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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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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