A Mother Capybara

A mother Capybara and her baby rest on the river bank in the Pantanal of Brazil.
An adult Capybara and a young sit along the river in the Pantanal of Brazil.

Our boat slid slowly around the slight bend. We were cruising up a tributary of the Rio São Lourenco in the Pantanal when I spotted the capybara dozing on the bank. It was early morning, and the sun was still low. A warm light covered her, and although her eyes seemed open, she appeared relaxed. I snapped my binoculars to mine and discovered that a sleeping baby was tight against her side. 

Capybaras are the largest rodent in the world and are common around wetlands in South America, from northern Argentina to Venezuela. I’d never seen one and was looking forward to watching them on this trip. Their common name is derived from several words and translates as “one who eats slender leaves.” Their scientific name comes from Greek and could be translated as “water pig,” although they have no relationship to pigs.

The female cocked her head slightly while the pup continued to doze. She looked remarkable sitting there, much like a giant guinea pig. Her long whiskers around her muzzle were probably highly sensitive. She could easily be a hundred pounds and a rodent at that. People laughed at me when I told them about my excitement to see this animal. “It’s a giant rat,” one person said. No, actually, not that closely related to a rat. Based on their feeding habits, they are more like a rodent version of a moose.

A capybara pub rests beside its mother on the river bank in the Pantanal of Brazil.
A Capybara pup sleeps beside its mother in the Pantanal of Brazil.

These semiaquatic mammals feed extensively in the water and graze in the savannas. On our first day out, we found several floating in a water hyacinth clump. They are good swimmers and regularly hang out in the water. Apparently, they are often social and live in groups with several adult males and even more adult females. Photographs showed a dozen to 20 along the wetland edges. But, so far, I’d not seen more than two adults at once.

Probably, this was a mother and child, but in this species, all the females in a group will help raise the young, and pups suckle from multiple females. It would be interesting to know if females in a group tend to be related: sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, mothers, grandmothers. These two looked tightly bonded. They reminded me of my daughter. She used to climb into my lap or her mother’s, and we would read to her. She lives in Australia now, an ocean away. We didn’t have relatives nearby when she was young and so never benefited from those family bonds to help raise her. She and her husband would have loved to be here with me.

Someone on our boat yelled, “Jaguar.” Only 30 yards away, a Jaguar had stuck its head out through the thick shrubbery and looked up the river. Neither Jaguar nor capybara had seen each other. According to Paulo, our Brazilian guide, jaguars in the Pantanal feed primarily on caimans, but a breakfast of capybara is not out of the question.

An instant later, the giant rodent gave a loud bark, and the mother and baby shot into the water. They swam around the bend, the female barking every few seconds, letting the world know a Jaguar was hunting.

A Jaguar sticks its head out of the vegetation along a river bank in the Pantanal of Brazil.
A Jaguar sticks its head out through the vegetation along a river in the Pantanal of Brazil.

Olemut – The Giraffe

The Giraffe stood tall, gazing into the distance. She projected a sense of grace, elegance beyond what I expected. Her 16 feet was impressive. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Giraffe stood tall, gazing across the savanna. She projected a sense of grace, elegance beyond what I expected, and her 16 feet was impressive. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The word “Olemut” came as a whisper from the front, like that uncontrolled response one has to the unexpected, so I whipped around instantly, for Robinson, our guide, had been spotting things all morning, and no doubt something lurked in the bush. He had brought us through the gates into Nairobi National Park four hours ago, and now my brain overflowed with new sightings, sounds, and smells of Africa. I held tight to the frame of the Landcruiser while I scanned the savanna as we inched along the dirt track.

There, a hundred yards away, was something that rose above the green bushes. With another shrub behind us, its head became visible, a giraffe. I’d seen giraffes in zoos, many a time. We used to take our preschool daughter to the Miami zoo for a Sunday stroll. She liked the animals and really liked the numerous playsets spread around the park. I’d get to spend an hour in the aviary, watching birds from distant continents. 

The Maasai giraffe chewed on leaves that it had just nibbled from the bush. The Maasai people call these mammals, Olemut. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Maasai people call these mammals, Olemut and this one chewed on leaves that it had just nibbled from the bush. Populations are still healthy in Kenya but roads and fences are limiting their ability to move through the savannas. (Thomas Bancroft)

This giraffe, though, had no caretaker, no one bringing it food twice a day, checking that it had water, my first wild one. My hands gripped the open roof, and I held my breath. Would it run or let us get closer? A Maasai Giraffe, one of four kinds found across Africa. These roam the savannas in southern Kenya and Tanzania.

