Amboseli Trip Report - January 2006
On January 21st I flew out of Logan Airport (no problems this time like last year’s 30 inch snow storm). The flight was uneventful from Boston via Amsterdam to Nairobi. Both flights were completely filled as usual. No problems with Customs (thank goodness because I was taking a new camera for one of the wildlife experts). I was met at the airport by Southern Cross Safaris and taken directly to the Holiday Inn. Since I had slept most of the way on the plane, I only slept for two hours that night, waking about 2 a.m. and wanting to immediately go to Amboseli. However, I had to wait until the 7:30 flight out of Wilson. As many of you know, the small planes have retractable stairs. On exiting the plane at the Amboseli airstrip I got my index finger caught in the lines that hold the stairs in place and broke the finger! I was met by my driver and the head of guest relations, driven to Ol Tukai and was greeted by all. I got my favorite room and quickly unpacked before the first game drive. When I looked out on Longinye Swamp from my veranda I could see thousands of animals.
I must say that before I left home I had read so much about the drought and famine that I was anxious about what I might find with the people and the animals when I got there. Luckily, in the area of Amboseli and Tsavo, things were very good. Yes, drought was evident in some areas of the park. Near the area of the swamps things were still very green looking. However, on the whole all the animals looked fantastic. I didn’t see any skeletal looking animals at all (except for the usual lean look of the Maasai cattle – they never look as healthy as our local cattle). My driver did tell me that he had driven to Nairobi the previous week and on the road from Namanga to Nairobi he did see some dead livestock and wildlife. However, never was this evident in the parks. However, from what I understand from all living in Kenya, north of Nairobi is where the real drought and famine are occurring.
At the end of the first day’s game drive I was truly grateful to see so many healthy looking animals. Tons of zebra, wildies, buffalo, lions, elephants. However, I am still concerned for those farther north in Kenya. I just hope that the long rains are really productive this year. If they are not, it will be a disaster for all – humans and wildlife. Even if they get long rains, it will be another six months before the crops start showing a return, so hunger in parts of the country will remain for quite awhile.
The first night at Amboseli I didn’t sleep well due to jet lag. Upon awaking, my index finger was totally stiff and swollen about 2 – 3 times normal size. Oh well, I’m not going to let that stop me! That morning it was quite cold out – probably about 50 – 55 degrees necessitating wearing my fleece jacket on the early morning game drive. I noticed that all the areas near the swamps were lusciously green, but far away things were very brown and burned looking. Thankfully again all the animals looked healthy. I saw the bodies of two elephants that had recently died. One was an older female of about 64 years – the other was a 20 years old female, and her calf was missing. Both these deaths were from natural causes. Echo’s family were visible inside the Safariland fencing close to the lodges. They like to push over the trees at night and then browse on the leaves. Echo is probably the most known matriarch of a family of 30 elephants. She has had several movies made of her life, and at age 64 she recently had a calf!) It was good seeing her and knowing that she is alright. I also saw five yearling lions on game drives near Pelican Lake and they were kind enough to pose for me (in reality trying to stay cool under some bushes).
The next morning we were headed back out to the same area to see if the lions had made a kill during the night. On the way we heard SSSSSSSS! Puncture number 1. My driver had just had the Landcruiser to Nairobi last week and brand new (and expensive) Pirelli tires were put on. He told them at the time that they were too thin for park driving but they wouldn’t listen. Thus he had to get out and change the tire but had to wait until a family of elephants went past us. As he was changing the tire he was watched by a small family of zebras who were curious as to what was going on.
As I was walking back to my room I saw a baboon running between my building and the next and figured Loitu, the monkey-babboon chaser, must be after him. As I rounded the corner to my building I didn’t see Loitu, the monkey chaser, so I proceeded very carefully because I had been told the baboons were breaking into the rooms. As I went up the sidewalk to my room the baboon was in the room staring out at me!!! He had totally ripped the screen and gone in through the window!! A yell for Loitu brought several men running and they chased him out of the lodge area. I don’t know if this is a problem everywhere or not. However, for safety sake, if you are in your room make sure you lock the door – the baboons do know how to open doors, and when you leave your room you might close your windows (if there are monkeys and baboons in the area). They have been known to steal camera bags, food and even clothing. Where ever you stay, just ask if there is a problem there or not.
