Bush Air

On our way out of the Maasai Mara National Reserve we passed through a little airstrip in the bush. The land here was so flat that the two striped windsocks mounted on poles were visible for half an hour as we looked for secretary birds and lilac breasted rollers. When we pulled up to the airstrip I found that it was a busy place, full of planes landing and taking off every few minutes.

It would be a hard fate to go down in the memory of one’s friends as having been tripped up by a wandering zebra. “Tried to take off and hit a zebra!” It lacks even the dignity of crashing into an anthill.
—Beryl Markham in West with the Night

I was still reading Beryl Markham’s memoirs of flying in the early days of amateur flights in Kenya, when amateurs like her would sometimes be the only means of bringing dying adventurers from the bush to Nairobi. This strip was nothing like her descriptions of airstrips in the bush. No zebra or wildebeest would find anything to nibble on within a kilometer. I looked at the Landrovers lined up, glanced at the Maasai market in one corner, soaked up the chatter in French, Bengali, English, and Swahili, heard the continuous roar of engines, and realized that a hundred years had changed everything. There are several such airstrips in the reserve, and, if you fly in, then you land on the one closest to your hotel. It saves you a five hour trip if you come in from Nairobi, more from Mombasa.

I took a last few shots of the little hut that served as the control tower, and got into Stephen’s Landrover. There was a long trip ahead of us, and I was looking forward to it. I hadn’t had a good look at the trees in this patch of land on our way in. I was also looking forward to passing through the busy town of Narok again; it had looked charmless, but I love roadside towns.

Failing light, vultures’ delight

There is a legend that elephant dispose of their dead in secret burial grounds and that none of them has ever been discovered.
— Beryl Markham in West with the Night

A thin layer of clouds crept over the sun, and I cursed my luck. It was just before the golden hour, and the light, instead of turning a brilliant gold, had turned watery and hellish. But then, as the wind turned, and a stench of rotten flesh hit my nose, I looked around and saw this tree full of vultures. What a moody and atmospheric shot this was, I thought, perhaps just right for the cover of a book on the Mongol invasion of the world, or perhaps the Black Death. But what we saw, as Stephen turned the Landrover upwind towards the source of the stench, was something totally unexpected.

The story of Tarzan of the Apes involves an elephant graveyard and its treasure of ivory. We know today that stories of elephant graveyards were just myths. But even the scale of a single dead elephant boggles the mind if you ever come across it. Every species of scavenging bird we’d seen in the Mara triangle seemed to be here in large numbers. As we watched a large white-backed vulture emerged from under the skin of the cadaver. It was clear that we had arrived very late. The mammal scavengers had already come and gone. The stench told us that bacteria had started breaking down the flesh. After the birds, insects would arrive to clear the little that remained. The elephant had almost completed the cycle of nature, returning its flesh to the rest of the ecosystem.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Three sightings of lions

The afternoon’s drive seemed to be dedicated to lions. There are less than a hundred lions in the Mara triangle, and we must have seen around ten of them in a few hours. The most interesting one was this lonely adult male which had managed to kill a wildebeest just before we saw it. It was in the bush next to where we’d parked the previous evening when a mess of tourists gathered to see a wildebeest crossing. From its short and very blonde mane, we concluded that it was young and stressed, so we left it to eat in peace and went on.

Later in the evening, we swung by to the same spot. The lion had had its fill, and it sat by the Mara and gazed contentedly at the scene in front of it. Do we exist only because we think? Animals teach us that this Cartesian notion is false. Without romanticizing, I believe, from all the accounts that I have read from hunters, that animals have a sense of self and absolutely definitely strive to live. Lions will hunt to eat when they feel hungry, growl when they feel threatened, walk away when they are disturbed. After they have eaten their fill, why would they not sit down in content and look out at their surroundings with a quiet sense of satisfaction? This one glanced around to see the noisy things which had crept up behind it, and then went back to gazing ahead. I took a photo of its face as it turned. It was stained dark with the blood of its kill. A lion has a sense of its own life, but not of the life of its food.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After we’d left the lion to its kill and driven ahead, we came on a pair of lionesses sitting in a little hollow in some rocks, near a trickle of water. They also looked content. There was a minor gathering of Landrovers, full of people taking photos. We joined them, and watching the lionesses lying at ease I realized that tourists have changed their behaviour. These wild creatures now accept smelly and noisy Landrovers as something harmless. If the game wardens were to disappear one day, how many lions would be killed before they became wary again?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Finally, just as the horizon came level with the sun, we came back to the group which had been defeated by Cape buffaloes earlier in the day. The lions seemed asleep, but the lionesses were just beginning to wake. As we watched, they opened their eyes. One by one they got up and stretched, and then walked into the grass. The three buffaloes had been grazing here all afternoon, and, by their looks, were ready to settle down for the night. But as the lionesses walked past them, one of them got up and chased after the trio (you can just about see the tawny lionesses behind the tall grass in front of the buffalo, and to its left). As the three lionesses ran away, the buffalo still stood, making sure they were going. This was the last sight we saw as darkness fell. An African day was over.

