sri lanka 2016_1022

Yala – a (flawed) gem

Ask people to list the great wildlife parks of the world; Yala is unlikely to be among them. Ask about the best countries to go to for a safari; I’d be surprised if they mention Sri Lanka. Yet, one day, they could be on everyone’s lips.

I knew nothing about this magnificent gem until a couple of months ago. Mrs Footprints was involved in a training course in Colombo and I had the opportunity to join her. There were a few days after the course finished before we had to be back in the UK, so I looked for something to do.

I’m sorry Sri Lanka, one day I’ll come back and enjoy your many cultural delights, but this time the opportunity to see a new (to me) species, the sloth bear, was too much to resist and Yala was the place to see it.

Sloth bear

Sloth bear

The 130,000 hectare park is in the south-west corner of Sri Lanka – a seemingly interminable drive from the capital. The route to the park is peppered with tempestuous traffic filled towns alongside tranquil temples. Like a river meandering slowly through fertile fields at the end of its passage to the sea, our journey, too, slowed to below walking pace a few kilometres from the park. We had to wind our way through a temple procession, complete with extravagantly decorated elephants. (I will write about those elephants in a couple of weeks’ time.)

The park, when we eventually got there, (or rather the Cinnamon Wild Yala, for that is where we stayed) was an oasis of calm at the end of our long, chaotic drive along the island’s south-west and south coasts. Never have the welcome drinks been more welcome!

Yala is divided into five blocks, two of which are open to the public. It has a variety of habitats: grassland, scrub, thin forest, rocky outcrops, ponds (both natural and artificial), beaches and saltwater lagoons.

Forests and rocky outcrops in Yala

Forests and rocky outcrops in Yala

Some of the artificial ponds date back two millennia to a time when Sri Lanka’s kingdoms were at their height. Then, they were reservoirs providing water for agriculture and the island’s rulers. Today, they provide a lifeline for animal royalty, making Yala a wildlife hotspot, particularly in the dry season.

A painted stork fishing in one of Yala's many ponds

A painted stork fishing in one of Yala’s many ponds

The park contains a number of mammalian subspecies that are unique to the island, including the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), the Sri Lankan sloth bear (Melursus ursinus inornatus) and the Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus). The last of these, unusually for an island species, is the largest of all Asian elephants.

Elephants in a sea of lotus blossoms

Elephants in a sea of lotus blossoms

It’s not just about headline species. Yala is home to 44 varieties of mammal and 215 bird species and there is always something to look at during game drives. This, alongside the varied habitats, should make the park one of the top destinations in the world for animal lovers and photographers.

Interestingly, the vast majority of animals survived the December 2004 tsunami, an event that claimed the lives of more than 50 tourists and about 200 others in and around the park.

The Tsunami Memorial

The Tsunami Memorial

The Tsunami Memorial beside the beach at Patanangala, one of the few places where leaving your vehicle is permitted, is a rather shabby reminder of the tragedy. A short tiptoe through the scrub (and used toilet paper!) takes you to the pristine beach. About an hour before the tsunami struck, three elephants were observed running away from this beach, trumpeting a warning – somehow the animals were able to sense the impending disaster, it’s a shame that humans couldn’t.

Patanangala beach

Patanangala beach

The open toilet that is the memorial is just one part of the problem that spoils Yala’s chances of joining the great parks of the world. If it was the only one, it would be easy to avoid. The behaviour of drivers in the park, on the other hand, is harder to get away from.

We were told that there are around 40 registered safari companies that operate in the park. In practice it seems that anyone with a jeep will offer to take people into the park. At peak times there can be more than 300 vehicles traversing the landscape. A large proportion of the drivers of these vehicles, both registered and unregistered, seem to have no formal wildlife training, and it shows.

The park publishes a map that helpfully indicates where leopards, bears and elephants may be seen. It appeared to us that the drivers circulate around the marked points. When one finds an animal, the others are phoned and then, it seems, every jeep in Yala converges on the unfortunate victim. The race to the sighting involves vehicles fighting to pass each other on the parks narrow roads, in the hope of arriving at the location before the animal scarpers deep into the bush.

The rush to a sighting - in this case it was a sloth bear

The rush to a sighting – in this case it was a sloth bear

If the animal is still around, the drivers jostle to find the best position for their clients. The sound of 40 plus diesel engines, in such a small area, inevitably ensures that most sightings are brief.

To be fair to the park authorities, other countries have similar problems; the Maasai Mara in Kenya and parts of the Kruger in South Africa have problems with congestion at animal sightings, too.

