Along with the photo competition that guests from both Garonga Safari Camp and Little Garonga can submit their safari moments to, we have also started an annual Wildlife Photo Competition for our guide and tracker teams. The teams: Jaffet and Richard; Josia and Phineas; Samantha and Stewart; Derrick and Kaizer; and Sophie and Bongi, get to explore the bush daily on a game drive or on foot, regularly experiencing fantastic sightings, which make for great photographic opportunities.
While a little healthy competition never harmed anyone, this is just a fun platform for our guides to showcase their wildlife photography skills in the field. Wildlife photographer, Paul Changuion, judged the submissions sent in by our guides last year. Without further ado, here are the winners of last year’s Wildlife Photo Competition.
1st Place – Born to Ride
During an afternoon game drive in late October, Bongi called out “What’s that?”, which was met by a chuckle from Sophie. She pulled out her binoculars and starting scanning the area where he was looking because she knew that if Bongi couldn’t identify whatever it was without binoculars, then she certainly wasn’t going to be able to. On the tracker seat ahead, Bongi began to squint and muttered ‘pangolin’. At that point, Sophie was doing a passable impression of a spinning top – binos firmly glued to her face, calling out “Where are we looking?!”. And then she finally saw it, or more accurately them. Their very first pangolin sighting was also their second pangolin sighting as there was a female carrying her youngster on her back. Many guides never get the chance to see a pangolin – let alone two- during their entire career so they most certainly count themselves lucky! To read the full story, visit the first blog of our Safari Camp Stories series titled A Double Pangolin Sighting.
2nd Place – Cat Got Your Tongue
It was an afternoon in mid-November that was ripe with possibilities, Sophie had a vehicle filled with new guests and Kaizer and Sophie were keen to finish tracking down the Garonga pride. Kaizer was taking the sleep-out guests and headed straight to where they had left the tracks in the morning. Sophie got waylaid by a gang of boisterous elephant bulls and saw King Raf (the oldest elephant bull in the reserve) get outsmarted by a sassy young bull. Whilst they were with the elephants, Kaizer called over the radio to say that he had found the lion pride and that the cubs were with them. At this point the pride had four cubs, two who were about 6 and half months old and two who were coming up to 2 months old. When Sophie pulled into the sighting she blinked, rubbed her eyes and gasped – there were not four but SIX cubs!
The oldest female in the pride had given birth since anyone had last seen her and the tiny bundles she was suckling looked to be about two days old! It was late evening and they sat in silent awe watching as this experienced female nursed and then washed her cubs. Once she was finished she glanced up at them, stood, stretched and, with incredible gentleness, picked up one of the cubs in her mouth. She levelled an assessing stare at Sophie and started walking towards her, and for one bonkers moment, she thought the lioness was bringing her cub to Sophie for a lion king style introduction to the reserve, at the last moment the lioness changed direction and stalked silently into the setting sun.
3rd Place – Nightjar Ninja
The Garonga pride had some recent additions to the pride, which were now old enough for the pride to move the den site. That afternoon Derrick and Kaizer were determined to find where the pride had moved to. They set out and were successful in finding them but the lions weren’t all that they found… As Derrick was positioning the vehicle to glimpse the lion cubs nestled inside the den he spotted two eggs on the ground. Curious, he pulled closer to work out what bird they belonged to and as he examined the area Derrick realised the answer was right in front of him, blending perfectly with the leaf litter and not so much as batting an eyelid at the gigantic tyre that was passing next to her nest was a fiery necked nightjar. It was impossible not to record such flawless camouflage.
4th Place – Midnight Snack Attack
Leopards are the most elusive cat, feeling more at home when the shadows have lengthened. During the daylight hours they are shy and skittish, they often take comfort in the darkness becoming bolder and tolerating an observer’s presence. Sophie and Bongi had found this particular leopard on the morning drive when they were tracking a coalition of male cheetahs that had moved into the Garonga section of the reserve. As soon as they spotted the leopard, it raced down the trunk of the marula tree and disappeared leaving a warthog carcass stashed in the tree’s canopy.
Sophie and Bongi locked eyes and gave each other an excited nod – they knew precisely where they would be driving once the sun had set. After darkness fell they made their way back to the marula tree and found, to their delight, that the young leopard had returned and was happily feeding on the warthog remains. With only the light of the stars (and a safari spotlight) to see them by, the leopard’s attitude had completely changed. Sophie, Bongi and their guests were presented with a poser of epic proportions and sat transfixed, snapping away, as the leopard locked them in place with its intense stare.
by Derrick Nyathi and Kaizer Mathebula, guide and tracker at Garonga
It was one of those mornings where the bush was alive and bristling with activity. We could barely move without seeing animals.
