Crocodiles: The Hot Sex Edition

We saw a crocodile on game drive this morning! Isn’t that fun? We don’t see them often, so it’s a pretty big deal.

  
But did you know…

… That temperature determines a crocodile’s sex? Yep, the temperature that the crocodile’s eggs sit at in the nest will determine if those hatchlings are little boy crocodiles or little girl crocodiles.

It’s called ‘temperature dependent sex determination.’ Or TSD. It’s a reptile thing.

It’s been shown that boys (‘crocomales’) incubate within a really tiny temperature range; between 31.7 and 34.5 degrees C. Any colder than that, and you’ve got girls. Any hotter and you’ve also got girls.

It means that within a single nest you’ll have a cool female:male:female sex ratio.

Conclusion: girl crocodiles are hotter. But colder. But hotter.

I drew an exquisite diagram showing exactly how this process works.

 

artistic genius. i take all the credit for this.

 
Hoofnote: As is TSD wasn’t enough to make crocodiles interesting, you should also know that crocodiles are the only animal in South Africa that see humans as natural prey. When they eat us, it’s fair game.

This morning’s game drive sightings:

Crocodile

Zebra

Giraffe

White rhino

Elephant 

Nyala 

Buffalo 

Impala

Woolly necked stork

Gorgeous bush shrike

Black backed puffback

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Safari Moments: the Lemon Breasted Dung Beetle

Here’s a safari classic from a far-too-recent game drive.

Me: “Ooooh look! There’s a dung beetle crossing the road!”

*pull up alongside dung beetle, hop out and pick him up, after all, he’s not busy doing any important dung beetly stuff*

Me: “Dung beetle!”

*hold dung beetle up proudly, a la Mufasa presenting the future king – guests take photos*

Me: “Isn’t this dung beetle just brilliant?”

Guest: “What is this?”

Me: “It’s a dung beetle. They spend their lives rolling poo around.”

Guest: “And what do you call it?”

Me: “It’s a dung beetle.”

*guests keep taking photos, I keep praising the dung beetle’s resilience and usefulness*

Guest: “What animal is this?”

Me: “A DUNG BEE TUL.”

Guest: “Ah, so it’s a small bird.Like a canary?”

Me: “Yes.”

Me: *puts dung beetle down on the nearest pile of poo. Drives away.*

you wonder why we need signs like this?

Coffee with Milk, Sugar and a LION CHARGE

 

same viewpoint, very different day

 It was a Sunday morning. Last Sunday morning to be exact. And a confession… I wasn’t actually enjoying my game drive. My guests were on their last drive of their two night safari with me and the pressure was on. For the past couple of days, we’d seen scarcely more than a giraffe and half of my guests had given up hope of a ‘big-ticket sighting’ and had opted rather to stay in bed that morning. It happens.

But the guests who’d come on that final safari wanted lions. Nothing else would do. Not even the whole pack of wild dogs we’d found scattered across the road in front of us.

“Are those dingos?” asked one of my guests.

“Definitely not!” was my reply. Every guide can relate to the ‘wild dog problem.’ As guides, we get pretty darn excited when we’re lucky enough to stumble across a pack of wild dogs. They’re Africa’s rarest predator (bar the Ethiopian wolf, but those live super far away) as well as Africa’s most successful hunter. They catch nearly 80% of the animals they chase, which can’t even be compared to the lion’s paltry 30%. Wild dogs take things to the extreme; their intelligence is unsurpassed, as is their body odour. Their pack structure is unique among the big predators, with only the alpha male and female in a pack being allowed to breed. Who raises those privileged puppies? Everyone.

So what’s the ‘problem’ with wild dogs? The problem is that even after you’ve explained all of these magnificent things to your guests, they still don’t care. I’ve had very few sightings with international guests where those guests haven’t asked to leave. And Sunday was no exception.

“We want you to go,” came the request from the back, just as the dogs were beginning to psych themselves up for an early morning hunt.

“Um… are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes,” they laughed. They actually laughed. Like the joke was on me. Silly guide, stopping to watch dingos…

Very reluctantly, I pulled away. I’d been on my way to a lion sighting that had been called in just up the road from the dogs. Other guides I’d passed had reported that while there were lions there, they were really, really far away. But still, they were lions, and I needed lions.

As I pulled into the viewpoint, I did indeed see the lions, but my usual enthusiasm had waned somewhat. I kept wondering what the wild dogs were up to. What they were chasing, what the puppies were playing with, what cool noises they were all making.

As I unlatched the door and freed my guests, I casually mentioned that there were lions down in the riverbed and encouraged them to go and join the crowd that had gathered on foot at the viewpoint to watch specks of lions through their binoculars. I stayed back to make the coffee. And to grumble to myself about my seemingly ungrateful guests.

‘Grumble grumble grumble… hope they’re happy now… grumble grumble… got their lions… grumble.’

