Elephant Eye

An Elephant Encounter | EcoTraining Pridelands Camp

It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But what happens when the eye being watched is towering several meters above where you are sitting?  At EcoTraining Pridelands Camp recently the students had an encounter that reinforced that these gentle giants are exactly that if treated with calmness and respect.

EcoTraining Pridelands Camp Waterhole

Elephants at Pridelands Camp waterhole (c) David Batzofin

Sitting quietly at the EcoTraining Pridelands Camp waterhole, watching a herd of elephants is always a great opportunity for students to get to understand the interactive dynamics of a group of the largest of all land mammals. Taking time off from their theoretical studies, the students got to sit and marvel as these giants frolicked in the water and mud on the far side of the waterhole. But what no one factored in whilst viewing the elephants was the possibility that part of the herd would decide to end up right outside the lecture tent (where everyone was sitting).

Close up of elephants tusks

Elephant close up (c) David Batzofin

One of the golden rules of walking in the bush is “NEVER RUN” and the same was true in this instance. Having these huge animals testing the wind just a short distance away from the students had everyone’s ‘flight or fight’ reflexes on high alert. Thanks to the expertise of the instructors, who had, on previous occasions stressed the need to remain calm when in potentially dangerous situations with game, the students did exactly that and fought the natural urge to move and instead sat enjoyed the moment with these magnificent creatures.

Close up of elephants mouth

Elephant close up (c) David Batzofin

At the various EcoTraining Camps there are learning opportunities around every corner, or in this case behind a tree. And this instance was no exception. The instructors took this opportunity to explain the feeding habits as well as the tooth structure of elephants to the group.

Close up of an elephant

Elephant close up (c) David Batzofin

As a result of their size and poor digestion, elephants have to eat often and in copious quantities, it, therefore, came as no surprise to the students that part of the herd would stay to feed. What was a surprise was the fact that the bulls decided to come to where everyone was seated to fulfil that need. As the camp, like all other EcoTraining Camps, it is unfenced, the animals are not hindered in their search for sustenance.

By sitting quietly, we allowed these gentle creatures to continue with their daily feeding regime without feeling threatened or uncomfortable.

Elephant in camp

Elephant and students (c) David Batzofin

As the last of the young males slowly wandered through the camp, the students all watched in silence. What had this experience taught them? Elephants are definitely bigger than they seem (especially when you are on the same level) and, if treated with the respect they deserve, they will allow you to share their space, turning an encounter such as this into an educational experience.

How would you behave in a situation like this? Would you be able to relax or would you be too uncomfortable to remain seated quietly and enjoy the encounter? By joining an EcoTraining course you will be provided with the knowledge and understanding of how to make the most of encounters like this in a calm and respectful way. For more information contact EcoTraining on enquiries@ecotraining.co.za

If you want to learn more about elephants maybe try your hand at our EcoTraining Elephant Quiz.

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Want to know if summer’s here | Listen for a Cuckoo

They may have a bad rap in literature (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Midwich Cuckoos for example) but there are few more fascinating birds than cuckoos. In Southern Africa, cuckoos are all migrants, except for the Klaas’s Cuckoo which is a resident in some lowland areas. This means that they are absent from the region for most of the year, only moving down from further north in Africa and Asia during the rainy season.

While cuckoos tend to migrate from as early as September, typically most arrive in late October to November. Most of the 15 species we have in South Africa are intra-African migrants, which means that they come down from countries further north within Africa, down to the south of the continent. There are also a few Palearctic migrants, namely the Common (European) Cuckoo and the Lesser Cuckoo, with the Common Cuckoo coming from China, Korea and Japan and the Lesser Cuckoo coming from Afghanistan and the foothills of the Himalayas. These Palearctic migrants are, however, much less common than the intra-African migrants.

One of the reasons cuckoos migrate down to our neck of the woods is to feast upon the vast insect numbers that come to life after the early summer rains have fallen – specifically to eat the processionary worms (hairy caterpillars) that you will often see huddled together on tree branches, particularly on the Velvet Corkwood tree (Commiphora mollis). In fact, cuckoos are specialised in eating the hairy caterpillars, which are – for good reason – avoided by most other birds. For their meals, cuckoos smash the caterpillars against branches and other objects to remove the caterpillar’s irritating hairs. These caterpillars are the larval stage of the reticulate bagnest moth (Anaphe reticulata).

