Zebra crossing*

We were in the Serengeti towards the end of the Great Migration (of which more later), and we drove east towards the Sand River,  and the Kenyan border. This charming map was made by Ainslie at Serian Kagatende Camp, where we stayed, and it shows the Sand River on the right.

IMG_0733

We reached the river, a serene rivulet, and enjoyed the unpopulated view:

zebra

But it was not as empty as it seemed. Can you spot the animal on the far bank, just emerging from the trees? People don’t believe that zebra are well camouflaged, but they are, just look at this next picture if you don’t believe me:

zebra

Returning to the Sand River, five minutes later the whole scene was transformed by a huge herd of mixed zebra and wildebeest, crossing from right to left into Tanzania:

zebra

Some paused to drink:

zebra

zebra

As they crossed, they called to each other. The yelping barking sounds on this video are zebra contact calls, not at all the sounds I would have expected them to make:

The species name Equus quagga is derived from the Khoikhoi word for “zebra” and is based on the sound of its call.

I don’t know how to estimate their numbers, but the entire herd took 20 minutes to cross. The bad news is that they still have to cross the notorious Mara River if they want to go further north. But that is the subject of another post.

* PS My husband deserves credit for the title of this post!

Cain and Abel: Baby giants

The Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, aka the Giant Eagle Owl, Bubo lacteus, is an imposing bird, measuring 26″ with a wingspan of up to five feet. It is the largest owl in Africa, and the fourth largest in the world.

We were lucky enough to come upon two fledglings on the lower branches of a large tree in full view. Here is one of them:

Verreaux eagle owl

This one was practicing using its beak and its wings:

Verreaux eagle owl

And you could clearly see the strange pink eyelids*, whose purpose is unknown, but they are brighter in males in the mating season

Verreaux eagle owl

Initially they had claimed a tree each, but then one flew over to join its sibling, and all hell broke loose. It appears that sibling rivalry is alive and well in the Ruaha:

Verreaux eagle owl

The slightly smaller one on the right, whose wing feathers are still covered by more down than those of the older one on the left, was the aggressor, clawing at the eyes of its sib:

Verreaux eagle owl

After a ding-dong set-to, the older one gave up and returned to its original tree:

Verreaux eagle owl

It is quite common for one sibling to kill the other, a phenomenon known as siblicide or (hence my title) Cainism.  But usually the older larger chick is the aggressor. Here it seems to be the reverse. The aggression can continue at least till all the adult plumage has grown in.

Verreaux’s Eagle Owls leave the nest at about 7 weeks old, and take another 2 –  4 weeks to learn to fly, so these were probably around 10 weeks old. The mother was in a third tree nearby.  They do not start to hunt for themselves till around five months, but as adults they are apex predators, eating a huge variety of mammals, birds and reptiles. One favourite is the hedgehog, and they are the only predator that routinely tackles this prickly delicacy. They swoop in, with their talons going for the spineless face. Watch this one dining like the Romans:

The eagle owl has an extraordinary call, the deepest of any owl species. This is a male, (recorded by Frank Bruneliere, in Namibia, courtesy of Xenocanto):

The call can carry up to 3 miles, and you might easily confuse it with a leopard.

—————————–

* Rihanna may be channelling her inner eagle owl with these pink eyelids:

rihanna-pink-z

Maasai Giraffe 2

In the world of the giraffe, all is not sweetness and light. Males fight for dominance in extraordinary neck fights. I have never seen this before, and it looked more like sort of a tai ch’i slow motion dance than a fight to the death, but our guide assured us this was the real thing.

I still suspect it was two youngsters sparring to get in a little practice, and when it was over they wandered off in opposite directions none the worse for wear. Serious battles can leave the loser knocked out or even dead. This 4-minute video is well worth watching for its explanations of the physiology, as well as a couple of truly violent fights.

My two seemed pretty friendly by comparison!

Maasai giraffe

Less dramatic, but still not good for quality of life, is Giraffe Skin Disease. It causes skin lesions on the backs of the legs, but it doesn’t seem to kill the giraffes. The cause is unknown, but it is more prevalent in areas with poor soil, and less acacia, like the Ruaha.

DSC08830

One encouraging development for the survival of the giraffe is a reconsideration of how many species of giraffe scientists should distinguish. This matters, because conservation laws and policies often operate at the species level , and currently all giraffe are lumped together in one species , as Vulnerable, but not yet Endangered, affording them less protection.

A study by Hennessy et al in Current Biology in 2016 proposes on the basis of DNA data that the giraffe is not a single species, but four distinct species – the northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa), reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata) and Masai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi). If this proposal results in a new classification, conversation efforts will be strengthened.

