Friday, April 22, 2011

Running scared

Running just isn't my thing.

I've never understood what people gain from jogging (apart from joint problems) or why any sane biped would want to run a marathon.

Of course I did do cross-country running for PE back in high school (we jogged out the school gates, sauntered to a friend's house, drank coffee for two hours and then jogged back in through the gates). I guess that doesn't count.

However, since coming to Africa, I've discovered that there are times when I'm happy to run with the best of them.

And yesterday was one of them.

The occupational hazards of a mongoose researcher: I've taken to my heels to avoid ostriches, bulls, poachers, rhinos, elephants and a hand-raised ground squirrel. Said demonic ground squirrel (sporting HUGE teeth and an ankle-biting fetish) shown above.

When I first moved into this house (located right on the banks of the Oliphants River) I was very cautious about walking by the water's edge. You see this river is home to a multitude of Nile crocodiles: little cute teeny ones – goggle-eyed and stripy in black, yellow and green - who high-tail it for the water the moment they see you, up to massive behemoths 5 m (16.5 ft) long who just lie there and watch as you pass. They bask on the beaches, waddle along the roads between river and dams, and creep out at night to drag away anything unwise enough to die within 500m of the river.

A Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) paddling in the dam near my house. When I stopped to photograph his grisly prize (an ill-starred waterbuck the size of a large horse), he hastily towed it further off shore.

So when it came to walking with my dogs in the river bed, I was initially very wary about getting too close to the water. After all, I'd seen those scary wildlife documentaries where the crocodiles leap out of the water to snatch milling wildebeests off the bank. And let's not forget killer whales, beaching themselves on the sand for a mouthful of unsuspecting seal pup.
You simply can't trust aquatic predators to stay in their rightful element.

Yet after three years of riverbank rambles, free of anyone trying to eat me, I've become a little blasé.

Well yesterday I got a shock.

The dogs and I were wending our way along the river bed, ploughing through the drifted sand and clambering over rocks, when I spotted a huge crocodile basking on the beach of a mid-stream island. It was one of the really massive ones, close to 4 m (13 ft) long and it looked more like a felled rainforest tree than an actual animal. I cannot describe to you how awesome these creatures are. It's not so much their length as their immense bulk; they can weigh up to 1000 kg (2200 lbs). I can never look at them without shivering inside and feeling that reptiles simply should NOT get this big. And they've effectively cured me of a lifelong desire to meet a dinosaur.

The world's worst photograph of a mammoth crocodile (sorry!). Crocs have all sorts of spiffy adaptations, like a palatial valve (a fleshy flap at the back of the tongue) which seals their throat when below water. Normally crocs dive for up to 15-20 minutes but, when harassed, they can stay below for 2 hours, reducing their heart rate to 2-3 beats a minute and closing their heart valves to redirect blood to only essential organs.

The dogs and I picked our way across the sandy beach toward the creature, stopping about 3 m (10 ft) from the water's edge. I'd been a bit hesitant about approaching it so directly as I didn't want to disturb it, but these big guys tend to be very confident and there was about 25 m (82 ft) of fast-flowing river swirling between us. The dogs, of course, simply didn't see it (they never see crocodiles unless they move) and I was keen for them to do so, so they'd understand why I keep insisting the water is dangerous.

While we were standing on the beach, enjoying the vicarious thrill of gazing at such an awesome predator, the awesome predator lurched to its feet - standing up on fully straightened legs (called a 'high-walk' in crocodile parlance) which made it waist-height - swung round to face us and plunged into the river. It came surging toward us through the water at full speed (about 15 kph/10 mph according to the books), and it took me a moment or two to realise, 'hey, it's coming straight at us!'

Coincidence, surely.

I walked a few steps downstream and it immediately altered its path so its trajectory would intercept us.

Oh God!

By now it was half way across the river and I felt a rush of alarm, disbelief and dismay as I realised we were now on the menu. I envisioned the beast hurtling out of the water in front of us; a creature at least ten times my own body mass.

It was at this point that I turned and ran.


I'm afraid I cannot tell you whether the crocodile actually emerged on to our beach, as I didn't stop to look back.
And neither did the dogs.
We just ran.

And from now on, I'm going be to very cautious again!

I thought you should see what these big guys are capable of. If you go here you can view a series of eight photos showing what happened during this horrible interaction.
Photo by Martin Nyfeler/Barcroft Media, and posted on Flickr by Arno Meintjes.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spots before my eyes...

