UCONN AUG 2015

The last of our winter visitors arrived at the end of July, our last UConn group of the season. And what an amazing way to end our winter season in Djuma! We love being able to show our students the charismatic megafauna – lion, Rhino, Buffalo, leopard, and elephants, the Big 5. This time it was more like Big 7 and then some.

We were privileged enough to have an accessible hyena den on Djuma , with a few 6 month old juveniles and brand new pups. The adults are relaxed around the vehicles, but the juveniles would get so curious and approach us to investigate the large, noisy, metal beasts with chewable, rubber tires. The dark fur ball that occasionally popped its head out of the den would quickly disappear at the slightest noise, but this new pup eventually got more curious about the world and finally emerged from the safety of its den. How lucky we were to be able to see this pup explore its surroundings, chew on sticks, and play with the adults- all in practice for its challenging adult life. Through the first half of August we were treated to amazing hyena sightings and behaviours. One morning an adult hyena walked up to the den, emanating a low hum/growling noise. The pup was close to the entrance of the den and did not seem to pay much attention to the adult, and kept playing. After some brief licking and bonding between the two, the adult tried to carry the pup by the nape and drag it away from the den. The pup wanted nothing to do with this change, and managed to wriggle its way out of the adult’s mouth and run back to the den. Perhaps the young one was thinking it was a game or maybe it is particularly stubborn, but this pup refused to obey the adult and managed to gain its freedom from one of the most powerful jaws in the world, every time. The adult kept making this low growl noise and you could almost taste the frustration of the adult as it tried for over 30 minutes to either carry or lead this pup away from the den. Ultimately the pup was too tenacious for the adult who left the area. Leading up to this moment we had noticed fewer signs of adult activity near the den and suspected that the hyenas may shift the den elsewhere, but this new sighting seemed to affirm our suspicions. After that den remained inactive with no hyenas at the site, so we assume that the hyenas moved on and found a more suitable location.

We worked for our first leopard sighting- a male leopard had killed a kudu deep in the bush along a drainage line and we had to squeeze in through some tight spots to get to the sighting, in the dark no less. But the reward of seeing the beautiful male leopard on a hill over-looking the drainage, completely relaxed with us near the kill was great. With big cat sightings we are never sure what tomorrow will bring, some months we can have one good sighting, and other months we can get nine. So when we get the opportunity to see a leopard on a kill we take them when we get them. Lucky for us we have a resident female called shadow and her son that come into Djuma periodically, and with this young boy coming into age we have had some spectacular bush moments as you will find out!

Jens, our reptile expert and first aid instructor joined again for some hands-on training and the educational, but highly entertaining wilderness first aid simulation exercise. Thanks Jens! As usual the participants learned more than they expected, while having a blast. During the first aid we also had some time for game drives and while we were tracking leopards and lions, what do we stumble upon- cheetahs of course! Good spot Kevin, who thought they were weird looking lions lying in the shade! It turned out to be a coalition of two male cheetahs. What stole the show was a zebra stallion that trotted towards the cheetahs, snorted at them and then proceeded to follow the cheetahs and trot beside them. Occasionally the zebra would stop, stare down the cheetahs and snort at them, but then he would continue to trot along and circle them. It looked like the zebra was teasing the cheetahs. Though zebras are a large prey for a smaller predator like cheetah, it was hilarious to see this lone stallion standing up to these cats. Most likely the size of the stallion and fact that the zebra did not run did not trigger the hunting instincts of the cheetahs. What an amazing lesson in animal behaviour and prey-predator interactions. Nothing teaches a lifelong lesson like the bush classroom

 

