Saturday, September 25, 2004

Masai Mara : Animal Kingdom of Africa

Masai Mara: Animal Kingdom of Africa

Discovery and Animal Planet TV channels have done their best to bridge the gap between human beings and animal kingdom. So when I had weekend at my disposal during my business trip to Kenya- there would have been nothing better choice than African Safari at Masai Mara.

Masai – a fiercely cow worshipping tribe and Mara –a place on the border of Kenya and Tanzania make it Masai Mara. Travel from Nairobi would take around 5 hours but for me being in Nakuru- a place where flamingos descend in thousands from far away place—made me travel for another 1 hour. I started my Journey from Nakuru at 2.00 pm and by the time we reached Mara it was past 9.00 pm. Journey takes through Rift valley and some of the villages inhabited by Masai. The gradual transition from Urban Masai to Rural ones is evident as one enters the Mara. Masai with their lean, tall figure wrapped around with crimson red clothing and a wooden stick in hand, walking past dirt road is ubiquitous site till they are overtaken by charm of grazing Gazelles and Zebra.

We were traveling in Nissan Van that had convertible open rooftop. Our stay was at Simba Lodge. Till we arrived at this place, we had no idea about sense of direction except looking at setting sun and silhouettes of slender trees at the backdrop of silvery clouds. The silence was eerie as vehicle was trying to move along the trench created by passing vehicles. The arrival at lounge made us realize to be back among human settlement with hoards of European travelers.

The beauty of Mara became evident only when we got up next day to be ready for safari. The rooms at Simba lodge are nestled amidst jungle shrub with rivulet of Mara River flowing behind. The place is designed with natural wood with almost no sign of man-made material. With a wide balcony one can hear chirping sound of 300 odd species of birds and footsteps of grazing animals while slurping the water. First introduction of animal world came with team of Mongoose who like squirrels stand on their back feet beseeching for bread crump from travelers who are having breakfast at the perched top. These mongooses are domesticated by hotel to make place safe from snakes.

As we begin our safari on open rooftop, we are welcomed by teeming batch of Zebras and Wild beasts. Soon we realize that many others – all coming along in a single line, are joining this batch. With binocular (provided in the van) spanning Mara land, scene of thousands of such pairs- zebra and wild beast marching towards the Serengeti in Tanzania. Mara-Serengeti migration is one of the nature’s spectacle that one shouldn’t miss. We were told that during September migration was only remaining 1/3rd of Mara animal population. Imagine spectacle in the month of July- August with 40 km at stretch with a million gazelles, 200,000 zebras and antelopes, 750,000 buffalos, 9,000 Giraffes, 5000 elephants and 100 rhinos. This is truly wild show on earth !! Why the migration? Animal kingdom arrives in Mara when grassland is thick and this is perfect season to mate. From October till March – they would be at Serengeti in Tanzania with their body toned up by ferocious eating to get bring new generation. But not all the animals go to Serengeti- there are some who are always residents of Mara.

Zebra – wild beast seem to companion made for each other. Zebra thrives on top portion of grassland that is dried leaving remaining down portion of fresh ones for wild beast. It is interesting to see baby Zebra identifying her mom with her pattern of stripes. For naked eyes, they all look similar but closer observation reveals the intricacies like that of fingerprints. As we past them, suddenly we spot Cheetah, with his watchful steps and piercing eyes looking all around. Cheetahs are unique with their ability not to touch the food unless he himself kills it, but irony is: when he kills his prey, very often Hyena and others make a feast on this. This makes Cheetah go hungry and add to that tourist vehicles surrounding them during their mating season make them uneasy to mate thereby reducing their population at alarming level.

Mara can never satiate human curiosity of animal’s social behavior and natures eco system. Imagine Male Gazelles(with horn) fighting with each other to have supremacy over all female Gazelles in that season. The defeated male Gazelles hoard like all bachelors leaving sole winner to plant his genes in every female. This is a very best way to have genes from strongest male. Why so? Because when female gives birth to calf, she takes 15 min to have her baby ready to come out of the womb. In another 15 min, baby calf is ready to gallop at the same speed as mother. These 30 minutes are matter of life and death for mother and baby who is being prime target from all predatory animals.

