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African Safari blog

SAVANNA GAME LODGE NEWS

African Wildlife

February – the shortest month of the year – certainly did not fall short in terms of great sightings in the bush. We also welcomed new guests, as well as seeing familiar faces again. We were expecting a large amount of rain this month, with a tropical cyclone predicted to hit land and make its way over the Sabi Sand. A bit of Murphy’s law, maybe, but we only had one or two days of decent rain the whole month. This resulted in a very unseasonably dry month, and some of the vegetation has felt the lack of rain. 

With the slow change of seasons brought about by a decrease in the rain, it is amazing to see how the bush is changing week by week. The most startling change is that of colour in the grass and trees, from bright lush emerald-green slowly morphing into the pale green and, finally, the straw colour that is so typical of winter. Another more gradual and less obvious change is how the seasonal babies of early summer are now looking a bit more like their parents, marking the successful first six months of their lives, which are also their most vulnerable. The individuals that have survived those first crucial months would have been the strongest and healthiest, therefore those strong genes will be carried on. 

In terms of lion sightings, the Ottawa pride were the stars of the show this month. Once again, we are happy to report that all six cubs of the pride are still very healthy and being their usual cheeky and playful selves. It has also been amazing to witness these cubs grow, and see their characters develop with them. In the first half of February, we were graced with a few visits from the Ottawa pride down south, closer to Savanna. On one occasion, the females had once again proved to be very efficient hunters by bringing down a large male wildebeest, close to the airstrip on Savanna. As with all kills, the large Tumbela male dominated the scene and the carcass, briefly letting the cubs eat from time to time. Only when the large male had finished gorging himself were the females able to eat some of their hard-earned prize.

The large Tumbela male is doing very well, definitely entering his prime, and has comfortable control of his pride and territory. For now, his only other pride comes in the shape of the lone Ximhungwe female, who is very seldom seen. The only times that we are lucky enough to see them together is when they are mating. Hopefully, that means cubs in the next few months and possibly the lone female can bring back the once-mighty pride into the area. 

The Ottawa breakaway is still doing incredibly well, despite the adversity of being a young lioness all alone. She has adopted well to living alone and picked up some interesting ways of adapting to solitary life. Since she back from her wandering into the east, we have often seen her on top of termite mounds, using them as great vantage points over Savanna’s large open areas. She has repeatedly given us great photographic sightings of her atop these mounds, bathed in the early morning and late afternoon light.

What shocked us late one morning was when Neil was following fresh lioness tracks down a road, assuming that the tracks belonged to the Ottawa female. Neil carried on looking down, tracking and searching for the female. It was only around a new corner that one of Neil’s guests innocently remarked that there was a lion in a tree! Half-believing, Neil looked up and was just as surprised as his guests to see that there was indeed a lion in a tree, and none other than the Ottawa female. Whether it was a great way for the female to escape the late morning heat or she had found a new way to get a higher vantage point to assess her environment, we won’t know. Regardless of that, it made for an incredible visual and we thought that it wasn’t likely to be repeated for some time.

A few weeks later, however, it happened again! Dan had another incredible sighting of the young female in a tree, and this one was more exciting! Just before arriving back at the lodge after a peaceful night drive back, Dan and his tracker Life heard a huge commotion which

sounded like two hyena fighting viciously. Dan quickly followed up and came across an almost unbelievable sighting. The Ottawa breakaway had either killed or stolen an impala from a leopard and had to hoist it up a tree to avoid it being stolen by the hyena – something normally unique to their spotted cousins, the leopard. The hyenas below were making an incredible noise over any scraps, but we can only thank them for alerting Dan to the incredible sighting. Have a look on our YouTube channel for the video or click here! Although not as permanent as the Ottawa pride, the wanderings of the new breakaway pride known as the Talamati pride have crossed over into the western sector a few times in the last few months. They had most likely been chased south and west from their previous territory by the new male pressure north-east of the western sector. They make for an interesting addition to the already exciting lion dynamics of the area. They started the month very successfully by bringing down a zebra and then a wildebeest in the first two weeks. The wildebeest kill ended up as a very relaxed sighting of the whole pride slowly digesting the wildebeest over the next few days. Sometimes, just being in the middle of a whole pride of lions is exciting enough!

Talking of new lions, we had a brief but wonderful surprise visit from the now-legendary Birmingham male lion. Early one morning, we set out on our game drive and almost immediately found tracks of two male lions walking past the lodge. It was quite a brief tracking venture, because less than 2km away from camp we bumped into the Nkuhuma male. If he had been by himself, it wouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. However, it was the lion accompanying him that caused a bit of a stir. Anyone passionate about lions in the Sabi Sand knows of the last surviving Birmingham male who also happens to be the Nkuhuma male’s father. Interestingly, the unlikely pair had not seen each other for four years prior to that and only a few days later they split, and they haven’t been seen together again. The huge Birmingham male retired back to the young Kambula breakaway pride to the far east.

