Saturday, September 17, 2011

High Season

At the end of low season the Mara was still a relatively quiet place when I went to bed…and then one morning I wake up and the wildebeest are here… and tourists are here, and the vultures are here, and more crocodiles are here, and all those hyenas I thought may have disappeared are in actuality, still here. And, it all seems to hinge on the fact that…well, the wildebeest are here. People plan and save and finally arrive in the Mara hoping to see a crossing; and I am right there with them as I shuffle camp’s land cruzer among that cross hatched mess of vehicles towards rivers edge. Just a little closer to line up a better view…hopefully the first wildebeest that enters the water is a bit slow or ill or young or old… I didn’t say it aloud, but I am likely not the only one thinking it. And in all the excitement you have to catch yourself as an observer from falling into reflective sentiments like, ‘Wow the circle of life’ as that that Elton John song drowns out a couple thousand bellowing widlebeest.

The migration starts with a crossing…the initialization of the circle of life… or at the very least, increased flight prices to and from the Mara.  Jambo high season.

The time surrounding the migration provides an opportunity to see a variety of animal behaviors. Underlying every decision and respective behavior in the animal world (even humans??? no I don’t have the gall to pursue that) there are tradeoffs that ultimately affect an individual’s somatic and reproductive fitness. Disney aside, you eat, are eaten, and/or reproduce. In two words you could argue that the process of living, from to sex, to eating, to death involves combinations of chasing and fleeing.

Sex seems an appropriate starting point.

To set the stage here is my 10-15 second pitch on how this works…I’ll use a pair of lions to illustrate my point.


Simple, right? In the time you read that, it is all over and both lions have once again sacked out. That is likely a hyena camp bias on some level, slighting the complexity and the social interactions involving a lion’s establishment within a pride. Not to mention what it takes to achieve reproductive success as a lion; that will require insight from someone more qualified.

Observing hyenas mating is not overly common, but since the wildebeest arrived I have seen two successful mating attempts and a few less successful pursuits. That being said I am obviously no expert so I’ll first provide a reference for a more technical source (

The hyena mating events I have observed involve both a lot of chasing and fleeing of variable degrees of intensity. The first part of the chase is a slinky cautious approach by a male, towards a seemingly uninterested female in estrus who walks away (hardly an example of fleeing but it is movement away). As the female’s preoccupation and patience wanes she expresses her annoyance in an aggressive lunge or chase at the hovering male, who (because he is much smaller in stature than the female) flees, loping away to avoid injury. With persistence this exchange of ‘chasing’ and ‘fleeing’ continues and once in a while the result is that the female consents and success (such as that achieved by Trotsky with Sherman).

But success is relative, and as I suggested, all of this somatic and reproductive give-and-take involves the costs along with the benefits. I am not sure of the story behind each scar, but as highest-ranking male in the South territory clan, Dolittle, shows the wear of a life full of costs, from emigration to female courtship; all for ~15 minutes of intromission… maybe that’s worth more than “just” 15 seconds, as with those lions. On the other hand there is more to life than mating. 

I tune into the Discovery channel’s Shark Week each year not because it promises to unveil the latest footage of shark courtship. Rather, just as the tourists monitor the riverbanks for a potential crossing or scan the grass for a hidden predator, my intent is witnessing a kill. The energy flux that occurs between trophic levels involving predators and prey epitomizes chasing and fleeing in the wild and it captivates me…us… at least the reviews would suggest. This likely requires little explanation on my part, so I have captioned a series of photographs that demonstrate somatic maintenance among a variety of taxa.

Every chase begins with an approach. This young lion achieved little more than a few uncalculated test chases after a group of impala.

When pursuing prey that will inevitably flee, age is not the single determinant in success. I came across this young leopard suffocating a live and kicking impala that almost certainly weighed more than the leopard.

Even though age does not solely determine when a chase is more successful than the flight, size certainly achieves the endpoint with far less wear and tear. Shortly after the leopard had killed and drug the impala off the road leading into our camp, two lionesses ran out of the grass and darkness. Displaced, the smaller younger leopard was left to watch its catch consumed by the lions as nothing more than a faint pair of eye shines from the periphery of my headlights.


If not just size and age, then numbers also put the odds in favor of both those chasing and those fleeing. Hunting both alone and in groups, hyenas are able to pursue a wide variety of prey. Although I did not see the progression of this kill (and a lone hyena is certainly more than capable of killing a wildebeest) these two adult hyenas and a cub shared the benefit of this wildebeest kill.


This was the fewest and least excited group of hyenas I have yet observed at a feeding session. Usually upon arriving at a fallen carcass,  one can rest assured that the chasing and fleeing has yet to really begin until after the prey is immobilized and the hyenas begin to sort the feeding privilege based on social rank.

The competition of chasing and fleeing is not merely a phenomenon of mammals in the Mara (as this blog seems to thus far suggest). So, as not to overlook birds and reptiles, I will include a few more photographs that highlight the endpoint of a chase. Both the eagle and the heron out matched their respective reptilian prey in these pictures.

That covers the majority of both sex and death, animal-pursuing-animal interactions I have encountered. Before wrapping this up, I have left out my most personal accounts of chasing and fleeing. Not for a meal or as successfully as birds, and not to achieve any sort of reproductive success (well at least not directly…although I used to think I could embellish a good snake story to my advantage while chatting some uninterested girl in a bar), but either way, I have always enjoyed catching reptiles…

That is all well and good when you know the reptile you are chasing, as with the skink above. It is less good when you hear that there is a big black snake under the guest tent in camp and the camp staff wants to kill it. Not wanting to see this snake meet its end, yet unable to get a controlled grip on the snake’s head through the tent floor, there was little else to do but chase it out from under the tent. Happy to escape my incessant prodding the snake left out from the tent into the bush when we realized there was another large black snake making its way towards the cool recline under the tent floor. This second snake made flight up a nearby tree, before making a second attempt to escape the heat of the day under the tent. Insert here the chasing and fleeing story. Warmed by the afternoon sun, this second black snake was much faster at fleeing than I was at chasing and catching, but we made our way through the forest on edge of camp. In all the excitement, I missed the memo when the snake no longer wanted to play this game. Fleeing stopped, and so halted my pursuit. The snake rose up off the ground, staring at me. Unfortunately I have no picture to demonstrate this; fortunately that spitting cobra had just poor enough aim that if I did have a picture of it, I would still be able to see it sitting here today.

Some pursuits are best slow, casual, and from a distance.


In a few weeks the high season will conclude. There won’t be as many wildebeest, or tourists, or vultures here, but with all that eating and mating I expect the Mara will still host some chasing and fleeing.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science