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Celebrating the Limpopo River | World River Day 2020

According to the World Rivers Day Association this day “is a celebration of the world’s waterways. It highlights the many values of our rivers, strives to increase public awareness, and encourages the improved stewardship of all rivers around the world. Rivers in virtually every country face an array of threats, and only through our active involvement can we ensure their health in the years ahead.’’

Ground Pangolin

Real-life Sighting | a Pangolin in Makuleke

Pangolin factsIf you have ever had the privilege of seeing a pangolin in real life, you will know the magnitude of this sighting. It will most definitely be the rarest sighting you will mostly like have whilst out in the African bush on Safari.

As you can see by the stats on your left, this is the most trafficked animal in the world – now, let that sink in!

So, what is the reason for the trafficking of these incredible creatures?

“Large-scale trafficking is driven by a belief that pangolin scales have magical and curative properties and demand for their meat. When mixed with bark from certain trees, the scales are thought to neutralize witchcraft and evil spirits. If buried near a man’s door they are said to give an interested woman power over him.” – African Wildlife Foundation

Did you know that there were four species of pangolin in Africa?

Well, now you do. These four species are as follows:
1. Giant Ground Pangolin (Smutsia gigantea)
2. Temminck’s Ground Pangolin (Smutsia temminckii)
3. The Black-Bellied Pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla)
4. The White-Bellied Pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis)

If you want to learn more about pangolin’s and other endangered species have a look at the EcoTraining Endangered Species Quiz.

Now, you might be wondering why were are talking about pangolin’s, yes they are fascinating creates and we could probably talk pangolin facts all day, but something very exciting happens this week at our EcoTraining Makuleke Camp that we just have to share with you!

We’re going to let instructor Sean Matthewson fill us in…

“As a cold front rages across South Africa, all creatures, both large and small seek refuge from driving winds. But in an isolated pocket of wilderness, deep in the forest, a pangolin negotiates the terrain and approaching storm.

Every time a gust of wind blows through the forest floor, this little hero rolls up into a defensive ball. He’s not sure whether or not these gusts of wind are friend or foe, and rather opts to be safe.
In these uncertain times, it’s safe thinking like that which will ensure his survival.

Pangolins are the most trafficked animal on Earth, with the majority of animals finding their way to Eastern markets for consumption, and likely, unfounded medicinal practice. It is for this reason that this little champion of the elements will be left free and wild in an undisclosed location (exactly where and as we found him).

Suffice to say, this little armoured tank is considered the Holy Grail of the African bush, with many an avid explorer never having a single opportunity to see him in the wild. It is also the only animal (to this author’s knowledge) that in an instant, can turn a grown man into a blubbering child, overcome with the sheer pleasure of the privilege of a glimpse.

As we sat watching the star of the show, I couldn’t help but think to myself that this could be the last time I set eyes on a pangolin in my lifetime. I am, however, utterly at peace with this notion, as I am among the lucky few and that my search for the Holy Grail, is in fact over.

It is, however, my hope that even now, in conservation’s darkest moments, that these astounding creatures will still find their place in the Anthropocene, and that my children’s children will too stand one day in the presence of greatness, as I did.

My gratitude extends to EcoTraining, without whom this opportunity could never have materialized!”

Want to watch this real-life sighting?

 

 

White-backed Night Heron (c) Nevil Lazarus

The elusive White-backed Night Heron

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.

Night herons

Difference between the White-backed and Black-crowned Night Herons

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.

White-backed Night Heron Distribution

Distribution Map (c) Roberts Birds

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?

Game Drive in Karongwe

The Classroom of Karongwe

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.

Plants

“The summer rains have washed away the dust and replaced it with emerald abundance.”

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.

Karongwe in summer

The rains bring Karongwe bush to life

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.”

Karongwe camp wildlife

The beauty of Karongwe

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!

An interview with Steve Baillie | EcoTraining Podcast

Want to know what you can expect from an EcoTraining course? Freelance content creator David Batzofin, chatted with Senior Instructor Steve Baillie to get his opinion about our 1-year Professional Field Guide Course.

David’s first question was “Talk me through what a participant can expect”. Listen to our latest podcast to learn more.

Students at Pridelands

Pridelands Camp (c) Steve Baillie

Want to start a career as a Field Guide? Or if you want to learn more about EcoTraining, follow us on social, either Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to be apart of our students’ and instructors’ amazing journeys through the African wilderness.

EcoTraining Quiz - Botswana

EcoTraining Quiz: Botswana

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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.

Running Batty for Bats | by Megan Loftie-Eaton

Do you love mangoes, bananas and coffee? You have the bats to thank for that!

They are the unsung heroes of nature, often misunderstood and feared by people, they play a vital role in keeping our ecosystems healthy. From pollination and seed dispersal to keeping insect populations in check, we have bats to thank for all that.

Picture of an African Yellow Ba

African Yellow Bat (c) Megan Loftie-Eaton

Bats around the world play crucial ecological roles that support ecosystem health and human economies. Many bat species consume vast amounts of insects, including some of the most damaging agricultural pests. A single bat can eat up to 1,200 mosquito-sized insects every hour, and each bat usually eats 6,000 to 8,000 insects every night! Some of their favourite prey include crop-destroying moths, cucumber beetles, flies and mosquitos. Natural insect control is their speciality.

Image of a Wahlberg's Epauletted Fruit Bat

Wahlberg’s Epauletted Fruit Bat

Fruit-eating bats pollinate many valuable plants, ensuring the production of fruits that support not just local economies, but diverse animal populations too. We have a lot to be grateful for because of the existence of bats. Fruit bats excrete seeds from the ripe fruit they eat. They do this in flight, often a considerable distance from the parent tree. The seeds, which are packed into their own fertilizer (guano), then grow into new fruit trees, helping to regenerate forests. Some bats also drink nectar from flowers and — like sunbirds, bees, and butterflies — pollinate the flowers. Overall, bats are irreplaceable in sustaining their forest habitats, which would simply disappear without them.

Image of a Mauritian Tomb Bat

Mauritian Tomb Bat (c) Megan Loftie-Eaton

Unfortunately, about 40 percent of bat populations worldwide are in danger of going extinct. Bats are slow at reproducing. Most species give birth to only one pup a year, which means they cannot quickly rebuild their populations. Much of the blame for declining bat populations rests on human shoulders. Bats can be poisoned when they consume insects that have been sprayed with synthetic pesticides. But the biggest problem for the bat population is the loss of natural habitat. Many bats prefer to roost in dead or dying trees under the loose and peeling bark, or in tree cavities. Some prefer to roost in caves or caverns. Populations have dwindled and diversity has suffered without the protection of these important natural roosts.

So, I have decided to run 50 miles for bat conservation and to raise awareness about the importance of bats. I’m batty enough to run the Karkloof 50 Miler on 21 September 2019 in support of bats! But I need your help. I’m raising money for ReWild NPC, a local NGO in Phalaborwa. They do amazing work to rescue and rehabilitate bats, as well as to educate the public on the importance of bats.

ReWild NPC helps wildlife that has been injured or orphaned and, when they are ready, return them to the wild. But they do far more than this! They help with human-bat conflict resolution, they help farmers to use bats to control crop pests, they make bat houses and apply many other bat conservation measures.

Megan training for the 50 Miler

Megan training for the 50 Miler (c) Lowveld Trail Running

Please help me to raise crucial funds for bat conservation and ReWild NPC by donating to my campaign on GivenGain.

If you want to learn more, maybe take this week EcoTraining Quiz.

If you want to do more for wildlife or are just generally interested and want to learn more about our natural world, have a look at the courses we have to offer.