I haven’t posted in a while. It’s not my fault. A bird got in the way. A Francolin. Every now and then I start a post and it either doesn’t feel right or I just lose interest. This time I didn’t just start, I got two thousand words in. I was writing about game birds. I got up to the Francolins, and went off to bed. That was nearly two weeks ago. I sat down a couple of times, looked at the damn Francolins, and thought “meh”. And wrote angry diatribes about our government for a local news site instead.
And so I’m throwing in the towel. Bugger the Francolins. There will come a day when I write about short, fat, noisy birds. But not this day. Today I’m going to write about something far more interesting. Something fascinating. I’m going to write about buck.
If you thought you detected just a hint of sarcasm there, you might be right. There are a million things to see down in the Lowveld; there are weird and wonderful little insects, beautiful and interesting plants, engaging little mammals scrambling about in the undergrowth, and francolins. But the real reason you go down there is for the big animals.
There are birds, and plants, and mongooses everywhere. You go down to the Lowveld to see elephants. And lions. And leopards, and giraffes, and zebras, and hyenas. And the buck? They are the cannon fodder that keeps the system going. You might have seen stirring and disturbing footage of lions taking down huge animals like buffalo or giraffes on the discovery channel, and there are some prides that specialise in that sort of prey, but the truth is that most of the time, predators eat buck. Thousands of them. This means that there need to be vast, sprawling herds of buck all over the place to keep the system going.
If you never experienced the wilds of Africa before, you will be charmed, on your first day, to see, almost as soon as you enter the reserve you are visiting, a herd of beautiful and graceful buck called impalas. Their backs are an earthy reddish brown colour, with a tan strip below that, and their stomachs are almost white. The females are slender and delicate, and the males have powerful necks and shoulders and large, lyre-shaped horns.
You’ll be impressed. This is what you came here to see. Wildlife! Here, in front of you, are the sprawling herds of game you saw on all those documentaries. This is it! You’re in a movie!
On the second day, you might stop and look at them again. At least the first herd. Maybe even the second and the third. By the end of the day, you will be driving past them. By day five, you will have an urge to drive over them if they’re standing in your way. There are millions of them. By the time you leave, you simply won’t be noticing them anymore. They will have become like grass. White noise.
If you go down to the bush fairly often, you will, oddly enough, start noticing them again. They are fascinating creatures if you take the time to watch them. And they are not alone. There are lots of different buck down in the bush. Far too many for a single post. Or two posts. And so, without further ado, here is part one of god knows how many posts on the buck of the Lowveld. We’ll start at the bottom, literally, and work our way up.
Sunis are tiny. And sneaky. And tiny. They weigh about as much as the average domestic cat, about five kg or so. They are so small that their major predator is not the lion, or the leopard, but the martial eagle. You’re not much of a buck if you have to worry about birds flying off with you. They live in forested areas with lots of underbrush. And they survive by not being seen.
They are apparently very, very good at not being seen, because I’ve never seen one. And neither has anyone I know. I’m beginning to suspect that they might just be a hoax. A lie, concocted by the tourism authorities to entice the sort of people who are charmed by miniature pigs and those tiny horses that people who are too cool for dogs keep in their houses.
But I’ll keep trying. They’re on my list, with pangolins and servals and bushpigs and jackalopes. One day, I’ll catch a momentary glimpse of a tiny backside shuffling off into a bush, tick off a mental list in my head, and move on with my life. Until then, I will content myself with looking at impalas from really far away and just use my imagination.
Steenboks would qualify as being tiny if it wasn’t for those damn invisible suni. They weigh twice as much as their elusive cousins; about eleven kg. And I can state with great confidence that they are real, because you see them all the time. And even if you don’t, you know they’re there. Because of poo.
Steenboks are territorial. They have round, black scent glands on their faces, in front of their eyes, which they presumably use to paste on low-hanging branches and blades of grass, as markers of their little domains, but by far their most conspicuous territorial advertising post are the huge middens which are scattered around at strategic points. Steenbok droppings are tiny, but they add up, so that a steenbok midden can end up as a low mound more than a metre across.
They are, generally speaking, monogamous. But not young-newlyweds-on-honeymoon monogamous. They are more little-old-married-couple-who-have-been-together-for-decades-and-don’t-even-share-the-same-room-anymore monogamous. They share the same territory, and keep interlopers out, but don’t spend a great deal of time together.
They are fairly unusual in that they are independent of water; they get what they need from the leaves they eat. This doesn’t sound very impressive until you try to go two days without a drink of water, using leaves of lettuce to quench your thirst. And these guys are doing it at temperatures that get above 40 degrees Celsius.
But that’s all just guide-book stuff. What you really need to know about Steenbok is how they are going to affect you should you visit the bush. They will terrify you or annoy you.
For them to terrify you, you need to go out on foot. Preferably behind a man with a big gun. Even when you are behind a man with a big gun, walking in the bush tends to heighten your senses just a tad. The knowledge that large, hairy things with claws like razors and teeth like daggers might be watching your every move can make one feel a little edgy.
Enter the Steenbok. As far as the Steenbok is concerned, you are one of the large, hairy things with claws like razors and teeth like daggers. When he becomes aware of you, he will deploy his special survival trick. He will hunker down and freeze. His name means “stone-buck”, because that is what he becomes. Which is just fine if you pass by far enough away from him. You will never even know he was there. If, however, you come too close, just hope that you have been taking your heart medication.
As you creep through the bush with those heightened senses of yours, head swinging toward every unusual sound, eyes searching out the source of every movement, you will pass into an invisible circle of comfort that the steenbok has drawn around himself, and he will explode. He will burst out of his hiding place with a crash and a thump, and zigzag off into the bush where he will freeze again.
