Serengeti: Lions in the Rocks

5 Oct

(April 1988) While on my way back to Nairobi, Kenya after a long visit to Ngorongoro Crater and Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, I took a prolonged detour through the Serengeti Plain, spending a couple of nights each in tourist camps and lodges in the heart of Serengeti National Park.

One of the Moru Kopjes (or “koppies”)

One of the Moru Kopjes (or “koppies”), an exposed remnant of the 550-million-year-old granitic rocks underlying the thin, nutrient-poor soils of the Serengeti Plain that are too thin or hard to support stands of trees. Soil trapped by kopjes can be dense with trees while the surrounding land contains only short grass. Hollows in the rock surfaces provide natural catchments for rainwater, which in turn attract a wide variety of animal and plant life… including lions.
(To see a larger version, click on the image.)

During the day I rode with “game drives”, small two- or three-vehicle caravans of Land Rovers. On one such day trip, my driver, a local Maasai named Daniel, drove far out onto the short-grass plains, our four-wheeler slowly bumping along the dirt track to the Moru Kopjes. At one point, Daniel abruptly stopped the Rover a few hundred meters from one of the prominent bald-pate granite mounds (known locally as “koppies”) and whipped out a pair of high-powered binoculars, scanning the crest of the nearest koppie. “There’s two lions sleeping in those rocks, so let’s go take a look!” As the Rover slowly inched its way along the fading dirt track toward the rock outcrop, I was able to make out the silhouettes of two large African lions, a male and a female, lying prone on the koppie’s bare granite crest. I was suddenly very keenly aware of the absence of cover, feeling a little too vulnerable approaching two of Africa’s apex predators so openly.

Lions on a koppie-1

A pair of lions resting on a “koppie”. The male seems be saying to his mate “Wake me when the tourists are gone.”
(To see a larger version, click on the image.}

Nevertheless, the dozing pair, who had by this point clearly seen us approach, seemed completely unconcerned by the Rover’s presence. Daniel fearlessly (and I thought a bit foolishly) parked the Rover at the exposed base of the granite knob, the two lions a few meters away. At first, only the female seemed interested, keeping her steady but seemingly untroubled gaze on us; the male couldn’t have cared less, sleeping, eyes closed, with one side of his massive head resting on the bare, sun-warmed granite.

 

Kopje_lions-Serengeti

Our Land Rover’s presence has disturbed His Majesty’s beauty sleep; “Have they left yet?” he asks his mate.
(To see a larger version, click on image.)

 

It was made clear to me and my fellow passengers that we were not to exit the Rover when we stopped to observe animals, especially large carnivores like lions, cheetahs and leopards. Our driver’s oft-repeated warning was “The minute you leave the vehicle you’re on the menu!”

kopje lions serengeti 2-

We’ve been noticed by the big male, so it’s time to leave!
(To see a larger version, click on the image.)

After pausing at the koppie just long enough time for me to take several good shots of the obliging pair of lions, the driver cautioned me, “It’s time we left: it’s not good to stay close to koppie lions when they’re on the hunt.” “On-the-hunt???” I remarked that the pair seemed to be conducting their “hunt” in an all-too-leisurely fashion to have even the faintest hope of getting something to eat. Daniel patiently explained that, at this time of year, the great wildebeest migration was moving northward through the Moru and Seronera region (where we were watching that day), and of course all of the local prides of lions were keeping track of the thousands of animals, in hopes of picking off stragglers and unwary individuals. The  barren granite tops of koppies are the ideal perch from which to spy on the migrating herds in the otherwise flat, featureless grassland of the Serengeti.

wildebeast1

Outliers of the migrating mega-herd of wildebeest.
(To see a larger version, click on the image.)

Throughout the rest of that day’s travel, we encountered what appeared to be hundreds of wildebeest and zebras (their occasional migratory companions, moving with them for the protection in numbers afforded by the great brown mass of the mega-herd).

zebras_wildebeast_herd-serengetti

Small groups of zebras often migrate with the wildebeest mega-herd.
(To see a larger version, click on the image.)

Just after midday, Daniel turned southward, back toward our camp. Along the way we spotted many small groups and pairs of lions. These were composed mostly of lionesses: it seemed the females performed all of the serious hunting duties, while the dominant males and immature males were allowed to share in the spoils of the hunt after the hard work was done.

10 mature male lion & lioness

A mated-pair of lions resting after a morning of following the wildebeest mega-herd.
(To see a larger version, click on the image.)

Passing so many of these predators whose purpose I now knew, my thoughts returned to Daniel’s favorite expression: “The minute you leave the vehicle you’re on the menu!”

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