Tuesday, 1 December 2009

27th & 28th November – The Return of the Lions & the Leopard Sighting of a Lifetime!

Eventually, after an unbelievable 15 drives without a single lion sighting, our trackers managed to locate on some lions! In three years at Motswari, I have never had such a dry run on the lion front; there would always be some lions somewhere that we could go and view, but over the last eight days, there were just no lions anywhere!

But as is the appeal of the Timbavati, you just don’t know what you will find, and while one might have expected the Mahlathini males to return, or possibly the remaining young Sohebele lions to show themselves to us, it was neither of these prides. Nor was it the Machaton pride or their three Timbavati males, and likewise it wasn’t even the seldom seen Voël Dam Pride from the west, but instead it was a group of new lions to us that had come in from the Kruger National Park!

I was not on drive for several days, but the game viewing seemed very quiet with only some buffalo and elephant being found on most drives. Rockfig Jnr leopard was found with a duiker kill near Entrance dam, and the most special aspect of this sighting was the realisation that she has eventually had her cubs, as this could be seen by her no longer pregnant belly, as well as the very distinctive marks around her teats; marks indicative of suckling cubs! While we are not sure where she has had the cubs, we suspect that might be along the Machaton riverbed, or a large drainage line near Entrance dam. While she had the kill, she would disappear from the area for hours at a time, returning to nurse the cubs. We guess that the cubs are between one and two weeks old, so we will still have to wait another couple of weeks before we get to see them being brought out into the open. As it is a critical time for the cubs and for their mom, we don’t put too much pressure on them, and we will not make a special effort to find the den, but if Rockfig Jnr allows us to follow her back there one day, we will be only too happy! It will also be interesting to see how she chooses to raise her cubs; will she be comfortable having them out around the vehicles, or will she be overly protective like her own mom (Rockfig) is with her cubs? Interesting times ahead, but I can’t wait to see the new additions to the Timbavati family!

I did have to go and do a town trip, which is not always as fun as it sounds, but at least the hour trip to Hoedspruit involves driving through the game reserve for much of the trip, and it showed as I saw four of the Big 5 heading in and out of the reserve! There were a couple of buffalo along the fence line outside of the Timbavati gate, as well as a crash of four rhinos feeding in a large clearing just before entering the Timbavati gate. Inside the reserve on the way back to camp, we came across some elephants bulls feeding in the road, a small breeding herd of elephants, and then Marka, one of our trackers, spotted Argyle male leopard up a marula tree feeding on a baby impala! I went back later in the evening with my camera, but he was not in the tree anymore, despite his kill still hanging up in the marula. Two hyenas were wandering around waiting for some scraps, but lost interest and moved off. There were also some elephants, impala and a couple of zebra along the way.

I was back on drive on Friday afternoon, and not looking forward to it as much as I would usually due to it being the eighth day in succession without a lion sighting…that was until Godfrey found some tracks for a pride of lions at Karan’s Big Dam on the morning drive. He left Marka on the tracks, and we sent out two other trackers to give him a hand and they didn’t let us down; they found an unknown pride of five lions just a few hundred meters west of the Kruger National Park boundary! To make things even better, they had killed two buffalos!

Feeling happier about the afternoon drive now I set off, but didn’t go straight for the lions, instead I wanted to go south to see if Rockfig Jnr was back at her duiker kill, and dreamt of her taking me back to her den site so I could see her cubs! It was clearly a dream, and I heard that she was not in the area of the kill, and she must have been back with the cubs. I still wanted to go and check in the area, but then a call came over the radio that Nkateko leopardess had just been found with a baby impala, but she hadn’t yet killed it, and was busy playing with the poor thing. I was not far away, so headed straight over to watch what would become one of the best sightings I have ever had at Motswari!

It was something I had always wanted to see, and despite its cruel appearance (sensitive viewers might want to scroll down to avoid the pictures), it was just amazing predator-prey interaction to witness. I arrived and found Nkateko sitting up watching the little new born impala baby as it was trying to take cover under a fallen tree. The fawn then tried to run away, only to have Nkateko sprint off behind her and take her down once again. The leopard then carried the small antelope down into a small drainage line and continued this game.

We pulled around and found Nkateko resting next to the clearly exhausted impala fawn; the outcome of this scenario was set in stone, but the question was now just how long it would take Nkateko to get bored with her game of cat and mouse (or is it impala?) and finish off the job. There were not many game drive vehicles out in the afternoon, and with the lack of lions lately, a couple went to see the pride on the lion kill, while others went to look at the four young Sohebele lions that had also returned from the Klaserie and were found east of Nkombi pan. This suited my guests and I down to a tee, and we ended up spend almost an hour and a half watching this amazing scene unfold. It was interesting watching the reaction of the guests on the other vehicles, especially as they encouraged the impala to get away ever time it mustered up enough energy to get to its feet and run away, but its efforts were futile, and a swift swipe from the leopards razor-sharp claws quickly sent it tumbling back down to the ground before it was pounced on yet again.

