WARM GREETINGS FROM THE MLUWATI CONCESSION!

We are delighted to share that our Concession is a bustling hive of activity—not only from the abundance of wildlife that we are currently enjoying but also from the very welcomed return of our international guests from around the world. Our hearts are warmed by our ability to share this remarkable place that we call home with every one of our guests.

It is in Africa where our souls are released into a magical world of adventure, of heart-stopping moments, and of spectacular fauna and flora. People may wonder if we ever get bored of seeing the same things out in the bush every day, yet we are constantly astounded by the unpredictable wonders of nature. We continuously learn, day by day, that nothing here is the same—our surroundings are everchanging. We are also reminded that wildlife, and even flora, unfortunately never read the textbooks written about them. Their behaviours are inherently variable. Take, for instance, the aardvark. Our guides will explain to our guests that aardvarks are usually nocturnal animals that are difficult to find at the best of times, yet as we enter our winter season, it seems as though all the aardvarks here on the Concession love to soak up the sun as we often enjoy sightings of them in the late afternoon before sunset. There are so many factors and underlying mechanisms that influence animals, insects, and plants to behave in completely different ways to what the literature on them describes. Furthermore, the influence of changing climatic conditions and seasonal variance also plays an important role in shaping the way that the ecosystem functions.

For this newsletter, our Guiding Team has used their own observations from recorded sightings around the Concession to create a “mini field guide” that describes the common behaviours of some our favourite species. As we continue to learn more about the intricate nuances of each species’ behaviours, we look forward to expanding our knowledge and sharing our experiences with our guests. At the same time, we will also update you on what some of the Mluwati Concession residents have been up to over the past few months.

Mle lion of the Mluwati Concession

LIONS OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION:

Lions arguably have the most complicated interspecies dynamics amongst the big cats, which perhaps explains why they are on the top of everyone’s bucket list of things to see when they come to visit. We feel most fortunate when we share the experience of a lion sighting with guests who are visiting the African bush for the very first time.  It is truly amazing to think about just how many people have come and gone, saying that all they ever wanted to see was a lion in the wild. Yet, it is still the most indescribable feeling of joy and privilege watching our guests soak in the majesty and power that lions exude.

There is something truly remarkable and humbling about watching an apex predator in its natural surroundings—it is almost as though that first experience leaves our fist-time guests forever changed and instils a bond with the African bush that we hope will last for a lifetime. As guides, we have watched generations of lions live from birth to death. Our two resident prides, as many of our readers will know, are the Hamiltons Pride and the Imbali Pride.

The Hamiltons Pride is unfortunately infamous for not being able to keep their cubs, and the lionesses of this Pride will regularly have at least six to seven litters a year—one would expect a mega pride to form with so many lions, but this has not been the case. During 2015 and 2016, we experienced one of the worst droughts ever recorded in the Kruger National Park since 1980s. Parts of the Park resembled those of the Kalahari Desert or— even worse— the Sahara. As the abundance of general prey species began to deplete, the often-fragmented Pride were forced to group together to take down larger prey such as buffalo and giraffes. During this time, the Pride consisted of a whopping 23 individuals. Shortly after the break of the drought, the Pride once again split into three units, each consisting of a couple of females and their offspring. The splintered groups were found as far as the S125 loop close to the tar road to all the way down the southern cutline as far as Broken Dam. Blondie and Madala, the dominant males of the Pride, also moved off the Concession during this time and spent the better part of two years roaming the S125 and travelling as far as to the S33—somehow managing to find a section of neutral ground to move through where they would not be attacked by other males in the area.

The Imbali Pride has moved just about everywhere, from Imbali Safari Lode to the S36 on our western boundary, and as far south as Djuma for a short visit, then returning to our boundary with Manyeleti and Predator Plains. It becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of all the lionesses of this pride especially during the drier months of the year when their movements seem to become more erratic as a result of the shortage of water. Lately, we have also spent a considerable amount of time with the Talamati Breakaway Pride and the Torchwood Pride as they push further into the southwestern parts of our Concession.

The position of the Concession seems promote the movement of new nomadic males, who are being pushed out of their territories, into new areas. We have been privileged to spend time with the legendary Matimba males who left us to reign over the Sabi Sands, later we met the famous Birmingham Males before they moved on to take over the entire northern Sabi Sands, and—more recently— we have seen a vast array of newly nomadic males. For example, we regularly encounter the Scorro Mabiri Male, the Torchwood Male, the S8 Male, the two sons of the Skybed Males, the Avoca Males, and many more unnamed individuals!

