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Kenya January 2010 - Nairobi, Tsavo East, Tsavo West, Lewa, Samburu, Masai Mara and Ruma


Safaridude
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Okay, here we go -- finally my full report:

 

Itinerary:

 

Nairobi National Park – morning game drive

 

Tsavo East National Park – 2 nights at Satao Camp

 

Tsavo West National Park – 2 nights at Ndolwa House

 

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy – 2 nights at Lewa House

 

Samburu National Reserve – 3 nights at Saruni Samburu in the adjacent Kalama Conservancy

 

Masai Mara National Reserve – 3 nights at Rekero Camp

 

Ruma National Park – 2 nights at Oribi Guest House

 

Post-election violence nearly dividing the country in two; a worldwide recession crippling tourism, a precious foreign currency earner; and a debilitating drought on top of it all affecting both people and wildlife… is it the worst of times? With that lingering question in mind, and not without trepidation, I head to Kenya in January 2010 for the seventh time in my life. This is in many ways a “coming home” trip, encompassing places to which I hadn’t been since 1995 – Tsavo, Samburu and Masai Mara – as well as Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, for me recently a more regular stop, and Ruma National Park, an adventure, or perhaps simply a concept, lying in wait on the shores of Lake Victoria. There would be much driving in and around Tsavo and Ruma and flying over places I have not flown over in many years. In the end, I would witness the accelerating encroachment of human footprint over this once pristine country but remain resolute that I will see it again in better times.

 

 

Nairobi National Park

 

Not to waste any precious hours sitting idle on the first morning, we take an early morning excursion to Nairobi National Park prior to our charter flight out of Wilson. The recent plentiful rains have washed away any signs of drought. One cannot imagine there were thousands of cattle inside the park merely two months ago fighting over the last blades of grass. The two-hour drive-by produces sightings of Coke’s hartebeest, zebra, ostrich, white rhino (brought in recently from Nakuru), impala, buffalo, eland, giraffe, as well as an impressive variety of birds. With the onset of the rains, wildebeests and gazelles apparently migrated to the south of the park or even outside it. Even a sleeping lioness is found juxtaposed against the backdrop of shiny metal-roofed industrial buildings in the distance. This kind of juxtaposition is the signature of Nairobi National now, but it wasn’t always the case.

 

My first ever brush with Nairobi National was in 1989 while being driven in a taxi from Jomo Kenyatta Airport to my Nairobi hotel. In the darkness of night, tall grass framed both sides of the road, and it wasn’t clear exactly where the boundaries of the park were. I recall the car’s headlights being reflected by sets of eyes – those belonging to zebras and wildebeests. There were no buildings in sight, unlike now, within, say, 10 km from downtown Nairobi. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the corridors linking the greater Athi-Kapiti plain ecosystem and its dry season refuge, Nairobi National Park, had been constricting well before that night. What was like the arteries of a forty year-old with a bad diet then is now like those of an imminent cardiac arrest victim. Migrating/dispersing animals now must run the gauntlet of farms and buildings to find precious grazing outside the park, only to then compete with livestock. Amazingly, run the gauntlet they do still. Nairobi National Park still works -- if barely so.

 

Flying over the park on our way to Tsavo, the clogged arteries are in full view. Beyond them, the immense Athi-Kapiti plains lie to the southeast. What it must have been like a hundred years ago – even fifty years ago. The “great white hunters” of the Hemingway ilk practiced their favorite pastime only minutes away from their watering hole at Stanley Hotel. Massive herds of zebras and the eastern white-bearded race of wildebeests migrated freely between the park and Athi-Kapiti plains, not unlike the zebras and the western white-bearded wildebeests of Serengeti-Mara. Imagine the predators following them every step of the way, once in awhile turning up in downtown Nairobi. Those days in the archives now, we now fly a distance in search of wilderness.

 

Tsavo East National Park

 

Tsavo East is often described as a monotonous, dry thornbush country. But it is hard to generalize about a place as sizable as Tsavo East at nearly 12,000 sq km. The southern part of Tsavo East, south of the Voi River, I have always found, is rather pleasing open savannah country. South is where we are headed, and this time further south than I have ever been.

