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Your first-ever safari is for the Big 5, the second is for the Small 5, and you come to Northern Kruger for the Makuleke 5.

I recently had the chance to get close to some African wild dogs in the company of staff from the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) who are working to help ensure the animal’s survival in the wild.  Also known as the painted wolf, there are less than 700 left in South Africa, with over half that population in the Kruger National Park. Their natural enemies are hyena and lions, and doggy diseases which can wipe out entire packs and they are also are victims of predation by humans if they leave reserves, which they often do when in search of mates to form a new pack.

However, the main cause of the threatened status of African wild dogs is habitat loss. In order to manage populations and ensure gene strength, some of the EWT work involves moving dogs between reserves. The dogs I met were a mix of local ones and new arrivals and were getting along well in a big boma. When they first arrived, the dogs were sedated and literally rubbed together to exchange scents and give the bonding process a good start.

One of the interesting things I discovered was that it can be hard to convince some reserves without the dogs to accept a pack. Why? Because they are not a “Big 5” animal. This is of course a crazy reason. No offense to the elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, and leopard, but who would not be delighted to spot a pack of beautifully painted wolves in the wild? Or an elegant giraffe, sleek zebra or a cheetah on the prowl? A handsome sable antelope, a hunting serval, or a rambling ratel?

As part of the vast Kruger National Park, the Makuleke Contract Park is of course Big 5 country. For those here on their first safari, it’s natural to want to see iconic animals, but it does not take long to realize that there is much more to enjoy. The trail guides know that we’re not likely to meet all Big 5 when on foot, so redirect attention to the “Small 5” with similar names: the elephant shrew (sengi), buffalo weaver bird, antlion, leopard tortoise, and rhino beetle. Finding any of these will lead to a pause and a story and add a little more to our appreciation for the riches of biodiversity.

WHAT IF WE WERE TO SELECT A MAKULEKE 5? PROBABLY EVERYONE WOULD HAVE A DIFFERENT LIST OF FAVORITES. I’D PICK SOME LOCAL SPECIALS THAT EVERY VISITOR CAN SPOT, AND THAT CAN’T BE FOUND IN OTHER PARTS OF SOUTH AFRICA.

To start, I must name the Pel’s Fishing Owl, an endemic which favors our riverine forest. These ginger giants can’t be confused as the only other owl of this size is Verraux’s Eagle-owl, which is grey. They like to hunt in the clear water of the Luvuvhu, and their distinctive nocturnal calls pierce the night air. For many guests, Pafuri is their first experience of hearing this owl, and “What was that sound?” is a regular breakfast-time question.

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Also from the bird world, I have to pick the Grey-headed parrot, simply because they are impossible to ignore. They move in little groups in search of fruiting trees, and nothing says “we’re in the tropics” better than their parrot squawks and screeches overhead.

Top of the Makuleke five for many visitors is the Fever Tree Forest. No visit is complete without a shady stroll amidst the scent of wild sage. The largest fever forest in South Africa grows on the Luvuvhu alluvial floodplain and was established in a flooding event in the 1970s. When antelopes and elephants browse amidst the yellow-green trunks, it is a photographer’s dream.

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It’s hard to pick a particular Makuleke animal, as everything and anything can be spotted. So let’s adopt one of the Big 5 as a member of Makuleke 5: there is plenty of leopards in the area, who love the cliffs, rocky outcrops and thick bushveld areas. Their tracks are found almost daily, and many visitors get lucky with good sightings of this splendid big cat.

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Finally, I will pick a special place as a Makuleke Big 5. When I first saw a photo of Lanner Gorge I assumed it must be in the Drakensberg or maybe the Blyde Canyon area, and not in the Kruger. It was named by the lately deceased Mike English, the ranger responsible for bringing walking trails to the Kruger, in honor of the lanner falcons who cruise the updrafts here. A curving sandstone chasm, a splendid vista of water, rock, and sky, home to rock doves and vultures, dassies and wild cats, ancient rock art, and more besides, it is a Northern Kruger must-see. The only way to visit the gorgeous Gorge is to come and stay here in the Makuleke.

Written by resident blogger: Hlengiwe Magagula

Image 1: Paul Rigsby

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