By Charlotte Cornwallis
When you live in the bush, you learn to read signs and predict animal behaviour, well at least you think you do. Let’s be honest, we all think animals are predictable but they constantly prove us wrong. When you get it right, the reward is not only satisfying but also a little magical.
After a standard road clearing exercise with the interns, we decided to take a drive by Bass Dam, a popular water hole frequented by antelope, wildebeest, giraffe, elephant and sometimes leopard. It was the heat of the day so we weren’t expecting to see much but what we found started us off on a journey of discovery and decision making! By the dam was a carcass, a young wildebeest. It was unclear how this animal had met its end, various theories being put forward by us all based on the circumstances we found. One thing was clear, something had already enjoyed an appetizer, the question was what? We all start scouring the ground searching for tracks and signs as to what’s preceded our visit. Tracks were scrutinized and we all decided there was definitely signs of leopard on site already.
Having education and research embedded in our ethos we all decided that a camera trap experiment was required and we needed to prep quickly to reduce interference with the area and maximise results. Back at camp the team assemble all the camera traps, straps and SD cards.
Believing we had thought of everything we set off, back to the dam with excitement and vigour. Arriving at the dam we assessed the best sites for the traps, where will they be safest and least likely to be stolen by naughty nocturnal beasts! As the carcass was by water there was a major risk involved, camera traps are essential tools to our interns and we didn’t want the experiment to ultimately fail by losing valuable tools. Suitable poles were found (because we forgot those when we left camp), embedded in the ground, cemented with rocks and mud and placed all around the carcass. Four camera traps were securely tied to the poles, ready to capture any action. Happy that we’d done a good job and the risk was minimized, we left the area with anticipation in our bones.
The following morning, the team were eager to see the results of their efforts. Back to the dam, with a silent expectation from each of us, what could we have caught on camera? A leopard, spotted hyena, jackal? It was almost nail biting intrepidation and the 15 minute journey felt like eons! On arrival at the site, only 3 out of the 4 cameras were still there. No sign whatsoever of the fourth camera, except that the pole it was on had been dragged up a hill – but no sign of the camera. The team exchanged the SD cards in the remaining traps and then proceeded to look for the missing camera, but to no avail. Abandoning their search, they returned to the office to review their footage. All huddled around one laptop, the first few images produced some giggles and squeals. If anyone knows how camera traps work they start recording the minute you set them so inevitably the person setting them up gets some interesting selfies for us all to enjoy! Then the exciting stuff appeared – boom, a massive male leopard was first to the carcass. What an impressive boy he was. A thick neck and solid frame, easily identifiable as one of the resident males at Somkhanda Game Reserve. His visit coincided with the sun going down, so quite early for a nocturnal animal. This linked in with our theory that the leopard was actually returning to his own kill due to being unable to drag it out of the mud and carry it up a tree, which is what you’d normally expect. Like I say, this was one theory and there were plenty more voiced which were just as feasible!
After identifying the leopard, we progressed through other images captured by the traps. At midnight another predator appeared, this time a pair of spotted hyenas were captured keenly checking out their fortuitous meal and even giving us a good selfie at the same time. Various images of them were captured from midnight through to 6am the following morning, so they most definitely filled their boots on night one. The team were abounding with excitement and joy at their success, but what now? This is when the whole “predicting animal behavior” comes into play. The leopard was first, then the spotted hyenas found the kill. Now that the hyenas were aware of the carcass, the theory was they’d be back for more; they had to be right? After some deliberation and theory exchanges, the team decided a “spotted hyena stakeout” was in order. Everyone went to get layers to prepare for being out in the bush at night, spotlights and cameras, food and water – an expedition of patience was about to commence with a major prize if we were right.
We arrived back at the dam at 5pm, just before the sun dipped beyond the horizon. We positioned ourselves upwind to minimize our presence being felt (or more accurately smelt!) Then it was a matter of patience. After an hour of darkness the bush was quiet, no signs of visitors, just us and the fiery necked nightjars’ sweet song penetrating the silent night.
As entertainment and to help pass the time we started up a game of “I spy”. Right in the middle of one of our interns saying “I spy with my little eye….” she was rudely interrupted by another intern saying “oh my word there’s a spotted hyena”. Everyone looked in the direction of our spotlight and there he was, a sub-adult male hyena walking very cautiously towards the carcass. He seemed wary and skittish so we were silent, not wanting to impact his visit to his meal. The car was silent, in fact I’m pretty sure every one of us was holding our breath in an attempt at not being discovered. He was about 30 metres from us and wasn’t deterred by the spotlight at all. He began to pull at the carcass but then was startled by something and walked back up the hill. Luckily for us, he decided to have a snooze rather than disappear but we had to reposition to get a better look. Again, the noise of the game viewer starting wasn’t received well by the hyena but once we had turned off again and sat in silence this beautiful boy decided to lie down and just take a quick nap while we looked on in amazement. We began to search for the second hyena, knowing there were a pair at the carcass the night before, but were unable to see any partner in crime.
On Somkhanda Game Reserve, you can often hear the calls of the hyena at night but so rarely get to see them. This was such an opportune sighting, with as much planning and animal behavior prediction built into it as possible. It worked, we got some amazing photos from the camera traps which will help us to develop an ID kit for the spotted hyena on the reserve, as well as personally observe one of the most dangerous predators in Africa in the wild. A moment to savour for everyone and a story for the dinner table, without a doubt. It’s adventures like these that make Africa a part of your soul.