About Rich Laburn
Rich Laburn is filmmaker, photographer and writer who is based at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. Spending his time capturing scenes of the wild and communicating the beauty of the African bushveld, he runs the Londolozi Blog as a way to entertain and engage people wishing to visit these wild lands.
Latest Posts by Rich Laburn
I’m no philosopher but I can deeply relate to Buber’s sentiment, they don’t call our eyes the windows to the soul for no reason. When editing in Lightroom, specifically wildlife photographs, I’m always immediately drawn to the eyes of which ever animal I’m looking at and my gut instinct is always to enhance them. Without doing another single thing to the photo this immediately gives it more of an impact.
The example that I’ll be looking at is this image of the Tamboti female; the light was quite dim and there is a bit of grain so it is an image that will demonstrate quite nicely the impact of simply enhancing the eyes.
In order to bring out the best in an eye there are a couple of fairly easy steps that you can take. Firstly, I always lift the shadows off. The structure of an animal’s face can often create shadows that dull the colour and the shine, especially if it is not looking into direct light.
The best way to lift shadows in a specific area, rather than doing it to the whole image, is to use the brush tool, which can be found in the top right of the Lightroom workspace:
By clicking on the brush tool and then adjusting the sliders, one can specify what effect you want to achieve in the areas you will apply the brush too…
Here I have lifted the shadows off the eyes and they are already a little more visible.
The next step I take is to apply a preset with the paintbrush tool called “iris enhance”. This is a combination of a slight increase in exposure to brighten the eye, and increase in clarity to enhance any details and a boost in saturation to bring out the colours.
If you compare this image to the previous you can see the eye is slightly lighter.
I then look at the reflection in the eye, lightening this will add a beautiful glossy sheen. In order to do this, I would dodge, which is a slight increase in exposure. The next thing to consider is the pupil and any dark markings around the eye that could potentially add detail. These I would darken slightly, again using my paintbrush tool on the specific areas, to add a little more definition. The photograph that I’ve used as an example has a bit of noise in it, the grainy effect you get from an image that is either taking in poor lighting conditions, or if the ISO is too high. When I zoom out it’s not as noticeable but I would still like to mediate the effect on the eye. To achieve this, I would again use the paintbrush tool and adjust the noise in the iris. This will smooth out any grain and enhance the glossy sheen of the eye.
You can see in this image that there is a nice smooth finish to the eye and very little noise.
A close up comparison of the before and after results.
Here you can see the effect that simply enhancing the eyes has had on this image. By throwing light into the eyes it lifts the entire face and creates a much more dramatic result, while still keeping the image looking natural.
The final edited result.
There are many ways of making an image ‘pop’, some of which we will be exploring over the next few months. Ideally the eyes need to be the point on which you focus when taking the picture, because if they’re not sharp, all the above advice will be rendered moot and the image won’t work.
The beauty of Lightroom is that you can play around, and if somethings not working its easy to revert back to the original photo.
Have a try at editing the eyes and I’m sure you’ll see a big change in the quality of the images you produce!
I find it fascinating that it had always been thought that there was only one species of Giraffe in Africa and then seemingly overnight we suddenly had four different species. This was huge news for Giraffe lovers across the world, thanks to science, because gaining new species of animals does not happen all that often (let alone an extra three in one go). I decided to do a little bit of research and see what this actually means and why are we only discovering this now.
On the 8th of September 2016, a study on the genetic differences in Giraffe across Africa was published in the journal Current Biology. It was co-authored by Axel Jancke, an evolutionary biologist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center in Germany, and Dr. Julian Fennessy of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation Previously, the single species of Giraffe was divided into nine different sub-species depending on their differing coat patterns and the regions they occurred in, but on closer DNA inspection and a look at their genetic markers the study suggested that there was actually enough genetic variation to separate them into four distinct species.
