On Safari: Crater Lions

On Safari: Crater Lions

LionWithCub.640.apr14.mmichelAs she dragged the wildebeest from where it had been killed we could see that much of it had yet to be eaten, despite her belly which looked ready to explode.  She stopped often, panting and hyperventilating not from the exertion of the pull but from her insides trying to digest 50 pounds of unchewed meat.

She had to get a drink.  If lions don’t flood themselves with water after gorging themselves their gastro-intestinal system freezes up and they die.

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OnSafari: Crater Memories

OnSafari: Crater Memories

family by hippo lakeEvan got up at 5:55a (according to Evan) and was in the car with the rest of us at 6 a.m. It had rained so heavily during the night that my room attendant told me several bridges had been washed out.

Normally when we descend the crater at dawn the long drive to the “down road” is slow and difficult because it’s so foggy. That wasn’t the case, today. Normally it’s bitter cold (relatively speaking, in the 40s). Today it was in the upper 50s.

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OnSafari: End of the Game?

OnSafari: End of the Game?

erraticWetDryBPI suppose as we age the accumulation of changes so untethers us from our foundations that it seems apocalypse is right around the corner. Nevertheless, this safari truly makes me wonder if African wilderness will be around much longer.

I remind myself that in 1979 Peter Beard published a best-selling book, The End of the Game, and his predictions couldn’t have been more wrong. There was not the near total collapse of the wild animals in East Africa he predicted, but in fact a tripling of the animal populations.

So I’m hesitant now to render a similar prediction. Few knew the East African wilderness as well and intimately as Peter Beard. Few were as moderate or unopinionated as him.

Yesterday we left the crater for Lake Manyara National Park. The crater was enormously stressed, but not by the customary impacts of a normal dry season. This was a much different dry season, one framed by the extremities of climate change.

The single-most easily observed effect of climate change in East Africa is the severity of micro-weather cells. The crater like the Serengeti was severely dry, more so than normal. But the areas hardly a few miles away in the higher elevations of the crater rim and Karatu butte were soaked. Not so much by current rain (although there has been some unusual showers) but by the floods of the last rainy season which went on nearly a month longer than normal.

Drop back down to Lake Manyara and the desiccation of the veld was as bad as the Serengeti or the crater floor. Yet the lake itself is massive. Rivers flowing into the great lake itself are so strong that tracks I used in the rainy season in March are now under water!

All this because the higher elevations – a soaked micro weather cell – continued to drain off the unusually wet season.

Grass on the veld doesn’t grow because a nearby river is flowing, but it does mean that a normal light shower provides just enough moisture to bloom grass on that desiccated veld: I guess the best way to explain this is that despite an unusually hot, dusty and dry veld, an unusually high water table supports grass growth at the slightest encouragement.

We saw ridiculous numbers of baby buffalo in the crater. (Buffalo eat very little of anything but grass.)

We encountered so many giraffe in the Serengeti around lakes Ndutu and Masek that 8-year old Donovan began each game drive by announcing, “I guaranteed you we’ll see giraffe.” Masek and Ndutu were unusually large for the same reason as the crater lake and Manyara: heavy continuing runoffs from the nearby highlands.

Giraffes main food are the leafs of the acacia tree. Deep rooting acacia trees tap easily into a high water table. The acacia near all these lakes are leafing anew and even blooming, something not normal before November.

More than a hundred elephant around Lake Masek, dozens in the crater forests, and yesterday, almost a hundred elephant in Lake Manyara is not something I expected to see, now. There were many babies, and elephant abort at the slightest indication of a drought. Elephant are the most voracious consumers of vegetation on earth. They can easily move great distances and they don’t remain in areas without food.

So why sound the alarm?

Elephant, buffalo and to some extent giraffe, easily move great distances and fairly rapidly. Other animals don’t. Impala are home-bodies, with family collections rarely shifting far. Hippo might travel ten miles a night to eat, but they don’t easily adjust their territories, returning to the same river bed or lake each morning.

We normally see hundreds if not thousands of impala on a normal safari. I think so far we’ve counted 35 or so.

The first four hippo we found were frozen dead in the dwindling waters of the Seronera river, their hides already cracked wide opened and storks already picking into them.

All the 20 or so hippo we saw in the crater were crammed into the single lake at Lokitok with none in other normal areas like the well-signed “hippo pool.” At the famous hippo viewing area in Manyara we saw only a couple hippo and they were all very sick, their hides chalked with salt.

Could it be that only those animals capable of rapid shifts in territory will now survive? There’s more water than ever, but it comes as torrential rains in shorter intervals into smaller areas followed often by severe heat and drought.

Animals that can react to these anomalies might not just survive but prosper. Those that can’t will die. But the matrix that emerges will be radically different from the one that has existed all my career until now. Can the ecology retool and resync this fast?

My gut says no. But then so did Peter Beard’s almost a half century ago.

