Wild Cats in Africa

Cheetah, Serengeti

One of the many thrills on an African safari is finding the cats. But like any element of nature, they are not predictable.

Leopards, Zambia

All species in the Felidae family differ somewhat, yet they have similarities as well. Most cats, for example, are solitary and territorial…except the lions who have prides with elaborate social lifestyles.

Serengeti Sunrise, lionness

 

All the felines are carnivores and mainly eat warm-blooded vertebrates. Small cats prey primarily on rodents, birds, and small mammals; while big cats prefer antelopes and other ungulates.

 

But when the opportunity arises, any size cat will hunt and kill whatever it wants.

 

Does this big daddy look like he cares about convention?

Lion

 

Although we often think of the big cats as frightening and formidable, the small cats are also fierce. No creature on the African savannah is soft and cuddly.

 

Wild Cat, Botswana — Ancestor to the Domestic House Cat

 

Cubs were cute, but never to be touched.

 

Lion cubs, Serengeti

 

Felidae Wikipedia

 

Lion at sunset

 

Some cats are nocturnal, others are diurnal. But at mid-day under the ruthless African sun, many of them rest in the shade.

 

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Africa

We always found lions in the morning after they’d had a night of hunting. Often they were nursing cuts or gashes sustained in the night. Usually their bellies were noticeably full, and the cat was sleepy.

 

But we also found them alert and hunting at all times of the day.

 

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

 

Lions, like most predators, prey on defenseless baby mammals.  One day we watched with trepidation as a just-born wildebeest calf wandered over to a lioness, thought she was its mother. Wildebeest are not too smart.

 

We watched for 20 minutes as this baby wildebeest pestered the lioness for nursing and care. The lioness, annoyed, repeatedly shirked the baby off.

 

Then eventually the lioness snapped at the wildebeest, chased it, scared it off. But she never once went after it to kill.

 

Lioness and wildebeest calf

 

Leopards, unlike many of the big cats, can usually be found in trees. A cat of great strength, leopards often kill their prey and cache them in trees. With their powerful jaws, they drag the carcass into a tree where they will guard and eat it for a few days.

 

Leopard in tree, Tanzania

But leopards weren’t always in the trees.

Leopard, Okavango Delta, Botswana

 

Cheetahs, the fastest land animal on earth, are usually found in tall grass, stalking.

Cheetahs hunting, Serengeti

They sneak up on their prey, get within sprinting range, and then streak off in dramatic pursuit.

Cheetah with Thompson Gazelle

But one day we came across a pair of cheetahs lazily enjoying the sun on top of this kopje (large rock).

Cheetah on kopje (boulder)

Night game drives often revealed a different world than in the day. But several of what I thought were cats, were not really cats at all.

 

Two cat-like mammals we encountered at night were the genet and civit. They are not, however, in the feline family; they are both in the Viverridae family, more closely related to mongoose.

Large-spotted Genet, Africa

African Civit

 

The cats’ stealth, beauty, and ferocious activities lend excitement to an African safari, but the unpredictability of these wild animals is equally as thrilling. It’s what makes you think at night as you doze off to a distant lion’s roar.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Lion cub with siblings, Botswana

Lioness, Botswana

 

African Safari: The Big Five

Leopard, Zambia

It is a pleasure to share highlights of the classic “Big Five” animals of the African savannah: leopard, elephant, lion, rhinoceros, and buffalo. Here are a few personal experiences I have had with the Big Five.

 

In an earlier era they were so-named because they were the five most challenging animals to shoot. Fortunately, the trophy game hunters are the minority these days.

 

Most safari visitors of today cherish these animals; and the only capture is simply via cameras.

 

Elephant cow and calf, Botswana

Lion, Botswana

Most of us know about the ongoing problems with habitat destruction and unprecedented poaching. To read about it, here is a New York Times article: The Big Five. 

 

White Rhinos, Kenya, Africa

 

Leopard, Okavango Delta, Botswana

1. The African Leopard. A cat of extreme stealth and strength, the leopard hunts primarily at night. With a diet that is least particular of all African carnivores, they have been found to have 30 different prey species in Serengeti National Park alone. In addition, they will attack and take down an animal three times their size.

