Masai Mara – frenzy at Peninsula

The Peninsula crossing point is about two kilometres up the Mara river from the Wild Eye camp. The camp is sited close enough to Peninsula to get there early, just after 6h00. That said, the crossing can happen at any time. We saw four large crossings in the section of the river below Look Out Hill. Two of them were just after sunrise.

” The wilderness holds answers to questions man has not yet learned to ask.” ~ Nancy NewHall

The main crossing points below Look Out Hill are Peninsula, Figtree and Miti Moja. There may be others but there were no crossings happening higher up towards Hippo Pools at the time we were there. Our group of photographers were fortunate enough to see a male lion crossing the Mara river close to Figtree.

“There are more peaceful animals on earth than peaceful people.” Anthony Douglas Williams

Peninsula crossing is so called because of the peninsula on the east bank that forces the Mara river into a 300 degree bend around it. This is the southern most regular crossing point in the Mara Triangle. The wildebeest do try to cross further down at Figtree but the banks are especially steep with many rocks on the western bank. The Wild Eye camp is located further down the Mara river at particular bend in the river to prevent wildebeest crossing at that point. Before the introduction of the camp, there were numerous wildebeest deaths at this point with their carcasses piling up on the rocks down river near Purungat bridge resulting in a dreadful stench in that area. The camp has stopped the crossing, the wildebeest deaths and there is now no stench near the bridge.

I mentioned in my last post that the build up to the crossing can take hours. Part of the reason is the wildebeest are very skittish and any sound or smell will deter them. Ill discipline from the safari guides driving their vehicles on the eastern side of the Mara river is also a major reason for crossings being abandoned. The guides driving the game vehicles are more disciplined and more strictly monitored by the rangers on the western bank in the Mara Triangle. The game vehicles on the western side are obliged to remain on the main road while the build up is taking place. Even with this rule in place, as soon as the first animal enters the water there is a mad race among all the game vehicles to get the best position on the west bank to witness the spectacle of the wildebeest crossing towards the west bank.

At Peninsula the wildebeest pour down the eastern bank which is not steep and the entry point into the water is shallow. The huge number of hooves coming down the bank stir up thick dust adding to the confusion and mood. A wildebeest’s nostrils are equipped with flaps that help filter the dust stirred up by thousands of surging animals.

“We watch with wonder spellbound by the enormity, intensity and primal sense of one of nature’s greatest compulsions.” ~ Mike Haworth

Once the crossing starts there seems to be a compulsion to follow those in front. Entering the water with so much dust limits the wildebeests’ visibility of the water in front of them so often they do not see the crocs waiting for them.

“Fossil evidence suggest that wildebeest have been roaming the plains of east Africa for more than a million years”

There are occasions when the crossing seemed to be in full swing then suddenly animals half way up the bank turned around and headed back up the bank. It could have been a strange sound or a few animals that got spooked by something and the animals around them turned in unison.

Depending on how the game vehicles on the eastern bank have positioned themselves the wildebeest will pause on top of the bank, gather themselves and descend again. If a predator or too many game vehicles are in the way the wildebeest at the top of the bank will abandon their crossing and move a couple of hundred metres away from the river.

“Long-distance migrations are among the most spectacular and heroic of natural events, and the majority are in Africa” ~ Penny van Oosterzee contributor to the New Scientist

In the crossing, the wildebeest crowd each other. Crocs tend to stay on the periphery of the crossing as they are likely to get trampled venturing to the middle of the surging herd.

A massive croc lurking on the edge of the crossing caught a wildebeest calf by the hind leg. Once caught a calf is unlikely to be able to get free of a large croc’s hold. Even if it did it would probably have a broken leg which would soon be discovered by hyaenas and finished off.

The crocs are large enough to firmly hold the hind quarters of an adult wildebeest. Others crocs quickly move it to join in the attack. There are many rocks on the western bank which make it very slippery for a wildebeest to get purchase and be able to pull itself out of the water.

A large crossing can take longer than 30 minutes. In this situation the crocs will catch and drown one wildebeest, let it float down the river and go for another. The drowned animal will float a few hundred metres down the river before getting caught up on rocks or branches jutting out of the river bank, which serve as a larder of sorts

Not all wildebeest stay in the main column crossing the river. Some try to get upstream of the column. This tactic makes the crossing more dangerous as there is not the safety in numbers and it also means that there may be added difficulty getting out of the river the other side.

With a panicked scramble the wildebeest manage to climb out on slippery rocks. This is a very vulnerable time for those animals waiting at the back of the queue in the water.

Thankfully all the crossings we saw went well and there were no mass drownings and very few wildebeest were taken by crocs. The river claims on average 6 200 wildebeest each year. A study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed how wildebeest drownings had a positive impact the ecology of the Mara river. Co-author Emma Rosi, an aquatic ecologist at the Cary Institute, noted that “the mass drownings create a huge biomass subsidy which delivers terrestrial nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon to the river’s food web. Fish and scavengers feast on soft tissues, then wildebeest bones slowly release nutrients into the system – feeding algae and influencing the food web on decadal scales”. Research showed that crocs consumed about 2% of total carcasses while fish consumed between 34% and 50% of the total. This is another example of nothing going to waste in the natural world.

“The Great Migration is the largest overland migration in the world.”~ Africa Geographic

The crossings are breathtaking because of the enormity of the surge of animals swimming for their lives across the Mara river. You can see the terror in their eyes as they open them so wide that you can see the whites of their eyes. You can’t help but be impressed by the wildebeest diving into the fast flowing muddy river with such spindly legs which don’t look proportioned for swimming.

“Wildlife migration requires large, connected landscapes and access to seasonally available resources, but human development—such as roads, livestock fences, farms, suburban settlements and energy infrastructure—has fragmented migration corridors in many terrestrial ecosystems around the world.” ~ John Cramer, Dartmouth College

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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