Eblate pointed the Land Rover north along a track. Once a month, the team drives a set distance on each track and counts the number and types of mammal species they see. Our track led past a steady stream of wildebeest munching their way across a short-grass plain, then through grasslands, riverine acacia forests and rocky hills. Eblate kept a careful eye on the odometer, and as soon as it registered the requisite 40 kilometers (about 25 miles), he swung the car around.
Night had settled and a chill breeze blew through the car. We pulled on jackets and sweaters, and the men pointed their lights into the hidden Serengeti. Eblate crept along, giving his colleagues time to search the tall grass and the thorny trees for the bright glow of an animal’s eyes.
It didn’t take long. In the trees, saucer-eyed bush babies leapt from branch to branch to escape the light, while reedbuck stood momentarily frozen in the grasses before bounding into the darkness. There were smaller antelopes, dik-diks, hovering close to the road, and hyenas slinking among the bushes in the distance. We inched down the track, spotting bat-eared foxes, black-backed jackals that turned tail and ran, and then two unexpected prizes: an aardwolf and a diminutive hedgehog, two of the Serengeti’s rarest species. The hedgehog was the size of a tennis ball and sat tucked in a rut in the road beside some low bushes. Eblate had spotted this wee fellow, and we all praised him for his sharp eyes.
As we inched on into the night, my register grew ever longer. We found a cheetah mother with four half-grown cubs huddled in the grass, then spotted three sturdy klipspringers, small rock-climbing antelope that for some reason had left the safety of their boulders to stand in the road. “Get back to the rocks,” Eblate ordered them. “There are lions out here.”
And indeed a few miles farther on, we drove into the middle of a pride, five females and two young males. They’d been feeding, probably on an unlucky wildebeest, and watched us with sleepy eyes. One male stepped into the track and trotted ahead of us, his huge, meat-swollen belly swinging from side to side. He looked at us over his shoulder, then stumbled into the bushes, dropped to the ground and fell instantly asleep.
We found the wildebeests again, thousands of them. They loped steadily and silently over the grasses and under stands of acacia trees, a dark ribbon of animals winding through the night. The spotters’ lights caught the wildebeests’ eyes, and they glowed back at us like the candles of the faithful in a church processional.
“Wildebeest,” someone said softly from the back seat. I marked it on the register. Wildebeest, too many to count. Wildebeest, on the move again, making their way over the Serengeti.
In the wildebeests’ mowed path, the trees will sprout. In the trees’ shadows, the lions will lurk. And in the canopies, birds and butterflies and insects of all sorts will flourish. This is the path that leads through the knotted tangle of life and change in the Serengeti.