AZUSA’s Imfolozi Safari – November 2013

As I have mentioned before AZUSA is always a fun filled and happy group to take away on tour. AZUSA is an American University that do a semester in South Africa based at African Enterprise in Pietermaritzburg.

Our trip began on Friday when we collected the staff and students in Pietermaritzburg at 7:30. Two cups of coffee later and a travel mug bursting with the same delicious brown liquid saw us heading off to Imfolozi Game Reserve in Zululand. One quick stop was all we could entertain as we were pressed to be at the reserve gate to collect the open game drive vehicles by 12 pm. This we managed to do albeit under mutterings from Reg about breaking the speed limit – only slightly mind you.

The usual signing into the reserve was duly completed and our safari began in earnest at around 12:30. Midday is the worst time to be out looking for animals as they generally tend to siesta around then however the day was fairly cloudy and not too hot so a good number of general game was seen between the gate and Mpila Camp – our home for two nights. After quickly unloading our bags into the Safari tents and a chat by Matt regarding the dos and don’ts we headed out in different directions to see what we could find.
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Reg, true to form, was the first to find a herd of elephants at Bhekapanis Pan. Atypically he was not charged nor encircled by these colossal animals. My group found a single bull elephant in musth but he was more interested in feeding than charging so we managed to spend a while with him. Matt’s group happened upon a gigantic Black Mamba crossing the road but it was clearly very frightened of them so soon disappeared into the bush thumping the ground as it rapidly changed direction. A lot of general game was seen that included large herds of buffalo, plenty of white rhino and lots of antelope.
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A radiant sunrise welcomed us as we set off on our pre-breakfast drive but ‘evil omens’ greeted us in the form of a vervet monkey suckling a baby before we even left the camp. (Those of you who know me are aware of my dislike for these cunning thieves). This was followed by the sighting of a large carnivorous snail crossing the road which Reg vocalized later that this was ominous and didn’t bode well for game viewing that day! How right he proved to be. We did see lots of Rhino with a few babies but the wind was starting to pick up and by breakfast time all game had ‘gone to ground’.
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A decision was taken that we should try Hluhluwe for the Seme tree climbing lions. Well, with the icy wind blowing at gale force it was expected that no lions would be able to hang onto any tree smaller than a baobab, and we weren’t disappointed!

A relaxed lunch was enjoyed deep in the valley in an attempt to escape the battering wind. This was cut-short when Matt said someone had seen 200 elephants in an adjoining valley. In a flurry of cooler boxed, cameras, cups and students we set off with great expectations, but sadly these were soon dashed as only two elephants were found. The person who had told Matt about these 200 elephants was from an exclusive private game reserve – so could this have been his normal tip gleaning method by adding two zeros?
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Disappointed we carried on our search for lions with the wind reaching unbearable proportions as it lashed and bashed us filling our eyes continually with dust. After a quick visit to another picnic site I threw-in-the-towel and started heading back to Imfolozi only to be given a heads up on a few lions close to the Centenary Centre turnoff. These we found, surprisingly, lying in the open grassland seemingly oblivious to the howling wind. A quick radio call to Reg and Matt and they were soon on the scene. Four lionesses formed this pride and great excitement was beheld as one of them stood up and walked a few meters before flopping to the ground to rest – a huge bonus as far as lion sightings are concerned. This sighting quelled Reg’s heart rate as he stresses immensely when the students don’t see lions – the basic minimum as far as Reg is concerned.
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The final night is a braai that always attracts the resident hyena – this time a pair of them. They are quite bold and are not too afraid of people so it is always nice for the students to see them close by and it confirms our introductory talk that wild animals are found in the camp.

A ‘treat’ on the last morning is breakfast at Hluhluwe’s Hilltop Camp before swopping the game drive vehicles for our Quantum’s. This time the ‘treat’ was disastrous as they had not catered for the extra 33 people in-spite of pre-booking and a reminder on the Friday. For a ‘flag-ship’ establishment they should be ashamed!

Hungry and disillusioned we headed for the exit gate where we had a glimpse of a male lion heading into thick bush and oblivion before being bid farewell by a male elephant right at the gate. Fortunately he was very close to the gate as it was while watching him that Reg’s vehicle gave its very last cough of diesel fumes before it died. Being behind him I simply but my bull-bar against his tow bar and pushed him ‘home’.

In spite of a few minor hitches and horrible wind the trip went very well and Susi, Dave and Rejoice catered, as per usual, extremely well so I believe that the staff and students all thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Next weekend we will be back with this year’s final AZUSA group so let’s hope the glitches of the past trip are ancient history.