The next morning I went out with one of the elephant researchers. An elephant had died the previous day of apparent natural causes but they wanted to rule out anthrax. Thus the researcher and I went to the carcass, she put on protective gloves and excised a small piece of soft tissue from around the jaw and put the tissue in fixative. The researcher could tell that this female elephant was on her last set of teeth so this put her in the 60 – 65 year old range. This tissue will be sent to Duke University for testing. Since there are so very many hungry and perhaps ill cattle in the park, if the cattle were to have anthrax it could be passed on to the elephants. Three elephants dead of apparent natural causes (not speared or poison arrowed) raised the suspicions, and they wanted to be sure that anthrax wasn’t a problem with elephants. Right after leaving the scene of this dead elephant we ran into the family of Odile, the elephant that had been speared in the head (seen on some of my older pictures). She is now the picture of health!! Other than her broken tusks, one would never know she had been so severely injured. Thank goodness for the researchers who found her, called the veterinarian and Dr. Ndeerah himself for the caring work they put into her care. Without all of the above this elephant would surely be dead by now. Unfortunately she is still situating herself near the Serena Lodge (with the Maasai manyatta not very far). Let us hope she stays away from them so there will be no repeat of last years events.
We tried to collect the lower jaw of the older 64 year old elephant Emmy who had died two weeks previously, but it was still well connected and will have to be collected at a later date. The researchers always keep the lower jaws in order to better judge the ages of the dead elephants. While doing this the researcher got a call that an elephant had killed a cow outside of the park. Thus we went to park headquarters and picked up the KWS rangers and drove off road for about 10 miles until we found the dead cow. We all got out of the vehicle and the rangers agreed that there were elephant prints all around the dead cow. The owner took the tree branches off the cow that he had placed so the scavengers wouldn’t get it until the researchers had a chance to verify the death. KWS agreed that prints were all around the cow and the researcher agreed that the wounds were typical of those being caused by an elephant. Then we drove to the manyatta so the owner could present his ID card. All the information was obtained by the researcher. The owner of the cow will now receive $220.00 for the death of his cow (about $60.0 for a goat). Some of the owners are now happy when the elephants go after their sickly and starving cattle because they will now receive something for them (where the cow might die anyway due to the drought). I told the researcher that she ought to relay in Maa to the rangers in the back seat of the vehicle that they be sure to keep their fingers off the triggers of their guns! The off road driving consisted of bumps, going over rocks, hills and all I could think of when hitting one of these hazards was a finger hitting the trigger and three holes being blasted through the roof of the vehicle!!! Well, nothing happened, but one does some times have irrational thoughts!
I asked the researchers if they ever cross the Tanzanian border to check on the Amboseli elephants who often go there. There is still hunting on the Tanzanian side of the border, and many Amboseli elephants have been killed there. Even if I were a hunter, I don’t know how one could live with themselves bagging an elephant that will walk right up to your vehicle. The researcher told me that they had been on a trip to Meru some time ago. There had been a report of six huge bulls who were very wild. The researchers drove there but were not in their usual vehicle (which the elephants would recognize). The Tanzanian rangers didn’t want them to go and look at these bulls because they thought they might get hurt. Indeed the rangers were afraid to go with them. Thus the girls drove up close and started talking with the bulls and the bulls recognized them immediately and calmed right down. This totally astonished the Tanzanian rangers who then sheepishly came closer. The intelligence of these animals is astounding even to those who work with them daily.
The next day we saw four cheetahs. In August there had been many in the park. No one is sure whether the drought has something to do with fewer cheetahs this time or not. They were quite a distance from the road so the pictures aren’t as good as some previously.
A python had killed a gazelle two weeks before I got there. We managed to see only the belly of the snake in the water and the gazelle still hadn’t digested!
On the way back to the lodge PSSSSSS, puncture #2. After lunch someone knocked at my door to tell me another orphaned elephant was in the process of being rescued and did I want to go and see it. OF COURSE!!! Grabbed my cameras and ran to the Landcruiser. We speeded down the main road and PSSSS, puncture #3. I got out of the vehicle to make it easier to jack the car up, and promptly slid down the highly graded side of the road. My left leg bent under me and I was just hoping it wouldn’t be broken, thus ruining the rest of my trip. However, when I got up no serious damage – just a badly skinned (deeply) knee, (of course I had no Bandaids with me in the vehicle). Thus the flies immediately swarmed the knee and I had to cover it with Kleenex to keep the flies away! Really looked stupid showing up for a rescue with Kleenex pasted all over my leg. Anyway, the baby they were going to rescue was the baby of the 20 year old elephant who had died two weeks previously. The baby had disappeared and they couldn’t find it. However, on this day the researcher found the baby attached to another family (who would protect it but wouldn’t give it milk needed for their own babies). The researcher had been acting like a cowgirl all day. She knew the Nairobi Sheldrick team was due in by plane and didn’t want the elephants to go into the swamp, so every time they headed for the swamp she would drive her vehicle between them and the water (a water rescue for a baby is dangerous for baby and rescuers). The matriarch of this group must have sensed what was up, because she kept trying to kick the orphan out of the way as though to say, “It’s you they want so get lost”! The plane with the elephant keepers and veterinarian was delayed getting in, and eventually the researcher felt she had to let the elephants get water, and they went into the swamp. Wouldn’t you know it, not long after we saw the plane landing at the airstrip and about 10 minutes later the keepers and veterinarian arrived. They all waited and waited hoping the elephants would come out of the swamp because the plane had to depart the airstrip before dark. However, the cagey elephants knew that something was up and never came out. Thus the team headed back to Nairobi with no orphan. Immediately after dropping the team off at the airstrip the researcher and I drove back to the rescue site and the elephants had left the swamp as soon as the vehicles left (they are cunning aren’t they). The next day the researchers looked for him but couldn’t find him.
