Tension in Tsavo

Tension in Tsavo

Tsavo is much drier than it should be, and coming now right after the last drizzles succeeded in falling, the veld is anxious and full of danger.

My second family safari of the season began with our arrival at Kilaguni Lodge in Tsavo after dark, and we really couldn’t see much on our drive into the lodge. No worries. After dinner, 30 elephant came to the floodlit water hole!

In this cold season it’s unnecessary to take a dawn game drive; almost unproductive. The advantages of waiting until after breakfast include not just that the animals and birds become active, again, but the majority of tourist vehicles are then off the road!

So we left Kilaguni at just before 9 a.m., and after a brief stop to view an ostrich, I saw lion up the road to the left. As we moved towards them, they raced away. That’s unusual for a Kenyan game park. Something was up.

We got close enough to see the entire pride of 7 adult lion skulking through the heavy bush, and even occasionally seeming to stalk a huge herd of buffalo that had crossed the road behind us. On closer inspection, though, there was no chance the lion were hunting.

Their bellies nearly touched the ground, they were so full. There was blood on their faces and thick red dust all the way up to their armpits. One female had an open wound on her left jowl.

Clearly, they had succeeded last night in a hunt of something big – maybe, a buffalo. Because even the gargantuan male (despite having hardly any mane on the top of his head and back) was totally full. They were all hyperventilating, and clearly, they needed water. They were heading to either the Kilaguni water hole, or another one nearby.

And probably so, were the buf. Therein was the true tension. Whether they had killed a buffalo or not from this family, there would be no love lost between these two competitors for Tsavo’s dwindling water.

Tsavo is probably one of the better parks for weathering the reverse of a storm, a drought. Because even as the grasses implode to dust, the many water sources usually flow to some degree, because they are fed by water off Mt. Kilimanjaro. Kili has benefitted from normal if better than normal rains this season.

But as we proceeded on our game drive, we could see the effects of no grass. We saw lots of hippo, including one in the Kilaguni water hole, but they were all dying. The buf looked weak, although I concede I would have expected them to seem weaker. Several reedbuck that we found at the now dry depression at Rhino Valley were limping, not as a result of being hunted, but the result of a pond animal’s joints hardening.

And there was not a single non-social weaver to be seen. Tsavo is generally filled with a dozen or more varieties of weavers, but they need fresh grass for their nests. We did see two social weavers: the white-headed and red-billed buffalo, but these weavers are messy house builders and comfortable with using dry twigs.

But everyone in Marion’s and Bill’s families were ecstatic, because the game viewing was so extraordinarily good. We must have encountered two dozen lesser kudu, many male, when usually we see none. Perhaps, this is because the thinning vegetation gives us the openings to see these diminutive creatures.

Zebra and impala still seem OK. Impala is a browser, and zebra will eat dead grass. Hopefully, they will continue to survive until the next rains.

Basically, anything fully reliant on grass might be doomed. I often remind my clients that it’s food – not water – which is the main arbiter of life on the veld. I counted 18 dead hippo during the day.

The water at Mzima Springs is only 6″ below normal, the normal at the underwater tank being just over 5′. It seems that Kili is still doing its thing. But the vegetation at this world renown place had been completed decimated. The bush was gone. Yellow-barked thorntrees were down and thinned out. We saw many crocs and monitors hovering around the dying hippo.

Later in the evening from Poacher’s Lookout we could see that the veld was beautifully green around the river that comes from Mzima and into the adjacent swamp. And lo and behold, in the same direction, it was thunder storming over the distant Chyulu Hills! Typical of this “drought”, there are areas getting very good rain.

It’s very hard to say what the threshold is here in Tsavo. I know from my last safari that the threshold in Samburu has already been exceeded. But here, where so much water remains available, it’s more difficult to judge.

Mind you the water is much less than normal. The Rhino Valley depression, the falling pools at Ngulia, Mzima as discussed above, and even Kilaguni’s own water hole are much lower than normal. But I doubt that like in Samburu, they will dry completely.

It is a time of predation, which for visitors is extremely exciting. And because of the thinned vegetation, the quantities and varieties of animals and birds that we saw on the first game drives was truly astounding!

But my heart aches for the veld.