South Africa Diaries: Day 1

As part of my zoology degree with the University of Reading, I was lucky enough to attend a South African fieldtrip. This was a pretty big deal for me as, in my opinion, southern Africa has some of the best wildlife on the planet, so I was very excited to go! It was a two-week trip where we would be staying at the Thaba Tholo wilderness reserve in Mpumalanga, the home base for the Ingwe leopard conservation research team. We would be learning first-hand how to track animals using spoor and scat, how to survive in the bush, and the importance of the delicate relationship between man and nature.

After an 11 hour flight and five in-flight movies later, we finally landed in South Africa, where two minibuses were waiting for us to take us to Thaba Tholo. We stopped off on the way at Alzu, a service station, which overlooked a nature reserve and I got to see my very first African wildlife! We saw six rhinos, several zebra, African buffalo, eland, and two emus. Emus are actually endemic to Australia, not South Africa, so there had obviously been some kind of human interference there.

We arrived at Thaba Tholo in the early afternoon and headed down to the conservation village camp where we would be staying. After a short time to move into our tents: flimsy two-man structures that I highly doubt would have provided much protection against the leopards. We then had a safety briefing about dangerous snakes, spiders and scorpions, and how we are able to avoid them. Dangerous snakes that inhabit Thaba Tholo include the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) and the spitting cobra (Naja mossambica). Since these species are very wary of people, the easiest way to avoid them is to wear a head torch at night so that you don't accidently walk on top of one - they are most likely to bite only if trodden on or cornered. The violin spider, also called the brown recluse spider (Loxosceles recluse), is one of the dangerous venomous spiders that we had to look out for. Its venom can often cause necrosis, but can sometimes even cause haemolysis, which is the bursting of red blood cells. As with scorpions, it is best avoided by checking things like your sleeping bag and shoes before getting in them.

Our camp was later visited by a herd of nyala, who apparently visit most days in search for the alfalfa pellets that the camp leader feeds them. It's a family group, made up of a male with his females and offspring. There was also another adult male in the group, but he is much younger than his father and will likely leave the herd soon. That evening, we went on our first game drive down to the dam. On the way, we saw a family of two adult and two baby warthogs, which we were easily able to identify from their vertical tails held in the air. Male warthogs have four ‘warts’ on their faces, whereas females only have two. We also saw some baboons, a kudu, and some waterbucks which were easily distinguishable by the white ring around their rear. Several bats flew over our heads and we saw some more nyala. Nyalas are easy to identify by the white stripes down their sides and the white marks under their eyes.

On the game drive, we were also called over by another vehicle to a dead bushbuck, which you could smell long before seeing. It hadn’t been eaten, but it looked like it had been killed by a leopard because there was leopard spoor around it and leopards are the only predator in the area large enough to take down an adult bushbuck. Could this be our first sign of leopard activity?

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Species Of The Day: Nyala

Nyala, Tragelaphus angasii, are a species of spiral-horned antelope native to southern Africa. Females and young males have a short rusty brown coat with long white stripes down their sides, whereas adult males have a much darker brown coat that is slightly longer. This, and the fact that only males have horns, shows that there is extremely high sexual dimorphism in the species. Interestingly, nyala have been shown to hybridise with another large antelope species in the wild, the kudu. The problem with this is that the reproductive effort is wasted because the offspring are infertile, and so there is a decrease in productivity.

Nyala are in the family Bovidae and are classified as least concern on the IUCN Red List. This is because, although populations have been severely depleted in the past, the current total population estimate is around 32,000 individuals. These populations are either stable or increasing, which means the nyala doesn’t meet the criteria to be classed as a threatened species.

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