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Trip Report:

Photo Safari
Trip One


First impressions. Often those are the ones that stick, as one judges someone’s character or some site or scene or condition, and those first impressions may, in fact, be in error. As you read this trip report you’ll see I’m really guilty of that, as our first impressions of the state of Samburu and the southeastern corner of the Masai Mara were absolutely negative, and you’ll readily see the disgust and outrage I had at seeing cattle, goats, sheep, and donkeys, invading these parks.
Whether what we subsequently learned is indeed accurate, we were told that the invasion of Samburu National Reserve by cattlemen and sheep/goat herders was to establish a sort of territorial claim, as rival tribes or ethnic groups, namely the Turkana, were attempting to lay claim to the area. Occupation means ownership, so the Samburu were inside the reserve to clearly establish their territorial rights. Also, in truth the land had been in almost a year-long drought, and the Samburu regional council had decreed that the health and welfare of the people of the region came first, and that their livestock should not die. Accordingly, the available grazing inside the two reserves, Buffalo Springs and Samburu, were open. As I mention in the report, I worry that the flood gates may have been opened, and this may become a trend, or a common practice. Let’s hope not.

As it turned out, the safaris were extremely successful (Read our Trip 2 report), and we had some of the best viewing, and opportunities, with some species we rarely see. For example, in 24 hours we had 4 different Black Rhinos, and these were in the southeastern section of the Mara that I was depressed about! In Samburu, we had the best shooting opportunity we’ve ever had with the endangered African Wild Dog, seeing them twice, and actually being at a kill. In Samburu, where I was particularly upset, we had the most Grevy’s Zebras and Beisa Oryx we’ve ever had, and we had the usual number of Somalia Ostrich, Reticulated Giraffe, and Gerenuk. Plus, the absolute best African Lion I’ve ever shot in Samburu. The males here do not sport the magnificent mane of the Mara and the Serengeti, as thorns and brush probably comb the hair away, and ‘behavior wise’ the mane would perform less of a function, since the thick brush would negate the visual signal that a typical bushy and prominent black mane would provide.

Last year, however, we had multiple Lion sightings in the southeastern section of the Mara, and last year was the first time that the park authorities allowed the Maasai to legally come in and graze. We were worried then about that policy, and it seems as if our worries were justified, as we did not see any sign at all of one of the prides from last year, with about 15 members. In fact, in the Lower Mara, we only had one pride, although the shooting was quite good, and we photographed a Lioness with young cubs that was about as good as it gets. But still.
Accordingly, next year we are only spending two nights in the Lower Mara instead of our usual three, and adding a day to the Mara Triangle, which is extremely well managed. When we reached the Triangle we were so happy to see grasses as we’d expect, although, to be fair, areas that we visit in the Lower Mara, like the Hammerkop area and the Kopjes, had high grasses. It was only in the eastern section that the land was bare, but it surely was.
lAs is always the case the Upper Mara met all of our expectations, and we had tremendous shooting here. One of the most notable was a female Leopard that climbed into a warthog burrow, twice! I'd never seen a leopard go into any hole before, and we suspect that it was hunting, and not looking for a den site. I'll address those thoughts later on in this report.

A good friend of ours from the US now lives and photographs Kenya’s wildlife, and he certainly sees the changes and is equally upset. But as he says, Kenya still produces, and the shooting we’d did was still wonderful and great. But make no mistake, if policies continue as they are, don’t expect a quality experience in Kenya ten years from now. The Mara will be dead.

For now, fortunately, it’s still the place to be. You’ll see that for yourself as you see the images accompanying these two trip reports.

Day 1 – to Samburu

mAlthough the tour technically began last evening, as the last of our participants arrived in Nairobi, the excitement began today as we left the Nairobi Serena Hotel for the long drive to Samburu National Reserve. It was raining in Nairobi, and for much of the route north the low clouds obscured the distant mountains. We stopped at our favorite lunch spot, an incredible treehouse reminding us of Swiss Family Robinson, where before, and after lunch we photographed the spectacular Black and White Colobus Monkeys that are habituated here.

Mt. Kenya, a looming presence to our right as we crossed the ‘White Highlands,’ was masked by low clouds and veils of slanting rain, gray walls that blocked all views.
Passing through Isiolo we entered what was once practically true wilderness but was now a paved highway with fences of barb wire or low walls of volcanic stone demarcating the property lines that foretold of new homes, shops, and small hotels. When we started visiting Samburu this same road was a true traveler’s nightmare, with the main road often impassable, and the alternate track weaving alongside, a full vehicle’s depth lower than the road we paralleled. Dust kicked up by the passing vehicles made white clouds that blocked out everything, and ruts and car-swallowing divots made the road a torturous endurance contest.
Back then, one could reasonably expect to see Reticulated Giraffe grazing on the roadside acacia trees, and herds of Grevy’s Zebra and occasional groups of Beisa Oryx and Gerenuk feeding in the scrubland. Over the years we’ve seen this road improved, until today it is paved all the way to Ethiopia I’m told, and much of the roadside acacias are gone, as wood cutters converted these trees to bags of charcoal to be sold in towns and cities further south. Where once there were game now all we see are the countless white dots of sheep and goats, further denuding the landscape as they graze the surviving vegetation down to its roots.
Samburu, one of our favorite locations, was a sanctuary in this devastation, and always one of our most anticipated locations as it seemed immune to the edge-eroding effects of illegal cattle grazing that has plagued the Masai Mara. As we turned left on the track to the park from Archer’s Gate the roadway was flanked by schools and shops and houses. Archer’s Gate was once a tiny backwater of a few small shops but over the years, especially in the last five, it has now grown into a sprawling, bustling and growing town. Traditional-style Samburu villages still border the road, but instead of mud or dung covering the dome-shaped roofs tarpaulin and canvas now do the same. I saw men in bright, clean white shirts walking across the dusty desert landscape, cell phones in hand, and one old crone, bent into a permanent stoop from decades of carrying wood or water, hobble from her hut with the aid of a cane, her thin, stick-like legs supported by incongruous bright blue sneakers.
When we entered through the Samburu Gate, where a sign depicting one of nature’s oddest associations, a Lioness befriending and nurturing a baby Beisa Oryx, I was surprised to see burros and a few cows inside the park’s border. When I commented on this, our driver-guide, Henry, told us that in August Samburu had their cattle deep inside the park, almost to the bridge that now links Samburu with the adjacent Buffalo Springs National Reserve. We always play a game when entering Samburu, with everyone guessing what would be the first animal seen inside the gate. Our choices, this year, ranged from  Oryx to Giraffe, Dik-dik to Gerenuk, but as it turned out, a lone Dik-dik not far from the world was our first animal, followed soon after by a lone Gerenuk.
sBut soon after, things changed. Herds of cattle were visible ahead of us, and as we approached we could see even more cows on either side of the road. In the salt meadows lining the Usaso Nyrio River, where we might normally expect to see African Elephants, we saw several more scattered herds of cows, with green-clad men, possibly soldiers or rangers, carrying rifles and shepherding the herds. Henry suspected they were guarding the cattle from cattle rustlers from Turkana or from Somalia, but regardless, for the first time we saw scattered groups of armed men and unarmed herders pushing their scrawny cattle through this parched land.
Samburu is a semi-desert that usually rejuvenates sometime in October with the arrival of the short rains, and again in March when the long rains arrive. We’re always amazed at seeing wild herbivores thriving in this parched and seemingly lifeless landscape, with hardly a trace of green and with grasses reduced to thin, straw-like brittle blades. Yet the game animals were always fit and healthy, and somehow, adapted to this land, they thrived.
Today, as we continued on towards our camp, the land looked barren, as indeed it was from the countless cows that plucked these withered grasses and trampled whatever remained into dust. We saw a few of the endemics – distant Grevy’s o

