The best way to find the big cats is to look at birds. Or anything else small really.
Sounds silly, I know, but it is when the vehicle is switched off that you have the greatest chance of help from nature itself; the alarm calls of the herbivores.
Londolozi places a great emphasis on tracking and finding animals, relying on the skills of the local Shangaan men (and woman, in the case of Margaret Ngobeni – Varty Camp butler and occasional tracker!), whose skill in following the trail left by the inhabitants of the bush is renowned. Yet a lot of the time, before the tracker is able to spot whatever he has been following, the lion or leopard will have been seen by an antelope or a squirrel, and the alarm call that that prey species will inevitably give, gives away the predator’s position. The tracker will have played a crucial role in narrowing down the area in which the predator is moving, and by being on foot and away from the noise of the vehicle, he is far more likely to hear whatever alarm calls are sounded. By using a handheld radio he will then be able to direct the ranger in with the Land Rover to where he thinks the leopard or lion has been seen by whatever animals has given off the alarm.
Often no tracks are even necessary. While sitting and bird-watching through binoculars with the engine switched off, the nearby bark of a kudu will betray the presence of a predator, and the best course of action is to quickly find the kudu itself, see which direction it’s looking in, and almost invariably, that will be where the predator is.
Recognizing the alarm calls of the various animals of Londolozi and establishing just how much importance to attach to them is in itself a fine art, a skill which is only honed over time after many hours spent in the bush.
We thought we’d run through a few of the more common ones here to give you an idea of just how much help they can be when out looking for the big cats.
A general rule of alarm calls is that the smaller the creature is that is sounding the alarm, the less reliable it is as an indicator of a big predator’s presence. As a wild animal, you generally aren’t going to be too concerned about things that can’t hurt you, which is why if a nyala bull sees a slender mongoose scurry by, he won’t be too put out by it. A crested francolin however, a ground-dwelling bird, has a lot more to worry about and will definitely give off its warning call upon sighting a mongoose.
There are a whole range of things that birds will alarm at; snakes, mongooses, right the way up the scale to lions and leopards. An isolated bird alarm is therefore not too much to get worked up about while out in the bush. The real value in bird alarm calls comes when they are heard in conjunction with another indication of a large predator in the area.
Say you are following fresh leopard tracks and a francolin starts chuck-chucking up ahea; there is a very good chance that it is the leopard that the francolin has seen.
Squirrels, like birds, sound the alarm at almost anything, even each other. Their high-pitched chattering is a relatively common sound in the bush, but their calls are often a red herring when on the trail of a predator.
One advantage to a squirrel’s alarms is that the pitch and cadence changes depending on what the squirrel is alarming at. The call they give when an eagle flies over is different to the one they give if they see a leopard. The tricky part is actually identifying which type of alarm a squirrel is giving off, and this is a skill that takes years in the bush to get right. Like with the birds, if there are fresh predator tracks heading in the direction of where the squirrel is alarming, the likelihood is that it is whatever you are tracking that the squirrel has seen.
The vervet monkeys that abound in and around camp, and indeed over much of Londolozi, always tell us when they’ve seen a leopard. They hardly bother alarming at lions, since lions don’t represent too much of a threat to them. No sane lion is going to try and scale a tree to catch such a small meal as a vervet, so the monkeys tend to reserve their real alarming for the leopards (and occasionally cheetah, who, while not really posing a threat to them, look enough like leopards to confuse the monkeys).
The problem with monkeys alarming is that although we usually have a very good idea of what it is they’ve seen (they do have slightly different calls for other threats, but the leopard alarm is pretty clear cut), they are usually assessing the danger from up in the trees, and their eyesight is so good that the predator could be far away, and not in the immediate vicinity.
I remember being very confused one afternoon when out with Mike Sithole and Enoch Mkansi, two trackers with some of the best eyes in the business, while monkeys were going crazy all around us. There were no tracks of a leopard or anything really to indicate that one was nearby, yet the monkeys kept up their chatter for over 15 minutes. The start of the grassland areas was on the crest-line opposite us, so as a roll of the dice we started scanning with binoculars in case the monkeys had spied a cheetah in the distance. Eventually, after looking at termite mound after termite mound, we spotted a female leopard (the Nhlanguleni female), hiding in the grass on top of a mound, roughly 600m away! With a pair of Swarovski 10×50 binoculars she was difficult to see, so how the monkeys with their naked eyes had spotted her, I will never know!
Being the most successful and often-encountered antelope on Londolozi, it is fair to say that impalas are the most likely antelope to be encountering the big cats. Their snorting alarm doesn’t travel quite as far as the barking of their bigger cousins, the kudu and nyala, so hearing concerted impala alarm calls generally means a predator is close.
Two factors count against impalas in the reliability stakes however, one being that they are well-known to cry wolf. A warthog emerging suddenly from its burrow or a bushbuck creeping partially obscured through a nearby thicket is just as likely to raise the alarm, as the impala that sees the movement would far rather be safe than sorry, snorting loudly to put the herd on the alert, unsure if the movement is something dangerous or not.
The second thing is that the noise given off by impala rams when engaging in battle – whether mock or real – can easily be confused with a genuine alarm call, so one has to remain cognizant of this, particularly during May/June, which is the height of the rut, and a time in which the rams are calling almost 24/7.
Nyala and Bushbuck
Two antelope that favour the riparian vegetation found along watercourses, we are now getting into the realms of the very reliable. Although neither are guaranteed to be definite indicators of a predator nearby (I have seen Nyala false alarm at impalas, as well as bushbuck males barking at each other), both are quite dependable as alarmers.
Also, given that their habitat preferences align, it is more often than not a leopard that either of these species will have seen if you do happen to hear their distant bark (sounding much like a dog’s). They will of course alarm at lions and cheetahs, but since leopards are often to be found slinking through dense thickets along riverbanks, which is where both nyala and bushbuck are usually encountered – it is the spotted cats who are generally the ones who disturb these beautiful antelope.
If the animals that sound the alarm in the bush were a deck of cards, the kudu would be the ace of spades.
I have yet to see kudu give off a false alarm, or at least if I have, I have forgotten about it – which is unlikely since the incident would definitely be notable.
Being one of the largest prey species out there, kudu are clearly not going to fazed by a bateleur eagle soaring above or a band of mongooses in the long grass; I have only ever seen them alarm at cheetah, lion and leopard. Their keen eyesight, excellent sense of smell and huge ears all combine to give them the edge when it comes to detecting predators, and as indicators go, they occupy the top spot on the list. If we hear kudu barking – and it is a loud bark, so we can hear it from far away – we know with almost 100% certainty that they have spotted a large predator, and excitement levels instantly rise.
The only fault I can find in the alarm bark of a kudu – and I’m having to be really picky here – is that it carries so well that by the time we actually get into the area, potentially having driven from a couple of kilometres away – the predator may have already moved off!
The above are only a few the alarm-givers we find at Londolozi. Among the birds there are many different species and calls one can discuss. Side-striped jackals yelping almost certainly indicate that a leopard is nearby (I’ve never heard them alarm at lion), and baboons of course from their tree top sentinel posts kick up a big fuss if they see lions moving past.
I guess my main point is that stopping the vehicle, switching off and listening to what the bush is trying to tell you is often the best way to find what you’re looking for…