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.
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!
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: 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!

OnSafari: A Day of Lions!

OnSafari: A Day of Lions!

LionsTwenty-four lions and 4 cheetah as we moved from the southwest of the Serengeti into its center.

It was a fabulous day but the veld’s condition continues to disappoint. Despite the heavy rains that we’ve experienced the last several days, it’s so obvious there had been a long period of drought.

There is a patina of green everywhere, but as we move north it becomes less and less. At Naabi Hill there seemed to be a clear divide and we climbed the hill for a better look.

Sure enough, south of Naabi the green was more intense. North of Naabi it was still very dry looking.

I would have liked to stay up atop the hill longer, but Tumaini shouted up that there were lion on the path, so we all scurried down.

Dave Koncal, Jane Krug, Deb Weingarden, Cathy Colt & Lyle Krug
Dave Koncal, Jane Krug, Deb Weingarden, Cathy Colt & Lyle Krug

And lion dominated the rest of the day. We went first to the sacred cave paintings of the Maasai in the Moru Kopjes, where I explained the traditional morani’s matriculation from just being circumcised. There really aren’t many traditional Maasai anymore, but I remain so sad that these paintings of such historical importance aren’t being preserved.

Several times, by the way, I’ve been foiled taking people to the paintings by lion!

Then we went to the Ngong Singing Rock where I talked about the terrible shaft the Maasai have received probably for a thousand years. This was the rock where the last of the forced Maasai evictions took place in 1972.

Even today the government is talking about further evictions.
We left lunch and Ngong Rock on a tip about a buffalo kill by lion. We had seen innumerable Grant’s gazelle and hyaena, a family of four cheetah, lots of buffalo and lots of giraffe, so the group was anxious for beige fur.

We couldn’t find the kill, so we gave up and decided to take a short cut towards our camp. Alas, destiny was in control, and we came across a family of three females with three sets of cubs, 15 in all. The blood on their faces was a clear indication they had made the kill.

They were hyperventilating so fast. Lyle clocked them at 90 breaths/minute. And the two mothers on which cubs tried to nurse would have none of such nonetheless, growling at them and knocking them away. It had been a hard day!

We left the lion, hightailed it to our camp, saw more elephant, more giraffe and who knows how many more lion, at least two more prides of and one mating pair.

We also spent the day gathering information. I dare to say we think we know where the migration is. Tune in tomorrow to see if we’re right!

Most of our day was spent in these Moru Kopjes.
Most of our day was spent in these Moru Kopjes.

OnSafari: Rains Return!

OnSafari: Rains Return!

cheetahThe quest for the big herds of the great migration began as we left Olduvai Gorge and crossed off-road past Shifting Sands onto the Lemuta plains.

It will not be easy this year. The veld is unusually dry, although just in the last few days heavy rains have been falling over the scorched veld.

In the first part of our Lemuta plains journey we saw hardly a handful of Grant’s gazelle. We past several dead cows with Nubian vultures nearby. For some reason there were hundreds if not thousands of Fisher Sparrowlarks jumping across the desiccated landscape.

Just opposite Lemuta mountain where we put lunch on a kopjes we noticed there were many Maasai cows in very large herds scattered across the veld. As we got closer to the kopjes you could see Maasai “flags” (pieces of blue cloth stuck from a pole) claiming almost every kopjes that looked good for a picnic.
We finally found one that wasn’t claimed and drove our vehicle around for security, then I popped out and walked around it. Lots of agama agama, some northern wheatear and Fisher sparrowlarks, but nothing else.

As we set lunch two Maasai crossed the veld and sat down on some boulders politely 20 yards away. I told my clients about current Maasai travails, quiet apart from the weather, including the proposed forced eviction of 4,000 from Loliondo.

Tumaini – who is Maasai – invited the men closer to our picnic area and they moved in quietly.

The Gibb’s lunch was spectacular as usual, and I told everyone before compiling the left over food to make sure to remove any chicken. Traditional Maasai believe eating fowl is satanic.
I then walked over to the two men with Tumaini, and we gave them the boxes of a substantial amount of uneaten food.

They were extremely grateful and several clients shook their hands warmly. Their gentle thank-yous were not in English but clear nonetheless. I told them – in Swahili which Tumaini felt they might understand – that I was specially happy the rains were coming.

