‘We will follow the animals’ read the invitation to the Dargle Conservancy’s Track and Scat ID workshop held recently. This is exactly what we did, although we didn’t have to venture far from the farm tracks to see all sorts of interesting things. “Well, the animals like a road to walk along too” laughed Hayley van Leylyveld, who led the excursion along with her husband, Neville.
We learnt so many fascinating facts from the couple who spend one weekend a month observing wild animals in Dargle. They have been witness to some remarkable things – like a duiker giving birth right in front of them. If you are respectful and quiet and wear camouflage colours, reckons Neville, you’ll be amazed at how close you can get.
First find was Reedbuck droppings and prints. Apparently Reedbuck mate for life. Unlike Bushbuck, who are solitary and have different partners, whom they meet by chance.
The scat of the bushbuck was quite different to reedbuck (below) – compressed rather than pellets.
Neville told us “If one comes across a bush buck male, it is best to treat him with great respect as they are known to be very aggressive. They are the only antelope that have been known to attack rather than flee from danger. It is best not to do anything that they might conceive as a threat such as sudden movement, shouting or approaching them without regard to the safe zone they have around them. For example when he is feeding and he raises his head and looks at you, you are too close and you are presenting a threat to him. In such a situation it is best not to make eye to eye contact with him but rather keep a wary eye on him and move backwards until he starts feeding again and them make your way out of his domain into safety. They can very easily kill a human. It is always best to remember that you are invading their home and therefore you must always give the wildlife the respect that they deserve. Bush buck are particularly dangerous when wounded.”
Another fascinating fact is that Bushbuck are dependent on monkeys as they can only reach the fruit on trees to a certain height. It is the task of the monkeys to drop the fruit that is out of their reach which then falls to the ground for them to eat. So killing all the monkeys in an area will negatively affect the bush buck population.
We came across quite a few ‘nests’ in the long grass where animals had been lying – this one was just perfect for Kei to curl up in out of the cold.
There was plenty of duiker activity including a few carrots on the edges of the fields that had been nibbled. “I often get farmers bemoaning the fact that they lose so much of their crop to wildlife but in reality it is seldom much.”
Unless a sounder of bush pigs discover your mielie field, that is. Neville told us that bush pig don’t like the smell of cabbages so an easy (eco-friendly) deterrent is to plant rows of cabbages all around your fields.
Neville adds: “Bush pigs, although mainly nocturnal, must be treated with great respect. They are powerful and aggressive creatures, particularly the boars when they have piglets around them. They are the sounder protectors. A bush pig can very easily kill a human and is regarded by those in the know as dangerous game. It is always good policy to avoid known bush pig areas at night. They are masters of stealth and can suddenly appear without any warning. This is one reason why being able to identify animal track and scat is so important as it can often save you from a dangerous encounter with wildlife. It makes you much more aware of what potentially is in which area.”
We could see areas where bush pigs had made messy paths through the reeds.
We learnt how to tell how big the animal is from the distance between the back and front prints, ie the length of the animals stride in relation to his size.
How to judge how fresh the print was and in which direction the animal was moving.
We saw evidence of jackal including one obviously following closely behind a duiker. “Jackals always tend to follow the pregnant doe’s when they are due to give birth. Somehow they know when the duiker doe is due.” Neville told us. This is something that they have observed over a long period of time during their work on this farm. Sifting through the jackal scats, we could see exactly what they had been eating – mostly scrub hares, with no evidence at all of lambs or calves of which they are so often accused of eating.
We learnt that the indiscriminate shooting of Jackals in large numbers actually does not work as a method to protect livestock. In fact it can actually make the problem worse, as Jackals will merely increase their breeding to fill in the missing animals. This is done by the pack leader male breeding with the ‘reserve’ females that normally he would not breed with. In such cases it has been known for Jackal females that are not pregnant to bring in milk and to help feed the newborn litter so that instead of only some of the pups surviving they will all survive! It is normal for only four out of a litter of six to survive under usual circumstances. As in all natural ecosystems only the strongest survive, however when their numbers are threatened they ensure their own survival by increasing the survival rate of the pups.
