Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Lions
Cats
 

I’m still reeling over the incredible wildlife viewing I’ve had in the past few weeks, especially the cats. It’s not often that you get to see every cat in the book. The fixations on leopards, lions, & cheetah are understandable. They are called charismatic fauna, and on a well planned safari you have a reasonable chance to see all three, even if it’s just a glimpse. There are a few places in central Serengeti where it’s almost guaranteed, sometimes all in one day. But as you might catch on, I try to work on the periphery of these areas. I take the risk that I might not see anything, but the reward is also greater. The smaller cats are more of a challenge. Many people have never heard of a caracal, serval or African wildcat.

There’s always a little pressure to try to find the leopard. Leopards are elusive and also really hard to spot, so my ears perked up when, having just enjoyed a beautiful moment with a herd of elephants, some impala started snorting. It’s one of those triggers that get’s my heart pumping… somewhere, something has spooked an impala. They all stare in one direction, ears facing forward, some stamp their front legs, but the snort is unmistakable. Searching for signs of a leopard, you can imagine the surprise when a caracal gave his presence away by flicking his ears. 

 
My Lions
 

‘Born Free’, by Joy Adamson is the first book I remember reading. I think that it was the book I was being read when I realized I could read faster myself than having someone read to me. I loved the stories of camping in the bush for long periods of time, the adventures of walking and driving through the bush on expeditions, and of course having your own lion to accompany you in the bush. As much of a dream of mine as it was, I never imagined I would end up driving around the bush, climbing rocky outcrops to watch the sun go down, or sneaking up on elephants at a waterhole on foot. I don’t own a lion to take with me on walks, but I work in one of the most amazing places on Earth, and sometimes that’s as good as owning it.

What a treat!

I’m currently in Serengeti for three weeks with a photographer, trying to photograph lions. Lions spend 16-22hrs of the day sleeping, but if you get up early enough you often see them moving around, or at least sitting up. They actually often hunt around 2 p.m. when everyone is back in camp having dessert and getting ready for their siestas.

Male lions roar tomake contact with other lions in their pride, and to let intruders know how strong they are. This is the most handsome lion of the Sayari pride. To really appreciate this, you need to plug speakers in or wear headphones.

I started working in this area 6 years ago when I was running Suyan camp, just outside the park. It was a beautiful camp and I have some special memories of walking the area with a couple of Maasai, my teaching them the English names of birds and plants, and their teaching me their traditional uses for plants. The concept behind the camp was to provide opportunities that couldn’t be had in the park like night drives, walks, and sundowners on ridges with bonfires. Sometimes I would convince guests to take the mattresses off their beds and we would arrange them around the fire and sleep under the stars.

Occasionally we would drive across the northern part of the park to the edges of the Mara River. The area had been closed to tourists for a period of time because of a rise in poaching and some violent encounters between tourists and poachers. Resident wildlife numbers were down, but during the dry months elsewhere in the Serengeti, this area got rain and the migrating wildebeest would move in. I won’t go into details of why wildebeest migrate, but I’ve written about it on another blog (safari ecology). Working together with Serengeti’s rangers, and also working in the villages adjacent to the park, Asilia took a risk and put up a camp called Sayari. When Suyan had no guests, I would pop over to Sayari and help out with the guiding. Sayari was a success, and within a couple of years other companies got the drift and now, during the dry season, this is one of the busiest areas in the national park.

Busyness is not necessarily negative, and tourists on game drive are effectively extra rangers on patrol, which makes operating quite difficult for the poachers, so poaching decreased when the tourists arrived. Lions were scarce at that time, as was other game, but the population of wild animals began to increase. It took three years for Asilia to build the first permanent camp here, and in doing so they set the bar for luxury camps in Serengeti.

I began coming here in the off-season, when the wildebeest weren’t here, helping out with the walking safaris. Then last year, when I came up in March, I saw over 50 lions here (see blog).  This explosion in the lion population is evidence that there’s also more prey.

Lions live in prides made up of a core of females, usually related. Prides are territorial, and the more females in a group, the more successful they are at keeping intruding prides out, and also expanding their territories when food is scarce. Larger prides also have higher success rates of raising cubs. Males take over prides when they fully mature at about 5 years old. In order to be reproductively successful, a male lion needs to rule a pride for at least 2 years, which is long enough for his cubs to reach independence. This forces lions to form coalitions to keep intruding males out. It is still too early in this area’s renaissance to see much stability, and therefore pride territories and dynamics are ever-changing. However, some of the prides are growing.

The pride above Sayari consists of 2 male lions. Coalitions of 2 males are often not related, though coalitions of 4 or more are. In this case, one is older than the other. There are at least 7 lionesses in this pride and there are 12 cubs that were born sometime mid-December.

