JAN'S KENYA SAFARI
JULY 28 – AUGUST 18, 2009
The much awaited day has finally arrived. After nothing but rain here in New England since May 1st, I can’t wait to get to Kenya and enjoy the warm and sunny weather and, of course, wonderful wildlife. I have read of the drought in Kenya, but I’m hoping I will again see many wonderful animals.
The flight from Boston-Amsterdam-Nairobi was surprisingly full, the economy considered. Upon arrival in Nairobi I went to my hotel and checked in. However, as usual due to time differences and excitement at heading out on safari the next morning, I only slept three hours and then was awake the rest of the night.
On July 30th I flew Air Kenya from Wilson Airport to Amboseli. There were only four passengers on the plane, so, for once, I didn’t’ have to pay extra for excess baggage weight! Cynthia Moss was on the flight, and as she entered the plane she recognized me and said “you aren’t going to like what you see in Amboseli”.
I said, “you mean since Echo’s death?” and she replied “everything is awful due to the drought”. How right she was!! As we circled the airstrip I saw green around the swamp area, but the rest of the park was completely devoid of grass and green. In places the land looked red (like Tsavo) and in others it looked like a beach with the saline soil resembling beach sand. The water levels in the swamps looked much lower than before. On my first game drive at 10:00 a.m. the park was truly devastating. There were many carcasses all over the park, more often than not zebra. I was told the theory behind all the zebra deaths was because zebra eat the very short grasses, they are getting a lot of saline soil with the grass. This causes diarrhea and they die, though they look healthy – not starving. There was only about ¼ of the wildlife that I usually see in Amboseli in the dry season (the rest have left the park).
The Amboseli Elephant Trust scouts were at that time chasing poachers. When they called KWS for assistance they were told that the KWS rangers were too far away (considering one can drive from one end of Ambo to another in less than an hour) one wonders how they could be “too far away”. When I asked whether the poachers caught a few months ago had been sentenced yet the answer was that the poachers were still in jail in Nairobi while the vehicle that had the tusks in it belonging to an MP was still impounded in Oloitokitok. A case as serious and important as that was, and they can’t get their acts together enough to prosecute!!!! To this date, no-one dares utter the name of the MP involved. At the very least he should be charged as an accomplice.
The first day there I paid my respects to Echo, the famous matriarch who died recently. The Trust had seen that Echo’s body had been moved from the area where she died near the road to a place near the acacia trees she loved and had put a small electric fence around her body to keep the hyenas away. I was also unhappy to learn that Odile, a female elephant who had been speared seven times on one of my previous trips, but who had survived for a few years, had again been speared by the Maasai this past spring and died.
Amboseli was very cold this time. I wore long pants and a fleece jacket every time I went on a game drive. Each morning when I left my room I would see a few new carcasses (again mostly zebra). The park looked like a desert. We were lucky enough to see a pride of 8 lions on the Kitirua Road but they were just resting prior to the evening’s hunt. We went to the same area the next morning but only three of the lions were visible. The rest were well hidden. The rest of the week was watching “my elephants” shuffling along pole, pole. No-one had any energy or was doing anything except surviving. In fact I took less than 1 video tape in Amboseli – very unusual for me.
I was told that the elephants from Amboseli who had traveled to the Kimana area were doing much better than those who remained in the park. Apparently they were able to find some food there. I hope and pray that the Maasai living in that area will not spear them. More sad news was that all the 2008 and 2009 elephant babies in Amboseli were dying – and with no food until after they receive rain, it will become even more desperate.
We did see one interesting sight though. I’ve seen many hyenas over the years, but I’ve never seen a hyena “fishing”. On one of our game drives we came upon a hyena standing shoulder deep in the lake. We stopped and watched for awhile.
He would look down below the surface of the water for a minute and then would dive completely under the water. He didn’t come up with anything, but would again begin scanning the water and would again drive. He kept this up for about 10 minutes and I was fortunate to get both still photos and videos of this.
In talking with other people who lived in Amboseli, no-one had never seen anything like this before, so I felt truly fortunate.
Though I enjoyed the week from the standpoint of seeing old friends, I felt it was truly devastating for the wildlife.
I then flew from the airstrip back to Wilson and changed planes. Air Kenya now has a flight to Mombasa, and I managed to catch it. I was met at Moi Airport and driven directly to Satao Camp in Tsavo East. As soon as I checked into my tent I was delighted to see many elephants at the waterhole – and, it was pleasantly warm in Tsavo.
All waterholes, including Aruba Dam, had completely dried up. The only water in the park would be at Voi Lodge, Satao Camp or the Galana River. The hippos that normally live at Aruba Dam are now back sharing the waterhole with the elephants at Satao.
