Seeing an animal give birth is always a truly magical thing. Even after three months here, I have only seen one birth and that was a sheep, so when we saw a Thompson gazelle acting strangely on the side of the road we stopped. The Thomie (as they are called for short) had the head and front legs of the infant hanging out, but was still pushing to get the baby all the way out. As we slowed the vehicle to watch her, she stood up and started to run away. Gazelles are known for their speed – this species, in particular, as they are a favorite prey of cheetah – and she headed off quite quickly. Her gait was a bit off as she couldn’t leap and bounce along as they usually do. She just trotted off at great speed with the head of her almost new born bouncing behind her. She eventually stopped and lied down, but it wasn’t long before she felt a need to move again. Given her discomfort, we decided to leave her alone rather than try to watch the whole process. My las image of her as I looked over my shoulder, was the blackened head of the infant slightly hidden beneath her tail.
Elephant’s behavior is determined by their experiences. In areas with heavy poaching, elephants learn to be wary and aggressive towards humans and vehicles. In a place like the Mara, elephants have been well protected and seem placid and calm. Usually I am able to drive up within a few feet of an elephant, even a herd with tiny calves, and the elephants down make a move or a sound. In the last few months, my behavior has been determined by experience and I have lost the wariness of the elephants that had to be so well acquired while working in the North.
So when I saw a herd of elephants that included a few Big Tuskers – animals with three to four foot tusks gleaming brightly from their mouths, I stopped the car nearby and put it in neutral to get a better look. I had a few extra helpers so the car was full and everyone was enjoying the incredible view, until one of the Big Tuskers turned on us. She ran – not straight – but diagonally ahead of the vehicle so as to cut us off. In my terror, I put the car in first and floored it. I felt confused as to why the car was struggling to keep ahead of the elephant as the huge female came within inches of the passenger side door. I walked the trunk swing towards us and then finally remembered to shift. We flew ahead, gaining momentary speed and the elephant trumpeted in rage. She pursued us for a few more meters and then stopped a huge cloud of dust encircling her. I glanced back at her 10 foot ear-span as she flared her ears out to the side. Usually trumpeting and spread ears are a sign of a mock charge rather than the real thing, but it hadn’t felt that way to me or my passengers. We all sighed in relief and looked back at the small herd, who had returned to its deceptively peaceful feeding.
My work is focused on vultures and other avian scavengers, so naturally those are the animals I look for. But of course they are not the only animals that I see. Today was one of those carnivore
filled mornings. As we drove along Talek river, looking at vulture nests, we happened upon three cheetahs. They were all sitting right at the edge of the river bank (which consisted of a rather steep cliff) and glancing across the river at us. Their spots made them almost invisible in the tall, yellow grass, but the shape was unmistakable. Sleek, smooth, clean, cheetahs always look ready for action. Passing by this first carnivore, we stumbled upon another. A huge male lion, stood elevated by a termite mound. The lioness seemed dwarfed by her bulky mate. The mane wafted in the wind as we drove past and on to the day’s research.
We watched a small carcass and were amazed to see so many vultures using this tiny piece of meat even as wildebeest carcasses lay scattered across the Mara. Lappet-faced vultures and African White-backs duked it out for the best pieces and even a Bateleur was able to fly away with a bit of meat. After an hour of eating, most of the birds had flown away. Only one, slightly nervous, Lappet-face
remained. A troop of baboons had moved into the area and one started to B-line it for the carcass. The Lappet stood tall as the fuzzy female baboon approached. I waited, camera ready, for an epic and yet undiscovered battle to occur. But all was calm. There wasn’t enough meat to fight over, so the baboon sat nearby and even after the massive vulture had left, decided not to try its hands at the few scraps remaining.
eventually gave up and took a snooze.
It is hard to believe that even as the dry season approaches baby animals abound in the Mara. Baby Thompson gazelles hide in the tall grass, springing to their wobbly legs as cars pass a little too close for comfort. While most of the wildebeest babies already have miniature horns and have taken on the dark brown coloration of the adults, a few of the fuzzy, milk chocolate colored babies can
occasionally be found racing along to keep up with the rest of the migrating herd.
