Abnormal Normal

Abnormal Normal

Title.RiverCrossing.699.Aug15For the first time in a number of years, the great wildebeest migration seems to be “on track.” This means when I return to Africa in a few weeks that I should be able to show my clients a dramatic river crossing in The Mara.

This year the weather was fairly “normal” as defined by the mean of the last twenty years. Parts of Tanzania suffered a mini-drought, and the lands of the wilde were a bit dryer than “normal” but all within the margin of “normal.” But does “normal” mean anything, any more?

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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.
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.

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!

Rainy Days Are Here Again!

Rainy Days Are Here Again!

tsavoeasteleEl-Nino’s coming! This means I’m carefully reviewing all the safari itineraries for next year.

We’ve known that El-Nino was on its way, but the extent of it is only now being understood better. For safari guides like me, it’s going to be a challenge.

El-Nino effects different places differently. In my home in the Midwest of the U.S., temperatures will be mild and there will be lots less snow than normal.
On the California coasts and the south of the country, heavy rains … some which have already begun.

And that’s the prediction for East Africa where most of my safaris occur. The chart to the right was taken yesterday from the Climate Prediction Center of NOAA.

It shows the “precipitation anomaly” for three-month periods, starting from the top: Sep-Nov; Dec-Feb; and Feb-Apr. The bluer the shading, the greater the added precipitation expected.

Heavy rain is generally good for the animals. It just causes us guides some transport difficulties.

I realize, now, for example, that my penchant for traveling into the backside of Lake Manyara National Park is likely going to be impossible, as there are two river washes likely to be too high.

It means that multiple vehicle safaris only will be allowed into off-road areas of the NCAA, where black cotton soil, some quicksand and marsh turf, could become saturated. We space our vehicles out a bit further from one another so that multiple vehicles don’t get stuck at the same time in the same place.

On the other hand, there should be some impressively good news for the Kenyan portion of the my safaris, including Samburu, the Mara and Tsavo East.

These normally dry areas will likely get some water. In fact as shown by the picture above presumably taken in the last week, the rains have already greened up Tsavo East, a good month or two before normal.

That’s good. It will increase the survivability of animal births, pretty up the veld and reduce the horrible dust we normally have to endure in these areas.

So don’t change your plans! Just make sure that your safari operator is prepared! In fact, it’s usually been in years of unusually high rains that I’ve had the best experiences with the Great Migration!

OnSafari: Kenya vs. Tanzania

OnSafari: Kenya vs. Tanzania

TitleWildeTents.699.aug15The border between Kenya and Tanzania has been closed in the Mara since 1979, but that didn’t stop us!

Historically, the great wildebeest migration has been in the Mara regions of the Ngorongoro/Serengeti/Mara ecosystem from July – September. This is when – historically – the rains have ended in the south while continuing here in the north.

The Mara is Kenya’s best wilderness year-round. After a complex dispute between the two countries in 1979, the all important Mara/Serengeti road and border posts were shut down, and they’ve never been opened since.

This was our final day in the Mara region of the northern Serengeti, still Tanzania but the Serengeti right to the Kenyan border.

We saw lots of wildebeest, not a lot of zebra, a dramatic river crossing and this morning, two male cheetah just waking up to hunt.

Mara River Bridge
Mara River Bridge

Historically we’d be lucky to see as much as we did these last three days. But the weather’s changing and more of the entire ecosystem is wet for longer than in days past. So I was anxious to know what was happening just across the way in Kenya.

The Mara River is pretty mean, wide and raging where we were staying, and it’s an effective obstacle to going north to Kenya.

There is one cement bridge built years ago when the rivers were all smaller and shallower. It’s usually covered with water, and I expected it would be again today because it rained last night.

Three weeks ago when I was here with another safari there was about three inches of water over the bridge. It’s a false idea that it would be safe for a 1 ton Landcruiser. In fact someone tried (not us). They were fortunate not to be levitated by the water, which is common, but …

… a dead wildebeest was raging down the river, slammed into the vehicle and sent it into the Mara River. The guests were rescued but the vehicle and their belongings were lost.

Today there were about 4 inches above the water, and I was surprised, so immediately off we went towards Kenya!

As soon as we crossed that little bit north the terrain changed considerably and looked exactly like the Maasai Mara I know so well.

There were far fewer trees and bushes, the grass was shorter, and so the vistas were grander. There were lots more visible animals: gazelle, topi, warthog, giraffe – even impala, and of course wildebeest.
Not a lot. Not as many as I expected. But the terrain reminded me that the beautiful savannah before us is a product of elephants felling forests, a primary among several ecological dynamics. The extraordinary corporate poaching of elephant in the Serengeti in the 1970s and 1980s as opposed to the much better patrolled Kenyan Mara had the unexpected effect of prolonging the northern Serengeti forests.

