Posts Tagged With: hyena

My South African Adventure: Continuing On My Soapbox to Appreciate All Things…

Who said hyena are ugly?

a little chocolate drop of cuteness

Hyenas Are Fascinating, Not Disgusting

I saw this article and it made me think of my recent post about how we love supporting the cute, cuddly, and/or vegetarian creatures. But everything else?  Nope. Does it fit our perception of what is considered “pretty”? No? Kill it. Wait! What??? How would you feel if someone said that about you? What if you were a fugly baby and your parents looked at you and said, “Oh well, let’s try again,” and then threw you out the window? Every creature – big or small, cute or fugly – is important.

Hence why this article made my smile. I love hyenas. I think they are fascinating for a number of reasons, not least of all because they are one of the few species where the female is the dominant figure in the clan (yup, a group of hyena is called a clan). The sexes are incredibly difficult to tell apart, the female is often bigger than the male, and they all make the most astounding vocalisations.

Yes, hyena really do giggle. I’m convinced that the sounds used when the bad gremlins were hatching in the movie Gremlins were actually hyenas. And if so, it’s yet another example of people misunderstanding these incredibly intelligent animals. I feel a need to help change this negative perception. I also have to admit, two of my most treasured memories of Africa include episodes with hyenas (one where a male came up to my fiancé and I and drank from the bathtub in front of us, and another, where a mother and her two cubs slept on my front lawn like domestic dogs and let us sit with them for a good hour).

Hyenas are not dogs and they are not cats. Though their behaviour is more in line with canines, they’re actually more closely related to felines. However, they are actually their own little family (Hyaenidae).

I’ve checked this out in a few different places, and it appears that no one can make up their mind as to how many species of hyena there are. I’ll go with there being four species of hyena – spotted, brown and striped and, of course, the family misfit – the aardwolf. And the aardwolf – threatening as it may sound – is insectivorous, pretty much living on termites. A little bit of a letdown there. With the exception of the aardwolf, whoever named the different species of hyena suffered from a severe lack of creativity. And even their Latin names are boring. Crocuta crocuta? Hyaena hyaena? Really?? At least the brown hyena and the aardwolf got a little more variety, Parahyaena brunnea and Proteles crostata, respectively. I wonder if they might get more love if we renamed them. The Golden Spotted Hyena? The Mahogany Hyena? The Zebra Hyena? Sounds much nicer than plain old spotted, brown and striped. Anyway…

So, one of my beefs with the bad rap hyenas get has to do with lions. Everyone praises the lion. The incorrect perception is that lions are the mighty hunters while hyenas do nothing but steal everyone else’s food. Yet as far as scavengers go, lions scavenge much more than hyenas. In fact, spotted hyenas in particular are actually quite good at hunting and catching their own prey. It’s often the lions who come in and take the hyenas’ food, not the other way around.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. Here are some good sites if you want to learn a bit more about these fascinating, misunderstood creatures. After all, better to come from the experts than some girl from New Jersey…

Oh, and they spell hyena like so in South Africa: hyaena. Eish, somebody needs to start a petition to make all spellings of English words consistent.

African Wildlife Foundation


Okay, I’m not sure about the expertise of this last link, but I still think it’s a good read: Another Land

And my hyena anthem would have to be: Beautiful, by Christina Aguilera, because honestly, words can’t bring you down, little hyena. Rise above!


Creature of the night

Creature of the night


All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, Conservation, Education, nature, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #2 – The Topic of Poo

So the question is, if a bear poops in the woods and there’s no one to step in it, does he really poop?  Or how do you know if it was a bear?  While you chew on that philosophical piece of literary magic, we will move on to discuss the validity and necessity of knowing how to identify animal poo.  This is a very useful skill to possess in the bush, especially when you come across still-steaming scat from a predator and you’re a kilometer from the closest car, building with solid walls, or even large tree.  You need to know what animal is nearby so you can accurately assess your situation.  If it’s a porcupine who made the tracks, you’re probably not going to run into a problem.  If it’s a lion, you might. You might run into several problems, in fact.

You also learn that predator poo is called scat.  Herbivore poo is called dung.  BUT omnivore poo is simply called, well, poo.  I don’t know why.  And I promise you, I’ve actually asked.