As migration of animals goes past Mara River, hungry crocodiles are waiting for their annual feast. Crocodile in between taking bites of her meal comes out to hatch her eggs. While she does that she keeps her mouth wide open for birds to clean her tooth for blocked meat. Along the side in the river, hoards of Hippos guard their tiny ones from hungry eyes of crocodile. The sign of grown up Hippos is enough to keep crocodiles silent. In small waddle of water, these fierce enemies co-exist with each other. I wondered how is that Lion never come to drink this water and be confronted by Crocodiles? The answer was: Lion never goes to flowing water sensing the risk. He chooses stagnant water instead.

On our way, we also spot Black Rhino. This is very shy animal who like to be alone unlike Hippos who like to be together. Another animal, which makes its mark on Mara with his group dynamics, is Elephant. They move along the line with 13-14 of them with father figure marching the lead and baby elephant snuggled in between by grown ups. Invariably stronger one is at back much in the same way a guard is at the back of a train. Father elephant decides the course and everyone follows. They like to perch at the elevated plain when night descends and this place is always changed every night. Female elephant have this unique ability to contract or prolong her pregnancy. This is often decided by her sixth sense of impending draught or rainfall.

As we see this trail of Elephants, walkie-talkie announces spotting of Lions. We could see two majestic lions marching behind each other. As this happen; trail of elephants stop with all others huddled around baby elephant. Everyone including travelers in the van with abated breath watch the moves of Lions. They proceed occasionally delineating their territorial marks by urinating. It appears, they have had their meal and are on way to rest. Along the other side, we can see lioness with her cubs having feast on zebra who was killed just minutes ago. Now here comes the shock of our lifetime, we realize our vehicle has two flat tyres. Our guide moves the car little away and we get chance to put a foot on animal kingdom of Mara. Others watch us with surprise and awe as they see us being escorted by rangers. As new tyres get fitted, lioness watch us her bemused look. All this is within 100 meters. This is one memory that will remain forever-etched lifetime.

We were lucky to be with lion family more than twice. There are more than 25 families in Mara. Once in the evening, we could see lion cub playing with his fellow mates with mound of grass in his mouth-much in the same manner kids would play with ball. The Lioness who is at a distance ignoring the pranks of cubs guards them with her watchful eyes. Lion is truly King of Jungle. He has no fear from enemy nor he has to work to feed himself. Lioness prepares food for him, which he eats and rest. His job is to create progeny and guard his family. Both these- he does faithfully but at leisure. As the baby cubs grow up, male cub after puberty makes advances to his sisters- who disapproves this. He has left with only two choices- either challenge his father for supremacy or retreat and starts his own territory. Very often he chooses the second option. Lioness with her maternal instinct often displays interesting behavior. News of her adopting Oryx cub created big news in all over world.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1746828.stm

Do animals have memory? I am not sure of that, but confrontation of Masai and Lioness does indicate that Lioness may have – more so when she does something which she is guilty. Sometimes, with no prey in sight lioness attack cow of Masai. Now Masai rule is clear: lioness will not be spared, so Masai with their spears comb the Mara. The lioness who has been guilty of this act seeing the Masai become restless and starts looking for shelter. This sign is enough for Masai to take the revenge for their holy cow.

Watching Giraffe in hoards picking up the leaves is another beautiful site. Their color pattern change with age. It is interesting to watch them walk. They move two legs on either side in tandem unlike other four feet animals. As we move along 1500 sq km grazing land of Mara, the other animal species like Ostrich, Pigs, Baboons greet us.

Two days stay at Mara made us realize how animal kingdom differs from mankind. So often, we say” don’t behave like animal” but seeing Mara- one hope if human were to behave like animals, it would be perfect blend to the natures creation.

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