This all sounds rather civilised and ordered. It’s not. You have not been trained for this. You will not glance of at the sudden flurry of activity and think “Oh look! A Steenbok. How cute”. No. As the up-‘til-then perfectly innocent patch of bush in front of you suddenly erupts with noise and movement, What you will actually be thinking will be “OH, SWEET MOTHER OF GOD! THIS IS IT! DEATH, PLEASE TAKE ME NOW! BE QUICK! DON’T LET ME SUFFER! THE CLAWS! THE CLAWS ARE COMING!”
Do not be embarrassed. Your reaction is perfectly normal. Just ask the man with the gun to give you a second to change your pants, and keep on walking, and tell yourself that you will spot the next Steenbok before you nearly stand on it. You won’t, but it’s important to stay positive.
And the annoying bit? Night driving. Driving around in the bush at night with a spotlight is a joy. The entire ecosystem changes as the sun goes down. This is when you see cool and unusual things like porcupines and ratels and civets. And Steenbok. A lot more steenbok; it’s kind of hard to hide away when your eyes reflect light like a cat’s.
And that’s all you see at first. Eyes. Eyes that could belong to anything. You screech to a dusty halt, fumble for the binoculars, and strain your eyes to pick out the darkness behind those glowing orbs, and then you see them. Ears. Enormous ears like satellite dishes. “Steenbok”, you say. “Let’s move on.” At least that’s what you say the first time. By Steenbok number 20, you will be far more inclined to use slightly shorter Anglo Saxon words.
There is a little buck in the Lowveld called the Sharpe’s Grysbok. It looks like a Steenbok with grey hair. It acts like a Steenbok with grey hair. It lives in slightly thicker bush. That’s all I have to say about that.
This, too was going to be a short, sharp entry. But I have just discovered something bizarre.
The grey, or common duiker is a little bigger than the Steenbok and the Grysbok, weighing in at about 20kg. You see quite a lot of them since they seem to be attracted to human habitations. They, too are freeze and then dash buck. Their name means “diver”, since, when fleeing, they dive straight into thicker bush in the hope that any larger predator following them will become entangled.
Which is all well and good. They are little buck that do little buck things. Until you look at their diet. They eat leaves, flowers and fruits. Nice. They also eat tubers, which is a little unusual for a buck, but not unheard of. But then things get weird. They also eat insects. And frogs. And birds. And small mammals. And carrion.
So there you have it. If you want to know what a Duiker is like, imagine Bambi hunched over the half eaten corpse of Thumper, blood flowing down his chin, empty black eyes staring off into the middle distance. Cute.
There are red duikers down in the Lowveld, too, but they favour forested areas, and are seldom seen.
If you search for the highest jump in nature on the internet, the answer that will keep popping up is the puma, at fifteen feet, or five metres. That’s just phenomenal. It’s almost three of me. But you can see how they do it. A puma is like a coiled, sleekly muscled spring. But it’s not the best jumper. This is.
Yup. Bambi’s little cousin, who spends his days walking around on tiptoe, makes the puma look like a bit of an also-ran. That is a Klipspringer. And he can jump over 25 feet. Vertically. That’s nearly eight metres. Or four of me. Not bad for a buck weighing less than 20kg.
If this is not impressive enough, look at his toes. Yup. This little guy can jump onto the roof of a two-story house and land on the equivalent of four stiletto heels. It used to be said that the tips of the hoofs were soft and rubbery, but they aren’t. They are as hard as any other animal’s hoof.
Their hoofs are pointed like that for a reason. A klipspringer can stand on a point of rock no larger than the round end of a coffee cup with all four feet. Which is quite handy, because the klipspringer lives on rocky hills and outcrops (its name means “stone jumper”).
This is rather a clever thing to do, because nothing moves over rocks like they do. They are not invulnerable; some do get taken by leopards or large eagles. Very large eagles. But they are much safer than most of the other miniature buck. Safe enough to do a little showing off.
Klipspringers, like most of the buck on this post, are monogamous and territorial. Those round black marks on their faces are scent glands, which they use along with the usual piles of poo to mark their little kingdoms. But their best territorial marker is themselves. You’ve all seen pictures of wolves and lions and Davy Crockets standing on a high rock surveying their world below. But you rarely see photos, because animals just don’t do that.
Klipspringers really do do that. If your home stands out from the surrounding countryside like a castle, and you are pretty much invulnerable in your stronghold, your best advertisement for your presence is yourself. If you are in the bush and find yourself passing a rocky little koppie, stop and take a closer look. As often as not you will spot a little klipspringer standing proud on a high rock, looking for all the world like a heraldic statue.
The last of the dwarf antelopes is the oribi. It is much like the others; monogamous, territorial, more reliant on hiding from predators than fleeing. But there is one major difference. Oribis are evolving into something else; herd animals.
Their diet is to blame. Most of the buck in this post are primarily browsers. Oribi are primarily grazers. Which means they live in grassland. Most of the time, living in grassland is just fine for a small, sneaky buck. There is plenty to eat, and tall grass makes for a really good hiding-place.
Short grass, however, does not. Fire and overgrazing turn the tall grass into short grass, leaving the oribi nowhere to hide. This means that their best defence is to spot any approaching predators. Which is easier to do when you have more eyes. And so there is a tendency for oribis to form larger groups. They aren’t quite proper herds; they do not coordinate their movements or stick together like proper herds, but they’re getting there.
Well, that’s it for the smallest of the buck. From here on in they get bigger and less sneaky. And a lot easier to see.