May News – Mara Plains & Mara Toto, Kenya

“If you can visit only two continents in your lifetime, visit Africa twice”

 – J.L.B. Matekoni

Writing now from the dining table outside the Mara Toto mess tent where the morning calls of our resident birds are creating the soundtrack to the scene of the rising sun breaking through the breezing leaves of the canopy that covers this little riverside camp and keeps it cool. The cars and guests are all out having left at the crack of dawn to head into the area around the Musiara marsh. The breakfast car is just leaving to go and find them wherever they may be, with a full delivery and set up.

Most of May has been relatively quiet on the visitor front here in the reserve and the conservancies, so for anyone worried about overcrowding and seeking quiet and space it’s been a good time of year to be here. Now, as we close off the last few days of the month we are seeing a slight influx of new guests in the Mara as the region gears up for the coming months, a time of suspense and anticipation when we start hearing reports “They are coming” and “almost at the border”. The “They” that we refer to are of course the multitudes of individuals that make up one of the ultimate wildlife spectacles on Earth, ‘The Great Migration’. There is nothing quite like seeing the first wave appear over the horizon to the south and nothing can prepare you for the sheer volume of animals and the action that comes with it.

After the incredible rains of the green season, May has been very different. The sunrises each morning have been clear and unbroken; the sunsets dramatic with clouds adding character; and it was in the last week of the month, starting with the full moon, that we began to see storms around us in the evenings adding their strobe lighting displays to this beautiful open landscape of Africa.

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A good place to start this month’s wildlife update would be with the cheetah. May started quietly on sightings of these graceful cats due to the long swaying grass and there being fewer vehicles out looking for them.

 

Malaika, the cheetah with the yearling male cub, is well and they are both healthy. These two have spent the last couple of weeks in the reserve south of Mara Toto moving west to Double Crossing on the Olare River and towards the Topi Plains. Malaika is one of the cheetahs well known in the Mara for her habit of jumping onto vehicles so as to use them as vantage points for hunting. Sadly this has now become something guides are fighting for to get better tips and their interference is stopping the cheetah from being able to feed herself and her cub. Good guiding should uphold mankind’s place as passive observers.

 

Nosim, another ‘cheetress’ who until recently also had a male cub (a little older than Malaika’s), is currently on the Olare Motorogi Conservancy. She arrived from the south towards the month’s end past the two Great Plains camps heading northwards onto the Saiyalel plain and Porini hill. One of her more recent antics was an attempted hunt of an impala with a fawn. Nosim was after the fawn but embarrassingly for her when the fawn suddenly went to ground she missed it and then completely lost it. Impala 1: cheetah 0!

 

Nosim’s son, the now large young male who passed by Mara Toto’s tent 5 about a week ago, is also on the OMC (Olare Motorogi Conservancy). We have been watching this male’s first solo steps in the world with interest, as he is now alone as an inexperienced character in an unforgiving environment.

 

A newcomer to the conservancy, or at least one we have not seen for a while, is an older male cheetah that we believe may be the one who, two-and-a-half years ago, was found with a very bad and contagious infection of mange. The conservancy vet treated him at the time, painting him orange and blue with ointment. When the cheetah woke up he wandered off looking like a nature lover’s Picasso painting. If this is him then we are happy to say the mange is almost gone but it is still present on his right shoulder and ears. On the night of the 29th May at around 11:30pm this cheetah was watched as he stalked past Mara Toto in the light of the rising moon, fully fed and very round. He was spotted again in the sunrise lying under the Boskia tree between Mara Plains and Mara Toto.

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The female cheetah with the three ‘scruffy’ cubs was also around this month. She was originally from the area around Lookout Hill and has come a very long way north, far out of what had been considered her range. She crossed the Burungat plains, the Talek River, Nine Kilometer and then came into the conservancy. Her movement we believe was caused by a search for prey as the area in the south of the reserve is covered in very long grass, so providing very little in the way of small game. Her cubs are growing fast and are now big enough to cover large distances with her, but with their increasing size comes insatiable appetite and so their mother needs to provide for them regularly.

 

Narasha, the well known female originally from the OMC, is reportedly up on Mara North Conservancy at present, still with her two cubs who should by now be causing trouble, ruining her hunts and keeping her on her toes.

 

Next up, the lions of this area… At this time of year one of the great tasks we have is to try to find, ID and count the lions in our resident prides. This year it was the Enkoyeni lions that were found first in the season, relatively easily as they were around their maternity rocks on the east side of the Ntiekietiek River. The pride looks healthy, which is a great relief. It has been hard for these cats over the past months as the zebra and wildebeest have moved northeast onto the plains of Motorogi and beyond. This is the time of year that their diet changes and they begin to take on the topi, warthogs, impala, ostrich and in some cases buffalo. With this change in their prey species comes a change in their hunting tactics and even their social organization. Larger prides often break up into smaller groups so as to cover more ground in search of prey, meaning less co-operative hunts and more opportunistic ambushes.

