In a game viewer, you can usually find a fierce competition between spotters: who is going to see the first animal? and if the lion is so far that all the others can’t even see it or if you can spot a horn through thick sickle bushes, it’s even better. You can also include your guests in tracking the animals, following the spoors, the mud left on the trees or grass… take the time to go through all the tracks and signs. Occasionally you have birders able to focus on bird calls, but usually, sounds are either ignored or unknown. As a guide, I have to confess that it is always a little guilty pleasure to see first-timers being startled by the roar of an impala! But if some calls are rather well identified – the roaring of a lion (even if more people have seen the Metro Goldwyn Mayer lion and are actually surprised when facing a real roaring lion!) or the plaintive “whoop” of a hyena – it is certainly more difficult to concentrate on sounds in a moving open vehicle and the sense of sight takes priority over the other senses to find animals. However it is always rewarding to use your other senses and you always feel very proud of yourself the first time you can actually hear or smell an animal to find it. But let’s focus on sounds here.
When a lion roars, it is loud. It can be as loud as 114 dB (very loud), and it is estimated that a human being can hear a lion roaring up to 8km away. Which makes it an easy sound to hear and identify in the bush! And you can use it to find the lion. I remember one morning as we were starting our drive from the Villa, we immediately heard a roar in the distance. We followed the sound, stopping from time to time and listening to stay on course, and we eventually ended on our fence line, where our 2 male lions were also listening to the roar we were following, coming from the neighbouring reserve! So we followed a sound coming from a minimum of 3km away to find some lions, not bad.
But what happens when the lions do not roar? Another time we were driving in a section of the reserve called “600ha”; a beautiful section with rocky roads, tall grass in open Knob-thorn woodland, crossed by a drainage line… Beautiful, but a nightmare for tracking, especially in winter and everything is dry. So we were driving there, a pride of lions had been reported in the area the previous day, but we couldn’t see a single spoor on the rocky ground. We were circling the area for a while and I could see my tracker looking a bit desperate when we both heard a specific sound and stopped to listen more carefully. That sound was a kudu barking. And that sound, as a guide or a tracker, you don’t ignore it. So we looked at each other and we knew: we’ve got nothing, no spoors, no clear pathway through the grass, no claw marks on a tree, absolutely no way to follow those lions, but if they are still here, they are where the kudu is barking. Once again we went as quietly as possible, stopping and listening, only following the broken auditive trail. It took us on smaller and rockier roads, and even off-road, but eventually we got them: 2 females and their 5 cubs on a fresh zebra kill, and from a safe distance, a small group of kudus, with a big female still very alert. Because we didn’t give up and trusted our ears, we could find what we were looking for and offer our guests a very exclusive sighting. So don’t forget to track also with your ears, it is definitely worth it!
As we left the lions we made a small detour by the kudus before going back on the main road, just to say thanks Mrs Kudu! Without her, we would have been driving around those lions all morning!
Story by Vincent Hindson