The Big Cats of East AfricaWritten by Andrew Muigai
The most charismatic of all animals that roam savannas of East Africa are big cats. Safari enthusiasts exercise great patience and go to great lengths to ensure a sighting. To behold beauty and splendour of big cats in wild is a prospect that warms heart of every nature lover. Among a number of ancient civilizations - Romans, Sumerians, and Egyptians- big cats were held in fascination and in higher esteem than any other wild animals. Some were indeed taken as gods, and many are kings who have set images of big cats on their royal emblems.
The big cats have in past been more widely dispersed in world than they are today. In our time, redoubts of big cats are in Africa and small pockets of Asia. The cat family is known by scientists as felidae and refers to an assortment of animals grouped as small and big cats. The small cats are less well known and appreciated. In East Africa small cats include wild cats, sand and serval cats. The small cats are very widespread in almost all habitats in East Africa. But they keep their heads down and elicit little conflict with man- ultimate enemy of all wild animals.
The big cats you find outside Africa include tiger, jaguar, leopard, cougar and Iberian lynx. The big cats are most committed carnivores in entire animal kingdom. They are mostly nocturnal and rather secretive in nature. In common with primates, they read a lot from facial expression and love to play. The big cats capture and kill their prey. To witness a lion on a hunt is truly fascinating- if for a moment you take your mind from fate of prey. For all fame of big cats of East Africa, there are just three of them: lion, leopard and cheetah.
The lion, so called king of jungle, is largest carnivore in East Africa. The adult lion stretches between 1.4m to 2.2 m - excluding tail. The male can attain a weight of up to 225kg, while hefty female reaches 168kg. The lion is noted for its exceptional strength and has been known to bring down much larger buffalo, which has about 4 times its weight. For this reason, kings have understandably sought to be associated lions. But they hesitate to be associated with its reputation for sloth- for lion shamelessly spends up to 20 hours daily resting.
Lions are social animals and of big cats, they are only ones to live and hunt in family groups. The group or pride usually consists of a number of related females and few unrelated males. Young females usually join their mother pride, but young males venture into outside world to seek female company. Females in a pride practice communal cub rearing and hunting.
Lions are highly territorial. Males enforce territorial integrity, by means of their characteristic fierce roars, scent marking and periodic border patrols.
Lions of same pride develop strong social bonds and practice head rubbing and social grooming. Females give birth after a gestation period of 3.5 months. After only 6 weeks, cubs are induced into a lifelong habit of meat eating. Cubs play in imitation of adults and this helps in development of such useful skills as stalking prey. Though born to kings, cubs need protection from hyenas and leopard. And also from non-pride male lions- for reason that females will not mate until cubs are about 18 months old. The cubs therefore stand in way of a mating encounter.
Fighting off males bent on infanticide appears to be one of reasons why females live in prides. The moniker "king of jungle" is misleading, for buffalo and hyenas sometimes kill lions. Elephants too have no fear of king - they will charge at lions to encourage them to move on. But man remains biggest threat to lions and he has hunted lion to extinction in most of world. The lion population in Africa is today estimated at only 23,000 and survival status is listed as vulnerable in international conventions. In most parks and game reserves of East Africa, however, lion is impressively visible. Particularly in grassy plains and dry forests where large plains herbivores they prey on thrive. You will easily see king in Ngorongoro and Serengeti in Tanzania and Amboseli, Nairobi, Lake Nakuru, and Maasai Mara in Kenya. In some other locations- such as Lake Manyara in Tanzania, Tsavo, in Kenya and Queen Elizabeth in Uganda, patience and skill is called for.
Early last century, lions received extremely bad press when they disrupted building of East African railway in Tsavo area of Kenya by feeding on workforce. The movie "The Man-eaters of Tsavo" has captured this macabre drama. It is in this atmosphere that Theodore Roosevelt, American president who was a pioneer safari enthusiasts said of lions: "except when resting and in breeding season, whole career of a lion may be best summed up in single word: rapine".
Lions when deprived of their usual prey occasionally attack domestic animals and even human beings. Lions that are infirm- such as old and sick can easily attack humans and you are advised to exercise caution and take your photos from safety of a car. So if you are out camping, watch out! All said incidences of lions attacking humans are extremely rare. The image of lion has recently been rehabilitated in minds of many by popular children cartoon drama "Lion King", whose hero is Simba- Swahili for lion.
The future of lion in savannas of East Africa is not assured. The main challenge is conflict with man, his ancient enemy. People living in areas bordering parks, sometimes inflict ultimate punishment to lions when they are caught preying on livestock. In Serengeti plains of Tanzania, king has recently experienced attacks by a viral disease know as FIV -Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. FIV, just like HIV in humans, results in lowered immunity making animals vulnerable to other diseases. Unlike HIV, however, primary means of transmission of FIV is bite wounds and not sexual intimacy.
