13 September 2010

An Uneasy Spring

The first day of September is officially regarded as the first day of spring in South Africa. I was lucky and spent the night camping in my van in a National Park. The night was cold, the stars were bright and the bird calls in the morning almost ridiculously loud. In spring it seems that nature turns its thoughts and sounds to love, or at least courtship and the procreation of most of the species.

I managed to get into the reserve before the sun was up, an exciting bit of travel because the vehicle’s windows steamed up. My solution is to open all windows and travel in what becomes a chest freezer on wheels.It was dangerous because elephants are because of their size always assume they have right of way. Then of course my camera lenses decided to mist over and my breath caused condensation on the viewfinder and camera back – very frustrating sometimes.

Many animals give birth in spring and early summer. A surprise was to find two very young kudu with the remnants of their umbilical cords still attached. Quite what they were doing on their own was a mystery but there were no predators around and it was wonderful trying to capture them with the camera just as the sun started creeping over the hills. I wonder what the Black Backed Jackal was thinking when he sat near them – perhaps the foals were just passing through his turf as they would not tackle something so big. The jackals howled and all the other jackals around responded – a very Africa moment.

And then of course I discovered that spring is an illusion in Africa. Sure there is a season but the wildlife continues the cycle of life and death no matter what the season. There was a large and dead buffalo next to the road. The Black Backed Jackals were frantic in their efforts to remove scraps of meat from the carcass. I did not even know they were such scavengers and I had spent the previous day trying to photograph a jackal turning over elephant dung in its search for insects. The jackals scattered when a Spotted Hyena made its appearance. It is not an animal I am very familiar with and it made for interesting watching. They are as ugly as the cartoons make out and their table manners are absent. The crunching of bones was loud. Then a beautiful young male lion arrived and the Hyena scattered. The lion spent time extracting flesh from the carcass – most of the meat was gone. It was strange to see it pulling back the skin to give more access to the buffalo’s ribs. The lion only stopped eating to chase the Hyena away. There is really no love lost between the two species. To give other vehicles a chance of getting close I followed the Hyena.

It went to a waterhole where I noticed it was wearing a tracking collar, drank water and urinated in the water - don’t know why. It wandered around a while before it started rolling on the ground, not unlike a dog that has found something smelly and worthy of rolling on. It then got up and picked up the carcass of what could be either a young jackal or young hyena and carried it away.

On my way to the protected spot where one can get out of the car is a fairly steep incline and it is the one spot where I worry about elephants. The waterhole is at the bottom of the hill and elephants, being wise and sensible creatures, tend to walk down the road. Being big they pick up speed and gather momentum and it is a terrifying sight if you are parked at the bottom of the hill. This time I was able to watch someone in a fancy car reversing downhill at high speed to escape what he thought was a charging elephant. In any case elephants always have right of way and I am not sure if you will ever see a picture of one lumbering towards my car taken from that spot.

By then I had enough and needed time to think about the kill. The thinking went as follows. There was blood on the road and someone told me there had been 5 hyenas on the kill. It is possible that they made the kill although the text books don’t list buffalo as being regular prey. There was very little left of the buffalo and they are known for their tremendous ability to consume food quickly. They would easily have been able to drag the buffalo into the bushes as the single hyena was able to lift and turn the remains of the carcass. I think the lion had been opportunistic; the particular lion is well known and goes by the name of Nomad and is very much a loner. It is unlikely that he would tackle a buffalo on his own but there may have been other lions in the area – I realise that we will never know what animal made the kill. Hyenas have complicated social structure and I do not know why the lone hyena rolled on and carried away the small carcass. I do know that they like to litter bones and pieces of their prey about their dens.

I know that what I have written is unsatisfactory in that nothing I mention is conclusive and nor were my guidebooks when I got home. I just came away with the realization that I don’t know much about the fairly common wildlife and especially little about their behaviour. I also know that traditionally according to poetry and writing spring is about bird song and pretty flowers. In the wilds it is precarious and about survival and eating the weak and innocent. The flowers tend to get trampled. Your nerves will get shattered if you just park your car in the wrong place at the bottom of the hill.

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