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Leopard School at Mara Plains

Friday, 9 November 2012 09:29 by BillGiven

The best moments on safari are when we can witness the natural behavior of the animals. Among the big cats leopards are unique for their trait of carrying their kills up into trees. This definitive behavior is a critical one as it provides the leopard with a chance to safely cache food and consume as much as they want at their leisure without worry that lions or hyenas will pirate their hard won prey.

It is an impressive display of strength and agility. To observe a leopard carrying a kill up a tree is without doubt one of the most thrilling safari sightings.

On the last Big Cats & the Migration safari that I guided our group had the fascinating opportunity to not only see a leopard haul an impala up a tree but to actually observe a mother tutor her daughter to develop this vital skill. On a night drive we were sitting in the dark near the base of a tree containing a young leopard named Fig (about 10 months old). Soon Fig’s mother Acacia arrived, a bit breathless with a freshly killed young impala dangling from her mouth.

After gathering herself Acacia sprang to the tree and hauled the impala up the tree toward Fig. Then in an extraordinary teaching moment, as Fig approached and vocalized in excitement for food, Acacia purposely dropped the kill to the ground forcing Fig to descend the tree and bring the kill up on her own. Practical learning at its best!

Fig came down, secured the impala and impressively climbed the tree with the kill. Once sufficiently high up the tree it was a bit comical as Fig struggled with how to secure the carcass and numerous times she tried to bend down to eat only to have the prey slipping off the branch requiring her to quickly snag it and try again. Eventually she found a suitable fork to wedge the kill and eat.


Fig secures impala and starts to eat.
© Bill Given


Acacia is a leopard I know well having spent nearly 4 hours with her on my first ever visit to Mara Plains Camp in early 2009. At that time she had two very young cubs and she successfully raised both to independence. Her daughter in that litter, Pretty Girl, is the leopard that I’ve seen most at Mara Plains and has been my favorite.

In February I was able to see Fig when she was just about 10 weeks old and it was very rewarding to return in October and see her successful development. It is a privilege to be able to visit the same area frequently and track the lives of these remarkable leopards.


Fig secures impala and starts to eat.
© Bill Given


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Planning a Quality East African Safari

Monday, 9 May 2011 06:39 by BillGiven

Photo of Hyenas on a night drive
Photo of Hyenas during a night drive on the Big Cat Safari
©Bill Given


Webmaster Note: The content presented here was borrowed from the most recent newsletter. The content was so in depth that I thought it should be shared with the safari blog readers who aren't receiving the newsletter. You can sign up for the roar here.

In my early safari days, Kenya and the Masai Mara was not appealing as I'd heard stories and seen photos of huge numbers of vehicles at a sighting, to the point where it prevented the behavior of the animals. I subsequently have learned the ways to take advantage of the unrivaled animal concentrations of Tanzania and Kenya but yet avoid crowds and have stellar wilderness for surrounds.

My Big Cat group trip was a huge measuring stick to see how well I have mastered these principles as four members of the group had a whopping 60 or so safaris between them but of that mighty number only one person had done a safari in East Africa and that was just a single visit many years ago. Like me, these folks are aficionados of enjoying their wildlife in pristine wilderness and unencumbered by other vehicles and thus confined their annual visits to Botswana, Zambia and Namibia. In the end all confessed to being overwhelmed by the classic East Africa safari that we did, surprised by the quality of the guiding as well as the staggering numbers of animals and the immense landscapes that we often had all to ourselves.

East Africa Safari Philosophy

Photo of leopard cub in a tree
Photo of a leopard cub in a tree on the Big Cat Safari
©Bill Given


One core philosophy I have for East Africa is you don't have to do the circuit. The Serengeti and the Masai Mara have unrivaled quantities of game and thus that's the region I like to concentrate on. Most itineraries run from park to park, following the crowds and then have only 2 or 3 nights in the prime areas.

For the deep wildlife enthusiast, especially photographers, it can make sense to concentrate in the best wildlife area. Thus for our trip we flew right to the Serengeti. Instead of splitting time between a number of parks, I divided our time between three prime locations in Tanzania's portion of the Serengeti ecosystem. With the game drives between those locations we covered the majority of prime territory for the season. Then we flew to the Mara region which is really just the northern extent of the same Serengeti system but was a very different and complementary environment to the parts of the Serengeti we experienced. The safari was 10 nights in total (half stayed on for a 11th) but every single day was within a prime wildlife area.

Mobile Camps

Utilizing a mobile camp is a terrific way to have large swaths of the Serengeti to yourself. It requires a party of 4 to make the costs approximate the excellent seasonal camps but what could be better than having your own classic safari camp for just your party that moves locations with you and allows you access to campsites that are far away from anyone else.

We had a mobile in two different locations and they served different purposes. The first was in the heart of the Serengeti, the enchanting Moru Kopjes, where there was some vehicle traffic around but because they all had to sleep somewhere away from our area we would have it all to ourselves early and late in the day - the prime hours.

Our second camp was out on the Eastern plains and from the time we exited the Naabi Hill Gate we would not see another vehicle for close to 2 days, providing us with an amazing exclusivity with only the company of thousands of animals and a local Massai boma, home to the elder in charge of our spectacularly private campsite at Nasera Rock.

