Game Report: Mara Plains Camp

July 6, 2012  By: Gretchen

June 2012 News - Mara Plains Camp, Kenya

Our friends at Mara Plains Camp in Kenya were eager to share the recent camp happenings with us this month.  What a great update!

This June, in comparison to other years, has been a wet one, adding to the way-over-average amount of rain this part of the Masai Mara has received in April and May. Consequently we are living in a sea of grass, the heads of which are now seeding, swaying and beginning to turn into the Red Oat Grass red that we all associate with this thriving Mara ecosystem. Even now, at the end of the month, isolated storms are still gathering on the evening horizons forking lightening to the earth against backdrops of dark clouds and dramatic sunsets. Sporadic showers are punctuating blazing sunshine days, though the land is slowly drying out. The morning breezes are picking up and starting to blow away the remaining atmospheric moisture. As we head into what promises to be an incredible July we hope for a couple more showers in our area to tease the migrating herds in Tanzania to move north into Kenya until we are once again swamped by a mass of gnus.

As the weather changes and the days become brighter and warmer, large herds of eland have been moving through the conservancy, and the male ostriches around the camp have starting to boom their calls through the night. Leggy journeys of many giraffe have been seen regularly moving gracefully on their stilts across rolling hillsides as they cruise from river line to river line.

Large breeding herds of elephant with tiny, ungainly calves in tow trying hard to find their footing and coordinate their little trunks, and even some of the big lone bulls have emerged from the north and moved south into the OOC to take advantage of the abundance of lush grass for them on the plains. There have been some epic clashes of tusks as the bulls battle for supremacy silhouetted against the setting sun. We expect that as the grass dries out and the bustling wildebeest herds arrive, these huge, slow-motion beasts will again head north for some peace and quiet, back towards Olkinyei and the hilly thickets where their diets will be made up of more browse and roughage. But for now we are relishing the awe-inspiring image of these magnificent creatures ploughing like ships in fleets though the waving, rolling pasture.

On the front of the big cats of the Olare Orok Conservancy, Mara Plains has been a magnet for leopards this June. On a number of mornings, fresh leopard tracks painted a wonderfully wild and awe-inspiring picture of these magnificent cats padding down the silent, moonlit paths while the camp slept peacefully with dreams punctuated by consorting, snorting hippos. On other days it is our camp’s early warning system, in the form of Vervet monkeys and baboons, that lets us know these spotted felines are around. These primates often break the peace by frantically barking their alarm calls while scampering across the highest branches trying to keep eyes on the spotted cats slinking through the vegetation below.

For a couple of nights in the last week of June, a leopardess stashed her two little cubs in the gullies and fig tree roots around the camp. On a couple of occasions after dark these two siblings were found playing on the camp bridge, while mum was either out hunting or watching from a peaceful vantage point. It is still not yet confirmed whether the mother of these two is Pretty Girl (one of the resident females of the east Olare Orok Conservancy) or whether she is the very shy unnamed leopardess that was found eating a kill in the lone tree in front of the mess in December. Some believe the two cats to be one and the same. A day after the two cubs were last seen on the camp bridge, a leopardess was spotted mid-morning cutting straight across the plain east of camp heading downriver. She had a single cub at her heel. Mara Plains guides have been pouring over photographs of this cat vs. older images of Pretty Girl, specifically looking at magnified collar markings and whisker spots, but the two are uncannily similar. If it is the same cat, Pretty Girl’s signature flirty feline eyes are now wide and scared in motherhood, her body is more bulky and her head broader. What is of bigger concern, however, is that on this daylight journey there was only the one cub. If I was the same family that had been in camp, where is the other cub? Had this leopardess just lost a cub (which would explain the fearful look) or was this actually the very shy mother leopard who just happened to be passing through Pretty Girls’s neighbourhood with one cub in tow? Only time and further close comparisons will tell. Watch this space…

Another leading character on the Olare Orok Conservancy soap opera this June was Acaciawho, as some of you know, is Pretty Girl’s mother. She has spent much of the month in residence between rocky & hammerkop crossings. This was the birthplace of her latest cub, Fig, who, now nearing seven-months-old, remains by her side, growing fast and getting stronger by the day. This little male is set to become quite a personality in our area, as he has no qualms in stalking cars, clawing mum to pieces for food and even on one recent occasion, stealing her kill. Despite his brazen behaviour, however, he still has many hard lessons to learn, some of which will test him to the limit. If he really is a survivor in this harsh land he will go on to claim a range and maybe even sire his own offspring one day. Good luck Fig!

