Hyena Den at Vumbura Plains

Two large inquisitive eyes stared up at me like big black buttons fixed to a rather scruffy but adorable face. It’s been a while since I’ve been this close to a hyena cub, I thought. I’d forgotten just how delightful it is in their presence! We (photographer Em Gatland and I) were in the Okavango Delta, on a game drive with Luke, our ranger from Wilderness Safari’s Vumbura Plains Camp.

The spotted hyena cub had bits of grass and leaves stuck to its fur and there was a tuft of gingery hair between its mickey-mouse ears. Something about it melted me instantly! Hey little one, can I cuddle you? … but it’s MUCH more likely it would prefer a game of rough-and-tumble (or biting off my toes, if they were in reach! ) Instead, the cub investigated our tyres. It wasn’t long before a whole gang of curious scruff-lings came to join their sibling –  padding and bounding towards us while sniffing the air with wide-eyed curiosity. When they lost interest in this (the cubs didn’t seem to have very long attention spans!) they began rolling, nipping and chewing on each other – no doubt testing their strength and honing in on their predatory instincts. One day these little fellows would be hunters in their own right and we were watching them on their first training ground. This kind of rough play is also a way of bonding with each other – cohesion in a clan is important for survival and hyenas are highly social animals.


The youngest litter of cubs at the den were about 5/6 months old. © Em Gatland


Luckily my toes were out of reach! © Bush-bound Girl


Insatiable curiosity © Em Gatland


Did you know? Hyena young are referred to as “cubs” rather than “pups” because they are more closely related to cats than dogs.       © Em Gatland

We witnessed another remarkable bonding ritual when a female adult appeared, probably returning from a kill. The jubilant youngsters bounded up to her and instantly began sniffing her genitals. “This is the normal way for hyenas to greet and recognise one another within a family group.” Luke explained, “Letting each other close to this vulnerable part of their bodies is a sign of trust.”

A female spotted hyenas’ genitals are very unusual because they are elongated and look just like a male’s. With this elastic pseudopenis they urinate, mate, and give birth. I recently read a research article about Kay Holekamp, a zoologist who has studied hyenas in Kenya’s Masai Mara for over 15 years, and she believes that there is a link between female hyena dominance in the species’ social structure and the female’s oddly male biological structure, “the most obvious advantage of these bizarre structures is power over reproduction. For a male, mating is impossible without full female cooperation. And if a female changes her mind about a male after mating, the elongated reproductive tract lets her flush out the sperm by urinating.”

In the hyena world, the women are in charge! Every hyena clan is ruled by an alpha female and this hierarchy is passed on to her daughters. If she has more than one female cub at a time, the girls will engage in fierce sibling rivalry until the weaker cub submits to her stronger sister. Because hyenas can reproduce all year around, there will often be a few different aged litters at the same time, born from sisters, although the dominant female with reproduce most often.

For a male hyena, clan life is a bit more challenging, “Adult males rank last. They must swallow abuse even from the most obnoxious juveniles or risk violent punishment from female coalitions. At a communal carcass, adult males eat last—if there’s anything left. When a male kills dinner on his own, he must gorge quickly before female clan members shove him aside.” says Holecamp.

I find the dynamics of spotted hyena social life incredibly interesting, they are such highly intelligent animals!


© Em Gatland


© Em Gatland

Kay Holecamp also says that she is continually amazed by what great mothers hyenas are. “Once you’ve seen a female delicately carrying babies in those great bone-crushing jaws, you realize what wonderful mothers they are.” (Hyenas really DO have incredibly powerful teeth and jaws. A hungry pack can reduce a 450-kilogram zebra to a pile of hooves in less than 25 minute!).

Although the cubs were too old to need carrying, they absolutely LOVED snuggling against their mother while suckling and she was incredibly patient and loving.


© Em Gatland


Powerful jaws © Em Gatland


© Em Gatland


“Hyenas are forever doing things that are unexpected and difficult to explain, each time you think you’ve got one thing figured out, they throw you a curveball,” (Kay Holecamp, zoologist) © Em Gatland

It was another phenomenal game drive at Vumbura Plains, experiencing unmatched intimacy with the wild African bush. Thank you Wilderness Safaris and

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Interview with Will Burrard-Lucas – An inventive photographer with a heart for Africa

“I always aim to be inventive” says professional photographer Will Burrard-Lucas.  This seems almost an understatement! Will’s photos must be some of the most innovative that I have ever come across! On a quest to find a new perspective to capture the wild animals he loves, Will developed remote control buggies or BeetleCams –  contraptions allowing his camera to get up really close to his subjects. He then founded Camtraptions and developed  a whole range of inventive gadgets including flying Copters.

