One doesn’t have to go very far to find drama in the bush. The camp is surrounded by wildlife, thanks partly to our riverfront position, yet we sometimes have to look no further than our doorsteps to bear witness to the miracle of nature.
Earlier this year we ran a post on the birth of an nyala, and in it Simon Smit remarked on just how rare it is to witness such an event, one that generally takes place in complete secrecy. The life of the nyala calf featured in that post wasn’t followed closely, but he is still seen in and around the camp and is doing well. Since his birth however, we have had another opportunity to watch a young nyala grow up, and this latest one has given us a wonderful insight into how a mother nyala and her youngster get through the first few weeks of the calf’s life.
It has been well documented how certain antelope species such as nyala and waterbuck will secrete their young in a thicket or long grass for extend periods of time while the mother goes off to feed. These species often live in small groups, and a newborn among the adults becomes the immediate target for any predator that happens by. The tactic of the mothers is therefore to keep the calf well hidden, only returning to it occasionally to nurse, until it is big enough to run properly and have a better chance of escaping danger. This hiding-away period generally lasts for a few weeks, but can vary.
Imagine my surprise when I emerged from my house the other day, and there next to the pathway to the staff canteen, a bare two metres away from me, lay an absolutely tiny nyala calf. Its large ears pointed in my direction, very alert, yet its wide eyes betrayed no hint of fear. It was lying in a patch of leaves under a large tree Wisteria, waiting patiently…
I had a game drive to take, so couldn’t hang around. Plus I didn’t want to disturb the calf and scare it away from its obvious hiding place. When I returned to my room after lunch, the calf had gone, but there was a small hollow in the leaves where it had been lying.
Over the next ten days I would see the calf in its hiding place every evening, and occasionally we would see it wandering around camp in company with it’s mother, but it was not until the day before I went on leave that I was treated to the very special sight of the mother actually fetching the calf in the morning.
I was sitting alone at the staff canteen enjoying some eggs on toast when an adult female nyala walked purposefully past me. Nyalas are a constant presence in the camp, but this lone female heading straight towards where the calf always hid had my heart rate escalating immediately. She was making a soft coughing noise, in the same manner in which a leopard will call its cubs out from a den, so I realised this must be how she lets her calf know it’s safe to come out.
Not caring if my eggs got cold, I followed her, taking my iPhone out to record the reunion that I hoped was imminent. The female walked down the path where the calf usually hid, and I had a momentary panic when it wasn’t in its usual hiding place. The mother kept calling however, and a few seconds later the patter of tiny hooves sounded as the mother nyala rounded the corner into my garden, and there was the calf, running in to have its first drink of milk for the day.
This was two weeks ago, and the calf is now big enough to accompany its mother as she wanders through camp, and it no longer frequents its old hiding place. A part of me feels a sad tug at the heart when I see the hollow in the leaves, still there as a reminder of how I used to fall asleep with the calf only metres away outside. But then I continue walking through camp and see mother and young one together, seemingly content, safe for now, and hopefully destined to thrive in this magical ecosystem. It never fails to bring a smile to my face.
Written and Filmed by James Tyrrell
Photographed by Simon Smit