilt us with.

The sun was trying to break through the clouds today, but it wasn’t having much luck, and the weather was a bit cold and windy still. We started off the drive with a female giraffe and her calf just outside camp, and then saw a good number of impala around, as well as bushbuck, duiker and steenbok. I bumped into Johannes, Motswari’s ‘Leopard Man’ and I placed a friendly bet with him as to who would find leopard first; him or me!

We carried on and I saw a few more giraffe, then Johannes found two buffalo bulls just west of Piva plains, so I headed over to have a look. While I was sitting watching them Johannes called me on the radio, and I could just hear in his voice that he had found a leopard not 15 minutes after our ‘challenge’ had begun! He told me that he had found Mbali female leopard just a bit further west along the same road the buffalo were on.

I left the two dagga boys and went to join Johannes with Mbali. She was looking fine, although she did seem to walking a bit gingerly with the wounds on her back legs. Mbali walked around scent marking quite vigorously, I suspect that she might be coming back into estrus again. She also smelt where another leopard had been scent marking, and vehemently scent marked over the same spot; I suspect it was Kuhanya’s scent she could smell, as she had been in the same area two days prior.

Mbali spotted a duiker than ran off and she continued to look out for the duiker and went and stood on a large termite mound to get a better view. She stood still scanning the area for almost 10 minutes, and judging by the lack of twitching in her tail, she didn’t pick up anything. A hyena strolled past about 70m away and Mbali just looked at her as she wandered off. With that Johannes pulled out of the sighting and I repositioned as Palence came to join us. Just as Palence stopped, Mbali started to walk casually down from the mound to the east, clearly not having seen anything she wanted, but such is her awareness as a huntress that the next second she bounded into an adjacent bush in a flash and then we heard the unmistakable scream of death.

I assumed it was a little scrub hare as we hadn’t seen anything else hidding there, but as Mbali reversed out of the bush and turned to face us, we could see that she had a caught a baby steenbok that was kicking and screaming in her jaws! The poor little thing must have seen the leopard and done what steenboks do best; just sit dead still until the predator walks past. Unfortunately for this little steenbok, Mbali was too aware and glimpsed the minute antelope and was onto it before it even had time to react.

Mbali slowly subdued the animal and the screaming stopped, but it was too late, the hyena had heard the sounds and came trotting in to investigate. Mbali was no more than 5m from the termite mound, and the hyena approached from the opposite side, so its view of the leopard was blocked. It drew closer, sniffing the air and listening for any rustle in the grass, but none came. Mbali sat motionless with the steenbok still firmly in her jaws, and still alive. The hyena came between my land rover and the termite mound and as it popped into view Mbali quietly made off in the opposite direction using the termite mound as cover. The hyena was a bit slow to react to leopards move, and Mbali safely arrived at the base of a nearby marula tree, turned back to look at the hyena that was now trotting towards her, and she effortlessly hoisted herself and the light-weight meal to the first safe fork of the tree. The hyena stood below and glared up at Mbali knowing that she and the meal were now out of reach.

But it wasn’t over for the hyena, the poor little steenbok was still alive and kicking and every now and then Mbali looked as though she might just drop it. But she didn’t, she is an extremely experienced huntress and knows how to handle her kills. Once the steenbok was dead, she climber to a higher branch and placed its lifeless body in a small fort of the tree for safe keeping and then she went to sleep!

From the fact that she didn’t start to feed immediately shows that this was a purely opportunistic kill; she was in the right place at the right time. And thankfully so was I! I did feel a bit sorry for Johannes and his guests, but it was abut time I got to see a leopard kill in front of my vehicle (two months back, on the same road, the roles were reversed; I left a sighting of Mbali and two minutes later she killed a steenbok in front of Johannes, so now we are even!!! Although I still owe him a case of beers!) – it took two and a half years to see, but it was worth the wait. I just don’t know if my guests know how extremely lucky they were to see such a wonderful sighting.

After that excitement we went and chilled with some hippos for a while then slowly ambled back to camp, seeing waterbuck, impala and even a few zebra.