During the last couple of days I've been seeing spots.
And no ordinary spots.
Yesterday's were sublime; today's ghastly.

Let's start with the sublime.

When I set out to walk the dogs last night, I forgot to put my camera in my pocket. Realising while still in the garden, I chose not to go back. 'Bring on the leopards', I quipped to the dogs (dogs respond more favourably to quipping than cats or mongooses).

Twenty minutes later, Magic (my husky-cross) began tugging at the leash, eager to chase something she'd spotted up ahead. There was a noisy mob of guinea-fowl strutting about the track where it crested the hill ahead of us, so I assumed Magic was keen to sup on fowl (which are very spotted too, by the way).

We trekked on up the hill, Magic dragging me along (boy, can huskies pull) and the guinea-fowl squawked and squabbled their way off into the bush. But as we rounded the next bend, two things happened simultaneously. My dogs caught a whiff of something VERY exciting at the edge of the path (jerking me almost off my feet as they doubled back to investigate) and I glanced up to see a very large leopard 30 m (100 ft) away. He was nonchalantly strolling along the track ahead of us, oblivious to our presence. His pace was so relaxed and leisurely, I could almost see him smelling the flowers.

The cat's whiskers. Meeting a leopard (Panthera pardus) is a rare and wonderful privilege.
Photo by A & L Meintjes.

White-tipped tail held jauntily high, he sauntered over to a trackside shrub, sniffed at the foliage and then luxuriously rubbed his cheeks against the twigs. He then turned, backed up to the shrub and sprayed a jet of urine up on to the leaves. With his scent-marking efforts complete, he strolled on. Meanwhile my dogs, busy feasting (metaphorically) on his previous contribution, didn't even see him.

Although I regularly come across leopard prints, I've only met a leopard in-the-fur twice before; despite three years of daily dog walking. This macho lad regularly enlivens our walks by leaving stinky stop signs at all the prominent road junctions. Worryingly large, these piles of droppings are always chockfull of fur, so while the dogs enjoy a sniffing-fest, I struggle to identify the ill-fated fur-bearer.

Yesterday's leopard was big. I don't know why our leopards are bigger than other people's, but every time I see a documentary on the leopards of the Cedarburg, or the Cape, or the coast, I go into shock. How can those squat little animals be leopards? Yesterday's cat was almost hip-height and close to 2 m (6 ft) long. I guess it's part and parcel of the species' versatility: these professional killers pad about all over Africa and across Asia as far as Korea and Manchuria. They're the only large carnivore stalking around the rainforests of Africa, and a frozen leopard carcass was found stuck in the ice at 5692 m (18,700 ft) on Mt Kilimanjaro (perhaps not a wise choice of habitat, in retrospect). They even cling on in places where smaller carnivores have been eradicated. How? Catholic tastes. A study in the Serengeti, for example, found that leopards munched 30 different prey species compared with only 12 chomped by lions.

Room with a view. Leopards are renowned for hauling their meals up into trees, but they only indulge in this habit if other big meat-eaters live in the area.
Photo by A & L Meintjes.

At about the same time that my dogs caught sight of yesterday's leopard, he became aware of us, turning to look back over his shoulder. Instantly he dropped into a low, slinking crouch and bounded away into the bush. I was left wrestling with my dogs (trying desperately to thwart their suicidal desire to give chase) and was quite unable to stop smiling.

Well they were the sublime spots, now for the ghastly.

Pepper ticks.
The Devil's own condiment.

Pepper ticks are just like normal, everyday ticks except they're tiny. Three could sit comfortably on the head of a pin (maybe four if they scrunched up). Just like regular ticks, they guzzle blood, inject you full of horrible parasites and leave huge, itchy lumps. And each one must be individually extracted and crushed (they do make a satisfying pop). However, unlike normal ticks, they hunt in swarms. Stumble on a pepper-tick hideout and you're polka-dotted with misery.

I'm not going to tell you how much pepper ticks make me suffer, or how they drive me into a frenzy of rage. Suffice to say that today, after a very pleasant morning with Ecthelion, I painstakingly removed 437 of them. And yes, I did count every one.

Overcome by pepper ticks?
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes (what wonderful people).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

More snakes and adders

The one thing that most people know about mongooses is that they kill and eat snakes.
This is like knowing that humans eat lasagne.

Of course, there are snakes and there are snakes.
Big snakes are only too happy to kill and eat little mongooses.
And my dwarf mongooses are the teeniest mongooses there are.
Being rat-sized and the weight of half a can of baked beans, they're ideal snack snake food.
But ONLY if they're caught unawares.

