Where the Wild Things Are

The main draw to Africa is the wildlife. The people, the culture, music, dance, and history are bonus items. I’m happy to see them, and I do enjoy them. But in Africa, I want to see the animals I’ve read about or watched on TV, and I want to see them in front of me, living in the wild, in real time.

We had seen very few animals so far, although the “few” included a Greater Kudu and a pack of Wild Dogs (an endangered species,) both of which are rare occurrences outside of the national parks and reserves. The Greater Kudu was too far away for my telephoto lens (200mm,) but the wild dogs were right up by the road!

Wild dogs hunt in packs. The whole pack joins in the take-down of their prey, and they don’t wait for the animal to die before ripping it apart and eating it. A single dog would probably not bother an adult human, but I wouldn’t want to be around a pack!

There was the Hornbill at Spitzkoppe:

Along with the “non-social” Weaver birds. And there was a cousin to a Marmot and ravens.

But, when I think of Africa, I think of lions, leopards, elephants, giraffes, cheetahs, and hippos! Etosha National Park in Namibia is home to most of these, and viewing wildlife is the main occupation, so they have raised it to an art. Good wildlife viewing is possible on a modest budget in the national parks in Africa, just as it is in the United States. It took me a while to get that through my head – I envisioned wildlife viewing as a safari through the wilderness with porters to carry things, set up camp, start the fires, etc. But, it’s nothing like that, at least not here.

On our first day, we drove in our bus along the roads to the waterholes. Namibia being so dry, water is a natural magnet, and because there is no hunting (or off-road driving) in Etosha NP, the animals are not fearful of humans, and we had some good viewing.

“Viewing” here is more about watching the group dynamics at a waterhole than it is about spotting isolated animals, as in a zoo. The non-predatory animals, the herbivores, tend to watch each other as well as the landscape for signs of danger. The giraffe, for instance, has a broader view than the impala that are sharing the waterhole. And the cast changes – the impala moved on and were replaced by some zebras.

Giraffes away from the waterholes are shy. We would see them close to the road, always behind the trees and brush, but as soon as they saw us, they would start to move away. They may be gawky-looking when they are drinking from the water hole, but they are graceful as they canter across the plain.

Namibia has a few of these salt pans, as we saw near Sesriem and the dunes, but this one above is by far and away the largest. It is miles wide, and if you have to walk out of it and pick the wrong direction, the consensus is you won’t make it.

The picture below shows the body of a giraffe, much of it eaten away. Etosha NP does not do any manicuring – the philosophy is to make the park as natural as is possible and still serve the purpose. Hyenas, beetles, and birds use these carcasses as food sources for weeks, sometimes months.

Lions are apex predators. There is no animal that hunts lions besides humans, and since humans here do not harm them, lions are very relaxed, even with a dozen vehicles jockeying for good viewing position:

We spent a long while watching these zebras approach a water hole, and we watched

the elephants come from the other direction.

Two relatively young bulls on their own. Bulls leave their family at maturity, but they do not then automatically get their own herd. Elephants do not stop growing, at least for a long time, and they have to get a few more years before they are large enough to challenge a bull that does have a herd. In the meantime, they join with one to three other bulls of similar age, and wander their area, gaining size and experience until their opportunity arrives. We didn’t get to witness any challenges, but I was excited just to watch the dynamics of African animals in real time.

Eventually, the zebras moved on, and the two young elephants had some fun, playing in the water!

A herd of Oryx (a branch of the gazelle family) came through. They have the very long, straight-ish horns. Lions do not pick on them a lot because of the horns, which can do a lot of damage.

No animals in this one, just a view of the incredible landscape here in Namibia.

And a lonely black-backed jackal. My guess is he’s hungry and still looking. Predators, even lions, leopards, and cheetahs, are successful only about twenty percent of their attempts.

The shadows had grown longer, and now dusk was on us. The sky was beautiful as we drove back to our campsite:

We had dinner at our campsite, and then visited the waterhole nearby. This waterhole was near accommodations, so not as popular with the animals, but it still had visitors.

The next day, more animals! Springbok were very common. We were only able to see them do their “spring” once, very briefly. It it pretty cool, though – they literally “spring” straight up from a standstill. As far as anyone knows, springbok “spring” just because they feel like it, not for any evolutionary reason, literally jumping for joy.

The photo above shows an elephant carcass, looking mostly eaten away, so who knows how long it has been there. Naturalists have never found an “elephant graveyard.” It seems to exist only in legend.

A “Greater Kudu” came to the waterhole.

A hyena was slightly uphill from the waterhole. There were three of them, so I think it must have been a mother with two offspring, but I’m not sure about that.

Some female kudus came.

The hyenas decided to have a drink from the upper waterhole. This waterhole is artificial, as opposed to the natural spring where the other animals were. The park feeds the artificial waterholes when the natural springs are low so that the animals will still congregate.

Kudu looking to see what the hyenas are doing…. Hyenas are mainly carrion-eaters, preferring dead meat to hunting live meat. They are known to come and take fresh kill from lions, which is a game of numbers, i.e. the relative strength of the pack of hyenas versus the pride of lions. Hyenas may not attack the kudu, or any prey animal, themselves, but they often travel in proximity to lions and, if desperate, will attack live animals in a pinch. If you travel on four hooves, you want to keep an eye on the hyenas.

The female Kudu decided it was safe enough, and drank their water even while keeping an eye on the hyenas. In the background are a couple of warthogs, also being cautious.

In the afternoon, the traffic at the waterhole slows down – resting in the shade like this group of wildebeest is the more popular activity.

Zebra are particularly suited to the heat, so they are still feeding. I read recently that the black stripes and white stripes react to the heat differently, and actually generate some cooling. Evolution is amazing.

A family group of elephants took advantage of a mud hole to cool off. They also use the mud to prevent sunburn (who’d have thought?) and parasites.

Baby elephant, baby zebra!

Warthogs turned out to be smaller than I thought they would be, but they are about as tall as a large sheep. The one above is a female. Females have facial extrusions that are not really tusks, although it’s hard to tell right away, and that helps to deter predators. Lions will only attack from behind because the male’s tusks can do a lot of damage and lions try to avoid them. You can see why in the photo of a male below:

Eventually, we had to move on to our next destination.

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