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Female cats in the wild

This morning I am out on game drive with Gren, who is still with us, and his friend Andy, another photographer.

I heard the rain before I even got out of bed, it sounded heavy. There was no moon or stars to lighten the blackness this morning, only the lightening that periodically lit up the sky, followed by the low, grumbling thunder. When we left camp the rain had eased but the air was still cold and damp. It was still dark as we entered the park, the few animals that were around, mostly zebra, looked like shadows in the low-lying cloud. Although the sun was obscured by thick cloud cover the sky lightened and the day began.

We headed to the Blackrock pride area to see the females; we were hoping to see them hunt for their morning meal. There was no question that they would be hunting for food this morning, as they do every morning, the reason being is that between them they have around 12 small cubs to feed.

We came upon 6 females, all together, just looking around. They had spotted buffalo on the horizon; the buffalo were walking in single file and were a good target. The lionesses split up into two groups and started to stalk the buffalo. Our driver, along with other vehicles drove to where he thought the attack would happen, this part is where the guide’s skill is tested. He must look at the whole picture, look at the behavior of the animals and decide on where to put the car for the best view. Our guide is the best, we were in a perfect spot.

. As it turned out, it wasn’t so much a chase as a massacre. The 6 lions had picked out 4 buffalo cubs, they managed to get close without being seen, then attacked all of them at the one time, the adult buffalo didn’t even had time to react, it was all over in a couple of minutes. I was amazed at how they had planned it and executed the plan so perfectly.

They all had something to eat, then one mother left the food to go and get the cubs, then two more mothers followed. Alison knew where the cubs den was, so we drove on ahead to be there when the mothers arrived. It always surprises me how obedient the cubs are, if they are told to stay in or around the den until the mother returns, then that is exactly what they do, this must be a survival instinct that they are born with.

The cubs were so happy to see their mothers. As they approached, the lionesses called to them, the ears of the cubs pricked up and they ran over to greet them, jumping on their mother and each other in the excitement. After the initial commotion and greetings, the mothers started walking away from the den and the cubs followed. I just loved to see the enthusiasm of the cubs as they followed their mother, they have so much energy, a real zest for life, it’s tough to think that anything bad might happen to these little ones in the future.

As they arrived at the first carcass they came across, one of the other females was feeding in on it, two of the mothers immediately chased her off, and they were none too gentle about it. I was told that yesterday when the females and cubs were feeding on a kill one of the males tried to join them, that was a mistake on his part, five of the females turned on him, causing him some injury, one of the females went directly for his manhood, they were not messing around. For me, I’m happy that the females are prepared to defend their cubs so ferociously. Once they had dispatched the other female the cubs were called, and they rush in to get their share of the meal. Even this is a game for the cubs as they jump on the carcass and push each other as they try to get a good position.

A group of elephants stroll past, not too far from the kill, although there is no real danger, still the mother keeps watch while the cubs eat. Eventually other females join them, it is nice to see the big family together, playing and squabbling over the food. The cubs are always watching what’s going on, discovering what’s acceptable and what’s not, taking their cues from their mother. They must learn lion etiquette at an early age.

When they were almost finished, we left them, to find somewhere to eat our own breakfast. Now they would either return to the den or find a shady spot to laze around for the rest of the day.

Next, after driving some distance we came to a tree with the female Leopard known as Kazuri in it. The tree had dense leafage, so she was fairly concealed. It was agreed that we would wait for a while to see if she would come down. Since it was still very cloudy, it was warm but not too hot, so the wait was comfortable. Other vehicles came, took photos and left, just us and one other vehicle stayed and waited. Kazuri has a female cub, named Nantito, who is almost independent and so spends much of her time by herself.

Alison spotted Nantito a couple of hundred meters away, she was lying in the grass, but not coming any closer. By now it was lunch time and Alison suggested we drive a little way, have lunch, and then come back. We agreed. We had only gone about a hundred meters when a call came in from the other vehicle to say Kazuri was awake and about to come down, so we did an about turn and raced back to the tree.

