Sunday, June 5, 2011

L’ILL CRITTURS OF THE AFRICAN BUSH

The question  begs! Does anyone go on Safari to see the little guys. I have yet to hear someone alighting a Safari vehicle asking to see a shrew mouse, a dung beetle or a striped mongoose. Standard answers expected by Game Rangers are either of the large feline variety or perhaps those lumbering giants of the African Plains. Yet any guide to the animals of the world reveals an overwhelming number of little mammals that inhabit the earth.
How many Safari goers will have seen a honeybadger, a bat-eared fox, an African wildcat or even a hedgehog?  Is there any tangible excitement when the opportunity to spend some time with a colony of ants presents itself?
On a recent photographic workshop with C4 Images at Mashatu Reserve in the Tuli Block in Botswana it is hide-and-seek time with the big boys and the challenges are laid down at every turn. Amazing results are testament to the sheer magic of the African bush.
The first opportunity presents itself with a family of banded mongoose (mungos mungo) whose focused intent to find food overwhelms the urge to run and hide in the presence of a vehicle. However, the challenge remains with the right position close enough to produce images free of foliage in front of eyes and ears. Essential to the exercise is a Game Ranger with the patience of Job and a starter that will put up with being turned on and off at short intervals. Both of these are present with Jake (aka Job) patiently checking that the distance and position are correct and a trusty old African stalwart the Toyota Landcruiser playing along.
After repeated starts and stops the images of curious eyes and frantic agitation in the vegetation are banked on the flash card as the sleek silvery troop disappears into the wooded area where we can’t follow.
A short drive a little further down through the woodland on the riverbank takes us to a once mighty tree that has fallen victim to the power of Mashatu’s largest inhabitants. As we approach a small family of ground squirrels (Xerus inauris) momentarily stop their activities to inspect the intruders. The vehicle rolls silently towards the prone stump now hollowed out to provide shelter and a home to one of the smallest inhabitants of the African Savannah.
We settle into quiet observation and the squirrels relax. As they become accustomed to our presence they continue with their antics that include eating, playing and grooming and the opportunities that present themselves to a photographer are quite breathtaking in their diversity. With the light remaining a soft glow in the normally harsh African skies the camera records a whole host of images that gently reveal the beauty and complexity of nature.
Another of Africa's more shy inhabitants becomes very visible. The blackback jackal (Canis mesomelas) appears from behind every possible bush. Their gritty determination to survive is apparent at a sighting where a dead giraffe is slowly being consumed by just about every scavenger in the reserve. They bravely stand up to their big brothers the spotted hyena, ignore the hissing of a hundred or more vultures to ensure that their allocation of the spoils is not wasted. Each day we see one or more of these brave little prairie dogs their gorgeous black flecked coats dotting the plains as they scuttle from one opportunity to the next. Even on our last drive where we head into the bush to see some more indolent, sleeping lions we find yet another couple of blackback jackals patiently waiting for the lions to leave so that they can move in for the scraps of the kill. We get so close that the lens of the camera almost seems too long.
In the absence of the adrenalin pumping action that a visit to the African bush can reveal the little critter has saved the day.  In a world where time has become the master it is only when we set aside these modern persuasions and take the time to slow down and patiently become the observer that we are rewarded with wonderful memories and images that are imprinted forever and life is enriched by the experience. 
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