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A Retrospective: Natron, Serengeti, Lewa, Sarara, Ishaqbini - March 2009


Safaridude
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I am posting a report from 2009 (before I joined this forum), because, among other things, I would like to raise awareness of the hirola (Beatragus hunteri) on Safaritalk. I was very fortunate to see and photograph this animal at Ishaqbini in northeastern Kenya on this particular trip.

 

A comprehensive aerial survey by the Kenya Wildlife Service and Northern Rangelands Trust has just finished (just days ago), and the news is not good. They only counted 245 actual. So, it is unlikely that there are more than 300-400 hirolas left. The hirola belongs to a genus of its own, and its demise would mean the first African mammalian genus lost in modern human history.

 

I will have more to say about this in other threads as to where conservation efforts of hirolas are going and how we can all help. Game Warden and a couple of Safaritalk members have already enlisted their help.

 

In any case, my trip report follows. Though Ishaqbini was the last place I visited, I include that portion first here.

Edited by twaffle
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Ishaqbini Conservancy

 

As I stumble toward the Land Cruiser pre-dawn, I realize I have no idea what to expect. I had traveled with several Northern Rangelands Trust personnel to this truly remote northeastern corner of Kenya in hopes of catching a glimpse of the critically endangered hirola. The short drive from the Masalani airstrip to our campsite, as the light was fading the previous evening, had yielded no sightings of any animals. Ian Craig, ever the optimist, appears confident though this morning, and he is at the wheel as the sun begins to peer through the commiphora bushes.

 

Within minutes of setting off, we spot a lone coastal topi. Indistinguishable from the topis in the Mara/Serengeti, they, the antelope of the wet savannah, inexplicably thrive here in the dry coastal bushland. Okay, mammals do exist here…Only seconds later, we spot them. Unremarkable at a first glance: an antelope that could easily be mistaken for an impala or hartebeest. Upon closer observation though, the hirola’s conspicuous pre-orbital glands really stand out. It is easy to see why they are nicknamed, the “four-eyed antelope”. The actual eyes are connected by a white, nearly chevron-shaped strip. It makes them appear as if they are wearing swimming goggles. Whatever it might take to stay afloat…

 

Exposure? Composition? Focus? Never mind. I press the shutter button as quickly and as often as my camera allows me. I have no idea if this will be my one and only glimpse of the hirola. I have no idea if my generation will bear witness to the final decline of “Beatragus hunteri”.

 

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Hirola Bull

 

As the last stop on my safari, I am incredibly fortunate to join Ian Craig and several others from NRT on an expedition to one of NRT’s newest conservancies, Ishaqbini (pronounced, “Ishaq-bean” with the last “i” being silent). Tucked away in the far northeastern corner of Kenya near the banks of Tana River, Ishaqbini is, on paper, the unlikeliest place to find wilderness: too close to Somalia on the map and, by all logic, overgrazed and poached out by now. Ishaqbini, it turns out, is the unlikeliest paradise.

 

Ishaqbini is a forgotten world that is truly frozen in time. It is an enclave that has evolved apart. Just outside the core conservancy area, zebras and warthogs carry on about their daily business amongst the shambas. They and the humans ignore each other as they pass. Even the wetland birds, near the lake where we camp, mysteriously allow close approach by us. It is indeed a quirky place. The zebras here are smaller in body size, and they lose their manes as they mature (possibly a hot weather adaptation). They could potentially represent a race, yet unnamed, of Equus quagga. The warthogs are of the desert variety with unique facial wart patterns. The lesser kudus are chocolate-brown and bafflingly tame. There is a herd of 1,000 buffalos nearby. Gerenuks, they of the dry, and coastal topis, they of the wet, mingle, and there are reticulated giraffes on the horizon. Hardly five minutes go by without seeing something. We even see lion and elephant tracks. The camp staff saw four cheetahs drinking from the lake the day before we arrived. There are even reports of a wild dog pack somewhere.