That evoked robust nodding and lots of remarks that I couldn’t understand.

We then headed west towards Ndutu. There were a few more animals, but despite the Maasai’s protestations that they were being besieged by hyaena, we saw none. Likely the Maasai were not too kind to a visible hyaena, and we saw at least a half dozen other herds on our hour or so westwards journey.

In fact, we probably saw more cows than animals (except for gazelle, of course). Although the veld was dry, there were many pools of water, and the skies were ominous. I think the Maasai know the rains will continue, now.

We ended the day at my favorite lodge, Ndutu. Eva and Aadje were both there to greet us and Eva gave my group a short history lesson about Ndutu.

The next morning our dawn game drive encountered a female cheetah that was hunting. We stayed with her for several or more hours as she laboriously but unsuccessful stalked some Grant’s gazelle.

In the afternoon we braved the wet roads and went into Hidden Valley, a remarkable depression in the Kusini Plains west of Naabi Hill, in search of a giant python reported to be there. We found no python, but we did encounter another cheetah on our way back.

It’s been a beautiful two days at Ndutu, one of my favorite places in Africa. The herds have still alluded us, but the drama and brilliance of the returning rains was exhilarating.

Stay tuned, now, as on our final two days we search for the great herds!

Can You Be Too Right?

Can You Be Too Right?

Wildebeest survive, but Maasai must move on.
Wildebeest survive, but Maasai must move on.
As worldwide petitioners against a Loliondo Maasai eviction approached two million, an important meeting with government officials ended today without resolution.

Last May I blogged about this sad story in partial error, resulting in my concession that the blog had enough misleading information to be adjusted. The incomplete discussion of the problem remains a serious part of this story.

The controversy remains: the Tanzania government wants to evict 40,000 Maasai from traditional lands to increase a hunting concession for Dubai businessmen and princes.

The error so many of us participated in last May was reporting the controversy as an immediate crisis.

And that escalation of reportage has worsened. Respectable media reported today that the evictions have already begun. They haven’t.

We were led to our mistakes last May by the organizers of a very successful petition campaign on behalf of the Maasai, which has exceeded its wildest expectations by the way.

In May the organizers of the petition broadcast an urgent appeal for signatures based on an exaggerated claim that the government was imminently prepared to forcibly oust the Maasai.

Several of my readers pointed out to me this wasn’t true. The problem was real – and continues – but the immediacy was overstated and the government had set no deadline for forced eviction.

The situation is the same today.

Numerous legal maneuvers have been going on in Tanzania for some time, long before the petition campaign began. These continue today.

This past weekend, a report in London’s Guardian attributed to another report from Survival International elicited comments from the organizer of the petition which were exaggerated and went viral.

The story even emerged as a headliner in America’s normally very careful electronic media, Salon.

This is a complicated and serious story, and the media (including at first, me) just doesn’t seem to know how to handle it correctly.

Survival International, in fact, has a good time line of the real story. Click here.

The government’s policy came to the fore five years ago. There have been ups and downs, and based on today’s useless meeting in Dodoma, I’d say the government is losing the battle of waiting it out, and that’s good.

And it’s so good that many of my readers and others worldwide have signed the petition. But like a previously exaggerated social meeting campaign, Save the Serengeti, the movement starts to become more important than the issue.

Save the Serengeti absolutely contributed to stopping the building of the Serengeti highway (when it was in its first iteration, Stop the Serengeti Highway) but in no way alone despite its self-promoted appearances. Moreover, when building the highway was stopped, the campaign didn’t.

The real development of this Maasai story is simpler. Under increasing pressure to abandon once and for all the government’s policy to evict the Maasai from Loliondo, the government has offered a cash payment in compensation to 40,000 Maasai.

The offer is for approximately two-thirds of a million dollars or about $15 per person evicted, in addition to previous offers of new land that theoretically equals or exceeds the land that would be confiscated.

Today’s meeting in Dodoma was to discuss this new offer, and as expected, Maasai leaders rejected it.

Undoubtedly this new emergence of the controversy benefits the Maasai, and that’s good, too. It’s just not … well, exactly right to think of it as immediate to this prolonged problem.

Meetings occur all the time between government officials and Loliondo Maasai. Ridiculous moves like $15 per Maasai evicted should hardly be considered starting new or more serious confrontations.