 

The vegetation does start out thick around Voi Safari Lodge, near the park headquarters, but it begins to thin out toward Aruba Dam (a gigantic man-made dam) going east on the main road. The park had received exceptional rains in late December and early January, and the animals are dispersed widely. Nevertheless, a good concentration of elephants comes to water along the Voi River, which parallels this main road. Some of the bulls possess heavy tuskers of another time – the ivory contrasting sharply against the famous red, lateritic soil caked on the pachyderm. A smattering of impalas, zebras, Grant’s gazelles, giraffes and Somali ostriches are seen. These normally mundane safari creatures, upon closer observation, arouse interest. Zebras in this part of Tsavo East tend to shed their manes as they mature. I had observed this phenomenon last year at Ishaqbini, near the Somali border. My unscientific hypothesis is that it may be a heat-related adaptation. At 1,000 – 3,000 ft. of elevation, most of Tsavo East can get unrelentingly hot, and it may pay to shed unnecessary hair. Grant’s gazelles in Tsavo East carry spectacular horns. The horns of the males are very long, nearly straight and parallel to each other, not as lyrate as those of Grant’s gazelles found elsewhere. These are commonly described as Peter’s gazelles (or more correctly, the Peter’s race of the Grant’s gazelle), although I believe this to be an error, since Peter’s gazelles are supposed to be small, both in body size and horns. They are probably found more north of where we are. It is commonly accepted that the Tana River, which essentially bisects Kenya into two (north and south), is responsible for the morphological separations of certain species (for example, beisa oryx to the north and fringe-eared oryx to the south; reticulated giraffe to the north and Maasai giraffe to the south; Somali ostrich to the north and Maasai ostrich to the south). We are well south of the Tana River. However, some of these “Maasai” giraffes appear to lack the blotchy pattern here and look as if they have some reticulated influence. The ostriches in this part of Tsavo, with pastel blue necks, are surprisingly of the Somali race. One can reasonably hypothesize then that some ferrying about may have occurred on the Tana River many, many unknown years ago.

 

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Maneless Zebra, Tsavo East

 

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Giraffe, Tsavo East

 

Turning south from Aruba Dam, a less travelled road leads to Satao Camp, the southernmost camp in Tsavo East catering mostly to the Mombasa beach crowd. The most intriguing creature found at Satao is…the impala. Large herds gather near the lighted pathway to the dining area at night. Some come as close as eight feet from the path, blissfully ruminating with total disregard to human approach. They, through learned behavior over time, have found a safe overnight refuge from predators under the lights at Satao Camp. I wonder if I could have touched one of them without causing a ruckus.

 

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Impala at Satao Camp

 

The vegetation is quite open around Satao Camp; some plains are treeless, a sure sign of seasonal inundation. Acacia and Commiphora bushes are uncommon here. Instead, the prevalent bushes include various Grewia and Boscia species. A number of hirolas were translocated from near the Somali border to Tsavo East in ’63 and then again in ’96 in order to establish an “ex-situ” population of this critically endangered species and they are normally found around Satao. However, despite our desperate search for two days, we find none. Instead, we do encounter six different herds of fringe-eared oryxes and several groups of Coke’s hartebeests. These two species, along with the impala, appear to be the dominant herbivores in this part of Tsavo East. Surprisingly, we see only one group of elands and three individual gerenuks during our two days in Tsavo East despite the fact the two species were omnipresent during my last trip to Tsavo East 15 years ago. Two cheetahs are seen near Aruba Dam our last morning. Unfortunately, they are too far from the road, so instead we admire the huge flocks of open-billed storks.

 

 

Tsavo West National Park

 

Going with the “go where they ain’t” theme, we head for the relatively unexplored southern section of Tsavo West. But first, we must drive through a gap in the two Tsavo Parks called Taita Hills where “they” certainly “are”. In contrast to the same drive I did through Taita back in ’95, there is now human footprint on virtually every square inch of Taita. The population pressure is certainly understandable, but heaps of rubbish found on both sides of the road is downright disheartening. Crushed plastic containers overwhelm the ditches; unidentifiable contents leach into the trickling streams.

 

At the town of Maktau, there are actually two entrance gates for Tsavo West: one that leads north and one that leads south. To the north is thick Acacia-Commiphora country. To the south is a possibly the largest, intact, east-of-Serengeti-Mara savannah left in Kenya or Tanzania. This tract, dubbed “the Little Serengeti”, does justice to its name. The savannah does, indeed, appear endless in every direction. One particular main road links Maktau with Lake Jipe, which lies on the boundary of Tanzania. This journey of 50 km takes you through a sea of spectacular plains dotted with Acacia, Commiphora, Boscia and Grewia bushes.

 

Unfortunately, the game experience at the moment does not match the scenery. Even allowing for the dispersal of animals due to the rains, the little Serengeti should be teeming with classic arid country ungulates, but the lack of proper management has left the Little Serengeti in a reduced state. At the height of last year’s drought, an estimated 100,000 plus head of cattle encroached upon this part of Tsavo alone. There is, otherwise, constant poaching pressure from the boundaries of the park. Nevertheless, we do catch enough glimpses of the past. Coke’s hartebeests appear to be dominant here. Several groups of zebras (with full manes here) and Grant’s gazelles mingle alongside a lone fringe-eared oryx. An impressive bull eland stands frozen behind a grewia bush. A group of elephants are on the horizon in perfect afternoon light, but they are too far from the road. Frustratingly, there are not enough game loops in many parts of Tsavo.