 

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Maneless Zebras

 

Of course, hirolas are what Ishaqbini is set up to protect, and they are, I am happy to report, the dominant herbivores in the area. Several groups are seen each time we set out for walks or drives. Ian believes there are approximately 150 hirolas in the core conservancy area and perhaps another 200-300 outside it. And, except for a small artificially translocated population in Tsavo East, that’s that. (The hirola is presumed to be extinct in Somalia, the only country other than Kenya where it has been recorded.) The current population is a far cry from the 12,000 or so censused in the early 1970s, but the remaining herds represent a viable base to build upon. There has already been a significant increase in the Ishaqbini population in just three short years since the establishment of the conservancy. Mitigating grazing competition from cattle is cited as the main reason for success.

 

Obviously, no conservancy can be sustained without the support of the people living nearby. I tour the nearest town of Masalani and am invited to sit in on a meeting between NRT members and the local MP (member of parliament). And perhaps here is the biggest surprise. Masalani is definitely not Mogadishu. It is a relaxed community inhabited by the peaceful Kenyan Somali tribe. The MP chuckles as he acknowledges the “Somali” issue. He reminds us that the people of Masalani rejected the Somali succession vote in the 1960s. The meeting ends with handshakes and smiles. As we leave, children waive and smile, just as they would in any other Kenyan town.

 

Ian and NRT have big plans for Ishaqbini. Through research, they hope to unearth the mysteries of this refuge (indeed, virtually no studies have been conducted on this unique ecosystem). Low-impact tourism is being discussed. All the while, enhancing the livelihood of the people in the area will be a priority. The stakes are high, and the choices are stark. If we succeed, we will have protected the last remaining herds of hirolas in this truly unique environment, which we are only beginning to understand. If we fail, Beatragus hunteri will be in the archives as the first African mammalian genus ever lost under our watch.

 

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Hirola Herd

Edited by twaffle
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Thanks Safaridude for this excellent report, not only well written but for what it means to the hirola.

 

Let's hope that this beautiful antelope will attract the attention of many people, not just our community here, and that the efforts to save it will not be in vain.

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Wow! I don't recall ever hearing about a hirola before!

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Thank you Twaffle. Kittykat, let's get to know these animals...

 

Game Warden has created a separate forum called SOS Hirola. I will be posting lots of information there soon.

 

In the mean time, the rest of my trip report follows here...

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Ol Doinyo Lengai

 

One can’t help but feel small standing beneath Ol Doinyo Lengai. Revered by the Maasai as their “Mountain of God”, Lengai is set amongst other icons of Africa: the Crater Highlands of Ngorongoro, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Lake Natron and Oldupai Gorge – where it all began. Lengai’s volcanic belches, carried by the easterly winds over millions of years, are responsible for the ecological perfect storm called the Serengeti plains. Its nutrient-rich volcanic ashes have nurtured the short-grass plains in southern Serengeti, an essential calving ground for Serengeti’s wildebeests. At a glance, Lengai’s ashen streaks could be mistaken for snow. Its lava, measured at approximately 500 degrees Celsius, is the coolest on record. It had to be… Ol Doinyo Lengai is, literally and figuratively, the coolest volcano in the world.

 

It is here – the Lake Natron North Game Controlled Area in Tanzania, where the Maasai and wildlife co-inhabit the plains beneath Lengai -- that I begin my tenth pilgrimage to the Dark Continent. My travels would also take me to Serengeti National Park in search of the big wildebeest herds. Then, in Kenya, I would visit the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy for the third time, Sarara Camp in Namunyak – a community-based conservation success story – and Ishaqbini in search of the critically endangered hirola antelope.

