Big Cats of the Mara: Then and Now

Big Cats of the Mara

Part Two: The Cheli & Peacock Pride

In November 2014 I travelled to Kenya and spent 4 nights at Alex Walker’s Ngare Serian in the 30,000 hectare Mara North Conservancy. The conservancy borders the Maasai Mara Reserve and is a partnership between 800 Maasai land owners and eleven camps. The Mara North supports low-impact tourism and game viewing is generally excellent, with high animal densities and lower vehicle traffic. It was no exception last November–especially for lion sightings.

(Please also see: Part One of Big Cats of the Mara: Malaika the Cheetah)

lion_cub by NJ Wight

One of the highlights of the trip in 2014 was photographing three sets of lion cubs that ranged in age from one week old up to a month old. The three lionesses watching over them were all members of the Cheli & Peacock Pride, which has resided in the Mara North for many years.

lion_cubs_kissing by NJ Wight

The cubs were always a challenge to capture, hidden away safely from predators, including hyena and lions from challenging prides. A lioness will give birth to her litter after about 110 days and she keeps her cubs isolated for up to 6 weeks. Not even the father is allowed to visit. She will move them every few days to make sure they are out of danger and their scent does not attract unwanted attention. Once they are a little older, she will introduce them to the pride.

lion_cubs_feeding_NJ Wight

lion_cub_with_Mom_NJ Wight

In November of this year I returned to the Mara North to look for these special young cats that I had so enjoyed photographing. Although I had previously learned that a couple of the cubs had not survivied, I was optimistic I would have a sighting with some of the remaining siblings and cousins. The cubs would now be just over a year old and while I would not recognize the individuals, I was looking forward to seeing the larger family together.  Happily, it did not take long to find them!

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Over the course of the next 4 days we came across members of the pride on several occasions and I was able to photograph them playing, eating, wrestling and sleeping. It was thrilling for me to see them again knowing that some of these magnificent young lions were the little guys I had documented a year ago as they were just learning to walk. They appeared healthy and strong, their “baby spots” faded, but still visible on their golden coat, and their play-fighting offered a glimpse of the rank and order that was unfolding.

Lions_fighting_NJ Wight

pair of lions_NJ Wight

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On one particular day my attentive guide James spotted something deep in the thickets, very close to where we had previously seen a lioness feeding on a kill. After positioning the truck and getting down on the floor, I was able to find a small opening in the bushes and my lens was greeted with a very tiny face–the next generation of the Cheli & Peacock pride, eyes still closed and just a few days old.

newborn_lioncub_NJwight

Seeing these animals again, having the privilege of watching them grow up and being afforded a very small glimpse into their lives, has been a very rewarding experience as a photographer. With all of the hardship lions are facing–hunting, poaching, loss of territory and more recently, several tragic poisonings–being able to tell their stories and share their world has become critical to me. Perhaps if we can come to know these individuals and make a deeper connection with their lives through photos and stories, we can find our way to ensuring these big cats of the Mara can stay safe and continue to thrive.

I certainly hope so…

threeLion_cubs__NJ Wight

For more on the lion prides I have photographed, visit A Celebration of Lions for World Lion Day.

Part One of Big Cats of the Mara: Malika the Cheetah can be found here.

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Big Cats of the Mara: Then and Now

Big Cats of the Mara

Part One: Malaika the Cheetah

In November 2014 I spent some time in the Maasai Mara National Reserve staying in two of the private conservancies that border the park. The 35,000 acre Olare Motorogi Conservancy is owned by 277 Maasai landowners in partnership with five tourism operators. It has abundant wildlife and a very low visitor footprint restricted to the five operating camps, including the one I called home for four days, Kicheche Bush Camp. The wonderful thing about staying in the conservancy is that there is far less traffic moving about and even a great sighting will have a significantly lower number of vehicles.

(Please also see: Part Two: The Cheli & Peacock Pride)

malaika with her cheetah cubs by NJ WightDuring my stay last year I was fortunate to meet Malaika and her 5 cheetah cubs on a day drive to the National Reserve. Malaika, meaning “angel” in KiSwahilli, is the daughter of Kike, a cheetah well known to many who watch the Big Cat Diaries. I was lucky to see Malaika with her 5 very young cubs (her original litter was 6) which were probably about 3-4 months old at the time. I had two sightings with her family and had a great time photographing them as the cubs burned some energy and kicked up some dust.

malika_cheetahcubs_njwight

Wild Cheetah Status

In 1970 the wild cheetah population was estimated at about 15,000. Today, the numbers are half of that, with approximately 7,500 cats living in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and East Africa. In Kenya, cheetahs are now only seen across 23% of their historical geographical range. (For more information visit Mara-Meru Cheetah project) Cheetahs have a very tough life in the wild and Malaika was going to have her work cut out for her keeping these five young cats alive. The mortality rate for cheetah cubs in the wild is estimated between 75%-90%, with half falling victim to predators. While they are formidable hunters that can reach top speeds of  70kmph, they are small cats by comparison averaging about 56kg, and it is not unusual for a solitary female to lose her kills to much larger lion and hyena. Cheetahs are built for speed, not for fighting. The cubs are very vulnerable to attack and she will move them every couple of days to try to keep them safe. So, I knew when I left last year that Malaika would be faced with a great challenge and that the odds of her raising her cubs to adulthood were stacked against her.

