Governors’ Camp update – Masai Mara
February was marked by cool mornings and hot days with light scattered rain. Most afternoons saw the arrival of a strong north easterly wind shaking the trees, the Warburgia (African green heart) has dropped much of its fruit in some areas of the forest. Some of the Warburgia trees have even fallen over with strong winds. Morning temperatures averaged around 16°C and midday temperatures reached 32°C. Much of the grasslands are drying out and in some areas of Musiara and Bila Shaka the grasses are getting shorter, thinner and showing signs of being grazed down. Elephant and buffalo have been through these grasslands and recently many zebra and wildebeest have come through from the conservancy areas in the north east. The Mara River water levels are low and the river is quite clear even the base rock can be seen.
We have had great daily sightings of all the big cats and there have been lots of elephant in the woodlands with many young, enticed in by the fallen fruit of the Warburgia trees. The ‘big five’ have again been seen frequently this month.
Many zebra have come into the reserve from the conservation areas in the north east and a few wildebeest with calves. Many more wildebeest remain in the conservation areas and we expect them to head towards the reserve with the annual Loita migration. The zebra and wildebeest that have come are a little early and this is perhaps due to human encroachment and settlement further towards the Loitas in the east in the areas bordering the reserve.
Elephant have been spending more time feeding in the riverine woodlands, visiting the camps at night and during the day, there are also some very young calves within these family units, which is always a delight to see.
Just a little bit of info: Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) a well known and respected French naturalist estimated that the elephant’s trunk contained 40,000 muscles compared to the entire human body which only has 639 muscles!! An elephants trunk only has 6 major muscle groups (although not commonly known), which are subdivided into over 100,000 muscle units. So, Curvier’s original estimate was nearly correct when taking into account the groups of different muscles. A large elephant bull can lift up to 260kg depending on individuals. The African elephant has two fingers on the tip of its trunk that is uses to grab objects and can be dexterous enough to pick up small berries.
There are two bulls that pass regularly back and forth through the camps. One of these bulls has a large frame and short tusks, his right tusk was broken off, the other bull has longer tusks. Another bull elephant comes to Little Governors Camp and Il Moran on an almost daily basis. The tusks of an elephant are actually upper incisors, not canines. They are the only incisors the elephant has. One of the elephant’s tusks is often used more than the other. The total number of teeth an elephant has is 24 (six in each half jaw) No more than two of the six teeth are in wear at the same time in each side of a jaw, the only exception is in young elephants which may use three.
There are plenty of impala in good size breeding herds with many young fawns in the forests between the camps. Defassa waterbuck females are resident on the marsh verges with a few large males and some young males in satellite herds. Bushbucks are often seen with usually the solitary territorial males in the early morning and evening hours. Bushbucks live in forest edges or brushy cover associated with rivers and streams. During the night they move out of their home thicket to more open areas to feed. Only the males have horns, which usually spiral once and are fairly straight, parallel to one another, the horns can be up to half a meter long. Females are generally a lighter in colour than the males. Both sexes have white spots and stripes, the coat patterns vary geographically.
Bohors reed buck are seen bounding away from the Marsh when spooked. The males have short forward facing horns of maybe 12 inches and a large male will weigh in at 70-80kg. They live in pairs or small family groups and when spooked they will display their bushy white tails as a warning to others. Reedbuck like areas of coarse grasses and reeds where there is water, so the Musiara marsh is a good place for them. Eland have been passing through and in large herds, towards mid month 65 female eland with calves of varying age groups were seen on the west side of the Marsh and again at night in the woodlands around Il Moran Camp.
The resident male buffalo numbers are diminishing with the resident marsh lion taking a few of them. There is a large breeding herd that is often seen between Bila Shaka, Rhino Ridge and Musiara. Giraffe move from and within the riverine woodlands. Topi and cokes hartebeest are also in good numbers at Bila Shaka, paradise plains and Topi Plains. Many of the topi females congregate on the shorter grasses as they do not like mature grass. Dominant males are often on their lek which is the centre of their territory; topi have pre-orbital glands that secrete a clear oil secretion and hoof glands in forefeet only. Many of their calves are three to four months old now.
