So I had a pretty great day the other day – this day being January 17th 2017. The den sessions on morning obs were pretty normal, took place in South territory. There is a running joke in Serena about obs in South. We call them Sobs (South Observations), due to the number of hyenas normally present at den sessions and the difficulty of gathering all the CIs and IDs at the session. Normally, you really start sobbing if you are doing solo Sobs, as it makes it that much more difficult to keep track of everyone. However, this morning I didn’t sob, not even a single tear. On top of that, we added a new mother to the ranks of moms in South: Blue Band. She was nursing her two cubs this morning in a quiet corner of the communal den. By this time, it was getting light out so I snapped a couple of photos of the kids to age them later and went on my merry way to explore the territory. This is when things started to get really crazy. While performing a prey transect, I ran into three subadult female lions and a subadult male – playing kill the carrier with a black-bellied bustard. Turns out a juvenile martial eagle had killed the bustard, but this jubilant pride of lions decided they wanted the kill for themselves – the martial had no choice but to concede, as he watched glaringly from a decently-sized termite mound a couple of meters away. With my prey transect unfinished, I reluctantly left the lions and forged ahead, deftly shooting (with a rangefinder, of course!) zebra and topi left and right. I didn’t get more than 300m farther down the transect, when I chanced upon three cheetah brothers drinking from a small spring at the top of a lugga. These guys are one of the few resident cheetah coalitions in the Mara triangle, a rare sight indeed. The Mara allowed me complete my prey transect without any other ludicrous events occurring. At this time, I looked down at my watch and realized I was going to be about half an hour late for breakfast. So, with my stomach alarm rumbling, I sped back to camp.
One of the three Lemai brothers, who are residents now in the Mara. It is thought that they emigrated from Serengeti.
Throughout the day, I completed the mundane daily tasks of Fisi Camp, such as transcribing data, car checks, and cleaning the solar panels that power camp, quietly contemplating how spectacular this day had been so far. Fortunately for me, the Mara still had some big surprises in store for me. I left to head to North territory that evening and upon approaching the den, I noticed four conspicuously large boulders within 200m of the den that had not been there two days ago. It took me about half a second to realize they were, in fact, biotic and slowly moving between the shrubbery. Cape buffalo were quickly ruled out due to the coloring and lack of fur. As soon as one of these creatures lifted their head, the search image instantly materialized in my cerebrum: black rhinoceros. I almost popped straight through the roof of the land cruiser, as I haven’t seen a rhino in two months, much less four at once. These four rhinos represent approximately 15% of the population in the entire Mara triangle so it was certainly a special sighting. Especially considering the fact that I had them all to myself, no tour cars in sight. Although, I would’ve loved to stay with this incredibly endangered species all night…I had a job a job to do. At this point, I was only 100m away from the den and could still see the rhinos quite clearly anyway. North den is pretty quiet at the moment, as the old cubs are just about to graduate and the young cubs only emerge from the den when their mothers are around. Luckily for me, Waffles, the matriarch of North clan, who we’ve expected to have been harboring youngsters in one of the den holes, arrived from the East. Given how this day has been going so far, I believe you can foretell that I did wind up seeing Waffles’ cubs nurse from her for the first time. So absorbed was I in acquiring photos to age the cubs with that I didn’t notice the lumbering fortress of elephants, forty strong, taking a beeline to the den and showing no signs of stopping. As you can imagine, this was quite an intimidating sight and I decided that I should flee the scene before they got too close. I could’ve just given a wide berth to these determined pachyderms, but I wanted to see how the hyenas would react to the approaching behemoths.
The rhino mini-herd was less than 100m from the den now and on the opposite side as the elephants. Given the number of calves in this herd, I figured that even if the elephants were oblivious to the impending hyena den in their path, they would not be willing to approach the rhinos and risk altercation. Taking care not to not disturb the peacefully grazing creatures, I slowly placed them between myself and incoming elephant herd. The rhinos didn’t mind one bit and, with the car off, seemed to accept me as a wonky member (a land cruiser with an H-antenna sort of looks like a rhinoceros) of their family group by moving closer. Through my binoculars, I could see Waffles at the den. At about 10m, the elephants realized they were walking through a large carnivore den, and responded accordingly – an orchestra of trumpets, an extravaganza of head waves, and a spree of mock charges. Unbelievably, in spite of all of this hullabaloo, Waffles didn’t even blink once. She stayed sacked out where she was nursing her cubs, not five minutes before (the cubs squealed and ran into the den as soon as they caught a whiff of the forthcoming danger), and lazily napped through the whole ordeal. Although I can’t determine whether it was bravery or stupidity, I can definitely ascertain that this matriarch has some serious panache.
Waffles and the Pachyderms (A great band name should anybody be in need of one). This was only the first wave!
After about 45 minutes of being stonewalled by Waffles, the elephants abandoned their turtle shell formation with their calves in the rear and nervously peered over their shoulders every couple of paces to make sure Waffles was not in pursuit. My benevolent rhino shield worked wonderfully as well – the elephants veered off to the escarpment as soon as they made it to the other side of the den. With a magnificent sunset at my back, I left my companions, grateful for their assistance, and returned to the den to continue recording behaviors. Well, it’s all in a day’s work out here in the Mara.
Bonus Shot: A rare January storm rolls in from Tanzania as I leave the den, while the Mara Conservancy performs a controlled burn along the escarpment. Obligatory Lion King Reference, the atmosphere has an eerie resemblance to the penultimate scene of the movie.