Rachel Kramer is a Program Officer for Wildlife Conservation and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
In my last blog, I marveled at the diversity of ecosystems found in Botswana, from the seemingly barren Makgadikgadi pans to the fragile Okavango River delta. This area of Africa supports an astounding array of wildlife. As I traveled through with a friend, I witnessed remarkable wildlife moments that continue to inspire my passion for conservation. Camera in-hand, I captured my top five wildlife experiences in photographs.
My top five wildlife moments included:
1. Lilac-breasted roller foraging for scorpions
On first arrival in the Kalahari, our eyes adjusted to the neutral palette around us. We were surrounded by bleak dried grass and bands of earth glowing white in the noonday sun. With the coolness of the afternoon, wildlife began to come out of the woodwork. A lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudatus) was the first splash of color to catch our eyes in the desert. It was fitting that the national bird of Botswana should be the first species to welcome us.
Later that afternoon, we watched a lilac-breasted roller forage for food. On catching a desert scorpion, the bird balanced on a palm branch as it tossed its prey–pincers, stinger and all–into the air several times. Lilac-breasted rollers are believed to do this to break off scorpions’ pincers and make them easier to swallow. We captured this image of the scorpion and roller in silhouette, just before the scorpion went down the hatch.
2. Meerkat family interactions
In the Kalahari’s Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, we spent precious time observing meerkat (Suricata suricatta) family behavior. These small carnivores, members of the mongoose family, dig extensive underground passageways with multiple entrances. A highly social species, meerkats live in colonies of 20-30 with a single dominant pair. They spend a significant amount of time reinforcing social bonds through grooming and other forms of interaction.
Meerkats use their tails for balance as they stand upright and scan the horizon for predators and other threats. After chill desert nights, meerkats will sit on their hind legs with the bellies exposed to the sun, to absorb early morning rays and regulate their body heat.
Meerkat predators include large birds such as martial eagles, jackals and other carnivores. When adult members of the troop go scavenging, pups stay behind at the den with an adult caretaker that serves as a sentry. Putting its own safety at risk, the sentry will warn pups in cases of danger and shepherd them underground to safety, defending them from pursuers as needed. These pups were quite a handful for the cautious sentry pictured, who stayed behind to guard the den.
Meerkat pups learn through observation and often mimic the behavior of adults. We found this process unbearably wonderful to watch.
At the base of each meerkat’s front paw is a long retractable claw. Meerkats use these claws to excavate burrows and to dig for prey. Meerkat diets consist mainly of insects, but they also eat lizards, eggs, small mammals and other animals. We spent an early morning following a troop as they foraged for scorpions amid dry grass hummocks. Immune to scorpion venom, squishing and crunching sounds could be heard in the grass as scorpions were dug out of the sand, their stingers bitten off, they were devoured by the hungry meerkats.
3. Bat-eared fox parenting
Much to our delight, this family of bat-eared foxes (Otocyon megalotis) emerged at sunset from their den in the delta. As four young kits explored the world around them, a parent diligently kept watch. Predominantly monogomous, females will wean young kits, and then transfer responsibility for the majority of parental care to males. Bat-eared foxes use their enormous ears to locate their prey, which mainly consists of insects. The vast majority of a fox’s diet is comprised of termites. In arid environments, these insects supply the majority of these animals’ water intake.
4. Theft of a leopard kill
On our first evening in the delta, we encountered a magnificent young female leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) with a fresh impala kill. African leopards have a keen ability to adapt to variation in prey availability, and this female has been spotted with kills ranging from large impala to baby vervet monkeys.
Prey of manageable size are often dragged by these large cats into acacia and other trees, to keep them out of reach of scavengers and opportunistic carnivores. Unable to transport this kill to a high place, we watched as the leopard extracted bloody morsels from the antelope, careful not to rupture the stomach cavity.
As the sun descended, the leopard tore open the belly of the impala. Within minutes we heard a great thundering of feet behind us, and the leopard fled into a nearby tree. She watched helplessly as a spotted hyena(Crocuta crocuta), attracted to the scent of the open stomach cavity, ripped into her kill. The snapping of jaws and cracking of bone was astonishingly loud. We returned to our camp as darkness fell, amazed by the leopard’s instinctive fear of the hyena.
5. Black backed jackal den defense
As we watched a pair of black backed jackals (Canis mesomelas) keep watch over their shaded den, a spotted hyena approached and lay down in a patch of shade nearby. Uncomfortable having a predator so close to their young, one jackal (pictured), stalked and hounded the hyena until eventually the powerful-jawed animal rose and was ushered away.
Monogomous and territorial, the main threat to black backed jackals are leopards, although they can also be killed by spotted hyenas, lions and cheetahs. The courage displayed by this particular jackal was exceptional. Outmatched in force but with sheer power of will, this jackal (pictured) endured a tense face off with the spotted hyena and eventually shooed it into the bush, far away from the den.
The following day, we witnessed some less intimidating spotted hyena behavior. When not stealing leopard kills and threatening black- backed jackal dens, mud bathing seems to be a favored pastime for spotted hyena adults (pictured above) and juveniles (pictured below).
Bonus Moment: Elephants sheltering the next generation
The Okavango makes up a part of the home range of thousands of African elephants (Loxodonta africana). Given that an adult bull can consume as many as 300 lbs of food in a single day, in the dry season the delta can support some of the highest elephant densities in Africa. The gestation period for elephants is nearly 22 months–the longest pregnancy of any mammal on earth. A single calf is born every 2-4 years. While in the delta, we observed how tenderly female elephants care for young members of their family group, ushering them to safe drinking spaces free of crocodiles and hippos (pictured above), and helping young ones to find vegetation within reach (pictured below).
But females in an elephant group cannot protect themselves or their calves from all threats. More than 20,000 African elephants were poached in 2013, according to a recent the report released by the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). WWF, TRAFFIC and a range of other groups are urgently working with country governments to address the poaching crisis, stop wildlife trafficking and curb the demand for ivory that is driving the trade.
Bearing witness to these and other remarkable animal interactions in Botswana’s Kalahari and Okavango delta reinforced my commitment to a career in conservation. Today, I’m proud to work to advance policies and programs that build capacity to combat poaching and help to ensure the sustainability of trade.