That’s changing, of course. We are seeing more and more elephant in the northern circuit in Tanzania and lots of felled trees!

Anthony Ertle & James Graham
Anthony Ertle & James Graham

We continued towards Kenya and off to my right I saw a fallen tree in the distance. Underneath resting in its scattered shade were two male cheetah.

Undoubtedly brothers kicked out of their family at the same time, one was clearly agitated, looking all around him and feigning yawns. In the distance was the small group of Thomson’s gazelle that I knew he was contemplating.

His brother was snoozing, but as soon as he stood up, his brother woke up and looked around, amazed to see us.

Nevertheless, cheetah are remarkably docile and friendly animals. They’re no more scared of us than they knew we’re unafraid of them.

We left the brothers to continue to the Kenyan border.

The border is marked by a stone pyramid. Several tracks lead to it from the Tanzanian side, and one from the Kenyan side, down from the Mara Serena hotel.

Anthony and James cartwheeled over the border, in complete defiance of visa regulations! Then, we took a group photo on the Kenyan side of the marker!

Then, fortunately, two Kenyan safari vehicles came up and we chatted with the drivers for some time. Such scant information hardly a good report makes, but they claimed there weren’t any large numbers of wildebeest in the Mara … “yet,” they said.

But we’ve been seeing them come across the Mara to the Tanzanian side for several days, now. Still, the amount of wilde we’ve seen – while impressive and much greater than historically would be the case – it was still hardly a big fraction of the two million animals that make up the great migration.

The lack of the Serengeti herds into the Mara was confirmed today by an email sent around by one of the most respectable properties in the Mara, Governor’s Camp. The email said they were “still awaiting” the Serengeti herds.

(Unfortunately, I don’t think waiting will help. The rains are returning early, and those wildebeest on the Tanzanian side are beginning to move south already.

As I sit writing this back in our Lemala Camp, the blarting of thousands of wildebeest which have just crossed south over the Mara River prompted me to take the title picture above. It seems like all wilde are now moving south, away from Kenya.)

So taking our pack lunch we returned over the cement bridge and traveled along the southern and eastern banks of the Mara seeing once again the great carnage of multiple crossings.

We also saw hippo and giraffe, and a cute scene where a just young adult male elephant charged a line of wildebeest.

He’s just had enough of them, I guess!

In Kenya without a visa! Peg Walsh, Ann Ertle, James & Julie Graham, Rosalini Fini, Mary Disse; Anthony, Jane & Michael Ertle.
In Kenya without a visa! Peg Walsh, Ann Ertle, James & Julie Graham, Rosalini Fini, Mary Disse; Anthony, Jane & Michael Ertle.

OnSafari: Great Migration Doubling

OnSafari: Great Migration Doubling

MaraRiverCrossing.699.Aug15Astoundingly, thousands of wilde were amassed on both sides of the river. Were they going to run into one another, increasing the carnage exponentially?

Every day I see new confusions in the wild as climate change accelerates. My safari headed out this morning specifically to try to see a great wildebeest migration river crossing, presuming by the calendar it would be from Tanzania into Kenya.

We were lodging on the Tanzanian side of the Mara River.

1stPlunge.RiverCrossing.699,Aug15Historically, the 2 million animals involved in the Great Migration will be found almost exclusively in Kenya at this time of the year.

That’s because, historically, the rains south of Kenya have ended. Only in Kenya’s beautifully spectacular Maasai Mara does rain almost every day of the year except in October and November.

Wilde don’t need rain when there are such wonderful rivers as the Mara, Sand and Balagonjwe around. They need grass. Lots of grass. So they travel with the rains, because the rains grow the grasses they have to have.

But in the last decade the rains have gone bonkers. See many of my previous OnSafari blogs throughout the year to see how strange the rains have been and subsequently, have fractured and unpredictable the migration is.

Nevertheless, we had just come all the way through the Serengeti, from the very south. We knew first had that the south was desiccated, just massive swirls of dust over the veld. (And, by the way, hundreds of thousands of nonmigrating Thomson’s Gazelle which need no water in the dry season.)

So until we reached the Mara section of the northern Serengeti, I was pretty sure that conditions were more or less normal, and that it would be great luck for us to see many wilde at all, much less a river crossing.
But as we left the western corridor at Ikoma we began to see clusters of wilde, several hundred strong, here and there as we drove quickly north.