 

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Fringe-eared Oryx, "Little Serengeti"

 

Lake Jipe is a pleasant surprise. Much has been written about the demise of this lake which borders both Kenya and Tanzania, but at least from the Kenyan side, the lake appears pristine. Signs of buffalos are everywhere. Fresh lion tracks are seen. Birding is excellent. Why this untouched part of Tsavo receives virtually no attention is beyond me.

 

We spend the last full day exploring the more traveled sections of Tsavo West – Ngulia, Kilaguni and Mzima Springs. The Ngulia hills yield sightings of lesser kudus and klipspringers. Near Kilaguni, the otherwise relentless bush country opens up a bit, and we get a broad sampling of Tsavo West’s plains game. Mzima Springs is still as “touristy” as I remember. A gang of vervet monkeys lies in ambush for unsuspecting tourists who might carry food with them on their walk to the Springs. Better yet, some may wantonly beg for a morsel – and get it. So turned off by it all, I decide to stay in the vehicle in the parking lot.

 

The two Tsavo parks are popularly described as a place of great space and interesting species but not a place with game concentrations comparable to those of the Mara, Samburu or Amboseli. While that may be true, it might not have been so definitive once. I am in possession of some interesting game count data compiled by Antelope Specialist Group going back to the early ‘70s. According to the data, in the span of four decades, each of the twelve ungulate species followed experienced at least a 50% decline (in the case of zebras) and as much as 97% (in the case of gerenuks). Even allowing for significant sampling error, the trend is obvious. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what this means to the predator population. The major culprits of the ungulate decimation are believed to be rinerpest (a cattle-borne disease) and meat poaching. There are two ways to look at this data. I prefer to be optimistic from here on. Tsavo still has its biggest asset, its sheer size. There are still pockets of undiscovered nooks. Even with the body blows it has sustained, Tsavo remains wild, unlike Nairobi National. Time is now for Kenya to properly manage this great park before the knockout punch is delivered.

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Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

 

This is my fourth visit to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, and I think it is time that Lewa be considered among the top wildlife destinations in Africa. Aside from the two slight negatives -- knowing (but not necessarily seeing) that the 62,000-acre property is mostly fenced off; and the heavily cultivated lower slopes of Mt. Kenya sometimes being in view – Lewa is in every way prime. Where else are you guaranteed sightings of Grevy’s zebra and both black and white rhino? Plus easy sightings of “northern species” such as beisa oryx, reticulated giraffe and Somali ostrich… and the strong possibility of lion and cheetah… and the occasional leopard and wild dog.

 

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Grevy's Zebra

 

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Reticulated Giraffe

 

Two words describe the area around Lewa’s central fever tree swamp: sensory overload. There are things to see in every direction, and it is easy to get paralyzed not knowing what to do next. A couple of black rhinos in perfect afternoon light to the left; two oryx bulls fighting to the right; a breeding herd of the endangered Grevy’s zebra on the horizon below Mt. Kenya; a tiny elephant calf surrounded and protected by the herd just in front.

 

Then… an entire herd of Grant’s gazelles in alarm staring intently in one direction. It has to be a predator. In this wide-open grassland, it’s likely a cheetah or a lion – a hyena maybe. But a fleeting glimpse reveals a spotted head that is large and muscular, not delicate like that of a cheetah. A leopard in a treeless plain! As we pursue, the leopard melts into a sea of two-foot tall grass, only an occasional flicker of the tail or ear suggesting its presence. Or is it our imagination? Finally, we get a good locate of the cat around an area with grass not so dense. As we get closer, it again disappears (in grass not so dense!). He is now tantalizingly close unless he has pulled a Houdini against our 6 pairs of eyes. He must be slinked down flat like a flounder, and we all stand up in the vehicle for a better angle and as if readying to spearfish. In time, his presence is betrayed by the tip of his thick tale. For some unknown reason, he then suddenly becomes relaxed, pops up and looks back at us as if to say, “you got me, take a picture, hurry up.”

 

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Leopard

 

Much less inconspicuous are the legendary Lewa cheetah brothers. These three cats are the biggest, oldest and baddest cheetahs I have ever seen. Each sporting several what appear to be surgical scars all over the body, they have been tackling prey as large as kudu and zebra for at least eleven years together. After seeing them in deteriorating condition last year, I had thought for sure the coalition’s time was expiring. I am not so sure now. May they reign forever.