Although Will is from the UK, his love of Africa is rooted in early childhood memories…

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One night in the Kalahari

I recently stayed at beautiful remote Haina Kalahari Lodge in Botswana, thanks to Sun Destinations. One of the novel experiences offered by the lodge is an overnight adventure to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which has to be one of the most unique biodiversities in Southern Africa. For me, this was an absolute highlight!

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Birding jargon explained!

Recently, I was doing a bit of birding with Birding Ecotours guide John Kinghorn. As we wandered along a path in a lovely birding area, I listened intently for any little chatters and chirps around us. It was so peaceful, so beautiful …. and then “PPPPIIIISSSSSSSSHHHHHHH!!!” 

What the heck was that?! The sound was so loud and sudden that I almost jumped out of my pants.

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Okavango River Monsters and other secrets of the Hambukushu people

The sun is just beginning to set as you poll your mokoro along the panhandle of the Okavango. It’s been a successful but long day of fishing, and tonight there’ll be tilapia for dinner, enough for the whole family!  Suddenly, your mokoro [traditional dugout] won’t move. Nomatter how hard you pull, it remains stuck. You notice dust and ripples spreading over the water and then you realise – with horror –  that there is a Dikongoro under you; a huge snake-like monster. Although you’ve never seen it before, you’ve heard about it plenty of times. Your mokoro begins to spin and then the front of it starts to rise up out of the water for the Dikongoro to swallow. Fortunately – and just in time – you remember what to do. Scrambling for your wrist your heart sinks as you realise that you are not wearing a watch today. So you take out your fishing knife and cut through some skin on your wrist, holding your arm out so that blood drips into the water. Dikongoro lowers your mokoro again, what a relief! As he releases you there is no need to paddle as he pushes you with an almightily lurch across the water and up the bank…

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Lost mekoros, bucket showers and the art of polling

As we set out for our walk that morning, something strange happened – a helicopter flew over us. This little reminder of the outside modern world seemed so outrageously out-of-place, which made me realise what a dream-fantasy I had been living in for the last two days. We were tourists on a two-day mobile safari in the Okavango Delta, but really we were Livingstone’s lost offspring on an intrepid expedition through uncharted Botswana wilderness. You can’t blame me for getting the two mixed up. If you were there, I bet you’d have done so too…

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Brave baby honey badger at Camp Linyanti

We were staying in Botswana’s Linyanti concession, at Sun Destination’s Camp Linyanti  when we had this amazing sighting. Game drives in the area, one of my favourite corners of Africa, are through beautiful mopane woodland. As we came around a corner there were two honey badgers – a mother and baby – right on the edge of the road. Surprisingly, the mother ran off leaving her youngster behind. He was crouching in a small hollow, staring up at us with big adorable eyes and seemed rather shy…

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South Africa in miniature – inspiration from Terra-Lens Photography

I LOVE meeting girls who are as enthusiastic as me about all things wild and free! These fellow bush-lovers are so inspiring. I met Haley about a year ago on a seal snorkelling trip with a mutual friend. Whilst I bobbed around rather awkwardly, the two of them took to the water like mermaids!

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Quad bike craziness in the Kalahari

I’m not quite sure what got into me. Perhaps it was a case of too many hours cooped up in a car, the excitement of arriving at a new place, or simply the untamed Kalahari bush waking up the wild side in me. And there’s a wild side in all of us isn’t there?

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A Food Safari

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You know there’s magic going on in the kitchen when you’re on a game drive, following a gorgeous leopard padding through an open plain, and then find yourself wondering what’s for dinner… “Huh!? What’s wrong with you Rach … we’ve just had high tea, and before that a big lunch, scrumptious game drive snacks and breakfast almost fit for a lion!”. But I wasn’t the only one having these thoughts. “I’m looking forward to dinner” said Em from the seat next to me. The truth is, we were on a food safari! An Okavango Wilderness Camp food safari!

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