Category Archives: South African Wildlife

The inhabitants of South Africa’s wild places

Monkey Oranges

Genus Strychnos

The genus Strychnos has about 9 representatives in South Africa, of which we are featuring two large-fruited species in this post. While the fruit pulp is edible and even delicious in certain species, if you are not certain with which species you are dealing the seeds should never be chewed or swallowed as many are extremely poisonous; the poisons strychnine and curare come from plants in this genus.

Both the Black and Green Monkey Oranges are small, deciduous trees with many branches and irregular growth forms. The fruit are huge (up to 12cm in diameter) and take very long to ripen, with a thick husk protecting the fleshy pulp and densely-packed seeds.

Monkey Orange leaves are browsed by a wide variety of animals, and the fruit is eaten by baboons, monkeys, large antelope and bushpigs. Humans eat the pulp of the fruit (it is often dried and powdered for preservation). The wood of the Green Monkey Orange lends itself to carving, as does the husks of the fruit of both species, which is often sold as ornaments in curio stalls. The roots of the Black Monkey Orange are ground and taken as a tea to induce vomiting. The root, bark and unripe fruit of the Green Monkey Orange is used in traditional medicine to treat venomous snake bites; it is thought that the strychnine or similar alkaloid it contains might counteract the effects of the snake venom. The seeds of the Green Monkey Orange should therefore definitely not be eaten, though the fruit pulp surrounding the seeds is apparently delicious.

While both species are well known from the savanna and forest regions of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Kwazulu-Natal, only the Green Monkey Orange’s distribution extends into the Eastern Cape and as far as the Garden Route.

Black Monkey Orange – Strychnos madagascariensis

Green (Natal) Monkey Orange – Strychnos spinosa

Sulphur Orange Tip Butterfly

Colotis auxo

The Sulphur Orange Tip is a smallish butterfly with a wingspan of only about 4cm. It inhabits savanna habitats and adults may be seen year-round, being must numerous in late summer and autumn. Larvae feed on the leaves of the wormbushes (genus Cadaba). They are restless and fast fliers, usually staying close to the ground.

In South Africa the Sulphur Orange Tip is found along the coast and adjacent interior of the Eastern Cape, through most of Kwazulu-Natal, the Lowveld of Mpumalanga and throughout the Limpopo Province.

Autumn Adventure – uMkhuze’s Giant Carrion Flowers

Now this is a plant that really grabs your attention when visiting the uMkhuze Game Reserve in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, especially if you have a chance to walk the grounds of the Mantuma Rest Camp where we stayed for 4 nights in March this year.

Stapelia gigantea

The Giant Carrion Flower is notable not only for the smell of its flowers, which really does smell like rotting meat (especially on a hot afternoon!), but also because it boasts the biggest flowers – up to 40cm across! – of any South African plant. These flowers can be borne at any time of year, though mainly in late summer and early autumn. Their succulent, green stems are small by comparison, growing around 25cm tall only. Probably not surprising, the flowers are pollinated by flies, and so convincing is the smell that flies often lie their eggs on the flower! The seedpod that develops from pollinated flowers carries lots of plumed seeds that are dispersed by the wind, but they can also be propagated vegetatively as the stems will easily re-root. Giant Carrion Flowers grow best in dry, hot areas and rocky outcrops.

Giant Carrion Flowers occur naturally in all the countries of Southern Africa (Angola, Zambia and Malawi southwards) and in all South Africa’s provinces. It is considered to be of least concern, but some wild populations are declining due to extensive collection for ornamental and medicinal use. In traditional medicine these plants are used to treat pain, constipation and bruising, and also as a magic charm against evil and lightning. They are popular and easy to keep in the garden or in pots, especially as it requires very little water.

Giant Carrion flowers in Mantuma Camp

Malachite Kingfisher

Corythornis cristatus

The beautiful Malachite Kingfisher is, true to its name, mainly a piscivore though it’ll also feed on frogs, tadpoles and aquatic insects. They hunt from preferred perches, diving into the water to snatch their prey. Its diet dictates that this species is always found near water, ranging from tiny streams and sewage ponds to large rivers, dams and estuaries, provided there is sufficient growth of plants in and along the water providing perches. They are usually seen alone or in pairs.