The Reticulated Giraffe lives in Northern Kenya, and I might have a chance to see it when we visit Ol Pejeta Conservancy in a week. The Southern Giraffe is the most populace of the four and the Northern the least, with only 5,600 individuals still alive. Giraffes are threatened because of habitat loss and the fragmentation of their home ranges. To survive the weather patterns of East Africa, they must migrate to find food and water. Their ability to move has become more complicated with increased human populations, road networks, and fences.

The car bumped around a corner and stopped. There, she stood, magnificent, at least 16 feet tall, all grace and elegance. Perhaps, I could walk between her legs with hardly a duck. She towered over us and paid us no heed. Extremely long black hairs hung from her four-foot tail, and the pattern of brown and white created an intricate jigsaw puzzle across her body.

“A Red-billed Oxpecker is on her back,” I blurted. It sat just behind the giraffe’s mane, its red-eye, yellow eye-ring, and red-bill, made it look clown-like. I’d read about these birds but never seen one. The mutualistic relationship between mammal and bird is a classic example of co-evolution. Here it was, just there in front of my eyes. Oxpeckers carefully groom the fir of their host, picking ticks, mites, and parasites from the hide. Mammals will even let them work around their eyes and mouths. I hadn’t expected this bonus, a partnership to envy. 

The pattern of dark and light on a giraffe is as unique as a human finger print. It allows giraffies to be individually identified. (Thomas Bancroft)

The pattern of dark and light on a giraffe is as unique as a human fingerprint and allows giraffes to be individually identified by researchers in Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

As the giraffe turned around, I focused my binoculars on her coat. The patterns are unique to each individual, and I thought a black and white photograph might emphasize the intricacies of her design. She began to mosey toward some acacia. This species tongue is massive and resistant to thorns, and they can wrap it around twigs pulling the leaves out from among the spikes. Her long neck leaned over, carrying that enormous head with ease, and she began to nibble. As she moved, wrinkles started to form in her skin. Her neck must be half her height, and yet it has the same number of vertebrae as mine, seven.

Perhaps, right then, her 18-inch purple tongue was successfully grabbing some leaves, and I wished that we could be closer, so maybe I could have seen that feat. Some people say that giraffes galumph, but this animal appeared agile and beautiful. These mammals are capable of covering long distances on those legs, galloping endlessly to reach their destination. Here was something I had only dreamed that I might see, and she was exquisite.  Stunning might be the best word. 

Robinson let us linger, just watching her grace.

A girraffe has the same number of vertebrae in its neck as any other mammal. The seven vertebrae are longer than for most mammals and provide almost half the overall height of a giraffel. (Thomas Bancroft)

A giraffe has the same number of vertebrae in its neck as any other mammals, but the seven vertebrae are longer than for most mammals and provide almost half the overall height of a giraffe. This giraffe allowed us to watch it for a long time as we toured through Nairobi National Park in Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Vanishing into the Dark

The female Bushbuck peaked through the bushes, her face parially covered by leaves. Her ears were pricked forward to see if there was danger in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

The female Bushbuck peaked through the bushes, her face partially covered by leaves. Her ears were pricked forward to see if there was danger in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

A hint of tan appeared between some leaves, and I trained my binoculars on the spot. There, peaking through, was the small head of an antelope. A dark black line ran up her face, running from her shiny nose to between two extra-large black eyes. The rest of her head was a light tan. Her two large ears pointed forward, directly at me, and her eyes seemed transfixed. This female Bushbuck was mostly hidden by the thick green vegetation. A little pink on her lips showed in the middle of her delicate white muzzle.  She was gorgeous and reminded me of a ballerina in suspended animation. I froze, hoping she might relax. 

Bushbucks are solitary, living in the thick brush where they selectively browse on leaves and twigs. She might well have a fawn tucked back in a secret spot. She will keep it hidden there for months before she allows it to accompany her on her daily rounds. In these cases, the mother regularly visits the fawn, allowing it to nurse and eating the fawn’s feces, so no scent is left. Leopards are probably her primary nemesis.  

The Bushbuck worked along the edge of a woodland in Nairobi National Park. She nibbled on leaves and grasses as she walked. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Bushbuck worked along the edge of the woodland in Nairobi National Park. She nibbled on leaves and grasses as she walked. These antelopes are solitary. (Thomas Bancroft)

After a few minutes, she seemed to ease, putting her head down to nibble on a leaf. Turning slowly, the antelope began to mosey to our left, gently revealing more of her exquisite body. Two white lines dotted her light brown cheek and a dark brown band wrapped around the base of her neck. A dozen or so white spots graced her tan flanks. With each movement of those legs, I sensed the power as well as the finesse they possessed. She, no doubt, could move like a ballerina, turning instantly on one hoof, dancing around shrubs, flying over obstacles, and vanishing into the dark of the woodlands.

