Guide News – October 2023 - Safari Plains Skip to main content

Written by Isaiah Banda

Weather is a topic of conversation that is had daily, all over the world and Mabula is no different. In fact, we are in an industry that is directly influenced by it every day. Animal’s behaviour and their level of activity correlates strongly to temperature.

We also need no reminding that rainfall plays a major role in the overall health of the landscape we get to enjoy on a daily basis. While monitoring the daily weather changes can be quite entertaining, it has been fascinating to watch the long term climate changes during the time I have spent here at Mabula. Over 16 years on the reserve.

The predictions, however, for this coming summer, and potentially the next few years are that rainfall will be below average. Possibly significantly below and this is due to the phenomenon of El Niño and La Niña. I thought this month I will touch little about these climatic phenomenons in light of El Niño being on the horizon.

I will include the causes of El Niño and La Niña and the effects they have on South Africa’s and therefore Mabula’s weather. Both El Niño and La Niña are two phases of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation phenomenon, which is a climate pattern that originates in the tropical Pacific Ocean. El Niño is characterized by the warming of sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific, which leads to drought conditions in Southern Africa and increased rainfall and flooding in the eastern stretches of the Americas.

La Niña, on the other hand, is the opposite phase. It is marked by cooler sea surface temperatures in the same tropical Pacific region. It typically brings about increased rainfall and cooler conditions in Southern Africa and dry weather phases in the western Pacific and the Americas.

These events typically last about a year, but can sometimes continue for longer. They occur every two to seven years, on average, but not on a regular schedule. Last rainy season, we experienced a La Niña cycle and have therefore enjoyed above-average rainfall. Climatologists however expect that we are entering the cycle of El Niño, bringing with it warm, dry conditions.

So what does this mean for the animals? The large herbivores that are heavily dependent on water are the first to feel the effects of drought. Less rainfall results in the river and water holes drying up causing more competition for space amongst hippos and limited drinking water for elephants, buffalos and the like. Predators on the other hand tend to thrive. Weak prey become easy targets and the blood they consume at these kills is a form of hydration itself.

So although we have had an incredibly healthy amount of rain over the last season, this could be changing going forward and things may begin to dry out a little more. But with everything out here, nature will take its course and with the harsher times, the weaker animals and the weaker genes are eliminated and the stronger animals and genes survive and thrive. Rain is a blessing and as quickly as it can bring life, so too can it take it away. Time will tell whether a period of drought is in fact going to strike and if so, just how dry it will be.

On the other hand, promise of spring brings new life and energy, and just as the Mabula bushveld adapts to the season’s shifting climate, so do our animals to reflect the time of year and tell a new story. Roots run deep across our magnificent grounds, where you’ll find a spectrum of indigenous trees, plants and flowers all over the reserve.

Mabula Game Lodge offers amazing wildlife experiences throughout the year, the best game lodge for safari experiences. Everything has evolved to adapt to the ecosystem and complete the food chain, naturally inspired by climatic changes. These past few months, animal concentration and movement have increased, allowing for unbelievable game viewing and rare encounters, including  leopards, cheetah, lions, wild dogs and many other predator-prey encounters.

Seasons in the year play an integral role in animal behavior, which is readily witnessed as time passes here on the reserve. Taking a look back, the winter season has been epic, with wonderful wildlife interactions while on a safari. Some animals species on the reserve  have successfully bred and reared their young during this time, the eland have done very well.

Our wild dogs have not denned during the winter months, or maybe they did and pups did not make it. Hopefully they will breed next time.

Spending time with the pack of wild dogs, we had the privilege of witnessing the entire process of the adults venturing off on an afternoon hunt even though the hunt was not successful. Seeing how the strategy and planning was done among them was amazing. These formidable hunters chased a herd of impalas along Ngorongoro plains, however these impalas were cleverer than them this time, resulting in the pack not making a kill.

As one would imagine, the energy expenditure of wild dogs is exponentially greater than most other animals out here. For an animal that is seldomly seen walking and that chases its prey to exhausting at speeds of 60-70km/hr for 4-5km, it is no wonder that they need to eat at least once a day if not twice a day.

Wild dogs are known for their remarkable hunting abilities and probably have the highest hunting success rate of all the large predators. However, since the energy expenditure of a hunting mission is so high, they need to ensure they can replenish their energy stores before the kleptoparasitic predators such as hyenas swoop in and steal a free meal. In this rapid quest to consume as much meat as possible from their freshly procured meal, they savagely tear mouthfuls off at a time, which are swallowed whole, with no time for chewing.

Wild dogs can consume a significant amount of food for their size, but there is a limit to how much they can eat in a single sitting. This limit is determined by their stomach capacity, which varies among individuals. If the carcass is substantial enough, each dog can consume between 1kg and 6kg of meat and some have a stomach capacity of up to 9 kg. That is more than a quarter of their own body weight. Now that is very impressive.

