Horn

I’ve been travelling the same route down to the bush, several times a year, for more than three decades. I could have given you directions when I was 12; Pretoria. Bronkhorstspruit. Witbank. Belfast. Dullstroom. Lydenburg. Ohrigstad, Hoedspruit. Then we’d head out for Bushbuckridge and turn left into the bush. Halfway down the road the tar would run out and it was an hour of bone-shaking corrugations before we pulled up at the gate of our place.

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Things have changed over the years. Witbank is now Emalahleni. Lydenburg is now Mashishing. The road through the charming little town of Dullstroom has been turned into a strip mall where Jo’burg day trippers in Land Cruisers and Porche Cayennes can buy rustic pancakes and designer trout-killing gear. The even littler and far less charming Hoedspruit has grown bigger and more charming.

But it’s the road into the bush that has changed the most. It used to rattle along between two lines of game fence, often bent flat by the elephants that churlishly ignored the boundaries we tried so hard to impose on them. Then, as the 80’s drew to a close, the fences along the road came down, as did the fence around the Kruger Park. The elephants could do as they pleased, as could everything else. The road was tarred and a toll gate was set up to collect money to pay for its upkeep.

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It’s actually quite a sophisticated operation.

And then the controls came. Another gate was set up, with retractable spikes and a uniformed guard. And the toll gate turned into something like the entrance to the villain’s lair in a Bond movie, complete with a security force in camo fatigues, with sniffer dogs and assault rifles.

The place names changed because of politics. Hoedspruit and Dullstroom grew because of tourism. The tarred road was about progress, I suppose.

And the heavily armed security force? That’s all about rhinos.

There’s something prehistoric about rhinos. They’re huge, relics of a time when the Earth was crowded with giants like mammoths and glyptodons and giant ground sloths. White rhinos are the third largest land animal after elephants, with the males weighing in at over 2 tons, while the black rhinos can get up to a ton and a half.

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Black

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White

Apart from their size, the easiest way to tell the difference between the two is by looking at their colour. White rhinos are grey while black rhinos are a distinct grey colour. Yup. There’s no difference. No one really knows why they’re called that. The most commonly floated answer is that the white of the white rhino is a corruption of the Dutch word “wijd”, meaning wide, in reference to the shape of their mouths. Which, like most folk etymology, sounds perfectly reasonable. The only problem is that there is absolutely no historical evidence for it. And it doesn’t really explain why the other guys are called black.

Confronted by this curious state of affairs, the clever people decided it was far more sensible to call the white rhino the square lipped rhino and the black rhino the hook lipped rhino, because that really is a significant difference between the two. Square lipped rhinos eat grass. They carry their heads low to the ground and have wide, squared off mouths like lawnmowers. Hook lipped rhinos are browsers, and have sharp, turtle beak shaped mouths like garden clippers for picking out the tastiest twigs and leaves.

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Mower

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Clipper. If you squint. And have had enough vodka.

Happily, we stupid people looked at this idea, found it all far too sensible, and cheerfully carried on calling them white and black for absolutely no reason at all. We’ve done the same with wild dogs, which the clever people wanted us to call painted dogs.

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Us stupid people know a painted do when we see one.

There are a couple of other differences. Black rhino calves travel behind their mothers, while white rhino calves follow their mothers from in front. Don’t ask me how they do this; no one has ever bothered to explain it to me. Maybe their mothers are whistling at them subsonically, like deep voiced versions of shepherds whistling at their dogs.

White rhinos look noticeably more prehistoric, with huge, elongated heads and massive humped shoulders. Black rhinos are more tidily put together.

White rhinos live out on more or less open grassland, while black rhinos live in thick bush.

White rhinos have a reputation for being grumpy and dangerous. Black rhinos are grumpier and dangerouser.

There’s a reason for this. Rhinos have very bad eyes.

All animals have a series of imaginary circles around them. The outer circle is one in which the animal is aware of an intruder (we’ll call the intruder “you” because I don’t want to type out “intruder” 17 times), but essentially doesn’t care. Then there’s another, smaller circle within which the animal will start paying attention to you. It might just stop and watch you, it might move off, or it might send a half-hearted threat your way, but it will give you some sort of response. Then there’s the final, inner circle. That’s where stuff gets real, because that’s the circle within which you trigger the animal’s flight or fight response.

The size of those circles varies, depending on the temperament of the animal, its mood, who approached whom, and so on. So here’s me and my son chilling with an elephant. Everyone is relaxed. He knew we were there and approached us, so even though he’s close enough to spit on, we’re outside that inner circle.

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And he’s outside ours because us men of the wild know that elephants suck at jumping

And here’s another elephant going on a vicious and terrifying rampage after we surprised him by stepping out of the door inside his inner circle (we didn’t know he was there. Elephants are small and unobtrusive and easy to miss).

It’s a miracle we made it out alive. I still can’t wear those pants without breaking down in tears.

Now imagine an animal that can’t see very well. If the wind is right, and you move quietly, you can get within 15 metres of white rhinos on foot without their even being aware of you. Which is nice, right up ‘til the moment that the wind turns or you step on a branch and the rhino suddenly becomes aware of a bunch of people standing well within it inner circle. That’s when you remember that the buggers weigh over 2 tons and can run at over 50 km/h (just for reference, Usain Bolt can only do 44 km/h). If the rhino decides to fight, you’re in very real trouble, but even if it decides on flight, you’re not safe. People have been badly injured just by happening to be in the direction they are fleeing in.