Nigel Anderson – Guide for African Insight
Email: HYPERLINK “mailto:nigel@africaninsight.co.za

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Nuptial Flight

It is a curse for many drivers when the termites, or flying ants as they are commonly referred to, decide to leave the sanctity of their underground nests and take to the air, many of which end up smearing their butter-like bodies against a vehicle’s windscreen. So, what is the reason for these mass flights?

A mature colony produces winged virgin queens and winged males where the queens are produced from fertilized eggs and the males from unfertilized eggs. Several of the fertilized eggs develop into wingless sterile worker ants.

When environmental conditions are right, usually after rain, the nuptial flights occur. Different colonies see the emergence of these winged males and females thereby mixing different colonies together which prevents inbreeding. Synchronized ‘take-off’ is another effective tool used to overwhelm predators.

During the flight the queens release pheromones to attract the males but she also tries to avoid them ensuring that only the fastest and fittest of the males will breed with them. Mating occurs during the flight and the queen may mate with many males, storing their sperm in her spermatheca, a specialized organ situated within her abdomen. This sperm will last her lifetime, as long as 20 years, and be used to fertilize tens of millions of eggs.

After this happens the males, whose sole purpose was to mate, simply die as they cannot even feed themselves for the remaining few days of their lives. During ‘the quick and violent mating’, the male literally explodes his internal genitalia into the genital chamber of the queen and quickly dies.

The young queens then land and remove their wings and attempt to form a new colony. Depending on the species this happens when she excavates the colonies first chamber in which to lay her eggs. From this point on the queens sole purpose is to lay eggs which become worker ants. The queen usually nurses the first brood alone.

Failure rate amongst young queens is very high as the larger colonies will literally send out millions of virgin queens. Those that fail to start a colony are usually killed by predators, more often than not by other ants. Unfavourable environmental conditions may lead to the failure of the first brood resulting in her being unable to initiate a colony. Only the extremely lucky and extremely fit are able to pass on their genes to future generations.

Nigel Anderson – Guide for African Insight
Email: HYPERLINK “mailto:nigel@africaninsight.co.za
Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuptial_flight

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FIGHT TO THE DEATH

What are the basic requirements for any animal to survive in a given area? Essentially they are; food, shelter, water and a place to breed or nest in the case of birds. But how far will they go to establish and maintain a territory? Will they fight to the death?

Yesterday Andrew Anderson’s neighbor found a pair of young male Jackal Buzzards Buteo rufofuscus that had fought to the death. Both had latched their talons into each other’s breasts and couldn’t free themselves before crashing into the earth, which he suspects killed them.
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To see raptors competing over territories by grabbing one another by the talons is not uncommon but usually they manage to release their grip before hitting the ground. Could this unfortunate accident be a fairly common occurrence especially amongst younger birds?

This was a very sad event but an interesting one never-the-less.

Nigel Anderson – Guide for African Insight
Email: HYPERLINK “mailto:nigel@africaninsight.co.za
Photograph: Andrew Anderson

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SOUR GRAPES? NOT REALLY

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What is it with photographers as all I ever see is pictures of elephants, buffalo, lions, leopards, cheetah, hyenas’, wild dog etc? Why do they never show the common species and more importantly the smaller more interesting stuff? (You have to agree that some of the antelope species are extremely photogenic!) It is also no wonder that when people visit a reserve and don’t manage to find these animals that they say they saw nothing! I must admit that I do see a few pictures of giraffe and zebra surreptitiously tucked within their postings but normally only if it is draped by an African sunset or sunrise.

Feeling somewhat unsure of myself about knocking photographers I have just rechecked a number of well known photographers’ sites and guess what? I am right! They all focus on the big and hairy! The photographers that I am referring to are all professionals and I suppose that those pictures sell trips and not the ubiquitous impala, kudu etc.

So what crawled up my nose, tugged on the cockroach in my brain, and prompted me to write this somewhat belittling blog? I suppose it’s because game reserves and every living (and not living) thing within them are linked and it is not only the predators that are important. How long would a predator last without prey? How important, yet photographically unattractive, is a cadaver beetle or blow fly?

My background is in conservation and training so a trip around a reserve without sightings of predators is extremely rewarding as everything that my eyes happen to focus on has a meaning and a purpose so I try to link them or place them within the ‘web’ that all reserves have. Nothing in any wild space is there as a free loader or there with no important function to serve – except man of course.

I admit that I do get lots of pleasure looking at the professional photographers’ sites and fully understand their motives, but feel that these could be enhanced by a few pics of the more common stuff. Just a thought – cockroach freed!

Nigel Anderson – Guide for African Insight
Email: HYPERLINK “mailto:nigel@africaninsight.co.za

Photographs: Rainer Holterhoff

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FIRE – FRIEND OR FOE?

