Friday, 22 December 2017

Elephants, bees and the marriage tree...

Elephants, bees and the marriage tree...
Legend, tradition and folklore abound in Africa and are often viewed with some skepticism in this, the post-modern era. Yet it would seem that much received wisdom still has the potential to reveal startling information about the natural world in which we live; elephants, bees and the marriage tree being no exception…
Photo and text by Lorraine Doyle
Legend has it that Hare acted kindly towards Elephant during a year of drought by helping him to find water, and was rewarded with a tusk. This he planted in his garden where it grew into a beautiful fruit-bearing tree which he named Marula. So precious however was the tusk to Elephant that to this day he seeks it out under the Marula tree, devouring vast quantities of the fruit every season to sustain him in his quest.
Known scientifically as Sclerocarrya birrea the Marula tree is of great importance not only to elephants but also to humans.  A profusion of flowers bloom in the early summer at which time the background hum of bees is ever present. Then, from February to April fruits the size of large apricots, are borne on the female trees. During these three months, in keeping with the legend, elephants (Loxodonta africana) are never far away from this bountiful food source often shaking the trees to make them give up their valuable prize. Containing 54mg/100g of vitamin C - two to four times that of citrus - bull elephants in musth (a periodic cycle in which their impulse to mate goes into overdrive and they become very aggressive) consume particularly large quantities of the fruit in order to boost their immune systems during their pursuit of females.
Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have utilized the Marula tree for some 12,000 years as a source of food and alcoholic beverages but also for medicinal and ritual purposes. Since the trees are dioecious (male and female flowers are borne on separate trees) and must grow in close proximity in order to produce fruit they hold great significance in matters of the heart. In many traditional cultures it is believed that marriages held under the Marula tree are divinely blessed whilst marital conflict resolution can be accomplished by tying husband and wife each to the relevant gender tree and leaving them there until they make friends…
The African honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the hereto missing link between elephants and the marriage tree. As the primary pollinator of Sclerocarrya birrea it ensures that Elephant is provided with sustenance for both the search for his tusk and females. However as with many legends there is a sting in the tail… Elephants are terrified of bees! Evidence of this entered the scientific community in 2002 when Fritz Vollrath and Iain Douglas-Hamilton were discussing possible methods of preventing further elephant damage to Fever trees (Acacia xanthaphloea) growing along the Ewaso Nyiru River in the Laikipia area of Kenya. Interviews conducted then, and later by Lucy King from Oxford University for her doctoral thesis, revealed that scenes of elephants being chased up to five kilometers by angry bees had been documented by local people for decades and had been part of Masai legend for generations. King’s research demonstrated that elephants utter a distinctive rumble in response to the sound of bees after which they run away shaking their heads. Her study provided the first evidence of an alarm call in the species. Tapping into elephants’ well-documented intelligence and memory King et al went on to devise a simple strategy of deterring elephants from damaging trees and local farmers’ crops. This they achieved by hanging beehives from wooden posts at 10-metre intervals with a long metal wire linking them all together. When an elephant hits the wire, it shakes the hives and sends angry honeybees swarming into a defensive frenzy. Elephants associate the noise with previous severe pain in their trunks and depart without further ado!
So, not only has legend and the observations of our ancestors stood the test of scientific scrutiny but the use of marula fruits to make alcohol has passed unbidden into the 21st Century; now where did I leave my glass of Amarula…?
As featured in the October 2017 edition of my monthly column (The Wild Guide) in SA 4x4 magazine

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Up close and personal

Nothing can be more special than to get up close and personal with the inhabitants of the natural world. And to do so on foot, with no artificial barriers between humans and animals, that is the ultimate experience.

Jaco Buys, Safari Guide of the Year 2016, is leading the participants on Africa Nature Training's Trails Guide course currently running at Intibane camp at Thanda Safari in KwaZulu-Natal. 

Jaco sent through this enthralling and exhilarating account in words and pictures of what has transpired during the first 12 days of the course...

"We celebrated our 10th encounter this morning by tracking a young lion male for about 2,5 kms. 

"Twelve days into the course and we have reached the FGASA benchmark of 50 hours and 10 encounters. It has been achieved through hard-working and many hours on foot. Our future trails guides have logged 57 hours over more than 100kms on foot. 

"The fluctuating weather and rain made tracking and finding potentially dangerous animals challenging, but has allowed us to focus on track and signs, orientation and navigation, and situational awareness. Unexpected rains allowed us to do very necessary rifle maintenance  and we did a spotted hyena presentation to increase our knowledge of potentially dangerous animals. 

