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Kenya Safari Travel Plan, Kenya 1980-2000 photos


The Leopard

HANS-GEORG MICHNA

Kenya, June 2000

Copyright © 2000-2016 Hans-Georg Michna.


The Leopard

He was still a bit smaller than a fully grown leopard, but his proportions were perfect, just as flawless as his almost black and white colored fur. Slowly and with grace he moved between the bushes towards the river without any regard to my presence. Then he laid down in the shadow of a bush to avoid the searing midday sunrays.

I remained quiet for some time, daring only a few photographs, because I thought he would move away if I irritated him. Only after some time I moved my little green jeep a little to see him better, expecting that he wouldn’t allow it anyway. When I stopped the engine again and tried to take one last photograph, he rose from his shade, but instead of disappearing into the bushes, he faced me, then began to walk towards me in slow, self-assured steps, revealing that fear of my presence was the least of his concerns.

Only three meters away he laid down again in the shadow of another bush and turned his head to look into the direction where the river’s brown waters usually flow eastward.

Not in this year though. The great Samburu River was dry in June. Normally a home to uncounted crocodiles and hippopotamuses and a source of drinking water for the wildlife, the river had dried out entirely after the rains had failed to come at the usual time earlier in the year.

I had seen elephants dig holes into the riverbed to drink ground water. The elephant digs a hole first by removing the sand with his trunk. Then, when he reaches muddy water, he uses a clever technique to create a very narrow hole, only as wide as his trunk. He sucks the mud into his trunk. If there is too much sand and too little water, he wags and shakes his trunk, so as to mix sand and water into a liquid mud, so all the sand can be squirted out with the water to empty his trunk. Then he lowers the trunk into the hole again and repeats this procedure until the water is clean enough and doesn’t contain too much sand. Then he drinks slowly, patient enough to let enough water seep into the hole.

Other animals try to use these holes. Lacking the dexterous trunks, they have to widen the holes, but usually they manage to benefit from the elephants’ efforts.

The crocodiles and hippos, however, cannot survive in a dry riverbed. Some of them try to hang on to a mud hole, sometimes fighting each other to death for the privilege of staying alive in a mudhole. I saw one three-meter crocodile that had to leave a hole after some terrible injuries on his head and foreleg. He did not survive. The flies had already laid their eggs into the decomposing carcass, and the grubs were dancing their dance of life and death, as every one tries to push every other one out of the overflowing cavity, wriggling furiously to avoid to receive a bite from a competitor in the genetic knowledge that even the smallest injury means immediate death. Even so, some flies were still surrounding the carcass, some of them ignorantly trying to lay more eggs, with very little chance of eventual success, some of them attacking others to eat them.

A bee-eater sat on a branch, eyeing the scene with keen interest. Every minute he dived down to the carcass, catching a fly and returning to the same branch—the perfect photo opportunity for those willing to breathe the ugly sweet smell of the decomposing flesh.

All other crocodiles and all hippos had moved far downstream, to stay within any water that happened to flow in lower areas nearer the ocean.

These pictures were passing my mind again, while I was keeping my camera in focus on the leopard’s head to catch every one of his movements. Why was he moving about at noon? Was he perhaps thirsty and not experienced enough to know where to find water? Was he trying to stalk through a territory occupied by another leopard who wouldn’t tolerate him if he noticed him? We will not know, but the drought remains a likely cause.

After over an hour with the leopard, I had to give in. He was lying in the shade, but my jeep was standing in the bright, hot sunlight, and the temperature had been rising continuously. I had to escape, to drive to get some airflow or to find a tree giving me enough shade to survive. Sometimes all our technology cannot compete with nature’s designs.

On the next day I wanted to check the crocodile carcass again, but rangers had pulled it back into the waterhole to protect tourists from the not so beautiful bits of the truth.

The Northern Circuit

I had arrived in Nairobi in the end of May to experience a different kind of vacation. I had the unique opportunity to do some computer work in an elephant research project in Amboseli, but before that I had two weeks left to travel anywhere I liked, so I picked the Northern Circuit, a route that was once driven by many tourist minibusses but is now less popular. The route is: Nairobi – Naivasha – Gilgil – Nakuru – Baringo – Loruk – Tangulbei – Churo – Mugie – Kisima – Maralal – back to Kisima – Lodungokwe – passing near Wamba – turning off from the road to Archers Post to pass nearby Ngotogongoron – Samburu West Gate – Samburu and Buffalo Springs Game Reserves – Isiolo – Nairobi. From Isiolo to Nairobi there are three possible routes, one to the east of Mt. Kenya and two to the west through Nanyuki, one of them branching off to Mweiga and Nyeri if one wants to visit one of the Aberdare overnight lodges, either The Ark or Treetops.