Zebra and Oryx and a few Gerenuk, but the bounty we normally see was completely gone. As we neared camp, the broad expanse of meadow normally covered in cheetah-high dry grass, was stripped clean and barren.
It was a shock, and as I write this I’m still quite sickened by the transformation in just one year. Samburu was always the bright beacon of hope for me, seemingly immune from the cattle grazing that so erodes and destroys the Masai Mara’s perimeter. As Henry said, he had no idea the Samburu had so many cows!
Tomorrow starts our game drives, and I can only hope that deeper within the park the cattle have been excluded and the vegetation saved, and with it we’ll enjoy the bounty of wildlife we’ve come to expect from Samburu. I’m frankly stunned by this. Several large game lodges either have been built or are in construction or are planned for Samburu, and I wonder what in the world the investors are thinking as they put money into these projects. Samburu simply cannot sustain over-grazing. It is a semi-desert, and for much of the year appears to be true desert, and denuding the vegetation, stripping it clean by cattle, goats, and sheep, will devastate the park.
As I write this, ‘Samburu,’ one of the two large bull Elephants that hang around this camp, had sauntered by only a few minutes ago. A lone Beisa Oryx and a Grevy’s Zebra grazed placidly close to the path leading to our tent as we walked by, and Palm Swifts, African Hoopoes, and Hadada Ibis flew by. A troop of Olive Baboons picked at palm nuts and whatever else just yards from our tent, giving the impression that all is well and nothing has changed, and the park is as healthy as ever. I can only hope, and tomorrow and the following days will surely tell.

Day 2. Samburu

sDuring the night the roars of Lions periodically boomed, sometimes quite close. The roars, beginning with the first distant calls as we walked back to our tent from dinner, were reassuring, that despite the plague of goats and sheep wildlife, and mega predators, still lived in Samburu. As the night progressed the Lion roars grew nearer, and the cats probably passed through camp before dawn.
Clouds dappled the eastern sky at dawn, giving us a nice sunrise with the silhouette of Dom Palms against the gold band of a bright sky. Soon afterwards, a bull Elephant entered the river bed, now just a snaking, oxbow stream flanked on either side by broad stretches of sand, the original river bed.  We made some nice, evocative shots of the scene, the lumbering elephant in a drying, dying river bed, and continued on.
Before the day was out we had an alternative Big Five – Camel, Burro, Cow, Goat, and Sheep, for by the end of the game drive there was not a corner of the Park that did not have livestock grazing. Felix, one of our driver-guides said that the PM for the district said that his people were starving and their livestock dying, and he supposedly authorized the invasion of the park. And it was invaded, raped, and murdered. The invasion supposedly began in August and has continued, supposedly, off and on until now, although I doubt if the livestock ever left the dpark. There is virtually NO UNDERGROWTH. There is no grass, and where in the past we’d look down from some of the hillsides onto a glowing carpet of yellow grasses extending brightly as far as we could see, barren earth now dully reflects the sun. A closer inspection shows the stubs of roots or tussocks, grazed to soil-level, but hopefully not dead.
There is a positive to all this: the hooves of all the herbivores were clearly visible! No grasses or other vegetation covered the legs of the Warthogs and Antelopes as the animals, somehow, found something to eat. The rainy season is approaching, and normally various Social Weavers and Weavers would be gathering dried, long grasses to construct their nests, but without any grasses, nest building hasn’t begun. It was a shocking scene.
Despite this, we had a fairly productive game drive. Mary’s vehicle managed to photograph the three Lions we heard last night, with the two Lionesses running about and playing, and the male beginning to sprout a small mane. African Elephants gathered at the river to drink at bore holes they dug into the sand, and it was interesting to see the dynamics here as mothers with calves guarded a hole until they were finished, or how a large Bull would tolerate, then gently nudge a baby out of the way as he took a drink. Sometimes one of the females would gather a trunkful of water and spray it, wastefully, it seems when other Elephants stood patiently waiting their turn. Some elephants wrestled, playfully, which seemed a wasteful action considering an Elephant drinks about 50 gallons of water a day and how they manage that now I’ve no idea.
wWe did well with a number of subjects, including several opportunities with Pigmy Falcons, and Desert Warthogs, a new subspecies that is defined, in part, by its habit of grazing while standing, rather than kneeling as the common warthog does. Most of the time, however, these Warthogs knelt, as they either had to root beneath the dusty earth or nibble at vegetation barely breaking the crust, and not permitting anything but the lowest reach.
Although we didn’t photograph everything, we did see most of the endemics – Grevy’s Zebra, Beisa Oryx, Reticulated Giraffe, Dik-dik, Vulturine Guineafowl, and even a Golden-breasted Starling, but as we drove about I wondered how a predator was managing now, as cover for stalking was quite limited, and the amount of prey items equally so.

At one point a mixed group of birds, hornbills, weavers, and starlings, gathered beside the road atop a brush pile. I stopped Henry to check if a snake had been spotted and the birds were harassing it. I mentioned this to Eric and Breene who were riding with me, and then added, as I grabbed my 100-400, that they also do this if they have an African Wild Cat spotted, and that I was getting my lens ready just in case. About three seconds later an African Wild Cat exploded from the brush, and luckily I got a couple of shots off as it bounded away!
bWe returned to camp a little after 11, with the river scene that featured our bull Elephant now replaced by hundreds of goats, dozens of cattle, and bands of burros, gathered at the water to drink or, for the burros, to carry water back in the yellow jugs lined up along the bank. People were everywhere, and sheep dotted the hillside. As we pulled into camp Samburu, the Elephant, stood in the shade beside our parking area, but ignored us as we unloaded. Later, he passed by our tent, driving off the herd of goats and sheep grazing just a few yards from our tent.

PM. Clouds built up through the early afternoon and our game drive was under cloudy skies, with a few gaps  when the sun-lit foreground contrasted wonderfully with the black sky. Periodic sprinkles kept the air cool, and as we returned to camp it actually rained, but not enough to require closing our hatches.
Although a few Samburu herds were visible, most of the herders had retreated towards home, although Mary spotted several big herds on the steep hillsides where, normally, we’d look for leopard.
My vehicle started with a small group of Dwarf Mongoose that, I think, were congregating at the termite mound where they would spend the night. Despite Felix’s protest I had us drive fairly close, figuring that a distant shot would be useless. After only a few minutes the Dwarf Mongooses reappeared, and at one point one stood upright, resembling the weasel we recently shot in Yellowstone.

Avery spotted a Pigmy Falcon that I missed, and the bird was tolerant and flew down for prey (insects) several times. We had already left the falcon when the sun broke through the clouds but we hurried back, hoping to catch the bird in sunlight against the black clouds, and although we had the bird, her position had changed. And, her crop was now full …. In the time we had left the bird must have made a substantial kill.
We continued, and I spotted a Desert Warthog half-visible at a burrow, and I suspected it might be one of the mothers we’d seen earlier today. We stopped, and I noticed tiny heads, just barely visible above the lip of the den. While we watched and photographed the mother climbed out of the burrow, and a few seconds later so too did her three piglets, extremely tiny, perhaps the smallest I’ve seen in Samburu.
wThe warthog returned to the burrow, then left it again, turned back, and was greeted by the babies. Afterwards she led the three across our path and headed towards the river, and we wondered where she’d take the babies this late in the day when she should be safely nestled in a den.
Reticulated Giraffe, some Beisa Oryx, and a few birds rounded out the afternoon until almost at quitting time, with the light very low, we found a large herd of Grevy’s Zebras on the Leopard Ridge hillside. As they passed by us we tried extremely slow shutter speed pan outs, and were lucky enough to get several! As we returned to camp it rained, and we reached camp in darkness.

