Wednesday, September 19, 2007


I was looking through this grand account a short while ago when I came across one particular post which reminded me briefly of the savannah and the smell of the wild and open lands. And through it all runs that immortal, omnipresent entity – the River.


The River runs through the Land. Huge herbivores wallow in the mud along its slower banks. This is the home of Hippo, the bulky eater of reeds. You find little birds grooming her. These little birds eat parasites and groom the mighty beast. The mighty creature booms lazily, a warning to nearby rivals and predators. Little hippo calves snuggle nearby, happy in the knowledge that big hippo will protect them out of pure genetic imperative.

The River gives rise to pools of water, pools of life and death. A herd of horned ruminants (springboks, wildebeest, whatever) is normally found at one of them. While the more paranoid and dutiful elements look out for a predator, the rest drink, demudifying themselves and remudifying themselves as the great spirit takes them. There may be a gazelle, sleek and graceful but ready to bolt at any opportunity; there might be a rugged old kudu or eland or gnu.

Eventually, though, you will face one of the Big Five (really, the Big Six, but one is almost extinct).

The African lion is the first on any list. The male of the species is a heavyweight, massing at least 180 kg and sometimes reaching a quarter-ton. Occasionally he is assisted by a junior male, and a large pride can have up to six males in it. Male lions defend territory but never hunt; the females form a cooperative sisterhood which hunts and nurtures the young. When you meet a male lion, with his distinctive mane and posture, recognize that his thoughts about you are: 1) Are you a threat? 2) How big a threat are you? 3) How do I dispose of this threat? – in that sequence. By 'threat', he means 'an entity which will take territory and food supplies from my pride'. However, if he thinks you are food and not a threat, he will leave you to the womenfolk.

The African elephant is famed for its huge ears and invulnerable appearance. The adult elephant is a grazer with an excellent sense of smell, but with poor sight and hearing. Predators take advantage of this fact to harass and kill the smaller elephants from the downwind zone. No serious animal predator goes for the adult; the record for an adult tusk mass is about 103 kg and each tusk is a deadly weapon somewhat akin to an entrenching tool on steroids. Remember that typical adult can weigh five tons or more.

The leopard is one of the Big Five by virtue of ubiquity. The most striking of the lot, it is an opportunistic hunter which goes after any prey presenting itself as somehow being injured or having lost its way. It isn't a very nice beast, or a very clever one, but it will drag down and kill smaller animals and be very happy about it. The leopard won't take on larger prey; it knows only too well the dangers of having to defend a kill after expending too much energy. The lion might just come along and appropriate the food without a struggle.

The buffalo is the fourth of these great animals. Massing 800 kg or so, this squat-looking monster ruminant with terrifying horns is actually surprisingly light on its feet. They're odd animals, being gregarious and able to form herds of non-productive singles. When unsettled, they become nocturnal. The main thing to note about the buffalo is that it gets angry, and when infuriated or injured, it will attempt to utterly destroy the perceived source of its discomfort. It takes little to infuriate one, and many hunters have shot and injured the buffalo without killing it – to their subsequent discomfort and eventual demise.

The last (two?) of the Big Five (Six?) is the rhinoceros. The rhino comes in two varieties. The black rhino would be extinct without the excellent care of national parks. It is small (well, only up to 1400 kg), shy, solitary and nocturnal – it is almost a ghost presence. It is secretive and will browse in bushy and wooded riverine areas, using its hooked lips to great effect as it selects, strips, and consumes various plant munchies. The white rhino is a far bigger and more common animal, massing up to 2500 kg and able to strip entire areas bare. The white will eat anything (and looks like it too) – it has a square jaw and a belligerent attitude. Both species are notable for their large nasal horn, a slashing and stabbing weapon which can be used to slice through vegetation or spear a predator.


I have always been enthralled by the idea of the veldt, the vast sea of grassy plains and the shrubby woodlands around them. The savannah to me is typified not so much by Kruger National Park, but by the Serengeti. Yet, it is neither. The idea of the huge tapestry of animals interacting in their vast and savage ecosystem is great enough for me. It echoes in my head.

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