OnSafari: Crater Climate Change

OnSafari: Crater Climate Change

lionkillcraterBPLazy guys, content curmudgeons, and sassy big boys told us some marvelous stories about the crater this year. In sum, better than expected rains have relieved some tension in the wild.

Normally I find less than a few thousand wildebeest in the crater now at the height of the dry season, and these are often late birthed calves that missed the normal time to migrant and were then captured by the crater’s slightly better rainfall and subsequent scarce grasses.

This year rack up at least five thousand and it could be many more, and I’m sure that there were late birthed calves among these but it was mostly overly lazy males. After the males rut in May they sort of discard any more personal responsibilities, moving only when their belly tells them to. They lack the intuitive urge to migrate that the females have with calves in tow, and migrate only because grasses die.

Apparently the grasses didn’t die as usual in the crater because of slightly better rainfall, and moreover, the Serengeti just beyond the crater’s rim is so terribly dry that they might have turned back when they hit the dust.

Unlike the Serengeti we experienced the last few days, the crater showed some rain with slight patches of green especially on its eastern side. The rivers were flowing more than normal suggesting the rim got even more rain, and the central lake was much larger than usual, displaying a good number of flamingoes.

So the male wildebeest decided heh, what-the-heck, there’s grass here! And they were joined by several thousand zebra that are driven more by available water than the wildebeest (who also need water, but are more finicky about the type of grass they eat than zebra).

So it was a bonus for us, but potentially a very dangerous situation for these male wildebeest if the dry season now resyncs normally. Between them and the wonderfully green Mara far to the north where their brides and children have gone is one of the most desiccated Serengeti’s I can remember.

One of the first things we saw the first afternoon in the crater was a pride of lion finishing off a buffalo kill. (By the way, it was right at the edge of one of the designated picnic sites!) That was cool enough all by itself, but more telling were two big, healthy male elephants who had wandered into the area.

These old curmudgeons weren’t up to much of anything, displaying vast amounts of boredom. They sucked in great amounts of water and then let it dribble out or squirted it in funny ways all over the place, obviously not in need of a drink.

When this game got tiresome they started what I can only describe as trunk yoga. Contracting their trunk upwards, it spiraled into a corkscrew and for obviously no reason.

At first they didn’t seem the least interested in the lions and their kill hardly 40 meters away. But after they’d cycled through their list of personal games, one of them turned towards the lions and froze before a slow, lumbering towards the kill.

Most of the lions scattered, but the one big female whose belly exceeded that of any of the others, stood her ground and growled.

The 6-ton ele hesitated momentarily, then lowered his head and moved forward.

She growled some more.

Heh, what-the-heck, he seemed to say as he flapped his ears, I made my point! And he lumbered away. All in all it was just an old guy, very well fed, with a lot of time on his ears.

This morning just after dawn we followed a bunch of excited hyaenas as they headed towards a big family of buffalo. Having last March just watched such as situation ending with a dozen of these monsters tearing apart an old, sick bull, I wasn’t about to leave.

But this time it was different. The family had dozens of youngsters and almost as many newborns. I noticed that one group of hyaena was actually cleaning up the after-birth, while others were testing the health of the newborns with quick little sorties into the herd.

Buffalo birth year-round and like elephant tend to abort when conditions are poor. That’s why we don’t usually see a lot of births in the dry season, but this dry season is obviously not so dry … at least here in the crater.

Normally the big males of the family guard the rest, but heh, what-the-heck, it was such a beautiful day the males had disappeared somewhere! Later we’d find them lulling about in mud and water chewing their cud near a wonderful patch of green grass. So it was the mothers who were now darting back at the hyaena to protect the youngsters.

I’m sure I’ve anthropomorphized the couple days in the crater a bit more than I usually tolerate of others, but it was a mostly happy situation, with the crater more beautiful and full of animals than is normally the case in the dry season.

Anomalous seasons have a potential, though, to turn ugly. The thousands of wildebeest that elected to remain behind in the crater and not migrate, or the many new born buffalo who need several months of voracious eating to grow strong enough to survive, have hung their fates on the hope the crater won’t turn as dry as the neighboring Serengeti.

Normally, rains don’t return before November.

But the wild often predicts outcomes better than meteorologists. Climate change is confusing weather patterns all over the place. Perhaps this year, in this one place, it will all be for the better.

OnSafari: Crater Drama

OnSafari: Crater Drama

elechargengorongoroForty very large elephant running six miles from one northern end to the southern end of the crater intersected the road endangering our early morning game drive.

We stopped to watch, and their trumpeting exploded all around us. The matriarchs of each of the four families turned to us, opened their ears and two charged!

Youngsters, one hardly a week old, didn’t know where to turn as the mothers confronted us. We held our ground; they were mock charges, and I knew that we couldn’t run from them if it were anything else.

We stayed quiet as they ran far past us, their trumpeting continuing and diminishing, the beautiful song of the red-naped lark finally penetrating their screeching.

The stillness of the early morning crater was forever unsettled. What had happened to them? I don’t know. It was only just after sunrise. No one else was on the floor but us. What had set them off?

