“Beauty or the Beast? – You decide”

Friend or foe?

Cute or ugly?

Hunter or scavenger?

So many safari visitors view the Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) with a negative mind set. Wildlife documentaries and Disney movies DSC_0493.JPGhave just hardened that perception in many people’s minds. But how much of what we perceive about the Hyena is actually true and just why should we give them a little bit more time and respect when viewing them on safari. It is not without reason that those of us who live in the bush for long periods at a time have come to treasure those moments spent visiting a hyena den site, watching the antics of the new born pups as they come to terms with the new sights and smalls of their African home.

The Blue Canyon has continued to enjoy the strong growth and territorial expansion of it’s hyaena population over these past few years. When I first started working across the reserve the frequency of viewing and indeed the sound of their iconic calls, was few and far between. Given the overall low density of our lion population it was the perfect time to give the hyena that were already ensconsed in the reserve, the opportunity to prosper. Lions and hyena are eternal enemies. Each species will seek out the young of the other and in nearDSC_3346ly every case will kill the youngsters to protect their own growing families. We are now getting regular, almost daily, sightings of these animals and have discovered their dens on a number of occasions which has allowed some very special viewings for our home owners, visitors and lodge guests. Once the animals become habituated to the vehicles the youngsters in particular will sniff curiously around the vehicles in a very relaxed manner and allow for fantastic game viewing opportunities. We take great care to ensure that no more than 2 vehicles are present in the area of the den at any one time and these must be parked at a sensible distance from the den itself, allowing the animals to approach the vehicles only when they feel relaxed enough to do so.

So what do we know about these incredible mammals …

The spotted hyena is one the most highly gregarious of all carnivores; it can live in groups containing up to 90 individuals, and exhibits the most complex social behaviour. The society is characterised by a strict dominance hierarchy. The entire social life of a clan is centered around the communal den. Some clans use particular den sites for years whereas others may use several different dens within a year or even several den sites simultaneously. We have already seen one clan return to their den site of last year to rear their cubs this year. DSC_3469The dens are not excavated by hyenas, instead they have usually been abandoned by other species, mostly warthog, aardvark and bat-eared foxes. This structure of small channels underground has been considered an effective anti-predator device which protects pups during the absence of their mother. The structure of dens does not normally permit the access of adult animals, so pups must emerge at the den entrance to have contact with their mother who is often found lying at the entrance with older brothers and sisters etc. Spotted hyenas live in a society in which clan members do not remain together continuously, but instead frequently forage alone or in small groups. Clan members co-operate in communal defence of the territory, of food resources, and the den site. Females are dominant over males, and even the lowest ranking female is dominant to the highest ranking male. Although males typically disperse from their natal clans when they are between two and six years of age, females usually remain in their natal clan. “Social politics” among clan members are very important in hyena society, with individuals regularly forging alliances and coalitions. Unlike many other social species where all group members are usually seen together, spotted hyena clan members frequently wander alone or in small groups and only sometimes meet in large numbers. This occurs at kills, at the communal den, or when clan members rally together to defend individual carcasses or group territories

The picture below shows a typical stand off between two hyenas. The one on the left is “winning,” as indicated by its forward-cocked ears. DSC_2834Note the ears of the hyena on the right are flattened back, and its mouth is open in a defensive display.

The highly social nature of the spotted hyena has led to the evolution of a wide variety of vocalisations. The best known spotted hyena vocalisation is the whoop, which can be heard over several kilometres. Spotted hyenas can recognise each other individually by their whoops, at least within their clan. Whoops can function as a rallying call to gather scattered clan members together to defend territory boundaries, food resources, and the communal den. Mothers whoop to locate their wandering cubs and some animals whoop to recruit hunting partners. Whoops are also used as a form of individual display, particularly by animals of high rank. Adult males whoop more frequently than females, and top-ranking males put more effort into vocal displays than lower ranking males. Another well-known vocalisation is the laugh or giggle, which is a signal of submission. A submissive individual giggles to signal to its partner that it accepts a lower status.

