The Maasai Mara is the one part of Kenya where the concentrations of game that existed in the nineteenth century can still be seen, even if it’s true numbers have hugely diminished overall. The panorama sometimes resembles one of those wild-animal wall charts, where groups of unlikely-looking animal companions are forced into the artist’s frame. You can see a dozen different species in one gaze: gazelle, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, topi, kongoni (Coke’s hartebeest), wildebeest, eland, elephant, hyena, jackal, ostrich, and a pride of lions waiting for a chance. The most interesting areas, scenically and zoologically, tend to be westwards, signalled by the long ridge of the Oloololo Escarpment. If you only have a day or two, and you’re inside the reserve, you could do worse than spend most of your time here, near the Mara River.
It sometimes seems, however, that wherever there are animals there are people – in minibuses, in Land Cruisers, in rented Suzukis, often parked in ravenous, zoom-lens-touting packs around understandably irritable lions, leopards and cheetahs (the official limit is five vehicles around an animal at any one time). This popularity is highly seasonal, and can be overbearing around Christmas and during the migration, but it need not spoil your visit. If you aren’t driving yourself, encourage your driver to explore new areas (obviously not off-road) and perhaps stress you’d rather experience the reserve in its totality than tick off animal species.
Big brunette lions are the best-known denizens of the Maasai Mara. There are now between six hundred and eight hundred in the greater Mara ecosystem, but their numbers are believed to have dropped significantly in the past thirty years, thanks to hunting and the reduction in the number of wildebeest and other game they depend on for survival. They are relatively easy to find, however, and there are usually several prides firmly in possession of their territories in the Musiara and Sekenani sectors, as well as in the Triangle. Instinctively, they use the Mara’s river and stream meanders and many confluences as “lobster pots” to corner their prey in ambushes, and it is sometimes possible to watch them hunt, as they take very little notice of vehicles. The Mara Lion Project and Mara Cheetah Project work across the ecosystem, following in the footsteps of the ground-breaking Mara Predator Project, whose “Living With Lions” database made use of visitors’ photos and observations.
While lions seem to be lounging under every other bush, finding a cheetah is much harder (they can sometimes be seen on the murram mounds alongside the Talek–Sekenani road). These are usually solitary cats – slender, unobtrusive, somewhat shy and vulnerable to harassment by wildlife-watchers. Cases of cheetahs using vehicles as look-out hills – first noted only in the 1990s – have become common, as they lose their fear and adapt to close human scrutiny. Their natural hunting times are dawn and dusk, but some cheetahs prefer to hunt during the middle of the day, when the humans are shaded in the lodges. This is not a good time of day for the cheetah, which expends terrific energy in each chase and may have to give up if it goes on for more then thirty or forty seconds. When they move, cheetahs exhibit marvellous speed and agility and, if you’re lucky enough to witness a kill, it’s likely to take place in a cloud of dust a kilometre from where the chase began.
Leopards, are seen increasingly often in the daytime, and there are plenty of them. Leopard Gorge, in the Mara North Conservancy, is an obvious place to look. Their deep, grating roar at night – a grunt, repeated – is a sound which, once heard, you carry around with you.
By the early 1990s, wild dogs were thought to have been extinct in the greater Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, but in 2013 a couple of packs were spotted in Olare Motorogi and Mara North conservancies. Sightings remain rare though.
The Mara has the country’s only indigenous black rhino population – meaning that it has not been affected by translocations to and from the region – though numbers are small and every calf born is a victory. Finding them is often difficult, but rangers and lodge staff are certain to know their whereabouts and point you in the right direction.
Maasai Mara’s other heavyweights are about in abundance. The Mara River surges with hippo, while big families of elephant traipse along the forested river and stream margins and spread out across the plains when there’s plenty of vegetation to browse.
Among all these outstanding characters, the herds of humble grazers can quickly fade into the background. It’s easy to become blasé when one of the much-hyped “big five” (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, leopard) isn’t eyeballing you at arm’s length – but those are the hunter’s trophies and not necessarily the photographer’s. Warthog families like rows of dismantled Russian dolls, zebra and gazelle, odd-looking hartebeest and slick, purple-flanked topi are all scattered with abandon across the scene. The topi are particularly characteristic of the Maasai Mara, being almost confined in Kenya largely to this reserve: there are always one or two in every herd standing sentry on a grass tussock or an old termite mound. Topi and giraffe – whose dream-like, slow-motion canter is one of the reserve’s most beautiful and underrated sights – are often good pointers for predators in the vicinity: look closely at what they’re watching.