Kenya After-Image: Part 2

Of all the reserves in Kenya, the Masai Mara is undoubtedly the best known, and the vast numbers of both wildlife and tourists present during my visit lived up to its reputation. Despite moments relating to the latter where it sometimes felt I had momentarily returned to the Western world (the details of which I’ll go into in my third and final entry of the after-image), staring at a vista of golden savannah that appears to disappear over the edge of the horizon with no trace of civilization, or witnessing the swarms of migrating wildebeest of wildlife documentary fame drift pass lazing lionesses, were enough to make you feel as if you had crossed the veil to an otherworld.

The diversity of the bird species seen throughout our trip, as you can imagine, was fantastic. From flamingo flocks in their hundreds on Nakuru, to delicate Sunbirds feeding from flowers just by our dining table in the Swara Plains camp, the rich variety of avian life we saw was brilliant; but if I had to pick a favourite, it would be these guys:

Secretary Birds, this pair on the Mara strolling placidly through the savannah grass only a few yards away from us. Unique to the raptors (so much so it’s the only genus of its family, Sagitarridae), these incredible birds have given up hunting from above for a literal down-to-earth approach, stalking the grasses on stilt-like legs while keeping a sharp eye out for prey. This can include hares, tortoises and even venomous snakes, which it can dispatch with a well-aimed kick.

Also up there on my top Kenyan birds would have to be this handsome specimen, a Kori Bustard. While our own native bustards are making a steady recovery from reintroductions on Salisbury Plain, on the African Plains these guys are far more numerous, strutting and foraging through the grass much like the secretary birds. As it is potentially the heaviest bird capable of flight, it probably sticks to the ground for good reason!

Visiting the Mara in August, as I’ve previously mentioned, leads to the privilege of witnessing the mass migration of wildebeest from the Serengeti. The above photo isn’t even a good example of how numerous they were: Clusters of black spots, spread for miles around. Makes you wonder how the grass can even exist out there.

However, it was humbling to think that the wildebeest we saw here had endured that incredibly dangerous feat we’re all too familiar with from the documentaries; the Mara river crossing. Although I didn’t get to witness it myself (I don’t think the 4am wake-up call required would’ve gone down well with everyone else in the group), the aftermath was all too clear when we reached the river during our game drive. The putrid stench of damp, rotting flesh was what hit our nostrils first as we walked over the bridge, and looking down into the current, the mangled corpses of the unlucky wildebeest, drowned or partially eaten by crocs, could be seen snagged on rocks. This provided an easy meal for the Savannah clean-up-crew of vultures and marabou storks, who flocked in their dozens to this gnu take-away whilst many more circled above, ‘waiting their turn’.

With added hippos and crocodiles lurking around the river’s edge, it was not a place you’d immediately want to take a dip in. However, it was a fantastic sight when you consider the ecological benefits this event creates for the local biodiversity. While it’s always easy to feel sorry for the wildebeest who didn’t make it, they sustain huge numbers of crocodiles, hyenas, vultures and other carnivores, whilst the nutrients released from their decomposition are carried far down stream to be absorbed by soils miles away, supporting plant growth, and the insects and large herbivores that feed on them, and subsequently their predators… it’s cliche to say it, but it really is the circle of life in action.

If I had one basic, core reason for visiting Kenya in the first place, I would say it was to see wild elephants. These animals have been my favourite since living memory, when seeing them on early trips to Longleat just left me spellbound. So our first sighting of them, so far away they were barely slow-moving grey blobs, was powerful enough to be ingrained in my memory permanently. But to have them pass across the road in front of our vehicles, then slowly drift alongside us, yards away, whilst the young played among themselves was enough to have me pinching my cheeks.

It’s not just the fact they are magnificent to behold, but the complex psychology of these animals has always fascinated me; their intelligence is high on the leaderboard of mammal IQs, and they’re nature seems sentient on a level close to humans and the other great apes. I guess one way to explain it is that they’re evolution into sizes where fear of predation was no longer needed allowed ‘spaces’ in the brain usually concerned with checking your surroundings before each mouthful of food was filled with more ‘progressive’ things, but that’s just the way I see it.

