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My favorite elephant in the world.

 

The world’s appetite for ivory has, for years now, been the driving force behind the catastrophic decline in Africa’s elephant population. This problem is well documented and the struggle to stop it has been very public. What has been much less obvious is the accelerated rate at which the battle is being lost. A recently completed census revealed that Africa’s elephant numbers have declined by a full 30% over the past seven years. It seems that conservationists and wildlife lovers are overwhelmed with bad news on an almost daily basis, but this statistic is particularly unsettling. It confirms the possibility that the extinction of the species is, mathematically, not far distant. There are many angles to this tragedy, all of them ugly. There is the unfathomable but pervasive belief in parts of Asia that ivory trinkets are more valuable than elephant lives. There are the corrupt government officials who look the other way, turning a blind eye to the incessant slaughter and reaping enormous financial benefit in so doing. And there is the grinding poverty that forces people to illegal poaching to ensure the survival of their families. The challenges are huge, and there are no simple answers.

 
A couple of months back, there was another elephant story in the news that reflected the plight of the species in microcosm. Big Tim, the great patriarch of the Amboseli game reserve, was struck on the head with a large rock and pierced through the ear with a spear, the tip of which was embedded in his shoulder. Tim worked his way to the headquarters of the Big Life Foundation, a non-profit outfit dedicated to the preservation of elephants in southern Kenya. By all indications he had deliberately sought out humans who could assist him. He was sedated, treated, and up and on his way back to the Amboseli marsh in fairly short order.

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Big Tim in company with an elephant family en route to the marsh. Notice how he towers over everyone else.

Big Tim happens to be my favorite elephant in the world. I’ve been fortunate to spend many hours in his company over the years. He is huge. He is majestic. He is approaching 50 years of age, and his prodigious right tusk almost scrapes the ground with every step. It’s well documented that elephant families are matriarchal and males are expelled from the group when they reach sexual maturity. But Tim is always welcome to travel in company with the ladies and their families. He is unassuming, unpretentious and laid back. A scientist friend recently described him to me as “one cool cat.” Based on personal observation, I’d say that description is impeccable. The only time I’ve seen him even remotely perturbed was for the purpose of disciplining a younger bull who was stirring up a bit of a ruckus. He is the benevolent, slow-moving preserver of the peace at Amboseli. He is known and loved throughout Kenya. His portrait even adorns an entire wall in the baggage collection area at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi.

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Note the elevated area high on the right flank. This was where Tim was wounded with a poisoned spear.

Prior to this past February, I’d seen Tim most recently in November of 2014. At that time he was moving even more slowly than usual as he recovered from a poisoned spear wound high on his right side. After seeing news articles on this year’s attempt on his life, it occurred to me that the assaults and injuries he’s endured are in many ways emblematic of the attacks on the elephant species writ large. Some examples, like the random list below, are obvious.

 
• There have been multiple attempts on Tim’s life. Like the rest of his kind, his existence is at risk at all times and his enemies are relentless.
• The danger to the Tim and all elephants is exclusively from Homo sapiens. No other species poses a threat to him.
• The risks are particularly egregious where traditional wildlife territories conflict with human settlements. This has been the cause of Tim’s two most serious wounds.
• Elephants are poached for their ivory, and Tim’s tusks are among the biggest in all of Africa. This potentially makes him one of the most valuable targets.

But the most important parallel between Tim and all African elephants is illustrated with precision by his visit to Big Life headquarters just a couple of months ago. Tim had, not for the first time, been severely wounded by human beings. As a sentient creature, he was sufficiently cognizant to seek help from those who could best deliver it.

 

The salient point is this: As humans represent the primary threat to the existence of the species, so do they also represent the only hope for its salvation. It’s that simple. It’s a matter of will and commitment. In light of the disturbing numbers published in the recent census and for the sake of Big Tim and all of Africa’s elephants, I sincerely hope we are up to this most difficult task.

Big Tim of Amboseli ….

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My first evening in Zambia was spent at a locally owned and operated hotel in the capital city of Lusaka. My son and I had deliberately avoided the western-style chains … we’d both seen enough of these in our travels to satisfy any irrational requirement we may have felt for comfort and convenience. We much preferred to pass the night at a place that reflected the character of the city and its people.