When I arrived in camp there was a young female elephant, about 9 – 12 years old, who had been there for 24 hours – not moving – just standing still very close to the tent area. A veterinary assistant had already looked at her and didn’t recognize her as a former Sheldrick orphan, and since there were no injuries visible to be treated, there was nothing they could do for her. The next morning she was still there but standing near the waterhole in the hot sun – again not moving. I looked up and saw a young matriarch run at the ailing elephant and tusk her in the behind causing her to fall. I started talking with her and saying “come, come, you can do it girl”. Then when she would take a step or two I’d say “good girl!”. Doing this for quite awhile I finally got her under a tree in the shade and away from any other animals that might torment her. At one point I was standing 20 feet away from her (I knew she couldn’t physically charge me, and she showed no nervousness or head shake or ear slap). She continued to hang around for two more days leaving only in the evening and then returning in the morning. The last day we saw her she was finally walking well. We didn’t see her again, and I can only hope she regained enough strength to be able to find some food in the bush. She knows she can always come back to the waterhole for water when she needs it.
The next day the manager asked me to jump in the vehicle with him and a driver. The driver had spotted a dead elephant about a mile away from camp. We drove
as close as we could get without going off road. The dead elephant was a 20 year old and the lions were already feasting.
Saturday we spotted a young orphaned bull elephant in camp, around 3 years old. Tusks were extremely short. It was obvious he was in trouble and starving.
I couldn’t help wondering if the dead 20 year old elephant was his mother. Bobby, the camp manager, tried calling KWS but got no answer. Again on Sunday he called – again no answer. Though this “little bull” was skinny and weak, he was still strong and indeed charged the askari. The veterinarian was contacted but he couldn’t come. Monday, when I saw “little bull” walking to the waterhole I cried my eyes out the entire morning. No-one would help him. After the tears dried I got damn mad. We pay $60.00 a day park fees, and yet when help is needed no-one answer the G-damn phones!!! (Remember, this happened to us in February when the buffalo had two broken legs and KWS never showed up). I thus started noting everything “little bull” did in my journal and taking many pictures and videos of him. It was heartbreaking because he would walk from dung ball to dung ball hoping to find some undigested grass in them. I refused going to meals that day because I was so upset and truthfully so mad I was not fit to be with anyone. The manager sent two askaris begging me to come to dinner, but was so upset I couldn’t eat. I got a limb from the tamarind tree and took it to the askari who was standing about 15 feet from “little bull” to see if he could get the orphan to grab the leaves and eat them, but the little guy charged him and me again!
I know KWS has a rule that people can’t feed wildlife. However, when I think of all the lush green grass in all the country clubs in Kenya and in all the mansions having the lawns mowed regularly, why can’t KWS get a few truck loads of grass brought to places like Voi Lodge and Satao Camp where all the animals go for water, to be used only for those animals who are in risk of starvation? Grass is what they normally eat and wouldn’t be encouraging an animal to eat someone’s garden or tear off bananas from their trees. Something could (? and should?) be done.
I think what tore at my heart most with “little bull” is that everyone – animal and human – hopes that when the time comes for them to die they will be surrounded by loved ones. Little bull was totally alone. He could be at the waterhole with 200 elephants around him, and they were all frightened of him and backed off.
He should have been with his Mama or family and instead was dying by himself.
One might say that is strictly a human feeling, but elephants are family animals and when they are dying family is usually still very close by. This guy was so little he didn’t know what he could eat other than grass – and there was none of it. There were leaves of bushes he could eat – but he was too young to know that.
Tuesday, “little bull” is down but not out. He collapsed during the night and can’t get up, but he is still conscious. His legs and trunk are moving all the time. The manager again calls the veterinarian and tells him “50 people are going up the driveway past the dying baby four times a day taking pictures – please come”. The vet is out of the area that day and can’t come but will come Wednesday morning.
Wednesday – the askari told me “little bull” died during the night. The veterinarian came to camp. He had already checked the carcass of the 20 year old a mile from camp. She had no injuries – the death was drought related. He also checked “little bull”. Again, no injuries – just drought related. He said he would contact KWS to recover the tusks.
We then found out why the veterinarian couldn’t come those four days. KWS had taken him off his usual duties as veterinarian to Amboseli, Chyulu Hills, Tsavo West, Tsavo East and Shimba Hills to instruct census takers!!!!! Imagine that folks, the only man in 22,000 square miles who can help wildlife, and they put him in charge of teaching census takers!!!!!!!
