South Africa is well known for its birdlife, with close to +/- 850 species recorded in the country, of which around 100 (give or take) are migratory, in other words, they don’t call South Africa their permanent home but rather spend some parts of the year beyond our borders.
“We use our linear understanding of the sciences and continually take from the Earth. We take as much as we can, we call this production.”
With a new group of students arriving at the EcoTraining Mashatu Camp, the instructors needed to show them around the reserve so they could start orientating themselves. They started out on morning safari as usual, and if you believe it, by 05:30 am it was already 30°C, so with that, it only made sense to visit one of the major water points in the riverbed.
The instructors and students clambered over East-West ridge, using rocky crossing which ensured that any students that were maybe dozing off were now very much awake! Next up was the fever berry forest, where they stopped for a bit to talk about the medicinal uses of this tree and made spinning tops out of the developing fruit. This is a game played by Tswana children and it proved to be more difficult than anticipated.
Once moving out of the fever berry forest, a tawny eagle was spotted posing beautifully on a dead tree, no one thought much of it, as there is a pair that are seen almost every day in the area. Then someone spotted some jackals in the distance and at that very moment, something caught their eyes…
There was movement through the foliage that lined the rivers banks. Instructor Tayla McCurdy grabbed her binoculars, then explained to the students that there was a lioness coming their way with her cubs trailing behind her. One of the students then informed Tayla that the jackals were feeding on some kind of carcass, it turned out to be a fully-grown eland – the world’s largest antelope!
The lioness and cubs’ bellies were all bursting at the seam, the temperature had now climbed a fair amount and she wasn’t interested in eating but was instead looking for some shade. This meant that she had to move away from the carcass, and lead the cubs to a cool spot to rest for the day. She trundled along with her little ones in tow back towards the fever berry forest.
The vehicles were not covered so, sitting in an open safari vehicle (the best kind) lathering on sunscreen, quenching their thirst the students were also sitting down-wind from the fresh stench of the carcass. So, why did they not move out of the sighting into a more comfortable location?
A: Sometimes you need to learn to stomach horrid smells as a safari guide (this was mild).
B: The instructors were proactive in their guiding and guessed what might happen and wanted to be in the perfect position where they would not be interfering with the sighting. Thankfully, they were right! The vultures arrived out of nowhere and started circling above them, then one by one they started landing.
This was an impressive scene and comical at the same time. Vultures are not the most agile birds when it comes to landing, they bound about at great speed before coming to a complete halt. Then, in a very gangster-like movement with wings spread out they ran towards the carcass. There is always lots of squabbling amongst the various species, with the most dominant species being white-backed vultures and then a few Cape vultures joined the feeding frenzy.
Next minute the lioness burst out of the bush, she trotted angrily towards the scene scaring away as many of the thieving birds as she could. Just as quickly as the vultures arrived, they vanished into thin air, with the exception of a few brave souls that lingered on the tops of nearby trees.
In the video you have just watched, there are many hardships, firstly the lioness on her own trying to successfully raise, protect and feed her cubs, they too were battling what looked like mange. Then the second is the constant battle between predator and scavenger, the vultures, in the end, decimated the carcass and the lioness left the area with her cubs, luckily there are plenty of animals for her to hunt in Mashatu. Every single person on the vehicle were in awe of the sighting, some may have to wait many years to witness a spectacle like that again.
If you want to experience a possible sighting like this, or even have a dream of guiding people in the African wilderness. Why not look at the various courses we have on offer? Or contact enquires on [email protected] to learn more.
Over a short distance, the cheetah has been recognized as the fastest land mammal on the planet. Encounters with these special predators feature on the bucket lists of both local and international travellers who visit the various natural wilderness regions throughout Africa. International Cheetah Day is a day in which we focus on these phenomenal creatures and the plight that they face in conservation.
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) are found mainly in Africa and with a small remaining population in Northern Iran. A sighting of these rather elusive felines is always memorable and never easily forgotten. To call attention to the plight of this vulnerable species, we celebrate International Cheetah Day with some interesting facts that you can share when trading wildlife stories and bushveld encounters.
- Cheetahs are physically designed for speed! From nose to tail they are aerodynamically designed to achieve maximum acceleration in the shortest time.
- Their tails that can be used as a rudder when running, are almost as long as their bodies. In full hunting mode, it is used to balance the animal when it executes tight turns at high speed.
- To retain their fastest-land-mammal crown, they can get from 0 to 100 km/ph in 3 seconds. Faster than most supercars! However, they can only maintain their top speed of +/- 120 km/ph for a short period.
- Although cheetahs are generally regarded as solitary creatures, the males occasionally form coalitions that will allow them to hunt larger prey species. These groups consist of between two and four animals, usually siblings, but they can also be non-related animals that band together to be more effective hunters.
