Monday, 28 February 2011

From Panthera leo to Panthera pardus

As mentioned in the last blog Andy and I are now across the river after a sweltering 2 hour drive across the south of the reserve, the plains around 'look out hill' were devoid of any plains game. Just a handful of giraffe and a worthy of a mention HUGE heard of Buffalo seeking shade in a deep lugga. It was not until we neared the centre of the reserve that the numbers of Impala, Thomson Gazelle and Topi increased.

After leaving our campsite for some well needed shade we met with our good friend Jackson Looseyia, it was great to see him after so long. We chatted with Jackson on what was going on in the 'bush telegraph' in the local area and knowing that we were in the middle of one of the best places to see Leopards (very habituated!) we were greeted with the news that Olive's older male cub was often seen nearby where we had met Jackson.

After chatting on other news we left for an afternoon drive. It could not have been any more than 90 seconds after saying farewell that Andy casually says "oh, there he is". Momentarily I (Sarah) was rather confused at what he was talking about, wandering if the heat had done some lasting damage! I then looked straight ahead and to the right and there was a leopard, 2 metres from the track and under a small croton thicket (and of course we did not park that close, holding back further up the road) The Leopard failed to move a muscle as we sat quietly expecting it to dart away any moment. However, it was not the young male we had just talked about and expected it to be. We are almost 100% sure its our lovely lady 'Olive'! The car was silent as we took this in, for a moment it was quite surreal. In total we had 15 minutes with this beautiful cat until other vehicles arrived. Not long after she casually glanced at the vehicles and slowly and confidently moved into the thicket, in a split second the Olive was as gone.

Later we checked whisker/spot patterns (albeit on some low res images which were not overly useful!) and still as we write this are fairly sure it was Olive, looking regal as ever and in good health. Later we will check the identity to be sure with Jackson, so if we have made any 'school boy errors' here we will update accordingly! Where her small cubs were we are not sure, but likely to be stashed out of harms way until Olive returns after a well earned break from the kids!

Lets hope sightings like this continue throughout the week!

Mugoro pride, habari gani?

The weather continues to bring very hot dry days, and in the last 48 hours temperatures in of 37 degrees have been recorded in the Mara. Today is by no means an exception and by 8.30am this morning the intensity of the heat was already beginning to start building for what is no doubt going to be another scorching day in the Masai Mara.

Andy and I are now across the other side of the river and continuing our quest to catch up with 'old' friends, those of the two and four legged variety. However, before we update on the latest happenings on this side in the last twenty four hours its time to provide an update on the Mugoro pride since the last post.

The morning after we found KB mating with 'Male 3' we returned again to the same area and scouted it high and low looking for both the males and the Mugoro pride females and cubs. After around one hour we spotted a shape that looked like a termite mound far far in the distance, however on closer inspection with the binos it revealed this one was moving! It was clearly a male lions head that stood out from the parched red oat grass that gently blew in the magnificent orange morning light (sadly this awesome light never hangs around for long!)

Scanning the area more lions could be seen so off we trundled n that direction. As we approached we were not surprised to see the 3 female lions, two cubs and the 'new male ('Male 2') that belong to the Mugoro pride. We were also not surprised that KB and 'Male 3' were not there and obviously still engaging in a bit of feline love elsewhere and hopefully creating a new generation of 'KB's'!

Less than 2/3 minutes of being at the sighting and as we continued to scan the area Andy suddenly exclaims "theres another male". Low and behold out from the long grass popped another male lion head that until now had been totally hidden due to his horizontal state! Questions were starting to get answered - it was 'Male 1' (who we had seen the day before acting subdued and some distance from the main body of the Mugoro pride) and so yes he was part of the same 'coalition' as we had suspected. The 'new' Mugoro pride has now two males and highly likely a third ('Male 3' mating with KB).

The females and cubs were restless so they soon decided to mobilise and wander in the direction where the game was a little more plentiful and where there would be more shade for when the sun become too intense. With some reluctance the males decided to arise from their seemingly comatose state and so too followed the females. 'Male 1' continued with his threatening stare at the cubs if they so much as caught his eye, the females keeping them in between them and the males and at a healthy distance. 'Male 2' walked with the posture of a dominant male, stopping to scent mark often and also smelling where the females had walked through, obviously looking for signs they may be approaching oestrus.

