Life and Death and Drama on the Serengeti
A Travel Essay by Carol Fiore
Important Note: All images are copyrighted and can’t be used without permission of photographer Dr. Daisy. Contact Carol for information.
Is this how my trip of a lifetime ends?
I watch as a dozen lions surround a baby elephant, approximately two years old. Where is the herd? Where’s his mother? I turn to my 29-year-old daughter. Like me, she’s standing in the Toyota Land Cruiser with the pop-top, her eyebrows are raised, her hands gripping the top of the roof opening as she stares at the drama in front of us. “No,” she’s repeating in a choked whisper, shaking her head. “No.” She’s left her camera on the seat. This will not be documented on film.
I can’t watch this. We’re so close we don’t need binoculars. Our guide Russell sits quietly in the driver seat as the three of us watch the lions inch closer.
The elephant lets out a tiny trumpet and charges at one of the lions, but they continue to advance. As a former zoo keeper I once jumped in a moat to save a two-day-old East African crowned crane. What would I do to save my late husband’s favorite animal? My brain says nature is harsh, I know better than to interfere, it’s against Tarangire Park rules. We’ve spent the past week in the Serengeti and other parts of Tanzania and saw deaths, but not an elephant. Anything but an elephant.
Drive away! I want to shout it at Russell, our Tanzanian guide who’s become our friend these past nine days. Drive away! But we continue to watch. It’s the proverbial train wreck. The brave baby elephant charges again, but soon the lions will surround him. I can’t breathe. My daughter Daisy is pale. Russell watches quietly.
* * * *
The adventure started nine days ago when a small turboprop landed on a grass strip in the north Serengeti. Stepping out, Daisy pointed down at the mud. “Those are hippo prints!”
We’ve landed in the middle of a Disney nature documentary; our brains instantly on biodiversity overload. There’s almost too much excitement to process. Everywhere we look there’s something amazing, and if we dwell too long, we’ll miss something else equally as exciting. We’d hoped to see a couple wildebeest, but almost two million? We see an unbelievable number of different types of antelope, and there are zebras everywhere. I finally see the animal I’ve waited my whole life for—an elephant.
I start a list of animals we’re seeing. I’m writing at a furious pace as Daisy and Russell call out their names. There are the ones I know like Masai giraffe and Thomson’s gazelles and wildebeest and hippos and impala. I need help identifying common waterbuck, fasa waterbuck, steenbok, reedbuck, topi, hartebeest, and oribi. In total we see three different types of mongoose: slender, dwarf, and banded. I need no help identifying warthogs, running with their slender tails waving like a flag, and I become quite fond of them.
Daisy and I tell Russell that we’re not that interested in seeing lions and leopards. It’s great if we see them—and we do—but what we really want are elephants, birds (my favorites next to elephants), rhinos, hyenas (Daisy’s pick), and rock hyraxes. Our personal Disney movie simply must have the cutest animal on the Serengeti, and we’ve decided hyraxes are the clear winners. We see many and poor Russell has to endure our giggles and chatter for what must have seemed to him an interminable amount of time.
And then there are the babies. Sightings are accompanied by the expected squeals and coos from us. Baby lion cubs? They’re mere feet away. Baby zebras? Many. Baby cheetahs? Yes. Baby tommies, baby wildebeest, baby Cape buffalo, baby baboons, baby warthogs, baby impala, baby giraffes, baby hippos, baby hyenas, baby vervet monkeys, baby elephants. There are babies everywhere.
Thanks to Russell’s expert bird knowledge, we record 201 bird species. My daughter sees her favorite, a pygmy falcon, and I see a flock of 60 East African crowned cranes, feeding together. We see dozens of lilac-breasted rollers—one of the world’s most stunning birds with its watercolor-like plumage, lighting up the savannah with color. Little bee-eaters, red and yellow barbets, silverbirds, firefinches, cordonbleus, weavers, and an amazing assortment of colorful starlings make us smile. Russell refers to the hamerkop as “Daisy’s bird.” The African hoopoe is so unreal looking we can’t help but laugh. There are flocks of Fischer’s lovebirds and yellow-colored lovebirds. I gasp when I finally see a brown parrot and an orange-bellied parrot. We have the inevitable jokes about the go-away birds, and Russell attempts to help us identify a dizzying array of raptors. We finally succeed with the Dark Chanting-Goshawk and Russell congratulates us. I’m a bit better with storks and waterfowl, and I write furiously when we encounter a small pond on the savannah.
