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


  1. wonderful!!!!!its amazing to see how beautifully each animal fits into its role in the wild! about cats, my fav is the cheetah too! have yet to see one in the wild, but at the mysore zoo, we just couldnt tear our eyes away from the pair there. i can imagine what a fantastic sight they would have made in the wild! looking forward to more of ur pics!

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