South African road trip (Part III – Johannesburg and around)

Day 10 – Johannesburg Zoo

African wild cat

African wild cat

I had a meeting in Johannesburg Zoo, which meant we had to make a foray into the wilds of the criminal capital of the world. Johannesburg is probably the second least inviting city I have ever visited, first being Tennant Creek in Australia’s Northern Territory. The white population of Jo’burg is confined to gated communities nestled behind fortress-like brick walls topped with rows upon rows of barbed wire. As we were driving through the city towards the zoo, I was gawking at the empty streets devoid of any warmth, filled with malice and despair and all kinds of rubbish stirred up by the breeze.

African wildcat kitten

African wildcat kitten

The zoo was a welcome relief from the oppressiveness of the city. Having attended to the business side of things I took the chance to see what cat species they had in the exhibit, hoping to see the Sand Cat – my namesake – Felis margarita. They are the only cat species that have adapted to living in desert conditions by digging burrows in the sand to escape the heat of the day. Unfortunately, the only small cats Jo’burg zoo had on display were the African wildcats.

Jo’burg zoo is famous for being the origin of White lions in captivity. The first captive while lion cub was borne here to a pair of tawny parents and came as a total surprised to the zoo staff. White lions are almost extinct in the wild, with just a few animals remaining in Kruger National Park, though some have been re-introduced into the wild from captive stock.

Apart from captive wildlife there were a few Ground squirrels scurrying around the zoo grounds, but not much else in terms of free-ranging wildlife.

Ground squirrel

Ground squirrel

Day 11 – Lion Park

After a quick trip to the airport to rent a car and to see 5 crates with cheetahs from Hoedspruit breeding centre being shipped off to Japan we made our way to the Lion Park, which was to become our base for the next 4 days. The accommodation in the park came in a way of basic permanent tents with fantastic views of various ungulates grazing on the adjacent grass plain. At first look Lion Park is nothing special to someone as spoiled as me – having been hand- raising tiger cubs for a living for  the past three years. There was lots of cubs available for photos, some jackals and hyenas in the enclosures and a couple of giraffes that wonder around anywhere they like, including the car park and the restaurant.

Lion cub

Lion cub

Lions

Lions

But then we met Alex. Alex is the animal trainer at the park and he took us under his wing for the day. After a quick tour of the nursery we went for a drive through the Lion Camps. Every time we came across a pride of lions Alex would get out of the car and call the lions over. All of them from white adolescents to fully grown males of both colours would run out rushing towards him and rub their cheeks against his legs. It was obvious Alex had an amazing relationship with the cats, full of trust and affection. In one of the camps Alex had to distract an excited female and he enticed her to play in the back of his track. She got so excited that instead of going back to join her male friend she came for a ride around the camp with us.

White lions

White lions

Lion

Lion

In the evening we took a cheetah for a little walk and then watched some spotted hyenas in their enclosure for a while. The viciousness of hyenas is legendary. Alex told us a story about one of his alpha females who once developed a grudge against a pair of hyenas in the neighbouring enclosure. She waited for weeks for a chance to get them. On one stormy night a bolt of lightning struck the electric fence separating their enclosures and once the electricity was out, she chewed through two fences separating her from the hated pair. Once inside the neighbouring enclosure she killed the male and ate half of his body and bit off all of the female’s feet. Such a sadistic thing seems to be unnatural for the animal kingdom. Hyenas are apparently quite smart ~ 20% smarter than lions and it appears that the intelligence is directly proportional to cruelty, just like in the case of chimps (and humans).

Juvenile lions playing with their food delivered from a local slaughter house

Juvenile lions playing with their food delivered from a local slaughter house

Another interesting thing about hyenas is that female’s clitoris is enlarged to the point that it looks like a penis and can in fact be erected. The ovaries are also hugely enlarged and resemble male’s testicles. Mating is difficult for hyenas and giving birth is even more so. Many first-time mothers die. If two cubs of the same gender are borne in the same litter they will try to kill each other and only the stronger one will survive. The pups are borne with teeth, probably for this purpose.

young white liontawny pair 2tawny pair 3tawny malezebrasWeaver at the nest

The camping site at the Lion Park presented a few bird watching opportunities. We spotted a Green Wood-Hoopoe, Grey Go-away-bird, Dark-capped Bulbuls, Pied Crow and large numbers of Yellow-billed Kites circling above the camp site. We also found a Village Weaver’s nesting site and watched the parents taking turns bringing food to the young.

Day 12 – Lion and Rhino Reserve

A very relaxed day at the Lion & Rhino Reserve. A friend drove us to the Lion and Rhino Reserve and arranged for a guide to come and pick us up. We decided to kick back and just go with the flow of the existing tourist routine. We went on a safari and saw some lions, rhino and a number of herbivores. There were also some predator enclosures and in one of them lived two four-month old black leopard cubs. Unlike their Asian cousins, African black leopards are extremely rare. Seeing the cubs was definitely the highlight of an otherwise rather uneventful trip.

Rhino and a calf

Rhino and a calf

Oryx

Oryx

And a midst all this bounty of African wildlife, I was particularly impressed by the smallest one of them all – Paradise Widowbird. This amazing bird had such long feathers in its tail that it had trouble landing – its tail acting as a parachute, pulling it sideways.

Paradise widowbird

Paradise widowbird

Paradise widowbird

Paradise widowbird

A quick play with a Bengal tiger cub gave me ‘cute and cuddly’ fix for the day, though playing with tigers in Africa didn’t exactly go along with an otherwise authentic experience.

Bengal tiger cub in Africa

Bengal tiger cub in Africa

Ground squirrelRhino and a calfRhino and a calfSable anthelope

Day 13 –  Lakeside Predator Park

The Lakeside Predator Park, also know as the Africa Game Service serves mainly as quarantine for animals that are to be shipped overseas, as well as some breeding and shipping. Joanne, the manager turned out to be one of the loveliest people I have ever met. She took us around the entire facility that included a private collection of breeding lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs. Her leopards were particularly affectionate, though they stayed behind the bars.

Zebra foal

Zebra foal

Day 14 – De Wildt

De Wildt was a drama getting to, but we made it in the end. We lost our way a few times, so by the time we got to De Wildt we missed an hour of their regular drive. We were in time for the wild dogs however.

As we drove into the wild dog camp the dogs came running out of the bush and surrounded our safari trucks. When we stopped the dogs gathered in the clearing right in front of me, waiting for a meal. It was awesome.

The staff fed the dogs by throwing chicken carcasses  off the back of the truck. The sounds these guys make are not very dog-like at all. And they just love vocalizing.

African Wild dogs

African Wild dogs

These dogs have a very complex social system, which is way more ‘humane’ than hyena’s social system. In the wild dogs’ pack only the strong and healthy animals go out to hunt. They eat their prey in minutes and return to their pack to regurgitate some of the meat. Those animals that did not go out to the hunt beg for food and the best beggar gets it. Puppies are by far the best beggars followed by the sick and the old. Only the strong and healthy pack members do not get any free food. This ensures that the healthy dogs are hungry the following day and join the hunt again.

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