An example of differing coat patterns which was previously used to classify Giraffe into 9 different sub-species. Image above from www.animalcorner.co.uk
Technically, animals that fall into the same species but remain in different sub-species are able to reproduce with one another and produce offspring that will remain fertile, but they often don’t because of geographical separation. This is where the research gets interesting because prior to the study being published, different sub-species of Giraffe were thought to mix in different regions and sometimes breed but the study suggested that this was not actually the case and after taking DNA samples from a number of Giraffe in the different regions they were able to conclude that the last time the 4 new species of Giraffe shared a common ancestor was between 1,5 to 2 million years ago. This is regarded as enough time needed to classify them into different species altogether.
But why are we only discovering this now? According to Jancke, it is because the Giraffe has been completely overlooked and understudied over the years because they are not as endangered as some of the other animals in Africa such as the elephant or the rhino, and he backs this up by revealing that there have only ever been about 4oo scientific papers written on Giraffe, compared to the 20 000 papers written on White Rhino. He also believes they haven’t been researched a lot because people are more fascinated by the predators such as lion, leopard and cheetah.
Despite their size Giraffe have often been overlooked as study subjects in favour of their more endangered or exciting counterparts such as elephant and lion.
This research will provide vital information for giraffe conservation going forward. For a start, if giraffe conservationists were to try and repopulate certain areas where giraffe numbers were dwindling and started to relocate what they previousky thought were different sub-species into the region, they could unknowingly create a hybridized species that differed from the species they were trying to save. In addition, the offspring of the hybrid species may not be able to reproduce themselves because of their genetic differences.
As it stands, people don’t believe that Giraffe are in danger even though in the last 30 years Africa has lost a third of its giraffe population, largely due to habitat loss. Despite this the iconic giraffe is currently listed as “of least concern” on the Red List of Endangered Species because of the fact that it was previously classified as a single species. Hopefully, by reclassifying Giraffe into 4 new species it will force the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to have a relook at their endangered lists. In a statement from the IUCN they said:
“If the findings of the current study are accepted, then it may well be that some species would be listed in threatened categories on the IUCN red list.
This would hopefully flag the need for increased attention on a species that is otherwise normally considered common.”
The 4 new distinct species of Giraffe in Africa. Notice how the Northern Giraffe has 3 sub species and the Southern Giraffe has 2 sub species. Image from www.nrt-kenya.org
The four new species of giraffe in Africa are now the Northern, Southern, Reticulated and Masai Giraffe. There are still three different subspecies under the Northern Giraffe and two under the Southern Giraffe. Giraffe are often one of the more requested animals to see on safari just because they look so different to any other animal on earth, and tower above most things in their environment. Hopefully, with this new-found attention over the last few weeks, more people will be aware of just how much they need our hard work and conservation efforts in order to protect the now four different species of Giraffe in Africa.
There’s often a common misconception and lack of understanding the differentiation between – and identification of – the African and Asian elephants. I hope to dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding these similar, yet distinct animals by evaluating some of the unique aspects and easily identifiable dissimilarities between them.
Despite both the African and Asian elephants originating from the same taxonomic family,Elephantidae, they are unique due to their differing genera, Loxodanta africana and Elephas maximus respectively. Moving past the often complex scientific taxonomical classification, there exists a vast difference between their distribution and physical and physiological characteristics.
Two Asian elephant bulls size each other up in a battle for supremacy and the rights to females. Photograph by Avijja Fonseka
Two African elephants cover themselves in mud as a way of thermoregulation. The drying mud traps a layer of moisture between their skin and the mud and also protects them from the harsh African sun. Photograph by Callum Gowar
Outlining the geographic distribution of the African and Asian elephants make for a good point of trajectory in establishing where a particular animal might be found and thus eliminating any confusion. By looking at the modified map below, one is able to complete contrast in the distribution between these animals and thus resultant of the differing names.
A rough geographical distribution of the African elephant (green) and the Asian elephant (red).
Without looking at too many facts and figures, by examining the physical differences between the Asian and African elephants one will be able to better identify such animals in the future. African elephants are larger than an Asian elephant and can vary in weight between 4000kg to 7000kg and 3000kg to 6000kg respectively. African elephants are tallest at their shoulders and reach between 2.5m to 4m in height. This is in contrast to the Asian elephant where the tallest point exists at their head, with fully grown adults varying between 2m and 2,7m in height. Theears of the Asian and African elephants differ significantly with those of the African elephant being considerably bigger and shaped similar to the African continent whereas the Asian elephant has much smaller ears relative to its body size and more rounded in shape. An interesting point to note is that elephants use their ears as a form of thermoregulation due to the large concentration of blood capillaries behind their ears. This may be due to the differing climatic conditions experienced in Africa and Asia and thus the varying need to regulate their internal body temperature.
