In the middle of February, I was fortunate enough to spend eight days in the Masai Mara on a photographic safari guided by Lou Coetzer, the owner of CNP Safaris. The eight days yielded some fantastic wildlife photographic opportunities in the North Mara. February is outside the wildebeest migration season in this part of the Serengeti-Masai Mara circuit. The migration only gets to this part of the circuit around July and lasts through to around late September early October, depending on the rains. The reason for going to the Mara at this time of the year was to photograph the carnivores which tend to be more territorial and stay behind when the wildebeest leave. There is still plenty of wildlife left on the plains but carnivores such as lions have to work harder for it.
“Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” ~ Pat Conroy
These trips are always great fun because you meet new people and share special wildlife moments with old friends, in this case, Duncan Blackburn, Les Penfold and Lou Coetzer. We travelled around in CNP Safari’s specialised photographic vehicle which is designed for five photographers and has customised photographic chairs with swivelling camera supports for the big camera/lens combinations to provide stable shooting platform.
The previous times I have visited the Masai Mara we worked the Mara triangle and the &Beyond conservancies. This time there was very little game in the Mara Triangle and the grass was getting quite long. As a result, Lou Coetzer found that the North Mara was a far more productive area to work from a photographic point of view.
“Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.” ~ Benjamin Disraeli
This post is about the prides of lion we saw in the Mara. On the first full day we found a pride of lion down on Topi flats towards “Double Crossing”. It was early, around 6h30, about half an hour after sunrise. The male was out in the open with a few lionesses and a few cubs. The rest of the pride had already retreated in the adjacent glade of trees and bushes along a drainage line, seeking shade. The pride male’s flehmen grimace was a response to him drawing an interesting scent over his Jacobson’s organ in the roof of his mouth.
Once the pride moved into the glade, that was that. Most of the lion action we saw took place in the first hour or two after sunrise and thereafter they were “flat cats”. One of the important advantages of photographing in the North Mara section is that it is very open and the grass is low, which improves the quality of the photography once you find an interesting subject.
“The prides and packs are in a continual territorial dance in the Mara. There are few places to hide in these wide open grasslands. Pick your fights carefully, injury can be a death sentence. One side might win a fight but the predator war persists. Keep your young safe as no quarter is given and every opportunity is taken.” ~ Mike Haworth
On the second day Lou was excited about finding four large male lions under a Ballanite. These were four male of a five male coalition which had moved into the area and looked to be assessing the area for a take-over. As you can see from the next image the open areas in the North Mara are vast which gives the visitors a good visual on food potential and other lion prides in the area.
It was only around 8h00 when we found these males but they were already “flat cats” and were not likely to move for the rest of the day. Their presence created exciting potential for the next week in this area.
Down the hill was one of this area’s dominant pride males lying under another lone ballanite. This male was vulnerable as he was limping. We were not sure whether he had hurt his paw or shoulder. This small herd of zebra must have known or sensed he was not a threat as they wandered quite close to him and he never even acknowledged their passing.
“There is an intimate understanding of strengths and weakness on these plains.” ~ Mike Haworth
On another occasion we found these two young nomad males. They were out in the open and were breathing very heavily but not out of exhaustion but rather the heat. This was strange as it did not seem to be that hot around mid-morning. According to LionAlert.org, all lions are extremely sensitive to heat, and many lion behaviours seek to minimize heat stress. Sleeping in the day and limiting most activity to the night is one example; others include lying on their backs to expose their thin-skinned bellies, resting on high rocks to catch the breeze, and panting after exertion or large meals. Unlike dogs, lions do not have cool, wet noses, and unlike people, they don’t sweat. Their only means of thermo-regulation are breathing (panting) and radiating heat from the skin.
After about half an hour of watching them they warily wandered over to a pool of water in a drainage line where they had a long drink and then lay down next to the pool. It looked as though they would be there for the day, so not long after, we left them in peace. As you can see this part of the Mara has huge wide open spaces with few trees for shade so the lions here have to adapt to lying out in the open during the day.
On day three we were treated to an amazing sighting. Hyaenas caught and killed a buffalo calf and two young male lions rushed in and pushed them off their kill. This is a story for my post next week. The next image is of the first of the young males having just appropriated the buffalo calf.
The females in the pride were very upset that these two youngsters had barged into what was going to be lionesses meal. I was so focused on one of the males racing into the scene that I missed the interaction as the young males raced past the growling lionesses. After some discussion about the scene later over coffee, we presumed that these two young males must have been kicked out of the pride, but remained on the periphery and when the opportunity presented itself they returned to steal the kill while the dominant males were away. The rest of the pride was left with nothing as the two young males finished the buffalo calf.
