OnSafari: Lucy’s Future

OnSafari: Lucy’s Future

kenya and lucyWe had a Maasai guide for our final days in Kenya. There are about 500 guides in Kenya’s best game park, the Maasai Mara. Only three are women: “our” Lucy was one.

Two days after national elections, results have yet to be announced but the country looks increasingly like it will accept the outcome peacefully. Lucy won’t be the only beneficiary of peace. In 8 of Kenya’s 47 counties (comparable to our states) provisional results give governorships to women.

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OnSafari: River Crossing

OnSafari: River Crossing

rivercrossingBPWe were among 30 cars on one side of the Mara river – there were another 30 on the opposite side.

I don’t like crowds in the wilderness, and I avoid them pretty successfully. But this is an exception. If you want to see one of the most dramatic still truly wild components of the world’s last great animal migration, you’re going to be part of a crowd.

True, there are plenty of river crossings on the great migration route that don’t draw crowds, and I’ve enjoyed them. But the classic and most dramatic crossings are in the Mara, and there are only a couple dozen favorite crossing spots.

Unlike so many animals, wildebeest are very finicky eaters. All they will consumer is grass. Grass comes after rain. The wilde’s instinct forces them to “follow the rains,” which generally recede over the course of the year in a northwesterly direction onto Lake Victoria.

Before reaching the Mara, the great herds have crossed at least two and sometimes four or five other great rivers as they move north.

The Mara is the last and furthest northern river before the herds are turned back by developed farm fields, towns and villages. Here they cluster and start moving backwards and forwards across the river seemingly without purpose. The instinct to move is too great, and if the movement is a rebound, so be it.

This has been the case for at least the last half century. Before that they may have continued all the way to the Lake before turning around. The boundary is not natural in the wild sense, of course, and it results in the mass confusion, exceptional drama and photogenic scenes that have become the trademark of the great migration.

A bit further south the herds’ decisions to move back and forth across rivers is governed much more by actual rain. Particularly now with climate change, the intense micro-climates may mean a healthy rainfall a few miles to the north, or a drought, a few miles to the south.

I’ve often watched the herds move north out of Tanzania to Kenya right on schedule in June, but then return months early in August because of early, heavy rains in northern Tanzania.

Keep in mind that a wildlife documentary is simply an edited version of what the Miller Family saw this morning in person. I remember encountering a BBC/Nova film crew once shooting a river crossing here in the Mara, and there were at least 20 vehicles just in their team.
wildcomingBP
We were watching a newborn zebra being defended by its mom against a hyaena when we spotted massive clouds of dust several miles away above the river.

Our camp driver, of course, knew exactly what “favorite crossing place” was near the dust and we headed for it posthaste. Wilde will jump 20 feet into the river and then try (usually unsuccessfully) to scale the other side of a 20-foot canyon, but they prefer easier entries and exits, often dry river washes merging with the great Mara. There aren’t many, and everyone knows them.

To reach this crossing place, we had to drive through the herds, and that in itself was fabulous. I estimated between 3500-4500 in this particular group. They were racing in multiple files and converging on a plateau just above the crossing point.

We slowed down among their incessant blarting mixed with the anxious barking of the zebra. Clearly this group was getting psyched up to cross!

By the time we got to the crossing point most of the prime spaces were already taken by other cars. But our driver knew the river so well that we went down river all of a few hundred meters where it turned and found a beautiful viewing area right there.

Across the river were four giant crocs, pulled out onto the sun with bellies already bulging with previous crossings.

So then, like everyone, else, we just waited.

After about an hour, all of a sudden, we were surrounded by wilde! They came so fast the dust came after them! This wasn’t the crossing place, this was our secret viewing area, and it was very rocky and steep at the river’s edge.

Then almost as quickly, they moved away back into the riverine forest. For some reason, they weren’t going down the “favorite crossing place.”

After about another half hour some cars began to leave. We thought we would, too, but just as the engine turned on we could see upriver that the first of the group had reached the river’s edge at the end of the wash.

At first they didn’t seem to do anything but grow in numbers and drink the water. After about five minutes, though, the pressure of the racing wilde behind them forced them to start the swim across.

They walked until the depth of the river forced them to swim, and wilde do this by successive leaping. Water was splashing all of the place. I watched a croc leap out and grab the side of one wilde. It was soon mayhem. Six or seven abreast were swimming across, many getting drowned by others behind them, some actually swimming back across the river!

A half hour later it was all over. A very small group of about 25 wilde for some reason remained on the wash and didn’t cross, but the bulk had move onto the other side and were congregating on the plains and starting to graze.

We found a nice place much further down the river to set up our wonderful breakfast, but the river runs fast here, and numerous “floaters” or dead wildebeest passed by us.

The great migration is like one little muscle in Mother Earth. It’s a reflection of the ecological heritage that makes our planet so awesome. Until we free ourselves completely of our biological roots, we need to truly experience the power of our organic world so that we can concede that we’re only one piece in an infinite universe of life, beholden to the great migration as the wildebeest are to the rains.
MillerHaynieBP

OnSafari: Maasai Mara

OnSafari: Maasai Mara

leopardMaraBPWe’re in the Maasai Mara, Kenya’s best game park and the top of the great Ngorongoro/Serengeti/Mara ecosystem.

