Kenya After-Image: Part 3 (final)

And finally, after an unwanted delay, I’ve got round to completing the last entry of my reflection of Kenya last Summer. Picking up after we left the Mara, we were sadly coming to our final destinations on the trip; however, these were among the ones that left the greatest impression on me since flying out of Nairobi two weeks after we originally flew in.

In the photo above is the Nairobi Giraffe Centre, allowing closer views than one might usually have with these magical animals on a game drive. Much closer at that, with estatic visitors, both tourists and locals, able to hand-feed the giraffes. Or even kiss them, if by kissing you mean popping a pellet between your lips and waiting for a giraffe to lap it up with a slobbering, yet rather raspy, tounge! But the Centre is far more than just a glorified petting zoo, and likewise it’s residents are not your ‘average’ giraffe (if you can have such a thing). It is home to a group of Rothschilds Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardilis rothschildi), one of the rarest of the nine giraffe subspecies. The Centre was originally set up as a captive breeding facility in 1979 in a last ditch effort to save the Rothschild, by then limited to 120 individuals on a single Kenyan ranch. Calves born at the centre have over time being released into five Kenyan reserves, and Rothschilds now number about 500 in Kenya.

Today, the Centre’s main focus is education, but particularly that of local children rather than the Western tourists, which mostly come just to have a photo taken of them ‘kissing’ a giraffe. They have to pay a reasonable fee, but the Centre is free to the local community and school groups, and rightly so. Many of these kids will come from poverty-stricken backgrounds in the slums, where of course there is no contact with the incredible biodiversity their country is famous for. Being able to see a giraffe up-close, let alone feed one, is an education tool far more inspirational than any diagram in a classroom, and by opening the doors to wildlife and conservation this way is just one small step in generating lifelong respect for nature: And hopefully, the conservationists of Kenya’s future. Because believe me, Kenya is one country that needs it more than many others, and is an issue I’ll be going into shortly.

Me with a Hungry Customer!

A (relatively) short drive away on the outskirts of Nairobi lay Swara Plains, a 20,000 game ranch that was to be our final destination. Like most of Africa’s private ranches, it is a much smaller and quieter location than the large-scale-management game reserves. There no lions, elephants, rhino and buffalo present for, and only one small tourist camp is available for the comparatively few who trek out here; But without the constant convoy of tourist jeeps, I found it to be the most fulfilling wildlife destination we visited. Small populations of herbivores such as giraffe, wildebeest and fringe-eared oryx can be found here alongside the cheetah, leopard and hyena that hunt them, and night tours allow you to see the less publicised, but absolutely fascinating, smaller nocturnal residents, such as aardvarks, honey badgers, bat-eared foxes and springhares (managed to see the latter two!)

And the camp alone was paradise; no commercial, Western luxuries that you’d find at the Mara lodge: Just traditional rustic cottages which let nature create the rest of the ambience. Vervet monkeys running over your roof, gorgeous sunbirds sipping nectar from the flowerbed by the dining hall porch, and giraffes wandering into the edge of the camp (which was not fenced-off from the rest of the ranch) were among the highlights by day; come the nighttime, the hours after our bonfire went out saw the emergence of fruit bats from their slumber and the chorus of bushbabies as you went to sleep. (OK, they sound absolutely terrifying when you first here them, and if you don’t know what it is you might think someone’s been murdered next door).

But romantic ramblings aside, Swara Plains is just one little cog within the wider world of conserving Kenya’s wildlife. Without a doubt, the largest pressure faced not just by Kenya’s, but wildlife throughout Africa, is one of the fastest growing populations in the world. One of the most frank outlooks on its future was given by Simon Thomsett on the very first day we arrived (see Part 1). His residence by the shores of Lake Naivasha is within a setting where animals like zebra and wildebeest pass through rapidly growing towns, encouraged by the plentiful supply of employment from poppy farms (the produce being sold to high-class Western businesses like M&S) and a geothermal power station. However, he still remembers a time when lions and elephants roamed through the area only a couple of decades ago; and his prediction for the rest of Kenya was similarly bleak.

As you can imagine, this was a somewhat depressing thought to start the trip with. Kenya is not the natural wilderness most Westerners think, and it’s biodiversity in no way safe. 60% of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside reserves, and even within the latter it’s no picnic. There’s a very real possibility that the future of Kenya’s biodiversity will be reserves sitting like islands, full of ecological imbalance, whilst surrounded by a sea of development. Trying to maintain a balance between humans and wildlife in one of the last great ecosystems dominated by megafauna is going to be one of the most intriguing, and hardest, conservation dilemmas for the future.

Although, as is appropriate to the field of my blog, I have focused on the wildlife side to Kenya, half of our trip was a week staying in Alara, a tiny village near Homa Bay that is way off the tourist track. This and the other surrounding communities are supported by the organization CEPARD, which itself has formed links with Kenya 2020, a new charity formed by staff from our college. And this is was what really put everything into perspective. Meeting the nicest people in the world, who have to cope with problems that our society would crumble under if they were ours yet manage to get on with life and rise above it, was definitely the most inspiring thing I’ve seen.

And it’s with Kenya’s future generations that it’s wildlife is in the hands of. Kenya’s main economic resource is in tourism from wildlife, so it is something it can’t afford to lose. But relying on game reserves alone isn’t the answer. Swara Plains for example, despite sitting on the edge of Nairobi, is already looking it increasing in size by two thirds, creating more space for wildlife whilst not putting pressure on the livelihoods of the local people as has occurred with some of the reserve’s management. It’s a small step, but one in the right direction in a country with both growing development and one of the greatest natural spectacles on the planet.

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