Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Rangers Perspective - The Leopard Sighting That Never Happened

Why is is that the best sightings always happen when you are alone and there are no witnesses?

When new guests are about to experience a game drive with us for the first time, we have a little chat to our guests while everyone is on the vehicle and we let them know what the procedures will be and any safety precautions while out on the drive. A ranger will almost always ask whether there are any special interests - meaning any birders, or people who are specifically interested in botany. This gives the ranger an idea on where exactly their interests lie and so boredom can often be avoided by stopping for things that no-one has any interest in. When posing this question to guests, the ranger runs the risk of getting inundated by lists of species that each one of the guests is hoping to see.
It will go something like this:
Suitably attired first-time-safari goer: "Well I've never seen elephant, lion, buffalo, pangolin, porcupine, aardvark, caracal, serval, polecat...Oh! And a Leopard jumping out of a tree onto an unsuspecting Impala!"

Well half of those things the rangers haven't seen (and they are out doing drives every single day) and the other half are only seen on documentaries after 5 years of filming. Documentaries are great for education, but my goodness they set high standards for us!

The number 1 most requested animal sighting is a Leopard. This is the most elusive and secretive cat in Africa - and there is a reason for that: The are very elusive and secretive!

The funny thing is that I have personally seen leopard out in the wild approximately 37.25 times (.25 is for the time I saw it's tail disappearing into a bush) in the 5 years I have been living in a game reserve. Out of those sightings, I have been with other people - lets call them "witnesses" - about 22 times. Therefore the 15.25 times I have seen a Leopard without "witnesses" does not count.
That is the rule. There is however a loophole in the form of photographic evidence. BUT, the chances that your leopard sighting is long enough and fulfilling enough to get out your camera, remove the lense-cap and screw on the lenses are very very slim. These sightings are best appreciated without the help of a camera bacause they are fleeting. Your eyes will be glued and your breath stuck in your throat. These sightings will also happen while you are flying through the reserve, with somewhere to be and people to see. It will happen when you least expect it. Kind of like a UFO sighting but way cooler.

I know all this because I have done research. I have just now written a proposal to my boss on Leopard research requesting if I could please speed through the reserve for a month under the pretense of very special meetings to attend. It was turned down obviously but the reasons where apparently financial...

What this article comes down to, is that last week Tuesday I saw a Leopard. It crossed the road in front of me and it walked down along the road next to me. It was a fantastic sighting. The sun was setting behind me and the cat was lit up like a photoshopped postcard. Perfect.
Except, no-one believes me because there were no witnesses or photographic evidence.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A new Guest in Camp

Every so often we get an unusual visitor in the camp. Our camp has an electric strand that encircles the camp at about eye-level to keep the big animals out, but that means it can let the little animals in too...

We have had all kinds of animals that have popped in during the night. There has been buffalo dung left on our front lawn, Nyala's regularly make an appearance, Warthogs are frequently spotted each evening keeping the grass short and very occasionally we find quills along the well used staff pathways.

The quills belong to someone, and that someone has decided to make himself known. One evening on my way up to the staff accomodation, I heard a scuffling in the bushes right next to me and out pops a very prickly porcupine! He was obviously in a very grumpy mood because his quills were sticking up (as they do when they're defending themselves) and it was making a very curious "huffing" sound as he crossed the road ahead of me. They odour was very strong and musky too!

Since that evening a few months ago, this procupine has been showing up all over the camp. One hot summers evening, Douglas who is our groundsman decided to sleep outside to escape the sweltering heat from indoors. He was awoken in the early hours of the morning by shuffling and snorting nearby. He sat up just in time to catch the porcupine carrying one of his shoes off! After a brief chase Douglas managed to retrieve his shoe and the following morning we all had a good giggle after hearing about the previous nights adventures.

This particular porcupine seems quite relaxed around people and doesn't seem to be put off by the chatting and general noise made by both our staff and guests. A few of us were sitting outside the staff accomodation one evening, when it casually sauntered past without a second glance at us. The climax was a couple of evenings ago when Anand our ranger was busy with dinner service for our guests, when the porcupine ambled along and walked in through our main lodge! He came in and wandered around the boma area, but after deciding that the food smelt much better inside, wandered through the lodge and out onto the deck area where plenty of pictures were taken. The animal got a little defensive when it couldn't remember it's way out again, so clever thinking Anand closed the doors to the deck and let it be while it found it's co-ordination again. 

Such excitement! Porcupines are the second largest rodent species in the world, with the largest being the Capybara which is found in South America. Porcupine are also covered with thick quills that grow out of hair follicles in the porcupines skin, the same has hair. Contrary to popular belief, porcupine do not shoot their quills out at a threat, but rather shake them to cause a loud rattling sound (as the quills are hollow) as a first means of defense. If the predator or threat does not heed the first warning, the porcupine will walk backwards and even jump towards the predator in order to for the quills to penetrate the predators skin. The quills are lineated and they are not very clean, so predators will often run the very serious risk of infection following the infliction from a quill. These guys are not to be messed with! The quills will grow back exactly the same as hair.
Baby porcupine are born hairless, and will grow their quills during their first few weeks of life.