Serengeti National Park is located in the northwest of Tanzania, by the border with Kenya. The park is essentially a Tanzanian extension of the famous Masai Mara National Reserve Park from the Kenyan side. However, it is three times smaller in comparison to Masai Mara. It also pops up regularly on different adventure or geographical channels due to its well-known features with annual migration of over 1.5 million wildebeest accompanied by 250 000 zebras.
The park covers almost 15 000 square kilometres of grassland plains, savanna, woodlands and riverine forest. To the southeast of the park is the Ngorongoro Conservation Area with a dormant volcano; to the southwest Maswa Game Reserve; to the northeast the Loliondo Game Control Area, and to the west the Ikorongo and Grumeti Game Reserves. All of these together forms what is called the Serengeti ecosystem.
Serengeti offers magnificent wildlife, with several kinds of antelopes, elephants, giraffes, buffalos, birds, eagles, zebras, hyenas, lizards, snakes, crocodiles; you can even spot a black rhino and countless other animals. But I was there for one purpose only: Cats in their natural habitat! I was so excited to see them again that even flying in a shaky tuna can aka Cessna did not diminish my excitement and anxious anticipation.
Lions, commonly called as African lions, are the second largest living cat after the tiger. Nowadays, wild lions exist in sub-Saharan Africa and Indian Gir Forest National Park. Due to diminishing numbers, they are recognized as vulnerable species (threatened species). There are 12 subspecies in Africa, and the one I had a privilege to see was the Masai Lion, also known as East African lion. Interestingly, the majority of lions kept in Zoos are hybrids of different species.
Generally speaking, lions are actually very social creatures, forming prides – groups of
related females, their mates and offspring. The outside females are not welcome to the formed pride, and the makeup of the pride changes only with the death or birth of new lionesses. The average pride usually consists of five to six members, however prides of thirty of more are also observed. The number of males in one pride is one or two, but of course, when the number of females increase, then the number of males increases too. To keep the pride in line, the male cubs are excluded from the pride when they reach 2-3 years of age.
Quite amazingly, lions were the first ones we spotted in morning of our first game drive dat. Our drive commenced at 06.30 in the morning, with the rising sun, strong winds, and with the animals having their breakfast or hunting for it. My first spotted kitty was a young male with his full belly walking away from his meal, followed by a couple of jackals (interesting fact is that a couple of jackals always follow the lions who feed). His paws were still covered with spots of blood, and he was looking for a nice spot to digest the meal. Luckily for us, we had a very skilled guide and a driver, and he smoothly and slowly turned the car around to follow the creature for several minutes.
That day and following days brought so many sights of lions; males, females with cubs, pregnant females, prides of several males, including females with cubs at different ages and even hunting lions. I did not know where to turn with my camera!
They are majestic in their movements, and with each move they like to show the world that they run the area. The males with their manes, female hunting or simply taking care of the pride and newly born cubs are indeed a captivating site.
One of my favourite moments was to spot a pride of three males, several females with cubs at different ages. They were all spread across a small area amongst rock formations and bushes, hiding from the sun, and curious tourists. One of the male cubs, approximately one year old, was already showing his potential to be a very dangerous male, stretching himself, showing his teeth, and trying his pawns. He was so “dangerous” that it brought smiles to our faces.
Close to him was a small group of 3 females with very young cubs, one of them still wrinkled like had had been born just few days ago. His mother was paying attention to each of his moves, observing him closely, and being a protective mother, she placed her head on top of his little head.
Another memorable moment was witnessing a smaller pride with two male brothers trying to find a shade in the bushes by the river bed. One brother was too lazy to find his own spot, so in a loud manner he tried to convince his brother to give up his. It was amazing to see the interactions between these pride creatures in their natural habitat.
However, the one cat species I have always been most fascinated by is the cheetah. The grace, the speed and the strategic thinking of the cheetah makes this a truly amazing animal to observe, especially when it is hunting! Their characteristics include slender body, longs legs, deep chest, spotted coat, small rounded head, and capacity to reach up to 112km/h during the chase. But they cannot keep that speed for long due to overheating of their body. They mainly pray on gazelles and antelopes, stalking the victim from a distance of 100-300 meters, calculating all the potential moves. They are real war strategists!