Leopard Pair, Zambia

I came to breakfast one morning, wondering about a sound I had heard right outside our tent during the night, asked the guide at our table. He stopped eating his scrambled eggs, and proceeded to make one animal sound after another, pausing between each one. It was an impressive, and amusing, repertoire.

 

When he made the gruff sound of a rhythmic saw going back and forth through a piece of wood, I piped, “That’s it.”

He replied, “Leopard.”

Leopard, Zambia

Leopard kill prey so big they cannot always eat them at once, and often cache it in a tree for later consumption. Sometimes, they can be found in the tree during the day, sleeping.

 

Leopard Wikipedia.

 

African Elephants, Zambia

2. African Elephant. What I like best about this behemoth: watching them use their trunks in a myriad of ways; listening to their steady breathing and conversations; and watching a herd of cow elephants teach their young. Their enormous size, and trumpeting signals, rate high on my list of thrills, too.

African elephant, grey heron, Zambia

African elephant, Zambia

Elephants, Tanzania, Africa

 

Elephant juvenile, Botswana

African elephant, Zambia

Elephants sparring, Chobe River, Botswana

Elephant Wikipedia.

 

3. African Lion. The first time I saw a wild lioness, she took my breath away. The golden eyes and her lustrous coat were stunning to look at; but it was the courage and confidence of her swagger that has remained with me.

Lioness, Botswana

Serengeti Sunrise, lionness

Lion cubs, Serengeti

In lion prides, the lioness is the hunter, and there is much to learn from her wisdom. So many times we watched a lioness stalking prey, quietly sneaking up, and ready to prance. And then, more often than not, she subsequently aborted the mission.

 

Lionesses are constantly strategizing the potential for success in each endeavor–if the expenditure is more than the prize, she will do nothing and move on, confident of a better opportunity.

Lioness contemplating buffalo, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

Lion, Botswana

We often came upon lions in the morning, after they’d had a night of successful hunting. They laid in shade or by a pond with full bellies, sleepy eyes, and fresh wounds.

 

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

Lion Wikipedia.

 

4. African Rhinoceros. Seeing a rhino in the wild is a thing of the past, due to illegal poaching that has drastically reduced their populations. But there are still some parks where they are fiercely protected.

White Rhino Family, Kenya

Rhinos are unique-looking, with their heavy, barrel-shaped bodies on short legs, two horns, and prehistoric presence. There are two African species, the white and black; and neither are white nor black, but varying colors of gray and brown.

 

It is the white rhino, a grazer, we see on safaris and photographed here.

Rhinoceros Wikipedia.

 

Buffalo, Zambia

5. African Buffalo. I shiver just looking at photos of this beast. Their prominent horns cover much of the face, measuring up to 40 inches across (100cm), used for hooking and goring.

 

They are grazers, like the white rhino, so you often come across them in the savannah grass. How many times we have come around a corner in the jeep to find a buffalo herd hidden in the tall grass or behind a few shrubs. Every single time, my heart jumps for an instant.

Buffalo herd, Botswana

Serengeti Elephant and Buffalo

Buffalo herd, Zambia

Their non-human predators are few: the crocodile and the lion. Who but a lion would take on the buffalo…and win.

 

African Buffalo Wikipedia

 

Thanks for joining us on safari. Or in Swahili, it is “Asante” (thank you).

 

Written by Jet Eliot

All photos by Athena Alexander

Athena, Zambia

Jet in purple shirt, Zambia

Countries where you can see all of the Big Five, per Wikipedia: Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Malawi.

 

Nile Monitor

Nile Monitor, Zambia

One of the creatures we don’t hear about much on African safaris is the Nile Monitor. They don’t catch the eye of people seeking the more illustrious lions, hippos, or elephants. But what an interesting and unique animal they are.

 

No higher than your knee and often quietly hidden in the background, Nile Monitors can be found in sub-Saharan woodlands, rivers, and a variety of habitats. Usually they’re hunting, sometimes basking. They are not picky about what they eat, consuming bird or crocodile eggs, fish, snails, frogs, snakes, birds, insects, small mammals, and carrion.

 

Named after the Nile River, you can see from the range map (below) that they still inhabit there.

 

There are Nile Monitors outside of Africa, moved from their native land to satisfy the whims of humans. Wikipedia info. 

 

Crocodile and Egyptian Goose.

