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feeling small

Leaving Umoja with the first rays of the rising sun, we headed to Samburu National Reserve, one of three nearly contiguous game parks in Kenya’s semiarid northern lands. In years past, one could cross from Samburu into the nearby Buffalo Springs reserve by driving over a bridge that spanned the placid Ewaso Nyiro river. The bridge has since fallen into disrepair and the park authorities have happily kept it that way, extracting double entry fees from tourists keen on visiting both protected areas.

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Although Samburu’s elephant population is second in size only to that of Tsavo National Park, the area does not enjoy national park status. Samburu is unfenced, which would be good for these pachyderms, according to researchers, if it did not also facilitate poaching. Given the reserve’s proximity to Isiolo, which functions as a black market hub where tusks from poached elephants are sold to Somali traders, Samburu’s elephants are in acute danger. Fortunately, local community groups have begun to realize the importance of protecting these big, gentle animals and have even started arming themselves to repel the poachers.

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S has an acquaintance whose PhD research focuses on the effects of poaching on elephant behavior. As she works with Save the Elephants in Samburu, we arranged to have tea with her in the morning but were repeatedly waylaid on our way to the research station, which is located deep inside the reserve. First, we saw a few cars congregating near the riverbank and found a leopard and her cub hiding in the tall grass when we drove near.

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We had not gone far and were still excitedly discussing the leopard sighting when we came upon about eighty elephants bathing in the river. There were only half that number when we found them, but more kept arriving on the opposite shore while those who had had their fill clambered out of the water right in front of our vehicle.

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Incredibly, despite their size and weight, these mammoth animals hardly made a sound as they shuffled about, only making their presence known when they crashed through the tall brush in search of edible foliage. It was a bit unnerving to be surrounded by elephants, some of which approached so close to the car that they were practically within touching distance.

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In the Serengeti, we had seen an overprotective matriarch charge a vehicle that had pulled too close to her floppy-eared offspring. Because we were stationary when the elephants emerged out of the water, we decided we were safer staying quiet and making the most of this unique opportunity, lest we startle them by turning on the ignition and attempting to back out towards the main road.

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