September 22, 2014

An epic final walk on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy – Ecotraining Safari Guide Course, Kenya – August 2014

Every once in a while nature conspires to render me speechless. Having lived in various nature reserves and wilderness areas for all but a few days of the last five years, I have been lucky to witness some amazing wildlife behaviour. However, I can confidently say that I will need some extreme luck to ever experience again events similar to what happened on August 29th.

We were coming to the end of an Ecotraining 28-day Safari Guide course on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, in Laikipia, Kenya. The students and I had already been spoiled with wonderful sightings, but on our final afternoon we couldn’t resist going out for one more bush walk. From camp we could see a breeding herd of elephants grazing the reeds of the nearby swamp and decided to find a safe vantage point to spend the afternoon’s final hours with them. Our fantastic Lewa scout, “Ribo”, used his 34 years of experience to get us safely to within 30m of them. The herd knew we were there and after some mild posturing, calmed down and continued feeding.  We recognized the matriarch as a beautiful ‘cross- tusked’ cow we had seen a week or so earlier. We also noticed some pushing and shoving between two mature bulls that were mingling with the females and their young. Having seen two bulls fighting two days earlier, we wondered if these were the same individuals, still squabbling. Neither of them was in musth but their temporal glands streamed significantly, indicating a heightened state of excitement or stress. Was there a female in oestrus perhaps?

Within a few minutes we noticed a young lone bull appear from a section of swamp behind us. He was heading straight for the herd, and we were in his path. Backing away swiftly to let him past, he was promptly chased off by the dominant of the mature bulls. Something was definitely brewing. Having settled on the branches of a fallen ‘Fever Tree Acacia’ (Vachellia xanthaphloea), we enjoyed some deliberate silence, allowing us to each have our personal moment of solitude in presence of those elephants. Eventually the herd began to move deeper into the reeds and we all agreed to spend the last hour of sunlight walking a short loop back to camp. What a perfect end to a great month, I thought…
Elephants on foot, a great way to spend our final afternoon…

Rounding the southern edge of the swamp, “Ribo” suddenly spotted the backside of a black rhino. It was a lone female, seeking out the tastiest browse growing in the sodden swamp margin. We were downwind and we stalked her to a wonderful vantage point.
The female black rhino about to get disturbed by an elephant.

Everything seemed to be in our favour when out of the reeds burst one of those pumped up elephant bulls. He lunged at the rhino to make his presence known. We were a little too close for comfort and began backing away. While unable to smell us, the bull’s eyes caught us moving. He ignored the rhino to focus on us. Thankfully he moved off after an impressive shake of his head.
Where did that rhino go? She was hidden behind a ‘Sandpaper tree’ but seemed relaxed despite the ele’s intrusion. Still not content with the rhino’s nonchalant presence, the bull returned, this time charging at her and chasing her in our direction! She let out a few wheezy snorts as she thundered towards us. “Ribo” and I were no longer in control of the situation and needed to think quickly. We took a hunch that the rhino would charge along a shallow donga (dry stream bed) so we remained on the high ground, backing towards yet another fallen ‘Fever tree’.
Chilled out as ever, ‘Ribo’, backing us away from the rhino

With the elephant ducking into the reeds, the rhino stopped in her tracks and eventually returned to her browsing. Looking around to strategize our extraction and return to camp, I noticed that all our direct routes were blocked by an irate bull elephant, a stubborn black rhino, two more bull elephants in the distance or the cross-tusked matriarch’s family. Needless to say, our hearts were pumping hard and the adrenaline levels climbing.
Before we could make a decision on the route, our silly smiles were turned by a piercing elephant trumpet. That same manic bull came bursting out of a Sandpaper tree thicket, in hot pursuit of a much smaller elephant. They crossed the little donga, 20m in front of us, between us and the rhino.
The large bull in hot pursuit, our camp in the background

Bull catches female

I had initially assumed it was another young bull being chased away from the herd, but it quickly became evident the little one was the reason for all the drama - a female in oestrus. Now over 100m away from us, the female turned in a wide arc and headed straight back in our direction. We definitely did not want to get in their way and rushed toward our trusty dead fever tree. We could not predict which side of us they were going to pass so had to hold our breath, ready to jump over to the other side of the tree at the last second. Just before they reached us, the bull had caught up with her and slowed her down by laying his trunk over her back. She tried to squirm and turn but she quickly accepted her suitor’s advances and stood still about 30m from us, totally unaware of our peering eyes over the fallen tree trunk. My jaw dropped at the prospect of what we were about to see, regardless of all the action we had just witnessed. I put my hands on my head in disbelief and turned back to look at the students bunched up behind me. Words were not necessary as their eyes were just as lit up as mine. I crouched down to let them take some photos of the unfolding scene.
Peering through the branches of a fallen fever tree to witness something incredibly special

The mating cannot have lasted more than a minute, but in that moment, I remember vividly reflecting on how incredibly lucky we had been over those four weeks, and the once-in-a-lifetime behaviour we had witnessed; and were witnessing right then.
They came even closer as they mated

I began chuckling; no doubt the onset of adrenaline-induced euphoria that was creeping up on us all. It wasn’t a chuckle at my speechlessness though, but at the thought of what could happen next. I was remembering reading one of Joyce Poole’s books on her elephant research in Amboseli. She described a mating scene, just as the one we had witnessed, but in her story, the female’s family was surrounding the mating pair, excitedly crowding round, trumpeting and rumbling. Where was this girl’s family and her cross-tusked matriarch, I wondered? Sure enough, over our shoulders, there they came, rushing towards the amorous couple.

As if we hadn’t had enough encounters already! We needed to get out of there.

Keeping a watchful eye on the merging elephants, we took a wide circle downwind of them and made for camp. Once well away from the scene and on a safe, well trodden game path, hysteria soon set in and we were all a smiling, ‘high-fiving’, laughing mess. Back in single file for the final march home, that same trumpet shrieked out behind us and out came the same two elephants. They rushed past us again, albeit much further away, and proceeded to mate once more. This was getting ridiculous.
 The second chase we witnessed

The second mating

In that one afternoon, we had witnessed so much interesting and rare behaviour. Some great trails guiding lessons were learned too. Needless to say, all of us will never forget that walk.

As with most of our best sightings on Lewa, all this action took place within 500m of our camp. However, it isn’t only the sightings and landscape that make Lewa so special. The not-for-profit conservation model - balancing community development with charity, eco-tourism, state-of the art protection of endangered rhino and Grevy’s Zebra and the re-establishment of migration routes by keeping various ecosystems inter-linked, is world famous. It is such a privilege to be able to conduct our course in this area and be immersed in the Lewa conservation culture. Thank you so much to the staff at Lewa, our camp staff, Mike, Maina and Richard as well as the students of course, for the hard work, laughs and for sharing these amazing photos.

Author: Andreas Fox
Photo Credit: Silke Hullman; Claudia Raven; Marcus Eichelberg
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