Amboseli: Calm before a storm?
Teeming with life
In my previous visits to Amboseli Park, I had not experienced as much wildlife as I did recently. The long rains have delayed and the Park is the only area animals can access water and food in the swamps.
On one morning, we got thoroughly entertained by wildebeest calves’ skittish nature, running around an imaginary circuit for some five minutes without tiring out while the adults continued grazing nonchalantly. The calves reminded me of Kenyan runners, who always seem to maintain the same stamina from beginning to the end of a race, many a time giving it the power and final kick at the home stretch to break a record.
Further around Longinye Swamp, we watched a pride of eight lionesses lying in the grass close to a herd of suspicious zebra snorting loudly to alert each other of the predators. Lucky still, we came across another pride of four at very close range quenching their thirst from a pool of water on the road before sauntering away into their haunt in the palms.
Strange things only happen in places you least expect. Like the hippos in Amboseli which seem to relish basking in the harsh sun or graze during the hottest hours of the day whilst other wildlife seek refuge under shade or take a deep in the swamps and marshes fed by underground water from Mt Kilimanjaro.
Unpredictable dust storms
One late afternoon, I finally got to understand why Amboseli has been referred to as a dustbowl. While driving on one of the popular circuits, a dust storm slowly picked up in the horizon. It covered the Longinye swamp and its resident wildlife and swiftly enveloped us in ancient volcanic ash, covering every single pore of our skin. We slowed up to a stop as visibility reduced to less than five metres and silently watched in awe. As one dust storm swept across the plains, another would swirl up immediately, compelling us to wait for 20 minutes before continuing with our journey.
Such dust storms during this time are a harbinger of rain – a resource both man and animal have been eagerly waiting for in the Amboseli ecosystem.
This ecosystem is made up of the Park and six communally-owned group ranches. At 390km2, the Park cannot solely sustain the 1200 elephants, let alone other wildlife. When it rains, almost all the wildlife makes their way into the dispersal areas, the group ranches owned by the Maasai community.
In the last five years, however, development and land-use change in these community areas has been on high gear particularly after the main road to the border town of Loitoktok got a new layer of tar.
Take the example of Kimana Community Group Ranch which is now history. Kimana has been parcelled out into smaller units and sold to investors on willing buyer-willing seller basis. The wildlife sanctuary therein is no more – the only indicator that a fence existed is the wooden posts and the lodge has been abandoned.
Kimana Town, once a tin-shacked centre, is now bustling with life. The area has become more cosmopolitan in terms of its residents as many Kenyans have flocked there to eke a living. Farming is one of the main activities with vegetables as the choice of crops with a ready market in Nairobi and other far-flung areas in the country. Other investors have put up tourist facilities.
With a growing population and static land surface area, more and more Kenyans are seeking real estate as an investment opportunity or to live off. Unfortunately, ‘gun sights’ have been set on the Amboseli group ranches and some of the buyers with the economic power fence off their land, fragmenting the ecosystem further. The interests are vast.
In addition, the Maasai community is slowly but surely embracing a sedentary lifestyle as opposed to engaging purely in pastoralism. Some are selling off their land to increase their livestock numbers and moving to other areas, if lucky. Others are simply leasing their land to commercial investors who are paying upfront. Simply, the Amboseli wildlife dispersal areas may be no more in ten years. Or less.
Are we in the calm before the incompatible land-use storm sweeps across most or all the group ranches, eventually confining wildlife in the Park?
Frighteningly, Amboseli’s existence is no longer a matter of ‘if’- it is ‘when’. IFAW hopes to stem this land-use change on some critical corridor for the survival of elephants. The sun waits for no king; join us in this endeavour.