Friday, October 25, 2013

Off-road in the Serengeti

Beautiful, yes, and more tooth and nail than I bargained for:                                                                                            
  The road west from Arusha forsook concrete soon enough for the rocks and dust that are the traveler's continuum in East Africa. At first the animals glimpsed at a distance seemed both fabulous and cliched: a lone elephant on the shores of Lake Manyara like an ink blot on lime-colored parchment; a dozen loping giraffes ethereal, hallucinatory; splendid starlings like driven leaves, electric blue in the bright sunlight.
The well-watered slopes of the Ngorongoro crater were more like Tuscany than Tanzania, with grain in the fields, and lush coffee plantations. On the rim, Masai warriors waited motionless to be photographed in their crimson robes, gripping spears dark as their countenances; beyond them yawned a collapsed Pleistocene diorama, a green-veined vision of paradise under flat-topped acacia trees, spattered with distant herds - Cape buffalo, wildebeest, hippos. The sublime beauty was paradoxical and speaks to the whole continent: boundlessness contained, wildness heart-breakingly fragile.
    Beyond the crater, the plains fell away in a cloud-shadowed land-sea much like that of the American West, creased with chlorophyll but overwhelmingly dry. White plumes lifted on the thermals, ephemeral pushpins marking the way through the immensity of the Serengeti. I had come to see big cats - lions, cheetahs and leopards - and to learn about a mysterious virus that threatens the Serengeti lion.
Two hours later, my driver turned into a track less hospitable and sped south, trailing a tornado of dust that worked its way up through the floorboards and under the doors, coating dashboard, sunglasses, teeth. Ahead of us the Serengeti's mythical menagerie splintered and fled: Thomson's and Grant's gazelles, chevroned white and black, sleek topis with swept-back horns, hartebeests graceful even in panic, hyennas like rocking-horses, heads designed for killing, and big Kori's bustards lumbering into flight.
Pods of yellow-necked spurfowl exploded from beside the car. I could see solitary Marabou storks, and addled guineas in bunches, and low-slung warthogs, erect tails like short-wave antennas, a favored repast of lions, as were the zebras, their outrageous stripes surreal against the monochrome of brush and sky.
We entered a scrub woods of thorn acacia, at dusk. Eyes appeared in the headlights, some identifiable - impalas, dik-diks - and some not. At Ndutu, the so-called "soda" Lake Lagarja sat on the official boundary between the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Park, its alkaline shores extensive in this, the dry season, its water offering protection and food for hundreds of greater and lesser flamingos, pale pink in the gathering shadows.
Lights blinked on above the lake, revealing a line of tents with peaked roofs. Woodsmoke unfurled from the kitchen; we could smell cooking as we approached and heard native music from a radio also fed by the gasoline generator. Land-Rovers parked under the acacia trees included one with a customized door, hydraulic lifts and special racks for mounting cameras, all indications that we had found the place we were searching for.
A short, stout man with white hair, heavily bearded, stood at the hospitality table set up under the big canvas fly: Hugo Van Lawick, the Dutch wildlife photographer. "Have a coffee," he said, in English, the standard greeting. "Have a drink."
With him were members of his multi-cultural professional family: a young British cameraman named Mat, two assistants, Karen and Carny, one American and one Irish, and Hugo's crucial Yorkshire car mechanic, Mort. All awaited dinner; I took a chair and listened to talk of the day, jacket zipped against the sudden cold, savoring the lack of motion after eight hours, and the taste of bourbon.
Karen and Mat had staked out the nests of hornbills and snake eagles with their cameras, for a film about big cats and some of their neighbors. For almost 30 years Hugo, formerly married to the chimpanzee expert, Jane Goodall, had pursued Africa's natural stars with the care and meticulous observation of a biologist. He translated the experiences into extraordinary narrative films about the wilder aspects of what is still the most romantic of continents.
The capture of discreet moments in the wild involves logistics equal to those of a small war. The Land-Rovers had to be kept operational, food ordered by radio telephone and brought in over the fearsome road from Arusha. There were travel and equipment permits to obtain, and the all-important finding of subjects to be filmed. This often involved as many as three cars plying separate parts of the Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, their passengers scanning the horizon.
Lurking behind the conversation was the throbbing, palpable darkness. The orchestra includes insects, birds and animals, baffling to a novice - I recognized a fox's bark, and the odd yell of a hyena - and conspicuously lacked what every child associates with the African night: the roar of a lion.
  Later, I mentioned the threat of canine distemper to the stars of Hugo's film, a problem that worried him as much as it did the researchers in Seronera, headquarters of the Serengeti National Park. They estimated that the virus may have killed as many as a third of the 250 lions being studied; researchers had actually observed the deaths of seven lions racked by neurological seizures.
"Canine distemper has already wiped out the wild dogs," Hugo said. "It could do the same to the cheetahs," which are genetically less robust than lions.
Dinner was served in the big tent by Frederick, one of a dozen "chaps" who proudly carried over from the kitchen a platter of roast meat of indeterminate origin, vegetables cooked with cinnamon, and mangoes, all delicious, equal to the rapacious appetites generated in the bush. Over the dregs of Spanish red, Hugo issued marching orders for the following day: look out for cats with young, particularly those belonging to the species, Panthera leo.