Of big cats of East Africa, most elegant is leopard. The leopard is most naturally adapted of cats. It can survive in almost in any habitat offering sufficient food and cover. That is why, of big cats, leopards thrive in most diverse range of habitats; and of land mammals they enjoy widest distribution in tropics. In East Africa, they have been found in most unlikely of places- from deserts, to mountaintops and even in cities. That not withstanding, scientists were surprised, when in 1990 three leopards were found living in a Kampala city train station. The full grown adult stretches between 1 to 1.5 m and can reach a weight of 60 kg. Man (and especially woman) has always been jealous of leopards beautiful coat. Those of East Africa have round spots unlike square spots of southern African species. Leopards are solitary animals and you hardly ever find them in groups. The sexes associate only long enough to mate! Females are ready to breed at about 2 years of age, when they produce up to 3 cubs after a gestation periood of about 90 days. The leopard therefore faces less danger than either lion or cheetah. Notwithstanding that they are very widely distributed in East Africa, you are unlikely to see them in large numbers. In addition, this most secretive of cats is nocturnal. The traveler who is determined to see them must be very calm and patient, for only most persevering are rewarded. Even scientists have such trouble spotting them, with consequence that they are not as well studied as other cats.
Southern Tanzania Safari Written by Andrew Muigai
Tanzania is one of Africa's top wildlife safari destinations. Wildlife lovers have a choice of two very different safari routes- referred to as northern and southern circuits. The contrast is most obvious in topography, habitat and climate. On northern Tanzania safari circuit, which I have talked about in another article, you visit such renowned wildlife havens as Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Tarangire and Lake Manyara. The southern safari route is anchored on Dar es Salaam, and covers Ruaha, Mikumi, Udzungwa Mountains National Parks and Selous Game Reserve.
The southern circuit is more discreet, less accessible and has fewer visitors. Adventure lovers and those who seek closer contact with some of Africa's most complex ecosystems will be rewarded. Here you can view game in a variety of new ways- walking, riding and boating. If you have not had privilege of getting up close to wild animals in their natural habitat, it is an exciting and refreshing experience. For this encounter, park authorities require that an armed ranger escort you. It is therefore not as dangerous as it may first appear.
Mikumi National Park is most accessible of southern game sanctuaries.It is 283 km to west of Dar es Salaam - Tanzania's coastal commercial capital. Occupying 3,230 sq km, it carries a variety of wildlife including elephants, lion, giraffe, impala, warthog, zebra, buffalo, wildebeest, hartebeest and eland. Wild dogs- considered an endangered carnivore species -are found here in good numbers. Other resident animals are crocodiles, hippos, and monitor lizards. Birds are most plentiful in wet season when up to 300 species gathers here. Many of these are Eurasian migrants, exercising to full, freedom that comes with wings.
The Mikumi flood plain is dominant feature of park, which is bordered on one side by Uluguru Mountains and on another by Lumango range. Mikumi forms northern border of Selous Game Reserve and is part of a vast wilderness ecosystem covering 75,000 sq km. Open grasslands stretch on plains, while miombo woodlands cover higher ground.
The park is accessible year round- unlike some of sanctuaries in southern circuit. To get to Mikuni from Dar, you spend 4 hours on road or 1 hour by air. Budget travelers take a bus ride to park gate, from where game drives are organised. There is limited accommodation at a few luxury lodges and tented camps and at 3 campsites. If you find yourself in Dar on a weekend, this is where you head to see wildlife.
The 1,990 sq km Udzungwa Mountains National Park is 348 km west of Dar and 65 km southwest of Mikumi. The mountains are part of Eastern Arc Mountains that fall southeast of Kilimanjaro. The park is unique in Tanzania, having been created primarily to conserve plant life. The pristine mountain forest habitat hosts numerous rare plants. There are six primate species, out of which two species are endemic - Iringa red colobus monkey and Sanje Crested Mangabey.
At plateau area, you find elephants, lions, hunting dogs and buffalos, though not in as large numbers as in some of other Tanzania parks. Birds also do well here, and indeed park ranks as one of Africa's most important bird conservation areas. Scientists have in recent times come across at least four previously unknown bird species. The best time to visit is over dry season between June and October. The hiking trails over wet season are slippery, which can be quite a nuisance.
The Ruaha National Park is rightly named after its lifeblood- Great Ruaha River. Occupying 12,950 sq km, it is Tanzania's second largest national park and its biggest elephant sanctuary. Home to numerous crocodiles and hippo, Great Ruaha draws many thirsty waterbuck, leopard, buffalo, reedbuck, wild dogs, lion and hyena to its banks. Plain animals such as zebra, greater and lesser kudu, sable and roan antelope, impala and giraffe are found on plains stretching from rivers edge.
The topography is agreeable to hiking and walking safaris are allowed. In wet season months of March to April and October to November bird population peaks and park has over 370 bird species, including some Eurasian migrants. The flora is very diverse and over 1650 plant species flourish here. The Ruaha has unique distinction of having plant and animal life found in both eastern and southern Africa. The climate here is hot and dry and temperatures can reach 40°C in October.