After a very long flight across the Atlantic, the members of the Big Cat Research Project group met at Johannesburg airport in South Africa. All eight of us piled into the van for the long drive to Kruger National Park, one of the top wildlife viewing parks in the world, in search of lions, leopards, and cheetahs in their natural habitats. We drove out of the city and through impoverished working villages, past coal mines and vast acreage of clear-cut forests. At the day’s end we arrived at the park, greeted at the gate by our first sighting of an impala herd. On the short drive to our first campsite, we spotted two white rhinos at a water hole, a thrilling sight for many of us who had never visited the park. We arrived at camp, set up our tents and ate a quick dinner.
As the group settles into their sleeping bags, the eery sound of hyenas calling echos in the bush outside the camp boundaries. We’re looking forward to what lies ahead for tomorrow. We’ll be leaving camp at 6am tomorrow to be the first car on the road to ensure we get the best sightings.
Today was our first full day in Kruger Park for Trip #2 of the Big Cat Research Project. We had an unprecedented total of five leopard sightings for the day, which was a record for us. The day began bright and early, leaving the camp gate at 6am, and we had our first sighting only twenty minutes later of a mature adult male leopard, between the ages of 7 and 10 years old. He was very relaxed, walking parallel the dirt road and marking his territory. It was the first time most of our group had seen a leopard in the wild, and it was thrilling to say the least. This male was so confident that he was not frightened of our van at all, and we were able to watch him for a solid twenty minutes before he disappeared into the bush. Then on our drive back to camp, we observed another leopard, a female, only briefly before she prowled off into the bush. We were also able to see an adult male elephant, some klipsringer, and many impala, all before breakfast. After breaking down camp, enjoying a leisurely breakfast and a lesson from Kathy about recording data about sighted cats, we all got back into the van and headed to our second campsite, further north in the park. During our drive to the next camp we had many exciting sightings of animals including elephants, rhinoceri, impala, kudu, klipsringer, and our third leopard for the day – an adult female. We came upon her as she was sunning herself on a rock, lazily scanning the bush. There is something so powerful about being in the presence of these cats; they are distinctly intelligent and possess such a strong sense of self confidence, characteristic of any apex predator. After reaching our second campsite and having lunch, we set out again in seach of more cats. Again we were graced with the presence of yet another leopard, this time at a distance across a river. We took notes and gathered what data we could, which is difficult to do when observing a cat from such a distance. It is so fascinating and very humbling to witness these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. There is so much we humans have to learn from observing the behavior of big cats as well as all other animals in the wild. Although as humans we use our minds to think critically, form ideas about ourselves and our existence, and develop complex emotional lives, we are not so different from wild animals. Underneath our human nature, we are still driven by the same instincts, the same drives to protect ourselves, find food, water, and shelter, and to reproduce. A thought-provoking conclusion.
Our final leopard sighting of the day was an adult male, again stalking the area along the road, unphased by the presence of our van. It was an excellent time for photo opportunities and observing this gorgeous big cat, who was most likely looking for his next meal.
Our day concluded with dinner and a sharing circle as well as comparing photos from the day to the photos in the catalog. We’re all feeling so lucky for today’s record sightings and very much looking forward to an early day tomorrow for hopefully more big cat sightings!
It was another satisfying day full of exciting sightings for our group here at Kruger Park. 20 minutes into our morning drive we came across two male cheetahs about 30 meters away from our van. It was a brief sighting but a thrilling one nonetheless. We watched for a few moments as they stood together on a ridge scanning the bush before they dropped out of sight. We were able to note from our brief observation that they had a feeding scale of 9, which means they had recently eaten and were spending the day resting before heading out again. Cheetahs normally make a kill about every four or five days, as it means expending a massive amount of energy to do so. Cheetahs are the fastest land animal in the world, capable of traveling at top speeds of around 70mph.
Our second sighting of the morning was a pair of bull elephants at a standoff. We came across them both displaying aggressive behavior and watched as their displays escalated into a full on fight! (Insert photo) They clashed their tusks and trunks together for a few minutes and then both attempted to rip a small tree out of the ground, in an attempt to prove dominance. The larger of the two ended up being the winner of the fight and the smaller elephant walked off down the road defensively. After making sure it was safe to pass we proceeded down the park road and eventually came across a pair of sleeping male lions, making a total of 9 cat sightings for the first two days of the trip! We observed them for about a half an hour as they lazed in the bushes, picking their heads up periodically to scan their surroundings. You cannot imagine the sheer size of these animals if you have not seen them in real life. Not only are they physically enormous, but they have such a big and masculine presence about them. It is clear to see why they are a universal symbol of courage and strength.
Other sightings for the day included families of elephants, zebras, wildebeest, jackals, hyenas, a slender mongoose, hippos, wire-tail swallows, and quite a few lilac-breasted rollers.