It would be easy to say someone had tried to poach them, but that’s unlikely. Poachers don’t dare try to take down an elephant in such a large and wild group. We’ll never know. Perhaps they were from some distant place and had never seen the vast plains of the crater, moving their lives from one forest to another.

I just don’t know. But it was super powerful and heart-thumping. I just hope in the forests beyond the crater rim they’ll find some peace…

The rest of the morning in the crater was beautiful, perfect and normal. That’s quite abnormal!

About 25,000 animals were scattered marvelously among the mostly green plains and lush and verdant crater rim sides. There was a baby wildebeest for every two adults, 25 fat and sassy lions some licking deep hunting wounds, a giant rhino, hundreds of buffalo, black-backed and golden jackals, eland and hartebeest, hippo and elegant birds like the Hildebrandt’s starling and purple grenadier.

There are too many elephant in East Africa, and there are too many tourists in Ngorongoro Crater but it just can’t be missed. The crater is magical and often unbelievable, dense mixtures of animals and predators that would never be seen so close together elsewhere on the veld.

Nowhere else are the chances of seeing black rhino as we did so great. Nowhere do multiple lion families live so close together. Nowhere are zebra so approachable that you really could stick your hand out of the car and touch them.

Is this wild Africa? No, but it’s been this way for nearly a hundred years, ever since hunters have been restricted from the crater floor.

Many potential travelers on safari complain that they hear there are just too many tourists, that it’s too crowded. As tomorrow on this safari will show, there are many days – if not most days on safari that my convoy of vehicles is the only one on hundreds of square miles of veld.

But it’s true of the crater, because there is nothing else like it on earth, and it simply cannot be missed.
LunchTableNgorongoro

OnSafari: Lion Kill!

OnSafari: Lion Kill!

craterlionsIt was just after 7 a.m. and I spotted four lions devouring a wildebeest.

They had obviously just killed it and their faces, necks and front paws and legs were covered with blood and they were eating madly, eating like a cheetah in fact.

Lions don’t go to finishing school, and despite Mary Disse’s wonder if they ever share, they are pretty much gluttons with poor manners. But it’s really only the cheetah that eats as if the world is going to end, because it has such trouble keeping its kill.

Lions are the king of beasts, right?

There were two adult females and two 6-month old juveniles on the kill and they were absolutely frantic, and soon we learned why.

The hyaena were coming in droves.

Whether they anticipated this, or whether the new crater ecology caused by global warming has turned the tables on the king of the beasts, it was now clear why they were eating “like cheetahs.”

The first group of around a dozen cheetah arrived with the tails up, hooting and prancing around in obvious challenge to the small pride on the wildebeest kill. At first the pride took no notice.

When there were 15 hyaena the lions started to get visibly nervous, interrupting their chow-down with raised heads and barred teeth trying to dissuade the hyaena that were coming closer and closer.

At one point everyone was confused as most of the pack of hyaena turned around and chased three new hyaena that were coming towards the kill. That didn’t last long, though, and soon the three that were challenged had joined “the pack.”

There were now more than 20 hyaena and plenty for the attack.

They moved like in thrusts together, all towards the kill. Finally one of the females was bitten on her left hind leg and yelped, and at that point I expected the hyaena to tear apart the lions.

I’d seen it before.

But this time the hyaenas were more hungry than vicious. The lion stood up as if unmolested and walked away from their only partially eaten kill..

The now 25 hyaena pounced on the kill and probably one another, tearing apart every morsel that was left. By the time the lion had walked within 50m of us, found a small rise in the ground and flopped down to lick one another, the kill was practically gone.

I figured the lion had killed the wilde about 20 minutes before we arrived. We were there about an hour, and so in less than 90 minutes a wilde had been killed, eaten and totally consumed.

This is the dry season … I guess. As I’m writing this now, about 5 hours after the event, it’s raining! Reports are that the great wildebeest migration which follows the rains and should be far distant in the Mara in Kenya is fractured and partially still in the Serengeti.

This is climate change. We saw far more wildebeest and zebra in the crater than should be at this time of the year, and they must have grass. Grass only grows when it rains. It’s probably raining in Kenya’s Mara as natural, but it’s also raining here.

Yesterday in the crater we saw a pride of 23 lion near one of the hippo pools. This isn’t normal, either. Certainly there are cases I remember of large prides, but never 23. This absolutely represents a coalition of prides.

I can’t explain it other than to defer to the obvious that things are changing on the veld, and they are changing because the weather is changing. Global warming means more rain for the equatorial regions of the world (and also shorter but deeper droughts in between the heavy rains).

For my clients it was an exceptional morning. After we watched the first kill, we happened upon some juvenile males waiting in ambush for an arriving group of grazing wilde.

As usual, the juvenile males botched the attempt, although it wasn’t completely their fault. By the time the wilde had wandered anywhere near close enough to their ambush spot, there were nearly 20 cars with excited people talking far too loudly.

