Mara Wildebeest

Mara Wildebeest

In early September Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve is alive with animals on the hoof. Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra have arrived from Tanzania and for a few weeks their presence makes this little stretch of Africa the most fascinating and vibrant place on earth. It is an irrefutable reality that no man-made wonder can compete with the grandeur Mother Nature offers us, and there is no more spectacular confirmation of this fact in the natural world than the great wildebeest migration. I’ve now been witness to this sweeping movement of ungulates on several occasions, and I think I have a pretty fair understanding of why it happens and how it works. There was a time, not so long ago, when I had no clue.

I’d seen the frenetic river crossings on television before I ever visited Africa and was enthralled by the fundamental life and death struggle that seemed to tumultuously capture the spirit of the savanna. I was also amazed by the scope of it all … the turgid, mocha colored river twisting through steep banks, teeming with wildebeest under an endless sky. But I operated under the misconception that the animals entered the waters of the Mara initially when they crossed into Kenya, and took the leap once more when they returned to Tanzania. I should have looked at the map.   The Mara River doesn’t even mark the border between the two countries. It winds through rolling Kenyan hills in a southwesterly direction, slicing through a corner of Tanzania, and onward to Lake Victoria.   The migration animals actually encounter the river all through the Masai Mara reserve and transit it many times from July through the end of September, sometimes later in the year if the rains are favorable.

Wildebeests may not be the most physically appealing of Africa’s animals, but they are astonishing nonetheless. Their faces and eyes seem to be dull and expressionless. At first glance, they impress us as being entirely devoid of thought and feeling. But they somehow magically turn up right on schedule season after season, birthing their young in the same spot in February in the southern Serengeti and grazing their way across the Masai Mara between July and October. Their instincts have vectored them off in the correct direction to find the best grasses year after year since time immemorial. Nature has programmed them well, and they continue to thrive against all odds.

And the Mara River crossings … certainly the most dramatic spectacle available to anyone on safari. No two crossing events are identical, but here, generally and unscientifically, is how it seems to work.

The animals begin to mass on the plain, grazing, not far from the river. You can look away for a time, turn back toward the herd and you may notice that a handful of them have moved to the high banks of the river and are surveying the terrain both up and downriver. They seem to be deciding on the optimum place to ford, in complete defiance of my impression that they are incapable of thought or reason. Look away again for a few minutes … and a few brave quadrupedal souls are now near the river’s edge … staring one way and then the other. In the meantime, the larger mass of animals has moved toward the water, building pressure on the leaders to cross. They all seem to sense the danger, so they are naturally reluctant. Oftentimes the animals will be spooked for no good reason and stampede back up the banks and onto the plain.   Then the process begins anew. The mass of animals eases slowly toward the water and then drifts away again. The same unaccountable instinct that tells them to enter the water also seems to tell them that this may be the last thing they will ever do. So they are cautious.

A crocodile surfaces in the Mara while a wary wildebeest considers taking the plunge.

A crocodile surfaces in the Mara while a wary wildebeest considers taking the plunge.

Eventually, and inexplicably, one animal will take the plunge and the river becomes a bawling riot of splashing water and flying mud. Sometimes the crocodiles take the swimmers in mid-stream, but the crossing momentum, once initiated, is difficult to stop. There are recorded instances of river crossings lasting for hours and the casualties sometimes number in the hundreds.   If the wildebeest choose their exit point poorly or drift too far in the fast water, they sometimes drown or are mortally injured by the crush of animals exiting up the steep banks.   But the strength of the species is in its numbers and the vast majority of them successfully reach the destination. Those animals sacrificed in the river or on the plain unwillingly serve a critical purpose. They ensure the continuation of so many other species – crocodile, lion, cheetah, leopard, vulture, etc. – that collectively make the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem the most interesting place on earth.

Taking the great leap just upstream from the rapids.

Taking the great leap just upstream from the rapids.

 

Mara River crossing ... noisy, dusty and chaotic.

Mara River crossing … noisy, dusty and chaotic.