More importantly, I saw green in the veld, and even more importantly than that, massive storms forming all around us.

We reentered the Serengeti at Mugumo and even though the grass was shoulder high there were more and more wilde and even greater numbers of zebra.

My hopes improved! We got into camp late, a beautiful property right on the Tanzanian side of the Mara River. We went to sleep with sounds of elephant trumpeting, hyaena howling and one persistent leopard grunting.

Michael Ertle said he slept only about an hour, because of the persistent gnawing of grass at the edge of his tent. It was zebra. When it rains, the tents direct the water over the eaves where then the most nutrient grasses grow.

So after a quick breakfast we headed out along the river. We made numerous stops for giant crocs, dozens and dozens of them. One I spotted was at least 14 feet long.

But I also noticed lots of dead wilde. That in itself isn’t so unusual, but there seemed to be an unusual number of them and in very radically different states of decay.

And the largest congregation of vultures I’d ever seen. Julie Graham asked if I could estimate how many, and I really couldn’t. I’ve learned to estimate animals on the ground, but the swirls of vultures were daunting.
Perhaps thousands? More?

These unusual sites meant something unusual was afoot. The obvious conclusion is that the carnage on the river was greater than normal. Why?

Soon we would learn why. About 15k east of camp we came upon two massive groups of wilde, on opposite shores! Each side looked like it was about to plunge across.

Given the large number of wilde still grazing on the Tanzanian side, clearly the unusual rains had disturbed the predictable course of the migration. Obviously, from our very immediate experience, wilde were crossing both ways, and often.

We parked ourselves about 200m up from the river so as not to disturb the movements. It was around 11 a.m.

Numerous times each side seemed to make a move. There would be agitation and some prancing, wilde moving onto the sand bank but then darting back and drawing dozens back with them.

From the horizon both sides were being pressed by more incoming lines of wilde, migratory files moving in exactly the opposite directions of one another.

It was nearly 12:30p and the standoff continued. Part of group returned for lunch and the lucky die-hards stayed with me.
About a half hour later I saw one wilde put his left hoof into the river and I swear it was less than 5 seconds and dozens of wilde started the plunge.

Soon it was a thick of mass wild, loud blarting, splashing and difficult swimming against the strong Mara current, each pushing one in front of them further into the river towards the other side.

The first made it about 7 minutes after the initial plunge. Mothers would stop and turn back, having lost their young. Some, caught by the strong current, were swept onto rocks unable to dive back into the water without drowning.

But most remarkable of all, no crocodile take-downs. When I’ve seen this before, there are dozens of crocs. This time, we saw crocs resting among the running herds and not moving!

The wild are hard-wired to move aggressively and rivers beckon them as their greatest challenge. If there is good grass on both sides of the river, they’ll cross back and forth without other purpose.

That has led to one of the greatest carnages I can remember on the river. And that’s the reason there were no croc take-downs, today.

They’re all full.
Above Rosalini Fini takes a video of the wildebeest crossing Jim’s safari in northern Tanzania witnessed today.

OnSafari: The Migration

OnSafari: The Migration

From Naabi Hill looking west.The greatest wildlife spectacle on earth has become unpredictable because of climate change, as awesome as it remains.

Today my McGrath Family Safari left the Moru Kopjes at 7 a.m. and arrived our camp near the Mara River on the Tanzanian side around 5:30p. During that time we saw two enormous groups of wildebeest, despite reports that they were all in Kenya.

From just after the Grumeti River near Seronera to Lobo, a distance of about 25 miles, we drove continuously through wildebeest. I estimated a quarter to a third of a million.

After we arrived at the Kenyan border for lunch, we headed west then north again towards the Mara River. From about the Lemala Camp position on the river to about 10 miles southeast of Kogatende, we saw another 100-150,000.

If my very rough estimations are even slightly correct, it means that we saw – today in Tanzania – from around a quarter to a third of all the wildebeest and zebra known in East Africa.

Is this the migration?

For years and years, 30 of my own career to be exact, the more or less circular migration of the great herds was a given that you get nearly set your watch by. Safaris were appropriately planned several years in advance to intersect the best of the great herds.

The beginning of the year began with the rains that attracted all the herds together on the southern grassland plains. Here they calved – all of them, around the last week of February. There was a minor hiatus in precipitation in February in the south, more in the north, but the rains were continuous until often an abrupt stop in late May or early June.

A few weeks later the herds freaked and started running north. The calves were strong enough by then to do so.

