Tau Pan, June 2017

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Winter in the Kalahari has arrived and towards the end of the month the overnight temperature dipped below zero degrees Celsius for the first time this year. The verdant greens of the rainy season have now mellowed into a palette of golds, yellows and greys, creating the starkly beautiful landscape that the Kalahari is famed for.

The Tau Pan pride of 5 males and 2 females were looking healthy and well-fed. Oryx seemed to be the lions’ menu of choice during June and they were often seen stalking these desert antelope. In fact, the pride was seemingly so well-fed that on two occasions antelope were seen grazing fearlessly right next to the cats as they rested. It was quite a remarkable sight to see hunter and prey so relaxed in each other’s company. The lions were mainly to be found in the Tau Pan area and often in and around the camp where the slightly elevated terrain gave them a great view of the surrounding area as they scanned the wide horizon for their next likely meal.

The bushman walk conducted from the lodge is primarily aimed to demonstrate the hunter gatherer traditions of the San people. It is also an opportunity to take a closer look at smaller species of insects and plants. However, one walk last month gave a more adrenaline-fuelled experience when a male and female lion were spotted at the same time approaching from different directions. The female seemed to be heading towards the watering hole but waited when she saw the walkers. The guide sensibly decided to go back to camp and took the guests by vehicle to enjoy the lioness drinking at the watering hole. On another walk the guests were lucky enough to see a Cape Fox which was an unusual sighting to see on foot.

Leopards were seen a few times, mainly the resident female who was seen at the camp watering hole and on the road towards the airstrip. A male and female were heard calling each other in the Tau Pan area.

The cheetah female with her two sub-adult cubs still appeared to be healthy, though when we did see them hunting her youngsters lacked patience and startled the game, spoiling their hunt. The single resident male was also seen, but he tends to keep a low profile in order to avoid the other predators, notably the lions, in the area. A coalition of two male cheetah were also located in Deception Valley.

The drive to Deception Valley shows a change in geology and vegetation, with bigger trees becoming more common. Giraffe were seen browsing on the acacias and guests were able to observe how they moved upwind as they ate. This is because the acacia trees have remarkably evolved to release pheromones in to the air to ‘warn’ the other trees of danger causing them to release unpalatable tannins. In the valley itself guests enjoyed plentiful springbok, oryx and black-backed jackal.

There was also good general game in the Tau Pan area including herds of oryx, springbok and a group of 8 red hartebeest. In addition to jackals, different small families of bat-eared foxes were seen foraging for insects. Caracal, honey badger and the elusive aardwolf were amongst the smaller predators enjoyed by guests during June.
Tau Pan’s vast expanse makes it a great place to spot birds.

Sightings this month included the Pale Chanting Goshawk, Gabar Goshawk and Black-chested Snake-eagle. Flocks of ostrich were commonly seen. There were lots of wild cucumbers and Tsamma melons on the edge of the pans, a vital source of nutrition and moisture for the desert animals during the arid winter months.

(Note: Accompanying picture is from our Kwando Photo Library which consists of all your great photo submissions over the years, it may not be the most up to date, but we felt it was worthy of a feature alongside this month’s Sightings Report!)

Tau Pan, May 2017

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During May Tau Pan underwent a dramatic transformation; the lush green vegetation which had been a feature of the rainy season started to dry and take on autumnal hues of yellows and browns. The Tsamma melons started to ripen and could be seen dotting the landscape like surreal alien soccer balls. These fruits are a forbearer of the domesticated watermelon and provide a vital source of sustenance for a wide variety of desert birds and animals during the dry winter months including oryx, brown hyena and porcupine.

Large herds of oryx and springboks were still resident in the Tau Pan area, making the most of the nutritious grazing. Guests enjoyed watching the evening migration of antelope back into the centre of Tau Pan each evening where the wide-open spaces give a better chance of protection against predators. Regularly the springbok calves started pronking just before sunset, their beautiful colouration enhanced by the evening light. The behaviour of the oryx and springbok started to change with the arrival of breeding season and we saw males of both species fighting for dominancy.

Regular sightings of cheetah were enjoyed, particularly of a female with two sub-adult young. A different female with three younger cubs was around but very skittish as she desperately tried to keep her cubs hidden from the other predators, notably lions, in the area. Two male cheetah were found on a springbok kill near Leopard Pan and a routine visit by out mechanic to our camp watering hole turned out to be anything but boring when a different male cheetah burst into action, hunting a steenbok. Some lucky guests found a cheetah on the airstrip as they were waiting for their flight out of Tau Pan, showing that it pays to stay alert until the very minute that you leave.