These mass mechanical gatherings are not good for the animals, which can become stressed and less inclined to remain close to vehicles. They are not good for the paying safari goer, either, who often, at best, obtain a fleeting view of the animal, frequently in the distance.

Yala is reputed to have the highest density of leopards in the world. One could be forgiven for finding this hard to believe because the cat is as elusive as its cousins elsewhere in the world.

A young leopard looks at the jeeps gathering around him, before disappearing into the scrub

A young leopard looks at the jeeps gathering around him, before disappearing into the scrub

For example, while we were in the park, we were told of a vehicle spotting a resting leopard. As soon as the jeep stopped the leopard got up and disappeared deeper into the bush. I am convinced that the main reason for this lies in the mayhem that follows many such sightings.

If Yala is to become a mainstream safari destination, progressing beyond being an interesting side trip for the backpackers, beach holidaymakers and cultural tourists, who provide most of its foreign visitors at the moment, preserving the status quo is not an option.

A bee eater preening

A bee eater preening

For things to improve, the government will have to take radical steps. Perhaps it should be mandatory for every vehicle that enters the park to be accompanied by a qualified ranger/tracker who can ensure that people are distributed throughout the park and not just searching around a few well frequented places. That tracker does not necessarily have to be an employee of the park. The drivers that use the park at the moment could be offered the chance to train for this role, so continuing to provide employment to the many people from the surrounding area who benefit from the park at the moment. Of course, drivers should be allowed to let others know of any significant sightings but, maybe, there could be a limit on the maximum number of vehicles allowed at any one sighting at any one time (as happens in Sabi Sands in South Africa).

A water buffalo sleeps through the midday sun

A water buffalo sleeps through the midday sun

Fewer vehicles harassing the wildlife would, in time, lead to better animal sightings, as they become more tollerant of the presence of jeeps. They would learn, too, that the vehicles, and their often excitable contents, pose no threat to the animals and their ability to hunt (or forage) and survive.

At the moment the best way to experience Yala’s wildlife is often through a powerful camera or binocular lens. It is my hope that one day the Sri Lankan Government, the park authorities and the safari operators will work together to close that gap between animals and vehicles by providing an environment where animals aren’t harassed and so feel more comfortable in our presence.

This water monitor was relaxed in our presence - we were the only vehicle around

This water monitor was relaxed in our presence – we were the only vehicle around

Nothing is more thrilling than having a close encounter with a wild animal, to look into its eyes as it looks straight back at you, to hear the ground compress under its feet as it walks, perhaps even to smell its breath. I long for the day when I can experience that in Yala. A day, perhaps, when Yala will be mentioned in the same breath as the Maasai Mara, Kruger and Etosha by people choosing a safari. Whether that day comes is in the hands of the Sri Lankan government and its Department of Wildlife Conservation. Let’s hope that they have the political will to make the correct decisions, if only for the sake of the animals. It won’t be easy in the short term but it would be worth it in the end.

Does Yala have a rosy future

Does Yala have a rosy future

(Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

From a view to a kill (with apologies to Ian Fleming)

Warning: This post contains images of the aftermath of a lion kill

It had been an iffy game drive. You know the sort – lots of drive and not a lot of game.

It was our last evening at Cheetah Plains in the Sabi Sands Wildtuin. For three days we had had some of the most incredible encounters with wildlife and Andrew, our guide, was hoping for more of the same that night. The animals, however, had other plans.

We had seen a solitary bull impala, an ostrich in the distance and some elephants having a dust-bath as the Sun sank below the horizon.

Elephants having a dust bath at sunset (Canon EOS 70D, 115mm, 1/200sec, f/4.5, ISO-400)

Elephants having a dust bath at sunset (Canon EOS 70D, 115mm, 1/200sec, f/4.5, ISO-400)

As Andrew drove around trying to find animals we just found the odd one scattered here and there: the tail end of a group of elephants leaving Sydney’s Dam; a zebra with a young foal; a couple of waterbucks.

A zebra and her foal, taken after sunset (Canon EOS 70D, 235mm, 1/400sec, f/5, ISO-10000)

A zebra and her foal, taken after sunset (Canon EOS 70D, 235mm, 1/400sec, f/5, ISO-10000)

Eventually Andrew appeared to admit defeat and headed off down a track to a suitable spot for our sundowners.

Defeat, however, is not a word in Andrew’s vocabulary. Even as we drove along, chasing the rapidly retreating orange sky, he was scanning the radio frequencies for any indication of a sighting. Suddenly he halted and asked us if we minded missing out on our sundowners. There were some lions heading into an area where we had traversing rights. He couldn’t guarantee that they would keep on coming but we could head over to the boundary and wait for them. Lions or a G&T? – there was no contest.

