Category Archives: Wildlife Profiles

Ground control to Major Hornbill

As its name suggests, the Southern Ground-Hornbill stays on the ground for the most part. They’ll fly when required, flashing white feathers underneath the black ones, but when on solid terrain, they’re often looking for frog, lizard, and snake snacks, or if lucky, they’ll embark on a small sprint to catch an African hare.

Though if there was a race going on for these large birds, it wouldn’t be for a tasty meal- it’d be for their own survival. 

Severe habitat loss due to agriculture, and human-wildlife conflict, has led to a sharp decline in their numbers. Some tribal cultures believe the birds bring evil, and will be shot upon entering a community’s property. On the other hand, some think they repel evil. Either way, it’s important to be aware these beliefs exist in order to find ways for humans to live peacefully alongside them, for no bird deserves to be shot upon entering a piece of land.

The decline of the species isn’t helped by the slow rate at which they have chicks- every 9 or so years, it is estimated. 

There are only 1500 in South Africa, and around the rest of Africa it’s estimated their numbers are plummeting. Their IUCN vulnerable status lends a bit of weight to push conservation efforts along, but whether things will move substantially enough, and fast enough, is something that remains to be seen.

These long-eyelashed birds are often overlooked on safari, but the next time you see them, be aware that we may be one of the last generations to see them in the wild.

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Keeping the savannah clean- but they’ve only 100 years left on this planet

bee-elle-6049Botfly larvae, rotting skin, anthrax and rabies- you name it. They will clean it all up. If it weren’t for them, the savannah would be ridden by all sorts of bacteria and disease. But we might lose them all in under 100 years.

The largest vulture in Africa is the Lappet-faced, pictured here. They will aggressively swoop, pounce and caw at anyone getting in their way- including hyena and jackals- of a tasty meal of rotting flesh. Anyone except for humans, who are, ironically, the very reason why they are on the verge of extinction.

Vultures are reportedly the most threatened bird group in the world. About 2/3 of deaths of vultures are by poisoning by pastoralists protecting their livestock, and ivory poachers who don’t want vultures circling above their activities, which will give away their location. About 1/3 are killed for traditional medicine, which some locals believe can provide man with Superman powers. The remaining deaths are caused by them flying into power lines and wind turbines.

Back to the main reason for their deaths. A cheap, generic brand of Furadan, a pesticide, is being used by pastoralists to lace carcasses to lure in the lions to protect their livestock. Lions eat the poison, lions die, vultures eat the lion, vultures die.

A cow can fetch up to US$30- an understandably prized and necessary asset for pastoralists. But if proper management plans are not implemented immediately to address these issues, this will spell the end of vultures within the next century. If that happens, anarchy will ensue: ecosystems will be ridden with disease, the balance will be upset, and many other creatures will be killed in its wake.

Measures must be ramped up and implemented now to ensure humans can live peacefully and sustainably alongside wildlife. For this much is clear: Africa cannot live without vultures.

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Little pig, little pig, let me in. Not by the hair of my tusky, tusk tusk

The warthog, with 2 large upper tusks and 2 sharp lower canines, sleep in and flee to burrows, and back in bum first so they can guard the entrance with their tusks.

While they were made famous by the Lion King and given a name that means ‘stupid and foolish’ in Swahili- they aren’t foolish at all. These intelligent and highly adaptive creatures will change the time of their eating patterns if they assess that there is too much risk in areas during day/night; can last months without water, though will flock to water and enjoy a mud bath for a cooling session; and they live in all sorts of terrain, woodland, savannah and grasslands. Their solid adaptability makes them a resilient species with a high survival rate, with healthy population numbers around the continent- although it may not save them from the human and his/her gun while they continue to be targets of trophy hunting.

Generally flighty, they prefer to run away from danger than to fight, and can usually be seen dashing about with their tails held high like little waving flags, signals for others to follow them and/or that there is danger about. These ones saw no danger here, however, and were happily grunting and grazing on the green grass surrounding Lake Nakuru on one fine day.