They would sometimes break into three sections, often not, with some going into the western corridor and others sticking to the eastern Serengeti. Then by the end of June, virtually all the wildebeest moved across the great Sand and Mara Rivers into Kenya, where they stayed until October.

It just doesn’t happen that way, anymore. Calving is erratic and occurs almost everywhere on the migration route. This year hardly any calving occurred on the southern plains.

Read my “OnSafari” reports for the last several years. This year we found most of the migration in March where it traditionally would have been in June, and we later found it in April where it traditionally would have been in February.

On the McGrath safari last Wednesday, we left the crater to enter the Serengeti. We visited Olduvai, where it was bone dry and few animals, but by the time we hit the Lemuta Kopjes the plains were covered with wildebeest.

From Lemuta west to the main Serengeti road, we easily saw 100,000 wildebeest. This is an area where traditionally they calve in February. Today is nearly July.

In all these unusual cases, the wildebeest were where the grass was growing, of course because it had rained. The rainy season is now all mixed up. Overall precipitation is greater than normal, but it comes in dangerous torrents followed by mini-droughts.

The wilde are adjusting.

The “migration” was never only wildebeest. It was a third zebra as well, but I’ve also noticed that the zebra are separating from the wilde in ways they didn’t before. For the last several days with the McGraths, for example, we encountered around 20,000 zebra starting at the Simba Kopjes through the top of Seronera and west into Moru.

Zebra, no wilde. (Well, maybe one or two or ten or twenty.) And today with the fractions of millions of wilde we saw, hardly any zebra.

Zebra have different eating habits and preferences than wilde. Perhaps climate change is differentiating these even more.

This is fascinating and perhaps troubling, but nowhere near as troubling as the commercial sites, like herdtracker.com, which claim to tell you where the wilde are.

Today, well, the wilde are everywhere. Large herds literally can be found in the furthest south and furthest north part of the Serengeti. Presumably, too, there are many in Kenya.

Irritated by sites like herdtracker.com motivated by commercial advertising, the Frankfurt Zoological Society is in the beta stage of a much more exact migration locator which will be launched soon as SerengetiTracker.com.

The FZS is radio collaring a number of different wilde which it believes come from different parts of the herd, and these will be tracked by satellite.

This is good, but not even this will be complete.

Meanwhile, my McGrath Family Safari couldn’t be happier. After all, they weren’t supposed to have seen the migration.

OnSafari: Even More Migration!

OnSafari: Even More Migration!

From Naabi Hill looking west.
From Naabi Hill looking west.
Few times in forty years have I seen such a massive migration. I can honestly say that from my experience I think we have seen at least 1½ million animals.

But that has to remain an estimate. We made no aerial survey, no individual counting. It’s my opinion, but one rendered from forty years of doing this. And whether my numbers are off or not, I can absolutely say that it was among the very best migration experiences of my career.

Brewster Johnson asked me today at Naabi Hill how often we could see the scene around us, and I replied if the weather is normal, every March and April.

That’s pretty true for the south side of the hill we were on at the time: the wilde surrounded the south side from as far as we could see towards Lemuta to the Kusini Plains where the swath ended.

But as we pulled over the hill we could see almost as many again northeast towards Gol and somewhat towards Moru. And combined with what we had seen for the last few days in more distant places like Lemuta, this experience this year was extremely unique.

Today we moved from the southwest tip of the Serengeti at Ndutu into the center, via Naabi Hill. Yesterday evening as we watched yet another line stream into the Ndutu forests (which we could not see from our vantage point today at Naabi) we watched the end of the line brought up by a lost calve.

Hardly had I mentioned that the calve wouldn’t last then we saw a hyaena run after it, easily catching its tail, then immediately start eating it alive.

The scene was disturbing to some on my current trip and is understandably disturbing to many, and to dismiss these feelings by just saying “This is the wild,” is inadequate.

What the “wild is” is not an easy concept. Hyaena are as essential to the wild as baby wildebeest. Hyaena killing baby wildebeest are as essential to the wild as babies being born to wildebeest.

Today we also saw wild dog. Wild dog and hyaena are the most gruesome killers, and wild dog look remarkably cuddly and loving, no less than a slurping lab. But both animals eat their prey before they kill it.

Why that particularly gruesome way of recycling has evolved may be more a reflection of our own consciousness than any comment on what the wild is.

But above all, it’s the perfect lesson on why we need diligently to keep ourselves from anthropomorphizing wild animals.

From Naabi Hill looking south about 25 miles towards Ngorongoro.  Field of view at the top of the picture is about 10 miles.
From Naabi Hill looking south about 25 miles towards Ngorongoro. Field of view at the top of the picture is about 10 miles.

