Bless the rains down in Africa. Part II

The cheetah photoshoot was done relatively quickly. The morning light that I was after for these cats was gone at around 10 AM but it was still cool enough for us to get some fill-in shots of other animals that roam the grounds of this reserve. My collegues offered to drive me around a little to see what we can find. Unfortunatelly, the decades-long drought decimated their herbivore population. Even the hardiest of them, the oryx, have suffered. But some were completely wiped out and it would take millions of dollars to restore their population in the reserve. In Namibia it is illegal to breed carnivores, but herbivores are allowed to be bred and many farmers raise them for zoos and reserves. For now, however, the rich green savannah did seem a bit empty.

One thing I want to get out of the way in regards to these animals is whether or not to consider them wild. It is common practice in Africa to have vast territories surrounded by a fence. A lot of private reserves do it as well as any land owning entities who are involved with wildlife in some way. Free-ranging animals inside these fences are fearful of humans and act as all wild animals do, not aware of being legally somebody's property or living on somebody's land. They aren't even safe from predators who can climb over or dig under the fences and do encounter wild leopards, hyenas, jackals and caracals. However, I do understand that for migratory species these fences can alter their lifestyle. Personally, I have not made up my mind about whether or not to consider these animals purely wild or not. I'm on the fence about it (sorry for the pun, couldn't help myself!). This is why I decided that I will give my viewers all the information and let them decide for themselves.

But let's get back to the animals. One of the few species that did survive relatively well is the springbok, an iconic little antilope famous for its jumps, much like the caracal. Even its name suggests how impressive these jumps are, as the word "spring" means "jump" in Afrikaans. It is a common species with some very uncommon features. First of all these guys are fast, reaching speeds up to 88 km/h (55 mph). This makes them pretty hard to catch, but they go even further in their athletisism. Whenever they get scared or excited the sprinbok jump. Head down, back arched and legs stiff and straight, they leap into the air in this odd posture, most probably to display their stength, health and, consequentually, their unattainability as prey. This behavior is known as pronking (from the Afrikaans "pronk", "to show off") or stotting. When they pronk, the springbok shows off another feature that gave it its scientific name. Starting from its tail and going up the animal's back there is a flap of skin, covered with white hairs. When the springbok leaps this flap lifts, the hairs on it fan out, spreading the animal's scent. Now, the springbok's scientific name is Antidorcas marsupialis, from Greek "anti" (opposite) and "dorcas" (gazelle) and Latin "marsupium" (pocket). So roughly this translates into a "non-gazelle with a pocket", the latter being a reference to the flap described above, which in fact is the feature that separates the springbok from true gazelles.

I did not see any pronking, but even a couple of springboks chilling in the new grass was nice to see. The overall mood of those days was serene and peaceful, so I'm happy with the calm animals in these images. Hopefully I will get more drama some other time, but then and there it was even sort of inappropriate. A springbok against a wall of flowers is not a common sight, but a pleasant one.

I have heard that some farm-bred springboks can vary in color from the original wild coats. There have been cases of two different morphs - dark and white - occuring in captive bred antelopes, but there were no such oddities this time around.

The tiny steenbok is another species of antelope that seems to have gotten through the drought relatively well, which is weird because it has to feed on green vegetation and for a long time there was hardly any of that here. These little cuties were a common occurance at the side of the roads, usually alone, but sometimes with a mate. This species once roamed the entire continent, but now it has been limited to two isolated, though numerous, populations in the South and in the East of Africa. Like many desert or semi-desert dwelling animals the steenbok doesn't need a lot of water as long as it gets some green juicy plants to munch on. There isn't much else to say about this little critter.

The giraffe and the zebras also made it through the harsh dry spell. Since these animals are always heavily featured in all kinds of books and documentaries, I won't bore you with trivia about them. Maybe someday, but not today.

Despite the calm morning scenery it was clear to me that the surrounding natural habitat has sustained a great loss. Yes, there were animals enjoynig the sudden mercy of their usually harsh environment, but so much was missing, species that you would expect to see were nowhere to be found, and the ones there were fewer in numbers than they should be. Saddest thing is that these rains actually killed off many of the weakened animals who, after enduring the drought, died of exposure. What was supposed to be salvation spelled doom for even more of them. I did, nonetheless, enjoy the ride. I sure hope the animal population is restored soon, I would love to see more should I ever return.

However, the next few species that I've long wanted to see with my own eyes were found a lot closer than I expected. Base camp was situated near a gorge with some very picturesque rock formations. And on the first day at the reserve I stepped outside to just zone out for a while after an excructiatingly long journey.