Ten minutes later we stopped at the side of the main road south from the Gowrie gate.

Within minutes the last lingerings of the light had succumbed to the deep black of an African night. We waited in the dark, straining to hear any sound that might indicate the presence of the predators.

How Andrew picked his parking spot, I’ll never know but, some 15 minutes later, we found ourselves in the right place at the right time. The first indication that something was about to happen was the soft purring of a Toyota engine – not the cat sound that we were waiting for but its precursor. Then, we spotted the orange glow of a spotlight flicking around the vegetation. Finally, Andrew whispered, “There they are!” My Western eyes couldn’t cope with the dark as well as his, so I saw nothing until he swung his spotlight onto the lead cat.

Our first sight of the Nkuhuma Pride, caught in Andrew's spotlight (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/15sec, f/4.5, ISO-12800)

Our first sight of the Nkuhuma Pride, caught in Andrew’s spotlight (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/15sec, f/4.5, ISO-12800)

There were five lionesses in all, the Nkuhuma pride. They each walked silently in front of our vehicle and crossed the road heading towards Sydney’s Dam. Andrew’s instincts earlier on that afternoon had been right, it was just his timing that had been off.

The pride came within the range of my flashgun (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

The pride came within the range of my flashgun (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

As the Land Cruiser from Elephant Plains turned away, we took over the escort duties. To me, they just looked like they were out for a walk but Andrew knew otherwise.

Andrew's positioning had been perfect, the pride crossed the road right in front of the vehicle (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

Andrew’s positioning had been perfect, the pride crossed the road right in front of the vehicle (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

He told us that he thought they were hunting and that they would probably go after the herd of impala that were grazing just below the dam. Driving around the pride, he took us to a position overlooking the impala and turned off his engine and lights.

Turning off the lights was essential if we were not going to influence the outcome of the hunt – we didn’t want to give either species an advantage. Sitting in the vehicle on a dark, moonless night, we could hear the impalas chomping on the grass but we couldn’t see them. Neither could we see the lions. For all we knew, they could have walked past us and on into the depths of the night.

Everyone in the vehicle was silent as we waited for events to unfold.

Suddenly there was a sound like distant thunder as more than a hundred tiny hooves pounded into the dusty soil. Then … nothing. Total silence. Nothing moved.

With the spotlight back on we could see what was happening (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/30sec, f/4.5, ISO-12800)

With the spotlight back on we could see what was happening (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/30sec, f/4.5, ISO-12800)

Andrew had just started to say that he thought the lions had blown their chance when we saw a female impala sprint in our direction. She was followed closely by a lioness. When the hunter stumbled on the uneven ground, it looked like this particular impala was going to live to graze another day. Just then two more lionesses sprinted in from our right. There was the briefest of squeaks from the impala and then the hunt was over.

The antelope was shredded in seconds as the hungry lios tore into their meal (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

The antelope was shredded in seconds as the hungry lios tore into their meal (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

Within seconds the five lionesses had shredded the unfortunate antelope.

The lions shared the kill without any bickering (Canon EOS 70D, 250mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

The lions shared the kill without any bickering (Canon EOS 70D, 250mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

In more than 30 years of safaris I had never seen one animal kill another (apart from on TV) and I hadn’t been sure how I would react when I saw my first kill. In the event I found it exhilarating. I know that an animal had just lost its life but, in doing so, it had extended the lives of five other animals. It is how nature works. Until it died, the impala had had a good life. Much better, I suspect, than the animals whose meat I eat on a daily basis.

What happened next was totally unexpected.

As the lions were enjoying their meal, the air filled with a strange sound that was a cross between a scream and a cackle. It was unlike anything that I have ever heard before. At least seven hyenas had arrived and they wanted their piece of the action.

One of the hyenas can be seen in the background as the lions carry on eating (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

One of the hyenas can be seen in the background as the lions carry on eating (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

They circled the lions, coming ever closer. Their calls assaulted our senses. They penetrated deep within our bodies and they left a memory that few of us there that night will ever forget.

The hyenas’ cries seemed to increase the speed with which the lions ate. Only when one of them crossed some invisible line did one of the cats break off from its meal long enough to chase the pack back before resuming feeding again.

Having chased the hyenas they returned to their meal (Canon EOS 70D, 360mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

Having chased the hyenas they returned to their meal (Canon EOS 70D, 360mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

After a while we left the lionesses to finish their meal in peace as, our hearts still pounding, we headed back to camp for ours.

It was a fitting last night for a trip that had exceeded our expectations.

