The hooded vulture project was extending into the Kruger National Park, one of the largest wildlife reserves on the continent. It’s always exciting surveying new habitats to find nests, but if I’m honest I wasn’t that fussed that it was in Kruger. I don’t know why I had an indifference towards the place; I can only put it down to one of 2 possible reasons. Firstly, the majority of papers I read while at university were usually studies based on lions, cheetah and leopard found in the park, which just reiterated to me just how little funding was available for studies on my beloved small cats and the lack of research effort in other geographical areas. Secondly, everybody raved about it. I know that sounds daft but it’s the same as when people go on and on and on about a certain film that you ‘must watch’ (I still haven’t seen Slum Dog Millionaire) because they never seem to live up to the hype. Plus they spoke about it with such reverence due to the big five (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard) which, honestly, I must admit I’m not that fussed about, terrible I know.
Kruger is split into sections overseen by section rangers, and before we could start our research we had to let them know where we intended to be and check that it was OK to be there. With the continual increase in poaching and the scant resources for such a massive area, it was of paramount importance that they knew where we’d be so that resources weren’t wasted checking that we weren’t poachers, or if they were tracking people then they’d know to disregard our footprints and tyre treads. To make things more difficult there was going to be a full moon over the next week or so. Poaching attempts multiply ridiculously during this period as the moon lights everything up, reducing the need for flashlights thus making poachers less detectable. It is easy to understand why this time of the lunar cycle is sometimes referred to as the ‘poacher’s moon’.
We were up just after 4am and on the road by 5am, there should be some sort of mechanism that physically stops people leaving their beds at this time, it’s just not natural. We had to be at the park gates as soon as they opened at 6am so we could meet with the section rangers in their respective areas, which were a considerable drive into the park. Bleary-eyed, we rolled into Kruger and within 20 minutes were greeted by a family group of ground hornbills, I was ecstatic as I had wanted to see these birds for years. With a disdainful one-eyed glance at us, in a very velociraptor kind of way, they mooched past the car and continued on with their day. They are an incredibly powerful bird and very territorial too, which has left some motorists extremely unhappy after they’ve attacked their reflections on cars and left massive dents in the bodywork. A little further down the road a pair of well-fed spotted hyenas trotted along, it was the best morning EVER! We have a clan of them on the reserve I’m staying at but I have yet to see them. I am however, treated to their whooping calls most nights as I fall asleep. Although nocturnal, during the winter months many predators extend their activity period into the early morning due to scarcity of food. I may have been missing out on the snakes and the insects due to the ‘low’ (snigger) temperatures but this sighting more than made up for it.
Although the day was filled with meetings rather than fieldwork it was outstanding for wildlife sightings. We saw the usual elles, impala, zebra and buffalo but we were also treated to a Bateleur eagle feasting on the ground a few feet from the car, a fish eagle sitting beautifully on a tree by a watering hole and the first lappet-faced vulture of my trip posing as if he was on the cover of Vogue.
It was another 5am start on the first day of fieldwork. After picking up our game guard – no one is allowed to walk in the bush without one – we headed straight for the river with nothing but hooded vultures and nests on our minds. While bumping down a side track a sudden shout of ‘honey badger!’ brought the car to an immediate stop. There, waddling into the undergrowth was the black and white nutcase of Africa. These guys are uber tough: they chase lions and hyenas off their kills, they are amazing problem solvers, fantastic escape artists, stupidly strong and have no fear. I adore them! After a few paces he turned, looked directly at us, decided we weren’t worth bothering with and padded off. The joke about my camera having a curse on it didn’t seem like a joke any more, as I was seeing amazing and uncommon animals which were providing me with some of the best photo opportunities I’ve ever had – whilst the damn thing was in for repair somewhere in Johannesburg. I would have these memories for a lifetime but it did suck being stuck with only a phone camera.
Once down at the river we loaded up with the tree climbing gear and set off. The area was beautiful. Saddle-billed storks along with white-throated cormorants, goliath herons and grey herons were gulping down fish while a pied kingfisher hovered nearby. We climbed up the sandy bank and began our search. At each potentially suitable tree we looked for the obvious – a nest, but also for “whitewash”, which is basically bird faeces either plastered down the side of the trunk or accumulated on the ground. This is because birds produce uric acid which gives their droppings a white colour. We came across many white-backed vulture nests but unfortunately no hoodies. As we continued our search an enormous shape flew out of a tree and landed slightly further on. We crept closer and it flew to another tree a few metres away, whatever it was –it was freaking massive! I finally got a great view through the binoculars, it was a Verreaux’s eagle owl; at 2.3kg it is one of the largest owls in the world. It had pink eyelids over jet black eyes and the most
enormous talons I have ever seen, it was stunning, but I wouldn’t want it mistaking my head for dinner.
