A Year Of Cats, Clashes And Unlikely Coalitions
You may have heard about the famous spotted zebra foal discovered in the Mara in September this year. Upon hearing about this unique zebra, my biggest desire was to go and try find it. Luckily, I was with some guests on the other side of the Mara and heard a call come in over the radio that the special melanistic zebra had been sighted. We rushed to the location and saw it crossing the Sand River into the Serengeti – it was the last time it was seen in Kenya. Perhaps it will come back next year?
The pressure is on whenever guests want to see a kill. I was guiding two lovely couples from the USA and Canada on their last afternoon drive when we spotted a lone male buffalo, but we had seen quite a few, so this wasn’t anything new. What was interesting was that he was moving at quite a pace directly towards us, and the late afternoon light was perfect for portrait shots of his impressive sharp horns and mean-looking face.
Some distance away, we saw something dark, similar to the mane of a lion. We looked closer, and so it was! Amazingly, the buffalo was walking directly towards him – however, being by himself, a large buffalo bull would be a very difficult kill to make. We waited to see who the king would be, but the lion decided to lay low in the short grass to avoid the buffalo. We thought that was it, the excitement over, as the buffalo moved some distance away. Just as we were about to leave, we saw some heads popping up right through the grass – the females!
In a flash, the lionesses were on their feet chasing the old bull. As the buffalo appeared to outrun the females, the male lion was ready to pounce right as he entered his kill zone. It was an impressive leap as he jumped and held the buffalo by its neck, hanging on desperately for a few minutes before letting go. A few minutes of chase followed, before he pounced right on the buffalo’s back and clawed all the way to the top. The bellow of distress from the buffalo didn’t bring him any help, but at this point, more lionesses from the pride joined their dominant male in trying to bring the buffalo down. The old bull was strong, and he fought to his last minute.
The ambassadors of Fujifilm joined us at Angama to test some of the newest, most technical gear Fujifilm has to offer. On their list, they hoped for a kill – not always an easy find.
One fine morning I chose to drive southwest, a place that offers more freedom and fewer vehicles. A lioness and two sub-adults caught our eye as they walked across a mist-carpeted grass. At a distance, an adult topi and some topi lambs watched warily as the lions advanced. As the lions closed the gap, the topi bolted away – but this was not the case for a sounder of warthogs and their young ones. The lioness had advanced too close before the piglets could scatter, one was catapulted and taken on its heels, resulting in a ferocious scuffle as the three lions fought for their fair share.
We were on an early morning drive with the aim to head south, to perhaps the quietest part of the Mara. At the Egyptian Goose waterhole, we paused to scan around, and I spotted some lionesses. They were doing as lions do, lazing around, so we decided to have breakfast where we could keep an eye on them.
Just as I started to unpack breakfast, one of the guests shouted, “They’re hunting! They’re hunting!” We watched from afar as they unsuccessfully tried to catch some Thomson’s gazelle lambs. Clearly they were not satisfied, and so after breakfast we decided to track them.
Five of them were under some croton bushes, but we knew there were six and searched for the missing lioness. A few hundred meters away she was digging away, and we all figured she must have chased a warthog into its burrow. We sat with her as she dug and shoveled the soil, intent on whatever hid inside the hole.
Nearby, a curious jackal and its pup circled around warily, watching and hoping for scraps – and surprise – out of the sky an eagle swooped in and instantly killed the jackal pup. The jackal mother held her ground fiercely and defended the martial eagle from flying off with its quarry, while at the same time the industrious lioness kept digging until she was finally rewarded with a warthog piglet.
We watched the lioness devour her kill, while the mama jackal mourned her baby nearby, and the eagle perched patiently waiting to claim its prey. It was a lot of drama for one morning.
Fred Ole Sinoni
Even a sleeping lion can make any creature skittish. I witnessed an exceptional case this year when I spotted a daring monitor lizard catching and eating flies off a lion's back. To my eyes, this seemed a most risky endeavour.
But lion flies must be very tasty, for what else could motivate the monitor to tread on such dangerous ground for just a few morsels? Contrary to what one would expect, the male lion, probably being irritated by the flies, swallowed his pride and enjoyed the service.
This sighting was so special because it taught me a lesson: power doesn't solve every problem; being humble goes a long way.
My sighting of the year was right as the migration season began here in the Mara Triangle. Near a place we guides call Fifty Kilometre, my guests and I witnessed a lioness that managed to kill four wildebeest in a span of just 30 minutes.
Interestingly, all this happened in exactly the same spot as the animals kept walking by in single file. As anyone with house cats as pets will know, this made me understand how instinctual the chase and the kill can be. Even with plenty to eat, she just couldn’t help herself.
I had decided to explore the secret paths of the southern part of the Mara Triangle with my guests, close to the border.
We came across a lone cheetah, sitting on top of a termite mound scanning his surrounds for a meal. A beautiful scene, we decided to stay with him to see what might happen. About 30 minutes later, our patience paid off: he spotted a lone Thomson’s gazelle grazing in the distance.
He began walking towards the gazelle, and I followed him "pole pole" (slowly slowly). I then noticed that in between us was a coalition of male lions lying in a small bush. In no time, one of the lions spotted the cheetah and he was suddenly on his feet moving stealthily towards the cheetah. We stopped and watched the action, unsure of what was about to unfold, as the cheetah stalked the gazelle, and the lion stalked the cheetah.
As the cheetah was inching closer, he looked around and lo and behold - the lion had started running towards him. Thanks to his speed, the cheetah was able to sprint away, saving both his own life and that of the gazelle. And so the hunter became the hunted on that day. And, in a way, the lion was able to save the life of the gazelle.
Earlier this year, during the migration season, I was on a drive with a fantastic group of guests in the area just below Angama Mara.
