A line in the sand

A lot of wildlife watching is a matter of luck. You can try to bias the dice in your favour by various means. Our guide Stephen had kept the radio on, and was listening in on conversations between Landrovers across the Maasai Mara, hoping to pick up pointers on which way to go to see something interesting. As he sped along, I saw a weird line across the horizon.

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You can see how it developed. Sometimes the dice come up sixes for you, and you get to see something you had never even heard of.

Mixing it up

Our rush back to breakfast was very rudely interrupted by this zebra who mooned us. I consulted The Family and Stephen, and we agreed that this kind of disrespect should not be ignored. We stopped and took photos for the record. Yes, Zebra, we have warned you.

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The rest of the large mixed group of wildebeest and zebra paid us no attention. I’d found that they do not mind feeding together because the finicky wildebeest strips leaves off the grass, and a zebra is happy to eat the sheath and the stem. Also, the more of them there are, the longer each can spend in eating, since just a few pairs of eyes are enough to keep watch for potential danger. You’ll notice in the photos that while most heads are down munching, there is always one head up and looking.

High-strung gnus

We stopped to let a herd of wildebeest cross the road in front of us. Wildebeest are skittish creatures. They were crossing for a while before we came along, but a few began to hesitate when they saw us. Others kept crossing, and eventually the warier individuals figured that we were unlikely to harm them and stepped on to the road.

There was a ditch on either side of the road. The gnus would tumble down one, halt, and then slowly amble across the road. As they came to the other ditch, they would spring across it. Muscles in humans, and other mammals, come in two types: slow-twitch, also called type I, and fast-twitch, called type II. A springing action requires fast-twitch muscles. At the time that I started trying to lose weight, I learnt that some type II muscles must be exercised to use up glycogen stored by your liver, and type I muscles must be used a lot to burn fats that your body has stored. That’s the difference, my trainer explained, between aerobic exercise and intense short duration exercise.

These leaping gnus were using their fast-twitch muscles. I was fascinated, and snapped off a long series of shots. You can see that their hind legs are nearly stationary as their forequarters go into motion: that’s why the back legs are in focus even as the front of the body is blurred by motion. Blue wildebeest weigh between 250 and 300 kilos, so these muscles must be fantastically powerful. I came across a study of muscle chemistry in the related black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou) which found that their fast-twitch muscles have highly efficient structures able to do anaerobic exercise much better. That explains these leaps.

Once they are spurred into action, the gnus don’t stop running. I’d seen that earlier during their river crossing, and now I saw a minor stampede again. The survival tactics behind this is clear, but is it really good for the animal in the long run? The Family and I had been talking about the stress hormones that must be flooding into a gnu’s body all the time, and asking ourselves whether they shorten its life. It probably does, because gnus seem to live twice as long in zoos as the oldest ones seen in the wild. But still, this kind of extended running requires very efficient type I muscles, and that is exactly what this paper reported. I was right in paying so much attention to wildebeest, they may look like jokers, and behave like them, but they are champions. Raj Kapoor would have understood this.

Mellow morning

Some mornings should be quiet. You should be able to gaze at far horizons in the mellow sunlight, and clear your mind to meet the other.

And me? I prefer to have my feet on the ground and a camera in my hand.

Gnus and Oxpeckers

The morning light was now superb: the kind where even a stained trash can looks wonderful. And instead of such mundane subjects I had before me a bunch of wildebeest, intent on feeding. Wildebeest and zebras can feed together because the picky wildebeest takes only the leaves of grass, whereas zebras don’t minding picking up the less nutritious sheath and stem. This pickiness is also the reason why wildebeest have to keep moving with the seasons.

What was that on the back of one of the gnus? I cast about for the name; yes, an Oxpecker. My night of reading was coming in handy. There were two varieties and I had to figure out which. The beasts were far away, and I had no tripod. I would have to zoom out as much as I could with my pre-breakfast shakiness. As I took the photo, The Family had already noted the round yellow patch around the eyes: this was the red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus). Although it has been noticed pecking at open wounds on large mammals, its diet is almost completely made up of insects. Under controlled conditions it has been seen to be extremely efficient at keeping cattle free of ticks. We would later see the yellow-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus africanus). These two species are found in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa down to Zambia. The yellow-billed live largely in West Africa, and the ones we saw are perhaps among the easternmost part of the population.

Half a day in the Mara triangle

A bend in the river Mara lay a little way down from the hotel that we were in. This part of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve was called the Mara Triangle, and lay pretty far from the main entrance to the reserve. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and left for a game drive soon after lunch.

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Although we spent a long time waiting for wildebeest to cross the river, an iconic sight, we managed to see quite a variety of wildlife that afternoon. The slideshow above has a selection of what we saw: from butterflies to lions.

The crossing

“Hurry up and wait” seems to be the perfect motto for wildebeest gathering up the courage to cross a river while looking, literally, for greener pastures. But once they get going everything happens fast; like the “moments of terror” part of the old aphorism about war. We’d spent a couple of hours of wonderful late evening sunlight, testing our patience against that of gnus. When the light began to fail the river crossing began. At dinner that night the story was that a gnu lost its footing and fell into the river, and the herd followed. Whatever it was, the crossing was panicky. Wildebeest thrashed in the water, upstream from a pod of ill-tempered hippos.

“Couldn’t they have done this twenty minutes ago?” I grumbled as I snapped off a series of shots. As a hippo yawned widely in front of the panicky herd of gnus, I got a photo which, in better light, I would have been proud of. It was all a little too blurry and pixellated to be a great photo, and with the landrover rocking, I was unable to control the camera enough for the long exposure required here.

A panicky herd of gnus is quite a phenomenon. They keep running forever. I think their high-strung temperament must be taking a toll on their life expectancy; in zoos they have been observed to live twice as long as the average in the wild. Nor can all of this difference be attributed to predation. I saw one wildebeest looking around desperately, slowly tracking back towards the river. This uncharacteristic behaviour probably meant that she had lost a calf. It had either been taken by a crocodile or was lost in the stampede.

The rest kept running. Even when they came to the road where our landrover was parked, they wouldn’t halt. They would only change direction and keep running. Panicky, high-strung are too mild to describe what they are. I think they wouldn’t run over a lion and kill it, but they could come close enough to one to be picked off.

As we saw them running off into the sunset, they kicked up masses of insects which, in turn, brought along several insectivorous birds. This would have been a midnight snack for the birds, since they had settled down almost an hour before. What a chain of events, I thought; that’s part of what a grassland ecosystem means.

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.