Weather and grasslands
February was a dry and dusty month to begin with, strong north easterly winds would blow in the late afternoons. Late in the month on the 23rd and 25th of the month we received some heavy rainfall that had come through from the west side of the Reserve. This weather pattern that is from the west of the Reserve can often be with strong winds. A total rainfall of 81mm was received in the last days of the month. Humidity has fluctuated between 55 – 90%.
The Mara River had dropped to a very low level with many catfish being seen floating down the river and hippo densities were congregating into what was left in the slightly deeper pools. On the 23rd the area received 28mm of rain and this pattern must have affected the north/east areas of where the Mara River starts, because by the 24th of the month the river had risen considerably taking away many of the dead catfish with the flow.
Mara River hippos – photo credit Will Fortescue
Grass levels had started to look very dry and short, and in many areas on the open grasslands, grass levels have been grazed down very low. Since the rain in last few days of the month much had recovered enough to induce a green flush. Water levels in the north of the marsh had also improved with the recent rainfall although lower down the marsh byways are still dry.
On the plains:
Many resident zebra have been seen coming down from the east and congregating on the short grass plains south of the Musiara marsh. Good numbers can be seen on Topi plains, Silanga and Malima Tatu.
Zebra have also been filing down in the west and crossing the river at the main crossing points: there have been some good sightings of zebra crossing and the resident crocodiles were certainly active!
Topi have also been seen starting to congregate and males can be seen ‘rutting’ – west of Topi Plains and Malima Tatu have good sized herds. There are some large herds being seen congregating on posee plains in the south of the Reserve. Some females in these topi herds have given birth and this is considered very early for Topi and completely out of their normal breeding months which is generally September/October – the months that Topi and Coke’s hartebeest calve down. Male Topi form ‘leks’ that they hold and lure females: on lower Paradise Plains there are some small herds with male leks being seen. Topi prefer a good leaf structure and will be seen where the grasses are favorable. Generally speaking, Topi possess one of the most variable social and mating systems of all the antelopes. Coke’s Hartebeest will be seen in smaller herds and the lower reaches of the Bila Shaka is a good place to see Coke hartebeest.
Elephant in the early months of February were plentiful within the marsh; earlier on the Warburgia trees were fruiting which drew them into the camps. Governors’ Camp had good sightings and movements of elephant. A particular recognised breeding herd with many young calves, has been passing through the camp frequently – they appear to like passing through at meal times! Since the rain, elephant seemed to have moved out into the Trans Mara. A male elephant had been seen to collapse and later died in the evening of the 24th near the Double Crossing; the authorities are not sure the cause of death.
Eland are also in small herds yet well scattered across the open plains – they are varied feeders meaning they will graze and browse. Eland are very habituated on the open plains particularly if there is new growth of grass which has come through. The larger of the breeding herds is being seen in the east marsh grasslands – there are some larger dominant bulls seen on their own and not far from these breeding herds. Sexual dimorphism is well expressed in the eland that shows a larger and heavier body, a well pronounced dewlap and a heavy matt of hair on their forehead.
Giraffe are also being seen again whereas in January they were seen less seldom. Masai Giraffe are ‘catholic browsers’ and can travel long distances in search suitable browse fodder, whilst favouring the many acacia species. A bachelor herd of young males were seen for sometime between the camps and along the fringes of the riverine woodlands.
Giraffe being seen along fringes of riverine woodland – photo credit Will Fortescue
Cape buffalo will be seen in large breeding herds and again well spread out here in the Musiara areas; there are two large herds frequently seen – one is near the Bila Shaka riverbed and the other on the west fan of Rhino Ridge. Solitary males are commonly seen within the west marsh between the camps. Hippos have been seen spending more time out of water whilst feeding, or since water levels in the river has receded to such an extent, many hippo and in particular the males are pushed out to seek further refuges. They will rest in deep riverine growth to ward off direct sun as they have no epidermal layer and are sensitive to ultraviolet light. We have also seen some friction and unease between pods in the river: as water levels recede, pods encroach upon one another and this causes aggression between dominant pod males. Hippo fights between one another can result in deep wounds with those large canines that they posses.