 

 

Lake Natron North Game Controlled Area (Sidai Camp)

 

Rarely in life does one get a chance to be with three good friends and an outstanding safari guide as the only guests in a pristine wilderness area the size of a small country. Lake Natron North is an exclusive concession leased by Tanzania Game Trackers/Ker & Downey Tanzania. It is a multi-use area in which Tanzania Game Trackers conducts trophy hunting between July and November, and Ker & Downey Tanzania offers photographic safaris in the other months. I am fortunate to have Craig Doria as a guide again in Tanzania. Craig, having tutored under the legendary Norman Carr in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, is somewhat of a living legend himself. Not only encyclopedic is he in his knowledge of the African bush, he is also learned in world history and politics. He has headed a conservation organization in Tanzania and even written a book on snakes of Zambia. He has mentored many young would-be guides and conservationists.

 

Our home for the four days in Natron is Sidai Camp, set high atop a hill facing Mt. Gelai to the west. Beyond Gelai, the faint outline of Ol Doinyo Lengai can be seen on clear days. The area around Sidai Camp is thick with thorny vegetation. Several dry sand rivers, peppered with Acacia mellifera bushes, shelter the shy lesser kudus; some of these sand rivers stretch well into Kenya to the north. Besides Lengai and Gelai, the greater Natron area is strewn with other volcanic mountains also bearing mystical names: Longido, Kitumbeine, Kerimasi, Monduli, Burko, Losimingori. In between these mountains on the Rift Valley floor, the land alternates between impenetrable acacia/commiphora bushlands and open plains (locally called mbugas) scattered with whistling thorn. Over the four days, we encounter most of the classic eastern Maasailand species, including zebra, giraffe, impala, wildebeest, ostrich, Grant’s gazelle, Thomson’s gazelle, gerenuk, lesser kudu, dik dik and fringe-eared oryx. But Natron’s specialties are its scenery, its remoteness and Maasai encounters that are much more genuine then those in more traveled tourist circuits.

 

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Zebra

 

Our second morning, we set out early to reach Lengai before the heat of the day. The two-three hour drive from Sidai Camp skirts through a Maasai village called Orkejuloongishu at the base of Kitumbeine. It is Monday, which is Maasai market day. Hundreds of Maasai are to file into Orkejuloongishu to barter for food, clothing, livestock, jewelry, etc., and around 7:30 in the morning when we near the village, we could see several small groups of Maasai beginning to converge onto the village, some carrying merchandise on their shoulders.

 

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Maasai Child

 

No doubt the most absurd scenario at this village at this time on this Monday, the Maasai market day, would be to encounter, say, a wild dog. So, naturally, there it is… not even 1/2 km from the village – a lone male dog standing stock-still in front of our vehicle. The dog politely lends us enough time to reassure ourselves that we aren’t hallucinating, and then, melts into the bush. One of the advantages of being in a private concession is the ability to get out of the vehicle and stalk, and Craig, armed with his trusty rifle just in case, leads us though rocky, thorny terrain. No luck though. The dog, the ultimate nomad, lives up to its reputation.

 

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Wild Dog

 

The final approach to Lengai is otherworldly. The rolling short grass plains sandwiched between Lengai and Kerimasi Crater are simply bewitching – lunar even. As we search for a perfect picnic spot in front of Lengai, a lone fringe-eared oryx bull arises from its rest. Now shimmering in the heat haze, the oryx, perfectly adapted to the hot and dry environment, embodies the genius of evolution. The white of the belly deflecting sunlight, a complex network of blood vessels in the nose acting as an efficient cooling system, extra large hooves for handling stony, bleached grounds, a pair of sharp horns giving him the option of fight over energy-sapping flight, and ultimately being able to survive indefinitely without water by utilizing dew and subterranean tubers: nature’s perfection.

 

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Fringe-eared Oryx

 

Two hundred yards or so away, there I am trying to photograph Perfection with my high-tech Canon digital camera – panting and sweating in clothing made of space-age, sweat-wicking material, a wide-brimmed hat on head, polarized sunglasses on face smeared with sunscreen, and, of course, a bottle of water nearby. Ever so alert and shy, the oryx does not let us get any closer. Surely, the oryx must know that vehicles don’t mean harm. Perhaps then, it is simply that Perfection very much minds being in the company of Imperfection.