We arrived in time to see her get up and come to the top of the tree trunk before climbing down the opposite side of the tree. Nantito must have been watching her because once Kazuri was on the ground, had marked the tree with her scent and moved off, Nantito then came walking toward the tree and followed her mother, although she was clearly nervous of the vehicles, the way she walked, hesitantly, stopping every now and then to sniff they ground for the scent of her mother possibly for reassurance. Kazuri didn’t get too far before she found another smaller tree that she liked and settled down in that. Nantito also stopped not too far away and settled down once again in the grass. The photos on the left are Kazuri and the photos on the right are Nantito. Although they look very similar there are small differences.

On the way to find a nice spot for lunch we saw a single cheetah all by herself, out in the open, panting heavily because of the heat, it was still cloudy, but the heat now was oppressive. Alison said it was a female, I am still not able to tell the difference between males and females without getting a closer look, which is not a good idea with wild animals. Her name is Nora. We passed her again a little later, on our way back, she was still in the same place where we had left her.

After a late lunch we saw a few vehicles gathered in the distance, so we drove over to see what they were looking at. It was two more Leopards, one was sleeping in the bush and the other, we were told, was in a hole in the ground. Since the Leopard in the bush was well hidden the driver took us over to the hole, it wasn’t a very big one and I couldn’t believe there was a fully grown Leopard in it. We were only there for a few minutes when the leopard emerged, it was Luluka, another female. She sat peacefully next to the hole while everyone took photos of her.

It was now time to head back to camp, but what an amazing day we had with all the female cats.

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Thrill of the chase

So, no blog last week, I wasn’t well and since I wasn’t able to go out into the park recently, I’m going to post about my last game drive a couple of weeks ago with a photographer friend of ours, Gren, and his partner Susan, who are visiting. Gren provided me with the amazing title photo and the other action shots of the cheetah.

Leaving early as usual the first thing we encounter is of course cows, returning home after a night eating grass. Then Alison spotted something in the grass, a little way off the track, right out in the open plains. We drove up to it and stopped right next to it, the wheels not 2 feet from its head, it was not an animal but a young boy, no more than around 14 years old, fast asleep, dead to the world as they say, and Susan at first thought he was dead, as he hadn’t moved a muscle when the landcruiser approached and stopped right next to him. The driver had to shout at him to wake him, I was relieved when he moved and got up, shouting to wake his friend who was also asleep in a nearby bush, they should have been with the herd of cows that we had just passed. The cows had obviously decided it was time to go home, to be milked, whether they had anyone with them or not. Once we were sure the boys were okay we went on our way.

The cold morning air was turning to low lying mist as the land warmed with the sunrise. The clouds turning pink as the sun rose and filtered through the trees, throwing long shadows from every bush and rock in its path. A couple of Hippos appeared, since they were nowhere near water, they were probably on their way home to sleep, after a night of grazing.

Then looking out across the plains there appeared at first just one lion walking towards us, then another and then another, it was the Sopa pride.

There are still a few young males in the Sopa pride that are, in my opinion too old to be still hanging out with the pride but haven’t yet been kicked out. you can see they are growing fine manes; this happens at the onset of sexual maturity and so is a signal for the females to say, come on, it’s time to go. Although they are now young adults, they still have that playfulness of cubs and are chasing and biting each other as they come, calling out to the ones behind. One chased an antelope, but not very far, they didn’t need food their bellies were already full. 

. Another two decided to chase a vehicle, clearly, they had bags of energy. Bringing up the rear another young male carrying a wildebeest horn from their latest kill. As we were watching these playful young lions there came a call on the radio and we left in a hurry.

There was a report of four cheetahs on a nearby hill. What a surprise when we arrived and saw them, Alison said ‘that is the mother and her 4 cubs,’ well sub-adults really. She had left them to fend for themselves the previous week, but they must have found her, and judging by the look of them they had not been very successful by themselves. They were all extremely skinny, even the mother, and were definitely in need of a good meal. They were heading up the hill into thick bush and we couldn’t follow.

