I’ve lived in East Africa three different times, for a total of a little less than 2 years, and for all that time I’ve been actively, and successfully, avoiding buffalo. Anyone who has visited or lived here knows that the cape buffalo is the most dangerous animal in Africa. Sometimes referred to as “Black Death” or “The Widowmaker”, the cape buffalo is basically a 6 foot tall, 1700 pound, temperamental, unpredictable cow that (surprisingly for its size) can sprint at speeds up to 35 mph if provoked. Over 200 people per year are gored and killed by cape buffalo. So it’s hardly a surprise that I have put considerable effort into avoiding these animals during my time here. But, as they say, you attract what you resist.
This morning, after spending awhile bird-watching from a rock I’ve been calling “lion rock”, due to its frequent nightly visitors, I headed to a tree a few feet away to check my camera trap and then walk back up to Nickson’s house. I looked through some of the photos, secured the camera to the tree, and slowly stood up, only to find myself face to face with a massive cape buffalo standing 10 feet from me.
For about half a second, we both silently froze. Clearly we had surprised each other. Almost immediately, the buffalo broke the silence by aggressively snorting and swinging its head in my direction. This was not good. Heart racing, I reacted with all of the knowledge that’s been engrained in me since my first day here: Don’t run, the buffalo can run faster; Don’t put open ground between you and the buffalo- again, it can run faster; If you can, climb a tree (although buffalos have been known to run up or trample trees in pursuit).
I had to think quickly. There was one tiny shrub and one 2-foot tree between me and the “Black Death”, and hardly a tall tree to be seen nearby. Since the buffalo was blocking my path to the house, I decided to take my chances and go in the opposite direction, toward the national park. There was a serious risk of there being more buffalo in that direction, as buffalo move in herds, but there was nothing else I could do. Of course, all of these thoughts and decisions happened in less than 2 seconds, as this aggressive animal was staring me down. I slowly stepped backward, to half-obscure myself behind a taller shrub, simultaneously keeping my eye on the buffalo, looking for a direction with the thickest shrubs to hide behind, and searching the landscape for the rest of the buffalo herd. Some part of me stupidly secured my belongings to my body (as if they mattered), getting ready to run if I had to. My heart racing, I moved from shrub to shrub as subtly and quickly as I could, noting the potential refuge trees in the area. As I moved it occurred to me that they say, “climb a tree to escape”, but fail to mention the 3 inch long, razor sharp thorns covering every tree in the area.
Sliding from bush to bush, I made a wide arc toward the national park, and then cut through a large zebra herd going back toward the house through an open field. All of this took less than 5 minutes. My heart pounding out of my throat, I looked back in the direction I came from, part of me wondering whether I had imagined the entire thing. But no, deep in the bush, a glimpse of a black tail swinging, and the sharp tip of a dark grey horn.
I’ve always thought there was something morbidly beautiful about thick clouds of factory smoke backlit by late afternoon sun. Thus were my thoughts several days ago as my friend Nickson and I traveled to his home on the unfenced southern border of Nairobi National Park, passing belching factories and numerous power line pylons hugging the east side of the park.
Google Nairobi National Park, and you’re barraged with a series of articles containing the words “only” and “first”. Located directly south of Nairobi, NNP was the first national park in Kenya, gazetted in 1946, acting as the spark for tourism to become Kenya’s greatest industry. It is one of the only places to spot the endangered eastern black rhino, of which about 700 remain. It is also the only national park located in an urban area, and people take a certain pride in saying its the only park where you will be able to take photos of wildlife with skyscrapers in the background. What you don’t hear about are the industrial compounds that may also appear in your photos, and which encroach slowly but ever so reliably onto park land. You also don’t hear that the park is already contained by electric fencing on three sides, open only to a rapidly developing dispersal area over the Mbagathi River to the south.
