The Sussex Wildlifer
Featuring endangered wildlife from around the world

Reflections on a Kenyan Safari: February-March 2007

I had travelled to East Africa in the expectation of seeing many of its wonderful animals and birds, but nothing had prepared me for the super-abundance of wildlife, the truly atrocious roads (the worst experienced anywhere in the world) and the wonderful weather in the highlands, as we criss-crossed the equator. Mind you, the bad roads do perhaps serve a good purpose. If they were better far more people would be visiting the national reserves and this would undoubtedly have an adverse impact on the wildlife. Many Kenyans are in fact lobbying politicians to improve the roads and with an election soon pending….

Initially, I had expected that of the hundreds of tourists pouring into the country, many would share an interest in wildlife. Oh! How simple minded of me! How naïve! The majority simply headed straight for the equatorial beaches to bask under a scorching sun, suffer in the high humidity, or for long periods of the day to shelter in the shade out of the intense sunshine. They spend the day eating and drinking as much as possible to get their value for money in the many ‘all-inclusive’ hotels.

Now, Kenya is a world-class location for animal and birdlife, and yet I met very few people who were interested in the spectacular birdlife in this world-class birding location and where they are more approachable than almost anywhere else I have travelled. The safari drivers were a good case in point. I didn’t meet one who had any real interest in his country’s avifauna. Whilst they could be very knowledgeable when it came to animals, the indifference they showed to the birds was puzzling. Did they have a pulse! How can anyone not stop in amazement when secretary birds, immensely beautiful grey-crowned cranes, eagles and many other really large birds approach to within a few paces, sometimes so close I was unable to focus my camera? Some drivers I spoke to even suggested that the millions of flamingos at Lake Nakuru were the ‘greater’ species, whereas in reality they were the ‘lesser’. This is the single most awesome bird spectacular in the world. How wrong can anyone be? So much is taken for granted, but unless the environment is carefully managed and visitor numbers in the reserves strictly enforced, more will disappear forever within the next 50 years.

Such attitudes really do bother me. What hope is there for the planet’s wildlife if so many people just don’t care a fig? It is the same at home. There are so few people I meet these days who have any interest in nature. I just watch their eyes glaze over when I tell them what I do. Unchecked population growth with its attendant problem of destruction to the environment is possibly the greatest global threat. Forget about global warming, the fundamental problem is that there are already too many people on this planet and unless someone can get a grip on this issue, then the world as we know it is doomed. Darwin had it right in the mid-1800s, when he warned that unless something was done then there would be only standing room left for humans in the 21st century!

Our itinerary took us to Samburu, Treetops, Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha and Keekerok Lodge in the Masai Mara. The driver stopped en route to allow me to buy several kilos of dried beans for my camera beanbag, an essential that paid for itself many times over. There is one big problem for photographers travelling with five other companions. Movement is inevitable, as some change position to get a better view of the game and blurred shots are the result. At the end of the trip our driver graciously accepted the beans and I suspect there were enough to keep him, his two wives and five children in food for a week!

I would love to return and stay longer at both the lakes, to enjoy the 2m+ flamingos, surely the premier birding experience on the whole planet. Our game drive at Nakuru was woefully short and we could not possibly do justice to the wealth of wildlife there. At Naivasha, with the help of Nicholas, a local naturalist, we saw 85 species of birds in a little over two hours. Just after sunrise he walked just four of us through his local patch before breakfast and by 9 am we were on a boat with him, drifting around the flat-calm lake, bathed in early morning sunshine. It was sheer bliss! We drifted close to many animals and even closer to the birds. Here there is a greater concentration of fishing eagles than anywhere else in the world and we studied them from near point blank range. Whilst goliath herons and white pelicans looked on from nearby shallows, giraffes stuck their heads out of the trees and hippos popped up their heads from a few yards away.

The only other place where it was possible to walk with a local birder was at Samburu, where top-man Jacob treated us to an all too short hour’s walk around the grounds of the lodge. We were the only two people who used his services that day and this perhaps sums up the all too depressing attitude the majority of visitors have. He showed us numerous local specialities, to be seen nowhere else in the whole of Africa, whilst just a stone’s throw away across the Ewaso Ngiro River there lurked leopard, reticulated giraffe and Somali ostrich. Baboons and black-faced vervet monkeys live in the gardens and pearl-spotted owlets perch low in the branches of trees surrounding our living accommodation, whilst in the evenings 20 huge Nile crocodiles come onto the banks to be fed.

Every location has its own speciality and offers a unique experience. The Masai Mara with its huge herds of game was superb, even if, on the last afternoon, we had to make a run for it to avoid a fast-approaching storm, and one that might well have seen us bogged down for the night surrounded by large predators. I will never forget the Mara. One moment I was sat in the van minding my own business, the next frantically trying to remove a huge locust, which was crawling up my leg. I felt a slight tickle on my leg and brushed it; then again a moment later and again as something brushed against my knee. It was then that I decided there was something rather unpleasant going on and I grabbed a handful of trouser as whatever it was reached my pants. I tore off my belt with my free hand and dropped my trousers, at which stage our driver decided that it was perhaps time to stop the van and have a good laugh! My wife grabbed the locust in her hand, this creature sticking out both sides of her fist, and threw it out of the window, where it was immediately squashed by a passing van (the poor thing). I am lucky to be married to a girl who is not afraid of such creatures!

