Jackie, the cheetah mother.

Jackie the Mother Cheetah.

 

On the 18th August 2011, I drove to Athi to get organised for an important visitation of potential beneficiaries to the Athi Kapiti Conservancy. My task was to find some cheetah and sit on them till Paula Kahumbu arrived with the visitors.

This time of year is described as the “dry season”. Tourists in the northern hemisphere plan their holiday just for it arrive in Kenya for what they hope is glorious weather. Film crews too, arrive with high expectations of beautiful blue skies. But to us the dry season is also the period of the year when it is often miserably dark and grey with solid low cloud and not a hint of sunlight. It’s our winter that finds the residents of Nairobi wrapped up and snivelling talking of little but the weather.

I had flown with Gai Cullen in her tiny plane, doors off, filming video with a high quality camera in the hope of portraying the vast wildlife filled plains. However, despite visibility being a good 20km straight ahead I could not pick out Wildebeest, let alone Cheetah 200 ft directly below. The candle power of the sun, even at noon was insufficient to pick out contrasting colours, especially tan browns. I had earlier walked out away from my car and turned back not to see it. In the cold, dark and foreboding atmosphere I would not have been surprised to hear a howl and see the Hound of the Baskerville’s, it was that gloomy.

Gloomy misty mornings

Gloomy misty mornings

Given the vastness of these plains, the lack of roads and the highly wary nature of these cheetahs that have no experience of tourist I was beginning to worry. The poor beleaguered cheetahs of our more populous parks, harried every hour of the day by mini vans have suffered as a result. They now alter their hunting time to coincide with the hour that the tourists all careen back to their lodges to eat lunch! But they are as used to people and cameras as are movie stars and they present hardly any challenge in locating. The cheetahs of the Athi plains, although numerous are wild in the true sense. But visitors are often unable to understand that cheetahs may be much easier to see in parks where their density may be very low, yet not see them in wild areas where their density is much higher.

Jackie. On her left "The Boss", her right the missing cub.

Jackie. On her left "The Boss", her right the missing cub.

Photo taken 16 Jan 2011, showing the cubs at about 4 months.

I liaised with Michael Mbithi how has now taken up the cheetah project. Michael lives on a beautiful ranch to the south and he was also busy preparing himself for the arrival of our VIPs and had his scouts out looking for cheetahs too. I opted to cover an area I knew well in which two mothers, Safi (with 3, four month old cubs), and Jackie (with 4, 11 month old cubs) lived.

I stationed myself at a familiar Dam for the night and set up camp with many hyenas calling. That’s not good for Safi and her young cubs. In the morning I was up at dawn and pleased to see the sun. I scanned the area from my roof tent looking for startled antelope, but because of the high density of cattle I soon gave up and went looking elsewhere. I worked hard, the light was good but I drew a blank.  I returned to pick up the HDV video camera from Gai’s house and was set on driving a hour or more to see Michael on the far south when I looked at my phone and saw an SMS from Sandy Simpson. He had located some cheetah!

Jackie lying down. Sally sitting with Mwoga behind her.

Jackie lying down. Sally sitting with Mwoga behind her.

Picture by Paula Kahumbu. Showing cubs at about 11-12 months.

I drove immediately to find him and a flock of teenagers all looking at Jackie and her cubs. Sandy and I play a game in which we try to outdo the other, and I was fairly beaten as I had spent much of the morning looking at precisely the same place, and he had spent 5 minutes!

Jackie had, I was sad to see, only 3 cubs, not 4. It is uncommon for cheetahs to lose young when over 6 months of age, and I had to question whether the numerous snares set in the fence and under trees in their territory did not claim the missing cub.

However the other 3 cubs looked in good shape, and Jackie is a very experienced mother. I stationed myself 300m away from her and sat with the family throughout the day waiting for the VIPs to arrive. She had to get up and move each time a group of cattle came by and their herder. I filmed them walking away with a herder in the background. I later asked the herder how many cheetah he had seen. He replied that he never had in all his years, but had heard that they were around.

 Jackie’s cubs are “Sally”, “the Boss” and “Mwoga”, one daughter and two sons. “The Boss” stood out as a cocky little guy when about 3 months old. He was much more confiding and sat boldy while all his family flattened themselves in the grass in an attempt to hide. He is as bold today, although “Sally” his sister was playful. “Mwoga” is a cringing coward, slinking off and snaking through the grass. I have no idea what upset him but he has always been this way.