 

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The Three Cheetah Brothers

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Safaridude, what can I say about this report but excellent. Your descriptions of tsavo tally with all I know also. When we spent many trips there in the 60s it was nothing like described now which is sad but hopefully not terminal.

 

The peters gazelle also appears to have much paler side stripes also.

 

I'm glad you feel the same way about Lewa. Just shows what can be done and not a cull or trophy death in sight.

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Samburu National Reserve

 

Just how much biomass can a small reserve support? That is, biomass including humans and mini-buses. This jewel of a reserve (technically divided in two: Samburu National Reserve and Buffalo Springs National Reserve only because they are managed by two different districts…but commonly referred to simply as Samburu) is now littered with lodges, both small and large – some protruding conspicuously, incongruously, on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River (as I write, many of these lodges and camps on the banks of the river have washed away due to a terrible flood). Ewaso Nyiro separates Samburu from Buffalo Springs and is the lifeblood of this ecosystem, roughly dividing evenly the combined ecosystem, and more importantly, being the only reliable source of water for the animals during the dry season. Hordes of minibuses gather around sightings near the Ewaso Nyiro though. If you are predisposed to practical jokes, or simply lonely, all you would have to do is park your vehicle out in the open and stare intently at a bush with your binoculars. Soon, you would be joined by throngs of safari enthusiasts. The biomass of the mammalian, reptilian, and avian kind is quite spectacular in this gem, and the trick is to avoid the human kind.

 

The solution, as I see it, is staying outside the reserve at Saruni Samburu. Its faux-Arabic design, high costs and superfluous trappings aside, Saruni Samburu is an interesting option. 7 km away from the northern entrance of the Samburu Game Reserve in the Kalama Conservancy area, Saruni Samburu gives you the choice of game viewing in the conservancy area as well as going into the reserve. Once inside Samburu, it is a further 10 – 15 km still to the Ewaso Nyiro River where mini-buses lie in ambush. Interestingly, mini-buses tend not to stray from the river, and you are likely to have the northern part of the reserve to yourself. At around 8:30 each morning, the mini-buses tend to go back to their respective lodges (this curious mid-morning breakfast thing back at camp, I never really understood…), and voila! You are now able to enjoy the river circuit in peace.

 

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Samburu Warrior

 

There is certainly no better place in Kenya to observe northern game (the “Samburu Five”, which consists of beisa oryx, reticulated giraffe, gerenuk, Somali ostrich and Grevy’s zebra, as well as the spectacular vulturine guineafowl) so easily. Nor is there a better place (with the possible exception of Amboseli) to observe such relaxed elephants at thrillingly (uncomfortably?) close quarters. Never in my four visits to Samburu including this one have I failed with lion and cheetah – this time a cheetah on a full sprint, no less, after a scrub hare. In short, Samburu never fails to deliver. But surely, game disperses away from the river during the rains, and the paramount conservation issue is ensuring the integrity of the greater ecosystem.

 

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Vulturine Guineafowl

 

Enter Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). A conservation organization I am very familiar with, NRT has created conservancy areas north and northwest of Samburu Game Reserve called Kalama and West Gate, respectively. The conservancies are managed by the Samburu themselves with their own governance systems dictating livestock grazing policies. Both conservancies have recently built tourist facilities from which revenues are earned for the communities. This allows the community members to diversify their income sources, and slowly change their attitudes positively toward wildlife.

 

Not that Samburu was immune from cattle incursions during the drought. However, things may have been a lot worse had rotational grazing policies not been in place. Then there is this story: during the worst of the drought last year around August/September, Shaba National Reserve (just east of Samburu) was basically taken over by herders (many of them armed) and their livestock. In fact, most safaris to Shaba were cancelled. Tribal elders from NRT conservancies were called upon to engage in peaceful dialogue with the herders in Shaba. In the end, the herders took their advice and left Shaba peacefully. A military/police action had been planned to eradicate the herders and their livestock from Shaba. The NRT elders may have prevented bloodshed. NRT is making a difference, bit by bit.

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Masai Mara National Reserve

 

It hadn’t occurred to me that we would fly over the Mau Forest Complex on the way to Masai Mara from Samburu. Now, the experience of flying over the Mau Forest will be etched in my memory forever. What shock! It has been said that the Mau Forest Complex has lost as little as 25% of its forest cover. I would bet anyone that it is actually closer to 80%. The loss of forest cover in this important catchment area is the primary reason why the water level in the Mara River now fluctuates so wildly, why Lake Naivasha is drying up, and why Lake Nakuru is drying up (hence the translocation of white rhinos from Nakuru to Nairobi National Park). The trials and tribulations of re-settling and reforesting the Mau have been widely reported. It is going to take a Herculean effort to restore it.