Nesting in burrows they dig themselves in the earthen banks of rivers and streams, monogamous pairs of Malachite Kingfishers may breed throughout the year but usually coinciding with the rainy season. Clutches of 3-6 eggs are incubated for 2 weeks by both parents, with the chicks fledging when they’re between 3 and 4 weeks old. They start fishing for themselves about a week after leaving the nest and become fully independent from the age of about 7 weeks.

Malachite Kingfishers are found almost all over sub-Saharan Africa, being absent only from the driest pockets, and is considered to be of least concern by the IUCN. In South Africa they’re found in every province, though restricted to the course of the Orange River in the Northern Cape.

Albany Sandveld Lizard

Nucras taeniolata

The Albany Sandveld Lizard, also known as the Striped Sandveld Lizard, is a lizard species endemic to South Africa – in fact, it is found only in a corner of our Eastern Cape Province that includes the Addo Elephant National Park, a few nearby conservation areas, and the agricultural and urban land in between. The IUCN considers it to be of least concern.

Excluding the exceptionally long tail, this attractive lizard measures 7cm at most in length. It is secretive in nature and inhabits various thicket vegetation types. They feed on insects and seem especially fond of termites.

We were visited by this friendly fellow while having a picnic in the Addo Elephant National Park.

World Wildlife Day 2022

In celebration of World Wildlife Day we take a look back at the 86 species of South African wildlife we featured in detail here at de Wets Wild during the past year.

Satara Summer 2021 – African Cuckoos

Another bird that we encountered much more frequently during our December 2021 visit to the Kruger National Park than on any previous visit is the African Cuckoo. Perhaps their exceptional numbers this time around is thanks to an explosion of caterpillars following good early rains.

Cuculus gularis

The African Cuckoo inhabits savanna and woodland habitats and feeds almost exclusively on caterpillars; only rarely does it include anything else, like other insects, eggs or small birds, in its diet. They are usually solitary.

As with the other members of the family the African Cuckoo is a brood parasite, relying specifically on the fork-tailed drongo to raise its brood. After mating the male African Cuckoo will distract the fork-tailed drongo parents from their nest while the female Cuckoo gets rid of any drongo eggs already in the nest and replaces them with one of her own. The Cuckoo egg hatches about 17 days later and the newly hatched chick immediately sets about pushing any other chicks or eggs from the nest. It is then cared for by its adoptive drongo-parents, growing rapidly until it fledges about three weeks after hatching. Even after the chick leaves the nest it is still cared for by the drongos for several weeks. Fully grown they measure about 32cm in length and weigh around 105g, so by the time they leave their foster parents the chicks are much bigger than them.

African Cuckoos spend the spring and summer months from August to April in southern Africa, migrating here from equatorial Africa to breed. In South Africa during that period they can be found in all the northerly provinces, being absent only from the Eastern and Western Capes and most of the Northern Cape and Free State. They’re found across most of Sub-Saharan Africa for at least a part of the year. According to the IUCN the African Cuckoo is of least concern.

African Cuckoo

Black-crowned Night Herons

The Black-crowned Night Heron isn’t necessarily a rare bird, but because it is so shy and retiring, and nocturnal, is not seen very often and not very obliging for photographs. During our December 2021 visit to the Kruger National Park, we found a juvenile where the S41-road crosses the Nwanetsi stream. In the early morning it was often quite willing to sit in the open for a photo or two, and one one occasion we even got to see one of its parents flying back home on an overcast morning.

Nycticorax nycticorax

The Black-crowned Night Heron is a nocturnal bird whose habitat requirements are closely linked to slow-moving water with lush growth of emergent vegetation. As these habitats are often fleeting in this part of the world many of our local populations are nomadic in response to rainfall patterns through the region. Their prey ranges from insects and other invertebrates to fish and amphibians and even small reptiles, birds and mammals. As their name suggests these herons are active from dusk to dawn, hiding in dense vegetation by day.

