Five antelopes of Amboseli

One thing a visitor from India like me has to constantly remind himself of is that there are no deer in Africa (almost). What you are going to see are antelopes. The difference? One text told me, very unhelpfully, that deer belong to the family Cervidae whereas antelopes belong to the family Bovidae. It took me a little searching to figure that the operative difference is that deer have antlers which fall off every year and are regrown, whereas antelopes have horns which keep growing year after year. Another text defined antelopes for me: all bovines which are not cattle, sheep, goats, buffalo or bison. It is a catch-all term, in other words. No wonder Africa teems with antelopes. They fill every possible ecological niche that herbivores can. They are so successful that they leave space only for just a few other medium-sized herbivores.

We saw the waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) only once in Amboseli national park. The featured photo shows the characteristic light stripe on its rump. As the name implies, it is very dependent on water, and comes back to it after ranging afield for a while. When we saw this one, it was not very close to water, but could get there in a half hour or so of human-speed walking. It browses on succulent leaves, shoots, and fruits. That’s probably what limits its range, not coming head to head with a zebra.

One of the largest of gazelles, the Grant’s gazelles (Nanger granti, called Gazella granti in the older literature) were more common. We saw occasional small bunches of Grant’s browsing and grazing and learnt to identify it by two signs. One was the lack of black stripes on its hide, and the other was the patch of white on its rump which starts from a little above its tail. This individual never turned to look at us,so we never got to see whether its muzzle had the distinct white-lined black stripes from eyes to mouth, but an identification was still possible from the body. The elegant shape of the horns can also be used to narrow the possibilities. In the dry season they migrate to areas which are not of interest to wildebeest and zebras, since they can eat plants which are unpalatable to those.

Thomson’s gazelles (Eudorcas thomsonii) were very common in Amboseli. You can tell them from the wide black stripes down the flanks. Even if you just see the rump, you can distinguish them from the Grant’s by the fact that the white patch on its rump starts from below its tail. The Family was quite taken by this elegant gazelle and was surprised when she found that it was the preferred food of cheetahs. We never saw a chase, so never saw the spectacular leaps and turns that the Tommie is capable of. I wonder whether the evolutionary race between the Tommie and the cheetah has spurred each of them to be breed for speed. That would be a version of the Red Queen’s statement in Alice about how one has to run fast to stay in one place.

Our first sightings of the very common impala (Aepyceros melampus) came well inside the park. Although it looks very similar to the Grant’s gazelle, it is instantly distinguishable by the black stripes on its rump, the lack of black and white on its muzzle, and the lyre shaped pair of horns. I thought I mostly saw them in grasslands bordering thickets of forest. This makes sense, since they both browse (usually on softer grasses) and graze on leaves. We saw them in August, which is the middle of the dry season, when they eat more leaves, and so push closer to the forest than otherwise. We saw males briefly engaging horns, otherwise they stuck to eating. There were none of the spectacular leaps which wildlife documentaries are fond of showing. The bunch that you see in the photo above are all males; female impala, unlike female gazelles, have no horns.

The most common antelope in Amboseli has to be the blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus). Large herds can be seen grazing along with zebras in the open plains of the park. How do they feed together without being in competition? It seems that the wildebeest strip the succulent leaves of grass (and are therefore more affected by droughts) and leave the tougher parts of grasses for zebras. Feeding together is advantageous for these two, which are the main prey of lions, because they can depend on each other to give alarms. Gnus have also been seen to respond to alarm calls of baboons. They are extremely high strung, breaking into runs at the slightest sign of an alarm and setting others running. I wonder whether this kind of chronic stress is a major factor in the reduction of its life expectation in the wild to about 20 years, when compared to zoo animals which can live up to 40 years.

I’d expected to see more species of antelopes in Amboseli, but five is not a small number in the season of drought. What was remarkable was how the species have specialized their diets to utilize different parts of the ecosystem. In spite of that, enormous habitat loss in the last 100 years has reduced their numbers so dramatically that advertisements for hunting safaris look pretty shocking.

