You should never judge the works of Mother Nature by human standards. But Warthogs, I’m afraid, are not very attractive.
A while back, I wrote a post about a magic tree. A magic penis tree. It was, of course, not really magic at all. It just had such strange, unlikely fruit that it some odd beliefs got attached to it. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any magic trees down in the Lowveld. Here’s one.
Yesterday, I told you how you can enjoy the bush without seeing any big animals. If you’re new here, I went down to South Africa’s wild Lowveld for a family holiday. I’m not finished dining out on it quite yet, so today I’ll tell you how to enjoy not seeing animals at all.
One morning we were having breakfast on the stoep (patio) with a gang of thirty five mongooses.
A couple of Vervet monkeys had come down to see what all the fuss was about. Don’t worry, I haven’t been drinking; the Vervets and the mongooses weren’t the animals we enjoyed not seeing. They were happily waging psychological warfare against each other. The monkeys were dashing in to see if they could find a fallen scrap of food (my kids are not tidy eaters. We haven’t had to feed our dogs since they were born.) and the mongooses were ganging up and driving them off. It was all very entertaining. Then this happened.
Well, not quite that. That’s a couple of Vervets watching a leopard on someone’s TV through their window. Vervet Monkeys are starved for entertainment. But one of our Vervets made exactly the same noise. The effect was electrifying. All the birds that had been serenading us with their morning racket suddenly went silent, and the mongooses disappeared in an instant.
Vervet Monkeys are pretty smart little buggers. They have something approaching a rudimentary language. They’re actually usually fairly quiet, but when the need arises, they give alarm calls. Complicated alarm calls. There’s one for eagles and other birds of prey, one for snakes, and one for predators on the ground. There’s even one for humans. Oddly enough, the one for humans is closest to the one for snakes. Make of that what you will.
Our Vervet was giving the ground predator call, the one they save for land animals big enough to eat them. It’s an electrifying experience to hear it when you’re sitting outside with your kids. Monkeys have an advantage over us. They spend their time in the tops of trees. Which means they can see much further than us. And our guy had definitely seen something. As alarm calls, go, this one sounded pretty damn alarming.
We bustled the kids inside, just in case whatever he had seen was close by. And that’s when the unseen animal action started. First, we heard this.
That’s an Impala alarm call. Impalas are not quite so smart. They have one alarm call. But it’s a pretty distinctive one. And they only give it for animals big enough to kill them. Oddly enough, their alarm signal doesn’t always mean “run away!” For it to mean that, they have to be running themselves. Sometimes it’s not so much a signal to each other as it is a signal to the predator they have spotted. Then it means “I see you, you bastard, and you’re never going to catch me. Try again another day.”
But that’s not what this call meant. It meant “run”. I know this not because I speak Impala, but because we could hear them running. It was all very exciting, but there was a problem. They were close. A few hundred metres away across a dry river-bed. But the bush was too thick, so we couldn’t see a thing.
We cut our breakfast short and took a drive over to the general area, but there are no roads that lead to the spot where we heard them, and we saw nothing. Oh, well. It probably meant nothing. Predators, you see, aren’t all that good at predating. If they were, there wouldn’t be any prey left. Most attempted kills do not succeed.
We came back home and went about our business. We filed the incident away as a cool little diversion, and let it slip from our minds. Until bedtime.
When we’re down in the bush, we sleep out on the “sleeper stoep”. It’s a deep, raised patio under the eaves of the house, caged in with mosquito netting and chicken-wire, on the basis that if it’s strong enough to hold in a chicken, it’s strong enough to hold out a lion.
It’s a wonderful place to sleep. You can feel the breeze on your face and smell the rich tapestry of smells wafting in from the surrounding wilderness. But more than that you can hear the sounds.
You hear lions roar and hyenas whoop. You hear mysterious rustlings in the leaves right next to you, and the patter of feet on the hard stone tiles of the stoep. Buffalos cruise through the undergrowth without bothering to go round anything, and elephants smash trees with a sound like a gunshot. Lions roar and hyenas whoop. It’s all very atmospheric. But there’s a problem. My son is not too keen on the dark. We can talk him through most noises, but how do you explain this?
Sorry about the dongs. That was the best clip of hyenas laughing that I could find. And besides, those aren’t dongs at all. Those hyenas are all females. As god is my witness. But I digress.
Hyenas laugh like that when they are excited. Or scared. Hyenas are ludicrously courageous animals. They weigh in at about 50 kg, and will take on lions weighing three times that. But it scares the crap out of them to do so.
And they were doing it across the riverbed from us as we slept. Or failed to sleep. And they were doing it in the exact spot where the Impala had been that morning. One of them had failed to make it. Hyenas are not the pure scavengers they’re made out to be. They hunt a lot of their own prey. But if something dies in their back yard, they’ll be there.
So that was it. One of Africa’s ancient life and death dramas had taken place within a few hundred yards of us. And we hadn’t seen a thing. What was it? We’ll never know. There were lots of lions around last week. We saw their tracks round every corner. But it could have been a leopard, too. It could even have been a hyena.