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I don’t think this one is fleeing so much as offering a measured critique of that paint job

That’s white rhinos. Black rhinos are even more dangerous. Not only are they grumpier, they also live in thick bush, so you can stumble over them without even knowing they’re there. And vice versa. That whole “them approaching you” thing only counts if they know you’re there.

But that’s all just the stuff about rhinos themselves. The bigger story is about what’s happening to them. We’re killing them all. Again. For the bundles of hair they have stupidly decided to carry around on their noses. I won’t go into too much detail about rhino poaching, because you could fill a whole book, and I don’t know enough to avoid the pitfalls of misinformation that surround the subject. I’ll just rush through it and then tell you a bit about how the rhino crisis affects our little corner of the bush.

When I was younger, the story was simple. Rhinos were poached because the horns were used for making dagger handles in Yemen and aphrodisiacs in China. It was all so obvious. Swallowing bits of a big, stiff horn would surely give you the same. It was also wrong. Rhino horn was never used as an aphrodisiac. It was used in traditional Asian medicine to treat fevers, headaches, and other minor maladies. Of late it’s also being touted as a cure for cancer.

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Luckily scientists have recently discovered an artificial substitute for rhino horn

It doesn’t work. At all. But before you get all judgey about the naivety of other people far away, pop into your local crystal shop and ask them if they have anything that will help with your headache. They won’t laugh at you. They’ll sell you a stone. And then they’ll sell you another one to help you align your chakras.

The truth is that it doesn’t really matter what people think it does. A vast criminal network spanning continents and generating millions of dollars doesn’t exist because someone in Vietnam has a headache. To understand what is happening with rhino horn, it helps to understand these;

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That’s a Rolex Daytona. You can pick up a new one for half a million Rand. If you’re feeling flush can pick up a slightly fancier one for FIVE MILLION RAND!!!

Whatever you may think when glancing at one, a Rolex Daytona is not a watch. A watch is something you use to tell the time. This is a watch.

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It costs R500, and is handy for checking the date as well as the time.

Of course a Rolex Daytona tells the time, too. It even does so quite deep underwater. But no one is spending FIVE MILLION RAND!!! to avoid being late for meetings. No. A Rolex Daytona is a machine for showing people how rich you are. It’s a shot of adrenaline for the sort of people who get a kick out of having things. A Rolex is not a watch, beluga caviar is not salty fish eggs, and a Louis Vuitton bag is not a handy place to keep five almost finished-lipsticks, an expired parking card, and a crumbly handful of those sweets they give you with the bill at restaurants. What these things are is status symbols

And rhino horn isn’t being used to treat fevers. It’s become a status symbol too. Rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold. China and Vietnam have both seen a rapid growth in the number of rich people. People who suddenly feel a keen desire to tell the time quite deep underwater. People who need somewhere breathtakingly expensive to keep their individually wrapped peppermints. People who want to show the world that they’ve made it.

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Ah, the sweet smell of success.

And that’s all I have to say about that. Except for this. It’s kinda hard to stop someone willing to spend FIVE MILLION RAND!!! on a watch.

So what does this all mean for our little corner of the world? It doesn’t stop with the sniffer dogs at the control gate. When I was younger, you often used to see workers walking up and down that corrugated dirt road, heading out to work or visiting friends on neighbouring farms. You still see people walking, though. Armed anti-poaching units, complete with weapons and tracker dogs. They are essentially soldiers, complete with paramilitary training. There’s a private army out there, fighting a little talked about war in the place where the rest of us go on holiday. And it really is a war; their opposition are, by their very nature, armed. There are casualties. A couple of years ago, the remains of a poacher were found on the farm next door to us. He’d been killed and eaten by lions.

Our behaviour has been affected, too. Up at the ranger station on our place there’s a sighting book and a map full of colour co-ordinated pins where we can all share our sightings. Red for lions, green for leopards, blue for elephants, and so on. There are no pins for rhinos, though, and we aren’t allowed to write them up in the book. The wrong person might be watching. Our rhinos are a secret.

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One should always dress appropriately for rhino watching

It doesn’t end there. All of us have CB’s in our vehicles. It’s not really my thing, but lots of people have great fun with them, calling out to the rest of us about fresh lion tracks or leopard kills or hyena dens. No calls about rhinos, though. The wrong person might be listening. It’s quite fun listening to people trying to get around this. People will call their friends out at arbitrary times to meet for drinks in arbitrary places or radio in sightings of other animals with secret code-words worked into the announcements.

It wasn’t always like this. When we were kids, people never used to call in about rhinos for a very different reason. There were no pins for rhinos back then, either. Because there weren’t any rhinos.

That’s the greatest tragedy lurking behind all of this. Rhinos are actually a fantastic conservation success story. Halfway through the last century, there were no rhinos left in the Lowveld. None. In the case of the white rhinos, there were hardly any of them left on the planet.

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A rare photograph of all the rhinos in the Lowveld, circa 1950

By the 1950’s, there were only about a hundred of them left in the country. A bunch of conservationists in Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park in Kwazulu Natal decided they weren’t giving up without a fight, and protected the hell out of their rhinos. The rhinos did so well that soon they were able to start translocating surplus animals to other reserves and selling them to private landowners. In the 60’s, white rhinos were reintroduced to the Lowveld, followed by black rhinos in the 70’s.