The spotted bush snake (Philothamnus semivariegatus) is about the largest snake my dwarfs can kill. It's a slick, zippy snake, about 1 m (3 ft) long and the thickness of my thumb. Sadly, only the group's oldest members can feast on the spoils because no one else's teeth are hefty enough to pierce the skin.

When walking in the bush alone I rarely see a snake.
But 'see' is the critical word here. Add 15 mobile snake-detectors and it's a whole different story. Last Sunday I spent an hour pottering along with Ecthelion. In that time we met two large puff adders and a Mozambique spitting cobra.

When a mongoose meets a life-threatening snake, it hollers for the group using a special, high-pitched 'snake' call. Everyone immediately comes running. It's a moment I dread. All the mongooses cluster around the snake, flattening themselves down on their tummies, calling and spitting. The snake coils into the smallest possible bundle and assumes strike position. I bite my nails.
At this point, puff adders demonstrate why they're so named. They produce a loud, ominous noise: a deep whooshing hiss like a deflating football, which lasts around 3 seconds and is then repeated over and over. The mongooses are not deterred. Individually they try to dart in and nip the snake's body, leaping backward as it lunges for them. Some even cartwheel half a metre into the air to evade the striking snake. I stand well back, wincing and squirming, with my eyes screwed half shut.

This is an action shot. Unfortunately it features two cryptic species. Can you spot the puff adder (lower centre) and two mongooses (upper right and upper left beneath the grass tussock)?

From my (wimpy) perspective, snake-mobbing is worst when - as now - the group has small pups. I've seen a puff adder (undetected by me or the group) snatch a mongoose pup almost at my feet. It's not an experience I wish to repeat.

But snake-baiting appears to be a learned behaviour in mongooses and the pups are totally clueless. On Sunday, Ecthelion's three smallest members came trotting over to see what all the fuss was about, wending in and out of the mobbing adults and blithely ignoring the huge puff adder poised inches above them. I actually stopped breathing when Hiccup marched right over the adder's coils. But no one else even noticed. The snake and the mobbing mongooses were focussed exclusively on one another; neither could afford a moment's distraction in the deadly exchange of bite and counter bite.

This whole awful scenario ends after about five minutes, when the mongooses lose interest and wander away. I know this is sounds like an anticlimax, but once the mongooses know the snake's presence, and the snake knows it has a whole group to contend with, the peril is over.

A puff adder (Bitis arietans) feeling put upon. Snakes breathe by moving their ribs (called a costal pump) and a puff adder uses the ribs along its entire trunk to 'puff'. Both the inhalation and exhalation are disturbingly loud (75 decibels - the same volume as a vacuum cleaner at 1 m/yard).

Puff adders are the sluggards of the snake world. During the day they lie about cryptically in thickets or rocks, and at night they lie about cryptically on pathways waiting for edible things to stumble into them. Of course this indolent lifestyle has its consequences: although they only grow to about 1.2 m (4 ft) in length, they get embarrassingly rotund, weighing up to 7 kg (15 lbs). If given unlimited food in captivity, they'll literally eat themselves to death.

Puff adders are responsible for more than 60% of serious snake bites in southern Africa. Their long fangs (12-18mm/0.5-0.7") are capable of penetrating soft leather and they inject a potent cytotoxin that causes severe swelling, pain and necrosis. Around 10% of untreated bites prove fatal (due to kidney failure or complications from the swelling) but loss of an appendage is much more common.

Despite the puff adder's reputation, this is the snake I've grown to feel most warmly towards. Why would someone who's snake-phobic feel warmly toward any legless beast? Gratitude, pure and simple.

You see, in my experience, puff adders behave with exemplary restraint. Once, when I was crawling about a termite mound, neatly piling up mongoose droppings (so I could tell if anyone subsequently visited the latrine), I suddenly realised that my scrabbling fingers were only 2" away from the nose of a very large puff adder. It lay perfectly still but its golden eyes were watching me intently. I'm not sure how it felt when a look of horrified recognition passed over my features, but it maintained its perfect immobility.

In a more testing situation, once (while walking the dogs) I glanced down to see a puff adder right beneath my feet. The snake's thickened body was coiled up beside the track, but its head and neck lay out across the path (presumably in wait for passing rodents). I'd actually passed over the snake before I saw it, but not so my dog, who was following along behind me. With horror, I watched as she lowered her hind paw directly down on to the snake's head. But to my amazement, at the very last moment, the adder flicked its head sideways, out of her way, and the dog marched on, quite oblivious. I think I lost a few years off my life, but I can't help but feel profound gratitude that it did not strike.

