Wildebeest

Learning to camp among the wildebeest

Sometime after our first enthusiastic attempt at camping in the Maasai Mara [1], I got to know Paul, a virologist working at the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute in Muguga as part of a veterinary team of the then Overseas Development Agency [2]. Paul had been a student of Sir Walter Plowright, one of the discoverers of the vaccine against Rinderpest [3]. Then he was the mainly working with the latter as well as Bovine Malignant Catarrhal fever (BMCF) [4].

At that time he was spending time in the field investigating the epidemiology of BMCF as well as the serious outbreaks of Rinderpest that were still present in East Africa.

Rinderpest_1896-CN

The well known picture of rinderpest in South Africa in 1896. From Wikimedia (Public domain).

Our friendship started by having our lunches together “al fresco” under the Muguga sun and, after a few weeks, he invited me to come with him camping for a few days in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. A while earlier, Paul had received reliable information from the chief game warden that the first few wildebeests -of the hundred of thousands present- were starting to drop their calves. It was early in the year and he needed to get there to get samples of wildebeests’ placentas as part of his studies. As I was still waiting for a decision regarding my work, I readily accepted.

So, we drove to the Maasai Mara in Paul’s series III Land Rover that had a few reinforced parts, including a bulletproof windscreen and a very hard suspension! Paul had permission to camp anywhere in the reserve and he had already selected a spot where he had established his base. During his absences the camp was looked after by his assistant, the do-it-all Tobias, a Kenya Government employee, that always accompanied Paul when camping [5].

I believe the camp was located in the Mara triangle but I do not remember its precise location except that it was a very secluded area in a clump of trees. There were two tents, a smaller one for Tobias and a large one that was where Paul stayed. On one end of the tent there was the “sitting room” and kitchen while the other was the field laboratory. As it was a large tent, we were very comfortable. Paul’s pride and joy was his Australian portable gas fridge that enabled him to keep reagents and veterinary drugs as well as food (and a couple of Tuskers) so that he could stay in the field for a few days!

The fact that we were in the middle of the bush with no fences and no other humans nearby was, at first, rather unsettling for me and I put this to Paul. He explained that he had learnt from his own experience and that of other wildlife veterinarians and field workers that animals will normally stay clear of your camp. He added that exceptions did take place but that serious accidents were extremely rare provided you did not interfere with your the wild inhabitants. “It sounds incredible but the tent will protect you against almost all animals” he said and this has been our camping creed ever since and -so far- it has not failed us.

Our task for the few days we were together was to start the collection of tissue samples from wildebeest placentas to attempt to isolate the BMCF virus. With this in mind, by the end of the first day we had located the vast herd of wildebeest and we had prepared the necessary equipment to be ready to start working the following morning before dawn.

m mara air wbeest migration

The wildebeest migration from the Oloololo escarpment.

We started our journey in the dark and in twilight we began to drive cross-country across the plains among the wildebeest until we got to our destination: a vantage position on top of a hillock. Once at the top while daylight improved we prepared our observation post by setting up a small table and chairs as well as our binoculars and a telescope.

After some time the sun emerged and bathed the savanna with its yellowish light. What was revealed had already been announced by the intense noise that we were already hearing as thousands of wildebeest bleating, moaning and snorting.

 

We also heard zebras barking and braying as they were also there mixed with the wildebeests, sharing their grazing.

We immediately started watching the animals looking for arched backs and tails held horizontally, signs of a calving animal. It was not an easy job as we needed to scan thousands of animals that were constantly on the move! We had spent a couple of fruitless hours watching the animals with the only satisfaction of feeling the warmth of the sun on our backs. Then I heard Paul shouting, “there is one starting to calf” and added “let’s go”. I followed him having seen nothing!

We drove down our knoll rather fast. While Paul held to the steering wheel I held tight to every bit of the Land Rover that would resemble a handle as we hit stones and ruts that would have destroyed most cars’ suspensions. It was not a careless race but rather that our attention was fixed on not losing our “patient”.

We drove among a sea of animals and, luckily, Paul kept his bearings and eventually we found the animal. Well, in fact there were two as the calf had been born and it was a steaming miniature of its mother already struggling to stand up, drink the vital colostrum and start running to avoid predators.

We waited at a prudent distance until both animals moved away and then we descended on the placenta that was left on the grass. We have found our first placenta and took the necessary samples. We were very happy and celebrated this by taking pictures of the event as well as burying a long stake with a number to indicate the area of collection so that a GPS reading could be taken later.

We returned to our viewing point and continued watching. We waited for a long time without spotting another calving. At some stage we saw a clearing appear among the sea of wildebeests. It became gradually wider resembling the wave a boat makes when going fast on still water and then we saw that a male lion was walking through the vast herd that -amazingly- simply stared at it and just moved the minimum distance from it. “It is better for the wildebeest to know where the lion is!” Paul explained. A sighting that I will not forget!

It was clearly still early in the calving season and that first day we only got a second sample in the afternoon.

