African Ecology and Conservation– Fall 2023
We have had incredible luck in our Kruger National Park (KNP) sightings. From cuddling lions to wandering secretary birds, so much has been seen only halfway through the course! Here are my top 5 sightings in Kruger so far.
- Three Cheetahs by the Riverside
If I could describe this sighting in one word, it would be “magical”! After a long day of fieldwork, my team and I were driving back to camp when we stopped to look at an African fish eagle alongside the road. We reversed a bit, and to our shock, one of our classmates pointed out a cheetah sitting underneath a tree not too far from the road. It stood up and with it, two others
followed. With their slow gate and panting faces due to the heat, they wallowed through the terrain to the nearby river up ahead. In our utter excitement, we slowly followed them. It was like from a movie, seeing the lean cats reaching the waterside. A bird swooped in low in front of them before disappearing into the trees. Our eyes sparkled from the reflection of the water as the cats tiptoed through the mud and water. A vulture, peacefully at guard by the edge, was scared away by a half-hearted chase from one of the cheetahs, prompting it to fly to the other side of the riverbed. This was quite possibly life-changing.
- First day at Kruger
Luck does not even begin to explain the number of sightings we had on our first day driving through KNP. Our first animal was an elephant right by the road munching on tree branches. Immediately we were excited in our seats and couldn’t sit still. Then, several ground hornbills were seen crossing the road. Also called Thunderbirds, these birds are endangered, which was almost hard to believe due to how frequently we saw them that day.
Next stop: a pair of lions lying together under the tree shade. Keep up because not too long after we saw not one, not two, but four rhinos cuddling together. In this same view, there was a herd of giraffes and zebras on the other side of the road. If you thought this was crazy enough, we also saw a leopard lying in the grass protecting its kill up in a tree. Honorable mentions were kudu, wildebeest, and of course, impala. Worried that we only saw four of the Big 5? Not to worry, we saw buffalo the very next day.
- Awkward Teenage Lions at Shingwedzi
While the cheetahs were probably the most emotional, this sighting was the most suspenseful one we’ve had. We were on our way to watch the sundown on one of the high bridges but stopped when we saw four teenage lions, manes not fully developed, start to wander around sort of aimlessly at the riverbed. A herd of elephants at the center of the riverbed started to cluster their younglings closer inwards of the group, the adults standing guard at the outside of the circle.
At the prospect of seeing a hunt, we chose to ditch the sundown and follow the lions. Eventually, the lions started to creep up on a couple of old buffalo grazing by the road. As we watched the lions stealthily inch closer and closer to the buffalo, the other students and I were frozen in our seats, tense and even emotional at our level of enthusiasm. The buffalo caught wind of them, ruining the kill. Defeated, the lions wandered around the riverbed to drink up, maybe to reenergize themselves after a failed hunt. An elephant from the herd stayed back as the rest of the elephants retreated from the riverside to safety. As still as a statue, the elephant slowly lifted its foot, before mock-charging the lions away from the water and up the riverside.
Further down the road, nine more lions walked their way into the riverside. They lay by some rocks, and a couple were creeping up on a zebra that wandered a little bit away from the rest of the dazzle (a group of zebras). One of the lions was super close; however, by the idiotic move of one cat, one of the lions further away decided to take matters into its own hands and chase the zebra. This scared the zebra and the rest of the dazzle up the side of the river. This was failed attempt number two. Evidently, this group of teenage lions had a lot to learn. The next morning, we saw a lion munching on an elderly buffalo in the middle of the riverbed.
- Baby and Mother Reunion: Elephant-style
A herd of Mothers, Aunts, and babies were crossing the road before suddenly one baby stopped and realized its mother was not around. Just like getting lost in a grocery store as a kid, you can hear the panic in its tone as it gave a loud trumpet, calling out to its mom. It quickly turned around and ran back to the river the way it came, kicking up dirt in its hurry. In the distance, we could see the mother calmly walking to reunite with her child. The sight was cute enough to bring a couple of us to tears.
- Last-minute wild dog sighting!
Wild dogs are cute little guys with their big round ears and fluffy fur. All month we have been manifesting wild dogs but to no avail. It was only in the last hour of our ten-hour drive back to Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative (SSLI) from Hamakuya that we saw them. At first, we were so quick on the road that we drove right past them. One of the students called out to our instructor
who was driving, Zing, and we frantically alerted him to turn back around.
Lo and behold, there was a pack of them sparsely scattered around the side of the road snoozing. A few twitching and shifting here and there were visible as some of the wild dogs were getting more comfortable. It was a beautiful sighting not only after finally being able to check them off our list but also after a long travel day with few sightings the whole ride.