Wild Dog puppy surprise

22nd June 2019
The sun had set but it was still light. That evening light of purple and orange hues, were perfectly reflected in the water of the pan, the sunset colours broken only by the reflected shapes of 5 elephant bulls drinking. They stood peacefully slowly sucking up litres of water at a time and carefully depositing them deep into their mouths, careful not to spill any of this liquid gold. Some elephants are having to dig in the dry sandy riverbeds for water, these guys have it easy, for now. The dry season has only just started, with at least another 5 months to go before the rains. Keeping the peace and reflecting the mood around the pan, as one, the bulls moved off almost without any sound, even their huge footsteps treading silently on mother earth. In the fading light I wanted to check on the vultures from the morning. The tree skeletons stood dark and proud against the now maroon sky, but they were bare. Not a vulture to be seen. Obviously that huge carcass I had imagined was just that…
At dawn I went to check on the badger hole. A few buffalo had been through and churned up the sand around the bush, but otherwise there was no sign. Taking my chances I went into the thicket. It was fairly open inside with lots of leaf litter. There were several holes too, but all had spider webs. So they hadn’t been used recently. There was no evidence of anything. I was now seriously beginning to question my tracking skills.

It was still early when I arrived at the wild dog den. Adults lay around in the sun warming themselves. They all looked lean. Definitely hadn’t hunted this morning. It was some time later that one stirred. Got up shaking her head, that typical sound of huge flapping ears. She greeted another. They were both up, walking shoulder to shoulder with their heads low they moved past the mopane trees to the light red sandy mound. They were whimpering. There was more movement in the woodland. More dogs, their heads held low, began to approach. Digging at the entrance of the sandy mound one of the dogs was whimpering frantically and carried on digging. Then they erupted, tiny puppies! Not even 3 weeks old. The adults were all over them. All wanting to ‘eat’ the cutest little things. Their coats are still just black and white, the brown will start appearing soon. Puppies were being picked up, nuzzled, pushed around. Everyone wanting to meet and greet them. It was frantic for a few minutes. Then mom arrived and the puppies dropped into the burrow. No doubt milkies on offer. The adults resumed their places in the sun…

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My Leopard friend

18th June 2019
I had just come through the riverine woodland and was crossing the hard furrowed ground from the cyclone, a little drainage line running parallel to the river, and there was a pair of eyes close to the ground. Engaging 1st gear low range, Joanie eased over the hard ground, into a gully and out again. The eyes were just ahead staring at me. It was a leopard, which appeared to be lying at the entrance of a burrow. As I moved closer, it lowered itself into the burrow. I was now super excited. Was this a female with tiny cubs underground? I didn’t want to disturb her, but of course I also wanted to see the cubs. Joanie sat tight in silence. The moon was full. I didn’t need my light. A young Nyala berry tree cast a long shadow down another gully in front of me where a couple of Acacia bushes were lying flattened to the ground weighed down with debris from the floods. The leopard relaxed and came out the hole to lie at the entrance. It was so chilled. Surely the cubs must come out soon. I put a light on and with my binoculars scanned the hole and then I saw, it wasn’t a female but the young male leopard I had a few days ago on that impala carcass. It wasn’t long and curiousity got the better of him. In a half stalk he started circling Joanie. It was amazing to watch just in the light of the moon. A leopard grunted a long way south, he looked up briefly and continue to suss me out. He kept using the little flattened Acacias as cover until he’d gone the whole way round, then headed west in one of the gullies. I followed along the top and every now and then he’d pop his head over the top to see my progress. The gully ended a couple of hundred meters on. Before jumping out he gave me a long curious stare, then gracefully jumped out and I followed him as he ambled along the edge of the woodland sniffing here and there. Then up into a Rain tree and slouched on the horizontal stem. That classic leopard pose. I couldn’t believe it. Here as a totally wild leopard that had never been followed by a vehicle before and he was just chilling in the tree 20m away. Then suddenly ‘awake’ again, like flowing water he left the tree. Impala ahead, to the north. He didn’t seem to notice the giraffe to the east and they ran on seeing him. Startled he scooted up a nearby Nyala berry. With the giraffe gone, the impala still there, he continued to approach. He had lots of cover from the Sida forbes growing all around, only the top of his back sticking out. It was a small herd of females with one male that kept herding them. The leopard was now 50m off. He waited. Maybe they’d be herded towards him. Slowly they drifted away. Again he approached and waited. Some of the impala were feeding. I could hear elephants feeding in the mopane a few hundred meters away and a pair of Three-banded Coursers were calling to each other. Otherwise the night was quiet. Very different from the last full moon when there was hardly a minutes silence through the night with impala roaring in every direction during the rut. The impala were now walking straight towards him. He was flat, only the tips of his ears visible. His body started to squirm like any cat ready to pounce. Then a female broke the ranks to get away from the male. The others followed and off they ran west, away from the leopard. He trotted after them past an old ‘skeleton’ of a huge fallen over Nyala berry tree, but was suddenly distracted. A Dwarf Mongoose had broken cover from the tree. He was after it. But of course it had another escape hole and disappeared. He continued to search for the others, all now shouting their alarms. Just a big kitty playing mouse games. They soon ended and we headed east. He was still amazingly relaxed in my presence and almost went about his business as if I didn’t exist. A fallen over Leadwood branch got lots of attention. No doubt another leopard had marked there. Then on to a clump of Crocodile Bark trees. Not easy to climb but up he went into the upper branches. I thought he might have had an old kill up there. Nothing. I stopped on the edge of the overhanging branches and watched his antics. Down the tree and up the tree. He climbed along the branch straight towards me and lay there peering down at me no more than 3m away. We had a long chat. Thankfully he listened to my wise words… Because then he left the tree and came right up to my door and sat down about 2m away. I was watching him in the moonlight and couldn’t see his eyes, but knew he was watching mine. I smiled, closed and opened my eyes being sure to look relaxed and not threatening. For ages we watched each other. With a one small leap he could be in the car. I continued to talk to him with my eyes. It looked like he might just jump aboard, just to see what Joanie was all about. Eventually, with no more to say, he turned, gave the tree another sniff and headed south. He had several more hunting attempts after impala. Maybe the moon was blowing his cover. I’d been following him for nearly 5hrs when we were back where we’d started. He crossed the gullies and continued on south into the dense riverine. Did he know I couldn’t follow? No doubt we will again be spending another night together sometime.

