Week Twelve: Big Game
Published: September 29th, 2008
By: Bryan Snyder

Week Twelve: Big Game

The ants were on the move. I pulled my head back below the open roof and called to the driver, “Hey…. wait…. Dickson, can you stop here?” Our guide dutifully brought the modified Land Rover to a shuddering halt, stopping just a few feet away from a ribbon of safari ants two inches wide that rippled across the rutted jeep trail. I thought my fellow photographers might appreciate the chance to see the ants through the open windows, but I was a little surprised when Dickson suggested we step outside the vehicle to have a closer look. Normally, visitors to the Masai Mara are conditioned to put a healthy amount of metal, glass, or electric fencing between themselves and the wilds of Africa.

I grabbed my camera and was almost out the door when Dickson, in an urgent, tight voice suddenly hissed, “Leopard hunting!” I noticed that our guide did not just say “leopard”… he said “leopard hunting” - a phrase that is several degrees more spine-chilling if you’re not expecting it. Out of the corner of his eye, Dickson had spotted a leopard within the frame of the side-view mirror, and the lethal-looking feline had been slinking just behind our vehicle. Within seconds, three photographers popped their heads out the top of our vehicle like prairie dogs, and the rapid clicking of shutters followed the leopard’s descent into a narrow gully. We drove to a different vantage point and watched the creature stride purposefully behind a curtain of exposed roots before it turned a corner and disappeared.

Chasing big game on the northern Serengeti plains brings on a rush of adrenaline, making it difficult to want to leave rare animals alone, especially when one is in pursuit of the perfect picture. Some creatures are so used to tourists that they won’t even stir in their sleep when a vehicle approaches, but leopards are notoriously shy, and this cat was no exception. We lost track of the leopard in the gully and had to radio out for help in relocating it. Soon, the ravine was surrounded on all sides by vehicles whose passengers were all hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare animal. Normally, our safari group spreads itself out across the vast wildlife preserve, but this was the last morning game drive, and the rules had been relaxed. Our own vehicle saw the cat only briefly after the masses arrived… spots of brown and black upon ghostly white fur, drifting through the grasses… brief flashes of a nervous animal.

Once the adrenaline wore off, the paparazzi scene at the gully became ethically uncomfortable, so we decided to give the leopard some peace and journey onwards to the Mara River - our original destination. For the last twelve days, we had been hoping that the hundreds of thousands of wildebeests and zebras in Tanzania would continue their migration north into Kenya, so that we could witness the herds attempting to cross the swift and wide Mara River. I had seen the animals massing on the horizon like the hordes of Mongolia, ominously darkening the hills in numbers frightening for a human to behold. But this had been a strange month for weather, with overcast skies and thunderstorms developing almost every afternoon, so the wildebeests had been content to stay in Tanzania far longer than usual, feeding on grasses that would not normally be there during the “dry” season.

The Kenyan guides had noticed the changes in weather patterns, and the photography instructors from the States believed that these changes were linked to global warming. Myself, I believe it is difficult to deduce how rising ocean temperatures can affect rainfall in specific areas, but the instructors had gained my overall confidence. Many had been to Antarctica and above the Arctic Circle to photograph penguins and polar bears. They have seen firsthand the effects of climate change over the last thirty years and are anxious to document these places before they vanish.

The zebras normally migrate just ahead of the wildebeests, and this morning a significant number of zebra herds had finally gathered on the opposite shore of the Mara. For many, this was the culminating experience of their safari in Kenya. For days they had waited along the riverbanks, trying to guess where and when the crossing would occur. Thankfully, when the first zebras began to plunge into the water, our vehicle was already on the scene. So was a trio of crocodiles, who materialized almost instantly in the middle of the river. The zebras did not seem to angle their path any differently to avoid the reptiles, however. Their hooves kicked furiously beneath the water, intent on reaching the opposite shore, and strangely, the crocodiles floated a few feet away and let them pass unmolested.

The zebras had to overcome their fear of the crocodiles before they would enter the water, and their bravery paid off until the crocodiles began targeting the babies. With the accelerating motion of an attacking shark, they surged up to a young zebra and snapped, but in every case, the zebra leapt away and escaped! I was thoroughly unimpressed with their hunting skills. I shot photographs of a topi antelope jumping cleanly through the open mouth of a crocodile. Seconds after the topi had passed through, the croc’s upraised jaws were still wide open. Either it had a bad case of lockjaw, or it was a pathetically lazy hunter. All evidence pointed towards the latter explanation.

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