Thursday, September 19, 2013

Masai Mara 2 - Hyenas, Jackals and Cheetahs

Everybody likes free food. If you ever doubted that, go to a buffet and see how people pile up food on their plates and when have you ever ordered AND eaten half a dozen types of desserts outside of a buffet. After meetings, leftover sandwiches would disappear in minutes and on Fridays when our office manager would bring donuts and bagels, even those on a diet would pick one. The key to getting the best of free food was to be at the right place at the right time. On our first morning in the Masai Mara Game Park, I realized that free food is not just a treat, but a necessity for scavengers such as vultures, hyenas, jackals etc. We might look down on these freeloaders, but in the animal kingdom they are actually doing a service by cleaning up carcasses and preventing the spread of stench and sickness.

Hyena Cub

A little into our morning game drive, we came across a spotted hyena. Light was soft and beautiful, so we stopped to take some pictures. That is when we noticed that it was not alone, but a part of the clan was out to enjoy sunshine. There were about half a dozen of them following the alpha female. Females control the power in hyenas and are supposedly even larger than males. It is believed that evolution made them larger to protect their cubs from cannibalistic tendencies of males. When they noticed that they had company, some disappeared into the grass and some went back into their den. The den looked like a hole on a mound and I wondered how they fit inside the small hole. Our guide explained that depending on the size of the clan, they had a vast network of underground tunnels.

Hyena in the morning light

A little after this encounter, we saw a large group of vultures in one place. That could only mean one thing - fresh meat!! As we drove closer, we saw a large lion walking away into the grasslands. The kill must have happened early in the morning. It looked like the remains of a young wildebeest. Watching the vultures feast on the food reminded me of the song in Ice Age 2. There was a time when Saru and Varsha would repeatedly watch that song and they even memorized the song. How I wish I had recorded a 2 1/2 year old Varsha singing "glorioooous foood"

Poached possum served flambé,
Broth made from a sloth,
Or a saber-tooth souffle,
Why should we be fated to,
Do nothing but brood,
On food, magical food, wonderful food, marvellous food?,
Food, glorious food,

Flesh picked off the dead ones,
Rank, rotten, or chewed,
Soon, we'll be the fed ones!
Just thinking of putrid meat
Puts us in a mood for
Food, glorious food, marvellous food, fabulous food, beautiful food,
Magical food, Glorious food!

Action around the kill

Hyena walking towards the carcass

While these Vultures were busy with their breakfast, there was another group on the other side. They were clearly satiated and were drying their wings and displaying. A lone hyena was also in the area and displayed interesting behaviour. We could tell it had its fill because its stomach was sagging down, but it did not want to leave the food. It would hang out for a few minutes, then leave, then come back, then leave just could not leave the food alone. Then, out of nowhere, 2 black-backed jackals appeared on the scene. The hyena did not like it.  It came back to the kill and marked its territory. The jackals also seemed to be in two minds. They kept leaving and coming back to the kill.  With all this drama around its kill, the Lion decided to come back and show who the boss really was. As he came close to the kill, the vultures flew away and the hyena and jackals also fled the scene. It looked really full, so it did not touch the food, but marked his territory and left after a few minutes. Sun was in the opposite direction, so pictures from this are not great. 

Lion walking towards the kill

The hyena chased away the jackals to the other side of the road and then came back to the kill. It started pulling out a piece of the meat. It did not look like an easy job and the hyena was going at it for a while. We were all looking through our binoculars and cameras and going "Come can do it" And voila, it finally pulled out a leg, crossed our jeep and ran into the grasslands. As we were pulling away, we saw the jackals sneak back. We didn't realize this at the time, but we were at that location watching this action for over an hour and our morning safari time came to an end. 

Black Backed Jackal

Look at the difference in sizes of the Hyena and the Jackal

Hyena runs away with a leg

It was hot during the afternoon safari, but we got to see the one animal that I was dying to see - the Cheetah. I think they are the most handsome of all cats. My friend disagreed and said he thought the Leopard was the best looking while Saru thought a tiger was the best. Personal preferences aside, one cannot deny that those spots are sexy. Watching them stand up and stretch, displaying their long lean body and walking with extreme grace is something I will not forget any time soon. 

Female Cheetah on an Anthill

                                                                                                                       Mom and sub-adult Cheetah

Cheetah in the grass

A mother and its sub-adult cub were sitting on an anthill in the grassland. 3-4 vehicles were already there, so our driver parked our jeep at a distance. Unlike India, drivers there were very mindful of not disturbing the animals and blocking the view of others. The cheetah was surveying the grasslands, looking for prey. Unlike other cats, the cheetahs hunt by sight and not scent. It then got off the mound and started to cross the road.  By then, there were many jeeps and the ranger had arrived. More than 5 jeeps are not allowed to stalk animals, so we drove away and parked at a distance. Slowly the other vehicles lost interest and drove away giving us the chance to come back to the scene. The Cheetah was back up on a mound and was surveying the area. On one side were a herd of wildebeest and far away were a few Thompson's gazelles. The mother got into a hunting mode and started crouching forward in a very deliberate fashion. It looked like it was going for the gazelles, but after stalking for a little bit, it must have realized that they were too far and it was very hot that afternoon. The cheetahs walked away to a water body to quench their thirst. Light was very harsh and the sun was exactly above us, so the images are not that good. I am posting them just to tell the story. We do have better images of Cheetahs from another sighting a day later.

