kill

Paris-Maasai Mara

The title does not refer -luckily- to a new extravagant car rally but a tale of a French couple, friends of Paul, who arrived from Paris in the morning and that same night they were camping in the Maasai Mara, after driving all the way from Nairobi!

By chance, we arrived that same afternoon and found them looking rather bewildered after enduring not only the overnight flight but, the long rough ride afterwards following Paul’s rather ambitious programme! The camp this time was a few km downstream from the Mara Buffalo Camp -where we usually camped- and only a faint track led to it. It was a nice place, the Mara river very close and the Oloololo escarpment, the same I climbed every time I needed to go to Intona, at the back.

Paul was busy with his field work, so we came at the right time for him and we agreed to take care of the French contingent the following morning. In any case, they managed to speak some English and we knew some French words from our high school so we were sure that we would understand each other as, after all, both our languages branched off from Latin.

We waited to start our morning drive until the French were ready, which was earlier than I expected. So, soon after sunrise we set off hoping, as usual, that we would be lucky with our game drive. The wildebeest migration was in full swing and I planned to drive in the general direction of Governors Camp and be back for lunch.

By then we knew how to enter into the reserve through the “back door” and also, through Paul, we also knew the general area where the wildebeest were grazing at that time. Finding the wildebeest increased the chances of meeting large predators, particularly lions and that is what most first time visitors to the Maasai Mara wish to see.

The drive was slow as everything was new for our guests and we needed to stop for them to take snapshots of most animals that for us were rather commonplace but we understood how they felt and happily obliged. After a while we spotted the first wildebeest and soon we could see the expected large herds. We stopped to take the view in and continued driving slowly, following the woodland’s margins where the cats could be hiding.

After going for about an hour Mabel spotted a lioness. We were lucky and we stopped to watch it and to take a few more pictures. The lioness was quite active and obviously hunting so we joined her in watching the wildebeest stopping the car at a prudent distance and searching for more lions that we suspected should be around.

The lioness watching the wildebeests.

We whispered to our visitors what we thought it may happen next and we waited. After a few minutes she stood up and, undetected, walked towards the grazing wildebeest and hid in long grass, still looking towards the wildebeests. We kept scanning the surrounding area and soon we caught a glimpse of another lioness some distance away.

It seemed that the lions were coming from several directions, preparing an ambush. We calculated where the hunt could take place and slowly drove towards it still leaving a wide berth for the animals to move without interference. We switched off the engine and stopped, being the only witnesses of what was happening.

We did not have to wait too long before the what it was a peaceful scene transformed itself into a chaotic one when suddenly the bush burst with wildebeest running in all directions around us and some of them nearly bumped our car in their zest to run away! Luckily there was no dust and we spotted five or six lionesses chasing wildebeests.

Some followed wildebeests that had run into the woodlands but a couple of them run in the open. Soon we heard the agonic bleats of a wildebeest and I drove straight to the area while I heard shouts of “oh là là”, “quelle chance!” and other expressions of amazement by our Gallic visitors.

We were also excited as to watch a hunt is not an everyday event, even in the Maasai Mara, and we watched as two lionesses were busy suffocating a wildebeest by a hold in its throat while other lions, that had chased other wildebeests and failed, were trotting towards the ongoing kill. Soon, not only the females we had seen earlier but the whole pride, including adult males and young of different ages, were vying for position at the carcass and as often happens, started licking the dying animal and even feeding.

After a few minutes a couple of cars arrived but we were well placed and we spent about an hour watching the lions feast in all detail. As usual, fights broke out when the dominance of some individuals was challenged and the stronger took “the lion share”! We watched the scene mesmerized for a long while until the meat starting to run out.

Although the arrival of a few spotted hyenas and black-backed jackals was interesting, we resumed our drive I thought “after this, what else can we find that is more exciting?” but continued searching hoping that the visitors, that 48 hours earlier were in busy Paris had arrived for the first time in África and watched what some people that live there for years never manages to find!

We realized that lunchtime had passed unnoticed and we, unanimously, decided that we were not hungry so we agreed to drive following the Mara River to get to the hippo pools that were not too far. There we spent time observing hippos and the huge crocodiles that shared the pools with them. Judging by their girth, the latter were benefitting from the wildebeest presence and their frequent river crossings.

Engrossed watching animals we did not notice that a storm had gathered and we were somehow surprised to note the first raindrops. After a while the sight of the pools were obscured by the rain. Although it was a welcome thunderstorm, I knew that the kombi, although with a good clearance, did not have 4WD and therefore it was not a mud-wise vehicle. So, I took the decision to return to camp before it was too late, strongly suspecting that it was too late already!

I knew that the roads would soon be very sticky and as it started to get dark, I regretted that we have not paid more attention to the time and the weather. We moved a few kilometres back still under the rain and there was a lot of thunder and lightening. Things were not getting any better.

Rapidly, the road became a quagmire that forced me to gradually slow down to avoid skidding off it. Eventually I was forced to engage second and first gear as the going became laborious and I knew by previous experience that we were in trouble. We continued, just, and eventually the black cotton soil stopped us while the rain did not show signs to stop.

A quick and rather wet inspection revealed that one of the back wheels was stuck while the other spun uselessly. Under heavy rain I got one of the French to stand on the fender to get the wheel to grip while Mabel and the French lady pushed. I moved at full throttle with the French guy hanging on for dear life and splattering the “pushers” with black mud until I reached a drier, higher spot. I waited for the helpers to clean up and get back in the car to resume our journey. Luckily it was not too cold.