A size comparison between the African and Asian elephants. Photograph courtesy of www.knysnaelephantpark.co.za
Colouration differs between the two species with African elephants having a more consistent dark colouration in comparison to the more freckled appearance (due to patches of de-pigmentation) in the Asian elephant. Furthermore, African elephants have two ‘fingers’ at the end of their trunks compared to just one ‘finger’ of the Asian elephant. This may have lead to the African elephants being more efficient at manipulating vegetation and thus have evolved to be much larger. Although genetically variable between individuals of each species, the African elephant has larger tusks to that of the Asian elephant, in which only males exhibit tusks. A last easily identifiable physical difference occurs on top of the head with the African elephant having a single, rounded dome and the Asian elephant a twin dome.
The colour differentiation and smaller ears is evident in this Asian elephant. Photograph by Avijja Fonseka
An enormous African elephant bull with massive tusks strolls gracefully through a clearing. Photograph by Callum Gowar
Under closer examination, the more subtle differences will become more apparent with the African elephant having a more wrinkled skin and has 4 toenails on their forefeet and 3 on their hind feet, as opposed to the smoother skin and 5 toenails on their forefeet and 4 on their hind feet its Asian counterpart.
The toenails and single ‘finger’ are clearly visible in this close-up image of an Asian elephant. Photograph by Avijja Fonseka
I hope this was useful in helping to understand the differences between the African and Asian elephant.
Contributed by Callum Gowar
World Rhino Day is in September every year, September 22 to be exact. Initiated in 2010 by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) South Africa, World Rhino Day was meant to be away of drawing attention to the plight of South Africa’s rhinos as poaching levels began increasing exponentially, in this country as well as throughout the rest of Africa.
Although the numbers of poached rhinos continued to rise over the following years, particularly in South Africa itself, there is light at the end of the tunnel, in that 2015 saw the first decrease in the number of poached rhinos since the crisis first began in 2007. The number of animals lost was still unacceptably high, but given the number of deaths over the preceding few years, it did seem that things had turned in the right direction.
A white rhino bull marks his territory on one of his many middens. Photograph by James Tyrrell
A white rhino calf lunges for high ground to avoid being squashed by its mother in a wallow. Photograph by James Tyrrell
Currently, men and women all over Africa are risking their lives to protect the remaining black and white rhinoceroses, and indeed in the Kruger Park and surrounds, anti-poaching teams are on a 24hr vigil. Hear hear – we salute them!
Let’s face it — I have had a love and fascination for giraffes. I find them to be the most incredibly absurd and yet beautiful creatures to look at, whilst also giving off such a gentle and calming energy. I have found myself on countless occasions out in the bush with guests on their first game drive as they excitedly chat, talk over each other and shift around in the vehicle, scanning for animals. Often there are remnants of the mania and stress of the city and you can almost hear everyone’s minds ticking behind you. But find a herd of giraffes lazily feeding on a grassy crest, all eye lashes and long legs and the whole vehicle falls into silence and stillness. Firstly, I think because they are so crazy to look at, every other thought disappears as you attempt to wrap your head around how something so strange could exist but there is also just an undeniable serenity that they exude. Not only are these animals fun to look at though, they’re fun to learn about too.
NAME: The giraffe’s scientific name, Giraffa camelopardalis, comes from the ancient Greeks’ belief that it looked like a composite creature, a camel wearing a leopard’s coat.
HEIGHT: The giraffe is the tallest mammal in the world. Female giraffes stand at about 4, 5m while males are about 5-6m tall. A giraffe’s legs alone are taller than many humans—about 1, 8 meters/6 feet.
