Sunday, July 22, 2012

Some Nice Animals

At the end of last month, I joined some family on the trip they’d planned to South Africa.  Naturally, we spend some time enjoying the wildlife, in two game reserves which were part of the Greater Kruger Park.  We saw a nice variety of animals, but three of the region’s large predators were probably the most interesting to watch.

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One evening in the Kapama Game Reserve, we found ourselves between a male lion that our hawk-eyed hosts, Almero and Benson, had spotted on a shrubby knoll beside a watering hole, and two rhinos.  Night was falling with a speed it never seems to manage in the northern hemisphere, and the rhinos were occupying most of our attention (understandable, given their several-ton bulk).  Both were facing in the direction of the vehicle, and you could almost imagine their little brains turning over and over, on the verge of over-heating, as they stood close enough to reach out and touch, trying to work out what exactly we were, how far away we were, and how we should react.  Eventually, with a huff, they turned away, and we were able to turn our attention to the lion.

His eyes were the most arresting aspect of his presence as he sat, partly hidden by bush, looking our way.  The lion’s posture could almost be described as laconic, but there was something taut, dangerous about the continent’s largest cat.  After regarding us with not-quite-dismissive disdain, the huge cat yawned, stretched, and rose to its feet.  In some respects it can’t help but remind you of a king-sized version of a house cat, but its size, weight, and bulk deprive it of the improbable grace of its diminutive relation, and lend it a perilous ponderousness instead.

And then, to our surprise, it began to stalk something (perhaps a warthog given the large number of burrows we’d seen in the area) through the bush.  Its head, which it had raised to regard the vehicle, was now straight out in front of it, framed by a golden mane.  It moved cautiously, placing one foot forward at a time.  As it stalked whatever it saw or smelled or heard in the darkness, it moved almost sinuously...and yet because of that size, there was something very deliberate and heavy about its movement.

It moved in and out of our field of view as it passed through grass, brown and gold in the dry winter, and between bushes and trees.  Suddenly, we became aware of two massive shapes in the dark, their feet making thumping sounds that were almost too soft to perceive, but their steps sending up little clouds of dust in the dark.  The rhinos were back, and they appeared to be following the lion in the dark, using either scent or sound, for their sight is poor at the best of times.  The only outward sign that the lion gave acknowledging its trudging, ponderous pursuers was a faint twitch of its ear.  It was impossible to say whether he quickened his absolutely soundless movement forward, but in a moment both the lion and the two rhinos—identifiable as only two blots of darkness on a so-far moonless night—were out of sight, leaving us to look up at the stars which were present in numbers I hadn’t seen in months.

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If the lion is the largest of the cats, the leopard is the most elusive.  Its grace is more obviously feline, but the one that we managed to see in the evening was in a bit of a difficult spot.  A young male, as yet somewhat inexperienced in the ways of life, he had pulled his impala kill up a tree, but wasn’t happy with its placement.  Moving in and out of the torch-light, coat rippling through the darkness and low light, he pulled at this or that bit of the mangled antelope, seemingly unsure of where to put it, and almost dropped it once, which would have brought the feat of stunning strength and power it took to get the antelope up into the tree all to naught.

Eventually, still not looking quite satisfied with the position of his kill, the leopard settled down to eat for a bit, gnawing anxiously, before indulging his penchant for order in still another bid to reposition the impala, which was having a somewhat restless afterlife.  But for the leopards, the tree is the safest place to secure its food.  There was, we were told, another female in the reserve who haunts the bed and banks of Sand River, and persistently refuses to take her kills up a tree, with the result that she and her cubs are often deprived of their meal by lions or hyaenas.  (The pecking order on the food chain can be quite elaborate—our guide described how he’d once seen a leopard driven off its kill at the riverside by a clan of hyaenas, who were in turn scattered by a hippo which proceeded to feed off the stomach contents of the dead antelope before being put to flight by a pride of lions whose claim to the kill went undisputed.) 
Try as he might, the young leopard could not move the impala to his satisfaction which suggested, at least, that his meal was well-secured in the ‘y’ of the tree branch, well out of the reach of any other predator.  While not as physically impressive as the lion, there was something impossibly elegant about the leopard’s movements.  However carefully tightly controlled each of its movements, they nonetheless bespoke the potential for immense speed and energy required of it to kill an animal as quick and alert as an impala, and then to haul it more than five meters up into a tree.  We left the leopard to the night, though other predators, drawn by the kill, were unlikely to be as solicitous of the predator, and probably gave him very little rest if they passed by or congregated below.

