Elsa's Kopje - Travel Report by "Safaridude"
No, I didn’t grow up with “Born Free”. As you may know, Meru National Park was where Elsa, the lioness, from “Born Free” was released. A few weeks before the trip, however, I did take out from a local library a couple of books written by Joy Adamson about her cheetah, Pippa, who was also released in Meru. The books were revealing. Adamson describes what must have been an absolute paradise. She describes Pippa surveying her options on the plains filled with big herds of Grant’s gazelles and beisa oryxes. Today, Meru is a far cry from what Pippa saw. Somali poachers began infiltrating the park in the ‘70s and then again in the ‘80s (there was an infamous incident when a poaching gang, armed with automatic weapons, killed off several white rhinos along with their human guardians in 1988). After a brief period or respite, the poachers returned with a vengeance in the late ‘90s when they virtually anchored themselves inside the park and poached out pretty much everything in sight except for the unpalatable waterbucks. Once a park that drew 50,000 visitors a year in the ‘70s, Meru became defunct. In 1999, however, Meru received a sizeable foreign aid in a bid to restore the park to its former glory. Since then, poachers have been forced out, security tightened around the periphery, local community relationships improved, and hundreds of animals translocated from other parts of Kenya. As a ringing endorsement to the state of affairs at Meru, several black and white rhinos have been moved into the park again – in a closely guarded rhino sanctuary in the northwest corner of the park. All of this information can be found on the internet in far greater detail. It’s exciting stuff.
Frankly, I was a bit apprehensive about Meru, not because of the security situation which is now iron-clad, but because I had been told by some people that the game can be “spotty”. How wrong they were! All the classic “northern species” are represented at Meru, and their numbers are good and growing. Samburu, Meru’s closest rival, is a more condensed experience. The total wildlife numbers are probably much lower at Samburu, but due to Samburu’s small size, one can see everything there in a day and a half (including many species of mini-buses). At Meru, you need more time and have to cover more ground to see everything. But, an efficient network of roads allows you to do that. The scenery is diverse and at times downright haunting. Mature doum palm trees dot the open plains, giving one the sense of being in Jurassic Park. Thick strands of commiphora dominate the south. Bright green, stunted combretum trees, spaced out evenly forming an orchard-like setting, provide contrast to the bleached grass underneath.
Elsa’s Kopje, the main lodge, is a marvel. Built onto Mughwango Hill, which is often referenced in Joy Adamson’s books, every room is uniquely designed. Elsa’s is currently looked after by Anthony and Emma, both Kenyan-born Brits, who will give you your privacy at first but charmingly engage if you are willing. Great food, smiling staff, and an inviting pool – you needn’t hesitate to skip a game drive.
On the first afternoon, George, our guide took us to the rhino sanctuary. Elephants, zebras, Grant’s gazelles, impalas, Coke’s hartebeests, dik-diks, reticulated giraffes, Somali ostriches, and a mess of waterbucks were seen along the way. No fewer than thirteen rivers criss-cross Meru. Every crossing point is negotiated over an unobtrusively designed bridge. Inside the heavily guarded sanctuary, we saw a total of five white rhinos – gentle giants they are, peacefully grazing on the floodplain, unaware of the bounty on their horns. The following day, we explored the northern part of the park. We saw a couple of lionesses sleeping off the ostrich meal from the previous night, but we did not see the rest of this big pride. I was pleased to see relaxed herds of beisa oryxes and a relaxed bull eland. These antelopes are wanderers, often moving out of protected areas, and they taste good to humans – as such, they tend to be the most skittish of the antelopes. The fact that they were so tame is a testament to the kind of quality protection Meru is currently providing them. I have not had good luck with the lesser kudu in the past, speaking of skittish antelopes. Despite having been to Amboseli, Tsavo West, Tsavo East and Tarangire, where they occur, I have only one marginal photograph of a full-grown male lesser kudu to show for it. Not only are they rare, they are also well camouflaged, and all you get by the time you point the camera is the flash of the tail. As a result, there are not many good photographs of them anywhere, and they are something of a holy grail for serious African wildlife photographers. But, in Meru, they run around like rats! In two full days, we had just shy of 20 separate sightings, and on three occasions, the males actually posed for a few precious seconds. The only “northern species” we did not see was Grevy’s zebra, although we saw spoor. Apparently, the translocation of Grevy’s zebras from Laikipia didn’t work out well. Only 20 or so Grevy’s zebras were moved in, not nearly enough for a viable population, and the lions took a heavy toll on them. There are only six or seven of them left in Meru now, and they are all females. Given that Meru is classic Grevy’s zebra country, I am certain one day a more successful translocation will take place. Thinking back to what Luca at Campi ya Kanzi said about how there are no set rules when it comes to wild animals, we observed or heard about more unusual animal behavior at Meru. Gerenuks are reputed to be ecologically separated from lesser kudus by their preference for relatively more open bush land. We found the exact opposite at Meru. While lesser kudus were, especially in the evenings, found in the relatively open bush, gerenuks were only seen in the impenetrable commiphora forests. One of the staff members told us that some cheetahs in Meru prefer the commiphora, subsisting on dik-diks and largely ignoring the impalas and Grant’s gazelles on the plains.
The first morning at Elsa’s Kopje, I was sipping my coffee by the swimming pool which overlooks the vast plains to the east. As the sun rose, my eyes welled up as I imagined what the scene must have been like in Elsa’s and Pippa’s times; then again in 1999 after the plains had been ravaged; then again 5-10 years from now. Then, it occurred to me that Meru will become a superstar again. As long as adequate protection is given, the herbivores will thrive (the proliferation of waterbucks, who were largely spared from poaching, hints at the potential of other herbivore population), which in turn, will lead to an increase in the number of carnivores. But the time is now to see Meru before it becomes popular again. You will have the whole park to yourself. Especially, if you have “been there and done that” at Samburu, you must go see Meru. Given the checkered history of Meru, this is, in all likelihood, the last chance for its survival. It is off to a great start, but we can all chip in to ensure that it prospers. Recall Bernard and Michael Grzimek’s groundbreaking film titled “Serengeti Shall Not Die!” I say “Meru Shall Not Die!”