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It was in the first days of June that the photographic group staying at Mara Toto found eleven members of the Enkoyeni pride on the Enkoyeni river above the deep-water crossing, consisting of the eight young males and three female ‘hangers-on’. In 2012, these eight brothers led the pride’s attack on Mama Kali, a seasoned fighter and legendary lioness, one of the two ‘prideless females’. It was an attack that led to her death a week later. At the beginning of 2013, these same adolescent males killed tiny cubs – their own siblings – still not yet able to control their strength. This season is going to be very interesting as the two Enkoyeni pride males are forced to evict their sub-adult sons. Now that we are finding them away from the rest of the group this time marks the beginning of the end of their easy life in a pride and the start of their new chapter as a very strong coalition indeed, if they choose to stay together.

 

Nguro, the single lioness remaining from the ‘prideless females’ duo, is still doing well despite being a single mother with fast growing cubs to feed. Over the past months we have only seen her a couple of times, sometimes around the escarpment road, other times in the hidden valley, and now, as of yesterday she is happily munching away on a cow that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not good for the cow or the lioness but the owner of the cow is one of the conservancy’s landowners so hopefully the benefits brought in by the wildlife and specifically a large lion population outweigh the loss of a lone cow. On a positive note, despite this, the human/wildlife conflict on this conservancy is very low in comparison to the surrounding areas.

 

Hunting buffalo is a relatively rare thing for many of the prides around the Mara, more than likely because out of choice most creatures will take an easier option of prey where the chance of injury or death is far lower. However, one pride in the Mara reserve have proven time and again that they have the know how to do it and do it well. This ability in the low season makes the Marsh pride one of the most successful prides in the entire ecosystem. In the last ten days of the month this pride killed a buffalo on the north end of the marsh, and so did not need to hunt again for a week or more.

 

Back on the Olare-Motorogi Conservancy, the Moniko pride is proving to be very elusive. At this time of year the grass is towering and predators are on the move in search of food. Through careful observation of the herds shifting south along the eastern boundary of the pride’s range, and through checking off their favorite haunts one by one, we found that this huge pride had crossed from the whistling thorn of the Isiketa Valley into Naboisho to the Moliband River. With the return of the Lloita migration of wildebeest and zebra, these lions will have been happily picking off prey as the herds move south in search of grazing and water. Despite the Moniko lions not being on our doorstep we are all very happy that they feel confident enough to be able to extend their range so far. It is a sign that the natural habitats in this area are secure and expanding. As of the first week of June the Moniko lions have moved back into OMC and are now residing between Lookout Hill and Billy Winter’s.

 

We are very optimistically looking forward to the rest of the year knowing that the Olare Motorogi Conservancy still has a rising population of lions and that this habitat is supporting greater numbers of predators – a rare and very valuable success story in today’s world where populations of lions have now crashed to less than 20,000 remaining. We feel that community conservation initiatives, the tourism and revenue generated through these, combined with public awareness and education, are the best courses of action for preserving habitats and curbing population declines in lions and other threatened species. The most fun part of this is that the best thing anyone can do to help is to come on safari, support the conservancies and see these incredible creatures in action.

 

In the words of Dereck Joubert, Great Plains Conservation’s CEO and National Geographic film maker- “If we can protect the three benchmark species and their habitats, namely the lion, elephant and rhino, the tourism value of an area will also be preserved so ensuring a continued income generated for the local communities through wildlife – a win-win situation for the people and the animals”.

 

The Mara Toto camp local lions, the Double Crossing males, have been a little busy towards the end of May as one of their pride females came into season. They have been spending time near the confluence of the Olare and Ntiekietiek rivers and it was the scrapper of the duo, the darker maned male, who earned the mating rights with the female. From the scratches on his face it can be presumed this was not decided without a fight.

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Onto the leopards of this ecosystem… it seems that just when we started wondering where they are, the spotted cats heard their names on the wind and appeared. Yellow, the southern conservancies’ resident male, was found on the 27th of the month on the drift just north of the salt lick south of Mara Toto with an impala he had freshly killed and hardly touched. He spent the day sleeping, before waking up in the late evening to glance at the setting sun and begin the slow, meticulous and methodical process of cleaning himself, as is his style. He then watched as three hyena stole his kill. It is interesting that he still choses to eat on the ground as opposed to dragging his meat to the safe pantry of the treetops.

 

One evening a guest stayed in camp to soak up the dappled light beneath the canopy and catch up on some hard earned R&R. But what he discovered to his delight was that you don’t have to go looking for stunning wildlife – the animals will come and find you! Sitting by the river in front of the mess he looked up at the sound of a rustle in time to see a leopard walk in front of him at the top of the river bank on the opposite side, only twenty meters from where he sat peacefully watching the sunset with a chilled beer. Magic!

 

Earlier in the month guests staying at Mara Toto were lucky enough to see our resident leopardess as she prowled through the confluence of the Ntiekietiek River and the Kereput stream. We had all been asking after her cub (born beneath a fig tree at Mara Plains in December), wondering if it is still alive. Then, on the night of the 18th May and within fifty meters of Mara Toto, the lights of the last car returning home caught the flitting but unmistakable shape and pattern of a four-month-old leopard cub as it darted across the road and vanished into the long grass. We are so grateful and relieved to know that this little one is healthy and still close by.

