Saturday, 26 June 2010
Challenges at Laohu Valley
I certainly did not expect that airplane seats to South Africa were still available , a couple of days before the opening of the World Cup. The domestic terminal of the Johannesburg airport even appeared to be quieter than normal and further the flight from Joburg to Bloemfontein was one of the most empty I had been on. Still, there was quite a bit of festive mood as South Africa was gripped with soccer mania and sent all the school kids on holiday for a month so everyone could devote their time and energy to the participation of the games in whatever format they chose.
While the whole of SA was submerged in soccer mania, life at Laohu Valley Reserve goes on.
The 100 Ha camp presented a much bigger challenge to the young tigers than the 40. A large part of it is very flat and the blesbok learned very fast that if they all bundled together they could watch out for one another much better in their defense against the stripy predators. And bundled together they did! The two groups of tigers, King Henry et sister, Hulooo et bros, had limited success, and all at the beginning of their entry into this camp when the blesbok did not yet know how lethal these large cats could be. After suffering a few casualties, the 40 or so blesbok all moved in synch, running back and forth across the open plains (avoiding the gullies) like a well rehearsed military march, all the time vigilant.
We knew that for a tiger which replies on stalking and ambushing, this open plain and fast running preys would make it very hard for successful hunt, so we cheer for each of their victories. However, upon returning to Laohu this trip, I also realized we have to boost the tiger's morale a bit, and let them gain more confidence. So we introduced some more preys into the big camp. Again, successful hunts by Hulooo brothers in first few days but the new blesbok quickly joined forces with their fellow veterans.
We must search for new solutions and plans were made to purchase more suitable game that resembles those found in the tigers' traditional habitat. While we waited for the new prey to arrive, I was scratching my head for some immediate solutions. The main problem when the blesbok bundled together is that they watch out for one another, with 50 pair of eyes. If danger is spotted, all of them will run together like a single race horse, which make it very difficult for the tigers to compete, as the tigers rely on stalking and ambushing while the blesbok got the speed and stamina. If however there are any ways we can make them scatter a bit, it will increase the chance of a successful hunt for the tigers.
Given that the blesbok is pretty easily agitated, we drove into the big camp with two vehicles. The blesbok indeed started speeding across the plains. The tigers were oblivious of the fact, but eventually they seemed to have spotted a group of about a dozen blesbok that splitted off from the main group and went up the hill. Two of the tigers were seen quickly following.
Suddenly we heard distress calls-a third tiger had caught an antelope! While the kill was in process, we saw from a far distance two blesbok standing not far from one of the two tigers on the other side of the bush. What a good opportunity for another ambush. Sadly, this tiger, whose view was blocked by the bush, did not see these two easy prey and chose to rush to the kill spot made by the third tiger. We only identified the successful hunter as JenB when I drove up there and the tiger who missed a great opportunity as Hulooo.
I managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Gus Van Dyk at Tswalu. Gus designed our rewilding strategy and has been Reserve Manager at the private game reserve of the Openheimers- renowned for their Diamond business. it was unbelievably cold that I managed to get my toes frost-bitten in such a short couple of days, which never before happened. Gus said this was the coldest June he ever experienced in the Kalahari Desert since he moved here 7 years ago.
I didn't expect Kalahari Desert to be actually so full of wildlife. I was however rewarded by seeing one of the rarest animals in the world-the aardvark-in afternoon day light. Other game abound-Tsesebi, Gemsbok, Red Haarst Beest etc. Its a pity I didn't get to see the desert rhino or mountain zebra. However, Gus was in the process of translocating some lions so I got to see this process. The highlight of this trip is playing with a little 3-months old Honey Badger, whose mother was killed on the road and who was brought to Tswalu. The staff was in the process of rehabilating him by training him to live like a wild one, hoping to return him to the wild in the future.
Meanwhile, I hit on the right timing by getting 327 back into Madonna's camp on June 22, as the two got down to their amourous business that same afternoon. The next day, they followed up on their actions and I was able to witness mating of this pair for the first time. Either Madonna's temper has calmed down a bit or she showed more respect for 327-she didn't bother to chase him down in order to slap him after successful intercourse, as she had done with TigerWoods. She just rolled belly up after their affairs. The mating continued for two more days.
King Henry and Princess were having a field day in the 42 ha camp, quickly reducing the number of newly reintroduced prey in a matter of a few short days. It was full moon on June 25th -time for night monitoring. We went inside 40 ha camp at 7.30pm and found the two siblings in North Eastern part of the camp. King Henry was cheerful at play with something, bouncing happily up and down. It turned out to be a young blesbok as we drove closer. They had made a kill already! It was however puzzling as we counted still 6 blesbok left, as was also this morning. Where did this 7th buck come from?? After much angonizing between Vivienne, Sam the volunteer and myself, the only logical explanation was this victim might have got slight injured during the hunt two nights ago and had been hiding somewhere and was rediscovered by the tigers tonight. While KH seemed deeply absorbed in his anntics, Princess quietly left to pursue more hunts.
I left Laohu Valley, missing the tigers and my little companion Sissy cat already.