On the prowl
Kenya’s Maasai Mara has the most savannah species in the world, but it’s the big cats that get the big looks
Talk about a civilized start to a day in a very wild place. Had I not been awake, dressed and ready to begin the morning, I might have missed the soft tapping on the canvas door of my tent. This is how they do wake up calls at the tented luxury resorts near Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve: I chose the time, there was a knock followed by a tray with a steaming pot of hot chocolate and a fresh-baked muffin. Perfect.
Starting early — before the sun has brightened the sky — is de rigueur safari etiquette in Africa. To do otherwise is to mess with a deeply entrenched natural order. The animals know enough to be up and about as the sun peeks over the horizon. Abdi, our driver, safari guide and wildlife expert, left no room for misinterpretation: this game drive was starting early.
And so that is how day one began, with the rough grinding of gears — and chatter in the back seat about how neighbouring Botswana prefers women safari drivers because they are easier on the vehicles — and a panicked search for ways to keep coffee mugs from exploding hot liquid.
Almost immediately after clearing the front gate of the resort, Abdi veered from the gravel road and onto a set of deeply rutted tracks cutting across the grassy plain. When you’re looking for wildlife, off road is best.
“Warthogs,” he announced, bringing the jeep to a sudden stop. “Not too smart and they have a very short memory. We call them lion appetizers.” Coffee mugs were abandoned as we scrambled to fish cameras from backpacks.
The warthog is the Danny DeVito of the savannah: short, squat and full of swagger. A warthog may not be the sharpest creature in the wilds, but perhaps it is best to start near the bottom of the food chain and work upwards. Finding wildlife should be like climbing a ladder: one rung at a time, from the bottom up. To do otherwise is toying with sensory overload.
Follow the herd
The landscape of the Maasai Mara is the quintessential image that comes to mind when you think of a safari expedition. Spotted with acacia trees — the thorny trademark symbol of Kenya — the open grasslands of the National Reserve are home to the largest number of savannah species in the world: 2.5 million herbivores like gazelles, zebras, giraffes and elephants plus the carnivores that prey on them, including lions and cheetahs.
Our safari days were split between the Maasai Mara National Reserve (which is maintained by the local government) and the smaller community-owned and operated Ol Chorro Conservancy. At 1500 metres above sea level, temperatures are more moderate on the plains of the Maasai Mara region. Large animals like it there. Food is plentiful and water not so scarce.
Abdi pointed our jeep away from the well-worn visitor hot spots. Instead, he zigzagged through Ol Chorro from one wildlife sighting to the next, following a map in his head, bouncing across riverbeds, spraying mud from rear tires and cutting through the grasslands in a sort of safari pinball.
A troop of several dozen baboons. Zebras, Cape buffalo and the ungainly wildebeest — “a creature designed by committee.” We worked our way up the wildlife ladder, one rung at a time.
Later that morning (with camera cards precariously near full), we stumbled upon a family herd of several dozen elephants grazing in an area of especially succulent grasses. Abdi inched the jeep closer, closer. Poaching is illegal (although not unheard of) in Kenya, so the elephants showed no fear on their home turf. The babies followed the mamas. The adults ate, twisting their trunks to tear out clumps of greenery, all the while keeping an eye on the intruders.
“Watch their ears,” warned Abdi. “If they go flat against their head they could be getting ready to charge.” As the Earth’s largest land animal, pound for pound an elephant clearly outranked our jeep. Charging was one thrill I could do without.
Cat me if you can
The next morning — bleary-eyed but sufficiently caffeinated — we loaded into the jeep for the 90-minute drive to the Maasai Mara National Reserve. To placate the group, we were aiming for the top of the food chain: lions. But, it was no straight line to get there. We had to work to find this elusive member of Africa’s Big Five (the others are the African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros).
One flat tire. A jeep up to its hubcaps in a pool of thick mud. Chains hitched between two vehicles. A respectable amount of yelling and encouragement, and we were off again, headed towards the reserve’s northern Musiara Gate.
The breakdowns made our arrival at the sweeping plains of the National Reserve much later than planned; the sun was already breathing fire into midday. The landscape of the Mara was wide open with tall green and golden grasses riffling in the breeze as far as the eye could see. There was the occasional acacia tree, pruned to a characteristic muffin-top shape by hungry giraffes. But, even with binoculars, no wildlife of any kind was in sight. Where exactly does an elephant go to hide in the heat of the day?
We felt deflated. The only life was a park janitor, sitting atop a chugging tractor.
“Lions,” he snorted, anticipating our question. “Try under the tree.” He waved broadly in a westerly direction.
Of the planet’s apex predators — a clique with tigers, crocodiles, wolves and grizzlies among the members — few are as sought after on game treks as the African lion. They are majestic hunters: one adult lion needs 40 kilos of meat every five days, the equivalent of about 20 unlucky zebras per year.
Although Kenya instituted a ban on game hunting in 1977, the country’s lions are facing a threat to their population. According to the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative (animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/big-cats-initiative), African lion numbers on that continent have plummeted from hundreds of thousands estimated in the 1960s to around 32,000 today.
Hunting, the destruction of habitats, climate change, pesticides and disease have all contributed to the decline.
Recognizing that lions are key to a vibrant tourism industry, communities and local governments are creating innovative programs to save the beasts by reducing the conflicts between people and wildlife.
In southern Kenya, the Lion Guardians program (lionguardians.org)recruits young Maasai warriors to protect lions rather than kill them, as traditionally required for the transition into manhood. Instead, they monitor lion movements, and prevent clashes with herders and cattle. Communities in the crucial migration corridor connecting the national parks of Amboseli and Tsavo have developed a predator compensation fund, paying livestock owners for losses to attacks by lions, leopards, cheetahs, jackals and hyenas.
Contrary to every instinct in my brain, I wanted these big cats to find me. And Lady Luck appeared to be riding shotgun that afternoon. In a patch of scarce shade, we found a pride — three lionesses and nine cubs — sprawled beneath an acacia tree. These lions weren’t on the hunt. Lethargic, bellies full, fur smeared with dried blood, they’d enjoyed a recent kill and feeding.
We parked a stone’s throw away to watch. Only then did I remember to breathe. After a decent snooze, a half dozen rolled over, got to their feet and walked single file between our two jeeps through the tall grass to a spot in the distance.
“The kill,” announced our guide, pointing at the vultures circling overhead.
We waited a respectable amount of time and then drove across the plain to get a better look. Splayed on the ground was a massive Cape buffalo, with a lineup of cubs, jostling to crawl inside its ripped belly.
To my North American sensibilities this covered both ends of the spectrum, from raw to exotic. But to my Maasai host, the Mara is a familiar landscape that still beats with the slow, steady pulse of pre-history.
“The lions will feed,” he reflected. “Tonight a pack of hyenas will come. And tomorrow, the vultures. It’s the food chain of nature.”
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