Five birds of the afternoon (and then some)

In India I’ve grown used to seeing a couple of lapwings, and it was great to be in a new continent where I doubled my count. I first saw the African wattled lapwing (Vanellus senegallus, featured photo) near a small waterhole. Lapwings are waders, as you can tell by their long legs, but it is not uncommon to find them walking in fields. I got this photo as it walked along the track that a Landrover had taken.

It took me quite some work to identify the white-faced whistling duck (Dendrocygna viduata) that you see in the photo above. You say you don’t see them? That is because you haven’t yet read the small print in the field guide which says “the face may be stained due to contact with muddy water.” They are the ones with the tall black necks, looking entirely unlike most photos you find on the web. The other ducks there are Hottentot teals (Spatula hottentota). I don’t know why these two species are so closely associated here. Is that normal? I wouldn’t know unless I see them more often, or talk to a local expert. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to do either.

The red-necked spurfowl (Pternistis afer) is supposed to be common, but we saw a group of them only once. I later realized that I did a good thing in taking many shots, because a look at its red feet was needed to clinch the identification. The grey-breasted francolin looks pretty similar. Although its habitat is a little more southwards, it is always possible to have a vagrant bird or two.

I saw this bush pipit (Anthus caffer) in a, yes, bush right next to the trail. Stephen hit the brakes instantly when I said I wanted a photo. Luckily I took many as it looked around, and hopped about in the bush. I find pipits and larks hard to identify; they have strongly patterned feathers, and you have to notice little details to tell the species without making mistakes. In a new continent without a bird guide, the only way out was to take lots of photos, and hope one had enough details to sit down with later.

I’d seen a yellow-billed stork (Mycteria ibis) just as the wildebeest started crossing the Mara river, and not managed to take a good photo. So I was very happy to see one again as we left the Mara triangle on our way back to Nairobi. This time the light was good, and the photo came out sharp.

The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye

What can one say about the cheetah that is not already very well known? Once widespread across Asia and Africa, the sleek animal has held the land speed record for about a million years. The superbly graceful animal, which gets its common name from a Hindi dialect word for painted, is now extinct across Asia, except for a small holdout population in Iran. IUCN classes them as vulnerable, but with about 6,500 adults alive, and a 95% infant and juvenile mortality, could this be a hope and a prayer rather than a cool-headed estimate of the chances for its future?

Stephen listened carefully to the radio chatter, asked a couple of questions, and, after a few false turns, brought us to a tree below which two cheetahs rested. Cheetahs hunt during the day, but this was just around noon, the hottest part of the day. The two took turns to keep watch. as we took a bunch of photos. Given their rarity, I count it an immense bit of luck to have seen them at all. It would have been great to see them walking, and an absolute joy to have seen a chase. But I agreed with The Family when she said “This is wonderful.”

A little predator

We were hurrying back to the lodge for breakfast when Stephen pointed to the right and brought the Landrover to a halt. A black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) stood surveying its surroundings. This was the second time I’d seen this tiny predator. Before I could switch on my camera (it takes geological ages to boot) it had started down-slope. I was not unhappy with the photo I got. I followed it as it walked on, and then sat down in the grass to scratch itself, just like any dog that you might have seen. The bliss on its face as it scratched was amazing. I wondered how closely related are the African black-backed jackals and domestic dogs.

By now the answer is pretty clear. They are in the same family: one that includes old-world dogs, wolves, and jackals. But within this family they are as different as they could be. According to a genetic study, the black-backed jackal is the basal form of this group of animals, meaning that it lies genetically closest to the parent species. Usually this means that its hunting grounds are closest to those of the parent group. The genetically more distant descendants usually diverge from the parent stock as they range further into geographically new territory. If this is true of jackals, wolves, and dogs, then the original canids inhabited East Africa. Coincidentally, this area was also inhabited by the parent group from which we humans come.

