Five big ones

When you use the words five and big together in the context of East African safaris, people think you are going to talk about The Big Five: the elephant, the leopard, the lion, the rhino and the Cape buffalo. That’s not really what I want to show you here. Instead I want to introduce you to five things in Amboseli national park that came as surprises (and very pleasant ones) because I had no idea that I would see them. In fact, until Anthony pointed out a East African black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) I didn’t even know of this creature. The sight of it running through the grassland with a stolen part of a kill, an antelope’s hindquarters, was an exciting sight. I met this species later, for a much better sighting, but it wasn’t as thrilling as this.

Seeing an Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca) for the first time also counts among my big memories of Amboseli. I should have been aware of this species, it is after all visible in ancient Egyptian artwork. For a moment I thought I was looking at a ruddy shelduck, but Anthony gave the correct identification immediately. The red eye and the patch around it is a dead giveaway.

The huge dust devils which spring up through the national park in this season also count as a big surprise. I’d noticed little whirligigs of dust spin across the plains for a while, but this spout was amazing. I’d read about the dust, and was prepared with a breathing mask and lots of antihistamines. But nothing had prepared me for these incredible tall devils.

Meeting the iridescent glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) definitely counts among the big ones. Not because it was a lifer, but because it was like meeting an old friend for the first time in a decade on a street car halfway across the world. This was something I knew, but hadn’t given much thought to. The fact is that it is one of the most widely distributed of Ibis species.

The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is definitely one of the Big Five, no matter which way you think of it. I thought it surprising that it looked so much like an Indian water buffalo. But then I began to notice differences: its more robust build, and the way its horns meet at the center of the forehead. Fortunately I never got to test the bad temperament which has led to its genes never being mixed into domestic bovines.


Tall, dark, and handsome

Giraffes really stand out on the plains of East Africa. From the distance their spindly legs and slightly-bent-forward necks make them loom over the horizon like distant oil pumps busy sucking petroleum out of the earth. But what a difference when you get close! You see the elegant neck, the long nostrils, the hooded eyes and the long lips which grasp and strip leaves from branches of thorny acacia trees.

I was busy taking another copycat photo of a lone acacia tree on the East African plains, with a giraffe walking towards it. I peered intently at the faint line of white above the horizon. The Family had pointed it out earlier, while I was busy looking at other things. Was it a line of distant mountains? Probably not, I concluded. If the weather had been clear enough for a sight of Kilimanjaro, it would have been in a different direction. Also, nothing around it was high enough to be clad in snow. Probably clouds, I thought. While I was busy with this, MONT and The Family had discovered a group of Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchii). One could tell by the fact that the dark patches on their flanks were star shaped and grew lighter from the middle outwards, and they proceeded most of the way down their legs. FONT counted six. The Family repeated the count and found seven. MONT counted again and found nine. There were actually nine that we could see, apart from the lone animal which I’d been photographing on the other side of the road.

I’d read somewhere that male Masai giraffe eat twigs from the top of a tree, whereas the female prefers the lower branches. I couldn’t see any such clear difference between the individuals. So were they all male? It seems there is another way to tell the sexes apart. A male’s mane stops before it reaches the head, whereas the female’s continues so that the head is covered. This group was all male. I was to find later that giraffe herds can be all male, largely female and calves, or mixed, and the composition of the herd is not fixed. So, while giraffes socialize, they are not as social as elephants, hyenas, or apes. This group seemed comfortable with each other, and browsed together as long as we watched, without seeming to communicate.

He is no chicken

It wasn’t hard to spot an ostrich in Kenya. As we drove out of the airport, the road passed next to the Nairobi national park and we saw an ostrich in the middle distance. In Amboseli we kept seeing ostriches every now and then, but they were usually in the middle distance or far away. Eventually, just before leaving the park we saw one right by the side of the road. Anthony pulled to a halt, saying “This one wants to cross.” Indeed it did. While it was deciding whether or not it should, I managed to snap off a series of photos. All our sightings were of the common ostrich (Struthio camelus). The number of presumed species has varied greatly over the years. Initially, many species were names based on variations in appearance. Eventually genetic studies seemed to show that there was only one species, but now with larger sampling sizes it seems that there are really two. We never went to parts of Kenya where one can see the second species, the Somali ostrich, which can be distinguished by its blue neck.

