Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The plenitude of Mwanzamala

I'm writing this post in celebration of Mwanzamala.

What is it?

It's the Shangaan name for the present month.

Unlike us, the local Shangaan people don't go about commemorating megalomaniacs, obsolete gods or erroneous numbering systems. Traditionally they divvy up their year using a lunar calendar, naming each cycle of the moon after notable natural events.
Wouldn't you love to exchange 'December' for 'first snow' (if you're unlucky enough to live in the Northern Hemisphere)?

Well here, right now, it's Mwanzamala.

Yes, yes, I'll tell you what it means in a moment. First let me share with you an experience I had during Mwanzamala some years ago.
I was diligently working at my laptop (honest) at a picnic area in Kruger National Park (Pretoriuskop camp) when I was distracted (oh no, not easily done) by a movement in the hedge that divided the sprawling lawns. The hedge was about chin-height, very dense and neatly clipped, and some small animal had just popped out of the top, only to immediately disappear again.

There it was again. Furred in soft reddish brown, it sprang up, almost like a jack-in-the-box, before diving back into the foliage. And again! It certainly wasn't a squirrel or a hyrax (dassie) but for the life of me I couldn't make out what it was. I sat staring at the hedge mystified as the creature kept popping in and out. Once I was certain I glimpsed the edge of a long, hare-like ear. And look, a tuft of fuzzy white, like a rabbit's scut.

What was even more strange, was that the creature didn't always appear at the same spot, but was popping out at different places along the top of the hedge. Was it dashing about within the foliage? Or was there a whole colony of the beasts? Could someone at Pretoriuskop be surreptitiously breeding rufous, tree-dwelling rabbits?

Utterly baffled, I crept closer, only to realise that the animal wasn't actually in the hedge at all, but was popping up from behind it. But what on earth was it? I quickly back-tracked along the line of the hedge and - feeling a certain amount of trepidation – tiptoed around the end to see what lurked behind.

Boy did I feel stupid!

On the lawn before me was a crèche of a dozen capering impala fawns. They were playing follow-the-leader: galloping and pronking around the lawn in a large circle, like a roundabout come to life. As the string of fawns raced along beside the hedge, each one gave a prodigious leap, soaring through the air for several meters. It was the noses, ears and tails of these airborne antelope (the only bits to protrude above the top of the hedge) that I'd seen from the far side. Oh the embarrassment!

Photo by Melanie Lukesh.

Adult impalas (Aepyceros melampus) demonstrating the manoeuvre (notice everyone is at least a metre off the ground).
Photo by Martin Heigan.

Experiences such as this are common place during Mwanzamala, the month of 'more impalas'.

In the space of just 2 or 3 weeks, all the impalas in southern Africa (and there's well over a million) give birth to their wobbly-legged lambs. Skittish with huge ears and eyes, the fawns gather in large nursery herds and crèches. The idea is to glut the market; even the most voracious predator can't scoff everyone. But of course they give it their best shot, and everywhere you see predators lying snoozing contentedly with bellies grossly bulging.

Impala mums usually give birth around midday, leaving the newborn concealed in cover for its first couple of days.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

Dinner. As well as the usual carnivores, impala lambs are munched by pythons, baboons and martial eagles.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

But it's not just the carnivores that revel in Mwanzamala; it's holiday time for everyone.
Zebras, wildebeest and waterbuck all suddenly adopt an insouciant, relaxed manner; you can almost see them laying out their beach towels and slapping on the sunscreen. Predators? Who needs to concern themselves with those indolent, overindulged gluttons?

This year, I've joined the rank and file, and am also relying on the plenitude of Mwanzamala. You see my study site is currently the domicile of a large male lion who's wandered in from Kruger; may he wander off again soon!

Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.


  1. oh, what lovely creatures. And all those others slathered in sunscreen - hah! Like a Disney movie.

    And I would like to change December to First Snow, but this year it would be a small misnomer--it would have to be First Ice!

  2. A beautiful animal! (Most of them are in one way or another IMO).

    Have snow (only about a foot of it though), and it's doggone cold tonight. About -12C. Still the squirrels and various birds are taking full advantage of the handout at the feeder. The raccoons are sleeping it off. ATB!

  3. What a great name for a month!

    Best of luck with the gazelles distracting that lion... One of my favorite lines in a research paper was a deadpan comment on how the authors had lost one month of data because rhinos had trampled the equipment. Even worse if lions are involved!

  4. Sorry--impalas! arrrgh. Just as well I only had to identify invertebrates...

  5. Melissa,
    I hope First Ice has progressed to First Snow. What's the point of living in the northern hemisphere if you don't get to enjoy a White Christmas?

    I seriously envy you your raccoons (sleeping or not). They seem delightful animals.

    I keep finding lion prints but have avoided any encounters (predatory or otherwise) so far. Yesterday, I discovered a huge pug mark filled with little mongoose prints - very piquant.


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