The Rift Valley Lakes: Nakuru, Baringo, Bogoria & the Kerio Valley

Leaving Magadi we once again faced a full day of driving across the length of Kenya to reach the shores of the lakes Nakuru, Baringo and Bogoria that would hold our attention for the next few days. As always such a day involved amazing views, a huge array of different habitats and copious amounts of napping.

Once at Nakuru town we were faced with the prospect of our accommodation for the night, The Murius Guest House, with its catchy slogan: “No illicit sex allowed under Christian morals. Unmarried couples not allowed to board.” Though we tried to rent double rooms our inability to present valid marriage certificates for the sharing pairs swiftly halted negotiations. In hindsight the fact that we didn’t reveal the pairs were same sex probably saved us a burning at the stake.

Having survived the night without being baptised or forced into marriage, we spent the morning at Lake Nakuru National Park. The park presented the usual wonders of the Kenyan wilderness; sweeping vistas, big game and a plethora of birdlife. Not only this but it was at Nakuru that we spotted the third, final and most endangered of Kenya’s three Giraffe subspecies/species (dependent on which expert you talk to), the Rothschild’s Giraffe. Despite all this Nakuru National Park felt decidedly strange upon our visit; large black tarpaulins lay covering strange shapes along the road sides, whilst grim faced Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers drove wordlessly around the park. We were soon to find the reason for such an atmosphere as deeper in the park buffalo carcasses (untouched by any scavengers) began to appear along the roadside. A concerned call to the KWS head vet from Enoch yielded only the words “I am not at liberty to disclose…” It was not until several days later that we read in the papers that the mass buffalo die off at Nakuru was caused by an anthrax epidemic stemming from poor treatment of the sewage flowing from the town into the lake. Devastatingly alongside the death of over 100 buffalo 3 of the parks white rhino population have also so far succumbed to the disease.

 

Lake Nakuru National Park - the dead trees give an indication of how the water level has risen recently, and the 'hard edge' between the National Park and Nakuru town

Lake Nakuru National Park – the dead trees give an indication of how the water level has risen recently, and the ‘hard edge’ between the National Park and Nakuru town

IMG_6155

A distant male lion in Lake Nakuru NP

IMG_6172

A male buffalo with very few flamingoes in the background

IMG_6290

A close-up of a Rothschild’s giraffe

IMG_6160

Buffaloes… Of which there are too many in Lake Nakuru NP – the park has exceeded its ecological carrying capacity for this species

IMG_6241

Group photo with the submerged signpost in the background

IMG_6208

Leaving the uncomfortable atmosphere of Lake Nakuru behind us we made our way to Lake Baringo. After finding our planned rooms in a local hotel had been given over to other guests an unscheduled change of plan ensued, ultimately resulting in our spending the night in a rather nice safari lodge on the shores of the lake. As I had attempted every other night of our trip I spent the evening looking for frogs within the lodge grounds. What I hadn’t reckoned with was that unlike in previous accommodation we were sharing the lodge area with ostriches and crocodiles. Long story short, ostriches don’t like to be woken up and crocodiles are intent on eating errant night wandering herpetologists. Having survived the night (just) we embarked on a boat tour of Lake Baringo. The lake teemed with birdlife, amongst other things giving us a sighting of our first (and last) African owl (Verreaux’s Eagle Owl). Disembarking onto a small island in the lake (Ruko Island Conservancy, part of the Northern Rangelands Trust) we were greeted at very close quarters by more Rothschild’s Giraffes and one very sleepy warthog. After getting distracted hunting for skinks amongst the rocks I was eventually dragged off the island to visit some of the lake’s hot springs.

IMG_6330

Soi Safari Lodge

IMG_6373

A Baringo Hippo

IMG_6385

 

IMG_6338

A crocodile, resting on the concrete platform of the now-submerged Baringo Reptile Centre

IMG_6322

IMG_6324

IMG_6395

Friendly warthog on Ruko Island Conservancy

IMG_6400

Ruko’s friendly Rothschild’s giraffe

 

Rothschild's giraffe of Ruko Island Conservancy

Rothschild’s giraffe of Ruko Island Conservancy

IMG_6459

Visitors can get up close to wildlife on Ruko Island… Ostriches

IMG_6502

Boiling hot springs of Lake Baringo

IMG_6534

Fisherman at Lake Baringo

IMG_6409

 

IMG_6465

The next day we made our way to our third and final Kenyan lake – Lake Bogoria. Famed for its abundance of flamingo and for containing an isolated population of Greater Kudu, the prospect of Lake Bogoria National Reserve was an exciting one. We were all therefore rather shocked and distressed to see the state of the park. Though the flamingo density was astonishing and the views stunning, we saw more livestock than native mammals wandering through the park, with members of the public using the roads as a thoroughfare. Such activities are seen in national parks throughout the world, however the sheer scale of the problem in Bogoria was truly disconcerting. Upon investigation we were informed that after the county government took over control of the park from KWS lack of capacity and political will has led to a degradation of park management standards. We left Lake Bogoria concern for its future (though with excellent photos of flamingos, and good sightings of greater kudu).

