As the dry season slowly starts to take hold, transforming the luscious greens of the dense vegetation into golden hues of the iconic South African bushveld, the wildlife sightings have been truly outstanding, with all of the “big seven” species being spotted on almost a daily basis.
The Mluwati Concession, located in the western heart of the Kruger National Park, is a highly productive area for a diverse array of species. One of the primary reasons for this abundance is the Concession’s blend of ecozones, which increase the carrying capacity of species in the area.
In our April newsletter, we will explore the different ecozones that we find on the Concession, and we will put a spotlight on some of the unique residents that call it home. We also have plenty of news to update you on, including the very welcome return of a familiar, spotted face!
THE CREATION OF LANDSCAPES: THE MLUWATI CONCESSION
Apart from the impact of humans, landscapes are formed by the interactions of the following:
- Geology – through weathering and erosion, thereby forming soils that provide nutrients.
- Climate – temperature, wind and rainfall.
- Wildlife – from the smallest termite to the largest elephant.
- Fire – in the sense of those that naturally occurring. For example, lightning and controlled burning.
As wildlife enthusiasts, you may be asking why we even need to know about the creation of landscapes. Yet, there is an argument to be made that all life on earth is dependent on the interactions of these natural factors for survival. For example, the types of soil and amount of rainfall will determine the amount of water and nutrients in an area, which will therefore determine the variety of plants and animals as well. For guides, an understanding of the ecology of an area—in other words, the relationships of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings—is a fundamental tool. The ecology of the area will determine the unique animal behaviours and allow us to determine patterns that will help us to find what we are looking for. Let’s have a closer look at these five basic factors to gain an understanding of how they make the Mluwati Concession a truly unique area, which produces sightings that take your breath away.
The fundamental process of rock transforming into soil is the same around world, irrespective of the actual geology that forms the base of the landscape. Over millions of years, parent rocks are very, very slowly eroded by seeping rainwater and wind, as well as heat and cold. The actions break off pieces that range between huge boulders and minute particles, from the original rock. The smaller segments are carried away by water, and gradually broken down further into grains of sand which are chemically similar to the parent rock.
The process of erosion and weathering, and the resultant shape of the land, varies greatly, depending on the initial rock type. The main types of rock, and consequent landform and soils, of the Lowveld, are granite, gabbro, Ecca Shales, basalt, rhyolite and sandstone. Pictured above, Nkhanye’s female cub standing on the granite rocks of a dry riverbed.
The Lowveld is a semi-arid zone with a summer rainfall of 200 – 600 mm per year. This decreases from west to east and from south to north. The summers are hot and humid with temperatures of up to 44 degrees Celsius. The rivers within the park are generally fed by 4 main catchment areas from the Drakensburg and the Highveld. Major floods occur sporadically in variable cycles of approximately 30 years. These floods have been known to alter the landscape along the major rivers, as well as along some of the smaller drainage lines.
Every species in Africa plays its part in the greater scheme of interactions and survival of their environments. Millions of little creatures pollinate plants to ensure the vegetation is able to reproduce and play its role. There are termites that are the prime maintainers of the quality of the soil underground. There are also vast numbers of herbivores that eat and digest the plants and return the fertilizer to the earth. The very large plant-eaters – elephant, buffalo, rhino and hippos – process such staggering amounts of plant material during their lives—the entire balance of woody materials, grass and soft vegetation is affected by their presence.
Natural fires have altered the landscape in Africa over millions of years. Fires are mainly caused by lightning strikes over dry vegetation. Since the dawn of time, natural fires have reduced the spread of certain plants and animals, and have encouraged the growth and survival of others. As dry grass and woody vegetation build up a significant load of dead organic matter, the chances of fire increases until it becomes virtually inevitable. As such, fires are an essential element in the natural ecosystem by germinating new plant life whilst removing the dead organic matter. Fire is an important part of vegetation ecology and has occurred naturally, at an average of 3 to 7 years, for millennia. This has been a major factor in shaping the evolution of plants and therefore, also the animals in the Lowveld.