BIRTH: Giraffes have big babies that are born weighing about 100 kg. Even new-born babies are taller than most humans and stand at about 2 meters tall. Female giraffes give birth standing up and their young endure a rather rude welcome into the world by falling more than 5 feet (1, 5 meters) to the ground.
SLEEP: Giraffes only spend between 10 minutes and two hours asleep per day. They have one of the shortest sleep requirements of any mammal. Typically giraffes also rest standing up. Although they would probably prefer to sit down to rest, this places them in a rather vulnerable position because their powerful kick and ability to see a large area around them are their strongest defences against predators.
SPEED AND SELF-DEFENCE: Despite their size and fairly placid gait, giraffes can move incredibly fast. Because of the size of their gait (they can cover 4, 5m or 15 feet with each step), they cover a lot of distance without much effort. Even a leisurely walk gives it a speed of 16 kilometres/ 10 miles per hour. The fast and surprisingly graceful gallop of a giraffe can easily outpace a human, and even many horses. Its top recorded speed is a whopping 56 kilometres/35 miles per hour. Giraffes are well-versed in the art of self-defence, to the point where even lions only dare to attack them in large groups (and even that is fairly uncommon). Giraffe legs are incredibly powerful and each of them ends in a hard, sharp, 30-centimetre/12 inch hoof. A giraffe can kick in any direction and in a manner of ways, and its kick can not only kill a lion, but has even been known to decapitate it.Unsurprisingly, very few predators bother an adult giraffe.
MOUTHS: Even giraffes’ tongues are huge. They are up to 45 cm long and are specially adapted to allow giraffes to forage on incredibly thorny but highly palatable trees, such as Acacias. Their tongues and upper lip are also prehensile, which means that they work much like a hand or like an elephant’s trunk, dextrously wrapping around leaves and flowers. Their tongues are coloured bluish-black, which helps to protect them from sunburn because it spends so much of its day outside of its mouth feeding. They also produce incredibly sticky saliva so that should they eat a thorn, it slips down their oesophagus without doing any damage. The insides of the mouth, along with the lips and the tongue, are completely covered with hard, tough, finger-like papillae to protect it from thorns and nasty gashes.
HEARTS: Because of their unusual shape, giraffes have the difficulty of having to get blood to their heads, very far above the ground. One of the ways around this is to have an enormous heart, which weighs about 11 kilograms or 25 pounds and measures at 60cm or 2 feet. The result is also a blood pressure that is almost double that of humans. To accommodate for this the artery walls have extra elasticity and to prevent the blood from rushing too quickly back down the neck again, the jugular veins in the neck partially contract to restrict return flow.
BLOOD PRESSURE: Of course, this high blood pressure, combined with the effect of gravity on such a tall body, would also be a problem for the giraffe’s legs. The animal would bleed profusely from any cut, and there is a very real danger of blood pooling in the lower extremities. To combat this, the skin on the giraffe’s legs is extremely tough, and tightly fitted by way of a firm inner fascia to prevent blood pooling. This has been studied by NASA scientists developing the special ‘gravity-suits’ worn by astronauts to help maintain correct circulation while in space. Weightlessness has always posed a number of problems to the human body. One of the most significant issues is the weakening of leg veins. Since the blood flows differently in space, the circulatory system of the legs doesn’t have to put in so much work in order to pump the blood back up. The veins get lazy, thin, and weak, which can pose serious problems when returning to Earth.
Giraffes have provided a solution to this problem. Baby giraffes learn how to stand almost immediately upon birth, thanks to their rapidly inflating leg veins. When NASA observed this, they were able to create the Lower Body Negative Pressure Process. It’s a device that consists of an airtight tube that seals around the astronaut below the waist and applies vacuum pressure, thus rapidly expanding the leg veins and making blood rush into the legs and pelvic area. When this pressure is applied at regular intervals, the astronaut’s leg veins stay in shape. To prevent excess bleeding, the blood vessels in the giraffe’s legs also run deep (away from the skin’s surface), and those capillaries that do reach the surface are very narrow, with blood cells only one third the size of ours. Additionally, these smaller blood cells allow for faster absorption of oxygen, ensuring a good supply to the extremities of such a large animal.