IMG_7489

Elusive male lesser kudu

IMG_6571

Greater flamingoes

IMG_6655

Lesser flamingoes preparing to take off

IMG_7141

Greater flamingoes in the background, and many lesser flamingoes in the foreground

IMG_7464

Young Impala

IMG_6998

Our final official destination before many of the group finished their time in Kenya was Rimoi National Reserve. A long and very bumpy ride to Rimoi was unexpectedly interrupted by the Cheloch Gorge divers; a group of mad/stupid/brave teenagers diving of metal girders into the fast flowing waters of the River Kerio 10m below

IMG_7524

Spectacular Kerio Valley

The divers...

The divers…

Who dived down into THIS valley!

Who dived down into THIS valley!

 

After spending half an hour wincing as each young man plunged into the brown, crocodile-infested (we saw one right on the bank) water we decided it was time to move on to the National Reserve. Far off the tourist trail, we were the only visitors to Rimoi National Reserve that week, a fact that allowed us to persuade the staff to cook us lunch (great service).

IMG_7569

IMG_7576

A picturesque dam in Rimoi National Reserve, named ‘Elephant Dam’, but sadly the only animals around were… cows

As with Lake Bogoria National Reserve we sadly saw more cows than anything else, however, the attitudes of the enthusiastic young rangers seeking to ever improve their park left us with hope for its future. Leaving the others in the somewhat incapable hands of our driver Kenyatta, Enoch, Bhavik and I took Enoch’s landcruiser deep into the Park to find elephants. Having tracked footprints on the road for almost an hour we stopped the vehicle and proceeded into the bush on foot. Following broken branches, elephant poo and ever fresher footprints deep into the bush our chatter died down into whispers and then silence as our hearts began to race. Each of us could sense elephants were close and despite Bhavik’s skill with a panga/machete against small shrubs none of us felt this would be much help against a charging elephant when on foot and hence retreated at pace. Untrampled by elephants we made our way to the town of Iten for the night, having seen impala, baboons, dik dik, warthog and ground hornbills at Rimoi. Though not a long drive it took us several hours as we managed to successfully destroy a tire on Enoch’s car. After half an hour of learning how to change a tire on a land cruiser on the side of a mountain during a storm whilst ripping the back bumped off the car with the jack, Bhavik, Enoch and I eventually re-joined the rest of the group. Driving along the long, windy road to Iten, Bhavik was lucky enough to spot a honey badger by the roadside. We were to spend the night in what yet again turned out to be a very characterful hotel. It is not every meal a very drunk African man invades your personal space, steals your food and is dragged off the premises by the chef and his drunk friends, but in Iten it seems it is normal to experience such dinnertime “entertainment”.

IMG_7618

Long-crested eagle at Rimoi NR

 

Another full day travelling involved getting hopelessly lost in Nairobi before reaching the final Kenyan beds most of the group would sleep in. The next morning saw us eating the most uncooked cooked breakfast any of us had ever experienced before bidding farewell to Brendan, Lauren, Louise and Zheng at Nairobi airport. It was with teary eyes that the remainder of the CUWCS 2015 Kenya trip prepared for the final and most ambitious leg of our journey in Tsavo National Park.

By Tom

Photo Credits: Bhavik

In Search of Lions and Love (Magadi-Shompole)

We left Enoch’s house at 7.30am, headed for Magadi, where the Lale’enok Resource Centre was located. It was to be our home for the next 6 days, and is a community based resource centre owned by the Maasai women of Olkiramatian and Shompole group ranches. This section of the trip was a marked departure from earlier parts, for we were able to meet and shadow the many researchers, community scouts and resource assessors who worked there for a longer period of time.

Before we reached the resource centre, however, we were welcomed by the breathtaking sight of Lake Magadi. The lake is an example of a saline, alkaline lake, found in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Flamingos were abound, and we could see many pink flocks feeding on the blue-green algae that thrived in the lake.

Lake Magadi as seen on the drive across the causeway towards Magadi town, and beyond

Lake Magadi as seen on the drive across the causeway towards Magadi town, and beyond

On reaching the resource centre, we were greeted by Guy Western, coordinator of Rebuilding the Pride, one of the flagship projects of the resource centre. While the name of the project is somewhat of a misnomer, considering that lion numbers in the conservancies have been increasing even before the establishment of the project, it is undoubted that the project, which aims to promote ‘coexistence between predators and people in the South Rift’, has facilitated the rapid growth in recent years.

Many different methods are used to track and monitor the lion-community situation. First and foremost, GPS collars are used to track the movements of prides in the region. Additionally, around 5 camera traps have been deployed throughout the conservancy to give a better picture of the current situation on the ground. This is combined with cooperation with local community scouts, each with their designated walking blocks (each 4 x 2 km), where they observe the position and direction of animal tracks, such as hyenas or lions on a daily/weekly basis. This information is not only combined with the research being done in Rebuilding the Pride, but is also communicated to the locals living in the various bomas, so they know where to avoid letting their livestock graze, and be more prepared for any predator attack especially in the night.

One of the highlights for this segment was when we were able to set up 7 camera traps around the conservancy, as a taster of the research that is being done. I was quite enthused because we would be able to analyse the data we collected, and get an insight on the pros and cons of this data collection method.

Things got way more exciting, however, when a lion decided to observe what we were doing 20m away on a tree while we were setting up the 4th camera trap. Being hopelessly curious, Tom exclaimed ‘Where?’ and started to look for it while the rest scrambled back into the Land Cruiser. I had to point out that even our local Maasai guides were running back into the vehicle before he clambered in.

