Hunting scorpions in South Africa’s Kruger National Park

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.

This trip was sponsored by South African Tourism and South African Airways, but the ideas and opinions expressed here are my own.

On safari in Kruger National Park

The African safari remains one of the most amazing experiences that any traveler could hope to enjoy. The boundless wildlife that is on display there is one of the greatest natural wonders in the world, and watching those hundreds of different species in their natural habitats is a source of never ending wonder.

There are two classic destinations to experience the African safari, the Serengeti, which spreads across Kenya and Tanzania, and Kruger National Park in South Africa. A few years back I had the opportunity to visit the Serengeti, and it remains one of my favorite destinations of all time. Recently I made the journey to Kruger as well, and while I found both places had wildlife in abundance, the safari experience was quite different between the two as well.

The first thing I noticed that was different, was the landscape. In Swahili, Serengeti means “the endless plain,” which is a fitting name indeed. It is a vast expanse of open grasslands, broken only by rolling hills and the occasional rock outcropping. Kruger, on the other hand, is marked by thick forests and lush green fields. While I was there in early February, summer rains had fueled the growth of the underbrush and caused the rivers to swell, which made for a warm, humid environment. A stark contrast to the more arid Serengeti.

That lush green growth made it a challenge to spot wildlife while on daily game drives. The thick brush gave the animals plenty of places to hide and concealed their movements. On the Serengeti, the wide open spaces always made it easy to spot game, sometimes from miles away.

Fortunately, I had some of the best guides on the continent showing me around, and we had no problems discovering where the wildlife hid. While traveling through Kruger, we came across hippos, buffalo, wildebeests, and zebras aplenty. There were monkeys and baboons, and antelope too numerous to count. There were also large herds of elephants, massive in size and more aggressive than their Serengeti counterparts. In short, Kruger didn’t disappoint in terms of spotting animals, you just had to look a bit more closely to find them.Perhaps the best of those wildlife encounters was with the smallest of creatures. In the early evening hours of my second day in the park we were traveling by safari vehicle down a deserted dirt road. It had rained that afternoon, but the sun broke through the clouds as it sunk in the west, providing some warmth as the day waned. Suddenly, our vehicle stopped short as we spotted a small, golden figure sitting in the road. It was a tiny lion cub, no more than two weeks old, and while its mother was away on the hunt, it had crawled out of its wet hiding spot seeking warmth in the sun. We watched the cub for nearly an hour as it stumbled about, occasionally calling out for mom. It was an amazing experience, made all the more special when our lead guide, an 18 year veteran of the profession, told us that he had never seen a lion so young.

Our chance discovery of the young cub wouldn’t be our only close encounter with the wildlife of Kruger. One afternoon, while driving back from a local village, we came across a very large bull elephant wandering the road. He was enormous, even by the standards of the species, and he was in a surly mood that day. For more than 20 minutes we played cat and mouse with the beast, looking for a way to get around him. More than once we put the van in reverse and backed off, as the bull strayed too close. Finally we made our escape when the creature momentarily wandered behind a tree, giving us just the opening we needed to speed past. It was a narrow escape however, and as we sped away, the elephant charged from around the tree, nearly clipping our vehicle as we roared down the road.

In all, I spent six days in Kruger, and was given the chance to explore it both on foot and by vehicle. In those days, I found that it lived up to its billing as one of the top safari destinations in all of Africa. Not only is the wildlife all that you would expect, and more, but the landscapes are breathtaking as well. In my travels within the park boundaries, I saw beautiful rivers, emerald forests, and stunning canyons. The gorgeous scenery was an element I wasn’t expecting, and it helped to further separate Kruger from the Serengeti.

Since my return, I’ve already been asked by friends which destination I’d recommend for someone heading to Africa on safari. That isn’t an easy question to answer, as both places will offer you a memorable travel experience that you will never forget. By response is that it is impossible to choose, and that it is best to see them both for yourself.

This trip was sponsored by South African Tourism and South African Airways, but the ideas and opinions expressed here are my own.

So You Want To Be A Safari Guide?

