Mara Conservancy: Caitlin’s perspective

Most of the people who participated in the evening game drive through the Mara Conservancy did not get to bed until at least midnight, so our pre-dawn breakfast must have been fairly painful for them. The reward for their suffering, though, was a beautiful golden sunrise and a glut of wildlife.

(Sunrise over the Mara Conservancy)

(A Masai giraffe browses behind a very alert herd of impala)

(The scale of the Mara is such that even giraffes can be made to look small)

The folks in charge of the Mara Conservancy strictly regulate how many vehicles are allowed into the park on a given day, which means that the animals in this area are much less habituated to humans. Sometimes this means they are a bit skittish when they see us approaching, but generally these restrictions seem to help preserve the animals’ “natural” behaviors.

One of the behaviors that we saw both here and elsewhere during our journey through Kenya was fighting—lots of fighting. Although some of the fights were between young animals who were clearly just practicing their skills for when they were older, most were between adult males who were interested in claiming territories, resources, and, of course, females. One of the many wrestling matches we observed was between two waterbuck who, judging from the disinterest of a female conspecific behind them, were not impressing anybody.

(A warthog forages in the grass, seemingly oblivious to the waterbuck fight behind him)


(A Masai herdsman and his son drive cattle across the Mara)

After we had made our circuit around the relatively small Mara Conservancy, we returned to camp in order to pull down our tents and pack up for our journey south to the Masai Mara. On the way back from delivering my baggage to the equipment truck, I couldn’t help but notice that a group of our female students had attracted quite a bit of attention while breaking camp. Their struggles with the heavy and unwieldy tent were being overseen not only by several male classmates, but also by a group of our camp guards. I’m not sure whether the guys had failed to offer assistance, or whether the ladies had declined any such proposals, but all in all it made a rather comical scene.

(Students take down their tents in preparation for our move to the Masai Mara)

(Our camp staff load our supply truck for the journey between the Mara Conservancy and the Masai Mara)

Once everything was packed up, we hopped into our minibuses for the short, and yet lengthy, trip to the Masai Mara. It is short in the sense that the Masai portion of the Mara abuts the Mara Conservancy; it doesn’t take us long to get to the border and cross from one section of the ecosystem into the other. However, it is long in the sense that we do quite a large circuit around the Mara prior to finishing at our destination—Riverside Camp. One reason for this is that we like to visit the Mara River Crossing, that iconic location, shown in seemingly every documentary about African wildlife, where migrating wildebeest go splashing across the river amidst a frenzy of snapping crocodile jaws.

(A group of hippos hiding from the hot sun by lounging in the Mara River all day)

We don’t see any of this excitement during our visits; there are usually a few crocodiles, but hippos are much more noticeable. One of the nice things about this visit is that we are able to get out of our vehicles and walk around; we hire armed guards to escort us along the riverbank and allow us to get good photographs of the river and its wildlife. As we go, the guards provide some basic life history information about the species we see—plus they keep an eye out for any lions that might be lurking in the undergrowth. We’ve never seen any predatory cats during these outings, but large feline paw prints in the mud serve as evidence that lions and leopards do sometimes visit the area.

This year, we initiated a Mara census protocol that we hope to repeat during each of our future visits to the area. The students collected their first batch of data during the trip from the river crossing to our campsite—or, I should say, they tried to collect data during this period. Unfortunately, our route took us through a part of the grassland that is typically quite empty; this year was even worse than normal because of all the heavy rains. The grasses were quite lush and long, which meant that they were assiduously avoided by any individuals worried about falling prey to a lurking lion. Thus, while we occasionally encountered a buffalo or warthog, there wasn’t much else to look at. Even the avifauna seemed pretty sparse here, though at one point I was delighted to look out my window and see a quail winging along at eye level after being flushed by our passage.

Once we arrived at Riverside, students had just enough time to set up their tents before we headed out for the evening game drive. Staff had the luxury of being housed in bandas, which meant that we had time to shower and relax a bit. The birding at Riverside Camp is always spectacular, and one of the first birds I saw this year was one I’ve always drooled over in the bird book—an African blue-flycatcher, which, true to its name, is an incredible shade of blue, and flits about the canopy while holding its tail perkily aloft.

The evening game drive also brought some pretty incredible wildlife viewing. Shortly after entering the gates, we saw our first cheetahs of the trip. They were pretty distant, but were still quite recognizable. Amazingly, our driver spotted them out of the corner of his eye, sitting still and low to the ground off along the horizon. I have no idea how our drivers manage to spot the things they do, but it is great to be able to take advantage of their expertise.

(Precursor to lion sex!)

Even more amazing than the cheetahs were their larger cousins, the lions. We spotted a pair napping in the sun, and I was pretty happy to get a few photographs of the male engaged in a ridiculously large yawn. Things got even more exciting, however, when he decided to snuggle up to his female companion and engage in a round of copulation. Not only could we see them mating—which surely is not something that is frequently observed during safaris!—we could also hear them quietly growling at each other during the event. This turned out to be only one of several lion matings observed by University of Exeter students during our visit to the Mara, so, as I mentioned in an earlier post, love was definitely in the air thanks to the extended rainy season.

There were no other events scheduled for the evening, giving us the chance to recover after a long two days on the road. When I returned to my banda for the evening, I had one last wildlife encounter for the day: a little gecko hanging out by my doorway, hunting by porchlight.

(A gecko does its best to blend in with the wood of my banda)