There’s no way to know how long the great migration will continue in its current form.   The human pressure on all sides of the Masai Mara seems to continue to build steadily without any immediate prospect of relief.   There always seems to be a new lodge under construction or a news story about a poisoned lion pride. It is rare to hear any reports that do not describe some activity that is detrimental to the health of the wildlife population. But for now, let us take whatever joy we can from the sight of this ocean of animals as they occupy Kenya’s rolling hills, and hope and pray the coming generations of humanity will respect nature enough to guarantee the continuation of the cycle.

Exiting the River can be the most dangerous part of the ordeal.

Exiting the River can be the most dangerous part of the ordeal.

 

 

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a-lr

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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Young orphan at the Sheldrick orphanage ... just polished off a bottle of milk and pretty happy

Young orphan at the Sheldrick orphanage ... just polished off a bottle of milk and pretty happy

It’s been my habit for some time to set the television to record all programs that even remotely relate to Africa or its wildlife. So I generally finish the week with many episodes of Big Cat Diary, Wild Kingdom, and Nature in the queue for possible weekend viewing. Sometimes I’m able to see a few of the shows, most of the time I’m not. Too much to do and way too little time, which I suspect is the story for most of us.

During this past week one of the old movie channels aired the 1950 film “King Solomon’s Mines,” which was based on the H. Rider Haggard novel of the same name. The story was set in East Africa, starred Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr … and its plot was wrapped around the search for a mythical diamond mine in uncharted territory to the west of an undisclosed Swahili speaking nation. I thought it might be interesting to evaluate the film as a piece of history … to see and assess its treatment of wildlife and indigenous peoples.

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As it turns out, there was no reason to sit through the entire picture. The dismissive attitude toward the African people transcended the film’s turn of the century setting. The “natives” existed solely for the use of the westerners, and the tone of superiority throughout the picture was absolutely pervasive … it represented far more than simple Victorian era arrogance. It was clear enough to me that the 1950 producers of the movie also viewed the dehumanized depiction of the African people as the right and natural way of things.

The treatment of the animals was far worse. In one of the movie’s early scenes, a procession of adventurers and porters en route to the illusory mine crossed paths with an elephant family in the bush. The animals were peacefully stripping acacia bark when they caught sight of the intruders. The matriarch feigned a charge and the humans reacted in the expected way. The round from the elephant gun struck the matriarch high on the forehead and she instantly collapsed. The other family members immediately formed a protective perimeter around their stricken leader. In panic and confusion, they repeatedly attempted to lift her to her feet, but she was far beyond help and hope. The entire sequence, including the matriarch’s death convulsions, was captured in the film. In fairness to the makers of “King Solomon’s Mines,” I don’t believe the animal was destroyed for the sole and specific purpose of incorporating the footage into the movie. It appeared to be a filmed hunt that was spliced into the scene for dramatic effect. Regardless, its inclusion was unnecessary, gratuitous and disturbing.

The damaged elephant family, which was small to begin with (perhaps eight to ten animals), probably depended very heavily on the experience of the matriarch for its continued existence in the wild. The matriarch would have been her family’s corporate memory. She would have known the best places to locate nutritious food through the changing seasons and where to find water during the severest of droughts. One wonders how the family might have fared after the mindless destruction of its leader. Times must have been challenging indeed.

Difficult days continue to be the norm for far too many of East Africa’s elephant families. Poaching is on the rise in many parts of Kenya, as evidenced by the constant flow of new orphans into Daphne Sheldrick’s orphanage on the outskirts of Nairobi. Each passing week brings new inmates to the compound … and all of them have been traumatized to one degree or another. Their stories, which are posted on the Sheldrick website, are powerful and moving. Here’s an extract from the profile of the young orphan named Sities:

“An unusual visitor walked into the Mgeno Ranch Headquarters, within the Tsavo Conservation Area during the morning of 22nd March 2010. This unusual visitor was a bellowing baby elephant, desperate for company and who sent all the Staff scuttling for safety, fearful that the baby’s mother might turn up to claim it. Eventually they ventured out, their sudden appearance frightening the little calf, who ran off a short distance, but then returned, desperate for company. Too young to know fear, being only about 1 ½ months old, the Staff tied it to a tree, and then called Dr. David Ndeereh of the Trust’s Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit, who in turn alerted our Voi Elephant Keepers that an elephant rescue was needed.

