Our six days on Kenya’s Southern Circuit were fabulous, and especially for birders, and believe it or not the entire group are avid birders!
I’m on vacation until July 23 when I guide my last safari of the year in Tanzania. Meanwhile, here are some of my favorite photos taken on my safaris during the last 39 years. This wasn’t really so long ago, less than a decade ago outside Amboseli National Park (in Kenya) on the Tanzanian side of the border. It marks a significant change in the wildlife, tourism and overall environment of East Africa: the start of “too many elephants.” That doesn’t necessarily mean more ele than ever before, just that as East Africa moves into the modern world, scenes like this are harbingers of great difficulty, social and ecological.
Lion numbers are dropping alarmingly, and better than any other great African savannah animal lion are a true indicator of the health of the African wild.
Unlike elephant or rhino – which are being poached at alarming rates even as their wild population increases – lion are the top of a complex pyramid of life and while masters of their position are beholding to the foundations.
Many important studies have suggested unusual reasons for the decline over the last several decades, but it now seems clear that the reason is quite simple: the wild is contracting.
Of the big cats, only the solitary leopard seems capable of adapting to a world increasingly dominated by man. The others – and especially the lion – seem unable to establish any relationship with a world increasingly dominated by homo sapiens except to war with him.
And the greatest battles are those legendary pitched posses of Maasai warriors in Old Testament regalia: Maasai don’t kill any animals for fun or food. They kill in retaliation, as if a lesson can be learned.
When a lion threatens their goats or cattle Maasai go on a war path, and some of the most spectacular stories out of Maasailand are of the greatest and most noble of the lion hunts. In the old days headmen were often determined by those who successfully killed a lion.
And remember, this isn’t with a gun. It’s with a spear and a knife.
Maasai and lion have coexisted for centuries because they use the same habitat. The grazing necessary for Maasai stock is the same that all sorts of antelope on the plains need. When there was enough for all, everyone was fat and sassy. There were enough antelope for the lion that much preferred them to a smaller goat or a larger and lanky cow.
Maasai cattle were bred not for meat but for milk. The cost/benefit ratio of a lion bringing down a Maasai cow compared to a wildebeest was no contest. The wildebeest could be killed more quickly (cats kill by strangulation, and this takes enormous time with a cow) and the dinner table had lots more meat for the effort.
But times changed. And note, too, that traditional Maasai are declining just as rapidly if not more so than the wild animals in their homelands. And maybe for the same reasons:
Shopping malls, highways, schools and hospitals, modern farms.
It takes no kopjes scientist to know where this is going.
So arise the Lion Guardians! This high profile NGO in East Africa was formed by dedicated conservationists “to promote and sustain coexistence between people & wildlife through ecological monitoring and local capacity building.”
IE: Pay Maasai morani to protect rather than kill lions.
It’s noble, yes. And anything that can give paid work to young traditional Maasai who are themselves increasingly threatened, is good. Especially in the West Kilimanjaro area adjacent Amboseli National Park.
This area is a microcosm of lion difficulties everywhere. Amboseli is one of the most important and well-known big game parks in the world famous especially for its elephant. Elephant are being threatened today by increased poaching, but their numbers are still increasing in places like Amboseli, because … well, elephant get their way.
But Amboseli is surrounded by an increasingly developed agriculture, particularly just to its south in Tanzania. The highlands of Kilimanjaro are perfect for wheat and other cash crop farming.
The towns of Arusha to the west and Moshi to the east are expanding rapidly. The roads are being paved.
All of this – not just farming – needs water. This is draining the existing aquifers and Amboseli is becoming drier and drier. This is a death sentence for much game like buffalo and wildebeest. The increased elephant population results in deforestation, and combined with the loss of aquifer power the reduction of forests is terrible for impala, duiker and a chorus of tiny things like voles and mice that animals like hyaena and jackal need to survive.
