Diverse – this term doesn’t begin to do justice to the extraordinary menagerie of wildlife that dots the landscape of East Africa. Within the confines of the National Parks, and along the roadways, waterways and mountain trails of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, I was astounded by the diversity of the tusk, fur, beak & tail I encountered, whether up close and personal or at a safe distance.
Our trip began in Narobi, Kenya, where the plane we’d boarded in Paris landed in the early morning hours, just before heading to an Elephant Sanctuary. We traipsed through Uganda on land and by water, arriving there after a 14-hour bus ride, then heading to explore Lake Victoria, by boat. We made a brief stop in Rwanda, where we put the cameras down long enough to learn about the country’s tragic history, then circled back to Kenya. There we would visit the National Parks before our return to the United States via Amsterdam.
The collection of species I saw during our last two days two days in Africa, by bike in Hell’s Gate National Park, by boat on Lake Naivasha, and by safari van in Nairobi National Park, meant that the trip ended with a colorful flourish of animal species.
But first there were the common species of livestock and pets – cats and dogs, sheep, goats and cows. Families depended on their small flocks, or single animals, as food sources or a means of income. Goats are staked to the muddy red dirt, like living lawnmowers. Cows can’t be bothered to lift their heads, as motorists pass by. Donkeys stroll unaccompanied, pulling large carts on wooden wheels, knowing their own way home. Chickens scamper in and out of pedestrian traffic, eating bugs, after scratching in the dirt with their boney feet, kicking up a red cloud of dust.
When it rains – October is rainy season, after all – the dust settles. Cats and dogs don’t seem to be bothered one bit. They shake their wet fur, scattering droplets of water in every direction, then continue their search for bits of food, left unattended by tourists who have let their eyes shift away.
We must have a soft spot for our feline friends. Meals in Kenya and Uganda are visited by local cats smart enough to know that the sound of clinking silverware is (likely) accompanied by platters of beef, chicken and fish. Sympathetic visitors might be persuaded to share. The abundance of Lake Victoria Tilapia in the countries we explored, appearing on just about every menu, explains why the furry creatures stay close.
Also common, and often considered pests, are the local baboons. Park bathrooms display cautionary signs, politely asking visitors to close doors behind them, to keep the mischief of these locals to a minimum. Large school groups have abandoned the picnic area of Kenya’s Bomas cultural center, and the baboons attempt to take on maintenance duties by sorting through the trash. They help themselves to leftover milk and bits of candy, but they forget to clean after themselves.
A baby baboon clings to its mother’s belly fur, hardly visible until it starts to move about. It scampers onto her back, to survey its surroundings, then ventures to the ground to examine a stray wrapper. A school child’s laughter startles it back to its mother’s side, where it leaps back into her fur, finding protection. She pays her little one no attention, continuing her own search for a bite to eat.
At lunch, the baboons keep careful surveillance from rooftops of nearby buildings, waiting for restaurant diners to leave their ravaged plates. Restaurant staff at Bomas are aware if their presence. Waiters quickly move in, to clear the remains of lunch, before the animals crash onto the scene, without their table manners.
On land there were herds – of Zebra, Giraffe, Buffalo, Dik Dik, and Impala. The Buffalo and Giraffe in Hell’s Gate National Park kept their distance, and my camera was unable to capture the powerful impact of watching them from the road, straddling my mountain bike, as they strolled calmly in the distance.
Packs of 2 – 5 warthogs scurried across the road in front of us, running at a surprisingly fast clip, tails standing straight up. They had a spring to their step, and their gait was something of a prance, which contrasted with their girth. Angular faces, with curled tusks, eyed us suspiciously, to determine our intent. They didn’t seem bothered by us, didn’t seem to mind our presence, if we kept moving along, crunching gravel under our knobby tires. When we stopped to adjust camera settings, bringing the viewfinder of a camera to our face, the turned tail and hurried away. They were camera-shy, I’d imagine.
Back home we’re accustomed to excellent zoos that do conservation and educational work to protect biodiversity, and ensure that future generations keep the humane treatment of animals at the forefront of their minds, and social policy. I was pleased to visit an Elephant orphanage (Sheldrick Wildlife Trust) and Giraffe sanctuary (African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Giraffe Centre), making efforts to save animals, and raise awareness in the local and tourist populations.
There’s a fine line between a circus act and a zoological park. Having worked under a zoo director who was quite strict in his rules for how animals are treated, portrayed, and capitalized on, at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, I have high standards. Tourists want to be entertained, and I lined up with the rest to “kiss” a Giraffe by feeding it a pellet of food from between my front teeth. It makes for good Facebook humor.
However, I respect the fact that the Giraffe Centre puts limits on how much the animals can be fed – they are on a strict “diet.” Breeding programs are in place, and the educational displays, which include maps of Giraffe populations around Kenya, are given as much real estate as the gift shop.
I worked 5 summers at Brookfield Zoo, and understand the large sums of money that the sale of trinkets, post cards, and T-shirts can generate. So I didn’t haggle with the artist selling his carved wooden birds. It’s possible they are imported from China, and his real work is the removal of gold “Made in China” stickers, but I choose to believe otherwise. He shows us the wood pieces he starts from, his workspace, the tools he uses, and a bird that is only partially complete. I’ll think of these when I hang the small ornaments in my kitchen window and suppress the nagging thought that these tools and supplies could belong to anyone, and not necessarily the boy standing in front of me.