Neville: “A well-documented way of controlling Jackals is to shoot only the communicator – that is the one who finds the food source. By doing so the communication link is broken back to the rest of the pack. This also prevents the attempted wiping out of the Jackals as only one individual been destroyed rather than trying destroy them all. This is a much more conservation minded method, and more effective than just indiscriminate slaughter. In actual fact, Jackals are scavengers who clean up bush rather than hunters of domestic stock. On this farm they are currently only feeding on vlei rats and scrub hare which form part of their normal diet. This can clearly be seen from the scat they leave behind. Looking at old scat as well as fresh scat gives you an indication of what the jackals have been eating over a long period.”
Jackal activity is greatest during the first quarter of the moon. There is little about on full moon nights as it is too bright making it difficult for predators to stay out of sight. The wind also has a major effect on wildlife. If the wind is below about 3km/hr the prey animals battle to pick up the scent of the predators and if the wind is too strong, say over 10km/hr the prey animals once again battle hear and smell the predators. The lack of prey animals therefore also affects the presence of the predators. They all lie low until the weather conditions become more favourable. This has been noticed every time by Neville and Hayley when they are out in the Dargle area on their monthly visits.
It was fun to find that porcupine had been around the evening before. Their scat revealing the very varied diets they have – seeds and crabs and all sorts of things. Porcupine feed on a very similar diet to that of Bush pigs, including carrion, vegetable, rhizomes and tubers – basically almost anything that they can find.Their only defence mechanism is their quills which they will ram into whatever tries to attack them. They always go into their hole forward so that they cannot be removed easily. We were amazed to learn that porcupine can weigh up to 24 kgs!
We spotted quite a few caracal tracks. Once again Neville was a mine of interesting information. Caracal can kill animals of Reedbuck size easily. After they have made the kill they will only eat about 1kg of meat from the rump and the rest of the carcass is left. Sometimes they will drag it into cover, but rarely come back to feed on it the next night. Feeding on an old kill is normally only done when food is very scarce. Jackals are normally found on these kills doing what they do best as scavengers. Often they are spotted at the old kill and are wrongly accused for being response able for the kill. Caracal is strictly nocturnal and lives in a wide variety of habitats, except desert type regions. They prefer open plains and areas around vleis. They can sometimes be seen just before day break or shortly after dark. Although a good tree climber, Caracal mainly hunts on the ground. It has the ability to hide its self very well whilst resting during the day and if startled it can become very aggressive and very dangerous as it will instantly go into defence mode. Its natural reaction will be to protect its self, so they are not to be under estimated. Common prey animals are duiker, steenbok, grysbok, bushbuck does, sheep lambs, dassies, monkeys, spring hares, guinea fowl, francolin and other ground living birds. Caracal are not dependent on water.
Its tracks are absent of claw marks if walking. When it is running or walking on soft or slippery ground such as mud the claw marks are visible as its claws are retractable as are most cats.
The edges of the farmland were seriously transformed with invasive alien plants lining the river banks. The indigenous pioneer Senecio madagascariensis took advantage of the disturbed earth creating a pretty picture with Oriah in the middle.
Some brave Kniphofias and Hebenstretia were flowering in the mess of invasives.
On our way back through the wetland area we came across mongoose prints, clearly made since we had passed earlier.
Although we didn’t see any animals, there are likely plenty just lying low while the humans potter about noisily.
The next Track and Scat workshop takes place on 14 June in Dargle. Once again a donation of R20 for the SA CAN Anti-Poaching programme will be requested.
A night walk planned is around the 6th or 13th September depending on animal numbers. Call Neville to book your spot – 0829737052. Neville and Hayley are also available to conduct wildlife surveys on your property, chat to them about rates if you are interested. firstname.lastname@example.org
A sincere thank you to the landowner Iain Sinclair for allowing us to use his farm. Photos by Nicole Schafer and Nikki Brighton