I was recently privileged to attend an exhibition in Hoedspruit town by my good friend Warren Carey, a wildlife artist of outstanding talent whose work is considerably in demand internationally. He titled his exhibition “Predator or Prey” and was joined in the exhibition by international film maker Kim Wolhuter whose dramatic films on the predators of Africa have graced the screens of homes the world over, and whose grandfather was the game ranger legend, Harry Wolhuter who survived a lion attack in the early days of the Kruger National Park. It was a memorable night, one that gave us locals a perfect excuse to get together and enjoy a glass of wine, some food and to swop recent bush stories. As I wandered around catching up with friends, the talk of lions, leopards, wild dogs, and hyaena filled the walkways of the town and it made me stop and think how lucky we all were to live “inside” our own wildlife documentary!!
Predators inhabit the darkest corners of our nightmares. From an early age; books, films and documentaries instill a fear of these animals and a belief that to co-exist with them threatens our very safety. We’ve developed both an instinctive fear and, in equal measure, a fascination of these animals that has lead to them being the most sought after species by our safari guests. This primeval fear, many anthropologists believe, dates back to the days of our hunter gatherer ancestors who battled for their own survival alongside them. It is a primeval fear that derives a curiosity that is hard to resist. It’s the very thing that engenders such a fascination of the “big cats” by our safari visitors during the year.
Here on the Blue Canyon Conservancy we are blessed to have a thriving general predator population. Yes we’d all love to have more lions, who wouldn’t, they are such magnificent animals and an undeniable draw card for residents and lodge guests alike. But it’s important for us to consider the bigger picture and the development of the conservancy’s long term plan in understanding why today, our lion population is limited to a single (very handsome!!) male and his three female companions. So why is this the case, and what is the optimum carrying capacity of lions for the Blue Canyon’s 16,000 hectares?
In considering the answer to this question one needs to look at the history of the BCC and the success of our plan to date in establishing strong populations of general game species. The current lion population was introduced to the conservancy in late 2008, joining us from their previous home in Madikwe Game Reserve in the North West Province. This introduction, alongside the elephant introduction from the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, signaled the birth of the conservancy proper, even though the internal fences between the constituent farms of the BCC had been removed a number of years previously. In the intervening years the general game had gained the freedom to cross previous boundaries and to wander further afield in search of better grazing and browsing. With the absence of apex predators, our wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, kudu, and impala numbers had begun to grow at pace and the landscape as a result had begun to alter with the effects of increased general game activity. The introduction of predators such as lions allows the natural control of these growing populations, far better than having to regulate the same with human interference.
That said, when I first to drive throughout the reserve in early 2010, what was an immediate surprise to me was the relative absence of hyaena. Sure, there was the occasional call which remains the quintessential sound of the African night around your campfire, and also an occasional sighting, but for the most part they were noticeable by their absence. Furthermore, when I came across evidence of leopard kills they were almost always on the ground, and not hoisted into the branches of trees as you would expect. But this is not an accident and indeed it represents strong evidence of low hyaena numbers in the area. If leopard are not being subjected to “pressure” from scavenging hyaena they instinctively kill and eat their prey on the ground, moving on at their leisure. In these circumstances, it’s a nice life for a leopard and also promotes a secure environment for them to raise their cubs without fear of loss to marauding hyaena.
So what has this got to do with our lion population I hear you ask? Put simply, lions and hyaena are eternal enemies. Furthermore, hyaena often struggle initially to establish themselves in an area where there is much lion activity. Lions will seek out and kill hyaena cubs and, if opportunity presents itself, will even target adults. Likewise when hyaena populations are strong enough they will too will seek out lion cubs and instinctively kill them, and use their strength in numbers to target adult lions also.
This is when having a very specific conservancy management, detailing your strategy to maintain the effective predators and prey population balance within your conservancy management plan comes to the fore. In our case it has been necessary in the early years of the conservancy to encourage the establishment of larger general game concentrations throughout the reserve, whilst at the same time artificially holding down the number of apex predators, specifically lions. In doing so, we have also been able to encourage the growth of our hyaena population in clans throughout the reserve, without too much persecution from lions. This has been a steady process, with not too much success in the early years, but in the past 2 years we have been delighted at the extent to which our hyaena population has flourished. Sightings are now common place in some areas where they have become accustomed to the sight and “smell” of our game vehicles are are incredibly relaxed around our guests. There numbers appear to be increasing over the seasons and as a consequence, guess what?? Leopard kills have appeared in the occasional tree!!
If we think of the establishment of predator densities on the reserve in terms of a pyramid, with lions sitting at the apex of the pyramid, we can safely concur that our efforts to establish a flourishing population of lower ranking predators such as hyaena, leopard, wild dogs etc have been extremely successful. The density of general game has provided excellent “non competitive” hunting grounds for these secondary predators, all of whom are well established now and breeding cooperatively.
The next stage of the predator management plan will inevitably involve the re-introduction of a new lion “bloodline” in terms of potentially new females and a possible young male coalition. This takes time, and isn’t an overnight win which sometimes frustrates those people in search of lions, lions, lions!! But wildlife management is about keeping the focus on the bigger picture and we should all currently focus on the fact that the nirvana that has been created by our farm management team has delivered a habitat that will ultimately become a playground for a diversity of wildlife, including multiple lion prides and coalitions. What we have now, already, is a wildlife watching experience that represents the true diversity of incredible species that South Africa has to offer.
So what are you waiting for? Why not come and pay us a visit … I guarantee you will begin a love affair with this place that will mean you just have to own a home here!! I would love to have the opportunity to show you around “my office”!!.