Since the park only comprises 117 square kilometers, and is so heavily pressed by development, the southern Kitengela dispersal area (where I’m currently residing) is critical for wildlife such as large herbivores and lions to move between NNP and the Athi-Kapiti plains. Although the dispersal area is facing subdivision and other development pressures, there are multiple efforts underway by Friends of Nairobi National Park, WWF, The Wildlife Foundation, and others to incentivize current landowners to keep their lands open and unfenced, giving the wildlife passage.
The newest battle for the preservation of NNP has begun over what may be the most devastating development pressure the park has ever faced: a railway running through the park and/or the dispersal area. Developers of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) have so far listened to the multitude of angry community members and conservationists, and currently have agreed to divert the railway to the southern border of the park, proposing to build an overpass along the Mbagathi River. Portions of the park have already been de-gazetted for development purposes, and running a railway through the park could have been a fatal blow. However, although it seems as if local conservationists have gained some ground, pushing the railway construction south to the border of NNP would still dramatically impact the thousands of animals moving in and out of the park. This isn’t just about impacting seasonal migrations; every day here at Nickson’s I’ve walked outside to see zebras, wildebeest, impala, and giraffes freely roaming in and out of the park to graze these lands. The most ideal option being proposed by conservationists is a reroute far to the south, which would avoid the dispersal lands, yet Kenyan officials have denounced this as too expensive (which is seeming to not be true). To further make the case for the southmost route, it seems that route is supported by residents in that area, while residents around here are still waiting to be involved in conversations about potential loss of their land- only having received infuriating silence from officials thus far.
Because of these development pressures, many have expressed concern that Nairobi National Park will soon become completely isolated, “like a zoo”. Yet some may argue that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and may be inevitable. Although it is of course ideal to maintain landscape connectivity and ecological authenticity if at all possible between parks and reserves, there are many parks and reserves in parts of sub-Saharan Africa that are completely fenced. Many of these parks are managed accordingly, with periodic hunting or culling to maintain populations, and plans in place to prevent genetic inbreeding of wildlife. Of course, many of them are heinously mismanaged as well. Yet research on fenced wildlife reserves and sustainable management of these reserves is only increasing as time goes on, in correlation with increasing development and subsequent habitat and connectivity loss.
I, personally, am interested in creative community approaches to sustaining landscape connectivity and wildlife habitat. I am for the wildlife, through and through, yet I’ve grown to realize that necessitates being for the people as well. As much as I’d like every human to learn to put the needs of wildlife on the same level as their own needs, and fall into rapture at the sound of a hyena yipping on the savanna at dusk or the view of a giraffe silhouetted against the sunset, those aren’t realistic desires. So in this world of more and more humans and less and less of everything else, I’m keeping my mind open about our options.
Last night after dinner I found myself eagerly heading out into the rain with raptor expert and Kenyan native Simon Thomsett, to assist the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) with capturing and relocating some “troublesome” lions. Simon and I had already gotten soaked to the bone in the sudden downpour on our walk to exercise his rehabilitated tawny eagle a few hours before, but I was undeterred.
You may be asking, “What constitutes a ‘troublesome’ lion?”, and you are correct in being confused. Although tourists flock to East Africa for a chance to view lions in person, the world’s second-largest cat has long been a cause of conflict for people here who own livestock. Soysambu Conservancy, which is adjacent to Nakuru National Park, also functions as a ranch, home to thousands of the most valuable cattle in the country. Although there is a fence between Nakuru NP and the Conservancy, it has some weak points, and because the national park is continuously encroached upon by development, more and more park lions have made their way to the conservancy for easy meals. The ranch here at Soysambu has been working toward building more secure fences for the nighttime cattle enclosures, or bomas, but, for complex reasons, any boma improvement initiatives have been advancing extremely slowly. Thus, lions can easily pick off the cattle here at the ranch.
