Hooves on Mara North

So much attention is given to the predators in the Masai Mara, but there is so much more to see and experience. Often the more we see the less we notice. This seems to be true of the herbivores which wander the grass plains of the Mara. Yes the migration is one of the natural wonders of the world but there is an in between time when there is much magic on the plains for those to care to look.

“The most important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of enternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.” ~ Albert Einstein

I am always fascinated to see Zebras wading chest deep into water in the Mara. I have seen the same thing in the Serengeti.  Given the terrifying experience they have crossing the Mara and Grumeti rivers, I would have thought they would have been conditioned to be afraid to walk deep into any water.  Not so, they seemed to really enjoy it, apart from which the cleanest water is in the middle as it has not been muddied by many feet.

There were quite a few occasions while we were wandering around Mara North that it was cloudy which cooled things down. It was at these times when the youngsters were at their most energetic. A zebra foal cavorting for the sheer joy of it!

“Sometimes you just have to jump in a mud puddle because it’s there. Never get so old that you forget about having fun.”  ~ Tom Giaquinto

Zebra foals chasing each other around an ant hill. With all the danger around these youngster still were carefree enough to play with the simplest of props.

Fortunately in the Mara North, we did not encounter many tsetse flies. They look like horse flies but have a stinging bite and are not easily killed. I am not sure whether it was from insect bites, but this mare decided it was time for a back scratch and powder. Oh, and she looked to be really enjoying the beauty treatment.

A peaceful scene of a small group of zebras, with a few members drinking and others grazing on the lush green grass next to the water in a drainage line.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”Sun Tzu

A small herd of zebra nonchalantly wander past a large male lion lying in the shade of a shepherd tree. This male had hurt his right leg, so was no threat to the passing zebra parade, and they knew it.

Just down from where we found the two young lion nomads panting in the heat out in the open next to a pool of water, we saw a few zebra. This mare must have produced a foal just days before. It was still very small and very unsure of the big wide world around it. Its mother’s tail seemed to offer some sort of comfort but it really highlighted its vulnerability.

Further on that day, we found a large herd of eland. They were grazing in the open grassland.  We saw three large males among many females. This was one of them. The males start to take on a greyish colour as they get older. This male’s dewlap (that large flap of skin under his neck) acts as a radiator helping to cool him down in open grasslands. The older males also take on a fringe on their forehead.

The next images shows the view looking across the plain towards the Oloololo escarpment with Thompson’s gazelle grazing in the foreground and the herd of eland wandering away behind them.

“Stand your ground, have a tough hide, keep moving on. Cherish wide open spaces. Have a strong spirit, roam wild and free.  Let the chips fall where they may.” ~ IIan Shamir

One day we decided to stay on the Masai Mara reserve side of the Mara river and wandered down to the inselbergs near the Serengeti border. As we travelled closer to the Oloololo escarpment we found a large herd of buffalo grazing in the open grasslands. This was one of the periphery bulls guarding the herd’s flank. Slit eyes saying what on earth  do you want!

The herd was spread out behind him. Needless to say, the whole herd looked up and watched carefully to see whether we were a threat or not.

Close to the Kichwa Tembo camp we found a small group of Coke’s hartebeest. There are not many of them in the Mara so this was an unusual find. There are eight subspecies of hartebeest of which Coke’s is the one found in Kenya and the northern Serengeti.

“Ah, youth! It was a beautiful night…
The moon was out of orbit. The stars were awry.
But everything else was exactly as it should have been.”
~ Roman Payne

Coke’s hartebeest, or kongoni, are selective grazers with browsing making up just less than 4% of their diet. A young Coke’s hartebeest squares off against an adult topi. The competition was short-lived with the youngster backing down.

I think topis are one of the most under-rated and least talked about antelope in the Mara and Serengeti. A topi resembles a hartebeest. It has an elongated head but has a darker  reddish-brown colouration with dark purple patches on their upper legs. Both sexes look similar, though males are larger. A topi’s horns sweep up and back whereas a hartebeest’s sweep out to the side before kinking back. The topi has a distinct hump at the base of the neck. This may be to enable additional tendons to be attached at the shoulder to give greater strength to power its fast front legs. Topis are of capable of reaching speeds of 70 to 80 kilometres per hour.