The next generation of young males in the pride did not dare to resist and had to make do without a meal and be content with each others’ company. In general, male cubs remain in the pride for about three years. The dominant male then kicks them out of the pride and they become wandering nomads for about two to three years until taking over a new pride or forming a new one. Some males remain nomads until they can form a coalition or find a pride they can take over.
The pride had lost out on a meal and after some time reluctantly moved from the hill toward a few pools of water in a drainage line. On their way down to the water the pride passed one of the two resident pride males. He seemed pleased to see the lionesses.
But greeted the youngster with less enthusiasm.
“Being brave does not mean looking for trouble.”~ Mufasa
The other resident pride male in the coalition was some distance off and followed the pride down towards the water.
The entire pride passed the older male and greeted him, though he was selective when returning his greetings.
The cubs, even the older ones, were playful despite missing out on a meal, but this lioness looked to still be irritated by the loss of the buffalo calf meal to the young males.
This was the older of the dominant two pride males and he was limping badly probably from a tangle with a buffalo or even a territorial fight with another male.
“Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand the balance and respect all the creatures.” ~ Mufasa
The pride eventually got down to the pools of water where they stayed. Two lioness adopted a lookout position so they could see the goings on in that area and catch any passing breezes to keep cool.
Our modus operandi was to leave the camp at 5h30 and go into the park area, where we left the lions the day before, by around 6h45, around 10 to 15 minutes before sunrise. We found that the lions were active for only about an hour after sunrise so not much time in good light. This particular morning we were scouting around looking for the lions and found them in an open area among some rocks looking down the hill on the plain below watching the topi, zebra and buffalo. The whole pride was together excluding the males who must have been surveying their territory. This was the youngest member of the pride and has a very swollen front paw which caused it to hobble badly.
Again it was ear;y morning around 7h30 and the light was not particularly good because of a lot of cloud. Good for the lions, but not so good for enthusiastic photographers.
Most of the pride came down to drink from this pool of water and it was unusual to be able to see all these lions lined up along the water’s edge and reflections added to the gorgeous scene.
There were always two or three lions looking out while the rest were head down to drink. The sentries were making sure there were no threats coming their way.
This lioness, probably the cub’s mother, stood on its back leg to pin down while she smelt and inspected the youngster. This was the cub with the swollen right front paw. Amazingly this cub kept up with the pride which moved every day.
“Play is the exultation of the possible.” -Martin Buber
All the safari vehicles cast shadows over the lions around the pool. Seeing these youngsters play with light on them would have produced some wonderful images. Most of the visitors on the safari vehicles were sightseers rather than enthusiastic photographers so were not as sensitive to the light as we were.
The cub with the sore paw was not excluded from the pride in any way, so got its fair share of the “rough and tumble” from the older cubs, including the biting of his tail.
On the second last day, we hunted high and low for the lions. We knew in which broad area they were because of their territorial boundaries, but we could not find them. You would have thought that it would have been easy to find a large pride of lions in this vast open areas with low grass, not so. There are many undulations in the ground and drainage lines. When the lions lie down they are not called “flat cats” for nothing. You will struggle to see an adult lioness lying flat on his side in the short grass. It is only when she lifts her head that will you see her. We watched this pride lying out in the open grassland for about an hour before they decided to get up and wander toward the shade of a Ballanite some 300 metres away.
“Seek respect, not attention. It lasts longer.”~ Ziad Abdelnour
The cubs are very affectionate to the lionesses who in turn are very tolerant with the cubs.
The older members of the pride walking towards the shade. Interestingly, it was the cubs who started the move and the older members followed.
The sky was partly cloudy and it was quite windy which is why the lions only moved to the shade around mid-morning. The coming and going of the clouds made some interesting layering of colours in the background.
The Mara has many lions signalling plenty of food and a relatively stable ecosystem. Predators have to work harder for their food outside the wildebeest migration which makes February a good time to be photographing these cats. The wildlife is constantly moving and the light is always changing so the photographic combinations and variations are endless. There are many lion prides in the North Mara and because they are in relatively small territories there are many predator interactions which adds to the excitement and opportunities of seeing unusual predator behaviour. These lion prides in the open grasslands of the Mara behave differently, in many respects, to our southern African lions which adds to the attraction and fascination.
To Lou Coetzer and CNP Safaris, thank you for a memorable trip filled with photographic opportunities.
“A wildlife photograph freezes a scene and its dynamics. Each image is unique. It allows us to look more closely at the complexity, beauty and subtlety which we cannot fully comprehend at the instant the shutter opens.” ~ Mike Haworth
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.