 

Our last evening, we are invited to view a blood letting of a cow at a nearby Maasai village. The Maasai subsist on their cows’ blood and milk, often going indefinitely without consuming solid foods. Without much of a warning, three warriors converge on a cow, isolate it into a small boma and subdue it still. The fourth warrior points an arrow at a close range at the jugular vein of the cow, now trembling and showing more white than pupil in her eye. On the second try, the arrow penetrates the artery, and the blood spews into the gourd. The artery is patched up with mud, and the cow goes on its merry way. It is just another day and another meal in this timeless place.

 

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Awesome stuff SD - I really enjoyed that facinating trip report, reminds me of my time working with Grevy's Zebra in Samburu.

 

PS: Are there any Hirola in capitivity ATM??

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Irish Elk,

 

I am 99% certain there aren't at the moment. There were a few in Europe at one point 10-20 years ago. There have been two translocations of hirolas (in order to save them) into Tsavo East. Remarkably, they have survived in Tsavo East, and the population is about 50-100.

 

In my humble, unprofessional opinion, the Tsavo population is doomed. Hirolas never occurred there naturally, and I think it's a minor miracle that they have survived thus far. It is thought that the hirola and Coke's hartebeest separated long ago (of course, for a reason). The hirola range in Tsavo East is full of Coke's hartebeest. In due course, it is likely that the hartebeests will outcompete hirolas there.

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Great report, thank you! Can I confirm, the Masalani you're talking about is the village on the left bank of the Tana, roughly two-thirds of the way between Garissa and Garsen? You don't mention the Tana River Primate National Park, which is a few kilometres to the south. Did you get a chance to call in there?

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Yes, Richard, Masalani is between Garissa and Garsen (but its' on the right bank -- the norther bank of the Tana). The Tana River Primate Reserve is very close to the Ishaqbini Conservancy, however, I didn't have enough time to visit it. Ishaqbini is only a few kilometers southeast of the Primate Reserve (again, on the northern/northeastern bank). I may be able to put up a map on either this thread or the "SOS Hirola" forum.

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Great report and photos. What luck to find your subject within minutes of your departure. The hirola is a handsome creature and you captured it beautifully. Your Mountain of God photo photo is another beauty. Nice shot of the absurd wild dog. Effective people shots too. Liked your musings on perfection/imperfection.

 

Thanks for posting this.

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Serengeti National Park (Olakira Camp)

 

The road from Ngorongoro to Serengeti is as well known for being hard on the back as it is easy on the eye. It’s a shame that many opt to fly, because there is so much to experience. I had so immensely enjoyed that trip previously, this time I arranged for us to drive all the way from Arusha to Serengeti via the Ngorongoro road. (The secret to this trip is the Ker & Downey Land Cruiser specially equipped with eight (!) shock absorbers.)

 

Around the town of Mto Wa Mbu, the road begins its ascent onto the Crater Highlands. At one crest of the road, Lake Manyara comes into view with Tarangire National Park beyond it. Later at a bend of the road, lunch is taken, while watching out for black kites dive-bombing for your sandwich, at a picnic spot overlooking the Ngorongoro Crater itself. Once we leave the Crater behind, the road begins to descend onto the greater short-grass ecosystem of the Serengeti. Acacia lahai trees, reminiscent of Japanese Bonsais, cling to the steep slopes of the last hills. A smattering of zebras, wildebeests, gazelles, giraffes, Coke’s hartebeests and elands are found amongst Maasai cattle. After passing Oldupai, the real Serengeti short-grass plains begin, and the excitement builds. “Where are the big herds of wildebeests?” That is the question on everyone’s mind. Unfortunately, the closer we get to our destination (Ndutu, Serengeti), the drier, dustier and more barren the land. As luck would have it, it hadn’t rained in several days around the Ndutu area, and the wildebeests have scattered. Instead of the huge wildebeest herds, we do see mass gatherings of Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles. It is unusual to see elands out in the treeless plains, but we see several groups browsing on herbs out in the open.