Spoor, which is another term you learn, has NOTHING to do with poo, though to me it sounds like it should.  Spoor is animal footprints or tracks.  There are trackers here who can read spoor like the Sunday paper and can tell you not only which animal walked by the spot in which you are standing, he can tell you when the animal walked by, whether it was actually walking, strolling, galloping, or bolting, and what the weather was like on that day at that particular moment.  I’ve honestly questioned some of them simply because I could not see where they were getting their information from when all I could see was the following: two tiny indentations, a small skid mark, and what looked like a dragging string that intermittently disappeared.  These trackers looked at that same abstract combination and said, ‘monitor lizard, female, moving east towards the river to get out of the midday sun’.  What???

I admit, I’ve gotten better, and now I can even spot the spoor, scat or dung AND correctly identify all of it from a car.  I don’t even have to be standing on top of it (and ideally am not standing on top of it anyway) to do so.  I can tell you that cat spoor (aside from cheetah) does not have the tiny indentations from claws because cats draw their claws in when they move about.  Cheetahs are the feline exception to this – they have semi-retractable claws because their preferred method of hunting depends on their running, and they need those claws for traction at top speeds.  Cats also have three lobe marks at the back of the heel pad – two bigger lobes on the outsides and one smaller middle lobe.  Don’t know why.  Sorry.

Members of the dog family have two lobes at the back of the heel pad AND claw marks.  Hyena also have the same set-up, adding to the confusion as to which animal species they fit into.  However, hyena are NOT a dog OR a cat – they are a species all their own.  And they are probably one of the coolest and most interesting animals out here.

Elephant spoor looks a bit like someone bounced a really large ball on the ground.   Each print of a full-grown adult is about twice the length of an adult human male’s, and about three times as wide.  And though the tracks do differ slightly according to species, both black and white rhino spoor looks like something from the Rorschach ink blot test.

Antelope spoor is dainty and pointed, like an arrow.  Level of pointiness is based on the species.  Zebra and giraffe spoor looks like varying degree of horse hoof.  Warthog spoor looks like the ‘track’ of a woman’s stiletto heel.  Interestingly, that’s also what they resemble when walking – a woman wearing stilettos.

Baboon and monkey spoor, not surprisingly, looks eerily similar to human hands and feet.  Otters, oddly enough, does a bit as well.  Then you get porcupine, polecat, mongoose, honey badger, monitor, and all other manner of small mammal and reptile.  Their spoor all has its own identifying features.  Porcupine in particular is interesting because it looks like a puzzle of varying- shaped splotches.

And then you have snakes.  Those tracks are VERY helpful to know.  Some resemble an ‘S’, which is the kind of a track you would probably assume a serpentine creature would create.  However, some snakes, such as pythons, move more like a caterpillar, picking their bodies up and sort of throwing themselves forward a bit at a time.  It’s called rectilinear movement.

Spoor I have a handle on.  Scat and dung, not so much.  The good thing is, I can at least tell you if it’s a predator’s poo based on whether there are hairs in the droppings, though I still can’t necessarily tell you WHICH predator left the present.  All of it stinks, regardless.  There’s nothing quite like the smell of half-digested meat, especially when some predators will happily feed on a decomposing carcass.  Of course, when you’re a lion and your kill rate can be less than 50%, plus your prey runs away from you, you can’t afford to be particularly choosy about what you’ll eat.

As for dung, I can tell if it’s an elephant (size is an easy indicator here – think small piles of oversized, brown softballs), or which type of rhino dung it is based on what the dung consists of.  Black rhinos are browsers with a prehensile upper lip.  They break off bits of their favorite munchies by tearing pieces off the branches, creating sharp, 45-degree angular spears, and since they don’t digest particularly well, their dung has plenty of these little daggers in it.  White rhinos are grazers and eat primarily grass, so their dung is fairly uniform and stringy.  Buffalo leave the equivalent of cow patties, and the smell is just as potent.

With antelope, I’m a lost cause.  Giraffe dung is about the same size as an animal half its size.  Duiker, springbok, nyala, impala – their dung is all almost the same size and shape, which is interesting since the animals themselves range in size significantly.

