November News – Mara Plains & Mara Toto Camps, Kenya

“And I dream of the vast deserts, the forests, and all of the wilderness of our continent; wild places that we should protect as a precious heritage for our children and for our children’s children. We must never forget it is our duty to protect this environment” (Nelson Mandela)

This past month has once again proven to those of us here that one of the best times to be in the Mara is from the end of October through November. Why? For the most part, the little bit of rain we get is not enough to affect drives and activities, and in fact it serves to turn the plains green, the flowers bloom, the migratory birds arrive, the full abundance and variety of species visible at any one time is incomparable to anywhere else in Africa, the huge numbers of wildebeest and zebra are everywhere and many of the antelope are calving creating crèches full of life and bounce and also adding to the ease and menu for the huge numbers of predators in the area. This year we have another extra special reason for why it has been spectacular.

At the end of October we saw that the Mara reserve was empty and many of the southern end of the migration was crossing back into Tanzania. We all felt “well, that’s about it for this year’s migration”… other than the tens of thousands of animals still up in the Olare-Motorogi Conservancy, which we assumed were to be the larger than average Lloita migration. Then, in the last week or so of October, we heard a rumor from the Sand River area that many of the departed beests and zebra were back in Kenya due to lack of rain and grazing in the northern Serengeti. Then the same happened on the Mara River where huge groups started crossing back northwards again following the showers we had been lucky enough to have in Kenya. The result was huge river crossings, plenty of action and even more wildebeest in the conservancy than we had ever had at this time of year in past years and amazingly, with very few people here to witness it. In the past week, well into December, guests have been watching river crossings of thousands of animals and they are the only car there – an experience far from the mess in the reserve in the height of high season.

Dec crossings

Around the 4th December, the plains around the Mara were dry, brown and cropped short. The wildebeest in front of the mess tent either had their heads down munching on what remained or they were waiting, looking hopefully to the northeast. Then came the first rumbles of thunder and the promise of rain as dark clouds rolled in. Like last year, the November rains came a month later than is typical, but the downpours are making up for lost time.

Onto the characters and sightings of this story from the past month.

The Moniko pride has, since our last report, not moved much from their namesake hill where they have been quite easily found in the mornings and evenings and from where their hunts begin and end. The large part of this pride (4-5 lionesses, 12 sub-adults and cubs and 2 pride males) are found here all quite happily lounging in the croton thickets in the peace and quiet of their rocky hillside. Over the past month this pride has been watched on a number of occasions after dark when they spread out and set up for their hunts, though it seems the early part of the night is not usually that successful for them.

The Enkoyeni pride has spent much of the last month in the southern end of their range around the leleshwa thickets and rocky crossing. They, like their eastern neighbors above, have been very successful in their hunting, making the most of all the wildlife that is naturally channeled past their diurnal refuge into the confluence of the Ntiakitaik River and the western tributaries where they face running the gauntlet of the river crossings. At times this pride (3 lionesses, 11 sub-adults and cubs (the two smallest ones have just been introduced) and still only one male) have been found with kills up towards the dikdik crossing, but they always move south again soon after first light. This is more than likely because of the seven young male, ex-pride members who have moved into the Enkoyeni’s old stronghold north of dikdik crossing. This ‘gang’ of seven seem to be doing very well in this time of plenty. The guides have called them ‘wabarubaru’, meaning ‘the young ones’.

Zebra at Sunset

We are happy to report that the new (4-months-old) Eseketa pride is still in the Eseketa valley, and for them to be able to hold onto this territory there must be some formidable females among them and also one or two very strong males. At last count this pride is made up of 4 lionesses, 12 sub-adults and cubs and possibly only one male, but counting this pride (much like the Motorogi pride) is often difficult due to the nature of the valley they call home. Eseketa means the rough or rocky place in Maa.

The least known pride in the OMC would have to be the Motorogi pride, and other than some sightings in the mornings along the Nontopesi stream they have, for the most part, been quiet. The exception came one evening this month when they decided to target the prize bull belonging to one of the rich local politicians who was illegally grazing his herds in the conservancy at night. We bet they enjoyed that immensely, our condolences to the owner for his loss.

Nguro and Jicho, the female and young male pair surviving from the Prideless Females lineage, have stayed around this month and we have been finding them regularly on the Kereput stream around Albitzia. These two, unlike the other lions with the security of prides, tend not to go retreat into the bush until well into mid-morning. Rather, they seem happy to sit in the sun in the open plain, watching around them until they are sure they can head for the shade and rest, safe in the knowledge that their landlord pride (Moniko) are already cat-napping and not looking to cause them trouble with an ambush.