As part of a large family known as monitor lizards, the Nile Monitor is one of 79 different species. Monitor lizards in general exist natively in tropical parts of the world: Africa, Asia, and Oceania. The largest monitor in the world is the Komodo Dragon, found in the Indonesian Islands.

 

The word “monitor” derives from the Arabic for dragon.

 

Fortunately there was no water under this precarious bridge we crossed

While in Zambia and Botswana, we saw Nile Monitors almost every day, usually around water.  Varanus niloticus have developed nostrils high on their snouts to accommodate their aquatic nature. In addition, as you can see in the first photo, the tail is shaped with a dorsal keel to propel the lizard in water.

 

They vary in color and size, and although they were often around water, we also saw them in various habitats like the forest floor, and scrambling up trees. On the average, they measured about two feet long (.60 m) without the tail.

 

Nile Monitor, Botswana. You can see here how they bend their body when two legs are close together

When they walk, it looks like a swagger because of the opposite-foot gait, characteristic of reptiles. The long tail dragging behind the lizard’s body sometimes etched tracks in the sand.

 

Our guide with an adult Nile Monitor, for size comparison

 

In spring, the female monitor breaks into a termite mound and lays her eggs, where they can incubate in a warm and protected space. Nile monitors have large clutches of up to 60 eggs.

 

A lizard that can co-exist with elephants, swim among hippos, and escape up a tree when an angry crocodile has just found its eggs devoured.

 

I like to think the Nile Monitor is the real Queen of the Nile.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

 

Nile Monitor with cormorants, Chobe River, Botswana

 

Chobe River, zebra crossing from Botswana into Namibia

Nile monitor (varanus niloticus) distribution map.png

Native range of the Nile Monitor

 

Weaver Nests

Donaldson-Smith Sparrow Weaver and nest, Samburu, Kenya

As the safari guide cruises across the African savannah, with wild cheetahs stalking gazelles and thousands of wildebeest amassing in huge herds, no one is looking for a finch-like bird. But after a few days one starts to wonder: what are all those grassy clumps in the trees?

 

Those are weaver nests.

 

Weavers are a large family of colorful songbirds similar to finches, and they are one of the most architecturally-talented birds on the planet.

 

There are 64 species in the Ploceidae family, found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. They do not migrate, living year-round in warm climates.

 

To learn more about the bird, visit Wikipedia Weaver Bird. You will see there are more than just 64 species from the Ploceidae family; additional weaver birds in other taxonomic families total 117 species.

 

Zambia Village surrounded by grass

 

Weaver nest, Zambia

 

The nest is built with grass found in the immediate vicinity. The males build the nests; females choose their mate based on the nest’s location, design, and comfort.

 

Typically bird nests are either open cups or hidden inside tree cavities. But not the weavers’.  It is cylindrically shaped; with a narrow entrance hole usually facing downward to deter predators. In the African savannah, where predators abound and trees do not, the weavers have cleverly designed an enclosed grass clump hanging from a tree.

 

Named for their weaving abilities, the male uses only his feet and bill to weave the elaborate construction. First he tears grass blades and other materials into long strips, then he loops the initial strands onto the tree limb.

 

Next he intricately weaves the grass to form the hollow body; last, he creates the tubular entrance.

 

The weaver birds reside in many different countries, each with different habitats, so the building materials vary. Notice in the photos above, the dry grass around the Zambian village is reflected in the weaver nest built nearby.

 

Moreover, each weaver nest design is species-specific. I have included diagrams from my field guide (Birds of Kenya, by Zimmerman, Turner, Pearson, 1999) to demonstrate how consistent this is.

Weaver nest diagram in Birds of Kenya

Second weaver nest diagram in Birds of Kenya

Number 1 in the first diagram, for example, belongs to the African Golden Weaver. Numbers 10a and 10b in the same diagram, each with dual parts, is home to the Spectacled Weaver. The tree in the second diagram, labeled 10a, shows multiple Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver nests.

 

The Sociable Weaver has the most elaborate nest of all.  They are colonial nesters and build massive nests that can weigh up to a ton. One nest can have over a hundred pairs of nesting sociable weavers, and additionally host other non-weaver species concurrently. This nest is the largest built by any bird on earth.

Sociable Weaver nests, Namibia. Photo: Adam Riley, 10000birds.com

Regardless of how many birds are occupying the nest, sometimes a pair only, there is a lot of color and chatter and acrobatics.