The use of fire in a reserve is always a contentious issue because people often don’t realize the importance of fire as a management tool and are always concerned about the wildlife, especially the small animals that cannot escape it – or have they evolved ways to protect themselves?

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Photo: Nigel Anderson

In this post I will be referring to planned fires, arson and run-away fires are a different thing completely. On a reserve there are two main types of fires; firebreaks and block burns. Firebreaks are normally strips that are burned along a road or some other natural barrier; river courses, forests etc. Along road edges they perform two main functions; they act as a barrier to prevent accidental fires lighting from careless people discarding matches etc from a vehicle’s window and they act as a starting point for a ‘back-burn’. To stop a raging veld (grassland) fire is an almost impossible task without a firebreak which functions as follows. When a fire is detected heading in a specific direction a back burn is immediately started along the firebreak. This fire will then burn ‘backwards’ or towards the veld fire thereby burning off any grass that would act as fuel for the run-away fire. When these two meet the fire simply burns itself out as there is no more fuel left to burn.

A block-burn is a very different fire and has a completely different purpose. The veld or grasslands in South African needs to be burned periodically in-order to prevent them becoming moribund which inhibits the germination of seeds due to too much shade and/or too much competition. (In some biomes it has been found that if grasslands are not burned within seven years some of the ‘weaker’ species of grass become extinct). Grassland scientists have calculated that veld should be burned every three to four years. All reserves have (or should) a fire management burning policy which divides the reserve up into ‘blocks’ which are burned every three or four years. These blocks are set out in a ‘mosaic’ ensuring that there is always unburned veld scattered throughout the reserve. Firebreaks are used extensively around blocks that are to be burned.

To add further to the intricacy of block burns is the temperature that the fire should be burned at. Reserve managers can do ‘hot’ burns or ‘cool’ burns depending on the desired results. Hot burns will be done when the objective is to control the invasion of scrub and invader species. To do a ‘hot’ burn managers will burn later in the day when there is no dew and they have a slight breeze. Fires will be put in ‘against’ the breeze so that the fire burns very slowly and thoroughly. If a ‘cool’ fire is needed they will burn earlier and burn with the breeze so that the fire covers the area quickly. In a hilly terrain hot fires will be burned down the slope and cool fires up the slope.

As stated above, fire management seems pretty straight forward – but it is not! The fire creates its own wind, the wind is constantly changing and the smoke makes visibility impossible, a critical factor as most run-away fires flare up behind the burn.

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Photo: Chloe Boshoff

Lets very briefly look at the animals and how do they cope with fire – bearing in mind that fire has been around forever ignited by lightning or falling rocks etc. To my mind the most vulnerable animals to fire are tortoises as they are slow moving and live above ground but they never live in areas that are 100% grass. They live in drier areas where there are large open areas of soil or rocks with no vegetation. As soon as they smell smoke they head for these areas and partially bury themselves. Fire does occasionally catch them and I have seen a few with evidence of burns but they seem to cope quite well with no apparent ill effects. Snakes, one would presume, would also be vulnerable to fire but they are not as they quickly dive down the nearest available hole, climb a tree or find a stream. What about the insects? Most grassland species either live in holes or are able to fly so no major problem there! Rats and mice are hole-dwellers so they simply hide until the fire has passed. What about the bigger animals like antelope etc? They are fleet-of foot so they can easily outrun a fire, either away from it or in some cases through it, something that I have had to do on numerous occasions during my many years of burning experience. I have burned fire breaks and block burns for 25+ years and the ONLY animal that I ever found burned was one snake.

The most important concern with block burns is to NEVER encircle an area which will trap the animals in the middle; one must always burn from one side to the other.
Please bear in mind that the above refers to controlled burns – arson or run-away fires are totally different and many animals (and people) have been killed by this type of fire. Why should it be any different? Controlled fires are done when the conditions are right and the fires movements are predictable. Runaway fires often encircle an area offering no escape route and ignited in the worst possible conditions!
My final comment is that legally block burns may only be done in spring after 25 mm (1 inch) of rain has fallen.