Bush walks allow us to investigate smaller details of nature such as insects, spiders, and other plants. On one particular bush walk the hyenas were calling into the late morning. One morning we stopped to investigate an old rhino carcass, an unfortunate poaching incident, and used the site to talk about skeletons, remains, skulls which led to a discussion on ancient hominid skulls and history. It is a great opportunity to use the bush as a classroom. On another walk, one group led by Diana and Kersey found tracks of a hyena dragging a kill and tried to follow it, unbeknownst to the other group, led by Lee and Acima that were on a leopard trail. Leopard trail led to a leopard calling not too far away and so we picked up speed to catch up to it. On our approach through the bush, we saw hyenas swirling around the remains of a kill (likely one stolen from the leopard). We crouched down and hyenas came towards us, unaware of our presence. At 30 m away they spotted us, paused, and with their curiosity piqued cautiously circled us, not quite sure whether were good to eat or should be feared. We stood up before they got too close, and they quickly dispersed, deciding that we were too large a group to mess with, and they left. Meanwhile the other groups found a large bull elephant and got within 80 m of him, watching him feed and go about his business. On another walk, Lee led a group to a termite mound where they were surrounded by a herd of elephants, and they spent hours observing them and watching their behaviour – all within 300mof camp! What a humbling moment to be so close to a these animals at ground level in the wild.

One afternoon, Lee came into camp and told students to get their cameras and get into the vehicles. No one knew what was happening, but we were sure we were going to see something cool. About a km from camp, we saw 3 wild dogs, just lying in the shade! We spent almost the entire drive with those wild dogs. We watched as they tried to hunt impala and the impala immediately went into their defensive strotting behavior where they extend their limbs and jump/gallop in a rocking-horse manner to show that they are big and strong – trying to communicate to the predator that they would too much a risk to hunt. The wild dogs at one point split us and one group had to almost race to keep up with one and we still lost sight of him. These canines can run fast and for a long time. After hanging around us for hours , they do decided to leave the area, about 20 minutes later we heard that they were seen on the north-eastern extent of Djuma – about 4 km away!

Being so close to elephants in the wild is an amazing experience and we have had some awe inspiring close encounters, with elephants sniffing the bonnet of the car, and a large elephant cow walked within an arms-length of the car and Diana on the tracker seat. Elephant whispers offer the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really get up close and personal to an African elephant. The student were able to touch the feet, trunk, ears, tusk, back, and tail of the largest land mammal on earth . Not only does the experience give you an appreciation of the staggering size of the animal, but how sentient, intelligent and social beings these animals are. The students got to ride the elephants as well, and it is a testament to the trainers at elephant whispers who understand the needs these large wild animals and are able to work with them so effectively. The encounter was truly emotional for some and even elicited tears from a few- Alexa and Sarah, we are so glad that experience resonated so much with you. We also explored the beautiful natural sites of God’s window, Bourke’s luck, and Three rondawals with fascinating geological features, potholes, plant life, and amazing scenery.

Nyani Cultural Village offers an important perspective of history in South Africa. Through song, dance, and humour, the artists told the story of the African tribes. The students got to sing and dance with the performers, they played drums, and Cory even got to participate in a mock wedding! What a fun evening , I think everyone was impressed with the students singing and dancing skills -well done everyone! Jurie came to talk to the students about the history of South Africa during the anti-apartheid demonstrations. His personal sacrifices and perspective as a white man fighting for equal rights for people of all colour in this turbulent time is eye opening and inspiring. Thanks Jurie, for chatting with the students.

What can we say about the lions here? We have witnessed lion dynamics that are a combination of soap opera, ethology, and action movie. It started off with a sighting a pair of lions mating on the edge of Djuma. Up until then we were worried that the lion sightings would be scarce and we were extra lucky to see mating lions. Over the last month a coalition of five young males, the Birmingham males, have been traversing through Djuma, what is considered the territory of the Matimba males, a coalition of two mature males. The Matimba males have been mating with the females of the Styx pride, and the cubs of the Styx pride are likely the offspring of the Matimba males.