The profusion of pug-marks that immediately preceded the 'lion incident'

The profusion of pug-marks that immediately preceded the ‘lion incident’

Happier times having (safely) set up a camera trap

Happier times having (safely) set up a camera trap

Of course, realistically these short few days we were there limited the research questions we were able to ask and answer from the data we collected. Despite this, we did capture glimpses of lions, hyenas and other predators, a proof of the biodiversity present. (see:LINK) for a selection of camera traps photos)

Guy also allowed us to observe how he tracks collared lions and does call-ins, which he uses to conduct a yearly population census. We used an H antenna to track a VHS collared lioness, Namunyak. When we arrived near where she was, she seemed to be stalking a herd of zebra, possibly looking for a kill. It was all pretty exciting, and the tension built up as she crept closer to the herd, with the zebras seemingly unaware. While everyone held their breath in anticipation, however, she suddenly flopped down on the ground, killing any hopes that we would witness a kill. She became so comfortable that she even slept with one leg raised. While it isn’t something you see every day, I was still pretty disappointed. I’d rather see a kill than a lioness in a weird sleeping position.

One of the Magadi Lionesses

One of the other Magadi Lionesses

A sleeping Namunyak

A sleeping Namunyak

Part of the group (and Guy, and some of the other Lale'enok staff) VHF/radio tracking

Part of the group – Claire & Bhavik (and Guy, and some of the other Lale’enok staff) VHF/radio tracking [Photo Credit: Brendan]

After leaving Namunyak to her beauty sleep, we drove to an open area and proceeded on our call-in. We used the sound of an injured wildebeest calf to attract animals to the area. We didn’t attract much – around 3 jackals and some impalas. ‘For the sake of science’, we switched over to the even more unpleasant sounding recording of a hyena feeding frenzy over a buffalo, where the dying moans of the buffalo and the eerie seemingly laughing howls of the hyenas looped on repeat. We saw more this time, mainly hyenas and even one lion. Why anyone would record that and think it would be useful for science baffles me, but I guess it’s effective. The other half of the group conducted the call in a few days earlier, and were a little more successful – they managed to attract striped hyenas.

The next morning, we joined Cisco on a baboon walk. The night before, we were told that we would be able to get extremely close to the baboons, possibly even 2-3m away. While this did not happen in the end, we did have very good close-up views of them. Juveniles played with one another without care, and mothers carried their young towards the safety of trees. I really like the idea of this project, as it not only brings revenue to the community, but allows visitors to have a more intimate understanding of baboons, one of the key species in the conservancy.

That afternoon, we visited a local Maasai village – a much more ‘authentic’ experience than the one we had in the Maasai Mara, and we managed to get a good insight into how the Maasai in this area were adapting to the changing cultural and social environment. We visited in the evening time, as the livestock were being brought back into the boma for the night, and even attempted milking a goat (with varying levels of success).

IMG_5097 IMG_5130

Milking a goat

Milking a goat

Another day, we crossed over the border to Tanzania to visit Lake Natron – and it was spectacular. A desolate moonscape with a massive, still lake fringed with flamingoes, completely unspoilt (and hopefully will remain that way, as the planned Soda Ash factory is on hold or cancelled, for now)

Spectacular Lake Natron

Spectacular Lake Natron

However, since we were at Magadi, it was imperative that we also visit the Lake that gave the area its name. While the rest of us were mesmerised by the natural beauty in front of us, Tom was preoccupied with the beauty beside him. Gwen is a Masters student from Yale, and she is currently doing a project on hornbills, or as Bhavik would put it, “BIRDS!” Having a shared interest in Avifauna, Tom and Gwen hit it off immediately, lost in conversation after introductions. While everyone else sat around at the dinner table, silently eating fruit, the pair obliviously carried on with their discussion on something to do with birds (or frogs, or snakes, or some obscure mammal – we can’t be sure). It was thus of no surprise when Gwen readily accepted our invitation (mostly Tom’s) to come along and visit the lake in order ‘to see some birds’ (smooth move, Tom).

Lake Magadi

Lake Magadi – lesser flamingoes

Greater flamingoes

Greater flamingoes

So while the rest of us walked around trying to get good photos of the beautiful flamingos, Gwen and Tom hung around at the back, setting up their scopes as far away from the group as possible, ostensibly to get a view of the birds in the area. They were so absorbed in the sights around them (or was it just the closeness between one another?) that they were reluctant to move on to the hot springs, even after the whole group was already back in the vehicle.

Part of the CUWCS group and Gwen (far right)

Part of the CUWCS group and Gwen (far right)

Park at Magadi Town

Park at Magadi Town

The warm water at the hot springs

The warm water at the hot springs

Alas, all banquets must come to an end, and Tom had to say good bye when we arrived back at the campsite. It is said that the two had an early morning walk the next day ‘to look at more birds’, but we can’t confirm. It is only known that Tom had a particularly sad face when we left the place, a hint that he would particularly miss something or someone. Perhaps it was just the prospect of not being able to ‘see birds’ again. We will never know.

