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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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.


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.


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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