Day 3. Samburu

Again the sky was partially cloudy at dawn, but lacking the intensity of color of yesterday. Soon after leaving the lodge Mary spotted two vultures coming in for a landing on a distant hillside, sure sign of a carcass or kill. We drove over and discovered a dead cow, perhaps dying from the drought.
mOur goal was to cross the river to the Buffalo Springs side, but en route we checked out the remnant forest along the river, hoping to spot a leopard. Dik-dik, a pair of Water Thick-knees, and a great photo opportunity with a White-headed Mousebird defined that portion of our drive. Avery spotted the Mousebird, but unfortunately grabbed her big lens, and in the time taken to put on an extension tube the bird flew off.
I was with Felix and we followed the river’s edge when we crossed the river, while Henry headed further inland, where the game happened to be. Mary radioed, and we joined them at a huge flock of Somalia Ostriches, comprised of multiple females and at least six males. The males fed calmly, while a couple of times the hens flapped and fought.
Grevy’s Zebras, Beisa Oryx, and several Grants Gazelles grazed nearby, and later we photographed a few Common Zebra grazing close to a few Grevy’s, a rare sight in Samburu. Later, Henry and Mary simultaneously spotted a Cheetah, but the cat ran off. We got the call, but the cat never reappeared and we continued on, but Felix decided to do an intensive search and we found the cat, not shy at all, resting beneath a bush. Although game was cnearby and the cat looked alert, a hunt did not look likely and we continued on, driving to the overlook for breakfast, enjoying the best expansive view of the two parks.
After breakfast we searched again for the Cheetah, discovering the cat under a different tree. The shooting opportunities were much better, and the cat posed nicely. It was now near 11, and we searched on our side of the river for a sloping bank that would allow us access to cross the river to head to home.  We were unsuccessful, but as we returned to camp we had a good session with a Little Bee-eater and, closer to home, five African Elephants that marched right to the road and passed us.


This is not our camp! But at another camp upriver, goats and sheep sauntered right through the nearly deserted camp. Elsewhere, the herds of goats had eaten virtually all the grasses and forbes, reducing the land to a hard pan.

Somehow the dik-diks and the other antelope survived, but you can see there isn't much for them to eat. Why? The sheep and goats on the right.

Throughout the morning we saw no Samburu or their herds, until nearly noon when we were nearly back at camp. Now, as I write this, directly across the river from my tent a herd of a hundred goats or sheep are mowing across the hillside, their ‘baaahh’ bleats and the barks of the herders adding to the affront.

PM. This morning a leopard had been spotted on the ridge not far from our camp so the first part of our afternoon was spent in an intensive search of the area. Mary had predicted, and betted, that we’d have rain by 4PM today, and although it did not rain on us, the other side of the river, and within a mile of our camp, it poured. The sky was black with a very drenching rain, so I figure, she won the bet.
We had no luck on the hillside, although the various herders and their huge flocks of goats and sheep on the same slopes certainly didn’t help. We were covering ground that was empty of Samburu when we received a radio call that a Leopard was spotted near Samburu Lodge. We headed in that direction.
lWe were traveling fast, when suddenly Henry stopped and said he thought he had seen a Lion’s head on the river bank. He backed up, and pulled onto a track closer to the river’s edge, and Avery, Breene, and I scoured the opposite shoreline, wondering how in the world Henry could spot a Lion’s head while driving, and we could see nothing. Henry stopped and said ‘There it is!’ and we squinted and craned, and then Henry pointed ahead – the Lion was on our side of the river, just a few yards in front of our vehicle!
What followed was some of the best Lion portraiture we’ve had in Samburu. The male Lion, with the typical scruffy half-mane of non-savannah lions, was completely relaxed, as we shot full body portraits with 100-400mm lenses. lEventually the Lion rose, and walked over to the edge of a steep river bank where he could overlook the stream bed. Henry suggested we drive down onto the bank below, and from there we shot UP at the cat, framed against a far-off mountain slope. Beautiful portraiture.
Meanwhile, Mary had been photographing the Leopard, perched about 100 yds off on the top of a boulder. Nice environmental shots, but just as she joined us at the Lion, we received another radio call that African Wild Dogs had been spotted. We raced to the area, as the light level continued to drop.
Luckily, we found the dogs, and got some shots as they trotted across a clearing, or paused along the river bank before entering the dry stream bed and continuing downriver, towards our very distant camp. Vervet Monkeys barked in alarm, while a troop of Olive Baboons simply continued sauntering across the sand, seemingly unfazed by the nine dogs passing by.
We reached camp after dark, around 6:45, elated that we had a Three Cat Day, and Wild Dogs, too. Despite the annoyance of the Samburu herders, we’ve actually did well with all the endemics of Samburu, and have seen more Grevy’s Zebra this year than I think I’ve ever seen before.


Day 4. Samburu

First impressions can be so misleading, and although we’re still annoyed at the amount of goats and sheep and smaller number of cows that have invaded the park our photography actually hasn’t been impacted. The drought and this parched land which necessitated the Samburu herdsmen to bring their livestock into the park has also concentrated much of the game. We’ve never seen as many Grevy’s Zebras or Beisa Oryx as we have this year, for like the domestic herbivores the zebras and oryx had to come to the only water available. And today was actually one of the true banner days in Samburu.

We started by looking for the leopard that was spotted yesterday morning, and we scoured the hillsides thoroughly. Towards the end of Leopard Ridge several Beisa Oryx were bunched together and looking up into the hills, while a guineafowl cackled alarm calls somewhere in the hillside forest. Both were signs that a predator was about, and as I watched I saw the female Leopard walking across the jumbled boulders on the slope. The Leopard was too far away for photos, but we were happy to at least see what we were seeking, and when Mary’s vehicle arrived she spotted the Leopard’s cub. By then, I’d looked elsewhere and couldn’t locate either cat in the confusion of trees, rocks, and harsh shadows. We were still searching the hillside when we got a radio call from one of the company’s other drivers: Dogs!


We raced to the spot, quite close to where we had left the Wild Dogs yesterday evening, but they had climbed a hill and disappeared. Fortunately a side road paralleled one side of the ridge and the main road crossed its base, so we spread out to see if the Elephants grazing, rather incongruously, on the rocky slopes would spook the Wild Dogs. My vehicle went down to the main road to wait, and no sooner got there that we received another call, the dogs were on the move.
dWe raced back up, joining Mary’s vehicle just seconds after the Dogs had captured a Dik-Dik. Mary was there to see the catch, as the dogs had been moving and a female Dik-dik had huddled inside a small bush, hoping to be missed. One Dog walked by, then turned, and the antelope flushed. Within only a few yards, at most, it was caught, and within seconds four other Dogs joined in. Soon the whole pack, or most of it, joined in the kill. We arrived about that time, and I heard Mary say the dogs had a fetus, but all I saw as I shot was parts of a dismembered kill. Only later, when I downloaded, did I discover that I actually had a full-frame shot of a dog carrying the tiny unborn Dik-dik. Meanwhile, Mary’s vehicle was in a prime spot and she caught a wonderful image of a dog rearing, swinging the still intact Dik-dik in its jaws. Dogs milled about everywhere, and for the next ten minutes or so we had brief shooting opportunities as dogs trotted into and through clearings. My vehicle would have had more, but a British soldier and his family, driving a private vehicle, had slipped into a space between dour safari vehicles and, instead of stopping there, rudely drove forward, blocking the view for two of the safari vehicles, our’s being one of them. Frustrating, and unnecessary.
The Dogs finally trotted off and descended into the mountain valley and disappeared. We searched several spots, hoping they’d reappear but they had either moved on or settled somewhere in the road-less track.
We continued on, stopping for a nice flock of Vulturine Guineafowl and later, on the main road, an active nest of Little Bee-eaters that flew in and out of their burrow, dug in the low bank of the road. After meeting Mary’s vehicle for a breakfast break we continued down to the river to look for birds, and caught a nice Lilac-breasted Roller as it launched into flight.

At the river a large herd of Beisa Oryx had gathered, joined at times by Warthogs, Impala, and Grevy’s Zebras. We had stationed ourselves by an access point where Oryx and Zebras ran up or down to or from the stream bed. Later, three Reticulated gGiraffes entered the dry bed, drinking and striding across the shallows, while Beisa Oryx ran by. Our last shot of the morning was unexpected, when an Oryx suddenly jumped as it was crossing the shallow stream. In all, I shot 937 images in the morning – a darn good day in Samburu!