Sally

Sally

 

Paula arrived with her guests and took these photos as they were allowed to approach closer than I. Jackie and her family were most obliging and granting them permission to invade her personal space. Then without disturbing the family we retired.

"The Boss" on the left. Sally and Mwoga on the right. Photo. Paula Kahumbu

"The Boss" on the left. Sally and Mwoga on the right. Photo. Paula Kahumbu

I watched them till nightfall, when Jackie led them far downwind and onto the short grass plains, perhaps to hunt in tomorrow morning’s early moon light.

The need to keep it open

The plains of East Africa are portrayed in many documentaries as vast, gently rolling grasslands with dotted trees and wooded waterways. In this habitat plains “game” such as zebra, wildebeest, gazelles and their big cat predators roam. Few of us are unaware of the migration of these plains game. For example, we all know that millions of Wildebeest and Zebra move through the Serengeti in Tanzania and bottleneck into the very much smaller Maasai Mara each year. Packed to the gunnels to feed on nutritious grasses, they inevitably suffer high mortality from predators, drowning and disease. Here gather vultures in their thousands. Lions, crocodile, hyena, leopard and cheetah all take their toll whilst the bounty remains. Then it passes as the rains lure the animals to greener more dispersed pastures. The Athi Kapiti and Nairobi National Park was very much like this a decade ago, and still has hope of maintaining these events if proper plans are put in place now.

Wildebeest Athi

Wildebeest Athi

What does this mean for the predators of migratory animals?

What is generally not portrayed in the documentary is the hard times and those animals that stay behind. Predators are territorial, and when their prey is not, it simply means lean times ahead and a vigorous focus on what’s left behind. When thousands of animals enter their territory they feast. When it goes out of their territory they dare not follow as they will enter the territory of others and they will suffer the consequences if they tagged along behind. Equally, they would be foolish to leave their own hard fought-for territory unattended, because should they return they may well find it occupied.  Wolves in the Arctic follow Caribou and Polar bears move in search of seals, but in less hostile environments predators stay put, or cautiously investigate unoccupied “new” territory.

Large predators are torn between easy pickings and an inability to follow it when it wanders on through to other areas occupied by fierce competitors of their own species. For lions and leopards the rules are fairly hard and fast. There is minimal movement of these predators in search of their migratory prey. For hyena too the rules are clear. You do not follow these herds, because you’ll get attacked by other clans of hyena. For cheetah the rules are less clear. Most of the research on cheetah is conducted in environments where cyclic large movements of migratory prey species does not (now) occur. Athi Kapiti cannot compare to the arid sparsely populated lands of Namibia where cheetah roam massive, and sparsely populated areas. The Athi Kapiti does not now compare to the Serengeti either and in the coming years we hope to piece together just what they do and if they remain put in defined territories, or go “walk-about” each year.

Lion

Lion

In order to survive all these predators must be adaptable and be able to subsist during the hard times on less-than-optimal prey. Lions may turn their attention to Warthogs, Waterbuck and even Aardvarks. Cheetah may turn to hares, springhares and game birds. Leopard may even descend to eating mice and scarab beetles.

Most wildlife species are in fact resident. Those that do not habitually migrate are in the majority, but their numerical abundance may not be that impressive. Impala, Grant’s Gazelle, Gerenuk, Dik dik, Waterbuck, Warthog, Giraffe, Hippo, Buffalo, Reedbuck, Steenbok, Aardvarks and hares are not typically thought of as species that move in vast groups across hundreds of kilometres. It would be incongruous if they did! These stay behind and are adapted to cope with lean times. They form the prey-base of predators when the others have checked out. The residents logically set the limit on just how many predators can live in the area.

When resident prey species decrease due to human activity it also lowers the holding capacity of predators. Vast migratory herds moving into this disturbed area from better protected lands may befuddle the casual human observer, who may assume that that all is well when in fact all is not. Such is the probable scenario in the Maasai Mara where resident wildlife has declined. On the Athi Kapiti migratory wildlife still wanders in an out of adjacent Nairobi National Park and far to the south. As it is increasingly confined, an ecological upset is predictable. We need to investigate the dispersal of these animals and just as importantly we need to study the population stability of the resident” wildlife.

