Jump to content

Ishaqbini Conservancy, Kenya - July 2011


Safaridude
 Share

Recommended Posts

In 1768, merely 27 years after discovery, the Stellar’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) became extinct. This placid, defenseless, dugong-like creature was hunted to extinction by man for its meat, blubber and skin. The extinction represented the end of the unique genus, Hydrodamalis.

 

In 1936, the last known Tasmanian wolf (Thylacinus cynocephalus) died in captivity at the Hobart Zoo in Australia. Some years prior, the Tasmanian government had established bounties on these wolves (displaying remarkable tiger-like stripes on their bodies) due to dangers they posed to livestock. The extinction represented the end of the unique genus, Thylacinus.

 

Fast forward to 2011… the hirola (Beatragus hunteri) hangs on to its shrinking range in eastern Kenya. Poaching, habitat loss and competition with livestock have reduced the hirola population to perhaps 400. Hirola’s extinction would represent the end of the unique genus, Beatragus. It would be the first mammalian genus lost on the continent of Africa in modern history.

 

In my second journey to the Ishaqbini Conservancy in eastern Kenya to see hirolas, I find that the story of this endangered genus actually takes a back seat to the compelling story of the indigenous people - the people of Ishaqbini setting aside land to protect the animal they admire. The following is a report from the three days I spent at Ishaqbini in July, 2011.

 

Ian Craig’s omnipresent optimism can be sensed even from the air: a flash of smile and a wave as my charter descends onto the airstrip at Masalani, on the banks of the Tana River. Soon, I find myself in the back seat of a claustrophobic 2-man Super Cub piloted by Ian on a short flight to a makeshift airstrip (the Super Cub being able to land and stop on a dime) at Ishaqbini. In the midst of a debilitating drought, the entire area appears to be dried to a crisp. Despite this, a good number of reticulated giraffes, buffalos, topis, and gerenuks are seen from the air… and a lone hirola bull resting in the shade.

 

We drive from the makeshift airstrip to our makeshift campsite. It is a new and improved version of the one I stayed at two years ago in its airiness and better view of Lake Ishaqbini. Everything else is primitively same: pit latrine, bucket shower, and tents that are essentially glorified mosquito nets. It is our base for the next three days for exploring the adjacent Tana River Primate Reserve and the Boni National Reserve (Boni Forest) to the north, as well as the Ishaqbini Conservancy itself.

 

gallery_6003_520_67785.jpg

"Camp Ishaqbini"

 

The remarkable thing about Ishaqbini is the density of game despite its dried out appearance (reminiscent of Samburu in this respect). Hardly five minutes go by without seeing something. Within minutes of setting out to see the newly constructed conservancy headquarters, we begin seeing gerenuk, lesser kudu, desert warthog, Somali ostrich and vulturine guineafowl. Moments later, we spot a breeding herd of hirolas. There isn’t necessarily any excitement in the vehicle, as hirolas are quite common inside the conservancy. Before the establishment of the core no-grazing zone, cows and shoats would have razed the entire area in a dry year like this one. But now, hirolas are seen feeding on precious little nubs of grass and wild sage. The game scout in the vehicle points out a hirola carcass off to the side. A mature bull was taken down by a lion a couple of days ago. A small, fractured pride of 5 – 10 lions roam the conservancy, and along with cheetahs, leopards and wild dogs, it poses a significant depredation threat.

 

gallery_6003_520_41955.jpg

Hirola Group

 

gallery_6003_520_37022.jpg

Gerenuk

 

gallery_6003_520_114585.jpg

Desert Warthog

 

gallery_6003_520_2788.jpg

Hirola Carcass

 

At the Ishaqbini Conservancy Headquarters, Omar Tawane, a remarkable young man who has recently been promoted from conservancy manager to regional coordinator of Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) shares an administrative office with Yussuf Aden, the newly appointed conservancy manager. It is here that I learn more about the people of Ishaqbini. The Abdullah clan of the Kenyan Somali tribe, which occupies this part of Kenya, couldn’t be more different from our stock image of Somali shifta bandits and pirates: the clan is devoutly Muslim, cohesive, disarmed, and peaceful; the area is virtually free of crime. The community is as frustrated by the “Somali stigma” as it is proud of its peaceful society. The clan’s “independence” from Somalia dates back to when the Adbulla clan voted against a Somali secession movement in Kenya in the ‘70s (the then Sultan of the Adbullah clan was murdered by pro-secessionists as a result).