So many amazing ways to ‘read’ the local newspaper of who’s been in and about camp each day.  I will get it all figured out some day.  For now, the fact that I can distinguish between potentially dangerous game and Bambi is enough.  I’ll get there.

I’ve included some spoor/actual animal feet to help you understand a bit about this topic.  Unfortunately, through poor labeling, I can’t seem to find all the tracks I took pictures of over the months I’ve been in the bush.  So I hope you don’t mind that the picture pickings are slim.  I elected to NOT include scat/dung, just because.

On a completely unrelated note, because I’m not really sure if the term ‘spoor’ is technically a plural or singular, I’m not quite sure which tense should be used in many of these sentences.  Please bear with me on this editorial conundrum.  Sadly, I have actually given this a lot of thought.  You’d think I had nothing better to do….

Song of the day: “I Want to Be Like You” from Disney’s The Jungle Book


All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #27 – Mambas in the Rafters

The other day, I walked into my bathroom, turned on the water to wash my hands, and – out of the corner of my eye – saw a rope fall from the ceiling. Rope? There was no rope in the bathroom. I swear my lizard brain kicked into gear a split second later because I very quickly stepped back against the canvas walls, somehow knowing I had to get out of the way. The rope was actually a snake. Had I stayed in place, I would have been blocking its only escape route (which was, unfortunately, right past my legs, no matter where I stood).

At first, the snake literally bounced around the floor, a potentially venomous jumping bean, unable to get any traction on the screed concrete. Eventually, it wriggled enough and threw itself past me, around the corner, and behind my bed.

I had to keep an eye on the snake (or in this case, pay attention to where it went and make sure I kept tabs on where it might go next), so I calmly walked past the bed, grabbed my cell, and called my fiancé, who has been handling snakes almost all his life. “Snake,” I said. “What kind?” he asked. Strangely, though I hadn’t gotten a good look at it and wasn’t particularly familiar with snakes to begin with, instinct told me what it was. “I think it’s a mamba,” I replied.

He quickly made his way down to our tent with snake tongs in hand, checked the snake’s whereabouts and confirmed that yes, it was indeed what is often considered the most feared and deadly snake in the world.  Apparently, the color (which, contrary to logic, is not black but gray), the size (thin and long), and the shape of the head, which is coffin-shaped, give it away.  Easier to identify when it’s curled up behind the bed, but when a snake is writhing about at top speeds in a dark room, it’s hard to tell what it is, except that it’s either a live wire (and since we have no electricity, that was ruled out immediately) or a snake.

After a bit of a struggle (the snake was happily ensconced in our mosquito netting and really didn’t want to leave), my fiance managed to get a good grip on it, get it out of the tent, and take it a few kilometers away to release it into the bush.  Valiant ranger saves the day.  The only problem is, mambas are territorial and arboreal.  And we have a bit of a squirrel problem in our roof.

A week later, I heard scuffling above my head, and what was looking down on me?  A little, gray, coffin-shaped head.  Mamba.  Guessing it’s probably the same one.  However, since it’s almost impossible to get up to the eaves of the roof to find it, we can’t really get it out.  In my book, though this is not good, I’m okay with it.  As long as it stays in the roof and gets rid of the squirrels, it can stay.  If it drops back in on me while I’m in the bathroom, we might need to relocate it to different pastures.  We’ll see.  At the moment, mamba and I seem to have reached an understanding.

I have many of these types of understandings out here. The geckos can hang in my house because they eat insects. Same with the frogs. But if the frogs are the really noisy kind, they get relocated as well.  You’d be amazed how loud a single frog can be. And frogs are kept to a minimum because they are a favored treat of spitting cobras and other terrestrial snakes. Arboreal is ok.  Terrestrial is not. They end up under your bed by choice, not default (as was the case with the mamba).  Not good.

I even tolerate some spiders, as they too eat insects. Some, however, cannot stay for reasons of personal safety. Black and brown button spiders cause much pain and illness, so they get the boot by way of Doom. I know, not exactly very conservation-minded of me, but my house is my kingdom. You invade and you get war. They do the same to me.

