Saturday, July 3, 2010

Memories of the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

My first evening in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya was spectacular.  I will never forget that night.  We stopped the safari vehicle as the sun was setting.  It was during the famous mammal migration, and we were surrounded by wildebeest in all directions, as they stopped moving for the night.  The grunting sounds of this interesting animal could be heard everywhere.  I will never forget those few hours.

Our guide, Meshak, a local Masai.  He knew the birds cold.  Also, my two safari-mates from the UK, who were on their honeymoon.  When I got married, my wife and I went to Niagara Falls--ugh.

A large bull elephant, who appeared to be asleep.  I love this savanna habitat.  Visibility is fantastic.

Male olive baboon eating a baby Thompson's gazelle, which he just caught.  We were close enough to hear the crunching of bones as he ate.  Baboons have always scared me.  Short, robust, and strong as hell.

The main reason you go to the Mara in August or September is to see one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles on earth--the migration of wildebeest, zebra, and Thompson's gazelles.  Here they are crossing the Mara River on their way to Tanzania.  They will return to the Mara in about six months, as they follow the greening of the grasses, their primary food.

Some of the river crossers are not so lucky.  They get picked off by Nile crocodiles, which the crocs let lie around for a couple of days to decompose a bit.  Then, the carcasses are easier to tear apart and eat.  Here, a vulture (I believe an African White-backed Vulture) is feeding on a dead wildebeest in the croc pantry.

We saw two wildebeest picked off by crocs, which grab wildebeest from beneath as they are swimming the muddy river.  The mammal is pulled under the water, where it drowns.

A croc lying by the side of the Mara River.  You could see a couple of dozen crocs at any one time during migration.  The mammals always cross at particular sites along the river that are conducive to jumping into the water and getting out in one piece on the other side.  And that is where the crocs congregate.  Everyone seems to know what the game is about.

I always thought that the Iron Man competition should occur right here.  If you can swim to the other side and back, and survive, you win.

Some of the "winners", making it to the other side.  There are mostly wildebeest here, but you can see at least one zebra in the mixed group.

Death seems to be everywhere at this time of year.  This wildebeest did not even make it to the river, and was probably killed by lions.

A warthog peeks out from behind a tree.

Female cheetah and her sole surviving cub.  It was thought that the other cubs had been killed by lions or hyenas.  I almost got to see this mother chase a Thompson's gazelle, their main prey here.  But the cub ran up to the mother as she was stalking the gazelle, and alerted the gazelle, which ran off.  The mother immediately turned and barked sharply at the cub as if to say, "Stay where I put you when I am about to hunt if you want to eat!"

The female later killed a "tommy", and presented it to the cub for investigation and food.  "You see, this is what we are after".

A small herd of Thompson's gazelles.  Everything likes to eat "tommies".

The colorful women of a Masai village.

The men are pretty elegant as well.  Young Masai boys usually attend 5 years of "warrior" training.  But our Masai guide was sent to an "English" school where he learned to be a wildlife guide.  Is this like college prep vs. trade school training in American public schools?

A lioness who, along with another female, had just killed a zebra.  She is still hot and panting.  Notice how she blends into these dry savanna grasses.

The dead zebra had not even been fed upon yet.  I think the lionesses were simply too tired and too hot to eat.

A Defassa waterbuck, one of many species of antelope found on the Mara.

Wildebeest, as far as the eye can see.

I will never forget the two days I spent in the Masai Mara, and I hope to return one day soon.  North America once had a wildlife spectacle similar to the incredible phenomenon of East Africa, when bison were numerous and migrated across the plains of the Western U.S.  That wonder of the animal world ended in the 1870s.  Let us hope that the large mammal populations of Africa remain viable for generations to come.


  1. Great photos.

    I agree that babboons are scary. I think it is because their great physical strength is combined with human-like qualities.

  2. Dr. Tom,

    I visited the Masai Mara back in 1981, and it was an adventure, to be sure! I was fifteen at the time, and my parents had taken me on the adventure of lifetime, Egypt and Kenya, which was amazing for me as it further groomed my interests in archaeology and culture and the natural world.

    Reading your blog, and viewing the photos, brings back memories of my trip.

    I'll have to post up some of my photos in my blog sometime, as we had witnessed a cheetah kill a "tommy", and then chase away a pair of silver back jackals.

    Cheers Dr. Tom!

    --James Zaworski

    1. Thanks James. I almost got to see a cheetah chase a tommy, but her cub spoiled the hunt by running up on her mother while she was crouched and ready to sprint. The mother then barked at the cub as if to say, "I told you to stay put".