2014 opened with a breathtaking demonstration of nature’s powers of restoration, as the summer rains continued to wash new life into the bush… The grass grows almost visibly at this time of year and the sense of new beginnings is palpable.
The newly verdant bush around Seba gave much up, with some incredible sightings to usher in 2014. Somehow the big cats retain their dignity even during a downpour – a sodden leopard is still very much a leopard, and Delta cats have learnt by dint of necessity to flout the rule about felines having no love of water. Experienced leopards know how to take advantage of the rains, with scents being diluted and dispersed, and the pitter-patter of raindrops disguising the soft footfall of a prowling predator.
The elements can give a leopard that extra edge over its hapless prey: normally alert impala senses falter, and the slightest hesitation can prove fatal as one young male discovered to his cost when caught at the airstrip by one of our resident female leopards, Bonolo. Conscious no doubt of the hyaena den nearby but paying no attention to the aircraft coming and going – although she was perfectly placed to act as air traffic controller – Bonolo wedged her kill in the fork of a dead tree and she and her fourteen-month-old cub (learning the fine art of pluvial predation) managed to get in a good feed before they were chased off by seven or eight hyaenas. Even the rains could not suppress the enticing aroma of impala and it was not long before the swaggering swashbucklers of the bush – the hyaena – rocked up.
The hyaenas’ triumph turned to frustration however as the carcass was out of reach for all but the biggest and boldest of them. With the tantalising presence of the meat out of reach of the youngsters, squabbling soon broke out and a number of the smaller hyaenas were taught a swift, harsh lesson about hierarchy.
Eventually the larger hyaenas had demolished all that remained of the impala, with only the head wedged in the tree like some sort of grisly trophy. Bonolo and her cub looked on disdainfully from a leadwood tree a short distance away. It’s one thing maintaining your dignity in a downpour; quite another when someone has stolen your hard-won dinner. Once the hyaenas had left, the leopards returned to retrieve the impala’s head – more of a prize than it might seem than anything else…
The Delta is a vivid pageant of the circle of life. Even as an impala was devoured, new life was emerging at every turn. Pools of rainwater in the roads reverberated to the delighted calls of frogs and the space invader sounds of bubbling cassinas, while red velvet mites clambered over their own miniature lunar landscape, where an elephant footprint might as well be a crater.
The stolen impala was not the only memorable event in the life of the hyaena clan this week. Two of the dominant females had been visibly pregnant for some time, and late one afternoon in early January, three new pups took their first faltering steps outside the den. At this stage of life, the pups have a much darker coloration than the adults, with their spots barely visible. Although invariably described as cute, and with an endearing, irrepressible curiosity about the unfurling summer world around them, they also possess a darker side, as two devoured their sibling…hyaenas are known to practice cainism, and young pups are quite willing and able to dispatch a weaker sibling to gain advantage in the den. This may seem brutal to us, but is an important survival strategy as it means that only the strongest and most ruthless pups survive, and the adults do not expend time and energy providing food for youngsters not destined to make it.
While the rain did not dampen anyone’s spirits, especially with such captivating and contrasting dramas being played out all around us, it did oblige the hyaena clan to find a new den site. Not so much location, location, location, as precipitation, precipitation, precipitation – with the original den washed out, they had to move. As yet, we have not discovered where they have gone, but we know it cannot be far: in the quiet moments when the frogs pause for breath, we often hear the mournful whooping of hyaena calling out to each other through the damp night air, and the inquisitive sub-adults still regularly pass through the camp, ever-hopeful that we may have forgotten to lock the kitchen door. Which after all, has to be easier than trying to climb trees and dealing with angry leopards…
Blowing out the last of the paraffin lanterns beneath the star-spangled summer sky is not the last thing we do each day – on the way home we always just stop by the kitchen to check that the bolts are shot and the prowling hyaenas are firmly shut out.