As you might imagine, Soysambu Conservancy leaders are interested in the return of more lions, especially since it appears the national park does not have the resources to support its entire burgeoning lion population, so the Conservancy has been working hard to encourage the ranch to build better bomas quickly. However, bureaucratic and, perhaps, monetary concerns are considerable roadblocks. It is no surprise that bureaucratic and political conflict go hand in hand with human-carnivore conflict. As a result of this slow process, KWS has been compelled to constantly come to the conservancy at night and use considerable resources and manpower to bait, dart, and trap “troublesome” lions and return them to the park. Because these operations can last well into the early hours of the morning, the significant loss of sleep for KWS staff is one of many side effects.
Simon and I met KWS at one of the ~18 bomas here on the Conservancy, chosen because lions had been seen there recently, and had been targeting the cattle. When we got to the boma, it was obvious why: the boma was enormous, with the hundreds of cattle only taking up 1/4 of the space, and the fence was constructed of flimsy wire and wood posts. As we drove up, I used an army-grade thermal scope (borrowed- a luxury not usually used in these operations) to see the lay of the land, and saw several calves standing vulnerably outside of the boma- a testament to the insecurity of the structure.
There are a few struggles with capturing wild lions. First, if you don’t tie down the bait (in this case, a calf they had already killed this evening), they will quickly dart in and grab the bait and run away, completely foiling your efforts. In fact, they will often manage to do this even if it is tied, but its a bit more difficult for them. Secondly, and most importantly, lions will flee if you shine a light upon them. Yet, you need light in order to see when to dart the lion, and to make sure it doesn’t steal the bait, and, of course, to make sure you know where its fallen once the drug takes effect. This need for light, more than anything, is what makes these night time relocation operations so longwinded for KWS. So it was that when we arrived with the thermal scope, we were a great asset.
There were four lions for us to dart and bring back to the park. Three members of KWS piled into our car- the one in charge of darting was in the passenger seat, Simon had the spotlight ready in the driver’s seat, and I was crouched out the top hatch with the thermal scope, watching the lions’ every move. I would use the scope to see when one of the lions broke from the group and stalked, ever so slowly, toward the bait, which was under a large acacia tree. All was pitch black except the brightness of the lions and other carnivores lurking around (hyenas, jackals, etc.), which I could see with my scope. As the lion got close enough to the prey, and to our car, at my signal Simon would suddenly shine the spotlight at where I said the lion was, giving KWS the visibility to dart the lion. The KWS officer’s accuracy was on point for each lion, and I used the thermal scope to keep track of where in the bush these lions ended up as they fell. With the accelerant in the drug, it only took 2-10 seconds for the lions to fall, so this part wasn’t very difficult. Occasionally, if the lions were laying down and not making moves toward the bait, we would play hyena calls from our car radio (yes, Simon does have this recorded… don’t even get me started on the pig slaughter screams…), which would lure the lions to action with the risk of their prey being stolen by hyenas.
All in all, it took 4 or 5 hours to complete the operation. We took identification photos of the first two lions, and loaded them into the trucks for relocation, then had to wait at length for KWS to return from the national park before we could begin baiting the other two lions. (Side note: lions are as heavy to lift as you think they are…) The last lion seemed sick of it all, and lay down in the bush refusing to take the bait, so I guided the KWS officer to her location with the scope, and, luckily, he managed to make the perfect shot in a difficult circumstance.
Although it was an interesting and exciting night, in the end I felt quite conflicted about the whole thing. With better bomas, its likely that none of this darting and relocating would have to happen. KWS wouldn’t be spending all of their time and resources removing lions from the conservancy, the lions wouldn’t be darted and moved constantly (which, perhaps, is stressful for a lion- its unclear), and the conservancy would be able to act as the wildlife corridor they are so beautifully suited to be. And, with countless herbivores (zebras, impala, etc.), the lions would have plenty of other prey to hunt instead of cattle.
Currently, there are still “approved” lions on Soysambu, as part of the Soysambu Lion Project, which is piloting the effectiveness of boma alarm systems connected to collars worn by the lions. So far, the system seems to be having success, but many more alarms and several more collars are needed for it to scale up to the whole ranch. Coupled with better boma fences, perhaps the Nakuru NP and Soysambu lions will be able to move freely in the not-too-distant future.