Kenya: Wildebeests and Their Cousins

Zebras on the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya.

Zebras on the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya.

ON THE MAASAI MARA, Kenya — I had known about the Great Migration — the annual movement of herbivores across the grasslands of East Africa — but I did not know that wildebeests imitate their migratory behavior on a regular, less-grand scale.

During a recent morning’s game viewing on the Maasai Mara, another journalist and I saw one example of this, as the animals moved en masse from one grassy plateau to another.

To effect that move, the animals had to cross a gully and the Ntiakitiak River, which — for good reason — they did at a run: There was a crocodile in the river near the wildebeests’ legs, looking for lunch.

Wildebeests run across the Maasai Mara’s Ntiakitiak River to get to the grasses on the next plateau.

Wildebeests run across the Maasai Mara’s Ntiakitiak River to get to the grasses on the next plateau.

The Maasai Mara area (encompassing the Maasai Mara National Reserve and neighboring private conservancies in southwestern Kenya) is famed for its place in the Great Migration.

Broadly speaking, the animals move in a circle, departing from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and flooding onto the Maasai Mara plain in mid- and late summer. The return trip to Tanzania, at the end of the year, is more gradual.

In my book, Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, I reported that an estimated 3 million to 3.5 million animals make the move, about half of them wildebeests. The line of wildebeests, zebras, gazelles, the predators that live on them and others can stretch across the landscape for 25 miles at the height of the relocation.

At the time of my recent sightings, I was part of a press group hosted by the Kenya Tourism Board. Our group spent a significant portion of our time on the Maasai Mara National Reserve and in the adjacent conservancies.

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Zebras on the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya.

Thomson’s gazelles breakfasting under bright early morning light, on the Maasai Mara.

Thomson’s gazelles breakfasting under bright early morning light, on the Maasai Mara.

When we visited the Maasai Mara, most of these animals had just returned to Kenya.

We were thrilled to see what I call a mini-migration, during which thousands of wildebeests moved a fairly short distance, but en masse. They were seeking grass, which is the motivator for the Great Migration, too.
Duncan, our driver/guide, said wildebeests regularly move together in large numbers because they have a tendency to behave like lemmings.

He said, “Once one decides to do it, others follow.” We saw the animals lined up beyond our horizon. Some of them ran just to join the line — or maybe jump the line.

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Kenya: Big Cats in the Wild

Undeterred by a tourist vehicle, the cheetah strides very close to her visitors.

Undeterred by a tourist vehicle, the cheetah strides very close to her visitors.

ON THE MAASAI MARA, Kenya — I have two cats at home, which probably makes me just that much more likely to enjoy game viewing that includes some of the big cats. I was lucky enough to do that recently, when I joined a press trip, sponsored by the Kenya Tourism Board.

Jeeps and driver/guides for our group’s game viewing were provided by the Sanctuary Olonana tented camp, where we were hosted one night, and Great Plains Conservation, which owns two camps where we were guests, Mara Plains and Mara Toto.

Our group watched the big cats several times on the Maasai Mara National Reserve or, at times, while in nearby privately held conservancies.

Lions

Isn’t he the true Lion King?

Isn’t he the true Lion King?

We saw the lions first. With one exception, though, that was not where the action was. Generally, the cats were doing what cats do very well — sleep, stretch and yawn.

Lions know how to enjoy a good yawn.

Lions know how to enjoy a good yawn.

In the one exception, a lion pair was doing what comes naturally to make those cute little cubs. And, we were probably indecently amused.

The family that naps together stays together. These young lions are seen on the Maasai Mara.

The family that naps together stays together. These young lions are seen on the Maasai Mara.

As it turned out, out observations of leopards and cheetahs were more gripping — although, in no case, did we see a kill. Fine by me.

One of our guides could not resist referring to gazelles as cheetah chips. He also called the wildebeest lion sausage.

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Kenya and the World’s Largest Land Mammal

Kenya, elephants, Amboseli

A family group walks toward us on the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya. On the Maasai Mara, we watched game on the Maasai Mara National Reserve as well as the adjacent Transmara and the Olare Motorogi conservancies.

NAIROBI, Kenya — I have a foster elephant, and her name is Kamok. Actually, quite a few people are foster “parents” to the same elephant.

This youngster, born in September 2013 in Kenya, was orphaned at birth (natural causes, it says on her paperwork). David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s orphanage for elephants and rhinos, located in Nairobi National Park, took her in.

She is among nearly two dozen young elephants at the orphanage available for fostering, a program that engages animal lovers at a personal level and helps fund their care. A couple of rhinos also can be fostered.

I visited the orphanage on the last day of a June press trip to Kenya.

In Kenya, Amboseli elephants at the Kitirua Conservancy.

