The first two weeks of August 2011 were undoubtedly two of the best of my life. A trip to Kenya may be a fairly average holiday for world-hopping tourists, and a part of that was indeed seen through the luxurious yet ‘processed’ lodgings of a typical Westerner on their summer break. Most of the trip however showed me and a group of 15 other students from my college the real deal when it comes to Kenya, seeing the different aspects to preserving wildlife in a country where pressures on the natural world tighten every year and living with a remote rural community miles from the tourist track to experience a completely different way of living without nearly every aspect of a Western life we so obliviously take for granted. Two weeks later, and the UK I returned just felt like it had something missing in a weird feeling I can’t quite describe, but I’m sure those who have had a similar experience will be able to relate to in some way. I had just been to another world, and it’s influence was there with me forever.
This post, as you can see by the title, is divided into three halves. The first two being photo-logs of the amazing wildlife the country is famous for, with the third a more in-depth look at the people, issues and conservation within the country. Now you’ve had that disclaimer, we can begin…
The picture you can see above is of Lake Naivasha at sunset, the bank of which was the location of our first lodge. A short stroll from there to watch hippos emerging as the evening proved fruitless in regard to these mega-herbivores, but the bird life around us more than made up for it. Among grey herons and coots that provided familiar tastes of home, ibises, hammerkop and martins were abundant that evening. Perhaps the most spectacular for me were the Pied Kingfishers. These guys are big compared to ol’ Halcyon of the UK waterways, about the size of a blackbird, and dramatic feeders too, rising to a height of nearly 20 feet it seemed before plunging after it’s fish prey.
Nearby is the dramatic scenery of the incredible Hell’s Gate National Park. A small park, it lacks much of the megafauna that really drives in the tourists such as rhinos and elephants, but the awesome landscape is enough to put you on your knees. If it happens to be itchingly familiar in some way, then that’s because the guys from Disney decided to base Pride Rock and the Gorge from the Wildebeest Stampede in The Lion King on it! (I’ll try to make that my only LK reference; we probably went through the entire songlist from that movie whilst in Kenya alone…)
Hell’s Gate is based within the dried-up basin of an ancient lake, and that in itself is over an area of high geothermal activity, allowing a successful power station outputting the renewable geothermal energy to be based here. Putting your hand in the waters from the springs here is enough to confirm that, as it feels hot as if straight from a bath-tap.
Whilst we were in staying in the area, we had the privilege of visiting Kenyan Raptor Conservationist, Simon Thomsett at the privately run Little Owl Sanctuary just outside Naivasha. You might have seen him as the raptor expert on C4’s ‘Hippo: Nature’s Wild Feast’, and in Africa he is a bit of legend from the work he does. A skilled falconer since his youth, Simon has participated in important conservation work with all manner of raptor species’ throughout Kenya, including the reintroduction of Lammergeyer vultures and the breeding of rare Crowned Eagles, which we were privileged to have a quick glimpse at whilst visiting the sanctuary (to read more on his work, take the time to visit his blog on Wildlife Direct here). Much of his time is spent rehabilitating injured raptors for release back to the wild, and at the time of our visit these included a Spotted Eagle Owl and a stunning, yet incredibly greedy, Tawny Eagle called ‘Boo boo’. Among the many captive birds, wild superb starlings, monkeys and wildebeest ran wild across the garden lawn that was the sanctuary, putting robins and squirrels into perspective!
People like Simon are always greatly inspirational to me; the kind of work he does with wildlife is definitely the sort of thing I dream to do in the future with our own UK fauna. Although tough, demanding and never without the chance of failure, the many success stories that do emerge from wildlife rehabilitation and captive breed and release programmes proves the worth of such things. Simon Thomsett and other conservationists like him deserve great respect for the endurance their passion drives.
By our third day in Kenya, it was time to visit the first ‘popular’ game reserve on our trip: Lake Nakuru and the surrounding National Park. Although it may not sound familiar, you’ve probably seen it on many wildlife documentaries narrated by Sir David and the like. The reason?
Huge flocks of flamingos that turn the lake edges pink of course! Huge volumes of algae bring in flocks of Lesser Flamingos that can number up to a million (or two), and to stand on the muddy lake edge, caked with their feathers and droppings and the birds themselves about 100 yards away is a cheek-pinching situation. (Even better than watching it in HD…)
Nakuru was also the first place were we saw rhinos, both species native to Africa in fact: The black & white. A mother and calf of the latter were also incredibly close to our vehicle, and they were so unphased by our presence that it was sometimes hard to believe they were wild animals!
However, the seeming abundance of rhinos in Nakuru should not be taken for granted. Cases of rhino poaching both in Asia and Africa have soared in recent years, with South Africa alone likely to number 400 rhino deaths from poachers this year compared to an average of around 12 in the last ten years. The IUCN’s announcement that two rhino sub-species, the Vietnamese Javan and Western Black, were suspected extinct within days of each other proved to be tragic blows that reinforced the current problem. With most rhino populations confined to often isolated reserves and national parks, they’re far easier to target. New techniques to evade ranger detection include sedation and then hacking off the horn, a barbaric practice that leads to the rhino suffering and usually dying of blood loss. All for the sake of some stupid little fable that it’s a quick-fix medicine for all kinds of ills. Chewing your hair and nails would make as much sense, all made of the same stuff. We can increase ranger patrols and translocate rhinos, but the best solution is sufficient education to the mainly South-East Asian market NOW. Let’s not this wonderful animal, almost fabulous in it’s awe, die away for the sake of an ignorant rumour.
Shortly before departing Nakuru, a stop at the famous viewpoint from Baboon Cliff over the Lake was in order. As well as the baboons it is named after, who were running among the tourists and relaxing on picnic tables, rock hyraxes were numerous around here. These small mammals are in fact the elephant’s closest living relative, splitting off from a common ancestor many millions of years ago. These ‘rock rabbits’ as they’re sometimes dubbed showed little fear of both baboons and humans, young & old alike dashing under legs to hop around the cliff face only inches away from our feet.
This fearlessness was quickly shot away when a sudden squeal from one of the hyraxes sent all dashing for cover in unison. Looking to our left, we were rewarded with the sight of a fantastic Augur Buzzard. Although we didn’t see it catch one, it remained hovering over the colony for a few minutes eyes peeled and talons ready for any stragglers to make themselves vulnerable.
Coming soon in part 2… elephants, leopards and secretary birds are just some of the stars of the Maasi Mara.