Coloured zebras

Zebras are fun to watch and I spent a significant amount of time watching this very common animal in Amboseli national park. They always present interesting questions. For example, in the herd of plains zebra (Equus quagga) that you can see in the featured photo, the youngest one has distinctly red stripes. This is just the red dust of Amboseli sticking to its fur. Why does it stick to the black stripes and not the white? No one seems to have asked this question, so here is my answer. It has been found that zebras can raise each stripe of the black fur, but not of the white. When dust bathing, animals like to get the dust in contact with skin, just as me like water to get in contact with our scalp when we have a shower. So a zebra would naturally raise its fur, if it can, while rolling in the dust. As a result, there will be more dust trapped in the black stripes than in the white. The end result is a red and white zebra. Quite a sight!

Foals look enchanting, whether of horses or of zebras. I followed the red and white zebra foal with my camera. Looking closer at its coat, one sees that there is red dust on the white fur too, but it looks like it sits on top of the fur. While reading about the fur of the zebra, I realized that the old question of why a zebra has stripes has not been settled. Could it be that the question is not really sensible? Isn’t it a little like asking what our hands are for? Are they for holding babies or holding guns?

Two more birds in hand

As Anthony stopped just inside the gate of Amboseli national park to scan the surroundings, Mother of Niece Tatu pointed out a bird on the ground. The cryptic colouring made it hard to spot if it stood still. I saw it next and pointed out the heap of dung next to it as a guide to The Family. It was our first clue that MONT was a natural birder. This looked like a courser, and we admired the beautiful bird with the two distinctive rings around the neck which give it its name. Later, when I’d identified it as a double-banded courser (Smutsornis africanus) I found that it was common and widespread in Eastern and Southern Africa. It seems that in South Africa it is considered as a little bit of a pest. Population control methods have been to identify its main food, the harvester termite, and to kill it with a specific pesticide. We didn’t see termite mounds in Amboseli, so I wonder whether the Kenya-Tanzania population feeds differently.

The white-bellied go-away-bird (Corythaixoides leucogaster or Criniferoides leucogaster) was a lifer for which we had no referents. The Family and I saw it from our grand tent in Amboseli, and wondered what it was. “Maybe a bulbul,” ventured The Family. It turns out to belong to a clade of birds called banana eaters (Musophagidae), which we have never seen in India. The long crest together with the white belly, and the long pointed tail with a white stripe across the inside make it easy to identify (once you have a field guide). It is widespread and common in East Africa, but we didn’t see it again.

Watching elephants

One of the pleasures of visiting Amboseli national park is that you get to watch elephants at close quarters. We came on a large herd which was hanging out in a marshy area close to lake Amboseli. Their normal routine was interrupted by our arrival; two adults closed up against a baby playing in the mud (featured photo). But these herds are used to tourist vehicles. They watched us for a while, and then decided that we posed no immediate threat.

The baby was unconcerned. It continued to play in the mud. We’ve seen young elephants enjoy mud so much that they sometimes refuse to leave with the rest of the herd, protesting as much as a human child who has to leave a playground. This little one had no eyes for anything around it, and continued to stamp about in the mud for as long as we were there.

Young males in these herds often like a mock fight. I’d not seen how the chase which you see in the photo above began, but FONT said that it had to do with the younger one repeatedly provoking the older. This led to a short chase which ended with the young one stopping and turning to face the older one.

The fight continued with a bit of trunk wrestling. I’ve seen young Indian elephants trunk wrestling, and this seemed to be exactly the same behaviour. The trunk wrestling did not lead to any violence but continued for quite a while.

Herds of elephants are almost impossible targets for predators, but that does not mean there is no watch. We’d already seen that all the adults were alert to intruders, but there were a couple who were clearly perimeter guards. The tusker in the photo above was one of them. You can see from the elephants in the background in all these photos that this herd was quite large. None of us counted, but it was certainly over twenty individuals.

I saw some of them go into a defensive huddle suddenly. It is interesting how they gather together with all the young ones in the middle and adult defenders facing out from the core. I was slow to figure out why the group had gone into a huddle.

It turned out that another group had broken out of the trees on the far side of the road. I’ve not read of tribal conflicts between elephants, but I guess that any social animal will be on guard against strangers. The previous day I’d watched two groups of elephants cross each other’s paths, each taking care never to come too close to the other group.

The new herd which had arrived was small, two young, one juvenile, and three adults. They crossed the road and carefully skirted the group we had been watching. You can see how they walk in a file with the young ones as well protected as possible even while walking. I know someone who had once worked on the social life of Indian elephants, and much of his doctoral work had consisted of measuring distances and angles between elephants in photos taken from the air. When you watch elephants in the wild you begin to appreciate why this method may be useful.

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?