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Leopard guards his impala kill

13th June 2019
It was already dark when I got back to the area where the leopard had its impala kill. I wasn’t exactly sure where I had it and was scanning the area as I drove. I found the drag marks across the track and shining to the my left saw some strange hairy shapes. 4 Bushpigs, 2 adults and 2 youngsters were busy tucking in to the impala carcass. It was in the open, right where I had left it. How did the vultures no find it? Why hadn’t the leopard taken it into a thicket? Where was the leopard now? The bushpigs had found the carcass perfectly open for them to tuck in to the intestines and meat. Jostling between each other they were clearly relishing all this protein. They must have got my scent, cos as one they bolted and never returned. I got myself into position for the night. I drove a little closer right up against the trunk of a Raintree. Its cover would keep the dew off me. The carcass was about 20m away, my headlights would shine perfectly on it. It was lying in the open on an elephant path running east west. About 5m to the north of the carcass was a low anthill behind which was a big Leadwood with some scrub around it. The moon was bright, already bulging on its way to full. The elephant path went past a dead fallen Raintree, its lightly coloured trunk shining like ivory in this light and its roots, from my position formed the shape of a large X. (No, not extra large…) I was sitting in a grove of Raintrees, their shadows covering me, so making me less obvious, although that’s not so easy when I’ve got Joanie with me. Then I saw him coming along the elephant path just east of the X. It was a young male leopard.
He didn’t go straight to the carcass, but moved around behind me, continued round and approached the carcass from the north, seeming to use the anthill as cover. He seemed unperturbed that the bush pigs had been feeding and soon settled in to feed. He wasn’t tucking into the tender fresh rump, but was taking the intestines and pulling them through his front teeth, so extruding the contents and only eating the meaty covering. He stopped feeding, lions were roaring not far away. Then back to feeding. Eventually he rested up on the anthill grooming himself meticulously. A hyaena called further east and every 8seconds a Scops Owl called from the top of a Leadwood tree not too far away. The lions called again several times in the night. They were moving west but probably not even 500m away. Predawn I was woken by crunching at the carcass. The leopard was feeding again. There was a faint hint of light to the east and Ground Hornbills were thundering their calls somewhere in the dense riverine. It really is such an awesome sound! In the freshly approaching dawn, a pair of jackals, their coats light against the dark background, had just discovered the leopard. They came closer and closer. And then let rip with their ear piercing mobbing calls. The leopard was well fed and moved off with all this interference. (But he hadn’t actually) The jackals never moved in to feed, which was odd. With the light now shining through the trees, I left. Further west, about 500m from the leopard kill, vultures were perched in a tree. Was there another kill here? I stopped to listen AND have a quick pee. Getting back in the car, the vultures all flew off straight towards the leopard kill. I went back round to find them all in a tree close by and lying on the anthill… was the leopard. He had probably been there all day, which had kept them away. AND he was probably lying in the scrub earlier, which was preventing the jackals from coming in.
It was a stalemate and I left, but returned about an hour later to find the vultures still waiting but no leopard and no kill. He’d dragged it about a hundred meters east and stashed it under a very dense Capparis thicket, where no vulture or anything dared venture. It was his for the duration…