I tend to bypass Maralal, because the lodge is a bit out of the way, expensive, but has not very much to offer, and it is possible to drive the entire distance from Baringo to Samburu in one day with some precautions. One is that I drive off before sunrise. At 6 a.m. I had already been on the road, driving with the headlights on and watching the red and orange stripe at the eastern horizon and later the beautiful sunrise. I like the road from Baringo to Samburu. It leads along the northern shore of Lake Baringo and offers some beautiful looks over the lake from one of the hills through which the road winds upwards, out of the Great Rift Valley.

In the afternoon, after continuous driving without any hindrance like flat tires and after finding a little bit of fuel in Kisima, I had already arrived in Samburu and incredulously looked at the totally dry river. In fact, I drove through the dry riverbed several times to avoid the detour to the bridge. The GPS receiver on the windshield, meanwhile standard equipment wherever I drive, makes it possible to see the tracks, even those on the other side, after I had used them just once, so I can no longer get lost in the bush.

After my meeting with the leopard, I met some other very interesting animal, that is, however, even more difficult to see. It is the Naked Mole-rat, an underground dweller that has been catching the attention of zoologists because it is a mammal with an insect-like social behavior. (See the article about naked mole-rats.)

Driving along near the riverbank, I saw a miniature crater landscape. About a dozen craters had risen up on the track, four of them actively spouting sand. Looking into the holes, I could actually see the tails of the animals wriggle in their underground sand caves, throwing out sand in a quick, diligent rhythm. Some 400 m further I saw another collection of sand volcanos, probably belonging to the same colony.

This reminded me of my meeting with Dr. Stan Braude four years ago in Meru National Park, where he caught these elusive animals in traps to measure, record and later release them again. I have meanwhile sent him a message with the exact locations, so he can add them to his data collection, and received his thanks in another email. If you ever see any trace of this strange species, send a message to him or to me.

When I left Samburu, I drove through Isiolo, a town that had seen shootings in a conflict between Borana, Somali, and Meru about land use. The beautiful Somali people, who used to be part of the street scene in Isiolo, were absent. I couldn’t discern a single Somali while crossing the town. The main fuel station was deserted, the window panes broken. Otherwise life in town appeared normal. I don’t think that tourists are directly affected, but I pity the people who have to fight and kill each other to try to make a living.

Blind

On my way to Amboseli I first took a young hitch-hiker with me. She was 14, her father was Kikuyu, her mother Maasai. She was a little shy, because she apparently hadn’t had much contact with wazungu (Europeans). We chatted during the drive. Initially I told her stories from my home place. Then I asked her whether she wanted to know anything. Indeed she asked me various questions, about the school system in Germany and about other social things. When I dropped her near Kajiado, I asked her whether she wouldn’t mind taking some empty bottles I wanted to get rid of, and she wasn’t quite sure whether I now wanted the deposit money back from her. Of course I didn’t, but I had to make it quite clear first. Then she wanted to pay me for the ride, because that’s normal in Kenya. Again I had to explain to her that I wouldn’t want any money.

The next hitch-hiker was a Maasai woman who stood next to the road with several water containers. It is always difficult for me to estimate the age of people who live out in the barren, difficult areas, because they age so quickly and so early. A woman of 30 years can look as if she’s 50 or even older, when she’s had a lot of difficult times. A 25-year-old can be difficult to judge when she (or he) is skinny from lack of food or disease and the skin has wrinkles. This woman was young and at least not starved. She may have been between 25 and 30 years old.

When I looked at the water containers and had second thoughts about throwing them onto my luggage, she noticed my hesitation and begged to be taken along. I cannot resist it when somebody is in genuine need, so I agreed. She heaved the heavy containers into the car, through the front door and over the backrest of the front seat, while I was trying to help, still sitting in the driver’s seat. I noticed that the water was probably altogether heavier than herself. To carry all the containers at once, she had a strong leather strap, but now she was loading them one by one.

Her face reflected the fear that I would still change my mind, so she worked in a frenzy, trying not to take any more of my time than absolutely necessary. While helping her to lift the heavy water containers, I realized that she must be about twice as strong as I am.

We drove off, and the expression on her face became more happy. She spoke hardly any English, so our conversation was limited by the few words of Kiswahili I know. When we arrived at her destination, a little boy with a wheelbarrow waited for her, but I told her that I would drive her to her home. She explained it to the boy, then we continued into the bush. The driving was a bit difficult. No car had driven here for some time, and in some places I had to squeeze the little jeep through the bushes, until we arrived at her village.

