One of the first things you will probably learn out in the African bush is the famous rule – Don’t run! As a runner, I guess this golden rule won’t help me get a gold medal at my upcoming race as it stops me dead in my tracks quite literally. The idea of possibly becoming prey when you kick up the pace is a frightening thought as there is no way you can outrun anything out here, even if you were the fastest animal on two legs.
I’ve lived in several countries in Europe and in each of them I was far enough away from Southern Africa to have developed a considerable misconception about that place over the years. Europe holds many gems but unfortunately, the wildlife is not as enthralling as in Africa, and our ecosystems are incredibly different. The role of the field guide is not such a well-known job in our European cities and therefore many things about this job have been unknown to me all these years.
Professional Field Guide students, Sarina and Joya, take us on a walkabout through the newly built EcoTraining Karongwe camp.
Celebrating our mutualistic relationship with the animals of EcoTraining Camps.
When you set up an unfenced camp in a wildlife area or game reserve, you are bound to have animals come into your camp relatively often. With the EcoTraining camps, there is no exception.
In fact, a very important aspect of the EcoTraining experience is reconnecting with nature. By living in nature and being close to nature – and staying in one of EcoTraining’s unfenced camps does exactly this. Waking up to birds singing in the morning, having animals walk through the camp, and the occasional snake that has to be removed from a bathroom all encompass a true experience of nature. It may seem dangerous and scary to people at first, but when animals are given respect, it is possible for both humans and animals to live in close proximity without either party being negatively affected.
Wildlife around Karongwe Camp
From elephants walking through the camp, lions roaring outside your tent, hyenas breaking into the kitchen and baboons stealing fruit from the breakfast table, it is not uncommon to have an encounter with an animal within the camp limits. Sometimes these encounters are awe-inspiring and sometimes they are nerve-racking, but it is highly uncommon for the encounter to end with an animal or person in danger or disturbed.
The most common animals in camps are those that find safety within the space. Nyalas are a prime example of this, with all EcoTraining camps as well as most lodges having resident Nyalas hanging around. This is because camps offer a degree of safety from predators as well as less competition from other herbivores (so more food).
Baboons and vervet monkeys are also common utilisers of campgrounds – likely using the camp areas for safety as well. As anyone who has stayed in a camp will know, they will also try their luck at stealing whatever scraps of food they can get their hands on. A common phenomenon that has been observed with baboons is that they will often flip the rocks that demarcate the pathways in camps – this is in order to find any grubs, scorpions or general bugs hidden under the rocks for them to munch on.
EcoTraining’s Karongwe camp has a resident genet that is often seen commuting through the campgrounds. She has become very habituated and allows people to come quite close, however she is still wild and does not rely on people or the camp for food and safety. It is a strict policy to never feed animals as we don’t want them to start expecting food from people and losing their instinct to get their own food. We also don’t want the animals to lose their instinctual fear of humans as this can aid in their exploitation – for example, poachers can have an easier target if an animal has learnt that humans do not pose a threat.
Some animal encounters around camp (c) Zach Savage & David Niederberger
Wildlife around Makuleke Camp, Greater Kruger National Park
EcoTraining Makuleke has several elephants that frequent the camp. These gentle giants come in only looking to feed on the Brown Ivory, Umbrella thorns and other trees in the camp. The decks in front of each tent always provide for spectacularly close but safe viewing of the elephants as they make their way through the camp.
Respecting the symbiotic relationship
All camps have a plethora of bird, reptile, amphibian and insect life to excite the interests of students when they are in camp and to keep them learning about the nature around them. Even though you are living in a ‘wild’ area, the ethos of EcoTraining is to provide a holistic and safe experience to everyone who spends time in one of our camps. We respect the nature around us and want to maintain a mutualistic relationship on both sides.
At first, it may feel daunting to stay in an EcoTraining unfenced camp. But once you have had a few nights to settle in, you start to love every moment of it – so much so that even a lion roaring five metres from your tent will not scare you. Instead, it will thrill you to your bones and you will connect with the experience on a very primal level – an experience that your ancestors perhaps once had, now reborn in an EcoTraining camp.
