INDIVIDUAL CHEETAH

We know that each zebra sports a unique pattern of stripes which are not even the same on both sides of the animal! I read recently that cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) also have unique coat patterns. Now, they are not as easy to come across in the wild as zebras are and are often very well camouflaged in the grass.

They are also often solitary – making any comparison difficult, so I am not surprised that I have not noticed this phenomenon.

To be fair, I see these animals so seldom that closely observing the coat pattern is the last thing on my mind – even if there happens to be more than one cheetah together.

Apparently cheetahs have about 2 000 round or oval spots measuring 20 to 40 mm in diameter. Not only do they each have a unique pattern of spots, but sport distinctive tail rings too. Most of the cheetahs I have seen have been partly obscured by grass, so I have not really seen much of their tails! This one is an exception.

Apart from the spots and tail rings, cheetah also have characteristic black tear markings which are thought to protect them against the glare of the sun and to help them focus attention on their prey.

 

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SCENES FROM NATIONAL PARKS

South Africa is blessed with several national parks. It takes time and travelling long distances to visit even some of them, yet none disappoint. Today I will feature scenes from a few of them. The Addo Elephant National Park is not very far from where we live and so, every now and then, we go there for a day visit. Given its name, visitors naturally expect to see elephants there:

It is also a good place for birding, where one might be fortunate to see raptors such as this Jackal Buzzard:

The Mountain Zebra National Park is also easily accessible to us and is the perfect place to spend a few days. Visitors here would obviously expect to see mountain zebras:

However, one might also be fortunate to spot a cheetah lying in the yellow grass:

There are red hartebeest in the Karoo National Park – which makes a good stopping point between where we live and Cape Town:

One can also enjoy seeing ostriches striding along the open veld:

The world famous Kruger National Park is several day’s journey from here and hosts an enormous variety of plants, birds, insects and animals. When we consider the alarming rate at which rhinos are killed in this country, we cannot help but feel privileged to see them from close quarters here:

The name on every visitor’s lips is ‘lion’. Mention the word and people speed up and jostle for space to see even the tip of the tail of one. Equally exciting to see though are leopards:

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is the furthest away from us and – despite its remote location – is such a popular destination that one has to book accommodation about a year ahead. This is an incredible place for seeing lions:

It is also a marvellous place for seeing the very beautiful crimson-breasted shrike:

CHEETAH

While on the subject of animals, one of the most exciting species to keep a sharp look out for in the Mountain Zebra National Park is cheetah. The first of these animals were released in the park in 2007. We saw them many years ago, a lucky sighting in the distance best viewed through binoculars. On one other occasion we spotted one of these fine looking animals on an open plain – once it hunkered down it became invisible even though the grass was short. During several visits since the sight of any cheetah has evaded us.

Thus it was that in July three of our party joined a group on a cheetah tracking adventure that took them towards an area not open to the general public. They were away for several hours and returned feeling jubilant at not only having witnessed a kill but seen the cheetahs from nearby. That evening, a guide told us that cheetah there have developed a fondness for ostriches – I would never have thought of that.

We returned in October and at the end of our first drive around the park, just as the sun was getting really low in the sky, we saw this sitting in the grass right next to the road:

Another cheetah we hadn’t noticed at first then stood up to stride across the veld:

It stopped to briefly look back at the first cheetah:

Then continued on its way:

One can tell from this image how easy it is for the cheetah to blend into this environment:

Meanwhile, the first cheetah obligingly showed us the ‘tear marks’ cheetah are well-known for:

It too got up to move to the other side of the road, where the second cheetah had gone to join a third one we had had no idea was there!

 

DIURNAL

What does the word diurnal conjure up for you? For some it may relate to things which occur on a daily basis, such as reading the newspaper (or news online), writing in a diary or keeping a journal of some sort. Its roots are deeply embedded in Latin: dies (day) and diurnus (daily) became diurnalis in Late Latin, from where it moved into Middle English.

I tend to think of ‘diurnal’ in terms of creatures that are active during the day. Among these are:

Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis) colloquially known as a Dassie – they can be seen basking in the sun on large rocks, particularly during mornings and late afternoons.

Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), South Africa’s national animal, are most active in the early mornings and late afternoons.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) tend to hunt early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

Impala (Aepyceros melampus) are mainly active during the day, except during the hot midday hours, and ruminate at night.

Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) forage during the day from sunrise until shortly before sunset.

Given my recent interest in butterflies, this quotation from Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man is pertinent:

During the night colours are not visible, and there can be no doubt that the nocturnal moths, taken as a body, are much less gaily decorated than butterflies, all of which are diurnal in their habits.

REDUCING THE LUCK FACTOR

It is not all about the camera you have. Whenever I see beautiful photographs other people have taken of animals, birds, frogs, and insects, I cannot help thinking how fortunate those photographers are to have seen those creatures – let alone photograph them. Yet, when recounting what we have observed in a game reserve, for example, the response is often along the lines of “you’re so lucky!”

Luck does play a role in what we come across in any environment. I often declare that what we see on a game drive is a lucky draw. Is it only that? Of course not: one can reduce the ‘luck factor’ in several ways.

Developing an awareness of one’s environment is one. If you do, then any colour, shape or movement out of the ordinary is bound to attract your attention. This applies to anything from animals to beetles.

There were a number of Vervet Monkeys about. Careful observation drew attention to this one with an incomplete tail.

Patience is a necessary part of observation. One must be prepared to walk or drive slowly enough to pay attention to the environment one is passing through. Likewise, one needs to be willing to watch and wait.

The sun was near setting when this small herd of Zebra approached the waterhole with caution. We waited twenty minutes or more before they finally bent down to drink.

Consider the time of the day. The temperature rises considerably in the middle of the day in South Africa. Wild animals tend to seek the shade during the hottest part of the day, when only “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” (Noel Coward). There is likely to be more activity during the early mornings and late afternoons, so these are good times to move through the veld and when the light tends to be better for photography anyway.

I photographed this White-crowned Lapwing while walking through a camp very early one morning.

Engage other visitors in conversation to find out what they have seen and where. While one cannot expect an animal to remain in a particular area for long, you can at least develop an understanding of what might be there.

Waterbuck

A collection of vehicles along a road in a game reserve is a sure sign of something unusual and interesting to see – very often a predator. Be patient instead of trying to muscle in and possibly blocking the view of a visitor who has been waiting there for a long time. Your turn will come. Sometimes it is better to assess the situation, note the spot and to return later.

We would never have spotted this Cheetah had our attention not been drawn to it.

A very simple way of reducing the ‘luck factor’ is by lowering your line of sight. It is surprising how many visitors miss seeing animals close by because they are looking too high! This may be fine for bird watchers, but for animal watchers ground level is best.