It is suspected that this baby is a poaching victim, although human/wildlife conflict cannot be ruled out since the Ranch has a lot of livestock and herdsmen. The Trust’s De-Snaring anti-poaching team has been sent to scour the area to confirm any evidence of possible poaching.

The calf, a beautiful female, responded well to the arrival of the Keepers who fed her a bottle of milk and rehydration water before loading her into their Pickup and driving it to the Voi Stockades. Once there she remained close to the Keepers following them around, until the Rescue Plane arrived from Nairobi to airlift her back to the Trust’s Nairobi Elephant Nursery.”

Sities was a fortunate young lady indeed. For every orphan recovered there are surely dozens left parentless to meet a lonely and agonizing death in the bush.

Orphan with keeper at the mud wallow

Orphan with keeper at the mud wallow

If poachers and hunters represent the worst in our nature, then the dedicated souls at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust must surely reflect the last precious vestiges of nobility in the human spirit. It was my pleasure to visit their orphanage recently. And I have to think that even the hardest heart would be touched by the love and care the orphans receive. The elephants they so meticulously nurture are slowly re-introduced to the wild when their keepers deem them ready. Anyone who reads through the orphan profiles on their webpage would surely agree that they’ve already produced a number of miracles with some of the more severely traumatized animals (please see the story of orphan Murka).

Life at the orphanage enables the youngsters to form friendships and social bonds ... this is critical to the development of elephant calves

Life at the orphanage enables the youngsters to form friendships and social bonds ... this is critical to the development of elephant calves

More buddies ...

More buddies ...

Like most conservation organizations, the Sheldrick orphanage depends exclusively on donations for its operations and continued existence. Their need is immediate and pressing, however, because orphaned elephants must eat every day. And they must eat large quantities. I would encourage anyone who visits Nairobi to spend some time at this sanctuary and observe the orphans as they visit the mud wallow for their morning feeding. It’s much more than an opportunity to see these extraordinary young animals … now so fortuitously blessed with a second chance to live, love and thrive. It also validates the possibility that there may actually exist some small measure of hope for our own species. The orphanage’s website is here …

www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org

Young orphan with keeper.  Image taken from DSWT webpage.

Young orphan with keeper. Image taken from DSWT webpage.

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Typical landscape from the heart of the Serengeti.  The great migration passes through here in June of each year.  This may soon be a busy roadway with all the associated infrastructure.

Typical landscape from the heart of the Serengeti. The great migration passes through here in June of each year. This may soon be a busy roadway with all the associated infrastructure.

A few years back, primate researcher Jane Goodall wrote a wonderful book titled “Reason For Hope: A Spiritual Journey.” Ms. Goodall covered a lot of territory in that little volume, which is part autobiography, part animal science and a general commentary on the human condition. After shedding light on the best and worst aspects of our species, our world and what we’ve done to it, she signed off with a cautiously optimistic summary. It was an eloquent discourse on her belief that the benevolent side of humanity will ultimately prevail over all its inherent frailties. Her writing was powerful and sincere, but not entirely persuasive. Nonetheless, the book did leave the reader with the vague impression that perhaps there really might be reason for hope for the future of our planet and the life that it so graciously hosts.

I wonder if Ms. Goodall would revise her predictions after reviewing the proposal of the Tanzanian government to build a highway across the northern Serengeti. This area is the primary corridor for the great wildebeest migration that circles across the border into and out of Kenya every year. A simple roadway in and of itself probably wouldn’t pose a real physical impediment to the most spectacular wildlife migration on earth. But the problem is that roads bring traffic, and vehicles require fuel, and drivers require places to rest, food to eat and drinks to drink. In the aggregate, the impact of this proposal on the great migration would be catastrophic. It would severely hamper the efforts of several hundred thousand wildebeest and zebra in their eternal effort to live and procreate. The route to the north represents much more than a grand spectacle designed to dazzle the eyes and fill the hearts of us humans … for the animals it is quite literally a lifeline they cannot survive without.

It goes without saying that the tourism industry will necessarily suffer … not just in Tanzania, but in Kenya as well. If the Maasai Mara is made inaccessible to these animals, the Kenyan economy would certainly be damaged, perhaps irreparably. No migration … far fewer tourists … substantially less income from outside the country.