The Cubs.

Such an amazing sight. The mothers killed a zebra this morning in an epic ambush. There will be plenty of milk to go around. These poor two lionesses were being harassed by all the cubs who were thirsty. 

As I follow the pride for the next couple weeks, I will enjoy it on my own for the most part. In a way, it is the dream that I’m living.

 
Ethan KinseyLions, Safari, Serengeti
Another Weekend in Tarangire
 

Finding myself back in Arusha for a couple weeks between safaris, it wasn’t long before I was wishing I was back out in the bush. With guests going into Matembezi’s private camp in Tarangire, I was invited by the owner to head out and spend the weekend there before the guests arrived on the Monday. The fridge full of beer, binoculars on the dash, and a spare set of clothes and other essentials, we left the traffic jams and noise of Arusha on the familiar road to Tarangire.

Looking through my blog it hadn’t occurred to me how much time I’d spent this year in Tarangire and after this weekend, I have to admit scores very high on my favorite places list. I was excited to get out there with my brother, girlfriend and some other friends not working as the guide or teacher, but just for fun. I’d get to look at some of the little-brown-jobs (LBJ’s) as birders call them, or stop to try to identify a fairly non-descript plant.

Just the drive into camp was wonderful, the 500 elephants in the swamp beginning to head out into the woodlands, a leopard in a tree next to the road. A lion in a tree, 3 pythons in trees, and of course the tranquil vistas. Maybe its because this was the first park my parents brought me to as an infant, but it always has a calming effect on my soul.

We woke up early on Saturday morning and drove out towards the swamp onto a beautiful green lawn, the result of a grassfire followed by rain. Within 300 meters from camp we spotted two lionesses feeding on a hartebeest and then watched as a hyena approached, urging the lioness to drag the carcass into the bushes. Surrounding us was an aggregation of Bohor reedbuck, Impala, Grant’s gazelle, Hartebeest, Eland and even a rare Fringe-eared Oryx wandered past, as we sat on the roof sipping fresh coffee. We continued on our little game drive only to bump into a pride of 14 lions- 10 cubs and 4 lionesses, before returning to camp for breakfast.

The Sausage trees were flowering and attracted Scarlet-chested Sunbirds who flitted about chasing each other away from their flowers. But the real highlight was the number of antelope that the fallen flowers attracted. At any one time, we could see at least 7 different species and all in all we saw a total of 12 species within a couple kilometers from the camp. The burned ground had also attracted a species of bird that I’d never seen before called the Chestnut Sparrow-lark as well as beautiful Collared Pratincoles.

Sunday came, and we returned to Arusha, revived by a couple nights in the African bush.

Antelope species seen:

  1. Eland Taurotragus oryx

  2. Greater kudu Tragelaphus strepiceros

  3. Lesser kudu Tragelaphus imberbis

  4. Bushbuck Tragelaphus scriptus

  5. Fringe-eared oryx Oryx beisa callotis

  6. Common waterbuck Kobus ellipsiprymnus

  7. Bohor reedbuck Redunca redunca

  8. Coke’s hartebeest Alcelaphus buselaphus cokii

  9. Grant gazelle Gazella granti

  10. Impala Aepyceros melampus

  11. Kirk’s dikdik Madoqua kirki

  12. Steenbok Raphicerus campestris

 
57 lions
 

Thousands of gnu on the plains.

It’s that time of year again when most people in the tourism industry in Tanzania are winding down, closing camps and getting a break. The heavy rains have usually started by now, and getting around tends to be difficult or even impossible, especially in the southern parks. Many of the animals have dispersed to areas that do not have permanent water during the dry season. This year has been a little different with the short rains completely failing and the long rains arriving a month late, changing the animals’ typical patterns.

Young male lion in Piyaya.

I was excited to be able to take some guests to some of my favorite places on a last minute safari. I picked up my guests at Kilimanjaro International Airport in the afternoon and drove to Plantation Lodge in Karatu which provided us a convenient starting point for the safari. A variety of luxurious places have emerged in Karatu as overflow to the lodges on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, but I very rarely stay there because one misses the most beautiful time in the crater. However, in this case, my guests had already seen the crater in the 60’s and preferred to keep those memories intact.

Sitting at breakfast the next morning, I unfolded the Serengeti Ecosystem Map and traced our route. There was no way to avoid the crowds for the first hour as we climbed the steep, winding road up and around the rim of the crater, but I took the first opportunity I could to leave the main road and drive one of the most scenic roads/tracks through the area down to the plains south of Ndutu. Suddenly we were alone except for a few Maasai herding livestock along the road. We didn’t see another person or vehicle until we again crossed the main road heading north to Piyaya. January and February were unusually dry, and therefore the wildebeest were on the edge of the plains where they usually are at the end of April, so we had to drive a little further than I’d planned when creating the itinerary. We eventually found them just in time for lunch and sat watching and listening to the thousands “nyu-ing” all around us. That evening we spent the night in one of my favorite areas that I’ve blogged about a few times. Despite the lack of rain, the game was great with two sightings of three cheetahs.

