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A Double-Double in the NCA - Ndutu in February 2021


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ice
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from Wikipedia:

 

In basketball, a double-double is a single-game performance in which a player accumulates ten or more in two of the following five statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocked shots.
The first "double" in the term refers to the two (double) categories and the second "double" refers to accumulating ten or more (typically double digits) in that category. 

 

On February 19th it was finally time to head back to Ndutu; a trip that was initially planned for April 2020 but back then had to be cancelled due to we all know what. After 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 this was to be my 5th trip to the NCA, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and my third during the rainy season. Expectations were high, after all my previous four Ndutu Safaris rank at the very top of my 40+ African Safaris - and (as always) Ndutu delivered. My guide Hamisi and I witnessed sightings that I am sure in this particular combination nobody else has ever seen before.

 

The two flights with Ethiopian Airlines were rather full, much fuller than the same flights that I had booked half a year earlier. On time arrival in ADD and an early arrival at JRO made up for a smooth journey. I believe this was my 8th trip to Tanzania (5 to Ndutu, 2 on the Northern Circuit and 1 at the Southern Circuit) but it was the first time I had prior to departure opted to obtain an eVisa. A decision that indeed paid off - I was the first tourist (aka non Tanzanian) to enter the luggage area.

 

It was obviously too late to drive farther than Arusha, so I spent the night at a place called "Planet Lodge", whereas Hamisi crushed somewhere else with friends.

 

 

 

 

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LarsS

I was already excited to see a new trip report appear, but when you sneak in a comment like this, I'm very curious what you have witnessed! :) 

 

7 hours ago, ice said:

My guide Hamisi and I witnessed sightings that I am sure in this particular combination nobody else has ever seen before.

 

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ice
2 hours ago, LarsS said:

I was already excited to see a new trip report appear, but when you sneak in a comment like this, I'm very curious what you have witnessed! :) 

 

Patience is a virtue - right now I am hoping to find the time to write up one safari day per day, which means the conclusion will be added in roughly two weeks :)

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LarsS
4 hours ago, ice said:

 

Patience is a virtue - right now I am hoping to find the time to write up one safari day per day, which means the conclusion will be added in roughly two weeks :)

No pressure, I'll take it when it comes 😊

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ice
Posted (edited)

Sunday Feb. 21st

 

We left Arusha at 8 am, arriving in Karatu at 1 pm. While Hamisi drove off to buy diesel for the next 12 days I had lunch at a small local restaurant where I met with Emmanuel, the receptionist of Ndutu Lodge, who at that time was on home leave.

 

Last year in August for 8 of my 9 nights I was the only guest at the lodge. Needless to say, the staff back then was extremely grateful that at least one tourist had dared to come over, despite all the threats and warnings and negative comments of all those social media worry warts. They also knew that during the early stage of the crisis I was one of those guests who had donated some money to support them.

 

To sum it all up: I was treated like a little king, much much better than any "regular" guest. I also bonded with key members of the staff like Emmanuel, Stephen (the manager) and Peter (the cook). Bonds that this year "paid off". One example: while in Karatu we talked to Stephen and he (not me) suggested that I bring my own two crates of soft drinks, thus avoiding the somewhat inflated prices at the lodge. A gesture that must have saved me 100 € - money that at the end of the safari went straight into the tip box, thereby strengthening the bond even more - you get the picture.

 

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ice

Lodoare Gate was certainly busier than six months before, an impression that manifested itself during the following 12 days. Tourists were and are slowly coming back to Tanzania and the NCA / Serengeti in particular.

 

It was past 5 pm when we finally left the main road to turn towards Ndutu, not enough time for a proper game drive. We made a short stop at the Lake, taking in a scenery that before I only knew from the Mara: the water level of the Lake was extremely high, much higher than most wildebeest in the Mara-Serengeti-Ecosystem had ever known, so a lot of them had drowned while trying to cross it, a feast for spotted hyenas, vultures and marabus. 

 

Unfortunately this year I was bit late, most of the big herds had already left the area. Oh well, too bad but my main (if not to say sole) interest was (as always in the NCA) cheetah.

