Sighting 4 of Africa's Big 5

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on: May 22, 2011










A lioness hunting for her mate, cheetahs and lions with full tummies, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebras, impalas, nyalas; can one ask for more from an African safari?

She breaks your heart… with her longing, yearning, seeking… and a desperation that is amply evident for all of us to see. We are a group of four Indian journalists visiting the Thanda Private Game Reserve, a sprawling 14,000 hectare property about 290 km from Durban in the KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa.

The lioness is clearly distressed, agitated about something. It's a pity that unlike India, South African game parks do not name their animals... at least Thanda didn't. But our naturalist, Grace Kemp, an enthusiastic, well-informed half-South African/half-British, is full of interesting stories that explain the majestic animal's movement. Barely five weeks ago, she gave birth to 5-6 cubs, which have been safely hidden away; Grace hasn't seen them yet and only later I find they are very close to my cottage in this reserve!

Out in the reserve searching for her mate, the lioness moves slowly from one thorny bush to another, sniffing and spraying; she does this with an intensity that surprises Grace. “She is leaving behind her scent by spraying so that he can find her, but she is doing it in excess.” Is she on heat and wants to mate again, she wonders.

A mother's concern

But to us uninformed souls, the lioness looks too tired and lost to be giving out a mating call. The average life span of lions in the wild is 16 years, and our ranger estimates this one is around 9 or 10 years old. It's primarily a mother's concern that is driving this majestic creature, we are told. She wants to quickly find the lion and show him the cubs and assure him that they are his babies! “If he finds them on his own, and does not know that he is the father, he might get jealous and kill them,” says Grace.

Visitors in two canters — the other one is on the opposite side — are keenly watching and furiously clicking the lioness's tired walk and empathising with her heart-breaking search. Suddenly she decides to move away from the thorny bushes and walks towards the opposite canter. As she slowly crosses the vehicle, not even casting a glance at its occupants, the humans edge away from that side of the vehicle as far back as they can! We watch her sniffing and spraying, and suddenly lift up her head to give out an agonising grunt, which will stay in the mind for a long time.

After 20 minutes of watching her desperate quest of longing, we moved on, wondering when the two will meet.

Lions have a relatively short mating period — up to 16 days, and during this period a pair of lions can copulate every 15-20 minutes with each session lasting barely a few seconds… to the observer it looks like a quick hug! Snarls, grunts and roars form a major part of the entire exercise!

This is our second day in the Thanda Reserve, which has nine beautifully done up cottages and five tents. Just the earlier evening, within 20 minutes of our introduction to one of South Africa's fascinating game reserves, we saw our tracker Wilson, seated on top of the canter, asking Grace to stop the vehicle and take the seat beside her. We soon learnt that this was mandatory for him every time he spotted one of the Big 5 — lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo — or cheetahs.

Three lions!

Soon we realised we had run into a young lion and lioness… a brother and a sister born to the lioness we would sight the next day. Grace had first spotted the sister, barely two years old and pointing to her hanging belly said: “She looks full, she has obviously eaten well. And look at the way she is panting. It is not because of the heat because this is the beginning of winter in this region. Normally lions pant in the summer due to the excessive heat but this one is panting because she has had a good fill.”

Seated on its front paws and facing us, the animal looked on curiously, not blinking an eye and virtually posing for our pictures. Next we spotted one of her two brothers, who was also seated and then walked around. Apparently all the three had been thrown out by their parents; the male had thrown out the two sons fearing future competition and the mother had got rid of the daughter. “She did try to go back to the mother a few days ago, but was again thrown out,” smiled Grace. This reserve has eight lions and in two days we had sighted four! And we will never know if the two lions walking along the slopes of the forest we had sighted during breakfast at our dining room one morning, were from this lot, or different. They were too far for anybody to tell for sure.

With the summer rains being quite inadequate in this reserve in North Zululand, the forest was rather dry and thorny, improving the possibility of sighting animals and making the experience better as the grass shoots up in the rain. But how typical… for a human being to think of a better safari experience, forgetting that the animals require a cooler environment. With watering holes in the reserve drying up, we got another breakfast treat, a group of impalas and a lone, huge nyala, walking into the little pond in the resort for long sips of water.

Mother and baby zebra

Returning to our first safari session, it was really lucky. We spotted a herd of zebras, with Grace pointing out how a mother zebra was in no mood to oblige the baby looking for a feed! Unlike lion cubs who are born “weak and helpless” after a three-month gestation period, baby zebras (gestation period one year) “can get up and run within two minutes of being born”.

We watched the zebras for 15-20 minutes and were educated on how the mother and baby, who looked a few days old, walked together in a particular way to confuse the predators! Lions in particular find zebra stripes quite difficult to figure out, not knowing how to tell one animal from another. Low on energy and speed beyond a certain point, lions are also tortured by the warthogs who often manage to give them the slip!

Next, a couple of giraffes appeared on the horizon, elegant and graceful, and along with these fascinating animals we also got a look at fork-tailed drongos, crowned hornbills and the African hoopoe. And then the canter had to be pulled along a side and switched off to allow the passage of a 110-strong herd of Cape buffaloes. Our companion says every time she sees the herd, she finds news babies!

Fierce and independent

In such herds only the strong and dominant male bulls have the privilege of mating, the older ones are chased away. At night, they sleep in a herd with the females and babies at the centre and the males forming a ring around them. Cape buffaloes are fierce and independent and have never been domesticated.

The drive began after the herd crossed and we got mighty lucky once again… a cheetah laid sprawled bang in the middle of our path. Grace eased the canter to the side, switched off the engine and once again pointed to the cheetah's tummy which was literally sagging from its fill. “There are two brothers and we'll soon see the other one; unlike lions, cheetahs eat as much as they can and go to sleep. This one looks so full that it won't need to eat for 3-4 days”, she says, guessing that it could have eaten an impala or even a baby zebra.

The cheetah lay before us for over 10 minutes, watching us curiously, with its only movement being the slow and lazy twirling of its tail. We took pictures to our hearts' content, and after a great and relaxed photo opportunity, he got up and walked on, we soon found, towards his brother! And then there were two cheetahs for the furiously clicking cameras to capture. The cheetah's body is built for speed and it can run up to 110 km an hour but for short spells of 500 metres at a time.

In a remarkably lucky stay at the Thanda reserve, we sighted in the next session a small group of African elephants as well as a mother-baby pair of white rhinos, almost wholly covered in mud, which most animals in the jungle rub over themselves to keep cool. The white rhino gets its description from the colour of its mouth and not the body. A highlight of the early morning drive at 6 a.m. is “bush breakfast” in the forest. As Grace and Wilson kept a lookout for uninvited guests, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast, complete with eggs-made-to-order, sausages and cut fruits! More exciting were the gingerly walks to and from the room in the dark, wondering which majestic creature was close by!

In two days we sighted four of the Big 5 of Africa. The elusive leopard managed to dodge us, but gave us a reason to go back!

Published on May 19, 2011
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