DRINKING: One of the most vulnerable times for a giraffe is when it needs to drink and so they have developed the ability to gain most of their water content from the leaves that they eat. These animals however do have to drink every now and again, which with such a long neck can provide obstacles. When it lowers its head, all that high pressure blood would likely rush downhill (further assisted by gravity) and blow out the delicate blood vessels in the brain and eyes—if it weren’t for a series of clever mechanisms working in co-ordination with one another. When the head is lowered, special shunts in the arteries supplying the head restrict blood flow to the brain, diverting it into a web of small blood vessels (the rete mirabile or ‘marvellous net’). This network of vessels near the brain gently expands to accommodate the increased local blood pressure. Valves in the jugular veins also prevent returning blood from flowing backward while the head is lowered. All of this is controlled by a complex series of mechanisms that constantly monitor the pressure in the blood vessels and make whatever adjustments are needed to ensure that the proper pressure is maintained in all situations. This means that even if the giraffe lifts its head up quickly mid-drink, proper blood supply is maintained to the brain.
SPECIES: Scientists have for a long time held the belief that there was only one species of giraffe, split into about nine subspecies. New research, just released however suggests that four groups of giraffes have not cross-bred and exchanged genetic material for millions of years.
Those four species include:
- southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa),
- Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi),
- reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata)
- northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis), which includes the Nubian giraffe (G. c. camelopardalis) as a distinct but related subspecies.
This suggests that each species is adapted for a specific environment or diet – a question that is the subject researchers are now turning to.
Although giraffe numbers are not considered a problem by most conservation groups, they have declined by about 40% in the last 15 years, a recent BBC report stated recently. Now that we know that these animals cannot just be lumped into one species group, this may change how we view the vulnerability of their numbers and proves how much there is still to learn about this iconic species of the African bushveld.
Most of the wildlife that you find on an African safari and in general, in the bush, is designed for camouflage, something fairly necessary when being easily detected means you’re more likely to get eaten. Think about a leopard’s coat and its ability to melt into its surrounding, a chameleon and its incredible disguise or the tawny coat of a lion lying amongst the dry scrub. There’s one animal though that to us seems glaringly obvious in the bush, namely the zebra, and you may have wondered about the reasons these animals developed this coat at all. Well here’s why…
Firstly, lions, the predominant predator of zebras, do not have great colour vision. They have a higher density of rod cells in their eyes which help them to have better night vision than us, but as a result have a lower balance of cone cells, which predominantly aid in colour vision. The wavy black and white lines of a zebra therefore act as a sort of fatigue design, breaking up their outline and helping them to blend into the blowing grass or scrub around them that to a lion appears as a similar colour.
Added to this, there is a theory that the multiple mixtures of overlapping stripes of zebras as they stand together dazzles any potential predators. Imagine a zebra standing top to tail with other zebras, tails swishing, stripes overlapping, bodies crisscrossing. How exactly do you tell where one zebra starts and the other one ends and therefore how on earth do you plan your hunt? This may sound a little far fetched but there is one truly fantastic thing about zebras that you may never have noticed that does help to support this theory. This is the fact that the youngsters are born with legs the same length and therefore stomachs of the same height as the adults. The thinking that follows from this is that if a lion for example crouches down in the long grass and attempts to spot the weakest link by looking for the shorter body, it’s going to be a struggle. If the zebras stand or run together as a group, there is going to be a mess of stripes; how do you then tactically separate off and target one zebra if you can’t distinguish any of them as individuals?
This may get you thinking that zebras therefore all have identical stripe patterns but beautifully enough, this isn’t the case at all. Each zebra’s stripes not only differ from one zebra to another but even from one side of their body to the other. Some researchers believe that this is to help individuals to not only recognise each other in the group but it is also likely that the differences help to strengthen the group too. The broken and wavy lines act as a form of disruptive colouration, similar to the way in which the military use fatigue design in their uniforms. The more rigid and stringent the shape of something is in the bush, the more it stands out. Whereas the tumble of different length and shaped black and white lines, moving around and across each other can only add to the confusion, the dazzle.