Vieillot’s Black Weaver male weaving, Ghana. Photo: Adam Riley, 10000birds.com

When we watch television documentaries about the African savannah, it looks like there’s an adrenaline-raising chase going on all the time. In reality, there are certainly moments like that, but often lions are sleeping during the day after a night of hunting; or there’s no action in sight. There are definitely lulls.

 

This is a good time to seek out the weavers. Because they never seem to stop and rest, they are busy with their home-building tasks always. And it’s no wonder–there’s a lot of weaving to be done.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

For more Weaver info and photos: 10,000 Birds.

Sociable Weaver nest from below. Photo: Rui Ornelas, courtesy Wikipedia

Sociable weaver nest on electricity pole, South Africa. Photo: Mike Peel, courtesy Wikipedia

Birds of the Okavango Delta, Part 2 of 2

Lilac-breasted Roller, Africa

When you joined me in Botswana Africa’s Okavango Delta last week, I presented birds that frequent the water.  See Part 1 here. Today we’ll complete the series with birds that tend to occupy the grassland and woodland habitats of the Delta.

 

The lilac-breasted roller is a favorite for many people, because of their astounding beauty. So-named for their aerial acrobatic rolling, they are about the size of a crow.

 

They hunt for insects and lizards, and perch in open spots, then flutter out like a ballerina in the air, and spin and roll with dazzling beauty.

 

Another very colorful and acrobatic bird, bee-eaters can be found on numerous continents; in Africa there are 20 species, with seven in Botswana.

 

Little Bee-eaters, Botswana

 

As you might have deducted from their name, the bee-eaters hunt bees; and are often seen on a limb whacking a freshly-caught bee–they are eradicating the bee’s stinger before consumption.

 

And then there’s the comical oxpeckers.

 

Sable with Oxpeckers

Usually found on the body of a large mammal, they eat the pesky ticks, and sometimes ear wax and dandruff. Not a charming diet, but a bird that is a fun to observe. Just looking at this photo starts you wondering where they venture….

 

Post by Jet Eliot about oxpeckers.

 

Another resplendent beauty, the Greater Blue-eared Glossy starlings shimmer in the blazing African sun.

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Long-tailed Shrike

Other birds pictured here are the long-tailed shrike, a thrill to watch flying as his tail waves through the air like an unfurled flag; and the coppery-tailed coucal with their copper tail and scarlet eye.

Coppery-tailed Coucal

 

Common in Okavango Delta, hornbills are known for their massive casque bills. There are seven hornbill species in Botswana alone. A previous post on the hornbills.

 

Yellow-billed Hornbill

 

Then there’s the very cool hammerkop, whose name translates to hammerhead, in describing the bird’s unusual hammer head-shape.

Hammerkop, Africa

 

One bird has so many unusual features, you don’t know what to think of it: the secretary bird.

 

Secretary Bird

This elusive bird of prey has the body of a raptor and the legs of a crane, with funky quill-like feathers on the head. They use their half-pantaloon/half-bare legs to stomp prey. Funny-looking but ferocious, they also use their large, hooked bill to strike prey.

 

The secretary bird is one of my favorites, read more at Loving the Secretary Bird by Jet Eliot.

 

Giant Eagle Owl, Botswana, Africa – aka Verreaux’s Eagle Owl

The largest owl in Africa, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl is a towering force in the woods, eating mammals, birds and insects.

 

But even this bird, also known as the Giant Eagle Owl, has a soft side: when you find them sleeping, you see their pretty pink eyelids.

 

Because it’s an African safari and birds are only part of the adventure, I’ve also included a few other creatures we observed in the Okavango Delta.

 

Thank you for joining me on this two-part series, celebrating the wide variety of birds in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

 

Zebra, Okavango Delta

 

Leopard, Okavango Delta, Botswana

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Kudu with Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on back

 

 

 

Rock Hyrax

Lilac-breasted Roller, Africa

Lilac-breasted Roller, Africa

One day years ago we were traveling through northern Kenya, not far from the border of Somalia.

 

We were isolated, on dirt roads, en route to our next lodge when our driver  heard that a different tour bus ahead of us had come upon bandits.

 

The unlucky tourists had stopped on the side of the road, were looking at something, and subsequently robbed.

