Ever since I was five, I have been enamored by large, predatory cats. I would read National Geographic, Zoo-books, and even page through wildlife encyclopedias to learn about their behavior and sketch copies of the images I found within.  Watching shows like Jonathan Scott’s “Big Cat Diary”, I would dream of becoming a big cat researcher, if such a thing exists, and no cat held my eyes to the screen like the leopard; reclusive and shy, (much like my younger self who often spent recess in the library drawing leopards and pumas) and ferocious when provoked, (unlike myself ever).

So after the first week in Naivasha and half a week in the Maasai Mara had yielded nothing but tracks, I was becoming slightly pessimistic. People spend years in the Mara and never see a leopard, so what hope did we have on this one week jaunt that was primarily focused on raptors.

One morning, we drove down the bumpy road that follows the Olare River that adds its volume to the Mara river. Though our instructors specialize in the study of raptors and vultures, the unsaid objective of the morning was to find a leopard.

During our first few days on the national reserve, we had seen almost every large mammal that the Mara was home to, excluding the rare, endangered rhino. Lions, hyenas, cheetahs, buffalo and elephants all struck us with the awe that comes from seeing characters once confined to the pages of books, and the screens of TV and movies, standing in full size. And yet, once observed, they all became somehow ordinary in comparison to the leopard; intangible and still prowling the forests of our imaginations.

That said, by the time our last safari ended, we had become superstitious and refused to speak the name of that which had eluded us for the entire trip. Each time we spoke of our intentions to find a leopard, we would stumble across yet another cheetah or lion and, as ridiculous as it might seem, I would return to base camp feeling disappointed.

The word “leopard” was thus replaced by the word “sheep” and spawned such ridiculous and hopeful phrases as, “That looks like a sheep tree if I ever saw one!” or the ever optimistic, “this here’s sheep country. I can feel it.” So when we saw another jeep parked in front of a dense thicket of Balanites and Acacia, we all assumed that the object being gawked at was just another buffalo or lion. When we pulled up alongside the vehicle and our drivers exchanged some Kiswahili, however, my instructor Shiv, with whom I had running bet on concerning who would be the one to spot the first leopard, smiled and said, “Well Roger, it looks like we both lose”. My eyes widened and turned to the brush in front of the other van.

The leopard was a small one; the son of an old female named Olive who was well known to those who made a living in the area. It was lounging in the shade of a small acacia tree, his rosettes of spots and white-tan coloration blending in almost perfectly in the tall red oat grass.

Dropped jaws and gasps quickly transitioned into eyes glued to cameras that clicked and beeped until we appeared and sounded like some large insect, clicking like a cricket and flashing like a lightning bug in midday.

St Lawrence students (including me on far left) drop our jaws on seeing the leopard hunt a mongoose. Photo by Munir Virani

Close by, a small group of mongoose foraged in the dirt and carelessly edged closer to the dozing cat hidden in the bushes. Then, either from the sound or smell of the carefree viverrids, the gorgeous cat arose into the morning light and stalked with rolling shoulders into the shady cover of a young Croton. Once the group of mongooses skittered close enough, the leopard, as we now felt comfortable enough to call it, laid back its ears, crouched as only a predator can, and launched itself toward its unsuspecting prey. At first, the chaos was slightly comical; the mongooses squealed and split in every different direction while the young cat was left confused at which one to go for. But after narrowly missing the first lucky mongoose, the leopard dove into the obscurity of brush and leaves after a less fortunate individual that was finally slain on the other side of the thicket. We were speechless at our luck. Not only had we seen a leopard on our first trip to Kenya, we had just witnessed a successful hunt, (albeit on a slightly less than meaty prey item), but successful nonetheless. After this drama unfolded, everyone seemed to have a content look about them and we gladly settled in to our seats for another ride back to camp for lunch while the leopard enjoyed his own, unique meal.

Departure from the Mara. Photo by Teeku Patel.

Olore Orok Conservancy. Photo by Roger Miller.

The headquarters of the Olare Orok Conservancy lies on top of a hill overlooking the Olare River that forms the northern boundary of the vast Masai Mara basin. Resident herds of wildebeest, zebra, impala and eland dappled the landscape below us while above, a kettle of at least 30 vultures circled in a column that stretched up into the stratosphere.