 

We are met at the Ol Kiombo airstrip in the Mara by James Sengeny, a veteran Maasai guide from Rekero Camp. James turns out to be one of the warmest, gentlest people ever and one who knows every square inch of this most spectacular wildlife destination. Aside from the encyclopedic knowledge of the bush, James brings the added dimension of the perspective of a Maasai who grew up in the Mara.

 

So much has been said and written about the Mara that whatever I pen here is bound to be redundant. I, therefore, make just a few key observations:

 

- For those who want to experience the Mara in peace, the off-season (the non-migration months) is the way to go. For me, I would trade a million wildebeests being followed by guests occupying 3,000 plus beds now in the greater Mara area for a quiet wilderness experience. We traversed the center/center west/center north of the reserve, and the famous Musiara Marsh was the only place that felt congested.

 

- Rekero Camp is at the top of its game. Rekero delivers the product not through fancy design or excessive amenities, but through old-fashioned blood, sweat and tears. Everyone at Rekero pays unparalleled personal attention to the guests. Jackson Looseiya, a Maasai who started at Rekero as an askari, is now a part-owner of the camp along with Gerard and Rainee Beaton, Gerard being the son of Ron Beaton, who started it all. Jackson is believed to be the first Maasai (and possibly the only Maasai still) with a direct personal ownership interest in a tourist operation in the Mara.

 

- Wild cats are still abundant. In three days, we observed four prides of lions (Bila Shaka, Paradise, Marsh and Disney), and a cheetah mother and cub. Most other people staying at Rekero had multiple cheetah sightings. Though we were unlucky, most others had leopard sightings. There is apparently one particularly tame female leopard who visits Rekero regularly.

 

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Lion

 

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Lion

 

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Cheetah

 

- The drought killed a number of water-dependent grazers. Apparently, the hardest hit species were topi, buffalo, hippo, and waterbuck. Still, all these species were in abundance.

 

- Mara’s vegetation is more open than it was 15-20 years ago. It may be part of a natural cycle, but it may partly be the influence of elephants and man-made fires as well. I certainly noticed fewer giraffes this time.

 

- After good rains, many herbivores leave the central part of the reserve, as the predominant red oat grass becomes fibrous and less palatable. Gazelles and elands in particular tend to move to the far north in the reserve or even beyond into the group ranches, attracted by the shorter grass and revealed herbs there. This does not mean that the reserve is devoid of these species. It does mean that under these conditions, and especially in light of the general seasonal absence of wildebeests and zebras, topis become most conspicuous.

 

- … which brings me to the subject of the mating behavior of topis. If you tire of watching lions sleep all day, turn your attention to topis in the Mara. Topis have a unique mating system called “lekking”, whereby several adult males congregate at a certain spot and engage in warfare of competitive mating display. It is akin to a bunch of men hanging out at a bar engaging in an arm wrestling contest. Females then get drawn to the “lek” and select a few males, if not one, who end up mating with all the females. This female choice system (“Topi’s Choice”, anyone?) in the African mammal world is confined only to the topi, lechwe, puku and kob, so it is well worth watching. It is interesting that, unlike virtually all other antelope species, the topi does not exhibit flehmen – perhaps because it is her choice, not his. These leks occur at consistently same spots. The lekking social system does not occur where the habitat is not ideal, and in any case leks disband when conditions deteriorate (e.g., the dry season). In the Mara, there are many known leks. One particular male topi in a large lek near Rekero was especially memorable. He, most imposing in size and glossiest of coat, exuded boundless energy, non-stop hassling every male in the lek while dangling a clump of grass from his mouth – he, looking very much like a cigarette-smoking thug.

 

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Topi

 

One particular afternoon, we find ourselves on Topi Plain on the very northern edge of the Mara. In the flush of green everywhere in the Mara, Topi Plain stands out in remarkable deeper green. Upon closer observation, the culprit turns out to be a carpet of whistling thorn (Acacia Drepanolobium) no more than a few inches off the ground. James explains that for some reason, the whistling thorn is severely stunted here. We see our first elands and Grant’s gazelles relishing the browse. As far as the eye can see, there are spectacular numbers of topis, impalas, Thomson’s gazelles, a few Coke’s hartebeests, a single zebra and a single wildebeest – and only a couple of other vehicles. For wildebeests and zebras, as well as vehicles, this is not their time. Out of nowhere, a patrol vehicle appears bearing the name “The County Council of Narok”, the management body of this part of the Mara, on its door. The officials inside the vehicle ask for our passes for the day. Apparently, they are trying to prevent campers outside the reserve from driving into the reserve without paying. We gladly produce our documents. Satisfied, the officials head toward the direction of another safari vehicle. Certainly, the County Council of Narok appears to be doing its job. Or is it? About half a mile away, still inside the reserve boundary, in plain sight of the officials, about 100 cows, attended by the Maasai, graze undisturbed.

