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Just like us, the extraordinary wildlife of the Kruger National Park gets by with a little help from their friends. With 2 000 plant species, 500 different birds, and 147 species of mammals including the world-famous ‘Big 5’, the animal friendships of the Kruger are an inspiration for us all.

What better way to celebrate Friendship Day (observed annually on 6 August) than by looking at the unique and essential animal relationships of the park’s lively ecosystems.

The indispensable and popular oxpecker

Oxpeckers are known to have a few astounding symbiotic relationships within the Kruger. These small parasitic birds form remarkable bonds with elephants, impalas, and rhinos. The cheeky red-beaked oxpeckers, named askari wa kifaru (the rhino’s guard) in Swahili, perch themselves on their mammal friends to feast on a buffet of ticks and parasites.

“Across picturesque open grasslands, woodlands, and riverine visitors can marvel at seeing the loud oxpecker’s grooming service in action – they’re like the animal spa therapists of the Kruger,” says Enock Mkansi, safari guide at Kruger Gate Hotel.

The duty of the oxpecker doesn’t stop with ridding their friends of pests. These avian custodians are also especially helpful as unlikely security guards. Research by Roan Plotz of Victoria University in Australia has revealed that the non-vocal black rhinos can evade human detection with the help of oxpeckers in up to 50% of encounters. Oxpeckers improved the rhinos’ human detection distance by nine meters. Therefore, integrating more of these versatile birds with rhino populations could assist in a broader rhino safety approach.

Oxpeckers also act as an alarm system for impalas and rhinos. They let out a loud screech on top of rhinos to warn of oncoming danger. Rhinos have weaker eyesight, and rely on other senses to stay safe. Once they hear this unmissable alert they know to get a move on and they almost always do.

“Symbiotic animal relationships are about the various ways that different species interact with each other in the same environment, and it’s specifically interesting to see how different species can help each other,” explains Mkansi.

For more local destinations to visit to learn about animal friendships

A blended crowd

Situated on the banks of the breathtaking Sabie River, the Kruger Gate Hotel is an idyllic setting to witness the integration of zebras and wildebeest. The two herbivorous grazers band together and assemble hybrid herds. What makes the various symbiotic pairings in the Kruger brilliant is that these majestic animal friends make up for each other’s shortcomings.

“In this special alliance, the Kruger’s striking zebras are blessed with a sophisticated sense of sight, whereas their brawny wildebeest allies are gifted with superior hearing. The merging of these vital qualities safeguards the fused herds from predators and peril. These brilliant animals make the perfect symbiotic pair at mealtime. During their joint grass dining in the enchanting Kruger bushveld, zebras eat the elevated grass first. Wildebeests relishing the shorter grass they leave behind,” Mkansi details.

Foraging friends

The Kruger National Park’s most common antelope, impalas, gather for short grass, a steady stream of water, and the chance to dine on the delicacy of sausage fruit. Just like their name suggests this is an elongated, thick-skinned, sausage-like berry that hangs from the sausage tree. Impalas have no problem dining on the sausage fruit scraps of their baboon pals. They can’t chew through the fruit’s tough skin on their own.

Beyond the Kruger

There are many other exciting animal relationships across the African continent. Researchers in Uganda have noted that, just like the oxpecker, mongooses have been known to rid warthogs of unwanted pests.

“Year-round thousands of visitors enjoy all sightings of breathtaking African wildlife. We are incredibly excited to witness these intricate bonds and alluring creatures on South African soil, right in the heart of the Kruger,” Mkansi concludes.