“We have more to learn from animals than animals have to learn from us.” ~ Anthony Douglas Williams

Topis can often be seen standing on top of an anthill presumably to see what is around it but also to be noticed by any passing females. If a topi is staring intently in one particular direction, it often signals it has seen something of consequence such as a predator.

During the breeding season, a territorial bull can be recognised by his erect posture, with his head held high and high-stepping front leg movement. While on the move, topis have a habit of bobbing their heads but I am not sure why they do that.

The topi has one of the most variable social and mating systems of all the antelopes. Its social system can vary from a small resident herd to huge migratory aggregations. In low density areas, the males tend to have large territories while others congregate in breeding arenas, or leks.

Topi’s seem to prefer open grasslands and savanna areas. Where the density of topi is low a male’s territory can be quite large and can include up to 10 females.

Where a breeding arena has been established there are many ritualistic fights to display dominance. Both males and female fight. The males for dominance and the females to keep other females out of the breeding territory and compete with each other for the dominant males. Not sure how you see your opponent if your head in on the ground….

Competition between rival males consists primarily of posturing and ritualistic sparring with the horns. Like wildebeest, topis fight on their front leg knees. They lunge forward and drop onto their knees and crash their horns together. It is mostly about dominance and pushing to establish the strongest and most dominant in the contact.

In a lek, as many as 100 males may have territories clustered together. The most dominant males occupy the centre of the lek, and the less dominant occupy the periphery.  Males mark their territories with urine and dung. On the plains when the migration is underway, these leks tend to be temporary, otherwise the males risk getting left behind. The males rejoin the migration but re-establish a territorial network when the herd stops again on its migratory route.

Females come into estrous for only one day of the year and seek out favoured males. The female seemed to be the only one relaxed about the situation.

The youngster did not know what was happening to its mother and just stayed close despite all the mating encounters.

There are two main types of gazelle on the Mara and Serengeti plains, the smaller Thomspon’s gazelle and the larger Grant’s gazelle. This was a female Grant’s gazelle reassuring her calf.

The Grant’s gazelle is noticeably larger than the Thompson’s gazelle and the white on the back of the hind legs reaches to above the tail.

The Thompson’s gazelle is much smaller than the Grants and has a dark brown stripe long its flank and the white behind its back legs which does not go above its tail.

There are not as many impala on the plains as you are likely to see in southern Africa but the males have noticeably larger horns. We came across a small breeding herd grazing along a drainage line. The male causally walked through the water filled gully but the females and calves jumped over the gully, obviously fearful of what was in the water.

A female impala taking off to jump across the drainage line gully.

Every lunchtime, when we were on the Mara North side of the Mara river, we retreated into the shade of the “greenheart” forest next to the meandering Mara river.  We often found elephants and giraffe wandering through the forest.

It was a beautiful place with a restful and serene vista. A giraffe’s coat pattern differs for each individual. Each sub-species has a broadly different pattern colour and shape which varies according to region. The pattern of the coat improves camouflage in the different habitats. Giraffes have exceptional eyesight and also are believed to communicate through subsonic vocalizations, though this has  to be scientifically proven. Scientist have discovered that giraffes hum. In a study published in 2015 in the journal BioMed Central, researchers recorded over 940 hours of sounds from giraffes at three zoos over an eight-year period. Beyond the occasional snort or grunt, the researchers recorded humming sounds that the giraffes made only at night.

The Masai giraffe’s spots are more jagged than the other sub-species. The males generally have darker spots than the females and those spots darken with age. The dominant male has the darkest spots of all.

“As you stop and look more carefully, your journey of discovery begins. Intriguing questions arise and your physical and intellectual wanderings begin to unveil their answers. The more you learn the more fascinating your subject becomes…” ~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

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