March news – Mara Toto & Mara Plains Camps, Kenya

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in it’s beauty”

Albert Einstein

Happy Easter to you from the team on the plains of the Masai Mara and Kenya, where the elections and appeals have gone smoothly and peacefully.

Since our last report a few weeks ago the skies have been building up to the big rains, and the Lloita migration of zebra and wildebeest continues to flood into the area following the fresh grass. Migratory birds have also arrived in the Mara in big flocks of species such as white storks, lesser-stripped swallows, white-headed saw wings and Eurasian bee-eaters. The evenings have been lit by incredible sunsets (in part due to the huge amount of smoke from man-lit fires in the reserve south of the Talek River), and there is plenty of action from wildlife seeking a mention (attention!).

Carrying on from where we left off – the return of the Lloita migration into the area. Towards the end of March, after a couple of brief showers, we woke up one morning to see the plains just north of Mara Toto literally covered in wildebeest, the majority of which were males. Then, as the days moved on towards Easter, some of the females began arriving bringing with them February’s fawns, now old enough to keep up with the adults in the bouncing gait associated with these creatures.

For the past six weeks we have been literally surrounded by wildlife. There are huge numbers of wildebeest, eland, gazelle, and zebra all around the camp and conservancy. On drives in the last weeks guests have witnessed up to five hundred zebra crossing the Ntiakitiak river just below the camp and, in the case of this morning, be attacked by a opportunistic lioness.

It was only last year when we first noticed an unusual movement of wildlife into this area during the rains. Before this we spent these months awaiting the arrival of the Great Migration in June-July and watching the predators contemplating the larger, more cunning or wary prey species.

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But what is the cause and meaning of this whole green season migration? It really hit home recently when speaking to members of the communities and guides who have been around for the past decade. This whole mass movement of animals in February and into March and April is actually something more special than many people realize.

 

When the community-owned Olare Orok Conservancy was started six years ago, the maasai families who lived on the land agreed to move to large community areas on the periphery of the conservancies in return for employment opportunity and a guaranteed monthly payment per acre (the first income for many of them), no matter whether tourism was up or down. This lease for their land was brought in by none other than guests visiting camps in the conservancy hoping to see the incredible and world-renown wildlife of the Masai Mara, but without the crowds in the reserve.

 

Now, six years down the line the Olare-Motorogi conservancy at 30,000 acres is said to have one of the highest predator counts in the world. It is managed by a group made up of four parts – the maasai land owners committee; the tourism partners (camps); the Olare Orok Conservancy Trust; and the conservancy management company.

 

Through good relations with the maasai landowners and sound management practice, the conservancy is run as a part-time dual-use conservancy where the land owners are allowed managed, rotational grazing in times of need. Their cattle are used as a conservation tool to help graze down long grass, fertilize the soil and ensure the habitat is perfect for the plains grazers in the area. The result of this is that the Lloita migration – one of six regional migrations from the past that became cut off due to loss of habitat, hunting, poaching and competition for grazing – is growing in numbers and frequency again.

 

Now, finally, with the formation of these community-owned conservancies on the northern boundary of the Masai Mara national reserve, habitat once lost is now being returned to Nature. The dispersal area for the wildlife from the reserve has doubled in six years with a number of conservancies being developed, following the basic model of the Olare Orok Conservancy. This return of habitat, combined with a very good annual rainfall and subsequent grass growth, plus the use of the land owners’ cattle as a method of ensuring fresh, palatable, nutritious grass for the wildlife has restored a past habitat and habit. For those of us working in conservation tourism on community lands, this is a huge boost as we feel we are succeeding in conserving and expanding natural habitats with the benefits of this also being felt by the local populations.

 Surveying the plains

So onto the reason why we are all here…to find the players in this great game of hide and seek, some of whom don’t seem to care whether they are found or not. Others, however, make it their way of life not to be. They are the shadows of the bush, the elusive leopards. A good place to start our story.

 

Yellow, the Olare-Motorogi’s resident territorial male leopard, has jumped back onto the scene this month after a couple of months of being sporadically spotted. A number of times he has passed by Mara Toto. In fact his last visit to camp was only a couple of nights ago (29th) when he was clearly visible from the mess as he strode across the gap in the vegetation heading upriver towards Mara Plains. A few nights in the past weeks we have heard him as he moves through the night calling his presence as he goes. Sometimes it is the camp’s local baboon troop, safe in their sycamore fig trees, barking warnings that let us know Yellow is passing by.

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Acacia, the leopardess who had two cubs, has been very elusive this month. In one of the final drives of the month she was found with only one very fat and healthy cub left, dragging her kill into the bushes and then up a tree. By now her cub will be starting to get curious and moving further a field in search of fun and valuable life lessons, something the second cub sadly did not get a chance to learn from. A few members of the Enkoyeni pride of lions have been found these past weeks up and down the river line that is Acacia’s usual haunt. They may be the reason for her scarcity and perhaps also the cause of her lost cub.

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Acacia’s daughter Fig has, very much like her mother, been hard to find this month, more than likely for the same reason that their nemeses, the Enkoyeni lions, seem to be split into smaller groups and so spread a little further around their range. But we will get onto them later.

 

No more news on the Mara Toto resident female leopardess who, with her one little cub, is proving to be the queen of hide-and-seek. Finding her is one of the greatest challenges for any of us moving along the conservancy boundary.

 

And finally on the leopard front, as many of you know seeing a leopard in East Africa is a special thing (some people may be back ten times and never see one) but to see a leopard hunt really is a once in a lifetime thing for very few people. This takes us to Olive, the well-known female leopard who lives along the Talek-Olare confluence. Yesterday, not to be outdone by her counterparts in the conservancy, she stalked and ambushed a young waterbuck right before the eyes of some very lucky Toto guests.