By the time I’d made and neatly lined up five coffees (OCD conquers all), the crowd had dissipated, making their way back to their cars and leaving. My guests sauntered back as well. As I handed out the coffees, Mr. Wild-Dogs-Are-Boring came up to me.

“How were the lions?” I asked.

“They were okay,” he said, “but what I really liked the most today, was those wild dogs. They were a treat for us. I can see why you like them so much.  Thanks for showing  them to us.”

I’m the sort of girl who’s won over easily. I also forgive pretty quickly. Say the right thing and I’m a friend for life. The situation turned around instantly.

‘What fabulous, sweet guests!’ I thought to myself. And I really meant it. See? Easy.

“Let’s go see those lions again,” I offered with a smile. Coffee cups in hand, we strolled back over to the viewpoint, all of us together. But the lions had gone. No doubt, gone off into the reeds, not to be seen again that day.

“Oh well, we got to see them nicely,” I said with a shrug of my shoulders. I took a few steps closer to the edge to have one last scan for the lions, when a million things suddenly happened all at once.

…guests screamed

…I turned to look at guests

…they’re running away

…a coffee cup hits the ground

…a hat flies into the air

…I see a flash of brown fur

…for some reason I think ‘babboon’

…dust showers my legs

…baboon is running straight at me

…does it want my coffee?

…there’s no way I’m giving it my new Stanley mug

…its growling at me

…CRAP

…it’s a lion

…It’s a LION

…instinctively turn away

…CRAP

…It’s a lion charge

…can’t run from a lion charge

…muscle memory kicks in

…”STOP RUNNING!” I shout at my guests

…I stand still

…instinctively go to chamber a round in my rifle

…CRAP

…I’m holding a coffee mug

…lion is less than two meters away

…growling

…dust

…fur

…guests still running

…”STAND STILL! NOW!” I scream

When I say those things happened all at once, I really mean it. The thoughts all came in a nanosecond. I suppose that’s what everyone means when they talk about how a lion charge gives you ‘tunnel-vision.’ Or maybe that’s not what it was at all.

So all of that happened instantly, but everything else that followed took FOREVER. We weren’t done yet…

…hands into air

…show my hands to the lion

…step back

…take another step back

…keep showing her those hands, like it’ll help somehow

…”We’re cool, this is cool,” I say to the lion

…the car is SO far away

…CRAP

…the car is SO SO far away

…”STOP RUNNING!” I scream again

…guests ran, so they’re already at the car

…lions hold ground

…I’m scanning everywhere for more

…she can’t be alone

…watches every baby step I take to the car

…The car is SO SO far away

Eventually I get to the car and stand dumbfounded at the door, the lion has followed me but she’s now 20 m away, with her head poking out from behind a bush.

“GO GO GO!” My guests are shouting at me.

Calmly, I tell them that we’re safe now. They’re on the car, we’re all out of danger, but they’re still panicking.

“JUST ****‘ing GO!”

I survey the scene. Lion. Between us and her, are a coffee cup and a rather nice hat. My coffee setup is still on the truck’s tailgate. With both eyes on the lion, I climb down and quickly pack away our coffee and snacks. We’d have to sacrifice the hat and wayward cup. The guests protested the whole time.

“LEAVE IT! JUST GO!”

Once I’m back in the drivers seat, still staring at the lion, I radioed the closest guide to tell her what happened. I probably didn’t need to, but then after an emergency, you really feel like you should do something. Anything. At least she could warn others to not get out of their cars at the lookout. And she did. Like a champion.

My guests were finished. Klaar. They wanted out. No more safari for them.

“Back to the lodge, NOW.”

“Are you sure?” I asked for the second time that morning.

“YES! GO!”

At that point, we were more than an hour away from the lodge. I used the long drive to debrief the guests and try and make light of what was actually a pretty traumatizing event. It worked. Thankfully. By the time we got back to the lodge, we all had a huge new repertoire of inside jokes and anecdotes.

I’m still trying to process the whole thing. It’s three days later and this morning we had coffee again (different guests) at the same spot. I could still see the lion’s skid tracks, where she’d stopped just short of me. What I’d estimated as 2 meters on the day, was actually even closer. After visiting that viewpoint so many times in the past, the whole place looked oddly different with this new memory strewn across it.

Lots of lessons were learned on Sunday. I’ll definitely be less complacent at drinks stops in the future. But I do love how all of those simulated lion charges that we have to practice before we can walk in the bush, really paid off. My muscle memory kicked in big time when I needed it. What scared me, was the lion charge itself. It had happened from such close quarters, with absolutely no warning. She also charged from down a steep hill, up towards us, which isn’t ‘typical’ either. Nor did she turn and flee when it was all over. Really just goes to show that anything can happen out here. But hey, we’re all still here and I think I’m a better safari guide for it.

