Leaving the Mara!
- Created on Saturday, 11 September 2010 00:00
Though the wildebeest have started crossing again (and drowning as well), I still find myself leaving the Mara. My third field season has come to end. It is always amazing to be here in this time of plenty – plenty of wildebeest, plenty of predators, and plenty of vultures. There has been so much to see and it has certainly been a busy field season. So with my data gathered and my birds tagged, it is time to head home to the other rather overlooked portion of scientific research – the analysis. So I will return to my university to teach and to analyze. The Mara and the vultures will still be present as I watch them through my own descriptions of their behavior and through the blinking blue dots (which represent the current position of each tagged bird) that I will now follow across the East African plains over the next year. When I write to you next, it will be to describe those movements – so that we can all follow these amazing birds as they have their own adventures.
Before leaving I went for one final adventure of my own – to visit the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi. This center cares for young elephants and rhinos that have been orphaned due to natural causes or, and much more often, anthropogenic causes, especially poaching and human-wildlife conflict. The little elephants will eventually be reintroduced to Tsavo National Park where they will join a pre-existing elephant herd. In the sanctuary, tourists look on, protected by a small rope, as the little elephants take mud baths, drink water, and kick around a soccer ball. Some elephants are a bit more athletic than others and we watched one has he managed to kick the ball using each of his four feet with nearly equal dexterity to move the ball around himself and his playmates. He even lined the ball up to kick it backwards using one of his back feet, showing an awareness of what was behind him that I really wouldn’t have expected given his bulk. Other elephants were a bit more naughty and one poured out a huge tank of water, scattering the crowd of onlookers, who moved back to avoid the rushing muddy water. The little elephant then rushed towards us, only to slip and fall in the muddy mess of his own creation. Most of the elephants seemed more interested in each other than anything else, as they touched, ran around, and even sat on their playmates. Their love of the mud and dirt was clear and every single elephant made sure to thoroughly cover itself in the red soil before racing off with its human caretakers. When a second small herd of orphans was brought out it was immediately clear who the matriarch was. One elephant stood head and shoulders above the rest and her flared ears made it clear that she planned to protect the group from any intruders. When a small family of warthogs started to eye the mud pool, the “mother” elephant, though still an infant herself, chased the tiny pigs away, trumpeting as she raced after them.
The surrogate mothers, a group of hard-working Kenyans that would stay with the baby elephants until they were ready to join a real herd, told the stories of each elephant as we watched them play. Some had fallen into wells; some had lost their mothers to poachers. Most were from Tsavo, but I was particularly touched by the story of a little elephant who had come from the Mara – just north of the Mara in fact in Olare Orok Conservancy an area I have come to know well. Her mother was found paralyzed by a bullet and the little elephant had been watching on, urging her mother to action but unable to move the fallen parent. While there was little to be done for the mother, they had been able to rescue the baby, who stood before me now, sucking up a trunkful of water, which she promptly emptied into her mouth. Baby elephants are not easy to raise and I tried to imagine the amount of time, effort, and money that must be necessary for the orphanage to be run. Though many of the orphans would die in the first few months – mainly from traumas both physical and psychological suffered before their arrival, so far the orphanage has been able to release all of the survivors, something few reintroduction programs could claim. Needless to say, I was moved and impressed, though I wondered if there would ever come a day when the actual threats that made such a place necessary would be solved.
News: By Corinne Kendall (Mama Vulture), a field biologist based at Ilkeliani Camp.
A balloon ride seems like a quintessential part of the Mara experience, yet I have never taken the time to experience it. Every morning I watch 10 to 20 balloons take off and soar above the Mara like a chain of Christmas lights they flicker on and off as the burners lift them higher into the sky. Today I finally got a chance to see what it is all about.Read more...