"This morning capped off the guides endurance and dedication as our patience was rewarded with a great lion sighting on foot. The male was unaware of our presence at about 25 meters and we left him as we found him. 

"Guides have now been able to log buffalo, white and black Rhino, elephant and lions on foot through hard work. We discovered a potential leopard den and are assisting Andi Webster of Ulwazi Research in gathering leopard data. 

"We now need to focus on completing our work books, preparing for the theory exam and Back Up Trails Guide Practical Assessments, whilst still fine tuning and honing our skills on foot. We have a rose amongst the thorns in Christa Bohmer joining us for a contact week!"

Monday, 26 June 2017

Life on course

Wonder what life is like on an Africa Nature Training course? The proof lies in the pudding as they say… And in this case it comes from the mouth of Matthew Haynes. He is currently at Intibane camp at Thanda Safari in KwaZulu-Natal participating in the FGASA Level One course.

Matthew is having the time of his life. There is evidence in abundance from his diary of the past week. In his own words: “Overall another AMAZING week at Thanda Safari. We are blessed!”

Sit back, relax and let him take you right to the action. The chances are that you’ll book your own spot right away…

We all saw our first Parabuthus, or Buthidae scorpion, with its thick tail and small pincers indicating its venom's toxicity.

It was the most glorious of days as we took a 13 km hike through the stunning scenery of the Sand forest. The Purple Crested Turacos were calling all day and we saw a flock of rare Crested Guinea fowl, one even flew about 8meters straight up to sit in a tree, which I did not know they could do and had never seen before.
We saw many new trees, especially the enormous Lebombo wattle with its sprawling canopy and plethora of epiphytes clinging to it as well as a stunning silver cluster leaf tree with its shimmering silvery leaves.
On one of the Lebombo wattles we saw a Strangler Fig squeezing the life out of it as it creeped up the tree reaching for the sun.
We saw many red duiker running through the under growth. We also saw many porcupine tracks and a few quills.
Another 2 interesting sites were 3 large leaf nests stuck to the branches of a tree as well as an enormous termite mound that was about 2meters high and about 5meters wide at the base.
We then drove to the lake after the hike and viewed the huge Lake St Lucia.

On our usual morning drive we managed to tick the following:
A Juvenile crowned eagle
4 Crowned hornbill calling
2 Burchelles Coucal close up doing a duet
Male and female Kudu together
A Slender mongoose running for its life across the road
Ally and Andy gave a lecture on Ulwazi (Research initiative at Thanda Safari) which was very interesting.

We spotted 3 young inquisitive nyalas with their beautiful orangey colour and huge ears. They jumped very acrobatically into the bushes when we stopped.

The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the sighting of three very lazy and well-rounded lionesses. They were near a buffalo carcass, just being very content. Two of them were play-fighting and purring loudly as we watched from about 15m away. The third was eating the buffalo where we could clearly hear the carnassial (scissor) teeth shearing the buffalo’s flesh as she tried to get a mouth full.
We also witnessed two male girraffes fighting about 600m away from us, headbutting each other so hard that we could hear the impacts of the very hard hits to the legs and chest. 
The sighting of the gorgeous Grey/Common Duiker 10meters from the road was really special. It was not scared of us at all and then we saw 2 more 100meters down the road. They were more skittish and bolted as soon as we got closer.
We also saw 2 red duiker on 2 separate occasions, but they were too fast and we only saw flashes of them.

The sighting of a herd of about 20 elephants spotted right near Intibane camp in the valley was really special – from a huge bull to a tiny calf. We watched them for quite a while from a distance and they actually came closer to us while we sat quietly. 
We also found red sand leopard tracks on the side of a reservoir as well as tracks inside the reservoir which means the leopard jumped up and into the reservoir that was over 2m high.

In the afternoon we saw our first black-shouldered kite for two weeks after seeing them everyday since start of course.
There was also a sighting of a zebra skull in a tree showing huge canines that we didn't know they had.
We watched two lions on the road looking for prey until it got dark.
On our way back we came across a huge buffalo thorn that was knocked over across the road and we had to turn around. It was a good thing as we then saw a black-backed jackal.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The newspaper of the bush

The bush has its own way of telling stories, without uttering a word. The inhabitants of Mother Nature leave no stone unturned and no blade of grass unbent of what they are doing and where they are going. That is, if we only had the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the patience to wait…

The ability to track an animal or the ability to look at spoor and tell what sequence of events has taken place is both an art and a science. No wonder Master Tracker Elmon Ndlovu says, “to track and find the animal you need to think like the animal”.

