I had written the last blog post on my iPhone with the intent of posting it from the airport as we headed home. Unfortunately somewhere between exiting the car and walking into the airport someone lifted my phone from my pocket. All of my snap shots from the trip, most of my notes and the blog entry were lost. I’m sorry to have taken so long to re-write it but here at last is that final entry from the field.
Our return from Rafu came with mixed emotions – our trip was coming to an end. We had captured so many amazing photos, did we have the right to ask for more? Yet the final pieces of the puzzle, the black coat pups fresh from the den and a perfect rodent capture still eluded us. Keenly aware that time was running out we huddled deeper into our coats as the icy wind tore through the open windows of the land cruiser. It never seemed to matter which direction we faced, the wind always knew how to blast us. The sun rose and the landscape turned pink. Frost covered the plants, shimmered in the morning sun like hundreds of tiny diamonds.
A silent cue and the pack awoke and began to stretch but something was different this morning. The male approached the mouth of the den and peered inside… I realized I was holding my breath as a tiny, black ear slowly and wobbly appeared. PUPPIES!!!! Will and I sprang to action, cameras clicking furiously, a moment later the pup disappeared back into the den and the pack left on patrol. This brief glimpse gave us hope that we just might get to see the black coat pups before we had to leave.
That afternoon we headed to the den early, wanting to be certain we were in position and quiet when the pack returned. As we drew close Musti called for us to stop… coming down the hill not more than 1,000 feet from the den were three figures. They didn’t appear to know the den was there. We watched through binoculars as the people and goats passed until we were satisfied that these were adults, not children who would be apt to disturb the den. Only when we were certain the den would be safe did we continued into position and settled in to wait.
We didn’t have to wait long before mom returned. She looked more wary and agitated than we had seen her on our previous visits. Before long the male and sub-adult had joined her. The excitement between the three was palpable. We sat, eyes glued to the opening of the den willing the pups to come out and say hello, oblivious to the cold. As we sat transfixed, a tiny head appeared, then another and another – four pups in total! All thought of composure within the vehicle was quickly abandon to high pitched squeals, giddy giggles and “omg, omg, omg – they are soooo cute!!!” At just three weeks old the puppies were tiny little balls of fluff. Their ears were still slightly folded forward and their eyes were barely open. One pup squinted in the afternoon light, walking haltingly toward the sub-adult. Uncertain what this tiny thing was, the sub-adult put his head down to sniff… a tiny collision of noses sent both pup and sub-adult scrambling backward. Mom reassured everyone and settled down to nurse the pups while dad and big brother kept close watch. I admit that at this point I could barely see through my view finder because it was full of tears. I felt so lucky to have the opportunity to be with these four gems on their first day out of the den.
After nursing, mom began to pace again and we worried that our presence was putting her on edge, yet she never once looked toward us. All of her focus seemed to be in the direction the herders had taken. A few minutes later she scooped up a pup in her mouth and began to walk away from the den. My heart dropped, she was moving the den and we didn’t have the time left in our trip to follow them to the new location and acclimate them to our presence again. These were the photos we’d have, period, end of story. Except… BBC pack is a very good pack. They hold territory rich in rodents and they are exceptional hunters. The resulting product being four very round, deceivingly large pups. After a few paces she had to put the pup down. I held my breath. She tried to pick the pup up again and could barely get her mouth around it. A few more paces and you could almost see the wheels turning – this wasn’t going to work. A quick bath and then the pup was herded back into the den and spring cleaning began. Dirt sprayed from the den, odd bits of rodent were pulled from hiding spots around the den and eaten. Finally satisfied there was nothing left to attract trouble the pack settled in for a well deserved rest and we headed back to camp to download. It was amazing to see how much stronger the pups were the following morning and stronger still the next afternoon. There was still a fair amount of wobbling but the play biting and tumbling we had witnessed in the far older Meggity and Tarura pups was already in evidence. Mom showed off her hunting skills by bringing back a Stark’s hare – a rare treat that only the best hunters are able to capture.
Our final morning with the BBC pack had us both wondering how much trouble we would get into if we stayed another week and arrived home late for Christmas… in the end we decided 5 weeks and two broken cameras was enough, it was time to travel home. As we watched the pack leave on morning patrol we were well pleased with the range of behavior, age and environment we had captured - the only shot we were missing was a good rodent capture. We turned the vehicle toward camp, our minds beginning to wander to the hot shower we knew waited for us in Dinsho that night. Suddenly the BBC female appeared at the side of the road, as if she had been waiting a long time for us to show up. She waited patiently as we maneuvered to the side of the road and pulled out our cameras – then, certain she had our full attention, she turned, gave a quite look over her shoulder as if to say “Check this out” and pounced. Success! She lifted a very large grass rat into the air and dispatched it with ease. She then proceeded to show us every angle of the rat before consuming it. Another look clearly told us “NOW you can put the cameras away.” That’s a wrap!