All Creatures Big and Small

Posted August 26th, 2010 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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PHOTOS : Inyati Lodge at Sabi Sands , South Africa

The impalas were the most common antelopes and indeed the most common animal that we saw.  They were rather smaller than the common American deer and with three black stripes on their rump forming an M shape – the safari guides called them Mcdonalds!  Impalas move in large herds: each herd consisting of  one stag (with antlers) and about 30+ does and fawns. Once the male kids are grown up enough, they are banished from the main herd and they form their own separate “bachelor clubs”.   Although these young bucks maintain their independence by keeping to a separate group, they tend to stick close to the main herd because there is safety in numbers. Occasionally, during the mating seasons, one of the young males would try to lure a female away from the alpha male.  The “man” of the family is aware of the shenanigans of the youth so he keeps a strict watch on his harem, each time a young male comes too close, he will promptly trot over and nudge the female back into the fold. Most of the times the young males are chastened and go away to indulge in mock fights with the other males.  Occasionally one of the young males might challenge the alpha male for the leadership of the herd and then these mock fights come in handy.Starred Photos4

Of the other antelopes, wildebeest were the strangest creatures. It seemed like they could not decide if they wanted to be a cow or an antelope and ended up as a peculiar hybrid version of both.  Although larger than the impalas, wildebeest were surprisingly timid and would lift up their tails and gallop away if they saw us approaching.   The kudus on the other hand were not so skittish, they were over 6 feet tall and are the source of many traffic accidents in that part of the world.  With their light stripes and the double hump, they managed to have all the dignity of a camel with the gait of an antelope.   There were many varieties of antelopes:  the brownish-black colored tsessebe,  the large bluish tinged nyalas, the tiny bushbucks, the pretty spotted deer and the elusive duikers.

Starred Photos5We did get to check off the Big 5 from our Must See Animals list.   The Big 5 in Africa are the Lion, the Leopard, the Buffalo, the Elephant and the Rhino.  I have already described our encounters with the leopard.  Of the big 5, the leopard is probably the most elusive but we were extremely lucky to see one in practically every game drive that we went on.  The big 5 is a hunting term and refers to the five animals that are most difficult to hunt on foot. Four of the big Five were present in Botswana. The Rhino is not native to Botswana but we could observe them in South Africa.

Seeing the Cape buffalo herd, it wasn’t difficult to understand why this ranks in the Big Five.

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It is second only to the Hippo in being the most dangerous wild animal – causes the most human deaths after the hippo. This large herd surrounded us in Chobe National Park and it was an awe-inspiring sight to see so many of them looking straight at you.

However, I can quite emphatically say that you have not known fear until you see 40 African elephants bearing down on you while destroying all the vegetation in their pathDSC_2652_Framed. African elephants are larger than their Indian counterparts.  We were sitting in the Land Rover in Inyati while our tracker and ranger had walked off trying to track a rhino. Before we knew it a large herd of elephants were approaching us.  All of us looked at each other – not knowing what the procedure was in such an instance. But when they reached about 5 feet from us, the matriarch of the herd must have given some signal.  The herd quickly marched off to the side, leaving us extremely thankful. Elephants are extremely social animals — each herd has a matriarch and she dictates the activities of the entire clan from the newborns to the older ones.    The young male bulls generally lag behind, needing the herd for protection (and DSC_2665_Framedfor mating with the females in season) but also wanting to assert their independence and to show that they are not controlled by the matriarch. Its easy to know when an elephant is in season – for they have a gland near their ears that secretes a liquid. It is especially sweet to watch how the elephants interact with the babies in the group. An aunt or elder sister or grandmother is always around to teach the young ones how to move or feed or generally keep out of trouble.