Thursday – KWS comes. They had already recovered the tusks of the 20 year old elephant, and they allowed me to photograph them. Then they went to the “elephant burying ground” under the tree near the waterhole (where another elephant had died several years before – after all, it was the waterhole that drew all the elephants to camp so it was a place they all knew. After the ranger took down information in his book he went and got his assistants who chopped off with an axe the tiny tusks. The camp askarii who accompanied him must have told him how upset Mama was over this baby’s death and cried most of the day.
On his way past my tent he held up a tiny tusk and asked me if I wanted it for a souvenir. I simply said “no thanks, it would be my luck to get arrested at the airport”.
Later in the day the handsome older male giraffe that came to visit me in February returned. It was great seeing him. He stood in front of my tent for quite awhile as I talked with him and took pictures. He finally walked toward center of camp and I thought he would be gone for the day. A short time later I heard a grating noise, and when I looked to the side he had come between my tent and the next and the chewing/grating noises was him was eating the bushes. I got more films of him close up then.
We did see another giraffe with a snare around it’s neck. However, he always came to the waterhole around 5 – 6 p.m. It would have taken the vet an hour to get there from Voi, and the giraffe couldn’t easily be tracked after dark. Therefore, we were hoping he would show up some morning, but that did not happen. Luckily the snare had not yet tightened to the point of obvious injury, so the camp people were going to keep their eyes out for him hoping he would show up early enough for the vet to come.
Due to the elephant deaths, the lions were roaring around camp every night. It is a wonderful, magical sound. The lions, hyenas and jackals were well fed.
Friday I also learned Kenya Airways went on strike. I called Southern Cross Safari Office to see how I am to get from Mombasa to Nairobi. They stated that most flights have been cancelled and many people have been waiting at Moi for over 10 hours hoping for a flight. They tried getting me on Air Kenya or Fly 540 flight Sunday, but they were totally booked. Therefore, they arranged for a private car to pick me up at the Buchuma Gate and drive me directly to Nairobi on Sunday. I then wonder if I will be able to from from JKIA on KLM because Kenya Airways mans the ticketing desks. Will find out when I get to Nairobi.
Saturday several huge black-maned lions were spotted in the park – unusual for Tsavo as most of the lions there are maneless. The lions continued roaring every night close to camp.
Sunday I check out of camp and am driven to the Buchuma Gate where I am met by the Southern Cross Safari driver and van. Two of the camp workers were headed for vacation in Voi, so we drove them to Voi before heading toward Nairobi. The road from Voi to Emali is good – two paved lanes. However, from Sultan Hamud to Nairobi the road is atrocious – dirt, rocks and 6 or 7 dead in the road trucks with no warning signals. I was just glad we were driving it in day time. Imagine at night driving into the back of one of the trucks! It took us eight hours to get from Buchuma Gate to Nairobi!
When I got to Nairobi the SXS airport greeter called me and told me the strike was over, so my plane should be leaving as planned Monday night.
Monday I am driven to the Sheldrick Trust to see the orphans there. The Nairobi orphanage now has 24 orphans – a record (this is in addition to the orphans at Ithumba and Voi). Of course I also checked on Shida and Maxwell, the blind rhino in their stockades. Dame Daphne and her two daughters were away so I missed seeing them this time. Following the visit I went for a quick trip to the Kazuri Bead Factory and then back to the hotel to rest before the evening’s flight.
When I arrived at JKIA in the evening I was met by the SXS greeter and he warned me not to panic. “Last night’s KLM flight didn’t fly, so KLM has put two planes on for tonight and you’ll definitely be flying”. Well, I went through the door to the X-ray machine and it was a MOB! 500 – 600 people wanting to fly out and there was absolutely no organization by airport/airline staff. There should have been one line for last night’s flight, one for tonight’s flight and another for business class/elite passengers. Imagine 500 – 600 people standing in lines for an hour only to be told they were in the wrong line. It was awful folks. Then there were employees who would show up with a late arrival for an earlier flight and would help them jump the line. People weren’t at all happy I’ll tell you.
We finally were able to board our plane but were delayed for another two hours.
After boarding the plane I attempted to lift my photography backpack into the overhead storage. I usually lift it to the top of my head, then stand on my toes and shove it up and in the last several inches. When I did this I pulled the muscles in my right upper arm and it immediately started to throb. I knew I had pulled a muscle and was quite miserable all the way to Amsterdam. I should have had three hours between flights in Amsterdam but had less than an hour. No time running outside for a smoke this time. When boarding the plane for Boston I had to ask for help getting the bag in the overhead. A week later I am still having problems with the darn arm.
This trip was decidedly different from the previous 15 trips because of the devastation of the drought. One can only hope and pray that Kenya will get sufficient rain in the next month or two to save the remaining wildlife (pray for El Nino). If there is no rain until March – May, most of the wildlife, as well as many of the people, will die. Pray for Kenya please.