For lots of good information, and a way to help, click here: https://giraffeconservation.org

An African ecosystem bereft of giraffes would be a terrible thing: imagine a world in which children no longer knew what a giraffe was, and you couldn’t sing Raffi’s wonderful Joshua Giraffe to them. (There is a link to the song below, but I am not totally sure posting it is OK (though I did buy the song), or whether it violates copyright. I suspect many of you can hear it inside your heads anyway as the result of hours of long car journeys with small children in the back seat.) 

 

 

Maasai Giraffe: 1

giraffe

Giraffes are the endangered animal that no-one knows about. There are now fewer giraffes (70,000) than elephants (400,000) in Africa. Across all nine sub-species, giraffes are considered Vulnerable, but three sub-species are Endangered, including Tanzania’s only sub-species, the Maasai giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi. It is the largest of all giraffes, with males growing up to 19 feet tall, and weighing up to 4,275 lbs. In July this year the IUCN categorized it as endangered, because although there are 35,000 or so remaining, the population is down 50% in the last 30 years. They are poached, and land use changes have impacted their habitats.

Maasai giraffe

Look at its size compared to this impala:

DSC09646

Its colouration is very varied, and the markings vary from individual to individual, reminding me of paper cutouts by Matisse.

They have tongues up to 18″ long, and together with their prehensile lips they delicately deploy these to strip tiny leaves from thorny branches.

Maasai giraffe

Not surprisingly, they have to eat about 16 hours a day to sustain those huge bodies.

Maasai giraffe

whether the food is low down

DSC00143

at head level

Maasai giraffe

or even higher:

Maasai giraffe

Next time, the fight for survival.

 

 

Harbingers of death?

Not vultures, and not scavengers, behold the Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri), a splendid bird up to 4 foot long, and 14lbs in weight.

DSC09577

Their wings can span six feet:

DSC09578

Our excellent guide, Charles Tareta from Kwihala Camp, found us a group of around six foraging near the Great Ruaha River; one suddenly disappeared into the bushes and emerged with a chameleon. He flew off, protecting his prize from his mates:

DSC09585

The chameleon was wriggly:

DSC09591

But he got it in place for swallowing:

DSC09598

Oddly,  it failed to co-operate, wrapping its tail around the hornbill’s beak:

DSC09614

So he had no choice but to disgorge it and start again:

DSC09617

Finally, down it went, just a little remnant of tail spaghetti yet to disappear:

DSC09622

They are listed as vulnerable, as a result of habitat loss and their slow breeding cycle. They only breed every 3 years, the young are not independent for 1-2 years after fledging (the longest of any bird), and they not ready to breed themselves for 6 – 7 years. They live up to 70 years in captivity, 50-60 years in the wild.

Back to my title: like ravens and crows in the West, ground hornbills are culturally associated with death and destruction. In Tanzania, some believe that they host angry spirits, which leads to a taboo on killing them. On the bright side, in many cultures in the region they are believed to be a sign that rain is coming. On balance, then, these beliefs tend to protect the birds rather than threaten them.

It has a lovely booming call, listen here:

PS It is also one of the few birds, along with ostriches, to have eyelashes (actually modified feathers):

DSC09577

PPS There is one other species of ground hornbill, the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill. The females of this species have all blue skin patches; I photographed this one in Ethiopia last year.

Abyssinian Ground Hornbill

The secret serval

[ I am back from Tanzania, and beginning to go through my photos. Here goes.]

In my years of going to Africa, I had never seen a serval. And I’ll hazard a guess that some of you may not be entirely sure what they look like, and some of you may never even have heard of them.

Ta-daa! Here is my first ever serval.

DSC00759

They are exquisite small cats, with amazing ears and sexy coats. They are not endangered, but hard to see. Depending on when their favorite local prey is most active, servals may be either nocturnal or diurnal. This one was prowling through long grass just before dusk, in the Northern Serengeti near Serian camp.

Their Latin name is Leptailurus serval.  Their bodies are typically around 70cm long, though this one was smaller. They weigh 10-15Kg. They lie still in the long grass with their eyes closed, and listen for smallish rodents with those huge ears (the largest ears relative to body size of any cat). Then they leap, with all four feet off the ground, and descend on their prey, stunning or killing it with a blow from their fore feet. They have a very high success rate, of about 50%, way higher than the bigger cats.

This video shows a young serval trying to subdue an angry snake..

 

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s famous novel, Il Gattopardo, is called The Leopard in English, but in fact the Italian word means serval, and servals were the symbol of the Tomasi family. They used to be found in Tunisia not far from the island of Lampedusa, and there are attempts to reintroduce them.

Here is the Tomasi family crest: I think you could easily convince me that the central animal is a serval (or not)!

Tomasi_di_Lampedusa_COA

I do see that The Leopard might sell more copies than The Serval, but only if you have never been lucky enough to see a serval.