In spite of their dark reputation (see the books mentioned above and the saying “you’ve gone cuckoo”!), cuckoos are renowned for having very musical songs. That said, not all species are known for holding a tune with the Clamator cuckoos (Levaillant’s, Jacobin and great spotted cuckoo’s) have more of a chattering, unmusical call. But a few have such characteristic songs that it has resulted in their actual common name. For example, the red-chested cuckoo is called the Piet-my-vrou in Afrikaans, which is an onomatopoeic rendition of the distinct “quid-pro-quo” sounding call it monotonously sings. The Diederick cuckoo is called a Diederikkie in Afrikaans which is also a reference to its call which sounds like “dee-dee-deederick”.

Most cuckoos that migrate to Southern Africa breed during their stay here. Their breeding behaviour is very interesting and unlike that of most other birds. All of the locally occurring cuckoos are what we call “brood parasites”. A “brood parasite” is a bird that lays its eggs or egg in another bird’s nest, in the hopes that their clutch will outcompete the host’s eggs and the host bird will incubate and raise the cuckoo’s chicks. This is done for a few reasons: the cuckoo expends less energy as it does not need to raise its own chick and by laying eggs in a few different nests, the risk is spread and therefore the chances of the chicks being successfully raised is increased. To achieve this parasitism, cuckoos have developed techniques to trick their host birds: most cuckoos have developed what is called “egg-mimicry” in which their eggs look similar in size, colour and shape to that of the host’s egg. Typically, the cuckoo will also evict an egg from the host nest, for each one she lays. When they hatch, some cuckoos – like the African emerald cuckoo and the Diederick – will even evict unhatched host eggs. After hatching (and while still blind) the hatchling will back up to the host’s egg, collect it in a special cavity and then toss it over the edge of the nest. They may do this to the host’s young chicks as well. Alternatively, the cuckoo chick will hack and peck the host chicks to death once they have hatched – and which might just help explain their reputation in popular culture! However, in some cases, the parasite and host chicks are raised together without any hostility.

Another interesting point to add is that males often perform “courtship-feeding”, in which they feed caterpillars to females in an attempt to court them. This often leads people to believe that the cuckoo is feeding one of its own, yet this is not true as no local cuckoo species raises its young.

Cuckoos are amazing birds and are fascinating even to non-twitchers, particularly for their long-distance travel, nesting behaviour and beautiful melodic calls. Unfortunately, however, catching sight of a cuckoo is not easy as they are only seen – and more often just heard – in the rainy season.

This, however, just makes their presence more special as they are here to tell us that summer has well and truly begun!

Are you keen on birds or learning more about them, have a look at our Birding in the Bush course we offer.

Still want to learn something more today, have a look at the bird quizzes we have available:

Birds & Birding

Animal Eyesight 

Bird Challenge

 

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Martial Eagle

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Do you think you know how to ID a tree?

The current students on the EcoTraining Field Guide Course were taken on a walk around the Pridelands Camp to learn to identify various tree species. This course, recognized by FGASA as their Apprentice Field Guide Course, offers all the students to learn something new and for the international students the opportunity to see these species for the first time.

EcoTraining Pridelands Classroom

Student in the EcoTraining Pridelands Camp classroom

Before the tree identification walk could take place, all the students needed to have a lecture on the trees that they could possibly see whilst on their walk. The theoretical side of the lecture would inform them of the scientific as well as the common names of the trees as well as which parts can be utilized to make an accurate identification. Once this information had been shared, instructors Steve Baillie and Rhodes Bezuidenhout took the students on a walk around Pridelands camp to put all the theoretical knowledge to practical use.

EcoTraining Instructor

EcoTraining instructor Steve Ballie introducing some of the trees

For their assessment, and to be competent to pass the module, the students have to be able to name three tree species but they also have to identify some of their uses, whether it be cultural, traditional or medicinal. On this practical walk, the students were asked to identify seven species.

Buffalo Thorn Tree

Buffalo Thorn (Ziziphus mucronata)

The Afrikaans name, ‘blinkblaar-wag-‘n-bietjie’, is very descriptive! Getting entangled in one of these does tend to curtail your activity.

