Ndutu Plains bordering the Serengeti National Park is in Tanzania in East Africa. Enormous herds of Wildebeest go through this area in the months of February and March every year as they follow the rains in search of fresh grass to graze on. The Wildebeest migration attracts wildlife photographers and nature lovers to this part of the world during these months. This is the season when Wildebeest give birth to their young and calves are born in their thousands every hour. The young calves are easy prey for the resident predators such as Lions and Cheetahs, while for the scavengers, it is a free treat.
I have been a frequent visitor to Ndutu since 2013 to catch the action in the Ndutu wild. This year too, I planned an eight night stay at Ndutu Safari Lodge in Ndutu starting on 21st March 2016. As scheduled, Lilani and I boarded a 12-seater aircraft from Arusha, which landed at the Ndutu airstrip that same afternoon, where my usual driver/guide Hamisi was there to greet us. The lodge is only a few minutes away from the airstrip.
Hamisi, briefed me on the bush news from the last few days. What I found most interesting was that Wild Dogs had been sighted at Ndutu. It’s my favorite predator in Africa and knowing this Hamisi had a broad grin on his face when he shared this news with me. However, according to my guide the location is quite a distance from the Lodge, about an hour’s drive. Wild dogs are also known as the Cape Hunting Dogs or the Painted Dogs (due to its skin color pattern). They are usually active early morning or late evening, when they hunt for a living. Their success rate in hunting is over 80%, mainly due to the fact that they hunt collectively. Wild dogs are found in India too, however their colour is brown without a skin pattern.
After lunch, during our first safari drive on this trip to Ndutu, we came across a Cheetah with three grown cubs of about 8 months in age. They appeared to be hungry and in the mood to hunt.
The following morning, we were on the road at 6 am with a packed breakfast, in search of the Dogs. According to Hamisi, the pack has ten and the alpha male had a collar with a GPS tracking device introduced by Wild Dog researchers in Tanzania. It helps them to track the movement of the dogs. They sometimes travel 20 to 30 kms on the trot to hunt. Hamisi was able to get the coordinates of the Dog location from the researchers by phone. When we reached the area where the Wild Dogs were located, there was a film crew with two vehicles at the site. They had been following the pack for a few weeks, filming their activities. We had to keep a distance from the dogs since the film crew needed a 180-degree clear view of the pack for filming. We were pleased to note that the dogs had not hunted yet that morning when we arrived, which increased our chances of witnessing a hunt. The natural hunting technique of Wild Dogs does seem very cruel and gruesome, but they hunt for their survival and it is how they are programmed to find their food. On the other hand, big cats such as Lions kill their prey by suffocating them. The cat holds the neck crushing the wind pipe and death is quick for the prey.
At around 10 am the pack of Wild Dogs chased down a Wildebeest calf only a few days old, led by the Alfa female in the Ubuntu Valley. Within no time, the whole pack of dogs was enjoying their morning meal with the help of their deadly teeth. The Alfa male or the female usually leads the hunt. They are highly intelligent and social animals.
During the afternoon safari, we spotted the Cheetah with the three grown up cubs, hunting. She chased a Thomson Gazelle without success but later, she caught a baby zebra and fed her cubs without any disturbance from their usual enemy, the Hyena.
Once again, the following morning we went looking for the dogs, but they were in a different location far from the area we had seen them the previous day. The dogs were after a kill. Later, the Alfa male mated with the Alfa female. It was interesting to note that in a pack of wild dogs, only the Alfa pair mate. In the afternoon drive, we also had a sighting of a female and three cubs of the resident lion pride of nine, known as the “Masek Pride”
My brother Pala, together with his wife Nilanthi, and son Charith along with a few of his friends from the UK as well as our nephew Damitha, and his wife Jayanthi, and my former business partner in the USA Jim and his wife Deb, arrived at the Ndutu Lodge for lunch on the 16th March and stayed for five nights at the lodge together with us to experience the wild life in Ndutu.
On the 17th morning we all proceeded to see the dogs, but they were after a heavy meal and playing together, moving around. The dogs spotted a vulnerable wildebeest calf straying close to them. Even though they were satiated, the dogs couldn’t resist the temptation of an easy snack and they gave chase. But the young calf demonstrated remarkable speed and agility to save itself and the dogs did not pursue in earnest as they were already well fed.
During the afternoon safari while we were photographing the Cheetah and the three grown cubs at the Twin Hills, Hamisi received a radio message from the jeep where Damitha was travelling; a sighting of a Cheetah together with four new born cubs located in the Marsh Woodlands. On hearing this exciting news, we rushed to the location. It took almost an hour as we were quite a distance from there. The cubs were very small and it was the first time I had seen such tiny Cheetah cubs, probably less than a month old. Early the following morning at sunrise we rushed to the same location, before the bush news went around to the other visitors in Ndutu.
Rest of the days in Ndutu, I spent most of my time photographing the mother and the four cubs, but we had to compete with other visitors to get the best view of the cubs. Since the cubs were very small and vulnerable, the mother kept moving the cubs to safer places, often carrying the weakest cub by her mouth, to protect them from other predators such as Lions and Hyenas as well as Birds of Prey.
On the day before our departure from Ndutu, once again we went to see the Wild Dogs. The juveniles were running around and playing together with their bellies full. During my eight day safari to Ndutu I had a few good sightings of other prides of Lions in Ndutu, namely the Marsh and Twin-Hill. I was also able capture some rare images of a pair of Lions mating with their reflection on water at a water hole in the marsh. Generally, a pair of mating Lions would copulate up to 40 times on a single day.
On the 21st March Lilani and I departed for Colombo via Kilimanjaro while the rest of the group headed by Pala went to Serengeti National Park for two more nights to continue their wild life experience.
We are planning to return to Ndutu again next year during February.