After 34 hours of numbing travel in cramped plane compartments and stale airports, I was far too tired and wired to even think about sleep. The hotel did feature a dim sanctuary that passed as a bar, so I ordered a local beer and sat. Within seconds I became vaguely aware that I was an object of curiosity … and within minutes I was engaged in a wide-ranging conversation with the barkeeper and two (the only two) other patrons. They were all kind, outgoing and friendly, validating my unscientific theory that African people are generally more gracious and welcoming than those from more “modern” countries and continents. I asked them if many tourists stopped here before launching for Zambia’s game reserves … South Luangwa, Kafue and the Lower Zambezi. With great pleasure, they advised me that I was the first white person they’d ever seen at this hotel. We spent the better part of an hour drinking, analyzing American and Zambian politics, and comparing the diversity of Zambian wildlife to East Africa’s. But the beer turned out to be the catalyst I needed to feel the debilitating effects of the long overdue travel exhaustion. As I staggered off to bed I made a mental note that if I had opted to stay at one of Lusaka’s chain hotels I’d never have been as warmly greeted or made to feel so welcome.

Awake early the following morning, my son and I patronized the hotel’s tiny restaurant. The place had four small round tables with whitish tablecloths, only slightly stained. The juice was cool and freshly squeezed, the food was simple but very good, and the staff was attentive and courteous. As we departed I left three American dollars beside my plate. After packing my gear for the field, I walked to the lobby to confirm the time. The young lady who had waited our table at breakfast saw me in passing and hurried over to talk. She asked if I realized that I’d left money on the table in the restaurant. I told her that I was indeed aware of it. She seemed relieved. One of her co-workers had insisted that the cash was left inadvertently … and another thought it was possible that the bills constituted a gratuity. So they’d had a meeting to discuss it. After working through the possibilities, they’d reached the consensus that they’d been left a tip, but wanted to be sure of it prior to my departure. She was pleased that I was able to confirm their decision and thanked me effusively. Then she left me, saying “I’ll share it with my colleagues.”

Although this memory has stayed with me over the past few months, there is no real point to the anecdote. But it does validate the thing I love most about the African people. Human interaction and connectivity seem to be much more meaningful to them … I think it’s because they’ve yet to be inundated and overwhelmed with the media distractions that so depressingly curse the westernized existence. They take the time to sit, talk and get to know a person … and visitors from faraway lands are still mysterious and interesting to them. My fourteen hours in Lusaka also illustrated the potential of the smallest act of kindness and the value of individual integrity. The hotel wait staff, which I suspect is minimally compensated, was more than willing to return my gratuity without hesitation … all the way up to the minute when I confirmed with finality that the money was theirs to keep. Three dollars may not be much in Williamsburg, Virginia … but it can reveal much about human character in Lusaka, Zambia.

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African Wild Dogs resting on the shores of Lake Masek at Ndutu, Tanzania.

African Wild Dogs resting on the shores of Lake Masek at Ndutu, Tanzania.

The wild dog is one of Africa’s most interesting predators. It is a rare animal, its numbers having been systematically reduced over the past few decades as a result of human pressure. It has long been viewed as something more than a pest, having preyed on livestock and becoming mortal enemies of the Maasai and other tribes in the eastern and southern sections of the continent. Their collective efforts to exterminate it have come far too close to success. Wild dogs are also territorial, and because they are so wide ranging, they require more space than other predators. As humanity expands into protected areas, they are gradually squeezed out of existence. They remain one of Africa’s most endangered species.

The wild dog has also evolved in another way. As its physical numbers have dwindled, its names have proliferated. In recent years it has been referred to as the spotted dog, the painted dog, the hunting dog, the painted wolf and the ornate wolf. These “friendlier” designations were calculated to portray the animal as something less fierce and intimidating than its traditional reputation would imply. The hope was that the name change would alter historic views of the dogs, and possibly serve as the initial step in rehabilitating their fearsome image.

Wild dog at Lake Masek, checking out a wildebeest skull.

Wild dog at Lake Masek, checking out a wildebeest skull.

Because of the efforts of some dedicated conservation organizations, the African wild dog may be making a comeback. Reports from the Samburu area in central Kenya indicate that sightings are much more frequent, and the numbers seem to be climbing in the Serengeti as well. Still, the visitor to East Africa should have no real expectation of seeing these animals … which is why the opportunity to photograph them at Ndutu in February of this year came as a complete surprise.

Enjoying Lake Masek.

Enjoying Lake Masek.

There were seven dogs in the pack … initially they slept on the mud flat near the water at Lake Masek, rising from time to time to yawn, stretch and drink. Toward sunset they became more active, splashing in the shallows and turning a couple of laps around the land rovers before disappearing into the bush. The guides discussed the matter at some length and finally determined that it had been eight years since the last sighting of wild dogs at Ndutu. Once again I was lucky, but doubt seriously that I’ll ever see these animals again in the wild.

