Weather and grasslands
There has been generally good weather this month, although some over cast early mornings with temperatures being as low as 12°C while midday will average between 28-30°C. Sunrise is at 6.44am and sunset 6.48pm each day and on many occasions, there have been some spectacular sunrises this month. The Musiara region received 67.5mm in scattered showers throughout the month, while the Mara River has maintained a good level and flowing well.
Rain showers over the Mara Plains – photo credit Will Fortescue
Grass levels have improved since the good rain we had in June and July: the Musiara plains, south Bila Shaka and the east Rhino ridge grasslands are well covered, while the grass levels on the paradise plains are still long and dense. The prominent red oat grass and sporobolus grass found in low lying areas are a very resilient species.
On the plains:
Serengeti Wildebeest and Zebra.
The Serengeti Wildebeest have been crossing the Sand River area in large numbers since the 10th of July and again, just in the last week of July, more have been filing through into the southern plains. There have been some large crossings seen on the Mara River, west of the Mara Bridge. Wildebeest were crossing daily in large numbers below Look Out Hill – all of which were moving out from the Trans Mara and into the southern Reserve and the Triangle. On the 19th a large herd estimated at over 20,000 wildebeest crossed the Mara River below Look Out Hill and filed into the Reserve from the Triangle side. Since the 21st more large herds of wildebeest appear to have split in two groups and have moved up from the south and converged into the posse and Burangat plains.
Serengeti Wildebeest crossing into Kenya – photo credit Will Fortescue
Recently, large numbers have also crossed the Talek River moving north East: Large herds continue to build up in the southern plains and on the 22nd at 10.30am, an estimated 8-10,000 wildebeest crossed the Talek River coming from the southern plains and once crossed into the northern Reserve, they quickly moved in a north easterly direction towards the conservancies in the north east of the Reserve. The movement up from the northern corridor has been a little delayed since rainfall patterns in May and June have staggered their movements.
Wildebeest crossing into the Mara Triangle – photo credit Moses Manduku
Elephant continue to cross the Mara River and into the Reserve via the BBC campsite area. A good time to see elephant crossing is mid to late mornings when they move into the Musiara Marsh and riverine woodlands. A few of these elephant herds frequent the camps particularly when the Warburgia trees start to fruit. Earlier on in the month more than a few of the dominant Musth bulls were seen moving through the breeding herds and some cows were seen being mated. The most obvious signs of Musth are a sharp rise in aggressive behavior, copious secretions from and enlargement of the temporal glands and the continuous discharge of urine. Large dominant males who are in a stage of Musth are flooded with up to ten times testosterone than usual and bull elephants experience their first bout of being in Musth at about 25-30 years of age. For the young males, it is often a short-lived experience lasting perhaps a few days or maybe weeks, whereas in older males, Musth can last for a few months at the most.
Elephant crossing the Mara River – photo credit Moses Manduku
We have had good sightings of giraffe throughout the Mara, with males of varying ages often being seen in bachelor herds within the riverine woodlands. Breeding herds which can be seen in large, form Crèches to look after their young calves. Older and larger dominant bulls will be seen moving between the breeding herds – some of these older bulls are well known amongst the Governors’ line of camps.
Giraffe bachelor herds – photo credit Moses Manduku
Some of the Warbugia trees within the riverine woodlands are still fruiting which is common for this time of year, while the Teclea nobilis with the bright red berries are fruiting heavily. The common Bulbuls, Crowned hornbills and Violet backed starlings have been feeding off these berries. The recent rains have attracted good numbers of hawk moths (Sphingidae), whose large larvae have been seen around the camps latterly.
Many Hippo cows have been seen with very young calves – it would appear that many gave birth in July. This birthing is very noticeable and we have counted 10 very young hippo calves between the Toyota hippo pod and Il Moran Camp pods. Early on the 2nd of July, a male resident crocodile had killed a young hippo calf close by to Il Moran and later on two males fought over the remains. It seems to be a common phenomena that many hippo calves are eaten by the resident crocodiles and are more frequently seen. Another crocodile was seen with a young hippo calf in its jaws on the 14th July with a very young hippo calf in its jaws.
