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?

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.

A safari lodge

When we came to Amboseli national park, I was looking forward to my first experience of a safari lodge in Kenya. I’d read about some really nice parks, and also browsed a few websites and seen some really basic ones listed as well. Eventually I’d left the local arrangement to Father of Niece Tatu, because he said his travel agent had always found decent places to stay in and decent wildlife guides. On a stop during the drive however, he looked a little worried and said that he hoped the food was good. The road had been extremely dusty, and there was a pall of dust hanging in front of the hotel’s gate.

Most of the hotel was set some way back from the gate, behind a dense screen of acacia trees. The dust did not penetrate far. When we checked in the reception told us that they have deluxe tents for us. In India we have stayed in tents now and then, and they tend to be a little crowded. It was just one night though, I told myself. But Kenya is different. The tent looked like a big stand alone room from outside; I could see a well painted wooden framework and lath. “Tent?” I asked The Family as our little luggage was deposited in an enormous room of which the four-poster bed took up less than half the area. I forgot to take a photo until we returned in the evening, when the staff had already unfurled the mosquito net. I’m used to the Indian and Chinese style of nets, which are tucked under the mattress. These netted curtains make me nervous, since they seem to have many chinks through which mosquitoes can enter (as indeed one did that night).

The bathroom with its enormous tub was larger than many hotel rooms I’ve stayed in. The photo above also shows why this is called a tent. If you look at the roof you will see that there is canvas there. Why would you have a little touch of a tent in a room which is essentially a stand-alone cottage? It could be a touch of romance, like the not-very-useful mosquito curtain. Or it could be something about taxes levied on classes of rooms. I forgot to ask, and it does not seem worthwhile to work through Kenya’s tourism codes to figure this one out.

We were happy to find that FONT’s misgivings about the food were baseless. The buffets were excellent, as was the bar. One excellent extra were the large number of birds that you could see while sitting in the dining area or the bar. The photo above shows several blue Superb Starlings (Lamprotornis superbus), with their white eyes and a chestnut breast. The other bird is one I haven’t been able to identify yet. If you are an expert on the birds of East Africa, I would really appreciate your help.

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.

A lazy Monday on dusty plains

Anthony brought our car to a halt. This was my favourite way to view Amboseli National Park: standing up in a parked car, with my head poking up out of the roof line, but still shaded by the raised canopy. On my left was a scene out of a thousand movies and TV shows. I’m often lazy about images. So the sight of a perfectly flat and dusty plain stretching to the horizon, a few zebras standing in the shade of an Acacia tree, brought out the competitive copy cat in me. “Quintessential Africa,” I thought. The Family looked totally bored, and started looking around.

On our right was jumbled bush. On top of it was a shrike. Anthony was pretty good at birds, but not accurate down to the species. He agreed with me and added “Butcher bird.” Many species of shrikes create a larder of insects they catch by impaling the carcass on thorns, so this phrase is sometimes used to denote all shrikes. Mother of Niece Tatu was a budding birder, so I thought it was nice that Anthony gave this explanation. Later, when I got a copy of the field guide to the birds of East Africa by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe, I found that the photo catches a lifer, the Lesser Grey Shrike (Lamius minor), in full breeding plumage. The field guide shows this as being spread across Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. Strangely, the IUCN red list excludes this part of Africa from its recorded range. A cross check on the HBW site shows reports of sightings from across Europe, East Africa, and down to southern Africa. That makes me fairly confident about this identification.

Some good gnus and some bad gnus

Our first plan for the trip to Kenya was to see the migration of wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) in Masai Mara National Park. Luck wasn’t with us; the migration happened early. Still, it was a pleasure to see the blue wildebeeste for the first time as we entered Amboseli National Park. I gathered from older literature that in the East African home range of the wildebeest there were both migrant and settled populations. In 1977 Amboseli had 16300 migrating wildebeest, but in 2014 a survey saw only 2400 in the migration. The migrations have been disrupted by a loss of migration routes as once nomadic people adapt to a settled lifestyle with privately held land. There was a collapse of wildebeest population after a major drought in Amboseli in 2009. The bottom was reached in February 2010 when only 10 wildebeest were seen in an aerial survey. Numbers have recovered somewhat since that disastrous period.