More sleeping dogs lie on the mud flat in the late afternoon.

More sleeping dogs lie on the mud flat in the late afternoon.

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Wildebeest in a scramble away from the Mara River after a croc scare.

Wildebeest in a scramble away from the Mara River after a croc scare.

Most of my visits to Africa coincide with the timing and location of the great wildebeest migration. The wildebeest is not a particularly photogenic animal, but the migration as a physical event is one of the most awe-inspiring sights mother nature has to offer. The sheer numbers of wildebeest are astounding. I’ve heard estimates as high as 4 million but none lower than 1.5 million. It seems to me that someone should send a couple of graduate students into the game reserves with clipboards and calculators and actually count them just to get a firm and accurate number (just kidding).

Taking it easy in the southern Maasai Mara.

Taking it easy in the southern Maasai Mara.

The wildebeest do not travel alone. They are accompanied by hundreds of thousands of zebras, and there are usually a few adventurous gazelles on the circuit as well. Much of the appeal – certainly from the photographer’s perspective — is the dynamic level of energy and activity that are the natural by-products of the movement of such an incredible mass of living creatures. They form enormous, bawling queues on the riverbanks and in the open fields as they prepare to run the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara, Talek and Grumeti Rivers. They coalesce into a dark, staring phalanx at the sight of a cheetah … and they lock focus onto lions of any size, ready to bolt in an instant if the big cat even looks their way.

Forming a wall against the danger.

Forming a wall against the danger.

I’ve been witness to the migration in the central Serengeti, at Ndutu (southern Serengeti) and in the Maasai Mara. Each location is spectacular in its way. The great herds can usually be found in the middle of the Serengeti in the May and early June time frame as the rainy season comes to a close. The grass is green and tall in places, but it fades quickly as June wears into July. Then the monstrous aggregation of animals works its way north, arriving in the Maasai Mara in late July or early August.

On the move to greener grasses.

On the move to greener grasses.

The Maasai Mara in the months of August and September is certainly the most vibrant place on earth. The rolling hills are speckled with wildebeest and zebra, and the lions are on patrol and open for business. The Mara, during this season, certainly hosts the largest and most visible concentration of wild lions in the world. As the short rains begin in late October and early November, the migration swings south again and lands at Ndutu by February. The cycle begins anew here … nearly all the wildebeest in the region are born at Ndutu in late January and throughout February. It all makes perfect sense. The grass is green, thick and nutritious … the mothers eat well and manufacture plenty of milk for their little ones. But Ndutu also illustrates how cruel nature can be. One lazy charge from a half-interested predator is sufficient to scatter a herd and separate mother from newborn. A young wildebeest’s life is measured in hours if it loses track of Mom … and the shores of Lake Ndutu are dotted with the carcasses of little ones who strayed too far from their mother’s protection. The sight of a baby wildebeest looking for a parent is heartrending. This past February my guide and I found a solitary young one on the beach at Lake Masek looking for its mother, but attempting to bond with anything … zebras, gazelles or even the trunk of a large tree. We sat and watched the confused animal for several minutes and it eventually ran to the shade of our land rover, clearly hoping that we’d become its adoptive parents. I was tempted to exit the vehicle and give it some much needed comfort and affection. But that interference, although well intentioned, would ultimately only prolong its misery. Toward sunset we turned back toward camp and the newborn followed our rover … we eventually lost sight of it in the dust and darkness.

Very young wildebeest (see the umbilical stub on its underside) orphan looking for anyone or anything to adopt it.

Very young wildebeest (see the umbilical stub on its underside) orphan looking for anyone or anything to adopt it.

The wildebeest may number in the millions. But on an individual level, the 24/7 goal is to stay alive. And this applies to newborns as well as migratory veterans.

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Rufous-tailed weaver eating bread out of my hand at Ngorongoro Crater.

Rufous-tailed weaver eating bread out of my hand at Ngorongoro Crater.

Sorting photographs after a trip is always a time consuming process. I spent most of February in Kenya and Tanzania and captured just over 22,000 images. I started going through them in earnest this morning and have reviewed about a folder and a half of pictures so far … only 73 folders to go. Just looking at this initial batch made me realize that I may really be a “birder” at heart.

 

Please, sir ... may I have some more?

Please, sir ... may I have some more?

A longer post on this later … just wanted to include a few samples while it’s on my mind. These photographs were all captured between 6 am and noon on the last day of January of 2010 … all from Ngorongoro Crater.

 

Kori Bustard, inflated and in full mating display.  Ngorongoro Crater, January 2010.

