Category Archives: Africa

Horse of a Different Color


©2021 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

Zebra are making themselves painterly. Spreading out. Milling about. Closing the gap. Becoming a knot a knitting a… Tapestry. Abstract. Abstruse. Neither close nor distant on first glance and are they Herd (Indivisible) or Horse (Invisible)?

Or both?

That’s the trick of it.

And whether White Horse herd in shadow or a Dark Horse herd in light, even the predators (for whom disambiguation is their only business) struggle to get it right. There are too many decisions to make!

Which is the point of it.

Lioness furrows her brow (did those flashing lines give her a migraine?). Leopard stares and blinks, as if he cannot focus (has he had too little sleep?).

Jackal packs it in.

Wild Dogs loll their tongues and sit down on their haunches (they have to have a think).

White-backed Vultures (theyknow what it’s all about) repeat their mantra silently: circle, circle, wait… wait…  While spotted hyena (being opportunists) will let the Nile crocodiles first sort it all out.

Well, Zebra did not have to go to finishing school to learn that living is an art, that one alone is decoration and strength in numbers is the only way to save your hide. It is not wisdom, just a fact of nature there is great danger all by yourself. Those are the breaks. There’s little bending.

Going it Alone and Lonely never wrote a Happy Ending.

[To hear Mark’s broadcast of this story on Living on Earth, click here: Dazzle-Dazzle. ]

Field Note:

Zebra and wildebeest often herd together. Two reasons are given for the admixture. First, that zebra supposedly prefer to eat tall grasses and wildebeest the shorter species meaning they do not compete for forage. However, I have the photographic evidence to the contrary, wildebeest bending low to graze, then raising their heads to chew and what they are chewing? A mouthful of tall grasses.

It is also believed that zebra have more acute eyesight and wildebeest have a more acute sense of hearing, the zebra therefore being the first to see a predator coming, wildebeest more likely to hear them and in addition capable of recognizing the sound of the predator per se and also the distant alarm calls of other species signaling a predator’s approach. Important and complementary differences. Is any of this sufficient?  Probably not.

Now invert the proposition. What does a predator see: Many grazing animals in two convenient sizes, intent on grazing. Tempting. But also, a moving mass of stripes in at least five distinct tonalities (two for zebra, three for blue wildebeest). To human eyes, even when frozen in place in a photograph, the black and white of zebra, close together, even in small groups disguises how many individuals occupy the frame. Or even which way they are facing which is important because it is almost obligatory for predators to attack from behind. The blue wildebeest of the Maasai Mara with their curtains of shaggy hair laid out in dark brown, light brown, and bluish gray stripes accomplish essentially the same thing as a zebras black and white. Thus, zebra and wildebeest each create their own Razzle-Dazzle of confusion. Confusion causes delay. It takes a moment for the brain to resolve it. And delay can be a life and death difference if you are a zebra of wildebeest trying to get away.

I use the term “Razzle-Dazzle” advisedly. During the First World War, ships were painted in broad zigzagging stripes of different width and color. This was before radar and it made it difficult for spotters to estimate range. Maybe that is also happening here. How does a predator interpret the even more complex field of wildebeest and zebra together, their many tonalities and colors all milling about? Can that predator tell, how many, where they are facing, how far away they are, simultaneously?   All three data points are critical.  “Can I pick out one individual as I must? Can I execute my attack from behind, as is my preference?  Even at a dead run can I get there in time before my prey sees me coming and will have already run away?”

And could it be, in the mix of density and tones and shades and direction of stripes in wildebeest and zebra together, there is not only confusion but perhaps a complementary confusion. Can one or the other be more effective depending on the quality of light (cloudy or bright) and whether midday or dawn or dusk or night? Just as in their complementary combination of hearing and eyesight, do both species together make a better defense than either one alone?

It has been reported that zebra stripes discourage biting flies which has been posited as the generative cause. Perhaps the same applies to wildebeest and their stripes. True, insect bite may debilitate and can sometimes lead to demise but for an absolute determination of the purpose of stripes you only have to ask, would an ungulate rather be bitten by a fly… or by a lion?

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Field Note: See One, Teach One, Do One

Reticulated Giraffe Lying Down

A herd of giraffe consists of a group of adult females and their offspring, or a group of males in a bachelor herds of their own. Individual males are only occasional visitors to the female herds. anti acidity. Although a herd of impala might run to 30 individuals or more, the largest herd of giraffe I’ve ever seen had 11 members with 5 to 7 animals being closer to the norm. There are many reasons for this but one stands out. When acacia trees (the giraffe’s preferred food) are over-grazed they produce toxins in their sap that are distributed by the capillaries into the leaves. Worse, a tree under attack somehow messages the other trees in the vicinity, so that if one acacia in a stand goes “sour” the others will follow suit. Exactly how this is accomplished is not known but giraffe are well aware of it. They nibble only a little, and move on. Obviously, the larger the herd the more impractical this strategy becomes. Too much browsing and palatability will set a limit much before the total number of trees and leaves. Another contribution to small herd size is the long gestation period of giraffe. They just don’t reproduce that fast. Plus, unlike most ungulates, newborn giraffe are slow to gain independence. There is just too much to learn. Namely, how to feed, where and how to drink and when it is safe to do so, and – for the young males – how to compete for females.

