In Kenya’s Northern rangelands it’s home to amazing wildlife
Published Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper 10 June 2017
Above: Southrern white rhino female and her calf at Lewa Conservancy with Mount Kenya as a backdrop – Copyright Rupi Mangat
From the high slopes of Mount Kenya, the northern rangelands fill the horizon with massif peaks and plains. Driving over the under pass on the main road before turning in to Lewa and Isiolo, elephants walk through it safely migrating between the low arid plains of the north and the high slopes of Mount Kenya.
Settling in at Ngiri House on Lewa Conservancy, a herd of elephants browse by the lush swamp where a flock of Grey crowned cranes have made it their home. These beautiful birds of the wetlands lay their eggs hidden in lush reeds. Kenya and Uganda are a stronghold for Grey crowned cranes but in the last two decades Grey crowned crane numbers have spiralled down by 80 per cent. The cause – a horrendous trade for the chicks with a recent case of China looking for hundreds to adorn their ‘safari’ parks, gardens and shopping malls –and a growing demand in the Far and Middle East.
The landscape is stunning driving past the lush swamp with ducks and geese in it. The sitatunga – an antelope of the swamps that was common around the swamps of Lake Victoria but no longer so as wetlands are rapidly converted to other land use – haven’t fared well at Lewa after a herd was brought here. The shy antelope with splayed hooves – an adaptation so they don’t sink in the wet earth – got eaten by lions.
Beyond the high mountain ridges, a granite peak peeps out. It’s Batian, Mt Kenya’s tallest peak. It gets bigger as we drive up towards one of the many hills in the conservancy. A rhino – white with its broad mouth – grazes with her calf. This is the southern white rhino – one of the greatest success stories in conservation. From a handful surviving at the start of the 20th century in South Africa, the numbers are increasing and all due to good management. Today there are around 17,000 in the wild – making it the most numerous rhino in the world.
However, for the Northern white rhino, a subspecies from the war-torn regions of South Sudan, they are on the brink of extinction with Sudan, the world’s most eligible bachelor in the nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy looking for a date on Tinder. He being the sole male of his kind in the world, has a real task to perform.
Past the rhino and the enormous batch of buffaloes the road leads up a hill with another rare on the list – the Grevy’s zebra that the Samburu of northern Kenya call Loibor kuram meaning ‘white-rumped’ with its thin stripes and rounded ears. Bigger and more handsome than the common zebra, this equid has had a tough time – again with an 80 per cent crash in 40 years – from 15,000 in the 1970s to an estimated 2,800 today. Their historical range once covered Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and northern Kenya – now Lewa and the northern rangelands are their only home.
A few meters from the Grevy’s, a herd of Reticulated giraffe browse on tall acacia. With its beautiful copper coat and network of white patterns, this species of the northern lands has had the same issues as the Grevy’s zebra – a crash in numbers by more than 80 per cent – from about 30,000 – but this time a decade ago to fewer than 5,000 today. Their stronghold is north-eastern Kenya and some isolated populations in Somalia.
For both these species, the rhino including the big cats and raptors, the community conservancies in the northern rangelands are a stronghold.
It’s a sultry. Samburu’s iconic mountains straddle the horizon – Ololokwe the bread-shaped mountain with its bare cliff face and the Mathews Range. A full moon begins to emerge from the underworld.
The spotlight falls on a feline. To everyone’s surprise it’s a cheetah cast in moonlight.
And a few feet from is another – crouched in the grass.
“These are two brothers, Wallace and Gromit,” tells Wanjiku Kinuthia of Lewa. “They hunt together.
“It’s a strategy – one is the spotter, the other the stalker.”
It’s another thing we’re learning about cheetahs – that they are not completely day-time hunters but very adaptable. In the high mountains, the Tuareg of North Africa call the cheetah ‘those who move slowly’!
Live at Lewa
It has beautiful lodges and camps – go through the website – www.lewa.org.
The Safaricom Marathon is run at Lewa every year to raise funds for community conservancies under the umbrella of the Northern Rangelands Trust – it’s on June 24th.
A comfortable 5-hour drive north from Nairobi, it’s an ideal stopover as you venture further north.