That game drive illustrates how important a good guide is to making a holiday memorable. Andrew Khosa’s persistence in trying to find a good sighting and his knowledge of the animals, and their behaviour, enabled us to have this memorable experience. Undoubtedly, he is one of the best guides that we have ever had. Thank you Andrew.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2643 by Alan Smith.

Two leopards

A few weeks ago I posted some photos of a leopard called Quarantine that I saw while staying at Cheetah Plains. Today, I thought I’d post some photos of two more of the leopards that we saw during our 4 days there. The first one was a female called Inkanyeni and the other was a large male called Tingana (which means “shy” in the Shangaan language).

sabi sands 2016 _ 2311 by Alan Smith.

Inkanyeni sits by a small puddle

sabi sands 2016 _ 2319 by Alan Smith.

She was quite a poser

We first saw Inkanyeni just before sunset and Andrew, our guide, thought that she might be returning to her cubs, which were known to be in the area.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2321 by Alan Smith.

Is this drinkable?

sabi sands 2016 _ 2305 by Alan Smith.

It’s better than nothing

She appeared to be more interested in finding some water to drink. Having taken a few sips from a very small puddle she moved on past another game viewing vehicle, showing just how small she is, before lying down close to where we had parked. Like most of the animals in the Sabi Sands reserve, she was totally unfazed by the presence of vehicles.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2325 by Alan Smith.

This photo shows just how small she is

sabi sands 2016 _ 2341 by Alan Smith.

She was unperturbed by the presence of vehicles

 

A little later she found a bigger puddle to help sate her thirst.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2337 by Alan Smith.

That’s a better sized puddle

We spent quite a bit of time with Inkanyeni and it was well after sunset when we left her to return to the lodge.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2346 by Alan Smith.

It was well after sunset by the time we left her

The next morning we met Tingana. He appears to be the new dominant male in the area and we found him feasting on a warthog that, Andrew thought, he had probably stolen from another cat.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2573 by Alan Smith.

MINE!!!

sabi sands 2016 _ 2634 by Alan Smith.

Tingana definitely likes pork

The carcass was under a bush and photographing him tearing into the still recognisable warthog proved to be challenging.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2590 by Alan Smith.

He stops eating briefly, giving us a view of his lightly blood-stained face (a sign that the warthog hadn’t been freshly killed)

sabi sands 2016 _ 2580 by Alan Smith.

He wasn’t the only thing enjoying the feast, it was covered in flies

Andrew manoeuvred us into a good position so that we could see Tingana at work. Even so, the harsh sunlight and the dappled shade still made photography difficult.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2636 by Alan Smith.

Using his paw to help steady the carcass

After a while the felid, his appetite sated, moved away from the remains of the hog and started to clean himself. All cats use a similar technique for their ablutions and Tingana was no exception.

The clean-up starts (Canon EOS 70D, 400mm, 1/160sec, f/8, ISO-400)

The clean-up starts (Canon EOS 70D, 400mm, 1/160sec, f/8, ISO-400)

Cats clean themselves the same way all over the World (Canon EOS 70D, 210mm, 1/400sec, f/8, ISO-400)

Cats clean themselves the same way all over the World (Canon EOS 70D, 210mm, 1/400sec, f/8, ISO-400)

Freshly cleaned, the large male demonstrated that he is anything but shy.

\

\”Shy\” is a misnomer (Canon EOS 70D, 300mm, 1/125sec, f/8, ISO-400)

sabi sands 2016 _ 2627 by Alan Smith.

Tingana’s tail end this tale

sabi sands 2016 _ 321

Hippos

Meet the third deadliest animal in Africa (after humans and the mosquito), although you wouldn’t think so from the photo above. The humble hippopotamus may not look as fierce as a lion but it has a formidable armoury of teeth which it will display when it feels threatened – the hippo “yawn” beloved by photographers.

The hippos "yawn" is really a warning

The hippos “yawn” is really a warning

Most deaths are thought to occur, however, when people, using hippo tracks to collect water from rivers, startle the animal and are then trampled to death as it makes its escape.

They may be most comfortable in water but they can run on land and anything in the way is trampled underfoot

They may be most comfortable in water but they can run on land and anything in the way is trampled underfoot

We didn’t see many of this particular pachyderm during our time at the Sabi Sands. The rains were late this year and there hadn’t been enough to fill the dams, so most of the hippos had lived up to the “potamus” part of their name and returned to the rivers.

There was a clear gap between the buffalo and hippos, a sign of mutual respect

There was a clear gap between the buffalo and hippos, a sign of mutual respect

A "down the throat" shot

A “down the throat” shot

Following a herd of Cape buffalo to a waterhole one day did lead us to this pod (an alternative collective name is a “bloat”) of hippos.