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Lions hunting in riverine forest

5th June 2019
I know just a presence and me driving around the area that I plan to work, all help getting the animals to accept Joanie and me. So a lot of my nights are spent doing just that and at the same time looking for potential action or just potential animals that I can follow to help them realise I mean no harm.
Driving through the riverineI I wasn’t expecting to see their tawny shapes. A lion and 2 lionesses were dwarfed by the huge trees. He was hanging back as the girls moved to my right with purpose. I couldn’t see what had caught their interest. But their gaze didn’t last and the 2 girls rested up under a grove of Nyala-berry trees. I didn’t join them as there was a veil of webs hanging from the trees like puppets on a string, caterpillars descending on their webs to the ground as they headed off to pupate. These caterpillars are pretty harmless but piles of them would know doubt get squashed in my moving around the car and I wasn’t too looking forward to a green lotion on my skin or sleeping bag. The male lion had plonked himself down just where he was when the girls did. About 50m east of them a small pair of eyes was watching the goings on, a genet perched in the fork of a Leadwood tree. Some impala roared to the south. The girls were up heading slowly south. There was baboon chatter in the direction of the impala. They hadn’t seen the lions, but the lions were sure to have their cover blown if they continued and wisely turned back and headed north.

They were moving thorough the huge open woodland of Nyala-berry’s, Leadwoods, Raintrees, Umbrella thorns and Sausage trees. All majestic trees in their own right. There was no cover on the ground and very little leaf litter. The lions could move freely and quietly all spread out. A few Croton bushes and some small Acacias provided them with little cover. A pair of eyes ahead coming towards us. The lions hadn’t seen it. A female leopard was walking straight towards me. Lions and leopard hadn’t seen each other. About 30m apart the leopard saw the lions. You could almost see her eyes widening in shock at what was beaming down on her. She drew her body close to the ground, almost flat and slunk off to the side. She didn’t run away. She wanted to see these brutes pass her by, which they did completely unaware of her presence. Once they’d past she moved on south. 
Plenty of eyes ahead. A herd of impala. We were still in big tree country, fairly open but with scattered bushes. Enough cover for the lions. They were on it. Keeping themselves spread out, they approached. There wasn’t much effort to conceal themselves and try as they did to lower their body’s to the ground, they were no match at mastering the act like the leopard did. There was no tactic in the lions’ hunt. About 30m from their prey they all attacked running blindly into the herd. Their ‘tactic’, if you could call it that, was to cause chaos and have impala running everywhere. If one ran over you, you grabbed it. I lost the lions in the advance. If they had caught an impala there was bound to be lots of growling and fighting over the small carcass. I waited listening. The impala were quiet. Somewhere down there a pair of Giant-eagle Owls were hoot-grunting to each other. It sounded like an interesting conversation. Twenty minutes later and there still wasn’t a peep from the lions. I drove around, but couldn’t find them.

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Shy Leopard Cub

1st June 2019
Normally when I’m driving around at 4h30 in the morning, I’m already in my main filming area and driving really slowly, 2nd gear at the most. But leaving home this morning at that time and travelling in 3rd gear the wind-chill took on a whole new meaning. I was deep in my sleeping bag wearing a heavy jacket and scarf, no hat and no gloves. My face was fine but after 15mins my hands felt like someone was trying to pull my nails out with a pair of pliers. I stopped near a pan to sit on my hands and warm them. A lion roared in the direction I’d come from and straight after it another roared not far ahead of me. It was fairly open country and seemed a definite I’d find the lion. But alas it melted away somewhere into the darkness. Aaaah… I carried on until my hands needed warming again. I was down in the riverine vegetation. After about 5mins my hands were toasty warm and ready for another stint. A leopard called to my south. It sounded close but again I had no luck. There were several jackals going crazy mobbing something a long way north. I had to give it a bash. They were going so frantic when I was nearing the area I didn’t need to switch the engine off to hear them. Carrying on north off the road across country, fairly open savannah, I saw several jackals ahead. One ran off but the other 5 stayed, some shouting the others moving around. I couldn’t pin-point where the trouble was. There was no sign of any other eyes in the area. I drove around. Another 2 jackals were to the east AND a hyaena! Sadly the hyaena bolted when I put the light on it and I never saw it again. Then I found the remains of an adult male impala carcass. Most of it had been eaten, with just skin and bones remaining. It was lying out in the open. Was this a cheetah or wild dog kill? About 50m away was a huge fallen over dead tree, a Nyala-berry. I positioned Joanie behind it so she wouldn’t be too obvious and intimidating. The jackals were soon back, but reluctant to feed. Then they started their chorus shouting frantically. It was only just getting light and I couldn’t see much. There’s no grass here but the forbe Sida, sure makes up for it, completely obscuring the carcass from where I was. The jackal carried on frantically. Using my binoculars I could see something at the carcass. It was a young leopard. I drove a little closer, right up to the tree stump. She carried on feeding. She was completely unconcerned by the jackal. After shouting frantically for a good 10 minutes, they all turned and left without a second thought and never came back. I stayed with the leopard waiting for sunrise and some decent light to get a couple of pics. Visitors arrived, not to hassle the leopard but to hassle me. In the Knob-thorn tree next to me, first a pair of White-crowned Shrikes shouted their abuses. They were soon joined by a pair of Yellow-billed Hornbills and then a noisy scattering of Long-tailed Starlings. A Buffalo-weaver nesting in the tree was the only candidate who might have had a slight reason to carry on with tormenting me.  And not to miss out on making fun of me a Black-headed Oriole came and sat at the very top of the tree. For ages they pestered me, then briefly checked out the leopard and left. Why was I being treated with such disdain?
The sun came up, but of course there had to be a tree casting its shadow over the leopard. The leopard tried moving the carcass but it was too much for her little body. Eventually, reluctant to leave, she walked towards me a few steps then moved on east. She seemed so chilled. When she was a good 50m away I tried to follow, but just starting the engine had her bolting for the trees…

