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.
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.
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
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.