A herd of wildebeest was grazing nearby, completely unaware that the Angama Pride was sneakily scouting around. Suddenly, an ambush from one of the lionesses - the chase went on, the lioness slowly closing in, until she finally caught her prey right at the foot of our vehicle. Seeing a kill is always a rare sighting, but having it happen under your nose was truly exceptional.
Giraffe mothers are known for returning to their calving grounds time after time to give birth. They are highly vulnerable during labour, so they tend to choose a safe place they know well. As a result of this behaviour, I've found it hard to find one giving birth.
But on one great morning drive, I happened to come across a giraffe in labour. It took about 30 minutes before I saw a big splash and a six-foot fall to the ground – a baby giraffe had been born. I explained to my captivated guests that the drop is important, as it helps break the umbilical cord and the amniotic sac, but most critically, it encourages the baby to take its first breath. That six-foot fall was my sighting of the year.
It was a late afternoon drive, and it was very wet, so we were sticking to the main roads. We stopped next to what was usually just a big marsh, but it had turned into a proper hippo pool because of all the rains, and sat watching the hippos for some time.
Suddenly I saw a small spotted cat – a serval – coming out of long grass beside the marsh, carrying something in its mouth. We looked closer and saw that it had caught a big catfish, and was delivering dinner to its kittens just across the road. And this is what the rains bring – unusual sightings such as this. Mama serval and her kittens celebrated with that catfish. What a sighting!
It was a very bright sunny day at around noon, at that time of the year when the migration is all over the Mara Triangle. But this sighting was not about the migration.
I drove down our majestic private road, heading to an area we call Kaburini, looking for black rhino on the way. But as is often true with great sightings, it is often not the thing that you are looking for that ends up being the highlight.
Guess what I found - a black-necked spitting cobra in combat with the River Pride. The pride’s little cubs were innocently playing with the deadly venomous snake, seemingly left behind by their mother. I scanned for her, and finally spotted her moving towards a warthog. It wasn't that easy to choose where to watch with all this drama happening at once, but I could see it was likely she would kill the warthog.
Indeed she did, and immediately called to her cubs for lunch. Just in time, too – the cubs responded quickly and ran towards their mother, narrowly escaping death at the fangs of the cobra. The mother lioness was completely unaware of the drama of the cobra and her little innocent cubs.
It was around mid-morning as we drove to the most southern parts of the Mara Triangle in search of a leopard. This is one of my favourite regions in the park, as it is never crowded with safari vehicles. The best way to find a leopard is by finding the tail hanging down from a branch in a tree, so we searched the branches for hanging tails.
Within the blink of an eye, I saw something under one of the desert date trees, and with the help of binoculars we could see it was a spotted hyena that was feeding on something just out of view. He was eating quite fast and seemed to be worried, looking up and sideways after every bite.
I drove closer and, to my amazement, the hyena and a leopard were under the same tree. The hyena was eating the reedbuck after taking it from the leopard. As we watched, the leopard went up the tree and continued watching from up high as the hyena was enjoying his stolen lunch. What incredible predators.
This year has been marked by a series of interesting sightings, but the most exciting for me was having the big cat trifecta of cheetah, leopard, and lion very close to each other.
We set out for a full day game drive, with the aim of searching for a leopard. We got a message from some colleagues that there was one around the border area, and we headed south to see if we could get lucky.
Sure enough, we found the leopard – but then, to our surprise, within just a few metres there were two cheetahs. We marvelled at this sighting of the spotted cats so close to one another, and just as we moved away, we found four lionesses with their cubs also right there. It was such an intense few minutes – talk about hitting two birds (or is it three cats?) with one stone.
My best sighting of the year was one that made the news – perhaps you saw it? We were watching a leopard stalking an impala for a while, with the impala posing quite a challenge as it kept on moving steadily away because it was feeding. Finally, the stealthy leopard decided to make a run, but the impala was so fast and the leopard missed him.
But a split second later, something attracted the leopard’s attention, and she darted into the bush. A few second later she came out holding a massive rock python by the tail – but the python wasn't ready to die without a fight.
For the next three minutes, which seemed like half an hour, the leopard and the python traded the upper hand, with the python nearly fully coiling around the leopard more than once.
Eventually, it was the leopard who emerged victorious, but the fight was so unexpected and exhausting, and injuries from the snake’s bites so painful, that she caught her breath, left the dead snake behind, and never returned.
We entered the park as soon as the gates opened – our aim was to head to the Greater Mara to look for the famous coalition of five cheetah. Having been told where they were the previous late evening, we had a good idea where to start looking, but of course it is nature and we were prepared to look for them all day.
Amazingly, we found them relatively quickly and enjoyed watching this unusual phenomenon of so many cheetahs socialising together. We could have stayed with them for a long time, but word was quickly out that there was another very unusual thing happening nearby: an almost-paralysed lioness was in the vicinity.
It was unclear what was wrong with the lioness, perhaps she was old and sick, or had been injured in a recent hunt – but she was severely debilitated, and by the time we got to her, hyenas had already found her in her weakened state. They then started to devour the poor lioness, and as grim as this was, it was something I had never seen before and so was my most memorable sighting of the year.
My highlight of 2019 was notable for how unusual it was, if perhaps a bit morbid. It was a real-life tug-of-war that lasted over 12 minutes, between a marabou stork and a pair of white-backed vultures. They were fighting over a dead hippo’s intestines that had been left by lions some time before. The two vultures had it to start, but the marabou came in to challenge them.
The vultures ganged up against the marabou, fiercely defending their hippo leftovers as they pulled the marabou along the road for over 20 metres as neither party would let go. Eventually the marabou had enough and he shook his head so hard the vultures had to release it, and the marabou swallowed the whole thing!
Filed under: The Mara