PM. Shortly before the start of our game drive we heard that the Ewaso Ng’iro River was reappearing – the water was coming, from its high country origins in the Aberdarres and Thompson’s Falls region. Sometimes, when the river fills or floods a wall of water can cascade down the dry stream bed, and we were hoping for that type of spectacle. Accordingly, we rushed to the first of several river overlooks, but the river was still dry, and we continued upriver until we reached the main bridge that joined Buffalo Springs with Samburu, and from that vantage, about four hundred yards further upriver, we could see the shine of water at the bend. Over the next forty minutes the water glided forward, following channels at times, simply poring over flat sandy stretches in other spots. Vervet Monkeys were in the river bed and they scampered off as the waters advanced, and I wondered if they were worried and wise about a dangerous wall of water that might follow, or if they were simply leery, or had already gained some moisture from the elephant bore holes. Eventually the river reached the bridge and creeped beneath it, and we finally left this, the rebirth of Samburu if you will, as the water advanced to the next bend further downriver.
eWe were still in need of a Leopard, and we headed towards Leopard Ridge. Avery had seen some baby Elephants on the fast drive to the bridge and hoped to get a baby she’d seen, and we found the herd just a bit passed the Ridge. While I’ve always worried about the Elephant population of Samburu stripping the riverine forest bare, as more and more land around the park becomes unavailable to Elephants, I read some even more distressing news in a recently published book by Carl Safina, Beyond Words – What Animals Think and Feel. In 2012, he writes, 27 Elephants were poached for their ivory in 45 days in the Samburu area, some actually killed right inside the park. Poaching has exploded over the last several years and according to Safina, in 2007 50 Elephants were killed in Kenya, but in 2012 400 were murdered, an eightfold increase. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Elephants are killed, murdered, vpoached … call it what you will, each year, averaging one Elephant every fifteen minutes. In the last ten years, 100,000 thousand Elephants have been poached, probably due to a relaxation on the total ivory ban that, in the 1990’s, effectively stopped poaching. In 1999 a ‘one time sale’ of stored ivory occurred, and in 2008 a second ‘one time sale’ followed, and with it the door to rampant poaching was blown open.
The gestation of an Elephant is 22 months, and a baby is dependent upon its mother for at least three years, and obviously, the birth rate cannot come close to keeping up with the death rate. In the early 1900’s – that is just one hundred years ago, there may have been TEN MILLION Elephants in Africa, but today there are fewer than 400,000, and as Safina writes, that number drops by about 100 every day. Since the mid-1970s Tanzania lost a quarter million Elephants, Kenya’s elephant population dropped from 167,000 to 16,000, a 90% decline. Since Roman times, Safina reports, Elephants have declined by as much as 99% and are now absent from 90% of their former zrange, which once included all of Africa except the Sahara, and in pre-history the Safara too was occupied, as this desert was once grassland.
Safina’s book on the emotional lives of animals is a great one, and the first quarter of the book is solely devoted to Elephants (the second chapter, which I’m reading as I write this, is on Yellowstone’s wolves). The insight on emotion, and on language and communication that has been garnered by Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole, gives one a whole new appreciation for Elephants, and for me, a somewhat frustrating one because I simply can’t ‘read’ these animals as they can, and I know I’m missing plenty.
At any rate, we didn’t have long to spend with the zElephants because Henry spotted the female Leopard as she crossed over a boulder as she moved down Leopard Ridge and finally climbed a tree. We only had to back up a few hundred yards to join Mary and Henry at the Leopard, where we remained until nearly 6PM when we left for a special sundowner the camp staff had planned for us. The light, by then, had failed, so we didn’t feel as if we were going to miss anything, and indeed we learned that the Leopard never left the tree, at least not until dark.

Day 5. Samburu to Lake Nakuru

lOvernight, the river filled, an a strong current of brown water rushed by camp where, just hours before, the river bed was dry. We wished we could stay today to see how the Elephants reacted to the change, for over the last two years the area had been drying and for months, I’m told, the river bed was dry. I could just imagine the play and cavorting the Elephants would be doing when they came to the river today.
The skies were overcast and Mt. Kenya, which we’ll normally see as we drive south, was covered in clouds. The Rift Valley south of Lake Nakuru was covered in a wall of gray storms, and as we had our very late lunch the storm, accompanied by rolling thunder, passed through. Ten minutes before the afternoon game drive the storm had cleared, and for those who opted to do the afternoon drive, the weather looked good. Mary and I and one other decided to sit this one out and get some paperwork and editing done. Lake Nakuru is often dark and dreary in the afternoons, and bright and sunny in the morning, so we banked on tomorrow’s drive for a good shoot.
As we drove in not a single flamingo was visible along a shoreline that once hosted a ring of pink that may have numbered a million birds or more. Over the last few years the water level of the lake has risen, so much so that some of the main roads are now closed and flooded, and virtually all of the flats, the shoreline where one could drive close to the water’s edge, are now several feet under water. As the freshwater rose, the salinity decreased, and with it both the food (brine shrimp and other invertebrates) and the access to shallow water has disappeared, and the flamingos have left. Ironically, in the few areas where a few flamingos still linger the photography for those birds is usually the best its ever been, as the birds feed close to the flooded road that used to lead into the mudflats.
The Yellow-bark acacia trees that probably once marked a previous historic high in water levels are now flooded in many areas, and where once we had roosting White Pelicans and lounging Leopards, stark dead trees now poke out of the water, creating an eery swampland appearance. The reason for this rise in water is unclear, ranging from more runoff due to deforestation in the highlands, climate change (contradicts the droughts elsewhere), and geologic shifts, tilting the plate beneath this lake and others in the Rift Valley, so that water now flows into the lakes rather than draining out of them.
At 3:45 the three hearty souls headed out with Felix, just as a light rain crossed over the area. We’ll see how they do!

PM. Although it rained around our lodge the three photographers, Avery, Breene, and Eric, did not have to put up the roof hatch and so enjoyed a fairly comfortable game drive. Highlights – a distant White Rhino (strangely only one was seen on the entire game drive), and an ‘almost Leopard,’ as a Leopard had just made a kill and dragged it up to a sloping tree trunk, but the tourists ahead of them screamed with excitement and the cat jumped down and disappeared.

Day 6. Nakuru to the Mara

bWe left shortly after 7 for a morning game drive, planning on arriving at the gate at 10 for repacking and the long drive to the Mara. No one arrived at the gate before nearly 11.
The day began cloudy, with the threat of rain, but gradually the sky cleared, somewhat. The lake level was definitely down since last year, fully 100 yards less, but the road we had photographed flamingos on, last year, was now devoid of birds. The Acacia trees still stand, like old cypress in a southern lagoon, but there was no bird life about.
Oddly, we (as a group) only saw two White Rhinos in the game drive, and with a bit more of the lake shore visible, and plenty of grass about, we wondered where they’d gone. In contrast, however, we had several encounters with Rothschild’s Giraffes, some close to the road. Mary’s vehicle had an Auger Buzzard, a near look-alike to our red-tailed hawk, hunting the brush close to the roadside, and we had another perched fairly close as well, along with several dark morphs of the same species. A trio of young Impala sparred, with two larger rams following behind, and occasionally chasing one or more of the younger rams in a show of dominance.
We left Nakuru by 11:30, driving through the bustling, expanding town/city of Narok, a growing, busy, crowded place that, when we first came to Kenya, was barely more than a few stores and local hotels, lining a dusty dirt road through town. Back then, just a few kilometers outside of town we’d find game, but today, all the way into the Loita Plains, where wild dogs once roamed, there were houses and fences, and except for a lone gazelle periodically there was no game.
At the park gate we were, as usual, besieged by Masai women trying to hawk bracelets and necklaces, while we sat inside our vehicles, windows up, and looked beyond, to cows grazing inside the park boundary. Luckily, we didn’t see very many more cows, and that evening, at Mara Sarova, we did not hear the usual tinkling of cow bells as Masai herders graze their cattle at night.

