Yesterday we returned from a five-day trip to Kruger National Park and the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center in South Africa with over a thousand pictures and some new wildlife experiences.
This trip, we set out to see carnivores, so we headed to the north of the park where lions are less prevalent and cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas enjoy the lack of competition while rare antelopes such as Sable and Hartebeest enjoy the lack of lions eating them. We started in Skukuza camp, which is still in the south of the park and from there embarked on a game drive with a guide named Robert.
The first thing we saw was a breeding pack of hyenas. Robert explained that hyenas separate their cubs into age-appropriate groups so that they don’t compete for food, and that a cub will be fed not only by its mother but also by other members of the pack, practices to which Robert attributed the very low infant mortality rate among hyenas. Sure enough, after we had watched and taken photos of this lady, we realized that there was another nursing mother on the other side of the road with two very young, all-black cubs who had yet to gain their characteristic spots.
Robert also noticed something in one of the trees as we passed by, and when he backed up to show it to us, it turned out to be one of the most impressive feats of safari-guidery that I have ever seen. In the dark and while driving, Robert spotted a flap-necked chameleon, a tiny little fellow who looked so much like the leaves around him that Robert had to point for ten minutes before everyone in the vehicle had seen it.
On the fifteenth, we left Skukuza and headed for Mopani camp, which is named for the famous Mopani tree (in which lives the Mopani worm, which is considered a delicacy) and is further north in the park. As we drove up to our camp, we saw teasing symbols—there was a dead impala in a tree, which can only mean one thing, but the leopard had left his kill and was likely afraid to return until the humans had stopped guarding his dinner.
It was a good day for other sightings, though. I have seen a lot of hippos, but always mostly submerged. On the fourteenth I saw my first hippos out of water (courtesy of the chilly weather) and the next day we looked out over the river from the safety of a hide to see a huge breeding herd basking on a little island that likely disappears during rainy season.
The next day, on a morning drive with a guide named Amos, we saw a serval and some black-backed jackals, each of which was too quick to photograph. We also came across this lone female hyena taking seriously the command of so many parents for their children to finish everything on their plates. She was gnawing on the last of the skin of an elephant carcass—the elephant was killed in January when it was struck by lightning, and while I never like to see an elephant in turmoil, it was amazing how the detrivores continually made use of the resources available to them.
It was also a good day for birds. We saw a group of six juvenile ostriches—I saw my first ostrich in the wild on Friday and couldn’t believe its size even after having seen them in zoos, and even the young ones were gigantic. But even more exciting than the ostriches were a smaller and less-known bird which we came across later. In a group of four, crossing over the road by foot, were the endangered Southern Ground Hornbills. These large, flighted but mostly ground-dwelling birds are quite rare, and in fact only 1500 individuals are estimated to exist in South Africa, so we were very lucky to have seen them.
On the seventeenth, we woke up early to prepare to leave Kruger for the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center, and saw yet another hyena—this one was also nursing, but right in the middle of the road. She seemed very comfortable with the cars going by and also stopping for photos.
So we had seen several hyenas, jackals, and even a serval but none of the majestic big cats. We had seen a leopard’s kill and also seen a spot in the ground where another leopard had dragged a kill across the road, and we had heard reports of lions and leopards and even caught a short glimpse of a leopard in a far-away tree, but sometimes it’s enough to except the little signs even if you can’t see the actual animal. As we neared the gate, I noticed a large herd of impala—and of course, why would impala just stand there, if a predator was nearby? Still, they looked alert, and right after we passed them I thought I saw something lying in the riverbed. I asked if we could back up, apologizing in case it was just an impala and I was making us stop for nothing.
As I have mentioned, I used to dislike the idea of animals eating one another, but there are two sides to every story. Leopards have cubs to feed too. Hyenas separate into nurseries and apparently nurse their pups right in the middle of the road. So in the end, everybody’s just trying to survive. Sometimes an impala gets away, and sometimes a leopard gets to eat. I’m just glad he chose that riverbed to rest in after the hunt.
At the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center (HESC), the goal is to preserve endangered species such as ground hornbills, African wild dogs, caracals, and servals, but the focus is and has always been on cheetahs.
The HESC includes breeding programs in which cheetahs born at the HESC are later released into the wild, as well as rescue programs for animals in undesirable situations. One such situation was that of two lions who were simply left on the side of the road in Portugal after the circus that owned them shut down. This lion is actually a male, but he was castrated at a young age and therefore lacked the hormones necessary to grow a mane. Unfortunately for these lions and two other adult males (with manes and other body parts intact) who were born at the HESC, lions, unlike cheetahs, cannot be released into the wild if they weren’t born there. For cheetahs, hunting is innate. They need some time to practice, but they have the skills they need. Lions have an instinct for hunting as well, but the tactics needed for stalking and bringing down prey are taught within the pride, so it’s a good thing they are doing well in the wild.
And speaking of the wild, the HESC partners with Kapama Game Reserve, a wild and unregulated piece of land where animals are free to avoid us seeing them, to arrange game drives there and occasionally to release animals onto the reserve. We were on one such game drive and were seeing a lot of common duikers (a small antelope some may remember from a particularly uneventful night drive of two years ago) when we topped off our trip with one last huge sighting. In contrast to my unsure reports of something lying in the riverbed when I saw the leopard, Caleb drew attention to his find definitively.
“Lion. Lion lion lion.”