08 Sep 1996 - Ol Jogi Ranch, Laikipia Plateau, Kenya
Laikipia is the name of a Maasai chief, and for the Maasai, a place takes the name of a person. The Laikipia plateau has one of the largest populations of elephants in Kenya - only second to Tsavo National Park. The area is also teeming with vast numbers of zebra, eland, impala, hartebeest, and gazelle, but this area of nearly 7,000 square kilometers is unique in Kenya because it is not a national park. This is farm and ranchland.
The problem with having elephants and crops in the same area is that the fences don't always work, and the elephants damage the crops. This is not such a serious problem if you own 100,000 acres, but it becomes a bit more serious if you own only one acre. This region is mostly semi-arid Savannah, so small landowners are lucky if they can get one crop in five years. What makes Laikipia interesting is that the 100,000 acre landowners and the one acre landowners live right next to each other. Most of the large landowners are interested in keeping the wildlife on their land; the small landowners can't afford to. The solution lies in finding a way for both the large and the small landowner to benefit and to profit from wildlife.
I have been asked to help with the aerial wildlife survey here. I like to find wildlife-related jobs for my aircraft along the way. It is an opportunity for me to earn some income, but also a chance to see a conservation project from the inside - as a participant and not just an observer. The Laikipia Wildlife Forum sponsors several aircraft each year to conduct the count. These belong mostly to farmers and ranchers in the Laikipia area because they are most familiar with the land and its boundaries. This particular count is a total wet season game count. It is different from the previous dry season count in that it is concerned with obtaining information not just on total numbers, but also on the distribution of wildlife. Nick Georgiadis is the director of the Mpala Research Center in Laikipia. He explains that the information on distribution is very important to help determine which species are migratory, and where they go. This will assist with allocating quotas for culling. "We are looking for an ecosystem approach for wildlife management," Nick says, "and we have to get more specific information to understand how the place ticks."
Giles Prettejohn is a Boran cattle consultant and has always helped with the survey. "I do this so we can all use the game on our land, and hopefully, in the future, get a real return from it," he says. It is 6:30 in the morning as Giles prepares his Dornier 27 aircraft for the aerial count. The passenger in the right seat uses a Global Positioning System to guide Giles on transects one kilometer apart, back and forth across the survey area. The GPS records Giles' exact ground track, so that it can be downloaded into a computer. The two observers in the back seats scan the ground for 500 meters on either side of the aircraft. Every time they see wildlife on the ground, they call out the numbers and species to the front seat passenger. He then writes the information down and records the position on the GPS.
My partner in this count is Tom Sylvester, a ranch manager in the north of Laikipia. Tom and I have only two seats in my plane (due to my extra fuel tank in the back), so we are using some high technology in place of two additional counters. The autopilot and the radar altimeter are flying the aircraft, the two GPS units navigate and plot, and the tape recorder in the intercom keeps track of the wildlife we count. Surprisingly, this high tech system works. The only problems are the odd 50 - 100 pound vultures that linger in our flight path, the very steep gorges that we dive down into to keep our constant 300 foot altitude above the ground, and then the ten other aircraft that are also flying around staring mostly at the ground.
John Ruggieri is an American, and he is a new landowner in Laikipia. He tells me that he would like to see 400 elephant on his ranch 20 years from now, so he wants to help in any way that he can. John believes that involving the small landowners in this process of sustainable utilization is critical to its success. "If an elephant only eats your corn, how can you like it," he says. "Wildlife has to translate into money for the small African farmer, and he must benefit from it." John feels that the first step is developing the means to get the money from wildlife, whether this be through consumptive or non-consumptive utilization. Then the second step will be to determine how to get the money to the small farmers. From ground zero to perfect equity is not going to happen quickly, he feels, but at least this is a start.
