Wildebeest in their thousands, and the big predators of the savanna: the Kenyan landscape plays host to the ancient battle of life and death.

BY KRISH RAMASUBBU

PHOTOGRAPHS BY K VENKATRAMAN

 The light aircraft leaves on time from Wilson airport in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and in less than an hour lands on a dusty, bumpy airstrip in the heart of Maasai Mara. Robert, our Kenyan driver, in his leaf-green uniform greets us with a broad smile and leads us to an ageing open-topped Toyota Land Cruiser. It sways and creaks as it moves slowly along the uneven track. On the way, we are greeted by a group of inquisitive Thompson’s gazelles hopping merrily alongside. It is a nice way of saying “Welcome to the Mara”. A few baboons are busy picking berries; buffalos with curved horns raise their heads; and a family of elephants is trying to dislodge a trunk from a tree: a harbinger perhaps of a grander spectacle in the Mara, arguably the largest and most admired open-air theatre for animal drama.

Dawn is just breaking; we are back in the Land Cruiser. Excitement mounts as we approach the west bank of the Mara River. Dozens of open-topped vehicles have already taken up vantage positions, but Robert manages to find an excellent viewing spot. We wait for that magical moment: to witness the great wildebeest migration.

What motivates the vast herd of 1.3 million wildebeest, joined by thousands of zebras, Thompson’s gazelles and elands to undertake this perilous journey from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara in Kenya? Theories abound, but it is still an enigma. Some biologists claim that the concentration of phosphorus in the savanna grass leads them to the nutrient rich sectors. Others point to the seasonal showers, which the animals with natural instinct follow in pursuit of tender vegetation and fresh water. Perhaps it’s just an inherited trait or a combination of factors. Animals gather on the east bank of the Mara. They shuffle and shove, their clattering hooves raising a dense cloud of dust. The first, and perhaps the bravest jumps into the swirling current and others follow.  An almighty mayhem erupts, as the animals surge forward in the river. Some manage to cross to the other side; a few are caught in the rocky crevices and the unlucky ones swept downstream. A wildebeest washed down the river is caught by an eagerly waiting crocodile and pulled to the shore with consummate ease. Enough meat for a few days, I suppose.

The crossing ends abruptly, perhaps at the sight of crocodiles waiting to devour them. We leave with mixed emotions: elation at the sight of the surging animals and a tinge of sadness at the unlucky few who succumb to the predators.

***

Robert drives westwards towards a Maasai conservancy, where they are allowed to live. As we cross the border, a lone Maasai is seen herding his cattle and sheep. We enter the hamlet, a circle of huts with mud walls and thatched roofs. Few have tin roofs. The interior is sparse, dark and cool. As we emerge from the hut, a group of Maasai women attired in colourful dress, with heavy, ornate necklaces hanging from their slender necks and chunky earrings greet us with their traditional song and dance. The men join and display their jumping skills. It seems that the higher you jump the better your chances of securing the best girl in the clan.

“Fancy a jump?” the chieftain’s son tempts me.

We bid farewell to this unique Maasai clan and drive through the conservancy. There is a school, a health centre, even a shopping enclave. The shops are in makeshift buildings with poor planning and an eyesore with the grounds filled with discarded plastic bottles and rubbish. Perhaps a price one pays for progress. The Maasai are on a cusp: a duty to preserve their culture and a desire to merge with the modern world. This has led to inevitable tensions. Fences are erected, and the land is inexorably devoted to cultivation of crops. The youth are eager to find new ways of living, and leave in pursuit, with devastating consequences for their families. There is a slow erosion of the Maasai culture, being replaced by mobile phones, pop music, and burgers. It’s sad, but also inevitable.

Later in the day, it’s time for  another game drive. Robert takes a different route on this occasion. The Cruiser grunts and groans as it negotiates the rough roads and comes to an abrupt halt. “Look,” Robert says, pointing to a bush. We jerk forward, pulse racing, as we see a family of lions stretched serenely on the edge of the bush, as though having an afternoon siesta. A few more vehicles join us.

