Reigning Cats and Dogs

by Flo Coughlan of Goliath Safaris • 22 September 2009

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News from Goliath Safaris - Sept 2009


Every year towards the end of August, the winds of change sweep through Mana Pools. At around noon the wind picks up and then in the late afternoon, thankfully carries itself away again. It's a very necessary part of the season, helping to shed old leaves and spread dry seed pods and its arrival this year signifies the end of what we Africans felt was a particularly cold winter.

The evenings are now taking on a distinctly balmy feeling which by late October, at Goliath, will change to a decidedly barmy one. We Zimbabweans are lucky enough to enjoy a climate that is very moderate and so we only ever seem to notice two distinct seasons, winter and summer. Autumn and spring here are always short and subtle but utterly sensational, as they brook the divide between the two.

Mana, with its dry winter canvas backdrop, provides the perfect stage- set for the first flush of flowers and new leaf. On the drive in, the stark yellow cassias and the bright red flame bush combretums provide the primary colours with the creamy shaving brush combretums adding the mid-tones. On the floodplain they're joined by the deep maroon hanging flower trumpets of the kigelias. Whilst lacking in height, shape or stateliness, the kigelias surely win the "larger than life" tree stakes when it comes to flowering, podding or leaf colour. Huge dark maroon flowers are followed by lime green new leaf and enormous sausage shaped pods all within the space of a few weeks. Together with the albidas, leadwoods and  mahoganys they transform the dry and bare floodplain into a study in the shades of green. The mahoganys are in full flower at the moment and together with the capparis, their sweet scent satiates the air on the evening game drives.


And then just as Mana starts to show off arboreally, the big players walk onto centre stage and flop down.  The lead roles still belong to the lions and their comings and goings every season contribute enormously to Stretch's hair and sleep-loss.


The who's who in the Mana feline zoo has not been easy this year as the Nyamepi pride continually disbands and regroups. Numbering up to 18 at times it often splinters into little family groups which is very normal behaviour for lions who operate in an area such as the floodplain where there may be high prey density but little cover. The old girl however is never far from her favourite eldest daughter and her grand-cubs who were born last year. Together they have stuck by the Mane man and have never been too tempted by the antics of the two new boys on the block. In the meantime, their four daughters who are now over 3 years old have shown that they are not too choosy or particular in the male stakes and liaise freely with the two new guys. They are very seldom seen with the old girls and very rarely with their brother who has had to make himself scarce now that he is of breeding age. He was tolerated for a while last year but this season has been given his marching orders. The Mane man, although theoretically now the pride male, has always been a loner and wanderer and this may eventually go against him as stronger coalitions are formed to challenge him and his grip on his territory. He may be impressive in size and sight but he has only one pair of paws at the end of the day.


The Nyamatusi pride is still a threat to be reckoned with and on one occasion we were awoken to a cacophony of baboon barks and impala snorts as thirteen of them passed through the floodplain. Two males and eleven very healthy lionesses strode purposely past camp, ignoring everyone in their wake. Where they had been or what their mission was, is still a mystery to us but they were an incredibly impressive sight as they marched through. From baboons to buffalo, all parted before their path.


With all these lions around it's very seldom that guests don't get to photograph them on a kill and one group were lucky enough not to have to leave the lounge area to do this as three lionesses killed a warthog at midday at the door of tent 6. Three lionesses eating a warthog just beside your tent is a hard act to follow and definitely put the pressure on Stretch to find something to top it.... which is why he immediately sent for the Mane Man. As we finished dinner that evening, a loud roar ensued on cue from just behind the tents. Totally ignoring Stretch and his clutch of guests who went to investigate, the big-maned brute (no, not Stretch) casually wandered down to the channel for a drink and then treated us to a display of roaring that reverberated through our chests. Certainly a sound that reminds us all that not only is he the king of the beasts but the beats too.


Then just as the lions were hogging centre stage, the smaller cats came out to play. Two cheetah posed for us on a fallen log on Zebra vlei. Aloof, fussy and essentially solitary, female cheetah are very choosy when it comes to being seen with their mates and so a male and female together on a log was a rare sight and delight for everyone.


On the other hand the leopards, like Stretch, haven't changed their spots and the resident big male continues to patrol behind camp, his rasping cough being heard most evenings. Periodically he wanders along in his solitary path down the road in front of the vehicle as we leave early or return late to camp. On a number of occasions, we have been lucky enough to see the Long Pool female lounging around in broad daylight. Steve and Marj Hart, together with Stretch, were watching the lions there one morning when she casually strolled past in front of them. Noticing the lions, she quickly made her exist but what a treat for them to have five lion and a leopard in their viewfinder at the same time.