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ice

Expectations

 

My expectations were of course high, certainly higher than in 2018 and 2020. Why? Because I know my stats by heart:

 

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There was (quite naturally) a huge difference between my cheetah sightings during green and dry seasons, especially if you look at the number of kills. However, quantity is certainly not everything on safaris, for example this one kill in 2018 is perhaps my most favorite (it is certainly the one that has by far gained the biggest attention on my YouTube Channel, 8.4 million views as of today)

 

Gear Upgrade

 

A lot of people complain that 2020 was the worst year in their life, especially financially. Well, I may be one lucky exception from the rule. In spring, when the oil price dropped to record lows, I invested in oil certificates and sold them a few months later, than later in 2020 I bought stock of Biontech and Curevac, divesting these a few weeks later, too. Part of the money I made was invested into a new a video camera, the Panasonic HC-X 1500. Ndutu was to be the first safari where I would it in the field.

 

 

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ice

Monday Feb. 22nd

 

First stop of the day: Makao Plains, where especially in 2014 and 2016 we would sometimes turn our binos in a 360 circle and spot two or three different cheetah or even groups of cheetah. Today, not a single cheetah, although we spent 4 1/2 h on the Plains. Instead, plenty of spotted hyenas.

 

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By the way: a lot of the pictures you will see throughout this report were taken with my older iPhone, so don't expect DSLR quality.

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ice

The Lions of Ndutu

 

I should have inserted this passage earlier...oh well.

 

The area around Ndutu traditionally has four resident prides of lions:

  • Marsh Pride, currently six adult females
  • Thin Pride, currently two adult females
  • Masek Pride, currently four adult females
  • Twin Hills Pride, currently five adult females

Those who have stayed at Ndutu Lodge will know this whiteboard which is (infrequently) updated by Ingela Jansson of KopeLion.org

 

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I took this picture in 2020 but its information is still pretty accurate, at least when it comes to the female lions. The dominating males though seem to switch on almost a yearly basis, certainly much quicker than 5 - 10 years ago. Currently (I should say in February) they had

 

  • Lamarsi and Loseyay, dominating the Thin and the Masek Pride
  • Lodgi, dominating the Marsh Pride
  • Lagunita Trio, dominating the Twin Hills Pride

I am not sure if the three Lagunita Males have separate names, on that whiteboard from 2020 they are only identified by prefixes. No wonder, because these lions, including the females, are hardly ever seen. Me, I have never spotted them but I'll get to that later.

 

The whiteboard did (and still does) list the Big Marsh Cousins Pride. However, their members were last seen years ago, probably by my guide and me: In 2018 we "re-discovered" one of their females which I was then allowed to name after my daughter Kira.

 

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ice

okay, back to my drives:

 

February 22nd

 

On your way back from Makao Plains to the Lodge you usually pass the shores of Lake Ndutu. There we spot our first lions of the trip: Three members of the Masek Pride: Nosikitok, Babs and Bessy, whereas Brenda is nowhere to be seen. I also miss the five cubs that were with the females when I last met them in August 2020. However, Hamisi assures me that all five have survived which is certainly not a given in the NCA or even in the Serengeti.

 

 

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Our afternoon drive begins where the morning drive ended: at the lake, where the signs of the recent mass drowning of wildebeest are still abundant.

 

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The Masek Pride is still where we left them but over lunch Brenda has decided to join her mother, sisters and cousins again. Somewhat later we also discover the Marsh Pride: Diano, Juno, Vesta and their undisputed leader Cassandra.

 

On the penultimate day of my last Ndutu Safari, Hamisi and I also ran into Marsh Pride. At that time the adult females were accompanied by no less than eleven subadults; youngsters who have left their mothers and aunts in the meantime. Two of the adult lionesses have also disappeared: Hamisi and I are probably the last people to have seen Aphrodite six months ago; at the time alone and far from the rest of her family, and Vesta is missing for an even longer time.

 

The rest of the afternoon we drive back and forth between the two prides. Close to sunset our effort is somewhat rewarded: the Masek lionesses finally bring out their cubs. To our surprise they are six now: Since we left in August Brenda has given birth to another baby lion. 

 

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ice

February 23rd

 

Last night Dennis, one of the official Serengeti Cheetah Researchers of TANAPA, has checked into the lodge. After a brief chat with him we head back to the Lake, much to my displeasure. But over night the rains have returned and there is no way we could make it to Makao Plains.

 

Babs, Bessy and Nosikitok seem to have moved on, together with their five older cubs, leaving only Brenda and her tiny baby behind. Minutes later we also discover their dominant males, Lamarsi and Loseyay.

 

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On our way towards the Marshes, we spot a leucistic "black-backed" jackal, a first for me.