The Athi Kapiti must be seen as an area of ebb and flow, or coming and going and of seasonal change. Enclosed sanctuaries within it have been proposed but threaten the ecology of those migrant species and thus lower the potential for the whole area. The challenge is to handle the inevitable expansion of human interests as well as maintain an open and well protected area.

Conserving migratory wildlife.

The Athi Kapiti Plains lies in the centre of an annual cyclic event that may now dominate the ecology of migratory animals in the region. It is part of a much larger area that sees the transitory movement of large ungulates and zebra, but due to its to habitat quality, sustainable human density, rainfall and soils it is perhaps now the most important and still-intact feeding and calving ground for these migratory animals. Recent game counts do indicate that a majority of plains game does concentrate here. As the animals spread out further in less optimal habitats they dilute themselves far and wide and are tough to count. While there is no doubt that a large amount of wildlife must be dispersed, it remains a fact that the Athi Kapiti does host a significant portion. Its close proximity to Nairobi National Park is frustratingly separated by a thin line of ill-planned industrialisation. If it were open access then there would be a movement of animals between the two. The importance of migration for protected areas is only just being officially recognised (although long known and understood), and so there is hope for improvement.

Wildebeest on the move

Wildebeest on the move

Many species migrate, from birds, reptiles, large mammals to the Blue Whale. Often these are global movements made to escape the cold of the temperate and polar regions to warmer climes. Large terrestrial mammals are confined by natural barriers such as oceans, rivers, mountains and forests; and today by man. The Arctic Caribou moves each year some 5000km still in large numbers and the Russian Siaga antelope used to cover similar distances, but now in ragged much smaller numbers. The American Bison and pronghorn migrations are long defunct. The Quagga and Springbok migrations of South Africa are a thing of the past with one now extinct, the other in remnant non-migratory sub-populations. The Botswana veterinary fence put an end to a massive Wildebeest migration and similar disease free zones are very much on the drawing board for Kenya (to export meat to the EU). The Kob migration into the Gambella region of Ethiopia from Southern Sudan is now imperilled due to the decision of the Ethiopian Government to lease a National Park to foreign agri-businesses. The Tanzanian government embarked against international furore, on its infamous trans-Serengeti highway, that will threaten the largest migration of wildlife in the world and has since reached an uncertain compromise. And we, just outside of Nairobi are naively going ahead with plans that will end another of one of the world’s greatest wildlife migrations; claiming that ignorance is the cause. So we need to inform and educate if there is a chance to keep one of the few functioning terrestrial mammal migrations intact. As a rule, the more confined movements are, the fewer animals can survive. Never can the Bison or Springbok exist in the numbers to which they were evolved, and today survive in remnant numbers.

Migration is a survival technique that allows an animal to find food that would not be available if it stayed in one place. They can then maintain much higher populations because they avoid drought. Wildebeest are designed to walk effortlessly (if ungainly) to meet these demands. Pastoralists drive livestock in the same way and for the same reasons. As governments are about governing and control, they disapprove of disorder and like to confine livestock and wildlife to their designated areas. But this is against nature. While many recognise that Nairobi National Park experiences seasonal fluctuations, very few today recognise the wildlife on the Athi Kapiti as part of a dramatic and huge cycle of migratory wildlife. It is a mistake to consider wildlife as belonging to one place, because it is shared between the National Parks. In the process of urbanising and industrialising the greater city environs and more distant rural areas the voice of concern for its migratory wildlife are barely heard. It is time its importance was put into perspective.

 

 

 

Tawny Eagle Athi.

Tawny Eagle Athi.

The Athi Kapiti, a haven for Raptors

 

 

 

When I first moved onto the Athi plains in 1988 I thought it was a step in the wrong direction. I had come from the much acclaimed Laikipia area where elephants and lions were common back-porch creatures and conservancies were a fairly new reality. Six years previously I saw for example, Lewa Downs turn from a struggling, predominantly cattle-focussed ranch, into a rhino sanctuary thanks to the total commitment of the landowners and one benefactor. It tipped the balance and set them on a course for international recognition. Their land use option spread to neighbouring ranches and community owned areas.