Male lion in the Mluwati Concession

Lions and Infectious Diseases

Over the course of the years, a question that seems to come up quite often is what are the different diseases that one may find in lions. The five predominant natural diseases that lions experience are: naturally occurring anthrax, rabies, tuberculosis, canine distemper, and feline immunodeficiency virus. Though anthrax is primarily a disease of herbivores, predators are susceptible to the disease if they feed on an infected carcass. Since anthrax particularly affects buffalo in this area, lions are vulnerable to this disease. However, as studies have shown, subpopulations of lions are able to build up quite an immunity to anthrax, evidenced by their ability to eat off an infected carcass without picking up the disease themselves. Bovine tuberculosis is also transmitted to lions when they eat on an infected buffalo carcass. This disease is quite pervasive since buffaloes suffering from tuberculosis are easier for lions to catch, which means that lions are more likely to be infected with the disease. The first lion that was diagnosed with TB was in 1995. Infected lions show symptoms of the disease far sooner than buffaloes. The general symptoms of TB in lions are a rapid deterioration of condition, significant loss of weight, and coughing. According to a study by Reardon, the disease also affects the social behaviour of lions. Lastly, feline immunodeficiency virus (also known as FIV) is similar to HIV in humans. It is transmitted through saliva and bites when lions fight and play. FIV is commonly found amongst lions in South Africa as well as Namibia, and it often leads to death.

Though conservation practices vary region by region, South African National Parks view natural diseases as a biological form of population control. As a result, they will not intervene when a lion is found to be suffering from naturally occurring illness. Although starving cubs are unsettling to behold, the adults may still be successful and return to feed the cubs. If the cubs survive, they will become more resilient to future diseases. On the other hand, if weaker cubs survive because of human intervention, the resilience of the metapopulation of lions in this region will be weaker and more susceptible to future diseases. The principle of non-interference allows for the survival of the fittest genes amongst the lion population. Furthermore, the lion population in an area must always be in balance with the environment and allowing for more lions to survive through unnatural means entails an unsustainable ecosystem that will eventually crumble. Nature will regulate the population.

THE TAKEOVER OF THE IMBALI PRIDE HAS BEGUN

Julia Keates recounts the sighting of a lifetime that she recently experienced on the Concession. The future of the Imbali Pride hangs in the balance. We would like to warn you that some of the images shared might be disturbing for sensitive viewers. Viewer discretion is advised. 

Waking through the night to the close roars of a pride of lions was something great to behold, there is nothing more heart rendering than this. I lay in bed and gently touched the wall behind my pillows and could almost feel the deep vibrations of the roar through my hands. Again, when we awoke at 05h00 this morning it was to the roar of a lions as well as the noise of excited laughing from hyenas. Waiting patiently for the first of the vehicle to go mobile in order for us to explain what it is we were hearing from the staff village. First out was Andrew, followed shortly by Matt and Connor we explained what we had heard and where we presumed them to be. Then nothing just silence. No more roaring, the guides check the back of the staff village nothing,

Andrew passes Imbali and continues down Hoyo Hoyo access to middle road he then turns in the direction of Hamiltons. Again, Andrew comes on the radio and says he has been all the way down to the river crossing and nothing. We tell them to check behind the borehole although, I was sure they were somewhere on Wedding plains Middle Road. Sure, enough Connor was on his way down Middle when he called saying he has managed to relocate the lions and that they were on a kill, he was going to go closer. The next message we got from Connor was enough to make your hair stand on end and immediately your mind races back to the last time you saw them. “Stations one female and one male lion – eating another lion”.

We have been expecting a takeover here for a while now and it seems with the activity recently around Hoyo Hoyo Safari Lodge with the son of the Skybed Males and the Torchwood Male the takeover has begun. An injured female lies watching as the male lion eats the sub adult male cub which he has killed. The Imbali pride female stands but can put no pressure on her back leg, on closer inspection she has a deep gash running along the inside of her leg – it seems to have been caused perhaps by her wanting to protect her cub. Keep watching for further updates as we wait to see what would happen next.

