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

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– Tom

Photo credits: Bhavik