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Kenya 2012

Trip Report


For more information about our Kenya trips,
See our Kenya Trip One 2011 Daily Journal
or our Kenya Trip Two 2011 Daily Journal

Read our 2012 Kenya Photo Safari Brochure

lionOur focus on this trip was predation, and we hoped to encounter and photograph a lion/buffalo hunt, where a pride would tackle one of the most formidable prey items in East Africa. We were not successful, but we came close. Lions must be very hungry to risk attacking a dangerous buffalo, and we spent two days periodically visiting a likely pride, as, each day, a large herd of buffalo moved closer. Unfortunately, rangers in the Masai Mara decided to intervene with Nature's course, and shot at three different buffaloes, wounding each as a large number of tourists looked on, horrified and disqusted with the ineptness of the execution. That night, one of the buffalo was found and completely consumed by the pride.

cheetahThis was a season of high grass, triggered by unusually heavy rains in December, and this makes game spotting difficult. Nonetheless, we did extremely well, with 5 leopards, 4 cheetah sightings -- including one that on two different days climbed on to the open roof of our vehicle, and providing an incredible thrill and experience, and even a serval.

What follows is my day-to-day journal.


Day 1, AM. Nairobi to the Mara

maraTwo-thirds of the five plus hour drive from Nairobi to the southern Masai Mara is pleasant, with a modern highway. The last third is truly a national embarrassment, with a road so torn up and pot-holed that it makes the totality of the ride seem miserable. The pavement, in this last section, looks as if it had been painted on with a thick brush, with perhaps 1.5 inches of tarmac visible above the base of stone and dirt. Much of the time, rather than using the pot-holed and bumpy road, our driver took side tracks along dusty dirt trails that, at least, were reasonably smooth. One of our participants, Donna, corrected another when he observed, ‘this is the road to hell,’ and she replied, ‘to heaven’ as we were going to the Masai Mara.
Over the years we’ve seen huge changes in the landscape, not the least being the fences that now border much of what was once range land. The Loita Plains, once home to a pack of Wild Dogs and, at least in season, herds of a non-migratory resident gnu herd, is now crowded with cows and sheep. What was once rich game land, outside of the park boundary, is now over-grazed Masai land. Worse, once we entered the gate we spotted several herds of cattle and goats/sheep inside the park, obviously unconcerned by their intrusion into the park.
December rains were atypically intense, and the grasses inside the Masai Mara are tall, making for a beautiful landscape of flowing, wave-like golden green fields. Outside the park, the earth is barren and the vegetation mere stubble, and all I could think of as we drove towards the Mara is how there were too many people, and too much livestock, in this fragile land.


We loaded at 3:30PM, assuming it would take several minutes for everyone to get their equipment . arranged and their beanbags properly set. It was hot as we started the game drive, as we headed towards a large pride of lions that were spotted earlier in the day. Both my vehicle, and Mary’s, spent a total of an hour or more waiting by some brush where helmeted guineafowl continually cried an alarm call. We assumed there was a leopard, and later in the evening we learned that tourists, earlier in the day, had seen a mother leopard and cub in that area. Nothing appeared while we waited.
rollerMary’s vehicle spent a good deal of the time on birds, while some other vehicles had some nice elephants. We went to the lion pride, where several vehicles had already gathered, blocking us from some of the nicest shots when the cubs played around one of the lionesses. Over time, as the afternoon progressed, the cubs reappeared periodically, and at one point there was a nice interaction with one of the two males that were present.
The cubs were somewhat skittish, and several times the entire lot of 8 would run into the croton bushes when a vehicle passed. Apparently, this eventually annoyed one of the lionesses, for as we watched she snarled, gave a very direct stare, and looked as if she was about to charge. I dropped down to my seat, and told Don, who was still standing, to get low, but later, looking at lionmy shots, I could see that her gaze was directed beyond our vehicle. She was targeting someone else, but all of the vehicles moved off and she relaxed.
The Mara is filled with Chinese tourists, crammed in mini-vans, and they were not model tourists. Everyone talked loudly, a few guys made loud shouting roars, trying to attract the lions attention, and virtually everyone smoked. I worried that a tossed out cigarette could ignite the dry long grasses of the Mara.
Although sunset isn’t until nearly 7PM at this time of year, park regulations require us to return to camp by 6:30. We were late, but the golden light had failed as a low bank of clouds on the western horizon made leaving, in what would otherwise be very sweet light, somewhat easier.