After we’d surveyed one bank it was shoes off and a quick wade across the very low river to the other side (don’t worry, the water was too low and clear for crocodiles to creep up, other parts, however, were another matter). As we walked along the other bank we didn’t see any hooded vultures, there were quite a few potential trees but no sign of the birds. Disheartened, but undeterred we continued on. A loud splash broke the silence and to our left 8 hippos emerged from the river, for something so bulky they could be incredibly sneaky; if you weren’t looking closely and didn’t startle them then it’s unlikely you would have even noticed them. All over the banks we’d seen signs of hippos, from pugmarks and scat, to sleeping divots in the sand. The entire river was divided into small territories inhabited by different family groups fiercely defended by a dominant male. Every time we came across another group it was just as exciting as the first. The best moment was when a particularly large group all charged out of the river towards us. Luckily the bank was steep and we were safe enough at the top as they milled around below us. I think hippos are fantastic, they’re grumpy, dangerous and their life is an endless cycle of eat, sleep, swim, repeat. If I had a spirit animal, it would definitely be a hippo.
A family of hippos entering the water and a hippo sleeping indentation
As we wandered along the river bank, in addition to wild animal tracks, we unfortunately came across bare footed human tracks which meant only one thing – poachers! This was one of the tricks used by poachers in the park. They try to make themselves difficult to track by removing their shoes and crossing a river, only putting their shoes back on where the ground is harder away from the river, so that it is difficult to be certain if the shoe prints belong to the poachers or to legitimate park visitors. We marked down the co-ordinates on the GPS and sent a message to the section rangers.
We continued on our nest search and found nothing but white-backed vulture nest after white-backed vulture nest, until eventually, we came across a slightly smaller nest set lower down in a tree with a suspicious little hoodie face peering down at us. A little way away from the tree we got to work, Lindy put on her climbing harness, hard hat and googles, John sorted the catapult and fishing line while I checked on the climbing ropes. No, we weren’t planning on blasting the poor bird off the nest, the catapult was for shooting a thin line up into the tree so the climbing rope could be hauled up enabling Lindy to access the nest. After a few tries the line was over the correct branch and Lindy zoomed up the rope. She was setting a camera trap over-looking the nest when we heard the approach of a low flying plane. We recognised it as belonging to the Kruger Park rangers – they had got our message – so we stepped into a clearing and waved. Once they recognised us they quickly moved on, hopefully they would catch the interlopers. Quick as a flash Lindy was at the base of the tree again, we grabbed the gear and backed off so that the circling vulture could return to it’s nest.
After two more days of nest searching in the Kruger we only came across a few hooded vulture nests. One of the main reasons for this seemed to be a lack of suitable trees due to the 2012 flood, which uprooted and destroyed much of the plant life along the banks of the Olifants river. In an attempt to find suitable habitat we had to search further away from the river and when we did find them it wasn’t good news. A pair of hooded vultures had been nesting but we found their single egg smashed at the base of the tree, and a few trees further on we found another large egg also broken on the ground. Baboons! There was baboon scat all over the place and they’re well-known for raiding nests when climbing trees. These poor birds couldn’t seem to catch a break here.
Despite the scarcity of hooded vultures, after 4 days in Kruger the park had completely won me over. I had seen some amazing animals and felt incredibly privileged not only to have been allowed access to areas of the park that the general public did not have access to, but to have been able to explore it on foot. Due to the worst drought in 100 years I had been able to cross the river in relative safety from one side to the other (how many people can say that?) and yes, I’ll admit it, my fantastic fawn-like balance came into play during one particularly algae-covered rock crossing and I ended up with a tide mark up to my stomach. I heard hippos vocalise for the first time (it sounded like hearty chuckling), I’d seen a pair of stunning orange Pel’s fishing owls – which I was told were the Holy Grail of birds in South Africa – and I’d seen red-crested korhaans displaying, the first of which shouted at the car as he ran towards us, only just cleared the roof and then parachuted down, it was hilarious! I’m still not hugely interested in the ‘big 5’ but Kruger has definitely gained another fan.