She had killed a wildebeest yearling this morning without much effort. Large files of the great migration are coming through the salient. We saw three groups of about 400 wilde and another of about 1000 that was running in single file.

We even watched a small group of several hundred try to cross the Mara River. Only one did! But the others’ reluctance was understandable. The river is already littered with dead wildebeest among very fat, giant crocs.

So the young female leopard that probably weighs around 120 pounds max had pulled the 220 pound yearling into the crux of a tree about 6-8 feet off the ground. That’s not very high for a leopard who can easily lift 350 pounds 20 feet into a tree.

But she was with an older daughter and I wonder if maybe she was teaching her how to lift the kill. In any case, they made haste with their feast, eating more than half of it in a single setting. That, too, is unusual for a leopard which may take a week to finish off its kill.

The urgency was in part because there were so many vehicles trying to watch them. The Mara gets a bum rap sometimes regarding too many vehicles, and for the vast majority of our game drive we were alone or just with our other vehicle in the Miller family safari.

But a leopard is prize stuff. So all the vehicles in the neighborhood came to see them, and that meant when we arrived there were another 7 vehicles. Once we got our fleeting pictures, I insisted we move on, as even more vehicles were arriving.

I felt she was understandably nervous. The would move together out of the deep bush to one side, then the vehicles would move to that side, and they would move to the other.

It was a fantastic first game drive for us!

We followed the river for the migrating wilde, encountered great herds of buffalo, saw elephant and a bunch of other stuff. The Mara is one of the most beautiful parks in my estimation. As the afternoon light cut across the prairie stopped distantly here and there by a single struggling acacia tree, there was a sense of wild peace you just find nowhere else.

Tomorrow we’re going out for most of the day. Stay tuned!

OnSafari: Mara & Maasai

OnSafari: Mara & Maasai

JimMaasaiOur three days of game viewing in the Maasai Mara proved this is the most exciting place to experience extraordinary drama in Kenya.

Hippo Feast
Hippo Feast

Many of the best wildernesses of East Africa are inextricably linked to the Maasai people. The three days of exciting game viewing in Kenya’s Maasai Mara impressed me especially for the simple fact that local Maasai have allowed this wild and wooly place to continue to exist.

Our nights at Governor’s Camp were not peaceful. Screaming baboon, howling hyaena, fighting elephant, roaring lion and grunting leopard even woke me, and some of my clients were actually concerned their first night or two.

As throughout all of northern Tanzania and very southern Kenya, there are too many elephant, and too many means more fights among them, day and night. We suffered two mock charges, one by a collared male that had been relocated after harassing residents of Nairobi.

The salient just outside Governor’s Camp is peppered with lion. We had the remarkable fortune to watch a three-day saga that began when a dead hippo “popped.”

Nothing kills or really wants to eat hippo. It’s too big, too fat and the hide, too thick. But a giant one of probably 3000 pounds or more died on the banks of the Mara River just outside Governor’s probably a few weeks before we arrived.

It ripens and then pops. It did so when we arrived, and we watched several giant crocs open “tunnels” into the fermenting beast.

Lynn & Bill Vogt
Lynn & Bill Vogt

They didn’t get much to eat before one of the local lion prides displaced them and began gorging on the meat deep below the hide and fat that was finally available.

That drew hyaena and the hyaena drew birds and for the next two days we watched an endless drama of dozens of lions feasting and fighting and fending off literally 30 hyaena, not to mention the 14-foot crocs at river’s edge.

When the lions could just not stuff down another morsel, most of them went away, but as lion prides are want to do, one remained behind stuffed to the trimmings to “guard” the kill. She managed this for almost a day before submitting to her own need to sleep off the gluttony.

The hyaena pounced on the remaining carcass screaming and laughing and seriously fighting with one another. Vultures grabbed bits of meat and fat out of the air that were being flung from this giant holiday meal from hyaena completely inside the carcass!

That, my friends, was only one of dozens of exciting experiences this amazing reserve afforded us all. Quite far from Governor’s at Double Crossing we watched three lions stage a hunt of warthog from start to finish, leaving their 4 four-month old cubs sitting in a line about 5 feet from our cars.

We saw the most amazing assemblage of animals: topi, hartebeest, wildebeest, giraffe, waterbuck, eland, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle and probably others I’ve forgotten, strung across the unbelievably beautiful rolling hills of the Mara.

We watched the giant martial eagle attack guinea fowl. We saw two male impala sadly stuck together at their horn after a vicious fight. We watched hundreds of buffalo stampede through the waving tan oat grass, white egrets flung about them like fluff exploding from a pillow. We saw a mammoth hippo start to attack a Landrover.

And we watched amazing bird events, including maybe a thousand Abdim storks take off for their return journey to Europe easily circling up six or seven thousand feet in all but a few seconds.

It’s breathtaking being in The Mara. Always has been and always will… if the Maasai say so. Because all around the Mara are Maasai farms and businesses. We saw them. We followed a wild black rhino out of the park onto their land.

Running a farm or a small shop or teaching in school with too many elephants outside and lions threatening your livestock isn’t easy. Tourism and its benefits manages a fragile balance with this tolerance.