Day 2, Lower Mara

We left in the dark under clear skies. It is amazing, that just three months since our last safari the daylight has shifted by over a half hour, while we’re still within degrees of the equator. In fall, sunrise occurred around 6:15, and sunset around 6:30. Now, sunrise is closer to a bit past 6:30, and sunset near 7PM.
lionWe headed back to the lions of last evening, but the two males and three females had moved about a mile from the cubs. They were intently hunting, but with no game in sight. Frequently, lions walked with their eyes either periodically closed or opened to slits, but these intent lions had their eyes wide-open, and frequently the cats, especially the two males, would raise their heads high to scan above the grasses. The portraiture, especially backlit, was spectacular.
The lionesses returned to the eight cubs, which had been hiding in the same thicket as yesterday evening. Donna and Ron’s vehicle were there when the females were greeted by the cubs, in an enthusiastic welcome. We arrived a short time later and once again, the lioness with a neck wound, acted aggressively. We were quite a distance away when she left the cubs, snarling, and almost charged through the grass. She stopped when we dropped down out of sight.
Every time either my vehicle or Felix’s turned on the car engine the lioness would turn back, snarl, and head towards the vehicle. Josh’s vehicle was often right next to the cats, and they ignored his vehicle, even when he started up his engine. The pride of lions left the crotons and started down a dirt track, but after the lioness turned back to snarl, we held back and, eventually, the pride disappeared along the edge of a lugga far off-track.
We continued, finding another group of 13 lions, lying in the brush near a large herd of buffalo. We waited over an hour, shooting the cats occasionally, but the heat of the day, and the number of buffalo, stymied any activity and the cats went to sleep. We headed back to the lodge.
lionPM. We headed back to the pride of 13 with the buffalo herd. After a half hour drive we found the first of five lions, a female and 1.5 year old cubs, all quite intent on hunting, with no game in sight. Suddenly we heard a gunshot, and all of the lions grew alert. They headed in that direction.
A Mara Ranger team had shot, and probably wounded, a buffalo. When we drove up to the herd about 10 lions were on alert, all watching the buffalo. At this point, we did not know that the Rangers had shot a buffalo, and we were expecting a hunt. Soon, however, the patrol vehicle drove up and shooed us back, but not so far that we couldn’t see what transpired  next.
The Rangers circled the herd, and eventually shot at another buffalo. Whether they hit it or not, or wounded it badly, we couldn’t determine, for soon they circled again, and this time they shot another buffalo in view of our vehicles. The herd stampeded both times, ending up chasing the lions across the fields, while the wounded buffalo ran along on three legs, with the patrol vehicle trying, unsuccessfully, to guide the buffalo into the open. They didn’t succeed, and instead, about 45 minutes later, the last we saw of the injured buffalo was it running along at the back of the herd, disappearing over the horizon.
It is possible that one or more other buffalo were wounded sufficiently to lag behind, and the lion pride would make a kill. As it was, when we left the lions were scattered over several hundred yards, with lions facing in all directions. Through it all, we did get some nice portraits and some distant running shots, with buffalo in pursuit, but for me, it left a very bad taste, and was just another example at how poorly the Mara is managed. They can’t even kill a buffalo correctly!

Day 3, Lower Mara.