Today we saw some of the smallest babies since I first arrived. A vervet monkey was holding its new infant tucked up against its chest. The novelty to the mother and family was clear as both young and old vervet monkeys would approach the new infant and mother and carcass the infant’s head or tail. The baby was so small it made no attempt to respond to the countless pats and nudges it received from the rest of its troop. As we turned a corner heading to the edge of the park, a huge elephant crossed our path and then high-tailed it (literally) back into the grass. I looked up ahead and saw the smallest baby elephant I have ever seen. Its head was barely visible above the tall grass and even the other young and still tuskless elephants towered above its round ears. Initially the youngster was sticking close to its mother, but at one point it stopped seemingly distracted by a blade of grass. The rest of the herd moved on and the little elephant soon looked around to realize it was all alone (by all alone, I mean the herd had moved about 10 feet ahead). In a panic, the calf raised its trunk and flared its ears and ran around wildly until it finally identified the location of its exceedingly relaxed mother. The tiny guy raced up to her and reached up to touch its trunk to her knees before it finally calmed down.
We eventually left the park, headed towards one of the group ranches. On the way, we nearly ran over the smallest Leopard tortoise I have ever seen. I got out of the car and picked it up to move it to safety. An adult tortoise will usually tuck into its shell and the slightest sign of approach, but this tiny spotted reptile kept its legs out and flailing even as I set it a few meters away from the road.
From a vulture’s eye view, Masai Mara must seem an incredibly diverse and splendid place. A smorgeousbord of wildebeest and zebras scatter the plains. To the west the plains and tall, lush grass seem to extend forever and to the east the trees spring up not only around the rivers, but across the land, leaving a mountainous landscape of dark green treetops. As you zoom in, to the savannas, watching from the ground through the eyes of a Thomson’s gazelle, the plains seem filled with family. Small, ragged Thomson’s calves wobble after their mothers, sometimes giving up the chase to lie back down and try to hide in the tall grass from the ever-scanning eyes of Lappet-faced vulture and cheetah. The earth seems kind and food is plentiful. Though the grass is often yellow, it is still edible and everyone has plenty to eat, especially as they continue moving to take advantage of the expansive plains. Down to two blades of grass, the Mara must seem enormous and being eaten or trampled is probably inevitable, but the roots will still allow for future growth. Even at just these two little strands of vegetation, a story is playing out as a tick hangs waiting to grasp its next victim. The drama of predator and prey is found even in just these two blades as a spider nibbles on a near microscopic fly. A weevil tiptoes along the stem looking for a soft place to stick its long proboscis, which will allow it to suck out the juicy and ever precious water that courses through the plant’s veins, despite the increasingly dry nature of the soil.
In addition to the sheer number of animals (over a million), what makes the wildebeest migration so incredible are the river crossings. If you have ever watched a Discovery channel program or seen a National Geographic photo of a crocodile snapping down on a wildebeest, it probably came from a few special spots (including an area less than a stone’s throw from the dining tent at Entim) along the Mara river where the wildebeest have dared to cross. I had heard fantastic stories about wildebeest crossing, but today was the first time I witnessed it for myself.
At first, it was just the wildebeest. Like sardines they had packed themselves tight along one river bank as each animals tried to navigate its way up the near-vertical banks of the Mara. I watched as one poor wildebeest struggled its way up the banks, only to come somersaulting down hitting the hard dirt once before tumbling back into the river with a huge splash. The animal stood and appeared unbothered by the fall despite being soaked; in moments it had joined the ranks and was once again trying to scale the cliff. As I watched on in amazement and wonder at the sheer determination (and seeming desperation) of the wildebeest, a huge crocodile arrived on the scene. Despite its size and hard scales that surround it, the crocodile seemed hesitant to approach too close. Predator or not, crocodiles can still be injured by the horns or hooves of their prey. Slowly the crocodile swayed its tail and moved towards the crossing herd. It stopped on the outskirts of the wildebeest and waited. A young calf got pushed to the side as the adults frantically raced through the water. It kept running, but soon came within a few feet of the crocodile. The jaws of the reptile swung up into the air and the calf leaped high above the rising spray of water and teeth. Its great leap seemed to have saved it and it soon reached the other side rejoining the migrating mass of wildebeest. The crocodile decided on a new approach and moved over to the side of the bank in an area where I had seen the wildebeest slip and fall only moments before. Patiently it sat and looked up on the mobile feast that was desperately trying to make its way up the bank. Another calf leaped for a grassy patch a few feet above and missed tumbling directly down towards the crocodile. There was a sudden jerk of the crocodile’s head as the calf splashed back into the river, but the massive predator had missed its mark and within moments the calf found its way to safety.