Olive baboons are ever present along the riverine fringes of the woodlands, many young infants that have reached about six weeks old have started riding ‘jockey style’ on their mother’s backs. Olive Baboon social behaviour is very much a ‘matrilineal’ society. Within a troop of baboons there is a very complex hierarchy based on mother-daughter lines of descent and male strength. A female baboon is born into whatever rank her mother was – similar to that of a princess becoming a queen like her mother – and a male will establish their place within the troop by fighting one another for dominance. Because of this, female baboons stay in the same troop their whole lives and male baboons will leave the troop when they are mature enough.
Often associated with the hierarchy of Olive baboons are Impala: breeding herds of impala will frequent both woodlands and open ground and males form bachelor herds and will keep to the periphery of larger breeding herds. A fine sight is to see female impala running whilst throwing their hind feet high into the air, this is phenomena know as ‘empty kicking’. It is a spectacular sight expressing energetic enthusiasm. Females or ewes give birth after seven months gestation to a single fawn and then after a week will join the main herd with other fawns. Fawns together form a crèche. A good sized herd of males in varying ages can be seen close to Governors’ Camp in the east marsh grasslands. Unlike other kinds of antelopes, male impalas communicate vocally by ‘roaring’ at a very high volume. With a modified larynx, these roars from dominant males or rams can be heard up to 2 kilometers away, giving them a reputation for being one of the loudest and noisiest ungulates before the breeding season. Male impalas also produce a secretion from a gland on their foreheads to advertise their status to rivals and can be seen rubbing and thrashing their foreheads against brush and bush.
Impala on the Mara plains – photo credit Will Fortescue
Black-backed jackals are evident across all habitats and will be seen in monogamous pairs and also with older pups in tow. While these canids roam the open plains, Thomson Gazelles are also plentiful on the shorter grass plains. Some female gazelles have given birth and Jackals are one of the main predators that hinder the fawns. Grant’s Gazelles are also seen although in smaller herds and in coarse grass areas (they are more of a varied feeder to that of Thomson Gazelles), named after the Scottish explorer Lt Col James Grant in 1860-61.
Warthogs and their piglets are plentiful with lion and leopard feeding of them heavily. Warthogs live in sounders which include their offspring and one or two sows from a previous litter which act as nannies. Boars have started mating; they will be heard and seen chasing sows. The boars sport more warts on the long faces than the sows; these are in fact cartilaginous growths and act as buffers when sparring. Warthogs will also wallow in mud to get rid of insects and to cool down on a hot day. Like pigs, warthogs don’t have sweat glands to cool themselves. Warthogs also have padding on their knees: they kneel down to eat lower grasses and like all ‘suids’, warthogs will also be seen taking rumen contents from the remains of lion and hyena kills from that of herbivores.
Cape Hares are also being seen and can often be spooked as one drives around, although generally nocturnal, spending the day hidden in long grass or under bushes, with their ears laid flat. They are mostly solitary, the young, one or two are born above ground with fur and with their eyes open, compared with rabbits, which are born underground, naked and with their eyes shut. They feed on coarse vegetation, which is cropped close to the ground, leaves, roots, berries and bark. Hares and Rabbits are Coprophagous meaning they re-ingest their first dung pellet. Due to the digestive system of rodents and rabbits, coprophagy is necessary to supply many essential nutrients. Bacterial synthesis of nutrients occurs in the lower gastrointestinal tract in these animals where little absorption is on first ingestion. The eating of their feces later on provides a secondary method for obtaining these nutrients.
Spotted hyenas are still very prominent and in large clan numbers, the east marsh and Olare Orok areas have large numbers of Hyena, there is a den here with young cubs of varying ages. Spotted Hyena competes heavily with the resident lion prides. They scavenge and are completive predators that run their prey down similar to that of wolves and dogs, a large heart gives way to great stamina.
Marsh lioness are nine in total now: Yaya, Spot, Dada, Kito, Rembo, Kabibi, Little Red and two of Yaya’s sub-adult females. Spot has two cubs – a male and female that are six months old and unfortunately Little Red lost her one cub – we are not sure what happened. Very sadly, Yaya lost her two cubs in January, it has latterly been reported that they were killed by two of the Paradise Pride lionesses, and not the male lion ‘Chongo’ that was originally suspected.
