On 6th February 2013 before sunrise, with a packed picnic breakfast from the Ndutu Safari Lodge, Wilson was driving us in the direction of the Ndutu grass plains, once again in search of a Wildebeest cow delivering a calf.
Passing Lake Ndutu, driving uphill towards the grass plains, we spotted a Black-breasted Snake Eagle on a tree. Moving on, reaching the savannah where literally thousands of wildebeest were grazing, we came across the remains of a Wildebeest carcass being consumed by Vultures, finishing what was already eaten by Lions. Later, as we re-focused on our main objective for the day, we noticed that the number of newly born calves had increased on the plains, but we were yet to see a delivery as it happens. After driving for almost an hour on the plains, we stopped under a tree shade to have our breakfast.
We continued our search after breakfast when our driver spotted a pregnant cow with the water bag hanging from the back, followed by two legs of the calf. The cow was with a herd of grazing Wildebeest. We followed them, keeping a distance of at least 50 meters, to avoid disturbing the cow. At one point, the animal sat on the ground but got up again in a few minutes. Lo and behold, a calf emerged from the birth canal together with the placenta. The time of delivery according to my recorded video footage was 0913 hours. She lay down and started licking her newborn, possibly consuming the birth membrane. The mother made several attempts to get the calf on its feet. For its survival, it is vital that the newborn calf begins to walk and canter within minutes of birth. This calf was up on its feet by 0916 hours, exactly 3 minutes after seeing light of day! By 0931 hours, the calf began to suckle her mother for its first feed. The calf was a male and later it moved along with the herd. While these events unfolded, a Lesser Kestrel, a bird of prey was flying over us and caught the attention of my camera.
The Wildebeest calving season seemed to have gathered momentum. According to past statistics, it was estimated that within the next six weeks, the Wildebeest herds will give birth to 8,000 young per day on average, totaling to almost 500,000 additions to the population! But many of them will not survive. Predators such as Lions, Leopards, Cheetahs, Wild Dogs, and Hyenas will ensure that the numbers of herbivores are controlled to keep the ecosystem in balance in wild Africa.
We had more time on our hands on that morning run, so we went over to the Big Marsh through the woodlands in Ndutu, where we witnessed large herds of Wildebeest converging towards the Marsh Lake for water. We noticed a few vehicles parked on the opposite side of the Marsh on an elevated location bordering the woodland. Wilson advised us that there is a Lion at the center of the Marsh, hiding behind some tall grass according to information he received through the mobile radio unit on the jeep. We then tried to cross to the other side of the Marsh, but our jeep got stuck in mud flats. With the help of another jeep, we managed to pull the vehicle from the dirt. After we regained our mobility, we headed in the direction of the other vehicles lined up at one end of the Marsh. We also observed a Lion and a Lioness resting under a tree bordering the woodlands, but we moved on. There was a battery of long lenses on the vehicles, pointing towards the grass patch at the center of the open marsh. With the help of a binocular, I was able to spot the Lion on the grass, as it waited for an opportunity to pounce on its prey.
One needs immense patience to be a good wild life photographer. The Lion crawled step by step towards the open area, under cover of tall grass, waiting for the Wildebeest to come within his range, after drinking from the Marsh Lake. It was around half past noon when we saw some Wildebeest moving slowly while grazing, towards the predator. All of a sudden, the Lion made his move with a dramatic dash from his hiding place, fully focused on his target. The startled Wildebeest ran helter skelter in all directions. But for one unfortunate newborn calf, it was the end of its short existence. Lions apparently enjoy chewing the soft and tender bones of young calves.
We were back at the lodge around 1330 hours for lunch and decided to go to the same location by 1600 hours to witness the next episode of the Ndutu live show. Wilson was on time as usual and we were on our way to the Big Marsh at Ndutu with high expectations of further action in the afternoon.
We found the Wildebeest in vast numbers, grazing and drinking from water puddles at the Big Marsh. The Lioness we had seen resting under a tree that morning, was still at the same location, but it had now concealed itself from the view of the Wildebeest, crouching behind a screen of high growing weeds. At around 17.10 hours some Wildebeest had meandered close to the Lioness. Biding its time, it crawled closer towards the prey and then with a burst of speed and a cloud of dust, launched itself towards the quarry. But she did not go all the way and pulled out of the attack mid way in to the run. It was then that we realized that another Lioness from the same pride had simultaneously launched an attack a few hundred yards away from the woods nearby and that this was a coordinated ambush. The other Lioness made the kill and again it was a veal steak that she had picked from the menu.
At around 1830 hours, there was a radio message of a Leopard sighting close to our location. Even though it was getting late, the light was still good for photography. Within minutes, Wilson reached the Leopard. It was on the ground with a kill of a white Stork. We had a wonderful view of this cat at fairly close quarters. It was a female. Other than ourselves, there were only two other vehicles. She was not disturbed by our presence. Taking her time, she climbed a tree nearby with her prized catch to avoid losing it to the Hyenas.
We were back at the lodge by 1930 hours. It had been a memorable day, full of high drama and Pala and I reflected on the experience over dinner. The images I captured of the day’s action enriched my library considerably.
Although, we had originally planned to check out of the Ndutu Safari Lodge the following day (7th February), to move on to the bordering Serengeti National Park for the final two nights of the trip, Pala and I managed to extend our stay in Ndutu for one more day. It was the peak tourist season and the lodge was fully booked but we convinced the lodge owner to release a room that is reserved for their friends to enable us to stay a further night at the same lodge.
On the 7th February, we decided to go for an early morning drive and come back to the lodge for breakfast. On this outing we found a pride of Lions relaxing among high grass on a field, bordering Lake Ndutu but the scene was not conducive for photography. After more sightings of birds of prey, we returned to the lodge.
We were back on the prowl by 10 am with a packed picnic lunch. We checked the scene again at the Big Marsh but found that the area was almost deserted that morning. There were hardly any Wildebeest there and no Lions either. We then went over to the spot where we had the close encounter with the Leopard the previous evening. It was still perched on the same tree. But on that morning there were more than twenty vehicles parked in a semi-circle around the tree, enjoying the rare sight of this shy and elusive animal.
Later, we proceeded towards the Small Marsh through the woods and to our delight we found the Wildebeest there in big numbers, covering most of the marsh. Four lions caught our eye as they lay under the cover of tall weeds on the side of the marsh. A young male Lion in particular was very active trying to hunt a Wildebeest calf. It made several attempts and on one occasion succeeded in getting its teeth on to the neck of a calf. But as the Lion had not locked its jaw on the prey, it tried to change its grip, and the young calf managed to escape when the Lion released its grip momentarily. The bewildered animal ran for its life and eventually found its mother. The same Lion successfully made a kill on another attempt after giving chase to a juvenile Wildebeest. This was the third kill of a Wildebeest calf we had witnessed within the last 30 hours.
We spent almost five hours at the Small Marsh before returning to the lodge. The following morning after breakfast with packed picnic lunch, we checked out from the lodge and drove to Serengeti National Park for the night’s stay at the Serengeti Serena Lodge.
During our six days spent at Ndutu, we had several sightings of birds of prey, to an extent that I had not experienced elsewhere in Africa during my travels. If you want to catch the action of the Wildebeest calving and the predators feasting on the easy prey, the best time to visit the Serengeti is February. But you will need to reserve your accommodation several months in advance.