Eastern Chanting Goshawk

Eastern Chanting Goshawk

Nearly a quarter of a century ago I settled in a very odd looking house in Athi and looked into the far distance where I could see a faint glow in the clouds, where Nairobi city stood. On weekends the stadium lights would turn on and put me into a reflective mood, for Nairobi was very close. I’d take my eagles and falcons out for flights, loose them and then give chase over truly vast open expanses that I never knew existed. I explored and went as far as the northern areas of Amboseli without encountering a single fence. If I had harboured any resentment at having to abandon Laikipia it vanished in plains holding more wildlife than any I had previously seen up north. I had friends round, and off I’d take them to share this, the best kept secret in Kenya. The ranches then made up an area twice the size of the Maasai Mara and were stuffed to the gunnels with cheetah, plains game and my favourite, eagles.

Lesser Kestrel Roost. Athi.

Lesser Kestrel Roost. Athi.

 

Should a science-based approach be employed to zero in on specific areas for conservation (due to limited resources, etc), then after shifting through all the detritus one would come up with a few gems. One of them would be the Athi Kapiti plains. So if the Athi Kapiti is such a wonderful place, how come we haven’t heard much about it? How could such a thing occur so close the capital city and not be known? I believe it is the purely human failing of not appreciating what is within reach and secondly poor marketing.

Lappet faced Vulture on hare kill

Lappet faced Vulture on hare kill

When I (rarely) attend wildlife workshops, symposiums or meetings I rub shoulders with the real guys on the block. Despite us all knowing, deep down inside the ethical and intellectual error of it, the mega fauna folks still hold court. A rare toad or tiny orchid isn’t going to carry much weight. But as we mature as a nation, so must our principles, and a toad is as important as a rhino. A little bit of promotional marketing and the toad may be secured a bright future!

Little Sparrowhawk

Little Sparrowhawk

On one ranch, Swara Plains, I have seen 60 species of diurnal raptors and 8 nocturnal owls. On adjacent ranches an additional 7 diurnal and 2 nocturnal species can be added to the list. This makes the Athi Kapiti an outstanding area of global importance for raptors. On a usual day from my old veranda I could expect to see 40 raptors of some 10 species. It was this that put me into 7th heaven, not so much the plains game and cats, for it spoke of an intact eco-system of enormous extent and quality. It beat hands down most of our nations protected areas and it cries out for recognition. Focus on single species conservation has a merit if the animal is truly dependant on an intact eco-system. If it can survive in changed environments then its conservation does not necessarily mean the conservation of all species. It makes much more sense to conserve a collection of species, from big to small. I’d like to see one of the goals of the proposed Athi Kapiti Conservancy to be in conserving raptors, all of them.

Today I look towards Nairobi and in place of that distant glow is a sea of electric lights from horizon to horizon. There is a roar of traffic, cement factories and the hum of industries. But if you turn your back on it, you’ll still see the eagles and cheetahs. You can carry on walking for many miles and that noise is replaced by night crickets and the howl of hyena. There is still an area of vast ecological importance desperately requiring our recognition.

Conserving migratory wildlife.

The Athi Kapiti Plains lies in the centre of an annual cyclic event that dominates the ecology of the region. It is part of a much larger area that sees the transitory movement of large ungulates and zebra, but due to its to habitat, rainfall and soils it is perhaps the most important and still intact feeding ground for these migratory animals.

Many species migrate, from birds, reptiles, large mammals to the Blue Whale. Often these are global movements are made to escape the cold of the temperate and polar regions to warmer climes. Large terrestrial mammals are confined by natural barriers such as oceans, rivers, mountains and forests; and today by man. The Arctic Caribou moves each year some 5000km still in large numbers and the Russian Siaga antelope used to cover similar distances, but now in ragged much smaller numbers. The American Bison and pronghorn migrations are long defunct. The Quagga and Springbok migrations of South Africa are a thing of the past with one now extinct, the other in remnant non-migratory sub-populations. The Botswana veterinary fence put an end to a massive Wildebeest migration. The Kob migration into the Gambella region of Ethiopia from Southern Sudan is now imperilled due to the decision of the Ethiopian Government to lease a National Park to foreign agri-businesses. The Tanzanian government has embarked against international furore, on its infamous trans-Serengeti highway, that will threaten the largest migration of wildlife in the world. And we, just outside of Nairobi are naively going ahead with plans that will end another of one of the world’s greatest wildlife migrations; oblivious in our ignorance. So we need to inform and educate if there is a chance to keep one of the few functioning terrestrial mammal migrations intact. As a rule, the more confined movements are, the fewer animals can survive.