In consuming a slight excess of meat it allows them to regurgitate for their young. However, the feeding behaviour of wild dogs is a complex and fascinating process. It’s not as structured as it might seem, with regurgitation being more of an instinctual response to the needs of the young pups rather than a precise portion control mechanism. The pack must strike a delicate balance between caring for their young and maintaining their strength for future hunts. This unique approach to parenting in the wild highlights the adaptability and resourcefulness of these remarkable animals.

Patience is the key out here in the bush.

If there is one thing that the bush will teach you, it is to have a lot of patience. When you are out and about on your safari, you want to see as much as possible, and us as guides will make it our mission to show you everything we possibly can. We want to interpret to you everything we know, show you the beautiful place we call home, and help you tick off as many animals as possible that you have on your must-see list. However, it is not always possible to show you everything.

The first lesson in practising patience is on your early morning safari waiting for the sun to peak over the horizon and paint the sky in red, orange, and yellow. Sometimes it helps to sit still for a moment, be patient, and wait for the perfect moment.

Be present, feel the sun heating up your skin, and watch as the sky turns from a cold blue to a warm orange. It happened one morning with my guests when we had to be patience for a leopard sighting. We set out for the afternoon safari around Modjadji side and we were not successful. And decided we will try the next morning on the southern side towards Mokaikai area. With patience we were rewarded.

We started off early around 05h30 heading to Mokaikai area using telepgraph road into telegraph extension. We had quite beautiful slightings including the cheetah female and cubs drinking water at Cussonia pan. Seeing a wild leopard in its natural habitat on Mabula is on top of our guest’s safari bucket list!

Their magical look and elegant movements are enough to send chills down your spine.  Have you ever stopped and thought about how that particular leopard you are viewing, came to be so strong, resilient, magical and elegant? Spending much of their time in the thickets, in which they can find enough cover to hunt effectively, leopards can be difficult to find. All the guests on the safari vehicle went silent when we spotted not one lepoard, but three on top of the rock. A mother and her two cubs. Seeing leopard cubs in the wild is something else and magical. Especially finding them at their den where they were born.

Playtime is very important for young leopards and starts at a very early age in their lives. Playtime consists of stalking, pouncing, biting or tugging on mom’s tail. Siblings will often play together, as well as start exploring away from the den when mom is out hunting. Play is a very important activity in a cub’s life because it teaches them the necessary skills they would need in order to survive later on when they have to face life on their own without their mother.

It also improves their stalking agility and hunting skills, as well as aids in muscle building.  During playtime, various small objects seem to amuse leopard cubs. They would utilise various natural toys that the bush provides for them, such as rocks, sticks and leaves. You might even sometimes see a young cub pouncing around in an attempt to catch a grasshopper!

Nothing can prepare you for your first sight of a wild leopard. For a while you sit gobsmacked, unable to comprehend that a creature as beautiful as this actually exists. Seeing the way its muscles supply ripple under it skin as it pads with feline grace down a game path, its rosette-covered coat making it disappear the moment it stands still in a thicket is almost surreal.

Tallest mammal of Mabula.

We all know that giraffes are the tallest of all the animals out here, but did you know that giraffes’ eyes are even bigger than those of elephants, and hippos? Ostriches aren’t the only land animals on safari that have large eyes.

Giraffes have excellent vision in almost all directions, which they use to their advantage to keep safe by constantly scanning the landscape for threats such as lions. They can spot predators up to 1km away. Other animals such as zebra and impala are often seen with giraffe for this reason.

Giraffe have the same number of vertebrae in their necks, seven, as most mammals. The bones are just much longer and larger. The last join in the vertebra between the base of the head and the neck, the axis/atlas joint, is extremely flexible, allowing giraffe to put their heads at an almost vertical angle from the neck. This is unusual in mammals as It allows giraffes to reach the tallest of branches that not even elephants can reach, enabling exclusive access to a precious resource, fresh leaf shoots and flowers.

The neck is not only long to reach leaves, but it also comes with other benefits. Male giraffe use their necks in combat called necking and the additional height also gives them a great vantage point to spot predators. When they do sleep, the giraffe will sit down, mostly with the head and neck up and doze for a few minutes at a time.

Every now and then, for a few minutes, they may curl the neck around and place the head on the rump. This will normally be in a large open clearing or on a crest, where they feel safer and have the time to stand up and run away before anything sneaks up on them. A large portion of rest will be acquired during rumination. This is the period when they regurgitate partially digested food (the cud) back into the mouth and re-chew it, swallowing it again to gather maximum nutrients and moisture – just like cows do.

