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Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy (July 24, 2014)


Anomalure
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Ever since first hearing about the conservancy in 2011 from Jon Hall's failed attempt to get there (see mammalwatching.com), Ishaqbini had always fascinated me for its abundance of rare species and subspecies of mammals - the beautiful and irreplaceable Hirola, Desert Warthog, Tana River Crested Mangabey, Tana River Red Colobus, Haggard's Oribi, Coastal Topi, 'Mainless' Plains Zebra, and Wild Dog. After hearing of @@twaffle's failed attempt to get there in 2013 however, I was convinced that a trip to Ishaqbini would be impossible due to the area's volatile security situation. I'll organize this trip report as a timeline as I think the events prior to the trip are as gripping/interesting as getting to Ishaqbini itself!

 

March 2014:

 

I then found out that in 2013, Dominique Brugiere had successfully visited the conservancy (for only half a day), but still saw Hirola, Desert Warthog, Tana River Crested Mangabey, Tana River Red Colobus, and Lion. I figured at least I might as well check about the possibility of a trip and after contacting a couple of operators, the only one that replied was Roberts Safaris. After some initial conversation, Willie Roberts suggested that we fly in from Sirikoi (Lewa Downs) and spend a half day as his contacts felt it would be too risky, expensive, and logistically difficult to set up a proper mobile camp for several nights in the area.

 

April-May 2014:

 

We quickly finalized the plans for Ishaqbini and things looked good. The plan was to leave at the crack of dawn from Lewa, fly into Ishaqbini, and meet a driver/guide who had taken the Garissa Road from Malindi to Hola and onwards to Ishaqbini in a proper Land Cruiser (for game drives) the previous day to meet us in the conservancy. From there, we'd spend half a day tracking wildlife in the conservancy then fly out. Things were looking very promising.

 

June 2014:

 

Good news at the beginning of June as Ian Craig reported that he might be in the conservancy at the time of our visit and would try to accompany us as a guide in the preserve.

 

Then the situation took a turn for the worst with the devastating attack on Mpeketoni, not far from Ishaqbini on the coast near Lamu from June 15-17th. 80 people killed and the UK issued travel warnings for Tana River and Lamu Counties, extending them beyond the previous Garissa District warnings. At this point, Willie started thinking of contingency plans, specifically a N Kenya helicopter safari, but I wanted to stick with Ishaqbini until the very end. I was starting to get worried that Ishaqbini might not work out...

 

July 2014:

 

Attacks continue in NE Kenya. Attacks on Hindi and Gamba, between Lamu and the Tana River Delta, take the lives of 29 and around the same time, unknown perpetrators burn the Milihoi Security post in Amu Ranch Conservancy, N of Lamu and W of Dodori National Reserve. Civil unrest is rampant throughout Lamu County and Garissa District, with frequent attacks reported throughout (Bodhei, Galmagalla, etc.).

 

Willie responded that provisionally Ishaqbini was off the table and they would go forward with the helicopter trip. However, I held firm in the hope that the situation might improve and convinced him to keep an eye on the situation as I really had no interest in the helicopter trip as I had come to Kenya solely for Ishaqbini.

 

July 21, 2014:

 

Willie says by email that Ishaqbini was still very questionable and in light of the travel warnings (which restrict their company's operation), he would have a discussion with Ian Criag (NRT) and Andy Roberts (Tropic Air) to make a final decision. I received an email later in the day apologizing that they would have to call the trip off - I was crushed. Apparently, flying into Masalani would be too risky (there was heavy curfew in place and the town was on lockdown, with recent attacks reported not far).

 

July 22, 2014:

 

I ask about the possibility of flying directly into the reserve, which Willie says is still totally safe according to several of his contacts on the ground. He says this not very viable - as they will have to organize a way to get fuel into the reserve, and the driver who was to come from Malindi pulled out as there were reports of shifta shooting at vehicles on the Tana River road as recently as a week before the trip. Additionally, the noisy, low-flying helicopter was risky at any rate.

