Birds and Beasts

Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre was on the program. I was leary of this destination because, in my travels, I have been to some “wildlife centers” that were uninteresting and sometimes sad.

Moholoholo was different. We were welcomed by our guide, Moses, into a small classroom building, and given an introduction to the center. It was clear that Moses enjoyed his work – he was organized, knowledgeable, and smiled easily and often. He explained the rehabilitation work provided by the Centre, but told us that we would not see any of the animals that they planned to release back into the wild. Animals that were able to be released were kept away from humans so that they would stay wild.

Moses explained that they had failed with one particular bird who had come to the Centre as a fledgling. He said the ground hornbill had “imprinted” on humans, meaning that the bird thought he was one of the humans rather than a bird. Nonetheless, if he (the bird) thought you might be a suitable mate, he would try to offer you some food as a way of courting you. “Ground hornbills mate for life, so, consider that before you decide whether or not to accept!” he joked.

Africa is filled with wildlife, familiar yet different, and the birds of Africa are no exception. Eagles, hawks, storks, flamingos, and dozens of smaller birds populate the parks. Some tourists come with seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the varieties, but I am not one of them. The photographs below that are not labeled are the ones “that got away,” meaning I didn’t catch their names. The birds are still interesting, still familiar yet different, and part of the colorful weaving that is Africa.

Black eagle or Verreauxs eagle
Southern ground hornbill, eyeing the visitors. Those “eyelashes” are very fine, delicate feathers, rather than hair.

Southern ground hornbills live throughout southern Africa, are about three feet tall, weigh between five and seven pounds, and have a wing span of about four feet. They can fly up to 18 miles per hour. Males have a wattled neck that is all red; females are red with a patch of violet-blue. Males will inflate their wattle when trying to attract females, and can emit “booming” calls that are often mistaken for a lion’s roar.

These birds are carnivores who live in groups of between two to nine birds. They hunt for food by walking slowly through the grass and brush, eating seeds and fruits, insects, toads, rats, squirrels, and even small monkeys.

Only the dominant male and dominant female breed. They are monogamous and pair for life. In captivity, they can live up to 70 years. The other members of the group are mostly male, and caring for the chicks is their responsibility. The female lays one to three eggs, but usually only one survives.

Southern ground hornbills are, like so many animals, losing habitat, and this threat has classed them as “vulnerable.” They can live in woodlands, grasslands, and savannas, as long as there are trees around to roost in and build their nests in.

Humans are also a threat in other ways. The hornbills attack their reflection in windows of houses and businesses, asserting territory or dominance, and are big enough to break the glass. They can be injured in that way, or simply killed by the people to get rid of the “pests.” Hornbills are used in rituals and traditional medicine, and yet a third human threat comes from land mines. Hornbills are big enough that as they poke the ground looking for rats or squirrels, they detonate land mines left from past rebellions and conflicts.

He is turning toward his collection of dead chicks.
After carefully decapitating the chick, he walked over and held it out to me. I’m flattered?
The Bateleur eagle. I thought he was nervous with all the people, but he wasn’t.
The Bateleur eagle is being patient while Moses explains about these birds.
At last! Moses rubs his head.
A beautiful and happy Bateleur eagle
Long-crested eagle
African fish eagles (white heads,) found throughout eastern Africa. I saw them in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and southern Kenya.

Africa has eleven species of vultures. Eight of them have declined by about 62% in the last thirty years. Globally, vultures are the most endangered bird species.

Vultures can strip a large carcass in just a few hours, which helps keep the environment clean and disease-free, not to mention recycling nutrients.

Threats to vultures include:

Power lines: Vultures’ large wing span makes it difficult to turn quickly and avoid power lines. Loss of food supply: Humans have encroached on wildlife areas, resulting in a diminished food supply for vultures (and others.) Direct poisoning: Poachers poison vultures to prevent them from alerting rangers to the location of a poaching victim.
Indirect poisoning: Farmers poison the predators who prey on their livestock, and vultures die when they consume these carcasses.
Traditional medicine: Some believe that some diseases can be cured with vulture body parts, or that consuming vulture body parts will give them paranormal visions.

White-headed vulture pair
The White-backed vulture “at ease”
White-headed vulture alerted
Lappet-faced vulture
Hooded vulture
Juvenile white-headed vulture.

There are several lions that spend their days at Moholoholo. They don’t seem to mind, and Moses is at ease, but careful, feeding the lions through the fence so we can get a better look. Lions, even these comparatively tame ones, reek of power. Their muscles ripple through their bodies. The male lion’s paws are huge. It’s easy to imagine that a single blow from an angered lion could kill a person.

The guy with the bucket of red meat is always popular with the predatory cats.
Even in a rehabilitation center, the feeding order is male lions first, then female lions. Lions, who must hunt for the pride and defend the pride, honor muscle and strength.
It is tempting to scratch his head as he leans into the fence, just like your cat at home, but I wanted to keep all of my fingers.
Leopards are beautiful, and it’s easy to see why they were hunted, but they are so much more beautiful alive and just being leopards.
Moses threw a piece of meat into the tree. I had my camera up and ready. By the time I snapped the photo, he had gotten the meat caught on the branch, he was that fast.
Wild dogs are vicious hunters. Once they get a hold on their victim, the dogs crowd in and start eating the animal, even still alive.
The cheetahs were relaxing in the sun, but they did get up to nab some snacks from the bucket Moses was carrying.
Hyenas rank just below lions in the hierarchy of predators. They travel in packs and can overcome a lone lion, and often challenge a small pride for their kill. They also hunt for their own meals when necessary.
Caracals are medium-sized cats, with long legs, short faces, and long, tufted ears. They live in Africa, Middle East, Central Asia, and India.
A serval cat was napping in the shade until we showed up.
Not much is known about honey badgers because they are nomadic, solitary, and secretive, hunting mainly at night. They eat rodents, birds, eggs, and snakes, but also roots and tubers. They can be found in moderate climates from Africa to India.
This was our last stop with Moses. Along with the collection of skulls and other bones from animals, there is a large collection of tangled wire on the wall. These are snares and other traps that are used by poachers and other hunters, even though hunting requires a permit on specific terms. Poverty in Africa makes hunting wildlife an attractive alternative.

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