When tortoises decided to hunt ostriches, they lined up in two long rows. One of them steered the ostriches between them. Then each one asked the next “What are you doing?” and the next one answered “I’m hunting ostriches.” The ostriches heard this and ran and ran until they fell down exhausted. Then the tortoises came to where they had fallen and ate them up.
— Bantu folk tale

We enjoyed the safaris in Amboseli national park (in spite of the dust) and I’d wanted to write one post about the park and its keepers. Unfortunately, I forgot to take photos of the entrance. Among my photos the gate appears only in the background of this shot of the ostrich crossing the road, so I will just pause here to acknowledge the great job being done by the gamekeepers.

You can see in this photo the remarkably muscular thighs of the ostrich. They enable it to reach top running speeds of about 70 kilometers per hour, and sustained speeds of over 30 kilometers an hour. You can also see the oddly elongated and clawed two-toed feet, so unlike those of other birds, adapted both to running and kicking hard in its own defense. I wondered how the bird manages to keep its temperature under control as it runs. When I read that the bird’s body temperature is around 40 Celsius, I realized that I should have asked how it stays warm. Perhaps by eating a lot. So, by all rights it should have crashed from habitat loss. Thatg it hasn’t is probably due to the fact that it is now extensively farmed for meat and leather.

Close knit clans

I saw baboons for the first time in Amboseli national park, but again I felt as if I’d come on something very familiar. Going by the geographical range, these would be yellow baboons (Papio cynocephalus). The troop was foraging around the path of a herd of elephants on the move, and neither seemed to pay any attention to the other. Some troops of baboons in Amboseli have as many as a hundred members; this was small, with perhaps around ten members. They seemed to forage independently, but they never moved very far from each other.

In fact, through their whole life, females never move more than a few hundred meters from each other. As a result, a lot of their mental effort goes into maintaining good social relations. Interestingly, females are able to tell maternal and paternal sisters, and cooperate with them. This perhaps means that although both sexes are promiscuous, they track matings very closely. Males may move from one group to another, to increase their chances of mating, and, as a result, are more competitive. The behaviour of baboons seems to be a simplified model of human behaviour; so I was surprised that I could not find any folk stories about baboons from the tribes of Kenya. Maybe I need to search harder.

It seems that baboons will eat anything at all. The technical term for it is “opportunistic feeding”. I saw an example of this as a baboon picked up a paper napkin discarded by the side of the road from a passing vehicle. It sniffed at it briefly and then put it down again before moving off. I wondered whether baboons depend on the sense of smell more than sight. As opportunistic hunters of small game, their eyesight must be very good. But sniffing at a potential item of food seems to indicate that the dog-like muzzle might harbour an acute sense of smell.

A hyena in a quandry

Anthony spotted something interesting, told us that he was going to move, and took off rapidly. I saw a line of dust raised by something running across the plain in the distance. Father of Niece Tatu was quick. “Hyena”, he told us. Another line of dust followed the first. The Family was looking at them through her binoculars. The road curved around and by the time we had come close to them, they had crossed the road and were running away from us. I took a photo, but it wasn’t very good. But a third one came running from the same direction. This time I was ready for it. As I took photos, this one did something more interesting than just run. It came to a halt, spooking a bunch of zebras. It wasn’t interested in them. It looked around, looking a little lost. It spent a long time looking around, and then turned and loped back in the direction it had come from. What just happened? I have the story in the slideshow below, but can’t figure out why the hyena did what it did.

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The hare wanted to steal the hyena’s cows. So he made up a story about a stone and a panga which had to be delivered to someone far away, and sent the hyena off on the errand. While he was gone, the hare stole the cows, cut off their tails and stuffed the tails into the ground. When the hyena came back without being able to find anyone who wanted the stone and panga, the hare told him that the cows had got stuck inside the earth. They pulled at the tails together, and they came out without the cows. The hyena did not suspect that the hare had stolen his cows.
—Kikuyu folk tale

The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) once ranged across Asia, Europe, and Africa. As habitats were remade by humans over the centuries, it became extinct over most of its range. It can now only be seen in protected areas in Africa, although it is not yet classed as endangered in any way. Of the many interesting things about spotted hyenas, what intrigued me most is their complex but hierarchical social organization. They form large clans, with female dominance. Reversing the organization of chimpanzee troops, even the lowest ranked female outranks the highest ranked male. Rank is not maintained by aggression or size, but through networks of allies. Rank is passed on to offspring, so that the daughters of the highest ranked female come higher in rank than other females. Field studies find that hyenas are able to recognize fairly distant relatives, and may act less aggressively towards them. Quite contrary to this is their behaviour towards siblings, which is extremely violent, with dominant females killing sisters soon after birth. Throughout the animal kingdom, the biggest driver towards intelligence that we see is a complicated social behaviour. The hyena is no exception; some believe that it is more intelligent than chimpanzees. Hunters’ stories quoted as evidence of this have been partly verified by laboratory observations on learning and cooperation. It seems that its traditional reputation of being stupid, evidenced in many African folk tales, is quite mistaken. The little drama that I observed on the dusty plains of Amboseli national park was very likely a part of a long story of cooperation and rejection.