It turns out that when we stop killing them all the time, rhinos actually do pretty well for themselves. By 2010, we had 17 000 white rhinos and 5000 black rhinos in the country.

We watched it happen. As I said, when we first started going down to the bush there were no rhinos on our little patch. There hadn’t been for a hundred years. Then, while the fences were up along that corrugated dirt road, we started to spot the odd one brought in by private landowners on our way down to our place. Then the fences came down. We began to come across the odd track while out driving.

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An odd track.

Occasionally, someone would catch a glimpse of one. Occasionally turned to regularly. Four years ago, while sleeping out on the caged in stoep down at our place, I was woken up by a weird thumping noise. I sat up and glanced across the dry river bed in front of our house. Less than 50 metres away was a tiny white rhino calf, prancing around his mother like an excited Labrador puppy. The rhinos were well and truly back.

Now all we have to do is stop them from going away again.

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Some smaller families.

The spiral horned buck are far and away the largest family down I the Lowveld, but there are others.

The Hottie and the Nottie.

I will apologise now for using such an awkward sounding subheader. It’s just that I feel that not nearly enough attention is paid to the artistic endeavours of Paris Hilton, and her 2007 movie The Hottie and the Nottie should, by rights, be a modern classic. I’m doing what I can to thrust it back to the forefront of your minds, where it belongs. It’s also an appropriate way to describe the next family of buck we’re going to look at. The hippotragini.

I’ll start with the Sable, because I’ve already mentioned them. And because damn!

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Just damn!

They really are a joy to behold; powerful, well-muscled bodies, rapier-sharp horns sweeping back over the shoulders, faces boldly marked in black and white. And their outfits don’t hurt the whole picture either, all sleek black satin shining in the sun, contrasting boldly with the white of their stomachs.

The females aren’t quite in the same league. Their coats are brown, and while they, unlike most of the buck down in the bush, do have horns, they are far shorter. They are still very attractive animals. It’s just that nature is never fair when handing out the looks. Just ask a peahen.

The sad thing about beholding a sable is that you probably aren’t going to do it. They used to be far more common, but these days they’re pretty rare. And they seem to be getting rarer. Like their cousins. Which are properly rare.

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Less damn!

The roan antelope seem to have lost some sort of genetic lottery. The family name, hippotragini, means horse goats. The sable seems to have got all of the horse parts. The roan was left with the goaty bits. I vaguely remember a sitcom from the 90’s in which there was a running joke in which the main character met up for a weekly poker game with Swayze, Travolta, and Stallone. That would be Don, Joey and Frank, as opposed to Patrick, John, and Sylvester.

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The least damn.

 There was something weird about seeing them. They were, objectively, all good looking guys, and were instantly recognisable as the brothers of their more famous siblings, but despite their having all the same parts, they just hadn’t been put together quite as well. They looked odd because their siblings looked so good. And so it is with the roan. They are big, handsome buck, but their movie star cousins leave them looking just ever so slightly off.

It’s the ears. They’re too big. And they do a strange turny-downy thing at the ends that makes them look like depressed bunnies or idealistic teenagers who’ve just discovered that their idols are into a particularly nasty brand of niche porn. And if you think I’m being unfair to the noble roan, here’s a picture of their other movie star cousin, the gemsbok, from the other side of the country.

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We’re up to full damn! again.

 But we are not here to judge the creatures of the wild by their looks or their unsavoury internet histories. They serve a far more important purpose. They show us quite how bad we are at playing god.

If you are unlikely to behold a sable, you are pretty much guaranteed not to behold a roan. It’s our fault. And not because their horns are worth their weight in gold or because we turned their homes into golf estates. No. the roan is very nearly locally extinct, and the sable is going the same way. Because we tried to help.

It goes like this; roan and sable have always, at least in South Africa, been uncommon. They are specialist grazers, and lived basically by finding good patches of grass in areas with poor soil and little surface water, where the grazing was mostly bad. This meant they it wasn’t just that they were uncommon in the areas where they lived, all big herbivores were. And because the herbivores were uncommon, so were the large predators. And then we came along and fixed everything.

We set up artificial water points all over the place. And lo and behold, the numbers of large herbivores increased because more water-dependent animals like zebras and buffalos and wildebeest moved in. and roan and sable numbers began to decline.

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Leaving this barren wasteland, bereft of all life.

The decline was noticed. But not that easily understood. It was thought, at various times, to be the result of drought, diseases like anthrax, and perhaps most obviously, competition with other large herbivores. In the end, it seems to have been more complicated than that. It was all of those things, and none of them.

The greatest cause of the decline in roan and sable numbers seems to be this; their best defence against large predators was being in places where large predators weren’t, because there weren’t enough large herbivores to support them. When the large herbivores moved in, so did the lions and the hyenas. And they started to kill off the roan and the sable in higher numbers than they could cope with.

Luckily, we realised this, and began to remove the artificial water sources. Unluckily, it turns out that playing god is best left to the gods, and fixing the damage we have done is as easy as unbaking a cake. The large herbivores did indeed begin to move out of the haunts of the roan and the sable. Thing is, though, that large predators are territorial. Lions and hyenas can’t just move to other spots, because those spots are already filled by other lions and hyenas which will try to kill them. So turning off the water hasn’t brought back the roan and the sable.

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Which is all a little depressing. All we can do now is wait to see if things even out over time.