This is the high season. It’s when there are the most cars in the crater. But because we planned well, and got down onto the floor just after dawn long before most of the cars did, we had a dramatic and splendid morning.

Stay tuned. We’re headed into the far north Serengeti!

OnVacation: Best Photos

OnVacation: Best Photos

20Jul.OldTuskerHippos.STaylor.303.crater.Sep09EWT Guide and former Cleveland Zoo Director, Steve Taylor, took this precious photo in Ngorongoro Crater in September, 2011. It’s one of my favorite photos of EWT safaris over the last 39 years. Big tuskers like this one are all but dying out, the few survivors of the horrible years of poaching in the 1970s and 1980s. Come back on July 23 as I begin guiding my last safari of the season in Tanzania!

OnVacation: Best Photos

OnVacation: Best Photos

17Jul.RMattas.Mar08.456This remarkable photo was taken on March 19, 2008, by Rich Mattas, while we were game viewing in Ngorongoro Crater. It’s part of my favorite photos from the last 39 years of guiding safaris which I’m posting while on vacation. (BTW, the buf shook off the lions and seems none too disturbed.) Come back on July 23 when I begin guiding my last safari of the season in Tanzania!

OnSafari: Crater

OnSafari: Crater

craterIt could be in an unexpected poem, a playground of happy children, the smells of the holidays … or the crater at sunrise. This is when your testy, challenged human spirit inflates with joy despite every reason on earth it shouldn’t, and you know everything is just fine.

This isn’t the best time for game viewing in the crater, although few tourists who come now realize this. There’s probably fewer than 5-6,000 animals from the peak in March and April of more than 20,000.

But all that transitory wildlife is only a part of the crater’s story. The inorganic magnitude of its landscape is unmatched anywhere on earth.

Right now as the rough winds signal that rains won’t return for six months, the thick cloud cover of the season will clear for a few hours in the late morning. This morning we had one of the most crystal clear crater mornings I can remember.

It’s only 12 miles across but it seems like hundreds. You’re constantly recalibrating your depth perception. The crater’s rough edges are still lush green, still sucking the last of the fresh-water rivers sinking down from the highlands. But brown is sweeping the floor as it becomes drier and drier, producing this most marvelous contrast of color.

At first everything is pastel and then the morning explodes and there’s this quilt of primary color.

It was hard today with the wind so strong to hear all the bird song, but whenever the wind died the red-naped lark seemed to be singing from one side to the other. We saw nearly 30 crested crane honking then leaving their long necks outstretched as if still tied to the sound long gone.

When it finally warmed to 50 then 60 and finally 70 degrees, the couple thousand wilde that remained started to blart and a few began prancing around. The zebra started barking and the hippo started grunting and you knew that the ossified night of the cold season was at least for a while banished.

But only for a short while. Day time on the equator is the same twelve hours more or less year round. But the overcast of the dry season reforms by early afternoon, the strong winds that seemed to sweep away the morning chill die, and cold settles down from the thick grey cloud quite early, probably by 3 p.m., and the animals and birds slow down, stop talking.

Everything in the world has to rest. The drama of the crater in March and April is sometimes overwhelming. You can’t separate the screams of the hoops of the hyaena from the screams of the elephants, and cackles of the dozens of vultures on a kill.

The movement and tension among the animals is overstimulating. No one has time to appreciate the enormous canvas painted when the world’s largest volcano self-destructed three million years ago.

Mt. Makarot never moves (you’ll have to wait to see the Shifting Sands for that!) The great forests of the acacia lehai seem undaunted even by this wind. The deep curving crevices sliding down the crater’s sides hold their form, but the grandeur of all this is missed in the mayhem of the wet season animal free-for-all.

This is the time the crater’s sleeping. That’s what it seems like, sleeping and recovering, and as our rover descended around the curves and switchbacks of the trail down it was as if we were navigating into a dream with the privileged skill of shaman. And when we climbed out during the peace of the midday and looked back, the landscape pressed into our memories like the tune you’ll never forget but will never be able to fully recreate.

The wilde have migrated out. The tens of thousands of Abdim stork and thousands of white stork and myriads of other migrants are gone. For some reason today even the eland had disappeared…

Leaving an earth so huge with the tiny little you there twisting about somewhere maybe inconsequential but you think it’s in the middle, trying to comprehend it all. Endless, right? Something forever is rare in our world, but that’s what the crater was expressing today, its implacable eternity.

OnSafari: Crater Peace

OnSafari: Crater Peace

craterpeacceHyaenas lurking near a braying, abandoned baby buffalo is simply a part of the absolute peace and beauty of the crater.

The crater we saw today probably has around 16- or 17,000 animals, about 80% of its optimum at this time of the year, as it recovers nicely from the earlier drought.
buftrophy
Such a compact wilderness with such a thick biomass is normally seriously stressed:

Lions encroach on each others’ territories setting up huge fights; many young are more successfully raised because of abundant food, which as we saw today in a golden jackal family creates internal fighting; normal behaviors break down as we saw in a dozen old male elephants all hanging out together … certainly not comfortably.