 

Ishaqbini was now off the table. I arrive in Nairobi that night and Willie calls me, apologizing. He says that they tried everything possible, but all but one of his 7 contacts said it is too risky to attempt accessing the reserve from Masalani. The curfew, frequent unrest, and inaccessibility combined to make this trip impossible. He tells me that the folks in Ishaqbini, who were really looking forward to having a tourist come in, were heartbroken. As an alternative, he would take a plane up to Sera with me and fly camp in the main lugga, watching elephants come to water and spotlighting for Honey Badgers and Striped Hyenas. At this point, this sounded like the best option for me...

 

July 23, 2014:

 

I had just about convinced myself that the Sera option was good when after breakfast, just after leaving Nairobi on the Thika Highway, Willie called. I was wondering what was going on when he said that we were doing Ishaqbini. Apparently, they had just resurfaced the main airstrip and it could accept the Cessna baby Caravan were were in. That way, we would avoid all security concerns, but our visit would have to be lightning for safety reasons - get in, see the Hirola, and get out; monkeys would be second priority and we may not have a chance to visit Lake Ishaqbini. Despite this, I was elated. I'd be going to Ishaqbini after all, and confirmed the day before the trip no less! Last-minute brinkmanship at its finest!!

 

The game drive that afternoon at Lewa was very relaxing. Lots of Buffalo, Impala, Elephant, Grant's Gazelle, Somali Ostrich, Eland, Reticulated Giraffes, Plains and Grevy's Zebras, plus 50 Beisa Oryx and a White Rhino, which I got to spend 45 wonderful minutes with. That day at dinner, I spent a while talking to Willie. He talked about Ishaqbini, its progress, and even how he applied to set up a camp there (someone else got the slot, but was never able to set up a camp there); he had last visited the conservancy in 2011. We then talked about South Sudan, Ethiopia, and as always for me, the conservation migrated to CAR - the stuff of my dreams at the time. Willie, by describing 1000s of African Gray Parrots, Forest Elephants, Lowland Gorillas, Red River and Giant Forest Hogs, Bongos, and Sangha Lodge unknowingly foreshadowed my next great adventure! He also described another trip, aerial safari in Gambella and a barge trip through the Sudd - temporarily on hold pending conflict in South Sudan - this will be a truly legendary safari when completed. He also told me the name of my guide for tomorrow - Jamie Manuel, an NRT surveyor who would accompany me in Ishaqbini - apparently a real character who spends months in Ishaqbini's remote bush.

 

July 24, 2014:

 

This was it - my day to visit Ishaqbini had come. After a quick breakfast, we were on the road to the airstrip, stopping briefly to admire a small herd of Elephants and a resting White Rhino. We met Jamie at the airstrip, who told me that not only would we search for Hirolas, but also Mangabeys and Red Colobus, telling me to get my binoculars ready for the monkeys! We also met my pilot Lorian Campbell-Clause, a British Kenyan who obtained his pilot's license in California.

 

The flight to Ishaqbini was just stunning. After crossing the largely deforested Nyambene Hills, we turned and followed the Tana River through Meru National Park, a beautiful wilderness of palms and red-earth grasslands and a place I'd love to spend some time in someday. After passing Adamson's Falls, Kora was a distinct contrast, barren and full of regenerating Acacia; from the air, I could see small herds of shoats grazing along the river, with no clear boundary between the park and endless rangelands beyond. Following the Tana down past Garissa, I saw very little wildlife save for a handful of Desert Warthogs, not eaten by the primarily Muslim population in these areas. We then turned away from the river, cutting across the inaccessible country W of the Tana before descending along and across the river and landing in Ishaqbini, on the white sand airstrip, watching Reticulated Giraffes and Kirk's Dik-diks scatter.