After a few days of careful tracking, we had found a young female cheetah. We enjoyed a lovely relaxed sighting where she was lying down, looking to all the world like she was fast asleep when, suddenly, her head popped up. With her incredible sense of hearing she had heard something moving through the bush.
Gone was her lazy demeanour as she was up and stalking through the bush in one single movement. To us it was a mystery what she had heard; a cheetah’s hearing is far more acute than a human’s and we could neither see nor hear what she was following. Whatever it was though was clearly something delicious!
Whilst we were following her, she put on a burst of speed and disappeared! And so the search for her began again. We picked up her tracks and then in the background we heard the impalas’ alarm calling so we had our direction and raced off! Unfortunately, as a young cheetah, she was still learning to perfect her hunting technique. She had detected a bachelor herd of impalas, stalked them excellently but had gotten ahead of herself and become exposed.
Like their big cat predators, impalas also have fantastic senses. As an animal that is on everyone’s menu, they have to be constantly on alert and luckily for the males that morning, they had spotted the hungry female cheetah as she approached them. After spotting her they sounded their alarm call, which let both the cheetah and us know that the impalas had seen her and the jig was up!
At this point, the cheetah had no choice but to move off as the noise was likely to draw the attention of other predators. That could be very dangerous for the cheetah because any of those predators entering the scene would see her as competition for food and attack her.
Looking sad that she hadn’t managed to catch herself a tasty breakfast, she skulked off into the bushes to try her luck somewhere else.
One morning in mid-January, on a game drive with guests, we spotted some tracks of the two dominant male lions of the Garonga pride but didn’t follow up as they were walking in a very thick area that we decided was too dangerous for us to venture into.
In the afternoon, we set off with the idea that we would drive around the area where we had seen the male lion tracks. As we left the lodge it started raining so I turned around to the guests to tell them that with the rain the chances of us trying to track the two male lions would be extremely difficult as the rain ages and washes the tracks away.
We went to the area where we last saw the tracks of the male lions but couldn’t see if they had crossed any road; at this point, the tracks no longer looked like tracks but just a bunch of raindrops. An elephant bull had been called in on the radio and we had already decided that if our gut feeling wasn’t right after checking one last road in that area, we would go to the elephant bull.
As we were driving, Stuart, and his amazing ability to spot animals from miles away, turned around with a huge grin on his face saying “Lion! Males! Two of them!” As you can imagine, the guests were so excited, and I was shocked that without tracking we had still managed to find these male lions!
As we drove a little closer Stuart smiled and said, “and the Garonga pride!”.
We sat in amazement as the six cubs played with one another, the mothers looking up from time to time making sure that the older cubs, that are about seven months now, were not being too rough with the younger cubs that are now around four and two months old.
The males got up a few times to change their position, which allowed us to take some fantastic photos.
It was a wonderful drive after all, even if we did get a little wet and saw very few impala!
In the first of our safari camp stories from Garonga, I’m going to tell you about the rarest of the rare, the world’s most trafficked animal and the veritable golden snitch of the safari-quidditch world (more Harry Potter lingo to follow). That’s right, we’re talking about the pangolin.
Now as big denouements go, I appreciate that this might have just fallen a little flat, almost like Harry Potter’s friend Neville Longbottom when his remembral turns red but still leaves him firmly in the dark as to what it is he has forgotten. Similarly, the pangolin, despite its heady status as the world’s most trafficked animal, remains a fairly unknown creature to most of us.
What is a pangolin? There are eight species of pangolin in the world, with four being found on the African continent, and they occupy their own taxonomic order, Pholidata. Also known as scaly anteaters, they are descended from carnivores and feed exclusively on a diet of ants and termites. They have no teeth, incredibly long sticky tongues, and ears that seal up to prevent those creepy crawlies getting inside!
The name pangolin derives from the animal’s Malaysian name ‘peng-goling’ which means ‘the roller’. Pangolins are covered in tough keratin scales which act very much like armour. If they encounter any danger their first reaction is to roll into a ball with their scales creating impenetrable exterior sphere which they maintain until the danger has passed.
Are there pangolins at Garonga? There is only species of pangolin in South Africa, the Temminck’s ground pangolin or Smutsia temmickii if you want to get technical about it. Garonga has a pretty good record as far as pangolins go. We are fortunate to confirm that there are a minimum of three resident pangolins on the property. So you can imagine my excitement when I started working at Garonga in June 2018 and went twice daily on games drives, being wholly convinced that I was on my way to see my first ever pangolin.
