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On the plains of the Athi-Kapiti in search of the Cheetah

Above: Cheetah on the plains. Copyright Mary Wykstra founder of Action for Cheetahs

Published: 19 October 2019

It’s exciting at Lisa Ranch on the plains of the Athi-Kapiti with the iconic Lukenya stretched in the far horizon. The 6,000 acre ranch is both for livestock and wildlife and we’re here in search of the cheetah.

Thirty kilometres south-east of the ranch is Nairobi National Park and the busy Kitengela town.

In the bigger picture, Lisa Ranch is part of the Machakos ranches that are nestled between the Konza Technocity to the west and the Mombasa highway in the east with the Nairobi-Mombasa railway cutting through. This vast terrain measuring 300 square kilometres or 85,000 acres is one of the last wildlife areas that until a century ago hosted the Mount Kilimanjaro – Mount Kenya migration of wildebeest, elephants and other big game.

Wildebeest on Lisa Ranch.Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Wildebeest on Lisa Ranch.Copyright Rupi Mangat

We, the Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNaP) are excited to be back at the ranch because Michel Mbithi has hidden camera traps on his ranch and the images caught of unwary wildlife are to die for. There’s a lion, cheetah, hyena and more.

I’m hoping to see the cheetah because this part of the Athi-Kapiti plains boasts a higher density of wildlife than Nairobi National Park. Amazingly, this includes the largest densities of the endangered cheetah.

Cheetah n cub Mara Feb2014 (1) (800x600)

Cheetah n cub . Copyright Mary Wykstra founder of Action for Cheetahs Kenya.

It’s mind-boggling to know that the Machakos ranches are a cheetah stronghold. “We recorded more than thirty cheetahs on five ranches recently,” tells Mbithi who is passionate about the wildlife on the Athi-Kapiti plains.  “This area is also a breeding place for the cheetahs.”

Driving through the plains dotted with whistling thorns and dry grass we stop on the banks of the river that flows into a natural pond. It has a herd of wildebeest standing knee-high in it and full of ducks and geese swimming leisurely this way and that. A family of the critically endangered Grey crowned cranes peck in the grass for insects and seeds while Maasai ostrich males in startling pink legs and neck show they are in full breeding mood.

But the focus is on finding the cheetahs.

“The cheetahs still move over large areas,” Mbithi continues to tell the story of the cat that the Indians called ‘chitra’ for spotted which morphed into the modern English word ‘cheetah’.

Jun 2019 Cheetah with bloody face feeding on impala in Maasai Mara. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Cheetah with bloody jaws feeding on impala in Maasai Mara. Copyright Rupi Mangat

The tale of the Asiatic cheetah is a sad one – and one that must not happen in Africa.

The Asiatic cheetah until the start of the 20th century was common in India with a range that stretched as far as Israel. The last cheetah seen in the wild in India was in 1951after years of hunting including its terrain transformed into farms and large numbers of livestock out-competing the feline.

The old and the new at Lisa Ranch. The SGR and the century-plus railway line. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

The old and the new at Lisa Ranch. The SGR and the century-plus railway line. Copyright Rupi Mangat

By now, we’re in the heart of the plains by the underpass of the standard gauge railway having driven past a Kori bustard, giraffes and zebra, wildebeest and kongoni, Thomson’s gazelles and eland that is the world’s largest antelope.

Mbithi brings us to a halt by the underpass and we clamber out of the cars happy to feel the air and sun on us.

And it’s back to the cheetahs.

Jun 2019 Cheetah with impala kill in Maasai Mara. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Cheetah with impala kill in Maasai Mara. Copyright Rupi Mangat

“They still use the Salama-Sultan Hamud area,” explains Mbithi. It’s an enigma how they survive in one of the busiest roads pounded by trucks. In 2007, l accompanied Mary Wykstra of Action for Cheetahs in Kenya (ACK) in Salama where she had collared a cheetah. Although we could hear the signals of the cat around us, the cat never showed herself.

“We have GPS recording of our cheetahs which show that they move as far as Longido in Tanzania,” continues our cheetah man.

“Migrations keep the genetic viability of our wildlife strong,” states Mbithi.

Lisa Ranch.Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Lisa Ranch.Copyright Rupi Mangat

“But it is space that is an issue for this endangered cat. We have fences everywhere restricting their movement and as they lose habitat, it means they are losing their prey.

The sun is setting with the Ngong Hills clear in the golden light.

“You know, the cheetahs can no longer return to Nairobi National Park,” tells Mbithi looking over the great plains.

Michael Mbithi of Lisa Ranch.Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Michael Mbithi of Lisa Ranch.Copyright Rupi Mangat

On the ground is the shed skin of spitting cobra. We haven’t spotted the cat today which means we’ll have to return.

Migrations for Healthy Wildlife

The Athi-Kapiti plains cover 4,000 square kilometres. Today, less than half of it is open to wildlife as a vital migration corridor that is linked to the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem and the Magadi-Natron-Mara ecosystem.

Threatened Habitat

A proposed route for the Nairobi Mombasa Express way will cut right through the Machakos ranches, subdividing four major conservancies – Swara Plains, Machakos Ranch, Kapiti Estate and Lisa Ranch.

“The expressway can be rerouted to follow the old Mombasa railway which runs parallel to the SGR where underpasses have been put in place and work,” explains Mbithi. “A highway in the middle of the conservancies will only increase pollution and insecurity and disrupt the migrations further.”

Camping Details at Lisa Ranch 

Email Mbithi on olaro43@hotmail.com to camp at the Ngoja Kidogo Camp or Ilri hills. You carry your own tents, food and utensils. Two-man tents (with a mattress) are available for hire.

 

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