Baboon spiders get kicked out, though not through death by insecticide. They just get gently moved back outdoors by way of notebooks, brooms, or being nudged along by an article of clothing. Scorpions have to go as well, as many can very easily land you in the hospital. And they don’t eat the mosquitoes, so they don’t provide any necessary service to me. They don’t pay rent, so to speak, they don’t get to stay.

The nyala family that calls our camp home can stay as long as they want, though. They trim the hedges and mow the lawn on a regular basis, keeping the grass short and helping to keep hiding places for snakes to a minimum. And, shallow though it may be, they are awfully cute. They decorate the lawn nicely.

I’d like to add one note about this whole experience. Mambas are often labeled as aggressive snakes. I did not find that at all with this one, or any other snakes I’ve encountered since arriving in Africa, except for one baby Mozambican Spitting Cobra that we almost ran over (which I think probably entitles it to be aggressive). Snakes strike when they are threatened, or to kill food, and I promise you, for the vast majority of snakes in the world, you are WAY too big for their menu and biting you is a waste of their precious resources. Usually, they make a point to avoid you, and with the exception of puff adders, who have a habit of just sitting lazily, will hear the vibration from your footsteps and flee before you ever spot them.

Like pretty much everything else in the animal kingdom, snakes have learned that their best defense against humans is to avoid them.  Our mamba did everything in its power to avoid me and my fiancé, and never once did it lunge at us or show off the reason behind its name – the midnight black inside of its mouth. What you see on TV, even those ‘wildlife documentaries,’ is not always reality. Snakes are NOT around every corner, and also not always aggressive, and they should only be handled by professionals, as it is very easy to misidentify and mishandle them. Please keep that in mind the next time someone yells ‘SNAKE.’ The venomous monster they’re pointing at might actually be a harmless little brown house snake. Or the harmless little black snake in the corner you try to pick up might be a highly venomous baby forest cobra. Point is, leave them alone, and if you don’t want them around, get a professional to remove them for you.

Below are some images of our local snake population, including the mamba from my bathroom.

Black Mamba Removal

Puff Adder Bathing


All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #246 (One Guinea Rescues Another)

Because I can poke fun of myself and my culture, I feel I can use this title with impunity.  If the fowl language offends you, well, there are many other blogs out there.  For those of you who appreciate my sense of humor – read on, intrepid travelers!

Yesterday’s South African adventure was to rescue a helmeted guinea fowl chick (hence the title).  Well, I’m not sure that I really rescued it, but I’m going with that, because it was clearly confused and lost, and needed a bit of redirection, which I, ever-eager Patron of Lost Causes, was ready to supply.

For the record, I am still in Cape Town, hence the references to things like windows, which I don’t have in the bush.  I have shadecloth.  Windows, walls? Doors? Those are luxuries, my friend.

Anyway, I heard a chirping sound coming from the backyard that I was sure was a guinea fowl (they wander around all over here), but I didn’t see any, so I brushed it off.  Then I saw something cruise past the window and realized it was a guinea fowl chick gone astray.  Eager to get it back to the parents and family it clearly lost somewhere in the brush, my fiancé and I attempted to corner it, catch it, and re-release it with its family.  As with catching any wild animal (and even some domestic ones), catching birds, even terrestrial birds, is like greasing a pig and then trying to put a bow on it. They don’t want to be caught, and understandably so.  Most caught animals either end up missing limbs, or even worse, on a dinner plate.  I’d run like hell too.

There are two species of guinea fowl in South Africa – helmeted and crested – and you don’t only find them in the bush.  Guinea fowl traipse all over the neighborhoods in places like Johannesburg and Cape Town, whistling away like persistent pan flutes and dashing in sync from lawn to lawn like schools of fish.  While their body shape is essentially the same (apple-bottomed-jean-types with all their junk in the trunk, sporting giraffe-like necks, dark plumage, and the requisite wiry bird legs), their tiny heads are totally different. The crested species looks a bit like Elvis, complete with black bouffant of feathers sprouting on top of the head.  The helmeted ones resemble modern day dinosaurs, with baby-blue faces and crowns on their mantles akin to a hadrosaur (you remember them – the ones with the big, bony crest on their pates), and slight turkey-ish wattles on either side of their beak.  Watching them run around evading me is what I imagine it would’ve been like to watch herds of their prehistoric predecessors evading T-Rex.