Wildebeest on Athi Kapiti

Wildebeest on Athi Kapiti

 

Migration is a survival technique that allows an animal to find food that would not be available if it stayed in one place. They can then maintain much higher populations because they avoid drought. Pastoralists drive livestock in the same way and for the same reasons. As governments are about governing and control, they disapprove of disorder and like to confine livestock and wildlife to their designated areas. But this is against nature. While many recognise that Nairobi National park experiences seasonal fluctuations, very few today recognise the wildlife on the Athi Kapiti as part of a dramatic and huge cycle of migratory wildlife. It is a mistake to consider wildlife as belonging to one place, because it is shared between the National Parks. In the process of urbanising and industrialising the greater city environs the voice of concern for its migratory wildlife are barely heard. It is time its importance was put into perspective.

Lion Family

Lion Family

The plains of East Africa are portrayed in many documentaries as vast, gently rolling grasslands with dotted trees and wooded waterways. In this habitat plains “game” such as zebra, wildebeest, gazelles and their big cat predators roam. Few of us are unaware of the migration of these plains game. For example, we all know that millions of Wildebeest and Zebra move through the Serengeti in Tanzania and bottleneck into the very much smaller Maasai Mara each year. Packed to the gunnels to feed on nutritious grasses, they inevitably suffer high mortality from predators, drowning and disease. Here gather vultures in their thousands. Lions, hyena, leopard and cheetah all take their toll whilst the bounty remains. Then it passes as the rains lure the animals to greener more dispersed pastures. The Athi Kapiti and Nairobi National Park was very much like this a decade ago, and still has hope of maintaining these events if proper plans are put in place now.

Leopard

Leopard

What does this mean for the predators of migratory animals?

What is generally not portrayed in the documentary is the hard times and those animals that stay behind. Predators are territorial, and when their prey is not, it simply means lean times ahead and a focus on what’s left behind. When thousands of animals enter their territory they feast. When it goes out of their territory they dare not follow as they will enter the territory of others and they will suffer the consequences if they tagged along behind. Equally, they would be foolish to leave their own hard fought-for territory unattended, because should they return they may well find it occupied.  Wolves in the Arctic follow Caribou and Polar bears move in search of seals, but in less hostile environments predators stay put, or cautiously investigate unoccupied “new” territory.

Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena

Large predators are torn between easy pickings and an inability to follow it when it wanders on through to other areas occupied by fierce competitors of their own species. For lions and leopards the rules are fairly hard and fast. There is minimal movement of these predators in search of their migratory prey. For hyena too the rules are clear. You do not follow these herds, because you’ll get attacked by other clans of hyena. For cheetah the rules are less clear. Most of the research on cheetah is conducted in environments where cyclic large movements of migratory prey species does not (now) occur. Athi Kapiti cannot compare to the arid sparsely populated lands of Namibia where cheetah roam massive loose “territories”. It does not now compare to the Serengeti either and in the coming years we hope to piece together just what they do and if they remain put in defined territories, or go “walk-about” each year.

Cheetah and Cub

Cheetah and Cub

In order to survive all these predators must be adaptable and be able to subsist during the hard times on less than optimal prey. Lions may turn their attention to Warthogs, Waterbuck and even Aardvarks. Cheetah may turn to hares, springhares and game birds. Leopard may even descend to eating mice and scarab beetles.

Most wildlife species are in fact resident. Those that do not habitually migrate are in the majority, but their numerical abundance may not be that impressive. Impala, Grant’s Gazelle, Gerenuk, Dik dik, Waterbuck, Warthog, Giraffe, Hippo, Buffalo, Reedbuck, Steenbok, Aardvarks and hares are not typically thought of as species that move in vast groups across hundreds of kilometres. It would be incongruous if they did! These stay behind and are adapted to cope with lean times. They form the prey base of predators when the others have checked out. The residents logically set the limit on just how many predators can live in the area.