Avoiding Crowds in the Masai Mara

Photo of Cheetah Siblings Taken During the Big Cat Safari
Photo of Cheetah Siblings Taken During the Big Cat Safari
©Bill Given


In the Masai Mara Reserve the crowding can be downright scary and definitely not the quality that I like to deliver on safaris. However, in recent years the creation of low density tourism conservancies adjacent to the Mara Reserve has provided the ideal opportunity for those who value the quality of having exclusive wildlife viewing.

Utilizing these areas it is absolutely possible to experience the splendor of the Mara quantities of animals and its exquisite landscapes but have your game viewing largely to yourself, all the while supporting an outstanding conservation initiative.

Mara Plains Camp, Offbeat Mara Camp

The Olare Orok Conservancy has been particularly productive for me with Mara Plains Camp. The neighboring Mara North Conservancy is excellent and I particularly like Offbeat Mara Camp as it has the ideal position within that Conservancy and is one of the best value safari camps anywhere in Africa. Now an additional conservancy, Naboisho is going to offer a similarly high quality experience. Within the conservancies you can off road and night drive making it a very similar quality experience to what is found in Southern Africa.

We Were Able to Avoid Situations Like These...

I stayed on for extra nights at Mara Plains and as we had to enter the Mara Reserve to drop guests at the airstrip we went for a quick look for one of the Big Cat Diary (TV series) leopards named Olive and her six month old cub who are normally nearby. Sure enough we found them instantly, with a paparazzi like horde of vehicles lined up to view them. Vehicles constantly arrived and departed but the total number fluctuated between 25 and 30. We felt like we could not even breathe as the wind rocked a tree back and forth with this little cub holding on for life and not confident to descend to his mother as the carloads of humans gawked at him. After a brief visit off we went and tried to forget what would have been a highlight sighting in many other locations but would be a lowlight for this safari.

Flip forward half a day to my final game drive at Mara Plains. We come across a pride of six lions feasting on a zebra. We share the sighting only with hyenas and jackals that look to run off with a piece of the meal whenever they can get away with it. It is the pinnacle safari experience, seeing magnificent species displaying their natural behaviors and interacting with one another as if we do not exist. This trip was a resounding demonstration that such glorious safari quality can be achieved in East Africa's popular areas, it just has to be planned with care.

Photos from just the Mara Plains portion of the safari are here.

Big Cats and the Migration Safari a Huge Success

Thursday, 17 March 2011 08:58 by BillGiven

Lion Attacking a Wildebeest
Observing a lioness hunt successfully in the mid-afternoon was one of many behavioral highlights on my Big Cat Safari.
© Bill Given


I have recently returned from the best big cat game viewing safari (view .pdf) that I have ever had! It came at the perfect time as I had promoted this itinerary for its potential to observe big cat behavior and expectations were high for some of the very experienced safari goers who had joined my group. The actual results I believe blew everyone away, including me!

Our locations in the Serengeti ecosystem, including time in Kenya at Mara Plains Camp in the Olare Orok Conservancy, were carefully selected along with the season for the big cat focus. The local guides I worked with were excellent, and most importantly the group trusted me by being very patient to wait for behaviors and more often than not we were rewarded as flat cats would become active cats, sometimes even in the mid-day heat.

We were privileged to have great quantities of big cats and other species but we also had very high quality events to observe and members of the group witnessed start to finish hunts and kills by all three big cat species as well as some exceptional interactions between predator species, often with spotted hyenas getting involved. In coming weeks I hope to share many accounts of the fantastic behavioral sightings, lots of photos, and a little video. I’ll start with a quick summary to provide some idea of the amazing quantities and quality that we observed.

Lions

Lion goes to Hippo Kill
A lion makes a furious dash to reclaim his hippo kill from hyenas, jackals, and dozens of vultures.
© Bill Given


Prides – We observed members of 12 different prides in the Serengeti and an additional 6 prides in the Masai Mara region. I stayed on an extra night at Mara Plains and saw an additional pride and a nomadic male to make a total of 20 different lion groups/associations.

I’m not sure what to define as a sighting as we would sometimes leave a lion pride sleeping to go check on cheetah and then come back by the lions (yes, we were often that spoiled for choice as we moved between big cat sightings). Not counting such planned return visits we had close to 30 different sightings of lions over 10 nights on safari (6 nights in Serengeti and 4 nights at Mara Plains (5 for me). This included more than 100 different individual lions. While the quantity of sightings was staggering it was the quality that made it phenomenal.

