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

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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

Mara Hippos ~ Sleeping Like Tops

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It is fairly uncommon to catch hippos like this – snoozing ashore, though they may do it on sand banks in rivers. Their usual routine is to spend the night in the bush, roving far and wide and chomping masses of grass. Then at first light they start returning to the river so they can be well submerged in their watery territory before sun up. Their hides are  2 inches (5cm) thick, and although a red oily secretion gives some protection, they are very susceptible to over-heating and drying out. It can thus be fatal to find yourself between a river and a hippo intent on swift immersion.

We had our own alarming charging hippo encounter on the Luangwa River when we were living in Zambia. That story is HERE.

These particular sleeping hippos were caught on an early morning game drive, around 7 a.m. We drove right by them along a secluded stretch of the Mara River flood plain. Not an eye’s blink from any of them.

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And the origins of the saying: to sleep like a top?

My Dictionary of Phrase and Fable tells me it relates to the children’s toy, the traditional wooden spinning top. Once well whipped into action, there is a point when the top seems perfectly still and silent.

And here’s an early 17th century usage:

“O for a pricke now like a nightingale, to put my breast against. I shall sleep like a top else.”

The Two Noble Kinsmen a play attributed to a John Fletcher – William Shakespeare collaboration.

 

Square Tops #5

A Topi On Top

Topi can be found across Africa in various local races or subspecies. They also look like Coke’s hartebeest, but are distinguished by their handsome damson coloured thigh patches – very fetching on their chestnut coats. The males are keen on showing themselves off by posing on top of termite mounds – keeping an eye on their females (usually 10-15) and showing would-be rivals that they are on the look-out.

Square Tops #4 Becky has a very special ‘square top’ this morning.

More From The Mara ~ Near And Far Beneath The Oloololo Escarpment

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When we lived in Kenya we made three trips to the Maasai Mara, staying not at one of the luxury hotels inside the national park reserve, but at the small Mara River Camp. The camp’s landlords were the Maasai themselves, the Koiyaki Lemek Wildlife Trust, whose clan elders jointly owned three hundred square miles of plains grazing – albeit a tiny pocket of the Maasai people’s original rangeland i.e. the entire run of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Such jointly owned remnant land holdings are known as group ranches, though they not ranches as Europeans understand the term. Here clan members and their families live, tending their herds while also claiming daily game viewing revenue from the foreign visitors staying at the camp.

And in case anyone thinks staying outside the national park might be second best, it wasn’t. In fact there was so much wildlife to see everywhere, there was no need to go into the park proper. Die hard conservationists like to contend that wildlife and humans don’t mix, that humans have a detrimental effect on habitat. This attitude has caused, and will continue to cause extreme hardship to the world’s remaining traditional communities, people who actually know very well how to care for their own natural resources.

But back to our first game drive beneath the Oloololo Escarpment.

We set out from camp at 3.30 p.m. in a re-purposed Land Rover: six seats in the back, one per window and three viewing hatches cut in the roof. Daniel Mahinda, our driver-guide, was keen to please us. When he asked what interested us most Graham said ‘grasses’. A surprising answer in ‘big game’ territory. He had recently finished his doctoral thesis on smut disease in Napier grass, an important local fodder crop, but I suspected he was being a touch facetious. I had stopped him from taking a nap, saying he could not sleep through Africa. And he had grudgingly agreed. But, looking back, I should have left him in our riverbank tent – to be serenaded by grunting hippos. The crop protection project he was running in Nairobi  was often very stressful, and for all kinds of reasons that could never be foreseen. Probably the last thing he needed was to be bumped around in the back of a Land Rover.

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Daniel (on a later December trip) with our niece, Sarah and distant elephants

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Anyway, Daniel took Graham at his word. Grasses it would  be.  This is what I wrote back then:

As we drive up the rocky valley out of camp there are several stops while Daniel picks us some red oat grass (characteristic of the Mara plains), pyramid grass, Maasai love grass and Bamboo grass. Then we stop to taste the leaves of the muthiga tree (the Kenya greenheart) which are very bitter, and Daniel says the tree’s twigs make good toothbrushes and the bark has medicinal properties – good for sore throats and toothache.

We look at the white tissue paper flowers that hug the ground and the tall sunbird plants (Leonotis leonotis) and the invasive thorn apple (Datura stromonium) and then Daniel picks us a pink flowering spike and says it is called devil’s whip. We also look at the clouds of white butterflies that are clustering round the thorn tree blossom. Then we forget about plants for a while and consider the sooty chat (a small bird that is a Mara speciality) and watch a huge breeding herd of impala. Then we drive along the meanders of the Mara River looking at baboons.

Daniel says there are about fifty in the troop with three alpha-males, and adds that they’re not averse to tackling a Thomson’s gazelle. We see those too. Then there is a grove of muthiga trees with every trunk bearing a series of scars (old and new) from where, over the years, small pieces of bark have been removed to make dawa (medicine). The Maasai are usually far from clinics, and so rely greatly on herbal remedies both for themselves and their cattle.

Soon after this we see elephants – first two males, one who shakes his big head aggressively as we draw near. We pause briefly for photos before driving across the marsh to see a family group whose matriarchs and young don’t mind us watching them for a while.

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By now it is late afternoon and Daniel has been doing a lot of talking in Swahili on his  truck radio. He sets off with purpose across the open grassland. After a while we see two stationary safari trucks on the horizon. We bump over tussocky ground towards them and pull up beside a swampy bank, and there they are – simba. Cubs and lionesses idling in the grass. The drivers confer over their radios, and once agreed that no hunting is in progress we move in closer. At first Daniel pushes along a grassy peninsula away from the pride and we wonder why, for all we can see is grass. But he knows where he’s going. And when a young adult lion raises his big head, I am stunned. Anyone on foot would scan this meadow-like terrain and not have one inkling that the lions were there. When the head goes down, he is gone: lost from view in twelve inches of grass.

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Daniel tells us there are six cubs, survivors from a litter of ten, the other four having died because the hunting has been poor; but, he adds, the wildebeest migration is about to start and these six now look likely to survive. We watch eleven big and small lions till the light fades to grainy grey and then leave them in peace. On the track not far from the camp we see a pair of bat-eared foxes – ‘Very rare,’ says Daniel. They eye us anxiously before trotting away into the grass.

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copyright 2020 Tish Farrell

Lens-Artists: Distance  This week Tina sets the challenge. One of the safari guide’s key skills is knowing when it’s best to keep a distance and especially when it comes to elephants and lone buffalo.