Serengeti’s big boys

The river in front of the Grumeti Tented camp is in fact an oxbow lake which was, a long time ago, cut off from the Grumeti river. In the rainy season, it fills with water which attracts the hippos.

“Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise that live by voices inaudible to you.”
― Robert Macfarlane

So many posts about the Serengeti focus on the predators. The Serengeti is an incredible ecosystem supporting a huge variety of animal and plant life. The rivers in the Serengeti teem with life and they attract an enormous amount of wildlife from the plains.

There are several pods of hippos up and down the ox-bow lake. Being late January, the short rains were supposed to have stopped. We still got quite a bit of rain especially at night which filled the ox-bow lake making it ideal for the hippo families.

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

One morning, we watched two young hippos sparring. Although it looked quite savage, they were just play fighting. These “river horses” are enormously strong and, helped by the buoyancy of the water, can lift each other right out of the water.

Hippos have massive mouths relative to their eyes, nose and ears. Hippos can open their mouths to a wide 150 degrees or 4 feet wide which show their large tusk-like canines and razor-sharp incisors, capable of creating serious damage to a small boat or three metre crocodile. A hippo is a herbivore so its wide mouth is primarily for threat displays.

Although hippos spend most of the day in water they cannot swim or float so in deep water they bounce off the river bed. In shallow water, they move around by walking or running on the river bed.

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

A hippo’s skin is usually greyish-brown on top and pinkish on the underside. It is hairless, apart from a few bristles around its mouth and tail-end. The hippo has no sweat glands in the skin but it compensates with special glands that produce a red fluid. This fluid protects their skin from the sun and from infections. Hippos rely on cool water and mud to prevent over-heating and dehydration.

Although these two adolescents were playing, we were very happy to be high up on the bank in a vehicle. Hippos are notoriously territorial and aggressive and can move much quicker than you would think given their bulk.

We had driven alongside a treeline and had stopped to watch a pair of mating lions when this large pachyderm happened to walk by. He stopped in his tracks as he saw us. He was walking in the direction of the lions as he must have smelt them.

This middle aged bull looked to be slow and cumbersome, but do not be fooled. He expressed his irritation at us hanging around by shaking his head and his ears made a loud slapping sound on the side of his body and dust flew everywhere. We decided he was right and left him in peace to go and talk to the lions.

“True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.” ~ Wendell Berry

Later that day as we travelled towards Musira hill we came across this herd of elephants making their way towards the river. It was interesting that they were walking in a close herd formation. This was probably because they could smell lions all around.

This herd wandered through the clusters of trees and bushes moving either side of a cluster. We assumed they were just clearing the area to make sure their were no lions around which they did not know about.

Every time the herd came through into a clearing in the bushes they stopped, with the matriarch at the centre. They paused, watched, listened and smelt. Once satisfied they knew what was going on, they moved on.

“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” ~ Rachel Carson

The following day we decided to drive around Kirawira plains. These plains are between the Grumeti river and the Singita conservation area. This is a vast open area where large herds of herbivore congregate.

We found three large herds of buffalo on this particular day. It was difficult to tell how large each herd was, but we estimated them to be between 250 and 300 animals. What is fascinating is that these animals are in this area all year long. This is because the weather in the western corridor is unique in the Serengeti given the strong influence from Lake Victoria. The western corridor is altogether wetter all year round compared to the rest of the Serengeti which ensures plenty of game all year round. This means there are plenty of predators because of the abundance of food.

A small group of buffalo cows watched us intently. They were away from the main herd so were especially wary.

“We cannot navigate and place ourselves only with maps that make the landscape dream-proof, impervious to the imagination. Such maps – and the road-map is first among them – encourage the elimination of wonder from our relationship with the world. And once wonder has been chased from our thinking about the land, then we are lost.”
~ Robert Macfarlane

As the morning brightened up, and on our way back to camp for breakfast, we came across this herd of giraffe. They were in the middle of a large plain with no obvious opportunity for them to feed.

During their slow walk across the plain they stopped to drink at pools of rainwater in the plain and probably just to look around and assess what was in the area. Giraffe seem to prefer to move in family herds but do not touch each other much. There is the ritual necking, and mothers nuzzle their young but the only other time they touch is when males slug it out using their heads as battering rams to establish dominance.

Humans cannot hear most of the communication between giraffe because they communicate infrasonically, with moans and grunts too low for humans to hear. Mother giraffe sometimes use whistles to warn or call their young. Giraffe also communicate with their bodies and eyes. In the wild, a group of giraffe will congregate and stare at predators to warn others to stay away. It is also clear that being so tall giraffe can pick up messages from a long way away just from posture.

Of the four largest mammals in the Serengeti, the hippos were the noisiest. At the camp which is sited adjacent to an ox box lake which long ago detached from the Grumeti river, the hippos were grunting all day and all night. The first night or two all the hippo grunts keep you awake but after a while they become a natural and reassuring sound. At night, the hippo grunts are intermingled with Scops owls “prrupping”, baboons screeching, leopards coughing, hyaenas whooping and lions roaring. This symphony in the dark gives you a wonderful sense of wildness.

“The earth is such a voluminous, sparse, wild place that has its own rhythm that human beings try to control and strategise our way around, but the truth is, if you’re out someplace like the ocean on a capsized boat, it doesn’t matter if you have academic degrees, or if you’re a martial-arts ninja. Nature is a bigger force than you.” ~ Rachael Taylor

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

Have fun, Mike

4 thoughts on “Serengeti’s big boys

  1. Hi Mike.. I’m doing a post of water photos soon – would you permit me to include the photo of the two hippos play fighting in the water? I’d credit and link back as usual. Please let me know – thanks!

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