My Travel Map

My Travel Map

16 February 2017

Serengeti: Flora, fauna, and megafauna

Sticking to the Serengeti, this post will focus on some of the plant and animal life that you can expect to see on safari.  This is one of my favorite pictures, as it combines two of the "Big 5" in one shot.  The "Big 5" are a term you become familiar with on safari, but the history of the term actually derives from hunting.  Sadly, the Big 5 are the five most sought after trophies for big game hunters in Africa: Elephant, buffalo (both seen here), lion, leopard, and rhinoceros.

Giraffes and zebras.  Those giraffes are enormous animals, as I mentioned in the previous post.  After the first two days, we expected to see a lot of these lanky giants, but they became scarce in the sweeping flat plains of the Serengeti.

As with most of the rest of the animals we saw, there were plenty of young giraffes around, which is a great sign of a healthy population.  This not-so-little guy was quite intrigued by our safari vehicle, as we were with him/her.

This might be my favorite shot of the giraffes... I love the three in the background with their necks and heads poking up over the crest of the hill.  Look at the muscles and bound power in that neck on the male in the foreground too.  I guess you need such a strong musculature to counter the leverage on such a long neck.

They are simultaneously such awkward but majestically beautiful animals.

And a little goofy too.  But in a charming way.

Another mixed bag.  As I mentioned in the previous post - and I will mention again - one of my goals on this safari became how many different animals I can get in the same shot.  Just two, like here, is standard.  Try to see what my best is...

As the day went on and we got closer to the Serengeti plains, the giraffes transitioned to zebras.  By the end of the first two days of the safari, we were quite accustomed to zebras.  So much so, that we just kept driving and didn't take pictures unless they were doing something extraordinary.  It was fantastic to see so many of the beautiful creatures dressed in their best prison stripes.

As with the elephants, zebras do well in high contrast black and white.  The hypnotizing, never-the-same patterns of their stripes are quite photogenic as well.

I got very lucky with many of these shots.  As with most amateur digital photographers, I set my camera settings quickly (and often sloppily) and then take a lot of pictures, playing the game of statistics and hoping that a small percentage will turn out well.  More and more of my pictures have been doing so lately, in my own opinion.  This one and the one below are two examples that make me happy with hauling that camera along with me on my journeys.

This light was glorious like this... the whole place was just golden and glowing.  The dust in the air helped with the natural shimmer, and then add a trotting zebra to the scene... magic.

Next up, the plentiful creatures that made even the zebras seem rare: wildebeest

Some wildebeest grazing and a southern ground hornbill strutting on through.

A lot of wildebeest seeking shade under a tree crowned by a couple of vultures scoping for food.  There are also some zebra in this shot.

A very small part of the migration on the move.

The wildebeest actually have some faint stripes along their necks and flanks too.

Every zebra's stripes make a unique pattern, just like human finger prints.  No two are totally alike, yet all are similar.

A wildebeest and an eland in the foreground, zebra in the background.

Eland: true giants on the plains.  Eland are Africa's largest antelope, with males topping out at over 1 ton and standing the same height as an average human!  We couldn't believe our eyes when we first saw one of these beasts up close... it was enormous.  Much larger than your typical domestic cow.  As with almost every other animal out there, the primary predator of eland is the lion.  It would be an awful thing to see how long and drawn out a lion hunt would be against one of these giants.

But there is something in the Serengeti that dwarfs even the enormous eland... a truly greater giant in every sense: elephants.

Standing up to over twice the height of a tall human and weighing in at over 6 tons, the African bush elephant is the largest land animal on our planet.

Elephants also appreciate the shade of a good tall tree during the heat of midday.

As I had expected, I was enchanted by the wild elephants in Africa.  I experienced the same when I saw wild elephants in India.  I've always been fascinated by these enormous and intelligent mammals.  Elephants exude a presence, like an aura, of reserved power and control.  They are intimidating and command respect.  They are also display distinct personalities and what seems like a range of emotions in their interactions with each other and other animals, including humans.

I will never understand why anyone would ever want to hunt and kill one of these animals.

Three elephants, and in a 3-species shot by the way.

Elephants are one of the world's most intelligent species.  The complexity of elephant brains is on the same order as that of humans, and they have demonstrated such advanced characteristics as problem-solving, teamwork, tool usage, the ability to learn, art, grief, altruism despite self-awareness, and near-photographic memories.  I mention several examples of this in my post on the elephants of Tarangire National Park.

This group made a line across the terrain, almost as if they were part of a search party.  I suppose that is an effective and efficient method of herd grazing in grasslands.

This isn't the predator post, but this is an amusing story that fits well here.  Around midday on day two in the Serengeti, we came across this small group of lions lounging around the carcass of a wildebeest.

