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Two weeks on the edge. . .of the Masai Mara
Munir Virani — in East Africa Project    Share

Editor's note: The following article is from Rebecca Johnson and Gus Keys, volunteers working in the Masai Mara as part of our East Africa Project

“Tawny Eagle! Tawny Eagle coming in! Hang on…and a Steppe Eagle, no, two! Wow. Look up there, three vultures…two Lappet-faced and a White-headed. I think they’re coming down to the carcass. Here they come – this is amazing!”

So began our incredible final day of research in the district of Siana, on the edge of Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, collecting data for Corinne Kendall of Princeton University, and Munir Virani of The Peregrine Fund.

Over a two-week period, we gathered information on the effect of disturbance on avian scavengers, such as vultures and other birds of prey, and how their behaviour differs when feeding on carcasses located in disturbed and undisturbed sites.

Rather than a dawn game drive from our up-market lodge, our mornings in the Masai Mara involved setting off from our mud hut with a gruesome bag of dismembered sheep heads and organs, and laying out two tasty “carcasses” to try to attract vultures and other scavengers to that day’s study site.

We carried out a series of paired experiments, placing one carcass near to, and one carcass far from, a different “boma” (a Masai homestead) every day. From the cover of a nearby shady tree, we recorded all the birds and mammals which came to feed at both carcasses, noting their order of arrival and behaviour.

Typically, when these type of carcass experiments are carried out within the Masai Mara National Reserve, Bateleurs and Tawny Eagles are often two of the first species to attend carcasses, which signals their presence to other larger raptors such as vultures. In Siana, however, we saw a slightly different community, with Pied Crows and dogs playing a role.

The raptor sightings were still amazing though. The sight of a group of Lappet-faced and White-headed Vultures squabbling over a carcass just a few hundred metres away from us, stripping it bare, will remain one of our most memorable African wildlife moments.

It will be fascinating to see what a full analysis shows, when Corinne pulls together all the data as part of her PhD study.

But it wasn’t all hard work! We were lucky enough to be staying in Siana while many Masai circumcision ceremonies were taking place. These colourful rites of passage are the start of the journey to manhood in Masai culture, and we were able to join in with some of the festivities. But let’s just say the local Masai beer is a bit of an acquired taste.

As well as awesome birds and friendly people, we also regularly got to see herds of giraffes, wildebeest and gazelles wandering near our study sites. And every night from our mud hut, we heard the sound of roaring lions and whooping hyenas in the distance. It certainly made late night trips to our “bathroom” in the cactus patch that little bit more exciting.

All in all, our two weeks in the Mara were fantastic, and felt a million miles away from our usual survey work back in Scotland. We were sad to leave Siana and the friends we had made during our stay, but we had one final wildlife treat in store: the magical sight of a lion and lioness standing by the roadside watching us pass as we bumped and bounced our way back to civilization.

Rebecca Johnson and Gus Keys
January 2011

Munir’s note: Rebecca Johnson and Gus Keys have been provided a grant by The Peregrine Fund to study little known raptors in the tropical rainforests of the Central African Republic. They will be in the CAR from February 1st onwards. We look forward to reading more about their experiences in these little known forests.

Find more articles about Bateleur, Tawny Eagle, White-headed Vulture, Africa

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