Another pride of lions, the Nkuhuma, with a young sub-adult male also move around Djuma, and Sabie Sand area and the dynamics between these lion groups were going to go through a serious upheaval. On a drive to cheetah plains, we had switched over to another radio channel and picked up on talk about a lion sighting in an adjacent property. From then on, it was like listening to the play by play of a cutthroat sports match. The guides were talking about the Birmingham males chasing some of the Styx females and their cub. The females fought back trying to protect the cubs, but the Birmingham’s caught hold of a cub and broke its back, These five big males were intent on exerting their dominance and managed to kill another cub. The females managed to escape the violent onslaught with the last remaining cub. The guides then said that the Birmingham’s were moving towards Djuma, and we were in time to see one of the males moving through the property carrying a cub in his mouth! The other males were roaring, scent marking all over the place. The male walked with the carcass in his mouth across Djuma, followed by two Birmingham males who were constantly roaring and proclaiming their presence. These Birmingham males followed vultures to a buffalo kill and chased the Nkuhuma pride off their kill. The big male kept this cub carcass with him for two days, not allowing any of the other males in the coalition near his prize. This seems to be a tumultuous time for the lions in Djuma, and we likely witnessed the beginnings of a takeover of the dominant males of the area. We will have to wait and watch to find out how the Matimbas will react to the turn of events, and how the young males of the Birmingham’s will fare with the more experienced Matimba males. Lions in the greater Kruger area live a hard life with infanticide being prevalent and males having a high mortality rate as they are forced to survive outside their natal pride. So far the Nkuhuma pride has been keeping a low profile, which would be the best survival strategy especially for that sub-adult male. .

A couple of days later, we went out for an astronomy filed session, when we heard a stampede of buffaloes, and lions growling. We quickly followed the noise and ultimately found the Nkuhuma pride devouring a buffalo calf. We skipped the astronomy for the night and spent the next two hours watching lions eat, growl, and fight over the kill. What an amazing night, and a humbling experience to hear, track, and bear witness to the violent hardships of wild lions.

As part of our goal to interact with the community, the students helped paint the local day care, Wisani. We called on all our artists and even the smallest well of talent and skill were used to bring the plain walls to life with pictures of children, wildlife, and flowers. Mike and Candice, who manage Djuma, joined us and the whole day was spent playing with the kids and painting. Thanks Mike and Candice for giving us the opportunity to spend some time with the local students and do something nice for them. We hope they enjoy it and think of us, because the UConn students won’t forget it.

As always, we had our track and sign sessions and the students always learn so much about ecology and behaviour especially about animals that are elusive. We practiced a lot and it paid off – everyone did well and a lot of the students achieved a Cybertracker level. Well done everyone to have learned so much about a completely new ecosystem, new species, and hundreds of new tracks.

On the last day, we were tracking a young male leopard when we saw a pair of hyenas running towards the bush. Running hyenas are a potentially a sign of a kill in the vicinity. One group tried to follow the hyenas and another tried to relocate from the other side of the thicket. We stopped to investigate some fresh leopard scat , when we heard the sounds of crunching bones, and looked up to see the hyenas about 80 m from us. We approached them with the vehicle, and suddenly spotted a young male leopard 10 meters away from the hyenas; this young male looked like the cub of Shadow, the resident female leopard. As he forlornly watched his breakfast being consumed by the hyenas, Shadow came around and joined him. They rubbed up against each other in greeting, and moved away from the hyenas. Not 20 m away, we heard some commotion—the male had caught a francolin and proceeded to eat it! How special was that, to see young leopard learning and practicing its hunting skills, being guided by his mother. It was an absolute privilege to see these elusive animals in action.

This winter had the hottest temperatures in years, and despite the lack of water and the dry bush we have had some brilliant sighting of hippos, hyenas, elephants, and general game. We have also had some good, clean fun (well except for the time Kevin got muddy at the dam, or during a track and sign session—then we just got down and dirty!). We loved our time at Djuma, and the great people we worked with there. Thanks to everyone over at Djuma Research camp for making our stay so enjoyable. A blistering summer, a new venue at the Balule and new animals await us –the adventures in the Bush continue, where you never know what a new day will bring, and we can’t wait for it.

Bush greetings, from Acima and NGT team

Additional photo credit: Alexa LeConche, Danielle Nowak, Sara Weitkamp,