The Big Six

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Some of the best days that we’ve had in the game reserves have been when we’ve seen little or no game at all.  One recent morning, in Kruger, we were out early on a fresh sand road after a night of heavy rain.  We found ourselves trawling slowly along, weaving and stopping every few minutes with heads peering down at spoor on the ground, reading the story of the events from the night before.

Lion had walked in the road, probably before the rain as the prints were softened; a herd of zebra had walked across the width of the road for a very long distance, perhaps they feel safer in the open road at night than in the long grass; there had been a bit of a scuffle further on and something ran off, kicking sand backward. We saw where elephant had walked across the road to scratch on a marula tree, leaving a patch of wet mud plastered into the bark, and where they had walked down the road dumping heaps of fresh, marula-filled dung amongst huge round footprints.

The rhino really got us going though.  We hadn’t seen rhino in this section of the park, but we now knew they were definitely there.  There was plenty of new dung on top of well-established middens on both sides of the road, next to easily recognisable rhino ‘highways’; the well-worn paths rhino create from travelling through the bush. Very fresh spoor came from paths onto the road, and then circled back into the grass. Deep, muddied territorial scrapings alongside some footprints told us that one or two large males were going about their business – spraying and scraping – most likely very early that morning, and they were probably still close by. We didn’t see them anywhere; had we been driving quickly looking for rhino we might have missed all these clues. We covered only 3km and took dozens of photos in about an hour, saw no animals at all, but it was a lesson in bush school; no matter what the conditions, there’s always something to see if you take the time to look. Or listen.

At the end of another day, our neighbour in camp came back looking dusty and exhausted. We asked if he had had any good sightings and he said, “I come for the birds, anything else is a bonus.” The next morning it was overcast and grey. Terrible light for photography and not very inspiring scenery either. So we picked a road we’d never been on before (easy in Kruger Park) that happened to be near a river, with no expectations of what we might see. The bird life was fantastic; you wouldn’t have gotten a single good bird photo that day (our neighbour was still in camp when we left), but to drive with windows open listening to the chorus of birds, seeing them crisscrossing in all directions, scooping insects in the road and with something perched on every dead tree was pure entertainment.

So Kruger lived up to our expectations during three short days when we saw the Big 5, and used our sixth sense to experience just about everything else we could have hoped for – including giraffe in a torrent of rain that made one of the best photos of the trip. Anyone can have a great bush trip if you keep your eyes, ears and imagination wide open to whatever crosses your path.

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We Love Elephants

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We have marched to save elephants, we read and Tweet and Facebook about elephants.

We visited iMfolozi Game Reserve recently. It has always been one of our favorite places on earth, and we love it too. Its renown for its rhino; it’s where Ian Player and a small team of game rangers saved the southern white rhino from extinction in the 1960’s. So we were sad and a bit shocked to see the state of iMfolozi since our last visit ten years ago. One of the areas we always visited was Sontuli Loop, with its beautiful mature Acacia trees, where you were guaranteed to see a lot of game, especially rhino.

That wasn’t the case this time; large sections of Sontuli Loop looked like the aftermath of a tsunami than a protected game reserve. In places, there was barely one live mature acacia, least of all one in bloom. Almost all had been stripped of their bark, and did scrubby foliage or more broken, toppled trees, surround dead skeletons of trees. There was no game in sight; no giraffe – as they need these tall Acacia to browse – no impala, zebra, wildebeest, no warthog – or rhino.

Elephants. They were introduced to the reserve in the 1990’s so that tourists could see the ’Big 5’ in a KZN provincial reserve, and we saw them. An elephant was the first animal we saw when we drove into the reserve, a small herd were drinking in the river as we drove into camp, and later in the day we spoke to group of tourists who happily told us that they had seen a herd of almost sixty (really?) elephants close to the gate. I was ashamed to feel a bit upset and annoyed; I love elephants, so why should I feel this way?

Hluhluwe/ iMfolozi is a relatively small reserve. If not under threat, elephants breed easily and eat a lot; a mature elephant can eat up to 400 pounds of foliage per day. Once these large trees have gone, the ecology of a reserve naturally changes and evolves; it tells us that areas opened up by elephants should regenerate with fresh grasses in time.  A game reserve isn’t static wilderness. It’s an earth-island with its own ecology that functions as a unique ecosystem, depending on its components. With an ongoing drought the areas of treeless landscape in iMfolozi have left the short dry grass exposed and overgrazed, and soil in poor condition from lack of moisture or scattered dung that would have been produced by the absent wildlife.

iMfolozi will evolve, with elephants; in time, it might become known as much for its elephants as its rhino. We come to the reserve to see everything else as well: impala, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, birds,  lizards – it’s not only about big game.  iMfolozi did redeem itself on another day, when we saw more of the ‘other 5’ but definitely in much smaller numbers than in the past.

Sadly, another reason could be game auctions, a regular practice in government reserves that generate a lot of income.  We don’t believe smaller game or rhino should be captured annually, but that is the system for now. These small islands are heavily managed because there is little unspoilt wilderness available to relocate game when the reserve reaches carrying capacity.  Although the browsers, including rhino, that are usually auctioned off aren’t doing the obvious damage, it will be a very contentious issue if, or when, the reserve decides that there are just too many elephants. I don’t want to think about it yet – neither does anyone else.

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