Some Trivia fun
Do you know the difference between the large-spotted & small-spotted genets?
The white-backed night heron is an elusive and rather poorly known species of crepuscular piscivore. A relative of the much more common black-crowned night heron, this secretive and shy inhabitant of slow-flowing rivers and dams are generally regarded as rare throughout a rather wide distribution. They can be seen from the east cape of South Africa along the Indian coastal belt through to the Lowveld and into parts of Southern and central Africa.
But they can only be spotted in their suitable habitat which makes finding them for your life list that much trickier.
The species stronghold is undoubtedly the Okavango Delta where local mokoro based excursions from many lodges in the area offer a good chance of connecting with this sought after skulker. Birds are most often seen when flushed from bank waterside vegetation where they roost in the deepest shade during the daylight hours. They are generally active from early evening into the night before flying back to their roost sites as dawn approaches.
Their hunting methods
White-backed Night Herons (Gorsachius leuconotus) as with most herons are opportunistic feeders with fish, arthropods, frogs and freshwater crabs comprising most of its diet. Some of their prey will simply be seized because it is available. A strong spear-shaped bill is used to spear passing prey at such speeds that the prey passing won’t know what hit them.
Underwater prey is waited for patiently, usually from vegetation overhanging the surface of the water or from a waded position just out from the bank. These birds can sit motionless for long periods of time until the opportunity arises. Like all herons, they possess specialised neck vertebrae. The neck is able to kink in an S-shape, due to the modified shape of the cervical vertebrae. This acts as a coil spring which gives their hefty bill incredible speed when the head is shot forward towards unsuspecting prey.
Another incredible feature of this hunting method is that these birds automatically take into account the refraction that takes place when looking into the water. The head of a heron corrects for light refraction at the water’s surface by adjusting the position and keeping a constant relationship between real and apparent prey depth.
Where do they occur in South Africa?
In South Africa, there are very few reliable places to find this endearing species with several sites along the garden route and Eastern Cape, Lake Phobane in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Lake Albasini in Limpopo offering some of the better chances. Something that is quite exciting is that this special species has been recorded quite regularly at EcoTraining Karongwe Camp. Most records are from the weir along the Karongwe River within the reserve, but birds have been seen at nearby Spectre and GVI Dams as well as from within camp itself.
This is wonderful news for birders who have been eluded by this beautiful bird as here at Karongwe there is the potential, for those who are fortunate, to access one of Africa’s most desired birds while taking in the beauty of the African wilderness and the stunning Lowveld.
If you are a keen birder or want to learn more about birds, why don’t you try your hand at our EcoTraining Bird Challenge?
Shaded by mighty Jackalberry trees, EcoTraining Karongwe Camp waits patiently for its first group of 2020 students. The expectant energy is palatable. The new students will be embarking on a 55-day EcoTraining Field Guide Course which will solidify the bedrock of each participant’s potential career as a field guide.
The unfenced solar-powered camp area lies unobtrusively adjacent to the dry Karongwe riverbed where new students will delight in discovering numerous bird and mammal species. At this time of year, the bush is alive with activity. The summer rains have washed away the dust and replaced it with emerald abundance.
The resident Nyala family feeds below a canopy of Tamboti trees and even they seem anxious to welcome the new students. The lambs bounce around excitedly jostling for front row seats and above them in the eaves, Paradise Flycatchers flit in a boastful aerial display.
The open-air classroom entices all sounds and smells of the wilderness in. A library of textbooks and a collection of skulls, tortoise shells and animal bones are lined tidily for students to explore. Yet the space beyond the formal classroom boundaries will invite students on a much greater journey of enquiry beyond their wildest dreams. Every bird that chirps, every leaf that falls, every flower that blooms and every insect that rattles in song is an opportunity to gain knowledge and connection with the fauna and flora of the Lowveld wilderness.