 

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Wildebeests

 

Olakira Camp is set within the Ndutu woodland area, which is an abrupt interruption in the middle of the Serengeti plains. Lake Ndutu, which is situated in the middle of the woodland, is host to small groups of lesser flamingos. Many drainage lines finger out onto the open plains, and groups of zebras and wildebeests water there. A fresh carcass of a wildebeest calf hoisted on a tree is surely the work of a resident leopard. A few impalas and dik diks browse the acacia shrubs along the lake. Along one of the western drainage lines, three male cheetahs take in the late morning sun, their bellies engorged from an earlier meal. There are many signs of lions, elephants and buffalos in the woodlands, but they would be seen elsewhere.

 

Olakira is operated by the same folks who operate Sayari Camp in northern Serengeti. The M.O. is similar: the staff, made up of mostly local people, is highly attentive and friendly, the tents simple but luxurious, the food as good as it gets.

 

The big wildebeest herds are finally found to the west of Ndutu, toward Kusini/Maswa one morning. The land is noticeably greener in parts, the work of localized showers. Among a couple of thousand black masses, there are hundreds of small tawny figures, which are newborn wildebeest calves that are barely a couple of weeks old. So plentiful and easy are they, every predator we see is bloated and uninterested. Three hyenas stroll with indifference by the wildebeest herd. Lions are found lazing on the kopjes near the Kusini airstrip, and they are stuffed to the gills and not getting up any time soon. I guess Serengeti’s season of plenty has its downside.

 

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Lion

 

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Cheetah

 

Due to a good network of roads in this part of Serengeti, it is possible to cover a lot of ground. One morning, we set out due north for the longer-grass environs. Around Naabi Hill, the administrative headquarters for the southern Serengeti, the grass height abruptly increases. We begin to see topis and Coke’s hartebeests as well as elephants. Another pride of lions is spotted in a grassy depression near Simba Kopjes, so aptly named. We reach Seronera at mid-day. The Seronera river valley is one of the surest places in Africa for leopards, not only because of the density of them but also because of the watchful eyes of the many tourists in the many vehicles that align the single road running the length of the river course. A leopard is spotted amongst a grove of sausage trees, but the claustrophobia is too much to bear. We soon leave the herd of safari vehicles.

 

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Marabou Stork

 

Back at Ndutu, we admire the improbable, comical looking lovebirds. There are many different subspecies of lovebirds, but Craig explains that these are hybrids. A magnificent tawny eagle is perched on a branch, but Craig isn’t quite sure. It is March, in the last weeks of the migrant season of the avian kind. After a closer look at the length of the gape on the eagle (the only certain way of telling apart a tawny eagle from a steppe eagle), Craig declares it a migrant steppe eagle. It’s good to be with Craig again. Wildebeests aren’t the only migratory animals here. We spot many more migrant birds – too many to mention. Even when the great wildebeest migration is scattered and not so great, Serengeti always delivers.

Edited by Safaridude
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Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (Wilderness Trails)

 

Just the short drive from the Lewa airstrip to Wilderness Trails (the original guest house complex at Lewa) is a reminder that Lewa is one of the most relaxing places on earth. At 6,000 feet of elevation, the climate is perfect. There is not much dust to speak of. No crowds. Even the seats in the Land Rover are ultra comfortable – each fitted with arm-rests. Mwangi, the same excellent guide I had two years ago, wears a permanent smile. The entrance at Wilderness Trails is unassuming, well-worn but most welcoming. While many places only advertise themselves as homesteads, Wilderness Trails is the real thing. Will and Emma Craig, the hosts, have lived there practically all their lives. Retired from the day-to-day duties, the Craigs will still join guests for meals or tea. Meera and Silas, the able managers, greet us to a lunch already in wait.