There are good numbers of hippo pods throughout the Mara River and a few hippo calves have been seen, there are two young calves near Il Moran. Hippo give birth after an 8 month gestation in shallow water, they are vulnerable to crocodile attacks so mothers have to be constantly on guard. Males are dominant and can hold over a pod for a number of years. The young calves have to breathe every two to three minutes. The process of surfacing and breathing is automatic, and even a hippo sleeping underwater will rise and breathe without waking.
As the water levels are low, pod densities are high and territories come close and overlap, this causes stress amongst the males who often fight. These fights can be to the death, hippos use their long canine teeth (which can be up to 9″long) as weapons. One male caught up in such a fight floated down the river opposite Il Moran Camp on the 1st February where it attracted the attention of over 20 crocodile who came to feed on the carcass. Hippo skin is four cm thick and and accounts for 25% of their weight it takes time to get through it!! Hippos are herbivorous and crop grass with their lips, generally the stomach anatomy of a hippo is not suited to carnivorous activity, and meat-eating is likely caused by aberrant behaviour or perhaps nutritional stress.
Crocodiles are evident everywhere in the Mara River with almost all bends and sand bars home to a basking crocodile. On the 12th of Feb a crocodile took an impala near private camp and a warthog was seen being taken by a crocodile at 4.00pm near Il Moran Camp. Then later on in the month guests at Little Governors’ Camp witnessed a crocodile take a zebra close to the pond in front of tent 17 in camp.
The Black rhino of Paradise have been seen this month. Many warthog with young that are five months old can be seen throughout Musiara, Bila Shaka and Rhino Ridge areas. Many piglets were preyed upon by lion late last year and sows have two to three piglets left. A few sows have some much younger piglets and this is a late birthing. Predation on these piglets by lion and other predators was high in October and November last year. Common warthogs do not have subcutaneous fat and the coat is sparse, making them susceptible to extreme environmental temperatures. To combat this they like to wallow in mud to cope with the heat and will huddle together to cope with the cold.
Warthogs are powerful diggers when rooting for tubers, using both snout and feet. Whilst feeding, they often bend the front feet backwards and move around on the wrists with calloused pads that protect the wrists, these calloused pads form quite early in the development of the foetus. Although they can dig their own rudimentary burrows, they prefer to occupy abandoned burrows of aardvarks or other animals and modify them to fit. These modified holes they use are called ‘bolt holes’, they normally enter these backwards, with their head always facing the opening, ready to burst out if necessary.
Thompson Gazelles are out on the shorter grass plains, they are uncomfortable in the long grass areas, and a few newborn fawns have been seen and also witnessed being born. Thompson gazelles have a short gestation of 5½ months and with parturition period of two weeks they are able to have two offspring in little over a year. A noticeable behavior of Thomson’s gazelles is their bounding leap, known as stotting or pronking, used to startle predators and display strength. In the first six hours of the fawn’s life, it moves and rests with its mother but eventually turns away from its mother and lies down and hides in the grass. The mother stays in the vicinity of the fawn and returns to nurse it daily.
We have had lots of sightings of spotted hyena with young cubs; there are large dens on Rhino Ridge, Paradise Plains and Bila Shaka. Hyenas compete strongly with lion and these clans can group into large numbers which for lionesses can cause real problems. Male lion will run hyena off and kill them if they get the chance. In the early hours of the 17th near Lake Nakuru close to the marsh the Marsh Pride killed two zebra by the late evening about 30 hyena chased the Marsh lionesses off the kill, if one or two male lions had been with them the tables would have been turned. Hyena have great endurance in long chases running its prey down.
There have been some good viewing of southern ground hornbills that seem to travel about in trios; they are feeding off large garden grasshoppers and also various species of scarab beetles.
Bila Shaka / Marsh Pride
Siena, one of the Marsh pride females had two cubs early at the beginning of this month, sadly she lost one to a martial eagle on the 20th and 21st she was seen near Bila Shaka on her own with no cub to be seen. One of the four new males who have taken over the pride namely Scar, Hunter, Morani and Sikio must have been the father of these cubs.
Joy, another Marsh Pride female last month had 4 cubs (approximately 8 months old) and one cub from Bibi who joined up and was a little younger at six months old. Joy was seen last month on rhino ridge with all five cubs. Recently she was seen north end of Rhino ridge with only the four cubs and the younger fifth one has not been seen. The three sub adult’s two males and a female will often join up with Joy and her cubs or will be with another females who also move about. The two males were seen near the Marsh on the 26th.
