The Serengeti Catwalk

Groomed manes, dappled coats and crimson smiles were much in evidence during our week-long visit to the East Central Serengeti’s, Namiri Plains, this past week.

In fact, for anyone serious about photographing or seeing lions or cheetah, there can hardly be a better place on the planet than Namiri Plains.

What makes this location that much more special is that it is so incredibly open and accessible to the viewer.

Whilst my objective is to always try to create unique and world-class fine art imagery, Monique and I as naturalists never lose sight of the privilege of just watching and absorbing all the amazing behavior on display.

Our time spent at Namiri Plains coincided with the very onset of the Great Migration moving through the area. As such, it truly was a time for plenty. We also chose to do the same roughly 60km loop each day for a week, which gave us a good insight to the various lion prides and coalitions, as well as individual predator movements and strategies at play.

Cat on a Koppie

Since the passing on off the legendary lion, Bob Junior, just a few weeks ago, there has been a huge amount of fractious behavior in the area with new coalitions of lions forming and the territorial landscape changing considerably.

On our second morning, we came across one of Bob’s half-brothers who is a nomad, but still very much one of the most beautiful and powerful lions in the Serengeti. At first light on this particularly spectacular morning, we came upon him smelling and scent marking a scenic set of koppies, known as Zebra Koppies, not far from camp.

It was a wonderful and insightful time as we watched him walk through the dew-laden grass as he sniffed all the rocks and trees in the area, and occasionally stopped to scent mark them for himself.  After fifteen minutes of this, just as we were about to leave, he headed for the most curvaceous set of rocks.

Anxiously we waited, hoping he would climb this particular cluster of koppies. We quickly drove to the opposite side, light at our backs and waited in anticipation.

At first, nothing.

Then suddenly, his huge head and mane appeared as he crested the rock, turning this magnificent male lion golden red in the early morning light which kissed his amber eyes.

He strode regally to the most prominent position on the rock, and took his throne whilst gazing into the advancing morning light, and over the plains of The Serengeti.

It was the most incredibly beautiful sighting and a special photographic opportunity.

Cat amongst the Wolves

Leaving this male and heading into the open plains, we regularly encountered cheetah. In fact, on most mornings we saw three to four different groups.

One group in particular stands out, a female with a full-grown cub. We came across them probably five times over the week with one sighting being particularly fascinating.

On this particular morning, we followed parallel to them from roughly 100 yards as they determinedly walked towards a medium sized herd of Thompson’s gazelles. Accordingly, we went several hundred meters behind the gazelles, positioning for the expected 100kmph chase.

Both cheetahs went low in the grass, slowly advancing and still undetected, whilst the gazelles with morning sun in their eyes walked obliviously towards them.

Just as the younger cheetah was about to pull the trigger, a hyena loped into view. Suddenly the cheetah was distracted, knowing this usurper would surely steal any kill they made.

The hyena however was also incredible, for it could not see the cheetah but with an unbelievable sense of smell, it followed almost exactly over the course of several hundred meters through the wet grass where the cheetah pair had walked.

Slowly but surely, this fiendish detective honed in. Expecting the cheetah to run away, we were surprised to observe that as the hyena got within about twenty meters, the cheetah erupted from the grass, and ran straight into the hyena giving it an almighty wallop with its claw, right across the hyena’s face.

Howling, the hyena backed off but by now, the game was up with Thompson gazelles that were no doubt thankful to the hyena for his timely interruption of events.

No sooner had the hyena backed off than the cheetah mother, probably still full of adrenalin and fury, spotted a golden wolf (previously named golden jackal) which she took off after, despite being at least two hundred yards from it.

It was the most incredible sight as she ran at full speed, mostly low flying two feet off the ground across the open plains. As she advanced, the wolf let out a panicked series of howls that caused its mate to come running towards the commotion.

When just a meter or so away, the female cheetah stopped chasing, but just 50 yards away from us, the younger cheetah now began to chase the new arriving wolf. This had exactly the same result of a screaming wolf chased to within a hairs breath of capture, but not finished off. Clearly what we were witnessing was some form of Cheetah fun, chasing and tormenting, just to show what they were capable of.

