The Athi Kapiti Conservancy is the core conservation area of the Athi Kapiti Conservation Initiative. With a land area of 20 000 acres and situated only 40km from Nairobi, the Athi Kapiti conservancy offers the most accessible game-viewing location in Kenya outside Nairobi NP. It also holds some of Kenya’s most astonishing wildlife, including the country’s only white-morph cheetahs.
Leopard stalk the riverbeds and thickets, giraffe and herds of antelope and zebra dot the open plains. The conservancy and surrounding plains are the preferred calving ground for the wildebeest migrating from the southern plains of Tsavo West, Chulu and Amboseli. For those visitors particularly interested in bird life, the conservancy and plains have recorded more than 40 raptor species!
No accommodation is yet available on the Athi Kapiti Conservancy, so an incredible opportunity exists for that first camp.
THE NEED TO KEEP IT OPEN
The plains of East Africa are portrayed in many documentaries as vast, gently rolling grasslands with dotted trees and wooded waterways. In this habitat plains “game” such as zebra, wildebeest, gazelles and their big cat predators roam. Few of us are unaware of the migration of these plains game. For example, we all know that millions of Wildebeest and Zebra move through the Serengeti in Tanzania and bottleneck into the very much smaller Maasai Mara each year. Packed to the gunnels to feed on nutritious grasses, they inevitably suffer high mortality from predators, drowning and disease. Here gather vultures in their thousands. Lions, crocodile, hyena, leopard and cheetah all take their toll whilst the bounty remains. Then it passes as the rains lure the animals to greener more dispersed pastures. The Athi Kapiti and Nairobi National Park was very much like this a decade ago, and still has hope of maintaining these events if proper plans are put in place now.
What does this mean for the predators of migratory animals?
What is generally not portrayed in the documentary is the hard times and those animals that stay behind. Predators are territorial, and when their prey is not, it simply means lean times ahead and a vigorous focus on what’s left behind. When thousands of animals enter their territory they feast. When it goes out of their territory they dare not follow as they will enter the territory of others and they will suffer the consequences if they tagged along behind. Equally, they would be foolish to leave their own hard fought-for territory unattended, because should they return they may well find it occupied. Wolves in the Arctic follow Caribou and Polar bears move in search of seals, but in less hostile environments predators stay put, or cautiously investigate unoccupied “new” territory.
Large predators are torn between easy pickings and an inability to follow it when it wanders on through to other areas occupied by fierce competitors of their own species. For lions and leopards the rules are fairly hard and fast. There is minimal movement of these predators in search of their migratory prey. For hyena too the rules are clear. You do not follow these herds, because you’ll get attacked by other clans of hyena. For cheetah the rules are less clear. Most of the research on cheetah is conducted in environments where cyclic large movements of migratory prey species does not (now) occur. Athi Kapiti cannot compare to the arid sparsely populated lands of Namibia where cheetah roam massive, and sparsely populated areas. The Athi Kapiti does not now compare to the Serengeti either and in the coming years we hope to piece together just what they do and if they remain put in defined territories, or go “walk-about” each year.
In order to survive all these predators must be adaptable and be able to subsist during the hard times on less-than-optimal prey. Lions may turn their attention to Warthogs, Waterbuck and even Aardvarks. Cheetah may turn to hares, springhares and game birds. Leopard may even descend to eating mice and scarab beetles.
Most wildlife species are in fact resident. Those that do not habitually migrate are in the majority, but their numerical abundance may not be that impressive. Impala, Grant’s Gazelle, Gerenuk, Dik dik, Waterbuck, Warthog, Giraffe, Hippo, Buffalo, Reedbuck, Steenbok, Aardvarks and hares are not typically thought of as species that move in vast groups across hundreds of kilometres. It would be incongruous if they did! These stay behind and are adapted to cope with lean times. They form the prey-base of predators when the others have checked out. The residents logically set the limit on just how many predators can live in the area.
When resident prey species decrease due to human activity it also lowers the holding capacity of predators. Vast migratory herds moving into this disturbed area from better protected lands may befuddle the casual human observer, who may assume that that all is well when in fact all is not. Such is the probable scenario in the Maasai Mara where resident wildlife has declined. On the Athi Kapiti migratory wildlife still wanders in an out of adjacent Nairobi National Park and far to the south. As it is increasingly confined, an ecological upset is predictable. We need to investigate the dispersal of these animals and just as importantly we need to study the population stability of the resident” wildlife.
The Athi Kapiti must be seen as an area of ebb and flow, or coming and going and of seasonal change. Enclosed sanctuaries within it have been proposed but threaten the ecology of those migrant species and thus lower the potential for the whole area. The challenge is to handle the inevitable expansion of human interests as well as maintain an open and well protected area.
