November 26, 2015

Show Stoppers

EcoTraining is about the small things, we all know this, and we truly believe it.  The mechanisms evolved over millennia by the coexistence of organisms know no bounds:  the relationship between figs and their wasp pollinators, the unique adaptations of an ant-lion larva to locate its prey and the fascinating behaviour exhibited by the polyandrous African Jacana are just some of the majesties awaiting a potential student on one of our courses.  That being said, nothing beats witnessing interactions between Africa’s heavy hitters, the big cats!

It’s a bit like buying a car: we know that we should spend our money on a nice safe and reliable family car with good fuel economy, but most of us would give our right arm to own an Aston Martin or Bugatti!  There is just something about them. The cats are no different.  They are the aces up the sleeve of the bush poker player, and the Mecca for any safari-goer!

What happens in the bush under the cloak of darkness is a mystery to most, but occasionally the nocturnal exploits of these key players transcend the dawn and we are able to view some unique events unfold.  Lions and leopards are mortal enemies.  Countless generations have fought this war; a war where both sides have their special weapons.  The lions have strength both in physicality and in numbers, but what the leopard lacks in this department it makes up with guile, agility and stealth.  Both will kill each other, especially their offspring, and most young cubs succumb to predation by one of their carnivorous cousins.

For a mother leopard nurturing a cub, a run-in with lions usually spells curtains, but lighting reactions and unparalleled tree climbing abilities might just be enough to save them.  By the time we arrived at the sighting, we found a majestic leopardess patrolling the treetops whilst her nemeses circled below.  Her footing was sure, and she almost mocked the comical attempts of the young lions far below her as they tried to scale the vertical trunk to reach her.  She spat and growled, but knew better than to antagonize her much larger relatives.  Her lightweight frame allowed her to control the canopy, but youth knows no bounds, and time and time again, the young lions tried their luck.  This made for some great viewing as their facial expressions matched their frustrations as their powerful limbs were nullified by their greater body mass and weak wrists.  Failed attempts ended in a shower of bark and a somewhat unceremonious dismount!  As usual, it is difficult not to anthropomorphasize the events, but if a lion could ever look embarrassed, this was it!

The leopardess however seemed distracted.  Between bouts of snarling at her feline foes, she continued glancing skyward towards a nearby fig tree.  Upon closer inspection we discovered a small cub, no more than 6 months old, sheltering in the upper reaches of its arboreal safe haven.  Whilst we could hear no communication, their glances spoke a thousand words, the maternal bond felt by both easily bridging the gap between their refuges.  Leopard cubs learn to climb from an early age, and this skill can save their life.  Despite balancing 10m from the ground, the cub looked sure-footed, relaxed and it matched its mother’s aggression towards its pursuers with low growls that defied its size.  Not that the lions were too concerned. However, despite several attempts, the lions knew they were beaten.  Disdainfully they relinquished their spot on the battlefield, slinking silently into the surrounding bush as the heat of the Sun sapped their resolve. 

The leopardess and her prodigy remained in their lofty sanctuary watching the retreat of their antagonists until the coast was clear.  The female gracefully dismounted and moved to the shade of a nearby termite mound but her terrified cub remained aloft.  This female is not very relaxed around cars and whilst their ordeal was over, our ethics dictated that we leave the area to allow mother and cub to reunite and disappear back into the bush in the way that only leopards can. 

It was an epic sighting for us, but just another day in the endless struggle for survival of one of Africa’s greatest icons.  The small things in the bush are fascinating, more so than many of you might realize, but some things are truly special.  We all have our weaknesses, our addictions if you will, and mine is the leopard. To see a mother and cub in a tree, and the interactions of hungry lions below them is as good as it gets!

Blogpost and photos by Ben Coley

November 19, 2015

The day of the jackal

We at EcoTraining spend countless hours pouring over books written by a variety of experts to try and explain animal behaviour to prospective field guides.  We have a huge wealth of knowledge at our finger tips with which to glean the plethora of information documented on some of the most iconic animals in the world.  However, despite Man’s propensity of recording field data from observations, animals do not always read the text books and often we are made to look foolish as they defy the preconceptions we have attributed to them!