Phukwi Pan was home to significant numbers of giraffe. Six adult bat-eared foxes were also seen in the area, competing aggressively for food with some jackal who were nearby.

Leopard were also seen drinking at the camp watering hole and these cats were seen frequently during May, including a female with two cubs.

The Tau Pan pride comprising five males and two females were seen often, including on a kill of a large kudu bull on which the pride feasted for three days. One of the females was initially not interested in being courted, however soon afterwards she came into oestrus and attracted the attention of three of the male lions. Eventually she was seen mating with one of them. Another two lionesses, visitors to the area from the Deception valley pride, killed a sub-adult Gemsbok.

Huge flocks of guinea fowl, doves and other seed-eaters descended upon the camp watering hole in the early mornings and late afternoons. Kori Bustards were seen striding across the pans. Other resident raptors included Pale Chanting Goshawks, Tawny Eagles and White-backed Vultures.

Interesting sightings of smaller mammals during May included African Wild Cat, Bat-eared foxes, duiker and Honey Badger.
As usual, the sunsets at Tau Pan were amazing and there is surely no better feeling than watching the sun going down in a vast expanse whilst enjoying a glass of wine. Perhaps the Big 5 should be renamed Big 6 to include the incomparable African sunset?

(Note: Accompanying picture is from our Kwando Photo Library which consists of all your great photo submissions over the years, it may not be the most up to date, but we felt it was worthy of a feature alongside this month’s Sightings Report!)

Tau Pan, April 2017

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Although the surface water was drying up, the Tau Pan area still had good grazing following the heavy summer rains and general game was abundant, especially springbok and gemsbok. A small band of Red Hartebeest were still being seen as part of this mixed herd. Lots of jackals were found in the area and one evening guests witnessed a territorial fight between two males. Cheetah were frequently seen including a mother with two cubs.

In April, two leopards were seen frequently near to Tau Pan camp; they are believed to be a mating pair so we are hopeful of exciting new arrivals in due course. Leopards are usually solitary unless they are mating, so it was extremely special to find both male and female up in a tree together, especially in the Central Kalahari where trees are generally scarce and short! During the month, the female called a few times from camp itself during the night. Across at Phukwe Pan a different female leopard, who was very relaxed around the vehicle, was seen hunting.

In another remarkable sighting guests were watching two jackals playing together by the road when a sub adult female leopard appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. She made a high pounce onto one of the jackals, but since she did not follow up for the kill it was hard to tell whether this young leopard was trying to join in their game, or whether she was trying to chase the jackal away.

The leopards were not the only cats mating during April. An amorous pair of lions were found and we were able to watch them for 30 minutes. Although the lioness seemed quite shy and wanted to take cover in the bushes, the male had no such inhibitions and aggressively made sure that she didn’t stray off, preferring her to remain in the open.

The Tau Pan pride of five males and two females spent plenty of time near to camp where they kept a watchful look out for game coming through to the camp watering hole to drink. On one occasion, the five male lions roared right next to camp for most of the night causing much excitement for our guests. The next morning two of these lions were seen in front of camp having a drink and later, another three were heard calling by Room 9. We drove around to find them relaxed and sunning themselves by one of the roads.

The day trips yielded good sightings of cheetah, hunting lionesses and two male lions on a kill. One particular day a beautiful young leopard cub was found alone up in a tree – we suspected that its mother had gone off to hunt. Aside from the predators, the day drives allowed us to show a wide variety of species to guests including giraffes, gemsboks, springboks, wildebeest, bat-eared foxes and honey badgers.
Although the surface water was drying up, the Tau Pan area still had good grazing following the heavy summer rains and general game was abundant, especially springbok and gemsbok. A small band of Red Hartebeest were still being seen as part of this mixed herd. Lots of jackals were found in the area and one evening guests witnessed a territorial fight between two males. Cheetah were frequently seen including a mother with two cubs.

Guests were intrigued to see a Secretary Bird passing by the vehicle, followed by a Black-backed Jackal. The jackal was not hunting the bird, rather he was opportunistically seizing on insects that the long-legged raptor had disturbed. It was very interesting to see a bird and a mammal working together cooperatively in this way.

Ground squirrels and mongoose were often seen in the Phukwi Pan area during April. Guests were able to observe how these small mammals carefully checked up at the skies when popping out of their holes, and for good reason. Pale Chanting Goshawks were often calmly waiting in nearby trees for the opportunity to swoop down and take one.

Sometimes the drama of the bush plays out on a small stage. Guests were watching two perched Fork-tailed Drongos chattering to each other. Suddenly one of the drongos attacked a praying mantis. The mantis defended himself by opening his wings and elevating his body, trying to give the impression of a larger size. The insect’s aggressive posed paid off and the bird left him alone to fight another day.