In our drive to Amboseli, we’d started seeing a variety of antelopes even before reaching the protected forest, but not the wildebeest. This could be seasonal, since in the wet season the parkland population has been seen to disperse over a much wider area. Our first sighting of this strange but endearing antelope came inside the park. It looked like a cross between a cow and a donkey wearing an elegant designer shawl around its shoulders. A small herd of them were grazing at the side of the road. I took a photo of an utterly relaxed individual chewing the cud while seated (featured photo). In this season there was no lack of zebras and wildbeest; one could spot them easily across the accessible parts of the national park. The photo above shows you very clearly why this particular population is sometimes called the Eastern white-bearded gnu. I was to find out that these very relaxed poses are not terribly characteristic; wildebeest are high strung and skittish, easily spooked.

First view of Lake Amboseli

Our first view of Lake Amboseli was enchanting. The lake is very shallow but extensive. We drove past rapidly, since our guide wanted to show us large mammals. But even in that quick pass I managed to take several photos. I didn’t want to stop longer because we still hadn’t got ourselves a field guide for the birds of Kenya, and we would not be able to identify what we saw. In retrospect that was a mistake, because we could have taken photos for later identification.

Looking at them later I discovered more than 15 species of birds. Here you see three plains zebras (Equus quagga) and a considerable number of greater and lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus and Phoenicopterus minor, respectively). If you look carefully at the photo you’ll see a black winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) and a Blacksmith lapwing (Vanellus armatus). The last species is found only in Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope northwards to Angola in the west and Kenya in the east. Although it is common, this was a lifer. We’d seen the other three in India.

The dust of Amboseli

I’d read that Amboseli was dusty. In anticipation I was carrying a breathing mask with a filter in my pockets and had left my camera in my backpack. The Family was prepared to breathe through a dupatta, that all-purpose face mask and head cover that she always has handy, either worn or in a bag. The Mother of Niece Tatu was similarly equipped, and FONT didn’t seem to have any dust allergies. Even with all this preparation, the last few kilometers of the road was something that was astounding. The road was a river of deep dust, blown by winds. As we passed over it, we found ourselves in the middle of our private dust cloud. Part of it entered the car, even with all windows and doors shut.

I took the featured photo with my phone, and The Family got a matching photo (above) on the other side of the car. The environment of this park has been studied very intensively. It is fed by melt-water from Mount Kilimanjaro, and its climate history over the last few thousand years is now known. Although the weather has cycled over wet and dry periods, it has been drying over the last 500 years or so. I found a study conducted over the 25 years ending in 2001 which recorded a huge increase in temperature (almost 7 degrees Celcius over this period, ten times that due to global warming) and an increasing variability in rainfall.

Amboseli is considered one of the jewels of wildlife conservation efforts in Kenya. But even here one finds man-animal conflict as the Masai turn from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle. The growth of land ownership means that animals are excluded from certain patches of land. Combined with the long term local climate trends, this has resulted in a decrease of wildlife numbers (counted over something like half a century) and some local extinctions. We were outside the park when we took these photos, and it is clear that it is not the most hospitable of places. The park was dry, but not as dry as this. I could understand how man-animal conflict could rise, and how, unless the Masai see profit from tourism, the conservation effort may fail in the very long run.

After all this flying through dust when we reached the lodge it turned out that we had time for a shower and a nice lunch before leaving on our first safari. The prologue sounds scary, but our experience in Amboseli was wonderful, as you will see from my photos in the coming days.

Through rural Kenya

I had dreams of a long restful sleep on my first night in Kenya, but the reality was quite different. We got up early to leave for Amboseli National Park. Since we would spend large parts of two days inside the car, I was happy to see that the interior was spacious enough for four. There was considerable traffic in Nairobi, and it was more than half an hour before we hit the Mombasa highway.

