My Travel Map

My Travel Map

26 April 2017

Serengeti: The Great Migration

It has been called the greatest show on Earth... the seemingly endless Serengeti plains filled horizon to horizon with a seething sea of large mammals wandering chaotically, ever-driven by some unseen primordial force.   This is The Great Migration.

We were strategic in our travel planning.  We were in Tanzania in February, which is one of two times during the year when you are ensured to get a good show in Serengeti.  We had pretty high hopes, and we were simply blown away by what we ended up seeing.  Signs of the Migration teased us along the horizon as we approached the park; it was hard to comprehend that each of those dots was a large mammal.

The migration is made up primarily of two species: wildebeest...

and zebras.  

In addition to all those adults, there were also plenty of babies... from both of these species plus many more.  Here, a baby zebra is lounging in the warm sun.  But the Serengeti is a deadly place - as my last post clearly demonstrated - and the young must stick with the herd or else face certain death on the plains.

The wildebeest were especially vigilant, and the males regularly formed a wall like this between us and the rest of the herd.  Meanwhile, the zebras seemed more skittish and wary of us in general.

The high ground around the park entrance offered our first incomprehensible glimpse of what we'd been driving through, and the sheer magnitude of what was in store for us in the days ahead.

Yes, each of those spots is an animal.  The migration consists of upwards of 1.5 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras making an annual circuitous route in constant pursuit of water and food.  Along the way, they serve as a roving buffet supporting a range of predators and scavengers.

The horizon was often dusty with their passage.

These photos don't do justice for the shear scale of this.  Being there in person really let one grasp the magnitude of a column of large mammals stretching from horizon to horizon, let alone the added impact from the motions, sounds, and smells of so many animals.

At times, the herds form up to stretch from horizon to horizon in mostly a single line.

In other places, they spread out and fill huge areas.

The annual route of the Migration covers approximately 800 km (500 mi)... these animals cover a lot of distance.

I loved this shot, with the column of animals snaking into the distance.  In addition to predation by lions, hyenas, leopards, wild dogs, and crocodiles, many of these animals also end up dying of starvation or thirst. 

However, we were there in the little dry season, lasting ~2 months between periods of heavy rains, so there was plenty of water and lush grass to be had.

Zooming in, wildebeest are really quite beautiful and unique animals.  Like zebras, they too have stripes across their necks and shoulders.

The wildebeest were wary of us, clearly acknowledging our presence and keeping an eye on us as we passed amongst them, but they didn't seem to be afraid of us.

There are few great migrations like this remaining on the great plains of planet Earth thanks to the spread of humanity and our ever more demanding need for farmland and ranch land.  It's sad that the Great Plains of North America used to be the domain of a migration of similar magnitude but with millions of even larger animals than these, the American bison.  It's also devastating that rhinos used to number in the millions and share the Serengeti with the migrating wildebeest and zebras.  Now rhinos are critically endangered; we saw none during our three days in the Serengeti.

We saw lots of wildebeest and zebras though.

As the other Serengeti posts have shown, there were plenty of other animals as well., like these gazelles.

My favorites were the enormous elephants.  Often, they were on their own, separate from the other herd animals, but every once in a while we saw them moving through the herds of wildebeest and zebra.

As my last two posts highlighted.  These animals face a number of threats from an array of predators that share the Serengeti with them.  One example is the threat of lions.  Whenever we saw the herds near kopjes like this, I wondered if there were lions hiding amongst those rocks.  Often, there probably were lions closer than we knew, but the lions typically wait until night to hunt.  Night must be an awful time for these animals on the Serengeti.

Another threat to the Migration is that of crocodiles.  These poor animals can't even take a drink without dreading what might be lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to pull them in and eat them.

These herds rely on strength in numbers and statistics.  The overwhelming numbers are more than the predators could ever take, and the species openly sacrifice individuals to ensure the survival of the herd.  The weak and infirm and uncared-for young are almost certain to be taken by predators, but that actually leaves the herd stronger since only the strongest, fastest, smartest animals will live to reproduce.

The Great Migration is something than any wildlife and nature enthusiast should see.  As cliche as it may be, the migration is well deserving of its title: The Greatest Show on Earth.

15 April 2017

Serengeti: The Kill

WARNING: This post contains graphic images of a lion kill that might be disturbing to some readers.

Towards the end of our first day in Serngeti and our second day of safari, we still hadn't seen any lions.  As we approached a kopje - those large rock piles that are a favorite haunt for lions - we came across this baby wildebeest, alone in the tall grass.  Clearly, it had become separated from the herd, an event that spells near certain death for the calf.

Sadly, and very much against my protesting to the driver, the calf ended up getting spooked by our safari vehicle and running along the road ahead of us, directly towards the kopje.  I was furious at the driver for seemingly flushing it out and continuing to push it towards potential danger, and I was also hoping aloud that there were no lions at the kopje.  That calf was in trouble no matter what being out there alone and separated from the herd; that is nature.  However, there was nothing natural about that road being there, providing the calf with a clear path directly towards the kopje, nor was there anything natural about our vehicle being there to spook it.  I was disgusted.

And, unfortunately for the little calf, this kopje was currently occupied by natural-born killers.  There were three of them on the kopje, and they sprung into action as soon as they realized the calf was there.