Suddenly, I heard a very unfamiliar alarm call. I looked around for the source of this sound and then in a blink of an eye all of my exhaustion was wiped away, because I saw the hyrax. An entire colony was right under my nose! I was so excited, the hyrax are a fascinating animal, even if they don't look like it. This rodent-looking herbivore is not a rodent at all. It's closest living relatives are the manatee and the elephant with whom it shares a common ancestor and some physical features. The hyrax has poor thermoregulation so it loves to bask in the sun or huddle together with its buddies for warmth. This is something more chaercteristic of primitive mammals and is uncommon among modern mammalian species. They sweat through the soles of their feet, but that doesn't affect their ability to climb rocks and run up and down cliffs like crazy.

The modern hyrax is a peculiar creature. It has a complex stomach and uses its molars to feed on grass and leaves instead of its incisors.  There are several features that clearely prove that the hyrax has much larger relatives: their feet are sensitive and are equipped with flattened nails rather than claws, just like an elephant's. Their sexual organs and the position of their mammary glands are the same as the elephant's and the manatee's. The shape of some of their bones and the fact that they actually have tiny tusks, their comparatively high-functioning brains (in comparison to similar small mammals) etc., all of that, along with DNA analysis, is conclusive evidence of the connection between the hyrax and its larger relatives. That fact has facinated me ever since I was a kid, so I was really happy to see these animals in real life.

One of the folks working with me was a very sweet girl called Julia. When I shared all of this info with her (I had to explain my excitement over seemingly unimpressive furballs!) she thought I was kidding at first, but we ended up calling the hyrax "little elephants" for the rest of my stay there.

Another apparently common local was the Red-headed rock agama. These lizzards were very bold, didn't shy away easily, the males even bobbing their heads at me in territorial display. These guys are fiercely territorial, but when they thought that it was wiser to retreat, they bolted away, making absolutely insane jumps on the steep jagged rocks.

Colors in this species somewhat vary from one region to the other, and I'm glad that I encountered a population that really reflects their other name - the rainbow agama. But everywhere I checked, in all the literature females are depicted as brown camo colored lizzards. Then who the hell is this yellow-headed one? I saw a lot of lizzards on those rocks and none were brown. So is this a juvenile? I don't know, but if somebody helps me out on this one I would appreciate it.

In one BBC documentary narrated by the incomparable David Attenborough these lizzards were shown jumping up after insects flying above a stream. That's where I learned about these guys, that's why I wanted to see them. Strangely enough, there were very little flying insects around. Don't get me wrong, I was happy about the absence of gnats and mozzies, but it would've been nice to see one of these blue aggro bums lift their butt into the air to catch food. As it were, the living was easy for the agamas, all they had to do was pick the bugs off the rocks. I still think they're cool, I dig animals with attitude.

Another critter on my wish list was a weaver. Any kind of weaver, I just wanted to see the process of building that type of nest. They facinated me when I was little, flipping through pages of nature books or watching documentaries. Later on I saw how Monk parakeets build their colonies, but it wasn't quite the same. I still wanted to see weavers at work.

When I got to the main area of the camp I immediately noticed little Southern masked weavers in the acacias surrounding our lunch area. Either I was too tired on the first day or it just wasn't my luck, but I only got my chance on the second day. We were having lunch when a little but very determined male started paying close attention to a branch just opposite of my table.

At first he just hung there upside down, crawling over and under it, examining it from different angles and even from different branches. He was very focused, so I started observing him closely. A few minutes later the little guy brought the first blade of grass to lay the foundation of his new project.

I hid in the shadow of another acacia and kept watching him as he worked relentlessly in the sun, completely obsessed with his work. He was devoted to his work that I only saw him eat once and that was when a catterpillar crawled right up next to him. A couple of times he had to chase away rivals, but otherwise he was completely focused on his work. I wonder if male weavers suffer weight loss like some other species during the mating season.

These birds really do weave. They use different blades of grass for specific purposes - thicker ones for base, thinner ones to flesh out the future nest. The male dives in and out like a living needle, sewing together a design he spends a lifetime perfecting.

The information I found on this species said they build nests in 4-5 days. Well, from what I saw, the nest was ready for inspection by a female in about 24 hours. The males worked very fast, as not every nest would get the approval of the sparrow-like females and the boys would have to start all over again.


But this fellow built one of the most strikingly beautiful nests out there, working the flowers into the structure. After he was done he would sit on top of the nest and sing a triumphant little song or hang under the nest with his head tucked into his chest and wings stretched out and slowly flapping. I cannot say for certain whether the latter was a show for his mate or for his rivals.

In any case, he has every right to be proud of his work, it was the first nest in that colony where the flowers were made a part of the whole thing. Maybe that kind of artistic decision doesn't matter to the female weavers but it sure got my approval! I loved how the yellow of the flowers matched the male's plumage and contrasted the green of the nest. The grass would soon lose color, but while it was fresh it complimented the bird and the acacia perfectly. I wish there was a bird edition of Architectural Digest, this guy would have caught their eye for sure! I hope the girls appreciated this masterpiece.

Later that day I found a copycat who also tried the flower design, but the first guy has more flowers in his and the idea was originally his, so he gets my vote. You can decide for yourself.