The other day, a report about a male lion that had killed a bush pig, came through on the radio.  We rushed to the scene of the crime already deep in explanation as to the feeding habits of Africa’s apex terrestrial predator, looking forward to watching the ferocious feline demolishing his prey.  When we arrived at the location we found the bushpig completely intact, not even opened, and no lion to be seen.  Often predators will kill other predators as a means of eliminating competition and these victims are usually not consumed as they were removed rather than killed for food, but there was no viable reason that a cache of meat such as this would be left alone.  It was a gentle reminder from the bush that no matter how long you spend out here watching the daily lives of its inhabitants, nothing is ever set in stone!

I can offer no satisfactory explanation as to why the lion chose to leave his prize but nothing is left to waste in the bush for long.  Throughout the afternoon, the vultures arrived and began to consume the carcass, comically scrapping and flapping around as they argued over feeding rights.  We returned to the site at the end of our night drive hoping that the smell of decomposing flesh had wafted its way to the sensitive nostrils of the resident hyena clan.  It seemed however that the hyenas’ had also turned their nose up at the meal but not so a small group of side-striped jackals!

This diminutive predator is often overlooked in the food chain but plays a hugely important role in cleaning up the bush.  It is not as gregarious as the more common black backed jackal and thus their presence was a welcome sight to us all.  The temptation of a free meal overrode their normal normally nervous disposition and we were rewarded with a wonderful sighting as they wrestled with their porky prize! 

Side striped jackals are omnivores and can get their water requirements from eating fruits which enable them to be very successful in more harsh terrains.  They are also efficient hunters and regularly take small mammals, birds and even arthropods but an unattended carcass was a bonanza for them to enjoy.  We stayed in the sighting long after dark enjoying their antics as individuals argued over the choice cuts, prompting a long discussion over their feeding habits, role in the ecosystem and why the lion chose to leave its kill. 

For me, the true beauty of working in the bush is the fact that nothing is ever set in stone.  For a lion to pass up an opportunity to feed is unusual, but its decision benefited a whole host of less powerful members of the bushveld community.  Rules are made to be broken and trying to fathom the rationale behind these incidents is what makes this vocation so fascinating.  Variety is the spice of life, and we bush folk live our lives wondering what awaits us around the next corner and it is this excitement: the unknown commodity, that makes a life in the bush so rewarding!

Blog and photos by Ben Coley

November 12, 2015


The bush is a place to find peace and solace.  The feeling of immersion in a pristine wilderness area is something that only a few of us are lucky enough to experience.  It is a place where the complications of our world disappear.  The sounds of never-ending traffic, police sirens and the constant hum of electricity are nowhere to be seen, and instead they are replaced by a myriad of tuneful birdcalls, an underlying cacophony of insect life, the whoop of a distant hyaena or the crack of a branch as a gentle leviathan feeds. 

The holistic effect of the bush is often overlooked.  People come to the wilderness to tick off their marquis animals and get their certificate of seeing the Big 5, but many will miss the true meaning of being lost in one of the world’s most pristine wildernesses.  It is a place to find ourselves, to revisit the primitive nature of our ancestors and experience what life used to be like before the advent of technology.  Undoubtedly our advances as a species have opened up doors to new places and allowed us to enjoy a more stress free life…or have they?  Yes, television and a comfy sofa sound like a great way to relax, but I can assure you all that it is no substitute for sitting next to a serene waterhole, watching the setting Sun‘s rays dance across the water.  The colours that seep through the skeletal winter trees cannot be put in words and I struggle to believe that even Dulux could recreate some of them. 

Our current crop of budding new field guides was privy to experience such an evening last night.  After a gentle walk from the camp, stopping to discuss an old hyena den and tasting the moisture-rich roots of the aptly named ‘Mother-in-Law’s Tongue’ we stumbled across an oasis.  Stretching out before us was a small body of water with no road access and thus protected from our own destructive influences.  The golden light of an African evening filtered through the clouds, giving the whole scene a magical hue: the trees seemed to radiate the light and shine it back at us like something out of a fairy tale.  Learning about the fascinating organisms that inhabit this area is one thing, but there is no substitute for just sitting quietly and contemplating life in such an idyllic place.