Buffalo will normally adopt abandoned young. If a mother dies in childbirth, for example, a sister or auntie buf will often take it on. Yet today we watched just such an abandoned baby, birth sack yet completely removed, walk weakly among its herd looking for help and getting nothing but a huge fling into the sky off the powerful rack of one female with another calve.

That’s unusual. It fell into a lump and we drove right up to it, and it brayed at us miserably. Hyaenas were gathering. The outcome was clear.

Yet overlaying all this explicit tension is one of the most peaceful feeling places in all of Africa.

The peace comes first from beauty: the light in the crater, especially now during the rainy season with the skies so wondrously painted, is ever changing. The backlight, the sunbeams through the rain clouds, the blue reflections off the ponds, create a universe so visually inspiring there simply can’t be anything negative about it.
zebflamflow
The sounds of so many wildebeest blarting, individually rhythmically but collectively pure comedy, is so utterly meaningless it’s nothing less than beautiful music.

The vibrancy of the veld adequately watered had everything in high gear: everything from the gazelle chomping the endless grasslands, to the pelican diving for fresh-water fish in beautifully clear running streams, to kori bustards and red-collared widow birds in the most hysterical courtship displays imaginable … life was intricately good.

Can we gather from this contradictory situation that, in fact, it isn’t really contradictory? Can we come out of the crater, today, understanding that if we don’t anthropomorphize birth and death in animals that instead we will begin to comprehend the most amazing puzzles of creation?

A  Maasai instructs Lucas Massimini.
A Maasai instructs Lucas Massimini.
I think so. I think that’s the message we took from the crater this morning: we alone, homo sapiens sapiens, should be judged for our behaviors, because our behaviors are no longer chained to limited and clearly specific methods of survival.

The baby buf would be eaten by the hyaena for goodness, because it was nature working, and the fact that it remains somewhat a mystery to us is simply our inability to fully comprehend the puzzle of life.

But experiencing the crater helps us comprehend the puzzle, to want to understand its pieces without projecting our own totally unique ids onto the dung beetle.

And that journey is unlikely to be completed, but it absolutely is down the yellow brick road with a certain end that is good and beautiful.

Breakfast in the crater.
Breakfast in the crater.

OnSafari: Serengeti Super Storm!

OnSafari: Serengeti Super Storm!

Super Storms in the Serengeti, once rare, may now be the new normal.
Super Storms in the Serengeti, once rare, may now be the new normal.
We didn’t know what to do. The super storm had formed so quickly. Should we stay on the hill or hightail it back?

It was our last of four days in the Serengeti and we had enjoyed some of the most spectacular game viewing in the world. But now, the storm threatened all the good memories.

We left camp around 3:30p for the stark beauty of the nearby Maasai kopjes just outside Seronera. In the past I’d seen many lion, cheetah, elephant and of course the ubiquitous reedbuck over these mostly flat grasslands.
lionthruwindow
The kopjes were small by the standards of the Gol or Lemuta, but they were very pretty. They were spaced on either side of a great swamp, and we had been challenged finding a way through the swamp to the kopjes side.

Our game viewing had been supreme, truly by my own high standards. But the payment for this unique experience was what we were doing now: challenging the rainy season in a time of mendacious climate change.

There’d been a drought, then floods. The rain which had been so absent for six weeks seemed to now be pouring back in unimaginable amounts.

As we left camp I noticed that two giant cells were forming: one to the east and one nearly straight above us. If they grew together …

We stopped for some lions near the Seronera river. We quickly checked out the rocks where we knew a mother leopard was raising two cubs. Then we crossed the main road and followed the Seronera river to the east.

We had just reached the swamp when I saw the two cells were combining into a super storm. Tumaini raced up about the only hill in the whole area and we took stock of our situation.

I looked at Tumaini and suggested we just stay put, wait out the torrents that were expected and then slide back to camp.

Annika photographs the family.
Annika photographs the family.

We knew it would be a near catastrophic downpour. The murram tracks in this area were pretty good and while they would rut and splinter, usually a Landrover could travel over them even when covered in water.

But the tracks across the swamp were a different matter altogether. They weren’t murram, but cut over black cotton soil, about the closest thing to quicksand that exists. Add a few drops of water, and you’re sunk on the spot.

Tumaini realized that before I did and in response to my suggestion to wait it out, he shook his head and put the car in gear.

We followed our own tracks back across the swamp and raced as fast as we could back to camp. The rain began all at once.

Directions always available.
Directions always available.

It was so heavy we could hardly see. The car slid back and forth as if being jiggled in a giant bowl. My window wouldn’t close completely, and waves of water fell onto me. The front windshield fogged up completely as the temperature plummeted. I had to open the side flap window and use my sweater to keep the window as clear as possible for Tumaini.

We reached Makoma Hill where our camp was located. The lightning started fierce, the thunder shook the car.