A Maasai village is a circular thorn fence (boma or manyatta) with some low, lengthy mud huts inside. It has one narrow entrance that can be closed at night. Some women, girls and a few small boys came out when they heard my jeep and saw the woman inside. She jumped out to greet them and they greeted me too. To my taste many of the younger women and quite a few men are extremely beautiful.

After unloading the water and saying goodbye I continued to Namanga on the border to Tanzania and turned off towards Amboseli. As I hadn’t had anything to eat for quite some time, I bought a few bananas and also asked for a place to get something to eat. “Hoteli” is the word, and a well-known one was on my right, a bit further along the dust street. I went into the right of two doors, and two beautiful young girls with very pretty hairstyles and necklaces and short frocks smiled at me. The average age in their profession is now below 20, I thought, and went back to the other door, where I could sit down, join a few eating men and order from a menu of indigenous dishes and soft drinks.

Later I took four Maasai women some of the way, a young one carrying water and three older ones. All but one squeezed into the back and sat on my luggage, because the jeep had only two seats. (I had the rear ones taken out, so I can sleep in it.) With the women came a swarm of flies. I always have difficulties to understand how they can tolerate flies all over their face, especially on the eyes. Even small children can be seen with lots of flies in face, around mouth and eyes, and they do not chase the flies away.

Later in Amboseli I had the opportunity to visit another Maasai village where several children and a few men and women were blind on one eye. A typical Maasai village has no running water and no electricity. The water has to be carried by women and children, so the supply is very limited. Also, depending on where it comes from, the water is not always clean. It is no surprise, therefore, that infections like the one that befell these peoples’ eyes are difficult to get rid of.

This article gives some insight in the disease.

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

Blind ambition

OUARZAZATE, MOROCCO

ANY disease that infects 150m people across the world might seem hard to overlook. But blinding trachoma, the bane of European immigrants to America a century ago, has largely disappeared from the rich world’s gaze thanks to better sanitation and personal hygiene. It is, however, an incubus for some three dozen of the world’s poorest countries. Kevin Frick, an economist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, reckons the disease costs them at least $2.5 billion a year in lost labour alone. But the results of a pilot eradication project organised by the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) in Morocco and Tanzania, which were announced on December 4th, suggest that, with a bit of effort, the disease could be wiped out.

Trachoma is caused by Chlamydia, a nasty bacterium that breeds under the eyelids, eventually causing so much inflammation and scarring that a patient’s eyelashes are turned inwards, where they scratch the cornea and destroy the victim’s vision. The disease thrives particularly among children, whose dirty faces provide a perfect breeding-ground for the germ, and women, who come into close contact with these mucky tots.

Trachoma should, in theory, be easy to deal with. The World Health Organisation (WHO) aims to flush the disease out of its remaining strongholds by 2020 using a fourfold elimination strategy dubbed “SAFE”. The elements of the strategy are: Surgery to correct deformed eyelids before blindness strikes; Antibiotics to kill Chlamydia; Facewashing to stop the spread of the bacteria; and Environmental improvements, such as better rubbish disposal, to eliminate them altogether. The ITI, an alliance of public-health agencies such as the WHO, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Clark Foundation in New York, and Pfizer, an American drug firm, has been putting SAFE through its paces. The organisation’s experts have been helping the Moroccan government to design, implement and monitor their SAFE strategy.

In some ways, Morocco is a soft target. With the country’s growing prosperity, trachoma has already been confined to five southern provinces in the shadow of the Atlas mountains. The government has tried to come to grips with the disease in these dusty outposts by setting up clinics in which operations to correct deformed eyelids are performed, by teaching hygiene in schools, and by sending in teams to diagnose and treat early infection in high-risk communities. But it is hard to reach those most in danger when few older girls attend school, and young mothers stay out of sight. On top of that, regular face-washing is no easy task in a region plagued by drought. And treatment with tetracycline, the cheapest available antibiotic, involves twice-daily doses of ointment for six weeks, a course that few patients complete.

That last difficulty is something the ITI has been able to ameliorate. The initiative has given Morocco a new weapon against the disease: azithromycin, an antibiotic that can stamp out Chlamydia in a single oral dose. On the open market, azithromycin is too expensive for poor countries such as Morocco to afford, since it is still under patent by Pfizer, and costs roughly $14 a shot. Through the ITI, however, the company has donated over 1m doses to the Moroccan government. The results have been impressive. A single round of treatment has reduced the number of trachoma cases in the country by 75%.