Meh.

My mother is as passionate about the bush as anyone I have ever met. Except for rhinos. “Rhinos,” she tells us “leave me stone cold.”

I get it. Not because rhinos leave me stone cold, but because there are some other animals that do. And so on to the reduncini.

There are three members of the family down in the Lowveld; two types of reedbuck (the common and the mountain) and the waterbuck.

And it is the reedbuck that leave me stone cold. They live in small groups (mountain reedbuck) or pairs (common reedbuck) in tall grass on floodplains (common reedbuck) or on high slopes (mountain reedbuck). You hardly ever see them, and when you do, they tend to whistle at you and run away. And that’s all I have to say about that. Losers.

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I don’t even know which one this is.

Luckily, the waterbuck is far more interesting.

They’re big, with males weighing in at over 250kg, and females at 200, and have bizarrely shaggy coats for an animal that lives in a place that can regularly reach 45° C. And as the name implies, they live close to water. They have to. They are prone to dehydration, another weird characteristic in a place as dry and hot as the Lowveld. They will flee into the water to escape predators, but can’t spend too much time in it because crocodiles.

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The Sable and the gemsbok are pushing to have the waterbuck replace the roan at family gatherings.

Like hippos, the lives of waterbuck are governed by the access to water in a pretty dry place, and the way they manage their lives is pretty similar. Dominant males are territorial, and they share their territories with loose herds of females and with bachelor herds which are tolerated as long as they behave. Challenges for territories can get nasty and occasionally result in deaths.

Waterbuck stink. Their skin secretes a greasy, musky substance that smells so bad that it was common knowledge when I was a child that this was a way of deterring predators. The only problem with this tidy little piece of trivia is that no-one told the predators, which cheerfully went about eating them anyway. It does have other uses, though. It waterproofs their coats, which is handy for an animal that spends its life around water. It seems to serve some sort of sexual function. And last, but not least, it seems to ward off parasites. People have been putting waterbuck-grease infused collars on their cows to stave off tsetse flies, and they seem to be working.

And that would be all if the Afrikaners weren’t so good at naming things. We call them waterbuck, because they live near water. In Afrikaans, they are called the kringgatbok. Which means, I kid you not, the “circle butthole buck”. Because of these.

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The noble “ring arsed antelope”.

It’s a beautiful language.

Oddballs

I’m unlikely ever to see a moose, especially now that the world has closed down, but I would dearly love to. Not because they are huge and stately and noble, although I am sure they are all those things. No. I’d love to see a moose because anything that goofy looking should be treasured and celebrated.

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His nose appears to be melting off the end of his skull.

We don’t have anything quite so silly looking around here, although warthogs run pretty close. We do, however, have the alcelaphini, an entire family that specialises in looking a little off, a little funny, like that guy everybody knows who seems to have sold his chin in order to buy his ears and Adam’s apple from a much larger person.

Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest

Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest are prime examples of the family. They have high, rounded shoulders and sloping backs. Their faces are just a little bit too long, and their horns look, from the side, as if they’ve been caught in a high wind.

And that’s all you need to know about them, I’m afraid. Because you’re very unlikely to see them. We shot them all.

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We needed something to stick up on our walls to hang our hats on.

Lichtenstein’s hartebeest were hunted into local extinction over a hundred years ago. We had to bring some in from Malawi to try and bring them back, but right now there are only about 50 of them in South Africa, and there hasn’t been a meteoric rise in their numbers.

Wow. A quiet little post about some buck is turning out to be a little depressing. Brace yourselves. Things aren’t about to get any better.

Tsessebe

Sometimes, very occasionally, the world can give you huge ears and a giant Adam’s apple and throw them together in a way that somehow manages to be pleasing. On paper, Adam Driver should not be setting anyone’s heart racing.

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And yet somehow I’m finding it hard to breathe.

And so it is with the tsessebe. The have typical high-shouldered slope-backed bodies of their tribe. Their faces are as long and narrow as the hartebeest’s. Their horns, while not as comically swept back as their cousin’s, are by no means impressive. And yet somehow it all comes together to make for a handsome and well put-together animal.

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It’s all about posture.

Sad, then, that they fall into the same category as the roan and the sable- rare, and getting rarer, as a result of our interference. They, too are specialist grass feeders, picking out nutritious tufts of grass from amongst bad grass. They, too, are affected by the placement of artificial water points. And on top of that, they live on open grassy plains, and those are disappearing.

Tsessebe serve well to explain the ungainly, awkward-looking bodies of the alcelaphini. They’re not ungainly and awkward at all. Those bodies are built for speed, and tsessebe are blindingly fast, steaming along at close to 90 km/h. That puts them in cheetah territory, but with more stamina.

You’d think that this would make them invulnerable, but it doesn’t. For a start, the big cats are ambush predators. They hunt by taking their prey by surprise, not by outrunning it. But that’s not all. Tsessebe are particularly vulnerable to one particular predator. Us.

Tsessebe are cocky. They run really fast, but they don’t run really far. They tend to stop after a short distance to check things out, relying on their superior speed to keep them safe. It doesn’t keep them safe from the sort of people whose response to nature is to shoot it and stick it on a wall. Hunters love Tsessebe because their tendency to stop makes them really easy to shoot.

 Wildebeest.