AM. We headed to the Sand River area and the kopjes-in-the-making, hoping to find the resident lion prides here. Parts of the Serengeti are famous for their unique kopjes, ‘island heads’ or inselbergs, which are granite and gneiss extrusions that bulged from the earth’s magma interior. When these grow larger, they may form volcanoes, but in the Serengeti many of these only rose to a particular size, perhaps never breaking the earth’s surface. Over time, wind and rain has stripped off the covering of earth, or blanketing ash, exposing these rocks.
True kopjes are truly islands in a sea of grass, hosting their own ecosystem of plants and, to some extent, animals rarely seen in the grasslands. I’ve seen one enormous, true kopje on the road to Amboseli, but in the Masai Mara the nearest to a kopje are these rocky outcrops, the surface or top crust of what may, over eons, erode into true rocky islands. Regardless of their status, these smooth and broken rock faces often support a pride of lions, which may use some of the rocks either as den sites or for very handy observation posts for spotting game.
Today, none of these lions were visible, and my vehicle, at least, did the entire morning game drive without a cat. Joshua’s vehicle did have minimal luck with a shy leopard, and another guide spotted two male lions in the tall grass, but it was a rather slow morning. Towards the end of the game drive we returned to the buffalo/ranger/lion fiasco of yesterday evening. We suspect the Rangers had wounded at least three buffalo, and apparently one of these moved out into the grasses, away from the shelter of the skullcroton bushes, where it was killed. We came upon the remains at 11AM, and if we can assume that the lions killed this buffalo no earlier than 7PM the evening before, no more than 16 hours had passed. During that time the lions, perhaps as many as 20, almost completely consumed the buffalo. What was left, at 11AM, was the skull cap with horns and the neck vertebrae extending perhaps to the shoulder girdle. There were traces of blood and smears of meat on the vertebrae, but every other bone – scapula, scattered ribs, a leg bone, was stripped clean. The horns indicated this was a full adult, so the live weight would be between 800 and perhaps 1100 pounds. Nothing edible remained.
My vehicle’s best shooting were three to five lilac-breasted rollers that gathered at a tree, using it as a lookout perch for flying out, and catching, honeybees passing by. We had numerous shots in the half hour or so we waited, until Joshua’s radio call about the leopard pulled us away. By then, however, the leopard had retreated into the lugga and was gone.
PM. We headed to the southern section, the Sopa area, where we hoped to encounter the large lion pride that resides among the rocks. As it is everywhere else, the grasses are high, but the game was more concentrated than anywhere else we’ve seen in this high grass season. Numerous Thompson’s Gazelles, nearly as many Grant’s gazelles, a few Topi, and several Hartebeest were scattered through the plains. We saw no cats.
maasaiAround 6, about 1 hour before true sunset, seven Masai boys pushed a large herd of cattle over the ridge top from Sopa towards a small stream, near a location we call the oasis. This area is about two miles in from the southern edge of the park, an area supposedly off-limits for grazing. We photographed the boys as they moved towards us, although my driver-guide was concerned that they might get upset and throw a spear or arrow, but the kids were ok. After they passed, and we repositioned for another shot, I beckoned them to bring the cows our way, but they misunderstood and just ran over to visit with us. Our guide gave them some candy.
eleFor us the Masai experience, however depressing for the region, was the photo highlight, although we did some nice shots of hartebeest, and both gazelles. The light never failed, unlike our previous two evenings when afternoon clouds blocked the last light of the day. This evening the light stayed golden, and the rolling hills, covered with the seed heads of the red oat grass, glowed a beautiful orange-red in the late light. My last shot of the evening was a bull elephant, framed against a hillside of the glowing grasses.