Jeff Mecaskey, the ITI’s programme director, reckons it will take another two or three years of SAFE before Morocco is clear of the disease. The parallel project in Tanzania, as well as those now under way in Mali and Vietnam, may take twice as long because of those countries’ heavier disease burdens and poorer rural health services. But fears that the money, or the drug, might run out have been allayed by recent pledges from the Gates Foundation, an American charity, of $20m to support the programme, and of a further 10m free doses of azithromycin by Pfizer over the next three years. Pfizer has come in for criticism from some NGOs for not making a longer-term donation, and for resisting attempts to bring cheaper, generic azithromycin to needy countries in which the company’s patent is not observed. But its contribution to the initiative is warmly welcomed by many in the field who are keen to give trachoma one in the eye.

THE ECONOMIST DECEMBER 9TH 2000, p. 116

From The Economist, one of the best sources of information available today. See also www.economist.com.

When you ask them why they don’t take their children to the hospital, they answer: “We have no money.” Although this is not quite true, they are still relatively poor people, and their lives are, in part, miserable. They have left some of their original culture behind and now dress in the typical red checkered cloth and adorn themselves with tiny colorful beads, all of which are produced by machines they cannot make and cannot even use, due to the near-total lack of education. Many of their children do not go to school, although schools exist. But the value of school education is not obvious to them, and many children look after the herds, rather than learning grammar, mathematics, or physics. Also, the schools are not always very good.

Thus they are deep in a vicious circle and live an ancient lifestyle that has not changed much since stone age. They are among the poorest people on this planet, because they have not had a chance to evolve or even adopt the cultural traits that make us incredibly rich in comparison.

The Maasai are hard hit by AIDS. Many of them do not really understand the disease, and they are not used to having to learn scientific facts and even change their lifestyle as a consequence. One of the reasons why AIDS progresses rapidly among the Maasai and other tribes with similar lifestyles is that they use unhygienic methods to circumcize girls, like using the same tool for several girls in a row. Circumcision, something that is already as horrible as one can ever imagine, now also spells the death knell for many young girls and subsequently for the boys and men with whom they have sexual contact.

The Amboseli Elephants

Eventually I arrived in Amboseli for three weeks of some computer work, mixed with wildlife observation and photography. I will not describe the work or the project, because much more than I could write can be found at www.elephanttrust.org. I will only try to describe some personal impressions of the elephants.

The Amboseli elephants are special. They are the best-researched population of wild elephants in the world, and they are fairly well protected from poaching because of the research project. Therefore they are not shy and instead unconcerned about human observers like tourists and even more the researchers whom they know and do not fear at all. When one of the research jeeps drives close to them, they either don’t care or they actually come close to the jeep to check what’s going on, almost at touching distance.

They walk freely through the research camp site, barely keeping any distance from people in the camp. The rule of conduct for humans is to stay near a tent when an elephant comes closer than 10 to 20 m and avoid jerky movements, so as not to frighten the elephant.

At night it happens that the elephants feed at the tents while people are sleeping. One night I woke up because three elephants were grazing at my tent, almost lifting my bed while pulling grass from under the tent. The impression is strange, because you do not often get any opportunity to have an elephant eating half a meter from your ear. The sound is different from that, say, of a zebra, because the elephant wraps his trunk around the grass, tears it off and stuffs it into his mouth for chewing, but in between he has to use that same trunk for breathing. The large volume of the elephant’s “nose” produces an unmistakable breathing sound, such that, even if I once hear this again without at the same time seeing the huge animal in the bright full moon of mid-June 2000, there can be no mistaking a feeding elephant for any other grass eater.

Elephants have a brain that’s more than twice the size of that of a human. Perhaps this is how they can have their legendary good memory. They also need it, because they keep moving around a large area in search for particular food plants and water, and having a mental map of the area is a distinct advantage, as I keep discovering when driving with a GPS navigation device, supplementing my insufficient memory. Of course, elephants do not only remember where to go, but also what plants to find, where to find water, and, according to some recent research, the likelihood of being attacked by humans.

Elephants have a complex communications system based on very low frequency sound. They regularly call out for other elephants with a deep, rumbling sound and frequencies around 16 Hz, sometimes down to 8 Hz. The calls can be very loud in absolute terms, way above 100 dB and actually near our pain limit, but we cannot hear the low frequencies fully. Most of what we hear are upper harmonics, but when you’re near a calling elephant, you get a lively impression of the acoustic energy when you do not only hear the sound, but also feel it in your body.

More than 50 different calls are identified by means of computer sound analysis, and the researchers begin to understand some of the meanings of the elephant language. How intelligent they really are, we cannot say just yet, but they may well belong to the most intelligent animals on our planet. Some of their actions look as if they have at least some understanding of the concept of life and death. Killing an elephant may therefore be immoral in a sense that does not apply to most other animals, and we may have to rethink our moral standing when we discuss, for example, the culling of elephants.

Hans-Georg Michna

Copyright © 2000-2016 Hans-Georg Michna.


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