Kori Bustard, inflated and in full mating display. Ngorongoro Crater, January 2010.

Ngorongoro Crater is also a great location for photographing water birds, although it doesn’t have the reputation that Lake Manyara has.

Black-crowned night heron at Ngorongoro Crater

Black-crowned night heron at Ngorongoro Crater

Black kites are are very common in Ngorongoro Crater.  They’ve been known to swoop and steal food from the hands of tourists around the hippo pool.

Black Kite on the floor of Ngorongoro Crater.

Black Kite on the floor of Ngorongoro Crater.

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Mating lion pair in the central Maasai Mara.  This shot captures the PCS.

Mating lion pair in the central Maasai Mara. This shot captures the PCS.

We depart from the Sarova Lodge (the glories of which are discussed in an earlier post) at 0830 on September 10th. It’s about 40 miles to the Mara River and the Serena Lodge, and the transit is fascinating, as always. Just a few kilometers from our destination we stop to observe another mating lion pair sprawled in the grass by the roadside. Photographing lions in this mode is not difficult, but some patience is required. They average 2 to 3 “events” per hour (24/7) for an extended period … sometimes 5 or 6 days. The “events” are brief … 10 seconds or so, and generally only minimally interesting. The key to a good photo is capturing what I refer to as the Post-Coital Snarl, or PCS. Unfortunately for the female, the male appendage is actually barbed and its withdrawal is always painful for her. At the conclusion of each “event” she predictably turns on the male and growls her displeasure via the PCS. The male, not to be intimidated, usually responds with a much deeper and more frightening PCS.

The migration in the late afternoon ... Maasai Mara September 2009.

The migration in the late afternoon ... Maasai Mara September 2009.

The guides are correct about the location of the wildebeest … the migration is here in astronomical numbers. On our first afternoon in the central part of the reserve we visit the banks of the Mara River and observe a column of wildebeest queuing to cross. They carefully survey the river, the rocks and the crocodiles and then very prudently change their minds. As the day winds to a close, a gorgeous sunset illuminates the hills, accentuating the beauty of the migration in the red glow of late afternoon. I tell Kevin that there’s no place on earth I’d rather be at this moment. The beauty of the Maasai Mara at this time of year, and in this light, completely defies all descriptive powers.

Part of a 2 male coalition ... just finished feeding on a wildebeest.

Part of a 2 male coalition ... just finished feeding on a wildebeest.

Early the following morning we find two lions ripping up a wildebeest carcass. This is a coalition of older males … apparently well past their prime. Their manes are dark and the coloration of their noses indicates that they are in their later years. They were probably pride males at one time, but were supplanted by an even more powerful coalition. Long gone are the days when these lions sprawled in the grass while their lionesses worked to kill. But they are physically imposing nonetheless, and based on their round stomachs and the size of the wildebeest carcass, it’s fair to say that they are still very effective hunters.

Wildebeest running the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara River.

Wildebeest running the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara River.

At about 10 a.m. on a bright morning David places us high on the banks of the Mara River. Sure enough, a dark line of wildebeest forms on the horizon and works its way to the water’s edge. As always, the animals take the time to assess the danger and make a few false starts, but eventually they take the plunge (see my blog post dated 29 July 2009 for more on the crossing procedure). The river is very low this year because of the extended drought, and at no point do the animals have to swim. This actually gives them greater mobility and facilitates their ability to evade the river’s most dangerous predator. Within a few seconds, however, a large crocodile glides to within just a few feet of the splashing wildebeest, and then actually invades the column. It makes repeated lunges at the wildebeest, but never manages to take one. Finally, a yearling attempts to leap over the croc and is captured in mid-air. The croc turns downstream, the prey clamped firmly in its jaws … the confused wildebeest struggling to keep its head above water. It bawls pitifully until more crocodiles converge and end its torment. About twenty minutes after the last animal struggles up the bank on our side of the river, a single female wildebeest re-appears at the river’s edge, looking back at the opposite bank. She stares upriver, then down … and then safely re-crosses back to the open plain where she stood with her lost calf about half an hour ago.

Wildebeest in motion.

Wildebeest in motion.

Wildebeest graze and loiter without form or design. But when they move from point A to point B, it’s always done in a column … and at times that column can extend for many miles. Their instincts are admirable if not incredible. As they coalesce into a long line it’s difficult not to wonder what’s happening behind those flat faces and dull eyes. One of the tens of thousands must assume a leadership role, the others must unspeakingly acknowledge the leader and fall in behind, and then the whole column must magically move in the direction of more nutritious grasses. And season after season, year after year, decade after decade, millennium upon millenium … it all seems to miraculously work according to plan.

