OnSafari: Serengeti

OnSafari: Serengeti

lion.cubbellyfullAs usual for this time of year it was bone dry. Mornings were still and cold. Saturn twinkled above in the ink blue predawn sky almost as brightly as the half moon which had set in the middle of the night. The sun rose as a giant orange ball behind a charcoal grey curtain of dust and the first breezes tossled the fields of dead, blonde grass. By noon dust devils twisted across the veld. By afternoon strong winds obliterated the cloudless sky with layers of dust.

Pundits like to advise potential safari travelers that this is the best time to see cats. To a certain extent that’s true. But what they see isn’t often what they expect:

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OnSafari: Drones!

OnSafari: Drones!

Drone in the Serengeti.897.McCallWe’d found the migration, dozens of lion, hundreds if not thousands of elephant, and we were in the Seronera Valley towards the end of our safari watching a leopard hunting.

Normally leopard hunt at night, but there was no doubt as this magnificent rather stubby female stalked through the thick river’s edge foliage diagonally towards us. We couldn’t see what she was stalking, but her behavior was undeniable.

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OnSafari: The Vast Serengeti

OnSafari: The Vast Serengeti

Lemuta Picnic.897From mid-morning when we left Olduvai Gorge to when we rejoined the main road from Ngorongoro to Seronera, we were off-road in the middle of nowhere. I saw one distant group of Maasai with goats and not a single other car, not even a dust plume of a far distant vehicle or far away donkey convoy for 30 miles. It was us, the overwhelming Serengeti and 150,000 white-bearded gnu.

We lunched on a kopjes 1500′ above the vast newly green Lemuta Plains with new storms threatening above. We took more photos of one another I think than anyone took of the 30 lions we’d so far seen! Behind and below us was about 300 sq. miles of Serengeti dotted from horizon to horizon with wildebeest.
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OnSafari: Saga of the Great Herds

OnSafari: Saga of the Great Herds

ndutu to kusiniOur last of four days in the Serengeti and we packed lunch for a long excursion to where we hoped to find the great herds. Hardly ten minutes out of camp and a baby wildebeest ran pell mell across our path.

Two minutes later it came back and we screeched to a halt as it faced us square on from the middle of the road. It had lost its mother and was starting to imprint on us. Only a hundred meters away five hyaena woke up and stretched their massive necks towards us.

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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: Lion Alert

OnSafari: Lion Alert

lionintreeBPCats dominated our first few days of game viewing. On only four game drives we’ve racked up 34 lions, 6 cheetah and one leopard.

Lion aren’t doing well in Africa. Nearly a third of the population has been lost in the last decade, and we experienced first hand one of the reasons why.

Our first two days were spent at Ndutu Lodge in the very southwest of the Serengeti, only a few kilometers away from a rather highly populated rural area of ranching Maasai. Over the years Maasai have become much more sophisticated businessmen, using vitamins and antibiotics and modern farming methods.

So their herds have increased, their wealth has increased and their population centers have increased.

During that same time tourists have increased and on the other side of the great wildernesses, Africa’s dynamic cities and towns are exploding with population and industry.

This is the dry season. Virtually all the great herbivore herds have moved far north into Kenya’s Maasai Mara where it’s still raining and the grass is still growing. This puts enormous stress on the cats, who have survived for eons through these normal cycles of feast and famine.

But normal cycles have become exaggerated by climate change. It’s wetter and colder in the wet season and dryer and hotter in the dry season. Feasting is now gluttony. Famine is now starvation.

Two days before we arrived a pride of lion killed two Maasai cows. The ranchers vowed revenge and it is this dynamic now dominating the fringes of wilderness areas throughout the entire sub-Saharan Africa.

NGO and field researchers were summoned by the park authorities to try to defuse the situation. Their only weapon is talk. They try to convince the Maasai that the wilderness is essential for a Tanzanian future for a variety of reasons, especially tourism.

And now some NGOs are also offering to compensate farmers and ranchers who loose their stock to wild animals.

So the researcher in charge of our area actually solicited us to travel with him to an area where two lion were mating. The rest of the pride’s members had skedaddled away after their cow pilferage, but a mating pair won’t move for the duration of their 3-day affair.