 

Perhaps it is the pull of the fever tree swamp at Lewa during an exceptionally dry early ’09 – but never in my previous visits have I seen this level of game concentration. We see multiple groups of elephants and large herds of buffalos. Tame elands are everywhere, as are Beisa oryxes, impalas, Grant’s gazelles, Somali ostriches, waterbucks, warthogs, plains and Grevy’s zebras, and reticulated giraffes. Quality predator sightings include a large pride of lions with young cubs and a coalition of three male cheetahs on the prowl.

 

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Grevy's Zebra

 

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Somali Ostrich

 

One animal we are particularly after is the Lelwel hartebeest. The ones at Lewa are actually a hybrid form between the Lelwel (or “Jackson’s”) hartebeest (found in Ruma National Park in Kenya) and Coke’s hartebeest (found in many parts of Kenya and Tanzania). In 1991 during my first visit to Lewa, we observed several groups of the Lelwel hartebeest every day. They then mysteriously declined in number in the late ‘90s throughout Laikipia where they occur. Lewa was down to one or two individuals, and the entire Lelwel hartebeest population had dwindled to fewer than a thousand. Solio Ranch, just south of Lewa, had been a stronghold with 200-300 hartebeests, but last year this private ranch was sold to the government, which in turn gave the ranch over to some previously displaced people according to a land settlement agreement. Meat poaching at Solio ensued, and the hartebeests were in trouble. A massive game translocation funded by, among others, Tusk Trust, began in November 2008, and over 200 hartebeests were moved to Ol Pejeta, Mugie and Lewa. Due mostly to predation by the three cheetah males, the translocated hartebeests did not fare well at Lewa in the beginning, but they are holding their own now. We catch a glimpse of one solitary bull and a herd of 14 on the southern side of the conservancy (away from the northern side where the three cheetahs rule).

 

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Lelwel Hartebeests

 

The three male cheetahs are impressive specimens and have been delighting the guests at Lewa for over eight years. Self-assured when together, they exhibit none of the general skittishness of most cheetahs as we approach them. Mwangi estimates they are each over 10 years old. Their faces bear years of battle scars, for they are known to tackle unusually large prey. All at Lewa are watching with great interest as to what will happen to the balance of powers amongst the great predators once this coalition meets its inevitable demise.

 

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Lion Cub

 

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Lion

 

In my first visit to Lewa in 1991, there were no lions on the conservancy. Back then, only occasional vagrants would turn up. Now, due to the intensive conservation efforts, there are about 20. A large pride is hanging out near the central swamp during our stay. Several new cubs display their typically adorable antics. A few hundred yards away, fifty or so buffalos are all looking intently in the direction of the swamp. Several bulls form a phalanx and execute a series of mock charges toward the tall reeds. Tawny moving shapes can barely be seen in the reeds. They are lions. It is a classic standoff between lions and buffalos. The tension filled moments of back and forth mock charges are climaxed by a flock of crowned cranes vocalizing emphatically as they fly right over the buffalos and lions. Then, it is as if a timeout has been called. The buffalos begin retreating from the swamp, and the lions are left alone in the reeds. A relaxing place, yes, but I have never known Lewa this wild.

 

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Buffalos

 

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Crowned Cranes

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Wow... stunning photos Safaridude...

You and Twaffle are making me too embarrassed to do my trip report :D

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Zaminoz, I've been hanging out for your trip report … please put something on. And you know that I and everyone else appreciates all the photos posted and all the written words. It is all interesting and I've never been to Zambia.

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ZaminOz, we want your trip report!!!

