Our vehicle slowed to a halt on the dirt road. It was still dark, pitch black, so dark I could barely see my hand in front of my face. “They are here, right by the side of the road” our Priority Species Monitor said. “Really” I asked her, my voice just above a whisper, just in case they were in ear shot. monitor shone her torch and sure enough there they were. Two big, magnificent, males and two females. The adults of the pride. Only one lioness lifted her head to check us out. The other three continued with their sleep with just occasional tail and ear flicks.
I was back on the ground with a Wildlife ACT monitoring team after a long two-and-a-half-year gap. And I was back again in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site. Last time it was the Eastern Shores Section, on a leopard and whale monitoring project, and now it’s an endangered species monitoring project in the uMkhuze Section. I was excited to be arriving here as it was a reserve, I had only visited a couple of times, was not very familiar with, and had not stayed in since 2006. It has all the iconic African big game species and is also a renowned birders hot spot. One of the very best in Southern Africa boasting over five hundred bird species.
On arrival at the team’s camp I was warmly greeted, shown to my room, and over a cup of tea given some background information. There was a tour of the camp, including the communal kitchen, before going over the rules, regulations, and safety procedures. I listened intently to the emergency procedures and studied my info sheet as to what to do should certain situations arise. The monitor made me familiar with volunteers’ phone and radio. The camp is not fenced so wild animals come and go freely. Nyala, impala and warthogs grazed around us, and vervet monkeys watched us from their various vantage points. Monkeys are opportunist and I learnt, the hard way, a long time ago that leaving food out or a door open, is an invite to a monkey.
Here in uMkhuze, the team with help from the volunteers, are responsible for the monitoring of all priority species within the reserve’s boundaries, as required and guided by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s reserve management. These include the focussed intensive monitoring of lion, cheetah and vultures, as well as elephant, rhino, leopard and spotted hyena. Since I was last on a project, technology has improved and evolved. Regular updates from collars, via a network of towers, send the positions of certain priority species to the team. This means that before heading out into the bush there is an indication of where animals could be. Then when out in the field telemetry takes over. A handheld antenna and receiver are used in conjunction with mobile apps to triangulate the VHF collars to pinpoint animal locations.
Technology plays a big role in the teams’ work; however, visual observation of endangered species is key. Sightings and photographs allow monitors to assess the condition of the wildlife they are there to help conserve.
During my stay we headed out twice a day on monitoring and observation duties. In the afternoons we left camp at 4pm and in the mornings it was 3.30am. I did get a lay in on my last morning as we did not leave until 3.45am. Times and durations of being out can vary, dependant on the season, what the days plan is, and of course what you encounter when out. We followed a structure with pre-determined targets for each drive. You learn to use the telemetry and mobile apps to do triangulations as you become part of the team. Your wild targets are not given names but coded identification number according to species and sex. On a couple of drives our target was not visible. A female cheetah remained elusive. On the move, but out of sight. You will need to be patient as often it is a waiting game. You may be required to sit for a couple of hours, regularly monitoring, to try and get a visual of a particular animal.
On our drives we encountered many animals and birds outside of those we were monitoring. In the daytime elephants, giraffes, zebra, wildebeest and various eagles, to name but a few. On those early mornings it was hyena, scrub hares, nightjars and spotted thick-knees. I have to say I have never seen as many nightjars and scrub hares as what we saw on those early drives.
We did have luck on our side on more than one occasion. Using our tracking equipment, we managed to catch up with a pair of cheetahs, two very healthy-looking brothers. They were using a stretch of dirt road that we could also drive on. Any cat sighting in the wild is very special. But with cheetahs listed as a Vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species it emphasises the importance of all the conservation work that is being carried out here, and in many other reserves, that you can play a role in.
Back to where I started and the lions. They were located using technology and the monitor’s knowledge of animal behaviour, along with a slice of luck. They had decided to sleep in the open and not under the cover of thick bush. The very early start was also key to our success. We sat for some time, eyes adjusting to the low light levels. And as the light levels increased as the sun rose so did the heat. But the pride remained relatively settled and relaxed right up to just before sunrise. We needed good light to observe, in particular the two males, as when they were last seen they had small wounds on the backs of the hind legs. But always expect the unexpected when in the African bush. There was a familiar noise coming from behind the lions. A low-level rumbling, elephants were now here as well. And only minutes before dawn two huge elephant bulls came into view feeding right behind the thickets where the lions were laying. The oldest lioness was the first to make a sharp exit into thick bush. The last was one of the males who appeared to be a deeper sleeper and unaware of the fast-approaching elephants. I had never seen lions and elephants interact like this.
The elephants forced the lions to take cover and disappear from our sight. We sat, patiently, and kept focussed on the bush where we last saw them. And we kept catching occasional glimpses. We were then more than surprised to see what happened next. We spotted a male lion, but he was also looking down into the bush. He had climbed a tree and now had a much better view than any of us. He was joined up there by one of the lionesses and it became a test of skills and balance. They exited the tree, one after another, with a leap from height. This was the first time this team had observed this behaviour from this pride.
Active roles in conservation await us all in the African bush. There are many opportunities to join Wildlife ACT as a volunteer across several reserves and protected areas. Who knows, you may be lucky enough to see an elephant chase a lion into a tree.