David Muteti and me at the Mara Serena Lodge.  Photo courtesy of Kevin Woisard.

David Muteti and me at the Mara Serena Lodge. Photo courtesy of Kevin Woisard.

A friend of mine – a photographer — recently told me that the Maasai Mara is his favorite place on earth. I think I agree with him … and I will be a repeat visitor for as long as I have the time, resources and health to do so.

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My first ever photo of a Purple (or Rufous-Crowned) Roller captured in the Eastern Maasai Mara in September 2009.   This bird is a cousin of the more common Lilac-Breasted Roller.

My first ever photo of a Purple (or Rufous-Crowned) Roller captured in the Eastern Maasai Mara in September 2009. This bird is a cousin of the more common Lilac-Breasted Roller.

The grass in the eastern Maasai Mara is usually tall, healthy and golden in the month of September, with the slightest traces of green near the roots. But the drought this year has been severe, and the effects of it are much more pronounced in this part of Kenya than any place we’ve visited to date. The rolling grasslands, usually so rich and vibrant, look more like a midwestern American wheat field just after the combine cuts through … yellow stubble emerging from loose gray dust, stretching for miles over the rolling hills. Because of the unseasonable dry spell, this is poor grazing land for the ungulates, and it’s no surprise that there are relatively few wildebeest and zebra here. But there is no shortage of predators, and the lions appear to be present in their usual strong numbers.

Very young lion cubs nursing in the Maasai Mara.

Very young lion cubs nursing in the Maasai Mara.

On our first afternoon game drive we find fifteen … including a mating couple and two lionesses with cubs so young that their walk is mostly a stagger. David positions us so that we’re able to capture close up shots of the little guys enthusiastically nursing. We are also fortunate to get a glimpse of a leopard within the first few hours of arriving in the Mara. Perched in a tree near a dry streambed, she peers through the branches long enough to allow us a few reasonably good shots. The leopard is by far the most elusive of the great cats, and seeing this one may be a good omen for us.

Leopard surveying the horizon for a potential meal.

Leopard surveying the horizon for a potential meal.

Late on our second day in the eastern Mara we are favored with a sublimely ridiculous sight … one that I’ve never seen before and sort of hope I never see again … a pair of mating hyenas. Mating lions are a common sight on the African plain, and they usually execute the procedure with the same speed and aggressiveness they employ when they hunt. The hyena approach is much more deliberate. The male is slightly smaller than the female, and, like a cook stretching for a bowl on the top shelf, he very nearly has to tiptoe to reach the target. The immobile female gazes disinterestedly at the ground throughout the process while the unenthusiastic male stares goofily into space. This is one of the most inelegant copulations you’ll ever see. I’ve embedded a photograph here, but it is severely cropped in order to maintain our PG rating.

Sweet love on the African plains.  Strategically cropped to maintain the site's PG rating.  Converted to black and white to enhance the artistic power of the shot.

Sweet love on the African plains. Strategically cropped to maintain the site's PG rating. Converted to black and white to enhance the artistic power of the shot.

The hyena event is not the only rarity we witness during this visit to the eastern Mara. On two separate occasions we see one of Africa’s most reticent predators, the serval cat. The first serval is in the hunting mode, creeping stealthily around a stand of tall grass in pursuit of a francolin. Through the bush we see the bird launch, the cat leap in hot pursuit and the feathers fly. Most of the action is obscured through the scrub, so photographs of the attack really are impossible. The second cat is very cooperative. Hunting, he eases warily through the grass and edges close enough to allow us some acceptable portraits. This is indeed a gift … the serval close-ups are tight and clear … much more so than we could have reasonably hoped for. As the old chief in the movie Little Big Man once said … “sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.” This time it did.

Serval Cat on the hunt ... and looking remarkably like a common housecat.

Serval Cat on the hunt ... and looking remarkably like a common housecat.

Perhaps the most impressive thing I witness on this segment of the trip is my friend Kevin’s commitment to quality photography. We are fortunate to find a leopard in deep brush on a stream bank on a bright morning. Muteti positions the vehicle as best he can, but the least obstructed view is still from the driver’s window. Kevin works his way between the narrow bars that separate the passenger section from the driver and very nearly lands in Muteti’s lap. He positions the camera across David’s chest and takes his best shot at the leopard resting in the shade. I’ve yet to see the image, but suspect that it is wonderful indeed. Hats off to him for his skill and perseverance.

