During the Dansby “dada” safari in Tanzania in July 2022, Mel and I learned fascinating facts about many of the animals we saw, largely from our fabulous Masai guide Kakae. Here are some portraits of these animals:
Agama lizard: A dominant male agama looks like a little Superman with a red head and blue body. Its colors become brighter when it’s alarmed or agitated … it literally gets red-faced. These males initiate courtship by bobbing their heads up and down. They live in social groups, with each having several females and subordinate males, which are far less colorful.
African wildcat: Only distinguishable from a tabby house cat with black banded feet and longer legs, the wildcat is among the rarest safari sightings (along with the highly poached black rhino and pangolin). Hybridization with domestic cats threatens the wildcat. In fact, it’s theorized that very few genetically pure African wildcats still exist.
Baboon: When female baboons are ready to mate, their butts turn bright red. A baby is carried underbelly for two months then it rides on its mom’s back as she has a “broken” (hinged) tail that acts like a seat belt. (Monkey babies only ride in the front.) The baboon can be notoriously naughty when exposed to human food. For example, at the entrance to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a baboon tried to break into a car and another into a trash bin!
Black rhino: Critically endangered, there are only about 60 rhinos in the Ngorongoro Crater today. There have been strong efforts and laws to prevent poaching since 1998 (each rhino has five rangers to protect it with a geolocating chip in its horn) but there are still attempts as each high-keratin horn is worth about $80K, making it the most expensive material in the world per gram. The Chinese covet it for virility, the Vietnamese for medicine and the Yemenese for a dagger. (The pangolin is trafficked even more due to its high-keratin scales.)
Buffalo: This is the most aggressive animal in Africa and the only one feared by local Masai people. In a critical stage, most animals will flee but a buffalo will attack 80 percent of the time. And its aggression doubles if it is injured. It must have an escape route and space as it will lash out at anyone and anything (including a jeep!) when in pain. If an injured buffalo is near people, it must be shot to prevent catastrophe. (In case of confrontation, lay down and act dead for an hour. Never try to outrun such a large animal as it will lead to a chase and almost always death.)
Cheetah: It cannot be hunted due to threat of extinction plus good luck trying to catch one at its full speed of 70 miles per hour! Black “tear” lines down its face, solid black spots and a smaller body distinguish it from a leopard. When running, cheetahs use their tails like rudders to steer and change direction.
Dik dik: This small antelope is one of a few animals that mates with a partner for life. While parents stick together, they kick out their kids after nine months to find their own territory. If the kids return, there is a territorial dispute. Each male dik dik either has a harem or hangs out in a bachelor group. The females stick together and follow dominant males.
Elephant: The African savanna elephant is endangered in spite of it being the largest terrestrial animal on earth. A group of elephants is called a memory and if moving, a parade. An adult elephant consumes 100-200 liters of water per day and eats roughly 6 percent of his body weight or 360 kilograms daily, pooing about 200 kilograms and producing 200 liters of methane gas – enough to power a hot air balloon. It only digests 40 percent of its food so high-fiber poo is used as firewood, medicine (strained liquid) and for baboons, a source of fermented amarula nuts. Elephants love corn and beans so they will destroy crops. They “see” through their trunks and can smell a lion downwind. They can swim submerged as long as their trunk “snorkels” remain above water. Elephants can reach 4-7 meters high and have six sets of teeth over a lifetime. They create natural watering holes by digging in dirt and stomping with their feet. Like humans, elephants mature around 18 years old and can live to be 70 (the world record is 75). The elephant has no predators unless it is isolated, sick or very young near a starving lion group. Elephants, along with orcas, are the only mammals besides humans that live past their reproductive years, in theory, because grandparents help take care of kids.
Giraffe: As the national symbol of Tanzania, the giraffe is protected and no part of it can be used commercially, even upon natural death. It is the world’s largest ruminant, weighing more than a buffalo. Male giraffes have bigger and flat horns while females have thinner, furrier horns. Both have bluish-black tongues that are up to 45 cm long for eating tree leaves. Their dark-colored spots prevent sunburn and the darker the spots, the older the giraffe. These tree-high animals have excellent eyesight. They poop hard pellets that scatter on the ground due to their density.