During rumination, the animal’s brain is alert but in a much more relaxed state than normal activity, enabling a period of rest and recovery. Giraffes sleep for less than two hours a day in short intervals compared to their main predator – lions – who can sleep for 18-20 hours per day! A rather unfair playing field…

Seeing a giraffe lower its neck to drink makes you wonder why blood rushing down to the head does not cause it to black out or bring fatal haemorrhaging. To withstand a surge of blood when its head is raised, lowered, or swung rapidly, the giraffe evolved control valves in its jugular and unusually elastic blood vessels at the base of the head known as rete mirabile carotorcium, that acts as a pressure regulation buffer and helps keep the pressure constant in the brain.

Their unique evolutionary design has required profound adaptations to the giraffe’s circulatory system. A neck of unusual length requires specialised equipment to pump blood over two metres uphill to the brain. A giraffe’s heart beat can reach 170bpm, double that of a human, while pumping the highest known blood pressure of any mammal, again double that of a human. This is possible because the left ventricle has an incredibly thick wall and a small radius.

The walls are up to 4cm thick. The right is only 1cm thick and pumps only a short distance to the lungs, whereas the left ventricle pumps all the way up the neck to the head against hydrostatic pressure of the blood already in the long vertical artery.

It is also incredible that blood does not pool up in the legs, nor does a cut in the legs bleed profusely even though arteries near the feet are under great pressure because of the weight of fluid pressing down on them. In other animals, such pressure would force the blood out through the capillary walls. In giraffes, however, these blood vessels are thick-walled and less elastic, with a very tight sheath of thick skin around the lower leg.

Giraffe have the thickest skin of all land mammals due to the high blood pressure maintained within a giraffe’s body, the skin has developed to be exceedingly thick. The skin acts almost like a compression suit to prevent the pooling of blood due to such high pressure. Imagine how quickly a giraffe would bleed out from a tiny scratch if the skin was not thick. The capillaries are thick-walled and inelastic to avoid this. Furthermore, the skin is about 16mm thick, which is more than double the thickness of elephant or hippo skin. Hard to believe!

While the giraffe’s patterns on their skin are beautiful and unique, they do serve a purpose. They are great for camouflage but more importantly, help the giraffe in controlling body temperature in Mabula’s hot conditions. Under each patch is a sophisticated blood system and around each patch is a blood vessel. When giraffe need to lose heat, they send blood through these vessels into these patches and release heat to the environment. With a long neck, it increases skin area which allows them to keep cool.

These are just a few of the unique adaptation’s giraffes have developed over 1000s of years to survive the harsh areas. They have done their part and all they require of us is that we conserve their habitats for them to roam free as gentle giants. Like Mabula have done for them.

Best elephants sightings this month.

Our guests were very priviledged this month with elephant sightings on the reserve. We were able to find them on different areas on the reserve. With rains still scares so are the food sources, they still have to go up the mountains to find food at night and move down in the morning to get to water to drink.

Let’s look into how elephants use their trunk to drink water. If you dissected an elephant’s trunk, it would look more like a tongue than a nose. Trunks and tongues are organs called muscular hydrostats, meaning they are almost entirely made of muscles. Elephants have about 40 000 muscles in their trunk, and we humans only have about 650 in our entire body.

The combination of precision and strength is remarkable as they don’t have any bones or joints to help them operate their trunk. But their trunk is still a nose and they can dilate and expand their nostrils to suck up 8 to 12 litres of water which they then squirt into their mouth.

All the pressure is on the matriarch to find water for the rest of the herd. She uses various methods to help find water. If the weather conditions become very dry for an extended period, she will migrate them to the closest area where they can find water. She will rely on three different methods to find water from afar. Her memory, sense of smell and communication with others.

Elephants are known to never forget, which is achieved by a very large temporal lobe and well-developed cerebrum and cerebellum. She can remember where she had previously found water, even if this was when she was still a baby and the previous matriarch had led the herd to water.

They sometimes dig for water when they cannot find fresh water. This helps them and other animals when they dig into dry riverbeds or other spots to uncover water that is lurking below the surface. They will create very big holes by digging with their feet, trunks, and tusks, working hard until they reach a good water supply.

When the elephants are finished with the water, other animals will take advantage of whatever is left behind. These holes also provide the elephants with mud, which they scoop up with their trunk and spread over their skin as protection from the scorching sun and biting insects.

An elephant’s sense of smell is incredible as it has about 2000 olfactory receptors, whereas a bloodhound only has about 800 olfactory receptors. They can detect water sources up to 19.2 km away. Their nostrils are located at the tip of the trunk, and they use this for smelling and breathing.

An elephant’s sense of smell is in constant use; while they use their trunk to move back and forth, they detect new scents and information. Once a scent is drawn in through the nostrils, a series of seven olfactory turbines are located in the nasal cavity. Turbinals are curls of bone that will have millions of olfactory receptor cells associated with them.