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Ruma National Park

 

The flight from the Ol Kiombo airstrip in Masai Mara to Ruma National Park, near the shores of Lake Victoria, takes us directly over the Isuria Escarpment, the photogenic “wall” which frames the western boundary of Masai Mara. In 1989, a friend photographed a herd of roan antelopes just below the escarpment. The herd soon thereafter disappeared. In 1995, a staff member at Kichwa Tembo Camp told me he saw a single roan up on the escarpment itself. At some point soon after that, the roan altogether disappeared from the greater Mara area.

 

On the top of the escarpment and beyond, cultivation is the order of the day. There is hardly an acre of uncultivated open space all the way to Lake Victoria. At one point in time, there was a continuous population of roan, as well many species found in the Mara, along this flight path. In East Africa, much of roan’s historical range included areas of moist, fertile lands, now supporting maize and wheat, such as those below our Cessna. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Swahili word for roan is “korongo”, which is also a word that describes moist gullies.

 

The roan antelope as a species is not critically endangered as a whole yet but is declining just about everywhere. The Serengeti population has all but disappeared, with only vagrants being reported along the western and southern boundaries. In Kruger, South Africa, a once stable population of about 600 is now reduced to a handful. The roan went extinct in Uganda some time in the ‘90s, and it is presumed to be extinct in Rwanda and Burundi. The populations in Zimbabwe and northern Botswana are healthy in pockets but don’t seem to be increasing. Aside from the stronghold in Kafue, Zambia and Nyika, Zambia/Malawi, the roan is in steady decline.

 

In Kenya, the roan may be the most endangered large mammal species in the country. At least in theory, a couple of small herds are still to be found confined to Ruma National Park. The roan has a checkered history in Kenya. In the ‘70s, a herd of 35 occurring naturally on a private ranch near Nairobi was translocated to Shimba Hills National Park on the coast, where it doesn’t belong. Naturally, the herd never adapted to the unfamiliar environment and died off by ‘87. Strangely, many guide books still erroneously cite Shimba Hills as a place to observe the roan. The population at Ruma once ranged in the hundreds, with many occurring just outside the park. It reached its lows in ‘95, when Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) counted only 27. A subsequent count in 2004 had the population at 85. In the 2006 count, there were 56. During the election violence of early 2008, the park was torched by vandals – the Lake Victoria region with its predominant Luo population being an epicenter of activity -- forcing Ruma’s animals to flee the park and face poaching. Traditionally, the Luo have prized not only the roan meat, but also the skin for tribal ceremonies. The current situation is a complete mystery. We could be chasing ghosts here, much like some ill-informed visitors – the owners of bad guide books -- to Shimba Hills. But even if we don’t find roan at Ruma, we might find Kenya’s only population of Jackson’s hartebeest, another rarity. Many of those guide books don’t tell you about that.

 

We are bound and determined to do it right, whatever the outcome may be. Unlike most visitors who visit Ruma for a couple of hours on an excursion from Lake Victoria, we are booked at the KWS Guest House just outside Ruma’s main gate. James set out in his vehicle a day ahead to scout things out and stock up on provisions, as the Guest House does not supply food. We, including James, basically have no idea what awaits us. Somewhat miraculously, as we land at the Homa Bay airstrip, James is waiting beside his vehicle with a smile.

 

“They” make it difficult to visit Ruma. The only operational airstrip is at Homa Bay, more than an hour from the park (we would later discover a derelict airstrip inside the park). James actually struggled to find the narrow pathway to the airstrip, as he circled around for some 30 minutes. Why make it logical by putting up a sign for the airstrip? Even though we are the only visitors to the park, and staying at the KWS Guest House no less, there is massive confusion, and it takes us 12 minutes at the gate to get through the bureaucracy to enter the park.

 

After a few kilometers from the gate, the main road forks. We decide to turn left, which takes us along the southern boundary of the park. This is the higher, escarpment part of the park with fairly dense vegetation. Surely, when the main, low-lying area of the park is inundated, many animals must take temporary refuge up here. But the park is dry, and we see very little. Later we learn that this part of the park is where most of the subsistence meat poaching occurs, as it abuts a densely populated, poverty-stricken area. We do spot a couple of topis and a group of Rothschild’s giraffes (translocated from Baringo) in the distance. The most striking feature of this area of the park is the remarkable whistling thorn. Unlike those stunted ones in the Mara, whistling thorn trees here grow straight up, single stemmed, some reaching 15-20 feet in height. Lovely landscape for sure, but there would be no roan or Jackson’s hartebeest today.