Day 7. Lower Mara

We left the lodge at 6, under cloudy skies that brightened with a spectacular sunrise, scalloping the hanging clouds in a brilliant violet red that lasted only minutes, giving us time to catch just the glimmer of its intensity by the time we found a foreground tree.

Soon after, near Keekorok, I spotted a good male African Lion sitting on a kopje, and with color still in the eastern sky we tried lining the cat’s silhouette up with a brilliant background but the cat dropped to its belly and the color died first. We had to circle widely to get a ‘behind the shoulder’ light, putting us some distance from that Lion, and his brother, equally well maned, sitting on a rock. We waited only a short time before the Lions rose and walked across the grasses towards us, finally crossing our track and continuing into the tall grass where there were no game tracks. Later, when we were returning to the lodge, a big flock of Vultures circled over the area where the lions had been heading, and I wondered if the Lions we saw had been walking to a kill made by their lionesses, and now, past 11AM, the lions had fed and left, and the Vultures had fed and flown off, and were now circling as they gained air, seeking a thermal to take them high.
We were told that 17 lions had killed a buffalo yesterday, and we eventually found the kill, which at first Henry thought was an older kill since there was nothing left to eat upon the skeleton. I guess  17 lions, plus hyenas that night, and vultures, too, could polish off an animal that quickly, but … still impressive.
Mary radioed that they had a Lioness with two very young cubs, perhaps 7-8 weeks old, and that a male Lion was approaching, and the Lioness was snarling and growling. Mary worried that the male might be intending to kill the cubs, and when we arrived the two adults were near each other, but the male was now facing away, and as we watched he walked off. The male was blond maned, and had a collapsed orbital socket that distorted his face and closed that eye, or perhaps it was actually gone. The crushed face may have been from the hoof of a zebra, or perhaps even a wicked swat from another lion.
The Lioness, now alone, eventually moved across a small lugga and settled on a rock, following her two cubs who seemed to lead the way. We had marginal views, but we waited, while Mary’s vehicle first headed out to check on the report of a leopard that proved too far away to bother finding, before they headed south ltoward Sopa where, they found, the grass was denuded and the land bare, of vegetation and of wildlife, as the Masai had grazed here thoroughly. While there, a herd of Masai cattle passed on the hillside above them, deep inside the park.
After an hour’s wait the Lioness rose and led her two cubs across our path, to a larger kopje where she sat, then stood, with her two cubs weaving between her legs, biting her tail, or tussling, mostly out of view, in a small declivity. The shots on the top of the kopje were great – classic.
We had our breakfast with the Lioness, then headed towards home, stopping en route for a family of Masai Ostriches and their eight young chicks, the size of big chickens and striped and streaked in orange and black. Hartebeest, Thompson’s Gazelle, Topi, Wattled Plover, and a Bare-faced Go-away Bird rounded out our morning, with our vehicle returning to the lodge at 11:40.

PM. We left the camp at 4, heading towards the Hammerkop area, with massive, ominous storm cells hanging on the western escarpment. Where we were, fortunately, we were far from rain, and the afternoon game drive was relatively bright.
We started with a silhouette of a Masai Giraffe along a ridge line, framed with storm clouds. Later, a frisky stallion chased a mare for a few hundred yards, circling us as he did so. I wasn’t sure if she was testing his stamina or not, although being part of a harem she may not have had a choice unless she bolted free to another stallion’s group later on.
Cow dung piles dotted the land and along one luggage the deep tracks of countless Masai cattle scoured the game road we were on. To the uninformed, the tracks could be passed off as wonderful Buffalo herds, but the truth was far different. We continued, hoping to find a serval in the short grasses, but managed only to photograph a Saddle-billed Stork resting on his heels, and a pair of Black-bellied Bustards close to the road. We received a radio call that Henry was with a Leopard, and we headed there.
lWhen we arrived, about eight vehicles were lined up along a lugga, with all of the prime spots already taken. A male Leopard was below us, partially hidden by high grass and a shallow depression, and some bushes, but periodically we had glimpses as the Leopard raised its head to feed. At one point the male Leopard got its head caught in the rib cage of its kill, a baby African Buffalo – no doubt a wandering, lost orphan, and shook the carcass and himself violently.
Most frustrating, at one of the prime spots, a young woman in the company of a guy with a modest lens didn’t bother even looking at the leopard. Instead, after gfixing her hair, she’d hold up two ‘selfie sticks,’ one with a GoPro and another with her cell phone, taking pictures of herself all the while. When they finally left I took a good look at her, thick with bracelets on both wrists, and I can say her vanity far exceeded the reality of her appearance.
We managed a couple of shots when one of the other vehicles left, but the light was low and the shooting rather mundane. We left, with Felix worried about being a bit off-road, and Mary soon joined us, and just as they put their gear away the Leopard presented itself most clearly, but they missed it, as did we.
rAs we headed home, truly in the last light of the day, we came upon a group of vehicles parked along the main road. The reason: a Black Rhino was standing in the open about 100 yds off the road, and although the ISO’s had to be pumped up, we managed some OK shots of the rhino as it stood motionless, waiting for dark.

Day 8. Lower Mara

The tinkling of cow bells and the sharp whistles of Maasai herdsmen, inappropriate sounds in a wildlife reserve but one we heard through most of the night. Except for the Sopa herd yesterday morning, we hadn’t seen cows entering or leaving the park and I optimistically hoped that, perhaps, the cows were elsewhere. They’re not, the herdsmen are just being a bit more discrete, grazing at night to create the illusion that the Masai Mara National Reserve is actually a wildlife park, and not an extended pasture for herds of cattle far out of balance with what the land can support.
Felix, one of our driver/guides, told me today that the herds haven’t left the Mara since last year when we were here, when the Maasai brazenly brought in cattle in the late afternoon and exited the park after sunrise. He said that the rains had failed this year, and if that is so, the denuded landscape outside the park had no chance to rejuvenate. And also, if that’s true, then the herds have passed through lion and hyena and cheetah country for an entire year, and I just have to wonder how many cows were lost – one a month, one every two weeks, none? Last year, we saw several dead, trapped, or sick cows, and I know that in the past, if a cow was killed the Maasai retaliated. Felix said he’s heard of no killings, but that would be kept quiet, so who knows?
The inescapable fact at this point is the pride we had last year, with three mothers with young cubs, seem to have disappeared. One might say, ‘they moved elsewhere,’ but lions can’t exit a territory and ‘move in’ to a new neighborhood, if that one is already occupied by a lion pride. They might try, but lions don’t overcrowd or share – they fight for territory and kill, so if our pride somehow moved on – extremely, extremely unlikely, then another pride suffered. More likely, and I hope in the coming days or during the next safari I’m proved wrong, the lions suffered attrition, perhaps in retribution for killing a cow, or perhaps poisoned at a carcass. Years ago, this area of the Masai Mara was thick with Hyenas, probably the best area for seeing them, but today they are rare. We saw a few yesterday and not a single one today.
rOur day did begin with a bright note – two brilliant planets in near alignment, shining steadily in the predawn sky. Soon after leaving our lodge we encountered another wonderful site, a mother Black Rhino and calf! Eventually the two crossed the road in front of us and headed uphill, where they disappeared in the croton bushes, one of the few ridges that still has a dense thicket and cover.
We continued on to the Sand River area where we often find a lion pride, and Henry’s vehicle did spot one Lioness, but she disappeared in the grasses. We found no pride. Using my GPS, however, we did locate another ‘trophy,’ an Elephant eShrew, in the same set of kopje rocks where we’d discovered this small, mouse-like rodent last year. Most small mammals have very rapid metabolisms, and a short life span, but the three Elephant Shrews we’ve seen over the last two years were virtually immobile. I wonder when they feed, and I wonder, too, whether this shrew is the same as last year’s, and long lived, or if the micro habitat of this particular kopje appeals to the shrews. I think the former.
We continued on to the Sand River, finding a fresh kill but no predators, and a variety of birds – Bare-faced Go-away Birds, Red-throated Spurfowl, Batelur Eagles, Bee-eaters, and good numbers of herbivores, with small herds of Gnus and large bherds of Zebras. One beautiful male Bushbuck crossed the game track in front of us, and Reedbuck hid in thickets or grazed along the Sand River’s bank, so the viewing was good. Large herds of African Buffalo were scattered about, so there is lion food, if there are any lions.
By 11:30 my vehicle was back, and short rainy season clouds are building, threatening rain for this afternoon. Mary, with Henry, didn’t arrive until nearly 1PM. On their return, they had plenty of luck. First, with Ground Hornbills, then a record shot of three Lions, then a sighting of a shy Leopard, and finally, and what held them back, a hunting Cheetah, but unfortunately Olive Baboons sauntered by, breaking up any possibility of a hunt.
By 1:15 it was raining, and by 3 the rain had stopped but the skies were still overcast and the air chill.