Observing buffalo and hippos at a waterhole

Observing buffalo and hippos at a waterhole

Although some members of the pod showed concern at the intrusion (of the buffalo, not us), one remained totally unconcerned and continued its snooze, resting its huge head on the back of a smaller hippo – one river horse riding another.

"Anywhere I lay my head, boys, I will call my home" - Tom Waits

“Anywhere I lay my head, boys, I will call my home” – Tom Waits

sabi sands 2016 _ 172

Surviving against the odds

During our stay at Idube Lodge in the Sabi Sands Wildlife Reserve, we came across these three sub-adult lions. Their mother had been killed before she had a chance to teach them fully how to hunt.

Mrs Footprints getting some shots of the siblings

Mrs Footprints getting some shots of the siblings

Two of the siblings look for somewhere to rest

Two of the siblings look for somewhere to rest

The third preferred to keep its distance

The third preferred to keep its distance

Obviously they had learnt some skills because they were surviving without her. Some days before our arrival the trio, two females and a male, had managed to bring down a buffalo.

Drinking from a puddle

Drinking from a puddle

Even when drinking they were never fully relaxed

Even when drinking they were never fully relaxed

When we saw them the siblings were quite skinny and in need of another meal.

Just checking out what's going on

Just checking out what’s going on

Nothing much apparently

Nothing much apparently

Just having a wash

Just having a wash

Lions have rough tongues

Lions have rough tongues

If you can't beat them join them

If you can’t beat them join them

I might as well have a wash too!

I might as well have a wash too!

Not having learnt to hunt properly, these cats have developed their own hunting techniques. One of these involves chasing prey into the nearby boundary fence.

They operate close to the boundary fence

They operate close to the boundary fence

That looks tasty

That looks tasty

By operating on the periphery of the reserve, the three lions have reduced their chances of coming into conflict with other lions. With the Birmingham Coalition (more details about this group in a previous post) operating nearby, however, their future is not secure. The young male, in particular, is likely to be chased away by larger males and is unlikely to survive on his own.

Looking into an uncertain future

Looking into an uncertain future

The Flehmen response helps the lions to "sniff" the air and find out what other animals are around

The Flehmen response helps the lions to “sniff” the air and find out what other animals are around (this includes those that threaten them as well as those that might provide a possible meal and, when they’re older, a sexual partner)

They may be the king of beasts but it is a tough life being a lion.

Keeping a look-out

Keeping a look-out

Just keeping an eye on us

Just keeping an eye on us

Tired after a long night

Tired after a long night

sabi sands 2016 _ 1388

Baby elephant

During our time in the Sabi Sands game reserves, we were fortunate to spend time with a large(ish) heard of elephants containing around 30 individuals, including several young calves. In this post I’m going to concentrate on the youngest member of the herd.

Baby elephants are very cute

Baby elephants are very cute

When a herd moves it does so as a group, keeping the young in the middle. Even when they are browsing, a mother will normally keep her body between her calf and any perceived threat. A threat that seemed to include our vehicle. Obtaining an unobstructed view of the baby proved to be quite a challenge.

Obtaining an unobstructed view of the calf was quite a challenge

Obtaining an unobstructed view of the calf was quite a challenge

Protecting the calf

Protecting her calf

A rare unobstructed view

A rare unobstructed view

 

I was fortunate to get a clear shot of the calf on a number of occasions during my time with them.

One of the few unobstructed views of the calf

One of the few unobstructed views of the calf

Let’s hope this little one goes on to live a long life, free from the threat of poachers and human greed.

Trying to copy its mother

Trying to copy its mother

This method of feeding proves easier

This method of feeding proves easier

The mother kept her body between the calf and us - a healthy fear of humans is probably a good idea

The mother kept her body between the calf and us – a healthy fear of humans is probably a good idea if elephants are to survive

It looks like the calf has been told off by its mother

It looks like the calf has been told off by its mother

It walked with all the grace of an inebriated toddler

It walked with all the grace of an inebriated toddler

One day I'll grow into my skin

One day I’ll grow into my skin

 

Wearing mum's tail as a wig

Wearing mum’s tail as a wig

Taking a shortcut under mum

Taking a shortcut under mum

Protected by the herd

Protected by the herd once more

 

sabi sands 2016 _ 506

Wild dogs

The African wild dog (a.k.a. painted dog/painted wolf) is one of the most critically endangered mammals, so it is always a thrill to spend time with them. As they can move tens of kilometres a day, finding them is often a matter of luck.