 

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Our next stop: the Long Gully, the junction where the two marshes meet, where we come across the Thin Pride. Laura, her already rather old daughter Willow and her much younger last litter were somewhat the stars of my safari in last August, when Laura killed a fully grown wildebeest right in front of Hamisi's and my eyes - at the time only my second lion kill ever. 

 

 

 

 

 

The story of “Thin Pride” began 15 years ago when Hamisi (at that time still an employee of the lodge) worked as a spotter for a BBC camera team. At the beginning of this project, the Thin Pride consisted of four adult females and seven cubs, a year and two dry seasons later, only Laura and two of her daughters had survived: Winnie and Willow.

 

Winnie died a few years ago, and since then Thin Pride is only composed of Willow and her mother Laura, who is now almost seventeen years old, a very impressive age for a lion living in the wild. And yet, for all their experience, Laura and Willow lose all of their offspring year after year; most recently in 2018/2019, when the females had eight babies before the dry season began and then lost them, one after the other, one right in front of Hamisi's and my eyes.

 

 

Last August we found Laura and Willow with two cubs. To our delight both youngsters have survived the last dry season. This morning they are enjoying the little pools of water, together with their mum Laura and their (much older) half sister Willow.

 

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ice

Leaving the Thin Pride behind, we turn west into the Small Marsh and that's where we find the next group of lions: two adult females, three still suckling cubs and one almost fully grown male.

 

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Now, if you have paid attention earlier on you will now notice that this particular composition does not match to any of the regular Ndutu Prides:

  • the Thin Pride we just left behind
  • the Marsh Pride does currently not have any suckling cubs
  • the Masek Pride has only one tiny cub
  • the territory of the Twin Hills Pride is miles away

Now it could be two of the Big Marsh Cousins females but that pride was last seen more than two years ago, quite unlikely they have just now returned. For the moment we write these lions off as nomads.

 

On a side note:  on this safari Hamisi and I have now photographed and filmed 26 different lions but are still waiting for our first cheetah. But not for much longer. As we arrive at Kusini Plains, we meet up with Zawadi, one of Dennis' spotter and he was luckier than us: there she is, our first 2021 NCA cheetah, a still young but nevertheless adult female - and she is clearly hungry.

 

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A few hours later the cat seems finally be ready. In front of her is a small herd of grant gazelles. Now grants are certainly not the favorite prey of Serengeti cheetah, especially not if they are inexperienced and have to hunt alone. However, in dire straits...what can I say, she made it. We witnessed the hunt and kill from start to finish, one of the longest of fastest hunts I have ever witnessed (must be close to a hundred now). 

 

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The cheetah has dragged the gazelle into one of these high plant islands, sheltering it from the eyes of greedy enemies like lions and especially hyenas. Good for her, but bad for us, we have a hard time seeing more than the occasional wag of the tail.

 

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Back home I realize that I (unknowingly at the time) celebrated a small anniversary: my 20th NCA cheetah kill.

 

 

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offshorebirder

Thanks for this Ndutu TR @ice - sounds like you had good luck with Cheetah and overall.

 

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ice

Less than a 100 m away from the lodge we see some movement in the shrub - it's a striped hyena, another first for me!

 

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For once, the heavy rains of the last few days may have a positive side effect: Hamisi suspects that the underground burrow, in which the hyena would normally sleep during the day, is soaked, maybe even flooded, and that this the reason why the hyena is still outdoors at lunchtime.

 

As exciting as the morning drive has been, the following Afternoon Drive is as uneventful: We drive out to search for a female cheetah with a small cub who allegedly have recently been sighted in the marshland. Two cats we unfortunately we cannot track down, just like the lionesses of Marsh Prides, which were on our wish list for this afternoon as an alternative. Instead, I have to make do with Lamarsi and Loseyay, the leaders of Thin and Masek Prides. It seems to me that the two males have barely moved a meter from the spot where we left them at half past six this morning.

 

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ice
Posted (edited)

double posting 

 

 

Edited by ice
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ice
Posted (edited)

February 24th

 

The rainfall last night was less severe than the night before, and yet Hamisi continues to rule out a trip down the Makao Plains; The risk of getting stuck en route or even worse brake an axle seems too great to him.