While the keepers were there I asked them about an orphaned elephant at their Nairobi site named Ndololo. One of the keepers broke down in tears. Another keeper told me he had died a few days before. For those who don’t know about Ndololo’s rescue, he was almost dead when some tourists saw him in Tsavo. A female elephant with him was starting to bury him. When the keepers showed up she watched as the keepers picked up the baby and took him away. They didn’t think he would survive the night. He did though and was flown to the Nairobi orphanage the next morning. After getting him through many physical problems and seeing him regain health, they discovered that he was blind. They had no idea what caused the blindness. They thought perhaps a cobra had spat in his eyes, but weren’t sure. The human ophthalmologists had been treating him. Had it been a female, the blindness wouldn’t be quite as worrisome because females stay with their families their entire lives and they would have other elephants to guide them. However, with a bull (male) it is different matter because from the time they are 11 – 13 years old they lead fairly solitary lives, and a blind bull could never survive in the wild. The last news I heard before leaving home was that his eyes were responding to treatment and he had regained some sight in one eye (great news). Ndololo’s death was totally unexpected. A necropsy revealed only inflammation in the small intestine so there are still unanswered questions. However, Ndololo in his short life brought happiness to many who got to know him and he will be deeply missed. Rest in peace Ndololo.
On my last day in Amboseli PSSSS, puncture #4!!! Thus we used the brand new Landcruiser with heavier tires. We drove around Pelican Lake again and saw 12 lions coming out of the bush candle bushes where they had stayed cool all day. The wind was pretty severe, but I did get a few pictures from a distance.
Thoughts on Amboseli – no elephant spearings recently (YEA!!!). However, the problem they are now having in addition to the drought, and because of the drought, is that thousands and thousands of Maasai cattle are being brought into the park daily – to the point of blocking traffic on some of the roads when they are crossing. This is a real problem for both sides. The Maasai feel their scrawny cattle deserve being in the park. However, when they are in the park they are eating food much needed by the wildlife. And, if the cattle defecate near a waterhole, elephants will no longer drink from it. Years ago when the game department was a separate entity from the government, the rangers would jail the offenders and confiscate the cattle. KWS has now been doing their best to hurry them in and out and not letting them graze – just getting water. However, KWS hands are tied also. The court still hasn’t arrived at a decision about “ownership” of the park. KWS is still in charge but doesn’t have much power to do anything because unfortunately they now have to answer to the crooked politicians. Without government backing there isn’t much KWS can do.
The Maasai are indeed living in their tribal past thinking large numbers of cattle mean wealth (though they don’t often sell large numbers). Trying to explain that if they have 1,000 cows they should sell 500, use the money they get for their families, and rebuilt their herd sounds crazy to them. Thus their herds keep increasing and when drought happens they may lose everything. Indeed I saw one herder with one herd of 50 bulls and many cows. Doesn’t make sense when one bull can serve many cows.
One more thought. As many of you know, I have always made clear my love of Ol Tukai Lodge. I didn’t realize how right I was until January. On three occasions couples that had already checked into the Serena drove by Ol Tukai, walked in and were astonished at how beautiful it was, and then cancelled their reservations at the Serena and stayed at Ol Tukai. On each occasion they stated that the Serena rooms were small and dark and they really had no view. The rooms at Ol Tukai are of a very nice size, bright and the views can be fantastic – either a view of Kilimanjaro (when not cloudy) or the swamps with all the animals in it. Though this lodge is only seven years old, they are now starting to gradually update all the bathrooms and soft furnishings including mattresses and drapes. Based on the comments I have now heard from other people, I would definitely forego the Serena and book Ol Tukai. I again rode past the Serena three weeks ago and all you see is a huge rock field from when Kili last erupted – not pretty. You still have to drive to Longinye swamp to see the animals, so why not spend your days and nights there at Ol Tukai?
All in all it was a fantastic week. I was so very pleased seeing normal-looking, healthy animals. Though there is drought, so far the animals are finding food and water. Please everyone, pray for rain for Africa.
Tsavo report coming up shortly.