My many years guiding international visitors to the Kruger have provided me with fantastic opportunities to explore the different aspects of life on the African savannah. Whether we are looking at the actual animal, or simply at its signs, the interpretation of the ecology and behaviour of the animal or event is always fascinating.
‘At a kill in the Kruger’ is an interpretation of two great sightings. A female leopard and her cubs with their porcupine kill, and two lionesses on their impala kill.
The leopard’s patience!
There were two reasons why we waited two and a half hours for a leopardess with to come and fetch her porcupine kill metres away from the vehicle.
The first reason is that we wanted to see a leopard close up, and the second reason was I knew she would return. This story is about the reasons I knew she would come back and fetch her porcupine kill.
She had cubs with her (about 3 months old) and her success rate for large mammals, (I consider the porcupine as relatively large) is hard work.
Female leopards on territory need priority access to that area’s resources in order to raise their cubs. She is the only one that can ensure the proper development and education her cubs will need in order to survive. The ‘resources’ in her area do not make it easy – in fact they make it extremely difficult for mom leopard to teach hunting techniques, and how to kill effectively – even if it’s a porcupine.
Food defends itself in the bush, and this particular rodent – the porcupine – can make a lasting point about defence. The leopard would have grabbed the head of the porcupine and tried to flip it over – the porcupine would have spent most of its time trying not to let that happen. In this case the porcupine was killed.
The kill must have happened in the early hours of the morning; we arrived while the mother and her two cubs were beginning to feed. The leopard wasn’t visible but I knew she was still there. I switched off the vehicle and began to wait, this leopard would not leave her kill, I knew that, and a test of who’s resolve and patience would last. The odds were in my favour that she would come back while we were still watching, the sun was coming up and the carcass would soon begin to send out messages to vultures and hyenas.
She had cubs to look after and our presence at the kill site would concern her but as time moved on, she would have to learn that we were incidental and posed no threat.
It took two hours for the leopard to return the 20 metres she needed to fetch the porcupine. We were still there and my guests got some really good observation – particularly about the patience and ability of a leopard to disappear into the grass 20 metres from them!
I talked about camouflage. The hunter’s tools, learned behaviour and survival out in the bush. We talked about predator and prey relationships and the symbiosis between the two. We listened to the morning, as the birds woke up, and we began to understand the challenge of patience on the African savannah.
Have you got the stomach to watch dung beetles?
ungry lionesses hunting and a young impala ewe ruminating, the herd watchful but in this instance, not attentive enough – and then suddenly there’s a warning, the ox-peckers fly up into the air shouting, impalas scrabble to their feet and scatter, jumping high up over the brush, kicking their hind legs vertically and barking out warnings – all except one impala – the one that wasn’t fast enough. The first lioness grabbed her from out of the grass and the second lioness hanging on her hindquarters. There was only time for one last bleat before finality, a sporadic jerking of the legs, a better grip by one of the lionesses and then she was ripped apart like the rope tearing in a tug-of-war dual.
Each lioness took their share and panting, crouched over the spoils to eat. We watched, along with a lone male hyena that was in the right place in the right time. The lionesses were 10 feet from us when they began feeding.
The impala was barely recognisable after just 10 minutes; she was young enough for her skull, vertebrae and other skeletal features to be crushed and swallowed, her skin was peeled away and her hooves bitten off. The lioness with the intestinal stomachs pulled out the rumen still full of freshly cropped grass and leaves, and bit open the stomach wall and emptied the contents next to her.
The smell of the stomach opening was immediate, sending messages out into the bush. First to arrive were the dung beetles flying in one after the other, landing on the lionesses, next to the lioness and all about the lioness like fighter pilots grounding their planes. They were on a mission, and what a mission – as the lioness was finishing off the last bloody remains – the dung beetles were rolling away their balls of freshly dumped impala stomach contents, across the track and away – the grass was still producing opportunities for life even although it had been neatly cropped by an impala only 30 minutes earlier.
My own fascination with what was going on was immediate – as the vultures circled above us I began to understand just how important it was for me to witness this complete cycle of life.
I needed to put some perspective on what was happening around me, I mean here I was, sitting my vehicle watching an undigested ball of grass and herbs from an impala’s stomach, being rolled away by a dung beetle in order to provide a home for the life of a new dung beetle. I’m sure the impala would argue the finer parts of the importance of her role in all of this but I could not help wondering in awe at how all of this was so perfectly pieced together.
I had a lot of players (the dung beetle was obviously the ‘roll’ model) all acting out phenomenal sequence of events that I had to interpret for my guests who were all waiting for me to say something.
I quickly assessed some of the things I could talk about.
The importance of grass, as a producer of food! The importance of the impala as a grazer or manager of food! I also thought about the relationship between the two and the importance of grass not only as a source of food but also as material for shelters and nesting material, and while this ball of impala stomach contents rolled passed me, I thought about dung beetles and why they were intent on wrapping up the moment as material that would provide some kind of food storage or nuptial chamber for the larva of a dung beetle that will eat, pupate and moult into another healthy, fully grown dung beetle.
“The Scarabaeoidea are ecologically important creatures. They are nature’s very own ‘poop scoops’. Without these little insects, there is a good chance that humans and the rest of Earth’s terrestrial organisms would be up to their neck in poo,” I thought.
I could have talked about all of this, or that dung beetles belong to the family Scarabaeidae and are also known as scarabs. “They are scavengers, which feed on dung and other decaying organic matter, and play an invaluable role in keeping the veld clean. The ancient Egyptians revered them as a symbol of renewed life!” I said that out loud, and as I did, I thought about the grass again. I kept coming back to the grass! I remembered reading about the digestibility of grass by its fibre content, but this time the partially digested material was a bonus for dung beetles! How often would I witness the many roles of grass in a single event! My guests laughed at the irony, and then one said, “You must talk to us more about grass and its ecology,” and I was impressed – the excitement and action of a lion kill was slowly being worked into the bigger picture! Neil Heron