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, is 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.
Although there’s a steady stream of minibus safaris coming up from the coast, and the emptiness of the park is no longer as overwhelming as it was, Tsavo East’s vastness still 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. After decades of poaching, rhinos are very rare in Tsavo East, but you may be lucky enough to spot one grazing quietly somewhere, especially north of the Galana. By contrast, you are absolutely 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.
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 between 11,000 and 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 – rather this was a new breed of well-connected gangster, equipped with automatic weapons, wiping out whole family groups in a single attack.
Kenya’s response, its first ivory burning, organized for President Moi by the new Kenya Wildlife Service director Richard Leakey in 1989, caused so much worldwide publicity that it triggered an international ivory trade ban that remains in force today among countries that are members of CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The ban stopped much of 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 KWS started performing their duties under their bluntly pragmatic boss, with poachers liable to be shot on sight and Leakey adamant that there was no alternative.
Leakey went too far for some and left the KWS after an unexplained, near-fatal plane crash. But the ivory pyre was a winning idea: in 2011, President Kibaki lit 6.5 tonnes of ivory and in March 2015, a mound of more than 15 tonnes of tusks was set ablaze by President Kenyatta to mark World Wildlife Day. At a time when other countries are stockpiling seized ivory, and Kenya’s reputation for corruption and mismanagement could hardly be worse, these burnings were intended to symbolize to the world that the country is committed to putting its ivory beyond commercial use.
Kenyans in the conservation community are sceptical: the lobby group Wildlife Direct reported that over a recent five-year period only seven percent of convictions for ivory and rhino horn offences resulted in jail terms, despite a maximum ten-year sentence. The treatment of arch smuggler Feisal Mohammed Ali, regarded as Kenya’s “ivory kingpin”, is telling too: having finally been arrested in Tanzania and extradited to Kenya, he was bailed by a Mombasa court in August 2015.
Despite the lack of will at home, the future for Kenya’s elephants may be a little rosier because of a change of mind in a powerful partner: in March 2015, amid international outrage at the consequences of its citizens’ huge appetite for ivory, China imposed a ban on ivory imports and the price of raw ivory fell from more then $2000/kg to $1100/kg.
Tsavo East’s black rhinos are much further down the path to annihilation. The Tsavo region was once a bastion of the black rhino in Africa, with estimates in the 1960s of between 6000 and 9000 in this region alone. And those numbers were already down, thanks to the savage groundwork in rhino extermination that started after World War II, when the colonial government sent in one J.A. Hunter to clear the Kamba resettlement area between Nairobi and Tsavo of unwelcome animals. The rest were all but eliminated during Tsavo “killing fields” period in 1970s and 1980s.
The concept of saving the rhino has become a national cause in Kenya and ranches and sanctuaries around the country play a leading role in breeding future generations. But as long as there is a market for the horn for pseudo-medicinal use, as there is still in China and increasingly in Vietnam – and with its price at up to $60,000/kg – rhinos will remain under extreme threat.