The bird show is not static. We see a male ostrich dancing for a female. An African harrier hawk tries to dig out a nest in a tree, the flying dirt captured by Daisy’s camera. Francolins run alongside the vehicle during most of our trip, and we become quite fond of the four different species we see. Attractive crowned lapwings wake us up in the morning with their loud calls, and we never fail to grin when an oxpecker is spotted going for a ride on a zebra or impala. Even cattle egrets seem more at home here, riding atop Cape buffalo. We watch a secretary bird chase vultures twice its size off a carcass, just because it can. It’s easy to anthropomorphize about its sassy attitude. We see five species of hornbills, including a red-billed hornbill (Zazu in The Lion King).
At times, the edges of our Disney movie threaten to erode. Vultures frequently gather around a carcass, the lappet-faced vulture towering over the white-headed, the white-backed, and the Ruppell’s griffon. We jokingly say the dead animal lived a long, happy life, then died of old age. There are bones all over the Serengeti, gleaming a bright white in the sun. We see a male and female lion stalking a Cape Buffalo youngster, but a herd of over 300 charges and traps them on a small kopje of steep rocks. We see a cheetah unsuccessfully stalk a tommie. A serval cat stalks, pounces, and successfully makes a meal of a chubby mole.
We see evidence of death in carcasses, bones, the predators. Between us, Daisy and I have five advanced science degrees and have both worked at zoos and in wildlife rehabilitation. I know what is happening, but I watched my husband die. I don’t want to watch a beautiful animal die too and especially not at the hands of a poacher or a trophy hunter.
Daisy works in rhino conservation so she really wants to see a black rhino in the wild. We realize it will be difficult. In the wild, there are never guarantees, but that’s what makes this all so special. We accept that our chances are slim, and then Russell gets a call from a fellow guide. A single male rhino has been spotted. We race to the site, and there he is—resting in some tall grasses a considerable distance from our vehicle. We strain to see him through our binoculars and catch a glimpse of this magnificent animal. We feel fortunate indeed. Other vehicles are lining up along the dirt road for a view. Russell points up at the ridge behind us and then up at the sky. Park Rangers line the ridge and a 4-seater red and white single-engine plane flies in a loop above us. This rhino is the most valuable animal in Tanzania and no one is taking chances.
Elephant and rhino populations are both increasing in Tanzania, thanks to new government leadership and an increase in poaching prosecutions. Russell is rightfully proud of his country and the progress being made. He’s protective of the Serengeti, as are his fellow guides, and he realizes that tourism is an industry that could benefit more Tanzanians, most of whom are extremely poor. Daisy and I are greeted with genuinely warm words and handshakes everywhere we go. We’re asked when we’re returning and are encouraged to tell others about Tanzania. I buy an “I love Tanzania” bumper sticker and promise to put it on my car when I return home. The native people realize they will lose tourists if their wildlife disappears. We see antipoaching signs displayed prominently with notes that it hurts everyone. The Tanzanians are taking no chances with their rhinos.
There are five species of rhinos; Tanzania has black rhinos. A single rhino horn is the most valuable animal appendage on the planet, all because of a misplaced idea that it can be used as medicine. A rhino horn is not made of bone; it’s made of keratin which is a protein found in fingernails and hair. The demand for rhino horn in China and Vietnam is pushing this beautiful animal toward extinction. We’re told that in Tanzania, every single rhino is monitored. I wonder if hiring armed guards is enough. Shouldn’t we try to educate people about the medicine scam being perpetuated? Daisy has an advanced anthropology degree and tells me changing culture is complicated and difficult. But she intends to try. That’s why she’s working on a PhD in animal/human conflicts. She believes conservationists must work with culture.