Sure enough, fossils show that black-backed jackals have been essentially unchanged for about 2.7 million years. That means that the tool-using Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis, and their successors, Homo erectus, would have seen essentially the same animal that I saw. Could they have taken the first steps to domesticate them? Just as we inherited tool-use, and possibly language, from our progenitor species, could we also have inherited the earliest forms of dogs?

Winter of the Lion

We were on the open grassland and watching the stately progress of about a dozen Masai giraffe across the landscape when Stephen said, “Look on the other side.” We turned to see a lion emerge from behind a thicket of bushes. This lions’s mane shaded from golden to brown to black, indicating that it was well-fed and stress free. But it didn’t walk like it was free of stress.

As it sat down, another lion emerged behind it, looking quite as stressed out as its companion. This wasn’t far from where we had seen the trio of males at night. Since there are less than a thousand lions in the Maasai Mara reserve, their home ranges are unlikely to overlap. This had to be one of the lions we’d already seen; so maybe they were just tired from keeping such long hours?

No. When the third lion emerged, limping, it was clear that something was wrong. The reason wasn’t hard to guess when three cape buffalos emerged from the trees and took up positions around the field. It is a modern convention of writing about wildlife that one does not ascribe human feelings to them. But as we find more about the biochemistry, evolution, and behaviour, we have come to realize that there is not so much of difference between us and other mammals. So using language which describes human behaviour for animals, as writers did until the beginning of the 20th century, is probably appropriate. The best description of this scene that came to my mind was that the lions looked defeated, and the buffaloes seemed determined not to let them out of sight.

The buffaloes stopped at the edge of the field, and the limping lion came past its two companions. It seemed to want to get far away from the buffaloes before it sat down. We seemed to have come across the end of a hunt that ended badly for the lions. I’d read about the how the Cape buffaloes’ bad temper got it into hunters’ lists of the big five, and seen videos of buffaloes successfully fighting off lions. Now I seemed to have come across the aftermath of one such encounter.

Why did the injured lion not go further? As I looked forward I got the answer to my question. Three lionesses were resting at the edge of the field. Now they got up and looked around. Sound carries a long distance over the grassland, and I’m sure they had a good idea of what had happened. They assessed the situation for a few seconds.

And then they walked away from the stressed out males: almost like a teenager pretending that they had nothing at all to do with an embarrassing older person. The injured lion looked at them until they were out of sight, and settled in to pant and feel sorry for itself.

Lioness at home

A lioness never disappoints. Our attention was drawn to this individual when she stood up from rest in tall grass. The sun had not yet risen, but the sky was pretty light. We watched her as she sniffed the air, moved a few paces, and coughed once.

The Family was watching her through binoculars; I had my camera. As we watched, she moved a little and looked around. Was she restless? Was something going to happen? I looked at Stephen, our guide. He was relaxed at the wheel of the Landrover.

The queen preferred to conserve her energy. She sat down, but she wasn’t gping to rest. Her head poked clear of the grass around her. “She can sit like this for a long time,” Stephen told us.

I zoomed back. It was a beautiful sunrise. The sky was still pink. It would be a while before the horizon dipped below the sun. Meanwhile the lioness was completely at home, relaxed but alert. We watched for a while, and then moved on.

Agama lizard

Driving along the road I suddenly saw this kitschy lizard sitting on a rock by the side of the road. I called out to Stephen to stop, and he hit the brakes immediately. “Agama” he told us. That turned out to be a genus name, and it took a little searching to get to the species. This was the Kenyan rock Agama (Agama lionotus). The reason it took a bit of searching is that this species can be a stippled brown and black, but is apparently able to change colour. It is said to be the commonest lizard in Kenya, and also found in parts of Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania. I thought it looked like Spiderman, but apparently that name is already given to the related species A. mwanzae.

Agama lizards are spread across Africa, but the five East African species (A. caudospinosa, A. kaimosae, A. lionotus, A. mwanzae, and A. rueppelli) form a closely related group. The huge variety of species in this genus requires an explanation, and one which has been advanced is that climatic oscillations played a role. During wet periods, some of the ancestral species could have expanded their ranges, and then fragmented into separately evolving populations in drier eras. The individual we saw was rather active, although it was close to noon, and the day was pretty warm. It continued to bask in the sun on top of the flat stone we saw it on. When we left, it had resumed its position at the top edge of the stone.