 

Upon our arrival, we met a large crew of local conservancy workers - Mahat, the head of security, a couple of other conservancy staff, and a local tracker (who served as our "spotter"). Cramming 10 people into the small modified Land Cruiser used as a ranger patrol vehicle by the conservancy was interesting to say the least. After dropping off a couple of rangers to guard the plane, we all set off for a quick tour of the headquarters, which have now been around for a little while. We didn't see that much on the way, save for a few Kirk's Dik-diks and Gerenuks, so Mahat was keen to head out and find stuff before it heated up around noon.

 

Shortly after leaving the conservancy, we saw a handful of Somali Ostriches, then 1 Coastal Topi and behind it, in a small grassy area, 6 Hirolas including 1 precious calf - according to Jamie, this particular family had 3 more calves; calf mortality among Hirolas is very high outside the conservancy due to the large numbers of predators (Mahat saw a group of 5 Cheetahs the day before and we found lots of Lion tracks everywhere). We then found another 4 Hirolas, a sizable group of Somali Ostriches, Vulturine Guineafowl, lots of Yellow Baboons, and a couple of Desert Warthogs before arriving at the Tana River.

 

Walking out onto the banks, we met a huge group of 60+ Yellow Baboons and a Tana River Red Colobus. A Fish Eagle flew overhead as Hippos and Crocs lounged in the water. The banks were lined with Buffalo, Elephant, and Lion tracks. Dense curtains of vegetation draped either side of the river. Definitely as wild and remote a place as you can get in East Africa.

 

The long drive to Lake Ishaqbini in the heat of the day was punctuated by relatively little; lots of close-up Reticulated Giraffes, but no large herds; a few Gerenuk; more Somali Ostrich and Baboons; a female Lesser Kudu; and 2 Red Spitting Cobras, which I missed. The most notable sighting were 2 Plains Zebras, one with a sparse mane and another totally Maneless Animal.

 

The Lake was beautiful, very serene and picturesque. Enjoying lunch on the shady shore, I watched a small herd of 3 Common Waterbuck and 4 Coastal Topi come to water at mid-day; then, the search for monkeys was on. First, the tracker and I tried an area where mangabeys were present in fruiting figs a couple of days before - the tree had stopped fruiting, so wildlife was gone and all we saw was a lone Syke's Monkey. The forest on other side of camp though was filled with life. Immediately, I saw several Syke's Monkeys and Red Colobus, then the tracker whispered "Mangabey" and I got a brief look at a grayish, shaggy monkey as it disappeared into the canopy. We followed the troop further into the riverine forest before tracking them down at a large fig, where I watched a young Mangabey pose in an open branch and 2 more quickly run by. Excellent!

 

On our way back, we decided to head into the sanctuary. The drive to the sanctuary featured another Common Waterbuck, several Plains Zebras and Somali Ostriches, and 3 Desert Warthogs. Within the sanctuary, we received incredible views of a beautiful male Lesser Kudu standing at the edge of the track, which bounded off as soon as it heard the shutter click on my camera. Ouch! We then found lots of Desert Warthogs, Gerenuk and Yellow Baboons. Within the sanctuary, we met several Hirola herds: a wonderful large breeding herd of 14 animals, another herd of 4 animals, and another small group of 3. Photos were difficult as the brush was dense (it had rained fairly recently), the car was crammed with people (limited movement), and Jamie preferred not to drive close to the Hirolas to minimize stress - understandable given that the 31 Hirolas I saw over the course of the day represent just under 10% of the world population!!

 

On our way out of the predator-proof sanctuary, the guys spotted a person (in their words, "figure") walking along the edge of the fence. He was moving away, so we weren't sure on who they were, but the guys felt that he was a ranger. I was nervous and we decided to head back to the sanctuary to let the administrators know. In the end, it turned out it probably was a ranger on patrol. After a discussion with Mahat (I was happy to see that he was very committed to the conservancy and passionate about the Hirola), we set off back to Lewa. Flying out of the conservancy, I watched Dik-dik, Coastal Topi, Reticulated Giraffe, Gerenuk, and Plains Zebra scatter under the plane. We flew over an area just South of Arawale Reserve that Jamie had told me about and found a lone Peters' Gazelle too. Arriving back in Lewa, we headed quickly back to Sirikoi, stopping briefly for a small herd of Elephants. After such an amazing day, a relaxing evening was in order...