Yet even in Arusha some thought so. Last night an arsonist started a terrible fire in Arusha that caused some to wonder if it was in protest of the Dodoma meeting about the Maasai eviction.

I received several requests to write this blog. I’m extremely thankful for my readers’ sensitivities to this problem. I’m glad that we’re all “on the side” of those benefiting from the exaggeration of the problem.

But ultimately it’s the facts that matter. It’s the facts we need to be vigilant about, not the hysteria.

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: Serengeti Dust Storm

On Safari: Serengeti Dust Storm

CheetahOnCarOn safari: Serengeti Dust Storm

A terrific dust storm swooped down from the crater highlands onto the Serengeti aborting our plans to visit a number of sights on the southeastern plains.

One of my personally most favorite days on safari is when we leave Ngorongoro for the Serengeti. Whether it’s during the rainy season when we’ll travel through hundreds of thousands of animals, or the dry season when the dusty plains reveal fascinating secrets, it’s hard to beat.

I normally stop just after the crater rim to demonstrate the symbiotic evolution of the giraffe and the whistling thorn tree, then my exciting lecture on early man at Olduvai Gorge, then the mysterious walking hills of the Shifting Sands.

And then the immense seemingly endless Lemuta plains with views you can’t imagine.

So yesterday we struggled out of the cars on the crater rim walking to a grove of whistling thorns against a gale force wind. It wasn’t just that it was cold, it was so strong.

When we arrived shortly thereafter at Olduvai I knew I’d have to rethink the day. The wind was at least 40mph and the dust was obscuring everything. The gorge and the museum were packed solid with visitors, so we decided to leave early.

At Shifting Sands the dust was so bad that Sophi and Hadley, the two teenage girls, wouldn’t leave the vehicles, and that was my sign that the day had to be replaced.

It wasn’t that I was worried we’d get lost in the dust, but there were no views, and it was near impossible to open your mouth without being filled with dust no matter what direction you turned.

So we turned back to the main road and regrouped. It was tough to give the day up, because the storm ended at the main road, confined it seemed to the eastern half of the Serengeti. But we continued to our lodge at Ndutu, arriving 5 hours early but to a very welcoming staff, clear air and cold beer!

On the impromptu afternoon game drive we saw the Masek pride of lions which included three sets of cubs, the youngest about six weeks old. I really wonder in this start of the dry season if those cubs will make it.

We then watched a puff adder wiggle across the entire lake bed of Masek! It was accompanied by double-banded coursers and an immature augur buzzard I presume making sure it didn’t go astray.

This morning we headed out to find cheetah, and boy did we! Two young adult brothers gave us every angle of pose and then jumped on the car where the kids were! College sophomore Jeffrey was right up there popped through the raised roof to photograph its every whisker!

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

We then watched a larger female cheetah on a failed hunt of Thompson’s gazelle. Only about 20% of cat hunts are successful, but even so it was exciting.

It’s extremely dry around Ndutu where we currently are. On our trek to Hidden Valley I was surprised there wasn’t a drop of water left. And yet the grasses are still a little bit green. It must be the dry, cold wind.

We now head north for two nights in the central Serengeti before two nights in the far north, where I expect it will be greener and filled with animals. So stay tuned! But I’m leaving internet availability so it may be several extra days before I can let you know what happened.

Urgent Appeal for The Serengeti

Urgent Appeal for The Serengeti

Dear Grace & Other Careful Readers
Thanks. This blog is in error. The “petition site” (automatically) contacted me (their deadline for the petition is next week, June 1, 2014) and fed me the links that I took to be current. Fellow bloggers did the same and we contributed to each other’s errors. All the news below is one year old. As far as we know the eviction process is on hold as a result of a suit filed by Maasai leaders which is still alive in the Tanzanian courts.

Petition site organizers believe if they reach 34,000 signatures by June 1, 2014, they will continue the pressure needed to keep the evictions on hold, so please proceed reading and sign the petition. But my apologies to all my readers for syncing off by a year.

– Jim Heck

Desperately needed: your signature on and broadcast of a petition to stop Tanzania from giving away part of the Serengeti to Mideast princes.

Sign this petition and circulate it, now, now. We have little time.