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Wild Dogs denning surprise

30th May 2019
Exciting stuff!
Well for me it certainly was. I’d been driving after sunset. The tracks were dry and powdery kicking up piles of dust behind me as I slowly made my along the edge of the riverine vegetation. My spotlight was drifting from side to side in what’s almost become a mechanical movement for me. I scan quite quickly, not looking for actual shapes in the dark but relying totally on animals eyes lighting up and reflecting back to me. A city of lights ahead, a herd of impala, the females all being herded by a single male. The rut is still on but very much coming to an end now. A pair of eyes close together in the top of an Umbrella-thorn. A Genet foraging. Dust up ahead, a herd of wildebeest running into the mopane. Out on the plains like little jewels scattered in the dust, Nightjars. I then took refuge under a Nyala-berry, keeping away from the dew. Tea and a sandwich went down well. Not my traditional meal, which is usually an ice-cold smoothy. Yes even in winter, but today the tea scored huge points and might just be a replacement for a while.
A lion called a long way north. Something to follow up on. I flicked the switch and pressed the button (Joanie threw her key away some time ago) and Joanie fired up. Lights on, spotlight in the hand and I left the shelter of the tree. I’d hardly left when scanning to my right, not too far away was one of my best friends, a hyaena! It looked like a young female. The first one I’ve seen here. Expecting her to bolt I took the main beam off her. She stared at me for a while and then nonchalantly she walked away behind some bushes. She didn’t like me driving after her and loped off into the darkness. I was sooooo chuffed. I love these creatures and she was a lot more chilled than I expected. Her reaction being far better than the lions.
For the rest of the night I was chasing calling lions. At one stage I had 3 lions calling at the same time, all in a different direction from me. Whenever I was just about on top of one of them, they’d go silent.
Frustrated I followed the dawn in with a little fire and a hot cup of tea!
I’ve decided I’m going to spend some time working all day rather than at night. I can spend more time walking and in this cooler weather badgers will be active in the early morning and late afternoon.
So because of this change in shift, I got home and took the family out all afternoon. KiKi was riding shotgun holding onto my tripod arm, Saskia sitting next to me. We took a route new to both of us along the northern boundary. We crossed the sandy river, which up here is still flowing. This is also the only area in the river that reeds are growing, which is strange. Maybe they occur upstream but for the more than 20kms that the river flows through the reserve till where it ends in the Save River, there aren’t any reeds. I love it that way as they can eventually choke a river. The road across the northern side was straight, fairly level stony country with dense bush on both sides. The stony soils gave way to red sandy soils and we now had mopane woodland surrounding us. The sun was fairly low in the sky and shining under the woodland canopy casting pretty light below. There was no marker or change in anything, except one area close to the road the ground had been excavated into 5 or 6 mounds of sand at the base of which each had a hole. Then the colours erupted. We’d woken them. Blacks, whites and browns all mixed in different ratios and patterns, the amazing variety of coats, each African Wild Dog with their very own print. Awake, the dogs all greeted briefly before settling again. They were pretty chilled with our presence, which as brilliant. AND they’re obviously denning. I presume the puppies are still very young and not yet venturing out the den. Unfortunately the mopane they’re denning in is really dense and once they leave to go hunting there is no way of following them, but at least in time, IF they stay there, we’ll be able to see a lot more of them.
It was getting late, the sun was setting, and KiKi was a little grumpy. It was her bath time.
I was on a high. 2 of my besties on one day!
(Look out for my film that premiered in November last year “DOGS IN THE LAND OF LIONS” on PBS in America, and also on other channels around the world.)

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