Kinda Chilling Cheetah Style

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They look like tears, the mascara-esque markings running from a cheetah’s eyes. It’s one of the ways you know that you are not looking a leopard in the face, which is usually a good thing if lack of distance is an issue. Cheetahs are anyway more agreeable, at least to human kind, with attacks in the wild apparently unknown. Their paws are more like dog than cat paws, though they do have a vicious dew claw which they use to snag and trip their prey, mostly small antelope of the Thomson’s gazelle variety.

Female cheetahs, like leopards, lead solitary lives except for mating or cub rearing. There can be six cubs in a litter, which places high demands on a mother’s hunting skills. The cubs are weaned at three months, but at around six months she starts teaching them hunting techniques, catching and releasing young gazelles for them to practice on. Even so they remain dependent on her for another year, the family’s hunting range extending as much as 400 square miles.

The species is of course famed for its astonishing speed – up to 70 mph (112 kph) at full tilt and with a stride of 23 feet (7 m). Though it’s hard to imagine this particular cheetah has any thoughts of imminent ‘lift off’. She simply lay there, quite ignoring me, while I leaned out of a truck took her picture. Though after a bit she did get up and demonstrate the ‘cat stretch’. Oooh ye-ees. Feel that spinal column flex and lengthen.

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KindaSquare #20

Mother Kind

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After a couple of weeks’ safari-ing down the ancestral line, it’s back to the old Africa album today.

Lions are the only truly social members of the cat family. Even so, pride living can be fraught with dangers. Mothers may be very protective of their cubs and charge any human who walks into their territory, but humans are not the main threat. Whenever a band of young males ousts a pride’s more elderly males, they usually kill any young cubs. The selfish gene is in action here, to say nothing of the biological imperative to reproduce. Without their cubs, the females quickly come into oestrus so the newcomers may sire cubs of their own, offspring in whom they are prepared to invest their protective and hunting capacities.

Unlike male lions, female lions tend to live out their lives in the pride they were born into, along with several female relatives. As soon as their male cubs reach two or three years old they are expelled from the pride to pursue a nomadic existence until they can take over another pride of unrelated lions.

The pride thus comprises kindred males unrelated to kindred females and they are highly territorial. Males scent mark, rubbing their manes on bushes and spraying them with urine and anal gland secretions. All pride members scratch trees depositing scent from glands between their toes. Male lions also choose locations where their roars may be amplified, against riverbanks for instance, making them sound larger and fiercer. There is nothing quite like a night-time roar for chilling the blood.

Hunting usually takes place at night, but also at dusk and dawn. The rest of the day, for up to 20 hours, they simply rest. Marshy areas with plenty of shade are popular lion resorts. They have astonishing capacities to ‘disappear’ themselves .

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KindaSquare #19

Kinda Hiding

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A topi in the grass and apparently on its own too. Usually they go about in large herds and the males like to stand on top of ant hills or any earthy hummock to show themselves off. Similar to Coke’s hartebeest, they can be distinguished by their deep chestnut coats with plum-coloured flashes. They are a subspecies of tiang antelope found in Ethiopia and southern Sudan, which in turn represent northerly versions of the Central and South African tsessbe. All part of the natural world’s endlessly rich and subtle diversity.

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KindaSquare #9

Kinda Tall ~ More Vintage Shots From The Old Africa Album

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Being the world’s tallest mammal and with the longest neck means giraffes have no problem nibbling parts of trees that others cannot reach. But when it comes to taking a drink, things can be more than a little tricky.

To reach the water a giraffe must spread its  front legs wide and lower its head between them – not only a vulnerable position at a watering hole where there may be many lurking predators, but also a manoeuvre that involves some serious biological mechanics. For one thing, a giraffe’s head is between 2 and 3 metres (7-10ft) above its heart. To prevent it from fainting when it raises its head from drinking, its arteries and veins come equipped with valves to stop the blood rushing to its head.

And in order not to challenge this system more than is necessary, giraffes can go for extended periods without drinking so long as there is plenty of succulent foliage to consume. The moisture gained from the leaves is then conserved through limited defecation. They excrete only hard small droppings.

The giraffe in the first photo is of the Masai variety, distinguished by the irregular ‘butterfly’ markings. Their main habitat range is Southern Kenya and Tanzania. To the north you find the Reticulated giraffe, slightly smaller, and darker in colour, and with those lovely blocky markings. They inhabit dry bush country and are even less dependent on water than their Masai cousins. This one was spotted on the Lewa Downs Conservancy in northern Kenya.

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KindaSquare #8

Two Of A Kind On The Hippo Chute

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Many people do not know, and that once included me, that hippos are among Africa’s most dangerous animals. They do in fact kill quite a few people every year, usually local fishermen. The main source of contention is when a human presence is deemed an obstacle to a hippo’s return to its territorial waters. Hippos spend the dark hours roving through the bush chomping large quantities of grass. But they like to return to their lakes and rivers by sun-up.

They are very thinned skinned and although they produce a red oily secretion to protect themselves, any unexpected delay out in the hot sun can cause them to become ferociously overheated, if not downright murderous. We had a hair-raising experience ourselves when we were living in Zambia. We were on a guided bush walk in the magnificent South Luangwa Valley. Lucky for us we had a wise Zambian Park Ranger accompanying our party. You can read the story at Grouchy Hippo, Laid Out Lions.

The hippos in the photo were our neighbours at Kenya’s Mara River Camp. Every morning at first light I would watch them emerge from the bush on the bank across from our tent. Full grown hippos weigh anything between three and six thousand pounds so the return to the river, even on custom-made hippo-slides, took some negotiating: head first or bottom first that is the question.

