I recently returned from Kruger National Park in South Africa. In the next few columns, I will cover what I learned from the master teacher—nature.
Kruger was created in the late 1920s and is one of the largest national wildlife parks, approximately the size of New Jersey. Kruger differs from the East and Central African savannahs because has some woodlands and offers a wider variety of animals but in smaller numbers.
As one of South Africa’s greatest assets, Kruger is highly respected, spotlessly maintained, with no litter, few bones and even fewer skeletons.
Winter is the dry season in Kruger, so the bushveld savannah is thick with dried grasslands, thirsty bushes and bare trees.
And it can be cold, especially on the 3-hour morning open-air game drive, commencing at 6 a.m. with temperatures hovering in the 50s. At 3:30 p.m., we hopped into the open-air land rovers for the 3-hour afternoon game drive. A ranger drove the land rover and a tracker sat in a jump seat in the front to spot the abundant wildlife and provide protection, in the very rare instance of danger.
While these are wild animals, they have become quite used to humans, and view us as a curiosity, an annoyance or simply an irrelevance. For that reason, we were able to get within a few feet of the animals without impacting their behavior. For example, when observing prides of lions, not even the cubs bothered to look in our direction.
Seeing animals in their natural environment is breathtaking. In one instance we were able to watch rare wild dogs consume their kill.
Wild dogs are beautiful creatures. Their faces resemble German Shepherds. They have large rounded ears like hyenas. Their slim, slightly built bodies are covered in a beautiful camouflage colored fur.
Wild dogs are endangered, so observing them is a real treat. They travel in packs of 7-10 and move quickly, often crossing national boundaries in a matter of days. To feed the pack, they must hunt twice a day. Due to finely tuned, flawless cooperation, they are the most effective hunters in South Africa, boasting success rates as high as 90% (compared to 25% for lions and 17% for wolves). In Kruger they feast on antelope such as Impala, Kudus, Nyalas, Duikers and Steenboks.
We had the incredible fortune of encountering a pack within 10 minutes of killing a young male impala.
Aware that hyenas would immediately pick up the scent of the kill, they ate quickly. Sure enough, within minutes, two hyenas appeared, intent upon stealing the kill.
Each hyena was twice their size, and had the hyenas used a coordinated attack they would have been able to steal the kill. But the hyenas bickered among themselves, allowing the smaller dogs to keep them pinned.
The coordination among the pack was amazing, each instinctively knew their roles, didn’t bark, growl or yelp (I wish they could train my dogs). As soon as the hyenas arrived, other members of the pack stopped eating to assist the guards.
Despite their nasty reputation, hyenas have one of the most important roles in the bush. Their strong jaws can crush and consume large bones that even lions cannot break.
We observed one hyena steal the impala’s head and crush and swallow it in a single bite. Hyenas eat so much bone that their scat (a euphemism for you know what) resembles white chicken eggs.
We watched while nature continued to do its dance. While the dogs ate, vultures hovered in the bare trees. A few brave ones began to pick around the feast. But for the most part, they waited for the hyenas and dogs to finish.
One by one the dogs silently crept back to their den, knowing that their pups were vulnerable to hyenas, lions and leopards, they were careful to escape unnoticed. Back in the den, the pack would regurgitate some of their food for the pups.
After the dogs departed, the hyenas grabbed the large bones and the vultures wandered around the site eating any remaining morsels of flesh.
Within ½ hour all signs of the kill were gone, anyone wandering onto the scene would see only matted grass and perhaps a wandering hyena or vulture searching for scraps.
So what did nature teach me?
- The dogs acting collectively were able to beat a greater foe.
- The vultures, believing there would be enough for them, patiently waited their turn.
- The underappreciated cleanup crew of hyenas and vultures left the place spotless. Without them, the bush would be filled with rotting corpses and skeletons.
It was nature’s play where everyone understood their roles. Their life and death struggle choreographed into a flawless dance.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.