scaredy cats

Mikumi-National-Park_jpgJust a couple of weeks before President Barack Obama lands in Africa for a week-long official visit, interesting stories about his historic visit to the continent are coming up every day. News about Obama’s cancellation of a two-hour safari to Tanzania’s southern wildlife park of Mikumi has so far, attracted the most attention. The Washington Post covered the story over the weekend, quoting a source in the White House as saying the President would require more resources to beef up his security in case he gets attacked by lions, cheetahs, or other wild animals. “The safari would have required the President’s special counterassault team to carry sniper rifles with high-caliber rounds that could neutralize cheetahs, lions, or other animals if they became a threat,” the document made available to the Washington Post said. The preparations even included sniper teams with high-powered rifles that would shadow the first family on a safari in Tanzania, ready to kill any animal that might become a threat. Misinformed perceptions of Africa aside, it begs the question: has the First Family’s safari fallen victim to the sequester, or are they just a bunch of scaredy cats? A comment on the story as it appeared in Kenya’s Daily Nation, a leading newspaper in East Africa, summed up the local response succinctly: “You should get a Maasai to deal with that. Bow and arrows or spears are enough to protect you, Mr. Obama. We do not use rifles in Africa.”

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stuck, or a brush with death

On safari you experience a near constant reminder of just how small your place in the biosphere really is. That’s part of the bargain, part of the rush. Mostly it comes in gasps of wonder and awe. Yet today’s run in with an unhappy elephant was a heart-pounding example that sometimes the reminder comes hand in hand with a dizzying fear. Watching this beautiful creature devour a thorny Acacia was mesmerizing until we were distracted by the howls of a jackal, whose cries signaled a lurking danger. It turned out to be a pair of male lions on the hunt, and seeing them cross our line of sight we decided to make pursuit.  What the driver failed to notice, however, was the big ditch separating us from them – until we went kerplunk. Thoroughly stuck, we sat there immobile, our rear wheel unable to gain any traction whatsoever.  As the driver gunned the engine, the axle emitted a high-pitched squeal which not only set my teeth on edge but also seemed to rattle the brain of an animal in mid-meal.  Add the howl of the jackal and the smell of the lions and we suddenly had a skittish and visibly unhappy pachyderm not twenty feet away.  With perfect timing a branch feel from the tree, thwacking it on the back. As if we were to blame it reeled on us like a bull, using its muscular trunk to toss branches left and right in a display of displeasure, if not downright aggression. It’s at this point that I became almost hyper-conscious of the animal’s large tusks – and my unfortunate positioning in the car, which puts me at the direct point of impact should we be charged. I flash back to the terrifying drive back from the condor nests in Patagonia last winter: a white-knuckle journey in which we narrowly escaped skidding into a ravine multiple times. My friend told me afterward that from the back seat she was wishing for death because she knew if we went over the edge she would never survive getting out of the gorge on her own. I’m wondering what we would do if this elephant charged the car? Where would we run? Outside are a pair of lions which would quickly pick up our scent. Plus, there’s not a  substantial tree in sight – and even if there were it’d be no match for a rampaging elephant.  It is so silent I can’t hear anything: I feel my heartbeat, however, and what I think is a low guttural rumbling coming from the elephant. If the driver fruitlessly guns the engine one more time, I think I might get hysterical, but he’s reaching for his walkie-talkie and radioing back to camp for reinforcements.  How anyone will find us is beyond me but at this point all we can do is wait – and watch. Time bends. The anticipation is agony. We are rescued, of course, by a pair of laughing Masai who, no doubt, will mercilessly rib and cajole our driver for weeks, if not years, to come. Almost incidentally they scare the elephant off with a machete. Trying to get some traction to the back wheels they attack a fallen log. The metallic ping as the machete hits the wood is enough to freak the elephant out: it whinnies and runs away as expeditiously as if we had pointed a shotgun at its head. I am pretty sure I exhale audibly, while simultaneously realizing that I am ravenous. We’ve spent all this time staring down death and managed to miss breakfast.

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on the prowl

Lions are fascinating creatures. One minute they’re lazing in the grass and the next they’re off on the prowl – before deciding a nap is time better spent. We followed this pair of females for almost an hour today. It seemed at the time that they might be hot on the trail of something edible. (I won’t lie: I was hoping for a high-speed pursuit followed by a view to a kill.) Turns out “the hunt” was just a search for a better patch of shade: after a burst of acutely measured activity these two lady lions cooled their paws in the grass and settled in for a snooze.

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csi: fresh kill

Chancing upon this fallen hartebeest became an instructive exercise in deductive reasoning, Masai-style. Broken necks are a hallmark of the big cats, which kill their prey by strangling them, so we can reasonably assume this one met its ultimate demise by a cheetah or a lion. Enlarge the image and you’ll notice fresh blood and scat on the grass near the tail, which points to a very recent kill. Though the abdomen has been opened up, it has yet to be eviscerated, meaning someone or something has likely scared them off, stopping it just short of its feast. In a bit of scrub not too far away we find the killer – and the culprit: a lioness with a pair of cubs, at most a week or two old and still blind. Their noise-some play must have interrupted the kill, sending mother back to the den lest the snackable sound of young attract unwelcome visitors. Paws bloodied, the lioness watched them closely, biding her time while keeping them a safe distance from a corpse that would soon attract all sorts of scavengers.

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the great migration

The Great Migration is one of the most awe-inspiring events in nature. Each July millions of ungainly, loping wildebeest migrate north from the Serengeti plains in search of fresh pasture in the Masai Mara. And because there is safety in numbers, along come thousands of zebra too, and antelopes of almost infinite variety: gazelles, topi, hartebeest, impala and elands. It is an awesome sight to come over the crest of an escarpment and see nothing but wildebeest as far as the horizon. Even more spectacular, if you’re lucky enough, is the sight of a river crossing. Lemming-like the animals gather by the thousands at the river’s edge, alternately turning back and peering into the water as if in search of crocodiles or worse, lions.  It looks like nothing will happen til without warning one brave creature leaps into the water and suddenly all you can hear are the thunder of hooves as en masse the herd charges across the river. It’s raw and ungraceful, this desperate race to the other side; but the return to dry land heralds, momentarily anyway, a respite from death and a fresh pasture on which to graze.

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