It is just past 7pm and hippos can be heard calling nearby. In a few minutes our group will head out for a night drive, conducted by the park staff. We are all looking forward to seeing some nocturnal animals and maybe some familiar diurnal ones as well.
Our night drive provided an interesting look at nocturnal African wildlife. We were able to see many hippos, two civettes, and one solitary lionness.
We exited the gate early this morning at five minutes before 6am. Each morning Colin is the first person awake in the whole camp, at 4:30am, to be sure that we are the first car in line when the gate opens. Being the first car out means that we have a greater chance of getting excellent sightings, as at that early our it is still dark and the animals are in nighttime mode. During the hours before lunch we drove through an area of the park that had been intentionally set to burn by the park staff. This is a process that is facilitated regularly here in the park. Fire is an essential component of the bushveld ecosystem here in South Africa as well as in many other parts of the world. Not only does it help to keep invasive species at bay, it also helps certain plants that depend on the fire for regrowth and seed germination. Also notable is the beauty of the plains as it is going up in smoke. Plumes of smoke scatter the horizon and the ground is charred black, with fire flickering here and there, and a faint sound of crackling plant matter in the background. Flying insects can be seen fleeing the scene by the thousands, and hungry birds arrive for an easy meal. Driving through the fire, we happened upon a lone impala, standing amidst the smoldering trees. The contrast of its bright sandy coat against the blackened plant matter was a stunning sight and an it made for an excellent photo opportunity. (Insert photo) After snapping plenty of photos we carried on down the road, making our way through extremely thick smoke at one point before we came into the clear.
In the late morning hours we spotted two lionnesses, and got a quick glimpse of one with two cubs as they were playfully jumping onto her back. Before we knew it they disappeared into the bush and we continued on to a nearby water hole to see if we could spot them again. After a couple of hours we saw no lions, but we did see two bull elephants, two white rhinos, several warthogs, and a herd of impala displaying some interesting social behavior.
After a leisurely lunch we set out driving and again came upon two lionnesses, sitting very low and still in the grass, barely visible. We sat quietly with them for a long time and were able to observe an exciting interaction between them and a massive bull elephant. The bull crossed the road in front of us, approaching the lionesses who were hidden in the grass. At the last second the lionesses jumped up and out of the elephant’s way, as he let out a loud trumpet. It is such a privilege to observe the dance of animal behavior in their natural habitat. Unfortunately not all visitors to Kruger Park are conscious of the fact that we are visitors here, and that we need to remain as quiet and unassuming as possible, so as not to disturb the animals. Those of us lucky enough to be on a Global Classroom trip are made fully aware of how our presence affects the animals, and we always do our best not to disturb them.
In the evening our group enjoyed a healthful dinner and a spirited sharing circle, before we all headed off in our own directions and prepared to be up at the crack of dawn once again. Looking forward to what the next day will bring. We’re all hoping to witness a cheetah running at full speed, a leopard make a kill, and lions mating, to name a few.
The morning began with the usual search for lions, and other big cats that might be prowling the area. During the morning drive we stopped at a nearby hide to observe vervet monkeys and a few hippos languidly relaxing in the river, a large crocodile just a few meters away. After some time there we drove back to Lower Sabie camp, packed up our gear and moved to Skakuza, the “capital” camp of Kruger Park. After enjoying lunch and setting up our tents, we drove around in search of cats and wild dogs. Just before 5pm we came upon a leopard resting on a rock. Although it was a bit far away, we were able to get photos of the left side of its face and were able to identify the cat as a male, L49 in our catalog, who had been seen two years prior. It is always exciting to resight a cat as it gives us a better understanding of their territories, how they move throughout the park, interactions and pressures from other cats, mating behavior, prey availability, etc. All in all a great day in Kruger.
This morning began with a brief sighting of a large male lion crossing the road and the backside of a hyena, however we weren’t able to get a prolonged observation of either animal. After fending off vervet monkeys who were vying for our food during lunch at a scenic area, we proceeded on our drive in search of big cats. While waiting for several minutes at a water hole, we were lucky enough to observe a breeding herd of elephants bathing each other and drinking. Breeding herds are made up of related adult and sub adult females and their young. Male elephants are sent away from the group at adolescence as the matriarchs do not stand for their mischevious behavior. Watching them playfully and at times forcefully interacting with each other was truly amazing.
In the late afternoon we came upon a female hyena with four young cubs near their den. They were relaxed enough to be comforable with our vehicle and we were able to observe them for a about 45 minutes. We watched her regurgitate some bones for the young pups who yipped at her excitedly all the while. Hyenas are the only animal who can fully digest bones. At one point during our observation a male pack member visited the female and pups briefly, making sure to mark the territory before leaving again.