The African Wildlife Foundation has taken a strong position against the highway. In keeping with the tradition that has made AWF my favorite charity, their website has offered a well-reasoned, entirely rational and non-confrontational argument against the highway. Also consistent with their usual methods, they’ve offered the Tanzanian government a perfectly viable alternative to this abomination that would satisfy just about all parties. Let us pray that their ideas are adopted by those in decision making positions in East Africa.

The destruction of the migration would be unforgivable … and even as I write this I find it difficult to accept that the highway proposal is even being seriously considered. If the road becomes a reality I doubt that I’ll ever visit the Serengeti again. I couldn’t stand to be reminded of what was once so grand and majestic, but so far beyond the will of humanity to preserve. I think I will have lost my reason for hope.

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The hippo pool at Ngorongoro Crater.  Nikon D70 converted to infrared.

The hippo pool at Ngorongoro Crater. Nikon D70 converted to infrared.

After a half dozen or so photo trips to Africa, it occurred to me that it might be time to try something a little different.  I’d always been a color shooter but I thought it might be nice to see how the animals and landscapes look in black and white.

Zebra and wildebeest cautiously drinking at a stream in Ngorongoro Crater.  They were right to be wary ... there was a lioness in ambush on the opposite side.

Zebra and wildebeest cautiously drinking at a stream in Ngorongoro Crater. They were right to be wary ... there was a lioness in ambush on the opposite side.

Back in late 2004 I purchased a Nikon D70 camera … it was state of the art equipment at the time but has been relegated to a backup role since about 2006.  Late last summer I sent it to a company in Washington state called Lifepixel to have it customized.  Lifepixel removed the infrared filter, which means that now all the photographs it captures are black and white, with the general effect looking a little like an old black and white negative after it’s been processed.  The adjustments the company makes to the camera do affect its focusing and metering … Lifepixel advertises that, unless instructed otherwise, they calibrate the Nikon SLRs for optimum shooting with a Nikkor 18-70mm lens.  After the camera was returned to me, I bought and tested a used 18-70mm, but also experimented with a 17-35mm and a 28-70mm.  Everything worked well as long as the aperture setting was F8 or smaller.  Assuming that the camera could be made to work with any lens, I took it with me to Kenya last September and married it to an old 24-120mm lens … this is a near perfect focal length for general use.  It’s sufficiently wide angle to achieve dramatic sky effects but has enough zoom to capture quality detail in the wildlife shots.

Very young lion cub watching mother leave to hunt wildebeest.  Taken in Ngorongoro Crater.

Very young lion cub watching mother leave to hunt wildebeest. Taken in Ngorongoro Crater.

I should have tested the 24-120mm with the converted camera prior to departing the states.  Every image was soft and I can’t find a single one of the 300 or so that’s even close to usable.  In November, prior to the most recent trip, I took tripod, D70, and all my lenses to the back yard and set them up near the bird feeder for testing.  The 18-70mm was the best, but my other two wide angles were nearly as good.  The 24-120mm hadn’t improved any … the images were still poor.  In fact, they looked even worse because I had something to compare them to.  I learned this lesson the hard way.  Lifepixel steered me right on all fronts and they did a superb job with the camera.  I made an inaccurate assumption and paid the price for it. The testing I did in the back yard consumed about an hour and a half of my life … it could easily have been done prior to the September trip.

Lions sleep about 20 hours a day.  These were down for the count, oblivious to the looming storm.  Captured at Ndutu, Tanzania.

Lions sleep about 20 hours a day. These were down for the count, oblivious to the looming storm. Captured at Ndutu, Tanzania.

So … I took the 18-70mm with me to Tanzania and Kenya in February and used it almost exclusively with the D70.  I’ve only looked at about 10% of the images, but they’re clearly much better than last year’s.  I’m including a few samples with this post and will upload more as I work through them.

The great zebra/wildebeest migration is at Ndutu in February of each year.

The great zebra/wildebeest migration is at Ndutu in February of each year.

The large elephant herds at Amboseli seem to have recovered from the effects of the recent drought.

The large elephant herds at Amboseli seem to have recovered from the effects of the recent drought.