OnSafari: Bingo! The Great Migration

OnSafari: Bingo! The Great Migration

GreatMigrationFor more than a half day we were immersed in the Great Migration. For at least four of those hours we were driving, constantly surrounded by wilde, zebra and breath-taking scenery. We saw perhaps three-quarters million animals … or more. How do you count endless dots from horizon to horizon?

And for that entire time, from start to finish, from 11 a.m. in the morning to 5 p.m. in the evening, we saw no other cars, no people but Maasai herdsmen. We were 11 people and two safari vehicles alone in the greatest wilderness on earth!

We entered the great southern grasslands just after Shifting Sands not far from Olduvai Gorge. The veld was green and beautiful, so unlike when I was here 12 days ago.

We immediately saw some wilde and zebra, but it was through our binocs that we saw the enormity of the experience which awaited us.

Lucas Massimini & Magnus Johnson on The Rock!
Lucas Massimini & Magnus Johnson on The Rock!

Hardly a half hour later, driving off-road across the plains we encountered the herds. For the rest of the day, from about 11:30a to 5 p.m., wilde were everywhere.

We saw massive herds from just north of Shifting Sands up to Lemuta, northwest all the way to Naabi and into the Gol (perhaps it went on from there, but we could see no further) and west virtually to the main road.

With our binocs we could see great herds further north, but we had to head west to Ndutu. From what we saw I’d estimate the migration filled at least 125 sq. miles, but that was all we could see.

It was so much different than the quarter million we found far from this place in the Masabi Plains 12 days ago.

They were frolicking and bouncing, like healthy wilde, twisting in the air as they ran. There was incredible blarting. This was the normal migration I know, not the distressed one coming out of the 6-week drought we saw hardly two weeks ago.

But it was unique, too. The beautiful grass was new. There was little scat, few zebras, no eland, only 2 hyaena and a handful of ostrich. Of course the veld was filled with tommies, but they reside here year-round.

There were tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of red-capped lark. This remarkable little bird has a distinct job in the migration yet to be fully understood, but it is always found in the vanguard of quickly moving herds.

It was green throughout, with many, many pools of water.

The herd east of the main road had so few young it was depressing. The herd west of the main road was like the ones we saw two weeks ago in the Masabi Plains, about 1 in 10 or 9 were this year’s calves.

Where did they come from? Where had they been?

I remain convinced that the drought fractured the herds. We can say now that it fractured into at least two large pieces and many smaller pieces, but perhaps even more large pieces.

One went into the western corridor, 2-3 months ahead of schedule. Those composed the quarter-million we found 12 days ago. The much larger piece we saw from Lemuta west must have been in the valleys of Angata and towards Sale, perhaps west of Loliondo but east of the Maasai kopjes, although it had been reported very dry there, too.

Perhaps this larger piece wasn’t a large piece, but dozens if not hundreds of smaller fractured pieces.

What particularly amazes me is that when we saw the Masabi herds leave the western corridor right past Soroi Lodge on the old road through the pass to Seronera, I couldn’t understand why they were leaving. It was still raining and the grass was beautiful.

But leave, they did. So why? Why make the trek down to the southern grassland plains if you’re surrounded by excellent fodder?

Is it hard-wired into them to linger in the south until the rains recede in a normal fashion? Are the grasses in the south that much more nutritious and does wilde physiology recognize this?

Whatever the answer, the migration is back on track this year after being dramatically wrenched awry by the drought. I just hope the rains continue as normally they would.

It will take at least another month for those who survived to recover their normal body weight. There are far fewer young than normal. The year will end badly for wilde numbers.

Climate change is devastating the earth. The Great Migration avoided a catastrophe this year, but it seems now like every year is somehow abnormal. Small periods of intense drought are spaced by horrible flooding.

It worries me how long this most amazing spectacle on earth will continue.

Brewster Johnson at our lunch spot in the migration.
Brewster Johnson at our lunch spot in the migration.

OnSafari: The Great Migration!

OnSafari: The Great Migration!

Mark Weingarden counting the migration.
Mark Weingarden counting the migration.
Perseverance, great attitudes and not a little bit of luck brought us to the great migration in one of the most difficult years to find it I ever remember.

According to Mark Weingarden we saw 283,465 wildebeest in a long narrow area that we traversed of about 20 sq. miles. Mark’s metric was to estimate how many northeast football stadiums would be filled by the herds.

No one suggested we go where we found them. Virtually all the information we had collected for days, combined with internet sites like Herdtracker.com, gave us no help. We were the only car for four hours on the Soroi Lodge access road off the western corridor road.