 

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Balanites

 

The next morning, we turn right at the fork onto a stunning open savannah. With a hill framing the background, one could easily mistake the scenery for Masai Mara near the Isuria escarpment. The dominant tree here is Balanites Aegyptiaca – looking orderly as if someone is employed to prune the branches. The savannah is littered with topis, a tad darker perhaps than the ones in the Mara. In searching for roan with binoculars, we are fooled time and again by topis, whose horns, from far away at certain angles, resemble those of the roan. Finally, as I am about to declare yet another far away creature a topi, it turns directly at me revealing its face with black and white markings. “Korongo! 100 percent!” is my declaration. A breeding herd of twelve, led by a dominant bull, grazes peacefully as we approach. The herd bull conveys his interest to a couple of females, but they rebuff him. There is to be no roan procreating today. A few moments after we leave the herd, a solitary roan bull rouses from his rest next to the road as we speed by him. Slamming on the brakes, we stop just a few feet away from the startled roan. He gives us a moment for a very close observation. One can clearly see that the facial markings of the roan are certainly similar to those of the sable, its direct cousin, but almost identical to those of the gemsbok, a more distant cousin. It is no wonder that the Afrikaans word for roan antelope is – comically -- “baster-gemsbok”. These would be the only roan antelopes we see in two full days in this small, open park. I am afraid to think that we did not miss any.

 

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Roan Antelope

 

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Roan Antelope

 

We do end up with three separate sightings of three solitary Jackson’s hartebeest bulls. These are remnants of the Alcelaphus Buselaphus Jacksoni, a hartebeest made by taking a Coke’s hartebeest and vertically elongating its face and horns and darkening the coat. Its main home is Uganda, and Ruma is the southern boundary of its range. It is believed that the ones in Ruma have had some hybridization with Coke’s hartebeests, but in any case they look very much like the Jackson’s in Uganda. Unfortunately, KWS translocated 80 hartebeests from Laikipia (central Kenya) last year (they themselves hybrids of Jackson’s and Coke’s but having more of the Coke’s influence, and importantly, genetically different from Ruma’s hartebeests). We see at least a dozen of the translocated ones. There is no doubt that these two different types of hartebeests will interbreed, guaranteeing the loss of the Jacksoni race in Kenya.

 

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Jackson's Hartebeest

 

 

A Way Forward

 

So, it turns out that it is indeed the worst of times. At least I hope so, because if it is, the wilderness areas I have just seen in Kenya still “work” – barely so in some areas, but for the most part decidedly so.

 

Amidst the continuing deterioration of Tsavo, we discovered vast tracts of untouched wilderness in it. In “crowded” wildlife heavens of Masai Mara and Samburu, we were able to carve out solitude in the right places. For every Ruma and Nairobi National, barely hanging on by a thread, there are Lewa and Kalama (the conservancy adjoining Samburu) – both going from strength to strength.

 

People on the ground in Kenya, I am happy to report, are as optimistic as ever. Having flown from Ruma, I am picked up at Wilson Airport by Chui, a guide of the Kikuyu origin who earlier guided us at Tsavo. I point blank ask him if he, a Kikuyu, would have been concerned for his own safety had he been with us at Ruma, in the heart of Luo country. Chui flashes his easy smile, “no, not now…not anymore…those days are over.” It is this resiliency of the people that draws me back to Kenya time and again. The degradation of the Mau brought people together to act. And the devastating drought has now opened the door for more acute dialogue on rangeland conservation issues. Even at its low ebb, Kenya remains a most compelling safari destination. Proof is always in the pudding. I am already making plans to see Kenya again, hopefully, in the better of times.

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Welcome back! I'm through Tsavo. The Nairobi National Park account was heartening in that the drought has literally been washed away. I appreciated the contrast with your first visit and your assessement that it barely works. I'm rooting for it to continue and your description of the gauntlet the wildlife must run shows they clinging on as well.

 

Your archival data on Tsavo also gives some cause for hope. Like you, that's how I choose to view it. Looking forward to more.

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Safaridude, love the leopard in Lewa, the photo really captures the environment. Glad to read your comments about avoiding the crowds as I would have to concur.

 

Is Ruma somewhere you would suggest a tourist if they had been on safari many times or does it not have much to offer apart from the chance of roan and Jackson's hartebeest.f I remember reading about some of the translocation of hartebeest and wondering at the time if enough research had been done on preventing hybridisation. I suppose what is done is done now.

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Twaffle, I think Ruma is worth it if you happen to be visiting Lake Victoria. The landscape really is lovely, and the roan, though few, are easy to see for the time being. Interestingly, many Kenyans visit Ruma (gleaned from guest notes at the KWS Guest House) -- which was good to see.

