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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
The Action
Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project    Share

          This time of year everyone knows the action is by the river. With thousands of wildebeest and zebra crossing Mara river every few days there are sure to be some casualties. Some animals will drown in the rushing water, some will be trampled in the mad rush of the crossing, and some might even fall from the steep riverbanks as their comrades urge them forward. That’s not what people come here to see though. On the top of every tourists list is watching a wildebeest or zebra be consumed by a crocodile. With crocodiles longer than a giraffe is tall, this is the time of year to see what these prehistoric beasts are really made of.

The crossing also offers ample opportunity to see vultures – sometimes at least. So that seemed a good enough excuse to head over there this afternoon after a successful carcass watch and transect this morning. When we reached the water’s edge I was impressed first by the giant crocodile who was basking in the sun. Easily 16 feet and perhaps four feet wide, he was quite possibly the largest reptile I had ever seen. There were two other things that caught my eye when I reached the river. First, a large herd of zebra had gathered on the banks and were calling to their friends on the other side. Perhaps our timing was good and we would get to see them cross. Second, there were some large black rocks that seemed to be floating down the river. When I looked through the binoculars, it appeared that some of the rocks had horns and as the water washed them into other real rocks, hooves were pushed above the surface. The river was literally teeming with dead wildebeest. Bloated and soaked they drifted around like logs, but the reality was much more disturbing. Over thirty wildebeest had drown during the crossing that morning.

Soon a new crossing was beginning as several hundred zebra took to the water. The line was thin at first with just a few animals starting everyone off, but soon the whole herd had decided to join in. A few crocodiles drifted back into the water and moved towards the herd. I readied my camera. The zebras seemed aware of the crocodiles, but especially in their large numbers they didn’t seemed to concerned. For their part, the crocs didn’t seem to hungry. The zebras stopped to drink and splashed through the water as they made their way across, but the crocodiles kept their distance. Distracted by the floating wildebeest corpses they clearly had plenty to eat already.

When the crossing had finished we moved up stream to a small group of hippos. The wildebeest floated among the group, but only a few took interest. Although hippos have an almost completely vegetarian diet, they have been known to make exceptions. So I wasn’t totally surprised, when a hippo started chomping on the passing wildebeest. It didn’t seem to have a great strategy, so most of its biting just seemed to push the dead wildebeest downstream rather than break them apart, but still the hippo tried again and again. He nibbled away at the head, legs, and tails of the floating bodies, but never quite got a bite. Still it was fascinating to watch.

When we finally returned to the crocodiles, they were starting to show greater interest in the easy prey. Five or six huge guys gathered around a single dead wildebeest and the rolling began. With great effort, the crocs pulled the wildebeest limb from limb. Nearby a well-fed pair of crocs appeared to have something else on their mind. Coiled around each other rather ackwardly, their tails tightly intertwined it was clear what they were doing even though the female was mostly submerged. They were mating. They bobbed up and down in the water in unison for a few moments before finally dislodging. Then it was back to the shore for a nice sunbathe.

The only thing missing from the river experience was vultures – hard to believe given all the food. The only raptor we saw was a young African fish eagle. Transitioning from juvenile to adult, he had a strange pattern around his face and had watched on through the crocodiles munching. Perhaps tomorrow the scavengers would find this smorgasbord of carcasses.

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