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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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The Maasai Mara in September ... the reward for enduring numbing hours in airport terminals and pressurized cabins

The Maasai Mara in September ... the reward for enduring numbing hours in airport terminals and pressurized cabins

I complained in a previous post (dated July 29th) about the physical discomfort inherent in the 22 hour commute to East Africa. But I will concede that there are certain experiences within this generally blurred sequence of unpleasantness — parking lots, shuttles, baggage counters, and terminals — that do in fact afford me a small measure of joy.

Once inside the terminal, I particularly love to take a seat near the gate and position my backpack in front of me to use as a footrest. I then lean back, plant my hiking shoes on the pack and watch the parade. It seems that a good 50% of the travelers are talking on cell phones at any given time. My favorites are the pasty-faced men in business suits, pacing nervously, expressions of concern clouding their faces, phones clamped tightly against their heads and speaking far too loudly … advancing the notion that they want all within earshot to be impressed with their corporate importance. And I sit quietly with my photo bag, hiking pants and ticket to Kenya … warm in the conviction that I wouldn’t trade places with them for all the world.

Depending on flight direction and fatigue level, I sometimes enjoy the effects of the rapid changes in time zones. There’s something indefinably peaceful about arriving in Amsterdam just before sunrise and strolling through the endless corridors as the shops begin to open, with sleepy travelers draped over lounge chairs and the first orange glow of the day piercing the terminal glass. I usually find a quiet corner to drink a cup of tea and watch the passageways and waiting areas fill with humanity on the move. I’ll take out my book (which will be Charlotte Bronte’s “Villette” this time) but will likely be too tired to read.

The first leg of all this will be behind me a week from today, when I’ll be on the ground in Nairobi. Eastern and Southern Safaris has helped to coordinate an exceptional itinerary. It is …

30 August until 2 September – Samburu. This will be my first visit to this dusty and arid reserve, rightfully famous for its unique wildlife. It is home to the gorgeous reticulated giraffe, which is the most beautiful of all the sub-species in my opinion. We should see the thin-striped Grevy’s zebra and the homely gerenuk, an antelope with an unusual propensity for standing on its hind legs, stretching to the lower reaches of the trees to eat.

3 to 5 September – Lake Nakuru. This will be my second visit to this lovely reserve, which is actually within just a few kilometers of the city of Nakuru. Flamingoes crowd the lake’s shallows, and the shorelines are dotted with an abundance of waterbirds … including the stately African Fish Eagle and a personal favorite, the oddly shaped Hammerkop. In addition to the wide range of birds, we should see both the black and white rhinoceros. There are few places in Africa with such a heavy concentration of these rare animals. Staying at the Sarova Lion Hill Lodge, I think we may be able to photograph baboons right outside our door.

6 to 15 September – The Maasai Mara … its attractions are discussed exhaustively in earlier posts. This segment, with the wildebeest migration in full swing, will certainly be the highlight of the trip.

After I return I will begin to post notes from my Zambia trip of November 2008 and hope to convert my journal from this year’s Kenya trip into narrative some time before Christmas. I look forward to writing more in late September.

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My plane leaves for Kenya three weeks from today. The spare bedroom at my home is currently strewn with cameras, lenses, batteries, chargers, flashlights, pelican cases and backpacks. The hopes are to (a) accurately judge equipment requirements, (b) safely pack all the gear into a very finite amount of space, and (c) minimize the risk with baggage handlers by lugging the most critical items into the passenger compartment. For the first time I’ll take a fully paid for, brand new, Nikon 600mm lens. It will not fit in the carry on, so it must be secured and turned over to the airline. This is a horrifying proposition indeed. Checking that lens will certainly be one of the most traumatic events of my life. But there’s no choice. In my backpack I’ll have a brand new, never used, Nikon 200-400mm lens, which was about half the expense of the 600mm but an extravagant piece of glass nonetheless. It barely fits into my pack, but having it close guarantees that I’ll be able to photograph even if tragedy strikes the checked lens.

On to more pleasant thoughts. As I write this, I’m acutely aware that the wildebeest have already begun to descend on the Maasai Mara in monstrous numbers, and, if they’re on schedule, they’ll still be arriving when I touch down in late August. It’s been eight months since I last set foot on the African continent, which is about as long as I can tolerate being away.

Mara Wildebeest

Mara Wildebeest

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