When resident prey species decrease due to human activity it also lowers the holding capacity of predators. Vast migratory herds moving into this disturbed area from better protected lands may befuddle the casual human observer, who may assume that that all is well when in fact all is not. Such is the probable scenario in the Maasai Mara where resident wildlife has declined. On the Athi Kapiti migratory wildlife still wanders in an out of adjacent Nairobi National Park and far to the south. As it is increasingly confined, an ecological upset is predictable. We need to investigate the dispersal of these animals and just as importantly we need to study the population stability of the ”resident” wildlife.

Athi Kapiti Game Count

Game Count on Athi Kapiti.

The first part of the past two weeks were spent dashing about to meetings and getting permission to go ahead with a Game Count of the proposed Athi Kapiti Conservancy area. It has been a joint initiative of many NGO’s GO’s, landowners and stakeholders over a vast area. The count centres around the viability (or perhaps vulnerability) of Nairobi National Park and seeks to disclose the secrets of the dispersal area.

Giraffe on Kapiti Hill

Giraffe on Kapiti Hill

There is much debate regarding the future of Nairobi National Park, much too much to discuss here with anything other than a very broad brush. In a nut shell, Nairobi National Park is a small, extremely diverse park that depended (as do all), on seasonal movements of wildlife. Wildebeest, zebra, Thompson’s Gazelle as well as many other ungulates moved en masse in and out of the park. Cheetah and lion would follow or at least disperse out in a broad fan. I am old enough to remember dispersal to the north, but nowadays most focus on the south and south west dispersal “corridor”.

Zebra. Athi

I hate the word “corridor”, for it is something that I remember running down in fear of wolves as a small child when I was sent to bed. Many do still assume a wildlife corridor is a defined narrow path, instead of a massive limitless expanse, which in fact it is. This expanse is now a mosaic of urban, sub-urban, open, industrialised or settled in a complex patchwork of inconsistent planning. The result is a dramatic change within the park, due to these restraints upon the movements of wildlife.

Lesser Kudu on Lisa Ranch.

Lesser Kudu on Lisa Ranch.

This expansive dispersal area includes the 6 ranches to the south, south east that amount to a block some 3.5 times larger than the National Park. It is this area that we are promoting to conserve, but we and many of our conservation minded  neighbours in the Kitengela, need to have hard facts on what precisely is out there .  KWS recognise the importance of these counts and fully endorsed the project.  The co-ordination of which was the formidable undertaking of Paula Kahumbu, who in days managed to galvanise us all into instant action! While aerial counts were perceived and executed, other ground counts in Kitengela are ongoing, I here report on the count in Athi Kapaiti.

Dawn saw 4 Vehicles driving off with highly caffeinated observers who clutched data sheets in one hand and binoculars with the other, with heads sprouting out of 4 by 4s. Bouncing overland in their designated blocks the idea was to cover every 500m square blocks and count each animal. Its hard work, not at least on the back! An observer would tap the roof asking the driver to stop. Then hissing digits under their breath they would settle on a number, and only change their mind once it had been put to paper by the appointed scribe. We had volunteers, land-owners,  managers and residents all participating at very short notice.

Photo: Delphine-Marie Paquet.

Photo: Delphine-Marie Paquet.

In this way each zebra, Lesser Kudu or even hare would get put to paper. The results so far show that the Athi Kapiti does indeed support a massive amount of wildlife. Of note was the finding of poisoned vulture, an ill omen of a serious matter that looms heavily over the future of the species in Africa. Perhaps the best was left to last. Lost the last entry in the data sheet was of 5 cheetah found this morning on Swara Plains. It was “Jackie” and her four cubs.

Video on the Athi Kapiti Conservancy

Who are we? It’s all here

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The elusive aadwolf

The elusive aardwolf.

While driving away from my campsite on a cold misty morning  on Machakos ranching I caught glimpse of a black tail racing through the knee high grass. I first thought it was a White tailed Mongoose. I guess it is as ridiculous as it sound to confuse black and white, but what reminded me was the angle it was held. It went up then arched down sideways. The body seemed to gallop off at a different angle.

When it ran out over a rocky river bed I again confused it with another. For it now lopped in a hyena fashion and for a second I thought it was a Striped Hyena. But no it was something much less common. It was an Aardwolf. He or she turned and stood its ground; with hair all bristled, looking 4 times bigger than normal. But its tiny face, miniscule nose and snout and big goofy ears gave it away. Then in a flash it vanished. I was left still groping for my camera.