Just like the Ottawa pride, the Ravenscourt male remains the star of the show in leopard terms. He is undoubtedly the most viewed leopard of the area and therefore we get many stunning photographs of this impressive male. For now, there has been no sign of anything that has impacted his long-lasting dominance over the area, and he still confidently struts across his famously expansive territory. Even though we are seeing more and more young males advancing towards his core territory, the Ravenscourt male is still giving us his characteristically relaxed walk by and superb photographic opportunities that we know and love so much. He will most likely be giving us these moments for quite some time to come.

Slowly creeping into the hearts and onto the favourite lists of rangers across the reserve is the Thamba male. He is uniquely large for his age and a very impressive specimen to observe. We have seen him mating with three different females in the last two months, further

stamping his authority on the southern reaches of the Western Sector. On a few occasions, we have found the male in the far west reaches of Savanna, surprising us every time as to the limits he is willing to push into Ravenscourt’s old territory. With an affinity towards termite mounds and anything raised with good vantage, he too makes for great photography, with his unique pale blue eyes and torn right ear.

We had a great sighting of Thamba this month as he was being followed by the beautiful Tisela female. With a similar underdog narrative to the Thamba male, she is recently coming into her own as a successful adult female leopard. She was most likely following Thamba to try for an opportunity to mate, but Thamba was having none of it. He was acting very aggressively towards her and didn’t allow her closer than a few metres behind him. Whether he sensed that she was not ready and it was just a chance encounter or that he had more important territorial jobs to take care of, it made for a spectacular sighting of the pair walking together through the famous open areas of Savanna.

Another surprise visit came in the shape of the young Kangela male. Sired by the famous Nyeleti male and Scotia female, he comes from an impressive lineage, but he is not an individual we see very often. He seems as if he is trying to envelop some of his father’s territory further east of us and graces us with his presence from time to time. Born in December 2019, he is still a young leopard, and it is not yet known if he will disperse far away to a different territory or if he will try to etch out his territory in the already high-density leopard territories of the Western Sector. Only time will tell, but he would certainly make a great addition to the male leopard politics of the area.

Even though we only saw the cub once or twice over the month, we are happy to report that Khokovela female’s last surviving cub is still doing well. Khokovela has been expertly hiding the cub in deep and dark drainage lines. While not conducive to good game viewing, even for the mighty Landcruiser, the thick drainage lines the cub hides in are very well protected and should give the cub the best start to life. The only times we get to see the pair are when Khokovela has made a kill in a more accessible area and brings the cub out to feed.

In the middle of the month, an adult female elephant carcass was found on Savanna. It died of natural causes and made for some incredible insights into the various scavengers and their hierarchical roles and procedures on such a large carcass. As always, it was the vultures that arrived first on the scene. All of the vultures we see in this area are listed as endangered or soon to be endangered, so it was incredibly uplifting to see just how many vultures arrived at

the carcass. We estimated that there must have been well over 200 vultures arrive on the first day, with four different species represented – from the largest vulture species which is the Lappet-Faced Vulture all the way to the smallest and most opportunistic species known as the Hooded Vulture. White-Backed Vultures were the most common at the carcass, being the most common in Southern Africa. We were lucky enough to see up to five Cape Vultures, one of the rarest vultures, with a shockingly low estimated population of 2900 breeding pairs.

Hyenas were next on the scene and they dominated the carcass, leaving the vultures to try to grab a scrap when the hyena had left. It seemed as if only one clan came into the area with little aggression between hyenas, but it was a great view into their super-complex social systems. There is a great video of the hyena clan taking a break from eating, where they met at a nearby waterhole to play and relax in the water (click here). No other scavenging lions or leopards made it to the carcass, so the hyenas and vultures had an absolute feast. Otherwise, the smaller and lesser highlighted species of the reserve carry on in their never-ending struggles to survive. What might not be as exciting as the big cats or large predators still makes for a wholesome experience, as well as an insight into the wonderful ways that nature works. Birds, bugs, snakes and other smaller species still make for a beautiful addition to any safari. The elephant sightings continue to be extremely good at this time of the year. Similarly, birdlife is still prolific, but there is a feeling that the migratory birds have quietened down a bit. This is probably because most of the migratory birds that come down to this area do so to breed, and most of the breeding is over for the season. Having said that, we are still seeing many of them as they add incredible gemstone-like, colourful additions to the forever-changing bush landscape.

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