As garden sheds go, the one I found myself living in during October 2001 was pretty exciting. Well, not the shed so much as its location, and what was going on around it. As a member of the rhino boma care team, my new home was situated as far north on Chief’s Island as you could get, without getting your feet wet.
Just 200 m away from us were the bomas where the first four white rhinos to be reintroduced to the Okavango Delta spent their days chomping, snoozing and farting. While they were our reason for being there (and who could ask for a better reason to be anywhere?), they were far from the only creatures in the vicinity.
Each morning, a troop of at least one hundred baboons would descend from the nearby towering acacia trees and head off in a long line to feed. We’d been visited by big cats, including a male lion whose tail I’d followed into a dense palm island as I thought it was a leopard, the animal I most wanted to see. The guttural snarl which ensued taught me the meaning of spine-tingling and brought my fellow shed-dwellers running to the rescue. Quite why I thought following a leopard into thick vegetation was a good idea, has never been established.
As we went about our daily tasks, turning on taps, scooping (lots of) rhino poop, and checking the bundles of feed for orange twine before we surrendered them to the two male and two female white rhinos whose to-do list was about to expand to include ‘re-establish our species in the wild in Botswana’, we often felt eyes on us.
Typically, these would belong to the herds of herbivores who seemed fascinated by our antics. Why, after all, would these bizarrely hairless primates spend their days throwing grass around, when they could be eating it? Well, it takes all sorts…
The human dimension of our experience was enlivened by visits from guests from Mombo Camp, and the managers who kept us supplied with the most delicious leftovers imaginable (thanks again, Craig!). A frequent visitor was Thys, the maintenance manager, who’d had a big part to play in designing and building the rhino bomas. Normally unflappable to the point of being laconic, he arrived on one occasion rather out of breath.
“Come and see a spotty!”, he urged me, and figuring he meant leopard rather than ‘just’ another hyaena, I jumped in the battered utility vehicle and he drove about 2 km back the way he’d come, to where he’d heard the distinctive, coughing alarm calls of impala.
We arrived at the edge of an open area between clumps of palms, to find a small knot of antelope, clearly agitated, staring intently at something in the grass. There lay an adult female impala, intact, but kicking feebly.
It took us a moment or two to understand: two tufted ears poked up like shark fins in a sea of grass, and there was an almost comically small cat, jaws clamped tight on the hapless impala’s windpipe. It was no leopard, but a caracal, and we were witnessing something rarely seen (the sort of remarkable sighting that Mombo seems to generate regularly and effortlessly). Caracals are ‘supposed’ to kill rodents and birds, not antelope many times their size.
Photograph by Clive Dreyer
We watched spellbound until the caracal, spooked by something, left without feeding – and never returned. Later that night, ecstatic giggling announced that this unlikeliest of kills was being devoured by the usual suspects – real ‘spotties’ this time, in the form of the local hyaena clan.
Written by Nick Galpine