The difference between a wildlife conservancy, a national/game reserve, and a national park was blurry at best to most of us until we spoke to James Kaigil, the assistant manager of Olare Orok Conservancy.  Kaigil broke it down for us in the simplest terms he could while in the background, a team of wardens dressed in green military uniforms sat in the shade watching us with ambivalence.

The largest difference between these three categories of land is governance, explained Kaigil. National Parks like Nairobi National Park, and National Reserves like the Masai Mara, are governed by the federal and local governments, respectively. Conservancies like Olara Orok, on the other hand, are composed of private lands leased by local community members to a private conservancy. They are managed for both wildlife and livestock and are partly funded for by private investors who pay for the camps that tourists then pay to stay in. The money from the tourists is then allocated to pay a monthly salary to the landowners, fund local schools and hospitals, and pay the rangers and managers who maintain the land and wildlife. Unlike national parks and reserves, conservancies like Olare Orok allow the Masai to graze their cattle on certain zones of the land that are rotated in order to maintain the health and biodiversity of the ecosystem.

Each landowner in the conservancy is paid 3,000 Kenya shillings per acre per month; regardless of how many beds are filled in the camps, they are paid and given access to grazing land. Since Moi privatized and divided up the land in 1989, most Masai possess 150 acres of land. You do the math. What makes this arrangement profitable to investors, like Virgin Mobile founder Richard Branson, is that during the peak months during the wildebeest migration (June, July and August), camps are completely booked with clients who pay to reserve their beds up to a year in advance, more than making up for the losses accrued during the offseason. Ideally, this system works flawlessly to satisfy the needs of tourists, wildlife and the Masai; yet, as in many cases where lines are drawn in the sand, people and wildlife  tend to throw monkey wrenches into optimistic plans. Still a new model, conservancies are considered a work-in-progress.

Before 1989, the Masai had no concept of borders or private land rights. Thus, when conservancies like Olare Orok tell Masai that some zones are off limits to their cattle who form the keystone of a Masai’s culture and economy, it’s not hard to predict which entity the Masai will obey. When cattle are caught grazing in a zone that is off limits, whether that zone be in a conservancy, reserve or park, the Masai who is responsible can be fined or even tried in court after a certain number of offenses. That said, the arrangement the conservancies have with the Masai seems preferable to the outcome that followed the settlement the federal and local governments have made with the Masai in previous years. When these bodies of government sought to create parks and reserves for tourists, they bought the Masai’s land for 100 dollars per acre (very cheap in both senses of the word) and once the Masai had spent the money, they were left feeling robbed of their historic land. In addition, the profits of the parks and reserves that were supposed make their way back into Masai communities, seemed to magically vanish into the pockets of corrupt managers, wardens and councilmen. One way that the Olare Orok Conservancy has sidestepped this sort of corruption is by setting up bank accounts for each landowner that directly receive the monthly payments.

One study indicated that the soil of the Mara so fertile that the farming of wheat would yield many times as much money as eco-tourism currently rakes in every year. The president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, once said, “every insect must pay its way”; by this philosophy, the wildlife of the Mara seems to be behind on the rent.

Leopard. Photo by Roger Miller.

In a better world, a place like the Masai Mara would need no financial justification for its existence; in a perfect world, mankind might never have contrived agriculture and we all would have continued to cower in treetops and caves in fear of the great predators that stalk our nightmares. Realistically, however, we live in the world of Robert Mugabe; a globalized world dominated by capitalism where even the smallest blade of grass or tiny antelope is assigned a value. And in this imperfect world, it seems to me that conservancies are the best chance the Masai have of preserving their culture and livelihood against the onslaught of industry. We, who travel thousands of miles to see the Mara-Serengeti, are consumers of the beauty and dramas of the untamed, yet that which has taken billions of years to form can never be accurately valued. The irony is that, in order for places that remain untarnished by civilization to survive, civilization must place a value on them that exceeds the possible profit of destroying them.

