Rhino Ridge

Rhino on Rhino Ridge

Rhino Ridge is hardly a ridge, more a huge gentle hill sitting between the northern boundary of the Mara reserve and the valley carved by the Mara river as it flows south then east towards Tanzania. The 'ridge' got its name for the fact that once it was a good place to see (and previously to hunt) rhino. Twenty years ago, I saw one there, shortly before a Mara ranger was arrested for colluding in the killing of one of the eight remaining rhinos in the Mara - and thereafter Rhinos were presumed more or less extinct in the Mara as a result of poaching for their horn.

Two days ago, there was a rhino strolling nonchanantly across the top of Rhino Ridge after an absence of twenty years Incredulous topi and zebra, who may have never seen a rhino before, watched. Nobody seems to know how many rhino there are in the Mara today (-or they’re not saying), but last night we saw yet another wandering around among Maasai villages in the dead of night, a hopeful sign that rhinos really are returning.



Tasting the grass

It’s all about grass. The reason the wildebeest are here (the Maasai Mara)
is because of the grass. The combination of soil, grazing patterns and rainfrall
have now carpeted huge areas with short neatly clipped, emerald green
grass, a lawn that any Englishman would be proud of. This is
exactly the kind of nutritious sward that the wildebeest like - and they
are now here in greater numbers than ever.

Do wildebeest like the taste of grass and savour the differences in
flavour between the different species? Do they live for the taste of
fresh, green shoots? Perhaps, but a taste test revealed that our tiny
(compared to a wildebeest) taste and smell receptors can't tell one kind
of grass from another - and that humans aren't really that keen on the taste of

Tank, Brick and Bison

Billie and Ben playing

Giving the animals names could be seen as frivolous and unnecessarily anthropomorphising them. But without giving them names, we have difficulty understanding who's who, and in a complex society like that of hyenas, we need to be able to describe individuals with a quick shorthand - names.

There's one who likes to rip the cables off the front of the car (he's called Cable Biter), and youngster who whines a lot at feeding time (you guessed it, Whiner) - probably because his mother is cutting off his milk supply.

But there are unforgettable hyenas who's stature and demeanour inspire names like Tank, Brick, and in the clan we are following now, Bison. These are the matriarchs of the clan, mothers and grandmothers to quite a few of the females in the clan. As they rarely need to hunt they have been able to dispense with the usual lithe and fast hyena bodies for sheer bulk and muscle. They are the huge testosterone filled monsters, who have created in observers the mistaken impression that the (smaller) male hyenas have only low status in the clan (as they have lower testosterone counts and do sometimes get beaten up).

Today, we witnessed Billie and Ben romping about playing, chasing and generally jumping on each other despite the fact that they are adults - in Ben's case, and probably almost so in Billie's case. Billie was trying to excavate a burrow, presumably in readiness for the time she will give birth (clearly not yet). Meanwhile, Ben was acting as sentinel, while also trying to mate as she was digging. He didn't seem serious, and she seemed to be enjoying the attention. We watched and filmed for an hour as they romped across the plains. What energy - but no sign of dominating behaviour from Billie. Perhaps in another 10 years or so, Billie will become like her grandmother - and need another name should we ever meet her again. 'Hulk' perhaps.


Raining Leopards

We were just getting set to leave this evening when the sky’s opened and it started to pour with rain. Apparently it’s the dry season here but after a scorching day the thunderclouds built up and the storm started. Our car is now protected with a combination of plastic sheeting and bin liners against the torrential elements.

We’re working double night shifts at the moment in an attempt to outfox the leopards and possibly film one hunting. Very few people have ever seen a leopard make a kill here but no one has really driven in the park at night, let alone observe the leopards. After 5 weeks of filming we think that they may be making their kills in the early hours of the morning.

So for the past 3 days we’ve set our alarm clocks for 3am and headed off into the park. After 6 hours or so we return to refuel with a largely waffle-filled breakfast and plenty of coffee. Then after downloading our footage 3pm rolls around and we head out again for another 6 hours. It’s a rather strange (and painful) time scale to work in but you can’t argue with the results, we’ve found leopards every day but sadly we’re still waiting to catch an elusive hunt. Who knows, if it ever stops raining we might just film one!


Leopard Family Life

Last night was an absolute highlight of our filming in Sri Lanka so far. We are now on our second leg of night filming leopards and last night we found an adult male, 2 cubs and their mother all taking it in turns to feed on a kill. It was amazing to see this giant male playfully ignore the relentless gnawing of his tail by a very persistent cub.

The males here are some of the largest leopards in the world and absolutely dwarf the adult females let alone foolhardy cubs. But last night we filmed this incredible family share some very rare quality time. It has been observed in the past that males do occasionally socialise with their own cubs but has it ever been filmed? We're not sure, so rather than declare a world first we're just thrilled to have documented such an amazing interaction. We're off filming crocodiles now so best filming trousers, cake safely stowed (and bug spray) and getting loading that night car.

report via: Tom (Cake Boy) Stephens


Too Many Gnus Are Spoiling the Broth

The only gnus coming through from Africa is in truncated phone calls as their email links aren't working. From Ammonite HQ we can report that there are unprecedented numbers of wildebeest on the Mara plains this year.

We are currently filming for two projects in the Mara; one is about hyenas and they have been performing marvelously, however the crocodiles that the crew are trying to film for the other project have scoffed so many wildebeest that they are bloated and sleepy and are lying around in a state of torpor.

However Tom (cake boy) Stephens has a great internet connection and has taken some stunning images of leopards which will be posted very soon.


Hyena PR

When the public relations skills were handed out to the animals, the hyenas must have been somewhere else - and the lions got the hyena share of human popularity.

Male lions, despite usually being greedy thieving thugs, have lovely long manes and charismatic looks. They inspire awe and respect among humans. Male hyenas on the other hand, are often seen wallowing in mud, or the excrement of other animals, perhaps hanging round lions as they feed, apparently hoping for scraps left by the king of beasts. The male hyena has a reputation for cowardice and submission in front of the more powerful females.

But if you look closely at the hyenas surrounding lions on a kill (for real or on TV), you will quite likely see one with blood on his neck - certainly the animal that made the kill - a hyena and not a lion.

Many people now realise that the truth about hyenas differs from the way they have been portrayed in the media. Night filming is helping us uncover more of what hyenas, and male hyenas in particular, really do.

The male hyenas do the bulk of the hunting - the feeding of the clan. They are faster and lighter than the bulky females, and can as a group out-run and bring down almost any animal they choose, healthy or not. At night it seems that hyenas are almost completely predatory, hardly bothering with carrion, while lions will steal a significant proportion of hyena kills.

The male hyenas do seem to get a raw deal. But in reality, they are valued members of the clan, acting as baby sitters at the den, giving support and reassurance to youngsters, making kills for suckling females, and generally acting as a mobile security network keeping the boundaries of the clan territory intact. And when lions threaten it's the males who dart around the lions, harrying them, getting them to run and tire, while the powerful testosterone filled females have the serious muscle ready
just in case.