 

gallery_6003_520_41794.jpg

Ishaqbini Headquarters

 

As Muslim pastoralists, Abdulla subsist mostly on meat but do not touch wild game. Poaching is unheard of amongst the clan: it is only carried out by outsiders. In this, they truly co-exist peacefully with wild animals. And the one animal that they have always admired is the hirola. Some believe sightings of hirola bring rain. Some admire hirolas for their beauty (songs sung while grazing their cattle include lines such as “I wish my cows looked more like hirolas”).

 

The admiration for the hirola turned into something much more in a fortuitous twist 15 years ago. As the hirola population continued to dwindle over the years, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) carried out two translocations of hirolas from the region to Tsavo East in order to secure a separate “insurance” population. During the second translocation attempt in ’96, the people of the District of Garissa sued KWS to block the translocation, claiming that the hirolas were “theirs”. Though ultimately unsuccessful, this lawsuit, perhaps unintentionally, became a rally cry for the region, and the uniqueness and the plight of the hirola became widely known.

 

The short drive between the conservancy headquarters and the campsite on Lake Ishaqbini is a reminder that we hardly know anything about this biome, recently coined “Dobera glabra woodland”. Near the headquarters, fine specimens of Dobera glabra (locally called “garsa”) form open woodland on sandy soil. Closer to the lake, garsas become stunted and mix with various coastal bushes, many of which are completely unfamiliar. (The story goes that long ago a mzungu traveler pointed to a town and asked what it is called; the local mistakenly thought the mzungu was pointing to a tree and told him “garsa”. This, apparently, is how the town of Garissa came to be.) In this Dobera glabra woodland, animals of the wet savannah (buffalo, topi, and waterbuck) meet those of the dry (gerenuk, lesser kudu, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich, and hirola). Zebras appear to be smaller bodied here, and strangely, they lose their manes as they mature. Lake Ishaqbini itself is a shallow oxbow lake that links up with the Tana River only during exceptional rains. An amazing array of water birds is found on the lake. More amazing is the fact that they, inexplicably, allow very close approach on foot. Across the lake, bushbuck, waterbuck, zebra and the usually inconspicuous Harvey’s red duiker come to water during the heat of the day. In the wee hours of each morning, a small herd of buffalos wade into the lake to feed on aquatic vegetation. In the stillness, I can actually hear from my tent their chewing and gulping. Along the lakeshore is a mature forest harboring Syke’s monkey, Tana River red colobus and Tana River mangabey. (The Ishabini Conservancy and the Tana Primate Reserve actually intersect.)

 

gallery_6003_520_61129.jpg

Garsa ("Dobera glabra") Woodland

 

gallery_6003_520_70903.jpg

Topi

 

gallery_6003_520_66241.jpg

Pelicans

 

gallery_6003_520_50856.jpg

Zebras Drinking from Lake Ishaqbini

 

gallery_6003_520_49131.jpg

Zebras

 

On our second morning, Ian and I take off in the Super Cub and head northeast. During the last game count in January of this year, small groups of hirolas were found on the edge of the Boni Forest, and Ian is curious to know about the movements of those animals during this dry time of year. The steep rainfall gradient can be seen from the plane. The parched landscape quickly becomes green only 20 minutes into the flight. Ahead, the thick forest of Boni stretches to the horizon where rain showers are falling. Several mbugas, looking very much like better watered and grassed versions of the wooded savannah of Ishaqbini, finger out of the Boni. For the first time, we see herdsmen and their livestock. Desperate for grazing land, these pastoralists are risking their stock from tsetse flies found in the area. Ian begins to circle the Super Cub around a GPS point where a hirola herd was seen in January. “There they are… our friends”, he declares in just a few seconds. The group is merely 300 meters from where it was seen 6 months ago. He tries the next spot, about 5 minutes away… and bingo! There they are again within a few hundred meters from their previous spot in January. In all, the 4 or 5 groups we spot prove to be extremely sedentary, at least from this one observation. The ecological separation of the hirola from the wetter savannah is clearly observed, as topis and buffalos begin dominating the wetter mbugas. In all, we would count 51 hirolas on the edge of the Boni.