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If the tsessebe got all the looks in the family, they took them directly from the wildebeest. They are the kings of looking goofy. They have the high shoulders and low hindquarters of the family, huge, smoothly curved heads like Texan oil derricks, wide, vacuum cleaner mouths, floppy, listless manes, and scraggly, wispy beards like live action role players who are trying to hide the space where their chins should be. To top it all off, their horns look like someone took the horns off a buffalo and turned them into a half-sized novelty buffalo hat at a wildlife based theme park. They are beautiful.

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As is this herd of derricks.

And they’re doing a hell of a lot better than anything else in this post. There are about 10 000 of them in the Kruger park alone. Don’t get too cheerful, though. Better is not the same as good.

Wildebeests are deigned to be nomads. They, like their companions the zebras, are bulk grazers. They follow the smell of distant rain and the sound of thunder to find fresh grazing, doing a little amateur landscaping as they go. They stir up the soil by trampling it up, spread a load of fresh manure about the place, push back any bushes and trees invading the grassland, actually boost the growth of healthy grassland by cropping it down to lawn height, and then head on out to fresh green pastures, leaving it all to recover in their wake. The Lowveld was never the Serengeti, but it had its own mosaic of mini migrations, which basically saw the wildebeest and zebra heading out into the vast open grasslands to take advantage of the flush of growth that came with the coming of the rains, and then heading back to the floodplains around the permanent rivers when the temporary pans and waterholes dried up in the dry season.

Had. This whole post is turning out to be a bit depressing. 10 000 seems like a nice big number. But it used to be 30 000. And it’s all our fault. Again. First, we threw up a bunch of fences to contain and protect the wildlife, which was nice of us, except that it cut off a number of old migration routes. Then we threw up a bunch of artificial water points to make up for the loss of those routes and give the game access to huge areas of virgin bush too far from permanent water to support a lot of game.

Which you would think would be a good thing. Not in this post it won’t. This whole thing seems to be morphing into a praise poem to the gods of unintended consequences. Sorry.

Permanent water tethered the great migratory herds to that previously virgin bush. Permanently. Where they used to do a bit of landscaping and move on to let the bush recover, they now stuck around, over trampling and overgrazing, and the soil ever got chance to recover.

At the same time, for reasons far too complicated to go into here, bushes and trees started to encroach on what was once grassland.

Wildebeests are designed to live on open plains. They don’t do so well in thicker bush. They’re around, but not like they used to be.

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Before

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After

Alrighty then. That was fun. I promise next time I’ll do something a bit more uplifting. Like rhinos.

Stretch

Our place down in the bush is on what used to be a cattle farm. The old farmhouse stands on a rocky ridge overlooking a wide floodplain that must at one stage have been cleared to grow crops. Without the constant attention of tractors and chainsaws, the bush has spent the last few decades slowly reclaiming it. It’s not completely free of management, though. It looks like somebody is turning all the knobthorns trying to invade it into topiaries.

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They’re doing a pretty shoddy job, if truth be told.

The younger knobthorns have a pleasing, rounded, bushy shape. As they get bigger, and wider, they take on a cone shape, like scrappy Christmas trees.

Then, they go through a bit of an untidy phase where one of two leggy branches break free right at the top of the cone and make a break for the sky. If they succeed, the knobthorns will then take on an hourglass shape before eventually becoming what are, for the bush, fairly substantial trees.

It’s not somebody. It’s something. Giraffes. Female giraffes.  Knobthorns start as bushes. When the giraffes can reach all parts of them, the bushes are rounded. As the bushes begin to spread, the giraffes can’t reach the middle any more. That’s where the cone shape comes in. When the branches in the centre make their break for the sky, the tree starts to spread again, and the giraffes trim the bottom of this new growth into the hourglass shape.

Yup. We’re doing giraffes. Which are famous for one thing, and one thing only. Being tall.

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But not tall enough.

Which comes with some issues. When I was a boy, we used to play a rather stupid game. Truth be told, we used to play a lot of stupid games, but right now, you just need to know about the comb game. What you would do was you would take the toothed side of a comb and hit yourself sharply on the back of your hand, leaving a row of angry red marks stitched across your skin. It hurt like hell, but the bravado of it all was part of the fun.

Then the real fun started. You would swing your arm around like Asterix winding up to punch a Roman, five, six, seven times, and then stop to check out your handiwork. Out of the centre of each of the red marks would be flowing a thin but gratifying streak of blood. I did say it was a stupid game.

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Stupid games are the best games.

It was all about pressure. The comb didn’t break the skin, but it weakened it enough to let the blood leak through when the pressure from the arm-swinging pushed all our arm blood out to our hands. Giraffes are all about pressure.

Giraffes can be nearly six metres tall. This gives rise to a couple of issues. First of all, there’s the sheer gravitational pressure of the blood at the bottom of their legs. Then there’s the small matter of pumping blood 1,8 metres up the neck to the head. Trickiest of all, the head, in its traditional position at the top of the giraffe, usually has the lowest blood pressure. Until the giraffe decides to take a drink. And the head rather suddenly becomes the lowest part of the giraffe and should, by rights, explode, or at the very least started spraying blood all over the place should anyone have been unkind enough to hit it with a comb.

Clearly, the giraffe has found a way to deal with these issues. First, there’s the special tight skin around the legs to keep all the blood in. Then there’s the 10kg heart to pump the blood all the way up that neck. Finally, there’s a complex system of valves and contracting arteries to stop, rather disappointingly, the whole exploding head thing.