Zebras populating a hillside in the eastern Mara.

Zebras populating a hillside in the eastern Mara.

The first real signs of a break in the drought coincide with our presence in the eastern Mara. The clouds build in the late afternoon and on two separate occasions we’re caught in heavy rains at about sunset. Along with the showers come the grazers … the hillsides begin to fill with zebra and wildebeest although not in last year’s numbers. Muteti and the other guides tell us that the central Maasai Mara is host to the most of the migratory animals this year. That’s our next stop.

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Great White Pelicans at Lake Nakuru

Great White Pelicans at Lake Nakuru

The distance from Samburu to the Maasai Mara is a bit much to cover in one day, so we schedule an intermediate stop at Lake Nakuru en route. Nakuru is a very welcome break from the long stretch of road, and it also happens to be one of David Muteti’s favorite safari destinations. It is a small reserve with a habitat unlike anything we saw at Samburu or will see in the Mara.

 

Obviously, the lake itself is the centerpiece of the area. It is large, alkaline and home to thousands of water birds … most notably the great white pelican and both the greater and lesser flamingo. Its shores are lined with the eye-catching yellow fever acacia, with golden trunks and branches that stand out against the deep green background of the surrounding hills … and the variety of wildlife here is extensive. It is probably the best place in Kenya to see and photograph both black and white rhino. They are here in fairly large numbers and the population, for now, is stable or possibly even growing slightly. The area is well protected from poachers … and thankfully for the rhino, there are no elephants here. The wildlife service has engineered things in this way because the confined habitat would never support both species of large herbivore.

 

The reserve is also unique in that the city of Nakuru is clearly visible on the not so distant hills. It is a wild place, to be sure, but its proximity to an urban area gives it a bit of a drive through game park feel. Nevertheless, the animals and photo opportunities are here in abundance.

 

Great White Pelican on final approach at Lake Nakuru

Great White Pelican on final approach at Lake Nakuru

 

Our late afternoon timing coincides perfectly with the incremental and exhaustive arrival of wave after wave of pelicans. It is an excellent opportunity to practice capturing birds in flight … thinking through the process very carefully and leaning heavily on the very knowledgeable Kevin Woisard for advice, I’m able to capture some sharp images of the pelicans as they glide in for a landing. Towards sunset we have the opportunity to photograph white rhino in various states of lethargy … grazing with head down through the short grass near the lake’s edge and resting comfortably on the earth in the last rays of sun. We understand and duly acknowledge that this may be the only time on this trip that we have any sort of glimpse of a rhinoceros.

 

White rhino taking it easy after a long day of eating

White rhino taking it easy after a long day of eating

We are lodged at the Sarova Lion Hill Lodge, which gets highest marks for comfort and food quality. It also features a strolling guitarist who croons through the evening meal and graces us with a very catchy and somewhat innovative original tune … “The Antelope Song.”

 

The morning drive takes us around the lake, to a lioness and two cubs resting under a tree. They are lazily tearing at a carcass … last night’s kill was a baby Rothschild’s giraffe. We watch quietly for a few minutes when a small, privately owned automobile pulls up. Its occupants appear to be local folks, who sit, like us, observing the lion family and the unfortunate giraffe. Without notice, a young boy, perhaps 10 years old, exits the car with camera in hand, directly in the line of sight of all three lions. The cubs immediately make a start for him, and mother lion leaps to her feat and unloads the deep, throaty rumble that is the signature sound of an irritated simba. We shout him back into the safety of his car, but David pulls alongside the driver and advises him in unmistakable terms that he is placing his family at risk and violating the rules of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

 

The baboons at Nakuru are prolific … it seems the habitat here is ideal for them. Food is plentiful and the trees afford exceptional opportunities for both exercise and sanctuary from lion attacks. They are common on every stretch of road. A wide turn on the far side of the lake brings us alongside a large troop that includes several juveniles. They permit us close access for photographs, including full face shots of the adults and several minutes of young ones hanging from the brush along the road.

 

Young baboons not far from the shore

Young baboons not far from the shore

Nakuru is beautiful, but we are anxious to see the rolling, wide-open grassland of the Maasai Mara. Departure is scheduled for early in the morning.

Cape Buffalo fending off yellow-billed oxpeckers at Nakuru

Cape Buffalo fending off yellow-billed oxpeckers at Nakuru

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Male cheetah at Samburu in the last light of the day

Male cheetah at Samburu in the last light of the day

The tones of the African landscape become increasingly muted as the road stretches north from Nairobi, and the mid-day sky loses much of its deep blue color … transitioning to a featureless expanse of white with not a cloud to be seen. This desolate region is the periphery of a desert that extends from Kenya through the Sudan and beyond, eventually becoming the great Sahara as it progresses into Egypt. The land is for the most part flat, with a few rolling hills and an occasional wadi to interrupt the monotony. There are low, free standing mountains in the distance … many of them are derelict volcanoes, extinct now for many millenia.

