Lions' Eyes and Butterflies

by Goliath Safaris • 24 August 2010

News from Goliath Safaris - August 2010

Spring has sent advance notice that it will soon arrive in the valley. A little earlier each day, the morning light steals the night, and amongst the trees the first cassias and knobthorns, with their vivid yellow and soft buttery white flowers have begun to brighten up a dusty floodplain. Their cheerfulness always encourages the others to shed their winter coats and to start showing their true colours too.

Creamy capparis creepers, dangling maroon kigelia trumpets and an umbrella of fire-red flame combretums will soon join the floral fray and begin their magnificent display. As the tasty host plant to the larvae of African-veined and Dotted- Border White butterflies, the capparis creepers have long since been chomped and chewed bare. Bright yellow Vagrants and Orange and Scarlet-tip larvae have helped them with the leaf- stripping too.

Once they've pupated and struggled through their metamorphosis, multitudes of the adults fly just above the ground covering the dusty purple pan weeds and vernonias in a wash of crisp, clean colours. Little Blues and Guinea-Fowls flit amongst them and if they really want to make our hearts flutter they call a Foxy Charaxes away from his mud-puddling to dazzle us with brilliantly patterned colours. Only a nursery school colouring-in competition could conjure up a better image.

Whilst our spring visual sense is being freshly awakened, our auditory one is certainly not being neglected. The deep bass drumbeat of the ground hornbill is always our first signal that dawn is about to break. Long before the sun peeks its head over the horizon, their far-reaching booms can be heard across the floodplain encouraging the resident coucal to lift his head from under his wing and start his gentle water-warbling croon. This in turn wakes up those Heuglin songsters or yellow-bellied bulbuls that have overslept. As if to counteract their soft melodies a lone francolin will break in with his harsh cackling and any short-tempered or menopausal Egyptian goose gets equally raucous.

To round off this mixed chorus, a territorial Fish eagle may throw his head back and with his call of Africa start up the Cape Turtle doves' anthem of "work harder, work harder". Mana Pools is now awake and hopefully Stretch will soon be too.

Stretch has not been able to sleep in for months now as there are new lion cubs to track through the underbrush and a whole new pack of wild dogs have trotted into town. This new pack literally runs circles around his vehicle each day, and to add to this the female leopard behind camp has taken to lounging around on low branches or logs beside the road, totally unperturbed by us all. All this friendliness and sociability amongst the cats and dogs certainly gives our guests, and us, something to purr about.

The new wild-dog pack is only slightly less scraggly than the Ellis Robbins gang but just as endearing. We've decided to call them the Umtali Boys High( UBH) gang as they look as if they have never bothered themselves much with anything but hunting and socializing. They seem to enjoy human watching as much as we love watching them and will flop down next to the vehicle, and with total indifference fall fast asleep huddled together. If their bellies are full after a hunt they rest for ages, but should they be on dinner-duty it won't be long before one of the more senior pack members calls them all to order with a short bark. A lot of twittering, nuzzling and running about gets them all worked up for a hunt and off they trot in search of a hapless and helpless antelope. Any day-dreaming impala should now pay full attention.

The Ellis Robbins gang is safely denned-down at one of their favourite locations with a bucketful of pups and Stretch's only remaining mystery is whether Jessie is still in place as the alpha female. Fingers and paws crossed!

Whilst on the subject of predator approachability, we were recently on the receiving end of a young hyaena's inquisitiveness. While we were watching its mother rolling around on the ground trying to relieve an itch she couldn't reach, the youngster decided to have a closer look at us. Walking straight up to the vehicle, it cast a wary eye over all of us, turned around and with a disenchanted look wandered back. It's certainly a humbling experience when a hyaena finds you lacking in interest or attraction! This aside they're still one of our favourite animals despite all the bad press they get. Folklore assigns them so many bad traits, yet should you study them closely you will discover a great sense of family and a fine intelligence. On a human being their big shoulders and narrow hips would look good but on them they're not as attractive. Their faces are not dissimilar to that of a friendly dog and the fact that their coats are dusty and uncombed and their voices spine-chilling should not be held against them. A fair amount of humans bear these traits too!

