Northeast of the highway, the railway, and the apparent natural divide that separates Kenya’s northern and southern environments, lies Tsavo East National Park. Although it is the larger part of the combined Tsavo parks, the sector north of the Galana Riverhas few tracks and is much less visited. South of the river, the great triangle of flat wilderness, with Aruba Damin the middle, has become popular with safari operators, since it offers a pretty sure chance of seeing plenty of animals, in a very open environment, just half a day’s drive from most coastal hotels.
Apart from some tumbled crags and scarps near Voi, and the rocky cleft of the Galana River (fed by the Tsavo and the Athi), Tsavo East is an uninterrupted plain of bush, dotted with the crazed shapes of baobab trees. It’s a forbiddingly enormous reserve and at times over the last three decades has seemed an odd folly, especially since its northern area was closed to the public for many years due to the long war against elephant and rhino poachers. Since the 1990s, this campaign has been largely won and the elephants are once again on the increase, their numbers swelled by a major KWS translocation operation that moved three hundred elephants to Tsavo East from Shimba Hills. Rhinos are still very rare in Tsavo East and numbers exceedingly hard to estimate but it’s believed there may be about fifty individuals, mostly in the north, but occasionally seen south of the Galana, in the triangle between the Galana, the Mbololo stream and the highway. With the northern sector secure and rangers in place, the whole of Tsavo East was opened for tourism in 2006, though infrastructure north of the Galana is still basic.
With minibus safaris increasingly taking in Tsavo East, the emptiness of the park is no longer as overwhelming as it was, but the park’s vastness means that for much of the time, you will still have the pleasure of exploring the wilderness completely alone. It’s easy to get away off the two or three beaten tracks, and you may find something special – a serval perhaps, or a lesser kudu. You are certain to see a lot of Tsavo East’s delightfully colourful elephants, be they huge, dusty-red adults, or little chocolate babies fresh out of a mud bath.Read More
The Tsavo poaching wars
The Tsavo poaching wars
In Tsavo, as throughout the country, the question of how to manage the elephants is still paramount. While several other countries permit trophy hunting, it has been illegal in Kenya since the 1970s and the policy here is to hunt the poachers and allow the elephants to reach their own natural balance within the defined park territory. Zoologists are divided about whether there is an optimal elephant population for a park like Tsavo, especially as natural weather patterns and now climate change are so significant. The destruction by elephants of Tsavo East’s fragile woodlands and ongoing human-elephant conflict in the farmlands around the perimeter (the park boundary is fenced around Voi) are perennial concerns.
Such questions have been submerged for many years by the overbearing problem of ivory poaching, which at one time looked like it would wipe out the elephants completely. In 1967, the combined Tsavo parks’ elephant population was more than 30,000. It went down to 5300 in 1988, and today stands at around 12,000. Elephants are long-lived and intelligent animals with complex kinship patterns, and the social structure of the herds in many districts was badly distorted in the 1980s, with many older animals killed and too many inexperienced younger elephants unable to fend for themselves or to act as role models for infants. The poachers had changed too; they were no longer marginalized Kamba farmers killing an occasional elephant with an old gun or poisoned arrows, but a new breed of well-connected gangster, equipped with automatic weapons, wiping out whole family groups in a single attack.
The international ivory trade moratoriums, in place from 1989, stopped the ivory trade in its tracks, and had an immediate effect on the numbers of new elephant corpses being logged in Tsavo East. Equally dramatic was the unprecedented aggression with which the Kenyan parks authorities started carrying out their duties under the bluntly pragmatic new Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Richard Leakey, with poachers liable to be shot on sight.
The pressure from some countries to reopen the ivory trade has been strongly resisted by Kenya but this in turn has helped push the price of ivory past the $2000/kg mark. The turmoil in neighbouring Somalia is potentially a huge threat, with evidence that Al-Shabaab is using ivory and rhino horn to fund terrorist attacks.
Tsavo East’s black rhinos are much further down the path to annihilation. Their number in Kenya is estimated at around 600 (compared to 330 in 1989, at the height of the poaching), a figure that is perhaps twenty percent of the total population of the species. More than 95 percent of Kenya’s rhinos, most of them in Tsavo, were killed in the 1970s. This escalation was largely due to a major expansion of the market for rhino horn in China (where powdered horn is used in traditional medicine), and in Yemen where oil money put the rhino-horn dagger-handle, traditionally the prerogative of the rich, within reach of thousands of Yemeni men. Many tonnes of horns were smuggled out of Mombasa by dhow before the authorities made any effort to halt the trade.
Yet the savage groundwork in rhino extermination had been done long before. After World War II, the Makueni area southeast of Machakos was designated as a Kamba resettlement area, and the colonial Kenya Game Department sent in one J.A. Hunter to clear it of unwelcoming rhinos. He lived up to his name, shooting 1088 black rhinos.
Today there are around fifty black rhinos in Tsavo East, and there are breeding populations in a number of ranches and sanctuaries around the country, while the concept of saving the rhino has become a national cause. Nevertheless, as long as there’s a market for the horn, with current values estimated at up to $50,000/kg, rhinos will remain under threat.