South Africa Diaries: Day 2

Straight into the early morning starts, we woke up at 6am and went on an early morning trek to work on our animal tracking skills. We were given information by our group leader along the way, which helped us to identify a species from their spoor (footprint). Animals will often take the easiest route on the path, so spoor will often be found on the inside bends and areas with less vegetation to walk through so that less energy is wasted. Some animals, particularly ungulates, will do a thing called registering - this is when the animal walks and places its back feet in exactly the same spot as its front feet have previously walked, in order to reduce noise. Carnivore spoor have distinct back pads and toes, whereas herbivore spoor is usually made up of two hoof segments. The only exception to this is the zebra, which has a single ‘horse-like’ hoof segment.

Brown hyaena spoor has half-moon shaped toes and they are not classified as true cats because they have two back pad lobes instead of the three that true cats have. They also have larger front paws than back paws, to compensate for their sloping back. We learned that when measuring the spoor of carnivores, you should always measure from the tip of the claw between the two front toes. Stride can be measured by measuring the distance between two sets of spoor, so long as you are certain that it is the same foot. This can be useful when estimating the body length of the animal. Monkey spoor are very similar to human prints, and bushbuck spoor has an ‘overbite’. Warthog spoor are square-like with a blunt front, and usually measure 60x50mm.

Animal scat can also be very useful in tracking. The scat of a ruminant fermenter is pelleted with fine fibres inside, whereas that of a hind-gut fermenter is often non-pelleted and contains long fibres inside. Kudu scat is indented at one end with a nipple at the other, which allows it to clump together in a strand. Red-coloured scat is a characteristic of a bark eating animal due to the tannins inside the bark. Bark eating animals in Thaba Tholo include the hyrax and the porcupine.

Other bits of random information we learned included the fact that millipedes contain cyanide but civets are still able to eat them, the call of the cape turtle dove sounds like ‘work harder’ , and the sweet thorn tree produces a sweet gum when animals damaged them. The gum is edible and apparently used to be a local delicacy before sugar was introduced. I tried some and didn’t find it to be very sweet, but I guess I'm just too used to sugar.

The big five is an old hunting term, used to describe the five mammals that were the hardest to hunt - rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo. There is also now a little five - rhino beetle, elephant shrew, ant lion, leopard tortoise and buffalo weaver. The term little five was introduced by conservationists to try to make tourists acknowledge the smaller, less well known animals that are just as important to conservation as the big five.

We headed back to camp for breakfast at about 9:30, and then went back out to do some more animals tracking in smaller groups. This time we had to try it for ourselves, using the knowledge that we learned from earlier this morning. The majority of the spoor we found belonged to zebra and wildebeest, but we didn’t actually see either of them in the flesh. We drove a bit further up to the dam to see if there was anything else. There wasn’t, but we did see a herd of impala on the way.

The water at the dam was very low, which showed the massive problem of a lack of rain in the area. This long dry season has also lead to the problem of several forest fires, which spread rapidly. Just last night, there was a huge fire that took over five and a half hours to put out. They actually fight fire with fire (burn the fuel with controlled flames before the uncontrolled flames have a chance to burn through), which is the quickest and easiest way to put it out. When we met up with another group later on, they pointed out several jackal spoor to us. They most likely belonged to the more common black-backed jackal, but there was no way of telling that they didn’t belong to the side-striped jackal. Other spoor we recorded included baboon, zebra, waterbuck, genet, brown hyaena, grey duiker, and warthog.

We went back to camp and were given a talk about fire safety and how to work the donkey (their term for the make-shift heated water shower system). We then headed to the watering hole outside camp, where we were shown how leopards are caught in trap for research. It was designed by the hunter-turned-conservationist Darien Simpson, and works in a way to provide the leopard with a roaming range so that the animal doesn’t get distressed, which is much more humane than a snare. It also involves a piece of rubber, which allows the rope to fit perfectly around the size of a leopard paw. This also means that any other smaller animals do not get trapped. Darien’s knowledge and ability to think like a leopard has lead to him becoming one of the world leaders in predator trapping.

Our second evening game drive took us back to the dead bushbuck that we saw yesterday. We originally thought that it was killed by a leopard, but it now looked more likely that it had in fact fallen down the hill as it was running away from the forest fire, due to the way its neck was snapped and the fact that nothing had eaten it. We decided to set up a camera trap nearby anyway to see if anything visits it, and also set up a camera trap near the dam. After dinner, we were shown how a leopard drum is used to attract leopards. It was originally invented to attract jaguars in South America for hunting, but works just as well with leopards for research.

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Species Of The Day: Greater Kudu

Greater kudu, Tragelaphus strepsiceros, are another type of spiral-horned antelope native to southern Africa. It is the second largest antelope in the world, beaten only by the eland. Thaba Tholo is home to many kudu - its name even translates to ‘Kudu Mountain’.

Usually it is only the males that have horns, and the number of ‘turns’ on the horns is a fairly good indication of the age of the animal. Larger, older bulls can have three or more turns on their horns. Kudu are currently classified as least concern by IUCN, with current total population estimates being 482,000.

There is a popular South African sport involving the use of kudu dung. Kudu dung spitting is so popular that it even has its own world championships. The current world record for the furthest kudu dung spat is fifty-one feet!

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