By Michelle Alten
As we set off on our safari trip, our photographers sought out images that would capture the essence of Kenya’s astounding wildlife. I set off to gain some insight into the complex environmental issues of this country famous for its intriguing animals and its struggle to preserve them.
After a night at Nairobi’s colonial Norfolk Hotel, we flew in a small propeller plane to Lewa. After our plane landed on a secluded red-dirt runway, our guides met us with Land Rovers. We drove through the gentle rolling hills, flecked with acacia trees, towards the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. After settling into our tent cabins, we headed out for a safari drive, spotting Grevy’s zebras and black rhinoceroses. Stunning reticulated giraffes, considered by many to be the most beautiful in the giraffe family, moved gracefully through the tall grasses.
The success with black rhinos is one of the achievements of this conservancy. Heavily poached in Kenya, their populations have fallen to about 540. Lewa, which has about 15 % of Kenya’s rhinos, has been able to relocate black rhinos and reestablish them in other parts of the country.
This morning we rose at dawn to head off on our drive. The highlight was a group of white rhinos, not far from road. As we stopped and spent time watching them, they peered over at us and walked curiously in our direction. We were unsure of their intentions, but luckily they didn’t charge our vehicles. With poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell, they appeared most interested in checking us out. Knowing about the extensive poaching of rhinos in Africa, it is encouraging to see them protected in the preserve.
For a picnic breakfast, we stopped at a lake created by a dam. There pelicans roosted on a tiny rock island, terns soared over the water, and zebras came down to drink at the water’s edge. On our afternoon drive, we spotted gazelles, and the elusive elands. Unlike the white rhinoceroses, the cautious black rhinos kept their distance. I note that this healthy fear of humans may be to their advantage.
The Somali ostriches appear to be in estrus because we saw a great deal of activity today. The stunning males, with black and white plumage, crouched down and waved their wings in a comical courtship dance. The males worked hard to get attention, but the unimpressed females just ran away. Today we also spotted our first elephants, moving in a group through the grasslands.
On our afternoon safari, we discovered a black rhino with a calf grazing in the meadow—an encouraging sign for this critically endangered species. Up until now, the black rhino’s had been elusive, staying quite far from the dirt roads that zigzag across the conservancy.
This morning we set off on our drive to Samburu. As we rumbled through Lewa’s grassy hillsides, we spotted a pride of lions. Some fed on an eland carcass, while others relaxed after their meal. In the distance, a hyena looked hungrily down on the lions and their kill.
Our drive continued past a wetland where Egyptian Geese and yellow billed ducks swam in a tranquil pond.
Arriving in Samburu, we found bands of vervet monkeys scrambling through the brush, while impalas grazed in the grasslands. On our evening drive we encountered two elephants with babies lumbering through the dense vegetation near the river. Further along, amusing-looking gerenuks stood on their hind legs, stretching their slender necks to feed on the trees. After sighting an abundance of birdlife, including hornbills, hoopoes, and white-headed buffalo-weavers, we returned for dinner on the deck at our camp.
In Samburu, we noticed buses of school children arriving at the reserve. Our guide explained that these affordable excursions were created to introduce children to the Kenyan wildlife. The children, often from the big city of Nairobi, might otherwise never see this habitat and its amazing animals. It was encouraging to see children gaining this exposure to foster an appreciation for nature and conservation.
As usual, we headed out on our morning safari at sunrise. Everything was quiet—we seemed to be the only people out searching for wildlife. A lioness and two cubs padded peacefully along the dirt road. The youngsters looked energetic, but mom was thin and in need of a good meal. We hoped she would soon have a successful hunt. Other highlights today included the beautiful oryxes with their facial markings reassembling African masks and a klipspringer, standing high on a cliff.
At the camp, elephants moved along the river’s shoreline, while one elephant – fondly called Obama—came right up to our tents. We were told that he just broke his tusk a week earlier in a fight with another elephant.
Today was our first opportunity to visit a Samburu village. Here we met the chief who looked at Wolfgang and promptly said, “I’ve met you! You came here before, didn’t you?” Indeed, Wolf and some of our other travelers had visited two years earlier and were excited to be back. As we toured the village and learned details about daily life, I noticed the chief’s clothing. Printed on the boldly colored fabric were words declaring the importance of supporting education for girls and a ban on girls’ circumcision. The chief enthusiastically explained how the village participated in these policies to improve the lives of girls. This was a wonderful encounter with very warm and handsome Samburu people.