So successful is the giraffe at overcoming these obstacles that scientists are looking to them for inspiration when it comes to designing the G-suits that allow fighter pilots to cope with the gravitational forces involved in turning a fighter jet around at 2000 km/h.

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Fighter pilots make everything look cool.

It’s not just the blood that needs to cope with all that pressure. Giraffe bones are incredibly dense and heavy. And while we’re talking about bones, the next time people are throwing around random bits of trivia, you can mention that giraffes only have seven cervical vertebrae, or neck bones. Just like we do. Theirs are a little longer than ours, though. And giraffes are ruminants, which means they chew the cud. Once you get past the mechanics of it all, try to imagine how it feels to do a 1,8 metre vomit several times a day.

Their height makes it quite difficult for ethologists (animal behaviourologists) to fully understand the giraffe’s social structure, because they may well be in constant visual contact with other giraffes that us lowly ground level creatures just can’t see. And they don’t bunch together like most herd animals. They spread out. This makes spotting giraffes quite fun. If you see one, stop for a while and take a look around. More often than not, you’ll soon see another one. And another one. And another one. And even if you don’t, you can be fairly certain that the giraffe does.

We have to assume that a lot of giraffe communication is visual, because being able to see over the top of everything has to come with some advantages, but there is another intriguing possibility.

Giraffes have always been famously silent. They do snort and cough and hiss, but those are sounds that don’t require vocal chords. It was assumed that something about that long neck made having a voice impossible. Then, a few decades ago, it was discovered that elephants were communicating with infrasound; sounds too low for human ears to hear, and people began to explore whether giraffes did the same.

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Maybe they were too polite to speak with their mouths full.

It seems that they do. But while checking this all out scientists discovered that giraffes had been making audible sounds all along. Giraffes hum at each other at night. We just never noticed. Which, when you think of how many zoos, circuses and travelling shows have giraffes in them, is pretty lax of us. And no, we don’t know why they do it. It’s probably some sort of contact call, to keep track of each other in the dark. Maybe they’re just content.

I mentioned knobthorns earlier. Knobthorns are a kind of acacia, and giraffes love acacias. There are lots of different types of acacia, and all have thorns, from short, viciously hooked ones to long, straight, needle-sharp ones. Giraffes have specially toughened lips, mouths and tongues to cope with them. And what tongues they have! They’re about 45cm long, and prehensile enough to feel their way between the thorns and pull off the leaves. They’re even black to protect against sunburn.

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They have other uses, too.

 While we’re talking about eating, I mentioned that the knobthorns were shaped by female giraffes. That’s because the sexes feed differently, with the males feeding higher up than the females. This isn’t just because the males are taller; females will bend down slightly to eat, and males will stretch upward. This is all very sensible, especially when times are tough.

Being so famous for being tall has had a curious effect on how we approach giraffes. For some reason, it has made us think of them as stretched-out versions of Bambi, harmless and cute and ready at the drop of a hat to burst into a duet with their forest friends the bluebird and the bunny. And so you find giraffes in places unexpected places, like small reserves where people hike and ride bikes, or holiday resorts where they wander around among the bungalows where children play and grownups lounge around the pool. People set up raised platforms so you can pay R10 to feed them out of a cup.

It’s bizarre. Because giraffes are freaking massive. Not just tall; huge. They’re about the same size as black rhinos. And you wouldn’t scatter any of those around your local mountain biking trail. BECAUSE THEY’RE TOO BIG. Not giraffes, though.  They’re fine. Stretchy Bambis with long-lashed, dreamy eyes.

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Communing with nature, South African style.

All of this has a curious outcome. Giraffes keep killing people, and we keep ignoring it. They crack the news, but not the front page, and we all just carry on like taking a weekend stroll with 5.5m tall, 1200 kg lion killer is a normal thing to do.

Yes. Giraffes are bad-asses. They can kill lions. They chop at them with their gigantic, sharp-edged hoofs. Full grown giraffes, like the other giant animals like hippos, rhinos and elephants, are pretty much invulnerable to predators. I say pretty much because there are circumstances in which lions can take down adults. Lions charge at giraffes, hoping that they will stumble and lose their footing as they flee. And giraffes are vulnerable when they bend down to drink. And if a lion ever caught one lying down, I imagine it would be in with a chance. Fun fact; giraffes sleep lying down. And humming.

In keeping with their “how dare you call me stretchy-Bambi” vibe, giraffes regularly eat bones that they find lying around. For a bad-ass reason. Not only do they need the calcium to strengthen those load bearing bone, the males need it because their heads never stop growing. If you see the skull of a young male, it looks kinda like you would expect; eye sockets, nasal cavity, two bony “horns” at the top. The skulls of old males look very different. They seem to be growing a third horn on their foreheads, the skull is much thicker, and is cover in bumps and growths of bone. The whole thing looks like the head of an ogre’s club from a children’s book about giants.

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Depending on what your children are into…

This is because they use their skulls like ogres clubs from children’s books about giants. Giraffes fight by trying to beat each other into submission with their heads. This is usually done purely to establish dominance, but they can seriously injure each other by breaking each other’s legs or necks. The whole process actually looks fairly sedate. They stand next to each other and take turns swinging their heads and necks at each other, with long pauses in between. It’s not sedate. Imagine two men fighting with sledgehammers. They won’t be moving blindingly fast or anything, but if anyone lands a blow properly, the consequences will be dire.