So we tourists provided not only the cover-buffer against revenge but also an object lesson in the value of lions. These were our first two.

The next day as the mating pair finally moved on, they did so after first killing a Maasai donkey. Not good news.

With such human/wildlife conflict going on in our neighborhood, lions started to appear all over the place. Like in front of our rooms at Ndutu Lodge.

Askaris (guards) were summoned to patrol the area all night long with strong flashlights. Still, the deep throating of the lions and the cries of hyaena following them filled our night.

Today we left the southwest area for the middle of the park. There is a long stretch on the “main road” which is a vast, now desiccated plains which in the rainy season is the verdant prairie. Normally now no cats will be here, because the large herbivores are gone.

But the season has been so stressful, that we found a lioness on the side of the road – in very bad condition – stalking Thomson Gazelle! That’s ridiculous. These marvelous little creatures which don’t need water and eat roots in the arid plains, covered the landscape. But a full grown Thomson is hardly 35 pounds! More to the point, they’re way too quick and nimble for a lion.

The main road got clogged with safari vehicles stopping to watch the lion. It was rather bizarre and comic at the same time. She took no notice of the dozen vehicles hardly ten feet from here as she crouched behind some roadside grass intently stalking the gazelle.

Then two giant road craters came up and I told my group to scatter quickly. It just wasn’t a good situation. The lion was desperate. Even a weak and desperate lion is powerful.

During our later drive that afternoon along the Seronera River we saw 13 more lion and a leopard. Just before we ended the game drive, we saw six lion hanging from a tree as if someone slung giant sausages up there!

It’s always easy to find cats in the dry season, but what we’ve seen is a mixture of the wonderful normal and the really scary abnormal.

There is tension on the veld.

Louis, Judy, Ben & Swen on the Miller Family Safari.
Louis, Judy, Ben & Swen on the Miller Family Safari.

OnSafari: Dry Delights

OnSafari: Dry Delights

ndutuBPThe Miller family safari didn’t waste any time. We chartered right into the Serengeti for the first two nights at Ndutu, which I’d planned because I had expected light game viewing during this middle of the dry season.

I was reminded that I’m often wrong. My preference is for the wet season when the migration is here, the veld is abloom and dramatic rains refresh each day, but family safaris are often dictated by the summer school holiday, and there are definite pluses for safaris at this time.

The biggest plus is cats. Cats don’t migrate. They feast and starve and with far less vegetation obscuring the landscape, they’re much easier to find now. On the very first game drive we encountered a mating pair. The next morning we found a pride of 12.

Neither group was starving, but that unfortunately was because they had killed two Maasai cows and one Maasai donkey. In fact it was a researcher who tipped us off to the mating pair, and that concerned me, as researchers don’t normally point tourists in their direction.

But he was worried that the Maasai would retaliate and that our presence could impede that. He’d been trying to convince the Maasai of the value of lions to the tourist industry: that it was vital to their own well-being. More to the point, though, modern Maasai use social media as much as anyone else. It wasn’t likely they would dare the incessantly clicking iPhones or Cannons.

Bibi, that’s grandmother in Swahili, is Judith Miller who’s been with me on several safaris in the past. She chose exactly the right ages to show her three grandsons why she loves Africa so much: they are 8- , 10- and 11-years old. The family also brought their summer guest, 12-year Louis of France. Many would shake their heads at a safari with 4 energetic boys that age, but in fact this is a fabulous time.

The boys couldn’t have been more excited, stopping the car a lot more than the adults, and for each new bird as well. Ben was picking out animals at 400 meters. Charlie was naming birds that most adults don’t know.

After the pride of 12 lion we got news of a possible cheetah hunt. We raced out of the marsh onto the plains and found a mother cheetah with 2 6-month olds walking behind her. She was definitely hunting.

About 400 meters away was a single, unassuming Grant’s gazelle that she had targeted. She started out walking slowly towards it at first, and then broke out into a slow trot for a short while, using the tall dry grass as cover. Her cubs stayed an appropriate distance behind her.

We stopped the cars and finely focused out binocs, since I didn’t want to disturb their possibilities. The dry season around Ndutu is a very tough time for cats. Later we’d find a couple more gazelle and three warthog within her range, but even so that’s a lot less than during the rains.

