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.

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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.