The odd thing about aardwolves here is that they are mostly seen during the day. Usually near evening. Although I have spent many nights spotlighting I have only seen them a few times near their den.  in general I see them during grey days when the wind is down and all is quite. Perhaps then they can use their ears to listen for termites and bugs. It is these small insects and possibly  a few rodents that forms the majority of their diet. They have thin long front feet with long claws. These they use to rapidly dig then freeze. They ears twitch their about until they hear the bug moving, then they smack their nose right down upon it.

A few years ago there used to be a car rally that blazed its way across the plains terrifying all before them. Of all the animals to hit, they hit two aardwolves about 6 months apart. The route went within 60m of their den.  The urban rally drivers would not have known what they hit even if they cared. In examining the body of one I was amazed at just how small the teeth were. They are smaller than a cat’s. Even stranger was the knobbly tongue and rough ridges on the roof of it mouth. These animals are bizarre, and seem nothing like a dog, nor nothing like a cat. They are unquestionably related to hyena, although very different in many respects.

aardwsm1

On the nearby property of Portland Cement at different intervals I took these two pictures. The zebra at first thought its time was up and it looked alarmed. Then it knew it was no threat and went back to grazing. The aardwolf isn’t as close to the zebra as it seems, but it makes an amusing photograph. The other is a bold individual that sat and stared at me for a good five minutes. The light was terrible and i took many blurred images. But this one came out well. The digital camera can see much better than I in dark conditions.

 

aardsm2

A vulture breeding ground

There are a few places which are undisturbed on the Athi Kapiti plains. Many a day I have been able to idle away under a tree or wander about on foot without seeing a sign of mankind. No cattle herder, no pedestrians and no tourists. There may be reminders of past human activity like a broken and over-grown water trough, a rusty cattle grid or an old cedar fence post.  Such corners are rare and they often hide in plain sight. Animal paths weave along contours and humans often stick to those anlappet nest in Kapiti Plainsd pass by secluded places for generations that lie as little as fifty paces away.

In defending protected areas we are often today reminded that there has always been a historical use of land by people. People and wildlife have always mixed. Today there are proposals to allow sustainable practises within Protected Areas, such as livestock rearing, wood collection, and grass for thatching. Such areas thus used may still support a surprising array of wildlife such as elephant, wildebeest, zebra etc. But when I have visited truly remote areas where people seldom if ever tread,  I have been struck by the abundance of other species. 

Who would have thought that within sight of the main Nairobi-Mombasa highway where my friends drive grim-faced for many hours on end to visit such quite places, they pass areas of such sanctity and peace?

It is tough to prove it however. Perhaps if they host hyena dens, caracal liars, porcupine holes or honey badger caves we’d all accept it as a proven remote spot. But I defend some of these places as more peaceful  than other places, based on whether or not they have an eagle or vulture nest. The womb of a mammal is portable (if cumbersome), but for an eagle in is a massive structure in a tree or cliff. If it needs to, the pregnant mammal runs for it, but the eagle must stay and defend it or leave and build a nest somewhere quieter.

On the lower slopes of Kapiti Hill is a nest of a Lappet faced Vulture. Its location lies near a disused track, and it has probably not seen a human near it for years. Lappet faced Vultures are huge, and carry axe-like bills to hatchet tough thick animal hides. There used to be five nests on a 20,000 ranch nearby, but they all vanished due to one simple reason. Too much human traffic. One nest occasionally still gets used, but significantly in the least visited area.

lappet with backpack

Now this pair is rather special as a Princeton PhD student, Corinne Kendall put a GPS-GSM back pack unit on one of these vultures. She asked me to check and see them and gave me the co-ordinates. That is how I found the nest. However the interesting thing about this bird is that she caught it in the Masai Mara, some 140km away (in a straight line). Even more extraordinary, this bird regularly flew back and forth to the Mara. The significant point to me is that it had a choice, the Mara, the massive mountains and hot low plains in between, and the Kapiti Plains in which to nest. It chose the Kapiti plains for a reason. The reason appears pretty clear to me. The nest of Lappet faced Vultures if often low, but virtually unclimbable by leopard. Baboons climb anything and I have seen them tear eagle and vulture nests out of trees. Human activity especially pedestrian, greatly disturbs these particular vultures. While they seldom care less about a vehicle they get greatly alarmed on the nest if a person sets out of the car, or sits under the shade of their nest tree. It would appear that this pair took the extra effort to move away from the Mara, a place now well known for the abundance of tourists and livestock and made a bee-line to Kapiti for quite sanctuary. Baboons too tend to proliferate in areas disturbed by humans. It does, which ever way you think about it raise a number of questions.