After every effort to get away, the fawn become more and more exhausted, until it could barely get up. Nkateko, seeing the motionless body, tried to feed, but every time she bit into the fawn, it would bleat out in distress; not something for the fainthearted it must be said, but we stayed to watch before one of the most incredible things I have experienced happened. The fawn tried to get away one last time, and in its dazed state, ran straight for my land rover and collapsed underneath it, just below my door! I was now in a predicament, and just sat still and quietly as Nkateko weighed up her options. She approached to within 3m of us, but was not too sure, and her slight snarl made me realise that she wouldn’t come and take it out from underneath the land rover, so I had to move. The other guide in the sighting helped direct me ‘safely’ over the little antelope, as Nkateko stood waiting, and as soon as I had moved off, she came in and grabbed the impala and continued her game!
We watched for sometime longer until Nkateko eventually picked up the impala and walked off with it in her mouth, and with than another vehicle arrived, so we gave them a chance. From all accounts Nkateko carried on playing with it for another ten minutes or so, and ended up dropping the fawn out of a tree twice before it was just too much and the impala was killed. Nkateko then started feeding as the storm clouds gathered at the end of a gloomy afternoon.
After Herald had left them feeding, I headed off to see the distant pride of lions with their buffalo kill, passing a lot of now green Mopane, a few impala and a lone giraffe, but as the gloom thickened, it made finding the lions a bit tricky. We were searching when the rain suddenly starting falling, and we were going to give it a few more minutes when the drops suddenly got heavier and heavier until our poncho’s were no longer effective against the sudden downpour! The lions were no longer important, so we quickly made our way back to camp looking like drowned rats! The rain continued for a couple of hours, but only recorded 16mm for the evening. By the next morning, the rain was gone, although the clouds were still hanging around.

Saturday morning saw us heading straight towards the five lions on their buffalo kill, but we had a bit of a diversion as we tried tracking the Argyle male leopard near the camp for a while, but realising that it was from early in the night, we left the tracks. There was not a lot around in the west, although driving through the Mopane that only 5 days ago was had no leaves, and is now blossoming a bright green, was something quite extraordinary to me! I carried on to the lions and found then spread out through the area, with one of the young males busy feeding on the carcass. The pride consisted of an old female, the most relaxed of the pride, one younger, but mature lioness, and then three sub-adults. The sub-adults consist of a young female and her brother, probably just over 2 years old, and then a slightly older male that we guess to be around 3 years of age. They were reasonably relaxed, although they did pay a bit more attention to us than most lions. At first we thought that this was a brand new pride to us, as they had come from the Kruger, but their relaxed disposition hinted towards prior exposure to vehicles. Lianne, the cinematographer from the resident film crew that has been filming the white lions in the north, keeps bumping into a nervous pride of five lions that matched the aging of our pride, although the lions we viewed were not as nervous as Lianne has seen in the past. It is quite remarkable the distance that this pride had travelled, and they were about 16-17km from where Lianne has been seeing them. The origins of the pride are not certain, but we suspect that the older females originate from the Jacaranda pride that roam to the north of the Timbavati; it was this pride that broke up forming the Jacaranda and Timbavati pride’s in 2007 (the latter having given birth to the white lions north of Motswari, and they are in fact being hassled by the five lions). This would explain the adult lioness’s relaxed behaviour, as well as the less violent interaction’s that Lianne witnessed between the Timbavati pride and the five lions.

Anyway, we had a nice sighting of the young male feeding before he and his fat belly waddled over to the other lionesses and he flopped to the ground to sleep off his meal. The second oldest lioness then walked over to the female buffalo carcass (they had finished the baby buffalo already) and started to feed herself.
We left the pride of lions and headed towards Kudu pan clearing where a breeding herd of buffalo had been found. Part of the herd had moved north across the clearing, while a smaller fraction of about 70 buffalo headed to the west as they fed on the newly emerging grass.
Herald tracker two rhinos from Java airstrip all the way to the east and into the Kruger, and despite tracking them over 10km, they had crossed before he could see them. I had no luck trying to find a breeding herd of elephants that had been seen earlier in the morning, but Herald found them east of Java Dam later in the morning. I headed back to camp; happy with the lions and buffalo, but it had been an otherwise quiet morning in the east.

Needing a change of scenery, I headed to the western side and found some waterbuck, a couple of kudu, lots of impala, a bushbuck, a troop of baboons, another dead baby impala – but one that died of natural causes – some nice birds, we stopped and chatted about some trees, and then made a turn past the hyena den near Java airstrip. We arrived to find the two cubs out of the den suckling from mom, but after a while, mom got up and wandered off, leaving the cubs out of the den, and totally happy to leave them with us in attendance! Only later did I hear that the hyena was moving off to feed on a giraffe that had died north-west of Java camp! The cubs carried on playing for a while but soon ran back into the den and we left them.
Just a bit further south we had a tough choice; to go and see Rockfig Jnr leopardess, or Nthombi female leopard! Rockfig Jnr had left her kill and was heading back towards the thick banks of the Machaton riverbed near Entrance dam. I was going to try and see her, hoping that she would lead us back to the den, but she went down into the riverbed and was lost, so I had no choice but to go to see Nthombi who was about 1km to the west (some days are tough!). We arrived to find her quite active and in search of food; she was continuously walking around sniffing, and then dashed off every so often after something that we never managed to see, but we suspect possibly a baby impala.
We would then relocate her and follow for a while longer as the last of the days glow faded. We were just about ready to pull out when I managed to get us stuck again, but some good team work had us moving again within a couple of minutes – nothing like a bit of adventure with a leopard close by!

I headed to camp after some drinks, and came across two herds of giraffe, a small-spotted genet, and then a beautiful 1m long boomslang; an arboreal, bright green snake that likes to prey upon chameleons. We spent some time as the snake slithered around a small bush before coming on to the ground and moving closer to the vehicle. Although highly venomous, they are quite placid snakes, and the guests enjoyed viewing it from the safety of the vehicle! Herald had a unique sighting just before closing down at camp when he and his guests found an extremely rare springhare; a large rodent that moves about like a kangaroo! Herald has grown up in the bush, and Morris has been tracking at Motswari for over thirteen years, but this was the first time that either of them had seen a springhare!

Once again, the Timbavati has delivered some special and unique sightings…I can’t wait to see what it has up its sleeve for the next few days!

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