Two male crocodiles fighting over a hippo calf carcass – photo credit Patrick Reynolds
Olive Baboons in large troop sizes, as well as Impala, often frequent similar habitats – particularly that of wooded areas. It is not uncommon in these circumstances that large male baboons will take an Impala fawn to eat it. Impala ewes give birth away from the main breeding herd and when the fawn is a few days old or more, it will be introduced back into the herd – and this is when these male Baboons recognise this phenomena.
Olive baboons share wooded habitats with a variety of other wildlife – photo credit Will Fortescue
On the morning of 16th July, this very scenario happened and the moment the ewe brought in her fawn back to the herd it was snatched. Bachelor herds of Impalas will often be seen scattered out and again, often within the same breeding herd habitats. One female Bushbuck was seen near the BBC campsite – this is the first sighting this year since many Bushbucks have suspected to have been taken by the resident leopards. On the other hand, more Dik Dik’s are being seen and this is a good sign – pairs are monogamous and will pair for life with the female being larger than the male.
Thomson and Grant’s Gazelles are well spread out within the Musiara environs: Grant’s gazelles live in standard territorial, male-led herds. In more closed habitats, the herds tend to be smaller and more sexually segregated than that of Thomson Gazelles. Male Grant’s gazelles have developed several ritualised postures to determine dominance and this you can see very well if one has the patience to sit it out. Younger males will often spar with one another and generally as they grow older, these ritualised displays often take place instead of fights. They are primarily browsers rather than grazers and during dry periods, they will move some distances within a habitat to obtain more browse value. Grant’s Gazelles are not dependent on water and move in the opposite direction of other migratory species such as the wildebeest. With the ability to obtain the moisture needed from food, they avoid competition and can survive on vegetation found in semi-desert environments. They have relatively large salivary glands – which is perhaps an adaptation for secreting fluid to cope with a relatively dry diet.
The more prominent Thomson Gazelles will be seen in loose associated herds. Male Thompson’s are very territorial and will staunchly hold onto what turf is theirs and at the same time will mark a grass stem with a sebaceous secretion from their pre-orbital gland, known as olfactory communications. Female Thomson’s gazelles usually give birth to single young, known as a fawn, after a gestation period of 5 – 6 months. For the first 3 weeks after giving birth, the mother hides the fawn in tall grass and returns twice daily to nurse it, until it is old enough to join the herd. The black-backed jackal is and omnivore and not a fussy eater, and feeds on small to medium-sized animals, as well as plant matter and many species of insect life. On the short grass plains, they are one of the main predators of Thomson fawns. Their cousins – the side striped Jackal – are not commonly seen perhaps due to predator aggression from the large clan sizes of the spotted hyena and the black-backed jackal’s more aggressive feeding behaviour.
Bila Shaka Cape buffalo herds are spread across the Musiara and Bila Shaka Plains, both Buffalo breeding herds have many young calves, of which many of the cows and calves have been taken by the resident marsh lion prides. This month the marsh lionesses have taken five buffalo cows from the Bila Shaka area. One evening in late July, the four lionesses Rembo, Kito, Dada and Kabibi took down a huge buffalo – we are noticing that these four females are killing buffalo more often these days which has become a possibility given their combined strength and skill and also because there are so many of them to be fed – they have five cubs between them. A few older bulls still reside close to the marsh area in front of Governors’ and often close to the camps too, but numbers of these older bulls are slowly diminishing due to the resident lion prides.
