A colleague before I went to East Africa heard I was going and said "I love the Masai Mara – you get such a sense of natural life and death there.."
I wasn’t sure what he meant until I experienced it for myself. This is where every animal lives with one eye over its shoulder for predators or where one miscalculated leap ends in failure and it can’t feed its cubs. It is the animal kingdom at its rawest and while that is very exciting I think it is fair to warn you that it is also very gruesome. The blood and guts of animal death are freely experienced in the Masai Mara.
On our last day we travelled to the Talek River where we were hoping to catch a sight of the elusive leopard. The Talek is prime leopard country and they prey on the Vervet monkeys who live in the surrounding trees. The river itself is covered in small trees and sandbanks. Perfect ambush territory for a leopard.
We did find a kill in the river. Two wildebeest had been swept downstream and had ended in a culvert between two rocks. There they had been found by a dozen or so vultures and marabou storks. As we watched done vulture was so strong it could move a 300IB gnu corpse on its own. One lead vulture had its head inside the wildebeest and was gulping down the flesh. If you will forgive the pun there was a pecking order with these birds and a younger vulture was making shrill noises as it wanted to get at the meat and the others were keeping it at bay.
But it was nothing to the horror of what we encountered upstream.
There must have been a wildebeest crossing early this morning or late last night but it had ended in disaster and the carnage was indescribable. The opposite bank was a slope where the wildebeest had entered the river and this was at a reasonable angle – but on our side the cliffs were sheer and underneath these cliffs were two hundred wildebeest corpses.
They had obviously been caught against the cliffs of the river and the narrow exit had caused a crush or a stampede. The sheer weight of panicking wildebeest had crushed hundreds to death. The wildebeest are prone to stampede. Imagine being trapped in a panicking herd with lots of flailing hooves and horns. We could see the corpses below us and they were in a floating mass, bobbing in the river with their legs sticking up.
And then there were the scavengers.
Hundreds of vultures had found this massacre. They perched in trees surrounding the river. But mainly they were in the bobbing corpses hopping from one to the other with wings outstretched and shrieks rending the air. The noise was deafening – shrieking and cawing. Despite the glut of meat they were fighting each other. Some were so gorged with wildebeest they were too heavy to fly and had to wait until it was digested before they could get off the ground.
They say the biggest killer of wildebeest is wildebeest and my heart went out to them – it was a very upsetting sight. But it is part of life in the Mara and many more wildebeest make it back to the Serengeti to start the migration all over again. But I couldn’t shake from my mind the image of wildebeest drifting downstream and bloated so much they look like they had been inflated with a foot pump.
The next day we went back. Streams of descending vultures led the way and there were more birds then there were yesterday. The stench from them was pretty overpowering . The Marabou storks were there gulping down shreds of flesh from the bobbing corpses.
It was a sad sight and even our guide was affected. But accidents do happen and on this small river in Africa hundreds died within minutes.