At the edge of the camp lies the fireplace. As dusk stretches the shadows and awakens the stars, the earth has the power to draw everyone magnetically in. It is around this blazing campfire that learning will transcend facts and figures and where wisdom will be shared through storytelling.
As an African barred owlet hoots somewhere in the distance and his message for the new students is clear… “Protect this wilderness, for you are the guardians of its future.”
It is a privilege to be an EcoTraining student because you hold these wild spaces in your hands and in your heart, and have the collective ability to nurture it for future generations. Karongwe is a classroom sanctuary where custodians of nature are born and inspired.
Good luck to all the students of 2020!
Karongwe Camp is situated in the southern parts of the 21,000-acre Karongwe Private Game Reserve. This Reserve not only boasts the Big Five, and other various species of mammals but also a massive diversity of habitat and a bird species list to rival any other reserve in the region. So, what can students expect from Karongwe Camp?
If you have not yet experienced being immersed in a wilderness area this is a brilliant way to start. EcoTraining’s Karongwe Camp is unfenced, students are accommodated in tents, hearty meals are prepared over the open fire and lectures are conducted under a large thatched open-aired classroom.
Each of these buildings have multiple functionalities. The bottom left-hand thatch building is a drinks area and above it a library. There are ablution facilities under the office in the centre and there are sky beds above both the kitchen and the lecture room (building on the right). This is where you will start your journey, arriving here filled with excitement and exhilaration at the adventure that lies ahead.
Faith is the camp coordinator of Karongwe Camp. Listen to what she has to say about her role, an average day at Karongwe and a little bit about herself.
Students get to share accommodation while in training. The tents become home very quickly with small touches making the space more personal. The tents in Karongwe are spacious enough to accommodate two beds as well as shelves where the students can unpack items that are used regularly. They are also able to hang items inside as well as outside.
This is where the magic happens! Students are amazed at the variety and quality of the food that can be produced on a small stove and two gas hobs. Although the students do not have to make the food, the groups are broken in duty teams whose job it is to collect the food from the kitchen and place it on the tables (buffet style) in the dining area.
These rotating ‘duty teams’ consist of two students who will present the meals as well as choose the order in which the remaining students collect food at mealtimes. This can be as simple as those –wearing-open-toed-shoes to using bird calls or frog sounds to decide who gets to the buffet first.
The instructors offer lectures on a variety of required topics. Each instructor has a unique style of transferring knowledge, but all of them incorporate the information in an educational and entertaining way. The courses are not all intense learning but are interspersed with fun and interesting activities.
A requirement for several of the EcoTraining courses is a walking component. Before each activity, a briefing is held to prepare the new students for what might lie ahead. The two most important rules? “Stay behind the rifle at all times’ and “don’t EVER run”!
Although not all the students might have been on a walk before joining a course, many might have been on a game drive of some description. On the courses, it is not exclusively about big five sightings. Instructors will take time to describe trees, grasses, and tracks as they see fit. Can’t hear the bush sounds around you? Cup your hands behind your ears and you will be amazed at the amplification.
What a great way to end off a day, in true bush style. Swapping stories and experiences around the campfire before and after dinner. It is here that friendships are formed that will last longer than the flames will. The guiding industry is almost insular and even though the students will be ending up at separate lodges, there is every chance that they will meet up again somewhere down the line.
Are you ready for a new challenge? Consider joining one of the variety of courses that EcoTraining have to offer.
Still not convinced? Watch this EcoTraining TV video as past student Aagje describes her experience on the Professional Field Guides course.
No matter how many times you have witnessed a pride of lions when out on a game drive, or if you have been lucky enough to have had an encounter on foot, your heart will always beat faster and the adrenaline will flow that much quicker. Today, the 10th of August 2019 we celebrate World Lion Day with some interesting facts.
Although often referred to as the ‘King of the Jungle’, you will often find lions in grasslands, open plains, or near a water source.
Try sitting next to a lion while it is vocalizing! Their roar can be heard up to 8km. Lions can vocalize as soon as they are born, but they only begin to roar when they are around one year old.
