Fire on the bushveld

This guy had been hanging around alone for a while. Weak specimens rarely last long on the veld

 The acacia woodland of the northern Serengeti National Park and the Grumeti and Ikorongo Wildlife Reserves are very prone to fire and experience perhaps a 50 to 60 percent annual burn. In East Africa the seasons change very quickly. There are two distinct annual wet seasons, with the long rains climaxing at around April May, and at times overspilling into June. By July, however, a mere month, if not weeks, after  a regimen of drenching afternoon thunderstorms, with the bushveld sporting an almost Irish verdure, and the mosquitoes and tsetse fly rampant, it is suddenly all dry and the bush is on fire. Almost overnight that orgeous green has dulled to a dun colored carpet followed by an intensely dramatic few weeks of inferno. Thereafter, and again for just a brief season, there is an unspeakable desolation of black, burned out plains where almost nothing seems capable of living. 

Nothing could be further from the truth, however. The annual burn is a life giving bonanza that catalyzes many rapid changes on the veld, and a radical revolution in the species of animals frequenting the plains. The starkly beautiful vista of blackened plains, that gives forth the signature smokey sunsetsof this part of Africa, actually hides a vast barbeque. This is a crude way of looking at it, but it is true. As the grass fires sweep across the plains they are not hot enough to incinerate the environment as occurs in coniferous or eucalyptus forest fires, but is certainly hot enough to kill huge numbers of smaller, slower moving mammals and reptiles such as many snakes, tortoises and countless rodents and other unfortunate victims. These, to be no less crude, are not cremated but rather hey are nicely cooked, as a consequence of which an invasion of small scavengers such as jackals, foxes hyena, honey-badgers and many others put in an appearance and feast magnificently for a short and frenetic season. Joining them are the less noble raptors such as kites and buzzards, and of course many vultures, who likewise find among the blackened debris much to eat.    

Sitting it out in the heat of the day

Insect detritus is no less inviting, and an invasion of plovers and coursers among other birds arrive on the plains to take part. Most surprisingly though, the antelope and zebra, including the ubiquitous wildebeest, also take to the burned plains. For them the advantage is security, for now they can see the approach of predators. Within a very short time, however, they are also rewarded with a dusting of fresh green grass that grazers will travel large distances to sample. This soon overcomes the plains, and soon the blackened and scorched savannah is lushly green.  By August and September hints of new rain about, an din due course the great and enduring cycle begins again.    

This is life, and this is Africa, where all is not how it seems.  The is indeed a desolate beauty about the late season savannah, but far more important than mere aesthetics, this is an act of rejuvenation,. It is a time of massive taking of life, but no less a time lavish bounty. In the lodges and camps that showcase this most natural of environments, human life with all its consumption continues, but just beyond the limits of all this unseemly sophistication life is comfortless, violent, savage and ever unpredictable. It is this thrilling reality that people come to witness – and sometimes they do – but always with a voyeuristic detachment. Nature is not beautiful, it is pitiless, and long may it have the time and space to remain so.