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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

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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

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Elephant Plains Game Lodge

My first impressions of Elephant Plains weren’t that great. Having arrived after a slow 200km journey from Idube we were quite late for lunch and, apart from one other couple, the only other people in the room were a group of photographers talking loudly about why a particular camera was the only suitable one for wildlife photography. One of them even went on to describe how he bought his gear cheaply in the Middle East and the steps he took to avoid paying taxes on it. It made my blood boil. Fortunately that group left the next day and we had nothing more to do with them.

Once we got away from opinionated, freeloading photographers, we discovered that Elephant Plains was quite nice. It certainly had the largest, most comfortable room that we stayed in at Sabi Sands. I think, relatively speaking, it was the best value for money of the three places we visited. However, we found their practice, at the evening meal, of placing all the guests on the outside of a large circle around the wall of their boma, quite strange. It made it hard to hold a conversation with our fellow guests.

Dawie and Justice at an elephant sighting

Dawie and Justice at an elephant sighting

The game viewing here was exceptional. In the hands of our guide, Dawie, and tracker, Justice, we managed to see the big five and much else besides. We also got into a few scrapes, such as when we picked up a puncture following a leopard through the bush or when the Land Cruiser bucked from side to side as Dawie tried to follow a pack of hunting wild dogs along a sandy river bed.

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

The dogs were a highlight of our time at the lodge. We first met the 11-member pack on our first game drive. They were lying around in the bushes and the best viewing position was already taken by another vehicle. I was sitting on the wrong side of our almost full vehicle (I think 9 out of the 10 guest seats were filled). Photography was difficult due to the number of bodies in the way and the number of branches between the canids and me, so I spent most of the time just enjoying being in their presence.

One of the wild dogs after they started walking around

One of the wild dogs after they started walking around

As dusk approached, the dogs became more active and started walking around the vehicles but it was still difficult to capture a good shot of them.

The following morning we bumped into them again, just as they started to hunt. When hunting, wild dogs can cover large distances very quickly. Our attempts to keep up with them were fruitless. Needless to say I am still waiting for that great photograph of a painted wolf (as they are also known).

The dogs just before they started their hunt

The dogs just before they started their hunt

On the first night, after our puncture, we found another leopard resting on top of an anthill (or anthology as the auto-correct spelling on my phone put it). It was not in a good position for viewing or photography as it was partially obscured by shrubs growing on the mound.

Ten month old cub cowering amongst the vegetation

Ten month old cub cowering amongst the vegetation

I noticed one of the photos appeared to show blue lines in the fluid behind its cornea. This is an optical illusion, the cat was only ten months old and still had some blue colouring in its iris. It was this that was refracted in such a way that it appeared to be in the aqueous humour. The green colouring in the iris reflects light at a different wavelength that refracts less than blue light and so was not picked up by my camera.

Refraction of the light from the blue part of the iris

Refraction of the light from the blue part of the iris

The following evening we came across another, older leopard on a termite mound. This male was finishing off a porcupine and we could just make out its quills amongst the grass in front of him. When a warthog appeared, he got up and gave chase half-heartedly before descending a steep river bank for a drink.

Our best leopard sighting came on our last morning at the lodge. We were heading towards a hyena den when Justice spotted some fresh leopard tracks heading off to our left. I’ve been on many safaris where guides have followed tracks but these have never led to a single successful encounter with any of their creators, so I didn’t hold out much hope.

How wrong I was. Almost immediately we found Tsakini as she walked along a dried-up river bed. She was stalking a herd of impala but they had spotted her and were making warning calls. The female had recently moved into the area which didn’t have a resident leopard. She was about to find out why.

Tsakani perched uncomfortably in her refuge, keeping a wary eye out for the hyenas

Tsakani perched uncomfortably in her refuge, keeping a wary eye out for the hyenas

A large hyena clan had a den nearby. They were alerted to Tsakini’s presence by the impalas’ calls. When they turned up, she bolted straight up a tree and stood precariously on its thin branches as she watched her fellow carnivores encircle it. After a while, the stalemate ended when the hyenas left and she was able to descend and recover by lying watchfully at the base of a tree on the top of the riverbank.

After that excitement, we continued on our way to the hyena den. A juvenile eyed us cautiously from one of the entrances but didn’t come out until the adults returned from their leopard bothering trip. Soon the other young ones came out of the den too and we were able to enjoy watching the antics of this much misunderstood species.

Hyenas have a very caring social structure

Hyenas have a very caring social structure

Elephant Plains lived up to its name and we saw many elephants, including nearly coming between a couple of frisky young bulls and a disinterested cow. Dawie had to rapidly reverse out of their way when it became apparent that they didn’t want us in the way of their pursuit.

Bull on a mission

Bull on a mission

One herd had a tiny baby with them. It was only a few weeks old and its skin, which seemed too big for it, was covered in fine downy hairs. With the exception of the rampaging bulls, the elephants seemed unconcerned by our presence, even though they had a baby with them.

The baby had ill-fitting, down covered skin

The baby had ill-fitting, down covered skin

The lions we saw did what lions do, lie around doing nothing most of the time, regardless of whether they were being observed on not. The Birmingham Coalition were the new big bad boys on the block. Not that you could have told that from our first encounter.

Lions lying around

Lions lying around

The five related males had moved into the area last year and, having chased off the dominant pair that used to rule this part of the world, they started an orgy of death and destruction, killing cubs and any females that got in their way. The purpose of this was to bring the females back into oestrus so that they could sire their own offspring. By the time we met him, the chief architect of this destruction was looking weak and sickly and was having trouble keeping up with the rest of the group. He had no obvious injuries and nobody knew why he was ill. It is all part of the circle of life in the bush.

The weakened destroyer

The weakened destroyer

One of group of animals that are often ignored by many on a wildlife safari are birds. There are many spectacular birds within Sabi Sands. We found an open bill stork on several occasions at one particular waterhole which it sometimes shared with a hippo.

Open bill stork

Open bill stork

We saw all the big five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) at Elephant plains. I have written about three of them above but also we disturbed a rhino wallowing in the mud.

Rhino enjoying a good wallow

Rhino enjoying a good wallow

The final member of the group is the easiest to see. Buffalos are everywhere. We enjoyed a sunset with a large herd of them, some of them in a pool which reflected the the sky beautifully.

Buffalo sunset

Buffalo sunset