Let’s hope it continues.

Vizuka Mara

Vizuka Mara

maraghostsOne of Africa’s most iconic prides of lions were poisoned last week in the Maasai Mara, and it’s now time to implement Richard Leakey’s dream to consolidate all Kenyan wilderness under a single federal government agency.

Eight of the magnificent “Marsh Pride” were poisoned by Maasai herders, according to officials who have arrested two men.

Animal poisoning in The Mara is not new, but this killing is receiving unusual attention since this is the pride featured in the BBC documentary, “Big Cats.” The pride has resided for my entire 40 years of guiding outside Governor’s Camp near the Mara River.

Many Maasai believe that protecting the Mara for wildlife/tourism is an unfair usurping of their traditional pastures. This conflict grows at the margin of seasons (which is now) when new rains sprout nutrient grasses.

The problem is not endemic to The Mara or Kenya but exists throughout all the rapidly developing lands of Africa. Ironically, the problem may be exacerbated by Kenya’s faster and broader development compared to many other African countries.

The situation unique to The Mara, though, is extraordinary. It’s a mess: an entanglement of personalities, politics and corruption the likes of which belong in a TV sitcom.

First of all, there really isn’t “A Mara.” Elsewhere in the continent there is “A Serengeti” or “A Sabi Sands” surrounding “A Kruger.”

“The Mara,” instead, is a collection of government and private reserves each separately managed and funded. The map looks like a gerrymandered set of 10 districts in my dysfunctional state of Illinois.
greatermaraconservancy
“The Mara” is not a Kenyan national park: the main responsibilities for it rest with the county of Narok in which the wilderness is located. This is an freakish historical legacy of the local Maasai unwilling to share power or land.

Richard Leakey tried to change this decades ago when he was the country’s wildlife czar. He failed miserably, succumbing at the time to a very powerful Maasai politician, Ntimama.

Ntimama is today a very old mzee out of favor with the younger, more progressive regime in Nairobi. But it was only a few months ago that the old man resurrected the land issue of which the Mara is front and center.

The rectangular portion which borders Tanzania to the south is the “government” county reserve, but even that is divided into three administrative sections. The area to the north of the county land is made up of nine private conservancies, more than doubling government land.

It was the development of these northern private areas in the last 25-35 years that contributed so substantially to the increase of animal populations including the great migration.

(A similar situation exists with private reserves like the Sabi Sands which surround South Africa’s Kruger National Park.)

Traditionally all of these lands were used as pastures for cattle and goats by the Maasai. Had none of the lands been protected, the cattle and goats and Maasai would likely have eaten themselves out of house and home by now, identical to what you see today in so many other parts of Africa where overgrazing ends in societal suicidal.

From the point of view of the people living there, though, that’s not such a bad outcome if what comes next are highways and factories. IBM is still in the throes of a fraction-of-a-billion dollar deal to build a high-tech industrial park in what was once Kenya’s Tsavo wilderness.

I doubt you’ll find too many young Maasai today who will lament herding cattle for pennies a day if the alternative is writing computer code and driving to work in a Benz.

Equally sad, private tourism stakeholders are just as mercenary as the Narok Maasai. There have been periods of vicious competition among businessmen, some foreign nationals, vying for the best spots. In this management mayhem developed the private reserve map we see today, with little scientific or management rational and little or no interaction between the competing areas.

That spells disaster. BBC has the exposure to wander between reserve boundaries unimpeded, and thus the “Marsh Pride” became very special. But I’ve known several young field researchers who would have loved to work in the Mara ecosystem, but who turned to Tanzania instead because the politics and restrictions of working trans-reserve were too difficult.

The private reserves do everything themselves: anti-poaching, rules for wildlife management and intervention (several of the Marsh Pride that were recently poisoned were then treated by vets), fees and marketing. But the land has never been actually transferred from Maasai ownership: it’s leased, and that’s the private reserves greatest flaw:

Maasai owners could only be encouraged to compromise their age-old historical life style as pastoralists if they could be paid enough. For a while, they were. The revenues from tourism throughout the 90s were greater than the revenues from cattle farming.

But with political instability followed by terrorism which effected Kenya so seriously from 2007-2012, tourism revenues fell precipitously. Although safari revenues in neighboring Tanzania have planed or shown a slight increase, this has yet to occur in Kenya.

In their heyday the private reserves became extremely sophisticated, bettering the government reserves in anti-poaching and educational efforts. Like all bureaucracies, though, their appetite for capital grew well beyond the simple lease payments to the Maasai owners. Since 2008 virtually all the private Mara reserves have fallen into arrears.

Stefano Chile, the chairman of the second largest private conservancy, the Mara North Conservancy, wrote to supporters recently that “our ability to pay and cover all these costs is seriously challenged.”

He said the conservancy needs $355,000 to become sustainable, again. The first appeal for donations launched at least a month ago has raised only $13,000.

Cheli is one of the most creative and long-time entrepreneurs in the East African tourism industry, perhaps best known for building Tortilis Camp in Amboseli. But in my estimation this is way beyond his or any other excellent tourism manager’s job.