Back to yesterday’s rescue.  Having heard adult guinea fowls calling from the front of the house, and hearing none at the back, I assumed this little chick somehow got seriously turned around, ended up on the wrong side of the building, and was now frantically searching for a route back to its bigger family members. However, once we caught the chick and released it to the flock out front, we went back behind the house and realized there were now three more brown fuzzballs pinging around from one bush to the next like wayward pinballs, and that we’d just introduced this other chick to a whole new family.  Luckily family dynamics in the guinea fowl world mean that the new family would take this little one in, either not knowing the difference or not caring.  Guinea fowl are precocial (meaning they can take care of themselves from birth), so all he really needed was safety in numbers anyway, which he now had.

The rest of our ‘rescued’ chick’s fluffy brown bundles of softly squeaking siblings might’ve noticed his absence, though, as they continued to chirp away for quite some time in the backyard, I’m assuming probably searching for their missing family member.  Though I doubt they can count, I’m pretty sure they instinctively know one was gone from the ranks.

I’d like to believe that guinea fowl have short memory spans, but apparently either they don’t, or they simply can’t break routine. The babies were all back today.  And there was another little one – possibly the same one, as it’s very hard to tell the difference between one cotton ball and the next at these speeds, sizes and juvenile colorations  – frantically trying to break into the house again.  Perhaps it’s been dared by less intrepid family members to enter human habitat.  Have I come across the Mikey of the helmeted guinea fowl world?

Once again, I found myself on guinea fowl chick patrol, catching and releasing, catching and releasing.  This one, though, I took a little time to snuggle with, in a pathetic attempt to calm its clearly frayed nerves.  Finding I was a poor stand-in for a guinea fowl mama, I reluctantly let the little guy go, ushering him under the bushes and out of view from potential predators sailing overhead.  Hopefully this time the little guy found its family before a local predator found IT.  We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Attempting to calm the nerves of this lost little peanut

Mom/Dad Helmeted Guinea Fow

What a helmeted guinea fowl chick looks like when not in a vise grip


ELVIS LIVES!!!!adult helmeted guinea fowl

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From sand to sea, South African style

Yes, I realize there is sand IN the sea, and usually sand backs up TO the sea as well, but in this case, I’m referring to going from the sandy soil of our camp in Limpopo to the southern seas around Cape Town. I’ve spent the last week down south in the Western Cape, escaping the heat and oppressive humidity that has come to settle in our canvas home up country. Unfortunately, I haven’t fully escaped the mosquitoes, though there are infinitely fewer here than there. I will admit, though, that I killed a mosquito the other night here that had enough blood in her system to start a small blood bank. It was disturbing, really.  The splatter of blood that shot out of her abdomen made the tile floor look a bit like a crime scene, albeit a tiny one.

By the way, I say ‘her’ because it is only the females who bite. Just as an fyi. The males are pleasantly content to mill around the flower patch. I’m sure many people could come up with pithy one-liners about how females are often the deadlier of all the species. And you know what? I think I’d be inclined to agree. Females of all species seem to kick ass across the board, whether it be in small, microscopic levels as in mosquitoes (who, by the way, are also the biggest pawner of malaria and lots of other fun little parasites, once again proving that size doesn’t really matter), or massive levels (elephant breeding herd, which are led by equally massive matriarchs).

But back to the sand and the sea.  My life in the reserve can be compared to a primal storm of heat, humidity and dirt, lacking in all creature comforts and akin, in many ways, to quicksand in its ability to swallow you whole.  Getting back to nature in the reserve isn’t all that great, to be honest, and this is coming from someone who loves nature in all its forms (sorry, all forms but mosquitoes).  Life by the sea has more of a nurturing, tranquil, soul-saving element to it, though it can be equally difficult and violent.  So if you have a choice, do I go down in quicksand, or will it be in rough waters?  This is the predicament I face in South Africa.  I can quite literally sink or swim.  And if I swim, am I swimming in the right waters, or am I wasting my energy in the wrong pond?