So you see … or don’t, so to speak, as time passes. No traditional food, Mr. Lion heads south to where Maasai live with their goats and cattle.
Lion Guardians believes in conserving the wild and in promoting tourism. It’s a two-pronged argument that often sticks it to itself. Tourism is one thing. Conservation is another.
There’s no doubt that tourism suffers as there are fewer lions to see in the wild. But tourism is already suffering drastically, mainly from the political situation in Kenya linked directly to the violently unsettled situation in Somalia. We hope this is temporary.
Whether temporary or not, conservation is another matter.
I grow quite sad thinking the day may come when there won’t be lions in the wild as I’ve seen all my life. But it’s hard to argue to save the lion with the same powerful scientific arguments for saving the Amazon rain forest. We know almost everything possible about lions and the African savannah. There are of course mysteries yet to be revealed … but not many.
The forest provides my oxygen. The veld powers my imagination – no small thing – but not exactly biological.
And what we know mostly is that Maasai recruited to protect lions are getting mauled, and in the end, not saving any more lions and not convincing their young teen Maasai not to go to the city and become certified public accountants.
Or both? Animals are being frantically transported out of the Kenyan cut flower farms back into Amboseli National Park.. pretty much under the radar.
Wednesday, the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) began a massive relocation of nearly 7,000 animals into Amboseli National Park. KWS has issued no press reports on the move and there are growing suspicions that it may be haphazard and poorly managed.
According to Simon N’Donga of Nairobi’s FM Capital Radio, the animals are being trucked from the Great Lakes area back to Amboseli. Thousands of herbivores had fled Amboseli during the last dry spell, and this would have been a decent place for them to have fled.
It’s where Kenya’s cut flowers are grown for export.
Last August I watched dozens of zebra, wildebeest and giraffe lining up on the edge of the dangerous Nairobi/Mombasa highway, frantically trying to leave the areas south of Nairobi where the drought was serious. Similar reports came from the Nairobi/Arusha highway.
All headed to the petunias.
The rains have returned big time and most of the country’s wilderness areas are very healthy, if too soaked. Likely the animals would return on their own, eventually.
But there are growing complaints in Kenyan society of the costs of wild animals in your corn patch and elephants in your church. There are also concerns that tourists will abandon the country for Tanzania if the country’s national parks don’t put on their Sunday Best for the upcoming season.
Capital FM Radio (I believe one of Kenya’s best investigative news sources) quoted a KWS senior scientist, Charles Musyoki, justifying the lightning fast operation “to make sure that Amboseli as an eco-system does not collapse.”
Seven thousand kicking zebra and blarting wildebeest is a huge number of animals to move. We’re talking about thousands of trucks. And probably not well insulated or padded. Certainly not your everyday wild animal-moving truck.
Capital FM said that a single helicopter was being used to herd the animals into 18-wheelers. The journey to Amboseli from Naivasha can take about 12 hours by truck. (Note that the Maasai Mara is only about 3 hours away from this area.)
When asked where the funds were coming from, Musyoki suggested it was directly from the Ministry of Finance, Kenya’s Treasury Department.
“We are actually doing this in the interests of Kenyans because Amboseli is one of the key protected areas in this country that generates a lot of income for the public,” Musyoki said.
The last reliable figures out of Kenya were in 2006 before the political turbulence of the 2007 election. Tourism was then Kenya’s largest foreign exchange earner, generating about $803 million, followed closely by cut flowers (then tea and coffee).
One out of every three flowers purchased in France, the Netherlands and Belgium comes from Kenya.
Almost all Kenya’s cut flowers come from the great lakes region, the area from which the zebra and wildebeest are now being taken.
If you hate deer in your rose garden….
KWS said the project will cost about $12-13 million. That’s not very much for 7000 animals. Earlier this year, KWS was relocating elephants from the coast into Tsavo at a cost of about $14,000 per elephant.
Forgive my natural cynicism which may have impeded my careful analysis of this, but it’s happening so quickly!