Wanted: Able bodied men and women who have a passion for the outdoors and a thirst for adventure. Must be well organized, have an attention for detail, and enjoy working with animals. Positive attitude, a flair for the dramatic, and good people skills a big plus. Plenty of positions available, no experience necessary. Will train for the job.

If the above job description sounds like something you’d be interested in, than perhaps you’re a candidate to become a safari guide in Africa. But be warned, it is a job with long hours, little pay, and plenty of demands. It is also an occupation that offers a fantastic job site, daily surprises, and plenty of adventure.

The demand for experienced and well trained safari guides continues to grow as more and more African nations build an infrastructure to support tourism. Countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa are well known, and popular, safari destinations. But other nations, such as Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe are quickly becoming popular alternatives to those classic places.

Of course, not just anyone can be a safari guide. It requires a unique set of skills that is not always obvious to the outside observer. Building those skills is no easy task either, and it can take years in the field to develop them fully. But, for those hoping to join the ranks of the African bush guides, there is an option for job training that is as unique and adventurous as the work itself.
A South African company by the name of EcoTraining has established itself as the top provider of quality safari guides on the entire African continent. EcoTraining offers a number of training course that are designed to give potential guides the skills they need to lead their guests into the field in search of Africa’s amazing wild game.

I recently had the opportunity to visit EcoTraining’s Makuleke Camp, located inside the Makuleke Concession of Kruger National Park in South Africa. There I had the unique opportunity to witness first hand the training process and watch as students worked hard on a daily basis to hone the skills necessary in the profession they all hoped to enter. Those students came from all over Africa, Europe, and even the United States, and ranged in age from 19 to late-50’s.

In the week that I was in the camp, I watched the prospective guides practice some of the more obvious skills that they would need on the job. For instance, there were daily game drives, both on foot and in vehicles, with students taking turns playing the role of the lead guide, while another served as the all-important back-up. Their remaining classmates played the part of the clients, eagerly asking questions and putting the guides to the test.

Learning to lead a game drive was just the beginning however, as the students also practiced operating a 4×4 safari vehicle, while spotting wild animals on the move, and entertaining their clients with all sorts of fun facts, at the same time. They also learned how to identify, and track, the wide variety of creatures that inhabit Kruger National Park, while polishing their first aid skills, and learning to handle a rifle as well. The students are taught basic bush survival techniques, how to handle encounters with dangerous game while on foot, and how to navigate in the bush too. Nightly post-dinner briefings give them the opportunity to hone their public speaking abilities as they outlined the itinerary for the following morning’s game drive much same way as they will when they go to work as a guide.

The standard Eco-Training course is 28 days in length at the end of which, students who pass their evaluations will be given a rank of a level 1 Field Guide. That will mean that they have demonstrated the basic skills necessary to serve as a safari guide, although they will still lack experience that only comes from working in the field. From there, they’ll receive placements in a variety of lodges and camps throughout Africa, where they can begin to acquire that necessary experience. A few of the more promising students will even be allowed to stay on in the Eco-Training camps to help instruct the next crop of recruits.

The training doesn’t end after the 28-day course comes to an end however, as there are a number of short courses that the Field Guides can take to boost their skills. For instance, there is a weeklong birding course that helps identify the hundreds of avian species in Kruger. Similarly, there is a four-day course on identifying trees and other plant life and another that focuses on spider and scorpions, both of which are common throughout Africa.

The most comprehensive course however is Eco-Training’s yearlong program that not only prepares students for all of their official Field Guide accreditation tests, but also offers advanced bushcraft skills, while also training them in wilderness medicine, and high level tracking . They’ll also receive further instruction on navigation and orientation, handling of firearms, and much more. The yearlong course is designed to turn out the very best guides possible, who can immediately go to work in the field.

True to their name, Eco-Training also instills a healthy respect for the environment in their students as well. They are taught to protect the wilderness that they will be working in and to understand how each of the creatures, from the smallest insects to the largest herbivores, plays a vital role in keeping it healthy. In fact, that respect runs so deep, that on one walk into the bush we were advised to not step in the elephant dung that was common throughout the Makuleke Concession. Normally, this would seem like good common sense, as none of us likes to carry that scent around on our boots all day. But in this case, we were told to avoid the smelly landmines because each of them is a self-contained ecosystem, with all manner of insects taking up residence. By walking around them, those ecosystems were allowed to flourish and continue playing their role in the much larger environment of the bush.

