Hair-raising safari tales

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Happy faces on their way to Masai Mara   (Selfie courtesy: Tete)

Last week’s trip to Masai Mara was almost like manna from heaven. The man of the house was sinking under tremendous work pressure when the savannah lifeline was thrown at him by good friends Jui and Nirmalya Banerjee. They were going to inspect the site of the new Porini Cheetah Camp they would soon be setting up in the Ol Kinyei conservancy (in partnership with Gamewatchers Safaris). Would we like to tag along?

Of course, we wanted to, but that would mean taking the Friday off from school/work but thankfully that was doable. The universe also conspired to make the daughter’s tutors busy elsewhere over the weekend. Mara can never be experienced in 2 nights but we had been away from the bush far too long to afford to be choosy about such small things.

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Coffee break @Narok Coffee House   (Pic courtesy: Tete)

The road trip to Porini Lion Camp in Olare Motorogi conservancy was quite uneventful and we reached by lunch time. We hurriedly ate what we had to and got ready for our first safari of the trip. It was threatening to rain some time soon and the light was magical. As I watched hundreds of wildebeests and other usual suspects grazing on the golden plains, I found a perfect photo getting composed right in front of me.

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Jambo Zebra, said the Topi

We made a short stop at Mahali Mzuri (Sir Richard Branson’s famous high-end property) in the same conservancy to check it out. While the accommodation was extremely luxurious, what fascinated me more was the huge viewing deck (attached with every room) along with the thrilling fact that one could watch lions while soaking in a bathtub! All this of course comes at a pretty high premium.

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The amazing bathtub view with part of the huge deck visible at the corner (Pic Courtesy: Tete)

The grasslands were relatively empty and just when we spotted a lone giraffe at a little distance, our driver-guide Geoffrey said that the giraffe looked nervous! But why, we could not fathom as there was nothing around. We inched along the path looking right and left, when we suddenly spotted the cause of his ‘nervousness’. Basking in the sun was a majestic lion with a really imperial air. He sat there for a while, then walked down for a drink of water after which, he marked his territory before retiring for the day.

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I am handsome!

There were quite a few Topi gazelles with very young calves. We also found a pair of lion siblings due to an incredible distance-sighting by our guide. They were resting and the brother had a very full stomach. The sister however looked like she could do with some more food.

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Mother Topi with her little calf
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The sub-adult sister
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The well-fed sub-adult brother

A stationary Landcruiser at a distance drew our attention and when we reached there, we found two very large hyenas. However, its occupants were excitedly pointing downwards, which we later learnt was because of a sighting of a crocodile eating a zebra. Since we were on the other side of the river, we could not see what was happening on the bank directly below us. On our way, we saw some giraffes and two jackals trying to ferret out a prey from a termite mound against the backdrop of beautiful crepuscular rays (Jacob’s Ladder).

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While we looked at the hyena, the guys across the river enjoyed a more bloody sight

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Crepuscular rays
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Jackals trying to ferret out a possible prey

Then it started to rain and we all got quite wet. But we managed to see two lions out on a hunt – we followed them for a while till it got very dark – and soon after we found ourselves inside our camp. The lions were hunting within a walking distance from our tents! Early next morning, we heard a roar pretty close to the camp  which probably came from these two big cats.

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Hunt in the dark

Experiencing sunrise at Masai Mara can be spiritual for some.  Our morning safari started with a heart melting scene of a lioness (from the Ol dik dik pride) nursing her 6 fluffy little balls of delight – barely a month old. I often get consumed with very evil thoughts when I  witness such unbearable sights of cuteness – like kidnapping a few cubs for a while or darting the mother to sleep for half an hour to play with her litter!

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Sunrise
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What’s there beyond my mum?
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Essential body contact
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Patient mother

Ultimately, she had enough of the “torture” (or maybe the sun was getting too strong) and got up to go down to a shadier place, away from our prying eyes. We also noticed the rest of the pride lounging on a higher level, where there were older cubs.

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I have had enough!
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Other members of the pride on a higher level

thumb_img_2782_1024It is quite interesting to observe how morning shows the day. Of the litter, there was one cub who was more adventurous than the others. It was very curious about the surroundings and almost ventured out to the river bank – tell tale signs of a future leader. There was another one, a follower, who kept a safe distance.

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The adventurous one
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The paw size will tell you it’s not a house cat
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Don’t take me lightly

Of course the bird lover in me did not miss out on her feathered friends who intermittently flitted in and out of the scene – Egyptian geese, bulbuls, bee eaters, eagles, kingfishers, hornbills, kestrels and more.

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And then we spotted the magnificent cheetah Musiara with her 3 grown up cubs, lazing in the savannah sun. We had last seen them in December 2015 and it was so heartening to see all 3 survive such heavy odds. They were quite active and looking for a kill but the gazelles looked alert and evaded them. Later we heard that they managed to get their afternoon snack an hour after we left. But we were quite happy to enjoy the glorious sight of the beautiful mother with her gorgeous cubs.

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Looking for food

thumb_img_2830_1024thumb_img_2836_1024Our next stop was Porini Mara Camp in Ol Kinyei conservancy. En route, we stopped by the air strip to see off some of the Lion Camp guests. Later, we were lucky to sight a resplendent tree agama lizard trying to mate with a most nondescript female without much luck. All this grand show of colour was proving to be somewhat futile in his hunt for a potential mate. There were quite a few females around the tree who seemed to be teasing him in turns.

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The best located airport in the world

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The landscape around Porini Mara Camp looked more wild. You had a feeling of owning the place. Hardly any safari vans, no crowds and no off routes – it was like having your own private safari in a place with a very high density of cats and other sightings to keep you constantly chuckling with delight.

We quickly finished our lunch and went off for our afternoon game drive and spotted some beautiful fireball lilies, birds, jackals, wildebeests, crocodiles, gazelles, antelopes, giraffes and elephants. The plan now was to look for the big cats.

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Porini Mara Camp
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Wildlife all around you
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Wildebeests galore

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Suddenly, we got the news of a leopard roaring near our camp – immediately we turned back to look for it. As we approached our camp area, the guide spotted unusual baboon behaviour. Looking up, we saw a whole troop of baboons perched on tree tops, their tails hanging silently. I have never seen such well-behaved baboons in my life!

Right through our wait/search for the elusive leopard – which was for over an hour – the baboons stayed right up there, motionless and in pin drop silence. Some huddled together, some clutching on to their babies and some just by themselves, on the thinner branches that cannot support leopard weight.

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Unusually quiet baboons

This is the beauty of Porini guides. First, every vehicle gets a driver-guide and a spotter. More than their phenomenal spotting skills, what will astound you more is their uncanny inference skills. They can track cats simply by observing animal behaviour. Over and above spotting them, they will also find them for you. I have been to many camps but the Porini guides beat everyone hollow.

If you truly care for the earth and love wildlife, you can be guaranteed of an unforgettable experience in any of the Porini camps. They are more expensive as they are in a conservancy with very few camps but if you can overlook resort luxury (the tents are very comfortable but you won’t get pools or spas or gyms; instead you will get one bucket of warm water for your bath) and focus only on experience, this is the place to be in.

Our guide kept looking and then we heard a roar from a nearby bush. We went and parked near it and waited. Our men also imagined two soft “roars” in the interim period, later identified by our guide as belonging to a goose and a frog! How more embarrassing can it get? And then a loud and clear roar almost made us fall off our seats – the leopard could not be more than 10 metres away. Our guide saw a movement in the bush and we were very excited but a bit uneasy at the same time. I had never heard a leopard’s call before and its proximity was a bit unnerving. We wanted to change the position of our vehicle and discovered that it had got stuck in a very awkward situation!

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A cautious giraffe gingerly walking along in the fading light in front of us

Nothing we did could make the Landcruiser move even by an inch. In the middle of all this, there was another roar, this time even closer. The camp was very close and we nervously asked the driver if it would be wise to dial them for help. Now, the Masais have a very strong sense of pride. It is a big blow to their ego to ask for help and so he didn’t even consider our suggestion. Instead, he asked the men to get off to reduce the load. Naturally, he wouldn’t even dream of asking the women/children to do so. Incredulously, we asked if it was safe to do so, to which he calmly assured us that it was. We kept a lookout for possible dangers to cover their backs, but without abandoning our sense of humour. The guide had to sometimes remind us gently to shush.

However, we were still confused as to why the leopard was roaring – if it was a mating call, another leopard ‘on heat’ was likely to arrive on the scene soon. If it was a roar to announce her claim to the territory, the neighbouring lions may come to challenge her status. Neither situation was comforting, to say the least. But our guide and spotter seemed very relaxed as they tried to get the car out. The extreme edginess of the situation however, made our otherwise camera-shy men smile unnaturally widely, displaying a false sense of bravado.

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When you have nothing to lose, you might as well laugh    (PC: Jui Banerjee)

The next roar was softer, indicating that the cat had decided against human prey and moved away. Our car also was out of danger and we drove around, trying to locate the source of the sound which kept getting softer and softer. We safely returned to the camp, not really disappointed because this experience was worth much more than a mere leopard sighting.

Post dinner, the plan was to go on a short night drive. Jui and Nirmalya had told us that night drives in Ol Kinyei are quite rewarding. This is yet another plus of staying in Porini camps. Night game drives are included in the package and the thrill of driving out after dinner is incomparable to any other experience. Red lights are used to spot animals as they do not really bother the nocturnal ones. Yellow lights can temporarily disorient an animal for up to 30 minutes, yet many conservancies do that – charging a hefty fee for their night safaris.

Here, they do not even shine the red light on any animal for a long time as that makes the predator and prey more visible (either depriving the cats of their food or giving the prey a lesser fighting chance of survival). In fact, the Masai guides even dim the car headlights if they spotlight and stun any animal. Nightime in the forest is supposed to be a dark time, providing refuge for some and opportunity for others. Laws of the jungle need to be respected as much as possible, wherever, whenever.

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Aardwolf feasting on termites

It had rained more heavily in this part of Mara and the red light attracted hundreds of termites. I had been assured of sighting bush babies and the usual nocturnals like the spring hare (African kangaroo), scrub hare, jackals and so on, but within a minute of our night game drive, we were rewarded with a very rare sighting of an aardwolf feeding around a termite mound. Surprisingly, this very shy creature made no effort to move away. Possibly because the red light attracted his favourite food (termites) towards him. The animals we saw later, paled away in comparison after this very rare sighting!

img_2944We woke up to another beautiful sunrise and got ready for our last safari. We saw the same herd of elephants walking in a file ahead of us. We also spotted a magnificent Bateleur eagle.

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Dawn is a feeling, a beautiful feeling..
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Elephants walking in a file
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Bateleur eagle

We couldn’t find any cheetahs but found a lion hidden in the bushes. While Olare Motorogi conservancy was bone dry, Ol Kinyei had received quite a bit of rain. All cats (except tigers) hate to be wet and move on to drier pastures or go up the hills when the plains become marshy. That is why this part was not full of visible cats.

Normally, this conservancy is famous for being a cat country where you will always see cheetahs and lions and more often than not, leopards as well. If you want to see the elusive cats, you better come here. You should also ideally spend 3 nights for a more fulfilling experience.

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Lion in hiding

Our guide seemed to be on some kind of a secret mission as he kept looking for something. He stopped at a secluded spot and bent down to peer into a small ravine, carefully covered by a thick bush. Then he exclaimed happily ‘There she is!’ Who? What? Where? He maneuvered our Landcruiser into a waterlogged ditch and asked us to look through the bush. And sure enough, there was a lioness with 3 newborns, who were yet to be taken out in the open as they were still very vulnerable.

It was quite a scary situation as she was only about 30 metres away and it is well known how fiercely protective mothers are of their cubs. Every time we peered through the branches, the lioness would look straight at us but gradually got assured that we did not pose any real threat to her babies.

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Vigilant mom
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Cub #1
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Cub #2
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Awwww….

Naturaĺly, we were thrilled at this rare sighting. Only rangers know where a new mother is hiding her cubs and in a conservancy, this news is often shared with the camp since it is safe to do so – the number of visitors are small and the camps very responsible. We were privileged to be taken to this spot because Jui and Nirmalya were with us. They gave a new dimension to our safari experience with their personal involvement which incidentally, is extended to all their clients.

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The little one still can’t focus properly

Since we had a flight to catch later in the day, we decided to leave the mom and cubs in peace to look for something else. But as Geoffrey tried to reverse, he discovered that the Landcruiser had got precariously stuck in the slush. The wheel did not get any traction and kept spinning wildly, emitting black fumes and carelessly flinging muck in all directions. The lioness immediately sat up, looking very alert. We had got ourselves in BIG trouble! After a few futile attempts, even the proud Masai realised it was a hopeless case and decided to call for help. But the call was made after a few more attempts.

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Royally stuck

Tensely, we waited there for over an hour albeit punctuated by uncontrollable fits of nervous, semi-silent giggles over things that were not even remotely funny, like various modes of death, adding an extra layer of clothing by wearing a waterproof poncho to make the biting more difficult and so on.

What was truly noteworthy was the extremely cautious behaviour of the Masais – the same guys who so very nonchalantly asked our men to get off the car in really close proximity of a roaring leopard the previous evening, did not even attempt to step out of the car in the presence of the new mother lioness.  Instead, they kept looking at the bush to gauge her mood.

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Waiting for help

Finally, help arrived in the form of a Landcruiser loaded with 5 smiling Masais along with a driver and mechanic. They brought some branches and threw them in front of our wheels — but did not dare to step out. Such is the depth of their respect for the new mother. A shovel was chucked nervously from the other vehicle but it lay on the ground, untouched, as it didn’t reach close enough for our driver to pick it up without leaving the car. Nobody  attempted to get out of the vehicle.

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Masai throwing branches in front of our wheels

This (branch throwing) exercise was of little help and so the other Landcruiser decided to go around to park behind us. The tarpaulin cover was pulled down on the lioness’s side of the vehicle to block her vision of the major movements happening on this side. One by one, 7 of us crossed over to the other car and drove away happily and with a huge sigh of relief. Our Landcruiser was left abandoned there, to be rescued later as and when the lioness moved away with her cubs, which was bound to happen soon, given the degree of disturbance caused by us although unintentionally.

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The rescue vehicle parked next to us
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Evacuation process
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Worried mechanic looking at the next evacuant
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The happy survivors in the new vehicle

Truly, it was a hair-raising experience.

It would be unfair to end my post without mentioning the very hospitable Banerjees. It is going to be the first Indian hosted camp in Masai Mara. Food is usually a big problem for Indian tourists in Kenya, especially the vegetarians. That will definitely not be an issue in Porini Cheetah Camp as they intend to  address this problem very earnestly.

They are both extremely passionate about conservation, wild life, creating general awareness about the delicate balance in nature, and their child-like enthusiasm can be quite infectious. Their biggest USP is of course, to host the clients and accompany them in their game drives. And when the host resides in the camp, every service – from housekeeping to food to guiding – goes up a few notches. I’m really looking forward to the opening of their camp in June 2017.

P.S. – We enquired and found that our Landcruiser was retrieved from that ditch the same afternoon. The lioness had predictably moved deeper into the ravine with her cubs, out of human sight, but was still in the vicinity. Because when the Masais went to retrieve the vehicle, there was a loud growl the moment they stepped out.

(All photos, except otherwise mentioned, is by the author.)

PPS: My family had the privilege of signing the register of Porini Cheetah Camp as guest #1 and I’m happy to report that it’s running happily to outstanding TripAdvisor reviews. Here’s a link from one of leading Indian dailies.

https://www.google.ae/amp/s/m.timesofindia.com/life-style/spotlight/living-in-the-heart-of-the-african-savanna/amp_articleshow/63611227.cms

 

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The time when curiosity almost killed the cat

According to Wikipedia

“Curiosity killed the cat” is a variation of the proverb – curiosity killed the cat – that includes the rejoinder “but satisfaction brought it back.” Although the original version was used to warn people of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation, the addition of the rejoinder indicates that the risk would lead to resurrection because of the satisfaction felt after finding out.

I had a first hand experience of literally “witnessing” this proverb last week, on my solo trip to Maasai Mara.

After a not-so-exciting afternoon game drive, as I was returning to the camp, my driver Simon got a call informing him that 2 leopards had been spotted at the location we had left minutes back –  after a futile search for these very animals. The sun was about to set and darkness was fast descending. He quickly reversed the jeep and reached the spot in time to find 2 jeeploads of tourists keenly  looking towards a spot, dimly washed with twilight. My eyes needed a little time to figure out what they were looking at – two leopards lounging on the fallen trunk of a tree, looking into the bushes and beyond.

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The first sighting of the 2 leopards
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The wary older one
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The curious younger cub

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One was visibly much smaller than the other but I couldn’t make out if it was an older brother or the mother. Anyone who knows me even a little bit, knows about my love affair with these very beautiful but shy grey-eyed cats. As I sat enraptured, feasting my eyes on these two cats, I noticed two young elephants benignly progressing towards these spotted felines, while merrily chomping on the plucked grass. Although the little one was closer to the pachyderms, the older one had wisely slipped off the log and disappeared into the long grass as they came closer.

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The young elephants and the little cub – look at their relative sizes
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The restless and the curious one

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Check the position of the tree trunks to follow the progress of the elephants
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The older one makes a hasty escape

The little one was as fascinated with the trunked giant as I was with her. She refused to budge and kept watching it. For a split second, there may just have been a change of mind, induced by the instinctive feeling of possible danger, because she jumped off the log for a moment.  But seconds later, she jumped back on it, even more curious!

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Back on the log, but at the spot where the older one was initially
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Open challenge or juvenile curiosity?
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Coming closer

But now, the elephant was within nudging distance, and not looking too happy at the cub’s public show of defiance. I was getting edgy now as I knew what even a playful nudge of those tusks can do. Then came the trumpeting call of warning. The little one had not an iota of doubt any more about which road to take. In a flash, she was gone and I started breathing again! The mini tusker  kept slamming into the log, with her tusks, with displeasure but soon went back to the more pleasurable activity of munching grass.

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TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
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Now the cub finally gets wiser and starts to move

My hunch is, these two “kids” encountered each of its kind for the first time and went home all the more wiser. I also think the bigger leopard was probably an irresponsible older brother because he never entered the scene after his vanishing act. Would a mother leave her cub to spar with a tusker, no matter how young the calf may have been?

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This round belonged to the young tuskers

But the unanswered question that remains is: was the cat’s curiosity satisfied and if so, “will satisfaction bring it back?”

PS: Dusky conditions made photography very difficult.

Of Fig and other leopards

Let me forewarn you that this blog entry has more photos than writing as one can never do justice to a leopard with just words. At least I cannot. So please be prepared for the visual onslaught!!

I have been living in Kenya since April 2014 and I have so far (till March 2016) visited Masai Mara 5 times, Naivasha 4 times, Nakuru thrice, Ol Pejeta & Amboseli twice each, Aberdares & Samburu once and Nairobi National Park too many times to remember accurately.

I was very lucky to spot the Big 5 on my very first visit to Mara. It was a beautiful sighting of a leopard climbing down one tree and up another leafier one to get away from too many prying eyes. That time, I was not aware that animals had names and one can form a personal relationship with them. For me, it was just a visual treat. However, I fell in love with this magnificent spotted animal at first sight.

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My first ever leopard sighting
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Gets off the tree
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Walks away
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On to a another tree

It wasn’t until June 2015 that I spotted another leopard – in Mara North conservancy. Actually, two robust males. I was thirsting so much for this animal that I was almost trying to will-power it to appear in front of me. And magically, it did, on our last afternoon game drive! I even spotted it before our amazing Masai guide could. I had to blink twice to make sure I was not hallucinating. He passed right in front of our jeep and posed for us for quite a while. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to pack my camera and had to rely on my very basic mobile phone. But it will give you an idea how close it was.

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Male Leopard #1
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Various moods
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This one had a fresh gash on its left cheek
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Sorry for the poor pic quality
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He ran away from his territory due to the presence of lions

The next day, before leaving Mara, we spotted yet another one dozing in a bush. And within a hundred metres, there was a Masai sleeping peacefully in the open grasslands. What more could I ask for? But how I missed my camera…

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Male leopard #2 in Mara North conservancy
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A few 100 meters away this Masai was sleeping peacefully

Since then, I have seen plenty of game but I had this special bond with leopards and cheetahs. No matter how many simbas (lions) I saw, there would always be a little unfulfilled corner in my mind if I failed to see one of these spotted beauties. Probably because leopards are so very elusive, I was more keen to catch a glimpse of them.

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My next leopard sighting was in November 2015 (near Mara Intrepids) but it was a very sleepy one who didn’t give a damn about the curious tourists in the jeeps and vans buzzing around the tree. It had draped itself around a branch in such an elastic way that you may be forgiven to doubt if it had any bones. It absolutely refused to open its eyes to acknowledge our presence and continued to sleep, balancing precariously in their typically lazy way, with an occasional flick of its tail to ward off the pesky flies.

Less than a month later, in December, we visited Mara again. This time, to Olare Motorogi conservancy, which my friends had assured me, was THE big cat terrain. And sure enough, it was!! On our way to the camp, we met the famous cheetah Malaika and her 2 surviving cubs and was also rewarded with her jaw-dropping, adrenalin-rushing 200m impala chase, which stopped right next to our Land Rover Defender. Thankfully, the impala lived to see another day. More about these unbelievably gorgeous cheetahs some time soon.

I had heard of the ‘resident’ leopard Fig in the conservancy from my friends and was very intrigued. How can this terribly private cat be spotted so regularly? But the leopard who revealed herself first was another regular visitor called Pretty Girl. I have written extensively about her futile hunt in A Lesson in Solidarity”.

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Good morning!!

We met her once almost every day. She was a magnificent looking cat as leopards normally are but I didn’t think that she was particularly ‘pretty’. There was a menacing look in her eyes and she seemed to be a master of stealth and ambush as I witnessed later.

It hardly mattered whether she lived up to her name or not as I was already in seventh heaven having seen more leopards and cheetahs than lions so far on this trip. Unbelievable, yet true. It seemed that my fervent prayers for sighting these spotted beauties were being answered much beyond my expectations!

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Pretty Girl
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Looking for prey
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Very alert

During the afternoon game drive, our guide Jackson told us that he was taking us to a place where Fig had been spotted. I was already half in love with this cat even before seeing her. A leopard called Fig? Can it get any more cute than that? When we reached the fig tree, there were some jeeps parked around it already. The beauty of a conservancy is that there are very few vehicles and you can enjoy your game drive without hundreds of tourist vans polluting the place. I was told that Fig was up there with her baby boy. I could see them through the leaves but their faces were not clearly visible. So I waited…

The sun was slowly making its way to the horizon and the place looked serene in the light of the setting sun. And then SHE turned. And my heart stopped for a few seconds. I stared, hypnotized at the most beautiful animal I have ever seen. A perfect creation of nature with the most captivating pair of grey eyes.

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Gorgeous Fig

I just kept clicking away to my heart’s content…

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Mesmerising grey eyes
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Did I see something?

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Fig and her cub
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Sometimes dozing
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Sometimes alert

Then I got greedy. I wanted to capture her cub on film too. But the cub was proving to be very frisky and elusive. And it was facing the other way. Thanks to our intuitive guide Jackson, we managed to park in a spot where I managed to see his face for a very short time but long enough to get some decent frames. He was trying to feed on the remains of a young gazelle that his mother had brought up for him to hone his carnivorous instincts.

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Fig’s cub
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Playful
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Handsome fella
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What next?
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Trying to munch on the remains of a Thomson’s gazelle

At the camp we were staying (Porini Lion), I met Joseph S.T. Lam, a renowned wildlife photographer from Hong Kong, whose photos have been featured in African Geographic. We were privileged to watch some amazing footage of the great migration and other fascinating wildlife moments. He had been coming to Kenya for years and was a popular and regular Porini guest.

While we were stuck in the reception area due to an unexpected and fierce cloudburst in the evening, he told us about Fig, who he had been tracking since she was a baby. “She is the prettiest of them all”, he said and we could not agree more. She is smaller than other leopards but is undoubtedly the most stunning. He also regaled us with his stories of deep sea diving in Malaysia and of his adventures in Mara. Quite a thrilling way to spend the last evening of 2015.

I learnt that Fig was born under a fig tree to mom Acacia and dad Pink Nose and is five years old now. She has a baby sister called Porini, named so because she was born inside Porini Lion Camp, probably near Tent #6. Joseph very graciously allowed me to use some of his photos in my blog. Thank you so much for encouraging me too!

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Fig’s mom Acacia (pic credits – Joseph Lam)
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Fig in 2013 (pic credits – J. Lam)
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Fig’s baby sister Porini (pic credits J. Lam)

The picture of Porini at this age is especially rare, Joseph said, as she had disappeared without a trace when she was 9 months old. Last year, she was again spotted by a Masai guide and everyone was thrilled and relieved that she is still around. He also pointed out that this picture is precious because it was taken in complete darkness as is evident by the complete dilation of her pupils. Anybody who understands cats, will realise this!  Contrast it with my other pictures taken in the sunlight and you will note the difference in the pupil size.

I also heard that Fig had been trying to get pregnant for some time. After some futile attempts, her union with an over-10-year-old leopard (quite elderly by leopard standards) named Yellow made her a mother for the first time, when she gave birth to a male cub last year. He is now 8 months old and is as gorgeous as his mother. However, he is yet to be christened. As is evident from the picture below, Yellow does have a rather yellowish coat of hair.

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Fig’s dad Yellow (pic credits – J. Lam)

I will leave you with these amazing pictures of momma Fig teaching her playful cub to carry a fresh kill up a tree. She had just hunted a small bat-eared fox to train him. Behind me, the sun had started to set and it was a resplendent sight with the acacias in the foreground against the brilliant flaming sky. But the rare tutorial happening in front was far more precious – the patience and love with which Fig encouraged her cub to climb the tree with the little fox in his mouth. Was this display of extreme tenderness natural for leopards or was Fig a little more protective and maternal because it was her first child, and conceived not so easily? The way we humans do?

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The sunset I didn’t care for!!

The light had started to fade and I knew I couldn’t get good pictures in this poor light. But my eyes were feasting on a sight that was tugging at the strings of my heart. Here was a sterling example of maternal love and parental responsibility at its best. The cub tried very hard but would need a few more lessons to successfully learn this task.

As the light almost faded out, the mother seemed to indicate that it was enough for the day and started to cuddle her “tired” cub and engage in the so very endearing rituals of feline playfulness. After some minutes of rolling, licking, wrestling and pouncing on each other in the tallish grass, mother and son disappeared into the darkness in the even taller foliage.

And we reluctantly made our way back to the camp with semi-moist eyes and a head full of wonder and gratitude for getting the privilege of witnessing this magical functioning of the animal world.

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Fig up on the tree while her cub is toying with the kill below
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Fig trying to coax him up the tree
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Under her watchful eyes the training continues
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A little anxious maybe?
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Bravo, she says as she guides him up
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Mother & son up there but the bat-eared fox has slipped out of her cub’s teeth
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That’s enough for the day, little one!
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Mother lounging in the grass while the cub plays away from our sight
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Time to hug and cuddle

(I have a video of this training but I need to learn how to include it here)

Night of the hyenas

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Not so high on the popularity charts

It is a common sight in Kenya to see hyenas steal food from the bigger cats. Whenever there is a kill, you are sure to find these scavengers slowly fill up the fringes. Sometimes, they even take over as the dominant group, as I recently witnessed at Mara, where they staked their claims on a hippo killed by the lions. Their sly look, droopy back and awkward gait do not earn them any brownie points. However, they form a vital part in the cleaning up of our ecosystem.

I have learnt quite a few interesting facts about these cunning creatures during my stay in Kenya. They are not related to dogs although they seem to be. These hyenas not only scavenge, but they also skillfully hunt in packs. They can devour a whole zebra in under 30 minutes. Hyena poop is milky white due to the high presence of calcium from eating up all the bones. Female hyenas are more muscular and dominating. Interestingly, she has only 2 nipples – as a result, only the strongest 2 of her litter survive, leaving the weaker ones to starve to death! How cleverly nature keeps a balance….

I have only seen spotted hyenas so far and I only refer to these when I write. For more hyena “wild” facts, click on this link.

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The Ark (picture from the lodge website)

During our recent visit to Aberdare National Park, we stayed at The Ark. Most of my acquaintances who have been here, usually spend their time chilling out in the viewing deck with a drink or two, watching buffaloes and elephants (and sometimes a leopard or a rhino if they are lucky) at the salt lick and watering hole. When we reached there, we were also greeted by a similar placid sight – buffaloes, elephants, wart hogs and bush bucks jostling for a good lick of salt. And there were some herons, egrets, cranes, geese and ducks. We were not expecting anything scintillating but as we walked towards the lodge on a canopy bridge, cutting through the lush green forest, we mentally prepared ourselves for an adventure of sorts.

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The mating ducks

There are 3 viewing decks at the Ark but due to the cold, we chose to lounge in the one completely enclosed by glass panes but keeping an eye on the waterhole, hoping for a stray leopard. There wasn’t much action happening at that time, except for a pair of yellow billed ducks, engrossed in a deeply elaborate mating ritual.

After dinner, I asked the resident ranger if hyenas ever come visiting there and he said “Oh yes, they were here just now!” As I was ruing the fact that I had missed them by a whisker, I saw a big one sauntering in from the forest. It was 8:20 pm.

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The first hyena

Slowly, their numbers started to increase, alerting me to something sinister waiting to happen. The scene looked pretty peaceful till then – a herd of buffaloes grazing by the waterhole, with some ducks and geese skimming over the water. There was also a lone elephant and some genet cats scrounging for food. And the funny looking giant forest hog, which I saw for the first time.

And THEN we spotted the buffalo calf and the slow build-up of hyena activity around it. And their bloodthirsty intentions became quite clear. It was a spine chilling drama waiting to unfold…

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Can you spot the calf in the middle?
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The mother trying to escape with the calf
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The mother and calf looking for sanctuary in the water while the father tries to ward off the predators on the land

The number of hyenas had now grown up to 25! With the aid of some impeccable invisible communication, they had all positioned themselves around the floodlit waterhole, completely surrounding the calf. Some lazily sitting, some strolling, some drifting and a couple even mating in a bush! But they were all patiently waiting for their dinner.

Suddenly, a pack of 5-6 became aggressive and started to attack the calf. From all sides. For hours, the parents and other herd members charged at them in turns, trying to ward them off but keeping the calf well covered. Sometimes they even scampered away to the jungle, but were driven back to the salt lick from the other side by this relentless pack. They even tried to take refuge in the water but even there, the hyenas would not leave them alone. As I zoomed in on the calf, I noticed that its tail was bleeding. And there were scratch marks on its hind legs. The hyenas had tasted blood! The glass deck was full of visitors now, unsure of whether to stay on (and witness the gory end) or leave.

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For some strange reason, the other herd members gave up defending the calf after a while. It was now left only to the mother and father. At  12:30 am, we decided to retire to our rooms as we realized this was going to be a painful wait. In any case, we could all guess how this story was going to end. In my restlessness, I had come out once again to the deck only to see a white tipped mongoose scurrying about and a deathly calm around the floodlit salt lick/waterhole.

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white tipped mongoose

Just as we were dreaming that the calf got saved, we were woken up by the loud and continuous, painful grunts of a buffalo. The death cry pierced through the still of the night and we rushed out only to find the waterhole completely deserted. The ranger pointed out to the direction of the forest where the action was supposedly happening and after 10 odd minutes, the groaning stopped. At 2:20 am, it was all over.

Unlike the big cats, hyenas do not suffocate their prey – they eat it alive! One of the most painful deaths one can imagine. It shook us to the core trying to imagine what was happening beyond our line of vision. But that’s how it happens in the jungle. nature at its primitive or pristine best. There are no lions in Aberdare National Park and so the resident hyenas need to hunt in order to get their food. I have seen lion and cheetah hunts before but this one was particularly unsettling.

The next morning, there was the usual activity of the buffaloes and other animals at the waterhole. But the youngest member was conspicuous by its absence…

The Enkoyanai Pride & some other lions of Mara

During a visit to Porini Lions Camp, we had the luxury of the afternoon game drives stretching up to almost 8 pm. Our first lion sighting of the day was during an evening drive and what a majestic sight it was! Nineteen lions of the Enkoyanai pride spread out on the plains of Olare Motorogi Conservancy, enjoying the post-sunset coolness.

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Our first glimpse of the lions scattered all over the plains

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I learnt that this pride started to form around 2007, when 4 lionesses found refuge here. Two large males joined them and took over the pride. During the migration season of 2008, the pride was blessed with 10 cubs but there was a fear that these cubs may all starve when the herbivores moved south post migration.

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Wish I knew this beautiful cat’s name

The management of the conservancy did not bend down despite growing pressure from outside to feed the pride as they felt that this situation arose from “poor parenting”. However, this “cruel” approach worked as the starving lions were forced to learn how to hunt. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention/discovery!

They lost only 2 out of the 8 cubs which is an acceptable survival rate. Not “sparing the rod” prevented similar starvation disasters from happening in the future and the pride seemed to have learnt that they needed to aggressively hunt for food during non-migration months. The pride has since multiplied and are the second largest pride in the conservancy.

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Wish I could click a 360 degree view of all the 19 lions

We spent quite some time just watching the lions enjoy the cool evening breeze after the scorching heat of the day – playing, snuggling, rolling and generally lazing around. Most of the adult females were pregnant and were in no mood to frolick with the sub adults. However, there was one, aptly named the Babysitter, who had a gentler and more loving disposition. The “meet and greet” ritual we witnessed will be forever etched in my mind. Around 12 sub-adults rushing happily towards the pregnant but maternal Babysitter was a sight to behold! The cuddling, body rubbing, rolling over, licking and jumping around rituals warmed up the cockles of my heart. Sadly, it was quite dark and I have no good photos to document this amazing ritual.

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The sub adults on their way to “meet and greet”
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MOHICAN – The Lion King of the Pride

And then we saw Mohican – at first a jaw-dropping silhoutte of this majestic dominant male of the pride walking towards us – his dark mane looking even more regal and awe-inspiring in the twilight. I was instantly reminded of the killer lions in movie Ghosts of the Darkness. He kept a distance from the rest of his brood, but he was around them, keeping a keen eye.

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A very common Mara sunrise

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Next morning, we witnessed the brilliant African sun rise up in the horizon and met the same pride again – this time, basking in the sun and looking quite relaxed and well-fed. The momma of the pride, Babysitter, was also there, but a little further away – may be to ensure that the playful sub adults do not disturb the other mothers to-be of the pride!

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Young male
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The Enkoyanai Pride basking in the sun
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She may be the babysitter, but I would not like to cross her path

We decided to drive to the main Masai Mara reserve next day after hearing that a pride of lions had killed yet another hippo in a span of 2-3 days. On the way, we met a lioness who had recently given birth and was looking very alert.

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New mother

We reached the spot of the kill quickly and were greeted by a most terrible stench. And an even more unusual sight….

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Lion and hyenas sharing a kill
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Hyenas inside the hippo belly
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Hoof of the dead hippo

There was a small pool in which the hippo carcass lay. On the left side of the pool, on dry ground of course, was a lioness munching on hippo meat but sitting inside the belly of the hippo was a pack of hyenas laughing, screaming and fighting as they gorged on the meat. We learnt that hippo meat is akin to pork, in taste. So, not only was there a huge availability, it was tasty as well.

There was one cheeky hyena right in front of the lioness too, trying to snatch her share. Soon, her brother came to help his sister who was having a tough time warding off the dauntless hyenas. In fact, one of them got a mighty slap from the bro and was flung a few feet away!! The series of photos below may just about give you an idea of the commotion that was happening there.

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Sister getting harrassed
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Brother comes to his sister’s rescue
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The hyenas were a little wary of the male

Never had I witnessed lions and hyenas eating together. Our guide guessed that the hippo was probably severely injured by the lions and came to the pool to take refuge as cats hate to get wet. Here, she may have succumbed to his/her injuries and then the hyenas took over. There were a few lions hidden in the tall grass but the hyenas outnumbered them. They were everywhere – INSIDE the hippo, ON the hippo, AROUND the hippo, IN the water, on the banks, in the grass and far away, waiting for their turns.

In the middle of all this gore, the keen birdwatcher in me saw a very pretty sight. A little Malachite kingfisher perched on the blade of a grass waiting to get lucky as well. The size perspective was quite interesting!!

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As the hyenas eat while sitting in the hollow of the hippo’s tummy, a Malachite kingfisher patiently waits to be as lucky for lunch

We left this site of gore to look for more pleasant things and were rewarded with a beautiful sighting of another majestic lion Lipstick. If you observe his lips, you will know why he has been named so. He was enjoying the morning sun and seemed in no hurry to go anywhere.

He proved to be the perfect model but after a while got terribly bored with the humans and disappeared into the bushes after marking his territory !

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Humans are such a bore!
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Why don’t you just leave me alone?
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Ok, I’ve had enough…..
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If you don’t leave, I will!
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Just remember it’s MY territory

We went back to the hippo feasting site to see what else was happening there and found it almost deserted. Only one lion was semi-dozing in the bush some distance away and all that remained of the hippo was this.

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Once upon a time, a hippo grazed the plains of Mara
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Circle of life
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A satisfied lion post lunch

Later, our guide took us to the spot where the first hippo was killed a couple of days ago and this is what was left there!! Only his skull, which was too hard even for the hyenas to crack. An elephant calf had died of natural causes a few days back, providing an easy meal for the lions but that site was clear too.

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The skull of a hippo killed earlier

Much as we hated to watch the blood and gore, this was food for the lions. Anyone who has watched a lion (or any carnivore) hunt knows how difficult it is for them to get a meal. How hard they have to work. And that there are more failed hunts than successful ones. And when the cats give birth, the task becomes doubly difficult. Not only do they have to hunt to keep themselves alive and healthy to produce milk for the cubs, they also have to hide the cubs safely to save them from other predators. When the cubs are weaned off milk, they are still too playful and take a long time to learn to hunt. Then the mother has to hunt to provide enough food for herself and her cubs. Many a time, the playfulness of the cubs spoil the carefully laid out plans of the mother. I have myself seen this a few times.

For the herbivores, food is easy as grass and leaves are everywhere. And then there is amazing collusion among the “hunted” to warn the others of the presence of predators. The baboons, the collective network of the ungulates and the drone system of birds like hamerkops and rollers (whose eggs are food for predators like leopards).

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These beautiful impalas don’t have to hunt for food

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Territorial battle is a more serious concern for these young males

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Many lions are killed by these very aggressive cape buffaloes

It is a very very hard and tough life for the cats. Just because we buy our meat from sanitized environments, we cannot pretend to be “holier than thou” and ignore the equally (or probably more) gory circumstances which bring these juicy burgers, steaks, kebabs and tandoori chicken to our table.

A friend of mine was recently pondering whether she should have saved a skink from the jaws of death of a snake instead of clicking an “award winning” picture. But we all agreed that we should let nature take its course and not interfere. It is after all the snake’s meal. Who are we to snatch it?

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Would you snatch his meal?

However, I would save a cheetah cub by raising hell if I saw a hyena attack it. Cheetahs are endangered species and they are not exactly a hyena’s meal. They just kill them to reduce the competition. But to be honest, it’s also because they are frightfully cute!

But maybe one should not do that either as that is also an interference into the natural order of the survival of the fittest….or maybe not?

A Lesson in Solidarity

Very rarely does one sight a leopard out in the open the first thing in the morning. Not only did we sight Pretty Girl but we soon realized she was hungry and looking for a kill. She had 2 big cubs who were unfortunately not old enough to hunt on their own. IMG_7090

The gorgeous sight of this magnificent cat, a few metres away from our vehicle, stopped us in our tracks. After scanning the area for a while, she decided to try her luck on the other side of the river. We too moved away and positioned ourselves on the other side.

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Watching a leopard preparing for a kill is a hair raising experience. Not for anything is it one of the stealthiest predators. Unlike lions, it does not hunt in a pride. Unlike a cheetah, it does not chase its prey at supersonic speed. It mainly depends on its stalking and ambushing skills. I will let the pictures speak for themselves….

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We had read about the amazing jungle radar system that protects the herbivores. The zebras have an acute sense of smell. The Thomson’s gazelles have a good ear. The baboons and monkeys send warning calls when they spot a predator. The hamerkops and rollers act like drones and send distress calls when they spot a leopard – they hate the cat as it eats their eggs. But what we did not know was how they boldly challenge their predator after spotting it!

Fortunately for the gazelle, the leopard was spotted and it started to walk away dejectedly towards the bush across the plains. And then the drama unfolded. The little gazelle alerted its mates, who followed it at a distance, and then started charging towards the leopard. We thought that this foolishness will cost the Tommy dearly but the little fellow darted across the leopard and called out to the Topi herd, who came charging at her too. Then the impalas came running. In the midst of all this, a lone buffalo stopped grazing and started to walk menacingly at Pretty Girl.IMG_6267

The way the cat scampered away for cover is a sight I will never forget. A huge group of herbivores converging on their predator who slunk away for cover. What an unbelievable show of might. What an amazing show of solidarity. My hand raised an invisible salute. And the leader of the pack was the little Tommy who was about to be devoured. The anger, the arrogance and the challenge by that little fellow was awe inspiring.IMG_6232

And I could not help but think of the war-ravaged and beleagured people of the world, especially the Middle East. Could they have triumphed if they could show similar solidarity?

Born free

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Bateleur Eagle

As a child, I had learnt the phrase “as free as a bird” and heard it being used often and very casually. It was just another simile. Never did I have a second thought about what it actually meant. Or what it truly felt.

When we got transferred to Kenya, almost on the heels of the massacre at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, much to the surprise of our friends in Singapore, we happily packed our bags and prepared ourselves for the adventure that we were sure lay ahead of us.

Like most Bengalis, who had grown up reading Chaander Pahar, we had always been fascinated by Africa. It was never the Dark Continent but a magical and mysterious place. So much so that even before finalizing a school for our daughter or looking for a house, we set off for Maasai Mara right after landing at Jomo Kenyatta Intl airport at Nairobi!

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Red collared widowbird

The first thing that hit me when I landed at the Mara airstrip was the vastness of the landscape. As we were driven through the reserve by Edward (my first African wild life guide and teacher), I looked around me in wonder. The endless rolling plains, with its sun-bathed red soil, seemed to be painted in myriad shades of brown, red, green and yellow. The mesmerising play of light and shadow on the greens and yellows, with a sudden odd appearance of a lone acacia that is so typical of the Mara landscape.

And THEN I saw the birds….. swallows, weavers,  babblers, canaries, chats, cisticolas, doves, larks, longclaws, robins, rollers, pigeons, chirping happily and flying, gliding, sailing, whirring, soaring, flitting, skimming, drifting, circling, hanging, lazing…. sometimes even doing a figure of eight, well, almost. Birds of prey like eagles, buzzards and kites hovering, swooping, plunging….  And the scavengers watching and waiting ever so patiently.

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Ruppell’s long tailed starling

How beautifully the little birds cruised through the air without a care in the world! No concrete structures to be terrified of crashing into, no pesky kids to be wary of, no electric wires or poles to be cautious of, no obstructions or traps anywhere. Till then, I was clueless about birds.  They were just little feathered creatures who made some noise and flew around us. My knowledge was limited to crows and sparrows. I also knew that the dodo was extinct. And the kiwi was a flightless bird. Maara changed all that.

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In a moment, I realized the joy of being born free along with the meaning of living free and forever free. I squirmed to think of all the birds that are kept caged as pets. Of the feelings of all the animals living in a zoo enclosures. And of the social dolphins trapped in marine parks. If only people could make one trip to Africa to witness the unbound joy in their life in their natural habitats, they would learn a real lesson in conservation. And what a crime it is to keep them captive for our selfish voyeuristic pleasures.

That day I discovered what it truly feels to be as free as a bird. And I continue to learn every day….

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Grey crowned crane

PS: To see the Bateleur Eagle in its full glory, click on this link.