Another year old, another year wiser…. well, another year old for sure anyways. Today marks the day that I have been on this planet for 28 years. Man, I am getting old. 😛 My day started out early and I woke up before the sun to get out an about with my camera. It’s a cold and rainy day, so unfortunately there wasn’t too much out, but I did manage to see three cheetahs!! They were about 120m off in some tall grass so it wasn’t the best sighting, but it still counts! I really cannot complain one bit because I have had an incredible week of sightings so far! Besides the handsome big tom leopard the other day, I have been able to check a big one off my photography goal list …………
LEOPARD CUBS!!! It was a super fast sighting, but I managed to get my camera out in time to catch a few in focus shots and many blurry shots of grass and spots. There was a game viewer that I was following on my way to some of the PantheraCams when they slammed on the breaks as a female leopard jumped up from her spot laying next to the road and dashed off into some thick trees and up a koppie. I tried to grab photo, but she was just too quick! I was still pretty excited to have seen a leopard and was happy with that when I noticed that the guests in the viewer were all still looking, pointing and snapping photos so I looked a bit harder. And there, bounding in the tall grass were two cubs! They also quickly dashed up the koppie after their mum, but I managed to catch them popping in and out of the rocks for a bit where I was able to snap this picture:
So sweet! They are about six months of age and I believe one is a male, but I did not get a good enough look at the other one. My first leopard cub sighting! Now of course I am going to be extra vigilant every time I pass this koppie, just in case they are hanging out again playing in the rocks.
AND just the other day I had an amazing cheetah sighting. This reserve is plagued with super cheeky animals and I have been struggling keeping my cameras upright as apparently, they make wonderful butt rubbing posts for rhinos and once they are on the ground the hyaenas snatch them right up! One of the reserve ecologists went out on a camera recovery mission with me to walk into the bush around the sites where I lost some cameras in hopes of finding them again (we only managed to find a pole at one site without a camera, the back only of a camera at one site and a completely smashed camera that looks like an ele stepped on it at another). Oh, the life of a PantheraCam!
While we were driving to the next lost camera site I made probably the most unique sound that I could never recreate and slammed on the breaks. Right next to the resting the in the shade of a tree were two cheetahs and just off in the distance was a third! They got up and walked down the road a bit (nice for us it was a management track so no game viewers or private cars could follow). We followed them and ended up hanging out with the trio for over an hour. It was a young group (1 year 8 months old) comprising of a brother and two sisters.
Very soon they will all split apart and go their separate ways. Female cheetahs live solitary lives and only come together with a male for breeding and then will raise her cubs until they are about 16-18 months old. Male brothers will sometimes stick together forming coalitions of usually two to three related males. These coalitions help allow them to patrol much larger territories that could encompass multiple female’s territories and also allows them to hunt bigger game by working as a unit. The males share everything, including mates. Females can have litters with each cub from a different sire (this is called heteropaternal superfecundation and is quite common in felids).
The sibling trio mainly did what cats do best in the heat of the day and rested under various shady spots. When a herd of zebra walked past snorting loudly to let the predators know that they have been spotted, the male slunk down in the shadows of a nearby tree and watched the zebra with interest. He made a half-hearted attempt at chasing one of the foals, but only succeeded in sending the herd galloping off into the distance. Defeated, he threw himself down into the shade and that is how we left him and his sisters.
I have also had some Jurassic Park déjà vu moments from the “must go faster, must go faster” scene, but instead of being chased by miss T. rex, I was charged by a young bull elephant! Typically when a young bull comes your way you want to hold your ground or else you will train them that chasing cars is fun. Well, this boy was having NONE of that idea and started coming at me with a trumpet and in turbo gear. I had to reverse UP a steep hill on a road that was barely a road with tons of mini boulders and canyons in it. He chased me for nearly three minutes but eventually I got enough distance to turn the bakkie around and drive out of there. I think the cameras down that road will have to wait until another day to get checked.
And then the misty morning made for some wonderful Jurassic Park view moments complete with longnecks and triceratops.
I am not yet sure what the rest of my birthday day is going to involve. I do miss my friends and family a lot, especially on days like today, but I can tell you that I definitely do not mind spending my birthday here in the bush. (I just wish you all could come spend it here with me!)
I study two of the most elusive spotted cats – the leopard and the serval. I am fascinated with both. The solid-built silhouette of the leopard that stalks through the shadows, with every step muscles ripple, exuding pure power and the elegant, light framed several – the long-legged spotted beauty that’s athleticism would make even an Olympic athlete green with envy. Both of these cats are just downright incredible. Now the problem with studying elusive cats is that they are, well, elusive. I have never seen a serval before in the wild and have only witnessed leopards on less than a handful of lucky occasions. I am out in the bush nearly every day in both of these species’ territories. I have the camera trap photos to prove it. I always get … thinking of a nice word here… frustrated when reserve guests stop me to complain that they have been here for nearly two whole days and haven’t seen a single leopard yet. *insert big eye roll here*
Well this morning it happened.