Another completely different theory, which branches away from evading predators is that zebras have stripes for reasons of thermoregulation. The basic idea is that the black and white stripes heat up differently, causing an airflow between the two which produces a cooling effect. This is interesting to note as quite often you’ll find zebra grazing out in the open on hot summer days when other species are seeking shade. Some researchers even believe that the degree of striping on a zebra is closely linked to the typical temperatures of places where they are found. What they’ve noted is that thicker, bolder black and white striped zebras are more prevalent where “temperatures are consistently warm” and thinner, paler, incomplete stripes are found more commonly on species where temperatures tend to fluctuate and drop significantly during the winter months.
One of the things that is so fascinating about studying nature is that we can’t be sure about a lot of things and in this case we can only rely on healthy debate, theories and speculation. It’s interesting to explore the question but ultimately it doesn’t really matter why zebras have stripes; what matters is that it seems to work for them. Essentially for me, it reinforces the simple fact that a healthy mixture of differences in a group can be its greatest strength.
Contributed by Amy Attenborough
Hey bird watchers and lovers, South Africa needs to be on your bucket list if it isn’t already. This winter in South Africa (the northern part of the world’s summer), has been particularly dry with the drought and, although a lot of the fauna and flora battle with the lack of rain, the aloes seem to thrive. The landscaping around the camps, staff village and office areas consist of a great variety of indigenous aloes and in the harsh landscape of winter, they provide the most welcome relief from the stark background. Dripping with flowers in all vibrant shades of red, orange and golden yellow, they attract the attention of not only the staff and the guests but some very special and equally beautiful visitors; the sun birds.
I’ve spent many a lunch break, afternoon and even a sneaky half an hour here and there during office hours sitting quietly trying to capture these striking birds in action while they flit from flower to flower feeding on the nectar that the aloes provide in otherwise very bare surroundings. Sun birds need to feed consistently throughout the day in order to harness enough energy, so staking out a patch of aloes in the dead of winter can often be an incredibly fruitful experience. They will often feed in mixed-species foraging flocks so there is usually a colourful variety of birds milling in one area. The aloes also perform a second function for the sun birds by attracting a variety of insects, which make up a substantial part of some species’ diets. The Collared Sunbird, a popular visitor this time of year, is probably the most insectivorous of the sun birds that I have seen here. It will eat a variety of insects, including pupae, as well as small spiders and even snails.
Enjoy this collection of images:
Aloes in all shapes and sizes can be found throughout the different camps, they provide a beautiful structure to the landscaping as well as food for birds and insects during winter. One of the many beautiful Aloe marlothii will not only bring colour in winter but hopefully attract even more bird life.
A colourful male Collared Sunbird perches on the stem of a Aloe chabaudii flower, in between feeding off the nectar of the flowers and the small insects that they attract. f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO640, 400mm
Here you can clearly see the difference in the underparts of the female Collared Sunbird compared to her slightly more flamboyant male counterpart, in that she lacks the distinct bluish-purple breast band.
The female Scarlet-chested Sunbird isn’t as colourful as her male counterpart either but she has beautiful off-white and dark brown mottled underparts that make her easily identifiable. f/5.6, 1/8000s, ISO1600, 371mm
This female Collared Sunbird feeds on the nectar of the Aloe chabaudii flowers, a little more colourful than the female Scarlet-chested. f/5.6, 1/6400s, ISO1250, 400mm
A male White-bellied Sunbird eyes out the next Aloe arborescens flower that it is going to investigate for nectar; you can clearly see how much longer his bill is than that of the Collared Sunbird. f/5.6, 1/2500s, ISO4000, 400mm
The flowers of the Aloe marlothii attract a variety of small insects that not only feed off the aloes themselves, but provide another source of food for the Sunbirds. If you look carefully you can see one here.
