Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Porini Lion Camp, Olare Orok Conservancy, Kenya.

     Our first destination in Kenya, was Porini Lion Camp in the Narok Region, located in the Olare Orok Conservancy adjacent to Masai Mara National Reserve. Like all the Porini camps, this is permanently tented. It consists of 10 bedroom tents each with its own bathroom with a flushing toilet, a shower cubicle, and sink, some storage shelves, a desk in the bedroom, and two beds. There is electricity of a dim nature because it is provided by solar  energy and generator. Due to its dimness, you often want to use a flashlight or headlight to brighten things and certainly if you wish to read after dark. The running water is not for drinking and is cold. For hot showers the Masai housekeepers bring two large pails of hot water from their burner and fill a plastic bucket which is then hoisted up a pole to provide force for a hot shower. At the end of a dusty long day out looking for game, this shower is mighty welcome. In the morning, the staff comes to the tent with a wake up "Good Morning," and the  hot beverage of your choice, with a pitcher of hot water for washing face and hands in the morning.  There is a large dining tent adjoining a lounge area with a small library. There is a separate tent office for the director and sometimes it is in this office that plugins to charge camera and other types of batteries are located. Many camps have a WiFi hotspot by chance, and occasionally cell phone service can be obtained in that hot spot. At Porini Lion Camp it was under the so-called magic tree. It seems that this was likely the highpoint in camp. However, I could not get my phone to work there. Located away from these tents are a kitchen tent, and then even further away the tents that house the workers.
     We arrived in the early afternoon after driving from Nairobi. We had a late lunch by the small creek that runs along the edge of camp while watching baboons across the creek. At 4 PM we went out on our first game drive in Kenya. Believe me, this first drive set a high standard that would be very hard for other campsites to beat. The name of the Porini camp bore its moniker well -- we saw lots of big cats, and the most fascinating views into the lives of these cats occurred with the lions.

Be sure to open this one up to "Read More." It may take a while to load because there are many photos and a rather extended video.

Here are the baboons we saw at lunch.

     First we saw a cheetah all alone but just as proud as you please, just a car length from our safari vehicle.

     Next we found a leopard that was perched in a very picturesque dead tree, wide awake and out in the open, just as though someone had hired him to sit out there for us. He sat there quite a while and then slowly climbed down the tree and slowly walked away. We were always hearing about how secretive leopards are, but this guy was not troubled by us being there at all, about a car length away from him. He actually walked around the back of the vehicle and then sat down behind it.

     However, the best animals and behavior was attributed to the lions. First we found a group of six lion cubs of varying ages accompanied by a lioness babysitter. They were remaining in one spot, but were awake and the lioness was very alert, watching for something to happen in the distance.

     As we were photographing them and watching them, through the bush we saw a group of wildebeests running towards our right. And immediately behind them were two lionesses chasing them. Then the group of wildebeests came back into site running toward our left with no lionesses behind them. Then they slowed to a walk.  Our guides suspected that this meant the lionesses had made a kill. So we took off to find the kill and hopefully the lioness as well. And indeed we did find her.


      One of the two lionesses had taken down a young wildebeest. It was still alive when we got to her. She didn't seem to be anxious to strangle the wildebeest completely and it would occasionally struggle. Our guide thought that might be because she was waiting for the babysitting lioness and her charges to show up, and she wanted the meat to be very fresh. Do lions think like this? Who knows. At any rate, she waited for quite a while and then finally through her gripping the young animal's neck, it died. (It should be noted that in general lions and the other big cats always strangle their prey before starting to eat it, unlike the hyenas.) After the animal ceased struggling, she let go, put her foot on the wildebeest and then slowly walked away. Where she was going, we were not sure, but we decided to drive back toward the babysitting lioness and her cubs.
     But there was a back story that our guide filled us in about. That exact morning, was the first day of a 2 week change in the grazing rights of the Masai. The grass in several corridors of the Conservancy had become very long without the Masai grazing, and big cats like shorter grass so they can see their prey. And of course, tourists like to see big cats. So a decision was made to allow some of the tribes to graze their herds in certain areas for 2 weeks to shorten the grass. That morning was the first day of that grazing. The Masai herders bringing these large herds of cattle and goats into the Conservancy that morning had separated 4 lion cubs from the pride. They had been by themselves all day. Some researchers in the park knew them to be OK and had been keeping tabs on them, but of course, the pride usually wishes to be together. It appeared that the two lionesses had been heading to get the separated cubs when they ran onto the small herd of wildebeest and a lioness will never give up a feeding opportunity. So one of them took down the young wildebeest while the other continued on to get the separated cubs. As we were driving back to the babysitter and her cubs we saw the two lionesses bringing the 4 separated cubs and then the babysitting lioness also brought her cubs and they all met at the kill.
     It was so interesting to see the sociodynamics of the pride in this situation. First of all the 4 missing cubs were allowed to eat first. They wrestled and gnawed at the animal for sometime with one lioness standing over them. The rest of the pride lay down in the bush nearby and patiently waited for those 4 cubs to finish. These 4 cubs were too young to be able to break the skin, so the overseeing lioness finally stepped in and opened the meat to the young cubs feeding. After they had fed for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, there was some signal that we did not recognize and all the other cubs came in to feed, along with the other lionesses. But none of the lionesses ate much at all. This was a young wildebeest and our guide said it had really been taken down for the cubs to eat. This whole sequence was very fascinating. It is amazing how sophisticated these interactions apparently are. We loved the whole thing
The four separated cubs are wrestling and attempting to feed on the dead wildebeest.

Here the supervising lioness is about to open up the meat for the cubs.

Here now anybody who wants to eat has been allowed to come to the kill.

Here only the cubs are eating. The lionesses are standing aside.

      As you can see by the time we got to this point of the observations, it was dark, and it was time to head back to camp. But this day had been a phenomenal one and one that we will always remember.

      The next day, we left after breakfast with our lunch all packed in coolers in the vehicle by our camp kitchen. We were to spend the entire day driving in the Masai Mara National Reserve. We saw innumerable animals: giraffes, hippos, Nile crocodiles, elephants, Grant's and Thompson's gazelles, impala, topi, elands, and many many birds. But the highlight of the second day in the Masai Mara was finding (after a long dissecting search of a large grassy flat plane) a mating pair of lions down in the grass.

      So let me explain to you about lion physiology. A female lion goes into estrus when she is fertile for 7 to 10 days. During that time the dominant male of her pride usually goes off with her and they copulate about every 15 to 20 minutes around the clock at least for the first 5 days of this estrus period. The frequency falls off toward the end of estrus. Each copulation lasts only about 15 or 20 seconds, and then the two fall apart, totally exhausted and sleep for a while. Then they arise and again copulate. Each copulation is fairly the same. The female walks to the male and lies down facing away from him. He mounts her and they both snarl a little bit. He gives one big head turning roar and then he gives her a love bite on the back of her neck. And they roll apart and lay there panting and catching their breath. Then they seem to sleep for a time. When we drove up, they were just breaking apart. During the next copulation, my husband got some still shots. But he didn't get a chance to record a video of them, so we hung around and witnessed a third copulation which my husband did film and I have included it here for your edification.  



      And here is the video:

     You should know that the female initiated this encounter. She woke up first and walked over to the male. Copulation took place as you saw. Then the male stood there a little while, and then decided to lay down close to the female. She reacted and swatted at him, and then pushed him away with all four feet. Interesting! I told this story at dinner that night at the camp, and the gentleman from Minnesota who was sitting next to me said, "You see, females are all the same. They are always giving you mixed messages." We all laughed. But it certainly is easy to anthropomorphize these animal behaviors. 

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