We are delighted to announce that after a great deal of in-depth research and searching for the exact genetically unrelated match, The Mabula Private Game Reserve has welcomed three young adult male lions to the fold.
This relocation was prompted by the ongoing initiatives to increase genetic diversity on the reserve. This is the fourth male release on Mabula.
Our new male lions have now been released on the reserve roaming free and looking to meet our lionesses.
All the guides are happy to have new lions on the reserve. We are hoping and looking forward to having cubs in the near future. The males are four years old and a coalition of three. This is the first time we have a coalition of three male lions on Mabula. At four years old they already weigh 226kg, imagine how much they will weigh when they are at their prime time. This is the weight with an empty gut.
The Winter months are the best time to go on safari in Mabula. With the bush being dry and the general overgrowth of the trees thinning out, animal hiding places are bare and open, allowing for great game viewing. Waterholes are also getting busier, with animals congregating in higher numbers because natural water pools scattered throughout the reserve are drying up fast.
Having missed winter in the bush last year with my guests, the crisp air we are starting to experience in the mornings gets me ecstatic. Driving out of the lodge and the smell of the dust and grass hits you almost at the same time the wind chill wraps around your face, cosied up in a comfy poncho. “Snug” is the word you’d describe yourself with. Hopefully. It’s still fairly dark; you know there’s already one thing to look forward to, the shades of crimson red and orange that make up a Mabula sunrise. More often than not you can’t help but stop to take a photo of that very sunrise that you eagerly await.
While you admire the sunrise, the stillness in the air allows you to hear the bush awaken. Impalas rutting sounds like there’s an orchestra in each valley and crest but it is the lion’s roar that really grabs your attention.
With sound travelling further in the cool still air, you know that lions are not near to us. You stop as you see the lion’s prints embedded in the soft, almost frosty soil. Clearly mapped out, you see the path they took through the bent dry grasses. Both myself and my guests were convinced the lions went for a drink at Dickinson dam, with some swift driving, only making you feel the cold a little more, we got to the dam and wait… The sunbeams begin to shine on the water and dappled light hits your face, slowly warming you up from the outside in. Sadly, the lions have already passed the dam.
As we turn onto Telkom road, one of the guests shouts excitingly, “There! There he is.” We got to witness this majestic male sitting on Telkom road in front of us. After sitting with him for some time, having the opportunity to see him clearly, he slowly strolls to a thicker area for some shade. We continued with our drive and came across a “dazzle” of zebra. – the collective noun for these herbivores – aptly describes the resultant confusion that arises as they stampede – with their patterns intermingling and creating an illusion that makes it harder for predators to focus on a single individual.
But this is not the only reason for their unique striped patterns. There are many different theories as well as reasons for these patterns. One of the theories is that the black and white greatly assists them to blend into the bush environment between the thicker vegetation as the light and dark contrasts, as it would be when sunlight shines through the bushes creating a dappled effect. It also helps them to regulate their body temperature. If you look at the front half of the body the black stripes are more predominant, where on the back half of the body the white stripes are more visible. Each zebra has a unique pattern of stripes, and having these unique pattern helps them to identify individuals. This is most important with a mother and her newborn foal. The reason this is so important is that the mother will separate herself from the herd, moving away sometimes a hundred meters or more, but just far enough that she can still see the herd.
This is so that the mother needs the foal to imprint her patterns and not another individual, which is very important for the survival of the foal. If the foal doesn’t imprint the mother’s patterns it will not be able to survive without the life-sustaining milk that she provides. Along with the unique striping, the individuals also have a shape of a triangle on the front shoulder blade, this then gets used by the foal to be able to follow the mother better when running from a threat that they may be facing, a “follow me” or “stick close” sign for the youngster! This sign is exactly the same height as the newborn foal so that it can see it clearly. At birth, the baby’s legs are almost the same length as their mother’s, this way not only can it see the sign, but also ensure that it is lost in the “dazzle” of moving stripes and not visible below the adults.
The gestation period of a pregnant zebra is about 12 months – but once her foal is born it takes less than half an hour before the youngster is able to walk, drink and follow its mother! What a challenge that would be for our babies! Another, relatively gross fact about these amazing animals is that the foal is born without digestive enzymes or bacteria, so after about a week of a milk only diet, the youngster will start to eat the dung of its mother, this way ensuring the growth of these essential bacteria, so when they are ready to be weaned, their stomach (as ungulates) is ready to process the vegetation. Next time you are on a safari with Mabula, ask your guide to give you more amazing facts on these often ignored mammals!
The afternoon safari holds a whole new story with warmer conditions. Taking a drive to the south of the reserve along gully view road and watching the herd of elephants feed and enjoy the coolness as they splash water amongst themselves. As water becomes scarcer, you will find a plethora of wildlife in and around the semi-full waterholes, keeping you entertained throughout the afternoon.