Day 4, Lower Mara to Mara Triangle

mousebirdWe packed up and left our lodge for our next stop in the Mara, a lodge overlooking the Mara River and Paradise Plains. Our vehicles split up, with some patrolling the Kissinger Tree area to look for leopard, while my vehicle headed north towards the buffalo kill from two days ago. No one saw the leopards, but in total, 26 different lions were spotted today. None, however, offered exciting photos.
Nearly everyone’s morning highlight was some type of bird, either reflections of wattled plovers, Martial eagles, speckled mousebirds, or singing rufous-naped larks. Although productive, the drive was uneventful, and we reached our lodge by 12:30pm.
PM. Mara Triangle
lionPerhaps it is the presence of water, the Mara River, that game in this section of the Mara, just below our lodge, was the most abundant that we’ve seen in this season of high grass. Earlier today, as we drove towards our lodge we had passed a collection of topi, eland, and Thompson’s gazelles gathered at a waterhole. It had been the largest assemblage of animals we’d seen. This evening, along most of the plains bordering the river we had equal numbers – topi, gazelle, impala, small herds of zebra, buffalo, 36 elephant, banded mongoose, hippos, huge Nile crocodiles, two cheetah, and 8 lions.
Along the river several large crocs had gathered, and on our side of the river a large male basked, parallel to shore, with its mouth agape. Nearby, a Nile monitor lizard dug and scratched along the bank, providing some very clear views and nice photo opportunities. Mary’s van had spotted a pair of cheetahs, but they were distant and looked disinterested so my vehicle moved ahead, where we had a false alarm – we thought a pride of lions were about to hunt some buffalo.
They didn’t, but we did have a great session with a wonderful full black-maned lion that trailed the two lionesses and five cubs walking up the road. Eventually everyone settled down, with the cubs, for a short while, perched on top of a grassy, old termite mound. They weren’t hungry, and when they settled into the high grasses to sleep we moved out.
mongooseThis area has a very tame troop of banded mongoose, and we had several minutes with them as they foraged closer and closer to the road, eventually crossing before us. An extremely tolerant buck Thompson’s gazelle posed for both front lit and back lighted images, the best opportunity we had this trip. As we headed back to our lodge the skies were half obscured by a mackerel sky, but we suspect no rain is in store. The Mara hasn’t received rain for over a month, although in the lower Mara some tracks were still impassable because of mud or flooded luggas. The river, however, is low, and should zebras or antelope cross, the event would simply be a wading.

Day 5, Mara Triangle

In fact, today we did indeed have a ‘wading.’ At the end of our game drive, around noon, a small herd of about ten common zebras walked down to one of the main crossing points. The herd drank, but one zebra stepped out and walked across the river, revealing that at that point the water was barely ten inches deep. Here it was too shallow for any crocodiles, and downstream, just thirty yards or so where the water deepens, there were no crocs to even be tempted.
The other zebras backed off from the river, while the one that crossed continued onto the flats, where it waited for the others. The remaining nine returned to the river and drank again, but lost their nerve to cross and eventually turned around and returned to the Paradise Plains. The now deserted zebra moved on, slowly trudging inland towards the hillside that would, eventually, lead to Tanzania.
topiOur game drive started with a nice topi sparring match where three topis took turns in one-on-one bouts. The two would clash heads, occasionally pausing for one to dig at the earth with its horns, or take a break in a displacement activity and munch on grasses. While we watched, a herd of impala came into view, with one of the does leaping gracefully, avoiding the attention of the herd buck.
The lion cubs from last night were spotted again, and we headed through the long grass, finding the cubs near the roadside where they played and chased one another. Eventually they settled on a termite mound, while Mary’s vehicle spotted their mothers, four lionesses and the single male, appearing to be stalking a buffalo. We headed there, but the lions were indecisive, appearing to go first towards the buffalo, then a distant topi, then the buffalo again, before finally flopping into the grasses and giving up on any hunt. We figure the cubs were about a mile away at this point, and it would be interesting to know when the lionesses returned to retrieve their young.
eleWe had several good elephants, including one big male with GPS, green penis syndrome, where a male in musth exudes secretions from its temporal gland and grips urine continuously from its extended penis. Musth males are favored by females for mating, and this one tagged along behind a herd of a dozen or so elephants, presumably to eventually mate. Sometimes, if a female is receptive, several musth males will gather, and at these times fights, sometimes violent, fatal ones, ensue. Today all was peaceful.
PM. Between the various vehicles we had the Big Five. Mary saw a Black Rhino, running uphill and into cover and, as we sped back to camp late in the day, I spotted a shy Leopard in a small opening. We stopped as quickly as we could, backed up, and I managed about three shots before it disappeared into the croton bushes.
craneWe had an excellent series with a Gray Crowned Crane and chick, feeding near the road. The shooting was fast: the chick and adult were feeding, and good poses happened almost faster than we could react. The solution, when it started looking good, start firing!
The light was excellent after 5PM, but prior to that it was still quite hot and the lighting was harsh. We went to a river overlook where just a few weeks before David had seen a large male Croc grab a baby hippo. It had carried the baby out of the water to kill it, and the male was followed by several female crocs, all intent on grabbing a piece. The croc ran back into the water, baby in its jaws, followed by the female and there, in the river, they proceeded to rip it to pieces.
This evening we saw a somewhat luckier baby hippo, but one without ears. We presume that the baby hippo was caught far from the river, with its mother, by a clan of Spotted Hyenas, and the hyenas grabbed the baby by both ears, ripping them clean off. The mother, and we are guessing here, defended the baby and they made their escape back to the river.
giraffeIn the sweet late light we had a pair of giraffes that were in courtship. The posture of a courting pair is distinctive, with two giraffes lined up behind each other, and this can be distinguished from a great distance. We drove as close as we could, giving us a good image size, as we watched the male repeatedly, and futilely trying to mount the female. The male would get an erection, jump forward, attempting to straddle the female with his forelegs, and she’d dart out from beneath him. Considering he’s going on two legs, using dead reckoning, with an uncooperative mate, it is amazing that a male ever successfully copulates. In numerous tries, this one did not, or so we thought. Later, when looking at the images, we found that he was, indeed, successful, however brief the encounter.
On our drive back I had a lucky spotting of a very shy leopard, and I managed a few quick shots after we screeched to a halt and backed up. It quickly disappeared into the brush.