Lions have always sold them down the line as scavengers, yet many a times we have seen lions chase them off their kill and then start smugly feeding off the carcass as if it were theirs. When the hyaenas then try to retrieve their meal they are accused of being skulking scavengers. Yes they do finish off the pickings but they are the only predators capable of, or interested in, digesting all the bones, hooves and such unsavoury floodplain left-overs. Formidable and phenomenal mothers they are also examples of success within a community where the women are in charge. Lionesses will always defer to the pride male but it would be a very dumb and misinformed male hyaena who tried anything of this sort back at the den.

On the elephant front, Slot still visits camp regularly but JP has been our most frequent and friendly visitor. He wanders through totally unfazed by us all, his only irritation being the higher bank he needs to climb up now that the river has gone down. JD also wanders in now and then and lives up to his name of Juvenile Delinquent as he teases and bullies Stretch if he comes too close. On game drives, our hearts always smile if we bump into Boswell. He loves an audience and after a few teasing attempts will get up on his back feet and tear down a branch or two from a tasty Albida. He always has a group of young bulls with him or even a couple of cows as they know that he is one of the few big bulls that regularly do this. There's a definite pecking order as to who can feed off the said branch first. If there are cows and calves present he will allow them to feed alongside him. The young bulls have to show subservience and hang around the edge, stretching their trunks to the limit to snatch tit-bits when he allows it.

Talking of the river going down, the low water in front of camp has exposed a multitude of new sandbanks  but Bruce our resident hippo still prefers his little island just below the lounge area. He rests his head on the ledge, his body half submerged and only a herd of elephants will get him to stir. We are treated to this display daily as elephants cross over the channel to feed on the islands. After moving Bruce aside they pause in the middle to play and then help each other up the steep bank on the other side, some a little more agile than others. When it comes to hippos, Bruce is fairly laid-back and tolerant and so if we want to see a grumpy bull display to rival that of Stretch's, we set off for Long Pool where the territorial bulls have lots to open their mouths about.

While we're talking about entertaining animals it would be remiss of us to not mention the wily warthog that spend their days on the floodplain. Not renowned for their intelligence or good looks, their antics nevertheless do keep us amused. Kneeling down at the grassy altar of food they can in a heartbeat be up and running for their burrow, their tail antennae straight up and transmitting a signal of danger. We recently watched the four Spice Girl lionesses being outwitted by a big male hog on the grassy vlei above Long Pool. By the time we'd caught up with the chase, the only sign of the failed hunt were a plethora of lioness pug-marks around the burrow entrance and the sound of a pounding warthog heart below. 

The Spice Girls have a few new mouths to feed and so a warthog is a mere toothpick for them, but with the Backstreet Boys not always around, they do sometimes resort to lesser pickings. 

The Boys have however certainly been good providers of late. 

In the space of three days we were lucky enough to see them on the kill of a huge kudu bull and then a buffalo cow. With the four girls and the six cubs in attendance, there was not much room left at the feeding table, the cubs resorting to climbing in and out of the carcass to get the tastiest tit-bits. The cubs are three different ages and sizes but very cute and comfortable cousins. Should they all reach maturity the Nyamepi pride will hopefully have been resurrected. The girls will share the parenting amongst them, and their only danger to be faced will be if the Boys don't stay with them to protect the cubs. Female lions are a paradox as they will be the proverbial  "lioness with cubs" when threatened by others but will never stand up to a new male who will instantly kill the cubs to ensure his bloodline and bring them back into oestrus. As well as being somewhat fickle mothers at times, they are also a little heartless about their own mothers. The four girls seem to have abandoned "The Old Girl", their loyal mother and granny. She wanders alone through camp periodically and seems to be existing on a mangy diet of warthog and baboon at the moment. At nearly fourteen years of age, she is long past her sell-by date when it comes to hunting, and we do worry about how long she can keep going it alone.

To close off on all these lion tales, it's been a while since we've seen or heard of the Mane Man. Has he been nudged aside, or has he by choice reverted back to his old habit of wandering off and onto the floodplain. We still believe that it was he who single-handedly killed the buffalo at Mana Mouth whilst the pride of thirteen looked on. As a loner he has shown little interest in forming any sort of coalition with other males or trying to secure any females for himself. He is truly a contented and successful nomad.

And on that note, having done with all this wondering about wandering, we'd like to leave you with our favourite photograph of the Mane Man, taken as he lay beside the road, eye's gazing skyward as if posing for a photo shoot.

How better to see the world than through a lion's eye ... or perhaps, just as a butterfly.

Hope you're having a truly august August.

Goliath Safaris

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