However, 'Male 2' was not exhibiting quite the same authoritative behaviour and no did we see any signs to scent mark, given his behaviour the day before we are starting to piece together that he was certainly the less dominant male and I would not fancy his chances against 'Male 2' when the other females are ready to mate (assuming they have not already?) However, its early days and more time would be needed with them to really understand the dynamics here.

We decided not to follow them as its always good to provide lions with some peace and quiet. There was a degree of cover to where they headed and in no way did we want to alert potential prey to their presence! Although we are no on the 'other' side of the river we may well return in a few days to see if KB and 'male 3' have rejoined. Furthermore to see if the '4th male' appears as we are virtually 100% sure these guys are the from the coalition of four males referred to in the last blog ('4km males')

Below is a photo of the two males, 'Male 2' is in the front, trailed by 'Male 1'

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Mugoro Pride...........from destruction to new beginnings?

The lion theme continues to dominate the blog today and whilst sitting with the lions time to update on what we have learned so far with regard to the Mugoro Pride.

As a quick recap the Mugoro pride, located in the Mara Triangle, have had a somewhat chequered past in recent times. Andy and I having never seen the girls (originally 5 lionesses, including 'Killer Bogie' a name we randomly mentioned once due to her markings that has now unfortunately stuck - see photo below) raise any cubs to adult hood in the 2.5+ years or more that we have known them. It is generally considered by many that these females are a 'splinter/satelitte group of the original 'Serena Pride'. This pride having undergone serious 'deconstruction' in recent years, much to do with the fall from power of the old male 'split tooth' (Also known as 'Fang')  and the arrival of Notch and gang.

All looked ready to change last year when the females appeared to be successfully raising 9 cubs (5 females and 4 Males) who had been sired by Notch and Co (one of at least 3 prides that they were holding in the Mara). In September 2010, at the age of approx 9 months all were doing well and feasting on the many wildebeest as they crossed the Mara in the annual migration, hunting school was in force. (see Sept post). Soon after we left it was all to change for the worst. By December, and with the absence of Notch and Co returning to affirm the territory at least 5 of the cubs had been killed by intruding male/s. (we are almost sure these being the four that we had seen in the Mara a few months prior, just a fraction younger than the Notch boys and looking to be 'scouting the area' and reports from the rangers seem to confirm this could be the case...more on that later!)

During our Christmas trip we found the Mugoro pride in a somewhat 'fractured state' and with just 4 cubs left (3 females and 1 male). Our concern was especially for the last remaining male cub, would he too fall victim?. Sadly enough in January he was killed by the same male/s (There is no reliable information that we can get on how many males have been killing cubs).

So we had hoped when we returned on this trip to again find the girls and at least 3 remaining female cubs, who are now approaching being 'sub adults' at the age of approx 15 months (N.B. we had only seen four of the adult females at Xmas).

The good news is that yesterday we found some of them, 3 adult lionesses (including the 'younger bogie girl) and 2 female cubs. Given the prey is sparse at present we were not overly concerned that Killer Bogie (KB) and another cub was not there and could therefore be split due to food availability. However, we wont lie and say that we really wanted to find KB our favourite girl, and a feisty lioness at that, and to also confirm if all three female cubs were still alive. They all looked to have fed recently and relaxed in the long cool grass, seeking shade a short time after we arrived.

So, this morning we continued on a mission to find KB. First thing we found a male lion (called for this blog entry purpose and corresponding photos - Male 1) and at that point could not positively conclude that he was one of the 4 intruding males referred to earlier but we had a feeling he may have been (whisker pattern checks are on the plans for tonight!) He acted quite subdued and circled a small area for sometime before resting in the grass, he had not fed recently as his 'weight index' was quite low, although not to the point that it was of any concern. His posture was not one of a lion that had a huge amount of confidence and was quite nervous in his disposition, remaining extremely vigilant. He bore very few scars of any past fights and looked around 5.5+ years old and a very handsome lion at that!.  So if he was not one of the four new males we concluded he could also possibly be a nomadic lion who was not quite ready for a take over but scouting out a place to hang.

