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February 20, 2019

Cows may graze in game parks, but are they safe?

IN SEARCH OF FOOD: A calf killed by a lion. Photo/STEVE KINUTHIA
IN SEARCH OF FOOD: A calf killed by a lion. Photo/STEVE KINUTHIA

For a week or so, rains pounded the most parts of the country with such force that if it had continued like that it would have caused more damage than good. Yet all over the country, the rainy season was waited upon like a holiday. For the pastoralist community, it was more than a blessing. It was a life saver for both domestic and wild animals. I was in Nakuru and death had already begun being witnessed inside the national park. Carcasses of buffalos scattered every corner of the park. The two rivers that drain into the lake had all dried up. In Masai Mara, the Mara River was just a trickle and the population of hippos could be seen as far as 12km away from the river, looking for the permanent water sources.

The rains that pounded the Mara region for a week did not do much to the scorched earth. By the time yours truly left the Mara, it was as dry as it had been before the rains.

Every year when the rains fail to come in time, the herders in Mara region are allowed to take their animals inside the park at night to graze their domestic animals. I think this move is a local arrangement with the park management since I did not see any effort by the rangers to stop the influx of thousand of cows and goats heading into the inside of the Mara reserve as the tourists are heading to their respective lodges after the evening game drive. One positive thing thought was that the herders kept their end of the bargain true to the arrangement. No cows could be seen during the day inside the park. But for those of us who like to go the park early enough to time the rising sun, we encountered very huge herds of cows, running into thousands, coming out from the bushes.

The practise of grazing in the park at night is not without its challenges. Sometimes some animals separate from the group and gets lost. And some times, lions attack the cows and eat them. During the time I was there. I went for a very early drive. There is a big group of wildebeest in the park. One can assume that the migration has started. This could be the group that had made a home in the loita plains and used to drop into Mara region just before the main group arrives from Serengeti. Considering that the loita plains have been subdivided and the new owners have erected fences and started developing the areas, the resident wildebeests have been pushed back into the park.

I had selected this area so that I could take the sunrise with the silhouettes of the wildebeests in the foreground. Once I arrived in the plains where the wildebeests had congregated, I witnessed a rare scene in the bush. I saw the wildebeests running in circles. They did not seem to be overly scared but were running as though whatever they were running away from was not very dangerous. I drove inside the group to see what was happening. A white goat, which obviously was left behind as the herders left the park in the morning, was looking for company. Each time the goat approached the herd of wildebeests, the wildebeests run away.

Instincts would alert the goat that the wildebeests were running away from danger. Without looking back to identify the danger, the goat would run faster to catch up with the wildebeests and in turn, the wildebeests would run faster to get away from the goat, which to them, was not a member of their species. The commotion was hilarious in that the whole group was running round and round the goat just like the kindergarten children would do in a game. When the wildebeests got tired of the game, they tried head butting the goat to keep it away.

Just a few hundred meters away, I spotted a lion crouched in a sitting position inside some grassy mound. When I approached the lion, it disappeared from view in a hurry. Since the lions in mara are not afraid of tourist vehicle, I decided to investigate why this particular lions preferred to hide. She had killed a cow and she knew very well the consequences of being found by the masai owners. She could face a death penalty.

Steve Kinuthia is a professional veteran safari guide and the proprietor of Bushman Adventures.

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