Although the day was not so fruitful as far as cat sightings go, we felt lucky to see what we did. After dinner we had our group sharing circle and touched on some profound and personal topics, as is often the case on our trips. Another fantastic day in the African bush.
This morning some members of our group awoke well before the sunrise to the primal, beautiful sounds of male lions calling to each other near our camp. It certainly beats waking up to an abrasive alarm clock! About an hour into our morning drive Colin put the brakes on in the Synchro and we looked to our right where we could see four female lions about 50 meters into the bush. We were able to see two of them crossing the road behind the van before they disappeared. In the distance, the calls of male members of the pride could be heard amidst the sounds of a nearby male hyena crunching on impala bones. It makes for profound moments when everyone is still inside the van and the subtle sounds of the bush can be heard; the breeze weaving through the thicket, bird calls and insects, and the rustling of unseen creatures.
Other sightings for the day included a juvenile dark chanting goshawk, who was very calm and allowed us to observe him for several minutes, as well as the elusive honey badger
Our group rose this morning extra early, at 4:30am to make it in time for our guided bush walk. We walked to our meeting place guided by shooting stars and boarded the game truck that drove us to our walk. Our guides were two friendly South African men who are some of the park’s resident experts on all of the wildlife that exists within its boundaries. During our walk through the bush we quickly encountered an adult female elephant and a juvenile, as well as two rhinos in the distance. Via the instruction of our knowledgeable guides, we stayed downwind of them and watched from a distance. A few minutes later we came across a very large bull elephant nearby, who was probably joining up with the breeding herd for mating purposes. Our guides were very careful about where they positioned our group, so as to remain undetected by this potentially dangerous bull. We took a short break in a dry riverbed and enjoyed the sounds and scenery before heading back to the truck. After spending so much time in our van, it was refreshing to walk out in the open and really get a feel for the environment we’ve been studying.
Once back at Skakuza we packed up camp and set out on the drive 90km north to Satara camp. This drive provided an interesting look at the changing landscape throughout the park; from dense growths of bushes and trees to more sparsely wooded grassland. About 6km from Satara, we sighted a group of five male lions (also known as a bachelor group) with a recent kill. We observed them for about an hour and recorded notes about their behavior, noting which lion seemed to be the dominant alpha and which ones were suboordinate. They gaurded their buffalo carcass as vultures and jackals began to surround, waiting for their chance to steal a snack.
We broke for lunch, set up our new campsite then returned to the site to observe further and record more notes. We watched the bachelor group laze with full bellies in the sun. Then we observed one of the males rise from his resting place, stride over to the carcass and gnaw on it for several minutes.
After a satisfying day, we drove back to camp with the sunset and settled in for dinner and downtime. We’re looking forward to getting up early again to see what transpired with the lions and their kill overnight.
This morning we were the first in a line of about 30 cars who were waiting to observe the male lions on their kill. We arrived and parked right in front of what remained of the carcass, the three big male lions lying nearby. We watched them feed on it for a while before they eventually perked up their ears and ran in the other direction, apparently hearing the call of the rest of the pride. Next we watched as a hoard of white-hooded vultures and two jackals immediately descended, viciously pecking at the carcass. Next to arrive was a group of five hyenas, and the vultures immediately took off upon seeing them approaching. We observed the hyenas decimating the carcass for about an hour and a half, with plenty of opportunity for taking exellent photos. After the hyenas had had their fill, we left the scene and drove to a picnic site for lunch, then stopped at a nearby hide. There we saw some interesting avians and crocodiles, and enjoyed the stillness of the river. Making our way back to camp we sighted two adolescent male giraffes play-fighting, as well as a zebra herd with young, some wildebeest, and a few waterbuck. To top it off, an exquisite sunset made for many excellent photo opportunities.
Now back at camp, we are settling in and recounting stories from the day as we prepare for another amazing day in Kruger.
Driving through thick fog around 6:30am, we had the fortuitous sighting of an adult female cheetah. We first saw her as she was slowly walking along the park road, possibly searching for prey. We observed her for two hours as she prowled through the grass, at times pausing for a while at higher elevations in order to scan her surroundings. Such a lengthy observation really allowed our group to see how a cheetah behaves during a good portion of its day. After she finally disappeared into the grass, we headed back to camp headquarters where we obtained a day permit for the Mananga Adventure trail, which is open to those who want to have a more private wilderness experience. We spent the majority of the day on a private and very bumpy drive, encountering a huge herd of buffalo with lots of calves. We also saw quite a few fresh lion tracks but unfortunately no lions. Then at the very end of the day we had a leopard sighting. Although it was quite far away, we were able to observe with binoculars as it rested up high in a tree. A wonderful day in the park followed by yet another stunning sunset.