Jun 17

Maternal Instincts at the Okavango Delta

by in Africa, Botswana

The Okavango Delta literally overflows with life.  The flooded plains and surrounding forests are home to an incredible number of animals we usually only associate with National Geographic specials.  Among the twenty-three distinct mammal and countless bird species we saw, we were awed by the big guys:  the African elephants –who are much larger than their Indian cousins and the huge herds of African buffalo—who look like they’re wearing bad wigs, and the giraffes, lions, leopards, hyenas, and zebra.

We didn’t think it could get much better until our guide Alan asked if we’d like to see some of their babies.  You bet we would!

Most precious of all was the tiny hidden baby leopard he had discovered.  Safely tucked away in a hollow tree stump, we could barely see the little guy until he flashed his baby incisors and hissed at us.  I instantly thought of our old cat, Lincoln.  Perhaps they were related.  We returned several times to see if we could catch a glance of mom.  The leopard is solitary and elusive so you need a great guide and good luck to spot one.  We scored on both fronts. 

We sat in the semi-darkness and watched in silence as she returned to the den and her elated cub bounded out and tumbled all over her.  She greeted him with big licks, almost as if to say “I told you to wash up before I left.”  Alan had told us that the young cub was entirely dependent on its mother and would remain so for another several months (he guessed it was between 6-8 weeks old).  He told us that if something happened to her, the cub would surely die as National Park protocols usually do not intercede with the natural progression of, well, Nature.  As I watched the joy that little cub seemed to show at his mother’s arrival, I couldn’t help but wonder if he were aware of just how much was riding on her return.  I doubted it.  I think he was just ecstatic to be with her.  The scene was unexpectedly poignant and I found myself blinking back tears.     

We also had the chance to get close to a spotted hyena den.  Now, the only impression I previously had of hyena came entirely from Disney’s Lion King:  they were the bad guys and were definitely not cute on the big screen.  In person, however, they have a certain gravitas.  And they are big.  We found the den by listening to the high-pitched squeaks coming from the hungry babies.  The mom was approached by two cubs, but only let one nurse.  We couldn’t understand why she kept pushing the other away, once even nipping it on its bottom!  We were really worried that the tinier one was the runt of her litter and would starve. Then Alan explained that hyena live in large matriarchal clans.  This mother was babysitting while the others were out foraging.  She was clearly happy to keep guard but she wasn’t going to feed every hungry mouth.  We felt a little better.

As we returned to camp, we saw another memorable display of maternal instincts. My mother-in-law, Linda, was a pace ahead and we were discussing plans for the remainder of the day. We were blithely strolling along the sandy path which connected our tents to the main cabin where we were headed for afternoon tea (bless the British). By chance, she glanced down and immediately shot out her arm and froze, thus blocking the path. We all tumbled into one another, Keystone Cops-style. There, in the middle of the path only a few inches from where she stood, was a puff adder—one of the most venomous snakes in Africa. We froze.

Alan came forward and calmly told us to give it wide berth and walk around. They have a short striking range and rarely, if ever, attack unprovoked. We watched as he tapped the ground with the butt of his rifle. The tremor on the ground urged the adder along and it retreated into the scrub along the path, toward cabin #1 (far from our cabins 5, 6 and 7). It was a close call and we were grateful for Linda’s watchful eye and fast reflexes.


Undeterred, we continued our game drives and saw more matriarchs of the Delta. The lionesses we watched dozing and playing were actually a mother and her two-year old cub.


The large herds of elephants, always led by the oldest female since they are the ones who remember where to find the best feeding spots, displayed the most obvious and unmistakable protective instincts.  If we approached a group with babies, they would instantly close ranks around the young and shuffle off. 

Once, we unexpectedly came upon a family of 8 or 9 which included a very young calf.  They were only a few feet off the road so we were unintentionally well within their comfort zone.  The mother rounded on our car and flapped her ears.  We stared, tranfixed.  She then trumpeted, flapped her ears again, and shook her massive head at us.  Alan asked us to hold on as he pulled away in a hurry.  “Everyone okay?” he asked once we had reached a safe distance.  It was only then that he told us that elephants only give two warnings; on the third they mean business.

In reply, we could only grin like idiots.  It was Mother and Nature at her best and we didn’t have any words. 



One Response to “Maternal Instincts at the Okavango Delta”

  1. From Alex White:

    The leopard cub is so cute! I am so jealous that you got to see one!!

    Enjoy the rest of Africa, it is beautiful! 😀

    Alex W

    Posted on 26. Jun, 2011 at 12:08 pm #