There were three adults, including a male, plus this youngster that still had its spots.  Here, the little guy is intrigued by some vultures waiting ever so patiently in the tree above.

A scene that is unnervingly grisly to us humans and surely pure horror to any wildebeest is appealing to lions.  They rely on death to survive.

All was going well on what was likely a beautiful day for this group of lions.  They had food.  They had company. And they had shade.

And then this big guy came strolling down the game trail...

When he got closer, he made a bee-line right for the lions under the tree.

The lionesses and cub were the first to clear the area.  The male lion stuck around a little longer, but eventually even he retreated in clear fear of the elephant.  These are some more shots with two of the Big 5 in the same frame.

The lions were clearly afraid of the lone elephant.  According to our guide and driver, lions are unable to take on fully grown elephants, and they know it.  This elephant knew exactly what it was doing too... it stood over or near the dead wildebeest for at least ten minutes, switching between staring the lions down and seemingly ignoring them completely.

With the lions forced away from their prize, the vultures that had been waiting in the tree moved in to steal some food.  The lions, particularly the male, were clearly not happy with this.  They were growling and pacing in the distance.

Eventually, the elephant must have gotten bored.  With one more long stare-down of the lions, he started to wander back along his way.

As soon as the lions came back, the vultures moved out and returned to their safe perches in the tree.

So much for a perfect day for the lions.  I'm sure they were happy to avoid any physical confrontation with the elephant though.

Speaking of larger animals messing with lions: the African buffalo are fierce survivors and lions are their despised enemies.  Buffalo are enormous bovine, weighing in at half a ton or more.  African buffalo have been known to charge through prides of sleeping lions, trampling to death those they catch unaware and then stalking and killing any cubs left unattended.  When a herd of buffalo is attacked by lions, they will also stand together and fight fiercely against the predators, often returning again and again to harass the lions, even after the lions have made a kill.  A herd of buffalo will also stalk lions, isolate and corner individuals, and kill the predators if they get any chance.  There is safari video online of buffalo making full grown lions look like rag dolls.  And those horns are sharp too... a direct hit will easily gore a lion.  If a lion is struck directly by a buffalo's charge, stamp, or kick, the lions thick bones are easily broken.  Lions risk much when they attack buffalo... surely they do so out of desperation for food.  Buffalo are fierce defenders and will not be taken easily.

African buffalo are intimidating creatures.  When we approached our lodge on the second night, we saw two fools (idiot tourists) jogging on the road a few miles outside of camp!  Our guide and driver was immediately worried and reported the idiots as soon as we arrived.  A vehicle was sent for them immediately to ensure their safety.  Interestingly, the driver wasn't worried very much at all about lions... the thing he said would kill those men given the chance was buffalo.  The animals know that people are also one of their most dangerous enemies.

Anytime we were near, the buffalo got weary.  The largest males in the bunch would always line up and stare us down.

What's that zebra doing with all those buffalo?  It's smart... that's what.  It knows that amongst those brutes are lion killers.  Smart zebra.

Check out those birds on the buffalo's back; those things were all over the buffalos in what is clearly a symbiotic relationship between the two species.  The buffalo attract the birds' food-source: flies, and the birds keep the buffalo relatively pest-free.  The best is the birds' name: the oxpecker.

The buffalo let those oxpeckers climb all over them... including to pluck flies right out of their nostrils!

Elephants and buffalo and wildebeest; two more of the Big 5 in one shot.  This watering hole was a popular place... and apparently free of crocodiles.

Speaking of that symbiotic relationship again... this gnu had two oxpeckers on it.

And a not so symbiotic relationship... scavenger birds: vultures and a maribou stork.  These scavengers play a crucial role in the greater ecosystem, but they surely aren't any kind of comforting sight for prey species.  They are a sign of death.

But again, they rely on that death for their own life.  And by serving as nature's recyclers and picking clean even the most rancid of corpses, they play an important role in returning the dead to the earth and the circle of life.

The vultures squabbled often with each other... there were some clear challenges to the pecking order in this group.

The maribou stork is also known as the undertaker bird, primarily for its ominous profile from behind.  Interestingly, the vultures left it alone.

These vultures dominated this carcass.  Note the one perched atop the dead zebra, as if victorious, and the other with its head deep into the zebras neck.  It is because of this that vultures and maribou storks have little to know plumage on their heads: the bacteria that coat the skin over their skulls and necks keep other growth at bay.

I wonder if the wildebeest and its calf took any note of these birds and the dead zebra.

Flocks of vultures were sure signs of death.  Seeing them rise up in numbers out of the tall grass was particularly interesting.  Especially at one point where hyenas must have made a recent kill... the vultures were not giving the hyenas anywhere near as much respect and clearance as they gave the lions mentioned above.