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Vervet monkeys deserve a chance

A nonchalant vervet monkey peers down from his throne on a branch.

They have different alarm calls for different predators- including for humans too, I’m sure, that they use sometimes when I walk beneath them in forests. Although it is a sound for alert and caution, I find them remarkably peaceful as they echo and reverberate through the treetops, cutting through air.

In an experiment with species in the wild, researchers found that monkeys would change what kind of food they selected when in a new area based on what they saw others eat, even if the food they were used to eating was readily available. This high-level use of social cues and adaptability gives clues on how these species survived and evolved over time.

They usually hang out in trees in troops of about 5-50 other friends and family, but will come down to the ground to look for food, or to steal food from cars, picnic baskets, restaurant tabletops- anything. Their highly playful nature is entertaining to watch, however, not everyone sees them this way. Many locals have found them a recurring nuisance as they’ve been known to raid crops. The issue is addressed by trapping, poisoning or shooting them.

They may be common, and sometimes a nuisance, but they are as much a part of the African landscape as all the other creatures, and it is essential we find ways to live harmoniously with wildlife. From monkeys, to rabbits, to lions and elephants- because all lives matter.

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She’s looking a bit blue

The Blue Monkey doesn’t really seem to have much of a blue colour to its fur, nor to its temperament. Its name, however, does come from the slight bluish tinge that is visible in certain light.

This primate not only hangs out in troops, but they also get along quite nicely with other species of monkeys, including red tails and red colobus. It has been said that their inter-species alliances helps them to find food and protect themselves from common predators. Safety in numbers, as they say.

They enjoy sauna-like conditions with good humidity and shade in rainforests, like this one was doing here in a forest in Zanzibar- with a seemingly forlorn look!

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Giddy up, Saddle Bill

The Saddle-billed stork is one of the tallest and vibrantly coloured storks around. With a 13” sharp beak in the same colour scheme as the Ugandan flag, this dashing bird has been named this way due to the yellow saddle-shaped section under its eyes. 

It can be quite a hard-to-see soul, preferring rarer places with both tall trees to nest in and wetlands nearby so they can go fishing, frogging, or crabbing. They’ll sometimes vomit water over their nest and eggs to moisten things a bit, crunch and swallow the egg shells of their babies after they’ve hatched for a quick high-calcium snack, and pair with a partner for life. Like the Sacred Ibis, vulture and the Egyptian Geese, they’re also represented in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

What a fascinating bird. Giddy up, Saddle Bill!

Pocket-sized Antelope

The dik-dik: the second smallest antelope in the world.

Reaching 40cm/16in at the shoulder, these pocket-sized and dainty creatures can hide easily in thickets when under threat. When they bolt however, they can do so at speeds of up to 42kmh/26mph, and will leap away in a zig zag fashion. Females will also produce a whistling alarm through their nose to alert others of a threat, which sounds like ‘zik zik’. So that’s where the interesting name comes from…

Other interesting facts:

  • once they’ve found a partner in crime, they’ll stick with them for life and have one kid at a time;
  • they hardly drink, as they obtain most of their fluids from the vegetation that they eat and by staying awake in the night when it’s less hot;
  • they’ll elongate their snouts to pant, which helps regulate their temperatures;
  • and you could fit one into your handbag, but you probably wouldn’t be able to get one in there

This beautiful girl was peering at us curiously through the grass. Like a little Bambi.

Here’s to celebrating all of Earth’s creatures, great, small, and pocket-sized.

Hi, intelligent hyena

A spotted hyena at the Mara after the rains. This rainbow appeared almost magically, as they always do. Little did this hyena know how pretty the scene was, as it peered curiously into the vehicle.

These highly intelligent creatures have long been misunderstood. Recent studies have revealed their intelligence rival some primates- a test population in the wild were found to use trial and error to solve puzzles, and clans have been found to assess a competing clan that was invading their territory based on the number of calls they heard.