We had left the western corridor after finding no wildebeest in the Masabi Plains where they had been reported over the last few days. If they had been there, they’d left in a hurry.

Giant storms were building. The veld all along the western corridor from Serena past the Masabi Plains looked green enough with good enough grass to support large herds, but we saw none.

We took side roads like down to the Hembe and Mauri camp sites. It was beautiful and fresh and we saw topi and impala, warthog, tons of gazelle, baboon and even a group of more than 100 eland.

Dan & Roger Pomerantz.
Dan & Roger Pomerantz.
But no wilde.

On our side roads down to the Grumeti River it was depressing. The river is ridiculously low, so it was clear the greened up veld was from recent rains. At the Grumeti Retina hippo pool later we’d see two dead hippo, one being devoured by giant crocs. Perhaps that’s why we got to see the very rare white-headed vulture … because there is so much dead carion.

The afternoon before we had seen maybe a thousand zebra on the plains in front of Makona Hill, and Tumaini and I conjectured that if they were in vanguard of something, it would be in the pass that led from Soroi to Seronera.

We would have liked to take that little track, but it was too wet. That has been the great irony of the last few days: no wilde, stressed and sick animals, but a greened up veld. About six weeks of hardly any rain was breaking and confusing everyone, perhaps including the wilde.

So after following all the public leads and coming up zero, we headed back to the Soroi access road. I wasn’t optimistic. I told my clients that it didn’t look good.

I was wrong.

Estimating wildebeest numbers is not easy, and it’s even harder when they aren’t spread across flat grassland plains, but woven among many forests and valleys. But I think Dave may be close to the numbers. I think we probably encountered 10-15% of the entire population.

Even sitting on a rise in the great plains it’s hard to see any more at once, so we lucked out … we found the great migration.

If I’m right about the numbers, where are the rest?

Dave Koncal & Jane Krug.
Dave Koncal & Jane Krug.

I remain convinced that the dramatically unusual weather has fractured the herds this year. Likely most of “the rest” is in as small or smaller groups scattered all over the place. That would be a natural and positive reaction to near drought.

But now that the drought seems to have ended the herd mentality may kick back in gear. They aren’t in the best of condition. Instead of the normal 1 in 4/5 wilde being babies, I reckon it’s not more than 1 in 10. Have they died already?

We saw two groups with young that still had their umbilical chords. That means very late births. Many herbivores have the capacity to delay birth for at least a little while. Perhaps that’s what’s happening.

The big question now is where will they go. If they came from Masabi in the western corridor they were several months ahead of a normal schedule. We left Ndutu several days ago and it was raining hard there.

This afternoon it’s very hard raining where we are in Seronera, and storms filled the sky from horizon to horizon. Grass will be growing everywhere.

But it is the specially high nutrient grasses of the southern plains that the herd needs for a healthy year. Will they go back to that? Or are they too weak or tired?

I’ve got one more safari to go. Stay tuned!

Finding 2 Million

Finding 2 Million

GolApr8The great wildebeest migration is the greatest wildlife spectacle left on earth and the main reason that visitors come to East Africa. Things are changing.

“The wild beest migration is unexpectedly … back around Central Serengeti,” Tanzania Adventure Safaris newsletter reported a few days ago.

“As there have been good rains this year… the herds [are] moving all the way down to the short grass plains … when they would not be expected.”

The migration occurs in the Ngorongoro/Serengeti/Mara ecosystem, roughly a 200-mile vertical oval east of Lake Victoria. About 3/4 of this area is in Tanzania, and the remainder in Kenya as the Mara.

There are now numerous wildebeest migration watcher sites, such as “Herdtracker,” all of which I’ve found biased, incomplete or irregular at some point when I checked. Geared mostly to the particular camps or companies with which the site is associated, a snippet of where the migration is, is generally truthfully reported, but the overall picture is never explained.

With two million animals involved, there really isn’t a focal point for the migration. Moreover, at various times during the annual year’s migration, the great herds may be cleaved into halves or quarters traveling sometimes in nearly opposite directions.

Predicting where and when a safari can intersect the great migration was never an exact science but always a pretty good bet. The two million migrating herbivores involved eat virtually nothing but grass and grass grows when it rains and rain cycles were quite predictable.

In the north, in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, it rains almost every day of the year except in October and the beginning of November. The grass, though, in the higher elevations of the Mara isn’t quite as nutritious as the grass in the far south of the Serengeti. So even though grass is growing almost all the time in the Mara, if there is better grass to the south, that’s where the herds will go.

