Daily Archives: September 8, 2014

Speedsters of the veldt

This morning, day 2 of our African adventure, we drove from Maropeng to the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre in De Wildt.

Ann van Dyk established her Centre in 1971 during a period when farmers, who feared Cheetahs and resented heavy stock losses from Cheetah predation, were hunting them towards extinction. van Dyk established a breeding centre to secure the long term survival of Cheetahs as well as other wild animals such as the African Wild Dog. Over the years, the staff of the Cheetah Centre have worked hard also on outreach activities to educate and involve farmers in managing Cheetahs in the wild. And van Dyk and her team are educating the next generation of South Africans to love and respect Cheetahs and other wild animals. They believe:

“We will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

Ann van Dyk

We arrived at the Centre and first read this sign:

 

Mildly nervous, we signed waiver forms and joined our guide. She explained that the Cheetah Centre is home to 60 Cheetahs and 50 African Wild Dogs, some from the wild and some hand raised at the Centre, as well as many other wild animals such as Cape Griffon Vultures.

Cape Griffin Vultures are one of the most endangered animals in all of Africa. This is because they are a highly prized hunting target for Africans who believe that if they eat the eyes of the Vulture and sleep with its head then they will be able to predict the future. This is because Vultures fly so high; above the clouds and able to see far ahead.

 

Our first stop on the tour was to see two Honey Badgers. These cute fluffy little guys apparently are the most dangerous creatures in the park! Lions are afraid of them because they are fearless, vicious fighters with long sharp claws, which they use to rip the soft under bellies of Lions and Cheetahs. Their favourite food is live snake! This is the one animal in the Cheetah Centre where the Keepers will not enter their enclosures. We also learned that young Cheetahs’ colouring mimics that of Honey Badgers, which keeps Lions away. What an amazing example of evolutionary adaptation!

 

Next we climbed into a safari bus for an extremely bumpy ride up into the hills surrounding the Cheetah Centre, past many enclosures with Cheetahs, African Wild Dogs and other animals.

 

First we saw beautiful Cheetahs that prowled up and down the fence waiting for large chunks of meat that the Ranger threw over the fence. The pattern of spots on each individual Cheetah is different from all others; like human fingerprints! Nevertheless, the general patterning of these spots is inherited from their parents, including the elusive King Cheetah pattern. This distinctive dark striped pattern once was thought to represent a separate species but is now known to be the result of a rare mutation within Cheetahs. The De Wildt Centre helped to solve this mystery when it bred two litters of Cheetah cubs, each with one King Cheetah cub.

 

Next we saw many groups of African Wild Dogs, who live in packs. They are under threat in the wild but thriving at the Cheetah Centre. Cubs bred at the Cente are released back into the wild. Our Ranger told us that whereas wild dogs are quite wary of humans, hand reared animals are extremely dangerous to the Keepers. This is because in the wild, dog packs are organised hierarchically. African Wild Dogs fight their way to the top by biting other dogs. So if they think you are in their pack, as they view the Keepers who rear them, they will bite you to assert dominance!

We saw two litters of pups with their Mum and Dad. These pups below are about 16 weeks old. They are greedy, noisy, impolite eaters!

 

We also saw sweet, little Meerkats. Oliver and I saw a large group of Meerkats at London Zoo when we visited June 2013. We also expect to see more when we fly to Tswalu and the Kalahari Desert.

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It was amazing to get up so close to these beautiful animals. But not too close! One of the Cheetahs sized us up from behind his fence and growled a very menacing growl at us. Beautiful but happily separated by a fence!

 

Tomorrow we board The Blue Train for our journey across South Africa from Pretoria to the Cape.

 

 

 

Maropeng, “welcome home”

We flew into Johannesburg, South Africa, last Friday night and drove around the outskirts of the city to our first night’s accommodation at the Maropeng Hotel, within the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. As we drove, we passed a city of immense contrasts: the homes and cars of wealthy South Africans. And the crowded, extremely basic conditions of South Africans who live in Townships. Our guide Liese told us that entire families live in a space probably no bigger than Oliver’s bedroom.

Maropeng is the centre of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. From their website:

“The 47 000-hectare site has unearthed the best evidence of the complex journey which our species has taken to make us what we are – a place of pilgrimage for all humankind. It is not only a place of ongoing scientific discovery into our origins, but also a place of contemplation – a place that allows us to reflect on who we are, where we come from and where we are going to.”

We woke very early on Saturday and waited for sunrise looking across the veldt towards mountain ranges in the distance. Not far from our door, Blesbok Antelopes grazed and wandered.

 

Over a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit, juice, pastries, meats and cheeses Louisa started a diary to record all the things she is learning about Africa. She remembered that last night our guide told us that there are at least 8 official languages in South Africa. As we explored throughout the morning Louisa stopped often to record thoughts and observations in her diary such as:

“I love Africa. I want to live in Africa. Africa has lots of rocks.”

 

At first, from our balcony, the mountain ranges in the distance looked a little like the Blue Mountains, which lie west of Sydney. And yesterday the road to Maropeng reminded us of the road between Canberra and Jindabyne in southern New South Wales. But on foot, our surroundings looked entirely distinct. With red, red earth, enormous prickly cactuses (Aloes) like something out of John Wyndham’s imagination, and warnings of snakes just off the path.

 

Soon we came across something completely mundane yet beautiful amidst the glorious African landscape. A playground. This playground included equipment you had to navigate on all fours, just like our very distant ancestors, as well as equipment you had to navigate upright. Just like our nearer ancestors. The playground was part of the Maropeng Visitor Centre.

 

 

The Maropeng Visitor Centre is a museum/exhibition that focuses on the development of humans and our ancestors over the past few million years. It is housed inside and underneath a massive burial mound called the Tumulus.

 

 

The idea that all humans originated in Africa was first proposed by Charles Darwin, who introduced the theory of evolution (together with Alfred Russell Wallace), in his book “The Descent of Man”. This view was controversial for a long time. Many other scientists believed that the “cradle of humankind” would be found in Europe and Asia. But the fossil record for an “Out of Africa” hypothesis proved compelling and was finally confirmed by DNA evidence in the 1980s.

Maropeng and surrounding sites are home to the oldest hominid fossils as well as fossil remains of our nearest ancestors. The Maropeng Visitor Centre tells the story of evolution, explains the timeline of and controversies around the discovery of hominid fossils in this area, and argues that Africa (and this area in Eastern South Africa) is the birthplace of humankind. Thus, we were greeted by “welcome home” when we arrived at the Maropeng Hotel on Friday night.

 

An Australian anthropologist, Professor Raymond Dart, was central to this story. We learned from the exhibition that:

 

Dart published his controversial conclusions about Australopithecus africanus in a 1925 paper in the journal Nature, which you can read here.

Professor Raymond Dart and the Tuang Skull

On Saturday night, after a busy day exploring Maropeng, Oliver and Louisa were falling asleep at the dinner table. The jetlag hit them hard; dinner time here, 6pm, is 2am Sydney time. But they slept well and long Saturday night, and woke ready on Sunday for Day 2 of our African adventure! A cheetah park, a monkey park, and preparing to board The Blue Train early Monday morning …

 

More soon!