By Rogen Mauda, with Anna Faherty
In Kruger National Park
Even on the quietest of game drives in the Kruger National Park, you can still experience the excitement of being close to one of the big five, and gain an understanding of animal behaviour and habits, by learning to interpret the signs that Kruger's wildlife leaves in its wake. Looking for animal tracks in the daylight is also one of the few ways to see evidence of creatures that are only active at night.
A full understanding of all the different tracks and signs is only gained through years of experience walking in the veld, but some of the most common indicators can be quite easy to identify and interpret. If you know which species occur in the area, you can make the task of identification much simpler so you should ensure you are well-briefed before you start searching.
Look for signs of tracks (known as spoor) on gravel roads and in sandy dry riverbeds as well as muddy shorelines of lakes, dams and waterholes. Drive by the side of the tracks rather than over them, and try to track into the sun when it is low in the sky as the shadows will be clearer. If you come across well-defined elephant, rhino, hippo or zebra spoor they will be unmistakable.
Similarly, fully-grown lion, buffalo and giraffe prints cannot be those of any other, smaller mammals. However, once you find smaller cat prints, and those of antelope, then an appreciation of the size of the animal will be the secret to interpreting the spoor. The clawless, lobed, tracks of lion, leopard, African wild cat and serval can all look very similar, as can many of the antelope, but will be very different sizes.
Even on tar roads with no opportunity for finding spoor, you will still be able to see evidence of animals, as you end up driving past the signs they have left on or by the side of the route. The dung of elephant (large, coarse balls) and buffalo (flattened cow pats) may often be seen, and both are distinctive. Rhinos defecate in large shallow depressions, called middens, where they break their dung up with their feet.
If there is a lot of grass visible in the dung, it is likely to be a white rhino site. More coarse and woody plant material indicates the remains of a black rhino's meal. White faeces, caused by a high-calcium diet, are likely to be those of hyaena. A wandering bull elephant in musth will leave long trails of stains on the road, as he continuously dribbles urine while he walks.
But it is not just tracks, dung and urine that tell you an animal has been in the area; many creatures leave signs of their presence when they eat. Look out for the 'hippo lawns' you may see near water where the animals have continually eaten the grass very low and uniformly (you may also see two deep parallel lines of tracks nearby which will be the well-worn spoor of the hungry hippo). Or the ripped and ragged end of a branch found tossed into the road; always a sign that an elephant has been dining nearby.
Black rhinos also eat branches but are much tidier diners, neatly pruning bushes and cutting the wood cleanly off at an angle. Broken seeds and fruit may be the remnants of a vervet monkey's meal but chewed fruit pulp may also be left behind by fruit bats - check above the site to see if there is any evidence of roosting.
Large holes dug into termite mounds will probably be created by aardvark seeking to find a tasty meal, and those under trees may be caused by porcupine trying to get access to their roots. The foliage of trees eaten into a pyramid or hourglass shape reveals the animals which have been browsing on them; from the tallest giraffe to the smallest of the antelopes.
Rolls, Rubs and Scratches
Dusty rolling sites (used by zebras) or mud-wallowing spots (popular with warthog, rhino and elephant) are very obvious signs of animal activity. Look for spoor around the site or, if you can locate a 'rubbing tree' nearby, you might be able to identify the animal from the height of the marks where they have scratched themselves after their mud bath. Leopards and other cats will also leave marks on tree bark when they scratch to sharpen their claws.
There are many more ways of interpreting which animals have passed by, at what time and what they were doing. Many field guides provide information on tracks and field signs but if you want to learn more you should consult a specialized book such as Clive Walker's Signs of the Wild or Chris & Tilde Stuart's more recent A Field Guide to the Tracks & Signs of Southern and East African Wildlife (both published by Struik).
The guided bush walks run by most rest camps in the park also provide a very good opportunity to learn about tracking from the resident experts.