As we travel around the estate, more especially when we are on foot enjoying our walking trails, we see evidence of the fact that spotted hyenas scent mark their territories by pasting a secretion from the anal gland onto grass stalks, as well as defecating in communal latrines. Keep an eye open also during your safaris for the tell-tale “white stools”, evidence of the high concentration of calcium in the hyena diet from the consumption of large quantities of bone material.

What surprises most observers is the extent of co-operative intelligence and problem solving ability demonstrated by hyenas. In fact, recent tests involving lions and hyena undertaken by one of the resident film makers in the BCC, Virginia Quinn, showed that hyena far out perform their feline counterparts in both intelligence and inter species co-operation. Indeed further studies have showed them to be able to outperform chimpanzees also. Also, spotted hyenas have been recorded as using  deceptive behaviour, including giving alarm calls during feeding when no enemies are present, thus frightening off other hyenas and allowing them to temporarily eat in peace. Cunning indeed!!

The spotted hyena is the most carnivorous member of the family Hyaenidae from which it comes. Unlike its brown and striped cousins, the spotted hyena is a predator not a scavenger. Spotted hyenas hunt as much as lions despite continually being mislabeled as scavengers, often even by ecologists and wildlife documentary channels. The spotted hyena is very efficient at eating its prey; not only is it able to splinter and eat the largest bones, it is also able to digest them completely. Spotted hyena can digest all organic components in bones, not just the marrow. DSC_9437Any inorganic material is excreted with the faeces, which consist almost entirely of a white powder with few hairs. They react to alighting vultures more readily than other African carnivores, and are more likely to stay in the vicinity of lion kills, as well as hanging around lodges and camps where they learn quickly that humans are generally poor in disposing of unwanted foods. A single spotted hyena can eat at least 14.5 kg of meat per meal. Although spotted hyenas act aggressively toward each other when feeding, they compete with each other mostly through speed of eating, rather than by fighting as lions do. When feeding on an intact carcass, spotted hyenas will first consume the meat around the loins and anal region, then open the abdominal cavity and pull out the soft organs. Soon enough, the carcass is disassembled and the hyenas carry off pieces to eat in peace.

Hopefully now, you will understand and appreciate more the intelligence and complexity of this adorable African carnivore. Ignore the media representations and form your own opinion when on safari. Like me, you will soon be capitivated by the antics and the solidarity demonstrated by these most family orientated animals. I just adore them!!

“A Blue Jewel in South Africa’s Conservation Crown”

When creating and launching the Nyumbani Estate concept, it was paramount to all of us involved that we find somewhere really special to be our home. Southern Africa is awash with private National Parks, Game Reserves and concessions but for Nyumbani the search was exhaustive. We wanted to ensure that our home was an outright “special place” … special to those of us who work here, and special to those of you who will live here. We found that place … nestling between the small town of Hoedspruit in Limpopo and the majestic northern arm of the Drakensberg mountains. It is known as the Blue Canyon Game Conservancy and if DSC_6957ever there was a place that be called the “garden of Eden”, it is this beautiful and tranquil place we now call home.

The reserve boasts a diversity of flora and fauna fit to grace our TV screens in a David Attenborough natural history epic. What’s more, the reserve up to now has resisted the temptation to over commercialise the location and so offers the most peaceful and tranquil place to either live, or to take a magnificent holiday in the African bush. With only 3 lodges currently existing on it’s 15,000 hectares, one of the things you can be guaranteed is that when you go out on safari here, you and your Ranger will have the place to yourself. Imagine that, a place in the heartland of South African wildlife conservation, adjoining the Kruger National Park, where you can roam to your hearts content and never see another soul. It truly is magical and an opportunity to stay here in the Blue Canyon is every naturalist’s dream.