IMG_5790

The Lake has wildlife living on the surrounding land, with Grant’s gazelle, ostrich, secretary bird, eastern white-bearded wildebeest etc all sighted as well as lions, leopards, hyenas, jackals and wild dogs being seen in the vicinity of the lake, from time-to-time

IMG_5720

The Lake has wildlife living on the surrounding land, with Grant's gazelle, ostrich, secretary bird, eastern white-bearded wildebeest etc all sighted as well as lions, leopards, hyenas, jackals and wild dogs being seen in the vicinity of the lake, from time-to-time

Secretary Bird with the Magadi Soda Factory in the background

Some photos taken in Shompole and Olkirimatian Conservancies

IMG_4410 IMG_4673 IMG_5947

By Brendan Tan

Photo credits: Bhavik

Athi-Kapiti

The journey back to Nairobi was predictably long, but not without its fair share of excitement and intrigue. The third female member of the group, Zheng, was sold for an impressive 20 camels (which Brendan attempted to push to 200, without success). This came much to the disappointment of Louise, now the final single lady, and she began to worry that the rest of the trip would be spent in despair as a lonely spinster. As we’ll soon find out, however, Enoch had been working his magic to find the perfect Prince Charming.

 

The following day we met up once again with local chief, Nickson Parmisa, who permitted us to join a local Maasai gathering in Kitengela to discuss their views as pastoralists on human-wildlife conflict and the management strategies implemented by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). We decided on the questions to be asked as: 1. What issues do you have with wildlife? 2. What are the benefits to wildlife? 3. What, if any, compensation is offered by KWS? 4. Which species are harming the pastoralist way of life the most?

At the Baraza

At the Baraza

IMG_3796

The community was quick to point out that as pastoralists, they had grown up surrounded by animals. The sheep, goats and cows were and still are their bank accounts, and if livestock was predated on by predators such as a lion, the response could only be to kill in order to prevent such attacks occurring again. The lion was an animal that caused economic devastation, and it wasn’t until a collective agreement was reached that this would lead to its extinction, and that tourists were arriving to pay to see the majestic creatures, that the lion’s identity was transformed into a potential economic benefit. The importance of wildlife being seen as something that can improve economic standing has been expressed to us on previous occasions, and hearing it from people directly affected by their presence allowed us to truly understand that conservation cannot focus purely on increasing wildlife numbers, but making sure the local community can also benefit, both socially and economically. To this end, the KWS introduced consolation and a land lease programme.

 

During the 2003 drought, a huge increase in predation of livestock led to large numbers of lions killed. The lack of water and desperation for the need of sheep, goats and cattle by both lions and humans could only end with humans on top. The consolation programme aimed to prevent this showdown occurring, and now if a cow, sheep or goat is taken by predation, the community receives a sum of money less than the market price of the livestock, but enough to prevent the need to kill the perpetrator. The land lease programme similarly aimed to increase the habitat needed for Kenyan wildlife by paying the community around $4 per acre per year to stop the grazing of livestock on this land.

 

The Maasai community described the difficulties occurring with both of these programmes, as the total income from the leasing and consolation was far less than the loss from predation, making it economically unviable for the locals. The consolation income often doesn’t trickle down to individual families, and is suffering from a lack of funding, and the lease programme has stopped due to the loss of funding. A further problem with the lease programme was that herders would be fined for moving into any protected areas, yet little was done when wildlife came onto their own land, considering the consolation money proved fruitless. Ultimately, the main issue is considered the leadership of the programmes, with a lack of consideration for the best solutions for pastoralists. The Kikuyu tribe, which focuses on agriculture, dominates the government, thus pastoralism and the Maasai way of life is believed to be hindering their own economic development.

 

Finally, the group said somewhat surprisingly that the most harming species was the zebra, due to being able to jump the Maasai fences and taking crops vital for livestock success. In this way, the zebra is a core threat to the livestock as a whole, compared to predators such as lions, which may kill a few of the animals, making it a single devastating event. Wildebeest are also an issue by carrying Malignant Catarrhal Fever. With no vaccine and it being easily passed on to livestock, there can be no way of protecting herds – cattle are very vulnerable and it is fatal to them, but it doesn’t affect the host wildebeest. Overall, the Maasai were enthusiastic in their support of the wildlife around their homes, agreeing that although they may not benefit significantly economically, they would never give up the animals that made up such an integral part of their livelihoods and traditions.

 

Just South of the National Park, the Athi-Plains (Kitengela Dispersal Area), willdlife and cattle co-exist.

Just South of the National Park, the Athi-Plains (Kitengela Dispersal Area), willdlife and cattle co-exist.

Lots of wildlife here: giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, eland, buffalo....

Lots of wildlife here: giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, eland, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle…

It was interesting to note that only one person at the meeting proposed the fencing of the park’s southern boundary, comparing the situation to the Aberdare National Park, where the park has been completely fenced. This person was an immigrant from another part of the country, and his views contrasted with the more local Maasais’, who knew that this would be disastrous for the wildlife of Nairobi National Park. By confining animals, which would otherwise move with the rains, wildlife would be limited to grazing on land found in the park, and would have no access to the greater variety of pasture located outside the boundaries. At the end of the discussion, Louise was eventually promised to someone’s son (hurrah!), and Enoch could now rest, safe in the knowledge that over half the group would no longer be returning to England. Having rounded up our conversation with the group, we went away feeling much better informed on the impacts of management strategies on the ground. We could now more critically evaluate the successes of the management schemes, previously only heard of from those in charge of the programmes.

 

Nairobi National Park: In need of friends.