For one thing were a campaign like this successful it would hardly be the last time private reserve officials came to us hat in hand. Which of the nine reserves would you decide to support? I have a hard enough time juggling contributions to two public radio stations serving my area. If appeals came from nine of them, a distinct impression is created that nobody knows what they’re doing.

Collectively that’s the point, they don’t.

Private wildlife reserves have been a very important part of Africa’s conservation efforts for more than a half century.

But nowhere else in Africa is a collection of hodgepodge private reserves so terribly organized and so terribly suspicious and competitive with each another as in the Mara, and trying to treat them as charities is overwhelmingly impossible.

What will work is the Kenyan government getting serious. The photographer Jonathan Scott reported on his blog two days ago that may be happening.

From my point of view there’s only one answer. The government must take over the whole kitandkaboodal. This will really freak out the private reserve stake holders.

But it’s time they listened to themselves: if wildlife conservation is the goal, then look at Amboseli. Look at the Aberdare. Look at the heroic efforts in Nakuru. Look at all the other wonderful national parks in Kenya.

Frankly, it’s time the Maasai of Narok, and the stakeholders of the private reserves were all sidelined, and that the Kenya Wildlife Service takes the whole thing over.

Richard Leakey’s dream was right then, and it’s right now: The Maasai Mara National Park.

OnSafari: The Mara

OnSafari: The Mara

pinksunset.mara.08aug.447.jimWhy spend the time and money to travel north on a Tanzanian safari to the very border of Kenya, and then not cross?

I ended my extremely successful McGrath Family Safari game driving along the great Mara and Sand Rivers, seeing really giant crocs, looking longingly to Kenya. You aren’t allowed to cross over.

Ever since the 1979 dispute between the two countries closed the border, numerous attempts by good politicians on both sides have tried to reopen it to no avail.

Oprah stood where my family had lunch yesterday, peeved to smithereens that she wasn’t allowed to cross a few years ago.

Nobody can. Not even the politicians themselves.

The dispute is now so old that recounting its history is like critiquing a marble statue: Interesting, but it’s not going to change.

We had great game viewing these last two days, including a family of 12 lion in a weeded kopjes, elephant playing along the river, giraffe starting at us as we bumped and hurdled ourselves over really bad roads, and to everyone’s glee, 5 baby rock hyrax popping out of a rock design placed at the edge of our camp’s swimming pool.

But it’s a long … and expensive journey to get here. Obviously we aren’t unusual, because the camp we stayed in, Asilia’s Sayari, is expanding (now 15 tents) and is one of the most expensive and luxurious camps in Tanzania.

The southern (Tanzanian) side of the rivers that make up some of the border with Kenya are filled with camps. We encountered almost as many game viewing vehicles as we did in Tarangire. So clearly, we’re not alone.

The attraction is the allure of the migration. Read my last blog to see how crazy this is! Yet we are all driven by history, and in fact the chances today of seeing the great herds in Tanzania are definitely chances that on every day of the calendar are moving northwards.

But more correctly – and this is my own experience – they aren’t moving as much. It’s wetter, so more grass, and areas previously dust bowls at certain times of the year in Tanzania are no longer.

Personally, I love the Mara. In Kenya it’s called the Maasai Mara. Here it’s called the Mara District. But it’s the Mara, absolutely one of the most beautiful places on earth.

It’s cold at night like Seronera, but it never gets really hot during the day even with clear skies. It rains almost every day of the year except in October and November, which I love because it’s not the least disruptive (it never rains for long) and it’s dramatic and turns the veld into a bouquet.

(P.S. The animals like it, too.)

There are woodlands, but they aren’t as dense as further south, so you can reach a rise in a hill and have vistas that stretch for dozens if not hundreds of miles. It’s a lush carpet of greens: the shining reflective green of grasses and the deep dark fur greens of the trees and few woodlands.

And, of course, the rivers. We spent most of our time up here along the Mara River. It’s a raging, but not very deep river, bubbling over lots of big rocks producing white water and little cascading waterfalls everywhere you look.

Also everywhere you look are hippos, uncountable there are so many, and some of the world’s largest crocodiles. I think the biggest one we saw was probably 14 feet, but I have seen them twice that size!

The birdlife is exceptional. First of all, things are easier to see when the woodlands are thinned out. So, for example, we saw numerous klipspringer, steinbok and reedbuck, and even an oribi! These aren’t rare animals, just difficult to find because of their size, color and stealth.

The same is true for birds. So within a half hour we saw a hoopoe, a pygmy falcon and the pink-eyelidded Verreaux’s Eagle Owl!

But it’s not all good news. Tanzania – at least up here – pays a lot less attention to its wildernesses than Kenya. So there are many, many more tse-tse. There are many fewer tracks that we can use. And most of all …

… Tanzania does not allow off-road driving as the Kenyans do in the Mara. That’s critical. The official Tanzanian position is that it damages the ecosystem, and there is some truth to that.

But it’s a little truth, and the real truth has to do with Tanzanian corruption and lack of resources dedicated to tourist parks. So as Kenya calms down (the British removed their travel warnings on the Kenyan coast last week) I think that I and most of my colleagues will choose to travel to Kenya to see the Mara rather than here.

But the McGraths and all the others we met here this time made absolutely the right decision. The southern Serengeti remains my favorite place, but … the Mara is a close second!

