Sarah Sands: There's no herd madness in the Masai Mara

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The Independent Online

At Lewa Wilderness, a short plane hop from the Masai Mara in Kenya, I once met an unassuming Englishman with a wife and baby. They had been there for weeks and showed no sign of leaving.

Fellow guests, who included City types, did not get this timescale, nor the serenity of the couple, nor the respect accorded to the Englishman. Why didn't he just look at the animals and go? What kind of schedule was he on? The Englishman was Simon King, presenter of the 12 years in the making Big Cat Diary, which has been showing on television and thrillingly on webcams this week.

The last time television and the internet worked so seamlessly together was probably Big Brother, the lowest point in British television. This week, the BBC has been at its glorious best. I have been as glued to a screen as City traders.

It is particularly thrilling when the sun goes down and out come the infra-red or – more quirky – the thermal cameras. These can show you, for instance, how terribly cold the ears of an elephant can be.

It is at night that the sinister eyes of the hyenas are at their brightest and Kate Silverton, the anchor woman, endures the effect of the camp fire on her contact lenses.

Silverton has always been the tomboy among female news readers and she has never looked happier in safari chic, sitting alongside a Masai warrior. Silverton, like the cats, is all mouth and teeth and her smile widened impossibly at her first sighting of a leopard. King, like the Masai, has seen it all before but a kill is always fresh to him.

Nature can look a bit Longleat at times. A shot of the lions is obscured by a Land Rover full of tourists with cameras. But once the moon rises and the fires are lit, you can feel the rustle of the wild.

The showing of the Big Cat Diary this week has coincided with the tottering of the financial order. A prominent hedge funder I spoke to on Thursday said that we are entering a phase of sheer survivalism. The system – call it civilisation – is not holding. The hedge funder complained of zero visibility and a total inability to predict outcomes any more. No one has a clue what is going to happen next.

The conventional thinking is that nature equals chaos and man structure and order. This week it has looked the opposite.

The rules of the wild are clear. The sudden full stretch race of the cheetah to bring down an antelope is dramatic but predictable. The big cats must eat. The rest of the time they are happy to lie still, doing not very much in order to conserve their energy. If only the bankers had learned this lesson.

On my visit to Kenya, I watched thousands of wildebeest cross the river in the Masai Mara on their way to the Serengeti. You can wait for days while they push forward, pause, retreat. Then a zebra dips into the water and the wildebeest follow.

It may look like mindless movement but there is reason. The animals cross to find food as the season changes. But why was there such herd mentality in the stock markets this week? What made shares dip with such lunacy? Why won't the banks trade with each other? How can you explain the sudden power of something called "mark to market"?

The Big Cat Diary is the antidote to City hysteria. It's all stable and rational out there in the Masai Mara.

Sarah Sands is editor in chief of the British 'Reader's Digest'