Unlike the crocodiles, the lions have had no trouble catching the wildebeest and each morning I find several wildebeest carcasses often within only a few feet of each other. The vultures have been feasting too. Indeed, the migration is a good time for tourist, predator, and scavenger alike.
This week I have started trapping the vultures. As part of my research, I am hoping to discover where the birds go and I am particularly interested in not only their long-range movements (which can take them from the Serengeti to the Mara in a few hours), but also their habitat choices. Where do they forage? How often do they leave the park? Answering these questions will be essential to determining why the birds have been declining at such an alarming rates. But given the high flight and huge movements of these large birds, it would be impossible to follow them. Instead I am trapping a few individuals of 3 types of vulture (African White-backed vulture, Ruppell’s vulture, and Lappet-faced vulture) and attaching a GPS unit. The units that I am using take advantage of our ever-changing technology and rather than relying on satellite transmission to get the data back, my units use a SIM card and a text message, just like a regular cell phone. A simple text is thus sent each day from the unit providing me with the vital information about where the birds have gone (the GPS points).
Trapping vultures is no simple task and neither is handling them, but with a few traps and hundreds of wildebeest carcasses around I have been able to trap 8 of the desired birds in 5 days. After watching the vultures through binoculars for the last month, it is strange to suddenly find myself holding one. It has been amazing to finally see the animals up close and to be able to grasp the head, feathers, and feet of birds I had previously only known from a distance. Each vulture has been different. Some struggle (and indeed regurgitate) to show their displeasure with being captured and others lie still and even give little whimpering chirps as I draw a bit of blood for DNA samples. With 8 GPS units attached, I am already learning about the vultures and where they go. In less than three days, two birds returned to Serengeti and one has already sped out of the park at an incredible 87 km/hr in the opposite direction (to the North) though its final destination won’t be known for a few days. It is my hope that with these GPS-tagged birds we will be able to really understand where they go and perhaps identify why they are disappearing from the Mara.
The wildebeest are coming, the wildebeest are coming! For the last few weeks, there have been rumors of the wildebeest: a few seen on the border by the hot-air balloon pilots, a dozen or so crossing the Sands River, a strange inkling that the herd of wildebeest that you pass every morning has started to get larger. But despite the talk, I had a hard time imagining that 1.2 million wildebeest could just enter the park without anyone noticing and I had started to worry that perhaps the migration wouldn’t arrive for another month or so.
But I was wrong.
Suddenly wildebeest are everywhere. Like black army ants they swarm the plains and have taken over the Mara. Where once stood open placid yellow grass with the occasional zebra or impala, thousands of wildebeest now stand feasting upon the plants and bleating incessantly. The noise, the smell, and the sight of the wildebeest is at once overwhelming and magical. Each day is filled with the calls of the wildebeest as mothers search for their lost calves and the sweet smell of wildebeest dung, like a horse barn in summer, fills the air. The fact that such a migration, that animals in such numbers can still exist seems hard to believe in a time where so much of the earth is dominated by humans. It is strangely satisfying to be surrounded by animals rather than people and to find that at least in the Mara for this short time, humans are outnumbered. It has taken a while to adjust to the change in my surroundings, but slowly I have grown used to the wildebeest. Their black coats and alien eyes and mooing noise have finally become part of the landscape just like the trees and the grass.
This afternoon we met with someone at Ol Chorro conservancy. What I had expected to be a 30-minute drive, soon turned into two hours and we arrived late in the afternoon, but the drive was gorgeous and tree-filled. Cliffs rose up on the edge of the property and we passed a White Rhino and his guardian on our way in, followed by two young giant eland (the first I have ever seen in the wild). As we arrived near the office, I stepped out of the car for a cup of tea with the manager and noticed that the eland was rapidly approaching. The young male came at me nose first and before I even realized what was happening, its wet snout reached my fingertips. I stood in amazement for a moment and looked to the manager. “They were orphaned and we are taking care of them,” he said, looking causally upon my magical encounter. I reached forward and scratched the eland between the horns. Before long, the shier female was coming closer and I pet her gently on the back. As we sat in the grass drinking tea, the eland came to sniff our cups and lick the salt off our hands. A few feet down the hill, I noticed the rhino had come to join us as well.