I’ll never forget my introduction to the mammals of Kruger National Park, South Africa. We –participants of the ABA South Africa Safari—were on a small plane when one Lori Conrad looked out the window and screamed, “There are elephants down there!” and everyone ran to Lori’s side of the plane. It’s a wonder we didn’t go into a tailspin from the sudden weight re-distribution. This is the thing—no matter how devoted you are to birds and birding, once you get to Africa, you can’t resist the mammals. Believe me, I tried.
This means you need to pack a mammal guide in addition to your bird guide. Even better is a guide to mammals and reptiles, because snakes and lizards are pretty much up there with mammals when you’re exploring new territory. And, with weight allowances what they are, it’s best to take a guide that is light in weight. And one that is easy to use, because, let’s face it, you want to spend most of your time looking at wildlife, not searching for information. Animals of Kruger National Park by Keith Barnes is the animal guide I wish I had when I visited South Africa.
The guide covers 57 mammals, 17 reptiles, and 8 amphibians—“most of the mammals and the more common reptiles and frogs that you are likely to encounter on a 1-2 week visit to Kruger or the adjacent reserves.” Coverage of each species varies from four pages for the most popular, large mammals (Lion, Leopard, Giraffe, Hyena, etc.), to two pages for the antelope-type species (Common Eland, Greater Kudu, Steenbok, Bushbuck, Nyala, Impala for starters–just looking at these photos makes me confused all over again) and other large mammals like African Wild Dog, to one page for smaller mammals (Aardvark, squirrels), reptiles and amphibians.
The 25-page introduction offers maps, a glossary, and brief guides to Kruger National Park—habitats, characteristic plants, “how, where and when to watch animals in Kruger National Park,” and “The ten best wildlife-watching routes.” The latter will be especially useful to travelers planning a visit to Kruger on their own; the routes are indicated on one of the two maps of the park. It would have been useful to have more information about the rest camps that define each route, but I understand that there is a fine line (maybe even a broad one) between writing an animal guide and a tourist guide. The Mammals section begins with an eight-page section on “Mammal tracks,” with the track illustrations sized proportionately. (I’m a sucker for mammal track sections, though I’m still always stymied when I see them in the field.)
Each species account includes common and scientific name, size and weight (all metric), and information boxes on Key Identification Features (including how to differentiate the species from similar creatures), Habitat in Kruger, Habits (nocturnal or crepuscular or diurnal, social or loner, feeding behavior) and Diet. Such a great variety of food! Tall grass, grass in burnt areas, leaves stems, small mammals, large mammals, invertebrates, birds, bird eggs, even hyena feces (that’s the Leopard Tortoise). Species that belong to the famous “Big Five” get special badges. (The Big Five–Lion, Leopard, African Buffalo, African Elephant and Rhinoceros–were historically the main mammal attraction of Kruger. Thankfully, as the authors note, this focus on animals to hunt has given way to visitors’ fascination with a range of creatures.)
There is also a narrative write-up for each species that recounts interesting behavior, family issues, unique biological facts, the animal’s status in Kruger, and notable conservation issues. The Lion text, for example, tells us that “Kruger is perfect Lion country,” and that about 1,700 individuals are estimated to live in the park with an average pride size of 12. The following description of their social organization–male dominance practices, female hunting strategies, battles between males and Spotted Hyenas for dominance–is probably enough background info to enjoy viewing these animals in the field. And, while nature enthusiasts are likely to be familiar with lion behavior, there are scads of interesting facts about lesser known mammals: Southern Reedbucks perform an elaborate “appeasement dance” that involves scent glands and makes a popping noise when they encounter a dominant male; Warthog tusks are a sustainable (currently) alternative to ivory and are used by local artisans; the sex of Nile Crocodile hatchlings is determined by the temperature inside the nest during the middle-third of the incubation period–low and high temperatures produce females. The amount of information offered for the mammals is comparable to that in Chris and Tilde Stuart’s Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa, which recently came out in its 5th edition, and which covers a much wider geographic range and is correspondingly denser and heavier.
Animals of Kruger National Park is heavily illustrated by approximately 200 photos. They are striking, as one would expect from a book about South African mammals, reptiles and amphibians, with many images illustrating behavior and identification features as well as the animal in its habitat. The one photograph of the Caracal shows it’s pointed ears and wispy ear tufts; a close-up of the mouth of the White Rhino focuses on the extremely wide mouth that distinguishes it from the Black Rhino; male and female images of the antelope species, which are significantly different, are shown side by side.
The photographs have been positioned carefully, so that, for the most part, all images on a page spread face in the same direction. (One exception are the Rhino photos, which have the horns of different photos almost interlocking, an effect that is visually exciting.) Most of the animal photographs are by author Keith Barnes; about 50 animal photos are by contributing photographers including Ken Behrens and Marius Burger. The track illustrations were prepared by Jen Brumfield.
The guide is extremely easy to use, with the animals organized according to user expectations rather than taxonomy (big cats first, because this is what most people are interested in, more obscure species last). The Index lists common English and scientific names, with species accounts in bold print, photographs on other pages italicized, and track illustrations in blue (though the color is hard to decipher). There is also a Short Index on the inside back cover. Species account pages are labeled for species name and section, and page numbers are denoted in white print within brown squares so they are not swallowed up by the photographs.
Back of the book material also includes suggestions for further reading, online resources (it’s here that you’ll find links to information on booking lodgings and safaris at Kruger), South African National Park regulations, and a page on the vulnerable status of White and Black Rhinos (30% of the world’s population of both species are found in the park, including the largest remaining population of White Rhino) and websites of organizations that support their survival. I was surprised that while the recommended sources for information on birds was limited to Barnes’ forthcoming book, Birds of Kruger National Park, co-authored with Ken Behrens. Perhaps there will be additional recommendations in the book itself, due out June 2017.
Keith Barnes is South African born, holds a PhD from the Percy FitzPatrick Institute in African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town, and is known as a tour leader (founder and director of Tropical Birding), photographer, and writer. The breadth of his knowledge can be seen in another recently published piece, co-authored with Sam Woods–It’s a Family Affair: A Suggested Itinerary for Seeing All the World’s Bird Families, appearing in the ABA Birder’s Guide to Listing and Taxonomy (October 2016).
I am not usually a fan of mammal, animal, or bird guides restricted to one particular park or recreation area. They are typically narrow in content, written more for the general tourist than for the birder or naturalist. Animals of Kruger National Park is the exception. Kruger is not your typical national park; at 22,000 km (including adjacent concessions), it’s the size of a small country. It is a major destination for 1.4 million visitors a year from all over the world, who come to see the big cats, the graceful antelopes, and the intriguing lizards. And of course, the birds, over 500 species. For those of us who mostly come to see the birds, this is the perfect complementary guide to creatures who are not birds.
Animals of Kruger National Park (WILDGuides)
by Keith Barnes
Princeton Univ. Press, Sept. 2016
176 pages, 5.8 x 0.5 x 8.2 inches
ISBN-10: 069116178X; ISBN-13: 978-0691161785
$27.95 (discounted by the usual suspects)
Available in iBook format: $19.95, http://apple.co/2dWN8dL
Available in Kindle format: $19.79