Sunday, October 10, 2010


Wild Life at Maasai Mara

It’s daybreak as we step out of the safe portals of our tented camp into the wide wild grassland. It is a beautiful day and the sun is shining on the red oat grass deepening the golden hue of the sashaying savannahs that stretch to the very periphery of vision. The wildebeest are in good strength, hunched-back, head-down, grazing greedily. From a distance they look like grazing cattle and certainly not anything like antelopes (as we know them – elegant and lithe), which they actually are! With their white beard and dark mane they look shaggy, almost ugly, and the black muzzle rendering their eyes inconspicuous gives them a sinister appearance.

It’s August and it is Christmas time in Mara. This is the season of abundance where nobody goes hungry. Unlike last year, the long rains have been good this time and the grass is plenty. The lure of this sweet manna draws wildebeests from across the border, and this mass migration, in turn, brings prospects of easy food for the resident predators.  For centuries, the wildebeests have followed the scent of the grass and made the pilgrimage from Serengeti to Mara by crossing the swollen waters of Mara River, unfailingly, against all odds, braving starving crocodiles and lurking lions. This river crossing of millions of wildebeests, and along with them, the zebras and gazelles has been touted as one of the natural wonders of the world. Rivalling this exodus, perhaps, is the migration from far corners of the world, of tourists eager to witness the spectacular show on earth!

Today, wildebeest dot the savannahs filling up the horizon, but the buffalo herds of our last visit are conspicuously absent. The influx of the wildebeest has pushed them away to the periphery of the park, the guide tells us. His surmise is that the buffaloes do not like the noisy gnus (wildebeest are also called gnus because of their peculiar, onomatopoeic grunt), but we suspect that it is competition for food that makes them seek their fortune elsewhere. Even the elephants - which are a ubiquitous presence in the African jungles - are relegated to the outskirts with the onslaught of the migrating ungulates. But we did see a picture postcard herd - straddling the savannahs under the blue clear skies - coming alive in an elephant parade.

On our first day, we had come across a pride of lions – three lionesses, few juveniles and few cubs, just across the veldt from the row of gnus. Unlike the elephants and the buffaloes, for the lions, the gnus are a welcome sight. But, yesterday, the cubs were merrily frolicking about as the mothers watched over them languidly, mindless of the herd nearby! On a full stomach, the gnus were not even a blip on their radar. The pride had nestled under a thicket and settled for their siesta. Today, we were headed to the lion territory again, but something had changed. Gone was yesterday’s lazy demeanour, in place now was an on-the-edge alertness, an intent purposeful gait… a wait. Even as we were spotting lionesses and cubs here and there, it dawned on us that the pride had fanned out, a strategy was being played out, and a web of deception was being weaved. The pride was spoiling for a kill.

A lone wildebeest was grazing on the savannah side of the pride - an easy target - away from the rest of the herd which was across the tourist trail. The lioness had marked it out, it was just a matter of seconds, but even as the stage was set, a swarm of tourist vehicles trundled towards the theatre of war, shattering the silence, the driver-guides all vying for a vantage ringside view. The startled target hurried to the safety of the herd; the lioness had lost its chance. The vehicle path neatly bisected the arena with the lions on one side and the wildebeest on the other, becoming a hurdle in the line of fire. Who would have ever thought that a lion hunt could have a new dimension, that of human hindrance!

But the lioness (as a species) is not called the king for no reason. Undeterred, it skirted the vehicles and sneaked from behind, walking slowly, deliberately towards the herd, perpendicular to it, as the wildebeest stood watching, rooted to ground. In front of so many watchful eyes, the lioness crouched in the grass and like a Houdini-trick disappeared from sight! After what seemed like an endless wait, we, and perhaps, the wildebeest, too, lost the lioness’ coordinates, and just then another lioness burst out from the bushes and the wildebeest took off. The second lioness was just a red herring; the first one lunged out of hiding and aimed for the one at the rear end of the fleeing column. In a flash, the lioness had its jugular in a vice-like grip and the poor animal was brought down thrashing piteously.

The world stopped spinning as life ebbed out of the innocent beast. The lioness set about tearing the carcass open as the cubs milled around jostling each other, rolling over one another by the trophy. It was a picture of gaiety - the kids waiting for a piece of chocolate brownie while the mother carved the cake for a family feast. On the other side, the herd stood watching, their tails flicking – no wailing, no grunts, no moaning, and no chest-beating, not even panic anymore. Were they silently, in their own way, mourning the loss of their kin, or simply feeling relieved, “it was not them today”? Can anyone tell? And then they simply moved on unhurried in their everyday manner. We stood witness to a testimony of the “Grand Design” where life cycles of species intertwine in twists of fate, where sustenance and emotions of one dovetail with that of the other as in yin and yang, where creation or regeneration and destruction continues in an endless loop. Never before has one confronted such a scenario of murder where your heart goes out to the victim and yet, you cannot accuse or point fingers at the assassin!