There was a sense of excitement on the vehicle now as we gained ground in finding the largest land mammal on Mabula. One of my guests pointed out trees that she could see were broken – not by lightning, but by the large herbivores that would use their brute strength for a sumptuous meal. Elephants will often push over trees, seeking out the roots of the tree for added nutrition. We continued slowly forward, not sure of what we would find around the next corner. The fresh smell of the morning air had now slowly dissipated and was replaced by the distinctive odour of elephants. We moved anxiously forward in anticipation of what might happen next. Suddenly there was a crackling in the trees, simultaneously we turned our heads in the direction of where the sound came from. Yet we saw nothing. It can be astonishing to witness how such a large animal could be so elusive for so long. We were all excited by the sound and knew it had to be the elephants. There was definitely activity all around us.
Just when we drove around the corner on Bobo road, I was quite stunned to find members of a herd of elephants walking on the road towards us. “There’s one!” I softly exclaimed. The silence was profound as there was an interest to see what my response would be to the elephants coming down the road.
The elephant strolled down the road ever so quietly and gracefully, as if it was on a Sunday stroll through the park. We were enjoying the sighting and were all quite calm as the elephant was still some distance away, and not agitated in any way. Flapping her massive ears to keep cool and regulate body temperature, almost posing for the pictures as they walked. I looked around and noticed that more elephants started appearing from the thickets in front of us. There were two coming out to the left of us, and another three to the right. Gripping the branches with their inquisitive trunks, they were rather enjoying themselves making the most of every leaf. I took note of the elephant cow getting closer to us and as I started the vehicle to slowly back away, I saw the gigantic bull elephant emerging from the trees behind her. It’s quite noticeable to observe the difference between a male and female elephant, besides the sheer size of the bulls, one can see the shape of the forehead to be quite unique. The females have a 90-degree angle that forms at the top of the forehead going down to the trunk, whereas the males have a much rounder forehead not forming much of an angle. In a herd of elephants, there is a female that is the dominant character, known as the matriarch.
We quite enjoyed observing these grey majestic mammals, and their interesting feeding habits. After giving them their space again, they continued their breakfast and started rumbling to each other, communicating through their complex social structure. We stayed a few moments longer and then calmly left them to carry on with their daily activity. We carried on over Bobejaan sknoop to Ngorongoro plain with aim of finding Sables. We entered an open Ngorongoro plains area. One of the guests exclaimed; “Wow! What’s that!?”. It was an animal a bit far off in the distance, but because of the open area, one could easily make out that something, rather horse-like, was there. We went closer for a better view and with that came a comment from a guest behind me saying “Oh my, so Handsome”, and indeed it was a handsome animal.
The animal receiving these complements was a Gemsbok, also known as the South African Oryx, an elegant, large antelope with a striking appearance.
A Gemsbok has straight, rapier-like horns that can reach up to 120cm in length. Interestingly enough these horns are longer and narrower in the female. As beautiful as we found this animal to be, it obviously didn’t find us as appealing, because it went from standing still and staring at us on approach to running in a zig-zag to get away, with the dust still standing in the air as the small harem suddenly turned to see if we were following.
We watched them from the point we had stopped in the open clearing. They stood about 30 meters away from us, staring with their striking black and white facial markings and bodies with a defined pattern of black markings that contrast with the white face and fawn-coloured body. These antelope, with their muscular compact bodies, use their horns in territorial combat and as lethal weapons against predators. Gemsbok can kill Lions while defending themselves. These are extremely interesting animals with phenomenal adaptations for surviving harsh, dry conditions.
When deprived of water, and Oryx will use quite a few measures to minimise its water needs, most notably it allows its body temperature to rise from the regular 35.7ºC to 45ºC. In relation to this, it then uses evaporative cooling by nasal panting and sweating. This animal also concentrates its urine and absorbs all possible moisture. Gemsbok feeds mainly on nutritious leaves, grasses and herbs. During the dry season, they feed on flowers and will also browse for food. In very arid areas, to supplement water requirements Gemsbok will dig for succulent plants and have even been seen eating wild-grown melons. It was then that we not only admired this animal for its striking appearance, but also for its amazing survival capabilities and bravery in being able to fend off a predator as large as a lion. After our gazing competition had ended, between us and the Oryx, we continued on our drive in search of something equally as “Handsome”. The next stop was on Mannekamp plain; this is the biggest plain on Mabula which is south of the lodge. I decided to first drive past Phukubje pan to see if there is anything interesting at the water pan. Suddenly we found some long-necked, tall mammals. “It’s a Giraffe!” everyone exclaimed, and suddenly the excitement levels were heightened. The cameras were clicking as I started explaining about the 6-meter-tall gentle giants.