KindaSquare #6

Two Of A Kind #2

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I might be on a bit of roll with this ‘two by two’ from the old Africa album, though as yet I haven’t come up with an ark to house the featured pairs.  Actually it’s now raining so hard in Shropshire (and for days to come if the forecast is anything to go by), it may well be prudent to come up with one.

Anyway, here we have a pair of Maasai giraffes in a dreamy, somewhere-in-Tsavo setting. Please imagine the subtle spicy-sweet scents of dry bush country. There will be a soundscape too – high-whining crickets and the kroo-kroo-ing of ring necked doves.

KindaSquare #3

Two Of A Kind

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Gloomy Shropshire skies today had me rifling through the Farrells’ old Africa album, though it has to be said that Kenya, too, does a good line in gloom, cold and wetness at certain seasons. Anyway, the sun is shining in this particular shot, taken in the Maasai Mara long ago,  and these ‘likely lads’ of the leonine kind (or maybe a lad and lass) are anyway sure to raise a smile.

KindaSquare #2

Top Tembo Mama ~ Among Lewa’s Elephants And Other Animals

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The elephant on the left is the matriarch of this little family group of six adult females and three infants. She is giving us the once over before concluding we are no threat to her charges. In elephant world, the matriarch rules; she is the keeper of the family knowledge; the guide and decision maker. She will also kill any creature that is deemed a threat.

Following on from yesterday’s post on Lewa Downs Conservancy, here are some notes from that trip. We’re out on a morning drive with Kevin our expert guide:

By now it’s late morning and we’re down by the swamp. The waterbuck stare out at us, and as we follow the track that skirts the reed bed we come upon a herd of oryx. They’re very shy though and won’t stay.

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Kevin drives on towards a clump of fever trees, now following elephant prints along the track, and as we reach the acacias there is a lone old bull, large as life and very close.  Too close? When it comes to elephants the warning signs to look out  for are ears spread and trunk up and to the side. But we’re not bothering him. He views us serenely through long lashes, shakes his battle torn ears, ambles alongside the truck for a while then wanders off.

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Graham meanwhile spots a group of elephant across the swamp and Kevin sets off for a better view. For a while we park on the track, torn between watching brilliant carmine bee eaters in one direction and the little herd in the other. The elephants are about fifty yards away in the fever trees, and I think that’s close enough, but no, Kevin is eyeing up the lie of the land, picking out a line of solid ground. Soon we are parked with swamp on our right and elephants on our left.

At first the matriarch adopts an intimidating stance, but then changes her mind. Our presence in no way interrupts tree browsing and bottom scratching, and no attempt is made to shield the youngest calf from our view. We watch for ten minutes or so, listening to the taptapping of a nearby woodpecker, the call of hadada ibis, spot a vervet monkey watching us watching the elephants. Then Kevin decides it’s time to leave them in peace. As we pull away over the rough ground we’re left with the musky, goaty, muddy smell of elephant in our nostrils.

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Square Tops #21

Kudu Family Heading For The Top Of The Trail

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This sunset view of retreating greater kudu was taken at Lewa Downs, a private nature conservancy on the northern foothills of Mount Kenya near Isiolo. The reserve is 62,000 acres, and was once a colonial cattle ranch. The descendants of the original settler family still own the land, but now their focus is on wildlife conservation, upscale tourism, improving the lot of local communities and helping to protect surviving members of Kenya’s black rhino population.

When we visited years ago we stayed in  the small Lerai tented camp run by the same outfit whose camps we stayed in at Mara River and Elmenteita, i.e. fairly low key by comparison with Kenya’s super luxury safari ‘camps’, and aimed more at visitors with dedicated interests in wildlife, particularly ornithologists and professional wildlife photographers.

We flew up there in a Kenya Airways Twin Otter 20-seater plane. (Kenya’s internal aerial bus service is brilliant). There were only two others aboard and, after running through the safety procedures, the co-pilot leaned out of the cockpit with a bowl of boiled sweets and a cheery ‘pass it back!’ The next moment we were sprinting off the tarmac at Nairobi’s Wilson airport and banking over the nearby national park where small groups of wildebeest were gathered along city perimeter fence. So even before the safari is properly begun there’s a little wildlife spotting to do.

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Next we whipped up the Great Rift, the old volcano Longonot in the valley bottom, the smallholdings, tea and coffee farms of Limuru up on the eastern escarpment. And in no time we were over Nyandarua, the Aberdares Range, and looking the dark snow-streaked spires of Mount Kenya in the eye. In fact in the same amount of time it had taken us that morning to get through Nairobi’s traffic jams to the airport we had covered the couple of hundred kilometres to Lewa.

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Soon we were flying low over the marsh buzzing zebra before putting down on the dirt landing strip whose only permanent structures then were a windsock and a thatched hut. Our transport, an open green safari truck, sped towards us in a cloud of pink dust. Kevin, our guide for the two-day stay, greeted us with a big grin. We found out later that his family were originally from Tanzania, his people the Chagga who live on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, and are renowned for their capacity for running up the mountain. Kevin also turned out to be a very passionate ornithologist, especially interested in the European migrants that were just then visiting Lewa. A bit of an irony I thought: a case of the reversed ‘exotic’ when he became, to my mind, rather over absorbed by the presence of a migrant tufted duck. That’s not what we came to see! Here’s some more of what we did see:

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A reticulated giraffe, one of the three main giraffe races in Kenya. It is mostly found in the northern districts.  This photo’s for Brian at Equinoxio. (The weird colour flashes are due to poor film processing at the time).

Our guide:

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Square Tops #20