The Africa Nature Training Track & Sign Course is an introduction to the wonderful world of spoor and tracking. Our aim is to give the participants on this course a taste of what awaits every time we walk in the veld. By the end of this extraordinary experience we know that you will see the activities of animals, and the story they leave behind, in a different light. And it is a definite that the knowledge you would have gained will serve as the beginning of a lifelong association with the signs of the wild.

ANT’s next Track & Sign course at Intibane at Thanda Safari from 13-16 July will enable you to enhance your natural wilderness experience greatly. This is a course that will make you look at the natural environment with new eyes, being able to interpret the clues and signs left by animals in a whole new way. At the end of the course, you'll be able to identify spoor and dung/scat as well as territorial or behavioral signs of animals.

The course teaches the art of tracking; you will in a sense have to become the animal. And then use the broad tracking principles of observation, identification and interpretation to find the animal.

Because as Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Friday, 24 February 2017

ANTics of another kind...

What's in a name you might ask? Well, apparently a lot, especially if you are attending an African Nature Training course and start playing around with words in stead of facts.

This social media conversation transpired when the participants on the current FGASA Level One course were up to ANTics of another kind...

Happy valANTintes day!

Good bANTer...

FANTastic in fact!!

We are looking forward to your arrival in ANTicipation. Let's hope it isn't an ANTiclimax...

Oh eh eh... We are clearly all brilliANT today!

I'm waiting with much ANTicipation for the next chirp...

Agh man, don't be so ANTsy!

Ha ha ha, this conversation actually needs to end, I cANT keep it up...

Mmm... Seems you got your wish, it seems to have gone dormANT...


Thursday, 2 February 2017

2 February - Celebrating World Wetlands Day

World Wetlands Day, celebrated annually on 2 February, provides an opportunity to celebrate a natural resource that is critical for people, the environment, and biodiversity. Wetlands come in all shapes and forms, from estuaries along our beautiful coastlines and high altitude inland wetlands within the grasslands of Mpumalanga, to the hard working wetlands within our urban landscapes. Much of our conservation effort within the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) is centred around the protection, restoration, and management of wetlands and the catchments that feed them, and we encourage you to celebrate World Wetlands Day with us.

Two of South Africa’s three crane species, the Grey Crowned and Wattled Crane, are completely dependent on wetlands for their survival – yet both are threatened with extinction. Their threatened status mirrors the loss of wetlands in our country, with an estimated 50% of wetlands completely transformed in South Africa. The African Crane Conservation Programme (ACCP), a partnership between the EWT and the International Crane Foundation, has used these charismatic, long-lived birds as flagships for wetland protection, restoration and management.

The ACCP’s South Africa Regional Manager, Tanya Smith, confirms that the efforts of the ACCP team and its partners have ensured the protection of nearly 100,000 ha of grasslands, wetlands and associated rivers in important catchments for people and cranes in South Africa over the past five years. The protection of the key water resources contributes to the long-term security of our water supply for millions of people in South Africa.

From large charismatic cranes to the small and slippery, wetlands are home to many. Globally, amphibians are the most threatened class of vertebrate with 32.5% of species currently listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable. Approximately 800 species of amphibians make exclusive use of wetland habitats. Here in South Africa, a tiny frog the size of your thumbnail is found only in 25 wetlands along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline. Therefore, a key focal species of the EWT’s Threatened Amphibian Programme (TAP), is the Endangered Pickersgill’s Reed Frog. These coastal wetlands are unique in their structure and are themselves classified as Critically Endangered. “The presence of flagship species that depend on wetlands for their survival really helps leverage support for the protection and restoration of wetlands,” says Dr Jeanne Tarrant, TAP Programme Manager. The EWT embarked on an ambitious journey to restore four of these wetlands in the Durban area through alien plant control, re-establishment of indigenous plants and assessing wetland rehabilitation needs and this year will be working towards formal protection of two of these wetlands through community stewardship models.

This year’s World Wetland Day theme is “Wetlands for disaster risk reduction” and this theme truly celebrates the services wetlands provide for us free of charge. Wetlands greatly reduce the impacts of flooding by slowing down the flow of water, and reduce the impacts of droughts by slowly releasing water to our streams and rivers. In the current drought gripping much of South Africa, the role and protection of healthy wetlands has never been more important.

