Data visualization and storytelling


3 days on safari in data 🦒

Visualizing data on journeys across the Maasai Mara National Reserve

Hi! I’m Yaning, a support and content intern here at Flourish. This month, I’ve been working from home — that is, I’ve gone home to Nairobi, Kenya, ten thousand kilometers from our London office. After two years of pandemic-induced trip cancellations, I’m here to visit family and see the storied parts of this beautiful country that I’ve never visited before.

One of those places is the Maasai Mara National Reserve, an expanse of savannah stretching 1,510 square kilometers near the Kenyan border with Tanzania that hosts some of the continent’s most spectacular and iconic wildlife.

Here it is on the map:

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The Mara, as it’s affectionately known, contains elephants with a temper and sharp-toothed hippos, so it’s rarely a good idea to walk freely within its confines (unless you’ve got an armed ranger with you). That’s why most tourists ride in a four-wheeler along predefined rocky trails, opening the top of their vehicles when they see something up close. This is known as a safari, which means “journey” in Kenya’s national language, Kiswahili.

Collecting data

Since beginning my data visualization journey in earnest, I’ve become used to carrying a lined notebook wherever I go. This time, during our three days on safari, I noted down the name of each animal we saw, how many we saw each time, and the time of day of the sighting (as the road got bumpier, my handwriting became worse).

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Then, at home, I transferred this messy data to a spreadsheet and performed some basic wrangling to produce the visualizations showcased below.

Herbivores are everywhere

First, I divided the animals we spotted into groups to determine what types we saw most often. In reality, there were probably more insects than anything else, but counting insects in the savannah is a task for only the most patient among us. Here’s what I did bother to note down:

Carnivorous mammals such as lions tend to gather in prides, whereas others such as leopards and hyenas prefer to stay alone. We weren't too disappointed with the small number of these animals we saw – they are some of the Mara's most well-known creatures.

Omnivorous mammals include mongooses, warthogs, and baboons. They are neither the smallest nor the biggest animals of the savannah, leaving them to forage for whatever types of food they can. Warthogs were the most common of this bunch, with the others tending to prefer more secluded areas of the reserve.

It comes as no surprise that herbivores come in the biggest herds. Elephants, giraffes, and African buffalo were rarely seen alone on our safari, which made it a greater tragedy when we did see a lonely animal searching for food or water. With that said, one of the great sights of the Mara is the near-hordes of buffalo spread across the grass.

The birds of the Mara are too many to count, so I only noted down a few. The ostriches are the biggest and fluffiest among them, almost comical with their noble stances.

The reptiles we saw consisted almost exclusively of crocodiles, young and old alike, who lay on the banks of the slow-moving Mara River watching hippos out of the corner of their eyes.

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Noon siestas

While embarking on our morning safaris, we thought that the animals would venture back into their sleeping places as the sun beat down more heavily towards noon. We were right, but not completely.

As our heatmaps below show, the cool weather throughout the one-and-a-half hours on our first day enabled us to have good luck with our animal-watching, while starting much earlier in the morning on our second day helped us to see more animals, especially right after sunrise. This trend, however, wasn’t seen on our last day, when we saw more animals towards the middle of our journey.

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Herds, prides and confusions

Some animals hang around with their peers (did you know that a group of hippos is called a “bloat”, while a group of wildebeest is called a “confusion”?), while others like to stay alone. I wanted to know which species formed the biggest groups and which were more inclined towards a solitary lifestyle, so I made a scatter plot sized by each animal’s numbers. The results were not surprising:

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Plotting the animals by the size of their groups and time of day, we can see that the herd of African buffalo on day 1 stands out. Buffalos like to stay in large groups to protect each other from the carnivores that hunt them.

Any luck with the Big Five?

When it was common to hunt for game in the Mara, hunters used the “Big Five” to refer to the five animals that were most dangerous to kill on foot. Today, many refer to these species as the most coveted to see on safari. To end this data story, here is some more information about each of them and our encounters:

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With Earth Day celebrations just coming to a close, it’s more important than ever to recognise the beauty of our natural environment. If you’re planning a summer trip, consider the Maasai Mara — a horde of wildebeest will migrate from the Serengeti plains by June or July!