PM. To the west it rained, and the skies above us stayed heavy with dark clouds. I was with Henry, and we followed a ridge line that paralleled the main road, finding an extremely cooperative Magpie Shrike, a long tailed, black and white bird we see more commonly in the Serengeti. Mary, in Felix’s vehicle, got a tip that a Cheetah jwas hunting Antelope ahead on the main road, and they headed in that direction. That communication was in Kikuyu, and in the extremely inexact language that lumps wildlife with meat (as is done in Swahili), ‘antelope’ was, we surmise, actually Hartebeest. Fortunately Mary heard an alarm call and saw the Cheetah as it caught, rolled, and grabbed again a baby Hartebeest, otherwise she suspects that they would have driven on by, looking for ‘antelope’ that the Cheetah was hunting. We arrived soon after, and after considerable searching spotted the cheetah far off track, feeding.
We continued on, thoroughly covering likely-looking areas for Serval, but we had no luck. Mary’s vehicle did likewise, and ended up further to the northwest, where, on the way home, they had a full-frame male Black Rhinoceros beside the road. We spotted one as well, but our Rhino was far off, although it too was close to a game track and quite close to a mini-van that had stopped nearby. This was our fifth Rhino in 24 hours – pretty encouraging for the rhino population here!
With the overcast skies and serious rain storms to the west, it was cold, incredibly so for being so near to the equator, and our game drive was rather uneventful. Mary also had some nice baby Topis, probably born today, with umbilical cords still visible, so the day was somewhat productive. As we headed home, at 6:30, it was nearly dark, although behind us an oblong orange sun settled on the horizon, but so filtered that we saw no trace of an orange or golden wash on the landscape around us. Instead, an easy two miles INSIDE the park, we had our herds of cattle and the Maasai herdsmen, and as Mary and I reviewed the day on our tent’s porch, cow bells and Maasai whistles kept us company.

Day 9. Lower Mara to Mara Triangle

The two planets were nearly in alignment in the predawn sky, glowing like two close set eyes. We loaded at 5:45 and left at 6, and in the stiff, cold morning wind I looked for my wool cap and found it missing. I radioed Mary, who was now in the vehicle I was in yesterday, and Felix said the guard found one yesterday, but I was too far ahead for Felix to call me, so the guard took it to lost and found. Duh! Anyway, Mary went back for it, and after a long, frustrating wait, the hat showed up. Meanwhile, she and those in her van fretted that they might be missing something good, but luckily nothing happened in the meantime.
We continued on, trying to cover as much ground as possible to reach a reported Leopard and her cub. En route, we had three male Lions and three females, lounging along a lugga. It looked like the three males were part of a recent take-over, judging by the thickness and color of their mane, and the lack of cubs. We took some shots and moved on, and later Mary’s vehicle had the same lions and spent a bit more time with them, getting a nice backlighted portrait.
lWe found the Leopard cub, alone in a dead tree at nearly eye-level, after first finding a couple of vehicles searching for the mother Leopard, who, they said, had had a fight with a Lion or Lions. Details, as usual, were not asked between the drivers so we have no details.
The Leopard cub remained in the tree, shifting positions, while we did, too, getting off-track and then back on when a Ranger’s vehicle came by. Later, we spoke with the Rangers, and they had seen our vehicle, and everyone else’s, off-track, but they were OK, and we gave them a huge box of left-over food from our breakfast. We stayed with the cat until 11am, hoping that the mother would return but she never did, and with the light high and harsh we headed on towards Mara Serena.a
At the Mara River Bridge we stopped to photograph the gnu carcasses littering the rocks, and, lying on my belly, a Flat-headed Agama Lizard, with my 100-400mm lens.
Along the way to our next lodge, on the Triangle side, we met huge herds of Gnus – the migration had returned. Gnus were everywhere, dotting the plains singly or in small groups, and Mary commented none must still be in Tanzania. I think there were, but we had a lot of gnus! We stopped for shots, catching the herds and the sweeping landscapes in an environment of grass, a healthy land free of the Maasai cows.

PM. Storms raged all around us, big, black towering storm clouds that obscured the escarpment to our north and created curtains of heavy rain to the south. We headed south, catching a couple openings in the sky to shoot Gnus against the dark stormy sky, and later a herd of Giraffe. At the crest of a hill where we stopped to shoot another gnu landscape, I questioned Felix on the rationale behind driving in the direction we were going – straight into an advancing storm. He said Henry was there, and he thought our game plan was to look for lions reported in that area. I amended that, and said I also wanted to avoid the rains if we could. We turned around, stopping to watch two suspicious-looking Oribi who seemed to be watching a predator, but they ran off, and, meanwhile, we got a radio call.
gMary’s vehicle, far ahead of our’s, chanced upon a Hyena giving chase to a young Gnu, which they watched catch and pulled down. By the time they reached the two the Hyena was already feeding, while periodically the still living antelope raised its head or kicked. Mary said it screamed continuously, and Eric at one point said, ‘would you just die,’ as it was very sad. Another Hyena soon joined it, and the entire clan appeared, prompting Henry’s call, telling us to come.
We had put up our roof hatches because of the rain, while Mary’s vehicle, caught up with the chase and the kill, endured a downpour, soaking her to the skin. By the htime we arrived the Gnu was in tatters, with six Hyenas at the carcass and five more milling about. The light was low, and I just watched, a rare treat, actually, to simply observe.
Afterwards, we drove off and removed our roof hatches, and continued on, but in the low light we found nothing of interest. Flashing headlights in the grasslands alerted us to some type of problem – a tourist group in mini-vans had one vehicle stuck, with the other too afraid of getting stuck to come closer and assist. We drove down, cabled up, and towed them out, and returned to the lodge as the dull orange sun broke through the clouds, hanging on the horizon, so filtered that the landscape still was awash in gloom.


