Binoculars and camera in hand, Arun Bhatia catches a glimpse of sights heretofore seen only on television channels.
“Everyone who has a chance to see nearly two million animals on the move has been touched by the magic of this place. What is it that gets under their skin? The urgency of the movement of the wildebeest? The wide open plains? The African light? Or maybe it is the fact that we all came from here, not such a long time ago, and our deep unconsciousness remembers the time, 60,000 generations ago…Or maybe it is just the sheer number of the migrating animals as they move in the world’s last surviving great migration.” That was Markus Borner, the Frankfurt Zoo representative in Serengeti, talking about the Great Migration mentioned in the Masai Mara Visitor Map Guide.
I had seen it all on the Discovery, National Geographic and Animal Planet channels and elsewhere, done by helicopter shots with multiple cameras by ace photographers wielding the latest gadgets, backed by satellite image experts, ethologists, cartographers and wildlife scientists. Would watching the migrating wildebeest and zebras live be different? I was armed with binoculars and an 8 megapixel 35-420 lens digital camera, was leaning out of a sliding roof safari van, moving in the amazing Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem.
The White Bearded Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) lives without any family ties. There is no leader. Any individual can start walking, and tens of thousands follow. The wildebeest cross the Mara River near the Oloololo Gate and the crossing is a spectacle. Especially since below, waiting knowingly in the river, are the enormous Mara crocodiles. The banks are worn down by hundreds of years of crossings, while at other places they are vertical on both sides of the river. The wildebeest and zebras hurtle down the earth banks, swim 30 to 50 ft and struggle in their teeming hundreds to find a safe way out at the other bank. Many drown or get eaten by crocodiles.
The Masai Mara has the second highest lion density in the world with 500 lions in 1,500 km. Thousands of animals are also taken by them and by other predators: leopards, cheetah and hyenas — the latter being serious hunters, not just the scavengers they once were. That said, thousands of animals do cross safely and the statistics for a “good” year say that 1.5 million cross safely.
Further along the route of migration, from the roof of our van, I photograph an intriguing face-off. A pride of lions has apparently killed a migrating zebra and is sitting near the prey. But a matriarch elephant, with huge ears sticking out menacingly, protects the dead zebra, so the lions sit well away from the kill, as though waving a white flag. The knowledgeable van driver, who doubles up as guide, could not explain this confrontation. The vegetarian elephant herd would not be interested in the kill for food. There is no known affinity between zebras and elephants. What does the matriarch with her long tusks expect to accomplish by coming between the lions and their prey? The whole drama unfolds in a leisurely fashion. It is an unhurried face off where one lion, then another, rises and ambles along near the kill, but is under the elephant’s watchful eye. The lion walks right past the dead zebra, turns round to face the kill, and sits down, as the elephant keeps an eye on him. It is all near a swamp and there are photo opportunities with the birds: Egyptian geese, plovers, egrets, jacanas rise from the muddy environs, sometimes circle around and descend to continue preening and feeding.
After an interminable half hour, the duel ends, with the lions strolling away as the matriarch watches. The elephant herd then crosses the dirt road, just 12 ft in front of our van. “We don’t do anything to the elephants, so they don’t do anything to us, you take photo,” whispers the driver. Many of my shots are useless because of the camera “shakes” in my nervous hands. Soon, the spotted hyenas are moving in from afar, to claim their share of the dead zebra.
Wanting a better angle for my camera, I open the door to alight from the van. The driver promptly stops me: it is against the law to get off the van when one is inside the park. The only humans that break this law are the Masai, who roam about on foot in the game park, grazing their cattle. Though they don’t hunt for food, these tall handsome tribesmen are capable of defending themselves with spear and club.
The Masai are yet another plus for me over the TV channels’ enthralling footage. The driver fixes up a fee with them and they welcome me to their Masai village with a drink of cow’s blood and cow’s milk (half measure each). I am too squeamish to accept it. They show how they light a fire using sticks, try to sell trinkets and bangles that they have handcrafted, and do a group dance, with the tall handsome men leaping straight upward. The higher he jumps, the more likely he is to win a bride.
Some speak English and joke that the very tall leader is a giraffe. “No,” I say, pointing at his goatee: “He is a goat,” as many burst out laughing. “Ok,” concludes the genial leader, “I am…a… goat-giraffe,” he says and grins.
Back home in Bangalore, I have a charming anecdote for family and friends: making a ferocious, spear-wielding Masai leader admit to being a goat- giraffe.