Tuesday, July 11, 2017


The Great Migration is here! For those of you not interested blood-thirsty archosaurs ripping cute, fuzzy mammals limb from limb, this post is not for you.  All disclaimers aside, I never really had an appreciation for wildebeest before I came out to the Mara.  Sure, I had seen the tail end of the Migration in July 2013 when I was in Serengeti, but by that time all of the grass had been munched to millimeters.  I never really got to see the gigantic standing crop that comes into its own after the long rains.  Now that I’ve seen the Great Migration on the other side of the border and have experienced a whole year in an East African savannah ecosystem, I have gained new respect for their general existence and am not so pestered by their incessant grunting as they roll through camp in the middle of the night.

This is a Wildebeestie, he was never graced with anything special.  Just came to work with lunch pale in hand, crossed some rivers, ate some grass, and followed the rains.  A simple guy who did simple things.  Never once did he complain.
The truth is they are the only creature out here capable of mowing two countries worth of grass and feeding two countries worth of predators, while perennially surviving extinction.  I mean they still are a moving breakfast buffet for anybody who wants an easy meal on the go and they don’t necessarily have any exceptional adaptations for avoiding predation, there are simply so many of them that no amount of population pruning from their natural predators could put a dent in their numbers.  That, to me, is quite extraordinary given how simple of a life history strategy they employ.  It may not be very flashy, but it is the very essence of evolution.

Hereeee they comeeee! Very majestic! ©EMN

For the wildebeest, crossing the Mara River is the most dangerous segment of their clockwise migration around the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.  On either side of the Mara River, lions and the oddball leopard ambush the migrating animals as they come up the banks of the river.  Our beloved hyenas will be chasing them down as well.  The river itself is teeming with crocodiles lying in wait for the unsuspecting animals to cross or come and drink from the river.  There may even been a rogue bull hippo just having a bad day who decides that a herd is crossing too close to his bend of the river.  You get the idea.  The Mara River may very well be one of the most dangerous rivers in the world from a wildlife standpoint.  Yet for droves of animals numbering in the millions, there is not enough grass for them to simply graze on one side of the river or another – they need to follow the rains and the grass that sprouts up after.  By extension, they need to cross the Mara River.

Dinosaurs are still real guys, they just live in the Mara River now. ©EMN

For us, the wildebeest crossing the Mara River marks the point at which they become relevant to our daily Fisi work via entering our hyena territories in the Mara Triangle.  With cattle grazing limited to the slopes of the escarpment and only during extreme droughts, grass in the Triangle can easily reach two meters in height.  Well above the hood of a land cruiser.  This poses quite significant problems to Fisi Campers steadfast to their bi-daily missions of locating and observing hyenas, given that hyenas standing on their tip-toes and stretching their necks as high as they can go will reach around a meter and a half.  So, when hyenas are sleepy and sacked out or calmly walking along in the tall grass it is quite difficult to spot them, even if the car is switched off and your scanning through binoculars.  Another problem that manifests itself in tall grass is boulders and their whereabouts.  When the grass is short, you can simply see the boulders.  However, when you’re trying to follow hyenas in tall grass and they lope off into a craftily concealed boulder field, it can be quite hectic trying to keep up.  Most of the time, we are forced to abandon the chase.  Let’s say that you’ve successfully found a group of hyenas in a patch of tall grass, how are you going to get identification photos of their spots when only their ears are bobbing above the grass? How about if you are at a den near a lugga with astronomically tall grass and all you can see are cute little cub faces peering out at you?  While this may be incredibly enjoyable to watch, it’s not so good for data collection.  All things considered, I cannot wait for the grass to be short again so you can mark me down as Pro-Migration.  Nocturnal chorus of grunts be damned; I say let them mow!

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