Day 10. Mara Triangle

We left soon after 6 under cloudy skies, but with the first break in the cloud cover we had a Hippo in the grasses, heading back towards the Mara River. We backed up to be more in line with the Hippo, and he continued down his trail, ending up quite close to us and obviously unhappy. He looked at us and snapped his jaws, then turned, and took an alternate route, and we let him be.
lHeading into the general area we were yesterday we found a nice male Lion and a Lioness, sitting alone on a termite mound, an obvious ‘honeymoon’ pair. Solitary pairs of lions are almost always a mating couple, and within a few minutes of our arrival the pair mated, with the female leaving the mound, walking a few yards, squatting down a bit away from us, with the male right behind. Afterwards, as usual, the two snarled viciously at each other, then the lioness rolled onto her back, all four legs akimbo. Surprisingly, they returned to their exact positions on the termite mound. Mary’s vehicle soon joined us and we waited for one more mating round – nearly a half hour, but the second was even less violent than the first, so we headed out.
sMy vehicle, with Felix, headed uphill, while Mary, with Henry, headed towards the river, and soon after she radioed and said that the Gnus were building for a river crossing. We hurried there, and it wasn’t long before the Gnus began to cross. Unfortunately, the six vehicles on the opposite side of the river, waiting for the crossing to begin, raced to the exit point, and within seconds the Gnu crossing was stopped.
More and more Gnus continued to file down to the river, in long lines that eventually joined and massed along the shoreline. The herds moved downstream, then back up, while we followed along at a distance, waiting. By noon the Gnus had turned back inland, and it was evident that there would not be a crossing this morning. We headed for the lodge. At lunch, a nonvenomous green snake hunted for frogs at an ornamental pool, giving us good views of an animal we rarely see on safari. I used my 100-400 for the shots, and the lens's close focusing feature really came in handy.
By 2:30PM the storms that were visible in the southeast and south had moved north, and by 2:45 we had almost hurricane-like rains, so heavy that visibility was down to less than 100 yards. Several of our rooms were partially flooded, with wet floors only, as the driving rain went through the slacks of the door and spread inside. By 4 the rain had stopped and the skies looked promising, so we headed out on a game drive.

PM. We headed to the river, with an ominous storm cloud to the northwest that obscured the escarpment and threatened another bad storm. At the river, however, a herd of over 100 Topi, the most we’ve ever seen in a single, obvious herd (and not simply scattered about grazing), and it was clear they wanted to cross. Topi were lined up in a long file, but something, perhaps a Hammerkop, spooked the .frightened by something, and they reversed course, moving back upriver but much further inland. With the threat of a storm, we reversed course, too, and headed into the high country.
The light was very low, and when a small herd of Elephants passed by I dropped my ISO down to 125 and tried very slow shutter speeds, catching a more e

mysterious look as the Elephants slowly walked by. Further along, Henry thought he saw Lions, about a half mile away, and when we investigated we found 4 young males and a young female. We thought they might be nomads, but later one of the resident Lionesses roared, and approached, and the five lions met and tumbled, walking a short distance before lying back down in the grass.
We continued along, looking for serval, but our last good shooting of the day was a bull Elephant against the skyline, with a line of Zebras and Gnus filing past. We almost got stuck, and Henry did a great job of extracting us from a real mess. We returned to the lodge by 6, with a break in the sky to the far southwest, where the sun might, might, break through, but as we drove in it began to rain, and it started raining steadily as night advanced.

Day 11. Mara Triangle to Upper Mara

We packed and were out the door by 6, under overcast skies that bode poorly for a bad-weather day. It wasn’t.
The first hour or so was pretty slow, but as we neared the Tanzania border Henry spotted some Lionesses, and as we drove over we encountered ten lions, lionesses and their half-grown cubs. They walked directly to and beyond us, then the two Lionesses went into a stalk on Gnus, but the Gnus spotted them, snorted, and first ran a few feet, then turned to watch the lions, who gave up the stalk and headed uphill in to the crotons. Earlier, Mary’s vehicle found another pride with ten Lions, females with young cubs, but they were high on a rocky hill and did not afford shots. In all, between her vehicle and mine, we had 35 Lions.
After the lions we headed for a picnic breakfast, then crossed the Mara River Bridge where, we discovered, a crossing must have occurred yesterday, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Gnus, with their legs stuck skyward, were stacked on the rocks at one of the river bends.
vAs we drove on, hoping to find the Leopard and cubs, we saw a suspicious-looking Hyena, that was staring intently as if in a hunt. What it was doing, we discovered in following the Hyena, was watching Vultures descending to a natural death of a Zebra. We followed the Hyena to the carcass, where the hyena opened up the belly, removed a large section of intestine, or something!, and surprisingly ran off. Meanwhile, the vultures that had gathered now had an opening into the carcass, and began to feed.
cOver the next several minutes dozens of Vultures dropped from the sky, giving us plenty of chances for flight shots. I tried most of mine at slow shutter speeds – about 1/80th, to convey motion. Most were not sharp, but the effect was nice!
We searched hard for the leopard but without success, and concluded our morning game drive by an exciting River Crossing, where we forded to Talek River in water higher than we’ve ever tried before. We had no trouble.

Soon after we started to the lodge I spotted something odd, catching just a glimpse and thinking it was a striped hyena. Instead, it was an equally rare mammal, an Aardwolf, the smallest member of the hyena group, and an animal I’ve seen only two or three times in the Mara. It was shy, and after inspecting us from a burrow it bolted and ran off. The Talek River, that runs by our camp, had water, making our crossing interesting but easy. With rains predicted for our future days we wondered how long the river would be passable.

lPM. We left at 3:30, worried that the habitual afternoon rains would curtail the game drive. The mother Cheetah that, last year, had five cubs had been spotted, although now only three cubs survive, two males and a female. They are now nearly as large as she is, and when we found them they were full bellied and asleep. After taking some record shots we drove on, scouting out the area in a rare opportunity of great weather.
One of the other Origin’s drivers radioed that they had Lion cubs, so we raced there, and found a pride, with a good, black-maned male as well, feeding in a croton thicket. We managed a few shots, but then received another radio call, that a Leopard was spotted. We raced to the scene.
lThe Leopardess was lying in a tree, in clear view in great light. We shot the cat as an advancing storm finally caught up with us, when the Leopard climbed down, and practically walked under our vehicle as she began a hunt.
Over the next hour we followed her, as she chased a rabbit and missed, stalked through brush, and, after we lost her for a time, finally climbed atop a termite mound and posed wonderfully. Both our vehicles were there and we did, well, great, and left her as the Leopard dropped down and disappeared into the croton bushes. We headed for home.

Day 12. Upper Mara.

Our plan was to look for big cats, starting with the lions, then leopard, and finally cheetah, figuring that between the three we’d have some success. We certainly did.
lThe sky was dreary and dark, and we quickly found the Lion pride, about a half mile from where we left them yesterday. There was a lone male with the four Lionesses and four cubs, and while we were with the group the second male arrived, a very thick maned, mature male. He approached, and the cubs ran over to greet him, and he responded with an annoyed snarl. A Lioness, perhaps the cubs mother, came rushing in with a growl and snarl and the male flinched and backed off, as if to say ‘hey, okay, cool it!’ At one point the male laid on the ground with cubs swarming around him, with him taking a mouthy grip at one. The cubs played all over the rocks, of course, and occasionally in view. Eventually the entire pride, led by the two males, headed back in the direction where we’d seen them yesterday, and since they were way off a game track we left them there.
oWe continued looking for the Leopard, and soon found her with a few other vehicles in attendance, as she was hunting, still as a statue, and barely in view in the croton bushes. After a half hour or so the hunt failed and she started walking, and we started the game of predicting where she’d go and intercepting her route. We did quite well, catching her several times, often with her walking straight to and passed our vehicle.
At one point she was lost in the brush but we headed to the termite mound where she posed last evening, and sure enough, she appeared there, circling the mound, inspecting the warthog burrow at its base, and then to my complete surprise, climbing inside and disappearing for a moment. A few seconds later she reappeared, and I got shots as she emerged – a sight the guides had never seen before, although I now learned that Mary’s vehicle saw the cat do so yesterday, but not from a good position.
The cat continued into the brush and we headed to the nursery kopje and tree where we found her yesterday. We waited about an hour and Mary moved off to check the termite mound on the off chance that she had moved her cubs there. She didn’t, and a few minutes later, just as we too were about to leave and check the bushes, she popped out of the brush and walked beside us. We’re guessing that l
she might have her cubs at another rock pile just up from the nursery rocks. Henry had seen her earlier carrying something, then disappearing, and we wondered if it was a cub, or a small kill. I’m guessing that she stopped at the other rocks to nurse, then passed us, went to the nursery rocks, passing us in doing so, and then continuing on her hunt. She crossed the Talek River, giving us some nice shots on hthe river rocks, then headed upstream where she flushed some Impala, then returned down river.
Henry had crossed the river and saw her disappear in the brush, and we headed for a coffee stop before continuing our search. Another vehicle flashed us that they had her, this time stalking Impala once more, but they sensed her presence and bounded off. The last shots of her were with Mary, Henry, Eric, and Avery, who got some great shots as she walked by them. We crossed the river and headed back to the lodge.