 

gallery_6003_520_44265.jpg

Boni Forest

 

gallery_6003_520_93585.jpg

Hirolas on the edge of Boni Forest

 

The Boni Forest is truly fascinating. From the air, it might as well be the Amazon – vast and impenetrable. Ian, who has spent time camping in the forest, tells me there may be tens of thousands of buffalos and hundreds of lions in there. Recently, camera traps in the Boni captured images of Aders’ duiker, a species previously only known to exist on Zanzibar and Arabuko-Sokoke. Then there is this story… the Boni tribe believes there is a primate living in the forest that defies description of anything we know. A human-sized creature that roars, makes footprints that make it appear to be walking backwards, and nests on the ground: gojam, it is called, by the Boni. Though this creature has not been seen or photographed by the rest of the world, gojam’s existence is not in any doubt amongst the Boni. A hokey legend? Probably. Would I bet my house that such a creature doesn’t exist? Having flown over such an immense, mysterious area science has really yet to discover… no.

 

Back at Ishaqbini, we take an evening walk along the riverine forest near the lake. Barks of lesser kudu are heard on one side of a riverbed that is dry scrub. As we cross to the other side, it is as if we enter another world. The dense green vegetation shields light, breezes die, and the air thickens. Though the forest is not deep, were it not for the scouts leading us, we would undoubtedly get lost. The eerie silence is broken periodically by the scatter of mangabeys. Though we would not actually see any mangabeys on the walk, we encounter Syke’s monkey and the endangered Tana River Red Colubus.

 

gallery_6003_520_11309.jpg

Lesser Kudu

 

gallery_6003_520_102342.jpg

Syke's Monkey

 

Oh, back to hirolas (almost easy to forget about them with so many interesting elements of this area). In all, we see about 40-50 hirolas on the ground inside the conservancy. Unlike the population on the edge of the Boni, groups inside the conservancy include young calves. Despite the drought, they are breeding, and most of them appear to be in good shape. Without any question, the Ishaqbini Conservancy, now with a no livestock zone, is the hirola’s favored habitat. The irony of the success of the conservancy is the depredation threat. Predators are converging on Ishaqbini. Cheetahs were seen a few days before my arrival near where the lion had taken down a hirola bull. We find leopard tracks in our camp one morning, and we encounter a pack of six wild dogs on the edge of the conservancy on our way to the airstrip on the last day.

 

gallery_6003_520_79892.jpg

Hirola Family

 

gallery_6003_520_47492.jpg

Hirola on the Run

 

gallery_6003_520_31358.jpg

Wild Dog

 

Thankfully, the predator-proof sanctuary project is well underway. The fence materials have been ordered, and the plan is in place. NRT is just waiting for final clearance on an environmental impact assessment, and the actual fencing is expected to commence before the end of the year. I have written extensively about this project here on Safaritalk.

 

gallery_6003_520_93698.jpg

Fence Materials and scouts

 

On my last day, I am very fortunate to have some quality time with the local MP (Member of Parliament) and other town officials on my way out of Masalani. And it really hits home: hirola/Ishaqbini is a project that needs to, should, and will succeed. Many conservation projects in various parts of Africa have failed because of the lack of “buy in” from the locals: simply put, conservation never really became their interest. Here, it’s a different story. The locals have “bought in”. Conservation has been led from within the community. Here is a peaceful Kenyan Somali tribe relinquishing some of its traditional grazing land for an animal they associate with. They first gave up a piece of land for a no-grazing zone, and now they are ready to relinquish further space for a predator-proof sanctuary. Of course, in return, they are getting improved security, grazing management, and governance structure, and they also expect revenues from tourism (as I write this, Piers and Hillary Bastard of Sarara Camp are set to operate a mobile safari camp at Ishaqbini starting January, and separate plans are in place to consider a community-owned permanent camp.). However, it just doesn’t feel like a mere quid pro quo business transaction. There is a real feeling here that the local people believe conservation can be a "win-win". They want it to work.