Dangerous Plays

Dangerous Plays

stupidtouristwithlionAs access to Africa’s wildernesses develops and improves, visitors are becoming less respectful and careful. This puts everything in jeopardy.

The photo above of a self-drive tourist in Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve last Sunday “posing” in front of a pair of lions was taken by a film crew at some distance from the tourist. Presumably the tourist didn’t notice the film crew.

The series of photos was first published in London’s Daily Mail. Click here for the full sequence.

The tourist spots the lions, which seem to be about 15-20 meters away. He stops the car then exits the passenger’s side (right side) which is the opposite side to the lions.

He then races around the car to place himself between the car and the lions, leans back with a thumb’s up obviously posing for another person in the car who probably takes a picture. He then runs back around the car and gets back in.

The photos capture no reaction from the lions other than an occasional glance at the tourist.

These are certainly wild lions, and why they didn’t react is impossible to say. They appear to be a mating pair as it is unlikely to see only one male and one female alone together.

Lion mating is pretty routine: It lasts about three days during which time the pair often can’t be roused by anything, not even hunger. But not always, and it’s impossible when first encountering them to determine at what stage in the three-day mating process they are.

I’ve encountered a mating pair when the male charged our vehicle. There is often a vicious fight between males for the right to mate prior to the mating commencing, so it was possible we arrived just as that altercation had ended.

I’ve also seen mating lion break apart to join a kill. Once again such an anecdotal encounter could be nothing more than having happened to arrive just at the end of the mating process.

I don’t think it’s possible to conclude why these lions were so passive in this case. I suppose an equally cogent argument to my own anecdotal experience is the clear fact that more and more tourists are seen by lions, now. Generations of lions in places like Kenya’s Maasai Mara are becoming more used to people and learn that they aren’t threatening.

That, of course, is a degradation of the wilderness but one that I can hardly oppose. Without tourists — at least in Kenya — there would be little wilderness left.

We are at an interesting crossroads in the development of African wilderness for tourism. As so clearly illustrated in this example, wilderness is taking on the characteristics of a theme park, one that definitely has elements of danger in the experience which seem precisely to be one of the main attractions.

And at least in this case flirting with that danger is apparently one of the selling points.

There are dozens of stories of tourists going too far and paying the price. Just google “tourist killed by lion” or “tourist killed by buffalo” for a tidy wrap-up.

Many of these tragedies aren’t quite as wanton stupidity as evidenced in the photo above, but many are.

What concerns me most is that as more and more of these incidents occur, lions and other wildlife will grow more and more accustomed to man and his peculiarities. This seriously jeopardizes their own wild behavior.

There are many people in Africa who consider lion in the same regards as Montana ranchers consider wolf. A tamer lion is much easier to kill.

And there will be more and more tourists injuries and deaths as well. These two ends of the stick will burn right through to the middle, and tourist parks like Kenya’s Maasai Mara will either have to become far more restrictive or will simply be sold to wheat farmers, or both.

The result is that there will be less wilderness for us all to enjoy.

On Safari: Migration Drama

On Safari: Migration Drama

wildemigrationThe Kisiel family’s last two days on safari featured the great migration at its best, including a croc feast of a wildebeest river crossing.

We expected to find the migration in the north, and we did. We flew from the central Serengeti into the far northern Serengeti landing virtually in sight of the Kenyan border. Although our lovely Kuria Hills tented lodge was a half hour south of here, we spent most of the time game viewing in the north.

Five minutes after we left the airstrip in the Mara Region of northern Tanzania we were skirting the south and west banks of the great Mara river. Crocs so big I call them “dinosaur crocs” were everywhere, waiting for one of the two meals they eat each year.

We saw one monster that John Kohnstamm said was 24 feet long. Close. But on that first day, no wildebeest near the river that we could find. So we headed south to camp through absolutely beautiful Mara grasslands and rolling hills.

That afternoon we saw our first oribi, not something many safaris see. It’s a gorgeous little, somewhat hyper antelope with large black face spots.

We also saw a number of wonderful birds in addition to the common headliners like the lilac breasted roller. Add the gorgeous cliff chat, rosy-breasted lark, perhaps a hundred red-cheeked cordon bleu among many others.

The next morning – the Kisiel Family’s last morning – we packed a picnic lunch and left before dawn.

We stopped on a ridge that looked north into Kenya and waited for the African sunrise. We had flushed out many square-tailed nightjars having listened to their woeful scream in the night. Then about ten minutes before dawn the omnipresent ring-necked dove began to fill the veld from horizon to horizon with its hypnotic song.

And then a few minutes before sunrise the whole veld exploded with bird song, and Africa’s giant sun peaked up blaring a perfect red-orange orb through the thick morning haze.
one old serengeti tree.690
We traveled all the way past the southern Sand River border of Kenya and began searching along the Sand River. There we saw what will always be one of my most precious safari events.

We were driving somewhat hidden in the heavy bush at the top of the 15-foot embankment of the Sand River, which unlike the Mara, usually has an all sand bottom with good and copious amounts of water flowing under the sand.

But there has been so much rain that there were actual streams in the sand river bottom.