Last year I reported that Tanzania President Kikwete announced that he was going to evict 30,000 Maasai from their homeland in Loliondo in northern Tanzania to enlarge an existing hunting preserve owned by potentates in Dubai and Jordan.

As with the stopped Serengeti Highway, the outcry was substantial, especially locally from the Maasai. Nothing more happened. Until now.

Presuming the resistance had died out, Kikwete announced last week the sale was going ahead.

Manipulating Tanzania’s incredibly corrupt laws, Kikwete has decided to designate this area as a “wildlife corridor” which allows hunting but forces the eviction of the Maasai.

Don’t be fooled by this sinister sobriquet. Kikwete and past Tanzanian presidents have close relationships with Mideast potentates, where most of these old politicians’ money is stashed.

This is a land grab if ever there were one.

And this time the impact is actually less on conservationists and tourists than on local Tanzanians.

“My people’s livelihood depends on livestock totally,” a prominent Maasai politician, Daniel Ngoitiko, told the Guardian. “We will die if we don’t have land to graze.”

And don’t think this means there’s a bunch of dirty nomads running around half naked chasing dying cattle. Loliondo has become an important agricultural hub for Tanzania. We’re talking about modern ranching.

Ngoitiko’s comments could just as easily be said word-for-word by any Texas rancher afraid of a government land grab.

I’m infuriated by Kikwete’s dictatorial stance on this, his total disregard for the Maasai community which is trying so hard and doing so well to modernize.

So just as they begin modern farming techniques, he drives a stake through their back forty. There’s everything in his actions to suggest he’d rather send the Maasai back to the Stone Age than help them develop.

Ngoitiko told the Guardian, “We will fight against it until the last person is gone,” he said. More than fifty local Maasai officials said they will resign if the move goes through, effectively leaving a huge area without any local governance.

In an incredibly condescending dismissal Tanzania’s minister for natural resources and tourism, Khamis Kagasheki, was then quoted in the Guardian article as saying: “If the civic leaders want to resign, they can go ahead. There is no government in the world that can just let an area so important to conservation to be wasted away by overgrazing.”

This is equally a blow to the Serengeti, which the area is contiguous with. It’s a wedge between Kenya’s beautifully protected Maasai Mara and the Serengeti National Park.

Inserting hunting this far into the area could disrupt normal wildlife behaviors.

Please help. Sign the petition and circulate far and wide.

Let the Safari Begin!

Let the Safari Begin!

The safari calendar in East Africa resets each year at the end of November, and the news that has poured in from our safaris just keeps getting better and better. 2014 may be an exceptionally outstanding year for safaris!

The latest bit came from safari traveler Loren Smith traveling on a safari EWT arranged for the Cleveland Zoological Society. You can see Loren’s fabulous video above.

The first is the only disturbing one: there continue to be too many elephants, but let me get that single negative out quickly. I’ve been warning of a growing elephant conflict for more than a decade in East Africa. My blogs are replete with the problems and endless attempts at solutions.

The “elephant problem” has become a political problem in East Africa. Candidates for political office in both Kenya and Tanzania now often have planks in their platform regarding what to do about elephants.

My concern is that there will be overreach. And as I’ve often written, the exaggeration and bad analysis of the elephant poaching problem in the west isn’t helping.

But I can assure you that on safari the effect is nothing less than exhilarating as you can tell from Loren’s video. I show minute:second time points below in the video corresponding to my remarks:

Loren traveled in the last half of February, which over the last forty years of good climate statistics suggests should be much drier than shown in his first shots in Arusha National Park.

Typically the entire first half of the year is a wet season in northern Tanzania, but in February the precipitation abates at times almost completely. If you were planning your trip strictly by statistics, Loren’s video would have had little green in it.

Global warming has been changing this steadily for almost a decade, and as you can see by the green bushes, it’s not dry.

It’s hard for animals to be affected negatively by too much rain. But it definitely affects people, and that’s been one of the continuing stories in the equatorial regions of the planet as global warming progresses.

Tarangire is bit drier, which is always the case. Arusha is the wilderness around Africa’s 5th highest mountain and when it’s wet, it’s always wetter there. Tarangire is actually an ecosystem more similar to southern Africa than East Africa and is the only northern Tanzanian wilderness defined by a sand river ecology.