Further, contrary to popular opinion, these highly adept hunters, more often than not, carry out more of their own kills than they do scavenge. Interestingly, in a number of studies, it was found that lions regularly steal food from hyena clans. Now that’s food for thought.

Belonging to female-led clans and working in teams, their powerful jaws can crush bone to access nutritious marrow, important especially when feeding on leftovers of carrion. Their ability to digest rotting carcasses also helps to reduce the spread of disease in the ecosystem.

So, what’s not to love about the hyena? And for anyone who’s ever looked at a wild one in the eyes, they’ll tell you that they are truly, beautiful creatures.

Charges: mock or real?

A trumpet call, the ears flap, then comes a head toss and a shake. The dust flies off this bull’s head like a magical plume of red dirt as it captures the glaring harsh light of the sun and creates a dusty shroud around him. He then kicks the ground and his trunk blows out more dust over his body, making him a magnificent red cloudy beast. He rushes forward, head held high, ears spread flat and stops metres short away from us. His plan is not to cause massive damage- although he surely could with the combined velocity and brute force of his 5000kg+ weight. His intention instead, is to gauge how much of a threat you are and to scare you off. And when there’s someone towering over you like this, let’s just say, his intimidation skills are by all accounts, very good.

So what then, is a real charge? An elephant’s ears will lie flat against the sides of their head, pinned back, the head lowers in order to position the bridge of his trunk onto its target, and then will sprint towards you- and this time, there’s no stopping them.

While it’s handy to know the difference, best to respect their mood and back off as soon as you see any kind of territorial behaviour or irritation in general!

Here’s to respect for all animals, great and small.

What are you looking at?

Why are you pink? Carotenoids from blue-green algae, this bird’s main food source, provides a pinkish hue to its feathers, beak, legs, the eyes- well, just about everything.

The coloured pigments in carotenoids exist in many living things- in plants, they assist photosynthesis and protect the vital chlorophyll elements from damage by the sun. While us humans consume them in foods such as carrots and pumpkin at levels that aren’t quite enough to turn us orange or pink, it is apparently possible… So, pretty in pink, they say. And indeed these graceful birds are- when they’re not giving you a death stare like this one here!

Smart, vocal and skilled hunters

We have come to adore the lion, and yet its fellow hyena neighbours have been placed in the ’not so pretty’ category. What a misunderstanding!

Usually portrayed as scavengers, the spotted hyena is, in fact, a highly skilled hunter and more often than not, capture their own meals. The large brains of these intelligent creatures enable them to engage in complex decision-making and to exist within complex social arrangements inside clans. And with an amazingly diverse range of vocalisations, these creatures exhibit high intellectual capability.

In saying this, the intelligence of a creature should not determine the level of respect it deserves. Perhaps there’ll be a day when all animals are treated equally. Regardless, I will continue to marvel at these creatures with awe. This particular beautiful hyena bounded along the savannah while the sun was just about to dip below the horizon. She headed straight for the vehicle along with her partner, highly curious, circling us and looking in intently for clues. The eye contact, the setting light of the sun, and this silent connection with her made for a moment I’ll never forget. Simple, yes. Beautiful? Utterly.

And I thank them, for some of the best nights of sleep I’ve had in the wild are undoubtedly due to their soothing night calls. May we come to respect all animals- we were all created to share the same planet.

Misleading names

Unlike its name suggests, the vulturine fish eagle isn’t quite a vulture nor a fish eagle- it doesn’t scavenge, and its diet does not resemble that of either bird. It instead prefers a vegetarian diet consisting primarily of oil palm nuts. Its name was simply derived from the 2 other birds due to aesthetic similarities. Names sure can be misleading! This bird is quite unique, and in 1943 the other name ‘palm nut vulture’ was created- which seems a little more suitable. The birds should be happier with that, although this youngster doesn’t seem to outwardly show it.