But we were given a clue. You see, we weren’t quite done with our unseen animals. The next day, I tried to settle down for an afternoon nap. I try this fairly often, but always fail. But at least this time I had an excuse for my daytime insomnia. Because I heard this;
I’m scared of elephants, so that is a bone-chilling sound. Elephants do that when they’re frightened, like the herd in that clip, or when they’re cross. Not a little cross. A lot cross. Enraged. And the one that gave me an excuse for my failure to nap was doing it over and over again. In the same spot across the river-bed.
Elephants don’t get that cross very often. They don’t need to. They’re bigger than anything else. They do get cross with each other. And they get cross with us, because we keep killing them to steal their teeth. But they get cross with lions, too. Lions kill elephants. Not often, and not adult elephants, but they will kill and eat the youngsters. And elephants never forget.
As I said, it was a clue, not an answer. Maybe the trumpeting wasn’t connected to the action. A coincidence. Maybe the killer was a leopard, and the elephant was short sighted. Or just practising for the next lion that crossed its path.
That’s the nicest and the worst part of enjoying animals you can’t see. It’s not just about sound. There are other ways of not seeing things. You might see vultures drop from the sky onto an unseen spot. You might smell a distinctive smell. And when you do, you can let your inner amateur detective run free to come up with a thousand different potential explanations. But never an answer.
I’m feeling a little guilty. Just a tiny bit. I fell prey to a trend yesterday, and it’s not one to be encouraged. It’s one that the Discovery Channel and National Geographic are absolutely besotted with. Nature, if the TV people (and me) are to be believed, is out to get you. It wants you dead. And your family. And everyone you have ever loved.
It doesn’t, actually. I wrote about an unusual little spate of giraffe attacks yesterday. It was worth writing about, precisely because it has been so unusual. The truth is that giraffes really are gentle creatures at heart. They just happen to be wild animals. Big ones. Ones that have evolved to defend themselves from some fairly robust predators. On the incredibly rare occasions that they do go off the rails, it can get a little scary. But in the larger scheme of things, they simply aren’t dangerous.
This is a Great White shark.
It’s a monster, in the true sense of the word. It’s nearly five metres long and weighs over a thousand kilograms. It can swim at 40km/h and bite you in half without breaking a sweat. It is not dangerous at all.
This is a Grizzly bear.
It’s also a monster, weighing in at over 300 kg. It’s very close to being the biggest predatory mammal in the world. Only Polar bears are bigger. But it’s not dangerous either.
Deer, on the other hand…
The king of the beasts?
Now we’re talking. It’s nearly one twentieth as dangerous as a British staircase.
You see, sharks only kill about eighteen people a year. That’s all sharks, not just Great Whites. It’s not like we’re not giving them the opportunity, either. This is what our beaches look like.
Cows, however, kill 22 people in the US alone.
Grizzly bears don’t even crack the nod for one death a year. Deer? More than 150.
Lions? 50 a year. British staircases? About a thousand.
I’m being slightly disingenuous. Statistics are easy to meddle with. You probably climbed 10 sets of stairs today, and, unless you are from Africa, are unlikely to have ever even seen a wild lion. But the fact remains; there are 7 billion people in the world right now, and if lions kill 50 of them a year, that wouldn’t even appear as a number on a statistician’s radar.
The thing is, we have been the most dangerous animal on the planet for a very long time. Animals are scared of us. Even the big ones. On top of that, the people exposed to wild animals the most tend to be the ones who know how best to behave around them. There are some very dangerous things out there. Hippos kill nearly 3000 people a year in Africa. Snakes kill a lot more. But still not very many in the larger scheme of things. If you want to see something really dangerous, go and take a look in your driveway.
Over 14000 people die on the roads in South Africa every year. And those deer-related deaths I mentioned earlier? Car accidents.
So when you see a show on TV called “Anatomy of a Killer” or “Twelve Deadliest”, or read a blog post about ravening giraffes, take it with a pinch of salt. These things are dangerous, sure. But less dangerous than electricity, and you let that stuff flow around your house.
Don’t think ill of the noble giraffe just because I pointed out they’ve been trying to kill people, is what I’m saying.
Think ill of these guys instead.
If you want a dangerous wild animal to be scared of, those guys kill nearly three million people a year. Which makes your average staircase look as harmless as a bear carrying a shark.
I’m going away for a short holiday at the end of the week. The 23thorns brood is going down to the bush. This is a big deal. Over the last few years we haven’t been able to go nearly as often as we’d like to. The place we go to is in a malaria area, and while there are precautions one can take, the kids have been too small to undergo the treatment should they catch it.
This year, though, things are different. I’ve been feeding the kids on a pure McDonalds and Ice-cream diet for months, and now we’re good to go. I’m a bit worried though. In our extended absence, something sinister has been happening. This is a giraffe.
I’ve always been a bit surprised by people’s reactions to giraffes. When you take people down to the bush who’ve never been there before, and ask them what they would most like to see, the giraffe is often at the top of the list, ahead of lions and leopards and elephants. I do get it, I suppose. Lions and leopards are just big cats. Elephants are quite something, but there is nothing like a giraffe. It manages to be beautiful and freaky looking at the same time. Strangely graceful and strangely awkward. Comically grave and gravely comical.
