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Lensing the wildebeest in Masai Mara

The ‘migration season’ in Masai Mara is one of the best times to visit Kenya.

Each year, the timings and routes that the Wildebeest take are slightly different, depending on the rains and the availability of grass. At the end of June or the beginning of July, the golden green plains of the Mara begin to fill up with the ever-moving dark mass of a million grunting gnus. They work their way up from the Serengeti in Tanzania in long, dark columns, fanning out from the Sand River gate, in the South East of the Mara, all the way up to the Aitong plains in the far North West. They take over the vast savannah along with half a million zebras and 2,50,000 gazelles and other plains-game. Generally the wildebeest from Serengeti continue moving throughout the Mara ecosystem until early to mid-October. Lesser known to many is the Loita wildebeest migration, originating in the Loita Plains, an event that brings what many estimate to be well over 1,00,000 wildebeest into the Mara from their dry homeland in May. They will graze in and the surrounding areas until the next big rains hit the Loita Plains, often keeping them here until March the following year!

I have been watching and photographing the migration since I was a child. My father being an Honorary Game Warden in Kenya was instrumental in my bush camping trips to the Masai Mara National Reserve.

One of the great attractions of coming to the Mara to see the wildebeest migration is heading down to the Mara river to watch hundreds, sometimes thousands, of wildebeest taking the plunge and crossing the river all at once for greener pastures on the other side. The wildebeest are constantly moving in both directions across the river. The movement of migrating herds, including crossings, is completely dependent on rains, grazing, and the mood of the beasts. Wherever there is food, there will be something to eat it, and this is no different for the predators of the Mara. The lions, cheetahs and leopards that may have spread out in leaner times come together for the feast at hand. Wildebeest are taken down by adept feline claws, engorging already well-fed bellies. Following close behind is the savannah clean-up squad, with Spotted Hyenas, Jackals, and Vultures devouring the left-overs. Not forgetting to mention the monster Mara river crocodiles lying in wait for their annual feast and gorging party.

There are some days, however, when crossings do not happen, but the constant hum of wildlife in all directions, as far as the ear can hear, keep the days filled with great sightings and new experiences. I have been lucky to witness some amazing jaw dropping sightings at these crossing points on the Mara River.  Two years ago with clients from the UK who had not been in the Mara in 10 years, we witnessed one of the largest crossings in recent history over 80,000 wildebeests crossed the Mara river continuously for 4-5 hours. There is an S-bend in the river, that we guides commonly call the Cul De Sac crossing.

The currents here are pretty strong when the river is up and the animals crossing normally get washed downstream away from their line of exit on the other bank causing chaos and panic amongst the animals, leading to animals drowning, broken legs over the rocks and not to forget attacks from the monster crocodiles. That day we were lucky to be with only 3 other vehicles when the first animals started crossing the river and hence had a great vantage point for some excellent photography. Within minutes they were thousands of wildebeest everywhere accompanied by grunting and dust.

The brown waters of the Mara river were covered in the black backs of these ungulates and soon the whole river was full of animals swimming, jumping, stampeding at a hectic pace. For moments in time we could not even see the water. Everything was just a blur of black horns, backs and legs!  Initially the hungry crocodiles stayed away from the stampeding splashing mass due to fears of being trampled. Whenever there was a break in the line of animals crossing then the crocs would attack!! Our initial count was about 40 wildebeests taken under or ripped to pieces by the jaws of the notorious Mara crocs. As the crossing gained momentum we lost sight of the crocs, even the water in the river and everything was a haze of grunting, thumping hooves covered in dust and water.  Soon enough the lions joined in, ambushing animals either exiting or entering the river banks. One lioness took down 3 wildebeests just by herself with in half and an hour! This put a temporary stop in the procession as panicked animals bolted in all directions. Soon enough the masses of animals were too many and the pressure from behind kept coming and coming. After 3 hours of pretty much nonstop action, all our memory cards were full and arms heavy from changing one camera body to another, we finally put our cameras downs and for the last hour just watched this spectacular sight over an ice cold ‘Tusker’ Kenyan lager.

www.sokomoto.com Research by Aman Ramrakha
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