 

 

Whatever the reason it adds an impartial if clear statement about the unique tranquillity and wildlife potential of the proposed Athi Kapiti Conservancy.

 

23 March 2011.

Five Cheetah, found by luck

After a rough night camped out on my roof top tent listening to two wildebeest calves being killed by a large pack of Spotted Hyena, I drove at 5.30AM to meet Gai Cullen for an early morning flight to search for cheetah. We flew 1.5hrs during dawn over Portland, Machakos Ranching, Kapiti, Lisa and the vast Masai area west of the railway. It this latter area we noted large numbers of zebra, Tomi, Grant’s and some 15 Gerenuk on newly settled plains. Settlements are 1 to 3km apart (to be measured) and their recent occupation is noted by the height of the exotic trees planted. The settlement stretch out as far as one can see. 7 years previously there were very few settlements here and no fences. It is this area that channels wildlife to the south west as far as Selengei and possibly Amboseli. It is this area that needs the most amount of attention, if we hope to conserve migratory species of wildlife.

We did not see any cheetah despite being under pressure to do so. I was anxious to show Dale Anderson and his party from Cat Haven that these plains held exception numbers of cheetah. As is often the case what you wish to show specific people vanishes on the day they arrive. After landing, Corinne Kendall a Princeton University PhD student studying vultures in the Mara took a short flight with Gai to see the Lappet’s faced vulture nest we had just seen. Corinne is particularly interested in putting a GPS sat tag on Lappets. After she landed we both drove off to go check the nest from the ground. It wasn’t easy to find and I had to drive overland looking up at the flat top balanites. In so doing I nearly bumped into a hyena. Remarkably tame, she just ambled off a short distance. We found the nest, made a tentative plan to return to trap and tag them (as a last resort should she fail to get any in the Mara). While we were gently driving away, we nearly ran over a mother cheetah and 4 large cubs!

 Jackie and 4 cubs

  Jackie and 4 cubs

The cubs rose in front of the car from the long grass, as the mother lay flattened in the grass, ears down and squinting disapprovingly. I have no doubt that had I been 10ft further away we would not have seen them. That we had both been flying over the very spot for a prolonged period specifically looking for cheetah, and missed them, is testimony to how unreliable both air and ground surveys can be for enumerating a species that hides.

I had employed no other technique other than sheer luck. I could not with any honesty put this encounter down on a transect spread sheet as no scientific rigor or method was employed. Nevertheless it presented an opportunity to photograph, age and get GPS co-ordinates. The Cat Haven people had, as you may have guessed, just left without seeing any cheetah!

As she slunk away head down and body flattened I noted her cubs adopt her same attitude. This is a common trait among most young carnivores (and raptors). Do whatever your mother does, copy her moves and you may learn something worth handing down to your own young. Odd that she was so shy here as on the next door ranch she was much happier.

Jackie with "The Boss". Jan 2011

  Jackie with “The Boss”. Jan 2011

They moved through very long grass in poor grey overcast conditions. The photos I took were bad, but were useful for ID spot patterns. She was “Jackie” a female with cubs I had seen in a much better mood in January with one particularly rambunctious cub termed “The Boss” who is still with her. I have a rule that no matter how much you need a full body photo never upset the animal, especially a mother with cubs. These looked in no mood to be followed as they weaved low through the grass to impenetrable stands of whistling thorn. I circled away from them to look back from a distance. Disappointed I then did a transect through where they had been, again with no sighting. Despite the best of luck and the closest possible range I failed to get anything other than a fleeting glimpse. What Corinne and I did find in looking under each shady tree under which they may have rested were two very well made and set snares. Within 100m of 5 cheetah, set under shade trees most tempting to cheetah (as opposed to an ungulate), were 2 snares that I felt were specifically set for them. That the snares were 4km from the nearest boma indicated a focussed intent rare among most poachers. We destroyed them and made note of these threats.

Snare set under tree

  Snare set under tree