We came upon a lion pride eating a recently killed wildebeest. There were two lionesses with seven cubs in two different litters, plus a young and magnificent pridemaster, plus a slightly younger juvenile male that already was bigger than Mom and was sprouting a wonderful new mane.

What was specially interesting was the fighting that we watched between Mom and this juvenile male. She would not let him eat.

He could easily have whooped her, since he was bigger and stronger, but her motherly instincts knew it was time for him to be kicked out of the pride. Not too long before we had seen two other males about his age, sulking on an anthill starving as a ring of wildebeest surrounded them.

Young males don’t know how to hunt. They have to teach themselves, and if they don’t, they starve. It’s the reason there are more females in the overall lion population than males.

So the juvenile male that had somehow managed to stay with the pride was trying a new tact. But it wasn’t working.

Any move he’d make, even the slowest and most methodical attempt to raise his leg on the embankment to scoot away, and Mom would snarl and attack him. Finally, he slipped away.

We had seen in about twenty minutes what wildlife photographers take years to document.

But believe it or not, the best was yet to come.

Thinking we’d seen it all, sated with experiences, we began to head home along the river. Lo and behold there was a small group of wildebeest and zebra that looked like they were ready to cross the great Mara River.

And below them, to the right and left and side and bottom, were giant crocs waiting. They were steady in the water despite the strong current, or on the embankment, or on the island rocks, just waiting … waiting.

So… we did, too.

Roy Stockwell kept saying to the wilde across the river, “Come ‘on guys, the grass is much sweeter on this side!”

Whether it was Roy or not, they finally came, in a sudden leap from the bank followed by leaps across the great river.

The crocs moved in from every side. One dinosaur sailed straight for a calve and pulled it under and another on the other side took down a yearling.

Both started screaming and the mother of the calve turned around and jumped back in the river, literally pouncing on top of the croc, but it was no use. He took it under and she leaped exhausted back onto the shore.

The larger yearling drew many big crocs as they started vying among themselves for the feast.

Camden Reiss, like many many kids and adults as well, didn’t like what he saw. And it is a terrible moment, and yet when we as the real king of the beasts step back to let nature do her thing, we realize there are as many wonders as catastrophes.

“Can’t get better than this!” Grandpa shouted.

He was right! We were headed home.
serengetisunrise

Cheetah on Car!

Cheetah on Car!

Cheetah jumping on cars went YouTube viral this holiday season, and traditional criticisms from wildlife managers was starkly absent. Is this OK?

The newest video had nearly a quarter million hits this morning but it is hardly the only one. I stopped counting at 20 separate YouTubes of cheetah on cars, and there are countless stills on Flickr and even more individual photos on private blogs.

My own experience includes at least a dozen such incidents. Most of them were in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, but some of the most memorable incidents were in Tanzania’s Serengeti. The striking difference as relates tourism of the two areas – the Mara is generally very crowded and the Serengeti generally absent of crowds – has led me to believe that there is something hardwired in the cheetah’s brain that gives it a potential pet syndrome.

Hard-wired may be too strong, and I can understand how generations and generations of cheetah being unmolested by people could nurture up the same behavior, but either way, the cheetah is clearly the closest thing to a pet you’ll encounter on a big game safari.

Not every cheetah displays this friendly behavior. I’ve encountered many which are extremely skittish, although none of these frightened little beasts were in the Mara – they were all in the Serengeti or more distant places like Kenya’s northern frontier. The best I can remember virtually every cheetah in the Mara looked friendly.

Why do some, then, but not all jump on the cars?

It’s a pretty simple answer. A hungry cheetah begins its hunt in an incredibly laid-back fashion. The eyesight of the cat is so powerful that it can scan the plains with almost the same facility as a falcon surveying the turf below.

The best view is the higher one.

And like falcons and other raptors, prey is often discovered but then doesn’t always trigger an attack response. I suspect this is often because it’s just too far away, but there’s probably dozens of other reasons as well.

Perhaps the cat’s level of hunger just hasn’t reached the threshold of action, or perhaps the cat also sees competitors in the area and the cheetah is the smallest of the big cats, easily chased off its prey by a host of other animals like hyaena.

In any case, the cat on your car roof seems incredibly relaxed, hardly hunting. But that’s exactly what it’s doing. Fat cats – non hungry cheetahs – will never be found atop a car.

There is one exception. Youngsters learning to hunt will often play on the car, hungry or not.

Not too many years ago, researchers and rangers were highly critical of these tourist interactions. Pamphlets were placed strategically on lodge reception counters and I even remember a series of “ranger talks” warning guests not to approach cheetah too closely.

The argument was that the cheetah was easily distracted by tourists, and would therefore often have its hunt disrupted. I found that specious.

But there are definitely reasons to avoid too close an interaction. Cheetah is the only cat whose claws don’t retract, so it has no power to decide whether to inflict a wound or just give you a love swipe if you accidentally surprise it.

I learned this when Kumati, an old cheetah that lived by Naabi Hill, jumped on my car as we were headed to the airstrip for a flight. No matter what we did, we couldn’t get him off. Finally I stepped out of the car and swiped him with my hat, which he ripped back in turn!

Of my many memories of cheetah-on-car the funniest one was with two football players from a prominent American college traveling with their much smaller mother. We stopped in the middle of the Serengeti – virtually all alone for miles and miles – to watch a young family strolling along the plains.

