The Star (Nairobi)

16 February 2013

Kenya: When the Dust Settled - Part Two

A large herd of buffalos had arrived gracefully at the waterhole, tired and thirsty from a long trek. They had briefly colonised the waterhole, some of them dipping themselves inside the reservoir while others just stood there to guard the resource against other animals.

But that lasted as long as the mighty elephants arrived. The buffalos were chased away and the elephants took over. To emulate the buffalos, some juvenile elephants also went inside the pool and displaced some water that flowed out of the pool, to the blessings of the smaller grazers who were standing by unable to compete with the giants of the African plains.

When the dust settled and the pecking order had been established around the waterhole, the animals retreated under an acacia tree to wait for the sun to go down before they could head back to their home ranges.

As is the normal practice with grazers resting together regardless of species, one or several of them will stand as sentries to watch out for danger.

The ruminants will be chewing cud while scanning the plains, taking turns to make sure that everyone has a chance to rest. The journey back could take several hours and they all need strength. We also relaxed at the poolside with a cold beer, marvelling at the simple yet strict organisation within the animal world.

Suddenly, an impala gave out an alarm call. There was an instant reaction within the whole group that was within the waterhole. Those who were asleep woke up immediately.

They all understood the call from the impala. Within the animal world, there are sounds, or calls that are intra-specific. That is, the calls can only be interpreted by members of the same species as the caller.

But in coping with increased predation, some grazers have learnt to interpret calls of danger even if the caller is not of the same species. In this instance, a call from an impala had been understood by zebras, Thomson gazelles, buffalos, baboons and even mongoose.

Baboons hurriedly climbed to the top-most branches of the acacia tree, while the rest just stood on the ready, all gazing in one direction.

We followed the direction where all the animals were looking. At almost a distance of three kilometres, a shadowy shape of the king of the jungle, a large male lion with blackened mane was slowly approaching the lodge waterhole.

From time to time, he would stop to take a breath of fresh air, and then he would be swallowed again into his own dust. We waited for him for almost half an hour.

He finally arrived within 50 meters from the waterhole and then stopped. Although he was a strong adult male, he looked out of place and lacked the confidence of a king. It was evident he was coming from far and he had crossed over an occupied territory to reach here. He had to be sure the resident owner was not around. At his state, he did not want to risk a fight. He was too tired and thirsty.

Having confirmed that it was safe to continue, he advanced towards the waterhole. When he was about 20 metres, I expected to see all the little grazers run for their dear lives.

They did not. They simply walked behind the elephants and the buffalos, just in case. But they showed little signs of fear. It was as though they understood his intension. To drink.

The king of the jungle had his fill while the animals watched. When he was done, he headed for the same tree shading most of the grazers.

That was when we saw the first reaction from the elephants. While the rest of the animals vacated the shade and walked towards the bushes, the elephants stood their ground!

At one point, a little juvenile walked towards the lion, lifted his head and made himself look very huge by spreading his ears, then made a mock charge making as much noise as he could.

The lion stopped midway through, looked at the herd of adult elephants under the shade, then at the approaching juvenile. Slowly, he turned and walked back to the waterhole and squeezed himself into a small shade made by a large stone.

Another hierarchical order had been established. It was as though the lion was telling the elephants, "Keep your shade, I will keep the waterhole." I just wondered; who is the king then?

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