A male Scarlet-chested perched on an aloe flower stem shortly after catching a small insect. They will also eat spiders by hovering and snatching them from their webs if given the chance. f/5.6, 1/5000s, ISO4000, 400mm
The velvety black body of the Scarlet-chested Sunbird really makes the glossy emerald green throat and bright scarlet breast that much more striking. Here you can clearly see the iridescent green throat on the male. f/5.6, 1/2500s, ISO4000, 400mm
Sticking its beak into the open end of the Aloe arborescens flower, the sunbird then extents its tongue further to reach the nectar. You will often see male Scarlet-chested sunbirds taking part in chasing both other Scarlet-chested sunbirds and those of a different species around at a nectar source, vocalising their perceived irritation at having to share. f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO400, 400mm
Here you can see the bill of this Collared Sunbird probing the still closed flower in search of nectar, it appears that he has pierced a hole near the base of the flowers in order to reach the nectar-rich area of the flower. This technique also provides an opening for the small insects that feed off the same flowers to access the food source before the flower has even opened.
The iridescent green throat and upper parts of the Collared Sunbird are clearly visible from this angle as he feeds from the Aloe chaubadii flower, sticking his bill through the base of the flower once again, despite the open end.
In southern Africa, the Sand River is a perennial river originating in the northern reaches of the Drakensberg mountain range in South Africa and it winds through the Sabi Sand Reserve before joining up with the Sabie and then the Incomati river, which flow towards the Indian Ocean. This river attracts a myriad of land dwelling animals for numerous reasons. The direct area surrounding the river is exquisite leopard territory. There is an abundance of dense riparian vegetation where these secretive predators can ambush prey animals. Elephants make their way past the lodges to quench their thirst and old buffalo bulls feast on the plentiful soft grazing available near the water’s edge.
Within the water as well, there is a rich profusion of species to be found, none more important than the fishes. Fish are an important source of food for crocodiles and various water birds and are also species by which one can measure the health of an ecosystem. Fish communities, and specific species, are excellent indicators of biological and ecological integrity due to their continuous exposure to water conditions. Fishes display an array of biotic responses to certain levels of toxicity in the water.
In modern time, pollution of rivers is a reality and two of the biggest contributors to the degradation, phosphorus and nitrogen, reach the rivers through, among other things, human waste. The abundance of phosphorus and nitrogen in the system causes algae to grow profusely. When the algae bloom becomes too much, it dies and decomposes, taking the oxygen out of the water. Various species of freshwater fish feed on algae and the pressure of this algae growth can be alleviated by these fish. This feeding behaviour will neutralise the growth of algae, creating equilibrium in the environment.
One of the most abundant species of this river are the Mozambique Tilapia, the sharp tooth catfish and the smallmouth yellowish. To explain the behaviour of these species I am going to use land animals as a comparison. The Mozambique Tilapia: These fishes are quite small and feed on a variety of different food sources. They will eat smaller fish and vegetation and can be compared to the side striped jackal. Always on the prowl looking for any opportunity to pounce.
Mozambique Tilapia. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
The Sharptooth catfish: This is the largest freshwater fish in South Africa and one of the apex predators (let’s not forget the crocodile) of the Sand River. These fish hunt other medium-sized fishes and will go as far as eating smaller mammals and water birds. Their slumbering movement patterns and explosive power means that they are not to unlike the lion.
Sharptooth Catfish. Image courtesy of fishthesea.co.za
The Smallmouth Yellowfish: Powerfully built, streamlined and always waiting for an opportunity, the smallmouth yellowfish is the leopard of the watery unknown. Yellowfish hide behind boulders and freshwater vegetation, waiting for the ideal moment to make their move and hunt down unsuspecting fishes.
Smallmouth Yellowfish. Image courtesy of feathersandfluoro.com
Although seldom seen, especially on a game drive, fish are vitally important to the health of the Sand River and consequently the entire ecosystem, regardless of whether they’re in this African river, a lake, an ocean or pond. The great network that is a natural ecosystem includes all facets of the environment. This foodweb includes all species, including the small fishes that feed on algae every day. As crazy as sounds, these fishes – as well as a multitude of other diminutive species – give us the opportunity to view the magical bigger species strolling to the Sand River in the blistering sun by keeping the fragile ecosystem in relative homeostatis. Next time you pass by or over a body of water, take a moment to appreciate some of the less glamorous species that make our planet so precious.
Contributed by Werner Breedt.