Science In The Kruger

A Close Encounter

While on an early morning game drive on the farm Rothsay, we came across a large elephant bull being accompanied by two younger askaris.

All three were just milling round feeding in a small open clearing under a clump of large tamboti trees.

They were feeding mostly on a thicket of guarri bushes which we found to be interesting and a bit unusual.

We were sitting quietly watching them feeding and the older bull and one askari moved away from us to our left and started feeding in another thicket.

The remaining bull was to our right, still munching away on the guarri bushes. After a while, he decided to go and join the other bulls. He walked in their direction right in front of our vehicle and as he was just past us, he stopped and reversed up to the tracker's seat, with my tracker Eric in it! The elephant's rear end was literally up against my tracker who by this time had turned his legs sideways as the elephant's hind legs were now almost touching his seat.

After some quick deliberations between Eric and me, we determined he was comfortable with this scenario and apparently so was the elephant. Whilst quietly watching this strange scene, I suddenly noticed that the elephant's tail was draped across Eric's lap and over the hood of the Landrover, further suggesting that the elephant was quite comfortable with the car and Eric! This peaceful and surreal scene was then interrupted by a rocking motion as the car was gently moving from side to side. When I enquired as to what was happening, Eric told me that the elephant was scratching his back foot on the tracker's footplate!

When he was finished, he walked forward a couple of paces and turned around to face the vehicle. At this stage, we felt very comfortable with this young bull and all strongly sensed that he was just curious and almost felt that he wanted to learn about us in some way.

Eric kept on reassuring me that he was enjoying this experience and that he felt calm, but that he would let me know when he had had enough or thought it wise to defuse the situation. Before we knew it, the elephant approached slowly with his trunk extended towards Eric again.

He was eventually standing with his eyes and forehead about one foot away from Eric. The two just stared at each other for a minute or so, and then very gently, the elephant put his right tusk under the tracker seat and lifted it softly.

It was just like a curious child wanting to see what something is and how heavy it is, or is it soft or hard? The animal then gently placed his tusk under Eric's leg and ever so gently, nudged him. When he did this, Eric slowly motioned his left hand in front of the animal's eye and he would stop.

Each time the elephant did this, Eric did the same. After a few of these interactions, Eric indicated that he had finished playing. I then started the engine and the elephant immediately backed away, but remained facing us. I then turned off the motor and he advanced toward us. I then started the engine and he stopped. I drove a little toward him and he backed away a few steps.

If I stopped, he stopped. If I switched off the engine, he came forward. If I started the engine, he backed off and so on. After a few of these interactions, he got bored and peacefully walked off to join his mates to carry on feeding. The interesting thing was that not at any time did the animal show any signs of stress, fear or aggression. The whole experience was incredibly gentle and one really experienced how intelligent these animals really are and how similar some of their behavior is to our own.

New Methods Reveal Fascinating Vulture Facts

She may be old, but she's a mine of new information. The Cape griffon vulture fitted with a GPS-cellphone harness on May 26 is no spring chicken, but that hasn't stopped her clocking speeds of up to 95km/hr in flights across Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

The first bird to be fitted with such a device in this part of South Africa, the Cape vulture's movements are being eagerly monitored by the research team at the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust's Vulture Unit, who are hoping to find out more about the vulture's foraging ranges, movements, and preferred habitat.

Also keeping an eye on her movements is the team at Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre, where the bird was brought in suffering from some kind of poisoning. After the bird was nursed back to health, a 240g backpack harness and a yellow cattle tag on her right wing were fitted before she was released.

So far, the GPS co-ordinates transmitted by the bird have shown that she has travelled in a largely semi-circular route, travelling as far north and east as Letaba in the Kruger National Park (KNP), south towards Lower Sabie, and west towards Sekhukhuneland, Mecklenburg and Ohrigstad.

She has only stopped once or twice to roost at the colony on Manutsa, home of the third largest population of Cape vultures in South Africa, where the bird is thought to originate from. The tracking device is designed to give three readings of location, speed and temperature each day until the batteries run out, in about a year's time. According to Kerri Wolter from the De Wildt Vulture Unit, the harness is designed with a weak link that will allow it to fall off after the batteries run out.

When all the data has been gathered from the bird, De Wildt will publish the information and greatly expand the relatively limited information available on Cape vultures. Meanwhile, Moholoholo staff are making use of the GPS readings that they receive from the bird to monitor its feeding habits.

They have been able to pinpoint some of the locations where the bird feeds, such as in Marloth Park, and have asked people in the area to check up on what she is feeding on, finding her eating on sable, giraffe and zebra kills. Anyone spotting the vulture is requested to forward any information they have to Kerri Wolter on 012 504 1921 or 082 808 5113 or email

Tourism Statistics Look Good

Tourism statistics are showing a general increase for the first quarter of 2006 when compared with the first quarter of 2005. According to the Satsa website, the number of stay night units is up by 0.2 percent from last year with a total of 4,503,400 nights sold. Occupancy rates are also up by 0.2 percent and the increase in income from accommodation in this year's first quarter is up by nine percent, to the tune of R174.5 million.

The increase in income is both from an increase in stay nights sold and an increase in the amount spent per stay night. Despite the fact that this March recorded a drop in both occupancy rates and number of stay nights sold when compared with last March (ascribed to fewer public holidays this March), the income from accommodation was increased by 7.4 percent (R50.5 million) over last year.

Kruger National Park - South African Safari