My friend and tracker, Rob “Prof” Hlatshwyo, has an uncanny ability to understand and therefore predict an animal’s movements. I cannot count the number of times that we have seen tracks heading one way – say from point A – and I, thinking I am finally getting a grip on this whole predicting animal movement thing and mention that we should check point B. The Professor raises his head to look up from the tracks and patiently says,
“But brother, remember there were lions here yesterday, their scent will still be around this area. This leopard will loop around to use the high ground before approaching the area. Let’s go look at point C.”
And 90% of the time the man has nailed it! And I have learnt another lesson from the font of knowledge that only 12 years of tracking can fill.
This particular situation highlights a world that is so apart from ours, the world of scent.
Watch a rhino scent marking for example. A big bull comes trudging down the road, his broad head slung low to the ground and stops at his midden. He turns, defecates into the centre and uses his massive back hooves to kick apart the droppings. Massive clouds of scent – picture them as blue smoke – burst into the air and drift on the wind. The cracks on the bottom of the bull’s hooves fill with dung and when the bull continues on his patrol, imagine blue pools of scent being left behind, fading slightly with each 2500kg step as it imprints into the road, a trail that is dragged out for hundreds of metres, leading to his next midden. In this way, the bull advertises his dominance over the area, only he has mating rights to any estrus female in his territory.
The bull approaching his next midden then notices some messages that have been left behind for him. A younger male has defecated not in the midden but nearby and has not broken up the dung but rather left it intact – this is a sign of deference. A marker left behind to say that
“Sir, I am in your area, I need to feed and I need access to water, but I am not looking to mate with any females and that should we encounter each other I will submit to you.”
The bull is satisfied with this. Or perhaps, while sniffing about his midden he notices the dung of a female – now this, this is definitely a cause for interest; the big bull will inhale this scent, passing it through his specialized Organ of Jacobson that will sift the scent for trace hormones that can indicate that the female is in estrus. Should this be the case then an observer will note an immediate change in the male’s behaviour. His huge nostrils will flare as he devours the scent, noting the subtle aspects of this particular female’s scent and working out which way she has gone. He turns about on the spot orientating himself and then, satisfied that he has a heading, the mammal lumbers off, his colossal head swinging back and forth, nostrils flaring, as he searches for the opportunity to mate and further his genes.
Or watch how a pride of lions will turn their heads in unison as the wind changes, raising their muzzles into the airflow to check for any sign of approaching prey or foe.
Watch as a male lion dips his head to analyse the urine of a female, the same Jacobson Organ as the rhino being accessed through the flehmen grimace, a comical expression seen on many mammals as they process urine or dung, gleaning knowledge of the state of estrus, or perhaps the health of an individual or any number of other indications that we just can’t understand.
Watch a leopard stop as it picks up the scent of an invader as he or she moves through its territory. Watch as they spin on the spot, analysing every last trace of that scent parcel so that they may be better prepared for any potential interaction.
Watch as African wild dogs roll in any dung they come across, adding further to their unique scent, before rubbing that same smell on others and sniffing one another to further their pack’s bond.
An elephant subtly turns their trunk toward you, analysing every bit of scent being carried by the wind, just to make sure it knows who or what is upwind. Or raises their trunk high into the air, scenting the wind, able to smell water from over 12km away!
Watch as a python “tastes” air, searching for his next victim.
Only the luckiest of us will get to see the aardvark, an animal that can smell termites below the earth’s surface.
And watch as the ultimate tracker, the hyena trails the drag mark of a leopard kill to the base of a Marula tree.
The world of scent is fascinatingly complex and varied, but ultimately ubiquitous across the entire animal kingdom and is such a fun part of this environment to look out for. Watch for it on your next visit to Londolozi.