|Amboseli elephants on the Tanzanian side (2008).|
I just opened Big Life Foundation’s Facebook page to see the news that 2 poachers were killed last week and a high-caliber rifle was confiscated in the Amboseli area. Having spent 16 days there this month guiding Nick Brandt as he photographed the elephants, it had been extremely distressing to see the behavior of the herds of elephants change, from calmly walking passed the car to turning and running as we approached; displaying obvious signs of alarm and panic. One particularly disturbing sight was a stampede of about 80 elephants coming from the water holes heading back to Tanzania where it had rained and they were obviously feeding. The trumpeting and cowering elephants passing the vehicle displayed behavior completely unheard of in the Amboseli area. These elephants have had so much exposure to research vehicles that they are known to be extremely relaxed. The elephant researchers later informed us that one of the females from the herd was missing and that they had found an orphaned calf, who we encountered later as well.
In the past seven years, Nick Brandt has spent hours with the elephants in this particular ecosystem, photographing them and taking some beautiful portraits of incredible individuals. The loss of some of the largest tusked bulls to poaching, elephants that he had photographed, prompted him to start a foundation focused on anti-poaching in the area. Commendably, Big Life Foundation is already effectively operating on the ground by cooperating with other organizations already managing anti-poaching operations on both sides of the border. The website is up (www.biglifeafrica.org), and if you become a fan of BIG LIFE on facebook you can read the latest updates. During our 16 day visit, it seemed that once every 3 days another report of a killed elephant was coming in- from both sides of the border. These reports furthered the importance of Big Life’s presence, which, being a non-government organization can help to coordinate cross-border anti-poaching.
Adding to the sadness is the fact that during the extensive poaching that occurred in the 70’s, when black rhino went extinct in many parts of Africa; Kenya lost an estimated 85% of its elephants over a 4 year period. However, the Amboseli elephants managed to survive with very little poaching. Cynthia Moss attributes this to the Maasai in the area being uncooperative with poachers. This resulted in the Amboseli and west Kilimanjaro elephants earning a reputation as having extremely large tusked bulls whose numbers are now dwindling. The extensive research has added a tremendous amount of information we now know on elephants and their family structures.
November part II. Lake Natron.
With the coming of the rains, Amboseli became too difficult for me to move around confidently, so Nick and I headed to northern Tanzania to the shores of Lake Natron and slopes of Oldonyo Lengai. Having driven the eastern shores in January this year (see blog article), I was excited to continue to explore the shores of the stunning and harsh landscape. Working with a photographer is interesting because the focus of the trip changes from an overall wildlife or cultural experience to the pursuit of the artists’ subject. It is particularly challenging because it involves trying to see the world through their schema.
We spent hours driving and walking the eastern shores of the lake and I hope to get back there sometime to explore some of the valleys and streams that come off the escarpment. Particularly enjoyable are the springs that seep fresh and sometimes hot water into the lake. The warmth allows algae to proliferate and feed a food chain including numerous flamingos and hundreds of tiny cichlids that swim up the little streams from the springs and create amazing ripple patterns as they try to escape your approach.
As usual the scenery was stunning and as I drove back to Mto-wa-mbu (River of mosquitoes) to start the next adventure, I was pleasantly surprised to see the beginnings of the zebra migration from the Tarangire ecosystem.
November part III. Mwiba and Ndutu.
Visiting a new area is always exciting, especially when it promises adventure. Having attempted to visit Mwiba earlier this year, I was particularly excited to get the chance to visit with friends and explore an area that looks promising for walking, fly camping and having fun. Within half an hour of driving into the private conservation area we were already walking around springs examining tracks and getting a feel for the place. As the sun began to set we explored a small rock canyon and then climbed a small kopjie to enjoy the sunset.
Reports of wild dogs in the area and the chance to see roan antelope prompted a little more driving around to cover ground, but nonetheless everyday had great highlights. The 19,000 hectare ranch borders Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Maswa Game Reserve and has traditionally been used as a hunting concession. The area is dotted with springs that attract game throughout the dry season and it was exciting to merely discuss the options of activities that are possible. I was chomping at the bit to get some activity in and on the first morning found myself climbing a Yellow fever tree and helping measure out plans for a tree platform from which to watch animals come down to the spring. We then enjoyed a 3 hour walk to the edge of the escarpment that looks out on Lake Eyasi.
I’ve included some photos with captions to describe more of the fun that we had in the area.