Running giraffes look sedate, too. They’re the only animals I know that look like they are moving in slow motion. Again, sedate is the wrong word to use. They’re actually rattling along at 60km/h, which is not bad for an animal weighing in at over a ton.

So that’s that for giraffes then. Now that you know them a little better, you can pop down to the nearest reserve to spend some time with them. Remember to take your bike.

The water horse

Hi. Apologies. I just stepped out for a while. I’m popping back in to finish up some stuff.

And so. On to a solitary nocturnal land animal that cannot swim; the hippo.

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As seen here.

Back in the day, when things were simpler, we decided that the hippo’s closest relatives were the pigs. Which sort of made sense if you looked at them. But nature doesn’t need to make sense, so once we got down to the level of DNA, we found that the hippo’s closest relatives were in fact whales and dolphins, and if you think that makes sense, the only thing you are thinking about is water. Picture a hippo, a blue whale, and a large white (the pig, not Hafthor Bjornsson), and you’ll see how bizarre this really is.

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One of these things is not like the others..

It just goes to show quite how unlikely this whole evolution thing is. A billion years ago, life crawled up out of the water, took a look around, and decided to stay. 50 million years ago, after all the effort involved in evolving legs and lungs and hair and so on, a bunch of mammals took another look around and decided “Bugger this! We’re going back.”

They started off their slow steady return by hanging out in lakes, rivers and lagoons, and some of them, it seems, are still there. In the Lowveld. Where the word “river” is most often prefaced by the word “non-perennial”, and the fish are evolving lungs and learning to walk on land. Nature is fun.

Right. Let’s crack on with the solitary nocturnal land animal stuff.

Hippos eat grass. Grass does not grow under water, and is actually fairly hard to find in hippo quantities anywhere close to water, since that is where all the grass-eating animals tend to gather to drink. This means that every evening, at around sunset, hippos emerge from the rivers and pools where we are used to seeing them and wander off, alone or with their calves, to find some grass to eat. When times are tough this can involve a nightly round trip of over 30 km.

The hippos we are used to seeing are “resting”. I put resting in inverted commas because hippos, as a species, have made some questionable life choices. Water is a scarce commodity in the bush. Hippos are crushed in uncomfortably high numbers at uncomfortably close quarters by their need for it.

To top things off, they then live through an annual climate cycle which sees their living quarters shrink as the dry season grinds on, at just the same time of year that the grass they need is getting harder to come by. They live rather stressful lives. Their response? Violence. Don’t let the smiles fool you. Hippos are nasty pieces of work.

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Hippo’s resting.

I have been lucky enough to go on a few walking trails out in the bush, and the behaviour of the rangers and game guides can be somewhat surprising, especially in dangerous situations. Or rather situations I thought were dangerous.

I’ve had them walk me so close to rhinos I felt like I could spit on them. I’ve stumbled across a herd of elephants in thick riverine bush and watched them put down their guns to pick up sticks to throw at them (and yes, we were close enough to throw sticks at them). We’ve spotted a lion on a kill about 50 metres away and walked towards it, not away from it.

They seem fearless, and sometimes even foolhardy, but they’re not. They just know where the limits are. And the limits for hippos are apparently very far away indeed.

I have been on walking trails twice when we have stumbled across hippos away from the water. Both times, we have turned around and walked away. Fast. No pause for a couple of quick photos or a brief chat about their place in the ecosystem. Just a good old fashioned hasty retreat.

Hippos, you see, are very dangerous indeed. Lions kill about 250 people a year. Hippos kill over 500. They’re our most dangerous big animal. And they are very big indeed, fourth only to elephants and white rhinos.

They will attack boats that approach too close, but they are at their most dangerous when they’re out of the water. And their jaws are big enough to bite us in half. Which they do. Regularly.

But violence isn’t just their response to us. It’s their response to each other, too. Hippos are some of the few animals that regularly fight to the death. Most animals will content themselves with a flashy display or a bit of sparring to see who is strongest. Hippos will often straight up kill each other.

But it’s not a free-for-all. There is a system in place. One that is held together by hippos yawning and pooing at each other. Dominant bulls hold a territory, which they advertise by yawning to show the size of their jaws and spraying dung around by rapidly beating their tails.

They reaffirm their borders with neighbouring bulls by walking up to each other, locking eyes, and then turning around and spraying dung and urine at each other. For those of you concerned with hygiene, try not to remember that they are doing this in the water. Where they live.

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I wonder where they’re getting their fresh drinking water.

Territorial bulls will tolerate subordinate bulls and females in their territories, so long as they signal their status by spraying urine at them submissively. The real action happens when another bull challenges for access to the females. Then it’s on. They fight jaw to jaw, but the real danger comes in when the loser tries to break away. The skin on the neck and shoulders is incredibly thick. The skin on the sides not so much. And hippos didn’t evolve those teeth for eating grass.

That’s not it with the violence. Hippos will kill calves, particularly in the dry season when their pools and rivers start to shrink. In response, females will mob males who try to enter nursery herds.

So. “Resting”.

Hippos don’t reserve all their violence for each other and us. They have been known to kill and try to eat other animals. Interestingly, they have also been observed trying to rescue and care for injured animals.