 

So, I leave this otherworldly corner of Africa with this thought: if this unique place harboring this unique genus cannot be conserved even with the full support from the local people who wants to see it conserved, what hope does the rest of the continent have?

Edited by Safaridude
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks,

 

Fascinating, looks like I might have to go and have a look myself someday as I’ve always been keen to go to the Primate Reserve.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Okay Safaridude, when can you put together a trip for interested Safaritalkers? It looks incredible and that forest is just waiting for intrepid members to explore...

Link to comment
Share on other sites

A truly wonderful example of how local communities can be the driving force behind conservation efforts and I am looking forward to visiting Ishaqbini one of these days. Perhaps one day it can become part of a NRT circuit, i.e. visit Lewa and one of the community run operations in the Matthews Ranges, then fly down to Ishaqbini. What a trip that would be.

 

BUT on a serious security point. What effect will the latest travel advisories given by many countries to avoid travel within 150 miles of the Somali border have. According to my maps that would encompass Ishaqbini and the Tana Primate Reserve. Is there some thoughts to security? Given that you were there before the French woman was abducted from Lamu perhaps it wasn't high on the discussion agenda, but if tourists can't get insurance because it is part of a 'do not travel' advisory it will be hard to get it moving, although it would seem to be high on the list of seasoned travellers rather than casual tourists or the 'photo' safari circuit. Fortunately the latter is mainly focussed on the Okavango, Masai Mara and Serengeti and it is doubtful we will ever see them in these interesting places.

 

Back to your report; the photos are wonderfully evocative, the drought terribly worrying and the thoughts of the Boni forest and its unexplored wonders the stuff of dreams. Would love a map to accompany this report showing the proposed fence position with the reserve and the headquarters, rather than going to another link to see it. Makes it easier to envision for those of us with bad memories.

 

Thank you Safaridude.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Yes, thank you for sharing your experiences, Safaridude. As a simple reader, I can tell from your writing how much this matters to you.

About TNC's role in this project, is it purely financial/ help with fund raising or are they involved in other ways as well?

Very heartening to hear about the community buy-in and the basic respect the local people have for their wildlife. Good for them and hopefully, tourism will follow.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

GW, as I stated, mobile camping option is underway with Piers and Hilary Bastard of Sarara Camp (safaris@acaciatrails.com). Those who are totally self-equipped can have access to Ishaqbini's campsite (Ishaqbini@yahoo.com). But yeah, let's organize a trip... let me know who is interested in the future.

 

Twaffle, I think Ishaqbini is very safe... just about the safest place in Kenya. I know that sounds crazy, but the Abdullah clan is a very cohesive, law-abiding clan. There is a story of a tourism operator who was recently checking out Ishaqbini when his bag inadvertently fell out of his vehicle. A few hours later, a local official showed up at the Ishaqbini campsite with the bag to give it to the operator. Stuff like this does not happen in the rest of the country. The people really look out for intruders, and they know what is going on at all times within their community. The unfortunate recent incidences near the Somali border occurred near the ocean, and pirates were responsible. Their objective is obviously to get across the border into Somalia as quickly as possible... and Ishaqbini is very, very far from the border. Geographically, Ishaqbini is also shielded by the Boni Forest, which lies on the border. The forest acts as a buffer.

 

Sangeeta, TNC and the Northern Rangelands Trust work together not only to provide financial support but, among other things, help devise grazing management and devise local governance (which is a huge element to success).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

GW, as I stated, mobile camping option is underway with Piers and Hilary Bastard of Sarara Camp (safaris@acaciatrails.com). Those who are totally self-equipped can have access to Ishaqbini's campsite (Ishaqbini@yahoo.com). But yeah, let's organize a trip... let me know who is interested in the future.

