Tuesday, 18 August 2020

DAVID SHELDRICK AND TSAVO

 PART TWO.....

The park was becoming a safe haven for the elephants and many more were flocking in from the outlying areas outside the park where human population was ever expanding and this huge numbers were causing havoc to the vegetation and the park was slowly being turned into a desert. Talk about the elephant numbers was rife in Nairobi and the press was picking up this call and this really worried the park management because many wanted the country to go the South Africa way where they culled their elephants annually in order to keep the population at a fixed level.  The National parks service wanted to know the true elephant numbers in Tsavo and they requested the government to assist and the British Army volunteered to count the elephants while they conducted normal exercises in the park which led to the first ever elephant  census in Kenya in 1966. The park was divided in to blocks where each was to be counted in a day and adjoining blocks were simultaneously counted to avoid duplication. The army did the census in precision and all the data was plotted on block maps at the end of each day. “ operation count “ as it was code named was a success and 9000 elephants were counted in the park and more than 15000 were seen at the dispersal areas around the park. 

An American company called the Ford Foundation gave a financial grant to the then Kenya Government to support elephant research in Tsavo and a Dr. Richard Maitland Laws , assisted by the infamous Ian Parker were brought in to lead the research and once in Tsavo the team settled in very fast and they insisted on getting data from dead elephants to assist them in assessing population dynamics in relation to vegetation, and they requested that 300 elephants be culled. The Koito area which is north of the galana river and nesting at the tail end of the yatta plateau was chosen as the killing ground and the execution was so precise where whole family units were rounded up by helicopters and they all ended up laying on top of each other.  Dr. Laws collected the specimens but after a while he reported that he needed more samples of the dead elephants from a different population for comparative reasons. It is important to note that Dr. Laws and Ian Parker had already culled many elephants at the Muchison Falls National Park in Uganda and Tanzania was also in the process of inviting them for a similar excursion at the Mkomazi National Park. Culling was a very lucrative undertaking for the person who won the tender ended up selling the meat, skins, feet and tusks for profit and it was an open secret that Ian Parker actually bought a plane from this proceeds. David Sheldrick refused to give in to the second slaughter and after they were both called to Nairobi the National Parks service sided with him and Laws was forced to leave Tsavo.

David when on to setup the Tsavo research committee under Dr. Glover and Dr. Walter Lenthold and it is this team who helped collect the now eroded jaw bones at the current Tsavo research. In the early 1970 a serious drought hit Tsavo and elephants died in their thousands which was David Sheldricks argument that nature had its own ways of controlling populations. The only herds that survived that drought were the once who were led by a strong matriarch who understood the comings and changes in seasons and led their families to other places to shield them from the looming disaster. This survivors returned to Tsavo after the rains and multiplied to the current great numbers and it is the genes and resilience of those strong matriarchs that we now have the great majestic tuskers of the Tsavo.

The Aruba dam was built in the 60s by David to provide water for the elephants and the rhinos who swarmed the southern sector of the park , for Voi river was the only source of water for the wildlife during the dry spell with elephants digging holes out of the sandy kanderi swamp and on the sandy stretch’s of the Voi river, but rhinos with their clumsy long pointed horns did not have the luxury to drink from the elephant water holes, so the park management decided to dig the Aruba dam. It took several months because everything was done by hand but it eventually became the most referred and popular site mostly by tourists who enjoyed seeing the majestic herds of elephants and hundreds of the snorting black rhinos not to mention the thousands of plain game who thronged the dika plains all the way to Dakota and west towards maungu. The Aruba lake became the center of life for Tsavo and this prompted the management to erect few self catering bungalows near the dam which became instant hits . They also started a small shop selling canned food and soft drinks, and a petrol station.

Tilapia fish was also introduced into the dam and this brought in some much needed revenue and a source of protein for the rangers. David Sheldrick went on to build a causeway striding the gallana river near laggards falls to assist his field force to access the northern corridor during the rainy season and this super bridge has stood the sands of time and is still used to date though a new overhanging bridge was built south of the falls. Peter Jenkins was an assistant warden under David and he was eventually moved to establish the Meru National Park and Bill Woodley shifted to the northern part of Tsavo east and settled near the ithumba hill. 

This were the pioneers of wildlife conservation in our country and it is worth remembering them because it is through their efforts and determination that wildlife thrives today. David Sheldrick was formally known as “ Bwana sana nane “ by the local communities because he had a reputation of only stopping working at 1400 hours every day to break for lunch , and he build Tsavo from scratch. He gave his whole life and that of his family to conservation and his orphaned elephant project that he started in his own house in Tsavo with his wife ( Daphne ) in the 60s is still living on and is managed by his own daughter “ Angela”.  

My 13 years in Tsavo are memories that I will cherish for ever , for they helped shape my conservation years and my career. I learned to fly in Tsavo courtesy of Daphne Sheldrick and most of my youthful energies and growing up happened within the confines of Taru desert. I have tried to ape the founder of Tsavo himself but I confess that in many instances I dropped off before I started , sometimes not because of my wants but because the system dictates otherwise. I was the longest serving security officer in Tsavo in the late 90s and my close to five years as the Assistant Director there gave me a memorable experience. I know that my tour of Tsavo has ended now that i fume around my retirement years , but I must confess that I will for ever hold the place at the deepest and most secure part of my heart.


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