Monday, September 21, 2009

Large Cats of the Masai Mara

The main reason I went to the Masai Mara in August of 2009 was for the migration of the herds crossing the Mara River in Kenya. Due to the devastating drought that I discussed in a previous blog, the massive migration of thousands of animals did not happen this year. Instead the animals starting arriving in early June resulting in infrequent small crossings; see an example above.
In the past at the peak of the migration, this fields would have been covered with large numbers of wildebeest and zebras moving in unison towards the Mara River. The herds would congregate at the edge of the river, hesitate, and all of the sudden jump into the river where crocodiles were waiting for their meals. I was not able to photograph what I call the "Greatest Nature's Show on Earth" this year.

But the predators were there as always waiting for the arrival of the herds. Lions are at the top of the food chain in the Masai Mara/Serengeti ecosystem in East Africa ( Kenya and Tanzania).
I have observed these cats sitting in rocks and hills scanning the horizon for the arrival of the herds.

In May of 2007 I was in the Western Serengeti near the Retima River (Tanzania) awaiting for the arrival of the herds. It was amazing to watch the lions sitting on top of the Kopjes scanning the horizon. As soon as they saw the arriving animals, they would climb down off the rocks and head for the herds to get their meals. A whole pride including cubs would move together.

As is well known, these cats work in teams and the females are usually the ones who lead the hunting parties. For what I have observed in the past, there seems to be female leader who starts the hunt and will instigate the others into following her to the hunt. These are elaborate and include the setting of traps. Some of the cats will hide in strategic locations and the others will drive the prey in their direction. I have also witnessed what I call relays where one cat will start a chase and direct the prey into others that have previously positioned themselves.

Not all chases are successful and when this happens, the cubs left behind, usually with an adult nanny for protection , will reunite with the hunting party and are greeted by their moms with licking and rubbing of faces.

Lions spent most of the time sleeping and looking after the cubs who frequently interrupt the adults sleep. Most prides have an adult male that service and protect the females and his cubs from other males that would try to take over the family. He usually is not active in the hunts but is the first to the banquet. Other adult male lions live solitary lives or with brothers. But when it comes to taking over a pride or mating, all brotherhood sharing is forgotten.

The leopard is the major trophy of any safari due to their shyness an difficulty in photographing. This is the only one I got to photograph but able to get great images; he stayed in the tree all the time. He had killed an impala early in the morning and the carcass was hanging from a nearby tree. In 2007 while in the Serengeti I got to see 11 leopards--very unusual--but I was not able to approach them due to park rules that does not allow for of-the-road-traffic.
And finally the cheetahs, the fastest cats. I did see a chase this year but it happened so fast that I missed photographing it. These two were resting after having a morning meal. They mostly chased impalas and Thompson gazelles babies and were not always successful.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Kenya Thirsty for Rains

I spent 21 days in Kenya during August-September 2009 and visited 6 wildlife parks. My friend Moses extended an invitation to me to stay a few extra days with him in Nairobi to get better familiarized with the country. Kenya is undergoing a terrible drought for the past few months that is bringing the country to the edge an environmental disaster both for the animals and the people. The above image is of the almost dried up Masinga Dam which serves both as a source of water and electricity for Nairobi. Not long ago this was the home for crocodiles and hippos; they moved somewhere else. Masinga Dam is the largest reservoir that feeds hydro electrics downstream. There is still water left in the other dams but these are low which led to what I experienced in Nairobi. The water supply is restricted and available for certain days of the week. When water is available, the families use all kinds of tanks to store water but the water pressure is low due the fact that all are doing the same, that seldom if ever the storage tanks get totally filled. There are also water peddlers in carts pulled by donkeys all around the city selling water whose origin is not known. The electricity is available from 6 PM to 8 PM daily again to save the water remaining in the Masinga hydroelectric complex.
Moving out of Nairobi and going into the countryside and the national parks, the lack of water is killing the wildlife as well as crops and country people. It appears that the only ones having a feast are the predators since there are so many weak animals easy to prey upon. I went to Kenya for the migration of the herds crossing the Mara River; these were disrupted and arrived earlier than the August that in the past had been the pattern. I have been there in previous years and was familiar with what to expect. Surprisingly the thousands of wildebeest, zebras and cape buffaloes that arrive in mass to swim across the river were not there as in the past. And neither was the Mara River I knew; it was reduced to a trickle at the major herd crossings near the Serena Lodge. I could have walked across jumping from rock to rock. No all the reduction volume of water flow that was available in the past can be attributed to the lack of rain. There have been considerable farm developments along the Mara River and part of the water has been diverted for irrigation. On the way back from the Masai Mara Park to Nairobi I traveled along the road with wheat fields as far as the eye could see in both sides; it was harvest time and the towns along the area were bustling with truckloads of wheat going to market.
The greatest impact that I observed was at Amboseli. This park is at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, a major source of water in the past for both Kenyan and Tanzania. It has been discussed in the media how the ice cap has been reduced during the last years. The first time I saw it in 1993 the ice cap covered the whole top of the mountain; that is not the case now and just remnants remain. But there is water in Amboseli for drinking from the various marshes supplied by Kilimanjaro's aquifers; the problem is that there is no grass due to the lack of rains.

It was disheartening to see the great number of wildebeests, zebras and water buffaloes that have died as a result of the lack of grass. The elephants are suffering too but they are able to get into the marshes as well as the hippos and graze the marsh vegetation. This source of food may not be accessible to the ruminants due to their inability to reach the marsh grasses or for not being able to consume this type of vegetation. I witnessed on a few occasions animals just hardly walking, suddenly falling onto their sides, and convulsing until death arrived. The last day in Amboseli there was a dust storm that forced the vehicle to be stopped and the roof to be closed until the storm passed.

The drought is compounding the problem with the preservation of the remaining watersheds left in the country due to widespread deforestation. Farmers lost crops and herders had to sell or kill their animals before they were lost for the lack of water. To get alternate income, they resorted to cut more trees to make charcoal to sell; this causes more deforestation. A vicious cycle hard to break despite the efforts of the Kenyan people to preserve the few forests left and the extensive reforestation programs implemented by the Kenyan government and foreign agencies. The day I left Nairobi it rained but considerable rainfall is required to save Kenya from disaster. All are nervously listening to the weather man who is predicting that the El Nino will bring abundant rains in October. I am also anxiously waiting for the rains since Kenya very special to me.