The past week yielded one carnivore excitement after another around here. Things started off with a bang on Monday: a rare sighting of a pack of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus). They eluded me the last time they made an appearance at Mpala, but this time I managed to get to the right place at the right time (it helped that they didn’t decide to come around while I was in the middle of checking my trap grid).
The ones we saw this week actually belong to a different pack than the ones I wrote about previously. This group holds a territory farther north on Mpala property. On Monday morning my field assistant popped into my office offering to take me up to see them, and I didn’t need much convincing. After a bit of searching with an askari and some skilled/lucky off-road driving, we found the pack and stayed with them for about an hour before we retreated to let them carry on with their afternoon in private. The pack included a group of about 6-7 older pups, and seemed to be in relaxation mode. The habitat was a bit dense, so picture-taking was difficult, but it gave them plenty of refuge from which to tolerate our presence.
The next big excitement was a new species for my mammal “Life List:” the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). A friend of mine came across a mother and her cub while he was out doing fieldwork on Wednesday, and he gave me a buzz offering to guide me out to the site. I grabbed another researcher (everyone wants to see cheetahs!) to take along as a buddy and we set off, map in hand. We only got lost once on the way out to the site (and discovered a gathering of elephants at a watering hole in the process). Fortunately my friend hadn’t let the cats out of his sight, and when I did arrive we got a wonderful view of the mother and cub. They were resting under a tree, escaping the midday sun.
Because Mpala is a research-oriented property with very limited opportunities for tourists to breeze through, the animals here are not as habituated as they are in big national parks and other tourism-oriented reserves. The shyness of the animals here means that—despite the abundance of uncommon and endangered species in Laikipia— events like cheetah and wild dog sightings are relatively rare, but that also makes them all the more rewarding.
The rains have transformed the landscape in an amazingly short time: the other day I wished I had set up a camera to document our yard getting greener and greener with each passing hour. It also means that more animals will be returning to the region soon—the askaris sighted two lions right along the main entry road last night. The insects are also going crazy—there is literally a layer of discarded insect wings covering a large portion of our front porch right now, almost like a blanket of flower petals but far less romantic.
Back to carnivores: the rare sightings have extended to my camera trapping grid: this last batch of data yielded first records (for my dataset) of two of the most elusive out here, both members of the family Mustelidae: the zorilla (Ictonyx striatus; also called the striped polecat but sort of resembling a psychedelic skunk) and the honey badger (Mellivora capensis). Although common in places like South Africa, honey badgers are sparsely distributed here in Laikipia, and any sighting of one is cause for major excitement amongst the researchers. Of course, in the game camera image series it walks right past my Tomahawk trap without showing any interest in it at all…alas, but I have two months left to try to get my hands on one.
So, it was a very exciting week in terms of carnivore sightings and data. I’m setting up a new sampling grid on one of the fenced ranches next week, and am extremely interested to see what differences I observe between that site and my sampling grids on conservancy lands. More updates to come!
Previously in this series: