We have always been strangers to the night. Darkness brings fear; the fear of the unseen with unfamiliar sounds and not being able to make out anything past your hand.
The uncomfortable feeling you get when, on a night with a waning moon, all the lights have been turned off around you and a pride of 20 lions walk past you sitting in the vehicle. Without the light from the moon we would, like most prey species, have little to no vision at night, but this same light in its different phases goes a long way towards determining if the prey or the predator has the upper hand
As the sun dips below the rolling hills of Londolozi, taking the last ray of light away from the diverse wilderness, the full moon rises in its intensity as it glides into the night sky. We watch how the herbivores kick up dust and settle down in an open clearing, hoping for a safe night’s rest.
The echo of bats replaces the last evening chorus of a Kurrichane Thrush, the Fireflies’ light twinkles in a mesmerising dance and a Spotted Hyena’s faint whoop sounds in the distant. All signalling the end of another day and the start of the darkness of the night.
As the moon gets brighter, the incredible senses of predators become less of an advantage and the prey begin to see better. Animals may visit waterholes but only the larger herbivores are brave enough to go to these dangerous places at night. Rhinos are one of the larger animals that venture to the water, and a lot of socialising, unknown to many people, takes place under the stars. Some grazers/browsers have been seen feeding later into the night especially on full moon nights, as there is more light for them to see clearer.
Other animals that may also benefit from the full moon are the Cheetah and Painted Wolves. The sunset usually signals the end of their activities but there have been many recorded hunts made by these predators on full moon nights. We often don’t follow these diurnal animals at night so that we don’t put pressure on them, so this remains unseen behaviour here. Although, often when we leave them on a full moon night and try find them the following morning, we don’t find them close to where we left them that night, indicating that they may have patrolled their home range or hunted between dusk and dawn. This may come to you as a surprise because a lot of people don’t know that Cheetahs or Painted Wolves hunt at all at night. It has been recorded that one third of Cheetah kills take place on bright nights on the savannah plains in East Africa.
Even in full moon, the advantage can swing as clouds move across its face. True darkness like that we see at new moon tips the scales back towards the nocturnal predators.
The light of a full moon may help Painted wolves or Cheetahs to hunt at night but this light will expose Lions and/or Leopards.
Dark new moon however nights bring opportunity for the other big cats. Lions and leopards dominate in dark cloudy nights. They can see around eight times better than us at night so using the darkness as their ally, the hunt begins. I have watched the Mhangeni Pride hunt on a clear waxing gibbous moonlit night, but this light from the moon often ruined their hunt as the white underparts and their cream-coloured fur illuminated under the stars and moon as they tried to stalk, eventually giving away their presence.
By far the higher percentage of successful hunts we are aware of take place under the darkest of conditions.
There is more activity in the natural world at night than we can imagine. Its phase though, completely determines which animals have the upper hand…