It has been quite some time since the camp has been so quiet, for this long! While everyone rushed off to catch flights and get home before the lockdown, a group of 9 students stayed behind in camp, having to wait out the lockdown here. Interns Stephan and Misae was keeping watch at the Bhejane Outpost on Somkhanda – blissfully unaware of the chaos of the outside world – and we managed to get them back to base camp, and to evacuate the Outpost just in time.
While we are all sad, stressed and uncertain about what happens next, we are also enormously privileged to have been able to spend the lockdown on Kuleni. Students have used the time to go on walks and add to their birding and tracking skills. Student Prakash Kannan, more affectionately known by all as Paapi – has written a great blog about all the leopard activity in camp, read more on this below. We were fortunate to have some late summer rainfall in March and saw an explosion of Mushrooms and Butterflies in and around the Sand Forest.
Life has been strange – and very different to say the least. We all went about our own ways of keeping busy each day, and creating a new routine. The students in camp pulled together like the amazing team that they are and are doing an amazing job sharing kitchen space, and keeping their spaces clean and tidy!
All Bhejane Staff has been sent home in accordance with lockdown rules, but those living on site at Kuleni has been working hard on getting content online and planning for what happens once the lockdown is lifted. Dylan and a few of the lockdown crew got permission this week to go through to the Somkhanda Bhejane Outpost Camp to maintain the camp and make sure everything is still standing there! They have had some amazing sightings on arrival – keep an eye on our Instagram and Facebook pages for updates from the Outpost! We hope to see everyone back in camp soon!
My name is Paapi and I would call myself a simple citizen of the world, I do not believe in man made borders, however without a choice I hold a passport from India, I am an avid traveler and travel to the places my heart takes me-but this isn’t always true as my heart does not understand such a thing as visa requirements. When a nation-wide lockdown was announced and I had the choice to go back home, but for a traveler each stop feels like home and I felt at home here in a camp we call Gobandlovu, a Zulu name for a species of tree commonly known around Africa as the Torchwood, The best decision I have made in 2020 has been to call this camp my lockdown home- as a traveler you are bound to have a few favorite places you just want to stay back for one more night and Bhejane Nature Training happens to be one such place for me, not just by one night either. I have been here for a few months now learning about the bush and the ways of life in the bush and to respect the gentle and the mighty creatures. I am not a master of any specific field at the moment but I do know I am a ‘jack of all’ for sure, if I had to pick one area of interest it would have to be birds. I would pick birds in a heartbeat!
While a lot has been said and done about the lockdown, and like how there are two sides to every story if not more, here is my side of the story to what the lockdown got me into. The lockdown was unexpected, was not heard of before, not even in the wildest of jokes, so when the lockdown was announced on a noon of Thursday, the camp that was bubbling with 60 or 70 odd people was reduced to a mere 10, and the last month or so we have seen just these 10 faces and like the phases of the moon and along with the moon we too changed what we did.
My first love is birds, well food is my first but apart from that it is the birds. The sudden change in mood in a camp that is around 200ha was noticeable, it’s just not about the silence in the camp, even the highways had lesser vehicles going past, the music played outside quickly faded away. At first it seemed like there were more birds, but quickly I understood that it was the same everyday but these beautiful songs were muted by manmade sounds (call it music if you want to), now the stage was set for the birds to sing and be noted too. My walk began around 5:45 met another friend on the way and we walked listening to songs and sounds the birds made, like humans they too have a party (Bird Party), birds of various species come together in what looks like a bird get together, a meet of some kind to discuss something – certainly they were not discussing social distancing, you could stand and watch until your legs supported you, or until the stomach reminded you that the direction you should be heading next is towards the kitchen. The winter birds are here, my first sighting of the Easter Nicator was now, did you know that they had a winter call, that was so cool, a beautiful bubbly call is replaced by a short chirp during winter, how wonderful. The Red-backed shirks are gone, I did see a few in the first few days of the lockdown but they are gone now, so are the European bee-eaters, the cuckoos too have gone but they will be back by September. At the same time, I heard of a lockdown birding challenge and actively began listening and looking for birds, as I type this I have recorded 107 birds in the last 2 weeks, all inside this 200ha.
Tracks and Signs
While the morning walks were already exciting and interesting, the nights turned into something special quickly, we did a few night walks and even spotted the Southern White-faced owl and the Thick-tailed bush baby and by the end of the walk we clearly heard the Spotted Hyena call too, certainly the call wasn’t from inside the property but it was very close and felt absolutely fantastic, to be watching the full moon deep into the night and to hear the hyena call at a distance was just what the bushman likes.
When you go on a walk in the mornings, apart from looking for the birds you also obviously look for the signs left back by the nocturnal creatures or by the ones who were here last night, you must consider yourself blessed when the substrate in the reserve is primarily sand, which means that there is enough evidence left behind by the night creatures, of course if didn’t rain. If you are one of them who love to look at tracks and signs, then this is where you must be. Among others one of the prominent tracks you see in the morning belong to the White-tailed Mongoose, seems like the white-tailed mongoose is a compulsive walker, he would take the same path every single day, the other regular tracks were of the millipede and the dung beetle always leaves back a artistic patterns behind, the frogs and the tortoise leave back a beautiful trail too, and then there are those which I don’t understand from any which angle I see and then I blame it on the inability of the animals to leave back a good track.
A Surprise Visitor
One morning on our walks, while we were busy looking at the tracks, we stop at something that I have never seen before in this reserve, nor have I seen it in the recent past. I knew who the track belonged to, but didn’t want to call it, recently a few days back when I was on a walk I was so excited when I saw the tracks of Spotted Hyena in the reserve, I was so excited and thrilled and went and quickly reported to another person who hurried to see the tracks and in a second confirmed that it belonged to a dog, please don’t judge me on my tracking skills now, every dog has its day and today belong to a domestic dog and not a Hyena.
Well the tracks that we were looking at, they belonged to a cat, a big cat at that, and we were sure it belonged to a Leopard. Only the previous night I thought I heard a leopard but felt it was in a distance and wasn’t sure, I know for a fact that the leopard’s call does not travel as far as that of the call of a lion, so the leopard wasn’t far but these tracks confirmed they were well inside the reserve, the next few days we noticed the tracks everywhere, they had begun walking in the usual paths that we take, lions and leopards during the night would take the pathways to move from one place to another, soon we saw two sets of tracks walking side by side, when you see the tracks of an animal, you actually with experience can paint the picture of what might have happened here. So we had different versions, while one said that it’s the same leopard that walked in circles another said it was may be two sub adults walking together, or could be two different leopards walking in the same area at two different time of the night, none of which could be wrong coz we don’t know for sure.
The Leopards and The Tracks and Signs
We then decided to set up few trap cameras hoping we could get some pictures, but then seems like the leopards always avoided the path where we set up the trap cameras, it was frustrating to see the tracks going close to the cameras but not walking in front of the camera, may be they are technology aware or shy. One morning on our routine walk we see tracks going in front of the camera and when we eagerly looked into if anything was captured, lo and behold there we saw our first glimpse of the owners of those two sets of tracks, a male and a female leopard walking side by side, to know you are standing on the same piece of land that was visited by this massive male and his pretty partner was such a beautiful moment.