Her right ear had a small tear; the left was perfect. Before preparing for this trip, I hadn’t known about this species. It is not one of the typical African antelopes, the impalas and gazelles, that movies show. The ones chased by the swift cheetah or that run with the herds of wildebeests and zebras. This one is retiring, wary, and hides back in wooded areas where it is often difficult to see. When she appeared, we’d just entered the woodland at the northern end of Nairobi National Park. I felt fortunate right then; I’d hoped we might find one but hadn’t had high expectations. 

The Bushbuck raised her head from feeding to look at where I stood in Nairobi National Park. Her long tongue came out to lick her lips. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Bushbuck raised her head from feeding to look at where I stood in Nairobi National Park. Her long tongue came out to lick her lips. This antelope held her body with grace. (Thomas Bancroft)

She turned her head toward me. Her long tongue wrapped out of her mouth and to the top of her nose. The heads of grass seeds swinging across her sides looked like delicate lace on a woman’s chest. I wondered what she’d look like if she ran and remembered watching white-tailed deer, their graceful leaps were astonishing as they dashed away from me on our farm in Pennsylvania. They’d hold their whitetail up as a flag for others to follow as they seemed to glide over hurdles. Their movements fluid, almost effortless.

The Bushbuck sauntered back into the darkness, fading away. Might she be going to check on her fawn? I stared for several more minutes, wondering if this had been real. 

Bushbucks are solitary and like woodland areas in Nairobi National Park and elsewhere in Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Bushbucks are a solitary antelope. They like woodland areas in Nairobi National Park and elsewhere in Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

More photographs from Nairobi National Park are available here


My First African Antelope

 (Thomas Bancroft)

The antelope appeared in the savanna just out from the dirt track. It was walking slowly to our right and didn’t seem to pay any attention to us staring at it. The Coke’s Hartebeest was tall, three-feet at its shoulders and walked in a confident manner. (Thomas Bancroft)

The sun was up but not showing through the clouds. The savanna in Nairobi National Park had taken on a soft green look, almost pastel in texture. It was 6:50 AM as we cruised slowly along a dirt track. Robinson, our guide, had raised the roof of his Landcruiser so we could stand and look in all directions. My hands gripped the sides while my binoculars and camera swung from my neck. With each bump, the car rocked to one side or the other, banging us back and forth. Then suddenly, something caught my eye, just a little way out in the grass stood an antelope. 

“Stop! Please! What’s that?” I yelled.

His breaking caused me to fall forward, but my grip held. “Hartebeest,” Robinson said.

 (Thomas Bancroft)

The Swahili name for this antelope is Kongoni. (Thomas Bancroft)

My binoculars came to my eyes, and my body pressed hard against the car’s side. This was my first sighting of an antelope in Africa. I’d expected it to be a gazelle or impala, but this was perfect. The Coke’s Hartebeest stood three-feet tall at the shoulders, bigger than either of those. The antelope held its head even higher. Two blackish horns rose between the ears, twisting out and forward before going backward. They weren’t long, less than a foot, but looked solid, thick at the base. The horns grew from a boney extension rising between the ears.

Their name is thought to have originated from an Afrikaans word that meant “deer beast.” Robinson added, “The Swahili name is Kongoni and generally just refers to this variety.” That name had popped up many times in Elspeth Huxley’s book on her childhood in Kenya. Taxonomists have described eight subspecies, and this one, Alcelaphus buselaphus cokiioccurs in Kenya and northern Tanzania. The shape of the horns varies between those taxa. This species had been prized for their meat by European settlers.

In recent decades, Coke’s Hartebeest numbers have fallen dramatically, and now about 40,000 survive in Kenya and Tanzania, mostly in protected areas. They are diurnal and feed on grasses and herbaceous vegetation. Usually, they occur in small herds, so I was surprised to see this one by itself.

 (Thomas Bancroft)

Their horns grow out of a boney knob on the top of their heads. Their muzzle is long and thin and their eyes protrude out from their heads. They have excellent eyesight and generally, one in a herd is always on the lookout for predators. (Thomas Bancroft)

The antelope started to walk toward us. Its face was long, coming down to a narrow muzzle. The coat a cinnamon brown, with light upper legs and dark lower ones, almost like it wore knee socks. The hartebeest strolled on long, thin legs that would be excellent for running. I looked back in the direction we’d come; not twenty minutes ago, we’d seen two very thin male lions in the middle of the road. They hunt these antelope, but this one was alert. Its ears went back and forth, attuned to any sound. Its eyes were big and prominent on the sides of its head. Every direction would be visible simultaneously. These mammals are probably very good at avoiding predation, and those horns would be a formidable weapon.

After halving the distance toward us, it turned and started to trout through the grass, disappearing in a second, and I wondered if it had spotted some of its comrades.  

 (Thomas Bancroft)

The Kongoni started to trot through the grass. It appeared intent on finding something. I wondered if it wanted to link back up with its group. (Thomas Bancroft)