Several of the youngsters jumped on the spare tire on the back of the vehicle. The right guard shoved his mother towards the front of the inside of the car, then ripped out one of my seats and pushed it towards the cheetah shouting, “Down Mother!”

A big male cheetah might reach 90 pounds. Most females are around 60 pounds, and this means they are generally about the same size as your lapdog.

Is there any real harm with all this?

I don’t think so. As I learned with Kumati, don’t try to pet them! But conceding a better view and just enjoying the experience strikes me as mutually beneficial!

Another Black Day in Kenya

Another Black Day in Kenya

Visitors and citizens alike were horribly killed in Kenya yesterday reflecting a very strained society.

As of this morning four tourists are reported dead with several others still in critical condition after a scheduled flight aboard of Mombasa Air Safari LET aircraft from the Maasai Mara to Mombasa crashed on take-off.

Forty-eight Kenyans were killed in ethnic clashes near the town of Mandera in the arid Tana River region far east of Nairobi.

The two quite different incidents both reflect Kenya’s growing strain as it prepares for critical elections next March.

The Mombasa Air Safari crash was of a Czechoslovakian made, Soviet-styled LET aircraft. LET aircraft (of a variety of different sizes and types) has a horrible safety record with twelve accidents and 424 fatalities just this year alone. It was a cheap aircraft to begin with that became even cheaper with the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Almost like bad weaponry, LET aircraft have been showing up more and more in Africa as lax aircraft regulation mixes with strained economies.

The ethnic clashes which have been mostly reported in the world press as revenge killings by one ethnic group against another for disputes over water resources and range rights is actually only the tip of the story.

Kenya has redistricted itself in preparation for next year’s elections under the new constitution. Multiple smaller districts have been consolidated – as I believe they should – to create a truly more representative parliament.

And one logical outcome pits former established politicians as competitors for a single representative seat. It isn’t just coincidence that this is the case where the ethnic clashes occurred yesterday.

Police have confirmed that villagers have been incited to violence by local politicians vying for a consolidated district under the new constitution.

To a certain extent both these tragedies are isolated. Kenya tourism – indeed more and more of East African tourism as a whole and almost all of southern African tourism – depends upon small aircraft. I’d estimate in East Africa that more than half the tourists take at least one such flight, and likely a quarter take two or more.

The overall safety record for such a massive industry is pretty good. LET aircraft represent a very small proportion of the tourist aircraft, which are predominantly very safe Cessnas. (Unfortunately, there are no actual statistics, although the data is there to compile. So my statements are not evidential, but I believe accurate enough.)

And the ethnic clashes in Mandera which have been picked up in the world press as evidence of Kenya’s overall ethnic strife is nonsense. The new constitution, some pretty harsh laws, four prominent citizens on trial in The Hague for causing ethnic violence in 2007 all point to a Kenyan society righting itself masterfully.

But dead is dead. Another few hurdles for this tough and struggling society.

Hot Migration Topic

Hot Migration Topic

Is it really such a burning issue: why are the wildebeest so late?

I’ve often experienced them crossing from Tanzania to Kenya even later, sometimes not until August. Normally, though, the herds cross the two river border that separates Tanzania from Kenya by mid- to late June, so we’re a month behind.

This year it’s stinging Kenya more than before.

Kenya’s tourism is reeling from terrorism and a rapidly inflating currency. So the few tourists coming to the Mara who are expressing disappointment is just another blow the Kenyans don’t need.

Looking anywhere for a reason their vacation has been diminished, there are a number of American tourists now blogging incorrectly that the reason the migration is late is because the Tanzanians are setting fires in the Serengeti which is disrupting the wildebeest from moving north.

And of course the general collection of end-of-the-world nuts have picked up this version of what’s happening.

They’re all wrong, but first let me explain where the less apocalyptic are coming from.

The wildebeest eat grass and nothing but grass. Their traditional migration patterns are based on where the grass grows when. It’s that simple. Historically the rain pattern traces a parabolic circle the north of which is Kenya’s Maasai Mara and the south of which is Tanzania’s Serengeti.

For more detail, click here.

The rainiest place in East Africa is Kenya’s Maasai Mara. When it’s dry everywhere else, it rains in the Mara, so the wildebeest go there. The Mara is higher and more rocky and has more acidic soil than in the Serengeti, and so the grass isn’t as nutritious. But at least it grows when it doesn’t grow in the Serengeti.

Separate from this rain dynamic that guides the migration is the age-old agricultural and wildlife management question about whether or not to burn grasses on a prairie.

A proponent of burning that I trust explains the necessity as the only way from keeping the prairie from turning into a forest. Most scientists agree with this explanation, but they also disagree that’s good. Most science suggests burning isn’t overall a good strategy for either agriculture (slash-and-burn) or wildlife management. In other words, it might be better to have a few more forests and a few less prairies.

The argument has been going on since Caesar.

Here’s a blogger that’s got it right.

Whichever side you choose, the fact all agree on is that the increased prairies in East Africa over the last half century is part of the reason that the wildebeest population has tripled. Another argument is over whether the current huge size of the wildebeest population is good or not, but certainly from a tourist point of view it is.

