Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Snarl and Night Drive at Laohu

Over the years, I have seen more small wildlife in Laohu and its surroundings than any other national parks or private game reserves: aardwolves, porcupines (one often eats the tree bark at night outside my bedroom door), bat-eared foxes, meerkats, hares of all kinds, and even the very rare anteaters - once in slow motion zigzagging ahead of my vehicle.
My reserve staff have of course sighted other precious wildlife such as black-footed cats, african wild cats and caracals, which I have not had the pleasure of seeing in the wild and have been meaning to make an effort to see them. During this visit, I asked our Reserve Manager, Hein, to take me on a night drive to see if I would have the good luck of finding a black-footed cat, which fascinates me particularly as my cat Sisi probably has some Black-footed cat blood.
Hein has had a lot of experience in wildlife before he joined us. We set out after dinner at 8.30pm. All game were active now at night that the temperature had become very pleasant and they seemed to be less agitated than during the day. We could get very close to game probably because they don't see well in the dark. We saw elands, mountain reedbuck, kudos, etc, etc and herds of black wildebeests - some of them with twin calves. When we passed the tiger camps, Hein showed me the difference in reaction to lights between cat eyes and other eyes. When light is shone on cat eyes, their irises close. In the distance, we saw three pairs of lights in straight line dimming and brightening again, as our spot light shone on and off them - these were eyes of Hulooo and brothers.
In order to increase the chance of sighting the very shy black-footed cat, Hein has to call them. He does this by imitating the squeaking sound of mouse using his own lips, or blowing distress calls of rabbits on a predator whistle. In the first round of calls, he got the attention of an aardwolf. Hein also blew jackal howls on the whistle to which real jackals would respond by howling back, but not tonight, as its breeding season and they are nurturing the young in their dens.
After the second round of whistle blowing at another spot, about 9 bat-eared foxes came from different directions to investigate. They were curious little animals with big ears. They ran off as soon as they realized there were no distressed rabbits.
Still no black-footed cats on my sighted list, I had to contend visiting "Snarl". She is a 8/9 month old orphaned caracal whose mother was poisoned by local farmers and who was saved by a friend of Hein. We offered to take her so she could leave the small cage behind and live in a big enclosure. Four months ago, when I first saw her, she was hissing and spitting. It is very hard to tame a wild cat after she has opened her eyes around 10 days of age and the first object she sees is her mother. The power of caracal is legendary - its the fastest land animal by body weight and size, and they can take down a springbok several times their body size piecemeal. I had seen a tame one jumping in one leap to the top of a room door.
Now that Snarl has moved into her large enclosure, she hid herself under the little rock cave, snarling at us but looked a lot calmer compared to being in that small cage. What happened next surprised us all. Hein was watering the grass in her enclosure with a water tube, while suddenly Snarl dashed out under the shower to cool herself down! She dashed back to her hideout afterwards, licking herself dry with contentment.
Our plan is to rehabilitate Snarl and release her back into nature at her natural dispersal age about 20 months old. Thankfully, like most small wild cats, their hunter instinct seem to be stronger and it would be much easier task to send her back to the wild successfully than the tigers!

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