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The most interesting of the predators, and one which I had never had the privilege of seeing before, was the Painted Dog, a predator so beguiling that even Nicholas Kristof swoons over them.   The most endangered of Africa’s large predators, the Painted Dog’s range has been substantially reduced over the years.  In common with lions, leopards and hyaenas they were long classified as ‘vermin’ and carried bounties during the colonial era; the dogs, however, remain less-understood than their feline counterparts, and don’t have the status in most people’s minds that makes them an obvious subject of attention, although a range of groups (including the good people at the Zambian Carnivore Programme) are working to change that.
The Painted Dog has a far higher success rate when on the hunt than other predators, and when you watch them in action, it’s easy to see why.  We had the opportunity one morning shortly after the sun rose.  The mottled dogs—four in number—were trotting down a dusty track, in single file, occasionally swerving off into the bush, occasionally ducking an otherwise-erect head to sniff something, but never stopping—these are restless hunters.  Suddenly, their demeanour changed, their heads dropped, their bodies tightened, the rabbit-like ears laid low, and they split up, fading out of sight. 

Up ahead was a small herd of impala, who suddenly seemed to sense—whether by sight, smell or hearing it was hard to say—that all was not right.  We positioned ourselves on a long-abandoned railway track, slightly raised in the bush, and could see that a smallish female impala, some ways from the herd, was actually in the midst of the four advancing dogs, but that they were not yet aware of her presence.  The impala was very much aware of the dogs, and remained incredibly still.  It seemed impossible that she could escape the dogs’ detection when, suddenly a barrage of gunfire broke the near-total silence from the Kruger Park firing range (some 10 kilometres off).  Some spell seemed broken, and the dogs continued stalking the main herd and the female impala bounded almost soundlessly away—a narrow escape.

The pack made their way all the way around the herd of impala, which were bunched increasingly close together, tails and ears flopping and flicking this way and that, trying to work out what was going on around them.  The terrain was perhaps less open than where the dogs usually hunted, and our guide suggested that they were trying to drive the impala from the opposite side into the range where they were accustomed to hunting.

Stealthily, the four dogs, moving in and out off our view, made their way around and then back towards the impala herd—there were perhaps 75 of the light-coloured antelope in the grass.  Suddenly, everything went still.  The dogs were out of sight, there was not enough breeze to move the golden grass, and the impala stood like so many statues.

Then the panorama exploded with movement, as though someone had thrown a switch.  Like a wave hitherto held in unsustainable reserve by some unseen force, the whole herd of impala surged away through the grass, catapulting furiously over any obstacle in their path.  Equally implacably, the four dogs broke cover, moving by turns in a steady run through the grass (designed to exhaust their prey over whatever distance proved necessary) and a series of leaps that rivalled those taken by the panicked impala.  The synchronism of the impala’s initial explosion was gone, and the petrified animals broke out every which way through the bush. 
The breathtaking torrent of spectacular movement, unleashed as though by the wave of a conductor’s baton, was over with equal speed, leaving an utterly abandoned stretch of plain.  Well, almost abandoned.  One off the dogs had completely missed his mark, and trotted somewhat disconsolately-looking back and forth before disappearing into the bush, perhaps trying to pick up the trail of one of his fellow pack members who would have hopefully (from his perspective, not the impala’s) had more success.

One or the other of the four dogs had some success, because before long the vultures began circling, in ever greater numbers, and reports came in of an impala carcass in the direction in which the Painted Dogs had driven their prey. 

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Of course those who know me well will realise that even the surfeit of wonderful carnivores were only a sideshow to the wonderful array of birds, of which I managed to add around one hundred to my list which has been sadly languishing since I left balmy southern California and the temptations of the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. 

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