 

July 25th-end:

 

The rest of my trip was considerably less hectic - a short trip into Borana Ranch failed to get me Patas Monkeys (which were seen every day up till the day before my trip into the ranch). On the next day however, I found a beautiful herd of 7 Greater Kudu. A nice, relaxing stay at Sirikoi overall.

 

I need to edit a few pictures before posting, most are not good due to difficult photographic conditions in Ishaqbini...

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@@Game Warden

 

Both Safaridude's 2009 and 2011 reports were inspiration for this trip as well. They are both beautiful, the writing and the photos - I wish I could have gotten something similar.

 

Regarding changes in the conservancy, I'll just list out a few below:

 

The predator-proof sanctuary is doing very well. There have been relatively few incursions by Cheetah, etc. and when they do come in, they are generally promptly removed. Hirolas are doing very well and breeding successfully, as evidenced by the breeding herd of 14 I sighted. There is a pretty secure gate to the sanctuary that they lock on the way in and out and the ranger coverage inside the sanctuary is apparently quite good. There is also a resident Elephant herd which is growing more trusting of the conservancy rangers and becoming sighted more often, amazing in a region of Kenya where elephants were thought almost extinct. Outside the sanctuary, the news is worse (I think the situation has actually declined from Safaridude's visit from what Jamie and Mahat told me). Calf mortality is very high due to considerable predator pressure as predators are preferentially targeting Hirola over other herbivores here; the population is probably dropping as I saw many more Hirola in the short time I spent in the sanctuary than I did in the longer time outside. I'm afraid I can't really comment on general animal abundance as Safaridude definitely saw more than I did as he conducted his game drives in the mornings/evenings, not around the middle of the day like me. That said, it seemed to me that predators are doing well in the area, as sightings are very regular of good-sized Lion prides and Wild Dog packs, and Cheetahs.

 

Regarding conservancy conditions, the area was definitely much wetter for me than when Safaridude saw it. That said, Hirola were restricted to specific sites in the conservancy where small patches of grass grew intermixed among the woodland. If I recall correctly, Mahat told me however that these patches are getting smaller as Acacias are invading in some areas. That said, the Garsa woodland was very beautiful and unique - different from other areas of bush I have seen. Reticulated Giraffes seem to be doing particularly well in the larger conservancy area, with Jamie observing a large herd of 50 animals not long before my visit. I never went to the Boni, but Jamie has been several times, so told me how the conditions were out there. He has still seen large herds of Topi and Buffalo and small groups of Hirola in the "finger grasslands" as described; they are still holding on here. He also camped out in one area where he saw Aders' Duikers every morning around his tent, but told me that the area is not advisable for safety reasons (very close to Somalia). He said that Amu Ranch has been doing a good job conserving wildlife (esp. Giraffe, Topi, Buffalo, Lion), but of course the fire at Milihoi (apparently caused by disgruntled Somali pastoralists who were told to move off the ranch before) set things back some. Interestingly, he said some areas around Arawale Reserve (not Arawale NR itself, which is grazed out and only has a few Lesser Kudu) still have good numbers of Hirola, Oryx, Peters' Gazelle, and even in one area, Cheetah and Grevy's Zebra. So the general region is a very worthy place for conservation projects right now.

