May saw us hit our “quietest” month for the year in terms of game viewing, on both the Big 5 and general game front, with the middle of the month being an exceptionally quiet period, but pleasingly, as the month drew to a close, the viewing returned to normal. With the lack of rain during the month, the bush it taking on its’ autumn-shades, with the bushwillows all now a shade of yellow, and the mopanes are slowly following suite. The good rains in the south during April kept much of the game down that side of the reserve, but as that started drying up too, the game did start improving in the north.
Although we possibly felt it more this month with a few periods of extended absence, the lion viewing remained relatively good with 48 recorded sightings; better than average for May. The Timbavati Pride was disappointingly absent for the majority of the month – we didn’t even pick up their tracks in the east – but our other lions made up for it. This was sad, as the sighting of the month belonged to them when they were witnessed trying to take down a large male giraffe one afternoon – despite trailing it for six kilometers, they never managed to finish the job. The Sumatra lioness is looking very, very pregnant and can’t be too far from giving birth; we are hoping that this time she chooses our concession and has better luck than she did with her one cub earlier this year. The Machimba males were much more in evidence this month as they pushed further west than they have in the past, and were even found in the company of the two Ross lionesses, but when they headed south, the males left them and ended up killing a large buffalo bull on Java that gave us four days of viewing; they however are still not completely settled in the presence of our vehicles yet. The Sumatra males only showed up on a couple of occasions in the far south. Duma male was erratic in his movements, and only pitched up in our western sector once this month. This left the bulk of the sightings to the Western Pride that had moments or permanent residence within our area, to moments of complete absence for a week at a time; the month started with them being seen daily for almost two weeks as they settled in the area – the fact that the mother lioness even brought her three cubs across was very positive (although we couldn’t view them as she was always absent), but the pride soon moved the cubs out and their viewing became less frequent, and the nine adults seemed to be travelling much greater distance on a nightly basis in search of food. The second mother lost her cubs and was back in estrus and was witnessed mating with the pride male, which almost looks like he could be a new boss on the block, but I am not sure. We saw the whole pride together on our access road one morning, with the mother and the three five-month old cubs providing for some really awesome viewing before they moved off into Ntsiri. Only towards the end of the month did the pride return to our concession, but only briefly.
Although May’s 51 leopard sightings were lower than the monthly average of 60 for the Month of May, we had a good showing of various leopards across the reserve. The month started off with Inkanye female mating with Xiviti male in the east, but these two only showed themselves sporadically through the rest of the month. Shongile was also rather absent, but when she did pitch up, she had a big surprise for us – her presumed-dead cub is very much alive and well, but sadly, it is super shy and was only glimpsed dashing off into a thicket when it was located; still, great news for Shongile! The trend of finding nervous leopards was sadly all too common this month, and across the reserve the shier leopards seemed to be making themselves at home which was getting quite frustrating at points, where several leopards would be found in a day, but all would simply run off on approach. Leadwood female is not showing signs of getting any better during the day, but then again, neither is the long-standing dominant male of the region, Machaton male. At night though, he provided for some good viewing, especially when he made an impala kill and had to hastily move it to the upper reaches of his chosen tree as the Western Pride of lions charged in to try and steal it! It is not all negative with the leopards though; the once-shy Madzinyo male is getting very relaxed in the south, and was seen a couple of times. Not as good, but showing improvement is Shongile’s last daughter who has been seen around the camp several times. Ntima male restored some confidence in our leopards, and this awesome and growing male was seen multiple times in the central regions. Nthombi’s last son, Mondzweni is also doing very well and was seen with two large impala kills this month whilst his mother was starting to become more prevalent again, albeit it further south in our concession than she used to be. Tshwukunyana male was not very prevalent this month, but he was around in the central regions.
The elephants were never going to be as prevalent as last month, but despite sightings dropping by a third, we still managed 170 sightings for the month, and most of the time the herds were found in the north – the winter conditions are also pulling the herds towards the riverbeds; a trend that will continue over the coming months. The herds and bulls also started paying more regular visits to the lodge, and with the reopening of the trough in front of the lodge, this should continue over the course of winter. May also saw the lowest number of recorded buffalo sightings for over three years (39)! The effect of the drought is really showing, and it is seeming like the buffalo numbers have been reduced even more drastically than I first thought – concerning is that even guests coming from other lodges or parts of the Kruger Park were just not seeing buffalo herds…but then, neither were we until late I the month when a couple of small herds (less than 100) moved in. The buffalo bulls were becoming more prevalent, but no sooner were they doing so when the Machimba male lions took one out! The rhinos were very absent for most of the month, with there being a total lack of any sign of rhinos for most the month across most of our concession, but with the bush drying up, this started to change towards the end of the month when a couple of crashes moved back, much to our relief.
General game really suffered early in the month, but again, the conditions balanced out as the month moved along and we were able to start seeing some zebra herds return to most corners of the reserve, and the giraffes remained ever-present in the north. The impalas carried on with their rut but it faded out towards the end of the month. Hippo viewing was very good, with as many as ten hippos having set up base at the big dams in the east (in addition to the regular pods in the large dams in the west). A second hyena den was also discovered in the south, and this was followed by a third active den much further south on Kings; most of our attention focused on the five cubs at the northern den that have grown tremendously in size and confidence, now happily walking up to sniff the vehicles when we arrive to enjoy their antics.
The three highlights of the month for me though come in the form of: One, the sheer number of red-billed queleas (yes, birds) that filled the skies at the beginning of the month, with literally hundreds of thousands flying around the lodge for the first week of the month before all disappearing, almost seamlessly overnight! Two, was the first cheetah sighting of 2017, a super relaxed female seen in the far south a night after I promised my guests that I would show them one the next day!!! Three, my favourite animals, wild dogs! Although we only had 8 sightings, they were made up of three different packs; our pack of 11 was around at the beginning of the month, but later disappeared with the alpha female looking quite gravid. The Investec pack of seven arrived, but a few days later returned without the alpha female, indicating that she had given birth somewhere; whilst we suspect it is just inside the Kruger Park, there is a chance it could be on our side – time will tell, but for now we at least get to check our eastern sections daily in the realistic hope of finding the adults out hunting. The Orpen pack of 16 dogs pitched up in the very same area on the last day of the month, also with a burgeoning alpha female, but unfortunately their movements took them back east into Kruger.