LEOPARDS OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION:

Not much has changed in our surprise of the health and prevalence of these adaptable solitary cats. They have provided our guests with the most breath-taking sightings and have even given some of our guides a chance in a lifetime to actually call in a “Hlambe”— the Shangaan word for a group of leopards. So many new faces around the concession—not only males but females as well. Although a lot of them seem to be coming in from the Kruger side of the Concession and are generally a lot more timid than those who come from the Sabi Sands or the Manyeleti.

There is an astounding amount of information found on these predators over the years of studies that have been done not only in Africa but all over Asia. In July 2008, American Photographer, Hal Brindley, was taking pictures of a hippo at a waterhole in the Kruger National Park when, unexpectedly, a leopard charged at the water. The attack was aimed at a crocodile, which within seconds was dragged onto the riverbank by the leopard. The leopard had the crocodile by the throat and a titanic struggle followed with the crocodile trying to rip open the cat’s belly with its claws. But the spotted cat was in control and, although weighing less than the crocodile, positioned itself on top of the reptile, and suffocated it. Afterwards it hauled the prey to a grassy patch, out of sight of the visitors.

Although leopards are known to catch smaller antelopes, a waterbuck was caught on Christmas day, 1971, in front of the restaurant at Skukuza Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park. According to Mills and Harvey, a leopard was recorded to have also killed an adult Eland Bull of 900 kilograms. We have personally seen Wabayisa on a kill of a female Kudu which he caught off the edge of the riverbank on the Mluwati. We have also been with Wabayisa when he found and ate a tortoise as well as a season-old wildebeest.

Many of our leopards do indeed have their favourite prey of choice– Nkhanye favours bushbuck, which are common around Hamiltons, Tiyasela is not particularly fussed but 9 out of 10 carcasses have been adult male impala. In areas where prey is abundant, a leopard will usually not travel further than 4 kilometres in 24 hours, but it can be much more in other regions. In the Kalahari, it has been recorded that a leopard can sometimes be compelled to walk up to 33 kilometres in 24 hours. Every few days, leopards will cover a greater part of their home range. They will seldom spend two consecutive nights in the same area, except for a leopardess who has cubs. As with our previous discussion of lions, leopards are also susceptible to anthrax, rabies and mange and certain other viral infections. They are also host to several internal parasites such as hookworm, roundworm, and tapeworm.

A quick update regarding our Concession’s resident leopards:

Tiyasela:

Our favourite leopardess was spotted on a couple of occasions over the last few months. She is in good condition and it seems as though she is exploring all parts of the Concession, perhaps in search of a permanent territory of her own.

Wabayisa:

We are happy to share that we had one quick sighting of this old male leopard, and we continue to be pleasantly surprised by how incredible his condition remains to be despite his age! That does not stop us from cherishing each and every sighting that we are still lucky to share with him.

Nkhanye’s Cub:

Nkhanye’s cub is now out on her own and is enjoying wondering around the south-eastern parts of the Concession. We also had an amazing sighting of her on the S125 on a kill of her own! It is always a touching experience to watch a cub grow into independence, and we look forward to watching her story as an adult leopardess unfold.

CHEETAH OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION

Here on the Concession, we are always overjoyed to see African version of the greyhound – our stunning spotted cat, the cheetah. It is always a treat for our guests and guides to be in a sighting with the fastest cat on the planet. The first pictures of a king cheetah in the Kruger National Park were taken in 1974 and again in 1992 east of Talamati Bush Camp. This is a generic variation of the cheetah and not a separate species. King cheetah have only ever been spotted in the wild six times. Although one would expect to always find these graceful cats on the flat open plains, Cheetah do sometimes climb trees. However, since they can only partially retract their claws, they are unable to climb vertical tree trunks like a leopard.

However, a cheetah can leap into a tree up to a height of 2.5 metres but is not well adapted to do so and dismounts are often comical and clumsy. Cheetahs are often known to use a play tree—this is a unique habit of using trees as markers that are visited by several coalitions, family groups and individuals. Typically, a play tree is a lone standing tree, visible from far away with sufficient shade and little surrounding vegetation. Sometimes it can just be a tree trunk lying on the ground. The trunk usually has scratch marks up to a height of 1.7 metres. Visiting cheetahs examine the trees for recent scent markers and often leave their scat in a forked branch.