 

In terms of facilities, the headquarters, which apparently were just built at the time of Safaridude's last visit, are still well-kept and clean. There are 2 basic campsites, one near the Tana River and another at Lake Ishaqbini, which was where Safaridude stayed. The latter site seems particularly promising, as you can watch monkeys in the trees nearby and animals coming to water at the lake throughout the day. Jamie told me of one particular night camping out there when he had 14 Lions and 12 Spotted Hyenas fighting to the death over a Buffalo carcass 50m away - he just huddled in his tent and waited for it to end, so you're probably going to be close to the wildlife (which I think is a good thing). For now, given the volatility of the security situation, I think that anyone organizing a permanent or seasonal camp there is extremely unlikely and even taking a mobile camp out there is difficult, given the need for ground support (which is tough due to insecurity on the Tana River/Garissa Road, the coast being the main access route the Ishaqbini). You'll probably have to fly in a tent. Remember a trip to Ishaqbini will be a little rough around the edges; the tracks are still very slow, bushy (sometimes overhanging thorny Acacia shrubs), and rough; the vehicles you'll be using are ranger's Land Cruisers, so not very comfortable and you'll probably sit in the tailgate. That said, anyone willing to spend the money to come out to these remote and out of the way place would be willing to live in these conditions to see Hirolas and the other rare wildlife here.

 

Mahat, the new conservancy manager, is a good guy and very keen to protect his community's wildlife. He was recruited not long before my visit after someone they brought in from outside the local community left. Mahat is a local Somali of the Abdullah clan originally from one of the villages close to the conservancy. He is already trying to improve the online presence of the reserve and get more people interested in the Hirola and is putting in effort into several projects, such as a recent one involving creating water holes for Elephants in the predator-proof sanctuary. There is a clear sense that there is still a significant buy-in from the locals.

 

I'm sure many of the options Safaridude was discussing are still possible in the conservancy, like walking safaris. I would have loved to have done one here, but just didn't have enough time. In terms of wildlife I missed, Harvey's Duiker, Haggard's Oribi, Beisa Oyrx, and Somali Dwarf Mongoose are the four that I was really hoping for that I couldn't find. None are particularly common and all are quite elusive here. 4 out of the 'Big 5' are present - Elephant, Lion, Leopard, and Buffalo - along with Cheetah and Wild Dog but none are guaranteed and to come here, you must realize you're here for much more unique, localized species. Night drives might be an interesting activity to organize at some point as Caracal, Striped Hyena, Aardwolf, Aardvark, Serval, Wildcat, Crested Porcupine, and African Civet are all frequently seen here according to Jamie.

 

Finally, it seems that the airstrip has been improved since Safaridude's visit as it can now handle not just Super Cubs, but also Cessnas (everything up to a Caravan I think), which I guess most people use for safari flights, so that improves access a lot. It's only an hour or so by plane from Lewa and closer to Meru so would make an interesting excursion for those inclined. If and when things gets sorted out there, Lamu would be another great place to combine Ishaqbini with as they have coordinated trips to Ishaqbini in the past from Manda Bay.

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I'm stunned by your dedication and intrepidness. So glad it paid off for you; looking forward to seeing any pics you decide to share.

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Yes, looking forward to the photos so as to compare with previous updates and visits. I've passed on the link to this trip report to TNC Africa and Charles Oluchina and hopefully they'll be providing even more recent news.

 

Matt

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So glad you finally got there. Looking forward to reading about it and seeing your images.

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hirola.jpg

Hirolas

 

isbin-giraffes.jpg

Reticulated Giraffes

 

tanariver-baboons.jpg

Yellow (Ibean) Baboons on the Tana River

 

maneless_zebra.jpg

"Maneless" Zebra

 

isbin_gerenuk.jpg

Gerenuk

 

topi.jpg

Coastal Topi

 

img_5382.jpg

Somali Ostriches

 

img_5368.jpg

Desert Warthogs

 

img_5332.jpg

A blurry photo of beautiful Vulturine Guineafowl

Edited by Anomalure
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Lovely to read an update from Ishaqbini, congratulations on getting there and showing such dedication.

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@@Game Warden

 

Yes, I did see Charles Oluchina's updates. Thanks for those -- it's really great to see newer info from Ishaqbini.

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@@Anomalure

 

I admire your tenacity. I am happy that you were finally able to see Ishaqbini and that things are very well. I hope the geopolitical situation calms down.

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