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Life and Work in the Serengeti: part three
In the third and final part of our mini-blog series on Carole and Donald Boag's experiences living and working in the Serengeti, Carole beautifully describes the annual Migration of the Gnu as they head North.
It starts with a gentle lowing which increases in volume as the animals approach, building to a fine crescendo as they all join in the gnu choir, singing happily as they go. Within a short space of time the front runners appear and soon, as far as the eye can see, there are gnus, gnus and more gnus covering the vast plains of the Serengeti. There are neither thousands, nor even tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands of these gentle inelegant creatures gathering together at their meeting place for the start of their annual migration.
It is an indescribable sight to see enormous numbers hurtling along, some in lines, some in tsunami like waves, all seemingly purposelessly and yet all ending up in the same place. Even the experts do not know when this gathering will happen nor how the gnus communicate the time and place of the meeting to the rest of their species, spread throughout the Serengeti and neighbouring Conservation area.
One of the many theories of this migration is that the animals are continuously searching for suitable grass to eat. During the dry season the grass loses some of its phosphorous content and becomes less nutritious. As the rainy season begins the grass greedily soaks up the water and produces the nutrients needed to keep the wildebeest sated and healthy. In order to maintain this healthy diet throughout the year these gnus (and also zebra and some impala) follow the rains in a 650 kilometre circuit.
At the beginning of the rainy season the Serengeti turns into a huge gnu crèche as thousands and thousands of babies are born within a three week timeframe giving them a greater chance of survival than if they were born singly throughout the year. Baby wildebeest grow twenty times more quickly than their human counterparts and can stand at the ripe old age of seven minutes. Once standing, the newborn can gallop alongside its mother albeit rather clumsily and with frequent falls during its first hour of life. Nevertheless there are certain inhabitants of the Serengeti who look forward to this time of year with greedy delight, and by the time the gnus have all (well maybe not all) packed their bags and left for Kenya the satisfied predators are rolling around like beach balls and probably in need of a good dose of “syrup of figs”.
The Park shivers with anticipation and excitement at the grandeur of the occasion and as it was our first migration we half expected to see bunting decked around the trees, photos of Prince Gnu and his bride to be on every corner and little stalls by the side of the road selling all sorts of gnu tat.
"Make the most of the next two days” we were told, “as they will soon start their journey North” and so for the whole weekend we sat in our vehicle close to a waterhole, watching, smelling and listening to the (gnu gnu) grunts of these massive herds surrounding us on all sides.
A couple of hippo wallowing in the pool were also entranced by the sight and tried to grab the limelight by pirouetting in the water giving us a glimpse of their pink rotund bellies, and all the while Mr Crocodile glided through the water showing only his sinister head as he waited patiently for a tasty meal.
As the sun slowly dropped in the sky the gnus and zebras upheld the time old African tradition of sundowners and groups of them took turns to queue up at the bar of “The Waterhole Arms”. Knowing that pubs can often produce unwanted side effects each group was very wary as it approached the bar and looked around anxiously as they lowered their heads in unison to commence drinking. At the slightest ripple in the water they leapt back as one, like a troupe of choreographed dancers.
But there is always one who doesn't know when to stop, isn't there? We caught sight of him standing up to his thighs (do gnus have thighs?) in the water. And there, just a few metres away we saw the long scaly tail of the crocodile. With all our might we willed the gnu to run away and out of the water. (Yes I know. This is nature and we shouldn’t really take sides but sometimes you just do). But he just stood there, rooted to the spot. A few minutes elapsed and we saw him start to struggle for the bank, but like one of those Tom and Jerry cartoons despite his best efforts he was making no headway at all. And then we saw why. We caught a brief glimpse of the head of the crocodile, very close to the rear end of the gnu and we guessed that those vicious teeth had a firm grip on either the tail or leg. To be fair the croc wasn’t making much headway either and having deduced that the reptile did not have a good grip the odds on the captive making a getaway grew. A few more minutes passed and then with a mighty lunge the gnu freed himself from the vicelike grip and scrambled out of the water apparently unhurt. Hooray.
The crocodile had obviously decided that there were easier methods of getting a take away and turned his attention very swiftly to “a gnother gnu.” In fact whilst we were still watching the escapee, there was a wild threshing of water and this time the crocodile had done his preparation more thoroughly. The monster jaws snapped firmly round the torso of the poor unfortunate and with a mighty heave he pulled it under the water so that only the horns were visible. This pose seemed to be frozen in time as the crocodile slowly drowned his lunch and mission accomplished he dragged the beast to his underwater lair where he no doubt would leave it to fester until it was tender enough to whet his taste buds.. And what happened next? Was it a wake of weeping, wailing wildebeest, mourning the death of their friend? No folks. It was party time. Safe in the knowledge that the needs of the crocodile had been sated for the time being the waterhole was soon filled with gnus and zebra, splashing, cavorting and drinking their fill in true Friday night fashion.
The next day saw the start of the great gnu journey as they picked up their rucksacks and headed off to the wet juicy North. For the statisticians amongst you (and the four year- olds), this mammoth collection of gnus produce enough urine per day to fill 125 tanker lorries and enough dung to fill 500 tipper trucks. As they leave the area they leave behind the same sort of scene (and smells) you might expect from Glastonbury. The grass is trampled , there are swathes of bush laid bare and the waterholes have been drunk dry.