We are headed for the Samburu game reserve in north central Kenya … a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years.  As we draw closer to our destination (my friend and fellow photographer Kevin W. has joined me for this trip), our superb guide, David Muteti, warns us that Somali outlaws have made incursions as far south as our present location. David makes no attempt to hide his animosity toward these thieves. His hard feelings are well founded. Not too many years ago he was robbed of his possessions in this area as completely as a man can be … left stranded in the desert with nothing … not even a stitch of clothes. We note his warning but don’t dwell on it … the impulse to photograph Samburu’s wildlife supersedes every other consideration.

Samburu is much as I imagined it, dry with a few hardy but leafless trees and ancient volcanic rocks strewn across the sand. There are patches of green along the banks of the single spring-fed rivulet that winds through the reserve, and a wide, shallow riverbed cuts through the heart of the landscape. Water flows in it during the wet months, but this is September – the middle of the dry season – and it is bone dry. Our lodge is situated near its banks, in a low area that seems to collect sufficient year round moisture to generate a mini-oasis. The lovely grounds attract some gorgeous birds, a variety of monkeys and a small family of Africa’s most underrated animal, the warthog. We are assigned a room with a small verandah looking out towards the very dry Samburu riverbed.

Alpha male baboon just, taken from the porch of our room at Samburu

Alpha male baboon, taken from the porch of our room at Samburu

On our first morning game drive, we find that Samburu is home to a large and exceedingly active population of baboons. It may be my imagination, but I somehow sense that these baboons are a bit more ill-tempered than most I’ve encountered. A review of my images seems to confirm the impression … their facial expressions are often downright malevolent, and their actions border on the “cheeky,” as our friends from across the great pond might say. A group of them, including an outsized alpha male, hovers near the porch of our cabin with eyes glued on the door, clearly waiting for an opportunity to enter our quarters and ransack our belongings. Another troop spends its mornings in the streambed that curls around the perimeter of the lodge grounds. On an early drive we stop to photograph them. I lock focus on a particularly bellicose looking pair when the viewfinder in my camera goes completely dark. I lift my eyes to find a young female perched on the roof of our vehicle, just inches from the business end of my lens. She grunts loudly, takes an impressive crap and raucously leaps onto the pop-top that provides our shade … and she does it all with attitude, noise and the utmost disrespect.

Samburu baboons just prior to visiting our vehicle

Samburu baboons just prior to visiting our vehicle

The larger animals at Samburu are less entertaining but perhaps a bit more peaceful. The elephants are numerous, many more than one might expect given the scarcity of vegetation. They routinely make late day visits to the dry Samburu riverbed and dig into the sand with their tusks to extract residual water from the earth. Their families are much smaller here than the vast herds at Amboseli or in the Maasai Mara. Large groups require abundant and concentrated food sources, which do not exist here. Reduced family size is a necessity at Samburu, and elephants here have done what elephants do well anywhere … adapt.

Solitary elephant reaching for acacia branches

Solitary elephant reaching for acacia branches

Many of the “hoofers” found at Samburu are common in east Africa. These include the ubiquitous impala, the waterbuck and the elegant and graceful Grant’s gazelle. But there are other, less ordinary antelope here at the desert’s edge. The oddly shaped beisa oryx is a routine sight … thick bodied with spindly legs that appear too frail to support the animal’s girth. But somehow, magically, the oryx not only remains upright, it is actually nimble and fairly adept at evading lions. The oddest of Samburu’s hoofers, however, is the gerenuk. This antelope is very similar in appearance to an impala. The body colors and shape are a close match, but the gerenuk’s elongated head makes it distinctive. It is also unique among antelopes in its behavior … it stands on its rear legs and stretches high into the acacias to feed on the leaves and branches.

Typical gerenuk behavior, standing upright to reach dinner

Typical gerenuk behavior, standing upright to reach dinner

Grant's gazelle ... one of my favorite antelopes

Grant's gazelle ... one of my favorite antelopes

The glorious reticulated giraffe, the most beautiful of all sub-species and completely unique to this region, actually seems to thrive here. On several occasions we see adult males “necking,” a term that assumes an entirely different meaning for giraffes than for humans. Necking males are in competition for mating rights … they stand hoof to hoof for hours, pounding at each other with their upper bodies. It is a violent and dangerous business that occasionally inflicts serious or even fatal damage. One of the goals of this trip is to capture quality giraffe images, particularly of young ones. In this effort we can declare success within the first two days of the trip. We photograph an adolescent with two necking males in the background, and we’re very fortunate to see a young one sitting under a tree near its mother, posing for us with great patience and tolerance.

