Thursday, September 25, 2008

Fields of Gold

We are treated so graciously by our camp staff as we arrive at Camp Tsavo. Fresh squeezed mango juice. Smiling, welcoming faces. The beauty of the thatched huts of the houses. The red pathways. Askaris, guards, patrolling the grounds. Keeping us safe. The beauty of our private house, the Nduvo House (Elephant House.) Four bedrooms. Dining room. Loft. Luxury in the field. How did we get so lucky?

Today our first game drive! Standing out the open roof of the vehicle--a cool breeze sweeping across my face. On the hunt for wildlife in the Tsavo scrub land. Dramatic acacia and commiphora trees arch their twisted arms in every direction. DUCK! Thorny branches reach out to grab us like the talons of mother nature herself, reminding us to respect and care for her every breath.

We search the tall waving grasses, illuminated like fields of gold in just the right afternoon light. Our eyes long to see movement in the bush. It is difficult to spot animals so perfectly camouflaged, especially when the landscape is so absolutely breathtaking. But then the land comes alive. A dik-dik, a small antelope, with large black eyes, a brownish-gray body, and white belly scampered through the brush. A herd of seven gerenuk, another type of gazelle/antelope grace the fawn-colored strands. The name "gerenuk" means giraffe in Somali, illustrated perfectly by its long, thin neck, and a small head. Big ears and eyes stand alert, staring at us as we pass. Their tails spin like helicopter propellers, as if they could send them bursting forward to safety. A single Thompson's gazelle walks through the grass, its light brown coat and white underside complete the landscape. His long, pointed horns and white rump help us identify this beautiful East African creature.

Without much warning, we pass a herd of Africa elephants! Females with young, watching us with a careful eye, then mozy on when they see we mean no harm or threat. Red billed Hornbills zip through the trees, their long, full beaks flitting in and out of the branches as they look for the fruit and berries on the trees. The white-bellied Go Away bird--squawking like a squeak toy (that actually sounds like "go away!") Three black-faced sandgrouse (quail-like, brown speckled ground birds) waddle ahead of us on the road--watch out!

At dusk, my first Kenyan sun sets on this sweet, cinnamon Earth. Twilight illuminates the clouded sky--passionate white against the contrast of black and grey. We turn on the spot light--one of the jobs we share on our night drives. We become one with the light, the sweeping rhythm scanning the brush for eye shine. Many nocturnal animals have a layer of cells that line their eyes. This amplifies the photons of light the animal receives. The color shifts with the angle of light bouncing off the eye, but if you look careful, you can see the difference between the "blue" for herbivores, and the "green" for carnivores.

For this project, we are mainly looking for the green eyeshine of carnivores, and specifically the golden eyeshine of lions!
Bruce Patterson's Lions of Tsavo project has been running on the Rukinga and Taita ranches outside of Tsavo East National Park for seven years now. The Greater Tsavo ecosystem of southeastern Kenya has the largest protected population of lions in Kenya. Unlike lions from grassland areas, males in parts of Tsavo do not normally have manes. Scientists are unsure for the reason for this maneless-ness and ecological and behavioral consequences are unknown.

Bruce's project documents the behavior of Tsavo's lions by following radio collared simbas on private land. By observing from vehicles, volunteers document the location of all wildlife, including lions and their adaptations to this arid woodland environment. The goal of Lions of Tsavo is to understand their behavior and ecology and how to minimize lion and human conflicts. Being on these two ranches also introduced us to the issues faced by Kenyans who live alongside the country's largest population of lions and elephants. The original camp--Campi ya Neka--at the foot of Satao Rock and just behind Satao water hole was moved this year to Camp Tsavo on Rakinga Ranch. Taita Ranch is now full of bomas groups of 1000 cattle led by Somali herders. The affects of these bomas-- destroyed vegetation and conflicts between lion and cattle is apparent and a concern for conservationists . -See Bruce's website for more detailed information:

In the spot we see the orangish-red eyeshine of a bushbaby-- a tiny, agile (you should see them leap! I'd give 'em a 10!) primate found all over the area. We drive on and on--with quiet thoughts and reflections about the magic of this place. A chill slowly creeps into our space--pull on a hat, sweatshirt and my hood. Welcoming in the warmth that cocoons me. Mars watches us, low in the eastern sky. It's orange flicker shining at us--the ultimate eyeshine as we traverse over the red pathway ignited under the Milky Way like fire.

Suddenly, hundreds of eyes shine back at us. A herd of African buffalo--young and old---trounce along side us. More and more rush by, hooves, eyes avoiding us, fleeing our invasion. Four hours flew by. Just near camp three, huge male elephants stare and swagger. The grand finale for our first drive.

That night, a starlit campfire, a pair of eyes shining in the night-- a civet, resembles a cat-like mammal, but in a family of its own: Viverridae. His coat spotted with black and white bands and blotches. Our flashlight lit up his face mask and black eye patches as he crept across our campsite.

The night is alive, and I lay in my bed, shrouded by surreal streams of mosquito netting flowing and swirling all around my waking eyes. The bat calls--high pitched beeps--in a frenzied dance of sound waves weaving around me. Crickets sing and a pair of genets, closely related to the civet, scamper crazy on the rafters across the massive, domed thatched hut--their agility as they run up and down posts astonishing. They ransack snickerdoodles, a gift from Andy's mom, and raid our trash cans while geckos cruise the walls searching for their next mosquito snack. Kenya works her magic on us. And I fall asleep with the living sounds of the the creatures that guard the Tsavo night. A welcomed and safe capsule, cocooned within the calls and sounds of nature in a place so wild and free.

That night I dream in Swahili--random words moving me though a foggy story. In this tale, I leave my sandals on the bus and I am barefoot in the red earth. My toes sing. I dance across the crimson soil.

It this image that cuts through the haze.

I am home. I am home. I am home.

(Thank you Bruce Patterson his amazing eye and lens. Photo credit: the hornbill, bat, buffalo, elephant, gerenuk, and dik-dik )

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