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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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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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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