What all this means is that hippos are seldom boring. If you find a pod of them while visiting the bush, turn off your car and watch them for a while. There always seems to be something going on. And listen, too. The bellowing of a pod of hippos is every bit as iconic a sound of the wild as a lion’s roar or a hyena’s whoop.

That’s just about it for hippos. Just a few little facts left.

Hippos aren’t scared of crocodiles. They can bite them in half.

For animals that have chosen to make their homes on the world’s hottest continent, hippos have ridiculously silly skin. It is prone to sunburn, and is also stupidly porous, leaving the hippo prone to dehydration.

To put up at least a token defence, hippos secrete a red substance that acts as a sunscreen and also has anti-bacterial qualities, which is no doubt handy when your two main hobbies are biting each other and pooing at each other in the water you live in.

Hippos can’t jump. At all. This may seem trite until you remember that this is Africa’s most dangerous big animal, and can probably run faster than you (they can steam along at 30 km/h). Don’t try and beat one on the flat. Just step over something knee high.

Oh. I nearly forgot. They really can’t swim. Despite appearances, hippos are heavily muscled and have very dense bones. They sink like stones, and move through the water by walking or running along the bottom like astronauts on the moon. You won’t find hippos out in deep water on a lake. Don’t dive in, though. Crocodiles can swim.

Learning to read

Lyle Krahn is an awesome wildlife photographer. He is not, however, a very sensible man. How do I know this? Well, the other day he set off into the frozen Canadian wilderness, on his own, on foot, to follow the trails of some animals because I told him it would be easy.

Lyle Krahn following some bad advice

Lyle Krahn off to follow some bad advice

Continue reading

Here be dragons

I have spent the last few weeks helping my wife package products for her new business. She’s not thinking small. When we fold boxes, we fold several hundred boxes. Pinch, fold, tuck. Pinch, fold, tuck. Pinch, fold, tuck. When we stick labels on room fresheners, we stick several hundred labels on room fresheners. Peel, stick, peel, stick, peel, stick. Right now we’re busy with several thousand cloth shopping bags. We’re folding them into squares and tying them up with ribbons. This is much more interesting. Fold, fold, fold, fold, tuck, wrap, tie.  Fold, fold, fold, fold, tuck, wrap, tie. Sigh. Fold, fold, fold, fold, tuck, wrap, tie.

It’s not exactly riveting, but eventually, your brain and hands click over into autopilot. I could fold boxes or tie ribbons while operating heavy machinery. It’s become like breathing. Which got me thinking about lizards. Of course. Not that the lizards round here are particularly good at folding or tying; it just reminded me that those who feel the need to talk about such things talk about the most primitive part of your brain as the lizard brain. Continue reading

Ribbit.

I can’t remember if there was ever a single moment when I realised that my family was not quite the same as other peoples’. I suspect it was rather a series of moments, and one of these had to do with a visit to the botanical garden in Pretoria.

The garden is huge, set into the side of a low hill. There are small patches of forest, beds of flowers, pockets of wetland, and large, rolling lawns. On the day of our visit, the garden was filled with people. There were young couples, wrapped up in each other and blind to the rest of the world; there were the plant-lovers, meandering slowly around the network of paths, stopping to examine the rarities in the garden’s collection; there were the birdwatchers, weighed down by cameras and binoculars, peering up into the trees.

But mostly there were families. Some had come to enjoy a picnic, others just a day in the sun. Everyone seemed to have brought something along: cooler-boxes full of snacks and drinks, bats and balls, Frisbees, even a kite or two. Not us. We brought along an umbrella and a handful of clear plastic packets. Obviously. Continue reading

My first Photoblog! A walk in the park.

Since starting this whole blogging thing a couple of months ago, a whole new world has opened up to me. I’m not a technophobe, but the whole idea of social networking is horrifying to me. The only reason I ever signed up for Facebook was that you had to in order to get onto WordPress, and my wife was having too much fun with her blog for me not to give it a try. It’s fun. But I’ve been missing out.

I used to think a blog was just a place where you could ramble on and pretend that someone was listening. It turns out that you can also put pictures up and pretend that someone is looking. Photo blogs! I have to give this a whirl. Continue reading

Serpents in the Garden of Eden

I am going to have to start this post off with an apology. If you followed this blog in the hope of watching the slow but inevitable collapse of civilization at the hands of my family, you will have to wait until the next post. I’m trying to write a book. As part of my research, I am plagiarising an entire ecosystem (yes, I’m afraid it’s sci-fi. It’s going to be about a planet of mutes, because I can’t write dialogue). The ecosystem I am stealing is that of the Lowveld. For those of you who are not from South Africa, that’s where we keep all the proper animals.

Anyone from South Africa who has spent any time outdoors while growing up will have some experience of snakes. For those of you not from here, whose idea of Africa comes from wildlife documentaries with names like “Africa’s Twelve Most Murderous Death-Beasts”, it’s not like that at all. Put anything you have learned about Africa from the Discovery Channel out of your mind (after calling the producers and telling them to stop being such dicks.) Continue reading

It’s the small things that count (part 4)

My quick post on the small, many legged creatures of the South African bush has turned into a four part monster, and I’m only scratching the surface! I had hoped to get the little things out of the way quickly, so I could move on to cooler things with much bigger teeth, but in doing so discovered that I am actually rather fond of the creepy crawlies. The thing with cool, big toothed creatures is that you have to go out and find them. To get to the little stuff, all you have to do is step outside. Sometimes, they come inside to find you! Continue reading