The use of fires as a veld management tool has been used in parks since the early 1950’s. First can be referred to as “hot fires” and “cold fires” when speaking in terms of veld management. A “hot fire” is a fire that burns at a very high temperature, moving very slowly, and as a result tends to burn all the material present. “Cold fires” tend to be quick moving instead, and they tend to leave heavier fuel plats (such as tree trunks) behind. Fuel refers the amount of combustible vegetation, usually in the form of dead/dry shrubs and trees, but can include plants that have volatile compounds such as oils and tannins.
The intensity of a fire will have a dramatic effect on the environment. High intensity fires (hot fires) can be extremely destructive, causing damage to seed beds located underground, the killing of plants that would normally resprout after a fire and the death of burrowing animals. The resulting damage to the upper soil structure can also affects the germination potential of some seeds. Cold fires too can be counterproductive to the environment, with not enough heat being generated to cause some seeds to germinate, not being able to burn enough older plants to allow space for young plants to grow, not being able to remove sufficient fuel loads which could cause hotter and more destructive hot fires next time.
ECOZONES OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION
The Kruger National Park, on the basis of its underlying geology as well as rainfall and altitude, is divided into an incredible 16 ecozones. Each ecozone is intrinsically interlinked with its neighbouring ecozones, and the balance between them is what enables the park to remain a sustainable biosphere for an astounding abundance of natural life. The Mluwati Concession falls within two types of ecozones: the mixed thorn and marula woodlands on granitic soil as well as mixed woodland with sweet veld grazing on basaltic soil.
In other words, the concession is distinctly comprised of mixed woodland dominated by small-leaved species such as bushwillows and acacias, with swathes of open grasslands in between.
The grazing in these grasslands are mixed, with pockets of sweetveld and sourveld. Sourveld, produced by the acidic soils of granitic rock, are less nutritious than the sweetveld that is produced by the more basic soils of the basalt rock. The sweeter grass is found on the lower contours of the concession, and herbivores are therefore more likely to be seen along the drainage lines and watercourses of the gentle, rolling landscape.
Rivers have played a historic role in shaping the landscape of the Kruger National Park. On the Mluwati Concession, there are 3 major rivers that directly influence the landscape:
- The N’waswitsontso River: the largest river on the Concession.
A seasonal river that forms one of the tributaries of the great Komati River. It flows for more than 60 kilometres across the Park from West to East before eventually reaching the Komati River in Mozambique. In Xitsonga, N’waswitsontso means to “drip intermittently” or “the river that runs under the sand”, alluding to the sporadic nature of the river’s flow.
- The Mluwati River: our concession’s namesake. A tributary of the N’waswitsontso River. It flows for 21.5 kilometres southeast of Kingfisherspruit before joining the N’waswitsontso River. In Xitsonga, “Mluwati” is the name for the flame thorn Acacia (Acacia ataxacantha), which is commonly found around the river and around the concession as well.
- Tswayini River: the lesser-known river. Another tributary of the N’waswitsontso River. It flows for approximately 40 kilometres north of Skukuza before joining the N’waswitsontso River. The name is thought to be derived from the Sotho word, “Tswaing” or “Tswaene”, though the name is now regarded as Shangaan and means “place of salt” or “at the salt”.
LIONS OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION:
The Imbali Pride:
The entire pride was found on a number of occasions near Imbali Safari Lodge—from behind our staff village to Predator Plains. The younger cubs are definitely growing up quickly. The dominant male has been scent marking and checking territory often these days.
The Hamiltons Pride:
The females are still split up into smaller groups consisting of 2 – 4 females and offspring in each. Two of the females have cubs with them, and our guests have been having some incredible sightings of the little furballs on the S125 Loop South low-level bridge near Hamiltons Tented Camp
BUFFALO ON MLUWATI:
The big herds have started moving off, with smaller herds being seen on the concession as well as our resident Dagga boy groups. Thankfully, with the help of the larger herds throughout the summer season, most of the grass here has been totally flattened allowing for easier visibility of the small critters.
LEOPARDS OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION:
Nkhanye has been spotted on numerous occasions around the Hamiltons low-level bridge. In some fantastic news, her female cub—whom we had not seen over the last few months as previously reported—has been spotted with her again!
