Our African Connection: Tourism
JoAnne Bartlein, Aggie Hartigan, Cecily Macdonald, Flo Smith, Nora Zanarini
Milwaukee County Zoo, Ross Park Zoo, San Antonio Zoo, Brookfield Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo
“Tell your friends to come visit Kenya,” our tour guide pleaded. “We can’t make it without you!”
Those words prompted this group of five docents, which shared a van on safari in Kenya, to bring his message to this conference. We’re going to share a little of what we experienced and show you a fraction of the wildlife we were privileged to see.
Kenya is a country that covers an area of over 224,000 sq. miles, with 10 percent of the land set aside for National Parks and Reserves. The official languages are Swahili and English; but each of the country’s 42 tribes has their own culture, history, and language.
Our African safari began in Nairobi. It’s a large city with luxurious hotels, modern office buildings and shops. And, yet, we were to discover that this is a land of contrasts.
Aaron Shaha, a professional safari guide, was in charge of our group tour. He introduced four driver guides and assigned us to our respective vehicles. Our driver’s name was Billy.
On the 80-mile drive to Samburu, we were bounced and jostled as Billy maneuvered over dusty, dirt roads that were pockmarked with holes. There was so much to see: Mt. Kenya on our right; an acacia tree with so many weaver bird nests on it that it looked like a Christmas tree; a candelabra tree that gave off a poison sap that villagers used for trapping fish. We passed rolling, lush green hills, large farms of red, fertile soil, and fields of coffee, corn, and yellow barley that belonged to the rich. But there were also makeshift houses of cardboard and sheet metal. Children were herding cattle that stopped to feed on the scrub grass.
When we made a rest stop at the halfway point, we encountered culture shock. The restroom facilities were so primitive that some of us opted to give it a pass. We were invited into a large garage-type building and encouraged to buy souvenirs. Trying to figure the exchange rate from dollars to shillings proved to be a challenge.
We arrived in time for lunch at the Samburu Intrepids Club, which is located within the Samburu National Reserve. The Club is a luxury tented camp with a view of the Uaso Nyiro River. It would normally provide a close-up view of wildlife; but it was the end of their dry season so the riverbed was dry. An afternoon game drive with Billy gave us our first opportunity to photograph wildlife. He told us he had to go to school to learn all the animals and plants in order to become a driver guide. Driver guides were also required to take continuing education classes every year.
A visit to a Samburu Village was sandwiched between game drives. The nomadic Samburu tribespeople are related to the Masai and have many similar customs. Their single room huts are made of cattle dung. Many of their old tribal customs are practiced to this day. It was a little unnerving to watch as they pierced a calf’s jugular, collected the blood and gave it to a youngster to drink. After the incident, the calf seemed none the worse for wear.
The next day we headed for Sweetwaters Tented Camp located on the private Ol Pejeta Ranch. The sanctuary covered 28,000 acres and was teeming with many species of animals. Each tent faced a floodlit water hole for wildlife viewing at night. And, as we found at every camp, the food was plentiful and well prepared.
The afternoon game drive was preceded by a special visit to the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Sanctuary. All the chimps there had been abused or neglected in the past. It was especially heartbreaking to learn that one of the chimps had been captured and held in a box that was too small for him to stand in upright. We saw him standing hunched over at the fence.
Outside, in the pasture, we met Morani, a tame black rhino. His keeper urged us to go up and pet him. Getting up close to this magnificent creature was the thrill of a lifetime!
Morning found us on the road again. In contrast to the tented camps, Lake Nakuru Lodge offered wooden structures much like a motel. Our game drive in Lake Nakuru National Park included a stop at the powdery white soda flats along the lakeshore. For the first time we were allowed to exit the vehicle. Flamingos and pelicans lined the shore.
It took all morning to reach the Masai Mara National Reserve which is probably Kenya’s most famous game reserve. It’s the northern extension of the Serengeti grasslands and is noted for its abundance of big game animals. We enjoyed morning and afternoon game drives for three days and were able to see all of the “Big Five.”