Nigel Anderson – Guide for African Insight
Email: HYPERLINK “mailto:nigel@africaninsight.co.za

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Elephant tusks convert into firearms and bombs

Have you ever though that elephants and the recent tragic killing in the mall in Kenya by Al-Shabaab were linked? I certainly didn’t but after reading this link by former US President Bill Clinton, I do now: http://www.treehugger.com/culture/bill-clinton-interconnectedness.html. I’m sure that we all knew that a few of the kingpins were getting richer by the day from poaching but I never thought that it was terrorist groups that were benefiting from this act of savagery! The mere thought of this should galvanize even the most ardent hater of elephants into some sort of action. These ‘people’ kill the elephants; sell the ivory and purchase firearms and bombs to kill innocent people and children – all in the name of religion!
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Al-Shabaab allegedly retaliated against the Kenyans’ for going into southern Somalia to try and keep Al-Shabaab from infiltrating Kenya. It is estimated that the attack cost about $100 000 – $150 000 which was funded by the illegal trade in ivory. Clinton went on to say that this elephant poaching, if it continues at this rate, will result in the extinction of elephants in Africa in as little as 20 years! He concluded by saying that Al-Shabaab get as much as 40% of its income from illegal ivory sales. Quite a scary thought!
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Nigel Anderson – Guide for African Insight
Email: HYPERLINK “mailto:nigel@africaninsight.co.za

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How times have changed – for the worst

How times have changed! Let’s glimpse at a few of these changes in the Game Ranging profession starting off in the 60’s. Many of the rangers employed were former policemen or military men. A standard 6 was the minimum requirement, but higher standards were preferred. All were deemed to be tough men and whether they were or not when they started, they soon were. Transport, if you were lucky, was on horseback, if not it was on foot. Often you were shown an area in the reserve, given a bag of nails, a hammer and some corrugated iron, and told to build your own house. Newbie’s were told to report to the reserve on a specific date and time and often spent the next few days sitting outside the Officer-in-Charge’s office until he could be bothered to meet the new comer.

Anti poaching patrols were often violent affairs between rangers and white poachers including magistrates and policemen. But, before these clashes came to the fore the rangers spent days’ and nights lying in wait for them. Communications between field patrols and the reserve office were often nonexistent bar by using a runner. Many a ranger died unnecessarily because of poor communications and lack of transport.

River patrols were done in canoes sleeping wherever the urge took you. River water boiled in a Billy can over an open fire for tea and mealie-meal, was deemed ‘luxury camping’. A sleeping bag or blanket with a back pack as a pillow was placed on the hard ground next to the fire which became the field ranger’s home away from home. Often the only protection from rain was found below a leafy tree whilst sitting under a broad brimmed field hat ensconced on the head to act as an umbrella.

Rangers and game guards respected each other and both were equally terrified of the Officer-in-Charge and senior staff. The respect between rangers and guards was often formed from difficult and dangerous encounters, both from poachers and animals. They worked side by side, slept in the same ‘campsites’, shared their food, and as a rule the rangers learned a huge amount of field craft from the guards.

The extremely difficult conditions of the 60’s gradually waned through the decades as more money and better equipment became available until what we have today. So what do we have today? Anyone, male or female, can become a ranger as long as they have the minimum of a National Diploma in Nature Conservation. A Bachelor of Science (BsC) degree will ensure that you will start higher up the rung and a MsC or PhD places you in a comfortable position in the head Office’s Ivory Towers. Rangers are no longer what they were and to ensure rapid advances through the ranks a political head will take you a long way! Usually you are driven to your new reserve and placed in a brick house with ablutions and running water. Transport is provided either in 4 x 4’s, quad bikes or motor bikes. Almost every ranger has his own radio or, depending on seniority, a reserve cell phone. Work still commences early but morning tea times, lunch and afternoon teas are a prerequisite and no ranger may work longer than 7 ½ hours per day. Should they have to work longer, overtime must be paid. If the weather is inclement patrols are postponed until the weather improves. Should, by some strange twist of fate, an overnight patrol be deemed necessary, nylon tents, gas cookers, bottled water, pre-packed food and roll-up mattresses are stashed in the 4 x 4 to be dropped off at the designated campsite.
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River patrols are still conducted – no longer in canoes, but rather on jet skies or should the river be deep enough, in motorized boats.

Field rangers (game guards) get very well paid, uniforms, housing, medical aid and pension – but they still strike for more. To be a field ranger is deemed by their communities to be an elevated position warranting respect. And yet statistically they are often the people who are implicated in poaching, and even worse still in rhino and elephant poaching.

A huge negative associated with these good working conditions is that young men and women are joining conservation organisations for the perks and NOT for the wildlife which is entrusted into their care. Misconduct is rife and with the stringent Disciplinary Codes it is virtually impossible to get rid of anyone and accused‘s can spend years on full pay, sitting around at home waiting for their hearing date to come. The clever wrong doers ensure that when their hearing arrives their witnesses don’t. Postponement = more home time of full pay!

Sadly the ‘good-old-days’ where people joined conservation organisations for their love of wildlife has gone! Today people look at these organisations and say “What can I get out of it” and not “What can I put into it”?

Nigel Anderson – guide for African Insight

Email: nigel@africaninsight.co.za

 

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