It would be safe to say this has been one of the wettest and greenest months we’ve experienced in the Masai Mara. Heavy showers across most of the Reserve (405.5mm in total), along with prolonged rainfall coming down from the Mau escarpment, resulted in the Mara River holding an extremely high level.
The Mara was emerald green through January – photo credit Harry Blakey
On many occasions throughout January, the water level rose above the ‘green mark’ on the Little Governors’ Camp steps at the river crossing, which meant that guests would land at the Kichwa Tembo airstrip and enjoy game drives in the Mara Triangle.
In the world of Big Cats – and in particular, the Marsh Pride – there has been no shortage of action, drama and sadly the great loss of two more cubs.
The Marsh Pride in January – photo credit Harry Blakey
January mornings have been crisp and cold, with low-lying blankets of mist shrouding the open plains. Dew is heavy on tufts of grass and millions of tiny cobwebs that are illuminated by the rising sun. The days started off with temperatures as low as 14 degrees Celsius, warming up to a hot 30 degrees by midday.
Photo credit Harry Blakey
The grass is long and lush around the Musiara marsh, but out on the plains which are less water-logged, it is gradually transforming into a beautiful golden color. In some areas, the grass is almost half a meter tall, which is not ideal for unsuspecting grazers, but perfect for the predators who, in a few weeks from now, will be totally camouflaged.
Closer to the border with Tanzania, the grass is shorter and far more nutrient-rich for eland, impalas, zebras and many other resident plains game. The higher level of activity in these shorter grass zones entices the predators – especially cheetahs who are not territorial and will easily cover great distances in a morning or afternoon. Buffalos are the main choice of prey for the Marsh Pride since their distribution is less affected by the longer grass in the territory.
The ‘Bull’s Club’ of four heavyweight male elephants is still being seen, in between the woodland and the marsh areas. This seems to be their playground for the time being; the ground is more compact here and better sustains their weight as they crash about, mock fighting and pressing against one another – the ultimate test of strength.
Two of the Bull’s Club go head to head – photo credit Harry Blakey
During more affectionate times, we watch them delicately locking tusks, tickling each other’s trunks and literally leaning against each other to take a much-needed nap. They put on quite the show for our guests, not to mention the wonderful photographic opportunities that arise from a good hour spent watching them.
Breeding herds of elephants and other smaller groups consisting of a mother and usually two or three young ones of different ages, are also a regular sight in the Governors’ Concession area. The babies cannot get enough of all the fun to be had in the thick, cooling mud. Elephants love nothing better than a good squelch and a roll around in a muddy patch. Thankfully for them, all the recent rain has kept the ground nice and soft and it is wonderful to see all the new generations thriving so well.
Warburgia ugandensis (East-African greenheart) trees, of which the leaves and fruits have a hot peppery taste, are now in season, drawing elephants right into each of our Mara camps. It is an amazing sight to watch powerful elephants rocking the trees and literally shaking the fruits to the ground. Brown parrots feed on the seeds only and they will tear the flesh off and drop it to the ground where baboons are gathered, frantically devouring the leftovers.
Families and bachelor herds of giraffes are being seen on the fringes of the forest surrounding our camps, while the more habituated bulls will wander right into the middle of the camps and simply stand there, in the middle of the lawn, absorbing the warmth of the sun after a cold night as if time has no relevance to his day.
Towards the end of January, the Mara River levels dropped back down to a safer level. When the river is high, some hippos leave in favor of nearby stagnant pools while more than 80% of them will travel further, settling along seasonal rivers and forming new pods.
Hippos left the Mara River for ox-bow lakes and seasonal rivers – photo credit Harry Blakey
We are so sad to report the loss of another two cubs for the Marsh Pride. These lions just don’t seem to catch a break. After discovering seven cubs between two of the females, Kito and Kaleo, in early December, all hopes for the new generation has been whittled down to just two.
Kito with one of the cubs – photo credit Harry Blakey
On the 29th January we had a great sighting of the two mothers leading four of the cubs through the waterlogged tracks across the marsh and only a couple of days later we found all of the Marsh Pride together, but one cub had clearly broken its back and the fourth cub was missing. Oleku and Dada were limping and it was obvious that a conflict had occurred.
Oleku is putting up with hostility as a male coming of age, but is currently still with the pride – photo credit Harry Blakey
Earlier that day we had found the pride battling hyenas over a kill and it is more than likely that this was the cause for the injury of one cub and the disappearance of the other. It was distressing to see the cub in such a state but sadly nothing could be done. We notified the Mara vets who were handling another case even further away than the already three-hour journey between us and them.