The following day, although we did not get the expected storm of births, more females were calving and the collection of samples did not require so much watching from the hill but rather slow driving among the animals looking for calving signs and then to wait for them to release the placenta to collect what we needed.

The next day our work took a competitive turn. As the calving increased, more predators started to appear, particularly the spotted hyenas that in the Maasai Mara are rather abundant so we needed to move fast to beat them to the placentas and even while one of us collected samples, the other kept an eye on hyenas, just in case!

hyena

One of our ‘competitors”!

Sadly, after a few days we needed to return to Muguga to deal with the samples we had collected so we left that true animal paradise and great work and started our drive back through the vast plains of the Maasai Mara to the Kenya highlands where Mugug and Nairobi are located.

Although I was unaware then, the fact that Paul continued to do field work there and that I (often with Mabel) started to work at Intona ranch and needed to drive past the edge of the reserve, gave us ample possibilities to meet and share lots of time in the bush where we continued learning the ways of the bush and contracted the “bush camping disease” from which we still suffer today!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/08/25/a-brave-camping-attempt/

[2] Today’s Department for International Development (DFID).

[3] Following the break-through finding of J. T. Edwards in the 1920s that the infectivity of the rinderpest virus could be attenuated and used to immunize animals for life, in 1956-7 W. Plowright and R. D. Ferris obtained a stable, attenuated, and non-infectious virus, ideal for a vaccine. This was cheap to produce and safe and its use eventually -after lots of very hard work in the laboratory and in the field- led to the global eradication of rinderpest in 2011.

[4] Wildebeests carry a lifelong infection of BMCF but are not affected by the disease that is passed from mother to offspring and shed mostly in the nasal secretions of wildebeest calves under one year old. Wildebeest-associated BMCF is transmitted from wildebeest to cattle normally following the wildebeest calving period.

[5] See: https://bushsnob.com/2017/02/05/camping-in-kenya-mara-river-fishing/

 

 

Smart cats

Before we even got to Twee Rivieren in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park last October, for some reason, Lola and Frank had convinced their Spanish friends that we were good at spotting lions! Although my wife is good at spotting any game -including lions if they are around- I was somehow taken aback by being attributed such a fame that generated baseless expectations… maybe I oversold myself…

So, when we arrived at Twee Rivieren there were anticipations and I was overwhelmed by the responsibility that had landed on my shoulders…

Luckily for me, it was the visitors themselves that found the lions. Well, at least they overheard the whereabouts of the lions! So, all we needed to do was to follow our visitors’ advice to find them and in this way avoid a sure embarrassment!

The lions in question (two males) were, of all places, about one hundred metres outside the camp gates and, according to our night safari guide, these pair come to this area every few weeks so we were fortunate to see them.

The predators were near the camp’s waterhole where they had killed a gemsbok a few days back so we set off to find them as soon as we had an opportunity.

It was not hard to find them as, in addition to the gemsbok that we did not see, the night before they had also killed a wildebeest and the latest kill was rather obvious!

DSC_0074 copy

The kill happened very near the camp. Behind is Twin rivers staff accommodation on the Botswana side of the park.

Apparently, the cunning cats have learnt to use the strong camp fence in their favour by cornering their prey against it. Clearly this had happened in this instance as the victim was still somehow entangled in the fence where first one and soon both were seen feeding.

Lions suckling

A letter about unusual lion behaviour in the Serengeti National Park[1], brought back memories of our own observations in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya, in the 1980’s.

P1120930 copy.jpg

A picture of the letter to Getaway.

As it can be seen above, the letter describes that, a couple of tourists on a photographic safari, witnessed a lioness kill a wildebeest cow and her calf. Afterwards the lioness suckled the cow, then consumed the calf and returned again to suckle and lick the milk from the now dead female.

While in the Maasai Mara one evening we witnessed a lioness kill a topi[2]. While the lioness was busy strangling the animal, two cubs appeared on the scene and, without hesitation, went directly to the Topi’s udder and suckled the animal for a few minutes.

Topi m mara

A Topi in their typical “watching” stance.

Eventually the animal died and the cubs stopped suckling and joined the mother at eating it. We did not see he lioness suckling.

lioness and cubs other copy

The cubs we saw suckling were larger than this one.

The explanatory reply from Brian Jones, a very knowledgeable person on raising lions at the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (South Africa) among other activities, confirmed that lions do lick carcasses, a fact that I can also corroborate through personal observations. As he made no mention of the suckling of prey by lions, I decided to write to Brian to let him know of our own observations and somehow reinforce the tourists’ observations. The following is a record of our exchange:


16/11/2015

From:              Julio de Castro <juliojdecastro@gmail.com>

To:                  Moholoholo <moholorehab@wol.co.za>

Dear Mr. Jones,

Reviewing old magazines I saw your comment of a couple of years ago (Getaway, May 2013, p.13) to a sighting of a lioness suckling and licking a wildebeest female in the Serengeti National Park.