Tau Pan, March 2017

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The impressive Tau Pan pride were seen almost daily during March. They were mainly found towards the Pan area where there was the highest concentration of game and were often seen stalking oryx.

Seven lions, two lionesses and five males were seen finishing off an oryx carcass, apparently killed the previous night. They were surrounded by group of 13 jackals who were impatiently waiting for their turn, working together to try and make bold snatches at the kill whenever the opportunity arose. The lions became extremely irritated, chasing the jackals away repeatedly. Our guests were able to witness this spectacle for over 45 minutes, until eventually the lions moved off leaving just the skull and spine for the jackals and some waiting vultures to tussle over.

On another occasion, a guide called his guests through to the main area early as the pride had killed an oryx and were feeding right in front of camp.  One evening, a large male lion was seen chasing a single oryx for over a kilometre all the way from the open plain into an area of thick vegetation.

As often seems to be the case with this dynamic pride, the number of individuals ranged considerably, but usually they were seen in groups of a range between four and eight. One of our guides’ interest was aroused when he found a lioness on her own, having already seen the rest of the pride together earlier in the drive. He followed this single female and sure enough his intuitive reading of her behaviour was correct; his guests were lucky enough to see her tenderly reunite with her tiny cub of just one month old and pick the cub up in her mouth.

Leopards were seen a few times, including one on a springbok kill at San Pan, and another posing beautifully up a tree. Cheetah were not seen often during the early part of the month, but were being picked up much more regularly during the last two weeks, including a female with two cubs.

In an interesting drive on the return from San Pan 2 jackals killing an adult springbok. The antelope appeared to be nursing a previous wound and thus could not run away.

A rather skittish Brown Hyena was spotted; though highly mobile and shy it was wonderful to see this threatened species. There were also some fabulous sightings of the smaller predators during March including a very relaxed Cape Fox close to the road. This is a beautiful silver-grey fox with a yellow belly and a black tip to its tail. A caracal was also seen nonchalantly walking along one of the roads. These medium-sized cats with beautiful tufted ears are always a treat to see.

Oryx and springbok were in plentiful numbers in the Pan area and appeared to be enjoying the new shoots of the grasses. A small group of 3-4 red hartebeest was also seen as part of this mixed herd.  Springboks congregated in large number and were often seen running spontaneously and ‘pronking’. Giraffe were found in the Tau Pan browsing on Acacia trees and in large numbers at San Pan on top of the sand ridge.

There was still lots of birdlife in the pan during March, many water species such as Saddle-billed Storks were attracted to the large puddles of water which remained after the rains. Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks were numerous in the area. These elegant grey raptors have a varied diet of rodents, lizards and insects; this month one individual was seen feeding on a juvenile African Rock Python. Other notable birds of prey seen during March were Tawny Eagles, Bateleur eagles, Blac-shouldered Kites, Amur Falcons and Lanner Falcons.

Tau Pan, February 2017

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Big herds of general game were congregated at the pan area. The palatable grasses in the pan provide nursing mothers with good nourishment for their milk production which is vital at this time of year when the lambs and calves are feeding hungrily. The wide, open vistas of the pan mean that many grazer species can be viewed at the same time including springbok, zebra, wildebeest and oryx. One evening a dramatic fight between two male oryx was witnessed as they went head to head with their long, pointed horns. On this occasion the intruder only suffered wounded pride before he was successfully chased off. On another occasion guests chuckled at an oryx walking around wearing a ‘hat’, having got a substantial bush hooked onto his horns. Maybe the fashion will catch on?

The Tau Pan pride was seen on a regular basis, generally there were 4 male lions accompanying the 2 lionesses although sometimes the pride was as large as 9. Some brawling was spotted between the male pride members so it will be interesting to see how the hierarchy of this pride plays out over the coming months. A pair of lions was found mating over a two-day period; this appears to have been a very active mating season for the Tau Pan lions, so we look forward to the patter of tiny paws in due course. Oryx seemed to be a popular menu choice for the lions in the area this month; the Tau Pan pride were found hunting these large desert antelope, stalking them through the long grasses. The following morning a different pride were discovered feasting on an oryx that they had killed along the road to Passarge Valley. This substantial kill was enjoyed by the pride for 3 days.

A frequently-seen resident female cheetah was spotted attempting to hunt in the Tau Pan area, unfortunately her youngster hindered rather than helped so the prey escaped. Across at San Pan the young cheetah family consisting of mother and two cubs seemed to be faring a little better and they were found full-bellied and in great condition. Cheetah were seen regularly on the day trips to Passarge Valley, some sightings being extremely close to the road. On one occasion a male cheetah was seen showing great interest in a young springbok, unfortunately the long grasses meant that we were unable to see how that particular hunt played out in the end.