 

During our first safaris in 2014 and 2016, I might have insisted on taking these risks anyway. In the sixth decade of my life, however, I have definitely become a bit mellowed with age. Be that as it may, when it comes to defining possible and less possible goals for our drives, I simply trust Hamisi - which is of course easier for me after twenty cheetah kills than at the beginning of our acquaintance. But I don't feel like chugging along the lake shore or through the marshes again. As an alternative, Hamisi proposes to steer his Landcruiser to the far north of the Conservation Area: to the Hidden Valley.

 

"Hidden Valley" hits it pretty well; the valley can hardly be seen from the higher plains. Year and day ago I filmed an eland running in circles around its own body - Hamisi suspected at the time that the horned antilope had been spat on by a spitting cobra and went blind. Today, on the other hand, I unfortunately don't find any interesting motifs other than these pink flamingos...birds I could have filmed at the Lake.

 

Back in the center of the Conservation Area, Hamisi spots the fawn of a Grant Gazelle, which was probably born only a few minutes ago - "Still wet", "(after birth) still damp behind the ears", is Hamisi's comment. 

 

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To not upset the mother of this fawn any further, Hamisi and I continue our journey south. Barely twenty minutes later we stop again: the lionesses of Marsh Prides have sought refuge from the plague of flies in the bushes of a plant island - with negligible success.

 

Our afternoon drive begins on the southern bank of the lake. As always, we left much earlier than the other guests of the lodge. A tactic that today pays off again: we can enjoy the first animal encounter of the afternoon in peace and quiet. The resident striped hyena has left the area of its den to forage for food among the remains of all the wildebeest carcasses at the Lake

 

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On the other side of the lake we find two Masek Pride females. I'm afraid the noise of our engine woke them up - and not only them, within minutes the cubs are up, too and demand their rightful share of milk and playing time.

 

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Around half past five something like tension builds up (at least inside Hamisi's jeep): one of the adult females leaves the rest of her family behind and heads west towards the setting sun. Does anyone want to hunt there?

 

Tension that drops as quickly as it emerged: the lioness stops again after a hundred meters: instead of moving horizontally, she now only moves vertically.

 

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Seems like there are various attempts to explain why lions climb trees: on one hand, the cooling wind always blows a little bit stronger at a height of two or three meters than directly above the ground, and on the other hand, there are fewer insects crawling and buzzing around up there than in the grass below.

 

For lions, climbing trees is not an innate, but a learned behavior. A behavior that, according to Hamisi here in the NCA can only be observed with the Masek Pride.

 

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LarsS

Thanks for the great updates @ice! Very interesting to read more about the background of the lions as well. It looks like some of the cats are feeling a bit like family to you, am I right? I'll definitely checkout your YT videos later, sounds very promising. You've got yourself some serious gear as well, hope your happy with it and you'll be able to shoot some great footage!

 

Interesting you mention the tree climbing lions in NCA. Often it's said that you can only find tree climbing lions in Uganda's Queen Elizabeth NP. So far I've heard of the same behaviour in Savuti and Kruger NP and spotted a lioness up in a small tree in the Kafue as well. I didn't know of lions in NCA doing it too. It seems to be more common than most articles describe. May be that has something to do with the promotion of Uganda? Claim it, get known for it and it will attract visitors.

 

You've already seen a cheetah hunt and kill, which must have been an awesome sight when the cheetah is on full speed.

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ice

@LarsSIncidentally you have brought two or three issues that I was (and still will) refer to at the end of my report.

 

Regarding the tree climbing lions, I totally agree: it's just a marketing thing. Personally I have seen tree climbing lions in Kruger, in Tarangire, in the Crater and at Lake Nakuru. 

 

As mentioned in one of my earlier posts, that was my 20th successful cheetah kill, so I am pretty sure I have seen +/- one hundred hunting attempts, although of course a lot of them didn't last very well and / or went over long distances. In my experiences after two or three seconds into the hunt, a cheetah knows if he is gonna make it or not and once he realizes it will be a fail, it stops abruptly. But yes, there is nothing quite like a cheetah in full speed. However, a full speed hunt is extremely difficult to film, even for professionals. If I'm lucky I catch one out of ten on camera. 

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Very interesting youtube channel you've got @ice! It looks like I might have to skip a few Euro2021 matches to catch up with all kinds of incredible wildlife videos.

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2 hours ago, LarsS said:

Very interesting youtube channel you've got @ice! It looks like I might have to skip a few Euro2021 matches to catch up with all kinds of incredible wildlife videos.

