The Eyes and Ears of the Bush
There is nothing more exhilarating than spotting a rare predator while on safari. You might wonder if, for our camera operators that work alongside these animals nearly every day, that feeling ever wears off? Well, I can say with complete confidence that it doesn't. Sure, it gets easier. Especially when you know your protagonist’s favourite trees, resting spots, territory, and denning site. But finding them still requires a whole lot of patience, determination, and some help along the way. So, even after months of working alongside a character, it's still impossible to beat that feeling when the hard work pays off and you finally spot them. In this blog, I give a few behind-the-scenes tips and tricks on how the NHFU operators are so successful at locating these rare and elusive creatures – so perhaps you can put them to use yourself one day!
Behind the scenes with a large male lion and specialist gear operator Noah Falklind. Photo by Liz Johnston.
We’re currently at the tail-end of an unbelievably generous rainy season – so much so that we received in a few days the average amount of rain that we would typically receive in a year. All around, life has bloomed and blossomed in this abundant surprise – especially on the roads. With a skeleton crew operating over Christmas, our roads received much less traffic than usual. Plants in the Kalahari are incredibly hardy and adaptive, especially in response to rare rains, and can grow in the most unlikely of places. The trouble now is that this new vegetation is covering up the evidence of precious paw prints. Roads are an essential tool in a camera operator’s kit for finding tracks. Every species has a unique print they leave in their wake – and there are a few key indicators that give away which print belongs to which species: the size, the shape, and the presence or absence of claws.
Who's that? Photos by Hannah Gormley.
First, the shape. One of the first things to look for is the number of lobes on the paw-pad: cats have a 3-lobed print, while dogs and hyenas have a two-lobed print. If you look at the photo above, the middle print is particularly clear in this respect. Next, size will help you distinguish between members of the group. Tiny, three-lobed prints typically belong to elusive wild cats while the largest cat prints of course belong to the lions. Finally, we look to the presence or absence of claw marks - cheetahs can be distinguished from similar-sized leopards by the presence of claws, for example. Hyenas and wild dogs also have claws, but as previously mentioned they can be distinguished by their two-lobed print. In some areas of the Delta, you can track animals in this way for huge distances. In this way, Noah once even tracked a lion in Mombo for over 20km while working as the specialist gear operator for Savage Kingdom! But now you might be wondering how we do it, now that our roads are littered with vegetation?
The culprit of the above prints! Check out the three-lobed paw pad. Photo by Hannah Gormley.
Another consequence of this year’s crazy rainy season is that the grass has grown unbelievably high – in some areas, even more so than the vehicles – and thick. Thankfully, we have some detectives on our side to help us out. The number one predator alarm system is the bush’s francolin predator-prevention squad. These rotund, bossy birds live primarily on the forest floor and right now are guarding big broods of fluffy chicks. If one of these abundant, squawking birds spots a threat, they’ll sit on an elevated perch, staring determinedly at their target, and let out a screech every other second or so. This alerts their neighbours, who take up the call if they too spot the predator. Joining the cacophony from the canopies are the squirrels. If they spot a leopard, they let out excited alarm calls as it passes below their tree (luckily for them, lions and cheetah’s aren’t the savviest of tree climbers!). While these small and excitable alarm systems are invaluable, they can often send the camera operators on a wild goose (or francolin, I should say) chase after pesky starlings or snakes.
What's behind you? A francolin alarm calls at a hyena. Photo by Hannah Gormley.
Much more reliable, but less frequently heard, are the primates and herbivores' early-warning systems. Baboons and vervet monkeys have incredible eye-sight, especially from their elevated tree-top positions, and are capable of spotting predators from hundreds of metres away. High on their agenda are leopards, which similarly to squirrels, can prove a real threat – in fact, Brad has seen leopards take down baboons and vervet monkeys on several occasions. Both of these species move around in large troops, so with plenty of eyes on the prize, there’s a good chance they’ll spot the predator before you do. Baboons, especially the alpha males and posted sentinels, will let out a chorus of terrifying “waa-oohs!” On discovery of a threat. Vervets, on the other hand, let out a series of much-less terrifying Donald-the-Duck-Esque coughs. The real gold-mine are the barks from herbivores – signaling that the predator is extremely close and that individual was very likely nearly on the menu. Each herbivore has a distinct call, from the most reliable kudu bark to the ugly and surprising snorts that emerge from a frightened impala.
A young baboon distracts the posted sentinel. Photo by Hannah Gormley.
We're eternally grateful to our furry-friends who help unwittingly help us spot our targets - without them, our jobs would be oh-so-much difficult! Next time you’re on safari, why not try these tips and tricks? Who knows what you might find...
Blog written by Hannah Gormley.