By Darcy Ogada
We set out for northern Kenya in May when the area was awash in floodwaters, clearly the worst of times to be traveling into a place whose roads are notoriously treacherous at the best of times.
Two vehicles, two drivers, three raptor recorders, one homeguard for 14 days of surveys.
Our aim was to count raptors, all of those that we could see from our vehicle windows. Counting raptors from a moving vehicle is really the only method to quickly assess their numbers over such a vast area.
An area whose list of pending large-scale developments reads like an 8-year old’s list to Santa Claus — long and growing. Damming of the Omo River, the Lamu Port Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPPSET) project, oil extraction, the largest wind farm in sub-Saharan Africa, multiple high voltage power lines, and a dam called Crocodile Jaws.
Brilliant and beautiful
Clearly, if you haven’t experienced the unspoiled beauty of this region, the adage ‘it’s never too late’ doesn’t apply, soon it will be too late!
We needed data. We needed to know how many raptors were still in this region, where were they numerous, where had they disappeared, what about the mammals, the reptiles, and the other creepy crawlies? Besides the development, what were the other threats to wildlife? When developers come knocking they are impatient, you need data, and you need it like yesterday. Data is an important weapon against wanton development where environmental sustainability is an afterthought.
From the Mathews Range west to the Ndotos, ah Mama Mia! Brilliant and beautiful. Ngurunit is hands down the most picturesque village I’ve ever visited in Kenya. Simply stunning.
The ‘Horr’ in South Horr is only two syllables short of horrible. What a misnomer, go there, you’ll see.
You feel the presence of the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project far before you see it. The road is as smooth as an airport runway. Well before you can see anything, askaris at checkpoints stop and question vehicles using the main road. You wouldn’t be amiss in thinking you’ve entered a military barracks. Then it appears from around the bend. Huge white turbines rise from the rocks in this otherwise desolate landscape. They were not yet functional, but the pace of construction assured they would be roaring to life in no time.
I’m sure I’d be interested and enthralled by the scale of the project that is bringing supposedly ‘green energy’ to the country, if I didn’t know better. Poorly placed wind turbines kill an estimated 13-39 million birds and bats each year, and this one reeked of the slaughter to come. Now acutely aware of the reality transforming this region, we silently drove on.
The Jade Sea, the alternative name of Lake Turkana, is not a misnomer. Although the Jade Sea of Mars might be more fitting. There is no sand along this sea, there’s no soil either, just rocks, an endless vista of rocks. It’s difficult to imagine a landscape more foreign and more hostile to our human sense of comfort. You wonder about and have immediate sympathy for every human being you see. How do you survive here?
We rumbled along the lakeshore eager to spot our first northern specialist raptors. Then over a gentle rocky hill, a smallish white raptor appeared circling just overhead. It didn’t take long before its long forked tail gave away its’ identity as our first African Swallow-tailed Kite. This arid land specialist is an intra-African migrant that is more typical of the northern tropics, but a population is known to breed at Lake Turkana.
We drove many more kilometres, seeing very few raptors or much else. A handful of Grant’s gazelles appeared far more elegant than the emaciated golden jackal that would not have been out of place at the Dandora dump site in Nairobi. Its protruding hip bones appearing to be a mere clothes hanger for something formerly called fur. We pinned our hopes on the park — Sibiloi loomed.
Glorified cow pasture
Our first clue of what was to come were the goats that replaced the gazelles at the national park entrance. The landscape was lush, the livestock was copious, and the wildlife were remnants. After traveling 100 kilometres inside the park we had seen five Grant’s gazelle, four dik diks and three golden jackal.
Yet aerial surveys by the then game department during the 1960s and 70s indicate that ungulates along this stretch of northern Turkana numbered more than 8,000. Ouch! Clearly, we’d been duped. This was no longer a park, it was a glorified cow pasture. We conversed with the locals to better understand the lack of wildlife and they told a story fit for a Hollywood action drama. Invasions, fighting and drive-by shootings (of wildlife).
Despairing, we drove on. Illeret produced some beautiful regional specialties like Northern Carmine Bee-eaters, Magpie Starlings, and Abyssinian Roller. What it didn’t produce was any raptors other than kites.
The likely reason for this only emerged during post-survey conversations with long-term residents who told of the slaughter of wildlife using automatic weapons. Not surprisingly, once the native prey species were decimated, the hyenas turned to eating livestock, and the locals turned to using cattle dip insecticides as very effective poison. As the hyenas went the way of the dinosaurs, so did the scavenging vultures, Tawny Eagles and Bateleurs.
Along the drive to North Horr someone yelled, ‘Fox!!!!!’ We flew out the doors before the vehicle stopped. And just like those Chinese fire drills we did as teenagers, we burst out of the vehicle from all sides scrambling for a glimpse of this far northern specialist, the Fox Kestrel. I fumbled for my camera while it made one quick pass overhead and just like that it was gone. The only enduring mental image was of its beautiful chesnut-coloured tail.
It felt like what I envisage of Scotland as we approached the Huri Hills. The only thing out of place were the dry-land specialist donkeys and camels grazing amongst the rolling green hills. The thick morning fog further cemented my thoughts. When we began to see Augur Buzzards and Black-shouldered Kites — I had flashbacks of being in Central Province. These species are not found in the lowlands and the last time we saw any on our trip was near Mt Kenya.
Clearly the Huri Hills is a very unique place, being surrounded on all sides by desert. It is also along the flyway (for raptors at least) to the aptly named Mega Escarpment in southern Ethiopia. This gigantic wall of rock erupts for many kilometres along the border and is surely one of the region’s unspoken natural wonders. Think potential UNESCO World Heritage site, for its spectacular magnitude and importance to all manner of cliff-dwelling creatures.
From our perspective, it is arguably one the most important sites in Africa for critically endangered Rüppell’s Vultures and is probably equally important for endangered Egyptian Vultures, and near threatened Bearded Vultures, not to mention a throng of other cliff-breeding birds like eagles and swifts. It dwarfs Mt Forolle on the Kenyan side of the border.
The road to Moyale was a revelation. If your perception of this area is largely based on frequent negative media reports, as mine was, then it’s difficult to imagine how beautiful this area is, particularly in its electric green state due to the copious recent rains.
The forests along the road to Moyale looked simply enchanting. Hill upon hill adorned with a shaggy green coat of native trees. However, the bountiful supply of charcoal at every village spoke of the threats to these fragile ecosystems.
We were well-informed by a number of locals that there is no cooking gas for sale in Moyale. The markets overflowed with huge pieces of wood for sale, if the trees could talk they’d certainly be screaming.
Reaching Moyale signified all the changes that have happened in the once remote Northern Frontier District, as it was called in the colonial times. The far north has become accessible and this is bringing rapid change to the region. Unfortunately, human greed in relation to development projects casts doubt on whether the local people will benefit from any of them.
Darcy particularly thanks Ian Parker and Eric Ness for conversations that contributed to this article.