Elephants will communicate with one another in different ways, but one of the most effective ways is through infrasonic calls. They have excellent hearing and can detect sounds as low as 14 Hz to 16 Hz, we as humans cannot go lower than 20Hz, and as high as 12 000Hz, a human’s highest range is 20 000 Hz. Elephants use these infrasonic sounds, sounds humans cannot hear as it is lower than our hearing range, to communicate over long distances.

They can recognise calls and voices of particular individuals from 1 to 1.5 km (0.6-0.9 mi.) away. The ears of the elephant are used to funnel in sound waves from the environment, contributing to its keen sense of hearing. In general, animals with large heads and wide-set ears are better adapted for hearing lower frequency sounds because the larger skull encompasses longer ear canals and wider tympanic membranes. These are membranes that separates the middle ear from the exterior, and larger middle ears.

So next time you see an elephant drinking water, it may not be coincidental that they just stumbled upon the water.

Buffaloes update this month.

Buffaloes are one of the wild bovid species found on Mabula. It has capitalised and is found over an incredibly large range on Mabula with varying densities based on food and water availability.

Buffaloes can subsist on grasses too tall and course for most other ruminants and is what we would consider a bulk grazer, although it is not well suited to young tender shoots which typically attract the more selective grazers such as wildebeest, warthog and zebra.

Here at Mabula, we have a seasonal abundance of resources which attracts our herd consisting upwards of over hundred individuals. The wet summer period causes the herd to split up and herds numbering 10 – 30 individuals are more common. The unique preference for tall pasture means that buffalo play a pioneering role in the Mabula grazing succession, reducing grassland to the height preferred by more selective feeders.

A highly mobile nature means that these animals rarely hang around trampled areas with depleted pasture and cause a series of knock-on effects once they have moved onwards. The volume of photosynthetic energy consumed and transported by the herd, which is then subsequently converted to a waste product in the form of sloppy dung, attracts many invertebrates such as dung beetles and termites which perform the vital function of cycling these nutrients and making them accessible to new plants and grasses.

Weighing in at four times that of an adult male lion, there are not many situations where the buffalo is identified as an easy target. The young and sick are readily protected when moving with the herd as defensive positions are quickly deployed when danger is sensed nearby.

mobbing technique is extremely successful when predators are identified as the threat. The solitary nature that is more commonly observed in old bulls is not an open invitation given their wealth of experience and highly aggressive nature but at times these old bulls can be riddled with disease or infection which weaken their defences.

Update on Lake Kyle pride.

It’s amazing to see just how plans change out in nature, you can plan your route and what you would like to find as much as you would like but the bush always has a way to throw a spanner in the works. We went past one of the waterholes to see if the lions had decided to head towards the water as it was a boiling day out in the bush.

The lion’s physical attributes epitomize strength and agility. With well-developed muscles and a sturdy build, these powerful creatures possess the ability to sprint at speeds of up to 80km’s per hour, helping them to execute swift pursuits and capture fast-moving prey. Additionally, their sharp retractable claws and strong jaws equipped with formidable canines give to their efficient hunting techniques and unmatched dominance in the animal kingdom.

One of the most iconic qualities of the male lion is its powerful mane, a symbol of power and virility. This impressive tuft of hair across the lion’s head serves both as a visual display of dominance and as a means of protection during area conflict. The darker and fuller the mane, the more likely a male lion is to attract potential mates and create his authority within the pride.

Lionesses exhibit remarkable maternal instincts, playing an important role in raising and nurturing their cubs. These devoted mothers provide rule, protection, and education, teaching their cubs vital survival skills. Young cubs spend their early months under the careful eyes of their mother, learning to playing together, hunt, and adapt to the tough life of Mabula.

As apex predators, lions play a vital role in sustaining the balance of ecological community.  Their presence helps regulate prey populations and prevents overgrazing. Lions initially prey on large herbivores such as zebras, wildebeest, and buffalo.

Lions, the kings of Mabula, never fail to charm us with their enchant behaviors and revamp while on safari. From their social structure and hunting prowess, to their impressive argument, lions continue to inspire awe and respect.

During sunset, the sun is again low on the horizon, but this time, its light passes through less atmosphere, resulting in less scattering of shorter wavelengths. The unfiltered light accentuates the warm hues, creating a picturesque red sky.

Sunsets on Mabula are incredibly stunning, with vibrant colours like orange, red, and purple filling the sky as the sun goes down. It’s my favourite moment of the day.

During your next visit to Mabula, take the time to notice and appreciate all of nature’s artistic wonders. It will inspire you to pause, observe, and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us here at Mabula.

Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.
Safari Greetings.

Photos credit to Isaiah Banda, Alexander Pouris.
Leopard’s cubs’ pictures credit to Daniel James Photography