Young giraffe ... adult males "necking" in the background

Young giraffe ... adult males "necking" in the background

Baby reticulated giraffe ... note the tile-like design as opposed to the patches seen on the more common species

Baby reticulated giraffe ... note the tile-like design as opposed to the patches seen on the more common species

Young reticulated giraffe hiding behind Mom's flanks

Young reticulated giraffe hiding behind Mom's flanks

There are rumors of leopard, but we never see them. Shy and mostly nocturnal, a good leopard sighting is always the safari holy grail. We will see them later on this trip in the Mara but not here. We do find a pair of male cheetahs late in the day in the warm evening light … one sits quietly under a bush staring towards the dying sun, allowing an impeccable opportunity to put the new 600mm lens to the test. As always in Kenya, the lions are plentiful. We find them here resting in the shade, crouching in the grass and on one bright morning, pursuing a large female buffalo. By the time we arrive on the scene the conflict is winding down. The buffalo has successfully fended off four lions … a lioness and three sub-adults, obviously her offspring. The lions eventually give up the fight, but long claw marks have left bloody streaks on the buffalo’s flanks. As the sun rises and the morning wears on, the hunters and hunted cease staring hatefully at each other and drift apart.

Samburu cheetah .... obviously a male

Samburu cheetah .... obviously a male

Young female Cape Buffalo ... a formidable opponent, she survived this lion attack

Young female Cape Buffalo ... a formidable opponent, she survived this lion attack

The most prominent impression of Samburu is simple astonishment that such a large number and wide variety of animals can survive in the harsh, dry environment. With the exception of the rowdy baboon troops, they do seem to move more listlessly here than in other reserves. I suspect that they are generally in the energy conservation mode and will only exert themselves in pursuit of food or evading a predator. That aside, they are healthy, beautiful and thriving, and seem to have adapted successfully to a hot and arid existence. I’m reminded of Jeff Goldblum’s comment in the first Jurassic Park … “life finds a way.”

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Zebras after catching lion scent in the eastern Mara

Zebras after catching lion scent in the eastern Mara

Over the coming weeks I’ll be collating notes from my just completed Kenya trip and will convert them to narrative for uploading to this site. I’ll cover four separate and distinct locations and describe some diverse landscapes and wildlife … all in due time. But there’s one aspect of the trip that merits immediate discussion and posting. That is the Sarova Mara game camp and its wonderful people and extraordinary tradition of hospitality.

I’ve visited most of the game reserves in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya and have never been disappointed in the service and accommodation. But I’ve found this particular lodge to be incomparable. It sits on a wooded hill not far from the easternmost entrance to the reserve. It is protected with an electric fence, but inside the wire I’ve seen hyrax, mongoose, dik dik, vervet monkey and impala. It is a permanent tent camp, which is very nice because it offers full access to the sounds of the Maasai Mara night.

The Kenyan people have always gone out of their way to be kind and welcoming. But the Sarova staff always seems to take it a few steps further. At my first lunch – immediately upon arrival, in fact – I was greeted by a gorgeous smile and a friendly face. It was Caroline M., the restaurant receptionist, who I’d met on my 2008 visit. She is, in every way, a lovely girl. Shy and modest, she does her job with grace, dignity and an optimum level of proficiency. I was thrilled and honored that she remembered my name after twelve months absence. Caroline is Kikuyu, originally from the city of Nyeri, which is not far from Mt Kenya. She is not only beautiful, she is brilliant. She speaks Kikuyu, Swahili, English and French … all fluently. And I’m very pleased that she’s my friend.

Caroline M at Sarova Mara

Caroline M at Sarova Mara

There is another Caroline, who helped me battle the internet gods in 2008 when I attempted to send an e mail home. She is now in a management position, and went above and beyond the call of duty in making my traveling partner and me comfortable. She upgraded our accommodation and delivered a complimentary bottle of wine to our front door. She is not only a lovely hostess, she is a genuinely caring and beautiful human being.

Over a malt beverage on a cool evening at the lodge, my friend Moses the bartender welcomed me back for the third time and said “you are now part of us.” I do feel so, and miss the place almost as much as my own home.

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