Although weighing in at an average of 180kg, the heaviest wild lion ever recorded was in 1936; a male lion weighing 313kg, which is very unusual for a lion; especially in the wild. The lion is the second-largest cat, with the tiger being bigger and heavier.
Whatever you do, don’t try to outrun them! They can reach speeds of up to 80km/h, but only in short bursts as they lack the stamina for lengthy chases. A cheetah which is the fastest mammal averages speeds of 100 – 120 km/h so if you think about it the lion is not too far off.
Contrary to what you may think, they are not the most successful predators, with less than 75% of their chases ending in a kill. Their most successful hunts usually happen under the cover of darkness. “Lions are the archetypal apex predator, but their hunting success rate strongly depends on the number of lions involved – a single lion hunting in daylight has a success rate of 17% – 19%, but this increases for those hunting as a group to 30%. Of 1,300 hunts observed in the Serengeti, nearly half involved only one animal, 20% involved two and the rest a group of (normally) between three and eight individuals.” – Discover Wildlife
That being said, their night vision is impeccable, along with their highly developed sense of smell and great hearing, their most advanced sense would have to be their eyesight. Lions are able to see eight times better than us at night, which is amazing as during the day our eyesight is not that different.
A pride can spend between 18 – 20 hours a day resting and conserving energy. They will only become active at dusk or if the need arises during the day.
Due to loss of habitat and exponential human population growth, the African lion population has been reduced by half since the 1950s.
Having once roamed the entire globe, lions are now only found in Africa and a small group that call the Gir Forest in India home.
The ultimate goal of World Lion Day is to be both educational and informative and create awareness surrounding lions and other conservation challenges we face.
Want to know more about lions? Have a look at the EcoTraining YouTube Channel to learn more.
Matabele ants get their name from the mighty Matabele tribe as they equally go to war with termites the same way the Matabele tribe use to overwhelm their adversaries.
The participants on the EcoQuest course at Karongwe Camp came upon this Matabele Ant raiding party setting out. Also known as hissing ants because of the sound they emit, they live on a diet comprised solely of termites.
Although the Matabele raiding party featured extensively during the morning drive, there was time to focus on other interesting interactions that were taking place close by. Like this African Harrier Hawk and Fork-tailed Drongo.
Equipped with long scaly legs and a long neck for getting into the cracks and crevices, the large grey raptor also known as a gymnogene was busy searching in this tree as to where chicks and eggs might be concealed.
In this scenario, it is possible that the Drongo did have a nest it was protecting. This relatively small bird will dive-bomb large raptors that are intent on killing their offspring or just out of defense.
When first discovered, the participants watched as the raiding party set out in a very organized manner. Then, one of their scouts took a wrong turn, leading to total confusion within the party until the issue was resolved and they could move off with confidence.
Another diversion, this time to take a moment to look at some of the flora that we can observe during morning activity. The Black Stick Lily is known as the Monkey’s Tail, derived from its Afrikaans name ‘Bobbejaan’s stert’ (Baboon’s Tail).
This is a resilient plant that can withstand extreme conditions and can also go for long periods of time without water. Their medicinal properties include the treatment of asthma and as an anti-inflammatory.
Instructor, Michael Anderson, wondering what the result would be if he stuck his fist into the path of the returning raiding party. The bite of this ant, although not toxic to humans, can be very painful and can cause swelling.
This particular species of ant is the only one that look after those that get injured during a raid. Much like the US Marines, they try not to leave anyone behind and will tend to the wounded on the site of the battle. The treatment is only carried out on individuals who have lost one or two limbs.
From the time they left their nest until they returned with their spoils, less than an hour had elapsed. As they were not under constant surveillance, it is not certain as to how far they had to go to reach the termite mound.
The returning raiding party with their spoils. As their diet consists only of termites, they returned with as many as they could carry. Interestingly enough a raiding party will not return to an already raided termite mound immediately. Thus giving the termites a chance to replenish their losses. These ants do not forage individually, but only as a large coordinated party.
The successful and victorious raiding party disappears into the grass to share and enjoy the fruits of their labour with the rest of the colony.