Black-crowned Night Herons often breed colonially, with others of their kind or even other species of water birds. Adults form monogamous pairs with both partners participating in the nest building, incubating the clutch of 2-8 eggs (that take between 3 and 4 weeks to hatch) and rearing the chicks, who fledge at around 7 weeks of age. Breeding can take place at any time of year but reaches a peak in our wetter summer months. Fully grown they measure around 56cm in length and weigh approximately 630g.

Occurring widely but sparsely all over South Africa where there is suitable habitat, the Black-crowned Night Heron’s distribution stretches far beyond our borders to every other continent except Antarctica and Australia. The IUCN considers it to be of least concern.

During a visit to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in March 2020 we found a slightly older Black-crowned Night Heron and its parents near Cape Vidal.

Black-crowned Night Herons

Satara Summer 2021 – Southern Carmine Bee-eaters

The Southern Carmine Bee-eater is a regular summer visitor to South Africa, so they are not entirely unfamiliar to us. We have however not seen them in such numbers before as we have during our December 2021 visit to the Kruger National Park.

Merops nubicoides

The beautiful Southern Carmine Bee-eater is a bird that lives in open woodland and savannah habitats, often found near open water, and that feeds exclusively on insects, most of which they catch in flight and usually much bigger than the fare enjoyed by most other bee-eaters. They’re often seen hunting near to large mammals and ground birds – often using them as a perch – catching the insects these bigger animals disturb into flying. They’re attracted to veld fires for similar reasons.

Southern Carmine Bee-eaters breed in huge colonies numbering up to a thousand pairs, where each monogamous pair excavates a nest-tunnel up to 3.5m deep into earthen banks, usually along rivers and gullies. The clutch of 1-6 eggs take 2 weeks to hatch and the chicks then leave the nest when they’re around 3 weeks old. When not breeding they are less gregarious and more dispersed. Southern Carmine Bee-eaters are the largest of the family occurring in Africa, measuring around 25cm in length (excluding the elongated tail feathers) with a weight of about 62g.

In South Africa, Southern Carmine Bee-eaters are found mainly in the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, and marginally into Gauteng and North West, with most birds arriving locally by December and departing again by March. Interestingly the majority of birds arrive to breed in our northern neighbours Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Okavango region of Botswana from August to November, with the chicks already fledged by the time they then move further southwards to other parts of Botswana and South Africa’s northern provinces. At the onset of our autumn season they then return northwards to countries as far afield as the DRC and Tanzania. Only in a very narrow band crossing parts of Angola, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique are they resident throughout the year. The IUCN lists the Southern Carmine Bee-eater as being of least concern.

Satara Summer 2021 – Greater Painted-Snipes

The Greater Painted-Snipe is not a bird that we get to see very often, much less photograph, so we were thrilled to have several wonderful sightings of this elusive bird along the S90 and S89 roads between Satara and Olifants when we visited the Kruger National Park in December 2021.

Rostratula benghalensis

Among Greater Painted-Snipes it is the female which is the dominant sex. She is bigger, boasts the bolder plumage and leaves the incubation of the eggs and rearing of the chicks entirely to the male. Shy birds that inhabit flooded grasslands, marshes and other muddy wetlands where they skulk among the reeds and other emergent vegetation, the Greater Painted-Snipe searches for the insects and other invertebrates that forms the bulk of its diet by probing in the mud with its elongated bill. They are usually seen singly or in pairs, with family groups encountered during and shortly after the breeding season.

Female Greater Painted-Snipes mate with 2-4 males in a breeding season, which spans the period September to March in our part of the world, leaving the males to incubate the clutch of 2-5 eggs over a period of almost 3 weeks. The chicks leave the nest before they’re a day old, moving around with their father who feeds them for the first ten days of their life. The chicks can fly when they’re a month old but remain with their father for another month or two before becoming fully independent. Fully grown Greater Painted-Snipes measure around 25cm in length and weigh approximately 120g.

Greater Painted-Snipes are very sparsely distributed over South Africa, with the Kruger National Park seemingly the most reliable place to find this species in our country and especially so during periods of above-average rainfall. Beyond our borders they’re found over most of Sub-Saharan Africa, in Madagascar, the Nile Delta, and in Asia from the Indian subcontinent to Japan and while the IUCN considers it to be of least concern overall, in South Africa it is listed as Near-Threatened due to the loss of suitable habitat.