We had to traverse some black cotton soil here, too. Sometimes the car was racing as we slid near sideways. Headlights were pointless. Tumaini had to just feel the road.

Finally we turned up the hill, and a camp positioned down from ours was the first respite I felt. We were still ten minutes away from our own camp, but high enough that waiting it out now would be OK.

And the storm was relentless, and the rain grew even worse. Tumaini forged ahead and we dove into a part of the road completely submerged, the water above the floorboard. I was actually momentarily proud that we had sealed it so well none seeped into the interior.

The main track into camp was useless, so Tumaini used a back service road. We arrived while the torrents continued to fall. There was only a few moments of more anxiety as we waited for our second car, Justin. When he pulled in, relief was manifest. None breathed more easily now than me.

I walked with Kirsten into the dining tent through heavy rain. We stepped through racing water at least a half foot high. But once inside the tent, shoes and socks peeled off and beer and Amarula in hand, the drama ended as an adventure never to be forgotten!
roughridie
Later I would inappropriately bristle at Theresa’s remark that this is why people avoid the raining season. I bristled because in normal times, super storms were about as rare as a white elephant. Well, maybe not quite as rare, but you get my meaning.

Now perhaps I have to concede that super storms in the rainy season might be the new normal. Climate change is devastating here. Obviously, everyone loves the rains, but when they come all at once the veld floods, the washes carry away the soil, new plants die, animals flee the standing water.

All that was yesterday afternoon.

Today we left the Serengeti and took our first game drive in the crater. The drive back to Ngorongoro was truly breath-taking. I’ve rarely seen the veld so absolutely beautiful, glimmering in every shade of lustrous green you can imagine.

Maasai seemed jubilant. The herds were grazing to the fill, as were the neighboring zebra and gazelle.

Tomorrow, our last game drive: dawn in the crater!

Isabella & Magnus watch hippos in the Grumeti at Retima.
Isabella & Magnus watch hippos in the Grumeti at Retima.

OnSafari: The Incredible Crater

OnSafari: The Incredible Crater

CraterHippoHyaena, hippo and the remarkable northern wheatear framed below the brilliant stormy skies of the crater were our special attractions, today.

Ngorongoro Crater has got to be one of the handful of most amazing places anyone can visit. Once the highest structure on earth, this super volcano blew its stack geologically quickly, causing untold devastation and leaving for us today one of the most awesome and beautiful structures on our planet.

The crater rim is 1600-1800 feet above a 100 sq. mile caldera that is a wildlife and scenic paradise. Totally wild, this crucible of wilderness changes radically with the least change in weather and so is a precious barometer of what climate change means.

Forced into smaller and smaller ponds because of the exceptional dryness of this year, we found a pod of hippo mothers with young! Now to understand how unusual this is, note that the normal behavior of a female hippo that has just given birth is to sequester herself and her offspring far away from other hippos.

Normally this means several weeks to a month alone and out of sight. The weather in northern Tanzania has been seriously dry, though, and particularly in the crater hippo ponds are substantially shrunk.

So we saw a collection of around 20 adult hippos and at least 5 very small babies (all under a month), crowded together and seeming to do very well. Was this a nursery herd, so to speak?

Hyaena have a heyday when the veld is stressed. Many predators do, but the hyaena especially since it eats almost anything it steps on.

We must have seen at least 100 hyaena. They were eating ankle bones, dead meat, harassing buffalo (!) and even daring to come into our picnic area! Clearly they were juiced up, and every one of them was fat.

The giant lion pride we saw was also fat, so that meant no action. The 20 in the pride on the table mountain on the west side of the crater were totally sacked out. Only the cubs gave us any action.
WheatearBySeward
My personal highlight was seeing the bird in the crater that I regularly see in Alaska in June! The northern wheatear undertakes one of the most unbelievable migrations of any creature on earth: nearly 10,000 miles one-way (of course twice annually).

For the last several years the climate in East Africa (as throughout the whole world, I suppose) has been unusual.

Currently throughout most of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya it’s seriously dry. In the last several days we may actually have seen the dry spell breaking. We witnessed magnificent storms as we left Tarangire and throughout the day in Manyara, and game viewing today in the crater was a dosey doe with very heavy rains.

But if this is the end of the dry spell, the past effects will obviously linger for a while. I reckon less than half the usual numbers of animals were waiting for us today in the crater. Those that were there, several thousand wildebeest and twice or more than of zebra, had very young babies and were probably very late births, constricting them from moving.

None of the animals appeared sick or weak, as would be the case in a real drought. I’m sure we’ll learn more as we head now into the Serengeti for our last five days.

Stay tuned!

The Crater is the best place on earth to see  UNFENCED black rhino.
The Crater is the best place on earth to see UNFENCED black rhino.

On Safari: Cold Crater Lions

On Safari: Cold Crater Lions

ColdintheCraterOn Safari: Crater Lions

Like everywhere, Ngorongoro lions are struggling. The 9-11 prides of 100-110 lion have probably shrunk to two-thirds to three-quarters that.