We watched the whole affair. She finally crouched down, and the cubs behind her did as well. The gazelle didn’t see her. It was just over a slight ridge, and the high grass was favoring the cheetah.

I thought she was within range to strike, but she didn’t. The gazelle finally noticed her and bounded off, ending the hunt.

We moved up to her also shortening the distance between us and the gazelle, and I noticed what a large and powerful male Grant’s it was. The smaller Thomson’s Gazelle is the cheetah’s preferred kill, and this nearly twice as big animal – especially a large healthy male – would be quite a task.

She had to worry, I think, about getting hurt as much as losing the hunt. Most cheetahs birth 5-7 cubs. She had only 2 left and they all looked hungry. If she was hurt, they would most certainly die. So perhaps when she got close enough, she figured the risk too great.

We left passing other gazelle and warthog, so her chances were hardly over for the day.

Both twin lakes of Masek and Ndutu are pretty full. The marshes around them have good ponds and the ground though dusty is not desiccated. There were good rains last season and the veld is healthy. As a result, the area may seem almost as if in a drought, when in fact it is an oasis for many animals in this southern part of the Serengeti.

Coming back last night only the swamp edge we encountered nearly 100 elephant in five different families, including quite a few youngsters. Everybody looked quite healthy. They were feasting on the last of the area’s fodder, including the very tough swamp grass, something they don’t usually eat unless they have to.

So for all my biases about when to go on safari, it was clear that normal cycles that have existed for aeons all have a purpose. Our game viewing these two days in Ndutu in the middle of the dry season would please anyone! Even me!

Wildly Good News

Wildly Good News

goodnewsdogWild dogs are on the rise throughout sub-Saharan Africa and there is probably no better marker species for the overall health of the wilderness. Hey. This is a very good news story!

Together with a number of wildlife organizations reporting significant decreases in poaching, I think it’s fair to say the African wilderness has taken a great turn for the better.

Wildlife organizations began acknowledging the comeback of the dogs since the beginning of 2015, but many of us guides noticed it several years earlier.

Check out my “OnSafari” blogs for the last 4-5 years and you’ll see an amazing account of wild dog sightings. Dogs are “definitely back” and maybe even better than they historically were.

Wow! So what does that mean. Well if it’s true, it could be that dogs are filling in the gaps being left by the definite and serious decline in lions. Filling such an important gap at the top of the food chain would be a critical need of the overall wilderness.

The story of the dogs’ comeback also gives us a good indication of what methods for conserving the wilderness work best.

Last week a sixth pack of wild dogs was released in the northwest Serengeti to great fanfare. This is in such marked contrast to only a decade ago when wildlife organizations had to keep secret their work in saving the dogs, because local farmers and businessmen so hated them.

So that’s the first big change: people in the area no longer express such animus to dogs as they showed only a short time ago. That doesn’t mean that ranchers don’t get awfully mad when a dog kills domestic stock. With government and wildlife organization funds to fairly compensate ranchers that have lost stock to dogs, though, many fewer ranchers are retaliating.

To mitigate the problem of more well educated Africans and not enough jobs, a number of “wildlife” organizations have dedicated serious resources to the social plight of Africans. Wildlife Works created 85 jobs in an area with a fragile peace between people and game.

“The key to preserving wildlife here is human relationships,” explains Wildlife Works’ Amy Lee in an op-ed published in the New York Times last week. Her organization is now the third largest employer in Kenya’s wild Rukinga district, and Amy credits this fact with saving the wilderness and wild dog in particular.

But there is also a real sense that the dogs are taking less domestic stock. The dog take less domestic stock because there’s more wild stock for them. Again this could be a reflection of the serious decline in lion, dog’s most aggressive competitor. But there is also a healthy increase in hyaena, and the total increase in dog and hyaena seems greater than just filling a gap left by lion.

That means the entire ecosystem must be improving. The persistence of organizations like the Frankfurt Zoological Society to continue reintroducing dogs over the last 30 years has finally paid off.

Finally a number of subtle social/wildlife collaborations all around the Serengeti have proved enormously beneficial.

