Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The large mammals of Kenya

This is the seventh in a series of posts summarizing my experiences on our recent trip to Kenya to study East African Raptor Ecology. I am not running out of content yet! But with school starting, I might be running out of time... The previous posts:
Post 1: East African Raptor Ecology
Post 2: The Big Cats!
Post 3: The Vultures of Maasai Mara
Post 4: Giraffes!
Post 5: More Raptors of Kenya: Chanting-goshawks and Buzzards
Post 6: The Vulures of Maasai Mara Revisited

This post focuses on those organisms firmly bound to the planet - the large mammals. Giraffes, the largest ruminant on the planet and the tallest land based animal on the planet, was covered in an earlier post. I also covered hippos in the first post. The remaining large mammals we saw include the Elephant, the Rhinoceros, and the Cape Buffalo.

Stuck in the mud.

Before getting to the main attraction, its worth covering a little side adventure we experienced. Many of us spent an extra day in Kenya to explore Nairobi National Park. The plane fare was $700 cheaper to do so! With a new park we had the opportunities to see a number of new species. The vehicle arrangements for this extra day were considerably more "budget oriented" than the rest of the trip. For the previous 8 days we had excellent vehicles and knowledgeable drivers. On this extra day, we had lower end vans with drivers who did not really speak English, but we were all for saving a little money.

The night before the trip, it rained. It rained hard all night. It cleared up at breakfast and promised to be a great day. We made our way to a pizza joint at 8:30 in the morning to arrange for lunch. Hmm. They weren't open, but some employees inside let us in and promised to deliver pizza to the front gate of the park at noon. It is $40 per person to enter the park. If we left the park for lunch we would have to pay to get back in. We paid for the pizza in advance and hoped the food would arrive. We moved out on our way and into the park.

Did I mention that it had rained the night before? We were on a mission to see a Martial Eagle. The only one of the ten preassigned species we had not yet seen (each of ten students was assigned a raptor species to study and present to the class). The drivers assured us they knew where it was. We started heading down a particularly muddy section of road. Jay pointed to the mud and asked the driver if we could make it through. The driver nodded and said "yes, mud". Yes, it was mud, no we wouldn't make it.

Nairobi National Park, Kenya.

I thought to myself, "at least we only have one of the vehicles stuck." Looking behind, I would learn otherwise. The second driver drove right into the same hole. Pretty freakin' amazing!

Nairobi National Park, Kenya.

We worked to get the vans out and ultimately was able to free one of them. After much broken negotiation with the drivers and on the phone with their boss, we all piled into one van to return to the gate. They would be sending a couple of 4 wheel drive vans. After a short wait, the pizza arrived. It was starting to look like a better day. A while later, our new vehicles were there and we proceeded back into the park!


On our last evening in Maasai Mara we found a group of elephants. These large lumbering creatures were something to watch. I've seen them before in captivity, but it is a very different experience to see them in the wild! One female in the group was very upset.

Female Elephant. Maasai Mara, Kenya.

She was trumpeting and crashing through brush and small trees. It was awe inspiring to watch her size and power as she ripped apart bush after bush. It was very unsettling. We are not sure exactly what was going on, but our driver believed it was the result of a large male nearby. Apparently a male can kill other juvenile elephants to push their mother into estrus. Not sure if that was what was going on or not.

Male Elephant. Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Cape Buffalo

The Cape Buffalo also have a dominating presence. Similar to North American Bison, they seem to have a intimidating look to them. This particular herd had both Red-billed Oxpeckers and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers flying and roosting among them. The Yellow-billed has both yellow and red on its bill, the red-billed has a solid red bill with a yellow wattle around the eye.

Cape Buffalo with Yellow-billed Oxpeckers. Maasai Mara, Kenya.


In Maasai Mara we got one view of a rhino from about a mile away. Nairobi National Park provided much more intimate encounters.

Suspected Black Rhino. Nairobi National Park.

We believe we saw both black and white rhinos in the park. You have to look at their mouth shape, but I didn't catch that in the photos. The black rhinos are smaller, which is consistent with these photos. Our driver also believed these to be black rhinos. The black rhinos are critically endangered with only 4,000 individuals believed to be in existence. Evolutionary biologists believe the minimum sustainable population of any organism, with free random breeding is near 500 individuals. Below this number genetic bottlenecks and thus inbreeding occurs. When considering habitat fragmentation and other threats, 4,000 is pretty close to the minimum population for viable preservation. This assumes reasonable connection between individuals. They are amazing creatures to watch. Similar to the giraffe, they seem like an odd product of evolution, but apparently it works.

The park would also present a White Rhino adorned with oxpeckers. White Rhinos can be more than twice the size of blacks, weighing over 7,000 pounds!

White Rhinoceros. Nairobi National Park, Kenya.

The White Rhino is considered "Near Threatened" with an estimated 17,000 individuals in the wild.

The next post will be on the Eagles.


Birding is Fun! said...

As I was reading your blog this morning, my almost 9-year-old son peered over my shoulder and exclaimed, "Dad, I didn't know Africa was green." Thanks for your fantastic photos that opened the mind of my little boy. My kids all laughed at the giraffe's goofy grass-eating position.

wolf21m said...

Robert, thanks for the comment. I have to admit that it was greener than I expected as well. It seems that most of the nature programs film during the dry season. While technically this is their dry season, they have been getting tons of rain. It rained most of the nights we were there, but was clear during the day.

marion said...

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