Probably more than any other tree, the Buffalo Torn has far-reaching cultural importance in Eastern and Southern Africa, with many beliefs attributed to it.  In Botswana, the tree is believed to protect from lightning. The fruits are edible and nutritious though not very appetizing and can be eaten fresh, dried or made into porridge. Mix the crushed fruit pulp with water and you have a thirst-quenching drink, ferment it and you have a beer! The young leaves can be prepared similarly to spinach. Roasted seeds can be used as ‘pap’ or a coffee substitute. The wood is used for fence posts, fuel and tool handles. Nothing goes to waste. The sap can be used as a poison, the bark can be used to aid in tanning skins and hides. The roots have been known to aid in the treatment of snake bites, while the high tannin levels make it a remedy for dysentery.

The tree provides sustenance for animals and birds alike, including the elephant and the black rhino. Its nectar is a rich food source for local bee populations.

Weeping wattle

Weeping Wattle (Peltophorum africanum)

Also referred to as the African blackwood or African false-wattle, the bark is usually grooved and dark brown in the older plants. It has easily identifiable acacia-like leaves and yellow flowers. Not only is this tree a source of pollen for bees, birds and other insects, it is also utilized in many traditional medicines. It is said that the roots have antibacterial properties that can be used to treat wounds. They are also used in the treatment of mouth sores and can help relieve toothache. The leaves are said to remove internal parasites. The wide canopy and thick leafy canopy make ideal shade for animals and humans alike.

Sickle Bush (Dichrostachys cinerea)

Sickle Bush (Dichrostachys cinerea)

Occurring throughout Africa, it also found in Madagascar, India, Indonesia, and Australia. The spines, which are modified hardened branchlets, have been known to be the chief source of many punctures to tires on game drive vehicles. Often leading to it being referred to colloquially as “Landrovis Papwielus”. As a pioneer species, it can establish itself quickly and acts as an erosion barrier. Being termite resistant, it is used in the manufacture of fence posts and it is a constant source of quality firewood for the local communities. Like many African tree species, this too has medicinal properties. The roots can be used as a local anaesthetic and in Botswana, it is often prescribed by traditional healers as a tapeworm cure. The lilac upper-half and the yellow lower have of the sweet-smelling puffy flowers give rise to a rather descriptive name, the Chinese lantern tree.

Tamboti thicket

Tamboti (thicket) (Spirostachys africana)

An interesting fact about the Tamboti is that the milky latex that is secreted is poisonous to humans, but not to animals. It is a food source for many species of antelope, elephants, and black rhino. Porcupines’ appetites for the bark is so voracious that they sometimes ringbark the trees, which can lead to the death of the tree. The reason for referring to it as the ‘Jumping bean tree’, is that small grey moth from the Pyralidae family often lays its eggs in the fruit and the larvae cause the bean to ‘jump’ once they hatched.

Russet Bushwillow Tree

Russet Bushwillow (Combretum hereroense)

While students like Kaenan took notes, Steve shared his knowledge with the group. Found in the Lowveld, this tree is often found in rocky areas and sometimes on river banks. The leaves are enjoyed by several antelope species as well as both elephant and giraffe. It is a very dense wood and as a result, it is often used to manufacture handles for tools and mine supports. If you are looking to make yourself a walking stick, then this is the tree to choose from. The seeds can also be used to make tea. If you want to know how to make bushwillow tea have a look at this video as instructor Mike Anderson shows us how it is done.

Jackalberry Tree

Jackalberry (Diospyros mespiliformis)

The Jackalberry tree is found throughout Africa. These trees are often found growing from termite mounds as they prefer the deep sedimentary soils (but it is also not uncommon for them to grow in sandy soils). As the wood of the Jackalberry is almost impermeable to termites, this makes a nice symbiotic relationship, as the termite colonies provide the tree with aerated soil and a source of moisture. In turn, the roots of the tree protect the termites, who don’t eat the living wood. Jackalberry wood is almost termite-resistant after it has been cut down and is most useful in the making of fence posts and tool handles. These trees can grow up to 24m with a circumference of 5m. The female Jackalberry is the only one to produce fruit.