A good view of the large herd we loved watching while on the Kitirua Conservancy.

During the trip, elephants got a lot of our attention, in part because our itinerary also included Amboseli National Park and the private Kitirua Conservancy that abuts it.

The Amboseli area is noted for its large elephant herds, but those herds are only large compared with other areas, not with herds of the past.

The Amboseli elephant herd as we sat among them, with a young one front and center.

Our driver/guide at Amboseli, Joseph, passed along interesting trivia about elephants and frightening information about their fate, past, present and possibly future.

Starting with the fun factoids, he said the relative lengths of an elephant’s tusks indicate which tusk is most used, i.e., a shorter left tusk means the elephant is essentially left-handed.

The elephant’s trunk has 65,000 muscles and 3,000 nerve endings.

As for their fabled memories, Joseph said elephants don’t forget the scents of other animals or humans. He said you could blow a few times into the trunk of a baby, and the baby will remember you decades later.

Amboseli elephants at the Kitirua Conservancy in Kenya.

This mother-and-child pair seen in real life on the Maasai Mara were better than any YouTube clip. The youngster tried vigorously to engage his mother in play. He then entertained himself by walking a few steps forward, then walking backwards, then repeating the process a few times.

Separately, we were told elephants have six sets of teeth in a lifetime, each good for a decade, after which they cannot live much longer.

In the 1960s, Amboseli National Park was host to 40,000 to 45,000 elephants, but now the park is down to around 1,600, Joseph said. Poaching is the major problem, but not in Amboseli itself, where the elephants benefit from 24-hour monitoring.

A toddler, seen on the Maasai Mara, nurses with one foot lifted off the ground as if he were about to dance. Our guide said the lifted foot indicates contentment.

A toddler, seen on the Maasai Mara, nurses with one foot lifted off the ground as if he were about to dance. Our guide said the lifted foot indicates contentment.

The problem, Joseph said, is that the elephants, which require 600 pounds of food daily per adult, must move around to eat, and that includes crossing into Tanzania, where licensed game hunting is legal. Poachers take advantage of that, he said.

An elephant wraps up a drinking session at a waterhole on the plains of the Maasai Mara.

An elephant wraps up a drinking session at a waterhole on the plains of the Maasai Mara.

Although continued severe drops in elephant numbers could render them extinct in a decade, Joseph said he is hopeful that “international intervention” will be effective enough that the elephant population will actually grow in the next 10 to 15 years.

And, by the way, another guide, Duncan, said the Big Five, meaning the large species tourists traditionally most want to see, originated as hunters’ top targets: the lions and leopards for their skins; rhinos for their horns; elephants for their tusks, and buffalo because they are so dangerous.

During our game viewing on Kitirua Conservancy, Joseph drove into the middle of a large elephant herd and we could get great close-in photos of very young elephants and others, plus one youngish male that was very curious about our vehicle. He moved his trunk across our windshield, probably checking for a memorable scent!

Elephants mill around our four-wheel drive on the Kitirua Conservancy, which is adjacent to Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya.

Elephants mill around our four-wheel drive on the Kitirua Conservancy, which is adjacent to Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya.

Our guides said the animals see our vehicles, and even our tents, as big boxes, and these “boxes” don’t have odors that frighten them.

Visiting the orphanage was a chance to get even closer. We watched 16 elephants race to stalls for their evening feeding. They are bottle fed milk, then given tree branches to work over. (The youngest, including my Kamok, were not part of this parade.)

Kenya, elephants, Amboseli

One of the orphaned elephants at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s orphanage for elephants and rhinos runs to a feeding stall where he knows he will be bottle fed his evening milk.

The orphans will be relocated to Tsavo National Park at around age 4 or 5 with more flexibility to meander in open spaces and decide for themselves when they will join a wild herd.

We also saw one of the rhino orphans, the blind 9-year-old Maxwell, now adult sized, but he cannot be returned to the wild as he cannot take care of himself.

Maxwell, the abandoned and blind rhino, makes himself available for attentions from his human visitors.

Maxwell, the abandoned and blind rhino, makes himself available for attentions from his human visitors.

Maybe I am anthropomorphizing, but I thought he looked sad and seemed to take consolation in leaning against the fence surrounding his corral and letting people pet him or touch his horn through the fence.

It costs only $50 a year to foster one of the Sheldrick orphans, a drop in the ocean when measured against the challenges. We receive regular updates on the progress of our fostered animals.

Time to leave now: A group of elephants walking away from us on the Maasai Mara.

Time to leave now: A group of elephants walking away from us on the Maasai Mara.

Ditto for a group on Kitirua Conservancy.

Ditto for a group on Kitirua Conservancy.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.