photo (1)At the onset of the new millennium, the Blue Canyon Conservancy was born in the mind of conservation visionary, Mr Trevor Jordan who shared that dream with his trusted friends and neighbouring landowners. Together he believed they could create something special. He had long maintained a vision to join the Kruger National Park in the East with the Drakensberg mountains to the west. In essence this dream would allow for the free movement of Africa’s iconic species from summits of the Drakensberg mountains to the surf of the Mozambiquan beaches. What an amazing concept!! As a Game Ranger new to the Lowveld myself, I remember many years ago sitting and listening to him outline this conservation vision, not some whimsical ideal, but a genuine determination and steel eyed stare underpinned his passion for the concept. You could not help walking away feeling inspired, your brain spinning from the possibilities of the creation of wildlife corridors that would allow the recreation of historic elephant migratory paths which had long ceased to exist due to the incursions of mankind into these wildlife regions. In the intervening years, Trevor has become a trusted friend … and I don’t believe for one minute that this will be an idle dream. Already he has spearheaded the introduction of white rhino, black rhino, elephant and lion.  As we seek to conserve the wild areas on our planet, conservationists need to be bold, they need to dream and they need to dare!! In doing so, Trevor and those like him across South Africa have created iconic wildlife conservancies such as Thornybush Game Reserve, Phinda Game Conservancy and other legendary conservation strongholds that have become legendary the world over.

The creation of the Blue Canyon Conservancy was the first step in the dream to create what could become one of the largest and best protected wildlife refuges in Southern Africa. Trevor was joined by Dr Joos Scheepers and the Steinberg family, two of the largest landowners in the vicinity and together they, as the reseDSC_4685rve’s “Founding Fathers” began the process of creating the conservancy as we know today. Other landowners were won over and dropped their internal fences and today we see the results of their collaboration, and a conservancy that is set to become the jewel in the crown of South African Conservation. The conservancy membership is a dynamic body of landowners with a determination to succeed but it is going about doing so in a steady and ecologically sensitive manner. The members are supported by Tim Parker of Game Management Services, who executes the actions required from the conservancy’s long term strategic plan, and Mr Kevin Leo-Smith the founder of Phinda Game Conservancy and Conservation Africa who is providing on the ground ecological consultancy, having made his own home on the conservancy itself. It is in Tim’s hands that the ecological biodiversity of the reserve rests first and foremost. Veld management strategies and the management and introduction of species are the core responsibilities of Tim and his team. Added to that is the responsibility for protecting particularly the endangered species on the conservancy, especially as the wave of butchery, brought by the poaching syndicates satisfying the demands of the Far Eastern markets, continues to cripple the Limpopo province’s wildlife populations. With the community “coming together” of all our law enforcement agencies and anti-poaching units the task has been made far more unified than previously, if not any easier.

DSC_4208So what of it’s fauna, after all, that is the main purpose of anyone’s visit to this nirvana. From 2008 onwards, the conservancy began to flourish. The Trustees began with the introduction of a lion pride from Madikwe game Reserve in North West Province, and an elephant family group from the Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Later this year we will introduce our second elephant herd from Thornybush Game Reserve which then delivers a firm foundation for a vibrant population of these magnificent creatures. Aside from guaranteeing memorable elephant encounters, these animals will be a huge aid to the ecological management of the reserve providing “natural bush clearing” in those areas that need it most. DSC_3899Our modest lion population has continued to enjoy the “fruits” of their new location as general game numbers across the reserve are very healthy, providing all our predators with nature’s larder in abundance. Retaining a modest lion population in the early years has allowed other predators to prosper without undue persecution from this apex predator. Wild dogs have become a regular sighting on the reserve and their numbers grow streakily as the BCC continues to provide ample potential den sites in a safe and protected environment. When one considers that this is perhaps the most endangered carnivore in Southern Africa with a national population of just over 400 individuals, to have a resident pack that we can enjoy viewing of on a regular basis is indeed a privilege. Continue reading

“Conservation Heroes”

DSC_1880 (1)Recent months have been a difficult time for many reserves in the Lowveld as they have strived to combat the scourge of the poaching epidemic sweeping through South Africa. Its a human disgrace. Nyumbani Estate is proud of the work undertaken by our anti-poaching team and is proud of it’s association and support of Rhino Revolution, the charitable foundation that has done much to support the work of the Reserve’s AP Team. The team currently have their operational base on the Nyumbani Estate property where we provide stabling for their horses also used in anti-poaching patrols.