Nairobi National Park: In need of friends

The next day the group traversed Nairobi National Park, with all eyes peeled for rhinos and lions. We were unfortunate not to find any lions, and only glimpsed a black rhino from far away, however for bird lover Tom, the day was filled with much excitement. We were soon stopping at every sighting, including Marabou Stalks and Fischer’s Lovebirds, until the president decreed a ban on stopping for any bird not on his personal list, which excluded anything small and brown. The most exciting sighting of the day was found almost driving over a baby Leopard Tortoise, which had to be rescued and put into the safety of the long grass. From here we travelled to Lisa Ranch (along the way we saw numerous plains game plus a hyena), where the next few hours would test the group’s ability to cope with fear, sleep deprivation and very bad singing.

 

Lisa Ranch is a 6000-acre (24sq km) ranch owned by Professor Mbithi, ex-Secretary to the Cabinet. It is here that we met Michael, Professor Mbithi’s son, and Akhil, who are running a Lion and Cheetah project within the ranch and wider area of the vast Kapiti Plains, and who took us to our bush campsite to settle down for the night ahead. Once the sun had set, we headed out on a night game drive, using a female lion call to attract the males in the area. We soon met up with Osapuk, a male who has migrated from Amboseli, hundreds of kilometres away, and from here we followed the lion to see it almost make a kill on the neighbouring impala. Having spent an exciting couple of hours following the lion, we were ready to head back to the campsite. Michael’s car, on the other hand, had other ideas, and decided to run out of fuel and break down just before our destination. With 9 of us in the car and only 6 seats, we eagerly awaited assistance and a speedy recovery. This, unfortunately, did not materialise, and instead we were greeted by Osapuk, who encircled the car once Michael left for more fuel. Some of the group handled this better than others, falling asleep and becoming oblivious to the surrounding danger, leaving the rest to descend into delirium, which could be the only explanation for the subsequent rendition of the well-known song ‘Milk a Ferret’ (link song here). After waiting a further 4 hours, we were finally rescued at 4.30am and towed back to base. “Maybe we’ll skip the 6.30am game drive”, Michael suggested. We agreed.

 

Osapuk, the lion positively identified by Lion Guardians as having migrated here from Amboseli area (and one of his parents was from Tsavo!)

Osapuk, the lion positively identified by Lion Guardians as having migrated here from Amboseli area (and one of his parents was from Tsavo!)

IMG_4176

Waking up at 9am (the longest lie-in to date), we went out to find camera traps to see what wildlife existed in the area. We were shown lion, cheetah and caracal, an exciting array of the big cats. Afterwards, Michael told us of the difficulties of owning such a large plot so close to Nairobi. A number of offers had been made for the land, some reaching 5 million Ksh per acre. Such appealing amounts of money was turned down by Professor Mbithi, who insisted that the value of the wildlife, in the present and for future generations, was much greater than anything anyone else could offer. Opposite the ranch, Konza Technology City (nicknamed Silicon Savanna) was in the process of being developed on a similar sized, fully-fenced plot. We could see wildebeest, hartebeest, zebra and Grant’s gazelle inside the fence. At first we considered this to be harmful to the wildlife of the Athi-Kapiti ecosystem, however Michael suggested that the subsequent employment opportunities would lead to fewer poachers in the area. Developments of the railway were also cause for concern, as this prevents the migration of numerous species between Amboseli and Nairobi. Passages have been created beneath the tracks for wildlife to cross the boundary, however as Akhil voiced, this could create hotspots for poachers, who would be able to pick out animals with ease using snares and a scooter for a quick getaway. We left Lisa Ranch hoping that a future visit to Nairobi would be met with just as much wildlife, but with concern as to the compatibility of increased development and conservation.

 

Lisa Ranch and the expansive Kapiti Plains

Lisa Ranch and the expansive Kapiti Plains

From Lisa Ranch we met up with the founder and senior representatives of Friends of Maasai Mara (FoMM). The members themselves are Maasai, but have become professionals in subjects including law, engineering and medicine. With their expertise, they are now in the position to assist Maasai communities, such as by using a legal team to advise the communities on how to receive consolation from KWS, and by educating people on the reasons for conservation. The group believes there are too many conservancies using alternate management strategies, leading to rivalry and an uneven spread of large lodges, the main way locals are considered to be profiting from wildlife. This was a new perspective of conservation in Kenya, with previous discussions with managers of the conservancies focussing on the advantages and difficulties of their schemes, rather than an issue with conservancies themselves.

 

After meeting with FoMM, the group was promised a meal in one of the excellent Chinese restaurants of Nairobi. Having left after 9pm, we were soon disappointed and surprised to find that every restaurant was closed, and we began to consider Nakumatt (a supermarket) as our only option. We were eventually rewarded with the only available restaurant, the Sarova Stanley, also one of the finest hotels in Nairobi. Heading in with walking boots, tracksuit bottoms and greasy hair, we felt sufficiently under dressed compared to the usual clientele, but tucked in to our non-Chinese food nonetheless. Leaving the restaurant well after midnight, we headed back to Kitengela for another sleep-deprived night, waking up early to reach the next destination of Magadi.

 

– Claire Gibson

Photo credits: Bhavik

Samburu

As we drove to Samburu, the scenery was so different from what we had experienced in Kenya so far. It was so dry and everything looked so wild. When passing by a village, I was surprised by people’s clothes – so colourful and striking (I was wondering whether they dressed up for special events).