Both Kenya and Tanzania park rangers burn their grasslands. Come September and October when the rains return to parts of the Serengeti and the herds begin to leave Kenya, Kenyan rangers start furiously burning to delay their departure from there.

So both sides do it, and both sides argue they do it for scientific reasons, albeit there is a short-term benefit that does for a very short while delay the herds. Burning, as you may startle yourself from remembering 3rd grade science, produces water (moisture) which drops on the burned prairie and immediately sprouts new short grass even without rain.

Alas, a very tempting reason to stay and have another bite.

It was very unfortunate that an excellent Kenyan newspaper, Nairobi’s biggest, propagated the inaccurate story. It’s beneath the standard of the Daily Nation but even worse, suggesting the fires are being uniquely set as a blockage rather than just the normal half-century old grass burning strategy is totally irresponsible.

The greatest reason the herds are late is because the rains – like everywhere in the world – have been very unusual. I’m sitting in a place of a horrible drought. East Africa – northern Tanzania in particular – has had unusually heavy rains, and this has resulted in much more new late grass.

The migration isn’t so hard-wired that animals will leave a food source. Migrations worldwide are driven by food sources. We had an unusual warbler migration this year in the Midwest, because bugs – their food – appeared earlier than normal.

Burning is incidental to this, perhaps a short-term fix delay (a week, maybe two) but nothing more significant. Tourists who believe they can fine tune their “migration vacation” in periods of two-weeks are nuts.

Tanzanians blame Kenyans for everything wrong in Kenya, and Kenyans blame Tanzanians for everything wrong in Kenya. In this case there’s nothing wrong to begin with.

Except bad reporting and tourists who didn’t do their homework.

Way South of Scott Pelley

Way South of Scott Pelley

Sixty Minutes rebroadcast of “Into the Wild” Sunday night caused many of us experts serious angst. Basically three wonderfully short thumbnails of things wild in East Africa were riveted with inaccuracy.

I’m sure that when a professor of dentistry speeds past a billboard for toothpaste he winces. Nothing wrong really with telling people they need to brush. Nothing wrong really with fluoride in the goop. Nothing wrong with a beautiful woman smiling like a bleached Mayan temple.

But probably lots wrong with everything in between, like how often, how hard, when and with what kind and temperature of water, and who knows what else.

I hope the bristles on my back as I watched the 60 Minutes show weren’t as stiff as a Number 10 toothbrush. (Admission: I watched the tape. I had calculated that the Patriots/49ers game would be less stressful. Wrong.)

There were three segments, and the most egregious was the best and first, about the great migration, the Mau Forest controversy and how it effects the Mara River, and the transformation of some Maasai land into community based tourism projects.

Most egregious because it was very, very close to the situation as I see it, but agonizingly not spot on, providing opportunities for enormous misunderstandings.

Pelley and crew were in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, which represents approximately 5% of the land area of the Serengeti/Mara/Ngorongoro ecosystem through which the migration moves. He was correct in pointing out that the migration was there “for a very short time every year” but arrogant and irresponsible in claiming this is its most dramatic moment.

Some years, yes. Most years, no. The drama moves with the weather, and the simple historical odds will place the greatest drama of river crossings at the Grumeti or Balanganjwe rivers in Tanzania, not the Mara in Kenya as Pelley claims.

Pelley said that the “few days that it takes the herds to cross the river, crocs will bring down enough food for months” implying that the river crossing in the Mara is brief and singular moment for any given group of wildebeest.

Not true. Wildebeest cross rivers back and forth multiple times for no good reason. It’s an instinctive part of their overriding component “to follow.” They might have crossed the river ten minutes ago, and another group is crossing in the other direction, and off they go. A single wildebeest might cross back-and-forth a hundred times the same river in the same year.

The problem here is that Pelley is treating the migration like so many casual observers as the sum of its parts, individual wildes on some monarch butterfly calculus of pretty constant direction. That’s just not the case with the migration.

From year to year the actual movements of the migration change massively. There are even years when it never gets to Kenya, or hardly at all. Unlike butterfly migrations, the wilde aren’t hard-wired with a map. They go where there’s grass. And grass grows where it rains. And over time there are definite patterns to this, and which right now are being dramatically altered by global warming.

I have other serious concerns, but none as important as the above: Pelley’s claim that the migration is predictable and that its “most dramatic moment” is in “late summer” when the herds cross “in a few days” the Mara River in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

Kudus though, and not of the animal kind, to Pelley for a thoughtful thumbnail of the Mau Forest controversy and of some local Maasai attempts to transform a dwindling agricultural lifestyle into tourism.

Finally, a recurrent criticism I have of American media is their lack of due diligence. The show used three experts for its three different segments. Two of the experts are honorable scientists to be sure, but none of the experts are current leaders in their fields.

Most of the current leaders of field research are no longer found in Kenya, or at their foundations in the United States. They are brilliant, younger and performing exceptional scientific work, many more in neighboring Tanzania than Kenya. It pains me constantly how a lack of effort by American media leads them not to the true sages but to the hack celebrities.

Nuff said. In sum it wasn’t bad. But to be good it needed care that perhaps no American TV is capable of. BBC where are you?