A coat of many colours. During spring, male puff adders trail females (who waft an alluring pheromone) and neck wrestle each other to win their regard. Mothers bear 20-40 mini adders in late summer.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Rewind (unwind?)

With another birthday (and large quantities of celebratory chocolate mousse) under my belt, I feel it's time for a (slightly queasy) rethink.

I began this blog about a year ago because I wanted to tell someone about the small everyday adventures of living here.
Working and living alone, I've no one to share the tingle of apprehension at a snake encounter, the jump of pleasure as monkeys dangle upside-down to peer in my window or the small frission of excitement at seeing an unexpected beast or weird behaviour (hopefully not my own).

Gradually, as time's passed, I've moved away from this original purpose; my posts have grown twice as long and much less frequent. And now, when I'm beset by feelings of ineptitude (common) and everything I write seems clumsy, disjointed and just plain dull, I lack the motivation to continue.

In an effort to resolve this difficulty, I've decided to revisit my original intention.
So come, gird your loins for boredom!
Day to day happenings it is!

Starting appropriately (considering this blog's inaugural post) with last night's midnight intruder.

I was woken at the witching hour by the dogs barking hysterically in the lounge room. Stumbling out to investigate (I don't remember deciding to do this), I came-to abruptly. My wavering torch beam revealed a large python, sinuously entwined around the burglar-bars of the window and draped, like a Christmas garland, along the curtain rail. This was bad news. Outside, under that particular window, is where my deaf cat (Fatcat) habitually sleeps the night. But a hasty scan of the snake (about 2.5 m/8 ft long) revealed no cat-sized lumps, and a quick head count confirmed that all my pets were alive and kicking (or barking). Actually - in truth - Fatcat was curled up, totally oblivious, under the toilet.

Curtains for my cat? Not this time. Southern African rock pythons (Python natalensis) routinely grow to 5 m (16 ft) during their 30-year lifespan, so this one's only a young'n.

But how to get it out? With great determination it kept trying to nose its way up into the ceiling, and I was equally determined not to let it. Shoving its movable end back out the window with a broom had no effect beyond eliciting much loud and emphatic hissing, which seriously freaked out my cats. OK, I know that a normal person would've just grabbed the thing, but the salutatory effects of immersion-therapy have only reduced, not eliminated, my ophiophobia. Anyway, I couldn't see how I'd be able to unwind all its twists and turns, even if I was brave enough to handle the creature. And African rock pythons are renowned for being antsy.
My reptile field guide says,
 "They lunge and bite readily in defence. The teeth are very large and can inflict painful ripping wounds."
And of course they've got more than 100 of those teeth, backward curving and blade-like...

Or how about this testimony from the ever redoubtable reptile forums:
"I kept an adult (rescue) and it's the most evil and one of the most dangerous species I have ever come across, would never trust it or get complacent. Are they common in the US? Rare in the UK, would love another."

Snake removal, a knotty problem, tale tail.

And let's not forget that large African rock pythons do occasionally eat people. If Wikipedia is to be believed, they show a strange penchant for 13-year-old boys. However, thinking about it, this mightn't be so surprising, if the victims aren't entirely blameless. A recent, non-fatal attack in Kenya occurred after an adult man accidentally stepped on the snake. In this case, the python dragged him, encoiled, up into a tree, but the guy managed to ring for help on his cell phone (I knew they had to be useful for something).

But of course this is mere sensationalism. The specimen dangling off my curtain rail had a heck of lot of growing to do before adding annoying adolescents to its menu.

Going off the rails (me, not the python). Notice the cobwebs festooned on its nose (oh, the shame).

Deciding to play it safe, I dragged, carried or chased all edible fauna into my bedroom and closed the door on them. Then, in the silence and the dark, the snake and I waited... and waited... and waited. Pythons are big on the whole cryptic bit. Eventually, after an hour or so, it finally began seeking a way out, and with some judicious poking (using the broom of course) when it headed the wrong way, it eventually slide back out the window. Once it touched ground, it glided off into the bush as fast as its legs leglessness would carry it.

Despite a fearsome reputation, African rock pythons are caring mums. Within a termite mound or aardvark burrow, they coil around their 30-50 orange-sized eggs, protecting and warming them for the 2- 3 months until they hatch. Even then, they guard and shepherd the little ones until they find their feet (so to speak) at around two weeks of age. Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.
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