They're always alert

They’re always alert

During our stay at Elephant Plains, in the Sabi Sands Wildtuin, we were fortunate to see a pack of 11 dogs on two occasions.

They're always alert

They’re always alert

Neither time was particularly good from a photographic point of view. One of the drawbacks of us trying to keep costs down is that we end up in lodges that have to keep their costs down too. This is fair enough, I’m not complaining, if I want a more personal experience then I have to pay the operators enough to enable them to provide that service.

To start with we had to look at them through the bushes they were resting under

To start with we had to look at them through the bushes they were resting under

One way to keep costs down is to fill the game vehicles up, they hold a maximum of 10 people plus the driver. Unfortunately, this makes photography more difficult. Even though the guides try their best to ensure that everyone has a good view, there are inevitably times when you are sitting on the opposite side of the vehicle to the action. Our first wild dog sighting was one such time.

They didn't make it easy to take photos of them

They didn’t make it easy to take photos of them

Sleeping in the bushes

Sleeping in the bushes

Initially, none of us had a particularly good view as the dogs were lying under some bushes and it was particularly difficult to get a clear view of them. When we were able to move, it was into a position that suited me. My happiness about this was short lived because the dogs got up and walked to the other side. I ended up shooting through gaps in the bodies of my fellow guests. As they moved around trying to get the best angle, they inevitably moved into my shot just as I pressed the shutter (a close examination at some of the images in this post will reveal blurred parts of bodies in the foreground of the shots).

Shooting between bodies in low light was a challenge

Shooting between bodies in low light was a challenge

In spite of this, and the encroaching darkness, I was able to get some shots that I was happy with.

Spot the underdog

Spot the underdog

Keeping watch

Keeping watch

The next morning we met the pack again. Initially they were milling around, defecating and sniffing each other’s genitals, as dogs do. It wasn’t long, however, before they picked up the scent of something much more interesting, a herd of impalas.

Dogs doing what dogs do

Dogs doing what dogs do

Within seconds, and without any obvious signal, the dogs had spread out and started running in their own unique way. Their long legs mean that they tend to lollop until they are up to full speed.

They are happy to walk around game vehicles

They are happy to walk around game vehicles

Our attempts to follow the pack failed miserably. These canines are capable of speeds of up to 45 miles per hour (70kph) and their was no way to follow them through the bush at that speed.

Seconds after this shot was taken, the dogs were running flat out, in full chase mode

Seconds after this shot was taken, the dogs were running flat out, in full chase mode

Our guide did try to get in front of them though, by speeding along the dirt roads. It was a thrilling ride with cameras and people bouncing in all directions. We arrived at the point where he expected to find the dogs, just in time to see the stragglers saunter by. And that was the last we saw of any of the members of the pack.

A quick glance at us and then this straggler followed the rest of the pack into the bush

A quick glance at us and then this straggler followed the rest of the pack into the bush

sabi sands 2016 _ 1710

Cheetahs in Cheetah Plains

Cheetahs are Mrs Footprints favourite animal and I had assured her that we were likely to see some during our time at Sabi Sands. Now, eleven game drives into our stay there, we still hadn’t seen any. We’d had fantastic times with lots of different animals but cheetahs had remained elusive. If this didn’t change soon I could be in trouble.

Cheetahs are very vulnerable to attack by larger predatotors, so they are always on the lookout.

Cheetahs are very vulnerable to attack by larger predatotors, so they are always on the lookout.

We were staying in a our third reserve within the Sabi Sands Wildtuin, Cheetah Plains, surely there would be some of the eponymous animals here, not just the sculpture outside the main lodge building.

After days of searching for them one of the brothers walks past us

After days of searching for them one of the brothers walks past us

Some of the other guests had seen some the previous morning so we knew they were around.

Marking his territory

Marking his territory

Finally, on our twelfth drive, we saw them. Two brothers had moved onto Cheetah Plains Pan from the adjacent Kruger National Park.

They are never fully relaxed

They are never fully relaxed

In the end we saw the same pair on five different game drives. On three of those drives they were close enough to photograph, too. All the images in this post were taken on those three drives.

Ready to sleep after a long night

Ready to sleep after a long night

Most of the photos were taken in and around daybreak, which proved to be challenging and very few of the ones of them walking worked but I was able to take a lot of them just lying around.

Our first sight of the brothers

Our first sight of the brothers

Some of these poses and actions will be familiar to cat lovers everywhere.

Cheetahs can look just like domestic cats at times

Cheetahs can look just like domestic cats at times

A quick bath

A quick bath

Washing can take a long time

Washing can take a long time

On the second morning that we saw them I was able to photograph them in the golden light of sunrise that spectacularly emphasised the colours in the cats’ coats.