On the evening safari drive a highlight was a pair of dashing secretary birds hunting and catching five mice.
At 6:30 this morning, the sun rose in a brilliant red ball, casting its glow on the grasslands. Samburu slowly came to life. Two dozen grants gazelles grazed in the meadows in the soft morning light. Elephants, accompanied by their babies, ripped branches from trees and pulled up mouthfuls of grass. Tiny dik diks, resembling miniature deer, hopped between the bushes, and a parade of vibrant vulturine guinea fowl, sporting royal blue plumage, moved through the brush.
Suddenly a lioness appeared, roaming the dirt road and eyeing the grasslands. She spotted a herd of impalas grazing in the brush. Crouching low in the grass, she stealthily crept a little closer, then waited. In the end, she gave up, for there was too little vegetation to provide cover.
Today we arrived in the Masai Mara. Here sweeping plains are home to an astounding diversity and abundance of wildlife. Large herds of topis grazed in grass fields, while long lines of wildebeest marched along the crest of a hill. Not far from our hotel on an escarpment, overlooking the vast Masai Mara, about a dozen elephants nursed their young. On our safari drive, we discovered massive, muscular buffalo grazing next to the road and young impalas sparring. Nature’s spectacle here is a wildlife lover’s dream.
We have come at the time of the Great Migration, and today we rumbled in our four-wheel drive to the river to wait and see if we would be lucky enough to see a wildebeest crossing. On our way, the sun rose, casting its light on fields of buffalo, impalas, and wildebeests. A zebra nursed a baby that appeared to be just a few days old. Vultures swooped in to join the other creatures in the field, while a hyena, fed on a wildebeest, crunching the bones with its powerful teeth. At the river, lines of wildebeest formed and made their way to the water. We waited and watched. Suddenly a wildebeest galloped down the steep riverbank and the whole line followed in a cascade of wildebeest. Water droplets sprayed in the air, as the animals plunged through the water, braving the wild current. Emerging on the other shore, they dashed in a line up the escarpment, where calves scampered about searching for their mothers.
Driving through the Masai Mara, I was in awe over the plains dotted with countless wildebeest. The odd-looking creatures were everywhere. The thought of the American Plains and the long-gone bison kept haunting me.
This must have been exactly what it looked like before we decimated the herds, hunting them down from trains and leaving them to rot under the Midwestern sun.
As the morning cast its light on the Masai Mara, six hyenas roamed through the grasslands. Balinitas trees, or desert dates, dotted the plains like scattered parasols. Peter, our guide, told us that the trees are getting older. There is concern that as they die, the landscape will change. Apparently new trees are not appearing in their place.
It was not long before we spotted a lion feeding on its kill. Dozens of vultures waited patiently nearby for a share in the feast. Around a bend, a lioness with two young cubs made her way to join a group of lions resting on a hillside. On an evening drive, a stunning male lion, with a coffee-colored mane, posed for us in the warm golden sunlight.
It was striking to see so many healthy lions. The food supply was clearly better here for the lions than in the previous areas we visited.
Returning to the hotel, I spotted the elephants in the distance. We hadn’t seen many in the Masai Mara. I wondered how the elephants were faring in Kenya. Checking statistics, I saw that elephant poaching in Kenya is said to have declined last year to 46 elephants, compared to 390 in 2013. But this still felt disheartening. I wondered where is this ivory going? China implemented an ivory ban this year. I had been hoping this would have an impact. But this clearly was not going to be enough. I searched online to explore the role of the United States.
National Geographic pointed out that illegal ivory is sold in the U.S. as antiques. National Geographic
The Guardian explained that Great Britain and the United States have been major exporters of ivory, using the loophole that international law “allows the export of ivory when it is certified as having been “worked” or “carved” before 1976.”
It began to be clear to me that the sale of ALL IVORY must be banned if we are going to save these magnificent creatures. It is only by reducing demand and profitability that the devastating poaching will stop.