The EWT is involved with several World Wetlands Day celebratory events around the country. In KwaZulu-Natal, World Wetlands Day will be celebrated at the Greater Edendale Mall wetland in Pietermaritzburg on 2 February from 10am. This is a collaboration of all partners of the KwaZulu-Natal Wetland Forum and will see over 300 children learning about and experiencing the value of wetlands. In the Eastern Cape, the EWT and the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa have partnered to get our future generation’s hands dirty experiencing the wetlands of the Amathole area, where the EWT has been implementing catchment restoration work for the past three years. Lastly, in Gauteng, World Wetlands Day will be celebrated on 17 February at Tembisa Esselen Park Pan. A fun day of activities is planned, so be on the lookout for the EWT stand.

Later on in the month, you can get involved in raising awareness for our special wetland dwellers, the frogs, by joining in on a number of Leap Day for Frogs activities, including the EWT’s attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the largest game of leapfrog on Friday, 24 February. This exciting event gets underway at 10am on the Durban beachfront promenade near uShaka Marine World. Find out more by visiting or emailing


You can make a difference to our wetlands all year round in a number of different ways, including:

  1. Planning a wetland clean up in your community with local schools and parents.
  2. Reducing your waste, reusing bottles and containers you would normally throw away, use reusable shopping bags and recycle! Our water resources like rivers and wetlands are heavily impacted on by litter and waste, so these small actions can make a huge difference.
  3. Reporting any illegal dumping in wetlands and rivers to your local municipality or police station.
  4. Supporting the efforts of organisations like the EWT in protecting wetlands on your behalf.
(Story: Endangered Wildlife Trust)

Monday, 16 January 2017

The man behind the uniform – Gary Lyon

Africa Nature Training pride itself on the calibre of instructors that is chosen to conduct our courses. Gary Lyon is one such man. With 20 years’ experience, he is a gem and participants under his tutelage walk away with a wealth of knowledge and an experience par none.

Get to know him better…

Why do you do what you do?
The natural world has captured my imagination for as long as I can remember.
When I was at school we attended veld school periodically. Some people hated veld school and similar school tours to the bush but for me it was the best thing since bread and jam... On one of my trips to the Soutpansberg, a teacher handed me a copy of the South African Tree list. I ran off into bush where I managed to see lots of trees, identify none and got myself stung by a nest of paper wasps. But it captured my imagination like nothing else and I have loved trees ever since.
Once I began to learn about nature it never stopped and it never will. I have been taught many things by many individuals, often by my own students, and I am grateful for the knowledge they have shared with me.

Most favourite wildlife experience?
My most favourite wildlife experience has to be finding something new and unusual that I hadn’t expected to see, like a pair of Cape Clawless Otters appearing unexpectedly in a pool, or a Giant Legless Skink appearing after the first heavy rains.

Favourite animal and why?
I love the honey badger for his sheer tenacity, determination and drive, his fearlessness and his versatility, as well as, his adaptability and intelligence. All these characteristics make the honey badger an amazing animal.

What does the future hold for the guiding industry?
As our wildlife becomes more and more threatened there is a need for better custodianship. This begins with an appreciation of what we have and what we have to lose. To appreciate what we have we need to see it and experience it, so that we can come to understand it and value it. Guiding is the way trained individuals introduce people to nature through ecotourism.
The guiding industry has transformed since I first began working as a guide in 1996. While we have always tried to be professional, the standards of training and level of knowledge has grown tremendously. This is attributable to the hard work of many and the input of numerous stake-holders in the industry including individual, private and public entities and through government legislation.
The industry now has professional guides, at various levels in their training and development that are well-trained and equipped to provide the safest and most informative nature experience possible. Guides are now able to specialise in various fields – once they have acquired the highest level as professional safari guides – and can now focus their attention on their individual passions.
The industry is already at a high level as far as professionalism is concerned and will continue to improve but future wildlife experiences will be defined by a more conscious effort to ensure the welfare of the wildlife with more care taken to ensure that animals are not disturbed excessively just to satisfy the need for a good sighting for a paying client. The industry will also be more conscious of the footprint we have on the environment as we traverse it, on foot , by vehicle, on horseback or by boat. Guides will be conscious of this as they strive to continue to drive the industry forward. Along with this the industry is also moving in a direction that will allow more access to less well-heeled individuals and where the client experience will change from a passive observation to active learning about wildlife.

What are you currently busy with?

I am constantly working to improve my credentials as a guide and presentation as a guide trainer. This includes working towards an SKS-Birding qualification, among other goals.