At the start of each drive my tracker and I would confidently announce that we were on our way to find ourselves a pangolin; although I have a sneaking suspicion some of the tracking team might have been humouring me! Yet slowly the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months and, sadly, we had yet to see this elusive animal. This is not necessarily surprising as pangolins are the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the guide’s rainbow. They are infamously tricky to find; there are guides who have spent 20 years working in the bush having never seen this shy and retiring creature.
So when Bongi and I were chasing around after a leopard at the beginning of last October and came across fresh pangolin tracks the excitement was palpable. Well, at least it was for Bongi and I, as the guests’ expressions seemed to suggest they were hoping that after a 10-minute hike through the bush for something a little more showy than a fairly nondescript squashed circle in the red African dust.
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Bongi is a member of our tracking team known affectionately as ‘The Man with the Magical Eyes’. So, on another afternoon drive in late October, when Bongi called out “What’s that?”, I chuckled and pulled out my binoculars; if Bongi couldn’t identify whatever it was without them, I certainly wasn’t going to be able to. I asked Bongi where we were looking and started a casual scan of the area. On the tracker seat ahead of me, Bongi began to squint and muttered ‘pangolin’. At that point, I was doing a passable impression of a spinning top – binos firmly glued to my face, calling out “Where are we looking?!”. Then my scan took me to my right where I saw it, or more accurately them. That’s right folks, our first pangolin sighting was also our second pangolin sighting. Right before our eyes was a female carrying her youngster on her back.
Chaos followed! The guests on my vehicle were French and had never heard of pangolins and in the excitement they got a mixed babble of French and English explanations about how incredible and rare it is to see a pangolin. Bongi and I were close to tears. We followed the female with her youngster in the vehicle for a short way and then got out on foot for a closer look. The adult pangolin headed towards a thick clump of grass, tipped her baby off her back and gave us the enormous privilege of sitting with her and her offspring, taking in their presence and sharing in their story. I then got to make, hands down, the coolest radio call in my career “Stations, Sophie is on lock with a mother and baby pangolin – visual 5 out 5”. The radio nearly exploded and there wasn’t a mobile vehicle on the reserve that night that didn’t come to Garonga to see these mythical beasts.
Following an inspection of the scales on the female, we noticed a damaged scale and realised, with mounting excitement, that this was the self-same individual that Sam, another guide at Garonga, had seen the previous year who had been in the perilous situation of being curled tightly in a ball clasped between the claws of one of the younger, more curious, Garonga pride male lions! These animals really are amazingly tough as not only had she emerged relatively unscathed from the encounter she found herself a mate and successfully given birth to a healthy baby. The morning after our encounter there was a suspicious number of vehicles circling that part of the reserve but of mother and baby there was no sign – they had vanished.
Seeing a mother pangolin with a baby in the wild was such an amazing privilege especially bearing in mind how much pressure is being exerted on this species. It is estimated that more than 1 million pangolins have been taken from the wild in the last decade alone. It took until the week before Christmas until we found their tracks again.
Why are they so endangered? Regrettably, pangolins are highly desired for medicinal use both in Africa and internationally. Across Africa, traditional healers use pangolin parts in their treatments, tending to focus on using scales and bones, whilst the meat is used for preparing charms for chiefs or tribal leaders. With 80% of Africa’s population relying on traditional medicine either due to not having access to modern medicine or not trusting it, there is a significant impact on the pangolin population.
Pangolins are a firm favourite in Asian traditional medicine, to such an extent that the two species of pangolin native to China and Vietnam are now listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In Vietnam, pangolins are considered a great delicacy and are smuggled alive into restaurants and then killed at the table to prove their freshness before being cooked and eaten.
Unfortunately, despite the impact on their native pangolin populations, the demand both for the traditional Chinese remedies, and for the pangolin as a delicacy continues. Much of this demand is being met by poaching and smuggling of African pangolin species. Professor Ray Jansen, an ecologist at Tswane University, says that ground pangolins are currently being poached at 10 times the rate of rhinos. Pangolins are very tricky to raise and keep in captivity as they require constant care and, according to some sources, hours of walks daily are necessary just to trigger their digestive juices. This means that to meet the demands described above, the only source of pangolins is from the wild.
Pangolin scales are made of keratin, which is the same substance that makes up our hair and fingernails and, of course, the heavily poached rhino horn. Science has been thoroughly unable to demonstrate any medicinal value in keratin, and certainly not for the myriad treatments for which pangolin parts are prescribed. Studies have, in fact, shown that over-consumption of pangolin scales can lead to liver problems. It is unclear whether the same is true for over-consumption of human fingernails – I suspect it’s been difficult to find willing participants for the latter study!