I am amazed at what hard work this is. We have to start early, when the game is active and feeding, and the low light helps to see the game against the camouflage bush background. As the aircraft approaches, the game reacts to the sound and moves slightly. It is this motion that attracts our eyes, so that we can count it. Once the sun gets up higher in the sky, the wildlife takes shelter beneath the trees, and it is much harder to make it move or to notice its movement in the flat light. I also find it incredibly hard to concentrate so hard for so long. Our eyes are fixed to the ground, and we just keep them scanning back and forth until we see something. At the same time, I am aware of the engine pulling us through the sky. Every once in a while, the radar altimeter will beep to indicate that we are too low, and I will ease back a bit on the controls. My eyes also dart forward towards the horizon for a brief second to make sure that there are no vultures lurking in our path. The turns make me feel like we are on a military mission. Tom calls out the seconds to turn. We pull up, bank steeply, then slide around onto our new heading and begin tracking on the GPS. It is exciting doing so many things at once, but then our precision turns are followed by long lonely stretches of watching the ground flow by.
Consumptive utilization is making money from wildlife by commercial hunting for trophies or the sale of its meat and skins. Non-consumptive utilization is making money through tourism; people come and pay money to just look at the animals and to be on your land. Some non-consumptive utilization projects are already becoming a success in Kenya. The 30,000 acre Il Ngwesi Group Ranch has approximately 600 Samburu tribal shareholders, and the scenery and the wildlife here make it very suitable for Tourism. The Kenya Wildlife Service has helped organize a significant grant for the Samburu to build a tourist lodge on their group ranch. The thatched 12 bed lodge is being marketed on a time share basis, so that people can buy one week blocks per year. The lodge is not yet finished, but recently, a man arrived and offered to purchase all 52 weeks for the next five years. That is a three million Kenya Shilling income to the shareholders per year for the next five years if they accept his offer.
Culling is necessary in Laikipia, because the zebra eat much more grass than the cattle, and successful ranching of cattle requires managing the numbers of zebra. Last year, Mike Dyer of Borana Ranch culled 18% of the zebra population on his farm. This year the numbers were up to 7% higher than they were before last year's cull. Whether some of this is due to immigration from other areas or not, his zebra population is obviously very healthy, and this might be an area in which to develop a better means of consumptive utilization. Investment has already been offered for a tannery in the Laikipia district to process and to sell zebra skins. With the current zebra numbers, the Laikipia Wildlife Forum could sell 250 zebra skins a month to Zimbabwe. The meat is already being sold locally. Perhaps, commercial hunting might also be a possibility. Hunting was banned in Kenya by presidential decree in 1978. The southern African countries are now twenty years ahead of Kenya in their understanding and development of sustainable consumptive utilization of wildlife. "People hunting are also conserving," Nick tells me. "If someone pays $50,000 for a three week safari, that can do a lot of good for local people's appreciation of wildlife." My passenger, Tom Sylvester, points out, "We have to cull anyway, why not bring out Americans to pay a lot of money and to help do the culling for us?"
Tom is the manager of a 65,000 acre ranch called Colcheccio in Laikipia. He smiles when I ask him what the name means. Apparently, the Italian owner was told that he shouldn't buy this ranch some years ago by his friends. He replied to them, "Colcheccio" - which seems to be a fairly strong Italian expletive for them to attend to their own affairs - and then thought this would be a good name for the farm. Tom invites me back to stay with him. We land on a dusty airstrip and pull up right in front of his house. We are greeted by a young orphaned giraffe that lives in Tom's front yard. "She likes to go in the house, but we are trying to discourage her from doing this," Tom says.
Next door, Tom shows me the skull of a hermaphrodite buffalo. The horns measure 53' across from tip to tip and droop down far from the boss at the top of the skull. The buffalo stood a full 10 - 12 inches higher at the shoulders than the rest of the herd. It had no testicles and only a small penis. The day it was shot in 1992, the drought started. On another farm, the skull sat outside a store room. A friend of Tom's took a picture of the skull, but when the picture came back, you couldn't see any skull. Perhaps, it was a coincidence, but a few days after the skull was brought back to Colcheccio in April 1994, the rains started.