 

yeah, and you know what? I'm making quite a nice amount of money from it. It pays indeed off.

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Hidden Valley I know. Where are the Makao Plains? Trying to picture in my head where you drove around Ndutu. I have not been able to find a detailed map of Ndutu - and, yes, I have the GT, T4A and Roodt maps.  Thanks!

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they sell these at the Lodge. In the bottom left corner you find Makao Track. The Plains are to the right (west).

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Thursday, February 25th, seven o’clock in the morning. Last night it didn't rain for the first time since arriving at the lodge. Nevertheless, Hamisi is still skeptical about the accessibility of the Makao Plains, but we make it to Kusini Plains, not too far away from the area where we witnessed our first cheetah kill of 2021 two days ago.

 

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Less than 45 minutes later Hamisi has spotted another cheetah. It’s an adult female and she is obviously hungry, trotting and stopping, all the while searching the plains for suitable prey.

 

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2 ½ hours later - the cat is still trying to find gazelles – another vehicle arrives. Their passengers and my guide Hamisi know each other from a previous safari. After a few minutes of friendly banter, the other tourists decide to leave us with the cheetah while they want to try their luck with a small family of black-backed jackals they have discovered earlier on less than 300 m away from our current position. And it is indeed this jackal family that starts the action of what would become one of the sightings of my entire 20 years old safari history:

 

The jackals have stumbled across a lone grant gazelle with a tiny little foal. Working as a team, the two adult jackals try to distract the mother while the subadult jackal aims to catch the baby gazelle. Lots of commotion…commotion that does not go unnoticed. From the distance the cheetah comes running in full hunting speed. The adult gazelle, still trying to save her foal, notices the cat too late.

 

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 The gazelle is still breathing but we are sure that the cheetah will not let her get away, she is has worked too hard for this meal. Hamisi and I agree that this is a good time to change position and check out the jackal family and their prey.

 

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The fate of the fawn is of course sealed, too - even if it could (hardly imaginable) escape the three jackals: without the protection and care of its mother, it would (within a truly short time) either be killed by other predators - or starve to death.

 

I've never seen anything like it and Hamisi's experience with jackal kills is limited, too. It therefore remains unclear to me whether the hunters cannot kill the fawn or whether they do not (yet) want to kill it. In this constellation (a family three of) at least one jackal is still a young animal; maybe his parents want him to practice on the gazelle; a possibly cruel sight for the faint-hearted human, but a widespread behavior in the wild: in a few months, this jackal must be able to feed itself and at some point, in the foreseeable future also its offspring.

 

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The explanation could of course be much more mundane: jackals belong to the family of dogs and dogs don't kill their prey before they start to eat it; In this respect, jackals, hyenas, wild dogs or wolves differ from animals from the cat family such as lions, leopards...and cheetahs.

 

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The cheetah shows a behavior typical for its kind: its teeth are much weaker than those of a leopard or lion, so it has to open its kill where its skin is thinnest and where mother nature or evolution has already created body openings; body orifices that a cheetah only has to enlarge.

 

Just like her relative on Tuesday, this female has also dragged her prey into the relative safety of somewhat taller leaves and bushes. Nevertheless, the cat is well advised to eat as much as possible as quickly as possible - hyenas are never far away even on Kusini Plains.

 

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When we leave the cat and the jackals it is not even 10 o'clock yet. We witnessed a double kill by two different species of predators, something I certainly have never seen before. The first true highlight of this safari - and the second is about to follow. Last night, Ingela Jansson, the head of Kope Lion has arrived at the Lodge. She wants to check on the local lion prides - and she is kind enough to provide us with the GPS coordinates of the Twin Hills Pride - lions I have during my 40+ nights in the NCA never laid eyes on.

 

The center of this pride's territory are the Twin Hills; two prominent elevations in the southeast of the Conservation Area. An area in which Masai cattle graze practically all the time. Conflicts between farmers and lions are inevitable Conflicts that the Twin Hills Pride evades, especially during the day, by hiding extremely deep in undergrowth that is almost impenetrable for people and also for safari vehicles; undetectable even for the best guides. Today is no exception, without the coordinates we would have never ever been able to discover them, but at 15:30 they lie in front of us: the adult females with their leader Nadine, subadults and cubs plus their dominating males, three lions in their absolute prime, called the Lagunita Trio, a total of 16 cats.

 

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What a day!

 

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