As for the rest of the morning, well, the Mahlathini male lions failed to catch that giraffe last night, and their tracks headed south over Double highway into the Timbavati males domain, but thankfully it was the opposite direction to where the three Sohebele lions had moved; they headed back north. There were also tracks for the other two Sohebele lions, but they weren’t located. Down in the south, the Machaton pride had finished off their buffalo kill and headed north onto Vielmetter property but came to rest a few hundred meters south of Sweetwater pan. It is nice to see this pride utilizing that area a bit more regularly these days, especially as the Sohebele pride doesn’t frequent that part of their territory much lately.

And that was the grand finale to a pretty special and exciting three weeks at Motswari. I am off on leave for the next week, and I shall update the blog upon my return with all the happenings that I missed.

So until then, keep well!


Chad Cocking

Motswari Guide

27th & 28th September – Machaton Pride with a Buffalo Kill

I got to enjoy the comforts of my bed on Sunday morning as my guests chose to rest once again on their last morning. I did however go out and do some ‘bush work’ which turned into a pretty good game drive! It started with two hyenas at Trade Entrance Pan, warthogs, kudus, waterbuck, impala, three buffalo bulls, a couple of elephant bulls, then a quick turn past where Kuhanya female leopard had been left sleeping up a big and leafy Weeping-boer bean. Elliot had been following her earlier in the morning until she climbed high up into cool shade of the tree just west of Francolin pan. It was sadly not a very good visual, so we left her sleeping off the day’s extreme heat in her shady roost. Even the herd of elephants I saw were just resting in the shade of the large trees on the banks of the Nhlarulumi riverbed, not far from Mbali dam. Godfrey also had a brief visual of a young male leopard during the morning, but I am not sure if it was the Goya Rd Male or the Mbali Dam Male?

In the afternoon, I got a new set of guests and decided to take it easy in the north. Kuhanya female leopard had not moved far during the heat of the day (it reached 38 degrees around lunchtime!) and Elliot relocated her resting in the drainage line to the west of her earlier position. After ticking off impala, warthogs, duiker, steenbuck, a hippo’s nostril’s, and some kudu, I moved closer to the leopard sighting and arrived shortly after Kuhanya had woken up and started wandering around in search of a potential meal. We followed her for almost half an hour before letting her wander off to the north. It was interesting to note how she was once again walking around scent-marking ‘her’ territory, in real lady like fashion!

We left the leopard and moved a bit further down the road to a couple of elephant bulls that were feeding near a bigger breeding herd of elephants. We watched them feeding and dust-bathing as the light faded, and then we wet and enjoyed a welcome sundowner after a scorching hot day.

Elliot and Herald had headed south to go and have a look at the Machaton pride of lions; all eight of them (three lionesses, two cubs and the three Timbavati males) just south of Double Highway where they had been found with a large buffalo kill. Some of the lions were feeding, but most of them had already eaten more than they could comfortably manage and lazed around waiting for some room to clear in their stomachs!

On the way south, Johannes found Rockfig female leopard resting up an apple-leaf on the banks of the Machaton Riverbed, just east of Entrance dam. Herald went to have a look at her as she rested in the tree, but he commented that her ear was not looking good at all. It just doesn’t seem likely that it will be able to heal itself, but then one should never write off the resilience of these amazing strong African creatures.

John, our night watchman reported a leopard walking about on the breakfast verandah at 1am in the morning, but I am not quite sure which leopard it was.

Monday proved to be a day for the lions, and my guests got to see three different groups of lions during the day. In the morning I decided to head south. The hot weather had gone, and the cool day was rather blustery, and the wind did not help us out with too much general game. Still, once down south, we did see some nice animals. Firstly we saw a large male giraffe, and while watching him, I was told that our old friend Mtenga-tenga, the most relaxed male rhino in the Timbavati, had returned to the north and was found grazing just south of my position, so I headed over there to have a look at him. He was looking in a good condition despite the dry conditions, and was as relaxed as ever. We often see tracks for a male rhino on Vielmetter, but they invariably head back south. I would guess that it is indeed still Mtenga-tenga that comes to visit the northern reaches of his current territory, but I suspect he makes most of these trips during the night. We also saw where he had been scent marking and adding droppings to a rhino midden near Entrance dam, so with some luck, he will frequent that part of his territory a bit more regularly. The three Sohebele lions were also found not far away, just 100m north of Hide Dam. They were by all accounts looking well fed, and just spent the morning lazily sleeping off their fat bellies!