An unexpected wake-up call at 4:30 in the morning consisted of hyenas howling close to our tents. Although earlier than expected, it was very cool to hear their howls. It made me realize just how close to the wilderness our camp (Ilkeliani Camp) was. Our actual day started off with the usual tea and coffee before heading out in the safari vehicles. On our way to the Mara, we were stopped by a KWS officer telling us we needed to pay at the Talek gate even though we were driving through to get to Olare Orok Conservancy. Once the payments were taken care of, we drove back through Talek towards our original destination. After passing over the virtually dried up Talek River, we drove by the Talek Country Club with an appearance quite opposite of the usual country clubs I am used to seeing. Within less than a couple of minutes we were soon back onto Masai Mara land.

The cool morning air felt refreshing as we all stood on the seats in Kifaru, (our safari vehicle’s name, the other is Dik Dik) looking for different species and snapping photos of the wildlife. We saw our first white bellied bustard today, or as Munir called them, “falcon food.” As the day started to warm up, we spotted many familiar animals such as the mongoose, zebra, impala, topi, warthog, Thompson’s gazelle, olive baboon, helmeted guinea fowl, ostrich, and many more. We spotted a yellow-throated longclaw close to our car, took some good photos.

Yellow throated longclaw. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

While passing though a large heard of Cape buffalo, we saw a black-chested snake eagle with a snake in its mouth. The eagle ended up eating the snake while hovering in mid-air! Munir said that if the snake eagle regurgitated its meal back at the nest that the snake could still be alive (pretty gross fact of the day). Not too far up the road we spotted the other group’s car and a very ecstatic Roger pointing to the bushes. It was here where we saw our first leopard! This leopard appeared to be a son of Olive, a well known leopard along the Talek River. It was pretty amazing and shocking to see such a big cat so close yet not too disturbed by the vehicles parked in front of its view. As we were taking photos of the leopard, we noticed a group of mongoose that were wandering closer and closer to our vehicles, and apparently the leopard noticed too.

photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

The leopard stalking its prey. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

He started stalking the group, creeping silently closer and staying hidden among the shrubs. As the leopard sprang from the bushes, the mongooses went ballistic, emitting a blood curdling death wail. It seemed as though all of them were yelling “PREDATOR!!” as they scampered away. The leopard quickly chased a single victim into another set of bushes and successfully completed its hunt. Although none of us saw the actual take down of the unfortunate mongoose, we were all extremely excited to have just witnessed our first kill, especially since it was a treat to see a leopard in the first place. We were also surprised to learn that this was also Munir and Shiv’s first witnessed kill as well.

After the leopard excitement and the arrival of more safari tour vehicles, we decided to move on. Continuing on route to Olare Orok, we came across another male lion. This lion was chilling out in the shade, but soon got up and walked literally less than a few meters from our car! With a morning full of great experiences, we made our way to Olare Orok Conservancy to learn about a different kind of wildlife conservation.

photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

Today, we woke up to a rather large surprise right outside of Matira Bush Camp. It was going to be a usual sunrise on the Mara when we all piled into our respective vehicles at 6:15 but it changed right outside of the bush camp gate. As the jackals barked in a cluster of bushes we knew something was up. A hyena stumbled out of the bush as we pulled up to find a dead elephant! The carcass was fresh and looked promising for our scientific species identification. We left the carcass to allow for other creatures to find and scavenge the fresh elephant. On our morning adventure we came upon a herd of elephants, one was about to take down an entire tree!

Photo Credit- Liz Grogan

Breakfast was a delicious meal underneath one of the finest fig trees around. While there we were able to get a close up look an anthill. Our newly filled stomachs then found themselves back on the hunt for wildlife and the elusive leopard.

Photo Credit- Liz Grogan

Though we never found that leopard we did happen upon a gigantic herd of topi and a cheetah!

Photo Credit- Liz Grogan

After spotting the only true spotted big cat we happened to look in the sky and see 20 plus vultures forming a kettle above our heads. With 20 vultures up in the sky we decided to check out the carcass again and set up just meters away from the elephant. Much to our chagrin the vultures did not attack the carcass.

Photo Credit- Liz Grogan

Alas 11 o’clock struck and after a wonderful 2 nights at Matira Bush Camp with Anthony and Jonathan (our new friends the owner and head man)  we had to pack up our things and move on.

