Home TravelAfricaKenya Life and death in the Maasai Mara

Life and death in the Maasai Mara

by Ellie Hopgood

Warning: this post contains photos of animals being killed and eaten (by other animals). Read on only if you have the stomach for it!

Though the high concentration of Jeeps and telephoto lenses might suggest otherwise, events in the Maasai Mara are unscripted. There is no way to guarantee a leopard sighting, or to come across the right point of the river just as herds of wildebeest are attempting to cross. While the guides are skilled trackers – and are also skilled at sharing information with each across the radio network – a big part of animal sightings is merely being in the right place at the right time.

Along with trying to stumble across baby lions or one of the park’s thirty-five rhino, most people are keen to see a kill. Again, the concentration of tourists can make it feel far less wild than it is, but the plains remain a place where hoards of predators live and hunt. On our first evening driving in the Mara, we pulled out of camp and almost ran straight into a bloodstained lioness catching her breath after taking down a wildebeest. The animal’s brain was on the grass, right next to its head. Jackson told us that the lion was taking a break before inviting other members of her pride to dinner.

There is no guarantee that you’ll see a kill while wildlife spotting, so seeing this resting lioness and decapitated wildebeest felt like enough. However, the circle of life wasn’t finished with us yet. Later that same evening, we were watching the most adorable group of six cubs messing around behind a tree, where they’d been hidden by their mothers, who had stalked off to hunt. Within mere minutes, the sound of a zebra in extreme distress echoed through the air.

Only twenty metres or so from the lion cub den, the lionesses had taken down a zebra. We pulled up beside the scene (along with many other cars) as one lion was suffocating the twitching zebra with its powerful leg while the other began to rip at the animal’s groin. I know that animals eating other animals is part of nature and that I shouldn’t imbue a zebra’s death with the same emotional meaning that it would confer in human societies, but man, listening to a little zebra bleat in distress for an hour while its friend (I know, I know) is ripped apart by a family of lions packs a punch. 

We spent the next hour watching the lions disassemble the zebra. They went in through the groin and stomach, pulling the intestines and other organs out onto the grass. While one of the lionesses continued to feast, the other two went to fetch their young, parading them back to the bloody scene in single file. The cubs started to gnaw at the zebra, pulling at its tail and skin with their tiny teeth. Soon, their sweet little faces were etched with blood. Their mothers were teaching them how to devour.

This continued. The cubs soon got bored, their little stomachs easier to satiate, and they took to wrestling with each other over the zebra corpse or playing with their mother’s tail while she still had her head lodged deep within the belly of their prey. I’d never seen new life and death captured so perfectly side by side.

It was violent, but, somehow, peaceful at the same time. The lions expertly suffocated the zebra and then took it apart with the skill of practised predators. They taught their babies how to eat, in the hope that their little ones don’t end up dead on the plain before their time. At its core, it’s no different to us, though we usually get other people to do the killing for us, out of sight.

The most sombre detail remains the response of the zebras left behind. While the cubs played gleefully, little faces streaked with red, we could hear the frantic bleat of small zebra nearby, traumatised by what had transpired. I know I shouldn’t anthropomorphise these wild animals but I couldn’t help but hope that the zebra left behind hadn’t just lost its mother.

The next day, we were stationed by one of the main crossing points, watching hoards of wildebeests lollop across the river. As our guide emphasised regularly, wildebeests are incredibly stupid. Lots of them die during the crossings due not to crocodiles or lions, but due to being trampled by the rest of the panicked herd. After a crossing, the river is littered with wildebeest bodies.

While most of the surviving herd made it safely to the other side, a few got tired, and decided to take a rest… in the river. Our third kill occurred almost immediately, when an enormous crocodile slid over and picked the wildebeest straight off the bank. Survival of the fittest had never seemed more apt.

While nothing could top the zebra kill from the day before, the fourth and final kill we saw was also heart wrenching (for me, at least, the only member of our group who felt extreme sympathy for the dead wildebeest). A baby wildebeest was resting on the bank, recovering from the exhaustion of the chaotic crossing. The river was infested with crocodiles – though most of them were sated due to weeks of crossings providing a plentiful supply of carcasses – so climbing up the bank to the grass was the only safe end to this journey.

Except for one key obstacle.

The lion has been sitting at the top for while, watching the wildebeest from afar. The wildebeest was already dead at that moment, trapped between a river full of crocodiles and a hungry lioness. It was only a matter of when. Eventually, the little wildebeest made a move, tottering up the muddy bank and clambering onto the grass plain.

Alas, the little animal did not realise it was being watched until it was too late. The first lion had been joined by a friend, both of whom flanked their next meal as it attempted to reach the herd. The lionesses had the wildebeest surrounded.

Then, they let it run. We looked to Jackson. He shrugged. “Lions also hunt for fun. They want a chase.”

After giving the animal a head start, the lions took off after their prey. In one of the most moving moments of the whole trip, at the last second, the baby wildebeest turned to face its hunters. It bared its horns. While I doubt that wildebeests have a conception of their own imminent demise, there was something painfully optimistic about this tiny, spindly baby of an animal attempting to fight off two lions to save its own life.

As you might have guessed, the wildebeest did not succeed. One of the lionesses went for the throat as her hunting partner looked on, eventually coming to rest her paw on their fresh kill, and look over to us with pride.

As I’ve said already, the most special moments of our animal encounters in Kenya involved witnessing interactions between the animals. While any sighting is beautiful, there’s nothing like a pride of lions lounging or a herd of elephants drinking from a stream. The kills were the dark side of the ecosystem, where the placid herbivores that litter the plains were picked off effortlessly by predators that outrank them in power, speed and skill. However, it would have felt… incomplete, almost, to not see the reality of these animals in the wild. Even as individual animals die, this stark reality of the natural world is its own reminder of how neatly life goes on.

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