But for many people, especially those outside of Africa, the story of these men and women across South Africa that risk their own lives in support of our wildlife, is largely unknown. What follows is an all to common story in many reserves in South Africa, it’s not any one specific reserve, but the story is commonly recounted around the Lowveld towns. From the anti-poaching heroes perspective, here’s what it feels like to to be a part of their world ….

“A loud “crack” pierces the still of the African night …. clearly audible are the high pitched screams from an animal taking it’s last breath. Their resounding echo chills you to the bone and a hushed silence now prevails around the bush. Another statistic is added to the greatest scourge in conservation in our lifetimes, another rhino lies dead, brutally mutilated for the sake of man’s greed. One more step is taken towards extinction by the last truly prehistoric mammal on African soil … the Black Rhino and White Rhino will soon be merely a book reference or “Google search” for the next generation of our children. It’s a conservation disaster, it’s a human disgrace.”

“A group of hardened, “DSC_2031battle scarred” men have spent the cold night searching the thick impenetrable bush, the least of their worries are the lions who lurk in the shadows watching their every move, another kind of predator, the human kind, is still out there and to avoid capture they will kill in a heartbeat. Early morning, tired and cold, our weary men come across the butcher’s shop left behind by the poachers. It’s a scene indescribable to civilized people. In the centre of the blood soaked earth lies the bloated remains of last night’s victim, a fDSC_2036emale white rhino. She died in agony at the hands of the poachers axe, her hysterical calf lies trying to suckle from her lifeless body. It’s a pittiful sight, but not an uncommon one to these men who are fighting a war on the ground in the name of “conservation” and whose every effort and sacrifice goes largely un-noticed by the rest of the world.”

While “politicians” debate the merits of Trade versus Anti-Trade, while landowners squabble over the merits of retaining rhino stock on their reserves and quibble over the budgets required to protect their animals, there is a group of men who selflessly risk their lives in the name of conservation. They go largely un-noticed, largely unappreciated and lay their life on the line to protect Africa’s iconic wildlife for a modest paycheck. It’s time that these guys get their moment in the spotlight ….. the men and women who protect our reserves, care for our wildlife, protect our lodges and homes. Thousands of people the world over reel daily at the horrors of poaching splashed across social media. The mutilated animal images have become common place. It’s time we honour those people who put their life on the line daily to support our ideals of conservation, who do the job most of us wouldn’t dream of doing and whose level of professionalism is largely unappreciated. They are the faces that you don’t see on social media.

DSC_1596Recently, I spent a day with the Anti-Poaching Team on the Blue Canyon Conservancy at their operational base on Nyumbani Estate. By anyone’s measure, it was a hot day!! For the guys in the team, about to undertake one of their regular training exercises, it was about to get much hotter!! What immediately strikes you is the level of dedication and professionalism of the team. As the poaching syndicates have increased in sophistication, so have the training demands on the team in order that they can stay on step ahead in the war on poaching. Training exercises during the day were mentally and physically testing.

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Good old fashioned drill, which many people will remember from military service days, still remains the hallmark for instilling discipline and teamwork within the unit. It was clearly a matter of personal pride for the team that they completed the drills efficiently and with a demonstration of team work that the military themselves would have been proud.