Since there was nothing around for them to eat, we drove around to the other side of the hill, figuring they would come back down and sure enough they did. Even though they were very thin, the cubs still had the energy to play. The mother constantly on the lookout for their next meal. We didn’t have long to wait before she spotted something, called to the cubs and they made an attempt on a small antelope, we couldn’t see what it was as it disappeared into the bush with the cheetahs close on its heels. Unfortunately, they came back with nothing.

They were now walking towards the sand river, so we crossed over, had breakfast, and waited for them on the other side. When finally they came, they looked around and started looking intently in one direction. They had seen an antelope on the other side of the riverbank, it was oblivious of the four cheetahs watching it. It ambled down to the river for a drink, then it did the craziest thing, it came up the riverbank on our side, right into the path of the waiting cheetahs. Once it realized its mistake it took off, one of the cheetahs had moved out to the left to ambush him as he ran from the others. I felt sure this was it, the cheetah was hungry and so fast, it is exhilarating to watch a cheetah chase down his prey. It almost worked but the antelope somehow managed to escape and so yet again they had failed and remained hungry. They went back to the river to take a drink and get their breath back. It is clear that maybe they don’t have the experience yet to survive without their mother. Since there was no other prey close, we left them relaxing on the riverbank. I do hope they were more successful later and managed to get something to eat before the end of the day.

As we headed towards the blackrock females with their cubs the driver got a call, he immediately changed direction and started to speed up, this is a good sign we were going to see something special, the anticipation was exciting. We weren’t disappointed, as we crested the top of an incline I could see a lone tree in the middle of the plains with three vehicles around it, this could only mean one thing, a Leopard.

 

As we got closer, I saw one Leopard on the ground laying in the shade, this was the mother, Nunuka, and her cub Jilime in the tree with the carcass of a tommi (that’s short for thompsons gazelle). It looked like their day had been successful, they were both so calm and peaceful, even though the cars were right next to them. Jilime was particularly relaxed in the tree, so relaxed he never even opened his eyes to acknowledge our existence.

After a while Jilime woke up, moved around a little climbing higher into the tree and Nunuka got up and joined her cub in the tree but neither of them ate any of the kill, they were already satisfied and would save it for later knowing that it is safe from other predators or scavengers like the Hyena and Jackal.

So, we had seen the three cats again today, the Lions of the Sopa pride, with full bellies, the Leopard and her cub with their dinner and the cheetahs who we watched fail three times to make a kill. I really hoped they got something later. It’s always relaxing on the drive home, as we are not looking for anything in particular and so it’s just a bonus when we get to see things like a red hornbill catching a fly and the beautiful grey crowned crane.

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Next Generation of Young Adults

We finally received some rain yesterday and overnight, not enough to relieve the hunger of the livestock but enough to make the going extremely tough in the park. As we enter the park we hit a patch of black cotton soil that has been turned to mud by the recent rain, driving across black cotton soil is like driving on ice, the car slides all over the place, the wheels spin while trying to gain traction, anyone that has visited the Mara in the rainy season will have experienced this. This is when the 4-wheel drive comes in real handy.

Today we witnessed young adolescents that are just starting out on their own, having to fend for themselves, often without the comfort of knowing that if they fail their mother will provide.

The first one we came across was a cheetah, at first, I thought it was our local male cheetah, as it was in the same general area. This one though, was behaving strangely. We saw him at a distance and had to drive back and around a small stream to where he was, when we arrived at the spot we thought he should be, we found he was still way ahead of us and moving fast. He wasn’t hunting because there was no prey in his sights. We followed and as we got closer, we could hear him calling, a kind of high-pitched chirp together with a cross between a purr and a rumbling growl.

This is when Alison realized it was a young adolescent who just yesterday was seen with his mother and two siblings. He had obviously been separated and was now trying to re-unite with them by smelling the scent on the trees and calling out to them. Alison explained that when the cubs are around 18 months old the mother leaves them, and they must make their own way in life from then on. Usually, a female sibling will stay with her brothers until she is ready to mate and then go off by herself, but males will stick together and form a coalition. Fortunately for this cheetah he did manage to find his siblings later in the day and re-join them, however their mother had moved on. I’m not sure how long these three young cheetahs will stick around as this area is part of the territory covered by our local cheetah, he might not be too happy about it, we will have to wait and see what happens.

