It’s hard to believe that two months ago in February I was watching a cheetah yawn in Kenya. Since then I’ve been back in North America in the throes of cold weather and ski season and Kenya seems very far away. But writing this post almost makes me feel the equatorial sun on my shoulders again.
I should start by saying that Kenya was never on my list of places to visit. The popular tourist area of the Serengeti in Kenya and Tanzania is known for the Great Migration, especially of wildebeest. ‘Crowded’ is the word old Africa hands used when they told me about it, so I wasn’t really interested after my many trips to countries in southern Africa that provided more intimate experiences with wildlife and fewer people.
Not to mention that I was perfectly happy spending January in Australia, basking in the summer sunshine and drinking fine wine. I was scheduled to return from there to the US in mid-February for the end of the winter ski season. But when I received an interesting invitation to visit two Nature Conservancy project areas in the northern part of Kenya (the Serengeti is in the south) and see the work they were doing, I couldn’t turn it down.
If you haven’t heard of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I consider it the premier conservation group in the world. They’ve been doing global conservation for 60 years and I’ve supported them for at least half of that. TNC isn’t about telling people what to do; it’s about working cooperatively so that lifestyles and communities are maintained. What TNC says is that “success for us means not only preserving Africa’s lands and waters, but also helping the people that depend on them for their survival.”
As it turns out, a friend of mine, Lauren, got a job with the Africa program a few years ago. She had repeatedly invited me to join her on site visits, but schedules and circumstances never worked out–until this year, when she had an unexpected meeting in Nairobi in February. So instead of flying directly back to the US from Australia, I took a slight detour…to Kenya.
I arrived at the first camp, Loisaba Conservancy, and met David, a handsome and engaging giraffe researcher from the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy program. He was setting camera traps to gather much-needed data about giraffe movements in the area.
Did you know that there are nine species of giraffe and seven of them are in serious trouble? I didn’t. David says most people don’t know it; for some reason, the elephants, lions, wild dogs, cheetahs, and rhinos have gotten a lot more attention—and conservation money. The reticulated giraffe, found at Loisaba, has declined 80% in the past 15 years due to habitat loss and poaching. For such an iconic species, little is know about giraffe ecology or population dynamics. David’s project is trying to change all that.
Scaling up ecotourism is another element of the long-term plan to preserve this area. A new lodge is being built at Loisaba, but I was lucky enough to stay at the small, four-unit camp overlooking a waterhole. Each unit consists of a thatched roof over a deck and 3 walls, with the fourth side completely open to view the waterhole. But the best part was the Star Bed—constructed on wheels and rolled out to the open deck each night, I slept under mosquito netting, the entire night sky as a blanket, while hippos snorted in the water below and leopards walked quietly around the property unseen and unheard.
From Loisaba, I flew in a small 4-seater plane to Sarara Camp in the Mathews Range, home of the semi-nomadic Samburu Tribe, who has long raised their cattle amidst the wildlife. Sarara Camp is the only safari camp on the 75,000-hectare conservation area, so there’s no risk of seeing other vehicles at wildlife spottings. David is also doing research in this area and when I met up with him again, he told me that little is known about how the giraffe interact with and are utilized by the local Samburu. His project engages research associates from the community to gather and analyze data—and ensure local ownership and knowledge will help sustain the resource.
I’ve written about safari before, with fantastic animal and bird sightings, and this was no different. But the highlight of the entire time in Kenya was my visit to the Singing Wells (no photos are allowed, so I’m sorry you can’t see this). Lauren and I got up early one morning and walked for about an hour to the river. It was the dry season and the riverbed was all sand, no water. We sat on the bank in the shade with our Samburu guide, Philip, and the tracker (a ranger who carried the gun, just in case). It was early morning and already I’d drunk a bottle of water in the heat. On the opposite side of the river, four lanky teenage boys were busy digging in the sand and splashing water, their newly washed sarongs draped over bushes.
“They dig their well until they hit the water table,” Philip said. “Each family has a designated spot. They’ll use that hollowed tree trunk as a trough and fill it with water for their cattle.” As the boys climbed out of the hole they were digging, I realized they were all naked.
“Should we be here?” I asked, concerned about the impact of female tourists witnessing their ritual.
Philip laughed. “Because they are naked? They don’t care! They sometimes wear a sarong to protect themselves from the shrubs and branches, but they’re comfortable in their skin. We Samburu do not care about clothing and they’re not at all embarrassed.” It was clear he often got that question.
“Don’t the boys have to go to school?” we asked.
“Some boys do,” Philip said. “But if you are a good and smart boy, you are rewarded by getting to tend the cattle. It’s the best job in the world, being outside with your friends all day, then at night taking the cattle to the boma (a thatch-fenced area) to sit by the fire, protected from the leopards or other night-hunters. Success in our culture is measured differently than in yours and a successful Samburu has many cows and many sons to tend them.”
Other groups of young boys from other families arrived and dug out their wells. Soon we could hear the unmistakable sound of cowbells. As the cattle made their way to the riverbed, one boy jumped into the well and began handing buckets of water up to his relatives, who poured it into the trough. And then the singing began.
Each family has a distinctive chanted and melodic song that the animals recognize. As the cattle approached the troughs, they stood patiently waiting in line as the songs echoed in the air. No cow tried to go to a different trough. The boys worked tirelessly to refill the water until all the animals had drunk enough.
“The songs are all different,” Philip explained, “but the words are similar. They tell the cattle how much they are loved and appreciated and depended upon. It is a great honor to be allowed to tend the cows.”
We stayed for a few hours and watched the primal scene. I realized that, despite all my travel, I understood little about people who live subsistence lives of day-to-day chores, unconcerned about jobs, careers, material possessions, or a host of other first-world worries. On the other hand, I did notice one boy, squatting off to the side by a bush. I didn’t look at first, assuming he was taking care of personal needs, but it turned out he was listening to music on a cell phone. How and where he ever charged the device was beyond me, since electricity was not commonplace in the area.
Later that day, during the evening game drive, we sat in our Land Rover on the edge of the river near the tree that had shaded us that morning. As the sun set and the sky darkened, we watched elephants playing in the wells, showering each other with welcome water. Then, after dark, a leopard emerged from the opposite bank and took a quiet drink. It was a fascinating example of how the human effort of this timeless tradition also benefited the wild animals.
And It’s human effort that does the research, works with communities, and raises the money to save these places for people like me to travel to and experience. I don’t usually plug things in my blog, but I feel so strongly about the important work of TNC, and now the giraffe project, that I encourage you to check them out. Maybe you, too, will be moved to make a contribution so it’s all still there when you are ready to make this trip. Or perhaps simply to know that it’s all still there.