A previous article took us hiking in the Drakensberg Mountains where we solely met friendly dragons; we are now heading towards game parks where we can enjoy a whole array of animals.
Indeed, South Africa is a fantastic place for wild life enthusiasts and although quite a few visitors mostly know about the ‘big five’ (elephants, rhinos, Cape buffalo, lions and leopards) there are many more, mammals and birds mostly but insects, reptilians and fishes are also to be spotted in various areas.
BLACK RHINO VS WHITE RHINO
We start with the Imfolozi/Hluhluwe game reserve (we are here in the Zululand province, South-East of Johannesburg) only an hour drive from the coastal resort of Santa-Lucia. This is the oldest reserve of South Africa, officially opened in year 1895 and roughly 960 square kilometers large. The intense conservation efforts made here have resulted in the largest population of white rhinos in the world although those large grazing beasts are highly targeted by poachers. Rhinoceros are the second largest terrestrial mammals after the elephants; they are quite massive with a rather prehistoric look and carry those very distinctive double horns. There are five different species, three in Asia and two in Africa, all of them feed on plant materials and always live close to water (rivers, swamps or ponds) as they depend on it for cooling off and digesting. Life span is around forty years, gestation takes fifteen to sixteen months and births occur every two to five years. As quoted previously poaching for the horn (used in Yemen as dagger hands and in Asia for various superstitious reasons) has driven the population of black rhinos from 600 000 in the year 1900 to a mere 5000 today!
The white one is estimated to number 20 000 today, however the population was only 100 at the beginning of the 20th century. Some game parks (not only in Africa but also in Europe) even have to go as far as anesthetize the animals and then sawing off the horns so they would not be shot. African species are divided between the white rhino and the black one but colors are not the distinctive features especially as they love getting covered with dust or mud. The black one, also known as ‘hook-lipped rhino’ or Diceros bicornis is the smaller with females weighting around 900 kilos while males can be 1300 kilos. It has a short forehead and very muscular mouth ending in a very sharply pointed upper lip; it also displays more rounded ears and a more concave back and spine than the white one. The latter is called ‘square lipped rhino’ Ceratothemium simum reaches a weight of 1700 kilos for females and up to 2300 for males, definitely heavy weight fighters! It has a longer fore-head, a flat-fronted mouth and a humpy back, it is also more common than its small black cousin. Those huge animals can be easily spotted through the Imfolozi/Hluhluwe park even at short distances and although they seem to be grazing peacefully they definitely inspire respect and make you feel like a very fragile and vulnerable little thing even if you stay safely in your car which is a compulsory rule in such reserves.
So let us leave those massive guys and have a look at some more elegant animals just a couple hundred yards further. Those antelopes are ‘nyalas’ (Nyala angasii or Tragelaphus angasii) native to the Zululand, they belong to the spiral horn tribe. Its name in Zulu translates to ‘shifty one’ due to its very elusive nature. It is a close relative to the bushbuck while somewhat larger, it carries a white chevron between the eyes, white mane, yellow socks and hanging hair for the bull which can weight 115kg and be 1m at shoulder. The female (called ‘ewe’) is orange-brown with white strips on the flanks, (the same goes for juveniles of both sexes), it weights around 60kg and is 0.90m at shoulder. This species eats through grazing and browsing, also indulging into leaves, flowers and fruits, this variety of food is an important fact for survival in places where times can be harsh. They live in groups of eight to sixteen, ewes, juveniles and one or several bulls, old males can be solitary. Ewes start having babies when they are 14 to 18 months old and gestation goes for 220 days, twins are rather common. Life span if of ten years in the wild but can reach twenty in captivity, predators of this antelope are mainly lions, leopards and wild dogs but baboons and some birds of prey can attack and kill young ones.
HORSES IN JAMMIES
Africa would not feel like Africa without the funny-looking horses in pajamas…Indeed, zebras are peculiar enough to bring one’s mind directly to savannah and rounded huts images. Actually there are three different species of zebras; the plain zebra, mountain zebra and Grévy’s zebra, split into two distinct genera (Hippotigris for the first two species which are found in South Africa and Dolichohippus for the third one which only lives in Eastern Africa). All are of course closely related to horses and donkeys but have never been used by man in the same extent. The famous stripes (which alas drove many hunters to kill the poor animals only for their skin) are just like fingerprints for humans, i.e. unique with each individual and have an obvious camouflage use. Zebras live in groups known as ‘harems’ because they usually consist of a group of mares and off-springs watched over by a dominant stallion. Social relationships are quite variable from one species to the other, and although males are mature enough at one or two years old to mate they are not able to lead a herd before being at least six years old. They all live in open and wooded grassland, feeding on dry grasses that have been ignored by other animals, hence a good means of surviving through drought times. Weight goes from 250 to 450kg depending on the species and heights would go from 1.1 to 1.5 meters, predators include lions, leopards, cheetahs and hyenas.
SKY TOWERING GIRAFFES
Another unavoidable feature of Africa is the elegant and sky-scraping giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) which really makes you feel like you are in an exotic movie. Some specialists say there would be four different species while only one is so far fully recognized and divided in 9 sub-species. This is truly a unique mammal judging by its measurements; a male can be 1200kg, 5.7 meters from hoof to horns. They live in many parts of Africa provided there are trees, would it be desert areas, woodlands or savannas. Sadly enough they have been hunted for their unique tail which in Africa is used for fly whisks and charm bracelets though nowadays they are also shot for meat and hide. As a matter of fact they are greatly threatened by habitat loss, poaching and ecological changes. They live in groups called ‘towers’ of up to 15 animals, led by a male. As for zebras, the patterns of each giraffe are unique and can be used to sort one from the other (which may take some practice to be effective of course). Many people think that those animals have an extra numbers of neck vertebras in order to toll at such height but actually they do have the exact same number as do the humans; nine but of course much longer as each one is 25 cm, almost a foot!
The favorite food is acacia trees which provide delicious leaves for those giant animals who can gulp down up to 45kg of leaves and twigs daily, be sure to gather plenty if you plan to invite them for dinner! Those acacia trees have become famous recently as researchers found out than trees getting attacked by the large herbivores would release chemical compounds of the tannins family which turn the leaves so bitter they become non-edible. And if such an efficient chemical shield was not enough, it can been detected by trees of the same species further down-wind which would at their turn produce the stuff even when the giraffes are still far away, pretty smart for a supposedly brain-free creature!
As the game park gates are to close soon we have to head back out but be sure to check next article for more exotic animals.