Migration over the bridge

Interestingly, November has been relatively quiet on the cheetah sightings. There has been a big male around the central OMC for most of the month doing little circuits between Naronyo hill and rocky crossing. This speedster has been having it very easy thanks to the huge numbers of Topi calves and gazelle fawns, and he killed one of them only hours ago on Porini hill as ours guests looked on. Up on the Olkuroto Plains there have been sightings of some other unidentified individuals, which is very exciting for us.

In the reserve Narasha has been doing well. The last time she was found by Great Plains guides she was still with her adult ‘cubs’. The time for these two to move on has come and gone, but obviously not according to them.

A quick report on the two orphaned cheetah cubs that were picked up by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) after their mother, Nalepo, was killed by lions in November: After a bit of a search and a little undercover work (which found some serious corruption in the Nairobi orphanage) we found the two cubs alive and safe in a large-ish pen with fresh hay to lie on and a warm shelter to live in. Thanks to the pressure put on KWS to look after these two cubs they were in as good a condition as we could have hoped for, but we now know that KWS have no intention of reintroducing them to the wild – a very sad realization to discover the wildlife service is more interested in orphans as money earners rather than to release them as the wild animals they are.

The OMC and reserve leopards have once again been very active on our sightings register this past month. Fig (now nearly two-years-old) has been a regular find along the Eseketa stream around the hammerkop crossing. Like the other predators in the area she is making the most (almost too much) of all the baby animals around her. Observing the impact that Fig alone has on the topi calf population shows clearly the benefits of synchronized birthing among antelopes.

Acacia and her 6-month-old cub, Namnyak, have been quieter this last month most likely because of having the Enkoyeni lions right in the middle of their territory. When they have been spotted it has often been on the little tributary running north of Lone Tree Hill or in the thickets of Warbergia and euclia trees just upstream of Porini crossing. Once, around mid-month, these two were found in the company of Yellow, the resident male, who according to the monkeys, later that night passed by Mara Plains before continuing onto the kereput stream and his extensive range beyond. A ‘leap’ of leopards is a rare and wonderful thing to find.

Mystery, the resident female Leopard from around the two camps has been quiet this month compared to October when she was a regular sighting with her little cub. Through November we found her only a few times, sneaking around, hiding, being shy and sadly we have not seen her cub since last month. We can always be positive and hope.

Giraffe and a tree

The sighting of the month from Mara Plains was when Kali, the huge resident male leopard on the Olare River, was found having a bit of a fling with a leopardess, but the five lionesses and sub-adults of the Double-Crossing pride heard the chorus of growls. The lionesses stalked in and charged, the two leopards split and scattered, the leopardess headed upstream but the lions wanted Kali. They chased him into a small gully, where they surrounded him before jumping in on top of him. Huge snarls and roars followed before seconds later Kali literally popped out of the gully like a cork from a bottle. He took off down the river with the lionesses RIGHT behind him. The first refuge he came to was a slight overhang in the riverbank with a couple of roots across its access. He jumped into this spot and the lionesses tried to get at him but he let rip with the most fearsome combinations of teeth and claws from all four feet as he lay on his back, keeping his spine firmly against the riverbank. The lionesses backed off, keeping him pinned down, their faces bloody and covered in mud, unsure what to do next. Over the next half an hour the lions went at him twice more and we thought after the second attempt that he was finished. He had five lionesses ON TOP of him, all biting and clawing, but amazingly, despite the onslaught, Kali beat the lionesses off one at a time until they stood back, looking around through battered faces with what seemed like the realization that there is perhaps nothing more vicious than a cornered huge male leopard. After this, the lionesses began to call for back up, roaring and marking the area around where Kali was crouched, snarling like a demon. They were calling the pride males. Kali obviously worked this out too and in the short time it took for the lionesses to be preoccupied calling for the males he crept out of the river overhang, but he did not run. He quietly, and without showing any limps or weakness, climbed the riverbank. At the top, rather than bolting for the nearest tree, he stopped, turned and looked back with blue rage in his eyes that we will never forget. Then, as the male lions finally came trotting through the bush, Kali took off. The lionesses heard him go and gave chase, but too late. He went up a Euclea tree like nothing had happened, leaving the lionesses furious at the bottom. What happened next was like a scene from one of those angry couples talk shows – the lionesses went at the male lions, unleashing their rage in a full attack, obviously full of pent-up anger at their quarry getting away. “Where the hell have you been you lazy (bleep bleep bleep bleep)!!!”. The male lions took the attack, stunned by the female’s aggression, before fighting back in full force, causing the unruly lionesses to split and run in all directions. This incredible sequence ended with the ‘lazy, slow and overfed’ Double Crossing males stalking around marking every bush and stick they saw in attempts to reassure themselves and the lionesses of their dominance and prowess.