A group of American zoos led by Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo continues an aggressive campaign to freely inoculate Maasai pet dogs against common diseases that surround the Serengeti. I’ve written before about this highly successful program.

Wild dogs, being more inbred than pet dogs, easily succumb to common dog diseases. This program has the added benefit of pleasing the people who surround the wilderness.

It’s always hard to tell a conservation success story: We worry that it will lower our vigilance. We know how fleeting it can be and with climate change how unpredictable now the tools that we’ve developed for monitoring and improving are becoming.

But at least for the moment, give yourself a pat on the back!

OnSafari: 4 Days in the Serengeti

OnSafari: 4 Days in the Serengeti

LotsofLionsOur last two days of game viewing in the central Serengeti were fabulous! Lion hunts, five leopards, rare birds and some of the most magnificent scenery on earth!

We left Ndutu and headed for the Moru Kopjes. This is the prettiest place in the Serengeti, with lovely small bush forests and meadows nestling giant granite kopjes that sculpt all sorts of shapes and sizes into the landscape.

My principal object in going is to visit two sacred Maasai sites: the cave paintings where newly initiated warriors are instructed by the outgoing warriors of their tasks and responsibilities, and Ngong Singing Rock, the legendary place that Bernard Gzimak convinced Maasai residents to leave much of what is now the Serengeti in 1972.

We did that, and it’s both heart-breaking and hopeful to hear the tales that grew the Serengeti at the expense of Maasailand.

But we also saw a rhino in the Moru! Now that’s something, because truly wild black rhino are about as rare a wilderness event outside of the Ngorongoro Crater that anyone can have, today.

And in the Moru we saw ten lions in two trees! It was actually quite hilarious and was right on the main Sopa road off the main Seronera road just after entering the Moru. The family had obviously finished off a pretty significant kill, because every one of their bellies was big.

After a lion kills and feasts (often increasing body weight by a quarter to a third) it has to flood itself with water. I can only imagine how painful that must be. Then the lion starts to hyperventilate. Besides running down a zebra at break-neck speeds, digesting hunks of unchewed meat is the hardest thing a lion body has to do!

Then, it tries to sleep. In this case, ten of them were flung about two trees on opposite sides of the road, all looking terribly uncomfortable. It was hard to position the belly so that it didn’t pull them off the branch, and once positioned, the rapid breathing made the branches move up and down as if the tree were alive!

In our last two days in the Serengeti we also saw five leopard. I hesitate to say this, because I guide many safaris to many of the same places where we never see a single leopard!

We also watched a lion hunt from start to finish and racked up more than 30 lions in three days of game viewing. For all you prospective first-timers to Africa, beware: that’s very unusual.

I think you can figure out by now that this was an extraordinarily successful safari, and I’m pressing myself to figure out why.

There’s no question that luck has a lot to do with it. But I know for certain from this group that client attitudes might be just as important.

We averaged 10-12 hours of game viewing each day. When I say that, I get myself tired, but we didn’t feel tired at the time. Everyone was so enthusiastic and the wilderness and its magnificent animals so beckoning. This is my favorite time of the year, when the rains that began at the beginning of the year get properly organized.

So the veld is so incredibly beautiful. The skies, especially at sunset, are so heart-thumpinginly magnificent. And the dramatic, loud and powerful storms disrupt hardly a couple hours of the day, a break normally at lunch time that we really need.

There are baby animals everywhere. We found one group of female wildebeest and it seemed like virtually every one had a calve! We saw baby giraffe that looked at us with as much curiosity as we had looking at them, and cheetah cubs hardly a couple weeks old that walked up to our vehicle almost meowing!

The Serengeti is my favorite place in the world and it lived up to every hope and demanding expectation I had for this marvelous group of people traveling with me.

Our last camp fire: Bill Vogt, Caroline Barrett, Connie & Harvey Fox, Cindy & Jim Pease, Steve Farrand, Judy & Bill Melville, Kathy & Dave Littlejohn, Lynn Vogt, Brian Barrett & Judith Fasani.  As usual, I’m holding the Tusker.
Our last camp fire: Bill Vogt, Caroline Barrett, Connie & Harvey Fox, Cindy & Jim Pease, Steve Farrand, Judy & Bill Melville, Kathy & Dave Littlejohn, Lynn Vogt, Brian Barrett & Judith Fasani. As usual, I’m holding the Tusker.