On a different trip to Passarge Valley a large male leopard was found walking along the road although he was a little skittish. Later the same day a sub-adult was found up on a branch and was relaxed enough for great photos. To top off a great ‘cat’ day, a caracal was found hunting although on this occasion he was unlucky.

All in all, February was a great month for cat sightings. Another beautifully relaxed leopard was found treed-up in a picture-perfect Umbrella-thorn Acacia in the Tau Pan area. Guests were also happy to see the usually shy African Wild Cats in broad daylight.

Giraffe bulls were also seen fighting near Phukwe Pan, using their long necks as leverage to land blows on each other with their horns (or more correctly ‘ossicones’). The contestants will try to dodge each other’s blows and then get ready to counter. This behaviour is known as ‘necking’ and is used to establish dominance The rest of the journey seemed relaxed as they browsed acacia trees before elegantly walking off into the bush.

Many bird species are also in full breeding season and it is great to hear that Secretary Birds have been found nesting. Both male and female Secretary Birds visit a nest site for almost half a year before egg-laying takes place, incubation is approximately 45 days and then it will be a further couple of months before the chicks fledge, so we look forward to enjoying this family’s progress for some time to come.

Tau Pan, January 2017

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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!

Tau Pan, December 2016

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2016 was a fairly unusual year for the magnificent black-maned lions of Tau Pan. Late rains in March provided grass for the herds of antelope and zebra through much of the dry season which meant that they were not forced to migrate to greener pastures. In turn, because their food source remained stable the lions did not need to move to other parts of their territory and importantly this allowed the pride to reproduce successfully. Towards mid-December a pair could be seen from the main deck of the camp for several days as they performed their mating rituals in full view. Other pairs were seen mating at San Pan. By this time next year this pride will be fairly large and our guides are already predicting that in the future the Tau Pan lions are likely to extend their territory or even split up to form new prides.

One of the most unusual sightings was of a young lion that was seen whilst our guests were on a day trip to Deception Valley. The lion stalked and caught a new born springbok, but instead of killing and eating his prey he started playing with it. This is not something that is seen very often although other sightings of this behavior have been recorded.

Usually one of the more elusive creatures in Tau Pan is the leopard, but December yielded some incredible sightings. One large male in particular was completely relaxed with the presence of the game drive vehicle. He approached the vehicle out of curiosity and then moved off as though the vehicle was part of his afternoon stroll. This male moved into the territory in 2015; he and a female produced their first litter and so hopefully we will see more leopards in the future.

The cheetahs in the area also seemed to have a very successful breeding season, a female and three young cubs were seen whilst we were on a day trip to Deception Valley. Another mother with cubs was seen at Phukwi Pan and yet another family with three cubs was seen at Passage Valley.

All in all the Tau Pan predators had a great year and we will enjoy following the progress of the new arrivals.

Tau Pan, November 2016

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Seven male lions and four females began the month finishing of the remains of a kudu that they had killed not far from room 1. Pied crows and vultures soon descended after the lions moved off the kill, to finish what remains there were to be had. Six male intruder lions arrived at the Tau Pan camp waterhole at the beginning of the month and chased away the two females that were there.. The lionesses were then not seen for a week or so.

The female cheetah and cub were seen drinking at the  camp waterhole recently. Although they do frequent this area, they are also often seen in the Passarge waterhole. We also had the adult male cheetah coming down several times to drink – spending about 20minutes each time at the waterhole. We also saw another male cheetah near San Pan that had caught and killed an ostrich.

The colours of the Kalahari are changing – trees such as the camel thorn and the brandy bush are getting their new foliage, so greenery slowly comes into the desert. The scents are changing, too, as each acacia comes into blossom, one after the other.

It was however the month of Lions. Not only on the water hole in front of camp, but also in other pans in the area were they seen. But off course we don’t only look at lions the whole day. We have a resident baboon spider in the demonstration area, and the trackers know how to make them come out. A very impressive spider which lives in a hole, which is a trap for their prey at the same time.

Tau Pan, October 2016

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24 hours on safari is not a lot of time. With some luck, you’ll see good general game and perhaps a predator. Well, that’s what we thought too. Nature thought differently for the guest who landed in Tau Pan this month to find six lions waiting at the end of the airstrip. A short drive (carefully avoiding luggage confusion with the lions) to the camp, quick afternoon tea, then out for a game drive and six different lions coming back from the camp. Whilst on drive, they had had a great sighting of a cheetah, so things were going really well. A short walk in the morning before departure and add two more cheetah to the list, before getting on the plane to fly out to the next destination. This is NOT normal, please remember!