 

Twaffle, I think Ishaqbini is very safe... just about the safest place in Kenya. I know that sounds crazy, but the Abdullah clan is a very cohesive, law-abiding clan. There is a story of a tourism operator who was recently checking out Ishaqbini when his bag inadvertently fell out of his vehicle. A few hours later, a local official showed up at the Ishaqbini campsite with the bag to give it to the operator. Stuff like this does not happen in the rest of the country. The people really look out for intruders, and they know what is going on at all times within their community. The unfortunate recent incidences near the Somali border occurred near the ocean, and pirates were responsible. Their objective is obviously to get across the border into Somalia as quickly as possible... and Ishaqbini is very, very far from the border. Geographically, Ishaqbini is also shielded by the Boni Forest, which lies on the border. The forest acts as a buffer.

 

Sangeeta, TNC and the Northern Rangelands Trust work together not only to provide financial support but, among other things, help devise grazing management and devise local governance (which is a huge element to success).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks for the report Safaridue , it's great to know things about these places so little frequented and also about Hirolas.

 

By the way, do not you think that the head of that wild dog is a little strange??

 

Paco

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Africawild, I am not sure if the head looks strange, but I will say this... the dog is very dark. There were 6 dogs in all in the pack, and they were all dark. Wild dogs seem to show a color gradient... the further north you go on the continent, the darker they are. In South Africa, wild dogs show a lot of white.

 

What do you see that is strange about the head of the dog (other than the one ear being slightly pointed)?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Safaridude, I too thought the dog looks quite odd? Not the color - I've seen a couple of very dark black dogs with very less color in Bots ....... Just odd in appearence. Can't put a finger on it!

 

I ditto the comments of everyone else - Thank You for a fabulous report and the enthusiasm of your adventures reflects in the text.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Same for me regarding the dog. Just something a little different about it.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Very interesting trip report thanks safaridude, another place on the must see list

 

…I think the Wild dog looks different, could be the lack of facial hair also the overall body size looks slightly larger in proportion to the body size of other Wild dogs?? Looks like he has had a very large lunch 

 

Thanks again Safaridue always interesting. Cheers

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Africawild, I am not sure if the head looks strange, but I will say this... the dog is very dark. There were 6 dogs in all in the pack, and they were all dark. Wild dogs seem to show a color gradient... the further north you go on the continent, the darker they are. In South Africa, wild dogs show a lot of white.

 

What do you see that is strange about the head of the dog (other than the one ear being slightly pointed)?

 

 

It has nothing to do with the color , only the shape of the head somehow different ???

 

Forgot to tell you , the picture of the Lesser Kudu is very nice!...and also the light on the zebras .

Edited by africawild
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think I have to agree - something to do with the shape of the head too ... How were the other dogs in the pack?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think the dog looks different because he lacks a lot of the hair of the dog pictures we see from Botswana and South Africa. No softening on his face or body which echoes what has happened with the zebras with their lack of mane. I can't see any mange, but it is a bit hard just by looking at a small photo.

 

Safaritalk camping in Ishaqbini … count me in as long as it isn't next year as I'll be skint until the year after. :rolleyes:

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Really interesting! Loved all of this and forgot I had to get back to work. Great update on the situation and the pictures illustrate the story perfectly.

 

 

 

Dog does look very short-haired and dark (saw the same in dry area of Tsavo West) and also very recently fed. Perhaps a bit square-nosed - could just be the light though!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chupacabra?

 

LOL exactly!

 

I could be interested in a trip, if possible. I liked the line about there possibly being "hundreds of lions in there" :)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Back again!

 

The gojam legend is most interesting! You even captured a shot of a baby hirola.

 

I'd love to hear the song about wishing cows looked like hirolas. The involvment of the local people is crucial. Thanks for highlighting that in your report.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hari,

 

I didn't get a good look at the rest of the pack (6 in all). I saw them all, but only one was photographable, as the others had gone into some thick bush.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

Safaritalk uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By using Safaritalk you agree to our use of cookies. If you wish to refuse the setting of cookies you can change settings on your browser to clear and block cookies. However, by doing so, Safaritalk may not work properly and you may not be able to access all areas. If you are happy to accept cookies and haven't adjusted browser settings to refuse cookies, Safaritalk will issue cookies when you log on to our site. Please also take a moment to read the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy: Terms of Use l Privacy Policy