Brief Summary of Lion Highlights

  • Incredible observation of a lioness stalking into hunting position followed by long patience and an explosive chase sequence leading to a wildebeest kill. Started with a group of sleeping lions but we picked up on the cue that she was keen to hunt and followed her all the way.
  • Same amazing lioness not eating a bite after making the kill but rather walking a long distance to quietly fetch her 3 small cubs (about 10-12 weeks old) and secretly bring them to the kill without alerting the rest of the pride.
  • Following lions hunting in darkness when they come upon hyenas who have killed a wildebeest calf. All hell breaks loose with a large number of hyenas putting a complete beat down on a number of lionesses and young, one lioness in particular gets rolled over and absolutely mauled by hyenas. In the commotion a four year old male lion stole the hyena kill and proceeded to eat it while surrounded by hyenas trying to disrupt him.
  • Two lionesses eating an eland in the night, including roaring right next to our vehicle.
  • Male lion roaring next to our vehicle one morning.
  • Three different times lions eating zebra.
  • Incredible full sprint of a mature male lion to reclaim his hippo kill from a large number of scavengers who scattered instantly at his intimidating approach (in photo above)
  • Lions in trees in the Serengeti. We watched 11 lions climb down out of one tree and in another instance guests were thrilled to be almost directly below lions in a tree.

Cheetahs

Cheetahs Share Scrub Hare
Two brothers compete for a share of scrub hare that they killed along with their mother.
© Bill Given


We saw 15 individual cheetah, 8 in the Serengeti and 7 in the Masai Mara region.

  • 2 brothers – Serengeti (Turner Springs Area)
  • Another 2 brothers – Serengeti/Ndutu Area (seen twice)
  • 1 female – Serengeti/Ndutu Area
  • 3 brothers – Serengeti/Ndutu Area
  • 1 female known as Short-tail (hyena work) – Mara Plains, Olare Orok Conservancy (seen twice)
  • 3 brothers (unnamed) – inside the Mara Reserve
  • 1 female named Narasha and her two 2-year old boys. They were independent for about a week and decided to be momma’s boys instead. (seen multiple times)

Brief Summary of Cheetah Highlights

  • Narasha and her 2 boys hunting and catching a scrub hare. Was a short sprint and once caught three cheetah heads came together and instantly split apart with each holding their piece of the hare.
  • 3 brothers in the reserve trying to hunt with pestering hyenas in tow
  • Lots of great scent marking behavior including one cheetah standing up against a tree to rub the glands in his face on the tree
  • Social interaction and bonding in the small groups

Leopards

Leopard hiding in the brush
A leopard that I suspect is about to come in to estrus (or possibly just finished mating) checks the scent mark of a male leopard who just passed this area.
© Bill Given


The group saw 7 different individual leopards, 4 in the Serengeti (1 in Seronera, 3 in Moru) and 3 at Mara Plains (called Pretty Girl, Big Boy (unofficial), and Lazy Boy who is Pretty Girl’s brother) in the Olare Orok Conservancy or very close to it. On my bonus time after the group safari ended I also saw two more inside the reserve, Olive and her son, a cub around 5 or 6 months in age.

Brief Summary of Leopard Highlights

  • Big Boy, a very large male, trying to hunt along the riverside jetting out of the bush closely followed by 4 dagga boy buffalo
  • Lazy Girl hunting. One failed attempt at a scrub hare, followed by a stint in a tree before a second attempt that was successful in capturing a scrub hare just as it was getting dark
  • A dramatic sighting of a leopard high on a rock kopje who then came down the side in an attempt to catch guinea fowl. It missed and disappeared into thick bush but then all of a sudden exploded out of the bush and raced up the sloping rock kopje in an attempt to catch guinea fowl. It was a miss but wonderful to see the cunning and athleticism of the leopard
  • Very close sighting of a female in Moru area of Serengeti who proceeded cautiously toward the bushes at the base of a kopje. She seemed intent on something, perhaps prey but instead out 25 yards in front of her an enormous male leopard strutted out of the thick bush and continued across the open plain. She then went and checked his scent markings and I suspect she is either about to come into estrus and will be mating or perhaps she recently finished mating and was waiting for the male to leave.
  • The thrill of following leopards along the riverine gorge near Mara Plains Camp, guessing where they will pop up next and which side of the river they will go on as they hunt. We were able to follow Big Boy twice and Pretty Girl once in this manner.

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Mara Plains Camp Big Cats

Friday, 19 November 2010 09:08 by BillGiven

Mara Plains Camp Big Cats



I’m getting very excited for a group I’m guiding to the Serengeti and to Mara Plains in February/March to focus on big cats. One of my favorite places to observe big cats is from Mara Plains Camp in the Olare Orok Conservancy just outside of the Masai Mara Reserve.

Inside the Olare Orok Conservancy is a tremendous density of big cats but by being in the Conservancy and out of the Reserve both off road driving and night drives are allowed, which adds greatly to the quality of the viewing. Currently the area is also limited to vehicles of just three camps (a 4th is being built) and thus most sightings you have to yourself. This blog features videos representing all three big cat species from my visit to Mara Plains Camp last February.



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Mara Plains Camp Tent Video

Monday, 10 May 2010 14:03 by BillGiven

Today's post provides yet more information about Mara Plains Camp - specifically - the accommodations. For more information about the camp, be sure to see my very detailed Mara Plains Camp Review.

Shown in the video I took below is one of the six guest tents. There are only six tents - providing an intimate feel to the camp. As you can see in the video, the tents are on top of raised platforms - about six feet above ground. Probably the most exciting feature of the tents is the outdoor deck which overlooks the river below.


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