 

After two hours drive, we settled down in a Catholic mission in Archer’s Post, a town close to Samburu National Reserve (2km from the gate), which is the highlight of this stop. It is also the place where we met John for the first time (and the second, third, forth…). I wasn’t impressed by him at first as I though he is just another person who tries to sell us bead bracelets we saw everywhere. However, he kept popping up every time we came back to the church or had meals at Ripples restaurant (which is just outside the church). The thing is we had already bought something from him when we first met (Tom bought a bead bracelet for his brother with only 100 Kenyan shillings – good price!). It seems that he just wanted to talk to us rather than selling us bracelets, and we were amused by his funny accent. We were so impressed by his “Oh my God” and “Take it easy, Mate” that we kept following him. On the day we left the church, Lauren and I did buy another two bracelets from John, which suggested that his strategy did work! Moses is the chef at Ripples and he is so creative that he boiled rice with watermelon (we did check with Noreen that it is not an Kenyan thing)! The food was so good and I really like the fresh juice.

 

Samburu National Reserve is definitely the highlight of our whole trip so far. We only spent an afternoon and a morning there but we saw so many different things. The landscape in Samburu National Reserve is so amazing. Unlike the other two places we visited so far – Masaai Mara is open plains (and the grass is so high that it’s not easy to see animals), and Laikipia is more about a different experience that we can actually walk rather than sitting in the car. Samburu is so diverse that we saw hills, forests and rivers. We found a big herd of Grevy’s, a kind of zebra with fully round ears and white belly. Considering that there are only 3,000 left in the world, we must have seen at least 5% of the population! Meanwhile, Bhavik started a new ‘Animal Bingo’ that whoever finds leopard/cheetah/wild dog wins. With a little help from his friends through the radio, our driver David drove us to a rocky hill that was surrounded by cars. It was the place where we found a leopard and a cub. The leopard was taking a nap on a warm rock – so lazy. When we got to the back of the hill, we saw the cub trying to feed itself with a dead animal hanging in a tree. It tried so hard and it almost fell off the tree several times. We waited for about an hour, and when all the cars moved away, the cub just walked to us. We were so lucky to see it in such a short distance – definitely no more than 2 meters. It was worth the wait and David won the bingo (Bhavik didn’t give him the prize – shame)! It seems that we finally finished our “big five”: elephant, lion, black rhino, buffalo and leopard. The next morning, we came back with high expectation. Samburu didn’t let us down. We were so close to lions this time. There were 4 lions just passed by our car (we were alone at this sighting) one by one. One of them even stopped and rested in front of us. We also found three cheetahs resting under a tree. However, they were too far away from us and I couldn’t see them with my eyes. Bhavik and Brendan took several pictures, and when zoomed in those pictures, I saw the black tear marks on their faces. Because off-road driving was not allowed in the reserve, the only thing we could do is to wait and see what would happen next. We waited for a while, and it became hotter. Our cheetah experts thought that they were not going to do anything, so we decided to carry on to explore the other side of the reserve. David was informed that the migration was happening in Maasai Mara. What a pity! We were so close to it and it was just one week after we went there. Definitely need to come back next time!

 

In that afternoon, we went to Namunyak Conservancy for wild dog tracking. Unlike the one we did in Mpala, we were actually in the bush this time. A local guide was supposed to lead us to places where wild dogs have been seen. As they used to hiding behind rocks, we need to do some hiking this time. Hiking was a good idea as we spent most of our time in the car. However, the truth is girls were not in the right kits – we were wearing shorts and flats – which caused us a lot of troubles. We were trapped by a kind of tree, which have lots of spikes. I don’t remember the Swahili name Noreen told us, but I remember it means “wait a minute”, as it stops you. We all got scratches, but we didn’t see the wild dogs. We were actually not as disappointed as we should have been except Bhavik….

 

By Zheng

 

 

Laikipia

As we drove through Mpala the team (minus Tom) were having a heated debate about whether the Grevy’s or Common Zebra could be seen as more attractive; at this point I realised my motives for signing up for this trip were different to these other 6 keen conservationists, in my eyes both species of zebra were essentially stripey donkey. The last few days in Laikipia have however been of particular interest to me, having allowed me to view the relationship between humans and wildlife in a different light.

Dear Bhavik, I apologise in advance for any controversial statements posted in this blog (I dislike Richard).

Having proudly announced to our family and friends back home we were to embark on a month long camping exhibition, we were both surprised and excited to spontaneously spend the night at the glorious Maxoil hotel. Christmas had come early. The highlight of this unanticipated section of the trip was when we met manager Peter and his friend Dave* at dinner. Both men had exposed their alter egos as country western singers, following (what we could only presume were) several Tuskers. Dave* then declared his love for Annie (Claire), and when poor diplomatic Peter tried to acclaim that ‘all the girls are beautiful’, Dave simply responded with ‘No!’ Enoch then offered to exchange Claire for 25 cows and 75 sheep (much to her disappointment) and the boys rejoiced over the fact they had manage to rid themselves of half their female teammates. Once we had patiently waited an hour for what can only be described as rather mediocre toast in the morning, we set off for Margaret’s campsite. Our supreme leader tried to accuse dear Margaret of ‘’slowly, unintentionally poisoning us all’, however the general consensus was that the mystery plague which had swept over the group had been caused by undercooked rice at Maasai Mara (Margaret I do not blame you).