During my stay in Kenya, reading material was provided by the accounts of the first long-term study of African elephants by Iain & Oria Douglas-Hamilton in their fantastic book, Among the Elephants. Their accounts of the unique personalities between each elephant, which shined through their close familial bonds, was mirrored in our own observations of the family group we found. Within the space of time we watched them, it was clear to see the role each elephant played: There was the Matriach of the unit, leading the way and keeping a a steady eye on proceedings, whilst flapping her ears at the front safari vehicle to make sure it stayed in place while the herd crossed the road in front. The other adult cows flanked her, patrolling around the herd with one suckling a calf no bigger than a shetland pony. With carefree spirits were the teenagers and mature calves, who play-wrestled with each other’s trunks, rolled in the grass like dogs and stared curiously at the strange creatures pointing lenses at them from the jeeps.

By the time they drifted away (it was literally like they floated through the grass, as they’re cushioning foot pads make their footfalls silent), I just wanted to get out and follow them across that huge savannah. It was a moment a long time coming, and one I’m definitely going to treasure for the rest of my life.

To many, the Mara is best known for its big cats, and the life of times of the resident lion, leopard and cheetah populations have been followed by many in the BBC’s ‘Big Cat Diary’ series. During our visit, I was incredibly lucky to see all three of these animals. Lions are of course the most numerous, but cheetah occur in far lower numbers on the reserve and leopards are notoriously elusive; people who live out on the bush often have years between sightings.

Spending 20 hours a day snoozing and an unconcerned attitude to passing tourists meant lions were frequently allowing good views from the vehicles, as the picture above shows. Our first lion sighting in the Mara was completely unexpected, as we were in the middle of a vast wildebeest herd. It was only a glance at some rocks a few yards away from the jeep that revealed the sight of two dozy lioness, showing no interest in the prey around them and vice versa. Long hours of rest are essential for saving up precious energy for hunts that won’t always be 100% successful, so throughout the hot middle of the day, an apparently peaceful co-existence was to be observed.

That’s all well and good for the lionesses that do all the hard work; but what excuse do those males have for doing no more than moving from one sleeping place to another?

You’d think cheetahs would be better off in the protected reserves, but intense competition from far stronger predators like lions, hyenas and leopards actually makes life much tougher for them; there’s even some evidence for cheetah populations decreasing in the Mara recently. With the sacrifice of a heavy build that makes it easier to defend itself for a lightweight body that gives it’s incredible speed, cheetahs aren’t able to protect their kills from the ‘bullies’, and even their cubs can’t rely on their parent’s protection (As a last-ditch effort, cheetah cubs have silvery hair that makes them resemble the ferocious honey badger to deter enemies, but an average 90% of cubs still never make it to maturity). Meanwhile, outside of the reserves, persecution from farmers trying to protect their livestock is intense.

Perhaps the best way to protect cheetah for the future should be, paradoxically, outside of protected areas. Working with communities to find compromises to protect livestock should be the way forward, with night-time inclosing and guard dogs & donkeys already becoming more successful in existing projects. With an animal that’s evolved outside of the box,it seems outside of the box conservation practice is what’s needed.

A complete surprise and absolute highlight for our early morning drive had to be this leopard, again providing us with close encounters. However, I look back on the other aspect of the experience with sadness. A solitary young zebra was the clear focus of the leopard’s intentions, and it stalked it stealthily from the other side of a mound, keeping downwind and carefully planning each step. Rather than keeping back to let nature take course however, another three vehicles were already steaming up front, drifting off-road and closer to the zebra to be in place for the action. Unsurprisingly, this startled the potential meal to bolt away, leaving the leopard with a failed hunt from human ignorance.

It made me wonder how long he or she had been out hunting, or just how many kills are prevented due to Westerners demanding a closer range for their telephoto lenses.  Wildlife tourism is a salvation for many species, protecting ones who would otherwise be culled by farmers or shot for bushmeat. But it can very easily go wrong, and I’ve heard many similar tales from the Mara, which is unregulated by the Kenyan Wildlife Service. The welfare of the animal you’re privileged to see should be first and foremost field researcher or sightseer, happy-snapper or professional wildlife photographer, so if you do go on safari please bear this in mind.

The third and final piece of the After-Image probably won’t be published until late January due to other commitments, so until then, I’ll leave you with one of the less dramatic, yet no-less fascinating, inhabitants of the Mara: The mischievous Banded Mongoose!

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