That’s my anecdotal guess and I’m not sure anyone’s done a real count recently. But as we game drove down the Sopa side road from our exclusive camp at Lemala, we immediately encountered a female from the Big Tree pride who was really beaten up.

She had blood on her face and haunches, and often that means nothing more than that she was just at the kill. But the right side of her face was horribly scratched and that meant much more, and her belly wasn’t very full. When she walked she limped.

That was our first lion in the crater. We’d see another 14 before the day was over, including the magnificently maned lion of the Muinge River pride.

All that we saw looked fabulously healthy, with big bellies suggesting we’d arrived one day late to see some action. In fact, one of the Big Tree males lumbered across in front of us into the veld and took our viewing right with him to an earlier kill, as he scattered the hyaena and jackal.

But something was wrong, or perhaps better said, different than before. Traditionally there are many, many more females than males, because of the male’s violent competition with one another and the fact that they’re often kicked out of the pride before they know how to hunt.

But during our Kisiel Family Safari, and consistent with what I’ve been slowly seeing over the last few years, the ratio of males to females is increasing.

Males are 50% bigger and stronger than females, so the obvious conclusion is that something is stressing the environment and the bigger and stronger are out surviving the weaker. Is this somehow related to global warming, or is it as some researchers have suggested more mankind meanness.

There have been more and more documented cases of lion poisoning at the fringes of national parks as the peripheral human populations increase and develop. But while that might explain East African declines, it doesn’t well explain southern African declines where human populations have achieved a more or less balance with the remaining wilderness years ago.

Other researchers like Craig Packard have documented a disease carried by buffalo that weakens the buffalo but doesn’t kill it. But when lions hunt the weakened buffalo and then eat the diseased meat, they die.

We talked a lot about this during our game drives in the crater, because lions really dominated the game viewing. This is pretty natural in the dry season, but even so, I think we had an unusual number of sightings and events.

The crater was cold! My little thermometer said the temperature just outside our tents on the down road from Sopa reached 46F for a low and never got above 60F. In part this was because it was so overcast. Down on the crater floor the sun broke through often and it was much warmer, probably ten degrees warmer.

Despite the cold, though, my family loved their exclusive Lemala camp. Every spacious tent had a propane heater, we had hot water on demand for showers and shaving, and a lovely hot water bottle was stuck into everyone’s wonderful beds!

Maasai blankets were everywhere, and everyone used them!

The dry season in the crater begins this way, with very cold temperatures, the coldest of the year. But with sufficient hot chocolate personally delivered to their tent each morning, 8-year old Nick and 11-year old Camden couldn’t have been more pleased!

“It can’t get better than this!” Grandpa Mark exclaimed.

We’ll see.

The view from my tent just below the crater rim.
The view from my tent just below the crater rim.

On Safari: Survival in The Crater

On Safari: Survival in The Crater

hyaenachasebuffOur fantastic morning in the crater demonstrated what crazy and simplistic ideas are propagated by entertainment media about wild animals.

Many of you probably think that every time a lion wakes up and takes a stroll he comes back with a wildebeest in his mouth.

Wrong. His success ratio of course varies from place to place but essentially is around 1/6, and often worse in stressed environments. Lions die of starvation as much as disease.

Hyaena was our demonstration animal, today, and what an experience!

There’s no question in my mind that the hyaena is the most dangerous predator. I believe this because of their maddening persistence and herding instincts which transform them from a scavenger into a vicious hunter.

Predators are mostly opportunistic, but even so it’s possible to dissuade a lion from bothering your abandoned calve by screams and stones. Not so for the hyaena committed to the chase. It will kill or be killed before abandoning its prey.

Only the prey itself can stop it: by running, by fighting or outwitting it, which is so much easier than a television special normally suggests.

We were looking at a line of buffalo in the far distance early this morning in the crater. It was our first great sight of the morning after getting to the floor shortly after dawn.

Then I saw more than just the line of about 50 buffalo, one of the Big Five and usually considered the most dangerous prey by man, the hunter. About two dozen hyaena were racing back and forth along the line, tails buffed and held high, their whooping becoming laughing. This was incredibly puzzling and surprising.

The hyaena were clearly in kill mode, but buffalo as their prey? One buffalo can weigh 4,000 pounds and it’s almost all muscle and meanness. I’ve seen a 350-pound wildebeest thrown to the sky by the powerful rack of a male buff.

So what was going on?

More and more hyaena came racing to the “battle” if that’s what it was, and the buffalo lagered. The big males came to the front and stood side by side swinging their racks as if clearing the land.

But the hyaena continued and soon we could see some of the crazed and furry beasts racing around the end of the line to the other side of the buffalo. Although we couldn’t see exactly what was happening on the backside, we could tell by the buff’s agitation that the battle was truly engaged.

Then the buff family began to run with dozens of hyaena in pursuit on all sides of the herd.