The word “cheetah” is actually derived from Sanskrit and it means “bright” or “variegated”, however “hunting leopard” is also used as an alternative name for them. There are 5 subspecies of cheetah currently across the globe, but the one that I was impatiently looking for in Serengeti is Tanzanian cheetah or East African cheetah. As with the lions, cheetah is also marked as a vulnerable species. However, on the contrary to lions or leopard that are rather nocturnal animals, cheetahs are diurnal, which means that they are active mainly during the day.
Male cheetahs tend to form groups, so called coalitions, to protect their territories. Coalitions of 2-3 males also ensure the maximum access of the area to the females. On the contrary, females are not territorial, and live alone with their offspring. Young ones may form mixed groups; however, majority of young females stay with their mothers, and males eventually mature and leave the group to form their coalition.
The highlight of my first day was to sit in the car for almost 2hours, and observe a single cheetah hunting. What an end to the day it was! She was hidden in the high grass, observing a small group of antelopes feeding nearby. Suddenly, she got up, and started running after one antelope. She entered the high speed so fast, that we did not manage to turn the car around. The chase did not last long and cheetah had to change the direction of her hunt, but my excitement had hit the roof! To witness this graceful animal preparing the “strategy’ of the chase, lifting the body up from the ground and kicking in to the speed within milliseconds, was something indescribable. I kept observing her trying to hunt till the darkness of the evening covered the area.
I met few more of these magnificent runners, but not during their hunting. Every encounter left me equally mesmerized however.
The most elusive of these big cats is the leopard. I considered myself lucky to be able to spot two on two different occasions. One was taking his afternoon nap on a high branch of the tree, and making me work hard to see him. His spotted body was stretched on the branch, with his tail hanging in the air, with one of his back legs stretched into the air. The main body of the tree was scratched, showing signs of leopard climbing high up, to find a spot to rest. We were in a complete silence, witnessing his beauty.
The second moment to remember was the day after. Another single male had found himself a spot for an early afternoon nap on the high rock, amongst the bushes. Again, he made me work to witness his spotted body lying across the shade of the bushes. But it was all worth it. I did not allow our driver to leave the spot, and we spent a good hour, sitting quietly in a good distance watching the creature enjoying its day.
Leopards are listed as vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List due to declining numbers. They are part of the genus Panthera, together with jaguar, lion, snow leopard, and tiger. Comparing to the rest of the “family”, leopards have rather short legs and long body, with a big head. It is similar in its physique to a jaguar, but in a smaller scale. Interesting fact is that both leopards and jaguars that have too much of black melatonin, and do not show any other colour, are called black panthers.
Leopards are distinguished by their opportunistic hunting behaviour, ability to use the camouflage colours of their body, and their strength. This cat is capable of moving heavy carcasses high up into the trees. It is not as fast as a cheetah, but it still can reach speeds of up to 58km/h,
There are 8 leopard subspecies currently in existence; however researchers described as many as 27 up to 1956. Of course, the one that I was observing from the inside of the car was Sub-Saharan African leopard that is also the most widespread group of leopards.
This nocturnal animal is solitary and very territorial. Individuals look for a mate only in the mating season; however, there are many cases whereby the mothers continue to interact with their offspring after weaning. Males typically may interact with their partners and cubs at times.
I spent 3 days only in Serengeti, driving from dusk till dawn, and witnessing the beauty the nature. There is no better way to see living animals in their habitat. I could not be happier sitting in the car, watching cheetahs, lions and leopards from the distance. I came back with many pictures on my digital card, but nothing will ever replace watching a cheetah hunting an antelope, a lioness caressing her new-born cub, a lioness trying to calm her breath lying next to a carcass 20minutes after the kill, or an amazing pattern of rosettes on leopard’s body stretched on the rock in the shade. I love these cats!