The incredible excitement of watching Wildebeest gathering to cross a river

Wildlife documentaries are full of savage photos of intrepid wildebeest springing away from the slavering jaws of crafty crocodiles as they cross the Mara river in search of food and freedom. The truth is different. It is hours and hours of boredom, as indecisive gnus hurry up to wait. The photos here cover the last two hours of daylight waiting for a crossing.

As we left our lodge there was a buzz about wildebeest gathering at the river. We made our way there, and got a position near a bend.

There was a crowd of a few hundred wildebeest already, and more were coming in.

After half an hour of standing around, one animal decided to take a closer look at the water. There were hippos and crocodiles.

It came back up.

More waiting.

Some zebras have joined the gang.

Most of the herd has moved back.

Are there more humans than wildebeest here?

Quite a crowd.

Now the zebras investigate the river.

Those at the back begin trying to slink off.

More waiting! I suggested to The Family that we go see some giraffes and come back later. The withering look I get convinced me that getting bored is the safest course of action. That was when I started watching hippos.

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.

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.

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.