We arrived in camp at around 7PM, stopping en route for some very low light elephants silhouetted in dust and golden light, but the contrast was extreme and the likelihood of a real keeper slim. All told, however, it was a good afternoon and a very productive two days in the Triangle.

Day 6, Mara Triangle to Middle Mara

We packed up and left long before sunrise and two of our vehicles found four of the five lion cubs quickly, where they played in an opening and drank from a stream. A hot air balloon passed so close that the blast of the propane tank frightened the cubs, which ran off into the long grass.
leopardMy vehicle continued north, and when we passed the Hippo Pool over-look David spotted a leopard running along the bank. A watchman at the pool, on foot, apparently frightened the cat. We quickly lost the leopard in the thick vegetation but I spotted it a few minutes later, further upstream, when its head rose a few inches above the grasses. We stopped and waited, and had two chances as the leopard raced from the grasses to the shelter of a termite mound, then again, as it ran from there to cover.
The other vehicles stayed in the area of the lions, and later found the three lionesses and the male, with the fifth, and smallest cub in tow. We were worried that the other cubs had left this small cub while it slept and, upon awakening, was separated and lost. These events are usually fatal, as a passing hyena, leopard, or buffalo will go out of their way to kill a helpless cub. We were relieved to find that it was safe.
Later, the pride reunited with the four other cubs and the greeting display that followed. For many of the participants this was the morning highlight. Towards the end of the morning, my vehicle had three more lions, two females and a male, that walked through the long grasses to an acacia tree for shade, and we were ready, giving Don his highlight.
impalaWe also had a nice sequence with running/jumping impala. One doe ran across the road, followed by the buck, and, within a minute, the rest of the herd followed, all at speed to close the short distance between the two divisions of the small herd.
Our route, this morning, took us north through the Olooloo Gate and to the upper Mara River Bridge, an area we know very well from the 12 or more years we spent at the Mara River Camp. The road, leading uphill from the bridge, was once one of the worse in all of Kenya, more like a ravine than a track, but today it is graded, smooth, and broad. At its crest the now sprawling, suburban village of Mara Rianta lies, covering areas that, 25 years ago when we started coming to the Mara, sported cheetahs, lions, and leopards. Now, as far as we could see the landscape was dotted with single or clusters of tin roofs, with scattered herds of goat and sheep, outbuildings, school, and cell towers. Turning left off of the main road to head south and back into the park we entered another ‘Conservancy,’ which would require a new fee should we be game-driving here. There would be no point.
The grasses here, less than two miles from the park border, are cropped down almost to the bare earth. We saw scattered zebras, but had we wished to photograph them the challenge would have been in obtaining a background uncluttered by buildings, people, or livestock. As we drove on, the acacia dikdikgrooves where we’d film Half-Tail and Zawadi, the famous leopards of the Mara, are now like managed park-land, with grasses short and all hiding places long gone. We could see the outline of the ridges marking Fig Tree Ridge and the Double-Walled Gorge, and behind them, and all about, were cattle or walking Maasai. It was depressing to see how this once incredibly rich wildlife area was now mere rangeland, despite the fact that it is now officially preserved as ‘conservancy land’ where entrepreneurs are building tourist camps and lodges for game-viewing. The predators, whatever ones are left, are only active at night, and by dawn have retreated to their hiding places, dens, and shelters, out of sight and out of danger of the Maasai. I have to wonder about livestock losses, and the poisoning of carcasses that follows, and how many opportunistic predators – leopards, hyenas, jackals, and lions – are poisoned in the process.
PM. The various vehicles scattered, looking for the leopards in this area of the Talek River. We were unsuccessful. My vehicle headed upriver on the Talek through prime lion country, but none were visible, although we did encounter a fairly cooperative small group of eland.
hippoBy 5:30 we were back in leopard country, where we had some of our most cooperative Kirk’s Dik-diks I’ve ever seen, with one male feeding on a wild cucumber quite close to the vehicle. For the first time, I saw a baby dik-dik nursing, smashing its head into its mother’s belly and udder, just like a little goat. In the last light of the day we came upon a large hippo pool where a pink-bellied mother and calf walked around the rocks, with the mother slipping and hanging up, on her belly, on a protecting rock. One vehicle did have lions, a group of eleven, with three framed against a sunset.