When I moved to South Africa, I was met with much trepidation from my family, and much excitement from my friends, who insist they live vicariously through me.  Which is probably best for them, as I can’t imagine too many of them would be happy living in the conditions I’ve subjected myself to by uprooting to the other side of the world.  Sure, it’s cool to wake up to a gazillion birds tweeting away as opposed to a gazillion self-obsessed people tweeting away, but still, I prefer to not be woken up at 4am, and that’s the bird population’s fave time to croon.  When your walls are so thin you could push through them, the sound is a force, not just a lovely, muted plethora of white noise.  Sometimes the birds even come into the house and perch up on the rafters.  I should let them know there are mambas that frequent those heights, but as of yet, I haven’t learned to speak bird.  And they don’t understand Spanglish.  I know.  I’ve tried communicating in it.  They do, however, speak broom, and unhappily vacate the premises when I show them business end of the latest model of household sweepers.

For the record, I don’t make a habit of beating the animals out here.  In fact, I’m thus far only responsible for a few understandable casualties.  The majority are mosquitoes; one is a squirrel.  Yes, I know.  Squirrels are cute and fuzzy.  They also eat through everything, leave a mess wherever they go, and attract many a venomous snake.  They aren’t allowed to stay.  I defend my turf just like they defend theirs.  Other than that, I leave the wilderness intact.  I do give it a boost  to relocate sometimes, though, when it starts leaving trails of poo on my clothes.  Hence me ushering the birds out with the broom.  The frogs and geckos stay.  They eat the bugs, they earn their keep.  Bargains can be struck in any situation, I’ve found.

So after a bit of digression, I’m back to why I started this post – appreciating the differences in life, and accepting when it’s time to make a change.  I came to Africa because I was the cliche.  I needed a change of pace, a new headspace, and a way to get back to my creative roots.  I honestly believed it was a good idea to uproot my life and move it 13,000 miles away with no set job or home.  And I knew all of five people.  Nice odds for an easy transition, right?  But to me, it was important to get out of my comfort zone (which people who know me would laugh to hear, since when have I lived in any comfort zone in the last ten years?).

To me, the definition of ‘comfort zone’ is not simply the safety net of financial security, familial security, or the security of being somewhere (mentally, emotionally, physically) you know.  To me, the definition of ‘comfort zone’ is being in a space where you are no longer challenged on any level.   I need to constantly be learning, pushing myself physically, mentally and emotionally.  Ok, well maybe not emotionally.  I think I’ve pushed that far enough.  Definitely the other two, though.  I spent many years on the road as a touring singer/songwriter.  I know what it’s like to spend lots of time alone, introspectively ‘learning about myself.’  I’ve pushed myself on so many levels, and hit a plateau.  Not only that, but I found that while there is always room to grow, I wasn’t interested in growing in the directions available, which meant I needed to change direction and head down a new path.  There’s always Africa, right?  The continent has a (well-founded) reputation of being behind the rest of the world, and whether the people here want to hear it or not, South Africa still has a lot of work to do.  Plenty of natural resources and money, but not enough structure or accountability.  To call it frustrating for someone who grew up in a highly developed country would be the understatement of the year.

The challenges I thought I would face are a bit different to the ones I’m actually facing, leaving me to wonder every day that I’m here if perhaps I made a mistake.  Not because I don’t love it here.  I do. Well, I have a love-hate thing with the place, yet I am drawn to it, to its irrefutable beauty and its rawness, and to its inherent possibilities and opportunities.  So here I am, floating in a sea of wonder, unsure of how to keep afloat and whether the life raft I’ve tied on to is really a life raft or yet another safety net.  Each day I tell myself that the universe conspires to help you, to give you what you need at the time that you need it.  I question that incessantly, and yet still firmly believe in it.  I have to, or I will sink, and do so thousands of miles from my family, my friends, and my comfort zone.   It’s certainly a growth opportunity, and definitely one I promise my friends and family would not trade their comfortable lives for.  I have to admit, however, that I always feel alive.  Every day I am aware, aware of my surroundings, of my senses and emotions, and of my abilities (and lack thereof in some cases).  Never does a day go by where my mind is not buzzing, and you know what?  I wouldn’t want it any other way.  South Africa, I love you.  Well, most of the time…

All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

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The lion sleeps tonight…

In this case, there are three lions.  Sub-adults.  One female, two male.  And they liked the patch of short grass right outside my chalet.  I was truly convinced they would one day be waiting for me on my balcony, drinks in hand, ready to play a game of cards.  Or they’d eat me.  I’d obviously prefer the former.