Zebrawood Tree

Zebrawood (Dalbergia melanoxylon)

This tree occurs on all soil types although it is easier to find in areas with clay soils or on rocky outcrops. The heartwood, which is dark in colour, is heavier than the outer ring and, is also heavier than the iconic Leadwood tree. The flowers are a scented greenish-white that covers the tree during the summer months. The roots are favoured by elephants, while the leaves are enjoyed by a variety of species, including giraffe. The traditional medicinal properties include using the roots to treat headaches and toothache. The roots and the wood are often used to make woodwind instruments and jewellery.

So, next time you take a walk in your neighbourhood try and see how many trees you can identify. Taking into consideration all the different uses from one tree, your expert knowledge might just come in handy someday.

Would you like to brush up on your knowledge of tree species? Then why not enrol in one of the many courses offered by EcoTraining? To find out more, email enquiries@ecotraining.com

If you would like to still learn more have a look at our Flora Friday Series on EcoTraining TV.

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Elephant in Makuleke

What can you expect | Makuleke Camp

Another day begins in the African bush, in the beautiful Makuleke. The Pafuri section of the Kruger National Park is by far the wildest, most remote and biologically diverse region in the Greater Kruger. The EcoTraining Makuleke Concession (Pafuri section) is 25,000 Hectares in extent, which makes up only 1% of the entire Kruger National Park, however, contains 75% of the park’s biodiversity. Imagine spending part of your EcoTraining Course immersed in this wilderness.

Lanner Gorge Sunrise

Lanner Gorge, Makuleke Concession, Kruger National Park

On each course, students are split up in groups of twos that make up the “duty teams”. Each team is responsible for the daily set up of meals, teas, coffees and wake up calls. This is a great way for them to learn the various hosting duties that they may be required to take on when working at a Safari lodge.

Baobab Tree

Lone Baobab (c) David Batzofin

Hundreds of these magnificent and iconic Baobab trees can be found throughout the Makuleke region. Baobab’s trunks have been known to grow to a diameter over 40 feet, some are thought to be well over 1000-years in age. If you want to learn more about this incredible tree take our EcoTraining Quiz and test your knowledge.

Makuleke Camp Accommodation

Makuleke Accommodation

Students are usually accommodated two per tent. The Makuleke Camp tents are very comfortable, they are elevated on wooden platforms and each has its own bathroom facility. The tents are set in a semi-circle, facing outwards to give each room the best view possible. There are also pathways in between the tents that are used by a variety of animals, including a couple of resident bull elephants.

Makuleke elephant

Elephants in the Makuleke

The beds are comfortable and are supplied with a pillow and duvet. Students are encouraged to bring pillows and a sleeping bag for when the weather becomes cooler and trust us it does get cooler.

Makuleke camp kitchen

Kitchen board & morning coffee

Much like all the other camps, the heart of this camp is the kitchen. Judging by the comments on the above board, many have attested to the delicious food that is produced by the ladies working here, the notice board has clearly turned into a thank you board! A hot breakfast is served once the students return from morning activity. Although the students do not cook or prepare any of the meals everyone works as a team and helps one another and the camp staff to bring the food, condiments, cutlery, and plates to the dining area. Most of the EcoTraining camps use a kudu horn to call the students to meals, here it is the sound of the cowhide drum that informs all in the camp when meals are ready.

EcoTraining student

EcoTraining student hard at work

On all the EcoTraining courses there is a mix of theoretical book work and exams as well as practical training and assessments. Between meals, the beautiful open-aired dining area turns into a bush-classroom where the instructors give lectures on a variety of very interesting course work. Although all the instructors have different skills and teaching styles, they all have one thing in common…passion! For both the natural environment as well as passing their expertise on to those who have come to learn.

Greater Kruger Park Walking Trail

Walking Trail in Makuleke

Usually, after a long day filled with activities in the bush, students get to either walk back or drive back to camp as the sunsets. It is at this time where they get the opportunity to wind down, grab a well-served shower and a cool drink.

After dinner, everyone can enjoy the company of a crackling fire and reflect on a wonderful day had in the remarkable wilderness that is Makuleke.

If you would like to find out more about what each camp offers, please email enquiries@ecotraining.co.za

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