My African impressions still overwhelm me long after we ended our two-week safari across the Kenyan and Tanzania plains. We saw the Great Migration of two million wildebeests, zebras and antelopes at the time their calves were birthing, one of the animal kingdom’s most magnificent spectacles.
The serene scenes of thousands of animals of different species living side-by-side masks a life cycle with fatal consequences. I’d envisioned the large predators as lords of the plains terrifying other animals. But I’ve come to believe that each animal survives because of its unique advantages in its environment, and that death arrives daily for only a few, though inevitably for all, just as our life-cycle does.
I saw powerful images among the large animals affected by the great migration: wildebeests, zebras and lions.
The Serengeti savannahs lie two degrees south of the equator where volcanic activity and tectonic plates have shoved-up the land 2000 feet higher into a cooler, drier climate.
The rains roll around the plains in a circular path from southern Tanzania north to southern Kenya before returning to southern Tanzania. The lands are drenched during a short rainy season in November and December and again by a long one from March through May, but parched in between.
After the rains tall grasses grow on land dotted by bushes and scores of varieties of Acacia trees. That fecund landscape feeds millions of herbivores who graze beside each other or march in single file following an ancient force. Zebras nibble down the tops of the long grasses. Wildebeests crave the remaining short grasses, so the herds graze together. Antelopes in sizes from dainty Thomsen gazelles to Grant gazelles graze near the herds.
Wildebeests and zebras survive with a life cycle based on following the rains to refreshed grasses. Just before the long rains begin we saw wildebeests lick away the childbirth on newborn calves as they struggled onto their feet within 15 minutes to avoid packs of hyenas, wild dogs or cheetahs hunting them down.
We saw hundreds of zebras, wildebeests and antelopes grazing near a kopje of large boulders and shade trees packed with lions, surrounded by approximately ten safari vehicles of spectators watching sun-bathing lionesses and younger lions.
“There’s a lioness in the grass,” came the whispered word among the vehicles.
The lioness staring from her perch laid down. The herds returned to grazing 50 yards farther away. Soon a lean lioness moseyed by our vehicle and climbed back into the kopje trees shading her disinterested pride.
Unlike the migrating animals, lions remain within their marked hunting ground, defending it from invading prides of lions and hyenas. If the pride migrated into new territories other prides would drive them back to their territory.
Male lions expel young males to hunt with other males and take over their own prides. A reproducing male will be with a pride for an average of 2 years and then live on its own in a ten-year expected life-span. Their manes make them slower and less agile hunters.
During dry seasons lions wait for the migrating herds to return or feast on animals that remain but are more dangerous to hunt, such as young elephants or Cape buffalo. An entire pride may leave the cubs alone while they hunt. We heard two cubs hidden in a kopje calling for their elders, sending signals to predators such as eagles, hawks and hyenas. Half of the cubs born in dry seasons are lost.
The wildebeest and zebras are compelled to follow the sweet grasses north of the Sur River where another territorial predator waits: crocodiles. The crocodiles feast on one of every six animals during the annual crossing. The antelopes turn around before the Sur River and return to the central Serengeti until the cycle starts again.
Research shows my human ancestors survived on those plains and some with modern tools still do. We weren’t allowed out of our vehicles, which I readily obeyed. I wouldn’t know how to survive out there. Those animals are equipped to survive. It’s an awesome experience to see them integrated with the other animals in their Great Migration’s habitat.