The team are all professionally accredited and approved by the South African Police Service for firearms use. It should be remembered of course that the use of firearms is only for their own personal protection. In South Africa, poachers are apprehended to be dealt with by the legal system. There is on “shoot on sight” policy whicDSC_1604 (1)h whilst being humanitarian, provides scant protection to the AP units in the field who have to be fired upon first before they can return fire. It is because of this that these training exercises need to focus on the ability to operate covertly in the bush and to apprehend offenders before an animal is harmed and before human lives are in danger. Being stretched physically and mentally, and then having to do your job in apprehending poachers is a truly admirable and brave skill in itself. It’s testament to the quality of training, the ability to gather quality intelligence and the level of skill within the teams themselves that nearly all incursions are defused before firearms are used in anger.

Land owners, home owners, and lodge owners within the Blue Canyon Conservancy have a huge debt to pay to the team. Their operational efficiency and the outstanding professionalism ensures our homes, our investment, our lives and our wildlife remain safe. They ask for little in return, but our respect and our support especially when the team is in need of small inexpensive equipment items is a small price to pay. If you can help and are willing to help in any way drop me a line here at Nyumbani Estate.

“Everyone associated with Nyumbani Estate are proud of each and every one of you. We salute the real heroes of wildlife conservation”

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“The Birth of A King”

Ask anyone coming on safari for the first time what they are waiting with baited breath to see … and almost without exception they will respond “Lions”!! Always a highlight of any safari adventure, what is extra special is the opportunity to view new born lion cubs in the wild. There is nothing more cute, and at times it seems absolutely impossible that something so small and defenceless can grow into the largest carnivore in Africa, with the temperament and ferocity to match.DSC_1634

The latest and most exciting news coming out of the Blue Canyon Conservancy is the birth and growing health of our long awaited lion cubs. We believe they are now at an age of about 14 weeks and all 3 individuals are reported by our field teams as doing fine. Sightings are, at this stage, only occasional, with the lioness still keeping an ever protective and watchful eye on her new charges. Most of our evidence to date is what we are gleaming from tracks (spoor) and from details taken from the kills the pride is making across the reserve.

As we have sought to establish the Conservancy with a wide ranging and strong population of general “plains game” (zebra, wildebeest, impala, nyala, kudu, giraffe etc), it has been necessary for us to “interfere” temporarily with the breeding insticts of our lion population using contraceptive techniques. Lions are prolific hunters and left to their own devices in the early stages of the conservancy would severely prohibit the proliferation of other species.

DSC_6022Lions are by nature highly social mammals. This very “closed family” structure is core to them being one of the most successful mammals in Africa and over a period of time, every lion within the pride develops into a core member of pride society. Lionesses have no real “breeding season” but females within the pride are able to syncronise their estrus (cycle) and thus be ready for mating and birthing at the same time. When females give birth to their cubs, the cubs themselves are able to suckle communally from the pride lionesses who have also given birth around the same time.Once the females reach the age of 4 years and enter estrus, which typically lasts around 4 days, the male will begin to copulate with the female approximately every 20 minutes for the entire period of estrus in order to induce ovulation. Once ovulation occurs the success rate for fertilisation is as high as 95% (one male was recorded as copulating 157 times in 55 hours!! … Quite a formidable task in anyone’s book!!)

Our core pride consists of a single male and 4 females. So now seems a good time to introduce you to our proud new parents …….

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Our new litter of lion cubs is of a standard and typical size, most females give birth 3 cubs and the interval between births is generally 20-30 months at which time the preceding cubs will be fully independent within the pride. Sadly, statistics show is that the survival rate of cubs is very poor, as more than 50% will die in the first year. Cubs are kept well hidden by the female during infancy whilst she goes off to hunt. They are unable to move independently with the pride until they are about 7 weeks old and are not weaned until they are approximately 7 months old.

This over reliance upon the parent for food and protection, whilst it generates strong bonds between adults and infants, exposes the cubs to the attention of predators such as hyaena and indeed other intruding male lions. Once they have established control of a pride by defeating the incumbent male, the new male will kill all the cubs less than a year old in order to bring the females within the pride back into estrus and thus produce his own cubs and secure his bloodline.