 

Day 1 in Laikipia featured a trip to the Ngusishi Water Resource Users Association. It was interesting to discover that even in the case of an extreme drought, the quota of water allocated to the environment would not be cut, even if that meant completely closing off the pipelines that fed domestic, industrial and agricultural projects. I was slightly sceptical about this rule, as it seemed to me it could encourage the sort of unregulated, free-for-all, default approach to water usage, which the association had aimed to suspend (however, I was part of a minority). The trip to the water association became more comical when we ventured upon a farm where water was being used efficiently to sustain a thriving business. Enoch decided it would be acceptable to start ransacking the poor man’s crops and forced us all to eat his stolen tree tomatoes. The CEO of the Water association thought it best to follow Enoch’s lead and proceeded to dig around for carrots, (he shall now be referred to as ‘Carrot Man’); I diagnosed him with ADHD, as he seemed incapable of talking to us without picking, harvesting, plucking or fishing.

 

The next day in Laikipia was spent at Ol Pejeta. The conservancy is renounced for its heavy management strategy and is well regarded when it comes to dealing with human-wildlife conflict. While the majority of the team were impressed with the resourceful ways in which private landowners had funded the conservation initiatives at Ol Pejeta, I felt indignant towards the ‘Cattle to Market’ scheme. Essentially, the pastoralists are denied access to the land to graze their cattle for reasons associated with grassland depletion and disease; only to have their most desirable cattle bought off them for ‘a fair price’ and transferred onto the very land their were told was off limits to cattle. The cattle are subsequently fattened up and sold to market for a much higher price. I was encouraged by Bhavik to confront CEO Richard Vigne about my reservations, whilst the others feasted on overpriced chips and milkshake served by his rather rude other-half. I disclosed to dear, misogynistic Richard my thoughts on the rather exploitative programme, which he understandably defended considering its contribution to 30% of the conservancy’s revenue. The issue I have is, conservation is money. The environment comes secondary to economics. Whilst economic development is hugely important in Kenya, it cannot be seen as an end in itself. Economic development should be seen as synonymous with social development, but in actual fact this is where the main conflict lies. Conservation can sometimes be a murky issue, and I think that is something we are all beginning to recognize, particularly me.

 

On our final day we went to Mpala ranch. After being greeted by the slightly robotic Cosmos, whose over-enthusiastic smile sent shivers down my spine, we were led on a tour of the site. We were all slightly confused when we were taken into the laboratory and told to browse but not ask questions; Cosmos was clearly unsure of what specimens were actually being held in the various test tubes and boxes. I must also mention the 10’ O’clock pancakes, THEY WERE INCREDIBLE. We had a morning game drive during which we saw some of Northern Kenya’s striking ‘specialty species’ including Grevy’s zebra and reticulated giraffe.

In the afternoon we spent 5 hours on a wild dog chase… quite literally. They most definitely are a mythical species BUT that is a story which will be continued…

 

By Lauren

Maasai Mara Days 2-4

As the CUWCS team awoke on day two of our trip, after a short but good night’s sleep in our lovely guide Enoch’s house, we prepared ourselves for the 6 hour drive from Kitengela to the Maasai Mara. 13 long, long hours later (Mr Shah is a liar) we found ourselves still in the minivan, lost on top of the escarpment overlooking the Maasai Mara National Reserve (the Mara Triangle) as we attempted to find our accommodation for the next few days. After the Enoch stopped to urinate in the bushes (at the risk of a lion attack), we came across a group of donkeys laden with white sacks. We were told that the donkeys were carrying illegal charcoal and we were witnessing the Nyakweri forest being carried out before our very eyes. This sighting served as a good introduction to the continual human-wildlife conflicts we would encounter throughout this trip. The Maasai Mara, as well as many areas throughout Kenya, face a constant battle in balance the needs of the population and the needs of the wildlife.

 

After another 2 hours lost on top of the escarpment, we finally found our accommodation, and after collapsing into bed immediately on arrival, woke up to an incredible view over the reserve. Venturing into the triangle for the first time, the group was excited to have multiple sightings of lions, elephants, giraffe and zebra, alongside vast amounts of impala, topi and gazelle. From a distance, we even saw several black rhino, much to the excitement of Bhavik, and several apparently rare species of bird, much to the delight of resident bird-lover and frog-catcher Tom. The afternoon game drive quickly descended into a competitive game of Animal Bingo, with much debate and discussion as to whether certain animals were far too common to count. Allegations of cheating, bribery and favouritism were sent in a barrage to our beloved leader (read: dictator) Bhavik, who organised the so-called game. Several group members were also told to be quiet after exclaiming far too loudly when a spotted hyena was discovered, and another animal could be checked off their bingo cards. After the bingo nearly tore us apart, the CUWCS team reconciled in the evening over a good meal and a night of chatting and bonding, and all wrongs were forgotten (apart from Tom, who was busy trying to find frogs in accommodation grounds).

 

Our second day began with a trip to the Mara North Conservancy. This was a very different experience to that of the national reserve the day before; here community members own the land privately, but the land is under management by the conservancy body to allow wildlife to roam. Patrick, the manager of the conservancy, told us how the community members are paid monthly lease fee by the conservancy and in return they allow wildlife onto their land, and have a grazing plan whereby livestock only graze in certain areas, rotated over time, to prevent the land from becoming degraded. We were told how balancing the needs of the community against the needs of wildlife is a constant struggle, but that with careful supervision and strong community engagement, alongside education and training projects for community members, the Mara North Conservancy is effective in protecting vulnerable land surrounding the reserve.