Showing affection to each other

Showing affection to each other

Mutual cleaning

Mutual cleaning

Mrs F was happy!

A golden coat at sunrise

A golden coat at sunrise

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White rhinos of Sabi Sands

Rhinos may be one of the iconic Big 5* but sightings are becoming harder to come by. My early safari experiences with rhinoceri were in East Africa where the temperamental black rhino still rains supreme, even though, due to poaching, they have suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers.

Rhinos are one of the Big 5 game animals sought after by hunters and photographers alike

Rhinos are one of the Big 5 game animals sought after by hunters and photographers alike

I remember making a special trip in 1985 to Meru National Park to see, what were then, Kenya’s only white rhinos. Even then the northern white rhinoceros was all but extinct. The 5 or 6 rhino that we saw, which had been translocated there from South Africa, were all southern white rhinos – a different subspecies.

Enjoying a good wallow

Enjoying a good wallow

These animals were under guard 24 hours a day. As a result they weren’t afraid of humans. We were allowed to walk with them and pat them as they grazed. They were just like a small herd of cows. Just 3 years later they were all dead. Killed by poachers along with the brave men who guarded them.

On the road to extinction?

On the road to extinction?

I remembered this encounter when we came across five white rhinos on our first game drive in Sabi Sands. Four of them made up the main group and the fifth animal, a male, was grazing a short distance away.

A mother and her calf graze together in Sabi Sands

A mother and her calf graze together in Sabi Sands

This particular group of the pachyderms seemed to be happy to continue feeding around our vehicles. Others that we met merely tolerated our presence and would move away from the vehicles if they had a chance. A healthy fear of humans may help these animals to survive a little longer although, in the end, nothing can protect them from a poacher’s bullet.

Some of the animals preferred to keep their distance from us

Some of the animals preferred to keep their distance from us

The rhinos in Sabi seemed to be much bigger than the ones I remember from Kenya but that may just be my failing memory. Adult males can reach a height of 1.85m (6 feet) and weigh up to 1.7 tonnes. Some of the animals we saw were close to that size. It was awe-inspiring!

The wide lip of a white rhino helps it to graze

The wide lip of a white rhino helps it to graze

All the rhinos that we found in the park were white ones. They came in a variety of colours depending on what they have been rolling in, so the name is a misnomer. The “white” comes from a mis-anglicisation of the Afrikaan’s word “weit” which means wide and describes the difference between the square mouth of the white rhino and the more pointed lip of the black. This adaptation helps the white rhinos to feed as they mainly eat grass, the only rhino to do so. (It’s black cousin uses its more pointed lip when it browses for leaves from bushes.)

The white is the only sub-species of rhino that grazes

The white is the only sub-species of rhino that grazes

The southern white rhinoceros may not look quite as prehistoric as its Asian cousins but they can all trace their ancestry back 5 million years.

They have been around for 5 million years but can they survive the next few?

They have been around for 5 million years but can they survive the next few?

The white is the most populous of the rhino species left on Earth but there was a time, at the end of the 19th Century, when it was thought to have been hunted to extinction. In 1895, however, a small population of fewer than 100 individuals was discovered in Kwazulu-Natal. The 20,000 or so wild white rhinos that exist today are their descendants. Unfortunately, in spite of this conservation success story, the species is under threat once more, due to the current epidemic of poaching.

The white rhino is a conservation success story

The white rhino is a conservation success story

Poaching has been fuelled by an increase in demand from countries like Vietnam, where people use the horn as a status symbol (of their new-found wealth) or believe it has medicinal properties. Only when all humankind realises that rhino horn is no different to their fingernails and that it will not cure cancer or impotency, or whatever miracle use that has been attributed to it, will there be a chance of reducing demand. Let’s hope that realisation happens before it is too late for this iconic species.

Does this calf have a future?

Does this calf have a future?

Many of the facts included in this blog were obtained from the WWF website.

* The Big 5 (African elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, lion and leopard) were originally the five animals that hunters most wanted to kill on safari. Now, they are often the animals that tourists most want to see.

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Much misunderstood

Hyenas get a bad press. Perhaps it’s because they look like they’ve been designed by a dysfunctional committee. Or maybe it’s their (false) reputation for being cowardly and timid or the (true) fact that they will steal food from cuddly looking big cats. Perhaps it’s their link to witchcraft and other supernatural activity, or their reputation for stealing children and killing livestock. Maybe it’s the way they look, resembling a child’s early attempts at drawing a dog.