The circle of rain is like a big hula hoop with Lake Victoria as its center. The great herds move with the edge of that circle as it contracts into Lake Victoria until finally they get diverted to the last place in the area where it’s raining, the north of the ecosystem, Kenya’s Maasai Mara.

Sounds simple, eh? All you have to do is predict when the rains will stop. The herds then move north, sometimes frantically depending upon how quickly the rain turns off down south.

So a really safe bet was to visit Tanzania’s Serengeti really any time in the first half of the year (although February and March were always a sure bet), and Kenya’s Maasai Mara in July – October (although August and September were considered the best).

Didn’t happen this year.

This October much of the central and southern Serengeti received up to four inches of rain. Normally there would be no rain at all.

Two things are happening:
First, rains are much heavier than normal during the historically normal rainy season. You can see that from the NOA chart to the right. Green is a 100% increase over normal, so twice as much as usual.

Second, the rainy season itself is growing. You can see that from the second NOA chart just below the first. Green is a 50% increase over normal. Blue, which shows through much of the equatorial region, is a 100% increase.

More rain and a longer season is going to keep the wildebeest for a longer time in Tanzania’s Serengeti and delay their arrival and hasten their departure from Kenya’s Maasai Mara.

Is this a trend, or just something unusual for these past few years?

According to the Stockholm Environment Institute (weADAPT), one of the few professional meteorological organizations to study East African climate:

“…there has been an increase in the number of reported hydrometeorological disasters in the region, from an average of less than 3 events per year in the 1980s to … 10 events per year from 2000 to 2006, with a particular increase in floods.”

weADAPT and most organizations are concerned mostly by how this effects people, and the news in that regards isn’t good. Malaria, for one thing, will increase with increased temperatures and precipitation.

But the wildebeest and zebra love it. Their numbers are increasing, more and more grass is growing, and with time they’ll be spending more and more of their time in Tanzania rather than Kenya.

But at the same time as the rains increase there will be less of a need “to herd.” The animals may just start wandering, because wherever they wander, there will be food to eat.

The hard-wired aspect of wildebeest migrating — which we normally see as files of running animals — isn’t going to change or adapt as fast as global warming. We’ll always see them running, and it’s a magnificent sight!

But as it rains more and more, they might not have to.

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.

On Safari: Unexpected Migration

On Safari: Unexpected Migration

seronerazebraAt Seronera for two days we were engulfed by part of the wildebeest migration, something totally unexpected.

Historically the wildebeest would be much further north by late June/early July, and the reports out of Kenya were that they were. In fact, the crossing of the Sand River from Tanzania to Kenya was reported in early May.

But here we were, 120 miles further south, surrounded by wildebeest and zebra day and night. The saturation of the herds on the veld extended from just south of our camp at the northern end of Rongai, just south of Mawe Meupe and north to the western corridor junction road.

The western portion was bordered by the Moru Kopjes and the eastern portion ended before the Maasai kopjes.

It’s very hard to estimate the numbers but I’d guess between 50,000 and 100,000 animals, or about one-fiftieth to one-twenty-fifth of the entire population of zebra and wildebeest in the Serengeti/Ngorongoro/Mara ecosystem. Where were the others, the 2+ million?

morearecomingAll accounts suggested they were well into Kenya and that they had moved there quickly and densely through the eastern edge of the Serengeti. But numbers like this are hard to grasp, particularly if the veld is the least broken by hills or forests.

In effect that small fraction of the wildebeest was a grand migration for us, and it wasn’t at all expected. Late and heavy rains has made the entire veld from Seronera north green. On our charter flight today to the border with Kenya, there was hardly a piece of land that wasn’t green.

Unlike birds, animal migrations are triggered strictly by food. If the food source is good, as it apparently was for the tale end of the great migration this year, they will linger and stay behind.

During our two days in the area we also saw two dozen lion, a hundred or more elephant, a leopard with a new kill in a tree, countless hyaena and many defassa waterbuck and hartebeest. We traveled south into the Moru Kopjes and saw little game but enjoyed the sacred stories of the Maasai at Ngong Rock and the morani cave paintings.

Seronera has always been an exceptional place for game viewing, but as a tourist you’ll pay handsomely for it, and not in dollars. It’s very crowded. At each sighting of a lion or leopard there could easily be 20 cars.

We have enjoyed a safari so far in remote and beautiful places with good game viewing and very few other cars. But it’s impossible to do this in Seronera, and I personally feel Seronera should not be missed.

