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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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Hippopotamus amphibius: The River Horses of Lake Manyara, Tanzania

18 Jul
[ Blogger’s note: The following photographs were all shot during an extended stay in Tanzania and Kenya in February of 1988.  As they predate my use of a digital camera, these images were scanned from prints and cleaned up using Photoshop.]
 

Like most North Americans, the only hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) I’d ever encountered was a disembodied pair of huge nostrils, bulging eyes, and twitching ears protruding a couple of inches above the surface of the murky waters of a concrete pool in a zoo enclosure. My enduring impression of hippos was one of lethargic seldom-seen behemoths that spend their lives submerged and barely moving.

When my driver collected me at Serena Lodge earlier that morning, he said the day’s trip was to Tanzania’s Lake Manyara, about 3 miles south of the small town of Mto Wa Mbu. “Oh, yes… and we’ll stop to see a few hippos along the way.” So when our Land Rover pulled off the dirt track, I wasn’t prepared for the sight of a few hundred animated and actively socializing animals immersed in and occupying the banks of the Hippo Pond located a little inland from the northern shores of the lake!

Male hippo - Lake Manyara

A large male hippo warily scouts the frontier of his territory.
(Click on image to view a larger version.)

Because we arrived at the pond a bit after sun-up, we were treated to the sight of several individual hippos exiting the water to trundle off in different directions for some solitary foraging. These individual forays onto land are the only times that this wholly aquatic mammal leaves the water and the company of its fellow pod members.

walking hippo - Lake Manyara

This hippo has abandoned the cooling muddy water of his home pond to do a little early morning solitary foraging.
(Click on image to view a larger version.)

The hippopotamus is thoroughly adapted to its aquatic environment. It is able to thrive in its watery home by means of several unique behavioral and physical adaptations, about which zoologists and other mammalian researchers knew relatively little when I took the following photographs back in 1988. The following is a list of some of the more interesting and unusual adaptations.

  • Hippos are members of the Order Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates) and the Infraorder Cetancodonta, the only living members of which are hippos (Family Hippopotamidae) and  whales and porpoises (Family Cetacea). This taxonomic relationship is based predominantly on genetic rather than physical similarities.
  • The common ancestor of hippos and cetaceans split off from the other Artiodactyls about 60 million years ago; the earliest fossil identified as a hippopotamus (Kenyapotamus sp.) is more than 15 million years old.
  • The eyes, ears, and nostrils of hippos are placed high on the roof of their skulls. This allows them to be in the water with most of their bodies submerged.
  • Hippos possess a very robust and highly specialized graviportal skeletal system that is well able to support their great mass (mature adults can reach more than 4.5 meters in length and weigh more than 1.8 metric tons). In addition, the water in which they spend most of their lives reduces the burden of excessive weight; this accounts for the hippo’s relatively short legs.
  • Its body’s specific gravity allows a hippo to be able to sink in fresh water so that it can easily walk at a good pace on the bottom of its home stream or pond, despite its relatively poor swimming and floating skills.
submerged hippos - Lake Manyara

The members of a dominant male hippo’s harem keep well submerged in the cool muddy water, allowing only their eyes and snouts above the surface.
(Click on image to view a larger version.)

  • A hippo’s skin is relatively thick (15 cm), but its subcutaneous fat layer is surprisingly quite thin. Its skin secretes a reddish-brown liquid that acts as both a strong sunscreen and natural insecticide.
  • Hippo males are extremely territorial, but only in water; on land they emerge individually to graze peacefully at a good distance from one another.
  • Mothers are extremely protective of their young and are always accompanied by them when they forage on dry land. A mother will ferociously defend her baby from any predator, including crocodiles and the occasional dominant male bent on eliminating his youthful competition.
male hippos - Lake Manyara

A dominant bull (extreme left side of photo) sees off a smaller rival, instigating a violent chase shortly after I snapped this picture.
(Click on the image to view a larger version.)

  • While defecating to mark their territory, male hippos spin their tails to distribute their excrement over a greater area.
  • Hippos are also retromingent (that is, they urinate backwards), making it easy to mark one’s territory while on land with a good strong stream of piss. I’m sure the ducks in the photo below have a wary appreciation of that hippo characteristic…  B-)
hippo & ducks - lake manyara

The big male in the foreground is the dominant bull along this stretch of lakefront. I counted about 20 other hippos that appeared to be females in his harem.
(Click on the image to view a larger version.)

  • Hippos mate exclusively underwater, both partners remaining submerged during most of the encounter, emerging occasionally to catch their breath.
  • Baby hippos are born underwater and weigh as much as 100 pounds (45 kilograms) at birth. The newborn must swim to the surface to take its first breath.
  • Young hippos often rest on their mothers’ backs when the water is too deep for them. Although babies commonly swim under water to suckle, they may also suckle on land when Mom leaves the water to forage.