Photo Credit- Liz Grogan

Today began bright and early (but more early than bright!) with a game drive out through the Masai Mara. We took photographs of the bright orange sunrise, the beauty of which was complemented by hot air balloons touring the horizon. According to Teeku, passengers on these balloons enjoy a 45 minute tour and a “champagne” breakfast, all for the low price of around $400. Although these tours allow visitors to the Mara a bird’s eye view of the park, they can be rather destructive in that the balloons, once they have landed, often require tractors to haul them out of the area.

Shortly after the sun came up, we encountered a group of elephants enjoying breakfast in the grass, not far from our base camp at Matira.

An elephant greeting us at breakfast--photo by Rebekah White

The day was spent leisurely driving around and photographing wildlife, including warthogs, crocodiles, giraffes, zebras, dik diks and Thomson’s gazelles. Unfortunately, we also witnessed quite a few cattle, the grazing of which is a controversial issue in and around the Mara. We saw a hippo napping in the grass and, shortly after spotting a group of buffalo, some sleepy male lions. Later in the day, after lunch, we encountered another pair of lions asleep beneath a tree. Must have been a good day for a siesta!

A male lion napping in the midafternoon heat--photo by Rebekah White

Another male lion sighting--but awake--photo by Rebekah White

We returned to camp late in the evening, ready for showers and a good night’s rest, needing to refuel for another day out in the Mara.

Shiv rescues a tortoise from a close call in the middle of the road--photo by Rebekah White

Lots of nostalgia during our last day at Elsamere. We woke up, had one last breakfast and said good by to the staff and to the life we had become so accustomed to in just one short week. After some group pictures with the staff, and what can only be described as a car packing miracle (we had so much stuff!) we loaded into a pair of awesome safari land rovers, equipped with airplane type seats and roof hatches for better photographs. Spending around five hours in the car, we were able to see a lot of different Kenyan landscapes, everything from wheat fields to mountains and deserts.

As we came closer to the Mara we made a few pit stops to take out money and buy some souvenirs, one of which we can’t seem to shake. Roger hasn’t stopped playing the drum he bought for about two days now. Anyway, we got back on the bumpy road and started heading towards the Mara. I was absolutely amazed at the amount of pollution we saw. Driving through very flat land you could see human waste, mostly plastic bags, as far as the eye could see. Coming in without much knowledge of the area, we all had this idea that the Mara and everything around it would be a basically untouched landscape, with nothing but small Masai villages dotting the landscape. This was totally not the case though, especially as we got closer to the gate.

There were a good number of traditional Masai villages around though, and we were fortunate to stop and get a tour of one called Kishermorvak by the chief’s son and good friend of Munir, Ndaiya. He and his village were more than welcoming and eager to show us their traditional way of life. Before we entered the village, all the men came out and did a ceremonial dance that is typically used to scare Lions while on the hunt. It consisted of an awesome deep throated chanting, a sort of shuffle walk, and a spectacular show of jumping by each individual as they came before the group. Towards the end of this dance they invited us all to join them, and in a flash we went from stagnant tourists with cameras to jumping, shuffling and yelping along with the Masai. It was an absolutely unforgettable experience. Next the women came out and gave us a show of a traditional wedding song and dance, which was equally as amazing and easily imprinted in our memories. After the dances, we were invited to enter the village.

 

Ndaiya brought us in, and gave us as many details about Masai life as he could think of and we could think to ask. They demonstrated how they made fire, built houses, and even showed us inside one of the cow-dung constructed huts. I think we all had a hard time grasping the concept of sleeping in the same room with your goats next to a fire on a hard bed topped with a dried cow skin, but that made it all the more interesting and was the first time I had seen an indigenous type house outside of a museum. To top off the village experience, the people all laid out blankets with their crafts in the center, and we got to shop from a huge selection of handmade Masai bracelets, masks, bowls, dress, etc.