What they have always been is utterly charming and just a little awe inspiring. A giraffe is a big animal. It’s huge. A male giraffe is over 6m tall (that’s over 20 feet) and weighs over a ton (2500 pounds). Which makes it a bit of a problem that they’ve decided not to be charming any more. Have a look;
Anyone else having a Jurassic Park flashback?
I have never done a course in body language before, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think that woman is charmed. Still, it’s no big deal, right? A six metre, 1 ton animal just ran after a car for three miles and made an otherwise perfectly charming looking young woman use some colourful Afrikaans. The experts chalked it up to a hormonal imbalance, rather than the animal simply having been possessed by demons. Come out on safari; it’s nice and warm, and this sort of thing almost never happens.
Oops. That one got close enough to kick off the rear view mirror. It’s not nice to laugh at the naivety of tourists, but I love that that German guy wanted to radio for help. Doesn’t he know that almost all of our elite giraffe emergency response teams are out on strike?
Still, no harm, no foul. No one was hurt and it’s not like you really need a rear view mirror in the bush. There’s not much traffic, and all you’re likely to see is a mad-eyed, hormonally-imbalanced towering freak of nature bearing down on you at an unlikely clip. They can rattle along at over 50km/h (35mph). They decided that one was hormonally imbalanced too. Must be something in the water. There’s no way the giraffes are the vanguard of the coming animal apocalypse.
For what it’s worth, kicking a mirror off a jeep is no big deal for a giraffe. They have feet like dinner plates, and a well-aimed kick can kill a male lion.
It seems that not all giraffes have been overtaken by the desire to murder cars yet. There’s one outside Bloemfontein which has decided to warm up a bit first, by hurdling over BMW convertibles. I don’t think we have much to fear from her though; she didn’t even make it all the way over. Nobody but the BMW was hurt, and the driver’s seat probably needed a wash anyway. Hormones.
The giraffes aren’t just waging their war on the vehicular front. Last year, a man was head-butted by one. Which sounds funny, in a biker-bar joke sort of way. It’s not. Giraffes might use their feet for fighting lions, but they use their heads for fighting each other. The skull of a male giraffe never stops growing, building up odd shaped bumps of bone. Their necks and heads end up like huge sledgehammers. And they use them like this;
The guy who got head-butted did not end up with a headache. He ended up in intensive care, with severe spinal damage. But no one is to blame here. The man was drawing blood, no doubt for the giraffe’s benefit. The giraffe was being stabbed in the neck by a strange little pink thing. I just hope the guy is doing OK. And they left the giraffe alone. This was not part of the coming giraffocalypse. Just a horrible accident.
As horrible, but less explicable is the unfolding mystery down in Kwazulu Natal. A seventy-year-old man popped out to a local game reserve for his regular morning walk. Hours later, he staggered home covered in blood. “I ran away.” He said. And died. No-one really knows what happened. But there is a prime suspect. A giraffe. With a hormone imbalance.
I’m trying very hard not to see a pattern here. It doesn’t pay to be alarmist. It doesn’t pay to be foolhardy either. I’m going to be wrapping Mrs 23thorns and the kids up in bubble-wrap and making them wear crash helmets. It might not protect them from the giraffes, but it will give me a head start if we need to flee. And I’m popping out tomorrow to buy some darts filled with HRT. It never hurts to be prepared.
I’ve never seen a Bushpig. I have loved wildlife for as long as I can remember, and wherever I go, I keep an eye open for things that creep and crawl and growl and bustle about in the undergrowth. I’ve seen quite a lot over the years, and in terms of mammals, I can page through a South African mammal guide and tick off most of the list, not counting rats and mice and bats, because life is too short.
There are a couple of ticks missing. I’ve never seen a Serval, or a Pangolin. But that’s OK. Hardly anyone has. They’re pretty rare. But I’ve never seen that Bushpig, either. And they are not rare at all. Better yet, they tend to cling on in areas where most other big mammals have been wiped out. They are pests for farmers, and lurk around in thickets along hiking trails and wilderness areas. Continue reading
I’ve been threatening to carry on writing about owls for a while, and now that I’ve arranged a place for them to sit, today is the day I do so. As I have said, the Lowveld supports ten different species of owl. We’ve dealt with one of them, in a bit of a hurry. Today, we deal with another three.
When most people think of owls, they tend to picture the sorts of birds that flapped around in the Harry Potter movies; large, powerful birds that would have no problem carrying obscure magical packages around. These are not those sorts of owls. These are small owls. Tiny owls.
I had promised I would get round to writing about Lowveld owls soon. And I will. Soon. But when I sat down to write about them this morning, I realised I had not arranged a place for them to sit. Fear not. I’m on it. They can sit in one of these, in a few centuries time;
I had promised to do a post on the owls of the Lowveld. I’m not going to. I’m going to do a few. And today, I’m going to do a very short one indeed. I’ve been called away on an emergency. I have to go the bush for a night. There I will be forced to spend an afternoon driving around looking at elephants and rhinos while sipping an ice-cold beer before being forced to endure yet another African sunset, while the meat sizzles over the fire and I force down a glass of chilled white wine.