The male lion with its typical mane is sitting majestically, like a king on his throne. The females are the hunter-gatherers and the males simply rejoice in the fresh meat of the prey. Sounds familiar: does it not? The females spring into action, perhaps scenting prey in the vicinity.  And they are spot on, as we see a small herd of wildebeest moving in our direction. The drama unfolds: the lions move gingerly at first and then sprint off at breakneck speed towards the herd. The wildebeest run fast too, but the lions catch up soon and are about to grab one of the wildebeest that have lagged behind. Then, something most unexpected happens. The herd turns and starts to fight back, tails flashing and nostrils flaring.  The lions retreat, crestfallen and hungry.

We take a deep breath; the Land Cruiser cruises along. Robert’s mobile phone rings and he is excited at the message. He pushes the pedal hard and soon  we join a group to witness something special.

It’s a leopard languidly stretched on the trunk of a tall tree, silhouetted by fluttering leaves and prey, probably a gazelle, clutched  in his vice-like jaws. Perhaps waiting for the opportune moment to come down and have a quiet dinner. I pity the gazelle, but it seems to me that even in the world of animals, the mighty rule. Perhaps it is the law of nature.

***

Next morning, it’s still dark. We move, assisted by the security guard with his long torch light and a gun slung on his shoulder and arrive at a dimly lit square. We join an amalgam of people from diverse backgrounds, eagerly expecting to board the hot air balloons. The stillness of the morning is in sharp contrast to the frenzied activity that we witness on the square. Orange flames leap out of burners to fill the balloons with hot air. Baskets are straightened and we squeeze into our allotted little sockets. The first balloon takes off and we wait for our turn with trepidation. Then the crucial moment arrives. David signals and turns the gas. Our balloon lifts elegantly off the ground, swaying in the gentle breeze. The sun appears on the horizon, dispersing the dark, patchy clouds. The balloon ascends ever so gently skywards, opening a grand vista of the rolling Mara below. We land with a thud and roll on to the ground, a little shaken.

Yet another, but by now familiar, drive through the vast Mara and we are lucky to see a small group of rhinos grazing beneath a tree. Of the must-see big five, only the cheetah remains elusive. But then, as always, Robert drives long and hard to a secluded location, and fulfils our quest: We see a cheetah munching at a freshly caught gazelle, its face smeared with blood.

We say farewell to the lovely people at the Little Governors. After an hour’s drive we arrive at the Ole-Sereni Hemingway Lodge, perched on top of a hill. The tents are more spacious and comfortable with a fabulous view of the valley below. Belinda the Boss, an elegant and energetic lady, welcomes us with much enthusiasm. She introduces us to her staff and fellow guests. She keeps the guests happy by joining them at meal times and sharing her vast knowledge of the country and the people.

We meet Raffel, our new driver and guide. He is a Maasai: tall, dark and graceful. A maverick who defied his father’s wishes to herd the cattle; instead he left home to study. And here he is, driving tourists around with pride. The game reserve in this conservancy is rather sparse of animals and lacks the distinct charm of the protected Mara. Nevertheless, we are lucky to see a solitary male lion walking majestically amidst a panoply of animals, standing in fearful attention, as though to pay respect to their king.

A family of giraffes glance at us with some suspicion, the baby giraffe under constant vigilance from the grownups to protect it from the predators lurking under the bush. The giraffes are not easy prey, as they tend to use their long legs to land a savage blow at any intruder who dares to wander into their territory. It comes to us as a paradox to see a dead giraffe with its long body stretched on the ground and its belly prised open to expose the rotting viscera.

“Oh, that giraffe is unlucky; probably sustained an injury to its leg, and consequently became weak and an easy prey,” Raffel explains.

We move on steadily. After a short stretch, we halt to see an amazing sight: a group of impalas with their shiny coat and long, sharp horns. A battle erupts between two males, a crucial one, as the winner takes the female waiting in the wings. Surprisingly, the smaller of the two males wins, trouncing the taller opponent out of contention and blissfully joins the female companion for a well deserved mating session. Perhaps a testimony to the old axiom: ‘Love conquers all.’

***

We say farewell to the Mara, enriched and enthralled. We are also overwhelmed with a sense of unease at the threats facing this unique ecosystem from persistent poaching, aggressive farming, a swelling indigenous population and ever-increasing number of tourists. The inevitable climate change is hanging like dark clouds over the wonderful wildlife migration, blocking its well-trodden paths, altering its timing and sense of direction. The wildebeest migration is in the throes of extinction unless collective action is taken.

Krish Ramasubbu is a doctor based in London.

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