The day was closing in and our guides were already returning back to camp given the 18:30 curfew, therefore a decision was made to let nature take its course. The Mara vets would not have made it to the scene in time, which would have been a waste of their resources. We are quite certain that the cub would not have survived much longer on its own, after the pride moved on without it.
The following morning, we caught up with Kito and Kaleo who had separated from the rest of the pride. We were surprised how far they had traveled since our final sighting of them the evening before. As expected, they were without the injured cub and Kaleo was nursing the two remaining cubs.
Marsh Pride female Kito and cub – photo credit Harry Blakey
The Bila Shaka males have been in and out of the Marsh territory during January. When in the territory, Koshoke and Kiok spend their time patrolling back and forth between the marsh itself and ‘Bila Shaka’ – an intermittent water course to the east. The Bila Shaka site (meaning without doubt), was given the name after guides came to know it as an almost-guaranteed spot to find lions. Indeed, this is the traditional denning area for the Marsh Pride who generally give birth here.
Bila shaka male Koshoke – photo credit Harry Blakey
Around the middle of the month we noticed that one of Kito’s female subs had an injury to her right leg. It was an open wound which looked clean, although clearly causing her some pain. We informed the park warden and Dr Asuka Takita who both kindly arrived the same day to inspect the lioness. At the time, the Marsh Pride had chosen an area that was almost island-like, surrounded by a moat of completely saturated mud and therefore inaccessible to vehicles.
One of Kito’s subs – photo credit Harry Blakey
It took some time but eventually they managed to get closer, at which point the young female began darting across the waterways, indicating that she was able to move well – should she need to. Dr. Asuka observed that her gait was not affected and the diagnosis was a superficial skin laceration which thankfully, had not affected the musculature. It was decided that there was no need for intervention which was great news, since it is preferable not to immobilise an animal, if possible. A big thank you to Dr. Asuka for her time and efforts that day.
Kito’s second sub – photo credit Harry Blakey
Kito’s two subs are very similar looking and sometimes it is tricky to tell them apart unless they are beside each other, at which point it is clear that one resembles Kito, with a much bulkier face than the other. One of them also has a distinctive scar at the top of her left leg and another small scar left below her left eye.
Our Little Governors’ Camp guides, who mostly stayed in the Mara Triangle due to the high river level, saw the River Pride regularly in January as well as the two young nomadic males that roam most of the central part of the Triangle.
Two male cheetah brothers (Risasi’s littermates) are also regularly seen on game drives with Little Governors’ Camp. Born in 2018 to the female cheetah Rosetta, Ruka and Rafiki are well known as the ‘border boys’ due to their constant movements between the Serengeti and the Mara. Thank you as ever to Cheetah Enthusiast for the ID and the info.
Ruka and Rafiki – photo credit Harry Blakey
January is a good month to see migratory birds such as the Steppe eagle which migrates all the way from the Russian Steppes! White storks and Abdim’s stork are also migratory and have recently arrived in the Mara.
Waterbirds are out in full force with all the recent rain; kingfishers, African jacanas, saddle-billed storks, spur-winged lapwings, water thick-knees, cape teals, Egyptian geese, hammerkops and scores of other wetland species can be found in and around the marsh area and along the river.
Pied kingfishers perch on the edge of streams, rivers and waterways to conserve energy – photo credit Harry Blakey
Out on the open plains, red-necked male Maasai ostriches are strutting their stuff as they attempt to secure a female. Females are highly promiscuous in breeding season and will mate with multiple males in an attempt to make sure their eggs are fertilised.
Females are slightly smaller than their male counterparts – photo credit Harry Blakey
Southern ground hornbills go about their business as usual – snatching snakes, crushing dung beetles and pecking lizards to death; their variety of prey is truly fascinating. Towards the end of the month, our guide Elisha Kimtai reported a martial eagle feeding on a hadada ibis not far from camp.
The southern ground hornbill is the largest species of hornbill on earth – photo credit Harry Blakey
Another fun sighting was a Verreaux’s eagle-owl found in the woodland surrounding Little Governors’ Camp. Each of our Mara properties are idyllically positioned within riverine forest that hugs the winding banks of the Mara River. If birds are of interest to you, this is a magical place to spot and photograph them.
The Verreaux’s eagle-owl is a highly opportunistic predator equipped with powerful talons – photo credit Harry Blakey
Words by Jess Savage, all images courtesy of Harry Blakey. To see other amazing wildlife imagery by Harry, please follow him on Instagram.
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