Their clearly practiced tactics were terrifying.  This lioness quickly and stealthily set up in the tall grass just beside the road, allowing it a good clear view of the calf.

She low-crawled through the grass, inching forward and closer to the calf every time its back was turned to her.

Meanwhile, the other two lions were working with her from the rocks.

This one, which I think was a young male, made itself visible, distracting the calf.

The second lioness stayed up higher and in the bush, but she was likely also visible to the calf.

The full picture: the young male and lioness on the kopje, and the confused and clearly terrified calf standing in the middle of the road, completely unsure of what to do.  The other lioness is barely visible in the tall grass behind the calf; she is prone in the grass to the right of the road in this shot, between the calf and the other safari vehicle.  Even at this point, it was already painful to watch this all play out.

Here you can see the other lioness watching the calf... stalking... waiting with the patience of a true hunter.  I couldn't tell if the calf knew she was there or if it kept looking at the other safari vehicle.  Again, I am so devastated by the role we played in this whole thing... the safari guides driving the trucks knew what they were doing and played right into this.  That calf was trapped but us, but its unlikely that it had any chance once the lions had spotted it and decided to kill.

Each time the calf turned its back to the lioness, she slowly and stealthily moved forward, closing the kill gap.

At this point, the other two lions on the kopje were just waiting for the action to begin.

Both seemed ready to pounce as soon as they were needed to do so.

She pounced when the calf was looking at us.  She covered the gap between them so quickly that these were the first shots I could get in focus.

The calf still hasn't realized its true peril at this point; the lioness had covered over half the distance between them.

When the calf finally did realize, it was already too late.  The acceleration of the small creature wasn't enough to make up for the velocity of the lion.  She caught it from behind and quickly latched on to the baby with teeth and claws.

At this point, the sheer power of the lion and the weight differential between the two animals became devastatingly obvious.  There was no challenge here for the lioness.  She was a tried and tested predator, and this was what is normally a hard life throwing her and her family an easy meal.

This was gut wrenching and heart breaking to watch.  The kill was not quick, and the calf was obviously in a state of terror and a lot of pain.

The little thing struggled, as I think any creature with a sense of self-preservation and/or functional nervous system would do if they found themselves attacked so brutally by such a huge and effective predator.  The lioness had a death grip with her jaws on the back of the calf's neck.

At this point, both animals seemed exhausted.  The calf briefly stopped struggling, and the lioness was breathing hard and heavy through her nostrils.  She cradled the calf almost like a child; it was a morbidly intimate scene.

The second lioness then decided to approach, which somehow inspired the first one to get up and move with the calf.  It was almost playful...

They ran around to the other side of the kopje, the first lioness hauling the calf in her jaws and moving nimbly and quickly the entire time.  The calf was like 25 kg of awful rag doll.  These are terrifyingly powerful animals.

The young male remained on the rocks, just watching while the ladies did all the hard work for him.

The two lionesses set up with the calf in the grass behind the kopje.  Sadly, the herd of wildebeest could be seen in the distance... I wonder if this calfs mother was amongst them?  The worst thing about this point though was the bleating of the calf.  It continued to call out, letting us know it was still suffering in those deadly clutches.

The lioness that had first taken the calf was now clearly exhausted.  She was panting heavily through a gaping mouth.  The second lioness stood as sentinel, ensuring that the calf had no chance of some miraculous escape.

She was licking the blood from the calfs wounds, all the while its desperate and pitiful cries continued.  This was one of the most awesomely awful things I have ever witnessed.

Somehow, the calf still had enough power left in it to try another escape.  It had no chance.

The first lioness reacted immediately, digging her claws in one side of the baby animal's flank and her teeth into the other in a killer pincer move.

The calf struggled free once more, amazingly, but that sentinel watched with terrible confidence.

The sentinel lioness finally engaged; she attacked the baby's hindquarters while the first lioness took her place again with her jaws around the back of the calf's neck.

The crying continued.  I think it might have actually been the second lioness that dealt the fatal damage; she must have hit an artery along the leg or lower abdomen.

Finally, after several more minutes - an agonizing and painful amount of time for all of us present except the lions, and none more so than for that poor baby wildebeest - the bleating stopped and the young creature left this world so soon after entering it.

And the herd continued to roam in the distance.  More life goes on.

These animals are killers; it is their nature.  As disgusted and shocked as I was at having witnessed this kill, I have nothing but respect for these lions.  They need to eat, and wildebeest - both young and old - are a critical part of their diet.  This calf's carcass will feed these three lions, and potentially more from their pride.  The remains will go on to feed other scavengers, like hyenas and jackals and vultures.  They will be further decomposed by insects and bacteria and fungi.  Eventually, the calf will be no more than scattered bones, bleached by the sun, until even those return to the dirt.  The lions face a similar fate.  That is nature.

Nature is not a kind place.  It doesn't care about the lives of any individual creature, even babies.  Lions kill to ensure their own survival, just like humans have done through our entire history.  And don't worry; I know I'm not innocent either: I've eaten veal and lamb and even suckling pig.  Except I'm worse than these lions; I have the choice not to eat those baby animals.  

These lions surely had a good evening with their fresh meal, but my friends and I were quiet and somber as we made our way to the lodge where we spent the night.  That lodge was warm and safe, and I couldn't help but dwell on how many other wildebeest calves were alone and scared on the Serengeti that night and would never again see another morning.