I left camp about 0530, my usual time for camera check days. It gets hot standing in the sun all day, so if you can start before the sun and the heat, then that’s the way to go. The sky was just beginning to lighten and on the very edge of the horizon, you could just make out the orange hues that promise the heat of a new day. Most of the reserve goers haven’t even left the comfort of their beds, let alone had their first sips of coffee yet so there are no other vehicles out on the roads, only at the lodges are the game viewers beginning to stir, but not here, not yet. Birds chirp from every direction. The chill morning air causes gooseflesh on my arms, not just because of the cool temperatures, but because of what those cool, quiet temps mean. This is the hour of the hunter. Throughout the land, lions are scoping out unsuspecting zebra, a serval pounces high in the air to land with pinpoint accuracy on a small mouse hiding in the thicket. I am always a little on edge when walking around to check cameras in this crepuscular hour. This is my favourite time of the day.
While riding in my bakkie, with all the windows down, the cool morning air blowing on my skin, a cat steps out of the bush and onto the road just in front of me. My mind immediately registers that it must be a sleek lioness since lion sightings are so common here, but quickly I realise that this spotted majesty in front of me swaggering across the road with his tail slightly curled behind him is no lion. I nearly stall the bakkie as I frantically reach into the passenger seat next to me trying to grab my camera and uncap the lens before he silently disappears back into the shadows forever. Lucky for me this isn’t just a flash of a sighting – this impressive male is in no hurry. And impressive he is. The male is probably around 5 years of age and is in absolute prime condition. His coat and ears not yet scarred from old age and many years living in the bush and defending his territory.
He crosses the road to the other side and walks alongside me weaving in and out of the tall grasses. At one point he pauses and looks directly at me. When such a skilled killer looks directly at you, he looks straight through you and penetrates into your soul.
But I, in my steel wheeled chariot, am of no interest to this beast and he casually continues on his way. He takes advantage of the quiet road being the easiest way of travel and strolls down the road behind me into the rising sun which is now painting the sky hues of orange.
And just like that the moment is over, it has passed.
Lions? I can’t tell you how many times I have seen them, what they were doing or where it was. But I remember each leopard sighting in detail.
What a week!
Setup is done as well as half of my first week of checks. First all I have to say this place is GORGEOUS, it is breathtakingly beautiful. I wish I could share where I am currently at, but unfortunately due to the high poaching risks, I am not technically allowed to say. But remind me towards the end of the year and I will let you know my top picks of must places to visit in South Africa (this will definitely be on the list). My colleague, Gareth, flew down from Cape Town and helped me with setup, which I am super grateful for because the ground here is so rocky and hard and hammer in 80 poles by yourself is not a fun task. We spent Tues-Thurs setting up then drove back to Joburg Thursday evening, I dropped Gareth at the airport, moved some Panthera vehicles around and then settled in for the night at my dear friend Lisa’s house. It was so wonderful to spend time with her, her Gareth (yes, another one, there’s four in my whole story), and their adorable son, Jayden.
I woke up super duper early Friday morning and drove about 4 hours north to another one of our Panthera sites to pick up a survey kit. This site is generally ran by the reserve ecologist so we just have to help with setup and then pick up the gear after the survey is complete. When I got to the reserve, I was told I can grab gear super quick and be on my way, or if I have some time I can help out on something interesting. Of course, I chose to help out and am so glad I did! I got to “help” (more or so just tagged along and took photos and videos) dart two bull buffalos, move them back to a boma and watch the vet perform TB tests on them. So cool! Another one of those right place, right time moments for me. The crew at this reserve was so friendly and sweet and I am definitely looking forward to helping them with setup later on in the year.
After my buffalo adventure, I loaded up the survey kit and drove the 4 hours back down to Joburg. Lots of driving around, but it means I got to spend another wonderful night with Lisa and fam! Saturday was a bit more chill, I dropped off the survey gear at our storage unit and did some lekker shopping in Joburg for items I can’t easily find out in the middle of no where (aka protein, supplements and egg whites). Lisa took me over to their new house that they will be moving into this week and I got to see my room. The house is STUNNING! They did such a great job picking the perfect home, and the garden is huge too. Ryno will be coming up next month and will be staying with Lisa until the end of my field season, and I will be using my room there as my home base between surveys and every so often as a getaway when I need some puppy time. I know Ryno is going to be so happy there and so well loved! I can’t wait for him to come up!
Saturday evening, I headed back to my site and settled in for the night. Sunday, I oriented myself a bit more on this reserve by going for an evening drive and got some beautiful photos. There are tons of white rhinos here! I have yet to go a day here without multiple rhino sightings!
Yesterday, I started my first round of checks. They went well, though it turned into being a really long day (about 13 hours in the sun). I lost two cameras to who-knows-what, they were completely missing, pole and all. And had one camera that got absolutely demolished by a rhino, it looks like a car had ran over it, backed up and ran over it again. But when I checked the SD cards the last photos are of a rhino walking by, stopping and looking at the camera and then super close up of the rhino before it stopped taking photos.
Oh, the life of a PantheraCAM. They live out in the harsh elements, get stolen by naughty humans, thrown high into trees by eles, chowed on by lions and hyaenas, melted by wildfires, demolished by rhinos and trashed by baboons.
This can got a little too close to a fire.
Some hyaena thought this one would be fun to chow.