Letters to the editor
By Dr P le S Milstein In Kampersrus
THE BIG FIVE HAVE COMPETITORS
There are more and more visitors to the Kruger Park and adjacent lowveld wildlife areas who realize that the big and hairy are only part of a fascinating cavalcade of wildlife there for the seeing. Equally there is no doubt that there will always be avid admirers of the Big Five, who will for example goggle for hours at a pride of lions doing what lions do best: sleep! Personally I would rather have a good view of a single leopard in all its camouflaged glory than several dozen dozy prides of lions. Equally I find large elephant tuskers exciting, and enjoy being completely surrounded by a vast buffalo herd. However, dozens of buff mouths rhythmically chewing the cud around me soon palls. Even rhino peering at close range uncertainly at one soon loses its allure.
My grandfather was one of the "old school", a crack shot who hated African Wild Dogs and shot them on sight as "cruel" killers. I love their antics and clever team-work, and thrill to their remorseless hunting in which their victims are run down in fair chase, becoming so traumatised that they don't know whether they are Arthur or Martha, or on another planet. However, I find it equally interesting to watch a pack of scarlet assassin-bugs run down individual millipedes many times their size in exactly the same way.
The lead assassin-bug rams its proboscis snout into the millipede and sucks out a bit of body fluid, while the millipede then goes into emergency s-mode escape, writhing on its back, and out-distances its pursuers for a while. However, the pack follows the scent trail equally remorselessly, and finally sucks the dead millipede dry. The common sight of a dead millipede carcass lying in the veld may indicate just such a miniature drama played out earlier. The cheetah is harmless to man so does not make the Big Five, being instead often robbed of its legitimate kill by other carnivores. .
However few sights can compare with a cheetah in killing range tripping its prey at incredible mammalian speed with its special tripping claw, and pouncing on it in a lethal grip long before the dust clears. However, to see a handsome serval bouncing up and down on its stilt legs to flush and seize a petrified mouse in the long grass, is to me almost as spectacular. Aardwolves are relatively rare in the lowveld, but it is special to see one at close range lapping up its choice of termites, so that one can see the four "normal" canine teeth and the other teeth all strange little uniform pegs, hardly teeth at all.
I often wonder how many Sharpe's Grysbok, a most attractive slightly more thickset antelope, are overlooked by visitors as "yet another Steenbok". The strange balls of white foam usually low above open water at pans and streams often puzzle visitors. They might be told that they are "frogs' nests", but not usually that it is our special Tree Frog. Quite fascinatingly, the nests are part of a remarkable strategy to completely eliminate the tadpole stage which takes place in the foam, kicked up by several attendant males working for one female. The fully-formed froglets jump directly from the nest into the water.
I hope I have succeeded in indicating that in fact the Big Five decidedly have competitors, and those who complain bitterly that they have seen "nothing" have only themselves to blame. We and our extension in East Africa undoubtedly have been blessed with the finest mammalian fauna on earth, but we should not adopt a blinkered approach in wildlife. The Big Five are a special attraction indeed, but can also be rather boring unless they are a one-off lifetime experience. There is a wealth of wildlife fascination all around us, and strangely enough the Big Five can actually be a hindrance to general viewing of wildlife.
Obviously one has to be careful, for recklessness can be lethal in wild country. However, if it was not for people, one could walk literally from Cape Town to Cairo. Small areas without dangerous game and anywhere with responsibly-managed trails can also provide additional "peak" experiences. And I have not even touched on the greatest or most popular form of outdoor recreation worldwide
This is birdwatching or birding as it has come to be known, and in which more people participate worldwide than any other outdoor activity. If one makes an inventory of the mammals, reptiles and amphibians combined, and then makes inventory of the birds, one can see how many birds there are in comparison. In the lowveld, augmented by the adjacent slopes of the escarpment, and incorporating the entire Kruger Park, in the Mark V list currently being compiled, over 590 birds have been recorded at 14 selected localities. This list in preparation will be extended this year to the Phalaborwa district as well, which will add several additional species.
The most recent addition to this list is the first confirmed South African record of the large Mottled Swift by Dave Rushworth on Mariepskop, following a road casualty near Hoedspruit in 1999, but where the specimen was regrettably not retained or confirmed, and the record is therefore unacceptable. This list contains many of the rarest and most beautiful of South African birds, including all the owls, rollers, kingfishers etc, and almost all the birds of prey with for example Jackal Buzzard but not Augur Buzzard, Dark Chanting Goshawk but not Pale, rare vultures in Egyptian Vulture and Palmnut Vulture, and rare shrikes like the elusive Gorgeous Bush Shrike and Blackfronted Bush Shrike. The beauty, song, fascinating habits and many other attributes of birds have been enthused over for centuries.