As we watched this guy we noticed far far ahead what looked to be several other lions on and around a mound some distance away and so over we trundled as to see who they were and given the area knew it was likely to be the Mugoro pride. Sure enough as we approached we saw instantly the younger 'bogie' girl and then the two female cubs and other two lionesses revealed themselves, so it was the Muguro girls, those we had seen the day before.  However, this time they were with a male ('Male 2') and it was not a Notch boy. Given their close location to the other male and the fact that he was almost in eye sight of them we felt it was becoming more likely he was on one of the coalition of four male lions. We were still a little curious as to why though he looked a little edgy.

However, still no KB or the other 'third cub' to be found? The posture of this male with the females was a stark contrast to the one we had left, he excuded confidence throughout. We soon noticed he was fixated on the two female cubs, who with a submissive posture were keeping some distance from the male, who quite simply would not stop 'eye balling' them with his head held high. The cubs were separated from the two females and it was quite a tense scene. The cubs looked desperate to reach the lionesses, only 30-40 feet away but every time they moved the male raised his head higher and his stare becoming more threatening, at which point they would freeze in motion. Eventually they made it to the lionesses, over a course of about 5/10 minutes taking the opportunity when the male was distracted by game moving in the distance.

We concluded only one thing that was becoming very obvious, this was highly likely to have been one of the male(s) that had killed the other 5 cubs and this was now the new pride male who was ready to be the guardian and protector of the Mugoro pride, in time siring his own new generation - the ultimate reason to have killed the cubs. This also strengthened the theory that the male 1 nearby was somehow connected as he was so close.

One of the females soon moved the two cubs away as they sensed his displeasure, in time it looks as he will slowly accept them as part of the pride and see them as no threat to his ruling of the pride. We hope his killing spree (or that of his companions?) will now cease.

So having witnessed the complete natural destruction of the Mugoro pride was it now time for the building of a new family and some stability for the Mugoro girls? lets really hope so. This is one pride that Notch and Co have chosen not to visit for over three months now (according to most reports and our own trips) and now its probably for the best that they don't return. Though its terribly sad to have lost so many fit and healthy cubs that were developing so well. However, this is nature and the process of an new incoming male is not all 'sweetness and roses'

Still, where was KB?! We left the Mugoro pride to as the heat grew and happy to see that we could be witnessing new beginnings. As we chatted about it we soon were distracted by an object in the distance that looked remarkably like another lion, and then there were two! Needless to say we had to investigate, as we came closer we could see it was a large adult lioness and a male (Male 3!). One thing came straight to our was a mating couple and only 2km from our last sighting. Sure enough, they exhibited all the behaviours that they were mating, except at that point the obvious act itself! As we got a better look at them both the words "its Killer Bogey" were voiced in unison and it was really great to see her, so slowly we were finding the cats we have followed for so long.  So who was THIS male? part of a coalition perhaps that Male 2 (and possibly Male 1) belonged to.......and in turn part of the 4 males that have been seen in the area a few times (and who most say were the perpetrators of the cub killings). It would all make perfect sense of course and this is the common process following infanticide, but nothing is ever conclusive until checking ID patterns from the 4 coalition males that we referred to earlier.

Later we found KB and the male again, this time in the cool evening breeze they mated two or three times, perhaps given the infrequency of the matings the 'honeymoon' was coming to an end. What we would love to see is how this all works out in terms of the dynamics of the pride and how many males will now potentially rule the pride and who was the dominant one?  It will be interesting to see how this all pans out and whether we will see more than one male with the females whilst we are here, somehow we think thats going to be very likely!

The only sad piece of the puzzle that we have now also put together, (having found KB with a male and not with another young lioness) is that it looks as if the last female cub we have not yet seen is perhaps 'no longer with us'. So in truth its looks like 9 cubs eventually became 2 and not three as we had hoped.

Below are photos of the three males (the light has played tricks with these 'point and shoot' photos and the manes are actually all reasonably similar in colour)

Male 1

Male 2

Male 3

KB and 'Male 3' mating

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Return to the Mara

Its hot, dry and dusty. We can see endless plains, sprinkled with a dusting of creatures large and small seeking shade from the intense afternoon sun under the tall acacias. By this description it should not be too hard to guess that we are back in our 'second home'; the Masai Mara and looking forward to some low season' game viewing. There has certainly been very little evidence of rain here of late as the natural waterholes and luggas are looking somewhat sparse.

