If a guest wants to unintentionally end a conversation prematurely with me, all they need to do is bring up ‘that one occasion we were on safari and watched a (insert any animal of your choosing here) give birth. I usually reply “that’s nice…so the weather looks good today” and carry on with my drive. The reason for my rudeness is that it is a bit of a sore point for me; in all my years of guiding, I have not seen a single birth. With thousands of impalas, zebras, and wildebeests being born each year, you would think this is not the most difficult thing to witness, but I am making a strong case for proving that it is anything but easy.
A part of me can understand this, as when a mother of almost any species is giving birth, not only is she extremely vulnerable during the process, but her newborn is a sitting duck (or is that a sitting impala?) for any nearby predator that happens to wander by. As a result of this, mothers of many species choose well-concealed spots to give birth to their young. Lions and leopards with their blind and helpless cubs make use of riverine thickets or rocky outcrops as a safe refuge for delivering their precious cargo; warthogs, hyenas, and wild dogs use burrows inside impenetrable termite mounds; and kudus, waterbuck, nyala, bushbuck, and impalas chose to have their calves and lambs in dense woodlands with lots of thick coverage, to avoid the prying eyes of predators.
This latter fact was brought home to me early one summer when I was sitting watching the dearly departed Nthombi leopardess. Now as much as I can moan about having never seen a birth, I am partly to blame as on this particular morning, I failed to read the obvious signs of the impala ewe entering a Terminalia thicket on her own and lying down just out of view. The leopard was very focused on something, and from my tracker’s vantage point, he told me he could see an impala, but that she had laid down. Nthombi continued to sit and watch but didn’t make a move until the impala stood up several minutes later. The impala was still out of view for my guests and me, but when the leopard looked a little more alert, my tracker said “the impala is standing up….oh, and there’s a baby”. She had come into the thicket and given birth about 40m from us – again, it should have been the logical explanation as to why an impala would enter such a thicket on her own. Sadly, for the new mother, just as we had been completely unaware of what she was up to, she was oblivious to the fact that a leopard had been watching this whole process from a short distance away. I explained to my guests that the next part of this story was not going to have a happy ending, and gave them the option of leaving or staying to watch the inevitable. They chose the latter and we had a glimpse of just how short and fragile life can be in the Kruger.
Realizing how difficult it would be to see an impala giving birth – I mean, I missed it from 40m away – I had to select a new target for this past summer. One species of mammal that doesn’t leave the herd and tends to stay in the open when giving birth is the wildebeest. With the open plains in front of Tanda Tula Plains Camp housing a healthy population of very pregnant wildebeest at the start of their seasonal birthing season, I knew that this would be the best chance in my guiding career. After the first calf was reported, I made it my mission to go and check the plains every morning looking for a mother about to give birth. The problem was, I didn’t quite know what to look for. More and more babies started appearing on the plains, and I saw many tiny tots walking around that were still wet from their 8,5-month journey in the watery womb, but I was just never there to see them entering the world.
I came close. Very, very close. We came across one herd and were watching a calf a few days old when Glen said “that’s a new one”; I looked and said I thought it wasn’t that new, and maybe 2-3 days old. Glen then said, “no, not that one…the one in the grass”. I readjusted my focus and soon saw a little head struggling to lift itself off the ground. There was a blood-soaked baby in the grass, and it hadn’t even begun to try and find its feet. Now, considering most wildebeest calves are standing and wobbling around like drunken sailors within as little as five minutes after entering the world, the fact that this one hadn’t even begun to attempt to walk tells me that we must have honestly missed it by no more than a couple of minutes (and we had been watching them for a minute or so before spotting the calf). Despite not having seen the calf dropping, the part of the birth that I had always wanted to see was about to unfold in front of me – a baby taking its first steps in the world. We spent a good half hour watching as the gangly little guy mustered up the energy and concentration to rise to his feet and eventually stay on them for a period of time. It was remarkable that something so new to the world could be so adept at moving – just think of how useless we are as babies (and even teenagers!). And that was what I had always wanted to see. So, as I said, it was close, close…but no cigar. Yet, seeing as I don’t smoke, I was still delighted with the magical moment I had shared with that wildebeest calf and my guests.
It was thus more than slightly annoying when I got a message from Tristan whilst I was enjoying my pre-Christmas leave to tell me that he and Glen had come across a wildebeest acting strangely: standing up, sitting down, standing again. Soon, the legs appeared and a little while later another baby wildebeest was stumbling around the Timbavati. I tried to be happy for them, but the truth is that envy kind of took over and I am now left counting down the weeks until the next calving season…only 44,5 to go.
Until next time…