Only a few weeks ago I was treated to something very special indeed. I was able to take my leave from Nyumbani for a few days and visit neighbouring Kruger National Park. After all, It’s just a 20 minute journey away. Here, I was able to witness something so DSC_4375 (2)unique it is unlikely to be seen by most safari goers even once in a lifetime. Seeing a wounded lioness hobble across the road, it became evident from her wounds that she had been gored by a wildebeest whilst making a kill. But she was clearly lactating and producing milk for cubs which she was likely to have hidden nearby. Within seconds there was the excited “yapping” of youngsters hidden under a nearby bush. Just moments later, 4 young cubs appeared and I rubbed my eyes in amazement. All 4 cubs were different colours and one was a pure white lion cub, something that is so infrequent in the wild that recorded cases are confined to only one area in the world, the Timbavati Region of South Africa. The rarity of seeing such a cub at this age (4 to 5 weeks old) is such that the last recorded infant of this age was in 1968. Indeed only a few adults are even known to exist in the region as many people believe that their coloration makes then particularly prone to predation and even if they manage to reach sub-adulthood, stealth hunting may cause them come problems due to lack of camoflague.

What a treat!!

Whilst lions are top of everyone’s list of “must see” animals on a visit to Africa, they do very little except rest and sleep for up to 20 hours per day. Sometimes this can lead to a somewhat serene sighting, not a lot happening, but if you really immerse yourself in studying these amazing animals you will be rewarded with an understanding of one of the closest bonded social structures in the animal kingdomDSC_8448. You will have an insight into a world in which to survive to just 1 year old is a battle in itself, and to advance beyond that, particularly for male cubs, is an even greater challenge. No wonder then, when you have sight of your first proud fully grown male lion, you gaze in awe at his majestic appearance. The reach that point in his life he has survived the killing fields of his youth; been ejected from the pride by the age of 3 years; found comfort by bonding with other journeying males of the same age; hunted and provided for himself for years whilst building up the strength to challenge and oust a dominant pride male. That is a journey in itself ….. and one for a blog another day perhaps!! Watch this space for more updates on our new arrivals in the months to come.

“Tuskers and Trunks”

As we move into 2015 at pace, one of this years undoubted highlights at Nyumbani will be the introduction of a further elephant herd from a neighbouring reserve to boost our current population. It brings not just even greater opportunity to observe these amazing creatures around the Reserve, but further genetic diversity to our current population. Currently we have a single mature bull and 14 strong breeding herd on the Reserve and we are rewarded with regular sightings of these animals on Nyumbani. They clearly have always held an affection of the south east section of the Reserve and thus are often found helping me with the bush clearing on the farm as they are more than partial to uprooting the occasional tree!! Sadly, many people view this as a reason to excessively limit the number of elephant on their properties, but these animals play a huge part in ecological cycle of the land and whilst there are casualties in respect of some of the trees, this in turn provides habitat for other smaller mammals and reptiles and in due course, returns further nutrients to the soils. Serious habitat degradation only occurs when confined populations of elephants are improperly managed. Definitely not the case on the Blue Canyon Conservancy.

