Thursday, August 27, 2015

Beauty & The 'Beest: A Talek Perspective

           Courtesy of Wilson Kilong, our gracious tour guide for the day, we were able to take a day off to venture to Sand River in the hopes of seeing a wildebeest crossing. The Talek crew piled into our cruiser early in the morning having packed the left-over chicken enchiladas that Joseph had treated us to the night prior, as well as some banana chocolate chip pancakes that he surprised us with before we took off. Eager and ready to hit the Mara roads, the day began.
            Making our way from camp to the border of Tanzania and Kenya, we were lucky as always to see the usual suspects: zebras, giraffes, ostriches, gazelles, topi, and elephants. Avian species were also plentiful (per usual here in the Mara, the birder in me has never been so delighted) and we spotted some Lilac-breasted rollers, Marabou storks, Secretarybirds, Tawny eagles, Striped kingfishers, and even a Bateleur eagle.
Marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer) trotting along
       After a while we came to a cluster of safari vehicles, which I’ve come to learn, can usually mean one thing: a big cat. This time, it was a cheetah. As the tourists flock, and consistently to our surprise, rarely for fisi (Swahili for hyena), to crowd around a sacked out big cat, I’m always wondering about the other African animals, those that don’t receive this attention.
            What about the creatures that the common tourist doesn’t dream of seeing - like the wildebeest, as a prime example? Perhaps most susceptible during times of the migration are the wildebeest as they move in masses seeking more preferred grazing conditions. As these odd-looking ruminants collect in abundance, it is the carnivores that eagerly await their arrival upon their home plains in which to feast. Within my two months here I’ve grown to appreciate the wildebeest, the gnu, for its persistence and sheer beauty - always moving, a combination of unique morphological features and behavioral quirks.
Common wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) amongst a few zebra
           Distributed and originating wholly on the African continent, the common wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) is one of seven species of the tribe Alcelaphini. Of them, the wildebeest is the most nomadic and travels in seek of open, available landscapes with the shortest grasses. Calling home to acacia savannas, these large, high-shouldered antelopes with broad muzzles and cow-like horns exhibit high social organization amongst their herds. Territorial, they are abundant as mobile aggregations or dispersed as sedentary herds. Their coloration varies from slate gray to dark brown and sport dark vertical stripes of black hair along their bulky body. Reproductively, every territorial male (bull) that an estrous female encounters will attempt to mount her (and she may encounter dozens during a day of aggregate movement!). From the moment they can stand, wildebeest calves accompany their mothers for protection. That being said, the tan natal coat makes the light calf stick out in a mass of black bodies quite conspicuously, and since outrunning a common predator like a hyena is unlikely, a calf’s only refuge is losing itself in the herd. With seemingly no concealment strategies, a newborn’s survival hinges on older calves and herd members around to cover their highly visible blonde bodies. Interestingly though, roughly 85% of the calves are birthed during a 3-week peak period, so the interval of vulnerability is highest during these times for the neonates, a highly restricted birth season that further enhances the wildebeest uniqueness. Fortunately for us in the Mara, witnessing their following strategy and waking up to “seas of black” in our hyena territories has taught us much of wildebeest form & function and we are grateful for all that we continue to learn of another African organism.  
A juvenile wildebeest nursing from his mother.
           The day brought wildebeest sightings galore. Fighting our way slowly through the numbers of black and brown bodies and hearing their familiar grunting and quaking call that was often enjoyably overwhelming and noisy throughout the day was unbelievable. Although we didn’t see as intense a crossing as hoped for, we saw many passing full-throttle through a bone-dry crossing and it was, in one word, incredible.  Watching them travel from miles as far as the eye can see in single-file lines that spanned the horizon - one by one making their way as fast as they could to the other side was an incomparable experience. Over the river and through the plains to Kenyan grasses they went. Stopping for lunch along the Sand River and knowing that just across it was Tanzania we were able to take in again just how breathtaking the African landscapes are.
The longest game of follow-the-leader I've ever witnessed. 
A sampling of the masses.
           On our way home it seemed the day’s heat got the best of us and we collectively decided to stop for a brief nap beneath a generously shady tree. Catching whatever z’s I could, it didn’t take long before we were on the track again heading back home. But first, Wilson took a turn and brought us to this hill that overlooked the lands in a way that I hadn’t yet experienced. Being at an elevation that high here and seeing further than I have so far was indescribable. To top off the trip and our “beestly” day, the gnu proved once again magnificent. Looking down upon them moving in masses that appear as minuscule black dots slowly making their way across the plain proved once again an unmatched sight. 
An aggregate in motion.
          The first of many game drives and the continuation of an ineffable journey here in the Mara, our day with the “beesties”, as Benson likes to call them, was just as magical as I’d expected. 

Source: Estes, Richard Despard: Behavior Guide to African Mammals. 1991.

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