 

A man named Nicholas Georgiadis did extensive genetic research on hartebeests in Kenya. The report can be found in the link below (click on pdf at the top of the page). He established that the ones in Ruma are hybrids but very close to the true Jackson's, while the ones from Laikipia are hybrids with more Coke's influence. They certainly look different, but he was able to conclude the genetic differences. So, yes, this is yet another bad translocation (like when they moved roan to Shimba Hills where they don't belong). This research was basically ignored.

 

http://74.125.47.132/search?q=cache:XpwupQ...=clnk&gl=us

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Thanks for that Safaridude, very interesting article.

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Thanks for another beautifully written report, safaridude! Nice to see a green Tsavo. Perhaps we'll take a drive down to Lake Jipe this year. I too am hopeful.

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Not yet to the Mara. You've described the Lewa action beautifully. I did partake in the practical joke you describe works well in Samburu and may have to try it when I get there. The 8:30 breakfast seems like a perfect time to enjoy this lovely reserve. You jut missed the floods.

 

What an expertly written report!

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The Discovery Channel's new show "Life" begins with the three Lewa cheetah brothers taking down an ostrich!

 

Patty, I know you love Tsavo... the Lake Jipe drive is a must for you.

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Thanks for an explicit report that tells it like it is! Nice job with the roan in Ruma. Darling cheetah cub. The optimism of the Kenyans is encouraging.

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The Discovery Channel's new show "Life" begins with the three Lewa cheetah brothers taking down an ostrich!

 

Patty, I know you love Tsavo... the Lake Jipe drive is a must for you.

 

 

Safaridude, I was going to ask whether you knew about these cheetahs propensity for hunting ostrich. Simon King spent a week (at least) at the conservancy to film this particular habit and everyday he followed them without success until the very last day when he captured the action. I'm glad that at last it has made it to TV as I've wondered whether it ever would.

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Thanks Safaridude. I've really enjoyed reading your most descriptive and interesting report and the photos.

 

I hadn't appreciated that Grevy's Zebra are endangered. I remember good herds particularly in Buffalo Springs but then I realise that was back in 1996, so it's reassuring that it's still a stronghold for them.

 

I would imagine that "lekking" would be a bit of a drawcard for predators.

 

Don't recall having read anything about Ruma before and now I'm about to look up Ishaqbini - another newie to me.

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Nice report, Safaridude. I certainly hear great things about Rekero and hope to give them a try.

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Can't get your observation of 80% destruction of Mau Forest out of my head. Even if the angle from which you were observing resulted in an overestimate, that's still way too much. The ramifications will be felt for years and for miles/kilometers. A huge dose of the resiliancy you noted throughout your travels is needed. Hope it is enough.

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Twaffle, I had heard about the cheetahs hunting ostrich, but I had forgotten about it. Pretty amazing.

 

Lynn, we flew directly over the heart of the Mau Complex. It was shocking.

 

Caracal, there are something like 1,000 Grevy's zebras left. About a quarter of them live on Lewa. The lekking behavior of topis, I am sure, brings attention with the predators, but topis tend to avoid predation quite well as they lek out in the open. On the other hand, male topis tend to sleep during mid-day lying down, and some hyenas have learned to pick them off when they are asleep.

 

Hari, Rekero's vibes come close to Kwando: game first and everything else second (if that is what the guest wants).

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Thanks, Safaridude, for another expert report. The report from the lek was a bit too explicit though. It made me blush.

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Nyamera, no worries... one cannot tell if a topi is blushing.

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Great report, with some fine images Safaridude, the Leopard in the grass is a standout!

What equipment/lens were you using?

Your positive report on Rekero echoes a lot of others who have been there, my wife and I will be risking 9 nights :D come early October this year and I believe we can duck and weave the crowd to a certain extent from others who report there at migration time.

 

Cheers

Marc

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Twaffle, I had heard about the cheetahs hunting ostrich, but I had forgotten about it. Pretty amazing.

 

Lynn, we flew directly over the heart of the Mau Complex. It was shocking.

 

Caracal, there are something like 1,000 Grevy's zebras left. About a quarter of them live on Lewa. The lekking behavior of topis, I am sure, brings attention with the predators, but topis tend to avoid predation quite well as they lek out in the open. On the other hand, male topis tend to sleep during mid-day lying down, and some hyenas have learned to pick them off when they are asleep.

 

Hari, Rekero's vibes come close to Kwando: game first and everything else second (if that is what the guest wants).

 

Thanks, safaridude - good to know! That's the kind of vibes I'm looking for!!!

 

On that note, they used to have a picture at I think Lebala before the renovation of one of the blood brother cheetahs on a freshly taken down "ostritch" .......

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