 

Richard, the Tana River Primate Reserve actually cover both sides of the banks of Tana River. Ishaqbini, as I mentioned, is on the "right bank" -- just a stone's throw away from the Primate Reserve.

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Namunyak Conservancy (Sarara Camp)

 

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Sarara Waterhole

 

As recently as the mid-‘90s, the badlands north of Samburu Game Reserve were off-limits. Teams of Somali “shifta” bandits carried out organized poaching, wiping out most elephants and all rhinos. One particular day in 1989, while on a recreational camping trip in an area called Namunyak near the Matthews Range, Ian Craig, a noted conservationist who is now the Executive Director of Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), and his companion found themselves suddenly surrounded by an AK-47-clad poaching gang and witnessed a slaughter of an entire family of elephants – small calves and all. Today, almost in that same spot, relaxed groups of elephants come to water at the base of safari camp called Sarara. The elephant numbers alone now stand at over 4,000 in the greater Namunyak area.

 

Motivated by the elephant slaughter incident, Ian Craig, through NRT, convinced the mostly Samburu community at Namunyak to set aside a no-livestock zone for the wildlife in exchange for ownership rights in the income stream from tourism. Anti-poaching and security teams were formed to protect the wildlife and people. Ian’s friends, Piers and Hillary Bastard, were handpicked to manage Sarara, and they have been managing Sarara for over 11 years now with an inordinate level of care for the guests and sensitivity to the community. In 2007, the community netted $150,000. The money is managed by a trust governed by the Samburu elders rather than being distributed hastily. It is nothing short of a miracle and perhaps the best community-based conservation story in Africa.

 

From the infinity pool at Sarara, one can sip drinks and watch the game come to the said waterhole. A less luxurious but a more sporty option is to walk half way down to a hide to view the elephants, impalas, warthogs, greater kudus and lesser kudus come to drink. There is a certain amount of stalking skill involved here, since, if not careful, the animals can detect your movement down to the hide. The hide at Sarara is, bar none, the best place to photograph lesser kudus. These normally inconspicuous creatures are in abundance.

 

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Lesser Kudu

 

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Von der Decken's Hornbill

 

There is an emphasis on walking at Sarara. A morning walk with Mark, the head Samburu guide, leads us to a pack of wild dogs on a hunt. Namunyak/Sarara has consistently produced some of the best wild dog sightings in Kenya recently. Dik diks, which are as abundant as Manhattan rats here, are the main prey in the area, and a big pack can devour several each day. Trying to follow on foot a pack of dogs on a hunt, however, proves futile. Only blurred, ghostly images of the dogs are captured on camera.

 

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Tracker

 

The highlight of the stay at Sarara is a walk down to the dry sand river when the Samburu pastoralists gather to water their cattle. Each family digs a well (“singing well”) at the start of the dry season and draw water from there until the rains return to wash away the well. One warrior works below inside the well, relaying the water-filled bucket to another warrior up top, who, in turn, empty the bucket onto a trough. The tedium is mitigated by rhythmic, hum-like songs sung by the warriors. Now comes the magical part. Each family has its own particular song passed on for generations. From their resting places on the bank, the cows walk toward the correct troughs by recognizing the correct family songs. There is a no-photo policy of the Samburu at Namunyak/Sarara (except for the photographing the Sarara staff), and it actually serves to enhance the overall experience. There is no negotiating for money. No children asking for sweets. The Samburu simply go about their business, and we are welcome to watch. The cultural experience is genuine.

 

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Sundowner

 

It is at the height of the dry season now in March. Several hundred cows water at the singing wells. But with the shadows growing long, the Samburu and their cattle begin vacating the riverbed, and the wildlife activity begins to pick up. It is as if the Samburu and the animals have a timeshare arrangement at the riverbed. Sarara is averaging an 80% success rate for leopard sightings for guests staying 3 nights or more. Around 6:30 in the evening is when the leopards begin to appear near the riverbed, Piers tells us with an air of certainty. Surely enough, each evening we spot a leopard at the riverbed at dusk.