After spending probably too much money, we jumped back into the cars and headed for the Mara. At the gate we ran into a swarm of Masai women with loads of goods to sell. They were extremely aggressive, shoving item after item in at us through the windows. I bought a bracelet from one for a few hundred shillings (can you say rip off!) and accidently pulled out a thousand shilling bill when I went to pay. I could see her eyes light up and before I knew it I had pretty much everything she had been carrying shoved onto my lap, with the demand that that thousand bill could get me all of it. I really didn’t have a choice, ten bracelets, two hand carved statues and a huge wooden mask, and I wouldn’t have to gift shop again for the rest of the trip.

We got through the gate and were immediately given warnings that this was the offseason for animals, and to not expect too much on our first drive through the park. Boy were they wrong though! Within about an hour and a half of driving we had seen 11 lions, cheetahs, elephants, ostrich, secretary birds, topi, the eastern chanting goshawk and any number of other fauna. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my home in Colorado from the landscape, but then we’d see elephants walking around and it felt like we were on a completely different planet than where we’d come from.

 

 

Photo by Eric Newman

 

 

After a tiring day and seeing more sights than we could possibly take in, we arrived at our tent-camp located within the National Reserve called the Matira Bush Camp. Entirely Masai-run, the camp consisted of many zip-up tents, but it was far from roughing in. Inside each tent were two ridiculously comfortable wooden beds, reading lights, and anything else you could think of. We had an awesome dinner prepared by the Masai, and then topped our night off with a wonderful fireside chat about the park and many of the problems it faces. Come around 9:30 we were all exhausted and retreated to our more than comfortable beds for a restless night of sleep with no disturbances except for the territorial rumble of Lions in the distance.

Today we visited Olare Orok Conservancy, 30,000 acres of privately leased lands adjacent to the Masai Mara Reserve. Here’s an explanation from their website:

Olare Orok Conservancy is an intriguing new conservation concept on land-use. Just three years old it has set what is to become the blue-print for sustainability of the greater Masai Mara eco-system. Prior to 2006 the Olare Oroks 30,000 acres of prime grasslands, riverine forests and Acacia woodlands were populated by rural homesteads and grazed in an uncontrolled manner by large herds of cattle, sheep and goats. The eco-system was over-grazed and sustainability of the habitat for both people and wildlife being destroyed. After many workshops with the local Masai it was agreed that a new community conservation vision should be tried. To address sustainability of their land and to add value in both income and conserving vegetation, so that a combination of wildlife tourism and sustainable rotational grazing would create a win-win situation for both the Masai landowners and the wildlife of the Masai Mara eco-system.

James gave us a tour and answered our questions, then showed us their latest project — mowing the fields for hay bales to help generate income, make the land more attractive to certain herbivore grazers, and help balance out the lean times of the year for cattle. The towers of hay serve as a perfect backdrop for a group photo.

Smile! / Teeku Patel

Today our attempts at trapping more birds were in vain. Going to a different part of the reserve, we realized belatedly that the arrival of the wildebeests in the area we were in yesterday is where all the action is. The few bateleur eagles and vultures that took into interest in the trap were chased away by screeching, attacking crowned plovers!

Setting the trap. / Meera Subramanian

A goat head is our lure. / Meera Subramanian

While there is not the animal concentration we saw yesterday, today’s drive through the park gives us a feel for what the Masai Mara feels like most of the year. Still we see hyenas, elephants, bataleur eagles, vultures, impala, and many other birds and animals.

Common zebra / Meera Subramanian

Topi / Meera Subramanian

Crowned crane / Meera Subramanian

African elephant / Meera Subramanian

Pair of tawny eagles / Meera Subramanian

Tawny eagle up close / Meera Subramanian

Secretary bird, a most unusual raptor. / Meera Subramanian

A brief rain turns the red soil slick, but a good heave-ho gets us out.

Push! / Meera Subramanian

The days in the field are long, but picnics under acacia trees allow time for a little r&r.

Drew takes a siesta. / Meera Subramanian

Teeku enjoys the landscape. / Meera Subramanian

Almost ready to call it a day, we stop for a sundowner, watching a storm move across the horizon, bolts of lightning flashing up the dark clouds.

As clouds move in. . .

Just as we were about to load up, a group of wildebeests were startled and a closer look revealed a lion! We went to get a closer look and saw four lionesses lounging in the tall grass, slowly preparing for their evening hunt.

