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.

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,



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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,



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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,