The first week of the month was slightly challenging for the staff (and guests) of the camp. When a coalition of six males and two lionesses decide that the best location for mating is just on the outskirts of the camp, everyone has to be on their most careful behavior. The early morning team that goes in to set up the breakfast and get the fire started were extra careful, and sure enough, discovered that one feline couple were having a romantic interlude under the main deck, looking down onto the waterhole.  Now, we appreciate that everyone wants a bit of privacy in these moments, but timing is everything. Luckily, the noise of the set up by the staff was enough to encourage the happy couple to move a little further away, to somewhere more secluded.

Other good sightings this month included a lovely relaxed male leopard walking along the road, in hunting mood, a female leopard seen the same day close to camp, three cheetahs near Sunday Pan having killed a springbok.

There was one sighting of a cheetah mother with three cubs in Deception valley. We think they might stay on that area, because there are not that many competing predators there.

Birders and twitchers also had a very unusual sighting. They observed ten ground hornbills together, and when a flock of Kalahari scrub robins landed in the middle of them, the ground hornbills killed and fed on them.

The coalition of 6 male lions was seen again several times in the last week of the month. It is common to see two or three males holding a territory together, but six is very unusual. From a male lion’s point of view, there is one clear advantage to group together with some mates. The more you are the easier it becomes to overpower other males with an established territory and take it over from them, including the harem of females. Second advantage is, once you are holding a territory, it is easier to defend it against other intruding males, and it lessens your individual risk of injuries in doing so. So far so good. The challenges however are these: six hungry guys need a lot of food. Hunting is done mostly by the females (males help take down big prey sometimes, and they kill for themselves while they are patrolling and marking the territory, but during the time they are joined up with the females they don’t actively hunt), and the males mostly take the kills away from them, feeding on it first. You can imagine after six males have eaten, there is nothing left. That puts enormous pressure on the pride’s females. They will have to make a lot of kills to sustain these six males, themselves and the cubs. We used to have a coalition of the “magnificent” seven in Kwara for several years. It worked ok there, but we have to consider that the density of large prey is much bigger in the delta than it is in the Central Kalahri Game Reserve, so it was somewhat easier for the females there to find enough prey to kill. The other challenge is the personal fitness of these males. In this context, personal fitness doesn’t mean how fast or how far you can run, but rates your chances to spread your genes. In other words how many offspring can you produce. Obviously the more males that are together decreases your individual chance to mate with a female, since they all have to be shared, hence your personal fitness goes down. It is likely that these six males will split up in the future. Hopefully they will hang around Tau Pan for a while, so we can observe what develops. We’ll keep you posted!

The Kalahari is known for its lions (proof enough above), good cheetah sightings, and also brown hyenas and lobsters. Er, probably not the last one? Call it a misadventure with google translate, but on seeing what our unsuspecting German visitors were being advised by one website, we found a new understanding of why some guests had complained about not having enough fish on the menu. There is a member of the arachnid family that is variously known as a red roman, a solifuge, or a Kalahari Ferrari, that does have a passing resemblance to a lobster, but this is not something you would want to end up on your dinner plate.

Tau Pan, September 2016

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The large lion pride from prior months continues to remain apart. The two dominant males of the area are regularly seen around the main government waterhole. The rest of the pride are seen in small groupings, throughout the park, and do move through the camp waterhole to drink as well.

Good sightings of the lioness with the two cubs as well – the mum was relaxing under the tree, whilst the two youngsters played, and then flopped over when they got too hot. By mid month, the lionesses had regrouped, with three of them and the cubs spending a lot of time together, mostly close to the two water holes. The males joined from time to time.

The cheetah mother with two young cubs was also a regular sighting. She is frequenting the area around Middle Road, coming in to drink at the waterholes when the lions are not there.
The bachelor herd of buffalos (six or seven of them)  are still coming in to drink water at the camp water hole most mornings and later afternoon. They are now ‘stuck’ till the rainy season – they cannot travel the distance to any alternative water source, and will be reliant on the grass which follows the rains. What they are currently managing to survive on is a bit of a mystery.

Big big herds of elephants coming in and out of the waterholes. The camp is providing plenty of water for them to drink, and having made an industrial/elephant strength electric fence around the camp itself, has finally deterred those individuals that wanted their own personal watering station. There were a few surprised moments when the ‘regulars’ first tried to come back in – nothing damaging, other than to their pride. They are now ‘slumming’ it with the rest of the herds and bulls at the large watering holes in front of the camp.