Kenya needs the cut flower industry. Kenya and all of us wishing to save the planet need Amboseli. So get those beasties out of my flower patch quick?!
Amboseli is Kenya’s third-most visited park (after the Mara and Nakuru), but one of its most fragile. It is a very unusual giant soda lake sitting under mighty Mt. Kilimanjaro, pumped to life by underground rivers off Kili that create a series of swamps and wetlands.
The herbivore population of zebra and wildebeest eat good old crab grass, not lotus flowers or swamp grass. They have always moved in and out of the park with erratic rains, and they have never constituted as important a part of the ecosystem as they do in the Mara, for example, a great grassland park.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t important; I just wonder how advisable it is to begin to control natural animal migrations with 18-wheelers that normally haul iron pipes and helicopters that have a shaky safety record in Kenya.
Just doesn’t seem like a sustainable long-term, carefully constructed plan.
Amboseli’s situation under Mt. Kilimanjaro insures good game viewing no matter what the weather. But avoid the heavy rains.
We traveled from Tsavo to Amboseli in the requisite armed convoy at 8 a.m. from the Chyulu Gate. This is a pretty anachronistic practice that was instituted in the 1980s when there were many shifta [bandits]. In fact, about a half dozen tourists were killed that decade in this corridor, but there’s been no incident for years.
The drive takes about 1½ hours and includes a few minutes over the interesting Shetani Lava flow, one of the last major volcanic events in Kenya in the last several hundred years.
The route skirts the major border town of Loitokitok which is the nearest any major road comes to Mt. Kilimanjaro. We had been fortunate that the mountain had been out the previous evening, because it was now cloaked in storm clouds.
The area was quite dry. Normally, there would be many fairly mature sun flowers and knee-high corn, but some fields were bone dry, the sticks of the once young corn all that remained. Yet it had down poured the night before, and the typical erosion that is such a problem in Africa, had all but washed out several of our bridges.
I need to mention how bad the roads were. And this main route had been redone only two years ago. At one point when the tourist route linking the parks converged for several kilometers with a main road to Loitokitok, the road became almost unusable despite the fact that the traffic increased tenfold. Kenya’s greatest threat to improving tourism is the state of its roads.
I had told my crew that there as an interesting curio shop on the final stretch into Amboseli, but it had closed because there are so few tourists. No matter, we were besieged by sellers at the Amboseli gate, and quite a lot was bought.
It didn’t take long once inside the park to note that the dry spell had much less effect in the “wild” than in the populated areas we had just driven through. There was just as much dust, but there were also the numerous beautiful swamps that are fed by underground rivers flowing off Kili.
At our first one we positioned the vehicles carefully on the road to get a fantastic experience as more than 30 elephant walked across between our vehicles. They were headed into the swamp to water, and watching the young ones being tucked into the fairly rapidly marching line of massive jumbos was fantastic!
Later that afternoon, Blair Devermont told her driver/guide to “wait a minute, isn’t that something?” In one of the swamps there appeared to be a simple log, but Blair had noticed something else. Sure enough, it was a python that had apparently just swallowed an impala.
Of course everyone else got the word (nowadays by cellphone), so that no one missed it. In my 37 years on safari, I’ve only seen a python a handful of times.
The hippo and buffalo looked a bit distressed, and nowhere near as bad as their cousins we had seen in Tsavo. But everything else, including the lions and elephant, looked fairly good.
No matter what the weather, Amboseli usually provides an uniform game viewing experience. This is because it is essentially a huge soda lake with emerging marshes that are fed by underground rivers coming off Mt. Kilimanjaro. So even when as was the case for us there is a serious dry spell on the veld, Kili never stops pumping down the water.
But at the same time be cautious, because after heavy rains the huge soda pan floods very easily. This usually happens in later April and May. When this happens travel is restricted to only those park roads which the KWS has elevated, and this greatly restricts game viewing.