Day 7, Upper Mara.

lionYesterday evening one of our vans finished their game drive at a buffalo carcass, where a lone hyena was feeding. The death may have been natural and not a kill, and the hyena was working on removing a leg. This morning we returned to the kill, and en route passed one very bloody and very fat hyena. The kill was now appropriated by 11 lions, 3 lionesses, 2 small cubs, and 6 subadult males. The lions were still rather thin, and we suspect that the lions were attracted by the sounds of a squabbling clan of hyenas, and took over what little was left of the kill. We suspect the hyenas ate well.
We stayed with the lions for much of the morning, pre-breakfast, following them as various members of the pride moved down to water before returning to the carcass. We finished up the shoot with a lioness on the skull with one cub hoping about, trying to gnaw off some remaining shred of meat.

cheetahPM. We headed south below the Talek, hoping to find one of the large lion prides in what we hoped would be a rather empty, game-less plains. Surprisingly, there was a fair amount of antelope about, and the grasses were in some areas very short, perfect for cheetahs. We drove about for over an hour without luck, before heading back towards the river to look for leopard.
Henry’s vehicle, far to the east near Fig Tree Camp, found a very pregnant cheetah, and well after 6PM we raced the 5 miles to the location. When we arrived the cheetah – which we assumed was just well fed – was lying beside a bush, and nearly invisible in the tall grasses until we were quite close. While we photographed, the cheetah sat up in the soft evening light, and then walked off, with our vehicles following, and where I shot some nice backlighted, near-silhouettes of the cheetah moving through the grasses. We arrived back at camp after 7.




Day 8, Upper Mara.