Peasant of the plains

I know animals more gallant than the African warthog, but none more courageous. He is the peasant of the plains— the drab and dowdy digger in the earth. He is the uncomely but intrepid defender of family.
Beryl Markham (in West with the Night)

When I told The Family that I liked the common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) more than the antelopes and zebras we had seen in Amboseli national park, she was quite surprised. Unlike others who have written about their love for the animal, I was unaware of its courage; I just thought that it was a bit of an underdog, overshadowed by the other, more showy, herbivores of the East African plains. The tuskless creature that you see in the featured photo must be less than a year old. This guess is buttressed by the observation that the “warts”, the bumps below its eyes and halfway down its snout, are also not fully grown out. It darted across the road in front of us behind a larger warthog (photo below) sporting a full set of four tushes and well-adjusted warts.

Let no one reproach the courage of the pig. These great fierce boars, driven from their last shelter, charged out in gallant style— tusks gleaming, tails perpendicular— and met a fate prepared for a king.
Winston Churchill (in My African Journey)

The females live in large kin groups, whereas males are either solitary or form loose bands. Given the male rivalry over mating, I’m surprised that the males and females are nearly the same size. Surely it would have been advantageous for males to be bigger than rivals, so setting off an evolutionary arms race. Perhaps the race is in terms of temperament, because boars are sometimes known to even fight leopards, although their first instinct is to go to ground in a burrow. Beryl Markham has a wonderful description of boars in their natural habitat; apparently they go into a burrow tail first, and, if disturbed, charge out tusk first, ready to fight. I was mystified by the relation between the two I saw. If indeed one of them was younger, the other was probably its mother, since males have no role in the upbringing of the litter. But the typical size of a litter is 2 to 4, and there were no other boars appeared in as long as I could see these two. With many predators around, I suppose it is inevitable that some of the piglets get picked off. But could it be common for only one of the litter to survive its first year? Or did we just happen on a terribly unlucky family?

What do you do with three in the bush?

One bush. Three species of birds. Three lifers. That’s got to be pretty amazing. I didn’t have a field guide when we saw them, so, although I knew I was looking at things I’d never seen before, I had no idea what they could be called. The bird sitting on top of the bush (featured photo) confused me completely. I could not put it into any of the slots I use when watching birds in India. Its beak seemed to indicate a seed eater; too large for a finch, sparrow, or munia, could it be a weaver? No, weavers are smaller and more colourful. But this was Africa, and I was a novice in this continent. I kept putting off looking for it in the field guide that I eventually bought. It turned out to be a Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver (Bubalornis niger).

Below the bush was a group of Yellow-necked Spurfowl (Francolinus leucoscepus or Pternistis leucoscepus). Anthony said that this was common, and was eaten sometimes. Why were there several birds all together? Was this like the jungle fowl, with one male trying to keep a harem together? Probably not; since both sexes looked the same, it seemed that male-male competition was not driving sexual selection. I found later that in this species pairs bond for life, but several pairs can nest in close proximity. I still have to figure out why.

This bee eater sat alone on an exposed branch of the same bush. A chestnut bellied bee eater, ventured Anthony. It was a good guess. But later, when I leafed through my book I realized that the guess was wrong. Flipping back and forth between illustrations confused me. Perhaps it was a Little Bee-eater (Merops pusillus). Something still didn’t fit: the broad band of blue above its black mask. Reading the description I realized that what I had seen was the subspecies meridionalis which is distinguished from the other subspecies by exactly this feature. All three are common and widespread African species, but for The Family and me they were lifers.

Thar she blows

One of the easiest things to figure out about herds of elephants is that they tend to move in a straight line, except when geographical features come in their way. You can see this very clearly in the featured photo. Nothing in their ecosystem seems to deter them. The best wildlife guides in Kenya have honed their judgements about how close to the path of a herd of elephants you can park without disturbing it. When you get a little too close, elephants become protective of their young, and may stop moving. A little closer still, and unpredictable things can happen. Anthony was a wonderful judge and several times brought us to a hair’s breadth of the “personal space” of a herd on the move.