Despite all this showmanship by the cats, the wild dogs have however totally outshone them this season. They may be the small canine cousins but their appeal is still as large as ever. The floodplain pack which denned down near the airstrip jesse early this season, has a new litter of 10 pups who are now almost fully free-ranging. Although he has not seen Whiteback, Stretch still presumes her to be the alpha female. Interestingly though there is another female in the pack who seems to be pregnant or lactating. Very rarely will the alpha female allow another female to raise a litter, either killing or adopting the pups and so we are waiting with bated breath to see the outcome of Jesse's pregnancy. She always accompanies the others on their early morning hunt and so perhaps she has already had her pups? Are the pups actually hers? Another furrow added to Stretch's already troubled brow as he tries to figure out just who has given birth to them. Adding to his stress levels has been the fact that this pack on two occasions within one week waited for him to drive out of camp early in the morning and then killed an impala just behind his tent.

The Vundu group of six dogs has been kinder to him and has supplied our guests with wonderful crawling up close moments as they have lounged about on the road early every evening. Sitting amongst them, we have often witnessed them rallying around each other, twittering and chirruping, working themselves up for the hunt. At times like this we are very grateful not to be an impala in their headlights. The leader of their little group is a splendid male we've named Zero due to the circular marking on his back. At the risk of being anthropomorphic, we hope that one of Whiteback's daughters will notice him too as their Ellis Robbins gang  of boys are now looking decidedly aged and jaded. They had their time in the sun but now have a decidedly hang-dog look about them. Age is not for the feint-hearted especially in the animal world.

And this brings us onto the ungulate front, where this year the rams and bulls have put on a grand horn parade. Amongst the antelopes, size does count and although most of it is for the benefit of their territorial rivals we are lucky enough to be the voyeurs on the side as the males lock horns for top dog status. For the smaller antelopes like the impala and kudu, the rut is over and so they can relax their guard a bit and settle down to the more important things in life, namely resting and eating instead of spending their days with a solely female focus. The larger eland and buffalo bulls have female counterparts who have horns too and so their body size is sometimes more of a trump card than the size of the appendages on their head. Being non- territorial and co-existing in mixed gender herds, age and experience are the more important issues when it comes to sorting out the men from the boys. Later of course, old age suddenly becomes their main issue and they become lion bait due not only to their need for solitude but also their inability to keep up with the herd. Most impala are not lucky enough to have old age and a need for peace and quiet as an issue. Being the tasty and easy prey that they are, the predators solve that problem for them long before it can happen.

With all this alpha male activity going on, Stretch has had to lift his game considerably and to do this he has pulled out all the stops. From a flock of pelicans to a perky pangolin and a princely python, he has unearthed a few of Mana's hidden treasures for the space fillers in between lion and wild dog tracking. A pangolin seen during the day is a very rare treat and when it unfurls itself and poses for the camera, you know that your luck is in. The same goes for a python, stretched out to full length on the ground, basking in the sun.


As always he has also relied on his old contemporaries, the elephant bulls to help him with the girls and some "hold my hand if you're scared" moments. The usual bulls always come to the party and even Grumpy (no, not Stretch) has been uncharacteristically co-operative of late. Slot as always continues to make our hearts smile with his gentle and gracious manner when being introduced by Stretch.

On a final note, we would be ruffling the feathers of the birders amongst us if we did not make mention of a few of our specials seen this month. An African barred owlet on a low branch above us at midday. African skimmers skimming the surface of the water with their bills at dusk as we canoe down to Mana Mouth. The first carmine bee-eaters returning to their nests on the bank adjacent to us at camp and the low whooping call of the greater painted snipes on the islands in the evenings. And in camp itself when Stretch starts to twitch, he just has to call up our resident pair of black-throated wattle-eyes. Within seconds the male arrives and begins diving and dancing about looking for this perceived rival male. As Stretch freely admits, these are the only birds he makes jealous these days.

And on that twittering note, after our busiest month ever, we end by sending you a smorgasbord of sensory delights from our Mana office & the sound of a lion's roar, the sight of the full moon on a clear night, the musky smell of a wet elephant rounded off by the taste of freshly caught bream and a touch of fireside charm. And for those of you with a sixth sense, you already have it and so please add it to this list.

Wherever you are and whatever you may be doing, take special care and thank you once again for your continued support and interest.


Goliath Safaris

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