Giraffe defend against predators by kicking. You do not want to be kicked by a giraffe. Neither would another giraffe, so keep from killing each other they engage in what is called “Necking,” in which they swing their heads and slam each other with their ossicones, the horn-like structures on their heads. Pushing against each other is another form of competition and applies much the same logic as Necking: Weight wins.

Elder Brother & Little Man

What then to make of the two young giraffe I call Little Man and Elder Brother? The mismatch in size is obvious and therefore, the outcome of any contest a forgone conclusion. Why go through the exercise? The simplest and therefore the most likely interpretation is that this was a Teaching Moment

In the wild, weight and physical size matter almost more than anything. The biggest male lions are the masters of both their prides and the hunting territories those prides control, just as the heaviest elk is the one most likely to prevail in a clash of antlers. In a catfight between cats of different species (cheetah versus lion for example) a cheetah has a stark choice: Run or Die. Some of that is jaw strength, and there is also age and experience to consider; in all, weight is the trump card. Personality of the individual can inflect the outcome, but cannot conquer size.

Elder Brother as well as weighing half again as much as Little Man was also three heads taller, creating a substantive advantage in reach and leverage as well as throw-weight. Little Man not only lacked impact, he could not deliver his blows to the right places, especially when striking across the back of Elder Brother because his neck was not long enough to get there. This was a contest of No Contest. Yet Elder Brother showed great restraint and perseverance. Every move Elder Brother made was repeated many times by Little Man and there was no reason other than a desire to show him “how” for Elder Brother to allow it. He may have had a degree of benefit from what you might call “target practice,” but this alone does not and cannot account for the space and time Elder Brother gave Little Man to try. Elder Brother’s perseverance becomes a de facto transfer of knowledge and experience.

Getting there:
I flew to Kenya on KLM from JFK via Amsterdam to Nairobi. Donald Young Safaris picks its clients up at the airport (which is a huge help). They then either drive you to your destination or you can fly directly from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The flights are short, and comparatively cheap, about $250 per person each way. The drive is about four hours to the areas where the company has a large and elegant house (at El Karama) or luxury tents (in the northern Maasai Mara). If you want to see the towns (and I would recommend it at least one way) the drive is worth the trouble. One word of caution, in that it can be a dusty ride and if that is a concern you are probably better off flying. The experience at the end of the road or just off the airstrip as the case may be will be life-changing. A trip of 5 days duration plus a day each way for travel is the minimum I would recommend. In that time, with two game drives a day, you can see an amazing amount of wildlife. All-inclusive, trips are about $850/day plus airfare. Booking well in advance I was able to find a flight with KLM, JFK to Nairobi via Amsterdam, for about $1000 a round-trip. Don’t let the low fare dissuade you, my three favorite airlines by the way are Iceland Air, Norwegian, and KLM.

Donald Young and Newland, Tarlton & Co.
The giraffe in this story live in 15,000 acres of private reserve in Kenya, called El Karama. I was the guest there of Don Young, at Kiota House. Don also served as my host throughout the Maasai Mara. Every place he took me, over the two weeks I spent with him, was replete with wildlife. He freely shared his bottomless knowledge of Africa (people, places, animals) and if that were not enough he is a raconteur of African stories in the grand tradition. Don also has a great crew. Traditional Maasai, they are well-paid and treated with great respect (something that is not always the case in Africa), and their familiarity with terrain and an impeccable eye mean that very little wildlife is missed. They are a pleasure to be around.

If there is only going to be one wildlife expedition in your life, do this one. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Donald Young’s safari company, Newland & Tarlton, can be reached through their Colorado office at (303) 439-8462, or online at

Listen to my prose essay, See One Do One Teach One, on Living on Earth at LOE.Org


elephant-herd-at-sunrise-7087In August, 2016 I returned to Africa. It was twice a homecoming.  Because Africa, with its stone tools predating the time when we were even Human,\ is the origin of Us. And because it is the origin of me; of what I have become; of the thing to which I have dedicated my life, Wild things, and the Wilderness without which they cannot exist. The eyes I see with now are not the eyes of a quarter century ago. I set out went looking for difference, for what separates one from of life from another. Instead, I have come to see animals as like us more than apart from us. More than this, I know that without them we cease to exist. Literally perhaps (because the World without the Wild is unlikely to sustain us), but more important;y, because without Wildlife the part of us that is Human will die, of loneliness and shame. I fear for the Natural World.


There is something you can do for the wildlife and the people of Africa. Follow in my tracks. See these things for yourself. Go with small groups, go with local guides. If wildlife and wilderness are to survive at all, it will be because local people see their economic survival tied to these things.


I was hosted in the Maasai Mara by Don Young of Donald Young Safaris and by Nick Wood of Sekenani Camp.  I can recommend both without hesitation.  Between them, they support many families and provide the income that provides an education for the children of those families.  They make wildlife valuable and in our world today, without defined monetary value nothing survives.


You can visit the Mara with Don or Nick with complete moral clarity. Their tours in the Maasai Mara range from about $300 a day all inclusive, to about $950 all inclusive.  Save up.  Go soon. It’s worth every dime.

 – Mark Seth Lender  [MSL at MarkSethLender dot Com]

Sekenani Camp:

Donal Young Safaris:  [US office, Colorado Tel 303-4398462]