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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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Lemala Mara Camp Leopard Video

Tuesday, 17 August 2010 10:38 by BillGiven

As I announced last week I have lots of new safari video being added to The Wild Source Channel on YouTube and I will be featuring quite a few of them on our blog. Last week I ran a series of lion video clips, this week leopards will take the starring role.

I was guiding a group in the remote Northern Serengeti last August and very close to Lemala Mara Camp we spotted the flash of a leopard cub run over some rocks. We were then treated to a display of grace and power as the mother sprang up to the top of some rocks. After watching her for a while we decided to drive around the kopjes (series of granite rocks) and see if we could find the cub. Not only did we sight him but as we parked he curiously approached us to where he was just about 3 yards away from our vehicle with a little bush as a barrier. His mother watched unconcerned from a perch high above while we enjoyed the antics of this adorable little cub.

Photo of a Leopard Cub in the Northern Serengeti
Three month old leopard cub in the Northern Serengeti.
©Bill Given


While I have endeavored to take more video I still tend to shoot pictures first and then supplement with a little video. To see more of this leopard cub and other sights of the Northern Serengeti I have an album here.

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Kuria People of the Serengeti

Saturday, 19 December 2009 19:12 by BillGiven

Meet the Kuria Tribe of Tanzania

When I guide groups I strive to find a unique cultural opportunity, somewhere to experience local life that is lightly touristed, if at all. From Lemala Camp in the Northern Serengeti I was able to arrange a visit to the boma of one of the staff members, a behind the scenes worker named Cha Cha. His people are the Kuria Tribe that once occupied the northern reaches of the Serengeti but when there was a disease outbreak impacting their cattle they moved outside of the park where they still graze cattle but also grow crops.

Photo of a Kuria Villager Showing off for Guests
An excited boy shows off for his unusual visitors.
Photo © Bill Given


Kuria Tribe Bomas

We were excitedly received in the Kuria Tribe family boma, this was not a typical activity for them and not part of any kind of regular tourism program – we simply had a special visit to see how some of these local people live.

Photo of a Kuria Tribe Boma
Photo of a Boma within the Kuria Tribe Village
Photo © Bill Given


The boma consisted of a fenced circular area and contained one mud and thatch hut for each of the ‘fathers’ wives and their children. This particular boma was for a man with eight wives so there were eight little huts for habitation. Inside of the boma was another circular fenced area for livestock and chickens during the night, all range free during the day.

Kuria Culture: Music

Photo of a Kuria stringed musical instrument
Music is important part of the Kuria Culture.
Photo © Bill Given


A traditional lyre type of instrument known as an iritungu was brought out and lots of dancing followed. This is typical of any big life events in Kuria culture, such as weddings where music and dance play big roles.

Dancing and Celebration with the Kuria People

Photo of a Kurian Cultural Dance
Cha Cha teaches me some traditional dance moves.
Photo © Bill Given, Clients of TWS


This visit was definitely a highlight for everyone in our group. Getting to meet local people and see how they live, rather than just having a tourist show is an important part of the travel experience and a real privilege when you are hosted by such wonderful people.


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Lemala Camp in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park

Friday, 4 December 2009 10:39 by BillGiven

I was fortunate to guide small group safaris during August/September and again in October. It will take a while but I’m going to report on each area and camp that I visited. My first stop in late August was Tanzania’s Northern Serengeti and we stayed at Lemala Camp, a seasonal tented camp that sets up in the Wogakuria area of the Northern Serengeti, approximately 15 km from the Mara River.

The Migration

Photo of wildebeest on the great migration in the serengeti
Finding the migration is a key element when planning a Tanzania Safari.
Photo © Bill Given


A typical safari to East Africa will focus on finding the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, the astounding migration of one million wildebeest and a couple hundred thousand zebra. Each year movements of the great herds will vary according to localized rains and grazing conditions, however, there are general historical patterns that can be used to plan for the best locations to enhance the opportunity to experience the spectacle. Conventional wisdom suggests that an August visit should be based in the Masai Mara for the best migration viewing, however times are changing.