The Masai tribespeople entertained and enlightened us. Their village was much like that of the Samburu. They are a pastoral people with a strong connection to their cattle. Their clothing was red–the color of fire. They believed it would frighten wild animals away. The Masai are known for their high jumping dances so the men took turns showing us how high they could jump. They also demonstrated starting a fire like our boy scouts do.
Most interesting was the hut used by women when they were ready to give birth. We were invited to enter and found a woman with a day old infant. Although it was a hot day, there was a fire burning inside the hut to keep the infant warm. Later, we learned that a mother might wait three years before cutting her child’s hair since this was a signal to her husband that she was ready to have more children.
A visit to their school showed how much they needed supplies. The children sang for us and requested us to do the same. We sang “Old MacDonald’s Farm” in honor of their cattle. Someone took Polaroid pictures of the children and they watched with excitement as the pictures slowly developed.
It was time to start our drive back to Nairobi, and the next stops proved to be the most memorable.
At the Giraffe Education Center in Langata, we had the privilege of feeding these gentle giants. A short distance from the Center sat the big, old stone house that Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville used to live in. Back in the 1970’s they learned of a ranch that was being sold. It held the only 130 Rothschild giraffe left in Kenya and they were being poached. In an attempt to save the species, they made arrangements with the manager of the ranch to capture one.
They raised it on their 15 acres of land, and subsequently wrote a book entitled, “Raising Daisy Rothschild.” In 1978 they established the African Fund for Endangered Animals. With funds raised in the U.S. they were able to translocate the first 23 of the endangered animals to the safety of a game park.
They soon realized that many Africans have never seen wild game. They are too poor to have cars, which is the only way anyone is allowed into a game park. Tourists from all over the world would bring a lot of money to the country and provide thousands of Africans with jobs. But, without the animals, tourists would not come, and without tourists, the Africans would not have jobs.
With a grant from a U. S. foundation, they acquired the primeval forest next to their property where they built the first educational nature center in independent Africa. Thousands of African children were brought to the center and taught the importance of preserving the animals.
Without any prior experience, they became the first couple ever to raise a wild giraffe and go on to help save the entire Rothschild subspecies.
A rare treat was a visit to an animal orphanage. Daphne Sheldrick, widow of the late David Sheldrick, founder Warden of Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park, has been rehabilitating most species of orphans for most of her life. In the past, only elephants that had been orphaned at their second birthday had been able to be saved and those younger that were milk-dependent perished. It took her 28 years to perfect the milk formula and animal husbandry necessary to successfully rear these youngest elephants.
Babies that arrive at the orphanage have been severely traumatized, often having witnessed the massacre of their family by poachers. Family is important to a baby elephant so trained keepers replace the lost elephant family and stay with the calf 24 hours a day. Even with 24-hour care and the outpouring of love from their keepers, some calves cannot be persuaded to make the effort to live. Everyone celebrates when a baby elephant plays for the first time since an elephant will thrive only if it is happy. They are highly intelligent and have emotional similarities to humans.
Their keepers herded out 13 baby elephants as a group of us watched with delight. Just like little children, they pranced about with their trunks swinging wildly every which way. As their keepers watered down the area, they rolled in the mud puddles created and struggled to be the first, if not the only one, in the big inner tubes. One “naughty” little one managed to get under the rope separating the tourists from the animals. A keeper brought the errant baby back, but it made a break for it again. Some of the babies walked under blankets hung over a clothesline. We were told a baby one-year-old or less could go under its mother’s belly. The blankets were supposed to simulate the bellies of their deceased mothers.
When their two milk dependent infant years have passed, they and their keepers move to the Tsavo National Park to begin the gradual process of reintegration back into the wild. It takes 10 to 15 years for the orphans to develop close ties within the wild herds and become independent of their human family. But they always retain a deep fondness for the people who represented their family when they were infants.
Sharing the orphanage with the elephants were a 10-week-old zebra, a 6-month-old black rhino, and some warthogs that proved to be camera shy. It was difficult to leave.
You’ve heard that tourism dollars are helping the African people. Now this video will show you some of the animals the people are trying to preserve.