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.

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.