 

not the lion, but one of her pride-mates, so it counts

 
Hoofnote: Actually, let’s not play with nanoseconds. Do you know what a ‘nanosecond is?’ A nanosecond is to a second, what a second is to 32 YEARS. All that stuff that took place in a single moment, actually happened over billions of nanoseconds. Love.

July 17: In the Aftermath of the Lion Storm

Last night it was quite impossible to sleep through the raging ‘lion storm’. There seemed to be countless lions calling from all directions, and for hours.  It’s what I love about this place. In the aftermath of the storm, still with the occasional distant rumble, people in the campsite would be forgiven for thinking that lions would be a guaranteed sighting this morning. But it turned out they weren’t…

No one saw the lions this morning… except us! That’s what you get for booking a morning drive and getting a good head start.  Even if if was well below freezing when we set out. Listening to the lions before we left, I could hear they were moving south very quickly. I decided to take a risk and not drive down a road where I thought they might be, rather choosing instead to see if I could intercept them on the main road. For once it paid off.

The sound of a nearby lion made us stop.  It took a few minutes before he finally emerged from the long grass. Very happy to see one of my favourite lions again after a few months away!  The gorgeous black maned lion was on a mission and headed right for us, crossing the road just behind us and disappearing into the dunes. A moment later we heard the second lion. When we saw him, he wasn’t in such a rush– until he heard the rest of his pride calling from far away. Immediately he changed course and started running in their direction, this time crossing the road in front of us.  We were lucky bunnies. And they were pretty lions.

The second lion to cross our path this morning. He was very pretty…

I learned that a good Lion sighting can physically warm up cold toes.  And with each good sighting, we all got just a little warmer. Some would say the rising sun had something to do with it… But it was all down to good sightings.Later on we saw both kudu and eland, which are the two rarest antelopes here and always wonderful to see.

At a waterhole, a friendly Cape Glossy Starling named Fred came and sat on our mirror. He wouldn’t leave! Eventually, it wasn’t until we were moving that he flew off.

Friendly Fred

Love friendly Fred

And I couldn’t have predicted that the lions would be dwarfed by some Striped Mice! Not just any Striped Mice, but a pile of 14 Striped Mice, clambering over each other trying to get a spot a few millimeters closer to the sun.  This sighting now ranks as one of my very best Kalahari moments. Love.

Maybe the best sighting i’ve ever had in the Kalahari…

After the mice, I told my guests that sightings-wise, this may have been my best drive yet in the Kalahari. And I meant it. But it gets better!

Nearly home again, I stopped to look at a Pale Chanting Goshawk.  As I began to explain to my guests why we always stop for Goshawks (1), I saw them and I gasped. And then I got really excited. And I squeaked and clapped my hands together in the way I do when something truly exciting happens. Geek.

HONEY BADGERS! Mummy and teenager. Because Badgers are indestructible and unstoppable, we didn’t get to see them for long, but it didn’t matter. Even a quick glimpse of a Honey Badger can keep me going for months.

(1) Why we always stop for Goshawks:  Pale chanting Goshawks will sit low in trees trailing Honey Badgers. You almost always see the Goshawks before you see the badgers. Badgers are good diggers but not always good catchers and the little critters who manage to escape the Honey Badgers are grabbed by Goshawks or Jackals. Essentially if you’re a small mammal, an approaching Honey Badger spells doom. If the badger doesn’t get you, someone else will.

Morning Drive Sightings:

Honey Badger
Lion
Striped Mouse
Kudu
Eland
Steenbok
Black Backed Jackal
Springbok
WIldebeest
Gemsbok
Secretary Bird
Kori Bustard
Bateleur
Cape Glossy Starling
Yellow Canary
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Gabar Goshawk
Lanner Falcon
Ostrich

July 10: The Meerkats are Back!

We had a morning drive this morning. Morning drives are somewhat of a rarity around here and it’s always nice to see some of the animals that we can’t see on a sunset or a night drive.

To begin with, it was -8 this morning and I struggled to see through the truck’s icy windscreen. I’d scrape it off, and then have to breathe again, and the condensation would freeze as well.  Until the sun rose and began to warm the lovely red Kalahari sand, we didn’t see too much. But when we did…

A photographer’s worst nightmare: Photo taken through a frosted windscreen, into the sun, with a blade of grass carefully obscuring small meerkat. Love.

The Meerkats are back! Meerkats will use a den site for a while before they exhaust the local food supplies and their burrows are hopelessly infested with little biting bugs. When it’s to much to bear, they move on to another den site within their territory. My favourite meerkats have been away from their den by the roadside now for a few months, but today they were back!  Welcome home, dear Meerkats (with a gestation period of 65 days).

Morning Drive Sightings:

Meerkat
Ground Squirrel
Whistling Rat
Springbok
Steenbok
Gemsbok
Wildebeest
Ostrich
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Verreaux’s Eagle Owl
Kori Bustard
Red Necked Falcon