Rembo and Kabibi who are in the west marsh woodlands have four cubs between them; three are to Kabibi and one to Rembo – these cubs are three months old. Later in the month they have all moved to the Bila Shaka river bed area. Lioness Dada is still in the west marsh woodlands and is with lioness Kito; they have six tiny cubs between them. Kito’s cubs are estimated at about one month old, they have been hiding in a fallen tree – she has not taken them out yet. Dada’s cubs are now two months old. Unfortunately some aggressive baboons have pulled the tails off two of them – which is most likely the reason they have been undercover for so long. They have been feeding off zebra, buffalo, Topi and warthog.
Rembo & Kabibi with cubs – photo credit Moses Manduku
Dada and Kitos tiny cubs of which there are six in total – photo credit Moses Manduku
The six male lion coalition reside and monitor much of the east marsh, Bila Shaka and Topi Plains areas. ‘Chongo’ the male is more often seen in the Bila Shaka river bed. These six males have sired the cubs of the Marsh Pride lionesses; the most dominant of the six males, ‘Baba Yao’, has also sired the majority of the cubs to the Madomo/Ridge Pride and he is often seen with these females. On the 27th February, in the Bila Shaka area – Chongo the male was seen feeding off the remains of a Topi, which was most likely to have been killed by lioness Little Red.
The Madomo/Ridge Pride has five lionesses, two 2-month old cubs and also two sub-adult lionesses. They are being seen hunting and residing on Topi Plains and will also hunt in upper areas of the Olare Orok River. Earlier on in February they were seen hunting as far as the east Musiara grassland plains; this is a very active pride and has grown from three lionesses to a total of 19 members in just three years by two males – Lipstick and Blackie – both of which have now gone. Many of the older cubs have now left and ventured out of the Musiara area.
The female leopard Saba of the Olare Orok has two young cubs estimated at three months old. She is being seen very often hunting Impala, Thomson and warthog piglets. Her previous offspring who is 22 months old is also being seen in her home range.
Romi the female leopard has two cubs that are estimated at 7 months old – she is being seen frequently too and latterly she was seen hunting in the lower Bila Shaka river bed areas. This is a long haul from her normal haunts of the BBC campsite and woodland areas of the north marsh.
Female leopard Romi relaxing right outside Little Governors’ Camp – photo credit Will Fortescue
The female leopard Siri with her male sub-adult cub, is often being seen near the Chinese hill and also within the Serena pump house area of the Mara River. The male sub-adult cub is sixteen months old now so he should be old enough to leave his maternal mother and start life on his own soon. This male sub-adult is being seen more often on his own.
The large male leopard of the lower crossing area has been seen again, he has been named ‘Sujaa’ by the local guides, and during the migration of some years ago he had stashed over five yearling wildebeest into a Boscia tree by the cul-de-sac crossing points!
Leopard sighting near Governors’ Camp – photo credit Will Fortescue
The five male cheetahs are still being monitored and seen in Hammerkop grasslands in the southern reserve; they also will cover large distances and can be seen in a few days as far as the Talek River and double crossing. They have been feeding off Impala, Thomson, young Topi and zebra foals and yearlings.
A single male has been seen hunting in the East marsh grasslands, the southern Bila Shaka area and also recently within the west marsh grasslands. He was seen recently near the ‘Lake Nakuru’ area.
Imani the female with three cubs estimated at nine months old has been seen earlier on in the month in the east side of the Murram pits and deep into the Olare Orok Conservancy, but she has been seldom seen by camp guides recently.
A single female is also being seen more and more: she has been sighted on Rhino Ridge and also near the Double Crossing. There are many Thomson gazelles and their young fawns here on these open grasslands. She has been seen latterly many times near the Double Crossing on the Olare Orok side in last week of the month.
There was a single male cheetah being seen on Paradise Plains and also in the lower Bila Shaka river bed, latterly he had moved again to the upper Talek area and has been seen to cross the Talek river and hunt in the southern reserve on the posee plains.
Mara Game Report by Patrick Reynolds