An unexpected seep, with around it, sharp-edged prints of zebra, hartebeest, sable and kudu, and big pale smudges of elephant. But the freshest, less than an hour old, were the signs of the old dagga boy that clearly frequented this place.
Seemingly unaware that he was overwhelming the drought-stricken feed into the pool he happily knelt and lay down, then rolled, again and again, no doubt grunting with pleasure, splashing out some water, churning the rest into mud-and-dung slush. Then it had lumbered off, sparring with some young trees close by, leaving them twisted and stripped of bark.
These old buffalo bulls, pushed out of the herd by stronger ones, tend to become territory-bound – not territorial, in that they won’t tolerate other of their own or other species around the area though. Their range typically includes good grazing, water, and of course, a nice mud hole or two. Often they form bull groups that may include younger ones not quite ready to claim a place in the tough world of the breeding bulls in the herd. Forming a group makes sense. Together the bulls are quite formidable and lions tend to avoid them in favour of weaker victims and opportunities for creating general confusion offered by the herd.
Some animals, buffalo, rhino, elephant, warthog, love wallowing in mud. There is clear logic to this practice – the layer of mud will protect them from the cruel sun, and it will smother some of the parasites that cling to them, and frustrate the biting flies, and the water evaporating from the mud would keep them cool for a bit. But of course, here, being locally based, the old bull was destroying his source of water. I’ve often wondered, is he aware of other sources close enough and therefore makes a conscious decision to sacrifice this one, or is he simply oblivious of the longer term perils brought about by his short term gratification? Also, there appears to be no consideration of the other animals that may depend on the source. It is entirely self-focussed, on survival in the most efficient manner possible under the circumstances.
From what I have observed, there is no longer term or wider thinking. If he can no longer drink from this pool he wanders off, guided by instinct and his senses, to find another – hopefully in time. He can endure a lot, so he has three, four, maybe more days, depending on the heat and the grazing available, before dehydration catches up with him. Over this time he will rely on the little moisture in his food, and on metabolic water – the fascinating ability of some animals in the wild to oxidise water from mainly fat and starches and maintain moisture balance in their bodies.
This is a complex mechanism which I am not sure is fully understood by zoologists yet. Nevertheless, I have observed animals under conditions that one would think are beyond fatal, and they were active and apparently still fine. As long as they kept on grazing to take in starches they were able to endure without water for incredibly long periods.