The cub is in fantastic condition, and we are grateful to Nkhanye’s instincts as a mother in keeping her cubs safe and continuing her legacy on our concession.
Tiyasela continues to move around the concession quite often, but she consistently gives us unforgettable sightings whenever we find her. She is truly a wildlife photographer’s dream as she always gives us some amazing photo opportunities.
Wabayisa has been spotted around all three properties throughout the month. At 12 years old, this dominant male leopard is so well known to everyone around the concession and also to everyone who reads our newsletters! It is fantastic to see that he is still in tip top condition.
WILD DOGS OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION:
The Pungwe Pack have been spending quite a lot of time on the concession around our western borders. Our Imbali Pack disappeared to the north for a while but have been seen on the odd occasion as they coming running through. The Leeupan Pack alpha female is heavily pregnant she will definitely be denning soon so we do expect that sightings of these awesome predators may dip a bit for the time being while they are denning, we are hoping they have healthy litters and that their pack sizes increase.
CHEETAH OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION
We spent time again with the impressive coalition of 4 males who were seen laying on their favourite termite mound at Bemer Plains just before sunset. It appears that they had caught something earlier in the day as all four of them were full-bellied.
The large mounds seen in the area are usually the homes of the termite. Using chimneys and inlets at ground level, the termites regulate the temperature inside the mounds, within a very narrow range. When you find an active mound, it is easy to feel the hot air rising from a chimney. Numerous animals, from mammals and birds to reptiles, use the mounds as a home or a burrow. Dwarf mongoose use them for refuge, and the guard animal can often be sitting on top of the termitarium. Because of the steady stream of animal occupants, from initial termites and flying ants, to later home owners, many predators – bird, mammal, reptile and insect regularly inspect the area for likely prey.
ELEPHANTS OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION
Big herds of females and youngsters have been seen all over the concession these days as the permanent water sources have become a necessity for them. We are still seeing some BIG bulls who are in musth, but this should slowly be coming to an end now as we move into winter.
Adult elephants have no natural predators except for humans. Sustaining their large bodies on nothing but plant matter means they must use every adaptation at their disposal to keep themselves adequately fed:
- Trunk – this uniquely long appendage is flexible and can grab small objects, making it indispensable when the elephant seeks food. His trunk can wrap around small twigs and branches to break them off and then bring them to his mouth. The trunk also adds reach to his already incredible height, allowing him to reach branches other herbivores can’t.
- Tusks – serve an essential function in ensuring an elephant gets the proper nutrients. He uses his tusks to dig into the ground and find salt deposits and sometimes water. He scrapes the bark off trees with his tusks, exposing softer, tastier wood underneath.
- Teeth – the large teeth of elephants are uniquely suited to ploughing through huge amounts of vegetation each day. Typically they have 4 sets of molars, each about the size of a brick, unlike us humans who only have two sets of teeth during our lifetime an elephant has six sets though their life.
- Foot – good for more than just walking. When he kicks under short grass with his heavy foot and strong toenails, the elephant is able to unearth the grass so his trunk can pick it up with ease.
- Smell – an elephant smell is so sensitive, allowing him to find food and water from miles away. He uses seven olfactory turbinals to distinguish smells and determine direction and distance.
BIRDS OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION
Amazing as they are, owls have been perceived as the purveyors of evil and associated with witches and sorcerers over the years. Owls have been captured and used in traditional medicine to aid with wisdom and hunting skills. Many people in the rural areas of South Africa put spikes on the roofs of their houses in an attempt to keep the owls from landing there.
In reality, the owl is actually a gentle nocturnal bird that plays a very necessary role in our environment. Whether in the bush or in the urban areas, owls offer a great service to humans by eating mice, rats, cockroaches and other pest insects. Humans are much too eager to bring out the pesticides and rodenticides to rid the world of these pests and this action is having a devastating effect on the owl populations. In urban areas owls are often found dead as a result of these poisons. Owl are also often killed at night on our roads too as they sweep down to catch prey.