The students found their own quiet corner to just sit.  We spend our whole life rushing from one thing to another, governed by time and the need to attribute meaning to everything.  We have forgotten how to truly relax and find ourselves.  This was the perfect opportunity and we all relished in the chance to be wrapped up in our thoughts about why we chose to come to such a place, just appreciating the beauty and wonder of nature in her purest form.  We sipped drinks in the warm evening air and listened to the wind rustle the leaves and last of the birds say their farewell to another perfect day in Africa.  The only movement came from little pond-skaters skimming across the glassy surface of the water and the occasional bumbles rising from its depths as the unseen aquatic world went around its business.  It was a perfect moment where time was irrelevant.

This is what the bush is all about, and the reason that so many of us come to the bush.  We are all looking for something.  Some find it in a bustling city full of social interaction and technological advances.  Others, like myself, and many of the students who pass through EcoTraining’s welcoming doors need only experience this solitude once and become addicted to this purity.  The ‘real’ world can be fun, but only in small doses.  The bush gets under your skin and for some, it will change their life, and their outlook on it, forever.

Blog post and photos by Ben Coley

November 5, 2015

Ground beetles and bushveld lizzards

Beetles are one of the most successful orders on the planet thanks to a holometabolic (complete metamorphosis) lifecycle.  This means that the larva is completely different to the adult in both diet and habitat.  In order to reach adulthood, the larva must undergo pupation before emerging as a beetle (the same mechanism as butterflies and moths).  This theoretically enables them to double the number of individuals in a given area since the problem of competition for space and food is non-existent.  They have also evolved a plethora of anti-predation behaviour essential for survival!

Ground beetles display contrasting colours on their carapace to warn potential predators of their defence mechanisms.  This phenomenon is called aposematic colouration and is essential when their main predator, birds, rely on superb colour vision to hunt.  They are able to squirt a noxious substance at their attackers and are known to be very accurate giving rise to the Afrikaans name ‘oogpisters’ or ‘eye-pissers’!  In some species, the chemicals involved can even burn human flesh. 

Interestingly, there is a reptile found in Southern Africa known called the bushveld lizard that mimics the two-spotted ground beetle shown here.  The juvenile lizards show similar bright markings and even walk with a hunched, slow posture to try and dupe their avian predators.  It is one of the very few examples in nature where an arthropod is mimicked by another class of animals.

Blog written by Ben Coley
Photo courtesy of 

October 29, 2015

10 fascinating facts about an elephant's trunk

1. There are over 40,000 muscles in an elephant’s trunk housing over 150,000 separate muscle fascicles (fibres that allow the muscle to move in various directions).  Humans have only 639 muscles in their entire body!

2. The trunk alone can lift close to 400kgs, yet is delicate enough to pick up a single piece of straw.

3. The trunk can hold over 20 litres of water which is why, despite their enormous water requirements (approx. 120 litres per day), elephants generally do not linger whilst drinking.

4. Elephants are able to use their trunk like a snorkel, easily crossing deep water totally submerged except for their trunk breaking the surface.

5. The trunk contains 5 times more smell receptors than humans, and twice as many as a bloodhound.  This enables them to smell water from miles away.

6. Such is their olfactory power that projects are training elephants to aid in clearing minefields in areas of Mozambique.

7. When faced with a particularly interesting smell (such a cow’s urine) an elephant will touch its trunk to the source of the odour and physically place it in the organ of Jacobson in its mouth for further analysis.

8. Elephants show a preference to one side of the trunk than the other, thus seeming right or left-handed.  This is most obvious during the wet summer months when one side of the trunk becomes stained green from repeatedly plucking grasses.

9. The tip of the trunk contains a layer of cells known as ‘Pacinian Corpuscles’ that are specialised in sensing vibrations.  This may be one of the mechanisms enabling elephants to communicate over such long distances using low frequency rumbles.

10. These low sounds are made possible as the trunk acts like a 2m long resonating chamber!

Blog and photos by Ben Coley