Malaika in 2015

When I returned to the Mara this month, photographing Malaika with her cubs was very high on my wish list. To improve my chances with cheetah sightings I stayed inside the reserve for 3 nights at Alex Walker’s Serian Nkorombo camp along the rushing Mara river. Game drives in the reserve can be quite different than in the conservancies with far more traffic roaming the park and greater restrictions on driving off-road. But that did not deter my guide James from getting me up close with Malaika and her family once again.

We spotted her quite far in the distance on our first drive into the reserve. She has 3 cubs with her now, around 15 months old. One cub died and another was recently separated from the family. However, during my visit we heard there had been sightings of the lost cub and the hope is he is managing to take care of himself on his own. Cheetahs will generally stay with their mother for about 15-24 months but will not be mature hunters until around the age of 3. These cubs are definitely learning the ropes from a Mother that is a dominant hunter and has succeeded thus far at keeping her remaining family healthy.

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Malika with cubs by NJWight

On my second morning we left camp just before sunrise and we were lucky to spot the family after a short drive, just as the sun was coming up.  The cubs were active, moving around and beginning to welcome the day. A few half-hearted attempts at chasing warthogs served as a warm-up for what lay ahead.

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After moving out into the open plain, in the space of 3o minutes they had successfully brought down a baby gazelle, followed by a scrub hare. It is never easy to see any animal die, but it was very encouraging to see these young, endangered animals having great success learning to take care of themselves. The speed and distance they were covering however, made it a challenge to photograph!

cheetah_hunting_NJWight

Malika's cheetah cubs huntingIt was quite interesting to observe that after catching the young animal they did not immediately kill it, but rather, they sat with it for several minutes possibly catching their breath. Only moments after they had finished with this kill, they walked through a small patch of tall grass surprising a scrub hare. As it darted off, two of the cheetahs were very quick to pursue. Within moments, a second, much smaller meal was secured.

cheetah cubs hunting by NJWight

cheetah hunting a hare by NJ Wight

And after a good meal it was time to for a little grooming.

cheetah cubs grooming by njwight

I feel very blessed to have been able to see these cats on two separate trips a year apart and to learn more of their story to know their story. Hopefully they will stay healthy and will continue to thrive in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Perhaps one day we shall meet again…

 

Malaika's cubs in 2014   Maliaka and her cheetah family ©njwight

 

Part Two of Big Cats of the Mara: The Cheli & Peacock Pride

Available now! NJ Wight’s WIld! Life 2016 calendar: The Young Ones

For more on cheetah’s take a look at When Cheetah’s Kill: Through a Photographers Eyes

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Hornbills Make Me Happy!

The Real Zazu

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Zazu, the majordomo to Mafusa and Simba in The Lion King, was a diginified but jittery red-billed hornbill. I cannot think of a more inspiring bird to base an animated character on–so elaborate and unusual-bursting with personality! Hornbills are one of my very favourite feathered subjects to photograph in Africa. During my travels to the southern and eastern parts of the continent, the distinctive schnozollas of the yellow billed, red billed, gray billed, ground hornbill, crowned hornbill(above) and the Von der Decken hornbill have all found thier way into my viewfinder. I never tire of watching them and look forward to making more images with these flying African icons.

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Blood Moon Over Montreal

I am not a night sky photographer but I thought it would be fun to try to photograph last night’s spectacular lunar eclipse.  There was quite a bit of light pollution where I was, including a street light off to the side of my balcony, but the skies were clear and the view of the blood moon over Montreal was spectacular. I had the Canon 100-400 F4-5.6 L ll with the 1.4x extender on the 5D Mlll. When it started to get a little darker I took the extender off to gather more light. By the final shots I was shooting at f5.6, 1/30 and ISO 3200. So, lots of noise. I did not want to risk any slower shutter speeds as the moon is moving and I felt I was risking some motion blur. Manual focus became more challenging as the shadow crossed the surface. It was lots of fun and worth the effort–can’t wait for the next one.

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blood_moon_njwight blood_moon_njwight

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