Above: Elusive leopard in Mara early morning. Copyright Maya Mangat
Published: 23 February 2019
The view is dramatic view of the great Mara from the heights of Siria Escarpment of the big game country.
A few miles from Mara’s Oloololo gate, dots appear. It’s a trio of elephants in the midday heat at a mud hole splashing themselves with muddy water. The muddy water is a great sunscreen and a body mask – every one’s concerned about their looks.
I recall an unforgettable picture of a single frame full of elephants. It’s titled 965 elephants by the amazing photographer, diarist and naturalist, Peter Beard who came to Kenya in 1955. In his essay, he wrote that at the time the land seemed so enormous that it appeared inexhaustible teeming with big game. Everyone agreed that it was too big to be destroyed. At the time Kenya’s human population was five million.
Fast forward to present.
We’re happy with our trio of elephants filling up our frames because we are still home to the world’s largest living mammal. It’s no mean achievement in the face of poachers, invasive pests, land change and human increase. When l turn to look in the opposite direction of Mara, the reality is that we’re squeezing the last of the wild into pockets.
Anyway, the elephants are very happy and so are we as the trio heads towards the desert date (Balanites aegyptiaca) tree that’s an iconic Mara signature.
Along the mighty Mara coursing it way through the park the hippo pools boast a pod of the gigantic river horses dozing in midday stupor. The ancient Greeks called them that because a few centuries ago, they had hippos in the northern extremes of Africa near Europe. Now no more except south of the Sahara.
The river is low and suddenly there’s a trumpet, reverberating through the savannah silence. It’s a huge elephant standing ankle-deep in the river. She’s waiting for her family. Minutes later the herd files down the steep banks and into the river – have a few sips – and wander away into the savannah grassland.
The Mara at the start of the year is different from the mid-year Mara when huge herds of gnus storme in from neghbouring Serengeti in their million-plus to gorge themselves on a grass-fest. It’s also time for the lions, leopards, cheetah, vultures and crocodiles to enjoy the bonanza.
Scanning the skies and the tree tops they are clear which during the mighty migration of the wildebeest are full of vultures. Now just the odd one shows.
Chatting with Munir Virani of the Peregrine Fund who was the first to raise the alarm of our vultures decline by 80 per cent in just two decades between the 1980s and 2000, he explains what’s happening.
“Right now they have all scattered,” says the handsome vulture-guru who could fit in as a poster-boy for Men’s Health. Being scientists, he and his team of researchers have trapped and tagged 12 vultures in the Mara. The tagged vultures send signals from afar.
“Some have flown into Tanzania, others in the conservancies and the rest have gone to northern Kenya,” explains Virani, showing a map of the great distances covered by these amazing creatures.
“I suspect all this is related to where they can easily find food.”
What’s amazing to learn is that vultures have no sense of smell to detect food when they are so soaring so high. They just have great eyesight and rely on other scavengers to show where the feast is on the ground.
In this garden of Eden, the day passes. And we haven’t seen a single wildebeest.
Instead the following morning in the golden hour of sunrise when the light’s at its best for photography, the plains rise with all the game that’s African – hartebeest, topi, gazelles and impala. And it’s teeming with foals born after the rains to fatten up on the soft new grass.
The brotherhood of five – the famous cheetahs – sit atop a termite mound scanning the plains for what will they feast on today. It’s then that our guide hears from the jungle telegraph that the elusive cat is on the prowl.
She emerges from the thick belt of trees lining the river – proud and regal only to vanish in the inner depth of her sanctum again.
I recall Jonathan Scott of Big Cat Diary who has followed leopards for four decades. In the 1970s, the leopards would not show themselves because of the hunters who shot them for their skin. Fortunatley with Kenya’s hunting ban in the 1970s, Mara can today boast of her Big Cats.
There are different gates into the Mara to enter from – Log on Mara site https://www.maasaimara.com/entries/park-fees-2 for info on entry fee. There are inexpensive campsites along the Talek River like Crocodile Camp.
According to research, from 1.3 million elephants in 1979, by the mid-1980s the population had halved. Unfortunately, ivory can sell for $1,100 a kilogram in China (Save The Elephants 2015 China Report). Poachers make $200 per kilogram of ivory. So, a small pair of tusks earns a poacher a lot.
If this trend continues, elephants could become extinct within 15 years.