DSC_3183_FramedFor all their bulk, rhinos were extremely skittish.  It was strange because they had no natural predators other than human poachers who prize the rhino horn.  When George and Soli tracked down the rhino, it was the finest example of tracking that we saw.  They noticed some footprints entering into a small wooded area; we circled the area in our vehicle slowly and they couldn’t spot any footprints that led outside of the woods.  Logically, they deduced that  the rhinos are still in the woods.  They then examined all the trees and plants and  figured out the path of the rhino by studying the trees that had been flattened but yet not bounced back (which indicated a recent event); this pointed to the places where the rhinos had rested and led us right to the rhino family.

DSC_7060_FramedEveryone wants to see lions on safari.  We were lucky enough to see them at Pom Pom , Chobe and at Inyati. And what was even more special is that we got to see the lions going through all the various steps of the hunting process – albeit at different times with different prides. The first time we saw lions at Pom Pom, a mother lioness and her three daughters were attempting to hunt a wildebeest. Now the wildebeest herd was quite far away and there was actually a stretch of water between the lions and the wildebeest.  The lionesses had to reach the herd without the wildebeest noticing them and they also wanted to avoid crossing the water.    As we settled down in the Land Rover to watch the hunt, we were flabbergasted at the coordination and almost soundless communication between the lions. All four lions did not take their eyes of the prey.  Without a sound, they had narrowed down their target, planned their attack route and even decided their strategy.  The first lioness crouched low and slowly made her way ahead, keeping herself hidden in the tall grass. At some predefined spot, she paused.  As soon as she stopped, the second lioness followed her track. No sooner did the second one move to take her place, the first one continued to move forward.   The second one traced the foot steps, pausing exactly where the first one had stopped, forging ahead when it was time. Like a relay race, the third one followed the second one.  It was a master display of silent communication and hunting skills.  But today was just not their day – they had just reached the wildebeest when the herd was alerted and they all ran away to safety.

DSC_9863When we came across lions again in Chobe on our early morning game drive, the pride had just made a kill – a buffalo — the night before. The lion, as is the case in their male chauvinistic set up, gets to eat first.  Nobody disturbs the lion when it eats.  We learnt that when its feeding is interrupted an irritated lion may even swat off (and kill) its own cub. Once the lion has finished eating, it steps away from the carcass and moves to a corner and comfortably relaxes.  We saw the lion stop by near the lioness, exchange a kiss on DSC_9884the lioness’ forehead almost as if he thanked her for the fine meal and  to say “Go, on eat now”. The cubs were just waiting for that signal as they rushed to get at the food. The lionesses followed them sedately till they reached the food and then there was feeding frenzy.   A good size buffalo can keep a pride’s bellies full for a day or so.

Jackals and vultures wait nearby for the pride to eat its full so that they can pick away whatever is left.  The cubs are sometimes more interested in playing than eating.  Once they finish eating, it is time for their nap. That was what this pride at Inyati was doing.  This was a large pride – about 8-10 members.  They seemed to be

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cozily asleep, stretching their legs and appearing to be blissfully unaware as we clicked photos.  The next day, we saw yet another  couple — the lion had taken the lioness away from the rest of  pride for a spot of privacy. The lioness was in estrus and the lion wanted to make the most of the few days that she was in season.  When we saw them, they were relaxing in the shade after a night of undoubtedly vigorous activity.

Amongst the other animals, we saw warthogs, jackals, hyenas, monkeys, crocodiles, hippos and lizards. The animal that I most wanted to see in Africa was the giraffe.   Every time I have seen one (in zoos), I have always been struck by wonder that such a creature exists and thrives in this world.

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With its awkward looking body and gawky gait, I could really never tire of watching them.   In my mind, giraffes and zebras go together.  Zebras had the most annoying habit of turning their back and showing off their rear ends as we reached close to them.  It took us a lot of time and some patience to wait till the zebras deigned to face us so we could get a few photos.

It was indeed a wild weird world out there but I am truly thankful to have witnessed this myself.

2 Responses to “All Creatures Big and Small”

  1. Uma Jayadevan says:

    WOW! What an experience! It is as if you got into National Geographic Channel!