When travelers visit Kruger National Park in South Africa they expect to see plenty of wildlife. Most come hoping to spot the “Big Five” which includes lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo, and rhinos, but they’ll also see plenty of zebras, monkeys, and hippos too. What most don’t know is that South Africa also has more than 160 species of scorpions and countless spiders as well. While those critters aren’t quite as popular as the elephants and lions of Kruger, they can still be fun to spot while visiting the park.
On my recent visit to Kruger I had the unique opportunity to spend a day searching for a variety of scorpion and spider species with Jonathan Leeming, author of the book Scorpions of South Africa. Leeming has spent more than 25 years studying the creepy crawlies of Kruger and trekking through the bush with him is akin to tracking crocodiles with Australia’s late, great Steve Irwin. Much like Irwin, Leeming has the same enthusiasm for his work, and a big personality to match his energy. He is also extremely knowledgeable. Leeming has probably forgotten more about South Africa’s scorpion population than most people will ever know.
Leeming is well known in throughout South Africca and often teaches courses and gives lectures on scorpions and spiders. He works to help people to identify the various species native to the country so they know which ones are safe and which are best avoided. When I met him, Jonathan was preparing to give one of his courses to future safari guides. That course would help those guides to not only prevent clients from stumbling across potentially dangerous insects, but also to find some of the more interesting species to show off to travelers.Our day began with a brief lecture about the different scorpions and spiders that live in the northern Kruger region, with Leeming dispelling some of the myths about those archnids. For instance, not all the scorpions that live there are poisonous. In fact, some don’t even have a stinger at all. The trick is knowing which are dangerous and which are safe, and where they like to make their home. Jonathan showed off some of his favorite species, which were safely contained inside specimen jars, pointing out their distinguishing features and offering insights on their demeanor. Some are far more aggressive than others, which can make them potentially more dangerous as well.
With the lecture portion of the class behind us, we quickly set out on foot to go in search of scorpions. Jonathan led us to a rocky hill, where we began looking for signs of the creatures. He told us that they liked to live in tight cracks between the rocks, where they could easily slide in and out without attracting the attention of other animals passing by. He also told us that scorpions love to prey on millipedes and that a sure sign of a scorpion living in the rocks was the remains of millipede rings, left over from a scorpion’s feast, along the edge of a lair.
Sure enough, we found those tell-tale signs, and were soon pulling back rocks to uncover the arachnids. Most of the members of our group were a bit trepidatious about what we might find under those rocks, but Leeming was fearless. Over the course of his research and studies, he has been stung numerous times, and while a number of the scorpion species of Kruger are harmless, there are still a few that can, and will, leave you writhing in pain. That didn’t slow Jonathan down however, and with each discovery his enthusiasm grew. Armed with long metal tweazers, Leeming was soon pulling scorpions from beneath the rocks. Before long, we had a tidy little collection of menacing looking arachnids, some of which didn’t seem to mind being examined, and others that were down right pissed off at our intrusion into their homes.
Throughout the rest of the day, we drove around Kruger National Park spotting wild game. But on numerous occasions we stopped our vehicle to explore other rocky outcroppings. Turning over those rocks, we found yet more scorpions, and it became abundantly clear that the critters were very common, even if we took little notice of them before that day. It was beginning to seem that, almost literally, there was a scorpion under every rock, and yet the number of people who are stung on an annual basis is exceedingly small. While scorpions have a bad reputation, the reality is that they aren’t nearly as dangerous as we are sometimes led to believe. Something that Leeming continually reminded us throughout the day.
Our search for Kruger scorpions didn’t end when the sun went down either. That’s when Leeming pulled out his final tip for the would-be scorpion hunters that he has spent the day with. It turns out, scorpions glow when illuminated by ultraviolet light. So as the sun went down, Jonathan handed out pocket sized flashlights armed with ultraviolet bulbs. We then began combing the area around our camp, where we discovered several more scorpions lurking not far from where we slept and ate. The little critters glowed eerily in the pale UV lighting, sticking out like sore thumbs. There was even one nestled in the knot of a tree just a few feet from our dinner table. The evening exercise served only to remind us that these arachnids are everywhere, but remain unnoticed most of the time.
At the beginning of our day, Leeming started off with a group of journalists who were leery of anything that had to do with insects in general and scorpions in particular. But before our lesson was over, each of us held a scorpion in the palm of our hand. We learned that they were not as dangerous as we had been led to believe, and that they were all around us, even if we hadn’t seen them. We also learned how to handle them safely, which could prove to be an invaluable skill should we encounter them in the future. While none of us will probably ever have an enthusiasm for arachnids to match Leeming’s, we certainly had a new found respect and understanding about the creatures.
It is doubtful that many travelers go on safari in Africa looking for scorpions, or other insects for that matter. But should you find yourself there on your future travels, don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for Africa’s smaller critters. They’re probably there, right under your nose, just waiting to be discovered.