Conservation Status

In 2012, Hippopotamus amphibius was listed as a VULNERABLE species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The world population is estimated at 125,000 to 150,000 individuals. Tanzania’s population is the largest at about 20,000-30,000 individuals. Hippos are declining steadily on the African Continent due to loss of habitat and the reduction of bodies of readily available freshwater. Hippos are also being taken by poachers as a source of “bush meat” and ivory (their tusks).

hippo carcass - Lake Manyara

The carcass (stripped clean by scavengers) of a recently killed hippopotamus. This rare sight allowed me to glimpse the impressive skull and mouth furniture of one of the most dangerous and aggressive animals of Sub-Saharan Africa.
(Click on image to view a larger version.)

The Lazy Lions of Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

31 May

In February of 1988, while stationed at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Saudi Arabian Mission (Jeddah, KSA), I had a chance to spend two weeks at Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, the site of the early hominid paleontological excavation made famous by Dr. Raymond Dart and L.S.B. Leakey. While there, I was invited to go on several weekend “game drives” with the folks at Abercrombie & Kent Outfitters. The following pics are of my favorite subjects, the African Lions (Panthera leo) of Ngorongoro Crater.

Male Lion Ngorongoro Crater

My first shot of a solitary male African Lion.
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

Most of these photos were taken with my newly-purchased Nikon F camera and a 17-85 mm kit-grade zoom lens. Bouncing along rough bush tracks made for difficult focusing, and the poor-quality of film processing (DIY), combined with the lossy technology used to convert the images to digital format required a good deal of Photoshopping on my part. Hope you like them anyway…

Wary Male Lion - Ngorongoro Crater

A wary male lion watches intently as my Land Rover passes by at a respectful distance.
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

I never ceased to be amazed by how all of the animals (both predator and prey) in Ngorongoro Crater seemed NOT to be perturbed by the intrusion upon their privacy of four-wheeled tourists. I asked my driver why this was: He was of the opinion that, early on, the lions had figured out that Land Rover and human tourist were one-and-the-same creature and so much too large to contemplate as a potential meal. However, the minute the human occupant stepped outside his vehicle he became a menu item.

mature male lion & lioness

“Look, dear: Meals-On-Wheels!!!”
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

The following are photos of the members of a pride of mature lionesses (accompanied by a lone sub-adult male) that were so blasé about motor vehicles in their midst that they allowed my driver to pull right up next to them as if they were lounging curbside on a city street! Of course, I didn’t roll down my window to chat…

#1 five females Ngorongoro Crater rim

Five females sleeping at the base of the rim of Ngorongoro Crater.
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

five females

We were close enough to hear them snoring and yawning!
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

two female lions Ngorongoro Crater

“Geez! Can’t a girl take a nap without having all these tourists underfoot?”

two female lions Ngorongoro Crater

“That’s it! Can’t sleep with people watching. I’m outta here…”

female Lion Ngorongoro Crater

“Yawn… gosh, it can’t be time to get up yet! Think I’ll sleep in a bit.”

Makes me tired just lookin’ at these lazy lions…

To see some more photographs from my time in Tanzania and Kenya, go to my photo galleries website, FOOTPRINTS IN PARADISE: Tanzania & Kenya 1988.

Serengeti Cheetah: An aspiring hood ornament

24 Apr

After visiting the dig and museum at L.S.B. Leakey’s Olduvai Gorge paleo-hominid site in 1988, I decided to take a few days off (before returning home to Jeddah) to go on a “game drive.” Armed with my old Hanimex Praktica TL camera, I took the Abercrombie & Kent grand tour: starting in Ngorongoro Crater (close to Olduvai Gorge), our caravan of three brand-new Land Rovers motored along Tanzania’s mud-choked bush roads. One day we encountered a lone female cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), her buns comfortably parked on an abandoned termite mound.

Cheetah on a termite mound

A female cheetah lost in thought sits atop an old termite mound in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.
(Click on image to see a larger version.)

My Rover’s driver pulled off the track and moved us to a respectful distance from the cat so we tourists could take our snaps. It must have been the frantic clicking of our shutter releases that caught her attention, because she quickly moved off the mound and sauntered over to the Rover just behind mine. In no time at all she’d jumped up onto the vehicle’s hood (to the shock of the driver and the delight of the surprised passengers)…

Cheetah as hood ornament: Part 1.

Cheetah as hood ornament: Part 1.
(Click on image for a larger version.)

…and re-parked her buns squarely between the spare tire on the hood and the Rover’s windscreen (Yanks call it “the windshield”). She then began casually scanning the surroundings from her higher (and to her mind, at least, much better situated) automotive perch.

Cheetah on hood Part 2

Cheetah as hood ornament, Part 2.
(Click on image for larger version.)

Despite the nervous driver’s warning to stay put inside the vehicle, one of the passengers insisted on sticking her head up through the open observation hatch in an ill-advised attempt to engage the obviously preoccupied cat in light conversation. Shortly thereafter, the cheetah lost interest in the Rover as an observation platform, abandoned the vehicle’s hood, and strolled off into the bush, sparing one last disinterested backward glance at the Rover and its nosey occupants.

Cheetah says goodbye

The cat says goodbye to the nosey tourists.
(Click on image for a larger version.)

To see some other photos from my game drive and my trip through Kenya and Tanzania, click HERE.

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