Sand Rivers indaba

Giraffes that chew bones, snails as big as your foot & lions that play with tortoises

“A giraffe is so much of a lady that one refrains from thinking of her legs, but remember her as floating over the plains in long garb, draperies of morning mist her mirage”.

Isak Dinesen of Out of Africa fame penned that lovely quote that so beautifully personifies the grace of giraffes. But even the most elegant of creatures in the African bush have strange habits. Like chewing bones!

I recently came across a group of giraffes and just about all of them were busy chewing on bones. They looked absolutely absurd. By sucking and chewing on bones they can extract small quantities of minerals, like calcium and phosphorous, from the surface of the bones. This phenomenon is called osteophagia, which means “feeding on bone.” I’ve seen this bone chewing often and it seems to happen mainly in the dry winter months. I’ve also seen kudus bone chewing as well.

And now something that will send any self-respecting Frenchman into paroxsysms of gastronomic delight – a snail as big as a human foot! Lissachatina fulica, better known as the Giant African Land Snail, are escargots that can live up to five years, grow up to 20 cm or more in length and are listed among the top 100 invasive species globally.

Yes, you can eat them, but before you reach for your garlic and butter sauce be warned, they can carry diseases such as meningitis and rat lungworm. They also evidently make good pets – go figure. Call them over for a green tidbit and they take three weeks to get to you. In the bush they’re mainly nocturnal, although from time to time I do see them during the day, but only in the summer and mostly during or after rain. Best to let them be as they S-L-O-W-L-Y go about their lives.

Talking about pets, I came across a pride of lions lying out on a open grassy area. I sat watching them and then noticed a funny thing. Lying right under the anus of a lioness was a smallish leopard tortoise. Not exactly the best place to be if you’re small, slow and edible. The lions were huddled together, it was a chilly overcast afternoon, and at times the lions lay right on top of the little tortoise.

Next thing one of the young males suddenly got up, stalked forward, focussed intently on something in the grass, which he grabbed – another tortoise, slightly bigger than the first one. After licking his prize, he tried to bite it, but luckily the poor tortoise was too tough for him to crack and just big enough to prevent him from getting his jaws around.

But that wasn’t all. 

I noticed a third, much bigger, tortoise trapped under the paw of another young male lion. After tapping and gnawing at it the lion lost interest. A few minutes later the tortoise’s head appeared and decided that the coast was clear and it was time to make a break for it. Whatever that means in tortoise world. After covering about two metres the fleeing fugitive spotted a tasty green morsel and stopped for a snack – talk about brazen lunacy. I expected the lion would swoop and return the escapee to confinement. But no, desperately slowly he edged farther and farther away, until at last he disappeared into a grassy thicket.

I went back the next day to see whether the lions had maybe chewed up and eaten their prisoners, but there was certainly no sign of that. Not sure why the lions had captured the three tortoises? Do lions have toys? Pets? Was there a bounty on the tortoises’ heads?

Maybe it was just a freak occurrence.

Whatever was happening, it underlines how little we know about the wild creatures of the African bush.

There is 1 comment

  1. Abdul Alhazred

    I once had 6 of these giant snail in a garlic butter sauce and must confess I struggled a bit to finish the last one.

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