DSC_0127 (1) The basic unit of elephant society is a breeding herd which consists of a “family group” of related adult females with their accompanying offspring. The group is led by the oldest female, the matriarch, whose role in the survival and wellbeing of the herd is considerable. It’s acknowledged that the survival rate in calves is greatly enhanced by the attendance of older and more experienced matriarchs. The Blue Canyon Conservancy also has a dominant bull who only joins the family group when one of the resident females is ready to breed. Male society in elephants differs from that of females considerably. The young bulls will stay with their mother until they reach adolescence in their early teens. At this stage they will be expelled from the herd, albeit reluctantly. What then follows is a difficult period for these young males when they will tail the herd from a distance, with any attempt to rejoin firmly rebuffed by his mother. Eventually the expelled young males will come into contact with the dominant bull in the area and he will take on the role of “askari”, a protector and teacher of “good manners”!! As soon as the young bull is ready to mate he will also only rejoin a herd for the purpose of breeding, preferring the company of one of two other males for the rest of the time and perhaps in his latter years, he will become mostly solitary. DSC_0299 Elephants are not territorial animals but in essence operate over what is known as a “home range”. They will move considerable distances throughout their home range in their quest for both food and water. The knowledge of feeding ground and especially water sources in the dry barren months sits with the matriarch and the other senior cows, hence their role in being pivotal to the long term well being of the family group. The herd is very attached to their home range and is very reluctant to move to new habitat even when the local food supply is low. This is therefore the fundamental reason for the preference of our own herd for the south eastern corner of the reserve. Whilst we do see occasional wider movement of the herd, it is minimal and therefore the introduction of a further herd is key to the wider distribution of the species across our 16,000 hectares. When food and water are available most herds move up to about 6km per day but in the drier months this can increase to 40km or more, depending upon the ability of any young calves and their ability to keep up with the herd. Bulls will cover a much greater distance in search for food, water and also receptive females … up to 200km in some recorded instances. Water is not as critical as many people believe and whilst, by choice, elephants will go to water every day and consume between 70-100 litres of water, in drier conditions they will sometimes go for up to 3 days without drinking. A large bull will drink up to 100 litres at one time and up to 250 litres per day!! That’s quite some thirst!!

Most of our guests are surprised to find out that an elephant can have a very varied diet, very much dependent upon local conditions and ranging from nuts, leaves, grass as well as tree branches. Now we can begin to understand the benefit of having that versatile trunk which is capable of picking up a single nut off the ground with a finger like action, to shredding leaves from the branch of trees or ripping up roots. Given their comparative size, they eat surprisingly little; around 5% of their total body mass, on average around 200kg of food matter per day. In all, elephants can spend up to 16 hours per day feeding and such frenzied activity naturally has it’s consequences … the expulsion of up to 155kgs of dung every day!! DSC_4149_HDR In 2014 we witnessed the birth of our first calf here on the Blue Canyon Conservancy. It was quite a moment when we were at last allowed to get our first fleeting glance of the youngster as it busied around underneath it’s mother, surrounded by the protective wall of it’s older siblings and carers. Elephant cows typically are receptive to breeding when they reach 10-11 years and what then follows a successful mating is a pregnancy of some 22 months. What then begins is a bond between mother and calf that can last for 50 years. DSC_4208 For me, elephants remain the quintessential image of Africa. No holiday or visit to Africa can be said to be complete without witnessing the beauty of these majestic animals. Maybe you will be able to join me at Nyumbani this year when we introduce our new herd? It will be the experience of a lifetime that is for sure.

“Predator or Prey”

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!!P or P Invitation3 Print

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?DSC_3899

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.DSC_3346

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.DSC_3469

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”!!.

“Rhinos and Racehorses – A Conservation Success Story”

First of all … Happy New Year!! Everyone associated with Nyumbani wishes you, your families and loved ones the most prosperous of times in 2015. We hope that the year brings you many blessings and for those yet to visit us here in South Africa, we hope to get a chance to meet with you in our piece of African paradise during the year.

Here at Nyumbani, conservation is at the core of everything we do in terms of the estate development and as such we are delighted to be associated with Rhino Revolution who we have adopted as our conservation partner. They have proved a formidable force in the protection of rhino across the Province and especially in the Blue Canyon Conservancy where their efforts have been a huge factor in the continued protection of our rhino population. Our Estate Manager, Chris Martin, is the CEO of the non-profit organisation which is really leading the way in demonstrating how effective community involvement can be in combating rhino poaching.