WILD DOGS OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION

Breeding and denning season for the wild dogs is fast approaching, and so we know the number of sightings of these the second rarest carnivore on the planet will be few and far between. Wild Dogs are officially the most endangered carnivore in Southern Africa. Earlier, wild dogs were relatively widespread, but now their numbers have decreased to such an extent that they are only found in large parks such as Kruger, Hluhluwe/Imfolozi, Madikwe and Pilanesburg. One of the fundamental factors for the significant reduction in the wild dog population is attributed to human-wildlife conflict. Out of ignorance, people would often loathe their way of hunting. Consequently they were branded as vermin with no right to existence and this resulted in them being shot and poisoned indiscriminately—rewards were even being offered for a tail (5 Shillings in those days) and more for the whole carcass (7 Shillings). The elimination of predators, especially wild dogs, was encouraged by the provincial administration and from 1911 – 1934 more than £369000 was spent on this process. Even Harry Wolhuter, one of most famous conservationists of that time, admitted to shooting a wild dog in the early 1900’s. The practice was only stopped in the Kruger National Park in 1931, and in most other areas by 1970.

A pack of dogs is a close-knit family unit. Every individual has an inherent “responsibility” to the rest of the pack. They offer support to the alpha female by defending the den and bringing food for her as well as for the pups by regurgitating meat from their stomachs. Food is also regurgitated for the old and sick or injured adults, as well as those dogs which stay behind and guard the den. It seems that the urge to regurgitate food is stronger when the pups beg as a group than when only 1 is doing it. In one incident, where the only female in a pack died after she had started weaning the young, the litter was successfully raised by the males. Wild Dogs are extremely successful hunters with no less than 70% of their hunts ending in a meal – a whopping 1 out of every 3 victims will be able to escape.

When wild dogs leading the attack have made a kill, they will often leave the prey to first fetch the rest of the pack. The alpha pair usually gets the first opportunity to eat, but young dogs that are big enough to accompany the pack get precedence. No matter how hungry they are, the adults will stand back, allowing the young dogs to first have their fill. There is no aggression amongst pack members at a carcass. When there are pups at the den, the meat is swallowed whole to be regurgitated for pups. The food can even be regurgitated a few hours later. As long as the dog keeps moving, the digestive process is slowed significantly. Only while dogs are resting after the food has been “delivered” does the digestion process start in earnest. Due to their active lifestyle and their quick metabolism, wild dogs require 2 – 4 kg of meat per day. In proportion to their physique, the meat consumption of a wild dog is actually more than that of a large carnivore. A pack of 8 dogs will kill at least one medium-sized antelope every day.

You will always hear guides say that they can smell the dogs when they know they are nearby. Wild Dogs have a very distinctive odour and, in the event that they are separated from each other, they are able to recognise one another by smell. According to many researchers and supported by the experience of many guides, the odour of wild dogs is definitely not a pleasant one This can be attributed to their habit of rolling in urine, scat, blood, carcasses, or anything they can find with a strong smell. Secretions from several scent glands may also contribute to the odour.

wild dog of the Mluwati Concession

Black Backed Jackal

There is actually very little that a black backed jackal does not eat. It is known as a scavenger, but it also eats small rodents, insects, birds, wild fruit, small antelope and their lambs, rick hyraxes and hares. Individuals sometimes become problem animals when they start catching sheep and goats on farms. Broad leaved grass is often eaten to improve digestion. Wine farmers in the Cape have also shared that black-backed jackals also eat grapes.

Incidents have been recorded of a single Jackal bringing down an impala and springbok on separate occasions. The impala was isolated by the jackal and chased until too tired to flee further, after which the jackal grabbed it by the throat and suffocated it. However the impala was later claimed by hyenas.

Trevor Carnaby observed a black backed jackal attacking a wildebeest which had been wounded by lions. The jackal then attacked from behind, jerking at the genitals of the wildebeest. The sounds of distress uttered by the animal attracted other jackals. They joined forces to mangle the wildebeest. A gaping wound caused the intestines to spill, leading to the wildebeest’s death.

Considered by all to be one of the major carriers of rabies, the most dangerous time is late winter when the jackals risk staying closer to residential areas looking for food and water. When a wild animal appears unnaturally tame, it is a sign that it might have rabies. Saliva spilling from the mouth is another symptom. This terrible disease can be transmitted to a person by a bite or through contact with saliva or blood of an infected animal.

