Paying attention to the sounds around us while out on safari is a massive part of tracking and finding animals. The environment is alive with sounds, and deciphering what they mean is vital. Luckily for us, the Londolozi tracking and guiding team has centuries of combined tracking experience. This means that the trackers are able to distinguish between what is, for example, a normal bird song, or one that indicates that a large cat is walking past. Subtle but effective.
The beauty of immersing ourselves in nature, means allowing our senses to heighten. Just switching off the car and being surrounded by natural sounds, and smells, allows us to fall into a different level of connection to the natural world and our innate self.
When searching for animals on a game drive that we are all hoping to see, often no tracks are even necessary. Sometimes, the best time for this is while we have the vehicle engine switched off, and are sitting birdwatching through binoculars. The nearby bark of a kudu will highlight the presence of a predator. 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. Recognising the alarm calls of the various animals of Londolozi and establishing just how much importance to attach to each of them is in itself, a skill which is only honed over time after many hours spent in the bush – a fine art.
Below I’m going to speak about how recently, my good friend and tracker, Freddy Ngobeni, and I used the alarm calls of three different animals to find three of Londolozi’s big cats, including the incredibly rare cheetah.
The Wahlberg’s Eagle
One afternoon we had parked at the edge of a waterhole, watching three elephant bulls bathing themselves in muddy water, we heard the distant alarm call of a Wahlberg’s Eagle. The Wahlberg’s Eagle will give a shrill-wailing type alarm call specifically at a leopard. When listening for alarm calls given off by birds, it is important to realise the subtle differences between them. The shrill wail of the Wahlberg’s Eagle is very rarely a false alarm. Almost 100% of the time this bird gives off this certain call when it has spotted a leopard. In my time working at Londolozi, I have never seen or heard of the Walhberg’s Eagle making a mistake or being ‘wrong’.
Leopards are a threat to the nests of these migrating brown eagles, meaning that the Wahlberg’s Eagle will alarm until the leopard has completely moved out of his or her site. Soon after hearing the alarm, a couple of 100 metres away, we managed to find the Three Rivers Female leopard draped over the branch of a fallen marula tree. Without the help of the Wahlberg’s Eagle, we most definitely would have missed this amazing sighting of this beautiful female leopard, as we were set to drive off in a entirely different direction.
On a different game drive only a couple of days later, we decided to explore the northern parts of Londolozi and see what we could find for the morning. Whilst stopping for a much-anticipated coffee break along the banks of the Manyelethi River, the extremely diagnostic alarm call of a kudu caught our attention. 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.
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 and are the most trustworthy. If we hear kudu barking – it is a loud, deep bark, that travels a large distance – we know with almost 100% certainty that they have spotted a large predator, and our excitement levels instantly rise.
We quickly packed up the tea and coffee and got ourselves into the area where we had heard the alarms, and we found the female kudu staring towards an open clearing… and just up ahead of us lay the Talamati pride of Lions.
The Side-striped Jackal
The third and final example I’m going to use to explain how using our ears on safari can contribute to that particular game drive being a “successful” one, was a very special sighting. Late afternoon as the sun was about to start setting below the horizon, from afar, tracker Freddy heard the alarm calls of a side-striped jackal. We happened to be sitting with one of the Plains Camp Male Lions, who was extremely full after finishing off a buffalo kill earlier that afternoon. We decided to take the gamble and head into the area where we could hear the panicked jackal, and who knows what predator we’d bump into in the open grasslands!!
Stopping every now and then to listen, regaining the direction and distance to where the alarm calls were coming from led us a fair distance away from where we’d initially heard them from. Lo and behold, up ahead walking straight towards us, was a male cheetah. We followed him for about ten minutes, he jumped into a fallen marula tree to scan his surroundings, a beautiful way to watch the day came to an end. A sighting that lasted only about twenty minutes, but a sighting that has been at the top of the books for me over the past couple of months, and one I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
The above are only a few of the alarm-givers we find at Londolozi. Among the birds, there are many different species and calls one can discuss. 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…