Hide and Seek

The following morning we once again witnessed what could only be described as an unbelievable piece of natural history, and one I will always remember.

By this time, the recently empty plains were now full of tens of thousands of migrating wildebeest and zebra, accompanied by thousands and thousands of Thompsons gazelles, many of whom had just dropped their new born fawns.

These fawns are tiny and I would be surprised if they weighed more than five or six pounds. They seemed easy prey and as we crested a ridge, we saw two golden wolves in the process of applying the coup de grace to one of them.

All of a sudden, from more than a hundred yards off, a hyena came racing towards them. The two otherwise occupied golden wolves didn’t see it coming until the last minute, whereupon they had to instantly drop their meal, and hand it over to the observant thief.

Whilst still watching this, out the corner of my eye I saw another two golden wolves moving at lightning speed.

At first it was not clear what was happening, but then just a few yards ahead of them I saw a tiny fawn running at full speed for its life, jinxing first one way, then the next, in a showcase of incredible athleticism and survival. 

Unexpectedly, and out of the blue, three adult female Thompsons Gazelles joined the melee, running ahead and across the golden wolves in confusing angles.

Unbelievably, not just the mother, but also two others had engaged in an anti-predatory distraction strategy to try confuse the wolves.

This chase went on for what must have been nearly half a kilometer, it was quite unbelievable and looking through binoculars it appeared certain the wolves would catch the fawn which at times was not more than a yard or two ahead of their jaws.

At this point, a female gazelle literally ran right across a golden wolf, temporarily blinding its view from the fawn. Instantly, the fawn went to ground and hid motionless. The panting wolves however knew the game and began a determined search of every bush and termite mound, but miraculously walked past where the fawn lay.

Undetected by the golden wolves, who were also still being led astray by the female gazelles, the fawn bounded in the opposite direction. By this stage we were mesmerized by what we had seen, but the most incredible was yet to come.

As the fawn bounded off to what appeared to be safety, a tawny eagle that had been watching events swooped down towards it, talons out. 

Seeing the fast approaching raptor, the fawn hit the brakes and again went to ground with the eagle almost cartwheeling in its attempts to slow down and catch the tiny gazelle with an outstretched talon.

Seeing the eagle, the wily wolves caught on to what was happening, and bounded off in that direction with the three gazelles running decoy lines at the same time.

As the eagle banked for another attempt, the fawn realizing its impending fate, was off again, now with both eagle and wolves in hot pursuit. First this way, then the next, with tooth, claw and talon in advance, and the trio of unlikely heroes doing their best to create chaos.

By now our nerves were frayed! This was insane, as the event had already covered what must have been close on a kilometer. Just as it reached its crescendo, with wolves now almost on top of their prey, and the eagle relegated to flying air support, the gazelles once again drastically intervened by running such aggressive lines across the wolves that they lost a few yards.

The fawn again went to ground, but this time the golden wolves ran past by a few dozen yards with the eagle tracking above them.

Seizing this lifeline of opportunity, the fawn backtracked on itself, sprinting low to the ground in the opposite direction.

Seeing this, one of the gazelles from the rescue party took off after it and quickly covered the ground to flank it.

By now, the remaining cast of characters were so exhausted, confused and quite frankly outfoxed, that they let the mother and fawn unite and disappear into the safety of the nearby herd.

Whilst the photos of the event are marginal, and shot from a long distance as we did not want to interfere by being too close, the memory of this incredible display of survival, strategy and determination in the face of overwhelmingly bad odds will always remain as one of the greatest exhibitions of instinct, preservation and natural behavior we have ever witnessed.

Whilst hard to beat, the following days brought many more incredible lion and cheetah sightings. As the great herds advanced, so did the opportunities for the hunters, and on one morning we observed no less than nine already completed kills made by an equal number of lion and cheetah.

Quite simply this was an unparalleled time of feast and fortune for all with padded foot.  

Copyrighted by Chris Fallows @2020