Onto some of the memorable moments of the past month.

  • One was getting reports in that the wild dog were back in the Mara. Some of you may remember when we had three dogs run right past the camp two years ago, well these three males seem to have found a female companion. They were found near sandriver before they headed north and then back south again. We hope this may be the beginning of a central Mara pack.
  • We have had a great month for snakes, as it got hotter and dryer before the rains we started seeing the eastern green snakes more regularly, then we saw two green night adders, then we found (and safely removed from the camp) a beautiful female puff-adder who was making the most of the grass rat colony near the fire pit. Finally, as the rains started we followed the chirping of the birds near the office and found the stunning python (one of our residents) slowly creeping out of a hole and heading for the trees, a sure sign that the rain are upon us.
  • More migrant birds have arrived, the most recognizable being the Abdim’s stalks, Senegal and Black-winged lapwings.
  • The Warthogs have, in the past week flooded the market with mini-pigs we have been counting 6-8 in the litters, in a week or two they will be down to 4-5 and less.
  • We had a Zorilla in the camp for a couple of days this month, this little ‘striped pole-cat’ or ‘skunk’ was first found when he was trying to dig up the rats on the lawn just before first light, then again the next night when he leapt into the river below the bridge and swam across.
  • Soon the Elephant families will be arriving back in the central Mara again after their ‘vacation’ in the hills to the north and east, we look forward to having them back.
  • One morning near the end of the month we got a call in from Mara Toto to say that they had a lioness with a kill almost inside the camp so that was exciting.

eagle owl

Sawa (OK), that’s about it for now. Sorry that the report was late this month, but we have been doing our bit to help two very impressive young ladies who are RUNNING 400KM from our sister camp, Ol Donyo Lodge in the Chyulu Hills, to Mara Plains in the Masai Mara. Can you imagine running a marathon every day for two weeks? Crazy, yes, but they are doing it for the best reasons one can – to raise awareness and funding for the area they are running through – all community land, owned by different clans of Maasai. There is a hope that through the great efforts of Dudu (one of Great Plain’s relief managers) and AJ, (a very driven friend of hers from Nairobi), they can raise enough funds to kick-start a community conservation plan that hopes to link and protect the Tsavo-Chyulu-Amboseli ecosystem all the way to the Masai Mara.

This area would include over 2 million acres of community land managed by the Big Life Foundation, then continuing to the area west of Lake Magadi, past Lake Natron (the famous flamingo breeding area) on the floor of the Great Rift Valley, to the incredible Nguruman mountains and Lloita Hills (teaming with wildlife and covered in forest and rivers), then stretching all the way to the Mara. Should the hard work of the community members, conservation bodies and the incredible efforts of Dudu, AJ and their sponsors succeed, they will be creating what could be one of Africa’s largest conservation corridors, running the length of the Kenya/Tanzania border. And the best thing about this project is that both the Maasai community land-owners and the wildlife are the beneficiaries.

The best place to read about this area, and the possibilities and hopes for the future of it, is on the BIG LIFE or SORALO websites and blogs:

www.biglife.org

www.soralo.com

To support Dudu and AJ go to http://charity.bushfit.org./support-us/ It’s one of the most worthwhile causes we know.

In the days since starting this report the rains have really kicked in and the plains are now lush and green. As a final farewell, there are ten giraffe crossing the horizon in front of the breakfast table, as Lorna finishes throwing her solar-powered fairy lights at the ‘Christmas tree’ that sticks out through the mess tent deck.

From all of us at Mara Plains and Mara Toto, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful start to the New Year.

Grass and flies in the sunset

Photographic credits.

Fig’s kill- Laurence Clauhaut

Crocodile attack- Lorna Buchanan-Jardine

Zebra sunset- Richard Pye

View through the bridge- Richard Pye

Giraffe- Richard Pye

Verreaux eagle owl- Richard Pye

Bugs in the sunset- Lorna Buchanan-Jardine

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