The wilderness today in Africa has been saved by tourism. Seronera represents a core of intense game viewing with a multitude of accommodation alternatives. One positive way to look at it is that no one would have the opportunity of visiting any part of the Serengeti if the revenue received from visitors going to Seronera weren’t included.

The Seronera river valley is where we saw a dramatic half hour scene of 3-400 zebra cautiously drinking from the river then exploding out when the least sign of danger was sensed. Only here in the central Serengeti is a river system large enough to attract so many resident animals.

It’s also a reality check. Lion ignore us in the remote Kusini Plains where there’s no other vehicles but our own. But they come from generations of animals that have been habituated to cars, principally in places like Seronera.

So I wouldn’t exclude Seronera from an itinerary, and that attitude is what allowed us to truly experience the great migration when it had neither been expected or promised. That was luck, certainly explained in part by climate change, but mostly by where the extended rains fell.

And it seemed they fell right on our camp just before we arrived!

Stay tuned! On to the great Serengeti North!

On Safari: The Great Migration

On Safari: The Great Migration

migrationToday was my “longest, hardest” day and always among its best. After ten hours we’d seen so much that the exhaustion wasn’t from the bumps but the sights.

Lots of people go to Olduvai Gorge when leaving Ngorongoro Crater, just as we did. And a few of them then continue to the site where Zinj was found, and fewer still continue as we did to the mysterious Shifting Sands.

I won’t give away the secret as to why these seven large hills walk themselves across the grassland plains, sometimes 20 meters a year, sometimes 200 meters. And we were further surprised by the arrival of some legitimate Maasai warriors who bumbed some water off us.

But very, very few people then know how to continue off the tracks altogether into the southern grassland plains between Olduvai and the Lemuta Kopjes. Two weeks ago the plain was filled with wildebeest. Today it was nearly wildebeest empty, because it had dried out.

But there were still literally tens of thousands of Thompson’s Gazelle. These beautiful plains creatures don’t migrate; they don’t have to. They eat the roots of the grass, and they rarely drink after suckling and then it’s usually for salt, not water.

But the unexpected twist to the day game when our lone two vehicles on the plane were intercepted by a white Toyota sedan car!

It was a German couple trying to drive themselves, and they were understandably lost. I was beside myself with anger and worry. The last thing East African tourism needs is a reported lost of two casual tourists.

They were using a map that was about 40 years out of date and large enough to direct them to Morocco, in other words, useless. They had come from a cheap camp in the northern Serengeti and wanted to go to Lake Natron.

They had missed their turn three hours before. We explained all this to them and told them the safest thing to do was to continue in the direction they were heading, since that was only two hours from Ngorongoro, and they were at least 6 hours from where they wanted to go.

But now, the woman driver said, they didn’t want to “go back” to Ngorongoro. After some questioning, it seemed they were reluctant to spend the extra $100 in fees it would cost them to reenter the Conservation Area.

I offered to give them the $100. As I said the last thing I want is for some tourists to hit the headlines as having been lost in the Serengeti.

But she refused, and there was nothing we could do. They turned around and headed back to where they’d come from, and we continued on our journey onto the Lemuta Kopjes for lunch.

And right after lunch we intercepted the herds. It meant they had shifted about ten miles west of where I had seen them two weeks ago.

Understandably, people think the “great migration” is some strictly defined circle of movement, but of course it isn’t. Although wildebeest can’t stand still and will act like they’re moving all the time, if the grass is good, there’s no reason they need to move.

And the grass was phenomenally good. Today the migration is mostly in a rectangle, 40 x 20km that begins just west of the Lemuta Kopje and angles southwest to the Kusini Plains at Hidden Valley. I’d dare say that probably half or more of the 3 million animals currently composing the wildebeest, including young and zebra, are in this rectangle.

It is a sight to behold. And for the first time in nearly 12 years, Hidden Valley is once again open to us, the rhinos that were reintroduced here considered totally acclimated.

So we gingerly slid the cruisers into the valley to watch a large female cheetah stalk Grant’s gazelle. To no avail, as is the case with the majority of hunting attempts, but still a wonderful drama.

We set our elaborate breakfast, the best in all of Tanzania prepared by Ndutu Lodge, off the edge of the herds to avoid some flies. But even as we were eating, the herds started to envelope us.

We headed back to the lodge about six hours after we began, stopping to watch a magnificently beautiful and very full lioness grudgingly lift herself and her belly out of the grass to look quizzically at a line of wildebeest passing her bye.

She was just too full to hunt but too young to go back to sleep!

There is no natural spectacle on earth as great as this. I’ve been so fortunate that it has continued and prospered even during my forty years of guiding. I just hope that it will be so for the generations to come!