The Cape of Africa
The Horned One
In Afrikaans the name "klipspringer" literally means "rock jumper." As they are almost always found on or near the ubiquitous rock mounds called kopjes that dot Africa, the name fits. In the local Xhosa dialect these widespread little antelope are also called "umvundla," which means "rabbit." At only about 22 inches (58 centimeters) tall and a few pounds in weight, these small antelope with a penchant for rock jumping really do seem more akin to rabbits than to antelope! Klipspringers, a familiar sight in the scrublands and semi-deserts of the Cape, have adapted so well to eating the sparse desert plants and succulents found here that they never have to drink. Like most creatures here they are simply and elegantly adapted to the land that they belong to. Gazing at you quizzically on their tiny toes, klipspringers are hard not to find amusing and likable.
Horn and hide
Cape buffalo congregate in large herds, cropping the many tall grasses of the savanna as they migrate between summer and winter feeding grounds. One of the most successful grazers in all of Africa, Cape buffalo are found in savanna, woodlands, thorn scrub, swamp and most places with a ready water source nearby.
Unlike their cousins in Asia, the African Cape buffalo's wild and aggressive behavior made it impossible to domesticate. Their unpredictable behavior is notorious throughout Africa and many human deaths have been attributed to them. Noisily pulling up grasses and tussling with one another, a herd of buffalo can make short work of an area. Photographing close enough to smell their pungent breath and see their black hides and scimitar-like horns will quicken your pulse in excitement and fear.
To walk through an African landscape knowing large and dangerous predators are nearby that consider you part of their food-chain is to imagine what is must have been like for the first humans. Of all the things that stalk the night, no other large predator evokes such strong feelings of fear and awe as the African lion (Panthera leo).
Historically distributed throughout most of Africa into parts of Europe, the Middle East and Southwest Asia, lions were once one of the most widely distributed of all large mammals in the world. Today, because of habitat loss and human conflicts, it is inevitable that their range is restricted to game reserves, national parks and other wild areas with few people.
Weighing in at up to 550 pounds (250 kg), lions are the alpha predators of the Cape region and throughout much of Africa. Their role as top predator helps keep the ecosystem balanced and healthy by weeding out the sick and old from the herds. As large predators hunting in prides, lions can tackle big game like buffalo that other predators cannot, but as opportunists the so called "king of the savanna" is also not above scavenging for an easy meal. Sleepy-eyed with a swollen belly, this big male had obviously had happy hunting the previous night. Just like your languid housecat, he has that on-of-a kind, feline knack for lazing away the afternoon. Male lions take lazing away to new levels, in fact, and have been known to sleep over 20 hours in a day!
Nicknamed the "undertaker bird," marabous are quick to arrive on the scene of a crime and busily clean up the remains of a kill. They may not be the most handsome fellows, but marabous are perfectly evolved for scavenging. Their long ungainly necks, bald heads, and strong sharp beaks are all adaptations for puncturing tough hides, snaking their long necks into carcasses, and gorging on a grisly feast unencumbered by feathers that would otherwise collect blood and attract parasites.
Without scavengers like marabous, the carcasses and waste of the savanna would accumulate and rot, spreading pestilence and disease. Though we may look upon them as grotesque and macabre, scavengers create life from death by recycling nutrients back into the ecosystem.
The clever ones
Weighing up to 31 kg, chacma baboons are among the largest baboon species in Africa. They typically form large social groups with distinct and complex hierarchies. If not actively found in trees, they are seldom far from them or perched on rocky outcroppings where they congregate at night for protection. Male chacma baboons are sexually dimorphic from females, meaning they look physically different and are often larger, with long ferocious canine teeth. Ferocious and clever as they may be, baboons still live in fear of some predators, especially their nemesis, the leopard.
Traveling in the Cape, I once met a farmer from Zimbabwe who told me about an amazing site he once encountered in the bush: a whole troop of howling, screaming baboons had cornered a leopard on the outer branches of a large tree. What became of the leopard I do not know, but like many things here, the lesson is that the winds of fate can easily shift from hunter to hunted...
Shadow in the grass
Weighing between 75 to 132 pounds (35 60 kg), leopards are mid-sized hunters that prey on a wide variety of small and large game. Leopards adapt to wide-ranging habitats throughout Africa and may be found from rocky desert to thick jungle and places in between. By day, they often lounge in the crook of a tree hidden in their natural camouflage. By night, they hunt and will drag their kills up into the higher boughs of trees, where it is safe from scavenging lions and hyenas.
Walking under the boughs of an acacia tree it is not unusual to see the remains of an impala carcass hanging from a nook in the branches. Leopards are so elusive that such calling cards are often the most anyone ever sees of them. Getting so close to this young male stalking boldly through the early morning tall grass was pure luck and an amazing moment I will never forget!
The wise ones
With a huge bull elephant towering over you in a tiny bush truck, you realize elephants really can be larger-than-life. The role of elephants in the African ecosystem can be so large in fact that their presence or absence changes it. Their natural tendency to push down trees and pull up small shrubs and saplings for food can change a forest into grassland in no time. In this way, elephants can be thought of as "ecosystem engineers" in their ability to change their environment.
Today their huge presence and enormous food needs have put elephants in direct conflict with growing human populations in many parts of Africa. During the 20th century elephants were heavily hunted throughout the continent for their ivory. In some places they disappeared, while in others only small populations remained. Since then, conservation has had mixed results with populations continuing to decline from poaching or habitat loss in some areas, while they have become overpopulated in some protected areas.
The Cape's landscape is also ancient, carved out and weathered by age-old forces and home to our own evolutionary origins. Perhaps that is why a visit here is like no place else. The nostalgia and memory of Africa lies dormant somewhere deep inside our very DNA.
As I wander under the fever trees on a bushy ridge top, innumerable clues of passing and going beg to be unraveled. In the chalky dust of the dry season the story of a warthog coincides with that of a leopard, a baboon troop's daily wanderings take shape, and the tiny avenues of mice and small things meet in a labyrinth of unseen tunnels in the grass. Interwoven stories, constantly beginning and ending, but always continuing, are everywhere painted across the African bush if you know how to see them. With a little imagination you can even begin to imagine our own...