PM. Having done so well with lions and leopards we decided to try for the four Cheetahs this afternoon. Mary found them, a long way off, and had just radioed to tell us when I spotted a Serval. Then, the question was, who goes where, but since we had not yet seen a Serval Mary came to our sighting. It was a good one.
The Serval was a female that had a kitten, and yesterday a friend of ours had a quality hour with the two. Soon after we found the Serval she began to call, giving a meow-like chirp that somewhat resembled the bird-like chirp of a cheetah. She was calling her kitten, and once she rose from the grasses it was obvious, too, that she was looking for the kitten as well. The kitten must have been sleeping, since it did not respond for nearly an hour, but when it appeared it was somewhat nervous, so we contented ourselves with distant shots. The mother, meanwhile, settled into some high grasses where she was visible as she chirped, but offered nothing new. We headed for the Cheetahs.
We found them quickly, the three young Cheetahs and their mother, all stretched out and torpid, but as we waited, and a storm advanced, the cats awoke, stretched, and groomed one another. We put up our roof hatches, in anticipation of a rain, just minutes before the cats rose and began walking north. We drove to intercept them.
The cats walked along, spread out in a line, perhaps looking for African hares or baby gazelles, and Henry commented on how he hated those arrangements, as it became difficult to predict where the cats would walk. Earlier, Mary had asked me if she should call it a day and I had said to wait, and now, I did the same, and she replied, suggesting we give the cats five minutes. Less than a minute later they exploded into the play activity we had hoped to have, and the cats began to run about, jumping and wrestling. Fortunately, the cats headed our way as they did so, and ended up right in front of our vehicle were they paused to gather at the roadside.
Later, one of the cats jumped onto the roof of Felix’s vehicle, but hopped off quickly, and another cat jumped upon another vehicle’s roof, and pooped upon it too! The young cats visited a termite mound where one pooped, and later, another visited the same mound and after sniffing, peed on the same spot. They moved off, and in the croton bushes began to chase one another, as the rain finally hit us. We drove back in a rain that continued, off and on, through dinner and into the night.

lDay 13. Upper Mara

It rained during the night and by the dark, overcast dawn light we could see that the Talek River just outside our tent had risen by a foot or more. There would be no fording the river today.
Our mission was to find the Cheetahs, but we missed them in the first hour of the game drive, passing by two Lions that now occupied the croton thicket where we left the cheetahs last evening. We continued on along the southern flank of Rhino Hill, and as we topped the slope that would lead to the Mara River we could see Gnus running in a line towards the river. There was a crossing!
By the time we arrived the Gnus had switched entrance points several times, and although we had a decent view of the Gnus swimming, we were blocked from seeing any jumps. Henry fought his way over the stony hillside to get us into a new position, but the Gnu crossing trickled to a stop and we had no further shots of note. We continued on, looking for a caracal cat reported in the area.
We found another group of Lions, a four year old male we think they call ‘Fang,’ with a snaggle right canine tooth sticking out over his lower lip. When the Lion yawned we could see the tooth structure was normal – he just has a weird way of holding his mouth. Fang is a part of the pride with three big male Lions of the Marsh Pride, the son of the recently deceased Scar, and would be driven out of his pride if it wasn’t still owned by the three males. For those three, it is in their best interest to have another strong male in the group, and they don’t have to worry about breeding or usurpation since the lionesses would not indulge in incest.
After breakfast we headed over Rhino Ridge on our quest to find the Cheetahs. En route, Eric had us stop for a portrait of a pair of Crowned Cranes, who surprised us by suddenly going into a wonderful courtship dance, fanning their wings and leaping high in the air. The female tired of the dance first, but the male persisted, and we shot a lot of frames.
We found the Cheetahs, who eventually headed towards a lugga where a Reedbuck roamed about, but the Reedbuck spotted the cats, ran, stopped, and gave a piercing alarm whistle. That hunt was over, and with no other game in sight we headed back to camp for a quick lunch and turn-around to return to the cheetahs later. The time with them, however, had been productive, with great shots of all four bunched together at a termite mound, shaking their heads in annoyance with the swarming termites, triggered by the rain. We had been, too, periodically driving through a cloud and being pelted by the tiny insects.

PM. We left at 3pm, anticipating a shorter game drive because of the almost inevitable rain, and we headed straight for the Cheetahs. We found them quickly, only a few hundred yards from where we had left them. They hadn’t made a kill and were still hunting, and all four flattened with a group of Impalas approached, but the antelope ran, and the Cheetahs didn’t bother giving chase to prey that was already at full steam. With no other game in sight we left them to search for the Serval.
We were unsuccessful, and as planned, we headed for the Leopard, figuring we’d check the cul-de-sac where I suspected there might be a den. Yesterday, Mary and Henry thought they saw the Leopardess carrying a cub, but my vehicle blocked her’s, and she and Henry were as reluctant to leave the location where we suspected the Leopard would go as I was – she wanted me to check! I should have, because our final suspicions, that the Leopard had a den there (although I checked it out yesterday with Felix and saw no obvious signs), which was some deeper crevices in an otherwise rather nondescript rock wall.
A Leopard cub was there when we arrived, as were about eight vehicles, with everyone inside craning to get a look. I managed to spot the cub, quite tiny, quite gray, with dull black spots, and blue eyes, but behind the croton bushes and their trunks, covered in lichen that made the cub’s coat blend surprisingly well, it was really difficult to see the cub. We got no photos. Mary’s vehicle joined us, and I had her get in front of us and in line with where we’d seen the cub, but it never reappeared. Later, we learned that there are supposedly two cubs.
Dark clouds advanced from the northeast and we wisely decided to head back to camp before another storm hit. As I write this, at 7:14PM, a storm rages outside, reminding me of ‘the old days’ at Mara River Camp where we’d have rains like this nearly every evening. Back then, the dawns were equally gloomy, but we were using film, so the conditions these days are far easier to accept.

Day 14. To Nairobi and Rwanda

We returned to Nairobi, arriving in the very early afternoon. Most of the group flew home that evening but Breene remained behind, to join a couple from the UK and Mary and me for our 86th to 90th Mountain Gorilla Trek in Rwanda. For us, it would be a busy evening.

Despite the disappointment at seeing grazers in Samburu, and the continued over-grazing in the lower Masai Mara, we did have a fabulous trip. Wild Dogs, lots of Leopards, more Grevy’s Zebras and Beisa Oryx than I’ve ever seen,  just a few of the highlights. Tomorrow we return to Nairobi where we’ll meet two more people for our trip to Rwanda, and, 8 days later, we’ll be doing this Safari itinerary again. I can’t wait.

For lenses, I used the Canon 200-400mm with 1.4X conveter and the new Canon 100-400 for most of my shooting, but to be honest, although the 200-400 is incredibly sharp if I had it to do over again, I would not have bought it. The ease of use and light weight of the 100-400 has spoiled me. Mary used her 500mm on a 7D Mark II, but also found that she used her 100-400mm most often.

Both of us used our Gura Gear Bataflae bags in the safari vehicles for our cameras and smaller lenses, but we kept our long lenses in the Long Lens Bag by Vertex. I'm proud to say I helped design the bag, and to hear from our participants that it is the best investment they made for their safari. Everyone loves them and we are seeing more and more of our participants using them. I used 64 and 32gb Hoodman Cards, which are incredibly fast, somewhat essential when shooting fast action -- and we had plenty.

Refer to our BROCHURE to get an idea of next year's trip! The brochure may not be completely updated for 2016, but the itinerary will be similar.