In the 1980’s, while working in Kenya, one evening in the Maasai Mara we witnessed a lioness kill a Topi. While the lioness was busy strangling the animal, two cubs appeared on the scene and, without much hesitation, went directly to the Topi’s udder and suckled the animal for a few minutes. Eventually the animal died and the cubs stopped suckling and joined the mother at eating it. I do not recall if the death of the female Topi coincided with the cubs stopping to suckle. The cubs were about 6 months old or older (not suckling babies).

I have also witnessed lions licking wildebeest and zebra prey (mainly in the abdominal area) but I believe that there are two different phenomena, one is the deliberate suckling of a female prey and another is the licking of a dying/dead animal, including males.

I hope you find this interesting and look forward to your comments.

Kind regards.

Julio de Castro

http://www.bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com


19 November 2015

From:              Moholoholo <moholorehab@wol.co.za>

To:                  Julio de Castro <juliojdecastro@gmail.com>

Good morning Julio,

Thank you very much for your e–mail.

So interesting to hear of your experience witnessing the cubs trying to suckle from the Topi – really amazing!!!

Probably the smell of milk and I’d say the Topi must have had a youngster!!

Yes the licking of a dead animal is normal. I  have often seen even cheetah licking their pray before eating!! I have a few tame Cheetah and they lick my friends on their arm, I tease them by saying “they always lick their prey before they eat them” (ha, ha).

Thank you so much for sharing your experience, it always a story I can tell to other folk.

All the Best

Brian


I thank Brian for his time to reply and his valuable contribution. Please visit http://www.moholoholo.co.za/ to see the valuable work that the Centre performs.

 

[1] Koetze, R. Unusual sighting. Getaway (Letters), May 2013, p.12.

[2] The Topi (Damaliscus lunatus jimela) and the Tsessebe (D. lunatus lunatus) are sub-species of D. lunatus.

Encounter with lions

We left Masuma dam and its elephant parade and got to Main Camp, only to discover that our lodge was still occupied by the previous guests from South Africa. It seems that the latter rule in Zimbabwe and they appear to show little respect for the local regulations and arrangements. After a three-hour wait, we finally managed to move into our lodge and settled down with the apologies of the Park manager but not from the interlopers!

We enjoyed the area, particularly the outstanding Nyamandlovu pan and viewing platform that, as usual, was very popular with the elephants. However, as we had just enjoyed a private elephant act, we did not spend much time at the pan and instead looked for other forms of excitement.

During one of our game drives a helpful fellow traveller proudly informed us that there was a lion pride on the prowl near the Dom pan nearby. Finding them did not take long (all credit to my wife, again!) and we watched them trying to see how many they were. After a while counting heads, legs and tails we concluded that they were one adult male, two younger males, three females and two cubs.

We spent some time watching the lions to see how many they were.

Counting lions.

Although it was mid morning they were alert and clearly looking for prey. They moved towards Nyamandlovu pan and positioned themselves at a vantage point that enabled them to see the pan and, more interestingly, a small herd of wildebeest grazing in the dry grasslands, surrounding the pan. The lions kept a keen eye on potential prey but they seemed to ignore the wildebeest, to our surprise, as they would have been the obvious target.

The wildebeest did not take their eyes from the lions!

The wildebeest did not take their eyes from the lions!

As we waited, elephants walked in the background ignoring the lions and vice versa. Only when a couple of young adult female elephants, unaware of the lions’ presence, walked straight at them, was there a sign of fear when they quickly bolted and ran tail up while the lions stood up, preparing for a possible withdrawal. It seemed to us that the lions were not keen on the wildebeest but attentively watching something else that we could not see.

The three lionesses prior to the failed hunt.

The three lionesses.

Suddenly one lioness stood up and started to walk with the clear “hunting gaze”: keeping her neck stretched straight out in line with her back and her head always leveled, despite walking over irregular terrain.

One of the lioness starts the hunt.

One of the lioness starts the hunt.

She is stalking somthing we did not see!

She is stalking something we did not see!

While watching her we lost sight of the other two and we realized that a hunt was on although we still did not see the prospective victim! We prepared ourselves for action and suddenly a couple of warthogs came running across the field, moving very fast and away from the visible lioness.

The warthog sees her and runs away!

One of the warthogs running away.

She went for them running at full speed for a short distance but quickly gave up the chase, as the warthogs at full speed were too much for her. While the warthogs disappeared, two more heads popped up in the grass in front of us. Something had failed in the ambush! Perhaps the warthogs smelled the lionesses or, as they looked young, they did not have the necessary skills to shut the trap. Whatever the reason for the failure the exercise proved to be too much and the females went back to the group and proceeded to do what lions do best: rest and sleep! We left them there hoping to find them again later.

The lioness gives up the hunt.

The lioness gives up the hunt.

They were still there in the afternoon and, only when the day cooled down did they move into the bush where we lost them. Luckily they passed very close to us and we managed to take a few good pictures before they disappeared.

Resting on the road.

Resting on the road before moving off.

Showing us her "tools"...

Showing us her “tools”…

An older male joins in.

Two of the males moving off.