I am not necessarily on the trail of the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and the rhino) and am perfectly content to take the savannah at its slow pace and watch the vultures and the throbbing birdlife, instead. The lilac-breasted roller bird swoops down in a flash of blue, picks up a worm, and perches itself back on a tree-top. Perched high on an acacia - a recurring motif throughout our safari - the roller bird, too is symbolic of the savannahs, like the browsing giraffes and ‘wading’ (walking in air) ostriches. The sight of a mixed party of vultures scavenging at the remains of a kill offers another significant jigsaw in the ‘grand design’ that maintains the equivalence of matter and energy! Even as I am enjoying the savannahs in their splendour, the son and the guide are on a mission – to track the predators, the cats.  The cheetah holds a special place in my son’s heart as it has all the attractive qualities of a cat – speed, stealth and strength, and yet is a “mild-natured animal, never known to attack humans in wild”. Since Usain Bolt adopted one for a few hundred dollars, at the Nairobi National Park, my son has been nursing the idea of having a cheetah for a pet! Having petted one at city’s park, he was particularly keen to see it in the wild; after all, the open endless savannah is the cheetah’s playground.

The guide had already “tracked down” the duma (Swahili, for cheetah) and we were hurtling down at breakneck (literally!) speed to “catch” it. From a distance, we saw tourist vehicles standing by a tree and we knew what to expect – the joy of serendipity was not to be ours. A Cheetah Mama was guarding a toto (child) in the shade of a thicket, panting heavily. Both watched our every move, warily, waiting for us to depart, unlike the nonchalant lions. Depart, we did, but not before marveling their glistening spotted coats and their elegant stature. Long extinct in India, this was like turning the clock back to the days of Raj when cheetahs roamed the wild, unfettered.

With this lucky bonanza, the guide was even more eager to tote up a leopard and tick it off the list. Leopards are the most elusive of all cats, often cohabiting closely with humans, yet escaping detection; our Indian experience had borne this fact. We experienced the thrill of spotting a leopard, or at least a part of it, when we saw a thick bushy blotched tail dangle through the branches of a tree. But pry as we might, we simply could not see the creature, so well-couched was it in the canopy. But just a little distance and a while later, we were rewarded with a vision of another leopard, on ground, masquerading amid a twiggy tree. Spotting leopards was an object lesson in camouflage – without the guides and their radio gadgets we would have easily missed them, even if we had passed them by whiskers.

The Mara River beckons on the last leg of our safari; we cannot resist the urge to see the “river crossing”, if it happens. The hippopotamuses are there by the bank, basking lazily as usual and so are the giant Nile crocodiles, but no sign of wildebeest waiting to cross over. The river, itself, 200-km long, is at full flow, but all is quiet on the Mara front, today. Last year, when the rains failed, the river was at its lowest ebb, but the wildebeest were there, waiting on the far embankment, standing unsure, and suspense building up: “will they or won’t they cross the river?” 

We have seen this scene being played out, virtually, in wildlife documentaries, time and again. The wildebeest gather at the river waiting to muster courage to take the plunge and even as they stand indecisive the sheer density propels the ranks and before long the first flank finds itself in the swelling waters. Some of the young cannot fight the mighty currents and are washed away or near drowning; it is exactly for this eventuality that predators - lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and crocodiles - are waiting for. It is a feast, free for all. Flailing wildly, the wildebeest focus singularly on avoiding predators and making it to the other side. Many do, many don’t. What vicarious pleasure is to be derived by seeing this spectacle, I wonder. Perhaps, it is just as well that we do not witness the gory orgy, today.

For many of us, it is the sight of the cats or the Big Five, in action or in candid repose, that we truly crave for. But if there is one thing that the jungles or savannahs teach man it is the unpredictable and elusive nature of wildlife. You may go with great expectations but come away with a humble lesson that you have to visit the savannahs again and again to unravel its mysteries; that they may not be revealed to you all at once. Ironically, it also reminds you that wildlife exists not for our voyeuristic viewing, that the animals simply belong here. The savannahs are their land, their home - from prehistoric times - whence their forebears came, long before Man walked the earth.


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