 

Speaking of no guarantees gets us onto another one of the conservancy’s leopards, the young male who was last spotted months ago in the area just east of Olkupelia, having been chased up a tree by the Enkoyeni pride males – a lucky escape (one of those lions, on the rampage and in his throw of testosterone, then decided to chase an adult giraffe – a foolish move which ended with him getting kicked in the head!). This young spotted cat has always been one of the shyest in the area and we are pleased to add to his range as of a week ago when he was found right up on the rocky slopes just east of the Ntiekietiek gorge. It is very exciting and encouraging to find one of the more elusive and less habituated characters of the conservancy. It draws our attention to the wildness of the ecosystem – a leopard not used to vehicles signals an area begging to be explored, but as there is only one road there, it has to be done on foot. We invite all of you intrepid travelers, footloose and with wanderlust, to join us at Mara Plains for professionally guided walks into pristine wilderness packed with game.

 

The plains of the central Masai Mara are covered in long grass fast turning tawny and swaying in the gusting winds of June. With the April showers came family herds of elephants and groups of bulls moving onto the plains of this ecosystem. These giants followed the fresh green grass and, as the rains moved on and the grass dries, many of these groups end up in the vicinity of the swampy areas where they can still find lush grazing. It was in one of these areas near Musiara where we decided to set up breakfast one morning beneath a tree with a leopard kill hanging overhead. Over the course of an hour we counted over fifty elephant, a journey of giraffe, a herd of a few hundred buffalo, waterbuck, impala, warthogs and some beautiful birds, the highlight of which was a falcon (presumed to be a Peregrine) which dived over the table and caught a dove mid-flight only meters from where we sat, and devoured it on branch nearby.

 

Another incredible species that is proving hugely successful is the serval cat. On one evening Lorna, the Toto assistant manager, was returning from the airstrip and suddenly came up behind one of these normally shy and elusive cats. But with nobody else in sight, this Serval allowed her to stay with him for over an hour, and witness him make SEVEN successful hunts, one after the other, pin-pointing sounds in the long grass with his huge ears and then leaping into the air, coming down on prey with masterful accuracy and taking birds out of the air mid-flight. It was a once in a lifetime experience, and one that will never be forgotten. In the photograph below, this Serval was already going for another, seconds after catching a rat.

Serval

 

Other highlights this month and straight from the opinions of guests…

 

  • “The area and landscape is magnificent, wildlife is abundant and diverse, sightings are amazing, the guides are so well educated, experienced and of the highest standard”
  • “The customized vehicles are perfect”
  • “Great sightings of the big cats everyday”
  • “Great walking, incredible food, a homely bush camp with attention to detail, smiling happy staff with a ‘can-do’ attitude always willing to help”
  • “The set up bush breakfasts with chef Juma’s ‘Egg Mc muffins’ were a novelty”

 

Guests have also been among the first to visit to the community of Endoinyo Erinka – a beautiful village of land-owning families from the conservancies, where Great Plains is working closely with women, children and teachers to promote businesses and education for future generations.

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Toto visitors have been welcomed into the homes of the members of the women’s group there, and have had a huge amount of fun kitting themselves out in colourful and masterfully made beaded jewelry. At the Endoinyo Erinka Primary School, students have laughed and whooped as they performed their incredible, energetic and musical Maasai dance routine especially for Great Plains guests, which has qualified them in regional trials to compete in the National dance competition later this year. In 2012 the school team came second in the country, and this year they are going for gold! We wish them all the best of luck, and what an honour it has been to witness their talent in such beautiful open-air surroundings.

This school dance team came 2nd in the Kenyan Nationals

There are seven months left of this year and considering the wonders gifted to us by the first five, we cannot wait to see what Nature still has in store for us. We are ready for world famous Great Migration of animals (and people!) that will arrive this month until approximately November, but those who have been with us so far in 2013 have witnessed the ‘best kept secret’ that is the Mara in low season. Short daily showers clear for starry nights, crisp mornings, beautiful blue skies and endless horizons of green plains, spotted with flowers and healthy, abundant wildlife, cubs and chicks, fowls and fawns, glistening rivers, and – best of all – only a select few visitors to witness it. Truly, the first part of the year in the Mara is spectacular, and should never be overlooked on a Kenyan itinerary.

 

From the whole Great Plains team here, ‘Karibuni (welcome) to Mara Toto and the all-new Mara Plains.

 

With special thanks to Andy Biggs for the use of his wildlife photographs

See more of Andy’s work at www.andybiggs.com

PHOTOGRAPHY:

Cheetah cubs – Andy Biggs

Sunset – Lorna Buchanan-Jardine

Cheetah male – Andy Biggs

Lion silhouette – Lorna Buchanan-Jardine

Mating lions – Andy Biggs

Serval cat – Lorna Buchanan-Jardine

Maasai lady – Sarah Hoyland

School dance team – Lorna Buchanan-Jardine

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