Scar (one of the new males) was seen mating on the 23rd near the Calvert and also Sikio was seen mating with another female at Bila Shaka. These lion have fed off many buffalo, the bachelor male buffalo that we see within the Bila Shaka and Musiara Marsh are providing a food source for these resident lion. On the 24th the four sisters and two males Morani and Hunter were seen on the remains of a buffalo kill at Bila Shaka. The Marsh Pride (mainly the females) have also been feeding off warthog and although these pigs do not support many mouthfuls at a time warthog is a primary food source during lean times. Scar’s wound above the right eye is improving and appears dry so hopefully this will improve again in time.
Notch and his four nephews have been seen near the Talek and also on Paradise Plains. They have been feeding off buffalo and hippo, these four males are a formidable coalition, and have perfected the art of hunting buffalo and hippo. Earlier on in the month one of these males was seen for a number of days in the Bila Shaka river bed.
Cheetahs have been seen more frequently this month. The two male brothers were seen in the Bila Shaka area a good sighting of them was on the morning of the 23rd when they killed a Thompson Gazelle. Also on this day and again on the 24th the four adults, three males and a female were seen near the Talek river area.
A Female is often seen near Paradise and another female near the north side of Rhino Ridge, she has two older female cubs estimated at 14 months old, she has been feeding off Thompson Gazelles. On the 19th three cheetah were seen near the Olkiombo area and these are purported to have come across from the Burrangat Plains. Another female that is pregnant is being seen near Explorer, she was last seen on the 22nd with a young Thompson fawn that she was feeding off.
Olive has new cubs and they have not been seen just yet as the area is closed off. Olive’s older male cub has been seldom seen. Her daughter is now being seen on the opposite bank of the Talek River and if she is on her own now in which case she must be over 15 months old, leopard leave their paternal mother when they are approximately 18 months old with the females staying for a short time in the mothers home range.
The female leopard near the croton thickets at Paradise with two cubs; a male and a female which are about 5 months old have been seen more often. There is a shy male quite often seen near the Bila Shaka crossing and also near the copse of trees on Paradise Plains.
Walking in the Koiyaki Conservation Area.
We have had a busy month with lots of walking safaris. Grass levels have eased off a little and this has been helped by the arrival of many zebra and wildebeest from the Masai areas in the east earlier on in the month. The first young wildebeest calves were seen on the 5th and there are now many calves with these wildebeest herds.
We have had lovely elephant sightings with large herds numbering over 100 individuals. There is good growth of young Acacia of three species to include the gall acacia (Drepanalobium-Whistling thorn) the tannin acacia (Gerrardii) and the Hooked thorn (Senegal – gum used as Gum Arabic) and this is a good sign.
There has been a large herd of buffalo that move back and forth and there are a few old bachelors about and these we keep a wide birth from. One of the old ‘boys’ we used to see near the Olare Orok River was killed earlier on in the month and eaten by the acacia lion pride.
Lion have been seen more often and this is has been rewarding. There were good sightings of four females and nine cubs that were in the croton thicket below the Acacia Nilotica belt. We also regularly see two cheetah, one female that has two cubs (around three months old) and another younger male that was seen near the White highland area, This is a lava hill that often has many white flowers called Cycnium Tubulosum which looks like tissue paper.
We also often see giraffe the main herd that we see is over 22 animals. Two large males pass by frequently of which one is very dark.
A female leopard has been seen earlier in the month near the white highlands and also on the round hill below the highland ridge. There is a large male that frequents the riverine pockets on the Olare Orok River and he was been heard but not seen for some time. The Masai let us know his movements.
Thompson and Grants Gazelles will be seen on the short grass plains above the fly over and topi will be found in the longer grasses within the acacia woodlands, although they have narrow muzzles and are bite selectors they tend to move about quite a bit. A few small herds of eland can be seen occasionally, eland have a varied diet and will browse and both graze at random moving over large areas.
A pair of Black Backed Jackal with two large pups are often seen near the croton thicket; on the 21st they had killed a Thomson Gazelle fawn. Jackals are one of the main predators of Thompson fawns and will compete with cheetah.
Another large savannah eagle known as the Martial eagle was seen taking a cape scrub hare at about 9.30am on the 24th the hare took flight and the martial eagle was quick to swoop down and grab his prey.
We hope to share the magic of our corner of the Mara with you sometime soon.