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

On our last day, we drive south to visit the Kwenia hills area, home of a large Ruppell’s vulture colony. Along the way, we pick up Titus, a young Masai who is studying in Nairobi.

Kaai Titus / Meera Subramanian

He has been working with Munir to try to further vulture awareness among the Masai people. He takes us to his mayatta, and we meet his mother. He is one of ten children, his mother one of his father’s three wives. They all live together in a cluster of mud homes and generously offer us hot tea heavy with goat milk.

Typical Masai home. / Meera Subramanian

Titus with the family goat herd. / Meera Subramanian

Another family member does some woodworking. / Meera Subramanian

Goats / Meera Subramanian

Titus shows us a small reservoir that the family has built to secure steady water in this arid region. It is an indicator of the transition from a nomadic tradition to something more sedentary.

Students look over the new small reservoir. / Meera Subramanian

Farther down the valley, at the vulture site, Munir shows the students how to use photographs and a scope to undertake long-term surveys of nest sites.

Munir shows the students photographs of the cliffs. / Meera Subramanian

Chris and Brian look on. / Meera Subramanian

Murage haws been our expert driver for weeks, safely transporting us along the rough roads of Kenya. Now, he returns us to Nairobi on the last day of the course.

Murage / Meera Subramanian

After a couple of days rest in Nairobi, and time to start working on final papers and journalism articles, not to mention laundry, we headed back out of the city to Game Reserve Limited, or GRL. Owned by John Hopcraft, the 20,000-acre land is just an hour from the city in the Athi Plains and has been in the Hopcraft family since 1906 when J.D. Hopcraft, arrived from South Africa after fighting in the Boer War. Once, this land provided a tremendous amount of “bush meat,” animal from game meat of impala, gazelle, oryx and more, until the practice was made illegal seven years ago. Today, they struggle with how to make the land a viable ranch while protecting the land and wildlife contained within, including  280 species of birds and 20 species of animal. Protecting places like this is crucial, given that 80% of Kenya’s wild animals live outside of the country’s protected reserves.

Lukenya cliffs / Meera Subramanian

We spent the last two days here, learning from Sandy Simpson and Nashon about the work to make this land an official conservancy and their hopes to raise the money needed to fully enclose the land with an electric fence that will keep poachers out. (An ongoing problem, for example eland poachers were once caught on this land and are now serving five-year jail sentences.) Ideally, a conservancy could be created in collaboration with other neighboring private landholders, potentially creating a 50,000-acre block of land. Without the protections, hope for the animals that live within the ranch is limited. Even within the expansive Nairobi National Park, which is enclosed on three sides, the fourth side has all but been lost for migrating animals due to extensive human settlement, poaching and poisoning/killing in response to human-animal conflicts (ranchers losing livestock or farmers losing crops to wild animals).

White-backed vultures / Meera Subramanian

The land supports a healthy colony of white-backed vultures, and we also see black-shouldered kites, martial eagles, bustards and more. But surrounding the land is extensive development, including major flower farms and a new concrete factory right next door.

An ostrich with a backdrop of neighboring greenhouses. / Meera Subramanian

Wild giraffes... / Meera Subramanian

...live among cattle whose meat will be sold to the Middle East. / Meera Subramanian

sunset / Meera Subramanian

Arian and Munir around the campfire. / Meera Subramanian

Drew turned 21! And we celebrated with cake and his first (legal) Tusker.

Happy Birthday, Drew! / Teeku Patel

And we did a nighttime safari with Nashon, entering a whole different world inhabited by bush babies, bat-eared foxes, spring hares, African hares, and grey nightjars, as well seeing — in the bright beam of Nashon’s flood light — a huge pack of 20 hyenas.

It seems miraculous that this, like Nairobi National Park, can exist so close to the exploding city of Nairobi, now estimated to be inhabited by 3 million people.

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.

Not far from Elsamere and Lake Naivasha is Hell’s Gate National Park, named after a narrow chasm among striking red cliffs that was once a tributary to a prehistoric lake in the Great Rift Valley. We begin on foot, and after days of cloudy weather and a bit of rain, the morning is clear and glowing with light that is perfect for photography. Our feet kick up fine dust, the remains of ash from nearby Mt. Longonot, which is dormant. Chunks of obsidian are shiny beneath the dirt.

Fischer Tower, inspiration for Pride Rock of Lion King fame. / Meera Subramanian

Fischer Tower, inspiration for Pride Rock of Lion King fame. / Meera Subramanian

In the distance, steam spurts from the horizon accompanied by a loud hum that indicate the Olkaria Geothermal Station, the first of its kind in Africa, established in 1981 and operated by KenGen, the leading power company in Kenya. There’s a huge push underway in Kenya to use renewable energy, but even this comes at a price. The water needed to operate the plant came from Lake Naivasha until the company began to dig boreholes. All power, ultimately, comes at some price.

Olkaria geothermal station / Meera Subramanian

The natural geothermal energy heats up spring water, which seeps from crevices and cascades down in small waterfalls, smelling strongly of sulfur. We explore the canyon, learning new plants, insects and amphibians.

Meera Subramanian

Hell’s Gate is a heaven for birds of prey. Munir tells us about Simon Thomsett’s attempt to reintroduce bearded vultures back to the park and shows us the remains of the hacking site. A pair of Verreaux’s eagles cruise together across the sky to the north, back to the south, over to the west, landing briefly on the ground at a ridgetop near their nest before heading off again, coasting on the wind. We see a lanner falcon, perched near its nest at the top of a sheer cliff.

Site of failed lammergier vulture reintroduction, but we see a lanner falcon perched near its nest. / Meera Subramanian

Bearded vulture hack site and lanner falcon nest. / Meera Subramanian

Evan and Shiv watch the falcon. / Munir Virani

We also learn how poorly designed watering holes can be fatal for birds of prey.

Meera Subramanian

We climb in the Land Cruiser to head deeper into the canyon, pausing to have a tea break under the tree where famous raptor biologist Leslie Brown sat to study a colony of cliff-nesting Ruppell’s vultures. The cliff is covered with whitewash, but there are only so many ledges. There are vultures on nests and vultures flying on wide plank-like wings eight feet tip-to-tip. Munir has counted up to 60-70 birds at a time at this site. Teeku sets up his 600mm lens and we take turns getting close-ups of the birds from a great distance, then we climb up to the base of the cliffs, searching for prey remains and feathers and eggshell fragments. We also get a spectacular view, spotting giraffes, marred only by the billows of steam and noise rising from the KenGen plant.We discuss how a park that is only 60 square kilometers can be so rich in raptors and plains game but also at odds with surrounding agricultural, pastoral and horticulture pressure.

Ruppell's vultures / Meera Subramanian

Ruppell's vultures on their cliff nests. / Meera Subramanian

We then hike down into the chasm of the canyon itself.

Munir Virani

The rockclimbers of the group (Chris, Brian and Drew), cannot contain themselves!

Chris takes a leap on his way down. / Munir Virani

Chris takes a leap on his way down. / Meera Subramanian