As we’re watching the black rhino, we see two park ranger vehicles in a flat field in front of us. There are other rangers gathering on the tall ridge above. The plane circles lower. Something is up. Russell speaks to a ranger who has driven up next to our vehicle. Daisy catches the Swahili word for rhino—kifaru. Russell tells us the rangers have to dart a female in order to give her medicine, but she has a youngster with her. “Where?” Daisy asks excitedly. Russell points to the bottom of the hill, and we see the two of them. My daughter’s smile is enormous. The rangers are driving them toward the open field, directly in front of our vehicle. We’re about to see two rhinos, in the wild, up close.
The show commences. The plane flies lower, several rangers on foot move down from the hill and attempt to flush the two rhinos out. A vehicle follows them closely. We don’t want to see any of these brave men hurt. The show becomes comical. The rhinos charge, the men leap into the vehicle, which begins weaving around the animals. A man leans out of the window with the dart gun. We watch him aim, then miss. The rhinos run in front of our vehicle, heading across the road and toward the male in the grasses. We lose sight of the two. Three ranger vehicles give chase. Soon they are all out of view, and the show is over. We all smile because we’ve seen something extremely special. That evening we wonder what happened but never find out, and my daughter and I talk long into the night about saving this incredible animal and how we can help the beautiful people of Tanzania.
At Maramboi tented lodge, near Tarangire, a Maasai warrior takes us on a walking safari and explains to us how climate change is hurting Tanzania. He shows us the evidence in the dried-up lake, in the rivers that no longer run. He talks about agriculture and the animals and the responsibility we all bear. Daisy takes pictures of the solar panels and we nod approvingly about the recent ban on single-use plastic bags in Tanzania. We are incredibly impressed with the country’s conservation work. In this poorest of countries, the people sacrifice for their land and animals and recognize the effects of global warming. We’re ashamed of our own country’s lack of environmental ethics, our carelessness about the land, and our disregard for the cultures of others. Tanzania is a rising star, and we’re honored to be here.
* * * *
We’re back with the baby elephant in Tarangire National Park, on our last full day in Tanzania. We’ve seen lots of elephant herds and Russell tells us there are an estimated 2,800 elephants in this park. Why is the baby all alone? I watch the Disney movie dissolve in an ugly cloud of black smoke as the reality of what we’re watching becomes real. Dumbo is about to be horrifically shredded. I know I’ll never get over this.
And then it happens.
A massive cloud of dust rises into the air from the hill overlooking the dried-up riverbank where the event is unfolding. A trumpet can be heard and then a herd of elephants, about ten strong, appears on the hillside, quickly stampeding toward the baby. We cheer. “Hurry,” we call out. “Hurry!”
The lions are circling faster, almost touching the baby. “Hang in there, brave baby,” Daisy calls out softly. The dust cloud comes closer. The herd is barreling through the underbrush, almost to the riverbank. And then it’s over.
The herd surrounds the baby in its protective embrace. The lions, except for two hiding in the tall grass, slink off. “Go get a wildebeest,” my daughter jokes, then turns to me. “Wait. I sort of like wildebeest.” We scold the baby’s mother, “Do better!” Russell is smiling. The baby elephant has been saved. Nat Geo has missed their moment.
A few minutes later, as the herd has ambled off to feed near the rear of our vehicle, a big bull elephant with impressive tusks, bursts through the tall, dry grasses, followed by a smaller male. He catches sight of the two female lions in the grass. He trumpets, ears fanned, and chases the two around an acacia tree. The lions flee.
The heavily tusked elephant pauses, making eye contact with us. Those intelligent, emotional eyes say much. It will take all of us to protect these wild creatures. When we protect nature, we protect ourselves. We must, all of us, refuse to accept the loss of another species and work together to save our planet earth.