Some owl species, like the Spotted Eagle-Owl and the Barn Owl, have adapted to the urban lifestyle and have made their homes in buildings. Unfortunately, the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl and The White-Faced Owl have not adjusted to well to the urban environment. Owls need the open areas in order to swoop down on their prey and this is made more difficult when their hunt in urban areas. It has been noted that some owls have taken to sitting on dustbins in urban areas where they catch mice and rats that invade the dustbins at night.
Mobbed for Stealing
This African Harrier Hawk (Gymnogene) was seen on Southern Cutline trying to raid starlings nests. The below are images of what happened with a fork-tailed drongo when it tried to move away.
You can see the Drongo flying above the Hawk and mobbing it but trying to grab hold of wing and tail feathers.
Tawny Eagle Mating
This time of the year is the start of the mating season for most of our Birds of Prey, such as the Tawny Eagle. A rare sighting indeed, the female shows a submissive stance by lowering her head as the male comes in to land next to her. There is huge variation in their plumage colour and these eagles can be anything from blonde to tawny brown. They are very versatile raptors, eating anything from dead elephants to termites. They scavenge and pirate when they can, and hunt when they cannot. Their scavenging habits have resulted in a decline in their numbers because they are vulnerable to poisoned baits used in carnivore control.
Long Crested Eagle
One of our smaller eagles with a distinctive crest when seated and with white window markings on their wings seen in flight. They use regular perches on the edge of woodland habitats and exotic plantations in their territory and they can be seen changing often, from one to the other.
They hunt mainly vlei rats and other large rodents which they catch in the long grass by diagonally swooping to the ground. They have a very wide mouth (note their gape extends to the back of the eye) and swallow their prey whole.
GOLDEN ORB WEB SPIDER
The silk of this species is incredibly strong. It can even trap small birds. There is a theory that if were possible to weave a line of the silk to a thickness of a small pencil, it would be able to withstand and repel a 747 jumbo jet at maximum speed. In some tribal communities, the web silk is used to make fishing lures and traps. Fishermen on the islands of the Indo-Pacific roll the nets into a ball and throw them into the water. The ball unrolls and is then used as a net to catch bait fish. Efforts to use the silk commercially to manufacture cloth have failed; however, there has been some promising research on the silk in the field of tissue engineering for medical use.
The spider is able to adjust the amount of pigment in the silk, thus changing the intensity of colour of the thread. It is thought that this colour may serve two purposes; in the sunlight it will attract bees drawn to the bright yellow, whereas in shadow it becomes camouflaged into the foliage, thus ensnaring other insects.
SIGHTS AROUND THE MLUWATI CONCESSION
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Interconnectedness has always sustained life on our planet. Historically, as humans have evolved, we have disrupted the necessary balance between wilderness, wildlife, and people. Whilst we have accomplished extraordinary feats, showcasing our prowess as a species and highlighting our ability to radically transform the world, we have slowly lost the inimitable magic of the natural world. Sir David Attenborough’s most recent documentary, “A Life on Our Planet”, pointed out a devastating statistic: in just the last 25 years, we have lost almost 25% of the world’s remaining wilderness areas. There is now only 35% of the remaining wilderness left on Earth.
It is therefore vital for us to encourage the adoption of sustainable practices that preserve our natural resources for future generations to enjoy. The Kruger National Park, for example, protects almost 19,5000 square kilometres of Africa’s remaining wilderness. Through sustainable partnerships, such as the one that we share with SANParks through the Mluwati Concession, we are able to promote sustainable ecotourism whilst inviting our guests to indulge in the unparalleled magnificence of this natural wonder. As the world emerges from lockdown, ready to explore the world, we look forward to welcoming our guests to this idyllic paradise. At the very least, we promise that the experience will change your perspective forever.
Africa smiled a little
When you left.
“We know you,” Africa said,
“We have seen and watched you,
We can learn to live without you,
But we know we needn’t yet.”
And Africa smiled a little
When you left
“You cannot leave Africa,” Africa said.
“It is always with you,
There inside your head.”
And Africa smiled a little.
“Our rivers run in currents
In the swirl of your thumbprints;
Counting out your pulse,
The silhouette of your soul.”
So Africa smiled a little
When you left
“We are in you,” Africa said.
“You have not left us, yet.”
– Bridget Dore
THE GUIDES OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION