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)

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A very humbling experience

In February 2015, my friend Swati and I went to meet a 20-something girl called Diana. A business communication major from Portugal, she had first come to Nairobi, 9 months back, with an NGO but had soon started out on her own, to do things her way – building a primary school in Kibera. There, we met an even younger business major Joana, who had just quit her job in Portugal, to join hands with her compatriot’s amazing efforts.

Diana had made an appeal for donations on an FB expat forum – art & craft stuff for the slum kids to create some things for a Valentine’s Day sale. They also posted pictures of the plans of the new school building. The old building – located dangerously by the railway tracks was going to be demolished any day. So though they needed craft materials at that point of time, anything and everything- from chairs to stationery – was welcome.

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Kibera
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The railway line that passes in front of the old school

Swati is a very artistic person and loves to collect craftsy things like beads, tiles, ribbons, paper, paint, …. Due to a major downsizing of their house, she needed to give away a lot of ‘junk’ collected over the years. She jumped at the idea of donating her stuff for a such good cause and asked me if I was interested too. Now, I have loads of Math and English workbooks, which I had kept close to my heart in the garb of the oft-used excuse of“jodi kono din kaaje aashe” (if they come of use some day). We were both also very curious to explore the dreaded Kibera – the largest slum in Africa and the underbelly of Nairobi. This provided us a wonderful opportunity to do both.

“In the 1920s the British colonial government allowed Nubian soldiers from Sudan who had fought for the British in World War One to settle on a wooded hillside outside of Nairobi which became known as ‘Kibera’, the Nubian word for ‘forest,’ or ‘jungle.’  The British, however, never gave the Nubians the title deeds to their new land and while they built homes and set up businesses they had no legal rights and effectively remained squatters. Over the years many other Kenyan tribes migrated from rural areas in attempt to find work in Kenya’s capital city and began to rent huts from Nubian landlords…..These residents still rent their shacks and huts from Nubians, but also from middle class landlords who live in Nairobi.  The land itself, however, belongs to the government.”

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Typical sights in Kibera
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A portion of the slum

There was some initial trepidation after planning this trip and we took the usual precautions like hiding our jewellery under a scarf, leaving our cameras behind, taking both our drivers in the car as “protection” from unwanted elements that we kind of expected to be hanging around that area. As the car approached Kibera, the look of the neighbourhoods we were passing by, started changing – as if to prepare us for what was to come.

We were greeted by the 2 girls at the appointed meeting point and we carried the boxes and bags to another slum school which was being used as a temporary storing place. The roads were too narrow for the car to pass and walking was the only way. At the other school, we met a very earnest looking David, who was their “superstar”, without whom the building project would not have started. He was in charge of supervising the construction.

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The old school

“The majority of the homes in Kibera are twelve by twelve feet shacks made from mud plastered over sticks and discarded pieces of wood or mabati, corrugated tin, with dirt or cement floors.  Thousands of narrow and uneven dirt pathways, sometimes only a few feet wide, separate these homes.  During the rainy seasons these paths become small rivers of mud, which often combine with the open sewer systems that also run alongside many of these walkways. Irene Khan, Secretary General Amnesty International, refers to these corridors as “the arteries of Kibera.”  Kibera’s arteries are clogged with every kind of garbage imaginable from plastic bags, broken glass bottles, rotting food, human waste, clothing, rubber, wood, and broken shoes. The scent of burning coal and garbage mixes with the scent of human waste and various foods to give the air throughout Kibera a constantly changing, but always pungent, smell.”

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Classroom in the old school

Walking to the new building was like a mini obstacle race. Navigating through the smelly, narrow and uneven alleys dissected by drains of dirty water, muddy wastes and people coming from opposite directions. Children with snotty noses, playing or squatting on the roads, shops selling all kinds of things. Many seemed to know Diana and waved at her with their charming Kenyan smiles.

Finally, we reached the under-construction new school – which was a very basic tin-roofed two-storeyed red clay & wood construction with walls painted white – facing a building which looked like it could collapse any time. “Now all is white but it will be very colorful when it’s complete”, assured Diana.

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Way to the new school (pic courtesy: Diana)

The ground floor had about 4-5 class rooms – the windows were mistakenly built on the wrong side of the wall making the rooms dimly lit – while the first floor had brighter rooms for the resident teachers and the orphaned kids. That is where all the activities will also be held. Work was going on full throttle and it was lovely to see the bunk beds for the kids painted brightly in pink, blue, green and yellow! The girls emphasized that their first concern was to first settle the kids in a safe, clean and happy environment, engage them in various kinds of play and then start formal teaching.

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Painting the walls of the new school with a child (pic courtesy: Diana)
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Joana, Diana and Joseph very happy with the new bunk beds
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These beds are even more colourful

 

“The government is almost entirely absent from Kibera and plays no role in building sorely needed infrastructure such as roads, sewage and water systems, schools, health services and hospitals. As a result NGOs and Faith Based Groups attempt to fill this void in order to provide some of these services, however HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment make up the majority of the mostly foreign funded aid. While Kenya has been independent for over fifty years and has had plenty of time to have granted the title deeds needed to legitimize the community, the government insists that because the slum is still illegal they have no obligation to address Kibera’s grievances.”

We were introduced to a slightly touched but chirpy lady who was cooking in one of the classrooms (Diana had invited her to stay there as she had lost her home – she will be the school cook). Then we met little Samantha and her baby brother – Samantha was grievously injured when boiling water fell on her thighs and legs (we saw some gruesome phone pics) but can walk now after the medical treatment she is getting courtesy these Samaritans. She gave us a brilliant smile when coaxed but her bro was a tough customer. When we enquired about the toilets, we were told that they were being built right in front of the school – a community toilet for the school and 20+ homes which can house as many as 8 people! And they were just pit loos.

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Samantha

“There are no proper toilet facilities in Kibera, only latrines, holes dug into the ground.  Children, mostly young boys, empty the latrines into the river, the source of Kibera’s water, for a small fee.  There is approximately one latrine for every fifty shacks and most shacks house families of at least eight people.”

As we were discussing these horrifying aspects of slum living, Joana casually bent down and wiped off the snotty nose of Samantha’s little brother with her T-shirt, as if that was the most natural thing to do! I too had observed the runny nose of the toddler a while ago with a feeling very akin to revulsion but here was a just-arrived pretty young 20+ Portuguese girl wiping off the snot of this toddler covered in grime, with her own T-shirt! If there was one moment that encapsulates my whole experience at Kibera, it was this. Waves of shame and mortification washed over me. In a flash, this incident held a mirror to my inner core.

Mind you, I have been brought up by parents who have really treated people equally. We have visited the houses of (and eaten meals with) our domestic helpers and drivers. I have gone to the house of our helper at Lake Camp. I have been to village houses of the dadas – who worked in my father’s little magazine – in Canning, Bira, Sonarpur and many other places (when I was in school/college) with my parents. But I have never experienced the squalour in Dharavi (or other Mumbai slums) or the squatters’ shantees in Calcutta by the railway tracks near Dhakuria Lakes or near Tolly Canal.  Years of exposure, education and reading had not prepared me for this experience in Kenya. I was still light years away from evolving as a human being. This was very real. In your face. Far removed from voicing our “educated” concerns over FB. This is how privileged life renders us so very lame as human beings.

Lojja, lojja, ki bhishon lojja!! (Shame, shame, oh terrible shame)

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Happy kids (pic courtesy: Diana)

With this turmoil in my head, I continued with my learning. Where did they get the land for the school? Since all the land belongs to the government, one can only lease land in Kibera. But only embassies are allowed to build permanent structures!! So Diana’s organisation bought about 6 houses for 2100 euros and demolished them to build the school. But they could not build a concrete structure. “The demolition and construction had to start on the same day as empty land may just be taken over by someone else!” She had to bribe the neighbourhood people and the shameless Kenyan police to be able to continue the work. Diana was completely hands-on with every aspect – buying wood, paint, collecting donations (mainly from Portugal) and also in Nairobi, appointing the right construction agents, bribing the local people, firing the first few batch of workers who were stealing wood,… and of course spending quality time with the children. Everywhere she went, there were kids with sunshine smiles waving at her, calling out her name… Diana, Diana….. Then they took us for a long walk to the old school – the one which would soon be demolished….. by the railway tracks with garbage strewn everywhere.

“Electricity is very scarce and inconsistent in Kibera.  The majority of electricity in Kibera is stolen from Nairobi because the government refuses to install a safe and affordable means of powering Kibera.”

As we neared the school, Diana and Joana were spotted and a dam of excitement broke! Hundreds of kids (actually 30-40 but felt like more) rushed towards us laughing, shouting, leaping at D & J, …. but welcoming us all. Small faces, happy faces, alive faces, excited faces, with sparkling eyes and 1000-watt smiles, with innocence brimming all over…. in their maroon checked uniforms. Boys and girls aged between 1 – 10, split into 2 ‘classrooms’ based on their ages. The kids here have very interesting names, probably indicating their aspirations: Monte Carlo, Beverley Hills, ….  We were introduced to their teacher Benta who single handedly manages all this. An amazing woman with an aura brimming with positivity. And of course, with that disarming Kenyan smile. She welcomed us to the classroom and they all performed the famous Kenyan song to welcome visitors.

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Teacher Benta looks hopeful in the well lit new school

Jambo      hello

Jambo bwana      hello sir

Habari gani      how are you

Nzuri sana      I am good

Wageni mwakaribishwa      you are all welcome

Kenya yetu      to our Kenya

Hakuna matata      everything will be fine

Watching her and Joana with the kids was such a privilege. They were so happy with the kids and vice versa. Hugging them, kissing them, cuddling them with such gay abandon …. while all I could notice was the total lack of personal hygiene in quite a few kids. But it was impossible not to be swayed by the gay mood, infectious energy and the rhythm and music in all the performers, irrespective of their age. Suddenly I felt a tug near my knees. Looking down, I saw this little kid raising his arms to me with a toothy smile…. take me up into your arms please. It was a Selfish Giant moment – giving me a chance to redeem myself. Telling me ‘you still have a ray of hope.’

In a blink, he was mine, almost to keep… and then he was in Swati’s arms. A little later, another tug, another toddler. I danced a bit with him, swaying to the music. I wish I could freeze that moment but alas it was time to leave…….to our privileged expat world. To our houses where there are more rooms than people, more domestic staff than residents and where I keep myself busy with reading, gardening, windchimes and bird feeders. I also had to be back in time to pick up my spoilt-with-choices daughter from her school, where the toilets are bigger than the classrooms in Kibera.

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Kids are easily happy (Pic courtesy: Diana)

Suddenly, there was the rumbling noise of an approaching train and a bunch of children ran outside in excitement. Not very different from the kids in The Railway Children. “This is the part I don’t like at all”, exclaimed the safety-conscious European in Joana.

And I remembered Apu-Durga in Pather Panchali.

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Happy after the completion of the cheerful looking wall (Pic courtesy: Diana)
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Interesting names
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More interesting names

Some afterthoughts

As we were walking back to where our car was parked, I enquired about the teacher whose radiance in this bleak scenario totally bowled me over. Diana told us, it was after meeting this lady that she decided to build a school. Such a teacher surely deserved a better school. She is incidentally an HIV positive single mother – I was shell-shocked!! Then I learnt that many of the school kids too were positive. I didn’t even want to know who they were. This was my first-hand experience of HIV+ people. I am relieved to say that unlike my reaction to the snotty kids, I had no shameful thoughts about the HIV affected ones. It made zero impact on me. However, the dirt and muck in the muddy pathways of Kibera made me wash my hands, shoes and clothes as soon as I returned home.

I realise I can never do what Diana is doing. I can never live or work there. Or be so physical with the kids. But I can contribute something to this project in my own small way. Something that I am comfortable with. Something I can deal with. But I also need to modify my sensibilities and approach the situation with more empathy than horror. Less cringing and more accommodating.

That will be the slow path towards being human.

Post Script: Here are some links you may want to see/read.

The 1st one is Diana’s homepage but it is all in Portuguese. Still there are many interesting pictures and videos that need no translation.

The second and third ones are news items on Kibera.

The last one is a blog about an absurd/exotic romance between an American girl and a Kibera resident which is soon going to blossom into marriage.

For those who want to be updated on what Diana has been doing (she is also building a library for children in another slum in Mathare, Kenya), here is the link to her FB page. It is all in Portuguese but you can translate!  

https://www.facebook.com/hairevoltar/?pnref=lhc  

 

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?

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.