"We must protect ourselves from familiarity," a buffalo hunter once told me. I can see it happening here. I am tired. The airplane becomes a horse. You ride it back, tie it up and feed it. Eleven of us are swooping in to land from all directions, refueling, unloading our data onto the main computer and taking off again. We all know what we are doing, but the fatigue factor is high. I come in low, sometimes I forget to call, sometimes it is easier to take off uphill. I am up in the north in the early morning, when I hear on the radio that there has been an accident. They were taking off uphill. A giraffe strided out in front of them. They were going too fast to stop, but they weren't yet airborne. This is a dangerous time. One of the two pilots is setting the GPS. He looks up to see the giraffe and grabs the controls and pulls back. The airplane staggers into the air over the giraffe, the wings stall, and it drops onto the ground and flips onto its back. Everyone is fine, but the airplane is a wreck. I walk around this structure of wrinkled aluminum and am impressed how well designed it is. It is light enough to glide on air, yet sturdy enough to protect people when it strikes the ground. The giraffe is fine. The one pilot says he saw the giraffe and was turning to avoid it. The other only saw it suddenly and just reacted. The airplane was not going fast enough to fly. I am strongly reminded how fragile we all are and how easily this can happen.
On the other side of the farm, Matt Doering invites me to visit. Matt is an animal trainer. He is a graduate of the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program in Moore Park, California. He is in charge of the two tame African elephants, Bupa and Jackie, who live here. Matt tells me you can put more force in training an Asian elephant, than you can an African elephant. An African elephant is more sensitive and skittish like a horse. They are so clever though; they can pretend to pull, and they can pretend to be hurt if they don't feel like doing something. Matt doesn't like cages. "We humans call it prison when you put someone in a cage and throw them food, but in a zoo this is considered a good idea." This is one of the reasons he is working out here. Matt thinks that some elephants in zoos are "time bombs". I enjoy listening to him relate his understanding of animal behavior. "How do you teach a dog to attack?" he asks. I am not really sure. "You walk up to it, with it chained up, and as soon as it growls at you, you run away. The owner must be out of sight. It is called confidence building." Matt tells me you can't control an elephant. Its a con. "Don't get fooled by your own magic," he stresses. "Training is like magic." Matt tells me that lions discipline their cubs the same way people should. The lioness whacks the cub with its paw, then she licks the cub. There is a problem, then it is over, and it is reinforced by love. It is the same with children. "Don't make a big deal. Give them power and choices, and don't back them into a corner."
Matt introduces me to a two and a half year old leopard named Misha. He handles her firmly, yet with love. I can see how relaxed he is with her in his arms. If you are tense, they can feel it. She has been de-clawed, so her teeth are her only weapon at the moment. The claws of a leopard can be quite lethal. They can pull the scalp off your head and slice your stomach open like razor blades. I respect the power and lithe balance of this magnificent creature. Matt sits me down then opens another cage. The 6 month old black leopard sits playfully in my lap. I have heard of black leopards before, but I have never seen one. Now, I am holding one. Matt is not so keen on vets. He thinks they are the most self-serving people he has ever met. I can see that Matt is more of a mind man; he works with the animal's mind on the inside, whereas a vet perhaps works more with blood samples and medicines on the outside. There is a knock at the door, and Matt reads the note which was given to him. "Dear Sir, I am sorry to report, but Letao has been beaten by an ostridge and needs to go to hospital." This can be a challenging job, says Matt. It is like having a lot of children who all need your attention at the same time.
Just before I arrived in Kenya, Sandy Field went missing. He was 78 years old
and the oldest licensed pilot in the country. The weather was bad. He had waited
several days for it to clear, then finally he thought he could make it. There is
a saddle of rising ground between Mt. Kenya and the Aberdares that can block the
way up to Nanyuki in bad weather. Sandy tried to swing around the east side of
Mt. Kenya and was never heard from again. The whole flying community joined in
the search for over a week. He disappeared in June, and it wasn't until August
that his wreck was found. He had come down in the bamboo forest, and the plane
was invisible beneath the canopy. Sandy's great fear was always the thought of
ending his life in the Nanyuki Cottage Hospital. He loved hunting elephants, and
he was interested in the Third Reich. It was strange that the person who finally
found Sandy's remains was an Embu honey-hunter named "Hitler". All that remained
was a piece of his skull and some hair. His body had been eaten by a leopard,
and I am told that he would have been pleased that his body had gone to the
animals he had loved so much.