the big five
Long before hordes of tourists descended on the Mara with massive telephoto lenses, intent on capturing the perfect shot, European hunters talked about the “Big Five”. Times have changed and going on safari is no longer synonymous with tramping through a savannah with a rifle in search of a prized kill. Yet, the phrase, originally referring to the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot, is still widely used by contemporary safari guides.
Two of the Big Five – the elephant and buffalo – are still plentiful throughout Kenya and are quite a lot easier to shoot with a camera from a car than they must have been to hunt on foot with a rifle.
Having seen a pride of lions the day before [See in the bush], we were missing just two from the famed list: the leopard and the rhino. In fact, we saw plenty more lions throughout the course of the day. However, because lions are only active for a few hours a day – either at night or early in the morning – they were all sleeping.
Leopards, far less numerous than lions, are also known to be territorial. Whereas lions will come and go as they please, leopards tend to prefer the shade of trees and tall bushes that spring up along streams and riverbeds. It took us the better part of three hours to cross the plains, frequently stopping along the way to take pictures of other animals, before we got to the area that was known for leopard sightings. The group that went the day before us saw a leopard. However, it was up in a tree and they had to view it from 50 feet away, surrounded by about forty other Jeeps and safari buses. We were far more fortunate.
Within minutes of entering leopard territory, D saw movement in the brush and screamed, “Cat!” There were no other vehicles around and because we were the first ones to spot her, we got to follow the leopard as she slunk through the bushes. At one point, she came out of the brush and actually stood close enough to our car that S could have reached out to pet her.
Had we been on the conservancy land, we might have had a chance to watch her hunt, as there were several wildebeest within striking distance. However, other tour groups saw that we were slowly cruising, stopping to take pictures, and slowly moving on again, so their drivers raced over to see what we had found. There was also a larger, shyer male leopard hiding in the bushes, and the newcomers set up a siege hoping that he would come out and show himself. By the time we left the gaggle of vehicles that had formed as a result, the two leopards had entirely ensconced themselves in the brush and more cars were arriving to join the two dozen tour groups that were hopelessly waiting for these majestic cats to reappear.
Though leopards are harder to find than other big cats, at least we had an idea of where to look for them. The same could not be said of the black rhino. Our guides told us that there are only 15 black rhinos that live in the entire Mara and Serengeti combined. No one knows on which side they might be at any given moment and one can spend weeks at a time cruising around the plains without seeing one or meeting anyone who had seen one. When 4:30pm rolled around and we turned back towards the park entrance, we had every reason to congratulate ourselves on a spectacular safari day. Despite the fact that we had not come upon a black rhino, we had seen pretty much everything else that the Mara has to offer. For instance, we had asked our guides about servals, having seen one in an Entebbe zoo several weeks prior [See chimp asylum]. Imagine our excitement when D spotted one in the wild.
It was stalking through grass that was so tall that the only thing that could be seen from the afar were its perky ears. We drove closer to see a brilliantly colored cat that was smaller in size than our Emmie, but that left no doubt about its predatory nature, something that cannot be said of our good-natured pup.
We also fought through a line of several dozen safari vehicles to get a glimpse of three cheetahs that were breathing heavily in the heat, their bellies full from a recent kill.
It started raining on our drive back, and when the sporadic drops turned into a heavy downpour, we gave up our fleeting hope of completing the Big Five checklist. We stopped to pull down the canvas flaps, which made our previously open-air LandCruiser impervious to rain. We were about half an hour from the exit when the radio squawked to life. One of the other Porini drivers had spotted a rhino somewhere and was transmitting the good news to the other Porini cars. Of course, all we had heard was some excited Maasai jabber, half of which seemed lost to static, and had to ask our guides why they suddenly wheeled the car around. How the other car was able to give our guides directions will forever remain a mystery to us. Nevertheless, after a half hour of rapid driving on frequently crossing car tracks that seemed to lead to nowhere in particular, our guides had managed to cross an impressive expanse of Mara wilderness and arrive on the back side of an unmarked hill where a solitary black rhino was calmly grazing.