We headed back in the direction of the 11 hungry lions. A few lions had harassed an elephant, so stressing it that when we drove by it appeared to charge, trumpeting loudly and flaring its ears as it ran by. Soon after we found the lions, all hungry and alert, and we followed them until the pride settled in a nice open area around a rounded termite mound.
hyenaFrom our position David spotted a hyena and two black pups at the den, and with no game in sight for the lions we drove the half mile to the new location. The pups were about 9 weeks old, losing their black coat and just beginning to develop spots. They wrestled one another, with one grabbing ahold of the other’s ear, eliciting squeals of distress from the victim, or they hopped about the ear-tagged mother. Eventually she moved off into higher grasses, leaving the pups at the den.
We returned to the lions, where a group of 7 warthogs had now appeared. The warthogs moved off, actually coming closer to the lions, and the pride started a hunt. One lioness circled widely, actually traveling a full 180 degrees from her original position. Two others formed the bottom row of what would become a box, while three other lions formed the right side and another two the top. The warthogs moved uphill, getting ever closer to the lioness on the left side. Several charged, almost simultaneously, and every one of the lions missed. We suspect that each lion ‘assumed’ that the other had caught one of the warthogs and was more intent upon stealing the other’s catch, or ripping a part of it, than in catching their own. Consequently, all the lions stopped short in their chases.
hyenaFrom there we headed to an actual lion kill, where, we suspect, a lion pride had killed and fed upon a buffalo in the predawn. Now, as many as 26 hyenas and a few dozen vultures had gathered. The light was somewhat harsh, but there were some nice sequences as a hyena chased vultures into the air. At one point a male lion came loping through the grasses to reclaim the kill, and all of the hyenas scattered. The lion fed for a few minutes and then wandered off.
Henry’s vehicle had left immediately after breakfast for a visit to a Maasai village, with Mark, Jocelyn, Don, and Bob. En route they encountered the female cheetah that has started to climb onto the roof tops of vehicles, much like the famous cheetah Queen did for years. The cheetah did just that, hoping onto the bonnet, then onto the roof, and then walking down the side of the vehicle before settling on the back roof panel. Everyone hit the deck, but soon gained their nerve and shot or watched the cheetah in a thrilling close-up experience.
cheetahRon, Donna, and Steve found one of the leopards we’ve been seeking, lying asleep beneath a bush. The shooting wasn’t productive, but at least we now know where the leopard lies, and hopefully we’ll have better luck on this afternoon’s game drive.
PM. We spent the first 1.5 hours driving around the croton bushes, looking for the leopard. It was hot and sunny, and we suspected the leopard was lying, asleep, in the deep shade, while we baked in the sun, searching. Around 6PM, Mary radioed that one of our vehicles was with the cheetah, and from what she could see, it was on a vehicle. All of us raced to the scene.
When we arrived, the cheetah was perched on a different company’s vehicle, but within a few minutes it hopped down and jumped back onto Steve, Carlo, and Bill’s vehicle, where it perched on the back roof hatch. They were thrilled, as was everyone taking the close-up shots of the cheetah and of the three smiling faces in the vehicle.


genetEventually the cheetah jumped off and started moving through the high grasses, and as it looked as if the show would not be repeated we headed back to the leopard area. Along the way, we met a vehicle whose driver said that the cheetah had crossed the track, and it had been exactly where we suspected it would be. We searched, but the cat had dipped down into the Talek river bed and, from reports, had continued to the other side where it disappeared into the thick forest.

That evening I tried using the Range IR remote sensor, setting it up at the tree behind our tent where spotted genets and bushbabies often pass by. It proved quite successful.

Day 9, Upper Mara.