They are also known to contract canine distemper. Jackal from Etosha and Nambia are sometimes carriers of anthrax. Tourists once saw a near hairless Jackal in Addo at Rooidam – ranger at Addo identified the condition as mange, a skin disease caused by mites.

Honey Badger

With the dry season quickly approaching these “bandits” are seen more regularly in the evenings looking for food whether it be Kruger Park Camps or the concession they are innovative and quick to figure out how to open a dustbin, Tupperware, cupboard, fridge or how to gain access into the kitchen.

Honey badgers can cover large distances – up to 35km in 24 hours. It is an excellent digger, locating its prey with smell, then unearthing it from its shelter. Scorpions are very popular, but the stingers are always bitten off first. In areas where elephants abound, the rock-hard dung balls of dung beetles are unearthed and opened to reach the sought-after larvae. In their search for food, they can destroy rotten tree trunks and even turn over heavy rocks. The long claws are used for breaking, peeling and extracting food from its outer casing. Tortoise shells are removed with equal proficiency. Honey badgers have even been seen raiding the nests of birds of prey in the highest branches of trees. Excess food is cached. Sightings have been reported of a honey badger feeding on a fresh porcupine carcass. Wounds on the back of the honey badger and a porcupine quill deeply imbedded in its shoulder indicate that the badger had most probably killed the porcupine. In another incident a monitor lizard was caught and eaten alive.

Honey badgers are extremely resourceful animals and are among the few species to make use of tools. The honey badger has a relatively large brain in comparison to its size. In 1997 a honey badger was filmed rolling a trunk closer as to reach an entangled kingfisher chick. We have even seen it here where a honey badger ate through planks in the dining room to gain access into the kitchen at Imbali during lockdown. It is also known for feigning death when losing a fight.

For this small carnivore they are exceptionally strong and muscular. It has a massive skull consisting of very strong, dense bone, powerful jaws, and sturdy teeth – giving the honey badger a tremendous grip. The forefeet are supple and muscular, ending in five joints which are apparently as sensitive as human fingertips. The skin is very thick (6mm) and loose fitting. The animal has an elastic layer of tissue beneath the skin enabling it to twist up to 35% inside its skin so as to turn and bite its attacker.

Honey badgers are susceptible to canine distemper. Honey badgers are often poisoned, caught in traps, and shot. Ill-considered poisoning and traps set for caracal and black backed jackals claim their toll. Honey badger are also feature on the “bush meat” menu and are used for making traditional medicine. They have a vital role in controlling scorpions, dangerous snakes, and rodents.

Oxpeckers

There are two types of oxpeckers: the red billed found in many of our national parks and reserves, and the yellow billed found only in the Kruger National Park. The yellow billed oxpeckers were thought to be extinct because of the 1896 rinderpest epidemic which greatly reduced the numbers of their host species, as well as the indiscriminate use of pesticides which presumably cause many birds to be poisoned. Fortunately, since 1979 they are abundant again, particularly in the company of large buffalo herds and other pachyderms such as giraffe and rhino. Oxpeckers have strong feet with very sharp, curved claws, enabling them to grasp the hair and skin of their hosts tightly.

They are extremely nimble, sometimes even hanging upside down to reach the belly, genitalia, and anal parts. The stiff tail feathers, offer extra support. The thin red bills of the red billed oxpeckers are better suited to removing small parasites from shorter hair, while the bills of the yellow-billed oxpeckers are wider tipped and better suited for larger parasites and longer hair.

They are extremely effective in removing the larvae of ticks and bloodsucking flies with their sharp bills – known as “scissoring”. The remove an estimated number of 12 500 larvae daily. Oxpeckers often visit parts of their hosts, such as the ears, where parasites have access to heat, protection, and a sufficient supply of blood. They also eat the insects and their eggs attracted to wounds, and in the process consume blood and tissue as well.

Giraffe in the Mluwati Concession

SIGHTS AND SOUNDS OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION

Thank you for joining us for this action-packed newsletter! We look forward to sharing more thrilling updates with you in our next edition. We leave you with this gallery of images that capture some of the incredible sightings that we have experienced over the last few months.

The African bush in all its splendour is true food for the soul….

 “May the call of the African Fish Eagle ring out through the savannas and may the roar of the lion vibrate through your soul….”

 

THE GUIDES OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION