01 July 2020
“Where are the animals?”
Welcome back to another weekly blog!
As a field guide who takes guests out into the Game Reserve on guided activities, I often find myself under pressure to FIND animals for my guests to look at, admire and photograph – especially when on a guided Game Drive. A guided Game Drive (also known as a guided safari tour) is an adventure that involves viewing wildlife from a 4×4 vehicle (an off road car) accompanied by a safari / field guide. It is a field guide’s job to explain some of the remarkable secrets hidden within the natural environment, and to act as a link between the guests and nature. During your training to become a field guide you learn what type of habitat certain animal species prefer and how far or how long certain species of animals will usually be away from a water source. This information and training is vital as it makes it possible for you to have an idea of where to look for certain animals.
However, the one thing that you always need to keep in mind is that nature and animals are unpredictable.
Sometimes your textbook knowledge and all the environmental aspects (beautiful weather, sunny, not too hot, no wind) indicate that you should have plenty of animals roaming around, feeding or drinking and you should have numerous sightings …… then, you go out on your safari game drive and end up searching for game. You wonder……… “Where are the animals?”
(I can often imagine the animals watching us from behind a bush laughing amongst themselves!)
Honestly, these quieter days, during the National Lockdown, have been some of my favourite days to be out with guests on safari. Normally all attention is focused on the larger animals, specifically the “Big 5”animals but there are so many other, equally interesting and wonderful creatures and aspects of nature that are often overlooked. Being able to bring attention to these special “extras” makes a game drive even more exciting and a wonderful learning experience for my guests.
Nature is magnificent, it has so much to offer and as a field guide I wish that I could learn everything about it but with nature and wildlife you can never know everything! Nature is forever adapting and changes over time.
I decided that I’m going to share just a few of these often overlooked sightings with you in this blog.
Have you ever noticed the boulder-like structures out on the open plains, large pyramid structures made of sand? The most common assumption is that these are ant hills, which is close but not quite correct.
These marvellous structures are constructed by Termites, and the structure that is visible is a mere 30% of the colony, the other 70% of the colony is underground and is not visible at all.
Termite colonies are exceptionally important to the ecosystem. These particular termites feed on grass and building their mounds actually improves the general water drainage and nutrient content of the soil in the whole area. When there are many colonies in one area, it can often create a strong enough disturbance to change the entire ecosystem from grassy, open plains to a mixed shrub and tree ecosystem.
The nutrient rich soil allows nutrient rich vegetation to grow and, in turn attracts a lot more animals to the area.
It’s simply AMAZING that a creature as small as a termite can have such an impact on the entire ecosystem of an area!!
As termites forage at night there are a few nocturnal predators that feed on them, controlling the termite population naturally. One of their main predators is an Aardvark (Orycteropus afer), also known as an “Antbear”. They can eat more than fifty thousand termites in one night!
Whenever I think of termites, I think of a Water Monitor Lizard. Now I know you might be wondering, what in the world could these two creatures have in common? Well, a Water Monitor Lizard (Varanus niloticus), or a “Leguaan” has quite a unique symbiotic relationship with termites that grow fungus. The female will look for an active termite mound when she is ready to lay eggs. She will dig a hole in the mound and lay her eggs and then abandon them entirely. Now, because termites strictly regulate the temperature in their mound for the survival of the fungus, which is extremely temperature sensitive – requiring a constant temperature of 28 – 32 degrees Celsius to survive – the termites will quickly close the hole. Since they only feed on grass, the eggs in the mound are completely ignored, indirectly giving the eggs a nice warm incubator.
Speaking of Water Monitor Lizards, I managed to get some stunning photos of one sunning itself at the Koi pond near our reception area the other day. You can clearly see the magnificent claws that they have, enabling them to be exceptionally good diggers for laying eggs, digging for food (they love feeding on tortoise eggs)and for defence.
That same day, as we were getting ready to leave for the day, the sun was setting and the lighting was just gorgeous. I spotted two Leprous Grasshoppers (Phymateusleprosus) busy mating. Needless to say, within seconds I had my camera out and I was lying on my stomach trying to get some unique angles of this awesome sighting before the sun disappeared for the day.
It just goes to show that there is so much out on the reserve to appreciate; insects, spiders, birds, snakes and lizards amongst many other things, and don’t let me get started on trees and plants which I have taken a keen interest in.
So the next time you are on safari, whether the animal sightings are phenomenal or whether they are minimal, remember to also look out for the little things. Look out for things that are often overlooked. You will be surprised at how much more you will enjoy your game drive experience and get the opportunity to learn some fascinating things about certain creatures that you may not have even known existed, let alone thought you would ever be interested in.
Remember to keep safe everyone.
I look forward to chatting to you all again next week.