"We'll see how things unfold," he said with a fatalism derived from a life spent among forces savage and sublime, rarely predictable.
   The next morning revealed flat-topped acacias strung with the nests of weaver birds that seemed to hold up a sky streaked with orange. The hypnotic calling of the doves had already begun. From the kitchen came the sleepy voice of Ali, the cook, making up the kokapes - Swahili for the baskets containing sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, cake, and Thermoses of hot water.
   Endless cups of tea and coffee were consumed in the mobile theater of the car that is the travelers' Africa, where guns are prohibited and tourists are confined to the few main roads. We were allowed to go anywhere, and for almost a week did just that and still didn't see a lion. Then one morning my driver, Lawrence, a Tanzanian who wore loafers and a plaid sports shirt, pointed to a shadowy fugitive on the edge of camp as we were pulling out, and said, "A good day begins with a hyena."
A few minutes later, speeding over the soda flats, he added, "There is a lion!"
At first I saw nothing but flamingos, then she materialized: a tawny, fluid presence that instantly added tension to the landscape. Belly full, indifferent to the car, she headed for cover on the slope below camp to sleep. I sensed both power and an unappeasable quality I did not want to encounter without the car's encapsulating steel, and felt unreasonable exhilaration.
Miles away, white-backed and Egyptian vultures perched in the acacias. We found a clearing that bore signs of extreme violence, and in it lying what is left of a giraffe - a rack of ribs, up-ended spine, folds of moist, torn skin, and a severed head. The hindquarters were gone; there were feathers everywhere.
   A big male lion slept in the shade, tongue lolling, and a smaller one nearby, both breathing in shallow bursts, their distended bellies coursed with thick blue veins. By human standards it is a gruesome scene. We haddn't see the kill but, knowing something of lions, pieced together what had happened:
The spring wildebeest migration was sparse, and these two lions were starving. Locals, not nomads, they stayed put after the females of the pride, the hunters, had moved down to the lake. The big male, scarred by past encounters, was about five years old and weighed almost 400 pounds, with a full mane streaked with black. He did little more than propagate when the females were in estrous, capable of mating as many as 75 times in a single day. Sometimes he guarded cubs while the females hunted, but mostly he slept.
Lions rarely attack giraffes, which can weigh up to two tons, achieve a speed of 37 miles an hour, and kill with hooves at the ends of deceptively thin but powerful legs. But these two had been desperate.
   Meat was, with few exceptions, their only food, usually scavenged from cheetah, leopard and hyena kills when not provided by the lionesses. Males kill on occasion: wildebeest, zebra, and Thomson's gazelle, the staples, and warthog, topi and hartebeest, impala, eland, and even, if the circumstances were right, the formidable Cape buffalo and giraffe. They have also been known to eat tortoises, ostrich eggs, locusts, fruit, and even a man's shirt left in the bush, according to George Schaller writing in The Serengeti Lion.
The giraffe may have been lame. Members of the species often travel great distances alone; if this one moved with imperfect fluidity, the lions would have been instantly on their feet, advancing with their bellies close to the ground, heads extended. The giraffe no doubt fled, fore and hind legs working together, like a rabbit's. He probably wheeled and slashed with his hooves.
The big lion leapt onto a flank and imbedded ten prehensile claws in the soft flesh. His weight could pull down most prey, but not a grown giraffe. This one spun in a cloud of dust, snorting in panic while the lion held on, raking its loins with his back claws. The subadult would watch for a moment and then leap up and bite into the giraffe's back. The towering animal stumbled, turned, and was dragged down.
On the ground, he would be unable to reach the attackers with his flailing legs. The older lion grasped the straining neck in his jaws. A lion's teeth are not ideal for breaking bones, and too short to reach the vital arteries in large animals, but they can rip out most throats. More effective, and more common, is suffocation. The lion clamped down, cutting off the giraffe's breath while it lunged from side to side, its struggles growing weaker; the lion waited for a full two minutes after the struggling had stopped, to be sure the giraffe would not get up.
The young lion, panting from the exertion, stood by while the older one tore into the giraffe's hindquarters, where meat was most easily reached, and pulled out the intestines and other vital organs, source of minerals. He waited for the older to begin to feed on a haunch, his muzzle turning red, before joining in.
    They eat by tearing hunks of meat from the flanks and swallowing them whole. Capable of consuming a quarter of their body weight in a few hours, they slept next to the kill, and in the early morning hours fed again. Vultures danced at dawn just out of reach, tearing at the eyes of the giraffe, and hyenas congregated. The big lion charged and dispersed them, but they quickly returned.
    In packs, hyenas can kill an isolated lion, subjecting him to the massed onslaught of some of the most powerful jaws in Africa.
At some point either a lion or a hyena charged and killed one vulture but that did not deter the others, while behind them, waiting their turn, were yellow-backed jackals, bat-eared foxes, and Marabou storks. Flies swarmed over the carcass, and bees, and across the ground came beetles, ants and innumerable other claimants.
   By nightfall of the day we found the kill, there would be nothing left of the giraffe but a hoof or two.
   (Next: the lion(ess) in hand)

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