Highway travel in Kenya is completely different from that in India, as you can see in the video above. Almost everyone keeps to the speed limit of 80 Kilometers an hour (in fact tourist vehicles have a governor that enforces this limit), so there is almost no overtaking. No one honks. Lane discipline is strict. It is as boring as driving in Switzerland. One other interesting thing that you see in the video above, and in the featured photo, is that even out on the highway you can see people on foot. There are fairly frequent buses to ferry people between towns, and we could see many people walking to these stops.

The most common shops are those which deal in mobile phone services. These green and white shops of Safaricom are everywhere, quite outnumbering the shops for other service providers. Vodafone’s tremendously popular electronic payment portal, called m-Pesa, works over the Safaricom network. Very large numbers of people travel far from their villages to look for work, so the popularity of mobile services is quite understandable. With so many people living away from home, it is no surprise that bars come a close second in popularity.

Electricity clearly reached every village on the highway; not surprising since the Mombasa-Nairobi stretch is the biggest trade corridor inside the country. But the ubiquity of mobile services meant that electricity does indeed reach much further. What didn’t was drinking water. I would notice these yellow plastic jars of water in many places after I saw them being filled at a mobile water tank (photo above).

We sped past many small towns or villages. Along the highway one saw many of the services you might expect: hardware stores, general stores, car repairs. A century ago Winston Churchill had remarked on the enterprise of Indian merchants who had, according to him, “opened up the continent.” They were not in evidence any more. Native Kenyans have taken over this niche. Only the word duka, meaning shop, adapted from Hindi, remains of this vanished history.

Some of the towns along the route clearly housed larger markets. We barreled past a deserted marketplace (photo above). Our guide, Anthony, explained that this was a weekly market. The place must be something to see on a market day. Unfortunately, we never got to see the market.

In spite of the very large number of bars and restaurants on the way, Anthony brought us to a rest stop at a place which advertised itself on its gate as Bethel Global Art Gallery. This was something like the Masai market we had seen the previous evening, but larger. The Family and Mother of Niece Tatu were soon engrossed in looking at the works on display.

Father of Niece Tatu and I were meanwhile eyeing other shopping opportunities. A little stall in the corner of this complex served tea. It was mid-morning and a tea was exactly what was needed. Although the complex was full of tourists, we were the only people who stopped for tea. Most tourists left with little packets of handicrafts, we exited with a cup of Kericho Gold warming us.

The Family went off to take a photo of the duo which guarded the gate. One difference we’d noticed between India and Kenya was that in Kenya you when your tried to talk to a guard or a shopkeeper, they would talk and joke with you. In India most talk of this kind is extremely businesslike. A guard will seldom joke with you. The Family came back beaming; she’d had a nice and funny conversation with the two you see in the photo above.

We’d been driving for a couple of hours already, and I’d spent the time sitting next to Anthony in the front. Now I changed seats and joined the rest of the group at the back. Instantly MONT unpacked some food and began passing it around. I had my share and dozed off. As a result, I never saw the interesting things that The Family clicked, like the little market place that you see in the photo above.

The per capita GDP of Kenya is about three quarters that of India, so Kenya cannot be considered to be a very poor country. It is perhaps the most successful economy of East Africa, in spite of the current slow down. The income distribution is not terribly skewed either (currently, going by the Gini coefficient, Canada, India, and Kenya have roughly similar levels of inequality). So it is common to see a three story bungalow, and ramshackle shops close to each other.

I was completely asleep when we turned away from the Mombasa highway on to the southward road which would take us to Amboseli. The surroundings turned more pastoral. The Family told me of an increasing number of herders. Could this person whom she clicked be a Masai? Perhaps. There are Masai settlements around Amboseli, and the Masai are herders.

The landscape also changed about then. The photos that the family took show that the flat land of the Nairobi plateau had given way to the hills that would lead on to Mount Kilimanjaro. We were near our destination.