Hyenas may look like they've been designed by a disfunctional committee

Hyenas may look like they’ve been designed by a disfunctional committee

It’s about time that Africa’s most populous large predator received some good PR.

Cubs are born with their eyes open

Cubs are born with their eyes open

I first fell in love with the spotted hyena in 1985, while staying in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. We were staying in some cheap bandas within the park, where we talked to our neighbours who were primate researchers. They told us the location of a hyena den in the middle of nowhere.

Hyenas often used disused termite mounds as dens

Hyenas often used disused termite mounds as dens

Following their instructions, we aligned our Isuzu Trooper with a couple of trees and drove out into the middle of a dried up lake-bed. Nothing was visible in front of us and we wondered if we would find the den. Finally we spotted a small hole in the ground, turned our engine off and freewheeled up to it, as instructed, and waited silently.

A juvenile hyena in an entrance of the den

A juvenile hyena in an entrance of the den

After about 10 minutes a nose appeared at the hole, sniffed the air and emerged. It was attached to a juvenile spotted hyena. Soon the whole den emptied out onto the sand. We spent hours watching them play all around us. They only disappeared, briefly, when a van full of noisy tourists came to find out what we were looking at. On seeing nothing they turned away and peace returned and the hyenas reappeared and carried on as before.

Juveniles practice their hunting skills

Juveniles practice their hunting skills

They had an intricate family structure. Given the similarity in age of many of the young hyenas, they were obviously the children of more than one female. The sub-adults looked after the younger cubs and took their turn in keeping them under control.

Sub-adults keep an eye on the younger cubs

Sub-adults keep an eye on the younger cubs

Since then hyenas have been on my wish list every time I go on safari. One of the books that inspired my love of Africa and its wildlife was Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens. Their adventures with brown hyena made me really want to see that animal. Regrettably, to this day, I’ve only ever seen them in the distance.

An adult hyena

An adult hyena

I had to wait more than 30 years before I was able to visit a hyena den again. This time, because there were other people in the vehicle, I could only spend a short time with them. Or, to be exact, two short times with them. On the first occasion, before sunrise one morning, a tiny cub and some juveniles ran around the Land Cruiser. On the second, slightly later in the morning, we arrived at the den in an old termite mound in Sabi Sands, to find a solitary juvenile waiting at one of the entrances for the clan’s adults to return from their night’s hunting.

A juvenile waits for the adults to return

A juvenile waits for the adults to return

We had seen the adults earlier when they had chased a leopard up a tree and spoiled her attempts to hunt some impala. As soon as they returned to the den, the younger ones came out to greet them and play with each other. I challenge anyone to watch interactions like this and still dislike hyenas.

The cub carries a stone out of the den

The cub carries a stone out of the den

Some fact about hyenas

  • They are neither cats nor dogs but, in spite of looking more like a dog, they belong to the same sub-order of carnivores as cats but have their own classification within that group. (The simplified taxonomy is Animalia  Chordata Mammalia Carnivora Feliformia Hyaenidae.)
  • Female hyenas appear to have a penis, which makes it difficult to tell the sexes apart; the external appearance of their genitals is similar to that of the males.
  • Females are larger than the males.
  • Large numbers of hyenas live in clans that are controlled by the females.
Hyenas are inquisitive animals

Hyenas are inquisitive animals

  • In spite of their lolloping walk, hyenas are fast runners and can cover large distances when they are hunting.
  • They can run at up to 60km/h (37mph).
  • Hyenas, in spite of their reputation as scavengers, may kill up to 95% of the animals they eat.
  • Their digestive system allows them to extract nutrients from skin and bones. Only hair, horns and hooves cannot be fully digested and are regurgitated as pellets.
  • They nurse their young for longer than most carnivores, probably because they often hunt and find food far from the den.
A subadult keeps an eye on the younger members of the clan

A subadult keeps an eye on the younger members of the clan

  • It is true that hyenas start eating their prey while it is still alive. They kill an animal by disembowelling it and some people think that this leads to a faster death than the suffocation method used by other predators. I have my doubts but I have never seen a hyena kill, so cannot justify this.
  • A hyena’s hearing is so good that it can hear another predator eating 10km (6 miles) away.
  • The hyena’s “laugh” is a means of communication. In the case of a lion kill that I witnessed, the hyenas may have been calling for reinforcements from the den to help them drive the lions off the kill. The calls certainly didn’t intimidate the lions, if that was their intention.
Hyenas call for reinforcements at a lion kill?

Hyenas call for reinforcements at a lion kill?

Hyenas can extract nutrients from skin and bone

Hyenas can extract nutrients from skin and bone

Every part of the kudu is eaten

Every part of the kudu is eaten