I used to work at a private game reserve in KawZulu Natal, South Africa, as a priority species monitor.  What that means is I followed animals around and recorded their behavior.  In some cases, we had to pull them out of snares (bad days) and in others we got to see moments like wild dog puppies on their first day out of the den (good day).  It was a world of ups and downs.  Nature, red in tooth and claw, has no mercy, and yet has all the compassion the world can offer.  I challenge you to watch a herd of elephants when one of their group has gone down, sick, injured or whatever else may have dropped it, and not see the incredible sense of community, love and devotion these creatures possess.  Same for a pack of wild dogs traveling with an injured animal.  One will stay behind to make sure the lagging one stays with the pack and is never alone.  Attributing human behavior to animals is rampant out here, and not simply because I want to make them all cute and cuddly.  It happens because these animals behave with more than just a sense of intuition and instinct.  They have codes of conduct that they follow.  They have family bonds.  They get angry and happy.  If it wasn’t so fascinating, I might say it was eerie, especially when it comes to watching the primates.

On a normal day, I’d roll out of bed before dawn to the sound of a horrible alarm clock that might actually start giving me nightmares, suit up in my dull colored “uniform” of browns, beiges and greens (and sometimes, when I was feeling very adventurous, dark blues), put in my contacts, brush my teeth, and walk out into the coming dawn, still half asleep in some ways and yet overly alert to the presence of deadly animals.  Showering in the morning isn’t an option when you rise at 4am.  Plus, considering I would spend the better part of the day sweating in the hot sun, and didn’t often have hot water, it’s sort of a useless exercise until I got back for the afternoon break when the cold water would be refreshing as opposed to heart attack-inducing.

I would amble over to the kitchen for toast, peanut butter and jelly, then walk to the requisite Land Cruiser and hop onboard.  Off we’d go, into the wild blue yonder.  Some mornings we’d see wildlife right off the bat.  One day, in fact, we had a journey (or kaleidoscope, depending on who you ask) of giraffe (and yes, a group of giraffe is actually called one of these two things; I’m not making this up) all around us as we headed out of camp, giant totem poles slowly drifting through the morning fog.  Then there were days when we’d drive for hours on end and see not much more than a few birds.  Once we were joined by a baby praying mantis who took up residency on my leg, and was then delicately moved to the dashboard to give it a better view and to avoid me from inadvertently squishing it.  I’m including a picture of him, because, as insects go, he was awfully cute.  And he (or she – I don’t know) is probably the only insect in this country that hasn’t bitten me.  So points for the mantid.    Now I work in an entirely different part of the country.  Still in the bush, but not monitoring animals anymore, per se.  Now I monitor students who study at the camp I run, which, on any given day, can be the same thing.  I’m starting to think the students are more difficult to work with…


All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Life in the bush…

I drive a Land Rover with no power steering, an aversion to second gear, a passenger side door that doesn’t stay closed, and the reverse gear in the opposite place to where it should be. My home is a building about 20×15 with no solid walls. My roof is thatch and also happens to be home to some wildlife like squirrels and mice who get in through the eaves and take up residency, often leaving small presents of little brown pellets sporadically scattered on the screed concrete floor. I do have hot water and water pressure, but my bathroom doesn’t have a door. Every night, a door mouse comes to visit my waste bin, munching on whatever it can find. It also has a liking for bars of soap, my eye cream, and vitamins.

Two nights ago, a leopard walked through camp. It was so close its breathing shook the canvas on our tent. There was a huge male on our side, and a female on the other side of camp. Didn’t see them, but sure heard them, and found the tracks the next morning.

My boyfriend and I run a camp where they train the field guides for safaris. I am pretty much camp mom, and he is an assistant instructor. We are both babysitters to an extent as well. Living in the bush with no modern conveniences (no electricity in our tents, and the only power coming from a generator that is on for just a few hours a day) means having to plan everything. To keep a charged phone and laptop, you need to make sure you always have the appropriate plugs and adaptors with you constantly.