 

We then visited one of the settlements in Mara North Conservancy, Mara Rianta, and were shown a predator-proofed boma. A key issue within community conservancies is the predation of livestock by wildlife, and it was explained how communities in this area have adapted their enclosures by adding wire mesh and metal sheets to protect the animals from predators and how they have adapted the design to address weaknesses, such as hyenas biting the goats’ heads and backsides!

 

In the afternoon, we visited a Maasai boma to see the pastoralist group’s way of life. After a demonstration from the Maasai, the male group members attempted to create fire in order to demonstrate their masculinity: Bhavik and Brendan will now never find wives. After a tour of the boma, Lauren fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming betrothed to a Maasai man for the princely sum of 650 goats. Although an interesting insight into this traditional tribal culture, the experience somewhat lacked authenticity, and the group remain keen to see a less-commercialised portrayal of the Maasai way of life.

 

The CUWCS team collapsed into bed after several busy days in the Maasai Mara, which featured flat tires, long drop toilets and a two hour unplanned late-night tour of the escarpment, ready to continue the adventure to Laikipia in the morning.

-Louise

Day One

Landing in Kenya was a shock to many of us. Leaving behind England in a heat wave, arriving to the chilly Nairobi morning made us question our packing of only t-shirts, shorts and copious amounts of sun cream. Having been met by our guide and host Enoch (grinning at our shivering) we packed into the land cruiser and made for our base for the day in the Kitengela district on the outskirts of Nairobi… at least we tried to reach Kitengela. Nairobi traffic is like nothing those of us new to Africa have ever seen, if the city has a highway code its only rules seem to be overtake and don’t hit a cow. Having negotiated the road system to Kitengela, with the odd Giraffe to cheer us along on the way, a brief recuperation period was allowed before once again braving the dust, potholes and traffic of Nairobi to reach the head quarters of the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS). After a bone-shaking journey we at last arrived at the picturesque HQ of the KWS to discuss the history, politic and goals of the KWS with the only education officer brave enough to face the onslaught of question and accusations levelled at him by the CUWCS. He should be commended for not quailing under the scrutiny of the irrepressible Mr Bhavik Shah.

Talk from Kenya Wildlife Service

Talk from Kenya Wildlife Service

Leaving the HQ we were treated to a show by a delightful troop of very vocal Sykes’s Monkeys. Before the sun set on what had already been a very eventful first day we braved the roads one final time to reach the pasturelands of the Kitengela district that border Nairobi National Park. Though not a protected area the residents of the national park move freely between the pastureland and the park itself, hence the opportunity to see many of the wonders of Nairobi National Park presented itself to us. We were not to be disappointed; large herds of Plains Zebra, Giraffe, Thompson’s Gazelle and Blue Wildebeest abounded. These groups were interspersed with the odd Common Eland, Coke’s Hartebeest, Impala, Warthog and Ostrich.

Eastern white-bearded wildebeest (world population estimated at under 10,000)

Eastern white-bearded wildebeest (world population estimated at under 10,000)

Maasai Ostrich (female)

Maasai Ostrich (female)

Maasai Giraffe and Wildebeest

Maasai Giraffe and Wildebeest

Plains Zebra

Plains Zebra

Though we could have simply sat and gawped at the wildlife within an arms length, as the sun set over the plains we instead shared our company with some of the heroes at the front line of conservation in Kenya. Meeting with Nickson, a Maasai chief and community leader in mitigating human-wildlife conflict for the district, we were taken to a KWS ranger outpost where the rangers spend their nights watching over the fauna of Nairobi National Park and Kitengela Game Dispersal Area, particularly watching out for black rhinos and lions straying out of the park through its unfenced southern boundary. It is the lions of the area that are causing the main strife for the local Maasai pastoralists, and in the dying light we discussed and debated how do deal with such issues both as a ranger on the ground and a foreign westerner living many thousands of miles away. So, despite the fact few of us managed to sleep at all during our flights, we managed a very full first day, already meeting some inspirational people and seeing some amazing wildlife. Though I could continue and list the various birds and reptiles seen along the roadsides and the specific subspecies of ostrich seen in Kitengela (it was the massaicus race for anyone interested) we all now long for our beds to catch a few hours sleep before beginning our six hour journey at the crack of dawn to see the wonders of the Maasai Mara.

Group photograph with KWS Rangers and Enoch (centre) and Nickson (short-sleeved shirt to the left of KWS

Group photograph with KWS Rangers and Enoch (centre) and Nickson (short-sleeved shirt to the left of KWS

IMG_1198

– Tom

Photo credits: Bhavik

Kenya pre-trip

We will be blogging right here about our trip to Kenya, where individuals will be visiting and working alongside conservation initiatives and local communities including the Maasai and Samburu, two pastoralist tribes that have historically co-existed with wildlife for hundreds of years. We will be visiting Kenya’s famous wildlife areas such as the Maasai Mara and Samburu, as well as a whole host of other community-led conservancies. The team will be participating in research activities such as camera-trapping, spotlighting, radio-collar tracking as well as getting close to the animals themselves – lions, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, rhinos, giraffes… the whole host of Africa’s famous wildlife. Follow our blog here to see how the team gets on and the fantastic wildlife that they encounter!