Preying on Grant's gazelle hider fawns.

The safari then took us north through Loliondo and on the road that may become paved as the Serengeti highway. I could not help thinking about how it would dramatically change the face of the area that is already slowly changing due to pressures on the land and conflicts between the Maasai communities and the government-controlled hunting concessions. Permanent Maasai homesteads have sprung up where previously there was only the occasional dry season “rancho” or temporary cattle enclosure. Only two years ago when I guided and managed a camp, there was almost no difference between the land inside and outside of the park. Now the boundary between the park and community land is obvious due to the extensive livestock grazing outside the park.

Another amazing Piyaya sunset.

It always surprises me when I end up alone in the Serengeti. We stopped at a small spring on the side of a hill where over 200 elephant were making their way in different directions through the valley. Buffalo, topi, ostrich, impala, hartebeest, warthog, eland, and zebra grazed peacefully as we scanned for predators. A female elephant with a newborn wandered past us. The cute baby was still trying to make sense of its surroundings. As we pushed on, our drive took us along the Kenya- Tanzania border, the cliché “sea of grass” literal as the red-oat grass rippled in the wind. We enjoyed the solitude of the single track as the panorama stretched out before us - open space. A male lion with his lionesses under a tree sat with his head up seemingly enjoying the vista.

"Arturo" the patient male on the periphery.

Amazing?

It’s rare that guests want to stay more than three nights in a place, but with five nights at Sayari we were able to experience the area slowly and without the pressure to find anything. Of course when this happens, the animals decide not to let you rest, and the second morning we were woken around 4 am by roaring lions. It’s surprisingly hard to find lions when you’ve heard them roaring in the night, but by 6:15 we were sitting with a pair of mating lions in what would be one of the best lion experiences I have ever had. Two big males sat on the periphery and watched as the pair mated in front of us every nine minutes. The mating male was anxious and kept staring in the direction from which we’d come. A resident guide from the camp had set off in the morning and called me on the radio; two other males were headed our way and were about to emerge on the other end of the plain. The details of what happened and which lion did what are too complicated and confusing to explain here but we witnessed a heart-in-your-throat battle between seven different males on the edge of their territories. 

I’d never seen male lions in such great proportions; we’d only seen three lionesses so far. Needless to say, over the next days we found two prides: one with six females and eight 4-week old cubs, and one with 11 cubs and four females. In addition to these lion sightings, a mother cheetah and her three cubs entertained us on a couple mornings as we watched, hoping they would hunt. Come June, off-road driving in the area is being closed because of high-season congestion and I am glad to have had that last opportunity.

Elephant bull in musth.

Its hard to take photos of lions in shade at noon.

Mother cheetah with three near independent cubs.

 
Photographic Memories: Ruaha Part I

I was recently handed an i-pod that had a year’s worth of photographs from Ruaha National Park that I thought I’d lost. Flicking through them, I realized how significant the events that the images recorded were in steering me in the direction to where I am now. I’d never had time to edit them and as I touched up the images and took an inspirational trip through the memories.

The rains end in April and early May and by June the long grass has turned golden. The grass seed-heads are mature and many of the trees start to lose their leaves or are turning red- its Africa’s version of autumn. Distant waterholes have started drying up and the Ruaha River takes on its role as the animals slowly return to the floodplains.The surface water on the Mwagusi Sand River is limited to a few spots that become wallows for elephants and regular drinking troughs for huge herds of buffalo. The skies are clear of dust and smoke and the last clouds depart as the dry sets in.

Stunning sunsets... and spectacular light.

The large buffalo herds coming down to drink in the Ruaha river towards the end of the dry season when the water flow is nearly stopped.

and magical light like this...

The toothbrush combretum has the most beautiful flowers and seed pods loved by kudu and giraffe- but some of the most beautiful were the various seed pods that we would dry and use to decorate the camp.

Living in camp for months on end, these little things began to fascinate me and the appearance of snakes would always cause a great deal of excitement among the other staff there. I managed to capture some beautiful images of these spectacular creatures.

This puff-adder was so cold in the morning sun and the buffalo weavers wouldn't give it a break.

And of course the wild dogs... my first encounters with them. Ruaha has one of the last viable populations of these beautiful and fascinating creatures.

The morning they ran through camp and stole the back off one of the safari chairs.

Typical mid-day behavior in the shade.

A classic greeting frenzy...

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