This is the reason I fixed my sight on this lone tusker on a near collision with a wildebeest. Two different herds of elephants were on the move, in opposite directions, throwing up a lot of dust. The elephants figure out a course which avoids the others long before there is any chance of them coming too close to each other. The wildebeest that you see in the photo above was placidly chewing the cud in the middle of the movement of many elephants. I saw zebras constantly shifting their positions, often minutely, turning to keep an eye on the nearest beasts. I could see that the bull was going to pass too close to it for comfort. A zebra or a human would have backed off long before. I began to wonder whether the spatial reasoning of wildebeest is so much finer than a human’s that it had figured out that the elephant would miss it by a whisker and a swish of the tail.

No, this wildebeest was no Pythagoras. In the usual style of wildebeest, it had just forgotten to look around. It was only when the thump of the elephant’s feet could not be ignored that it scrambled to its feet and began to bolt. But the elephant had seen it already, and adjusted its motion minutely to pass by without a confrontation. This caused a different knot of wildebeest to scatter suddenly. Wildebeest are the jokers among antelope, but elephants seem to know this.

First lions, reprise

We’d seen two lionesses near a kill, and watched until one crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the thicket on one side, while the other disappeared into the low palm forest on the other. The show was over, we concluded. Several vehicles left. Anthony took us in a little circle, trying to spot whether there were any other members of the pride nearby. There weren’t. As we were trying to leave, FONT said “She’s back.” “What’s that in her mouth?” The Family asked. In moments it was clear: a cub. We spotted two more in the grass. The mother carried one in her mouth and urged the others along, to cross back to the kill.

“How old do you think the cubs are?” I asked Anthony. He said “Maybe two or three months old.” I didn’t know that cubs are not introduced to the pride till they are several months old. The two cubs which were following the mother lost confidence once they were out of the grass, and started mewling. The mother came back and carried them across the road one by one in her mouth. In the period before the cubs join the pride, the mother moves them frequently from one den to another so that predators do not get to locate them. This looked like part of such a move.

After crossing the road, the mother again picked up one of the cubs and then beckoned the others to follow her by many backward glances as she moved forward. The other two cubs followed for a while, mewling all the time. They hadn’t quite got back their confidence, so the mother had to rotate the cub that she carried. With much divided attention and cajoling, she managed to lead the cubs towards the kill. The other lioness had come back in the meanwhile. She’d clearly been to drink water, because her muzzle was no longer bloody.

The mother let go of the cubs just as she reached the hummock which guarded the kill from the road, and nudged all three cubs forward with her nose. If these cubs were indeed just two or three months old, then they were not yet weaned. While the family crossed the road I’d noticed that the mother was still lactating. The cubs did not seem to be interested in the kill as the two lionesses greeted each other, and then settled down to finish their meal. The kill was fresh; there was no smell. So these two lionesses, one pregnant, the other lactating, had eaten a whole zebra in a reasonably short while.

First lions

Strangely, the first time I saw a lion there was no sense of excitement. Later, when I thought back to it, it wasn’t boredom as much as the sense that this had happened to me a hundred times. The trouble wasn’t with the scene, but my mental focus. After all, there are less than 40,000 lions left in the world, and the IUCN red list calls them vulnerable. This means that unless we are successful in protecting them, they will slide down to extinction soon enough. No, the problem is TV. You cannot escape the numerous documentaries showing lions chasing buffalos or antelope and bringing them down, thereby giving you the false impression that, first, lions are common, and second, that the most interesting thing about them is the chase and kill. Now, when I look at this photo of the first lion I ever saw, standing with a bloodied muzzle over the zebra it had killed, looking at the distance with cloudy yellow eyes, I wonder why I wasn’t as excited as The Family.

After skirting Lake Amboseli I was still looking at birds, but Anthony, and, very soon, The Family, realized that there was a cluster of vehicles looking at something up ahead. Father of Niece Tatu was suddenly animated. As we neared the area, The Family was already saying “Lion.” It took me a few moments to find where she was looking. FONT and MONT had already spotted the kill by the time I saw the red ribs of a partly eaten zebra sticking up behind a slight rise. Lion? It was hunkered down, and a little bit of looking was needed to see movement, and a tawny hide. Now and then it would shift its weight as it gnawed. A single lioness with a whole zebra? Slowly the oddness struck me. Doesn’t the pride usually hunt together? Where were the rest? When the lioness stood up Anthony pointed out that she was pregnant.

As I was thinking this, MONT suddenly said “Another one.” Indeed, out of the thicket of palms another lioness had emerged. She walked steadily across the little patch of grass which separated the vehicles from the kill, crossed the road near us, and disappeared into the thicket on the other side of the path. I read later that in the dry season very often a pair of lionesses will hunt together. Systematic observations showed that their intake of food was smaller when they hunted individually or in larger groups. So perhaps this pair of lionesses had hunted together because at least one of them needed a lot of food.