Safari in Tanzania or Safari in Kenya?

Photo of wildebeest as far as the eye can see
This August virtually the entire migration was in the Northern Serengeti.
Photo © Bill Given


While it is true that traditionally much of the migration moves into the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya from August through October, an estimated 20% of the herds historically remain spread across the Northern Serengeti. Many believe that percentage is growing and might actually be approaching 50% due to heavy cattle use in the greater Masai Mara area making it less inviting to the herds. This, in combination with the Serengeti park rangers doing controlled burns that produce new productive grazing areas could be driving away the herds. Additionally water in the upper Mara River watershed is being diverted with negative impact on the region.

Certainly this year Kenya was in severe drought and the result was during my stay in late August almost the entire migration was within Tanzania’s Serengeti – lucky me!

The allure of the Northern Serengeti is there are very few camps, Sayari Camp is the largest at 15 tents and it is the only permanent camp, all the others are seasonal. This means there are very few vehicles around and thus the essence of the wilderness remains intact and the unpleasant crowding that occurs in the Masai Mara is avoided. I am bothered when I have to share a sighting with a dozen or more vehicles and I feel it really can interfere with some of the animals natural behavior. I’m more than willing to trade off a little in animal density for a much higher quality viewing experience and that’s how I landed in the Northern Serengeti. I was extremely pleased with the results as we were able to drive off road, had many brilliant sightings, the wildlife diversity and quantities were very impressive, and the most vehicles I ever had at a sighting was 4 – most of the time we found ourselves completely alone!

Wildebeest Crossing the Mara River

Photo of wildebeest crossing the Mara River
Mara River crossings are one of nature's great dramas.
Photo © Bill Given


One of the pinnacle sights in all of the world is to witness the migratory herds crossing the Mara River. This usually involves a slow build up of huge numbers as they gather courage to perform the daunting task, eventually one animal leaps and then thousands will follow - swimming through fast currents and a gauntlet of huge crocodiles. Despite what many might think the crossings actually happen frequently from late July through early November with daily movements back and forth throughout the season. With patience and persistence most visitors to the Northern Serengeti can witness a crossing, the biggest numbers are typically early and late in the season with smaller groups moving daily in between. On my trip we had the good fortune of watching approximately 5,000 individual wildebeest and zebra cross the river. However, this year with drought conditions and the removal of water upstream for agriculture, the river was extremely low allowing the animals to wade through the water rather than making a dramatic swim for it. It was still wonderful to see and one of the highlights of the safari.

Next up Northern Serengeti Big Cats…

Summer Safari 2009: Final Serengeti Game Drive

Tuesday, 1 September 2009 20:56 by Admin

By this time, Bill has moved on from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.  I'm still playing catch-up with all of the great stories and photos that I'm getting from Africa.  Included in this blog post are Bill's final text message (and Tweet for those of you who follow on Twitter). We also have a couple of photos that Bill took while in Tanzania for your enjoyment. For his full itinerary and links to his entire trip, click on the appropriate link below:



Bill's Last Text Message From Serengeti

On the last day in the Serengeti for this trip, Bill texted me this which contained information about his final game drive:

Last game drive at lemala 2 nice lion sightings, a very interesting interaction with a young spotted hyena probing a large monitor lizard that reared up in defense a couple of times before sescaping to the water before the hyena could figure out how to properly attack, and a huge finish with a cheetah - a mother with 2 1 year old boys. Afternoon rains have kept a huge portion of the migration in the area with astounding numbers and the constant sound of wildebeest in camp round the clock -- next from Rwanda -- Bill

Photos Bill Has Taken This Week in the Serengeti

Photo of a Leopard Cub in the Serengeti
Great Photo of a Leopard Cub in the Serengeti


Photo of Cheetahs with full bellies
Two Cheetahs With Full Bellies


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