After leaving the cheetah, we drove on for a while with not a single animal in sight until we approached the brow of a hill and there, before us covering the plains, such a diverse collection of animals. Many types of antelopes including Impala, Hartebeest, Thompson gazelle, Eland, also Buffalo, Zebra, Wildebeest and right in front of us, just next to the road around six or seven young Jackals, three of whom were eating something, I couldn’t quite make out what, possibly something they had killed themselves, which means they also may soon be starting out on their own.

After a brief discussion I proposed that we try to find the Leopard cub Roho, that had lost his mother, to see how he was coping on his own. We drove in vain around the small rivers where Leopards tend to live.

 

While we were trying to find Roho we did see two female lions, the lions were lying close to a herd of gazelle and a few zebra, who surprisingly didn’t look too concerned about how close they were. When the lionesses got up to walk off away from them, I could see they had full bellies, maybe the gazelles and zebras knew this. It is fascinating to sit and watch how these animals, predator and prey, are able to live and die side by side.

 

We took a break and stopped on the blackrocks for breakfast. It was a nice, secluded spot but I suspect a popular place to stop as we were joined by this very friendly, chuck chuck. It is actually a spur fowl, but we call them chuck chucks because of the sounds they make. This one in the photo walked right up to where me and Ken were sitting to have a look inside our breakfast box, he was clearly indicating he wanted a few crumbs.

So, since we were in the blackrock pride territory we tried to find the cubs. The best time to see the cubs though is early morning when they are either eating or playing so when we did find one of the mothers, they were not around. They did make a brief appearance when we returned later, as they came to suckle from their mother.

Moving on, we headed for another of the small rivers, still looking for Roho, we passed a small group of Elephants, one of the younger members of the group had no tusks, since even the babies had very small tusks so it was strange for one to have nothing at all, I have seen elephants with just one tusk where the other one was destroyed by either fighting or by accident, or a broken tusk, but never one born with no tusks at all.

Then in the distance we saw many vehicles crowding around the base of a tree, near a dried up river bed, I was hopeful that we had found him as we made our way over. It turned out not to be Roho but another cub, this one, a female called Nantito who is generally seen with her mother Kazuri, but this time was by herself relaxing along a branch of the tree. She had a kill in the tree with her, a baby waterbuck that she was trying to drag closer, at one point I thought she was going to let it fall but she managed to hang on to it and then started eating it.

Alison pointed out an adult waterbuck not far away, this was possibly the baby’s mother, looking for her baby, nature is not always kind. The care Nantito was showing when handling the kill indicated that she had probably made the kill herself. She had reached the age where she could look after her own needs. Unlike the cheetah, a mother Leopard doesn’t leave her cubs, and a young female Leopard will sometimes stay with her mother for up to four years before establishing her own territory and even then, will often visit her mother.

Seeing these young adolescents beginning a new stage in their lives is incredible, I hope we will see much more of this in the years to come, and hope that climate change doesn’t destroy their habitat forever. It would be satisfying to think that our children and our children’s children would get to see these magnificent animals in the wild.

Finally, as we made our way home, we passed another family of elephants, two adults and five young of various ages, including a baby. All vying for shade under a sparce acacia tree.

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Christmas Safari

We left camp early this morning, before sunrise, although it was fairly light as we had a three-quarter moon, high in the cloudless sky. Usually when we cross the small stream into the park we are greeted by many zebra, gazelles and giraffe. This morning it was just a lone Hyena. The plains animals had moved out further away from the edge of the park due to the huge number of Maasai cows invading their space, and the reason for this is drought. It is very, very dry at the moment, the grass is mostly pale in colour, like straw and lying flat on the ground due to lack of water, obviously this gives no nourishment to the cows on which the Maasai depend for their livelihood, so, they are forced to take their cows out into the park at night, retuning each morning. Sometimes walking long distances to where the grass is greener, despite the dangers of the wild animals, in order to keep their cows alive.