One of a few lionesses. / Meera Subramanian

After madly snapping photos, as the last light faded from the sky, it was time to go. Really. But the park wasn’t done with us. On the way out, we came across another pair of lions. The male snoozed just feet from the vehicles that had gathered to observe.

Lion / Arianwen Jones

You just never know what might be around the next bend when you’re in the wild world.

Hot air balloon tourism / Arianwen Jones

There are still places on earth where wild things happen. As we approached the Masai Mara in southern Kenya , the famed landscape at first appeared to be an overgrazed dustbowl. Masai tribesmen moved across the open grasslands tending their cattle, goats and sheep. But when we entered the reserve this morning as first light brightened the sky, beating even the ticket taker to his post, we encountered a sea of red-oat grass, shin-high, knee-high, thigh-high, rich with the rains, green and ready. Within moments we see two jackals, each with its own half of a small antelope. Around the bend, Chris spots a cheetah sitting poised, elegant, the form instantly recognizable, but REAL, there in front of us. She stands, her belly hanging, and Teeku tells us she’s pregnant. She moves off into the grass, disappearing in perfect camouflage. She emerges and laps from a puddle. She retreats, an awesome arrogance, queen of land-bound speed.

Cheetah / Meera Subramanian

It is just the beginning. We pass an elephant with a criss-crossed tusk. A male ostrich bright pink with lust. Herds of wildebeest moving in single file. By breakfast, as we crack hard-boiled eggs on our knees under an acacia tree, the vultures are soaring. They descend to a wildebeest carcass down the hill from us as we pack up and head down the road. And then in a flurry the scavengers are chased away. Lion! One, then another. But they’re too full to eat it seems. We watch them fifty feet from our Land Rover, close but seeming to not disturb them. Her muscles pop out in definition when she tries to pull the heavy body into the grass. We can hear her panting as she stands over the body, catching her breath. Vultures wait in nearby trees, others kettling above, ten, twenty, forty, sixty as we try to make an accurate count. The lioness passes off her guard to a second female, who emerges from the treeline, and the second sits to eat off the rump of the fallen prey, her muzzle emerged saturated with blood. But together they have barely broken the hide. They are full, bellies hanging, disinterested. They leave, and we watch as the vultures return. In ten minutes they have gutted the creature. White-backs and lappet-faced vultures, and marabou storks fighting over the organs.

Lioness fresh from a wildebeest kill. / Meera Subramanian

When the lions don’t return, Munir cautiously sets the trap — a long line with large noose snares strung along it — as Brian and Arian serve as lion lookout. Twenty minutes later, we’ve caught a white-backed vulture. Evan is out of the jeep in an instant with a blanket to cover her and loosen her talons from the noose, holds her calmly as she vomits bright red innards back out.

White-backed vulture / Meera Subramanian

Vultures on the kill. / Arianwen Jones

Forty minutes later, we’ve attached GPS unit #432 and set her free. Into the wild.

Munir and Evan with a white-backed vulture. / Meera Subramanian

Here is a clip from a BBC show to give you a better feel.

There is more. The wildebeests have begun the migration, though it is early in the season. There are thousands, grunting – humph! humph! There are warthogs, and a single mud-caked buffalo swarming with flies. There are giraffes, legs sprawled to bend down in reach of shrubs. More elephants. More wildebeest. More ostrich. More warthogs. Grey kestrels. Yellow-throated sand grouse. Crowned hornbill. Striped mongoose on their hind legs like meerkats. Lappet-faced vultures. Two tagged vulture resightings. Tawny eagles. Secretary birds. Superb starlings. Rufous-naped larks. Lesser grey shrikes. Antelope. Thomson’s gazelles. A studly impala trailed by his harem. Waterbuck. Topis nodding to us in agreement. More wildebeest. We pass seven carcasses in just a few kilometers. Food. Food. Food drives everything and it is either abundance or death at this moment in the Mara. Grass grows. Grass gets eaten. Calves are born. Mothers are hunted. Wildebeests cross the Mara River and crocs lie in wait. Jackals kill. Jackals are robbed. Everything is immediate. Everything is now.

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