As the regional migration from the Lloita hills moves into the Olare Orok Conservancy, June has seen the three lion prides most local to our area vying for prime positions and the outcome is that their positioning is now a ninety degree front across the path of the incoming herds. What makes prime position? The best territory will offer ease of access to medium sized prey as well as peaceful and safe diurnal refuge. As a result of this jostling the Enkoyeni lions (now about 13 strong) have been in residence on the Olare Orok Conservancy/Motorogi boundary around the salt licks. In the last week of June this pride had it easy as an old cow elephant died nearby supplying easy and plentiful pickings with minimal effort – a lazy lion’s dream! With the Enkoyeni lions moving eastwards the Motorogi pride have had to reorganize themselves. They are now seemingly settled in the area behind the conservancy head quarters where they occasionally attempt to get hold of the little orphaned Zebra foal the conservancy manager is seeking to reintroduce. Last but never least (in fact the Olare Orok Conservancy’s strongest pride), the Moniko king cats have spent much of their month between their namesake hill, Endoinyo Loip and the Eseketa escarpment. In the last few days of June one of the pride males (the one with a quiff and one testicle) has been courting a beautiful young lioness. We can’t wait to meet the results of this union in three and a half months, if nature goes that way. In the next two months these three gangs of fangs will jostle and move again to set up yet another front across what will be that path of the incoming Great Migration. It is certainly shaping up to be an action-packed season on the plains.

Notch (the Mara’s largest lion) and his four mafioso sons have spent this month between Olkiombo and the southern Olare Orok Conservancy boundary occasionally roaming further in their extensive domain to keep checks on the various prides which they have claimed over the past year from weaker males or coalitions. Mid-month this unstoppable coalition of huge black maned lions killed yet another adult hippo – a specialty that these brothers have been known for since the days when they left the marsh pride with their father and moved onto the paradise plains. This time the five of them stayed on the hippo carcass for five days before finally giving it up to the hyenas, vultures, jackals and flies.

Onto the regal cheetah of the Olare Orok Conservancy and Masai Mara Reserve…

The two surviving members of the cheetah brother trio have, as their patrol routes dictate, passed through the Olare Orok Conservancy a couple of times this month. More recently, in the last week of June, a lone female has been in our area, gracing us with her presence and beauty. On one occasion she stalked and shot off after a Thompson’s gazelle. Unlucky (and rather embarrassing) for her she lost her footing in her haste and tumbled with all four feet in the air. Thankfully the only damage done was to her pride in front of an audience.

We are happy to report that another female cheetah, spotted quite regularly in the second half of the month just south of camp, has two little fur ball cubs, both still very fluffy and resembling honey badgers (a genius trick of nature designed to give them a helping hand in the struggle for survival). As always, we wish them lots of luck and hopefully (all going well in the Mara conservation world) one day this story will be about these cubs with cubs of their own.

So June in the Olare Orok Conservancy and central Masai Mara area has been full of new excitement, opportunities and experiences. One of these worth a mention here would have to be the opening of the Olare Orok Conservancy’s private grass airstrip (complete with loan tree waiting room!). Imagine flying over the western edge of the Great Rift Valley and swooping down onto the plateaus of the northern Mara. Past the pilot’s head, one can see two parallel lines of white rocks and a mowed strip in the middle of a plain that is swarming with wildlife, from wildebeest to zebra, topis to thompson gazelles, grants gazelle, eland, warthogs and ostriches. This really is an experience straight ‘Out of Africa’, and one that is not to be missed.

So what comes next? Well it won’t be long before dark black line will appear on the southern horizons, and when this happens it can only mean one thing… the wildebeest are here! Latest news on the bush grapevine puts the leading edge of this incredible natural phenomenon north of Lobo in the Serengeti heading towards Sand River on the Mara reserve boundary. When will they arrive on the Mara plains? None of us can tell as their movement is governed by localised rainfall and the availability of grazing en route. One thing is for sure though… we cannot wait to welcome them back!

So, with the first half of 2012 done and dusted, we hope you have enjoyed hearing about life on the plains in what has been another stunning month. If you are interested in experiencing this excitement first hand, call us so you can have the opportunity of sharing these and other new experiences first hand.

Report courtesy Mara Plains Camp and Great Plains Conservation
Photograph credits:
Fig: Richard Pye
Eland: Lorna Buchanan-Jardine
Fighting bull elephants: Lorna Buchanan-Jardine
Mystery leopardess: Richard Pye
Fig: Richard Pye
Moniko lions: Lorna Buchanan-Jardine
Cheetah: Lorna Buchanan-Jardine
Olare Orok Conservancy Airstrip: Sara O’Meara
Sunbirds in the mess: Lorna Buchanan-Jardine