 

We were warned we were not going to be making any stops until we reached our next lodge, except for one bathroom pit-stop. They assured us we would be fine, but no dallying was the strong message.

 

Eventually we stopped for our bathroom break, privately dispersed behind the rocks. The guides watched for suspicious travelers while we hurried.

 

I was there behind a rock when a terrifying, shrill scream erupted.

 

I didn’t know what to do. So I waited a minute, heard nothing more. Then I peered out from behind the boulder, shaking and rattled, ready and resolved to surrender my precious wedding band and binoculars.

 

But the only vehicle there was ours, and my safari mates were calmly filing back into it.

 

Back on the road, my heart still pounding, I asked what that horrible scream was. That’s when I learned what a rock hyrax was.

 

Rock Hyrax. Photo B. Torrissen, courtesy Wikipedia

Soft, furry creatures, the wee size of a guinea pig.

 

Procavia capensis live in rocky outcroppings in Africa and the Middle East (see range map below).

 

A small mammal, the rock hyrax have a hearty diet. They eat quickly, never lingering long.

 

Leopard, Africa

Leopard, Africa

There is a good reason they hide inside rocks and don’t linger, they have many predators:  wild cats, like leopard, as well as hawks, owls, and eagles.

 

Cobras, puff adders, pythons, and wild dogs also hunt them.

 

Egyptian Cobra, Africa

Egyptian Cobra, Africa

More rock hyrax info here.

 

The rock hyrax have many tools for survival, including more than 20 different vocalizations.

 

They communicate within their large colonies with growls, twitters, whistles, and songs. When the sentry senses danger they scream and shriek.

 

Apparently I was the perceived danger.

 

Hyrax Family.jpg

Rock Hyrax. Photo: Siegmund K.M., courtesy Wikipeida

Click here for the shriek.

 

What a crazy little animal. Small body, ferocious scream. I was glad we were not accosted by bandits, but I could’ve used a gentler introduction.

 

Rock Hyrax area.png

Rock Hyrax Range Map, courtesy Wikipedia

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

 

 

 

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African Antelope

Oryx, Kenya

Oryx, Kenya, Africa

There are 91 species of antelope in the world, and over 70 species live in Africa. Here’s a brief overview of a few favorites.

 

Hoofed mammals in the Bovidae family, antelope are herbivores with a keen sense of smell and hearing. They have long legs; and all males have horns, some females have horns too.

 

Male Kudu, Boswana, Africa

Male Kudu, Botswana, Africa

Everything else about antelope varies among species.

 

Some are very small, like the duiker and steenbok at 12-16 inches (30-40 cm) tall. The largest antelope, the eland, is 5 feet tall (1.5 m) and weighs over 2,000 pounds (942 kg).

 

The horns, as you can see from the photos, vary widely among species.

 

Klipspringer, Botswana, Africa

Klipspringer, Botswana, Africa

African antelope typically occupy the savanna, but there are species in different habitats too. The African Klipspringer, for example, lives in rocky mountainous areas.

 

We spotted this klipspringer leaping onto rocks about 200 feet above us.

 

A few antelope species prefer desert or cold regions, forest, or water.

 

Sable, Botswana, Africa

Sable, Botswana, Africa

Most are various shades of tan and brown, but some are not. The sable was oh so elegant, we saw only one.

 

Antelope information here.

 

Gerenuks feeding. Photo: F. Salein. Courtesy Wikipedia.

I love to come across the gerenuks. They’re the only antelope I have ever seen standing on two legs. The long, slender, back legs were on the ground, and the front legs were up in the air while they foraged on tree leaves.

 

A different time, in my periphery and across the river, I saw the most beautiful antelope ballet. Fortunately it went on for a few seconds so I could watch.

 

Stotting gazelle. Photo: R. Wilhelmsen. Courtesy Wikipedia.

It was a small group of gazelle zealously springing into the air in the most glorious way. They were not leaping over anything, it was more of a bouncing, like balls.

 

I later learned it is called stotting, when all four feet spring off the ground simultaneously. There are numerous theories about the purpose of this.  You can read more here.

 

Kudu, Africa

Kudu, female, Africa

In the African grasslands, whether coming upon a sprinting impala or a sauntering kudu, it is an honor to observe this diverse and graceful mammal.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander (unless otherwise specified)

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