We raced our cars around some roads to try to get a better view, but the buffalo had been dispersed by the hyaena and we couldn’t see the outcome. Then about 20 hyaena came running over a ridge to the side of us quite near the car, and we raced with them down the veld wondering what was going on.

Then their whooping slowed and their tails unbuffed and they start to walk and wander like hyaena normally do.

We followed them best we could on roads and with our binocs and from time to time they reorganized and molested herds of zebra and wildebeest and soon it seemed like the whole western side of the crater was in turmoil with animals running everywhere.

And just when we thought everything had calmed down, nearly 90 minutes after it all started, we saw a single lone buff running from a line of hyaena.

His chest was bloodied. His left leg was seriously injured, but he managed to outrun or outwit or both the hyaena and after disappearing behind a ridge, the pack stopped their attack.

I’m not sure how many “packs” we probably saw, but the whole crater was churning with hyaena kill.

Yet we couldn’t see one successful take-down.

Hawana mipango is the Swahili expression we attached to these seemingly failing killers: “no plans” and that exactly describes what we saw: incredible killers having organized their power but unable to effect success because their attacks are so reactive, unplanned.

The crater calmed down and we headed to lunch. In a dip near the only spring-fed lake in the crater, a beautiful location with a few hippo and high lustrous elephant grass, we saw the old buff that had been attacked.

Alone and dying. He was bleeding to death and so weak that his left leg was gnarled under his body in a horrible position. He would die. And there were no hyaena anywhere near him to claim the prize.

That’s truly the wild: heartless to be sure, but almost amateurish; random possibly and nothing but opportunistic. From time to time the coincidences in the wild converge and there is a kill.

But more likely, there isn’t. Just another day, another hour, for another opportunity. Survival, after all, is what keeps us all going, and that’s been much more successful in our legendary history than defeat.

On Safari: But in the Wild?

On Safari: But in the Wild?

birdonmaxWhy did the rufous-tailed weaver perch on Max’s head? Why did we see 14 black rhinos together? Why were we pinned in the crater’s only forest by over 100 elephant?

The crater has always been outside the wild. This unbelievable natural structure, the remnants of what was once the world’s highest structure ended by what must have been the most catastrophic volcanic event in the history of the planet, has always defied natural balance.

Here was where the British authorities first placed restrictions on how you could hunt. The animals were just too tame, it seemed in he 1950s. It was just too easy to shoot them.

Several times yesterday I had to contain myself from slapping the behind of a zebra, and that ridiculous opportunity has presented itself every one of the hundred times I’ve been to the crater over the last forty years.

Yet when that same zebra walks over the Senego trail out of the crater onto the Olduvai plains, it won’t let us get anywhere near him.

Wild animal behavior, like the mystical micro-climate that dances around the 1800-foot high 37-mile crater rim, defies logic in the crater. Researchers have stopped studying animals in the crater; they just don’t act normally.

But I think that’s presumptive, frankly. What I see from the crater is the more profound fact that nature is no longer in balance and hasn’t been for a long time.

When the Gibb’s guide Pascali took the kids on a forest walk a few days ago, they asked him about the elephants and school houses. He was discreet. He said yes we love the elephants, but we also have to go to school.

The last of the rare lehai, by Dan Peron.
The last of the rare lehai, by Dan Peron.
When I asked Isabelle what a farmer should do when an ele walks over his fields, and when I asked Peter and Max what a school teacher should do when an elephant destroyed his school room, their first immediate response was to “relocate the elephant.”

It’s pretty easy to explain that won’t work. Then, like the rest of the world’s scientists, politicians and lovers of animals, even these American school kids and lovers of animals throw up their hands and ask me, “So what do you do?”

Hybridization of the golden and black-backed jackal probably began here. The last of the world’s greatest elephant with tusks like they’re supposed to be, stretching from a 12-foot high eye down to the ground, will die with the last of the giant tembo in the crater.

The crater is like a wormhole into the future of wilderness. While many casual visitors see the field scientist’s Elysian Fields, it is in fact one of the most stressful places of any wilderness on earth. It’s a moment by moment documentary of the ending of wilderness.

What should we do? Do we shoo the weaver off Max’s head or give it a piece of breakfast muffin? Do we cull the elephants or let them plow down the very last of the beautiful acacia lehai, a tree like none other doomed to extinction?

Do we separate the golden and black-backed jackal the way the Bronx Zoo separates its unintended bird hybrids in the zoo?

Do we add more ranger cars to protect the “wild” black rhino, that would never have dared to stand next to another rhino except to breed but today clusters in “packs” of more than a dozen?

Do we consider, as grandpa Mort suggested in an email he sent around today, that we get rid of all the zoos?

What is to become of the wild?

I really, really don’t know. But I know in this dynamic, stressful and indescribably beautiful crater, there’s a clue. I just don’t get it, yet.

The last of the big tuskers by Steve Taylor.
The last of the big tuskers by Steve Taylor.