We continued to move on, push, wait and go again for a while and we managed a few more kilometres before we were stuck again and now, it was dark and we needed the car lights to see the road. I noted that our friends were not so excited leaving the car to push in the dark! Their fears were justified and now the “m” word started to be heard very frequently!

Somehow, we had enough adrenaline to keep us going and I managed to get the car up to a good speed, more than it was prudent but necessary to keep our momentum. At that time, we met a line of wildebeest on the road and I needed to slow down to avoid a head-on collision. I managed to avoid all of them but one. This particular beast came running from the side and hit us with one of its horns, leaving a deep dent all along the kombi, a scar that remained there from then on as a reminder of that trip!

Luckily, the rain decreased and the risk of getting stuck diminished but we realized that we were lost! Being dark did not help to find our bearings (we are hopeless at finding places, anyway) as we had passed a number of bush tracks any of which could have been the correct one. Then we realized that the storm was now our best ally. Every time that there was lightning we could see Oloololo escarpment and we knew that it ran parallel to the Mara river and that the camp was close to the river!

So we drove in that general direction, hoping to come to some known terrain, a difficult thing at night. Then, Mabel spotted a beam of light in the sky that we could not read at first but then Mabel speculated that it was Paul with his strong torch trying to pinpoint the camp for us.

We decided that a light meant human inhabitants so, without any arguments, we headed for the light. At some stage we recognized the track that led to our camp and we arrived a few minutes later, soaked wet, muddy and very tired.

After washing ourselves as well as we could and getting dry clothes, we met for a quick dinner heated under the tent’s flysheet as the rain was still falling on and off. Paul had heard an engine and thinking that we could be the only ones driving at night, decided to shine the torch saving us from an otherwise sure night in the bush.

As we had all gone through a lot over the last 12 hours and we started to mix languages, we decided that a camp bed was needed and we retired to our tents, still under the rain. Fortunately, our tents have kept the rain outside so soon we fell sleep with the memories of the day still fresh in our minds.

Regrettably we needed to return to Nairobi the following morning but not before sharing a good breakfast with Paul and his friends during which, well rested and calmer we re-lived our experiences, and we agreed that we had lived through a very lucky day indeed.

Mad buffalo?

We were on a game drive following the Shingwedzi River towards the Kanniedod dam in the Kruger National Park on 5 October 2017. About four km after leaving the Shingwedzi rest camp we spotted a group of lions feeding on a greater kudu that appeared to have been killed earlier that morning. It was 08:30 hours.

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Lionesses at the kill seen through the branches on the other side of the river.

There were ten lions, two adult males, on one young male and seven adult females. They were feeding on the opposite bank of the river. Although the latter was open sand banks with scattered bushes, our visibility was rather limited by the dense vegetation on our side. As we were alone -a rare occurrence- we drove up and down the river trying to get a good view. All we managed to find was a rather narrow gap in the vegetation and from there we watched. 

At exactly 08:45 hours (we know the exact times because of the pictures’ information) four lionesses were feeding on the kill while the remaining members of the pride were nearby, either a few metres away or up on the river bank. We also noted that there were three adult buffalo about 50 metres towards the right of the lions. They were not grazing, just watching them.

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The lionesses feeding and already alert by the buffalo presence.

Suddenly, one of the buffalo rushed towards the lions at speed and charged the group scattering them in all directions.

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The first charge.

Through the dust I saw the buffalo head-butting something on the ground and my first thought was that it had got one of the lions! However, as the situation became clearer, I could see that it was in fact violently thrashing the greater kudu carcass!

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The buffalo clobbered the carcass for a few seconds while the lions run away and then stopped and watched the buffalo. A second buffalo arrived to the scene but it did not join the first at the carcass.

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Then, the third buffalo appeared and the trio stood at the site for a while before moving off to the other side of the carcass to a distance of about 30 metres.

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Two minutes later the lions started to come back and resumed feeding, still being watched by the buffalo, now from the left of the pictures.

Once the buffalo cleared off, the lions returned to the kill and fed for about half an hour.

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Then, when everything appeared quiet, a second buffalo charge took place!

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This time the buffalo seemed satisfied scattering the lions and it did not interfere with the carcass.

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After this second interaction the three buffalo turned their attention towards the various lions and proceeded to chase them and flash them out from the various locations they chose to hide.

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After about one hour of this confrontation one of the lionesses moved off and walked about two hundred metres towards a pool in the river and, after drinking its fill, hid herself under some bushes, clearly fed up with the buffalo!

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By about 11:00 hours the contest was over and the buffalo moved away leaving the lions undisturbed either singly or in small groups at various places along the river. When we returned before sunset a group of lions was resting on the riverbed but the buffalo were no longer in the area and, by the following morning. there were no signs of the lions or the carcass but some buffalo were still in the area.

We always learn from these kind of observations and I believe that there are a few issues of interest. The first is that at no time the lions attempted to confront or retaliate against the buffalo despite the size of the pride. This is probably explained either by not being hungry (as they had fed on the grater kudu) and/or being aware that the strong buffalo were a dangerous prey.

The second is the clear and understandable adverse reaction of the buffalo against the lions that they perceive as a danger and did not wish to have in their territory.

The most puzzling observation relates to the buffalo behaviour towards the carcass. It is possible that, unable to retaliate against the lions, the buffalo’s anger was expressed against what they perceived as associated with the predators. Of course we cannot rule out that some other reason sight- or smell-related triggered this conduct. 

Perhaps readers with more experience on animal behaviour would like to comment on this and put forward a better explanation?

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A general view of the area where the observations took place. The kill was towards the left of the picture.