Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Kill or be killed, at least when it comes to meals...

We headed out early this morning as usual.  We're getting good at the up at 6, out in the truck by 6:30 rehearsal.  There's not much to it though, as we set clothes out the night before and all that's left to be done is sunscreen and toothbrushing.

Today dawned better in terms of weather.  It was cool and there was just a slight fog at ground level but we could see a gorgeous pink sunrise that quickly burned off the fog.  We still have two missions: one is to make sure Amani the cheetah and her cubs get a meal and the other is to find Lucky the lion cub.  While neither is under our control in the least, it's nice to have a wishlist.

Our wishlist however, was entirely turned on its ear, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.  It seemed slow for about an hour (which essentially means nothing but plains game) and then, coming up the hill with the sunrise behind them were Frank and Jesse.  God, are they reliable in their ability to appear wherever we are!  It was cold enough that when they exhaled, you could see their breath against the sunlight.  And as usual, they were looking lush and well coiffed from a trip to the bush salon.  They are incredibly handsome boys.

So off we went to look for Amani.  David heard that as of late yesterday she still hadn't eaten, so she's reaching desperation levels with three mouths to feed.  If the guides are concerned about her, and they are, so I am.

We drove for quite a ways before our guides spotted a lioness and two cubs on a topi kill.  David said that topis are rarely caught since they have such good eyesight and that this female took it down alone is really quite notable.  The cubs and mom were all tucking into the belly of the carcass and digging out the soft innards which they love.  I managed to get quite a few good shots of their bloody, well-fed faces and resulting bloated bellies.  When all three had finished eating the lioness dragged the kill into a shadow of a bush so that vultures wouldn't see it overhead and take the rest.  She then covered over the stomach contents (digested grass) and blood left behind so that hyenas and jackals wouldn't smell it.  These lions may return to this carcass later if they're feeling peckish, but judging from the utter food coma they lapsed into and that their bellies looked quite full, I'd be surprised if they did.  Although David said that the big cats are opportunistic feeders and will eat when the opportunity appears regardless of how hungry they are.  Or at least they'll kill when they get the chance, as our next sighting proved.

We spent a lot of time driving through "cheetah country", expansive flat lands filled with lots of Thomsons gazelles, impala and Grant's gazelles which are the cheetahs main prey.  We came up empty for a while.  Then there was quite a lot of chatter on the radio between our guides and another Offbeat guide.  We ended up following them with a sense of urgency and pulled into another patch of "cheetah country" just as we saw a young cheetah dragging a baby Grant's gazelle into some shade.  Quite literally, we had just missed the chase, but weren't too late to see the actual kill.  The gazelle was struggling a bit, despite being dragged by a vice grip around the neck.  Turns out this is one of Malaika's 2 1/2 year old cubs (Malaika being one of the super cheetahs in the Mara, who a friend of mine at work saw with this very cub on her safari 2 years ago).  This cub is newly independent from Malaika and still an inexperienced hunter.  So while she has the chase and catch part down, she's not very good at the kill part.  By the clock on my camera, from first shot to last was over 30 minutes.  This gazelle did not suffer well.  It seems as if the cub thought it was dead and would drop it, and the gazelle would attempt to stand, or move, or bleat, and the cub would become agitated and pounce on it again and again, and try once more the stranglehold across the neck.  We kept thinking it was finally dead, but then it would start breathing or trying to stand again.  It wasn't easy to watch but as time wore on it became obvious the cub wasn't even hungry.  She was just catching food for later.  She laid down next to it and tried to recover from the exertion of the chase and catch, but she was nervous and jumpy.  David thinks she was afraid hyena or other predators were going to come after her and the kill.

Sadder still was when we drove away there was one lone female adult Grant's gazelle standing up the hill watching the cheetah and the baby gazelle.  David said that was the baby's mother, who likely saw the whole thing play out and was helpless to do anything.  It must have been awful to hear the baby bleating and not be able to do anything about it.

So finally, on safari #4, I see my first kill.

Still worried about our other cheetah Amani, we headed back off again in search of her.  Pure happenstance brought us in path of an Acacia pride lioness and her 5 week old cub.  They were crossing the plains and headed into the shade of some shrubbery for the afternoon.  The little cub was tired and didn't want to go too far.  The lioness kept making noises to him to get him to keep up or move along.  Finally she settled under a tree and we parked nearby to take some photos.  It might have been a little too close for her because she moved shortly after that.  The little guy didn't seem to want to go, or have the energy to go, but ultimately he did.  His scampered off on his little legs and they moved deeper into the bush.

Returned to a delicious lunch today of homemade tagliatelle, roasted sweet potato and onion, a green bean and kidney bean salad, an incredible olive bread and fruit salad for dessert.  I don't know how I'm working up such and appetite here, just sitting outdoors watching animals all day, but I am.

The afternoon drive was pretty much a bust, which has never happened to me before.  I mean, afternoons can be more difficult in terms of spotting animals.  The cats are just coming off of day long naps and unless you know where they went to crash, it can be hard to find them.  Today was a bit different, and unique, as this trip has become.  It was meant to be short anyway because we are having an early dinner and night game drive.  We'd finally found some lions, the four nomads we hadn't seen yet and were waiting our turn to pull in and get closer.  There is a horse Safari company here and they were next in line ahead of us, about a dozen of them.  But the heavily pregnant rain clouds moved in and it was touch and go for a while, trying to determine if it would rain here or not.  It did.  At first it just got really windy and then some big ploppy drops started to fall.  We quickly left the lion sighting and were launching ourselves at top speed toward the river crossing, because you never want to get stuck on the other side of what is usually a dry riverbed when the big one hits.  We made it across but I'm willing to wager we won't be going back that way tonight.  Our guides were incredible though, they pulled the Land Cruiser right up in front of our tent, so we were only in the deluge for maybe 4 steps.  They rock. So we waited in the comfort of our tent for the storm to pass.  And we reminded ourselves how much it didn't suck to not be on the horses this afternoon.

What was funny though was seeing the plains game running around like crazy little kids in the torrents.  We saw a herd of zebra racing a herd of wildebeest.  They certainly look like they were having fun!

Our night game drive got cancelled due to all the rain.  Dinner tonight was fun as all of us were meant to be out but were in.  I had stuffed eggplant, mashed potatoes and carrots and a delicious fudge mousse.

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