Before I indulge in an update of the tawny feline variety its noteworthy to give a bit of an update on the game as whole. The Mara changes all the time and the movement of game is always of interest, especially during the seasonal changes. Coming in to the Mara there were large amounts of wildebeest around the Aitong/Mara North area, certainly more so than in December and there seem to be a plethora of giraffe poking their heads out of the bushes, both coming into the Mara and also in the Mara Triangle where we are currently located. A few small herds of elephant were seen in the riverine areas as we banked around the Mara in the 'Traingle' and of course many of the 'usual' ungulate species commonly found in this area.

Arriving through the Oloololo gate at one of the hottest parts of the day we were somewhat surprised to see within 15 minutes a Black Rhino mother and calf out in the open and totally relaxed. Some times we often wander how much the behaviour of the animals changes from high to low tourist seasons and it certainly seems as if the animals are often more 'obliging' and less secretive and tolerant when the number of vehicles is lower. So, that was a great start to our trip and a bonus that we did not expect after the long bone shaking drive in to the Mara. Of course our Land Rover is built for these type of roads and Andy rebuilt it with heavy duty parts in just about every place possible, but I still seriously wandered several times if the poor thing was just going to disintegrate as it was pounded for 2 solid hours on what is becoming a ridiculously bad 'road' (I use the term road loosely!) I am sure we must have both arrived in the Mara concussed!

So onto tales of Simba, those who read the blog from our December trip know that we had the first 'Notch free' trip in many years so of course on this trip we REALLY wanted to see him. So, Notch and Co plus the Mgoro (Sp. Mugoro?) females were one of our priorities for the trip and of course the spotted and 'rosetted' variety, all part of our extended feline family!

Having trundled down to an beachy area of the Mara yesterday we were keen to see if there was any sign of the Notch boys, we had spoken to the rangers in the Triangle and they confirmed that he and boys have not (knowingly) been back now to the Triangle for months and we have been reading reports of their activities across in the Narok side of the reserve. So with all intense purposes we knew that it had been long enough to conclude they had 'given up' on the Mgoro cubs and females (Killer Bogie et al). It did not stop us wandering if we would find them within 'eye sight' on the other side of the Mara, close to where they often used to cross the river and also a favourite haunt where they seem to have now grown a speciality in hunting hippos.

Its fair to say that gut instinct is always nearly right and this was no exception (coupled with the growing knowledge we have gained of the area). As we came down to this part of the Mara we could see across the river several dark shapes at the bottom a Gardenia bush and most definitely a bundle of male lions. Given it was 150-200 metres away it was hard to tell and conclude if this was indeed the boys we were looking for or how many were there in the 'mass of fluff' that we could see!  So we waited in anticipation for the dark shapes to move, and soon enough they did! There was no mistaking that  as they rearranged themselves under the tree it was Notch, Grimace, Notch Junior and one of the other males who is also looking remarkably like Notch (Notch Junior V2!)

Not bad for the first day in the Mara and great to be 'reunited', even though it was some distance away and just pointless trying to get any images. The week is still young so I am sure and hoping we will get to see them closer and have made a plan to cross to the other side soon enough to catch up with them and bring more news of Notch the other 'stars' of the Mara. We decided to again return later to this amazingly beautiful stretch of the Mara River in the hope that the heat would drive the need for them to visit the river and quench their thirst as the sun fell and the temperature cooled. After three hours of waiting we decided to retreat as the sun disappeared leaving the boys in the long grass and having barely moved a muscle the entire time. Apart from shifting while we were away to some long cool grass, making it impossible to see them, except for a flick of a tail. That's male lions for you!

It was great to see the bond between the boys is still strong and they tolerated each other in close proximity. However, poor Grimace was still denied a decent spot in the shade (something the poor guy has suffered from since the day we started following them around 4 years ago) The top spot and the best shade was of course reserved for the grand old man himself,  Mzee Notch!

We do have more news on the Mgoro pride but as its time to mobilise for our afternoon drive that's it for now and hope to bring you more news later! Below is an image of the Rhino and calf as we entered the Mara