South Africa Diaries: Day 4

The day started with a rainy drive to feed the buffalo in the reserve. They are all males at varying ages, with the oldest being about four and having the biggest horns. Even he still has another four years of growing to do though. They all get fed once a day on highly concentrated pellets and alfalfa hay. They are TB free, which isn’t common for African buffalo and puts their price up considerably. There is also a male sable in the boma, which prevents him from fighting with the other male sable who waits outside because they are both highly territorial. They got him for a third of the price because he kept killing the females in his last home!

It was still raining heavily when we got back, so while we were waiting for our clothes to dry, the reserves’ owner, Alan Watson, came down and gave us a talk about wildlife reserve management. Before the talk, I was strictly against all forms of hunting, but he did make some very good points about how, although he doesn’t like doing it, culling is a necessary part of keeping a population at its carrying capacity and improve the overall survival of a population as a whole. It also brings in a lot of money for the reserve, which can be spent on conservation projects.

Alan told us some general information about the reserve. It consists of 5,889 hectares, but is in fact more like 10,000 hectares if you take the mountain slopes into consideration. Although Thaba Tholo is fairly small for a wildlife reserve, management of it still takes up 90% of the staff’s time. It is made up of five wild farmlands that were purchased at different stages during the 13 years that Alan and his family have owned the reserve. Since the reserve is totally fenced in, Alan himself admits that it is not totally natural and does affect the animal’s behaviour, however it is a necessary evil to prevent poaching and neighbour disputes.

There are many expenses involved in running the reserve, including maintenance of the 200km of road network and fencing, wages for staff, and vehicle maintenance such as new tyres (which only last eight or nine months in this terrain) and shock absorbers. Animal feed also costs a lot of money - 60 tonnes of it have been used this year already to feed the animals in the prolonged dry season. The reserve therefore has to be managed sustainably to allow it to keep running in the future, and so there has to be some kind of income coming in.

Alan does this by allowing tourists to stay in his lodges, but he also allows “rich Americans” (as he puts it) to come in and shoot overpopulated antelope. These trophy hunters get to keep the head of the animal, but due to airport regulations, they are not allowed to take the bush meat home so Alan gets to keep that which he can then sell on for further profit. An alternative to having these trophy hunters would be to live-capture and sell overpopulated antelope. The problem with this is that chasing an animal through this mountainous environment can often cause the animal to fall and hurt itself, sometimes even fatally. A bullet in the head is a much more instant death and is also unfortunately a lot cheaper. The animal can therefore make a lot more money when sold to trophy hunters. This money can be used to improve the lives of the other animals by proving them with things like food and water during the dry season. In just three months in the reserve, enough money was made through trophy hunters to keep the reserve running for a year. It really is a massive business.

Alan explained to us that hunters can actually be some of the best conservationists, because they have to maintain their supply for the future. It’s poachers who are the problem. He also told us his opinions on how hunting is a lot better than our large-scale commercial farming because there is a lot less stress for the animal and the animals have better lives. 35 zebra stallions were shot in Thaba Tholo last year because there was too many and they kept fighting instead of breeding. Colour variations in animals, such as the black impala, are now also a massive business in commercial hunting. Although I had once been pretty clear about my views on trophy hunting, I was now slightly more confused. I could understand that hunting done correctly has many benefits, but couldn’t understand why trophy hunters would want to kill an innocent animal in the first place.

After lunch, our group leader gave us a lesson about cloud identification, which is useful for predicting the weather out here. Basically, big clouds between the alto and strato layers are just called cumulus clouds. A nimbus cloud is one that rains, and a cumulonimbus is a storm cloud. We then had a lesson about bird watching and how to set up our binoculars to our eyes, before heading to the bird hide to put this into practice. There is a list of key features to look out for when identifying a bird species:

  • Colour - beak, wings, feet, breast and eyes.

  • Patterns - stripes, speckles, etc.

  • Size - compared to other well-known birds.

  • Tail length.

  • Call/song.

  • Habitat - and where it is found within it.

  • Solitary or group living.

  • Bill size and shape - indicates what they feed on.

  • General behaviour - how it flies, what it feeds on, etc.

We saw several black-collared barbets, which can be identified by their bright red faces and black collars. They are also very good at detecting snakes, so can be used as an early warning system. We also saw a cape white-eye, which is easily distinguishable by its black eye with a white ring around it and yellow belly with a green neck, and a purple-crested turaco, which has a blue crest and red wings with a short black beak. The kurrichane thrust was identifiable from its orange belly, grey back and black throat speckling, and the cape glossy starlings have a glossy green body and bright orange eyes. Laughing doves are pinkish with a black-flecked necklace but no collar, and dark-capped bulbuls have a black eye ring and a yellow rump.

Later on, we headed out into the field to a white-fronted bee-eater colony, to do a quick study on their behaviour - “Does distance where the white-fronted bee-eaters land influence the time taken for them to return?” Our results showed that the birds who flew away further would return to their nests sooner. On our return to camp, we saw a dazzle of zebra and a single wildebeest male. Wildebeest are highly territorial, and this lone male was scent marking up a tree. Before heading to bed, I spotted a genet sitting in the tree next to my tent.

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Species Of The Day: White-Fronted Bee-Eater

The white-fronted bee-eater (Merops bullockoides) is a common resident to grassland and savannah in sub-equatorial Africa. Usually weighing between 30-40g, it is mainly green with a red and white throat. Pairs are monogamous and they live in large family groups. Being highly altruistic, there are many non-breeders that help close kin.

They are generally between 22-24cm in length and feed on a variety of insects including bees, occasionally taking prey from the ground. Interestingly, it was found that reproductive success depends largely on the composition of the male’s family and his position within it. Males with a low social status are often rejected by females in favour of higher quality males who will have more potential helpers of their own. Females that are able to help close kin and gain larger indirect benefits are more likely to be unpaired. Therefore social status seems to be an important factor in mate selection.

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