Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 November 2008
Issue No. 921
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In search of the Big Five

Mohamed El-Hebeishy bush walks the African plains

Click to view caption
The migration of wildebeests and zebras

It is the Pyramids in a different sense, the Mecca for wildlife lovers. It is the world's most renowned national park -- the Masai Mara, the land and its people, which is how the Masai Mara got its name. The Masai is Kenya's most famous tribe. Known for their courage and fearless hearts, the Masai have managed to coexist in complete peace and harmony with the wildlife of their land. Being the semi-nomadic herders they are, farming is absolutely out of the question, and hunting contradicts their ancestral beliefs.

The land on the other side has a distinctive feature, the bluntly standing out Mara River. Flowing out of the Kenyan highlands for almost 400 kilometres, it is the bearer of life to these African plains. The river also plays a pivotal role in one of nature's most celebrated spectacles, the great wildebeest migration.

Around July each year, the dry season hits neighbouring Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. As a result, herds of grazing herbivores head north to the lush greens of the Masai Mara. When I say herds in the context of the wildebeest, I'm not talking hundreds or even thousands, but millions. Indeed the wildebeest is the dominant species in the migration, but zebras, gazelles and antelopes are not to be overlooked. In search of green pastures, this almost two million ensemble of hooves cross over 500 kilometres. It's not only an enduring journey but also a risky one. The lesser green pastures there is, the lesser herbivores there would be, and the lesser prey there is, the more hungry the predators would get. Packs after packs of lions, hyenas, wild dogs and jackals are on the tail, waiting for the first migrating individual to show a sign of weakness. One tumble is all they need and the unlucky wildebeest becomes food for lunch.

The Mara River makes for the grand finale. Not only is the river current strong but its water is crocodile infested, and that's completely ignoring the thousands of hungry vultures waiting by the trees on its banks. Still, the wildebeest must cross. In death there is life and by all means some of the herd is, and will continue to be, killed as prey. Nevertheless, the whole species survive on the green-rich plains of the Masai Mara. Temporal it is, for when it is autumn and the dry season arrives in October, they will have to migrate again, back to Serengeti.

Ironically, this grand natural phenomenon is not purely natural; man did play a role. Rinderpest is a deadly viral disease that attacks cattle. The word Rinderpest is a literal German translation for cattle plague. By all means it is a plague, for the ferocious killer doesn't need more than 12 days to knock down the healthiest of livestock. Before the 1960s this epidemic reduced wildebeest and cattle herds in the region to a mere 10 per cent. Fearing for their livelihood, the cattle herders started inoculating their animals. After a couple of decades, wildebeest numbers leapt from a little more than a quarter of a million to an overwhelming one and a half million. Migration became inevitable.

But the wildebeest migration is not all the Masai Mara has to offer. Are you ready for the Big Five?

The term "Big Five" refers to the lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard. Why these in particular? Is it a question of size? Can't be, for the hippo effortlessly beats the lion size wise. Abundance? Not possible, for giraffes outnumber leopards.

The term originated by hunters rather than safari operators keen to keep the animals alive. Hunters chose the five as being the most difficult to hunt on foot.

From hippos to crocodiles, elands to antelopes, impalas to topis, and from hyenas to cheetahs, the Masai Mara is definitely one of the last havens for wildlife. But if you're not that fond of game, no need to worry. You can still enjoy the plethora of exotic birds that migrate through Kenya, or rather call the place home. Keep an eye open for the snake-hunter Secretary bird and the beautiful colours of the lilac-breasted Roller. And when the day is about to end, grab a seat and indulge in the natural magic of an African sunset.

Wildlife Safari offers à la carte as well as tailor-made safaris and tours in Kenya and East Africa. For details and prices, please visit or Tel: +254 20 387 2343

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