Hamerkop: This bird is known as a blacksmith because it puts shiny objects like metal in its nest. It lives in luxury with the biggest nest of all birds. But as a result, a python or other tree-loving animal sometimes breaks into and even steals their house!
Hippopotamus: Its name means “river horse” in ancient Greek yet it looks like a sea cow. It is known to “smell” water many kilometers away because it always finds water. But it prefers fresh water to salty. Surprisingly, hippos can run 30 miles an hour. Unfortunately, they tend to panic around people, killing them more than almost any other animal besides the buffalo.
Hyena: It has the strongest jaws in the bush, capable of eating small bones. As a result, its poo is typically white. Hyena females are bigger and more dominant than males, which have to beg (cackle) for food from females. Hyenas like to put their bellies in water when full.
Impala: This antelope has bow-legged horns, spotted ears, black socks and a black “McDonald’s logo” on its butt. The male has horns and harems, but he is deserted by females when green (pasture) runs out.
Jackal: Another rare animal that mates with one partner for life, the jackal may be found alone or in pairs or packs. It is part of the dog genus but follows large cats to finish their discarded carcasses. There are three types of jackals; the most common is black-backed.
Klipspringer: This small antelope is a rock climber with rubbery stiletto hooves and cushy fur. It’s like a small mountain goat that walks on the tips of its hooves. It marks territorial borders with heaps of poo and sometimes with a thick, black substance secreted from its preorbital glands. Klipspringers communicate with each other using shrill whistles.
Leopard: This solitary cat can sleep 20 hours a day, often on the limb of acacia or “sausage” (Kegalia Africana) trees, which have thick branches and canopies. Male and female leopards only meet to mate. Males are polygamous while females are typically monogamous (it only has two mates if in the crosshairs of a territorial dispute). Baby leopards stay with their mom for two years, then take their own territory after 5-7 years. Like all solitary animals, the leopard cannot be domesticated (nor should be!). Read why in my story about a young, male leopard in a bush camp in South Africa.
Lion: A full mane means a lion wins fights. In hotter climates, male lions adapt to have less mane and can even be bald, which is bad for fighting as a mane protects its neck. Lions (and other big cats) pant when they’re digesting. Lion parents will fake mating to fool a territory-challenging male into thinking there are no babies so it will not kill them to take over. If it succeeds in killing the babies, the mother goes into heat again so it can mate with the new male in charge.
Ostrich: The largest and fastest running bird in the world (up to 43 miles per hour), females have gray feathers and males black. The male is ready to mate when its neck turns bright red. It has one of best mating dances in nature, flapping its wings and swinging its head ridiculously, even during the act.
Secretary bird: This name comes from Arabic for hunter bird (sacré terre), which morphed into secretary as a result of its long legs with black “crop pants” (feathers). Plus, it “types” (stamps) on prey like snakes and has “dangling participles” (back feathers).
Termite: These dead wood eaters build protective mounds up to 30 feet high with colonies of up to 3 million termites! They use saliva to create mud glue and make big holes in their mounds for ventilation. There are five chambers within a colony for: 1) the queen to produce eggs (12,000/day); 2) a king, which is the only one entitled to mate; 3) elites who will become queens and kings 4) soldiers who guard; and 5) workers who feed the other termites and only live 10 days (as opposed to a queen who lives an average of 13 years). A queen takes 4-5 lovers and the most productive one lives (the others are killed).
Warthog: It digs with its short tusks in dirt on its front knees to unearth roots for nourishment. It famously runs with its tail up so a predator can’t grab it and other warthogs can see it in high grass.
Wildebeest: About 260,000 wildebeests are born per year and roughly the same number dies, especially during bi-annual migrations across the Serengeti. Their mating season in June-July is called a rut. Males always have dark-colored foreheads, whereas those of females can be light.
Zebra: The stripes of this wild horse relative remain an evolutionary mystery. A prevailing theory is that they discourage insects from biting by messing up their vision. Zebras stand in reverse to each other to swat flies from their faces with their tails and to be on the lookout for predators. They often walk in a single file to make it easier to escape an ambush so they don’t hit against each other. (Elephants and buffalos do the same thing.) Zebras move their heads up and down to clear their sinuses. Their bellies tend to distend due to gas and they fart a lot when they run. A shaggy mane signals poor health. Zebras have volatile behavior, so they are not suitable for domestication.
Wildlife is fascinating. Let’s protect it …