So, after the brief sighting of the Hyena the second animal we encounter is our local male cheetah, he also has moved further out, following the food. We reach him just as the sun is rising and he looks like he is ready to hunt. We gave him lots of space, positioning ourselves on the other side of a group of Impala that he is focused on. Unfortunately, not all drivers can read the signs and one Landcruiser drove up too close to the cheetah, blocking his view of the prey, so he relaxed for a while but continued to scan the area for another opportunity.

Cheetahs and in fact all predators need to have patience, and that also applies to people who want to witness one of the predators hunting. Cheetahs have a success rate of around 50% while for Lions and leopards it is only around 30%

The cheetah then stands and starts travelling to find more prey, marking his territory on the trees as he passes. We follow him for quite a distance, through bush, up over hills, I notice that when he spots something interesting his tail goes up and twitches in excitement. It is already very windy this morning but as we reach the top of the hill it’s like a gale blowing through the jeep and since the cheetah has now taken shelter under one of the bushes we head down.

After some time of cruising the Sopa pride territory, Alison spots 2 lions, a female and an adolescent. But, as often happens, they are on the other side of a small stream with very steep sides, so we had to find a place for the jeep to cross. This means first deciding which direction to follow the stream, then looking at, and testing different spots to see if they are viable crossing points. Mostly this involves the guide checking out the ground on foot to see how soft or muddy the ground is and assessing the chances of not getting stuck.

 

Finally, we make it and drive up close to the two sleeping lions. The younger one is hiding in the bush; I can only just make him out. The female looks up at us when we arrive but loses interest very quickly, we sit with her for a while until the younger one comes out of hiding, rubs up against his or her mother and settles down. It looks like they are settled for the day, so we move on to try and find the blackrock females.

 

On the way we pass a small herd of Elephants, a family by the looks of it with members of all sizes including a small baby. They were moving very fast in our direction, I’m not sure if something spooked them or they were just in a hurry, but I think they were not very happy about us being in their way.

As we entered the blackrock territory, Alison once again spots 2 lions in the distance, females, they are not too far away from a group of Zebra. Looking through the binoculars I could see that they were interested in hunting, one of the females started stalking slowly towards them, moving low in the not so long grass. So giving them a wide birth, the driver positioned the jeep closer to the Zebra, we were hopeful of seeing a kill, the female took a run at them, however, it was not to be, a Zebra sensed her, gave a warning call to the whole herd and they ran away. I have noticed that when Zebra run from lions they only run a short distance, it’s as if they instinctively know how far away they need to go, to be safe from attack. As soon as they have that space between them and the lions, they stop and turn around to watch their attackers, if the lions move closer, they move away again, keeping the same distance between them. It seems difficult for a lion to get close enough in daylight, they have a very tough job. One of the photo’s shows the lioness after her failed attempt, with all that food just out of reach. Once the females had lost the element of surprise they moved on, playfully jumping on one another as they go, probably to dissipate their pent-up energy.

 

We then try to find the other females with their cubs, the females were not difficult to find, three of them were sleeping together at the edge of the black rocks, from where they got their name. The cubs however were nowhere to be seen, the mothers had hidden them in a den before coming out to sleep, so it was decided we would come back later, and we drove off to find a nice place for breakfast.

We found a perfect spot, a large tree for shade and dense bush close by for toilet. A lovely open-air restaurant.

After this we went to find a leopard with a cub near the sand river, Alison had heard that she was in the area, there was another jeep cruising up and down the river also trying to find her. Unfortunately, I had to get back to camp as I had business there, so we couldn’t search for long, it didn’t matter, there would be other days.

We took a slow drive back to the three mothers in the hope of seeing the cubs before returning to camp. We were not lucky this time, the females were in the exact same position that we had left them earlier and the cubs still in the den.

 

What we did see instead was 5 Ostriches, one female and five males. It looked like 2 of the males were interested in mating as they stayed close to the female and were squabbling with each other. The 2 males took it in turns of spreading their feathers and doing a sort of dance, this is the behavior they exhibit when trying to attract the attention of a female, however this particular female looked to be more interested in eating than in mating.

 

And so, it was time to return, as we approached the camp antelope and giraffe had returned to the plains near our camp, even though a few cows and Maasai were still around, you can see how close they get to each other in one of the photos.