OnSafari: Serengeti Day 1

OnSafari: Serengeti Day 1

WildeLionKillDay 1 of 4 in the Serengeti: a lion kill, a cheetah kill, and most exciting of all, a reasonable hunk of the great migration!

The reason we found the migration was because the people I’m with are so incredibly enthusiastic. It’s that simple!

I expect that most of the migration is in the center of the park where we go, tomorrow. We’re currently in the far southwest. The information we garnered from the many other drivers here at Ndutu Lodge, as well as from rangers and what we could pick out of the radio traffic, suggested no large herds in this area.

So we headed out at dawn ready for anything … but the great herds.

We saw five cheetah and ten lion including a lion kill and a cheetah kill plus an unsuccessful cheetah hunting a baby wildebeest. That event failed when the mother wildebeest intervened at the last possible moment.

We had a fabulous breakfast on the plains packaged for us in Ndutu’s famous picnic baskets and we’d been out for five hours. We were an hour from camp so I was ready to call it a morning and return for lunch, but…

…Justin, one of my outstanding long-serving driver/guides, heard over the radio that 3 days previously wild dog had been seen another 90 minutes out from the lodge. Was anyone interested? That was in a pretty remote place.

The chances seemed extremely thin. It could mean at least an 8-hour game drive and no lunch!

Soon the entire group, all three vehicles was on board with the idea, and off we went – in the opposite direction of lunch!

Hardly a half hour later I began to see a very large number of wildebeest.

Most of the wildebeest we had seen until now were in wildly dispersed migratory files heading to the center of the park, where we expect to be tomorrow.

Twice, lost baby wildebeest had attached themselves to us, once on the Lemuta plains and once this morning at breakfast.

On the plains the poor 2-week old ran itself close to death trying to keep up with our speedy Landcruiser. We finally led it to a water hole with hyaena looking on.

This morning we were packing up breakfast when another two-week old showed up blarting. It pranced back and forth hardly 20 feet away from us. There were no other animals near us, much less its mother.

There are all sorts of reasons baby wildebeest get separated from their mothers, but one important one is that the migratory files are moving so quickly; and they were all moving in the same direction. I was pretty convinced that the big herds were all in the center off the park.

But before long on our extended trek to find wild dog we were among very large herds, not just of wildebeest, but zebra, gazelle and all sorts of other animals. We probably passed 500 eland.

Everything was located in and around the Kerio Valley, west southwest of Ngorongoro not really too far from the village of Endulen. Nobody suggested this area to us. None of the radio traffic or driver/guides or rangers even thought that part of the migration would be here.

The main reason no one knew about this is precisely because no one travels to this place! It’s deemed far too far from established tracks or lodges. The only reason we found it, is because my group is so tirelessly enthusiastic!

Five people have been with me for 30 days, yet they were among those lobbying for staying out!

So no, we didn’t see the wild dog. My predictions on that count were right: the chances of finding some family of animals in a place they were three days previously is ridiculously slim.

But it was just the excuse these wonderful adventurers needed to stay out, go further, do more. And what a reward we got!

OnVacation: Best Photos

OnVacation: Best Photos

16jul.lovebirds.ndutu.563.11sep.benchetlderYou might think these are parakeets in the Amazon, but they aren’t! They’re Fisher’s Lovebirds coming down to water within ten feet of the dining table at Ndutu Lodge in the southwest Serengeti! This beautiful picture was taken in September, 2011, by Chris Benchetler on one of my guided safaris, as part of my collection of favorite photos from my safaris over the last 39 years. Come back here on July 23 as I begin guiding my last safari of the season in Tanzania.

OnVacation: Best Photos

OnVacation: Best Photos

13Jul.2cheetah.sander.apr06I love this photo by Sander Glas taken in the Serengeti in 2007 on one of my safaris. I’m on vacation until July 23 when I will guide my last safari of the season in Tanzania. Meanwhile I’m posting some of my favorite safari photos. Although dramatic lion and leopard photos are generally sought by professionals more than their lowly cousin, the cheetah, I actually think the cheetah displays more whims of personality and is actually more photogenic.