- It is hot work…when hunting, a cheetah can raise the body temperature from an average 38.3°C to over 40°C. They expend a lot of energy in the chase which often leaves them prone to overheating. Although they have a success rate of about 50%, their post-hunt recovery time means that they regularly lose their meal to opportunistic predators like jackal and hyena.
- You would think that with all the expended energy, they would have to drink regularly, but they are the least water-dependent of the cats, getting most of their moisture from the prey they eat.
- Unlike the roar of the lion or the sawing grunt of the leopard, cheetahs communicate through almost bird-like chirps and purrs. They are the only cat out of the big cats that actually purr.
- The dark lines running on either side of the nose are used to absorb light in order to cut-out the visible glare whilst hunting during the day. NFL football players in the USA have adopted similar markings to help them when playing under stadium lights.
- As a solitary animal, a cheetah mom gets no help from either the father of the cubs or other females in the raising and training of the cubs. The cubs are born with a grey ruff along their backs that mimics the colouration of a Honey Badger, a small animal with the attitude of an elephant!
- The fossilized remains of a Giant Cheetah have been carbon-dated, showing that it to be around 1 to 2 million years old!
Would you like to be able to learn to identify the tracks of a cheetah? Or perhaps even track one on foot? If this educational experience is on your bucket list, then why not celebrate International Cheetah Day by signing up and joining one of the EcoTraining Courses? For more information, contact [email protected]
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 [email protected]
If you want to learn more about elephants maybe try your hand at our EcoTraining Elephant Quiz.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 [email protected]
If you would like to still learn more have a look at our Flora Friday Series on EcoTraining TV.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 [email protected]
It sometimes seems that the trio of hyaenas from Disney’s famous movie the Lion King is a representation of the species as a whole. There can be nothing further from the truth, as hyenas are not cowardly, skulking scavengers that they are made out to be.
Found in most wilderness regions of sub-Saharan Africa, the spotted hyena plays a very important role in many African eco-systems.
Much like other animals that have stripes or spots, the pattern on each animal is unique, allowing for easy identification.
These large animals can be found is a vast variety of habitats and have even been found at altitudes as high as 4,100m!
Although they have their cubs in a den, they do like to lie in shaded hollows, culverts and even pools of water during the heat of the day. If you have ever had the privilege to travel to Tanzania or Kenya, you will see hyenas wallowing midday like a hippo in muddy pools of water.
Most people believe that hyena scavenges the majority of their food, but this is not necessarily the truth. They kill up to 95% of their food, with the remaining percentage being scavenged or stolen. Hyenas have excellent hearing and can hear the sound of predators on a kill from up to 10 km away. They will eat almost anything on offer, including fish, pythons and tortoises if nothing else is available. The amount of scavenging versus the amount of hunting a hyena does is all dependent on the population dynamics of other large predators in the region.
Hyenas exert a far greater bite pressure than any other land predator on the continent, they can crush bones that other carnivores cannot eat.
The main rivalry for hyenas are lions. And in many areas, where lions do exist, hyenas are regarded as the dominant apex predator. In the Ngorongoro Crater in Northern Tanzania, hyenas and lions are in a constant battle with each other, in what can only be described as a gladiator’s arena of life and death where often, due to numbers and cunning, hyenas are the victor.
Living in clans as they do, they can be observed to be extremely social. And considering that these clans can exceed 50 in number, it is no easy task. The clans are matriarchal, as the females are larger than their male counterparts and can outweigh them by as much as 30%.
Hyenas communicate via a range of vocalizations varying from whoops and grunts to almost demented human-like laughter. Hence they are often referred to as ‘Laughing Hyenas’. Each call has a specific use and is therefore easily distinguished and interpreted by the rest of the clan. Sitting and listening to a pack of hyenas as they call to each other in the dead of night, is a cacophony that will not be easily forgotten.
When cubs are born at the den site, they get to interact with each other and thus build up a clan hierarchy. The female offspring of the dominant matriarch is known as a Princess and will be afforded special privileges by the rest of the clan.
Built like they are running uphill; they can attain speeds of up to 60 kph, however, more importantly, they maintain that speed for long period of time, enabling them to tier their prey out before catching it and ripping it to shreds.
Female hyenas have a pseudo-penis, making the animals difficult to sex when young, though as adults’, females are easily noticeable due to their size and weight difference to the males. Clans are territorial and will defend their areas aggressively. They mark their areas with dung and a pungent paste secreted from their anal glands.
Hyenas are one of the most intelligent animals on the African continent and arguably the most intelligent predator bar the African Wild Dog.
So, the next time you are on a Safari and encounter these amazing creators, take the time to watch them and learn more about their complex and interesting behaviours.
If you want to know more about EcoTraining, have a look at our website and some of the courses we offer.
Watch and listen to the incredible sounds below in an EcoTraining TV video.