This lady has just eaten and washed herself off, which is why she is so close to the water in Silale Swamp. We can speculate about the three new lacerations on her hide. Two are just above her left hip and if you watch closely you’ll actually see a larger one on the far backside, middle of her left hip.

Lions gorge themselves when eating. Their very inferior molars are almost useless. They don’t chew much. They tear and swallow huge hunks of meat. A 400-pound male lion can easily chow down 70 pounds in a sitting. That extends the belly and makes it droop and is often confused in females as being pregnant.

So what caused the problem? We can only speculate but I think she was in a tussle with hyaenas, and the lacerations are the hyaena nips. In this area of the Silale Swamp there are four very grand males and for some reason they aren’t very welcoming of females. It could also have been a fight with the males.

Tarangire is actually where I think the best elephant experiences should be had, but Loren obviously had a fabulous one at nearby Lake Manyara National Park!

Notice the small tusks on this elephant, the legacy of the horrible years of elephant poaching in the 1970s and 1980s. As the video progresses we’ll see some better and longer tusks, because the elephant population is definitely on the increase and growing healthier.

Manyara was where the very first substantial elephant research was carried out in the 1950s by the famous Ian Douglas Hamilton. In those days there was no place on earth with as many and as healthy elephants as Manyara.

Junior here has a short branch in the back of his mouth. Elephant get a new set of molars about every ten years and like all good kids, he’s got to massage those tender gums!

What we see in Loren’s video is a large mass of transitory elephants: they’re moving through Manyara. They don’t live here as Hamilton’s elephants did in the last century. You can tell this by the way many multiple families are grouped together.

In a totally calm and balanced system, elephant families tend not to group. But when they’re on the move they do.

Tarangire provides a massive corridor to elephants south into central Tanzania’s great wildernesses of Ruaha and Rukwa. They move northwest from Tarangire into Manyara, and from Manyara they moved in very narrow corridors into Ngorongoro where they can then spread out widely into the Serengeti and Mara.

It isn’t that elephant are breeding so rapidly that their numbers are bulging. Poaching has been on the increase and the growth rate of the population is not high. But human encroachment is on a rapid increase, so their habitat is shrinking.

And more than ever, they have to move. Loren’s video is a magnificent documentary of this.

Until recently Ngorongoro Crater had the highest density of lion in Africa, but we need new studies since the rapid decline in lion was documented a few years ago. Even so, it is probably still one of the best places on earth to see lion.

These are two juvenile males, and despite their bravado they’re having a hard time. Look at their bellies and then look at their muddy feet. Lion like cats all over hate water.

Something was in the marsh that seemed like easy pickings, but they even missed that.

In a balanced population in the wild there are many fewer males than female lions. This is because so many young juveniles like these die of starvation. Unlike the sisters in their litter, they aren’t taught to hunt by the mothers.

But also unlike their sisters who usually remain with the mothers, the males are kicked out before they’re fully mature. A fully mature male is 50% bigger than a female, and nature’s way among lions to avoid inbreeding is to kick out the teenage males before they get as big as mom.

They have to teach themselves to hunt. Obviously enough learn, but these kids don’t seem to be doing so well. You might think what a pretty mane the one has. What I notice is their ribs and boney haunches. When the one starts to call, I think that’s a real hunger pain or possibly a pointless message to Mom for help.

The video ends in the central Serengeti and notice how wet the track is. Good for the critters to be sure. Not so good for the farmers.

Thanks Loren for an outstanding quick story of Tanzania’s wilderness in 2014!

Rain Rain Won’t Go Away

Rain Rain Won’t Go Away

rainbow.serengeti.peronThe rains have come back to the Serengeti; the wildebeest are moving south; all is well.

Last month the travel media went ballistic worrying that the wildebeest migration had been historically altered from eons of pattern and was going to spend the season in Kenya, when they should be in Tanzania.

The rains were late … well, maybe 3-4 weeks late. And there were plenty of YouTube videos and blogs documenting large groups of wildebeest moving north over the Sand, Mara and Balaganjwe rivers, when they should have been moving south.

Well, they’re back on track now.

“Wildebeest on a southerly course,” writes the very respected tour company, Nomads, yesterday. Their blog continued:

“There has been rain in the crater area towards Endulen, Central Serengeti, some in Ndutu and even in Loliondo so we are hoping for the plains to be green soon and the movement to proceed southwards, and by the time Christmas comes they should hopefully all be where they should be.”

