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September 2011: Lions in the Mara

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Mara Lions - brave a river crossing

Mara Lions - brave a river crossing

Wolds wildlife artist Robert E Fuller guides a group to a sighting of lions crossing the Talek river in the Masai Mara as featured in the Yorkshire Post September 24th 2011.

KENYA'S Masai Mara is undoubtedly the jewel in Africa's crown. I have visited this vast continent 10 times, and seen six of its countries, but the Mara is a place that I am consistently drawn back to. Last month, I led a group of 12 people from Yorkshire to show them the very best of what the Mara has to offer. On each visit I see something unique and this latest trip proved to be just that with an unusual sighting of one of the top predators overcoming a well known ingrained fear, possibly in the name of love.

I timed the trip to coincide with the world's largest animal migration. This incredible phenomenon involves over a million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra and gazelle, pursued by Africa's great predators, crossing a distance of some 1,800 miles in search of green pasture. I had a good team of experts working with me with whom I have travelled many times, including the wildlife photographer Daryl Balfour, and so I knew the sightings would be impressive. As we headed out on our first game drive of the trip from our very own private camp sited between the junction of the Mara and the Talek river the sun was rising over the horizon, silhouetting the elegant acacia trees and grazing zebras before it.

A group of hyenas loped into view, filing back to their dens after a night of mischief, no doubt.
The plains were picture perfect for this time of year, full of Thomson's gazelle, topi, zebra and wildebeest. A week of heavy rains had brought the landscape back to life, after well-documented droughts. Before long we rounded a bend and saw an impressive male lion in the distance on the opposite side of the Talek river. Our trip had barely begun and already we had a big cat to watch. And this sighting was to prove extremely unusual. I have never seen the Talek river so swollen after heavy rain - the last time I visited it was no more than a trickle - neither had our guide Daryl who has been in the Mara for every migration season for over 20 years.

The water was flowing fast and furious creating mini-rapids and carrying debris in its wake. We were frustrated that on this occasion we were unable to cross the river in our Landcruiser to get closer to the lion. But we were pleased to watch from the vantage of the river bank as the lion swaggered towards the river and us with confidence, scent marking the trees as he went. I assumed this impressive beast was going for a drink. But I was astonished when, without breaking his stride, he walked straight into the raging water and began to confidently swim across the rapids. Of course, lions like most felines detest submerging themselves in any form of water no matter how still or shallow. This water was verging on being whitewater and not only that but crocodiles were known to linger camouflaged on its banks waiting for any unsuspecting victim to cross.

The current was so strong that it actually swept the lion downstream. For a while I could only make out his head above the brown muddy water. But he showed no fear and deftly catty-paddled through the deepest section before regaining his footing and marching towards the bank in front of us and hauling himself out onto dry land. He promptly shook himself down, sending droplets of water cart-wheeling off his luxurious mane. It was if it was water off a duck's back. The lion continued on his way across the plains, acting as though he owned the place.
We followed him for some distance in awe. This lion's nonchalance about his impressive feat was astounding. I was so amazed to have seen such an event, our guides were too. They had never seen such an occurrence.

But then, now out of sight of the river, this water-loving cat flopped down on the ground and began to doze, as though he didn't have anything pressing on after all. I couldn't understand what had prompted such a display of bravado followed by such inaction. Across the radio tanoy, came the voice of one of our other guides to tell us that a herd of wildebeest were gathering ready to cross downstream. After some consideration we reluctantly dragged ourselves away from him. We drove on to find that a number of wildebeest had already crossed and we watched as they streamed either side of our Landcruiser and began filing out onto the plain behind us. It is incredible how instinct drives the wildebeest to cross these crocodile infested waters in their thousands.

There were still quite a large number of beasts still to cross and we watched as they plunged impulsively into the water. The noise was deafening as adults that had become separated from their calves brayed anxiously. Sometimes the calves tried to cross back the other way against the flow of the traffic looking for their mother. Before long they had all made it across safely and we watched as the families regrouped before dispersing to graze. We decided to go back and see if our lion had woken up. He'd walked further over the plain but it didn't take us long to find him again and we started to piece together the reason for seeing his river crossing in the first place.

A few hundred metres away there was a lioness. She was clearly in season but she was flanked by another pride male. Male lions won't let a female that is in season out of their sight and will mate repeatedly. This one was no exception. He mated her on average every 17 minutes. Our water-loving lion had probably been drawn to cross the river by the irresistible scent given off by the female. He clearly knew his place in the pecking order and that his presence would be unwelcome - yet what a display of bravery in front of the lioness and her suitor. It's got to be said I was certainly impressed!

Yet, some lionesses are surprisingly scheming when they are in season. They mate with the pride male of their choice, but will also allow other males to mate with them. This is in the hope of tricking them into thinking that any offspring they have could be theirs. The tactic is aimed at ensuring they get extra protection from the coalition of males that make up the pride. I will never know if our lion had already had his opportunity with this cunning lioness already. One of our guides spotted a third older male lion looking on close by and immediately recognised him as being Notch made popular by the TV series Big Cat Diary. It looked like we had stumbled upon a famous pride without realising it.

It was interesting to see that this renowned King of the Mara was allowing this younger generation of males the mating rights over the pride females. Notch may be getting past it now at 14 years old but he is clearly still a clever predator. He knows that by stepping down without a fight that he can maintain a protected position within the pride in old age. He certainly looked well on it.

I couldn't have wished for a better first morning game drive. The breadth of sightings continued to impress, with great views of cheetah, leopard, elephant and rhino. This latest safari was so successful that I shall be taking a group of 12 with me again in 2012.

If you are interested in joining me click here for details.

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