On our first full day at Samburu, we came late in the day on four cheetah cubs and their mother. A very large group of elephants, with numerous babies, including what looked like twins, was making its way back from the river. The presence of the cheetahs seriously spooked the female elephants and the mother cheetah deliberately drew them away from her cubs. They on the other hand were hemmed in between the main herd and the massed vans allowing them no direct means of escape and for some time everyone watched with concern as they slunk this way and that through the long grass, uncertain what to do without their mother there to guide them, or where to go. All, however, was well and we caught up with the group again the very next morning, although once again the presence of too may vans seriously hampered the mother cheetah from bringing down anything to eat.

Unfortunately, we did experience some bad behaviour. East of the Mara River we had to suffer hordes of vans all jockeying for position to see the animals. Whereas the majority of drivers were extremely well disciplined, there were instance of cowboy style tactics to get people as close as possible to the big game. The occupants could be seen standing on the roofs, all straining for position, as a lone cheetah cowered in the long grass. We ordered our van driver away and sought other wildlife, successfully. On another occasion, what looked like a private 4WD was being driven so recklessly towards some parked safari vans, that it scattered game all over the place. Later we were pleased to see that what looked like the same vehicle had skidded off the track and was seeking help from the rangers to get it going again.

On the other hand, west of the Mara River, there were only five other vans when we watched a group of six cheetahs for over an hour and a half and the experience there on our last day was far more wholesome and enjoyable. Should more tourists be allowed into the parks one can only imagine the detrimental effect this will have on the wildlife. For people as passionately interested in all aspects of wildlife as my wife and I are, this trip has fully exceeded all expectations. We have experienced what we have only ever seen on the TV before, in particular the cheetah mother with five cubs, all about six months old. They walked directly towards our van, then splitting and walking past on both sides; all manner of other game, both large and small and mostly viewed from point blank range. Large groups of elephants with their babies allowed us, when in Samburu, to approach to within a few feet of them, only one broken-tusker male showing any inclination to see us off his patch. They are, however, causing serious damage to the local environment and it may become necessary to cull some of these beautiful creatures.

Birds have popped up every time we turn our heads, over 230 species and we weren’t even really trying, of which 126 were lifers – we were after all here mainly for the animals. Number 1300 on our big list was a martial eagle: number 1400 a grey-crowned crane and we are now heading towards the 1500 mark. It does not get much better than that!

Near disaster was averted on the last day of the safari. My portable hard disk was full. This had not been a problem last year in Sri Lanka, but the D200 produces significantly larger images. I now have two 4GB memory cards, but this now left me with only one. In the end this was not a problem, but it is something for me to reconsider on my next trip.

And so on to Malindi, more atrocious roads, the largest four-poster beds imaginable, sea views and a great divan on the balcony, where I could stretch out full length and slumber away the afternoon heat and humidity enveloped in a cooling breeze. Whilst the weather in the highlands is warm during the day and deliciously cool at night with little or no humidity, on the coast temperatures are much higher and with greatly increased humidity there were times when I felt very uncomfortable, especially when away from the seashore.

This area is a very important one for birdlife and there are internationally important locations, such as the Sokoke Forest area, the Sabaki River mouth and the Watamu coastline, the Gede Forest Ruins area, Mida Creek with its hundreds of crab plovers and a marine conservation area, where we thoroughly enjoyed a morning snorkelling the coral reef. There are very specific endemic birds that can only be seen in this area. Mind you, it is not cheap to get a taxi to these places and you may well need to enter into some really hard bargaining. We were told that had we used a tuktuk the police would have arrested both the driver and ourselves. I am not sure if the taxi driver who told us that was merely trying to encourage us to only use him, but we are glad that we did, as the journeys were much longer than we had first thought and it was a safer means of transport.

Mida Creek is great. Set up as a community project, it boasts a boardwalk and bird hide overlooking a huge lagoon, which is heaving with birds, including the fairly elusive greater flamingos. The boardwalk is actually a rope suspension bridge spanning some 400 yards of mangrove swamp. It was then on to the Kipepeo Project Butterfly Farm at Gede, where we witnessed several large butterflies hatching out and drying their wings. We had signed the visitor’s books in both places and had noticed that there are depressingly few visitors. Why is it that such a tiny percentage of holidaymakers support these community projects?

Hotel development is destroying some of the beaches where the turtles nest and rich Italians are somehow being allowed to build huge mansions far too close to the sea, much to the disgust of some local Kenyans. Where have we come across these problems before! The writing is on the wall. We enjoyed an interesting conversation with a teacher and turtle conservationist late one afternoon on the beach. They were gloomy about the long-term prospects for nesting turtles. As in so many other locations around the world, so few people care.

Early morning is a good time to see many of the shorebirds, especially when the tide goes out and it is possible to walk a fair distance out towards the reefs. On the other hand, it is better to walk a little to the north and away from the hotels, when you may be overwhelmed with the numbers of shorebirds, both large and small. It is true that you have to be careful about the beach touts, but they are not really that great a problem and for a few shillings will show you some of the better birding locations you may otherwise miss.

In New Zealand in 2002 I fell in love with albatrosses. Forget about the big 5 – I fell in love with the cheetahs! This trip was one of the most awesome experiences of my life and one that considerably exceeded all expectations. Just driving in and then out of the Great Rift Valley is an unforgettable experience. Would I go again? Undoubtedly yes to the lakes of Nakuru and Naivasha, otherwise I would want to break new ground and perhaps visit Tanzania during the wildebeest migration, but I am glad that I ignored the advice of all those who said that Tanzania was a better place to go.