After some coffee, we saw a nice herd of zebra, some beautiful nyala antelope (but we have been spoilt lately with a magnificent nyala bull and ewe that have been spending much time browsing on the trees within camp, totally at ease with the human traffic that passes them by!), a troop of baboons and then we made our way to go and see the eight members of the Machaton pride of lions. We arrived at the rather rich aroma of the buffalo and found that one of the lionesses was still feeding. She fed for a few minutes but then moved off to join the other two lionesses and the bloated cubs! They all looked as though they had eaten far too much, and were resting in the shade of some magic guarries. The cubs did get up and go and harass one of their aunts for a few minutes, then tried their luck on mom, but a few growls from her stopped any further activity, so instead they flopped down and fell asleep.

The three pride males, the Timbavati males, were resting about 70m away, but they looked even fuller than the females and did not do a great deal besides occasionally lift their heads.

Heading home, we did find a large breeding herd of buffalo resting just on the Klaserie side of the Timbavati access road, and a bit further along, there were two elephant bulls feeding close to the road, and that rounded off a nice morning.

The wind was still blowing in the afternoon, and that even kept our thick-skinned hippos underwater at both Peru dam and Makulu dam. Elliot had headed south again to go and have a look at the Machaton pride of lions on their buffalo kill, and saw the large breeding herd of buffalo heading towards Nkombi pan for a drink.

I followed the course of the Nhlarulumi riverbed down to Makulu dam where I had a drink, but it wasn’t an overly productive drive. There were some impala, waterbuck, kudu and a bushbuck on the mammal front. We did also see two young African Rock Pythons up a tree at Mvubu crossing, and some good birds of prey. From our drink spot, we headed down towards Hide Dam hoping to see some action with our lions. We did see some action, but it wasn’t with the Sohebele youngsters as I was planning! As we approached Vielmetter trough, my tracker shook his spotlight as he does when he spots something. The more vigorously he shakes it, the better the animal! Based on his energetic shake, I assumed he had spotted a leopard, but he just turned around and asked me “which ngala are these?” I hadn’t seen the ngala (the Shangaan word for lions), so I wasn’t sure, but he told me to drive forward, and out popped the three Mahlathini male lions. They were walking with a purpose and sniffing the air. Petros and I both looked at each other and just shook our heads. They seemed to be heading into the wind, straight towards where the three Sohebele lions were sleeping less than a kilometer away. I did not like this scenario, but we followed the three males for a while until they went down into No Name river. Giyani went around to Back 9’s to try and I went to check up on the Sohebele lions. These three lions hadn’t moved all day, and barely acknowledged us when we approached. I was a bit tense as the wind was blowing strongly towards the North West. Right towards the Mahlathini males. The Sohebele’s would not smell nor hear their approach, and I didn’t want to be in their way if they suddenly got ambushed. The Sohebele’s did start stirring, they all sat up and looked to the north west, but then they started yawning and simply flopped down again.

Giyani then told me he had relocated the Mahlathini males on Back 9’s, and the reason for their purposeful walk became apparent. They were not following the scent of the Sohebele lions; they had smelt a potential meal in the form of a large male giraffe. We spotted the giraffe and one of the lions standing absolutely motionless about 25m from the giraffe. We quickly turned off the spotlights, and using just the moons light filtering through the heavy cloud cover we watched as the male lion suddenly charge at the giraffe. The giraffe responded quickly and ran to the east, but straight towards the drainage line; just what the Mahlathini male wanted. We sat and listened, but with all the wind we heard nothing. We drove both sides of the drainage line but couldn’t see anything pointing towards either possible outcome. Had they managed to chase the giraffe into the drainage line and caused it to stumble and fall, or had the giraffe got away? We would have to wait until the morning to find out…