Marsh Pride cubs with buffalo kill – photo credit Moses Manduku
Spotted hyenas are still being seen in large clans which is an indication of not enough lion to compete with them and regulate numbers. Apart from a good sense of smell, spotted hyenas have an acute sense of hearing too. They can hear predators hunting or feeding on carcasses from several kilometers away! Spotted hyenas have big hearts (although we can’t say they are generous!), yet they are capable of running close to 60 kilometers per hour. Mostly within the Mara ecosystem they will hunt wildebeest and various species of antelope with birds, lizards, snakes and some vegetable matter also being included in their omnivorous-type dietary pattern. Spotted hyenas give birth to 2 to 4 cubs at a time. Cubs are born with open eyes and will suckle on their mothers’ milk for up to 18 months although they start eating meat by the age of 5 – 6 months from nearby kills. Hyenas and lions continue to fight strongly over the same territory as they hunt the same prey, which leads to fierce competition between the two predators. They steal each other’s food and hyenas in particular will kill off the young of their enemies – in particular cheetah whose numbers are very limited in the Mara.
Spotted Hyena and cheetah cub kill – photo credit Hetim Patel
Cape Hares are being seen and can often be spooked as one drives around – they are generally nocturnal and spend the day hidden in long grass or under bushes, with their ears laid flat. It was on the 15th July that some of our guests saw a Martial eagle take a scrub hare while one ran from one cover to the next.
Marsh lionesses Yaya and her two adult females Pamoja and Nusu Mkia, will hunt south of the Bila Shaka area and also as far as Rhino Ridge. Lioness Spot has two sub-cubs (a male and female), which are about one year old now and they are mostly seen with lioness Little Red, who helped raise them, in the west marsh byways. These four lions have also been feeding off the resident buffalo and warthog in this area. On the 24th they had killed and eaten a buffalo cow in the west marsh.
Lionesses Rembo, Kabibi, Dada and Kito along with their five cubs, have this month been hunting and feeding off the many buffalo and their calves that are in the Bila Shaka river bed area. Two cubs are to Kabibi and one to Rembo – they are now about nine months old, while lioness Kito has two 7-month-old cubs. They have all been seen actively hunting buffalo in the late evenings and early mornings. On the early morning of the 26th July, two warthogs were taken from close by to Il Moran Camp – these resident warthogs tent to lose a sense of predation when habituated to human settlements and become easy prey for the nearby lion prides.
Dada, Kito, Rembo and Kabibi – photo credit Hetim Patel
The Madomo/Ridge Pride is made up of five lionesses and two 7-month-old cubs (a male and a female), plus two sub-adult lionesses of about 18 months old. Madomo’s daughter, Longneck, has three tiny cubs estimated at just two-months-old. Another larger and older lioness sister to Madomo, also has four cubs that are just five-weeks-old! This pride is being seen hunting and residing on Topi Plains and also will hunt in upper areas of the Olare Orok River. Earlier on in the month they were seen hunting south of Topi Plains – as far as the east Musiara grassland plains. This is an extremely active pride and latterly they have been residing on the lower Topi grassland plains.
Longneck and cubs – photo credit Moses Manduku
The Six Marsh Males reside and control much of the east marsh, Bila Shaka and Topi Plains areas – these six males have sired the cubs of the Marsh Pride lionesses and Madomo/Ridge Pride. The most dominant of the six males is Baba Yao – he has also sired the majority of the cubs to the Madomo/Ridge Pride.
These males tend to move between the two prides and on the late morning of the 25th, in the lower Topi Plains grasslands, two members of the six-male coalition fought heavily over an oestrus lioness. It was Baba Yao who was shaken and put down by another younger male on this morning. These males also like to move around between the west Marsh, Bila Shaka, Olare Orok and Malima Tatu are – this is a large home range.
Baba Yao fighting another male over a female in oestrus – photo credit Allaire Warner
Leopards were seen frequently in July: the female leopard Saba of the Olare Orok, is looking around for a nesting area and we suspect she is pregnant. She is often seen with her last offspring and they both seem to have been hunting Impala and warthog; both are being seen almost on a daily basis within the Olare Orok riverine woodlands. Female leopard Romi and her two cubs (who are nearly a year old now), have also been seen occasionally although she is a little shy. On the early morning of the 19th she and one of her cubs were seen eating what appeared to be the remains of a Bushbuck up a Warbugia tree in the riverine woodlands close to the BBC campsite. During mid-month she had been seen resting on a dead tree trunk close to Il Moran Camp – it seems that late evenings are the best time to see her.