These amazingly timid mammals were standing together looking at us, with one browsing on some leaves off a tree, as that is their regular source of food. These ruminants prefer to eat the leaves from the top parts of the tree, as they have a height advantage, they can reach the sumptuous leaves at the top that other animals cannot. Once they swallow you can easily see the food going down their long necks, and being ruminants these mammals have four-chambered stomachs. This means they often regurgitate their food after it passes through a given chamber to get as many nutrients from the diet as possible.
So you often see the food moving up and down their long throats as they swallow and regurgitate and then swallow again. You could see the ossicles (horns) sticking out from their heads, and we used these to determine their gender. With the females, the ossicles are completely covered in black hair at the top and all around. If there is a bald spot at the top of the ossicles, like the tip of a white bone at the top, then it is a male. These were all males with the white tips on the ossicles being clearly exposed, and we suddenly noticed something was going on here. Swinging their heads and long necks from side to side, twitching and turning, they put on quite the show. There was quite a sharp remark from one of my guests sitting behind me. She said, “It looks almost as if the giraffe’s necks are dancing.” We all laughed with exhilaration. She was quite right.
These male giraffes were having a contest of dominance and were fighting each other, swinging their necks to try and inflict a fatal blow. But it looked so gentle, as though they were not fighting but rather dancing.
Giraffes have quite a loose social structure by not always staying together in groups and at times being solitary, but there is still competition between them for the rights to territories and females, hence this display of dominance. This is also the way in which the males get their “bald spot”; when they hit each other with their necks, and the ossicles collide with their opponent, they then lose some of the hair follicles at the top thus creating the bald spot.
We were enthralled by this great show; the giraffe was drinking water and playful, we quite enjoyed the show, so much so that some of us were trying to imitate the way giraffes walk ourselves.
We were quite lucky to spot these two cats on our safari in the southwestern parts of the reserve. We made our way around a bend in an attempt to keep up with the fast-moving felines. As we went around the corner, to our surprise, we noticed the cheetahs started rolling on the ground on the road
Cheetahs are more suited for open plains where they use speeds of up to 114 km/h to catch their prey and evade other competitive predators. Cheetah’s walk with their claws extracted to have a better grip on the ground when running at a fast pace. The extracted claws have a similar effect to that of a soccer player’s togs.
We continued down the road to follow them. They crossed in front of us and immediately assumed stalking positions. Walking right next to each other they appear as one unit. Their movement was slow and very well-timed. We could not yet see what they had set their sights on, and so we slowly rolled forward to try and get a better view of what that was.
In front of the Peltophorum corner in the distance, we could see some zebra grazing. This must be what the brothers had set their gaze upon. Their brilliant vision and the extreme benefit of a vantage point allowed them to sight the zebra from afar and they made their way ever closer, gaining ground at a quiet pace. The striped horse-like herbivores were completely unaware of any activity and continued munching the grass. It is quite unusual to see cheetah sizing up prey that is substantially larger than what they are, as this could result in injury for the cats if they are unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the brothers continued stalking and started getting quite close. They had made incredible ground just through a game of patience that we had to endure. We had now been watching them silently for around 40 minutes as they went from 70 metres from the zebra to a mere 20 metres without drawing any attention to their intention.
As they started licking their lips at a possible prospect of breakfast, we realised that the cheetah had a bit of a dilemma. With their extracted claws they were making more sound when moving through the bush. This ultimately resulted in the zebra detecting the movement amongst the grass.
They stood dead still, not moving a muscle. The only movement was their tails wagging about as they contemplated whether or not to run. Equally, the cheetah were also frozen in their steps, with the zebra looking straight in their direction, unsure if they had been identified or not so they kept still in the grass. It was a standoff. Both species not budging for a good 20 minutes. One zebra then decided to turn its head, and with that the brothers gave a gentle step forward. The other striped members quickly noticed the sound and spotted the two cats. Suddenly there was grunting and snorting as the zebras realised what was happening. They immediately ran off, galloping in various directions.
The cheetah’s reactions were quite slow in response, as they were not in a prime position to launch their attack yet. They now had to accept the fact that their breakfast just escaped. They were not willing to exert energy with the zebra now having the upper hand, not to mention the risk factor of them getting injured in the pursuit. They slowly moved off, and lazily disappeared into the long grass.
We were flabbergasted to have experienced the thrill of the stalk. Lost for words, we went to Stuyvesant hill for a well-deserved sundowner with a delicious drinks choice that hopefully wouldn’t escape. It was an absolutely satisfying way to end the day.
As you sip on a drink of your choice and watch the sun sink behind the Waterberg mountains, that same call that got you excited early that morning, vibrates across the plains on you stand. It is time that male lions to find the pride, and you hear them responding far in distance.
The nip in the air comes back, you dream about being around the consuming fire back at the lodge at bon fire at the Boma and excited to share your stories of the most unbelievable safari experience.
If that hasn’t sold you enough then I don’t know what will.
That is all for this month, until next month again…. Enjoy reading.
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.