Despite their bad reputation, vultures are quite amazing and very large birds.

Vultures are not appreciated by most humans, and their species is at peril due to that.  They are often intentionally poisoned by ranchers.  Sadly, due to the spread of humanity and wonton slaughter of these creatures, African vultures are critically endangered.

Another carnivorous bird: two brown eagles sitting in a tree.

And the giant of all birds: the ostrich.  Because of their enormous size and muscle mass, ostriches are bound to the earth... they are flightless birds.  But they can run... fast.  Despite their speed, ostriches are still hunted by large cats: cheetahs, leopards, and of course lions.

Ostrich and gazelle.  There are a lot of gazelle out there in the grasslands...

Gazelle, ostriches, hartebeest, and either an eagle or a vulture.  It's hard to believe how common scenes like this are; there are animals everywhere out there.  It is amazing yet a sad reminder of just how devastating humanity has been to the natural state of the planet.   You just can't find scenes like this anymore in Europe and North America.

A couple crested cranes and another bird on top of a kopje

The crested cranes are beautiful birds, and they were just glowing in that light around sunset

A Hildebrandt's starling... I was blown away by the colors on this bird.  It really is like a living gem.

Rainbow birds...

and rainbow lizards: a pink and blue agama lizard

Monkeys... it was adorable how the babies would ride underneath or on the backs of their mothers.  Baboon babies did the same with their parents.

Back to the various types of antelopes roaming the plains of the Serengeti.  Here are three hartebeest.

Two more hartebeest, some zebra, and a hyena.  Hyena are pack hunters.  One alone isn't a major threat to these prey animals.  You could still tell they were uneasy around it though.

The regal waterbuck... these animals reminded me a lot of very strong and proud deer.

The elusive dik dik... these are tiny creatures.  Their weight tops out at just a little over ten pounds, and they stand only a little more than a foot in height at the shoulders.  We saw only two during the entire 5-day safari. 

Grant's (foreground) and Thomsen's (behind) gazelle: two of the most common antelopes in the Serengeti.  Grant's gazelle are the larger of the two species... closer to the size of impala.

And speaking of impala, here are a few now.  Dominant male impalas roam the planes with a harem of females.  Adolescent and inferior males form small groups of their own. 

A warthog hanging out near two male impalas

Warthogs are also dangerous creatures... they can grow to over 300 lbs and those tusks can easily gore soft flesh.

These creatures roam the plains with a confidence that doesn't seem to match their relatively minute size.  They are tough, and they know it.  They are also wary of just about everything else out there... warthogs have a powerful attitude.

I guess we were there at the right time of year to see warthog families.  Most of the warthogs we saw were accompanied by little "hoglets".

This warthog wasn't bothered at all by the secretarybird.

Back to birds, secretarybirds are primarily terrestrial creatures, despite this one atop a tree.  They are birds of prey and hunt in the vast grasslands.  Their prey include everything from insects to snakes and lizards to other birds and even small mammals.

And now, back to warthogs

Seeing these warthogs trotting along through the grasses was quite amusing, especially when the only thing visible above the grass was their tails.

Warthogs and hyenas... the warthogs knew the hyenas were there, and they proceeded cautiously.  However, the hyenas didn't seem interested in the least bit.

Hyenas are opportunists, acting as both predator and scavenger.  They'll eat whatever they can to survive.  That momma warthog knows it too and keeps her babies close.  By the way, there is an ostrich back there on the right... this is a three species shot.

And, there were actually two hyenas out there in the grass... it was incredible how well they could hide when they laid low.

Enjoying a nice drink

And to finish the post, we'll end with another giant: hippos.  There are also several crocodiles in this shot too... do you see them?

There were a lot of hippos in this pool.  From this distance, it is hard to comprehend that these are the most dangerous animal in Africa.

Despite their kind of awkward appearance, hippos are indeed the most dangerous animal in Africa.  They will charge and maul if they feel threatened out of the water... particularly if you get between them and their local water hole.  They feel safe in the water and very at risk and threatened on land.  They are enormous animals, and can easily crush a human if they smash or stomp you while charging.  Furthermore, if you thought those warthog tusks were dangerous, just wait until you see the inside of a hippos mouth.  They too have tusks that will split soft human flesh wide open, and they command the power to do so easily.

Hippos aren't so docile as they look either.  During the 30 minutes or so that we observed this pool, we saw several altercations...

Look at the color on that water... it is a cesspool.  

There were also several babies.  This huge mother kept her calf far from the fray and danger of the rest.  I can only imagine how many hippo calves end up getting killed by quibbling adults.

The baby was adorable...

I loved the color and texture on these animals too.

So that does it for this post... next up: predators.