A snouted cobra with a head the size of my fist and a body the width of my forearm visited me in my office (my office being a large tent with an aerial on top for better internet signal). There were three of us inside talking when we heard what sounded a bit like the wind picking up, swooshing. We looked up and less than a meter away was this massive snake. His head was up, he was checking out the scene, and then he quickly pulled a 180 and cruised away. I saw his tracks later along the pathway to the students’ tents. It was a first. My only other snake encounters out here have been mostly from a car, although I did come face to face with a baby forest cobra by accident on a quiet day in Hluhluwe iMfolozi’s research camp. This was the first time I was up close and personal with a dangerous and HUGE snake. It was a little unnerving and exciting at the same time. That night after the visit, all I did was dream about snakes.

The other night I found the resident mouse in my toilet, drinking from it. Because of the tank system, the actual toilet bowl only fills up a tiny bit after each flush, so the mouse was essentially sitting in about three centimeters of water. I guess he dropped into the bowl for a sip and was happily playing away in his private plunge pool when I woke up to the sound of water splashing behind me. The river being in FRONT of me, I was at first confused, especially since I’d heard the same sound from the same direction a few nights before and knew there wasn’t any nearby water source (besides the toilet) in that direction.  I walked over to the toilet and shined the light. Imagine my surprise to see the tiny grey mouse looking back up at me, its huge black eyes confused, frightened, and probably thinking, “shit, they caught me”. My boyfriend was convinced he was terrified, but since I had heard the mouse splashing around in there before (although I didn’t realize it was a mouse and thought it must’ve been outside our house last time), I knew the little guy was more than capable of getting out on his own. There was clearly no threat of him drowning either. But we couldn’t really just leave him there. It was a moment of to flush or not to flush. The mouse had, after all, had a habit of chewing through our stuff and waking me almost every night when he got into the trash bin. But he was so cute. I couldn’t bring myself to push the handle.

I admit I had a fleeting thought of reaching into the bowl and picking up the mouse, although a split second later I realized that would be a dumb idea, with diseases and all that lovely little meeses carry. So my boyfriend, rugged ranger that he is, managed to get the mouse to crawl up on the toilet cleaner brush and carried him out into the night, tossing him gently into the outside brush where the mouse quickly ran off into the night. He hasn’t been back since, so we’ll see what happens. Of course, since his last visit, I have been fortifying the house as best as possible, given that I have canvas and shade cloth walls that meet a concrete slab floor and is held up by termite-infested poles holding up a thatched roof. My home is a standing lightening rod. And now we have an aluminum solar panel latched onto the side of the roof. Nothing like having a small semi-conductor of electricity tied to an already fire-hazard roof. Can’t wait for the rains to come…

By the way, above is a picture of one of my neighbors. We shared a sundowner together the other day. He drinks the water out of the river. I choose not to do so. I’m fairly sure by choosing not to do so saves my internal organs.


All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hello world!

I live in the South African bush.  Seriously, I do not belong here, not because I don’t love it, but because  I spent the last 15 years of my life in giant cities.  My childhood was spent growing up on a small barrier island no wider than a mile at it’s biggest.  To say I’ve spent most of my life very isolated from nature would be a vast understatement, unless you are referring to squirrels, chipmunks and various other Disney woodland creatures.  Deer are about as big as it gets, and deer don’t eat humans.  Of course, things change once you get in the ocean.  Then, well, then there are rather large fish that can eat you.  But that I can handle, because I grew up with it.  Lions walking by my room at night?  Well, that would be a bit outside my comfort zone.  And yet I can’t get enough of it!!!!

Why am I writing this?  Well, when you live a few thousand miles (and several continents) away from your friends and family and home country, people want you to keep them updated on what you’re doing.  Hence the blog.  Via the beauty of the world wide web, I can keep everyone updated about my experiences in the wilds of Africa.  And c’mon.  Don’t tell me you don’t think it’s hilarious to read about how a city girl deals with her first snake encounter (not the man, the actual reptile) or a drain that hasn’t been unclogged since the Nixon administration.  You can all get a giggle from my mishaps and frustrations.

I would love the opportunity to share with you how amazing this place is.  So come on.  Jump in to my adventure!

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