This eco-conscious approach extends to the Makuleke Camp, where the students, guides, and visitors, such as myself, stay as well. Occupants of the camp sleep in large, comfortable tents that are elevated above the ground to allow for the passing of animals through the area, something that is not at all uncommon. One evening I was awoken from sleep by the distinctive sounds of a warthog passing beneath me, and on several occasions the sunrise was greeted by the not-so-distant roar of a lion.

Our tents had running water, but no electricity, and in the evening the paths, as well as the common dining area, were lit with lanterns. There were no fans, no air conditioning, and certainly no televisions. It is a five-mile drive just to get cell service. The evening ends early, with occupants of the camp crawling into their cots not long after nightfall. The morning is announced with the beating of a drum, which signals the start of a new day and calls students to their daily meals.

For adventurous travelers, the camp no doubt sounds like a fantastic escape, and a wonderful place to experience Africa’s bush in all of its glory. But it is also a classroom without equal for the potential safari guides, who need only walk a dozen yards in any direction to enhance their instruction. EcoTraining operates two other training camps, one in South Africa’s Selati Game Reserve, not far from Kruger, and another at the Karongwe Reserve in Botswana. Both of those camps offer similar training to those that I observed on my visit to the Makuleke Concession.

The company has gotten so good at training field guides that their students are now in demand across all of Africa. Eco-Training students serve in a variety of capacities in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and of course South Africa. Tour operators know that when they hire a graduate of the EcoTraining courses, they get someone who is well trained, highly knowledgeable, and prepared to inform and entertain their guests.

For us, as travelers, that means that we are able to visit the wondrous landscapes of Africa in a manner that is both more rewarding and safe. Something that makes an already great travel experience even more satisfying.

2011 continues to be a tough year for rhino poachers in South Africa

Back in January we posted a story about five rhino poachers being killed in two separate gun fights in South Africa. A month later, things haven’t exactly improved for the illegal hunters, with four more being killed in the subsequent weeks since the original story. It seems that 2011 is off to a rough start, as barely six weeks in, and twice as many poachers have been killed than in all of 2010.

The higher number of fatalities isn’t just because the anti-poaching squads have stepped up their patrols and improved their training techniques however. According to this story from the AP, the number of poachers has greatly increased in 2011 as well. Demand for rhino horns continues to rise in parts of Asia, where they are used as key ingredients in traditional medicines, and as a result there is a lot of money to be made on the illegal black market.

In 2010, 333 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone, nearly tripling the number from the previous year. On a recent trip to the country, I was told that 2011 was off to an ominous start as well, with a high number of illegal kills already taking place this year. The general outlook for the future wasn’t a positive one either. Rhinos are already on the endangered species lists, and they’re being slaughtered at an alarming rate. It seems that as long as their is demand for the prized rhino horns, there will be plenty of people willing to take the risk to harvest them.

If the current trend holds for the rest of the year, it seems it is going to be a bloody one for the rhinos in South Africa, as well as the men that hunt them.

Shootouts kill five rhino poachers in South Africa

Five rhino poachers were killed in two shootouts with South African police this week, the BBC reports. Three were killed in Kruger National Park, one of the most popular game reserves for safaris in South Africa. Two others were killed near the border with Mozambique. Poachers often cross borders in an attempt to evade the law.

Two rhino horns were found among the poachers’ belongings.

Poaching is a serious problem in Africa, with South African rhinos, especially white rhinos, a favored target. Last year 333 rhinos were killed in South Africa. Police have been clamping down on poachers but their activities continue and the heavily armed criminals often get into gunfights with police and park wardens. African nations are having mixed results fighting poachers. Some countries have managed to reduce illegal hunting, but other nations are still struggling with the problem.

[This beautiful shot of two white rhinos is courtesy JasonBechtel via Gadling’s flickr pool. It was taken in Ohio, of all places! At least these beautiful animals are safe there.]