What can we do to help? First, we must spread the word. People can’t save an animal they’ve never heard of so education is key to the future of the pangolin. The sooner we can win communities over to modern medicine alternatives the sooner we will have a chance at stopping pangolin poaching. Secondly, there are organisations that are already doing great work to help pangolins and, as is often the case with conservation, funding can be scarce and they must turn to the public for support.
Rhino Revolution is a great local charity that opened a pangolin rehabilitation centre in August last year, which was in addition to the existing rhino rescue rehabilitation centre. Since opening the charity, they have received a stunning nine pangolins that were confiscated from poachers, three of whom have already been successfully released into the wild. Three of the pangolins were very sick when they reached the team and continue to need round-the-clock care. The work done by Rhino Revolution is vital if we are to see the survival of these incredible animals.
If you wish to support their work, then please click here to donate from South Africa or anywhere globally – aside from the UK or the Middle East – and here to donate from the UK or the Middle East.
They say old habits die hard and I still find myself leaving the lodge on game drives convinced that this is the drive where we spy a pangolin again. I’m crossing fingers that I’ll have another tale to add to our safari camp stories series.
The Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve (GMPGR), together with the Pidwa Wilderness Reserve forms the Greater Makalali Nature Reserve (GMNR), is a 22,000-ha game reserve situated outside Gravelotte in the Limpopo Province. The reserve has seven owners who have retained ownership of their individual properties but have removed fences to create a conservancy allowing game to traverse the entire extent of the reserve.
The reserve is home to the Big 5, with previously eradicated species including lion, elephant, rhino, hippo, buffalo, cheetah and hyena being reintroduced. Leopard, brown hyena and the smaller mammal species as well as the endangered ground hornbill and the many threatened and endangered vulture and raptor species are present on the reserve.
Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve Team
To run such a large reserve, we need a very special and motivated team. From mending fences to ensuring legal and environmental compliance and liaising with the Anti-Poaching Teams, the team has their work cut out for them – nothing is too small!
Protected Area Based Environmental Monitors
The EM programme was started by the South Africa’s National Department of Environmental Affairs in response to the challenges of high levels of unemployment adjacent to conservation areas, coupled with increases in the illegal wildlife trade. The programme aims to grow conservation capacity within South African National Parks’ (SANParks) protected areas including provincial and private reserves.
Four Environmental Monitors are deployed on the GMPGR through an integrated plan to assist with conservation support, including various projects and activities to maintain sustainability within the GMPGR.
Back to the Wild Programme
The Back to the Wild (B2W) Programme seeks the promotion and conservation of wildlife, fauna and flora, and the natural environment, including the ecosystem in and on the reserve land, as well as establishing a formal release facility for compromised and rehabilitated indigenous wildlife on the reserve land.
Over the years, the GMPGR has facilitated the release of several species from various centres on a small-scale. The capacity for release within GMNR has been greatly increased through the construction of six suitable re-wilding enclosures within a release facility, with the funding assistance of the Humane Society International. A slow-release process is carefully managed to ensure previously compromised and rehabilitated animals are successfully released back to the wild.
The B2W Programme is managed by Yvette Panos, who works together with Audrey Delsink Kettles, who is the Executive Director of Humane Society International: Africa, and Nicci Wright, the Executive Director of African Pangolin Working Group and an internationally qualified wildlife rehabilitation specialist.
Lydia Raganya and Annickiy Mafogo are the Environmental Monitors stationed at the B2W facility, providing the necessary dedication and care of the wildlife to ensure the success of this programme.
Anti-Poaching Unit: K9 Conservation
The K9 Conservation Anti-Poaching Unit (APU) has provided logistical backup and support to the GMNR since 2014, through the deployment of elite, highly trained and specialized working-dog units. The APU is based on the reserve permanently, patrolling both in vehicles and on foot. The field rangers and dogs are carefully selected and paired to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.
The Belgian Malinois, originally bred for herding purposes, have the perfect temperament, intelligence, dedication, agility and diligence to be anti-poaching K9 soldiers on the frontlines of anti-poaching efforts.
K9 Conservation’s primary function is to aid and assist the GMNR to counteract illegal hunting and wildlife trade by poachers and poaching syndicates. The exceptionally dedicated APU on the GMNR is led by Peter Wearne, who has been based at the GMPGR since October 2014.
For further information on GMPGR and GMNR or to support Back to the Wild, please contact us.