And the weather report for the Serengeti is all but boringly normal.

This is tedious.

Whether it is the wildebeest migration, the coming apocalypse or the conversion of Obama as a mullah in Iran, our current world of instant communication takes the least bit of misinformation and spreads it around the world as the gospel truth.

A month ago, travel professionals were lamenting the end of the Serengeti migration. Yes, the rains may have been late, if 3 or 4 weeks is late in today’s crazy climate change world, and what do you expect a half million animals that have to eat grass to do?

They went where it was raining, and that was – for a short period of time – in an opposite direction from the norm.

How has your weather been recently?

But it’s been a very short time that the weather was out of sync in the Serengeti, a very short turnabout, and they’re back on track. And even if it had been longer, it would hardly have been the “end of the migration.”

We’re all adjusting at home and abroad to changing weather. And so are the wildebeest. And for us travel professionals it means certain caution about promising anything that has to do with weather.

But don’t worry about the wildebeest. They’re extremely adaptable.

Which is a lot more than I can say for most travel professionals.

Truly Helpful Volunteers

Truly Helpful Volunteers

snapshotserengetiSnapshot Serengeti is working masterfully, and not just to help the science of the Serengeti but to unmask once and for all the increasing fraud of quasi tour experiences purporting to need the traveler to accomplish some scientific or cultural mission.

A plethora of tour companies selling travel experiences supposedly to help usually unqualified researchers or exotic project managers will never satisfy consumers’ demand to validate their experience by other than just enjoying or learning.

That’s often perplexed me. Curiosity should be enough to motivate travel. A good guide can in 20 minutes convey, inspire and make memorable a foreign experience a thousand times more successfully than a poorly fed grad student desperate to create a published study.

Indeed, learning first-hand is an even greater motivation to travel, and to be sure there are times that without actual participation in the mechanics of a situation, the understanding is scant. But as I’ve often written, that scant understanding is worth it, and attempts at full understanding by volunteering is usually compromised entirely by the amount of time the volunteer is willing to give.

EarthWatch is usually the single exception, particularly in Africa, but it is not always so. WorldTeach, International Volunteer, Cross Cultural Solutions and Full Center are examples of basically well marketed tour companies purporting to do good work abroad by organizing short vacations towards “giving” rather than “receiving.” And they are basically frauds, doing little good other than satisfying the guilt of travelers and building the equity of their companies.

In many many ways, they are identical to the tens of thousands of small church missions with very dedicated volunteers whose projects are tenuous as best, destructive more often, and usually producing a very bad culture of dependency.

But in addition to the early EarthWatch programs and a core of good ones the organization produces regularly, there really isn’t another pay-to-volunteer experience in Africa worth commending. Until now.

Snapshot Serengeti is brilliant.

The dean of African lion research, Craig Packer painted himself into the inevitable researcher’s basement of too much data. Like so many scientific projects, as money is raised for a goal it’s spent immediately, so Packer raised the money for 225 robotic cameras throughout the Serengeti that were motion or heat triggered.

The goal was to acquire so much definitive research about the whereabouts of various species throughout the year, that a truly definitive study of the Serengeti’s very fluid ecosystem, driven primarily by the great wildebeest migration, could be started.

But suddenly the study had 4.5 million photos, certainly enough to reach some at least initial conclusions, but no way to digest such voluminous data.

Nor has Google Recognition achieved the ability to distinguish between a topi and a hartebeest at 100 meters from less than a high quality lens.

Zooinverse to the rescue: “Real Science OnLine”

And yes, you can actually make a difference. And it doesn’t cost anything.

Packer using Zooniverse signed up 15,000 volunteers (in ten days) on line who felt they could identify African animals. A few, more qualified programmers wrote an algorithm created from the initial detailed study of volunteers to determine the likelihood that the identification is correct.

So by giving a certain multiple number of individuals the same packet of photos to identify, and correlating their answers with the algorithm specifically created for this specialist project, real data is mined at phenomenal speed.

In fact so fast, that the cameras are having a hard time keeping up with the refined results produced from the volunteers.

This works. There’s no fraud involved, and everyone involved can be assured that what they’re doing has real scientific value.

Congratulations to the InfoAge, the Serengeti Lion Project and Zooinverse!