Cheetah goes towards a waterbody

Look at its elegant body

Thursday, September 12, 2013

African Safari - Masai Mara 1 - Lions and Zebras

It was 6:30 in the morning and we were on our morning game drive. Barely a kilometer outside our resort, we saw a vehicle stopped on the road. When we looked in that direction, we saw a pair of lions sitting in the grass, a hundred meters away. There it was - the King of the Jungle, the Pride of Africa. Just like that, without working too hard we had seen not one but 2 lions and that was not all. Our driver/guide, Dedan paused for a few seconds and said "These are too far. This is supposed to be a group of 4, so let's drive a little and look for the other two and come back". Wait a minute here....we see Lions and we are DRIVING AWAY and since when did 100 meters qualify as "far" ? If I were in an Indian jungle and seen a cat , I would be taking a crappy cell phone picture and posting it all over social media and be swollen with pride at all the oooohs and aaaahs and OMGs and other such slang's, kids are using to murder English language.  Anyway, I was in Masai Mara, Kenya where you apparently drive away from lions when they are far and by far, they mean they are not close enough to glare at you with their cold yellow eyes. (Believe me, one look without those eyes is enough to give you the heebie-jeebies). We drove around a little bit, but the grass was golden and even if the lion was next to us we would have driven right by it. So we went back to the original spot. By now, one of the lions stood up and started walking intently towards something. I was looking through my binoculars, Saru was looking through his zoom lens and we combed the area, but could not see any prey. The lion got into a crouching position which meant he was in a hunting mode. He moved very cautiously with his knees bent for a little bit and then BOOM! Without any warning he charged ahead. Two Impalas leap in the air and take off at a lightning speed. The lion chased after them. The impalas ran for their dear lives. The lion gave them a good chase. The second lion which was sitting and watching the spectacle until now got up and started running towards the Impalas. It was a half-ass attempt to help his brother because clearly, the nimble-footed Impalas had a head start and they disappeared into the bushes. 

Lion in the golden morning light (the lazy brother)

Impala ready to leap

Impala leaps
An African Safari was always on the wish list. In fact, it was supposed to be our tenth anniversary gift to ourselves. But when we moved to India, Saru insisted that we first visit the national parks in India before going to Africa. There are not many times I say this and as I am saying this I realize this is going to bite me in the ass but what the heck - " Saru was absolutely right" and more importantly "I was wrong". Indian jungles teach you patience. We don't have the abundance of the African Plains, so when we are out there in the jungle, the odds of being at the exact same spot as a tiger or leopard is as low as winning a lottery. Yet you go out, from time to time to test your luck. When you don't see big cats, you learn to appreciate their ecosystem - the grasslands and the beautiful Sal tree forests of Corbett, the white bark ghost trees of Pench and Tadoba, the bamboo forests of Bandipur etc. You start appreciating birds and other mammals. You learn that there are no timetables in nature and what you see and don't see is completely up to it. With Africa, lot of people think sightings are very easy. Let me tell you something - Going to Africa is not like walking into a National Geographic channel set. We spent about 6 hours a day, for 4 days in Masai Mara, so a total of 24 hours in the wilderness. I didn't count, but I am sure we saw nothing but the vast plains for at least half of the time.

The quintessential Masai Mara sight - Zebras grazing on never ending plains
 Our very first safari in Africa, excitement was very high. As soon as we got out into the plains, we were greeted with herds of zebras and wildebeest. The zebras are a funny lot. To us,  the stripes look silly and make them stick out like a sore thumb but those very patterns work as camouflage against their main predator, the lion. Colours don't matter because the lion is colour blind and their wavy lines blend in with the grass or if they are in a herd, their patterns blend in with each other and they look like one giant striped mass.  Case in point are some pictures below. For some reason, every time we looked at a herd, the closest zebras had their butts towards us. At first we took some butt shots just for the sport and then it became a thing - "Oh look - 3 zebra butts, stop the jeep - there are 4 butts here". And for the rest of the trip, we took pictures of butts of lions, cheetahs, elephants, topis, impalas and rhinos. I was going to create a folder and very cheekily call it "But..but....Butt".  And if you must know....nothing fills a camera frame better than the buttocks of a rhino

2-in-one Zebra


August being the middle of the peak season, the wildebeest were everywhere. It is a peculiar looking (because calling an animal ugly is not politically correct) animal. It looks like a part-antelope-part-buffalo-part-horse and I don't mean the impressive parts from any of those animals. They were peacefully grazing for most part, but suddenly, as if on a cue, they would retreat into the interiors in a single straight line.

Wildebeest grazing and us gazing

We spent so much time watching the zebras and wildebeest that it was almost time to go back when we saw a Masai Giraffe at a distance. As we were driving in that direction, Thomas and Dedan spotted a mating pair of lions. This was our first lion sighting and we were thrilled. They were sitting behind some bushes next to a water body sniffing each other. The lioness decided to take matters into her hands and started the mating dance. She stood up, stretched for what seemed like a long time, gave the lion a hard look and walked away and sat at another spot. The lion pretended to not care at first, but then stood up and started sniffing, presumably to smell if the lioness was ready. He then growled and made some sounds and started walking towards the female. At the last minute, he changed direction and went and sat about 50 meters behind the lioness. Seeing no reaction from the lioness, he got up again after some time, strutted his stuff and walked towards the lioness, and sat 50 meters short of her. All the while, the lion was sniffing and salivating and growling. It was a fun mating dance to watch and the play of setting sun offered many photo opportunities.

The Lioness gets up

Lion plays it cool, but gives a look

Lion growls
Bored with the antics and yawns

Goes back to giving looks

Lion continues to glare with his yellow eyes

Photographing the Photographer