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Hippo tries to save wildebeest from croc on the Mara River

Serengeti, Tanzania Safari, Susan Story, USA - Oct 2011

Having driven through the Serengeti the day before, we saw massive herds of wildebeest – the lucky ones, I called them. Our guide thought that the chances of seeing a crossing would probably be minimal since the crossings had begun in August and it was now the end of October.

However, after shortly arriving at the Mara River, we saw a family of elephants and a few wildebeest on the opposite side of the river. A couple of wildebeest were standing on the edge of a steep cliff that we considered too dangerous. Apparently,  they did too. The wildebeest turned and headed the opposite way along the river cliffs. Emmanuel headed the same direction but drove a distance ahead of the herd. From this different perspective, we saw that there were thousands upon thousands of them. Emmanuel told us that they were showing an urgency to cross that led him to believe a crossing was imminent.

We settled into a spot and watched hundreds approach the bank in front of us. It seemed like a good, gentle slope – a fine place to cross. A few wildebeest went down to examine the area more carefully and then tens more. Then all of a sudden, everyone who had descended the bank turned around and ran back up the bank as fast as they could – hoofs flying, dust swirling. A lioness was standing on the opposite bank!  For a few minutes the thousands of wildebeest were looking across the river at the lioness. We sat awhile looking at the disappointed lioness and the wildebeest looking back at her. Then the wildebeest turned away threading back through the hills and the trees and soon disappearing from our view. On the radio, Emmanuel heard that a likely spot had been chosen, and we raced to the new spot. The crossing began!

Seeing pictures of this phenomenon does not come close to seeing it in real life. The first in the water with fear on their faces…arriving at the opposite shore… thundering hoofs running up the bank to safety… the snorting communication… the clouds of dust… Some stopped running and went back to the water to see how their loved ones were faring. It is an amazing, exhilarating spectacle of nature.  Then we saw confusion in the water. A head not moving forward….a serrated tail. It appeared that a crocodile had interrupted a wildebeest. The croc had latched on to her rear left leg. As soon as it was clear to the wildebeest that one of their own had been caught, the rest backed away from the shore and turned around to cross elsewhere. The ones who had already crossed had disappeared into the foliage. This female was now left alone to escape or die.

She managed to regain her footing and stood in a shallow area of the river. Occasionally she would pull herself but was unable to get her leg free. She’d look back to see what was it was that was holding on to her. To our delight, a hippo began to swim over to her. We thought that if he could distract the croc, maybe the croc would open his mouth for a second, and she could free herself. He bit the croc’s tail at one point causing the croc to thrash about, but the croc never opened its mouth. The hippo also tried a direct approach, but that didn’t work either. In our naivete, we wanted the hippo to be our hero, but more than likely he was defending his territory. The poor wildebeest either lost her footing or became exhausted. The croc soon afterwards dragged her underwater. Everyone still watching was silent and solemn.Twenty minutes later he surfaced with his prize.

After spending so much time that afternoon with nobody’s favorite animal, I have a new found respect, admiration, and affection for these animals who endure so much for survival.

Posted by: Caroline

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