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Ithala Game Reserve - Wildlife

Ithala is a place of great seasonal contrast. In spring the grasslands are alive with warthogs.In summer masses of red "Pride of De Kaap" flowers complement the wild dates on the reclining palms along the slopes and stream banks of this rugged reserve. Hundreds of aloes transform the drab winter browns into a spectacular landscape. With its many perennial streams and rivers, and the frequent occurrence of cliffs and rock faces, Ithala is also the ideal haven for a large variety of birds.

A visitor's guide contains checklists of notable birds, trees and mammals that can be seen. Ithala's big game species include white- and black rhino , elephant , buffalo and, notably giraffe so numerous that they have been selected as Ithala's logo. The absence of lion makes for a relaxed air among these animals and other game such as zebra , blue wildebeest and a wide variety of antelope. These include impala , oribi , red hartebeest , eland , kudu , waterbuck , tsessebe , common and mountain reedbuck , steenbok and grey duiker. Predators which are not often seen are leopard, spotted hyaena and brown hyaena. Sightings of large birds at Ithala may include black eagles , lappet faced and whitebacked vultures , ostriches and secretary birds stalking across the veld.

Habitat Diversity
Ithala's exceptional variety of habitats is due to a combination of climate and a steep rise in altitude from 480 m above sea level at the Pongola River in the north to 1 400 m above sea level in the south on the Ngothe Mountain, over a distance of 15 km. The reserve has a typical bushveld climate, having hot summers with afternoon thunderstorms and mild winters with occasional frosts.

Ithala's steep terrain provides for rugged and breathtaking scenery with many geological formations being exposed. Geological diversity contributes to habitat diversity. Different soils are generated and these produce a variety of vegetation types which can accommodate a wide variety of animal, insect and bird life. From the highveld plateau, Ngotse Mountain drops sharply into the Ngubu basin, which takes its name from the Ngubu River. The surrounding cliffs were formed when molten lava, failing to reach the surface, cooled to form a horizontal sill of dolerite. This was gradually exposed as the surrounding sandstones and shales were eroded. Black eagles, bald ibis and klipspringer frequent the area.

Below the cliffs are steep rocky scree slopes covered by forest and woodland, characterized by candelabra, cabbage, and fig trees. At the base of the scree slopes lies the vlei areas, characterized by wetland sedges and grasses interspersed with woodland. This important area serves as a sponge, holding and filtering rainwater and maintaining a flow of clear water to the river below. Without this, the rivers would soon turn into silt-choked watercourses all too common in other places. This area is ideal for reedbuck, buffalo and elephant.

Several rivers rise in or just out of the reserve, winding to the Pongola River, which forms the northern boundary. These rivers are attractive, with waterfalls, pools and gorges flanked by dense thickets and riverine forest.

Below the escarpment are undulating plains of open thornveld, characterised by scented acacia and inhabited by kudu, giraffe, impala and grey duiker. Thornveld gives way to grasslands used by grazers such as white rhino, zebra, wildebeest, eland, and hartebeest. Each of these has a particular niche in grassland utilization. Animal and habitats have to be continually managed. Ithala, like all KwaZulu-Natal's reserves, is largely fenced, which restricts game movement.

Preditor Simulation
Inadequate fencing has prevented the re-introduction large predators such as lion into Ithala along with the 23 other species that have been returned to the reserve's habitat. Thus, while introduced herbivores have flourished, scavengers such as hyena and vultures remained largely absent or at very low numbers due to the lack of carrion in the veld. In the interest of achieving a rational balance in the reserve's game population, a decision was made to simulate the effects of predators by culling and depositing the amount of carrion, which predators would have left had they been present. This approximates two wildebeest per week, one of which is left in the veld and at the vulture-feeding site near Ntshondwe camp.

The program has been a great success. When it was started over three years ago, there were very few vultures found in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The first arrivals were Whitebacked vultures, later joined by Lappetfaced and then Cape vultures. Every carcass now attracts these scavengers, sometimes up to 150 Whitebacked vultures at a time along with others.

An unusual phenomenon now occurs at Ithala where Lappetfaced vultures are seen in groups of twelve (they normally occur singly or in pairs). A Whitehead vulture has been sighted and there has been unconfirmed report of a hooded Vulture. Two other exciting scavengers seen have been tawny eagles and bateleurs. Hopefully these two eagles and the vultures will start nesting in the reserve.

Other creatures ranging from insects to smaller carnivores and larger scavengers are benefiting from the program. Monitoring has established that in addition to hyena and jackal, many other animals are visiting the carcasses. These include mongoose, genet, and African wildcat, even honey bager and normadic Cape wild dog.

Although there are encouraging signs of and increase in Ithala's leopard population, the absence of lion and of resident population of wild dog will mean the medium term continuation of the program as part of the reserve's conservation management.

Giraffe, (Giraffa camelpardis), are believed to be indigenous to Ithala unlike other areas of KwaZulu-Natal. Hence the adoption of this splendid species at this reserve's emblem.

The loosely structured herds in the bushveld areas of the reserve consist of females and juveniles. Males are usual solitary. Females are generally lighter in build than males, and have smaller, inward curling horns. The males use their larger and sturdier horns in fighting. This consists of butting an opponent with head and neck. Age causes the brown patchwork pattern markings to darken in the males. The giraffe's long neck is ideally suited for browsing among the treetops. Despite the length of its neck, the giraffe has the same number of vertebrae as any other mammal.

Redbilled Oxpeckers
After years of near extinction from this area, 97 redbilled oxpeckers were reintroduced to Ithala in November 1994 from Kruger National Park. This followed a survey to ensure that the reserve would be able to support the birds, and that cattle dips and other poisons used on surrounding farms were environmentally friendly. Visitors to Ithala help monitor the oxpeckers by filing in sighting forms. In 1995 sighting of 14 immature birds were recorded. This confirmed that they had accepted their new home, and that their preferred tick species were available in sufficient quantities. Oxpeckers nest and roost in natural tree holes. Clearly, the reserve offers this essential requirement as there was a second record of breeding in 1996. Data show that the birds are using a wide range of animal species, from elephant to impala, throughout the reserve.