Soaring through the air, floating on the waters, and perched in treetops, the immense number of bird species we encountered was more than I could attempt to keep track of.
In the city I spotted a strikingly unique bird. I didn’t say it was pretty, but I took photos from every vantage point, until I realized I’d be tripping over them in the days to come. They turned out to be such a nuisance that the President of Uganda wanted to get rid of all of them within the city limits of Kampala, but the birds remain. These Marabou Storks (aka the Undertaker Bird) are a carrion-eating African cousin to the Midwest’s typical interstate vulture.
With the help of these birds the city streets are relatively free of garbage, plant debris and the animal casualties found on streets crowded with Boda Bodas (commuter, for-hire motor scooters crammed with up to 3 passengers), large passenger vans, and taxies. From the 7th floor balcony of our downtown hotel I spotted them perched on treetops, several stories beneath me. They flew in circles that spanned several city blocks, and didn’t seem in any hurry to move along.
In and around the waters of Lake Nairasha, in Kenya, Lake Victoria, in Uganda, and at the Ugandan “Source of the Nile,” were rather prettier birds, if you’re into long legs, perectly groomed feathers, intricate color patterns, and delicate bone structure. We saw: Yellow Nest Weavers, Pied King Fishers, Yellow-billed Storks, Pink-backed Pelicans, African Fish Eagles, Sacred Ibis, Cormorants and Egrets.
I’m no expert bird watcher – I should spend more time with friends who are! My Canon DSLR served as my binoculars, but it took local tour guides to find and identify the myriad species. Flashes of movement or contrasting colors would catch my eye, but the camouflage of these creatures was quite good, and I’d soon lose them in the dense backdrops of trees, bushes, flowers and grasses that hug the shoreline. Our hosts were patient with my straining and squinting into the sun, to see what they saw so readily – they even waited for me to place my camera into my lap, to signal that I was ready to move on.
Perhaps the most surprising animal sight was the puddle of sleeping Hippos that stood in the shallow water of Lake Naivasha. Our tour guide / boat companion had been introducing us to the many birds along the shoreline, big and small, short and long-legged, sleeping and busy fishing or building nests. We’d come to the lake, and rented the boat, to see the Hippos, but they roam free and do as they please. We’re told there are as many as 600 of the creatures in the lake, but we also learn that they can hold their breath and stay under water for as long as 5 min. at a time.
Our boat has a motor, but we move slowly and quietly through the water. Waiting to see the Hippo, we come across one bird’s mating ground, another’s lunch table, where it beats a recent catch against a wooden railing to finish it off, and yet another’s sunbathing spot, where it rests and dries its wings.
Our companion points up ahead, and we see two ears sticking out of the water. A large head emerges, popping up from the water, followed by another, just a bit smaller, and then a third, which is much smaller. We have come upon a family, clustered together, touching snouts, snorting as they emerge. The smallest seems to be playing, bobbing in and out of the water, weaving between and around its parents. We snap away, with our cameras, trying to capture the fun, and our amazement at being this close to such a powerful creature.
We’re reassured that we are at a safe distance, and that a Hippo is fast, but the boat is faster.
We continue around the lake, admiring the birds, and their nesting skills, but we are hopeful that we’ll see more Hippo. We are not disappointed! We come upon what looks like 15+ Hippos, their lower half in the water, napping with their large heads resting on one another. It reminds me of a pile of work out puppies, but on a much larger, deadlier scale. As we watch, one Hippo opens its mouth in a wide, prolonged yawn.
Looking satisfied he settles back in. He seems to have disturbed his neighbor. . .
We hear a loud barking noise, and the two are off, splashing through the shallow water at a run. I’m sure they are pushing against the muddy bottom of the lake, as they pick up speed and rush toward the shore. I hadn’t truly believed they could move that fast, water flying all around them, but they had made it quickly to shore, and were not stopping. A group of picnic-goers is startled, and one jumps to his feet, ready to run, in necessary. I wonder if running would do any good.
The offending Hippo runs along the shore, with the offended Hippo in hot pursuit. They run 20 yards, then make a sharp turn, headed back into the water, toward the unsettled group they had just fled. . . toward us, in our small boat. We are so busy taking photos and filming video, feeling safe and secure in our orange life vests, that there is no time to be concerned for our safety. It was over as fast as it had started, and I lost track of who the two agile, entertaining Hippos were, as they mingle in with the others, and settle back in for a continuation of their nap.
A pair (or three or four) of the others had been disturbed enough to wander deeper into the water, then sink beneath its surface. It seemed like a good time to make our own exit.
Reviewing the photos and video footage later, it seems the yawning fellow received an unexpected bite to his rump, just before the chase was on. I made a note – try not to rudely awaken a soundly sleeping, neighboring Hippo.
Check out this link, to see the chase in motion. You. Will. Laugh.
The adventure continues, on Safari, in Nairobi National Park. . . next week!
Here’s a peek at the inhabitants of the Elephant orphanage!
Join me for my next adventure,
Hell’s Gate National Park: http://www.kws.go.ke/content/hells-gate-national-park
African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Giraffe Centre: https://www.giraffecentre.org/
Lake Victoria: https://www.lake-victoria.net/victoria/
The Source of the Nile: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-the-source-of-the-river-nile.html