Romi and her kill – photo credit Moses Manduku
Romi’s sub adult cub relaxing up a tree – photo credit Moses Manduku
Another female leopard, Bahati, and her two 6-month-old cubs (of the Talek River area) is also being sighted on long day game drives – she is most likely seen on the lower side of the Talek River crossing. A male Leopard is also being seen by the main Mara River crossing areas – leopards can be as active as lion when wildebeest are crossing the river and will take full advantage of this phenomena.
The five-male cheetah coalition has been seen often on the southern Reserve, on the Burangat and Posse Plains, hunting Thomson gazelles and Impala. On the 9th July, they had killed a male Thomson gazelle in the Ongata Ronkai depression area, typically cheetah cover great distances and this coalition prefers to move around between the two reserves.
Amani the female cheetah and her three cubs estimated at 14 months old, was seen earlier on in the month in the southern Reserve near Lookout Hill. On the 21st July, she was seen south-east of Lookout Hill in the morning eating the remains of a Thomson gazelle – she is a very active mother and is regularly seen hunting Thompson gazelles and Impala ewes. Another lone female is being seen on Rhino Ridge and then latterly below Emartii Hill.
Amani and her cubs – photo credit Moses Manduku
Two individual male cheetahs are being seen between Paradise Plains and also in the Double-Crossing area: latterly one of them was seen early in the morning of the 14th and 22nd hunting Thompson on the southern plains of the Ngiatiak River. The other perhaps older-looking male was seen again in the upper Talek River areas, he then crossed the Talek sand river crossing and was seen residing on the Lower Burangat Plains. Two young female cheetahs were seen on the 24th, south of the Mara Bridge in the southern areas of the Triangle and Trans Mara Reserve.
With the global decline in cheetah, it is always quite special to have these sightings. In the past cheetahs were widely distributed across Kenya but, over the years, their numbers have fallen drastically due to human population increase that has led to loss of habitat, a reduction in prey, conflicts with people and diseases. Cheetahs are now resident in about 23% of their historical range in Kenya. We have been working with the Mara-Meru Cheetah Project since 2013, to support their research of cheetah in the Masai Mara. The MMCP research team conducts workshops in camp for our guides, on the latest developments of cheetah conservation education, cheetah identification and news, updates and life stories of the individual cheetah of the Masai Mara and surrounds. Our guides in turn assist the project by providing them with field data to help them monitor the cheetah populations in our area of the Masai Mara.
If any of our guests would like to get involved in some cheetah conservation, while staying at our Mara camps, we can organise a private half/full day game drive and a private lecture with Dr. Elena Chelysheva (of MMCP), who is a cheetah expert with over 30 years of experience and the only cheetah specialist in East Africa with equal experience of working and studying this species in captivity and in the wild. She is also a member of the IUCN Conservation Planning Specialist Group. The donation for this time spent with her is $500 (per group) and she would join you in the evening at our camp, before or after dinner, for a presentation on the Mara’s cheetahs and the following day she would join you on a cheetah-focused game drive. Please note that for groups of less than four people there is an additional cost of hiring an exclusive car at camp, which is $348 per car.
Another way that our guests can be involved is by sending in their cheetah photos to the Mara-Meru Cheetah Project and they will tell you what is known about that particular cheetah. MMCP is looking for recent photos of cheetahs taken anywhere within the whole Masai Mara – they would prefer full body profiles, where front, back limbs and tail are visible. If the camera is set up correctly, the date and time will be automatically stored in the properties, if not, it is helpful to supply the date. Noting the location is useful but not necessary but do mention if the cheetah was spotted in was in the Reserve or in the Mara Triangle. Guests can email the images and info to email@example.com
Masai Mara Game Report by Patrick Reynolds, Manager at Governors’ Il Moran Camp.