zebrasAM. We headed towards the Musiara Marsh where, over the last several months, reports of lion activity with buffalo and hippos were frequent. Along the way David spotted a group of topi that seemed suspicious, as if they were watching a predator. We drove over to the marshy grasses, expecting either to see a python or a serval, and after a few minutes a serval popped up. It was shy, and although we managed a few shots in the high grasses we didn’t stay long, choosing not to harass the cat.
When we reached the Topi Plains a large congregation of male Topi, the chocolate-dark, black-legged large antelope famous for standing sentinel upon a termite mound, had gathered. This, it turned out, was a Lek, a male display area. A lek is a term often used for a courtship-display-breeding area with birds, like the Prairie Chicken booming grounds of the central US. Leks are less common among mammals, and perhaps the most famous of these belong to the Uganda Kob, a topi-like antelope that at one time gathered by the thousands in a migration and in leks. I’d not known of a lek with topi, but it was clear that they were indeed using that type of display.
Topis were sparring, somewhat seriously, and sometimes a few pairs would be engaged at the same time. Other male topis, seeing this from afar, would jump galloping in, sometimes adopting a rocking, bouncing gate that, as they met another topi, would transform to a fast rise, almost standing upright, and then colliding with another male that met the charge. This reminded me, in a tempered form, of bighorn sheep clashing, although none of the topis actually stood on their hindlegs. Some males circled the area, prancing with an exaggerated gait, lifting each leg high, ritualistically, with their heads held high, advertising their fitness. Some topi in giving chase, or being chased, would ‘pronk,’ bouncing along on stiff legs and leaping high, again demonstrating their fitness. Eventually the lek behavior slowed, with the various combatants moving further down through the plains, and we moved on.
zebrasCloser to Bila Shaka and the edge of the Musiara plains and marshes an enormous herd of common zebra were passing, all headed east from the area of the marsh and Mara River. We suspect there were 10,000 or more, scattered for a few mile area in thick herds. Various stallions and young males fought, running along the edge of the herd, rising occasionally to bite or kick, but no serious fight occurred. Many gathered at a few scattered pools, and we had a few nice shots as those in the water panicked and stampeded out, rising fountains of water as they charged out of the pools.
As we began to leave the herds Bill spotted a head suddenly appearing in the grasses, and dropping back into the grasses. We drove over and discovered a young lion, lying flat, and obviously starving. Less than a mile away what we presume was its pride were all gathered on a small set of termite mounds, and although game was within walking distance the thin lions showed no interest.
lionThis starving cub was probably one of those that got little if any food at the meager kills the pride must have made before the arrival of the zebras. A pride of 10 lions or so will do short work on a warthog, and so a weak or small cub would have little chance for getting enough to eat. Eventually, if this pattern continues, the cub will grow too weak to follow the pride as they move on to hunt, and thus we were now seeing a lion cub surrounded by millions of pounds of meat, too small and too weak to avail itself of a meal.
After breakfast we headed south along the western edge of Rhino Ridge. We were told that the leopard had been seen, and we spent time searching but without success. Later, we learned, it killed an impala, around 1PM. While there we heard of a lion/hippo kill, and we drove the few miles to the site where all 11 lions from yesterday, and 4 huge, prime males, lay sated. The kill was a small hippo about half grown, and I suspect it was killed in the early evening, as it truly stank. With that, we headed back to camp.
PM. We left at 4:30, a bit later than normal, hoping to find the leopard. We were unsuccessful, and continued on to the hippo kill, stopping en route at a very active hyena den where six babies or juveniles lounged about at the den entrance. The lions were now out in the grass, but they were rather dormant, and we didn’t stay long. We headed back to seek the leopard.
leop[ardWe were told the general location of the impala kill, learning that the kill was visible, although we didn’t know if that was in a tree or on the ground. We found it, on the ground near a half a trail, an impala doe that was only partially eaten. We parked nearby, waiting, and after a half hour or so the leopard appeared, coming from behind us, its presence announced both by the cries of crowned plovers and Mary’s voice which I could hear saying ‘there it is!’
Since we were the first at the kill we had a reasonably good view, although the openings were somewhat compromised by bushes and grasses. The kill was too large to move, although the leopard tugged it to a new viewing spot for some better shooting. As it appeared that the cat was unbothered, we shifted all four vehicles, and everyone had at least some shots. Just after we left, the leopard left the kill and stretched out in an opening, in full view of at least some shooters.
bushbabyThat evening I tried the Range IR one more time, baiting a snag with some stinking fish from lunch. During the night the spotted genet returned, and I managed a dozen or so good shots. Our farewell dinner, and campfire jokes, finished the evening, marking the conclusion of the safari. All that remained was the uneventful flight to Nairobi, where some would fly home, Mark and Jocelyn would fly on to Tanzania, and five of us would continue on the next leg, a Tanzania safari.

Day 10, Flight to Nairobi

groupWe slept in, relaxed, and had a leisurely breakfast before boarding our charter flight to Nairobi. It only takes a few minutes to fly across the Masai Mara Game Reserve from our departure point, and shortly we were over Maasai country, with manyattas everywhere and a relatively denuded landscape. Soon, however, we were into the hills, and looking down we saw virtually no sign of human habitation, the landscape a mix of forest, canyons, and hills. Continuing further we entered the Rift Valley, and until we reached the eastern side the land seemed empty.
It was amazing to see so much empty, potentially wild land, but the sad reality is that most of this land is game-free, as now most of Kenya’s wildlife is restricted solely to the game reserves and national parks. I couldn’t help but think of young male lions dispersing from their prides, and the fate that may await them as they roam about, looking, first to survive, and later to find and win a pride of their own. In this vast open country, I could imagine lions roaming, but struggling mightily to find enough food to survive.
The safari was a great one, comprised, sadly, at the end when I discovered that the guides did not travel back together, in convoy, carrying our equipment safely. As usual, nothing happened, and all of our gear arrived safely, but I was very disappointed with the guides, and I delivered a severe lecture, and a fine, for their unusual lack of professionalism. It will not happen again.

For even more details about our safaris, you can also read my daily journals for 2010 for
Safari Trip One or Safari Trip Two.
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