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On to other characters in the story of the central Mara – Narasha is back! This female cheetah who has always been considered a regular in the Olare-Motorogi conservancy has, as many of you know, been up in Mara North conservancy for the past six weeks. Now, she is back and making the most of the huge abundance of wildlife moving in. She was first spotted in the last week of March after having killed a Grant’s gazelle. She still has her two cubs (one male, one female) giving her a success rate of four out of six in just over three years (she lost two in 2011 after cutting her foot very badly).

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The cheetress, Nosim (meaning ‘entertaining’ in maa), who has one cub is also doing very well and has been seen regularly through March as she hunted the area between the Topi Plains and Olkiombo.

 

The two cheetah brothers known as ‘Honey’s boys’ are also in Nosim’s area and may be interacting with her from time to time, cuffing and bullying her to check if she is receptive for mating. These two are still the force to be reckoned with in the cheetah world of the Mara but we expect that soon the trio from Naboisho, who currently move between Olkinyeni and the Olare-Motorogi, may start to move into the north of Honey’s boy’s range, marking the same trees and slowly taking over the north – a bit like the Mara’s ‘game of thrones’.

 

Speaking of takeovers, this can only lead us onto the lions of the central Mara. The last week of March has been a time of turmoil and serious noise around Mara Toto and Mara Plains. As it turns out, at the end of the third week of the month the two Enkoyeni pride males were doing their bit and mating with a young lioness from their pride. Issues then arose as they have been doing this in what appears to be disputed land between the Enkoyeni males and their southern rivals the Double Crossing males. Some of you may remember the mention of running battles through the Mara Plains parking area last year. Well, they are at it again, and on the nights of the 27th and 28th March these two coalitions spent the entire hours of darkness roaring challenges and chasing one another back and forth past Mara Toto and Mara Plains from the top of the Porini hill to the plains west of Mara Toto. The outcome? Well the Double Crossing males (one very light, the other dark) have been much more vocal since. They were found to the north of Mara Plains in an area we previously would have said was Enkoyeni territory. Since then they have moved south into the river line just south of Mara Toto in the company of the same female from the Enkoyeni pride. We will keep you posted.

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Other than their males, the rest of the Enkoyeni pride seem to be doing well. However, as mentioned in past monthly reports, we expect the possible take-over by the Double Crossing males may mean the cubs from this pride could be no more. On the evening of the 30th March drives out found members of this pride (mainly the young males) eating a hippo carcass. It all got a bit interesting when a herd of buffalo charged at them sending the lions scattering in all directions.

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On a brighter note the Enkoyeni’s eastern neighbours, the Moniko pride, still have their 14 cubs from five lionesses. These five females have held their position on the hill at the top end of the Kereput stream for most of the last month. In the last week they managed to bring down an adult giraffe, quite a catch for lions in this area who are more used to the easier, smaller prey. With these formidable mothers keeping watch over their cubs it seems they may have moved other members of the pride away from their maternity stronghold on the hill. In the past month the other lions of the pride have been found further a field around their range. We expect that once the cubs are a little bigger and the mothers feel comfortable with other lions around them, the pride will come back together making them (if all survive) a pride of 32 individuals awaiting the arrival of the Great Migration in approximately three months time.

 

Great news on the lion front, ‘Nguro’, the last remaining of the two prideless females has been found again, this time with only two of the original three cubs, both males. The young adopted male – who lost his eye on the fateful night when his mother, ‘Mama Kali’, sacrificed herself for his survival by attacking the 17-strong Enkoyeni pride – is still alive and looking healthy. His eye has now completely gone leaving only the socket. The story of this little trio surviving in no-man’s-land on the boundary between prides is one that is very close to our hearts, and so it means a lot to hear word of them. Good luck to them.

 

So what next? Well, after full moon and two solid nights of rain (which must have touched the five inch mark), we are very wet! The paths around Mara Toto have had their surfaces covered with straw in preparation for the rainy season. For many this is a time to hunker down and wait it out, but for the wildlife in Africa this green season it is the time of plenty and life. We expect that soon the breeding herds of elephant will move back through again, spending more time on the open plains ripping up chunks of fresh grass. The predators can only be happy with the inundation of wildlife on their buffet menu and this can be supported by the high frequency of hunts we have been witnessing over the past weeks.

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So it will rain, the animals will be happy, vehicles will get stuck a few times, the rivers will flood and the grass will grow even more than it has already, making the zebra’s job of keeping it short hard to keep up with. Then, after the long rains ease and the land begins to dry out towards the middle of the year, the huge hordes of wildebeest and zebra and other grazers will arrive from the Serengeti back into the Mara ecosystem. They will once again have completed their migratory cycle of around six hundred kilometers from this area in the north to the short grass plains of the Serengeti to the south, and back again, bringing with them their fawns from February 2013.

 

From all of us here on the central plains of the Masai Mara, and specifically from the Mara Toto team, we wish you all a Happy Easter and a happy rainy season to East Africa!

 

Photo credits:

 

Narasha – Lorna Buchanan-Jardine

Wildebeest crossing – Richard Pye

Giraffe crèche – Spike Wilcox

Maasai-owned conservancy – Lorna Buchanan-Jardine

Baboons – Lorna Buchanan-Jardine

Lions – Spike Wilcox

Leopard – Spike Wilcox

Narasha on a kill – Spike Wilcox

Mating lions – Spike Wilcox

Enkoyeni lions on hippo carcass – Spike Wilcox

Elephants – Spike Wilcox

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