It is a privilege to witness a thunderstorm in the desert. The dark, heavy thunderclouds roll over the pans dramatically. The streaks of lightening are followed by deep rumblings of thunder that somehow bring serenity to the open plains. The rains have brought an abundance of green grass and foliage. The general game has been spectacular; which means plenty to eat for the predators; and eat they did!
In one of the more unusual sightings of the month a female oryx stood distressed as black-backed jackals and vultures tussled over the remains of her new-born calf, even engaging in tug of war at one stage. In the end the mother seem to resign herself to the fate of her baby and gave way to the scavengers. She then proceeded to eat the placenta; this behaviour, known as placentophagy, might seem unusual in a herbivore but is common in the animal world. The placenta contains high levels of hormones which help the female’s uterus to contract and also stimulate milk production. It is also thought that removing the placenta in this way hides the smell of the birth from predators, though sadly on this occasion it was too late.
Another interesting sighting was of a mother cheetah providing an opportunity for her cubs to learn how to hunt. The adult female caught a baby springbok but purposefully did not kill the fawn. She left her cubs to practice catching their prey and releasing it and catching it again. This is a ritual that these young predators will be practicing over and over until they have mastered the hunting technique.
The cheetah in the area have been very active and several different groups were seen during January. A single male who is new to the area was seen as he attempted a hunt but was unsuccessful; it is unclear whether he will take up residence or will just be passing through. A coalition of 3 cheetahs was seen resting at San Pan. A springbok unknowingly walked not far from them, however the cheetahs were caught unawares and the springbok escaped.
The two males who had previously been dubbed as intruders have now been accepted by the Tau Pan Pride and are now being referred to as being part of the resident pride. Having been absent from the area for some time, the pride has returned to the Pan area and has had numerous successful hunts. The five males seemed to have formed a fairly large coalition and it will be interesting to see how their relationship develops.
Birds were also in hunting mode. Tawny eagles were seen ominously perched in tall trees near the springbok herds, looking out for the opportunity to steal a new born lamb. The heavy rains means that the pans are filling and attracting wetland species that would not usually be seen in this desert environment including cormorants, teal and even the prized sighting of a rare slaty egret!