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Rhino Revolution was founded in 2011 by concerned community members alongside rhino owners at a time when the slaughter of rhino had taken a horrific rise in the Hoedspruit area, Rhino Revolution publicly sounded the call that rhino poaching will NOT be tolerated any further. With a regional population of only 400 rhino remaining the Rhino Revolution “movement” presented a strategic plan which underscored a long term vision to protect and grow the population of rhino to a sustainable number and in doing so provide a natural environment where their safety could be secured. The plan sought to address both the short term need to save the rhino alongside a much broader and deeper educational need to demonstrate to the broader community the value of wildlife to the economic development of their home province. It’s message is simple, demonstrate the sustainable income to community members from wildlife tourism which in turn increases the overall distribution of wealth in rural areas.

Tim Parker Leads the team into action.

Tim Parker Leads the team into action.

One of the innovative ways in which Rhino Revolution seeks to protect the rhino within the Blue Canyon Conservancy has been by introducing ex-racehorses from the racing stables of Lisa Harris Racing in Harare, Zimbabwe. These horses are being used in riding patrols to track poachers and to continually sweep the reserve for snares. It is here that Nyumbani has been able to make it’s greatest contribution by making land available within the Estate for the creation of a “Fly Camp” to house the horses and anti-poaching unit whilst on overnight forays around the Reserve. Head Ranger, Tim Parker, heads the anti-poaching unit on the Blue Canyon Reserve and on a daily basis his rangers head deep into the bush on a mission to deter even the most ardent of poachers. “The horses offer a lot more diversity than just walking. The height advantage for tracking plays a huge factor, you can cover a lot more terrain, you can get into broken ground where vehicles can’t get to. They’re silent when you’re walking, and the big factor is that you don’t get tired because the horses are doing the work for you.” Champion racehorse trainer Lisa Harris brought the horses to South Africa from Zimbabwe more than a year ago to help Rhino Revolution in its fight to protect rhinos in the area. Since the launch of Rhino Revolution’s mounted anti-poaching unit, not a single rhino has been lost on the reserve. In a discussion recently with Lisa Harris she highlighted that the poachers are very aware that they’re here … and they’re a little bit scared of these big horses. Racehorses have an undeserving reputation as these big fearful things and so poachers are quite nervous about encountering them.”

Initially there was concerns around how the horses themselves would adapt to their new surroundings, particularly given the presence of predators on the Reserve. “It was a new environment for them, so they were seeing animals that they’d never seen before. Walking in terrain that they’d never walked in before. But they settled in remarkably well,” Tim Parker commented to me recently

Here at Nyumbani we are just delighted that we have been able to help out the team in such a practical manner. Indeed in recent weeks we have just undertaken a rebuild of the stables themselves and the building, surrounded by it’s lion proof fence is now a highly secure base. In the bush camp area were the rangers overnight after a long day in the saddle, we have installed solar power to ensure they have access to basic electricity for communications, lighting and for cooking. One of your highlights during a stay at Nyumbani is inevitably a sighting of these majestic animals that pre-date mankind itself. Only by applying the strictest of conservation philosophies do we have the capability to ensure that we, as a species, now don’t outlive the the rhino itself.

IMG_3036In 2014, Chris and Tim combined forces to undertake the dehorning of all the rhino on the Blue Canyon Conservancy. Guests were treated to “day safaris” during which they were able to work alongside the ground crew in undertaking this exercise. The opportunity to touch and feel such a magnificent animal was, for many, a very emotional moment in their lives. Large and ferocious looking, nothing could be further from the truth as these white rhino are in fact very relaxed and docile animals which are very trusting of humankind. Sadly this has been a contributing factor in their demise.

If anyone would like any further details on the work of Rhino Revolution, please drop Chris Martin a line here at Nyumbani and he’d be delighted to answer any questions you might have. In the meantime, our team of “War Horses” continue to defend our reserve from anyone who would wish to disturb the tranquility that is Nyumbani and the Blue Canyon Conservancy.

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