 

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Leopard

 

Speaking of leopards, a great safari tale is told under the stars one night. A few years ago, a woman brought her beloved Jack Russell terrier on safari with her to a private ranch (which shall go nameless) in central Kenya, where her cottage looked over a spectacular cliff. On a beautiful moon-lit night, she decided to roll her bed outside to a wooden deck on the edge of the cliff and sleep under the stars with nothing but a mosquito net around her. The Jack Russell always slept with her, and this night was no different. In the middle of the night as she stirred, she felt pressure on one of her legs. The Jack Russell would often put his head on her leg while sleeping, but this pressure felt unusually acute. When she opened her eyes, she was horrified to see that the pressure was coming from the head of a leopard – with the Jack Russell terrier clenched its mouth. In a burst of adrenaline, the woman lunged at the leopard in order to rescue the dog. In the ensuing mayhem, all three creatures managed to tumble over the edge of the deck in a freefall. It was about 1,000 feet down to the plain below, but at about 15 feet below the deck, there was a small ledge – and it just so happened that earlier in the week the camp staff was re-thatching the roof of that particular cottage unit and had left some of the old thatch on the ledge. This provided sufficient cushion to break her fall. In the mean time, she had snatched the dog away from the leopard’s jaws. So freaked out by this incident, the leopard fled the scene, and the dog recovered fully with only a few minor puncture wounds.

 

A great, fun tale indeed – told under the stars while dining near a group of elephants quenching their thirst – at a spot of killings and anarchy merely twenty years ago.

 

So, the number of trips to Africa for me has now reached double digits. Each time, I am privileged to experience the victories and losses on this continent. For every newly degraded tract of savannah or every new slum in Nairobi, a Namunyak or an Ishaqbini always seems to arise. Currently, East Africa is in the throes of a debilitating drought and a painful downturn in tourism. I wonder what victories might be on the horizon to offset these seemingly insurmountable losses. Each time, I have moments when I fear for the worst: as Peter Beard might put it, is this the end of the game? But as the flourishing hirola population at Ishaqbini for instance reminds us, in Africa, the sun, more so than any other place on earth, always rises.

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I love that first shot, full of detail that keeps you coming back for more...

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Post-script

 

The crippling drought continued in 2009 throughout the places I visited. The March - May long rains were very disappointing. It wasn't until November 2009 when the short-rains brought some relief. Of course, then it just poured and poured... through April 2010... an epic drought followed by epic rains.

 

Natron - Shortly after my trip, people on the ground reported that for the first time ever, there was really no grass to be found in this huge area ("not a single blade of grass" was a common quote). Hundreds of thousands of cows from Kenya marched right through looking for grass and water. Zebras and wildebeests got hammered. Even the oryx suffered -- not from the lack of water but from the lack of food. Some oryx were found half way up Ol Doinyo Lengai to the surprise of mountain climbers... so resistant and resourceful they are.

 

Serengeti - It didn't fare as badly, as Serengeti gets some localized showers forming from Lake Victoria regardless of the general weather system at hand in Tanzania. Many water-dependent animals still died (topi, buffalo, hippos).

 

Lewa - Blessed with a natural water source and also without livestock grazing pressure, Lewa came out fine.

 

Namunayk - Amidst the crippling drought, the Samburu elders entered into discussions about increasing the size of the conservancy... and it happened. The no-grazing zone was always intended to be a "grass bank" for the Samburu, and it was utilized. Namunyak fared much better than other areas in northern Kenya because of this grazing management.

 

Ishaqbini - Luckily there were some localized showers along the way, and the wildlife (including the hirola) came out alright.

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Your photos are so evocative. Even if you didn't get photos of wild dogs to be on the ground with them is an accomplishment.

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Thank you all. I have created a gallery of hirola images on the SOS Hirola forum.

Edited by Safaridude
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