Conserving migratory wildlife
The Athi Kapiti Plains lies in the centre of an annual cyclic event that may now dominate the ecology of migratory animals in the region. It is part of a much larger area that sees the transitory movement of large ungulates and zebra, but due to its to habitat quality, sustainable human density, rainfall and soils it is perhaps now the most important and still-intact feeding and calving ground for these migratory animals. Recent game counts do indicate that a majority of plains game does concentrate here. As the animals spread out further in less optimal habitats they dilute themselves far and wide and are tough to count. While there is no doubt that a large amount of wildlife must be dispersed, it remains a fact that the Athi Kapiti does host a significant portion. Its close proximity to Nairobi National Park is frustratingly separated by a thin line of ill-planned industrialisation. If it were open access then there would be a movement of animals between the two. The importance of migration for protected areas is only just being officially recognised (although long known and understood), and so there is hope for improvement.
Many species migrate, from birds, reptiles, large mammals to the Blue Whale. Often these are global movements made to escape the cold of the temperate and polar regions to warmer climes. Large terrestrial mammals are confined by natural barriers such as oceans, rivers, mountains and forests; and today by man. The Arctic Caribou moves each year some 5000km still in large numbers and the Russian Siaga antelope used to cover similar distances, but now in ragged much smaller numbers. The American Bison and pronghorn migrations are long defunct. The Quagga and Springbok migrations of South Africa are a thing of the past with one now extinct, the other in remnant non-migratory sub-populations. The Botswana veterinary fence put an end to a massive Wildebeest migration and similar disease free zones are very much on the drawing board for Kenya (to export meat to the EU). The Kob migration into the Gambella region of Ethiopia from Southern Sudan is now imperilled due to the decision of the Ethiopian Government to lease a National Park to foreign agri-businesses. The Tanzanian government embarked against international furore, on its infamous trans-Serengeti highway, that will threaten the largest migration of wildlife in the world and has since reached an uncertain compromise. And we, just outside of Nairobi are naively going ahead with plans that will end another of one of the world’s greatest wildlife migrations; claiming that ignorance is the cause. So we need to inform and educate if there is a chance to keep one of the few functioning terrestrial mammal migrations intact. As a rule, the more confined movements are, the fewer animals can survive. Never can the Bison or Springbok exist in the numbers to which they were evolved, and today survive in remnant numbers.
Migration is a survival technique that allows an animal to find food that would not be available if it stayed in one place. They can then maintain much higher populations because they avoid drought. Wildebeest are designed to walk effortlessly (if ungainly) to meet these demands. Pastoralists drive livestock in the same way and for the same reasons. As governments are about governing and control, they disapprove of disorder and like to confine livestock and wildlife to their designated areas. But this is against nature. While many recognise that Nairobi National Park experiences seasonal fluctuations, very few today recognise the wildlife on the Athi Kapiti as part of a dramatic and huge cycle of migratory wildlife. It is a mistake to consider wildlife as belonging to one place, because it is shared between the National Parks. In the process of urbanising and industrialising the greater city environs and more distant rural areas the voice of concern for its migratory wildlife are barely heard. It is time its importance was put into perspective.
Game Count on Athi Kapiti
The first part of the past two weeks were spent dashing about to meetings and getting permission to go ahead with a Game Count of the proposed Athi Kapiti Conservancy area. It has been a joint initiative of many NGO’s GO’s, landowners and stakeholders over a vast area. The count centres around the viability (or perhaps vulnerability) of Nairobi National Park and seeks to disclose the secrets of the dispersal area.
There is much debate regarding the future of Nairobi National Park, much too much to discuss here with anything other than a very broad brush. In a nut shell, Nairobi National Park is a small, extremely diverse park that depended (as do all), on seasonal movements of wildlife. Wildebeest, zebra, Thompson’s Gazelle as well as many other ungulates moveden masse in and out of the park. Cheetah and lion would follow or at least disperse out in a broad fan. I am old enough to remember dispersal to the north, but nowadays most focus on the south and south west dispersal “corridor”.
I hate the word “corridor”, for it is something that I remember running down in fear of wolves as a small child when I was sent to bed. Many do still assume a wildlife corridor is a defined narrow path, instead of a massive limitless expanse, which in fact it is. This expanse is now a mosaic of urban, sub-urban, open, industrialised or settled in a complex patchwork of inconsistent planning. The result is a dramatic change within the park, due to these restraints upon the movements of wildlife.
This expansive dispersal area includes the 6 ranches to the south, south east that amount to a block some 3.5 times larger than the National Park. It is this area that we are promoting to conserve, but we and many of our conservation minded neighbours in the Kitengela, need to have hard facts on what precisely is out there . KWS recognise the importance of these counts and fully endorsed the project. The co-ordination of which was the formidable undertaking of Paula Kahumbu, who in days managed to galvanise us all into instant action! While aerial counts were perceived and executed, other ground counts in Kitengela are ongoing, I here report on the count in Athi Kapaiti.
Dawn saw 4 Vehicles driving off with highly caffeinated observers who clutched data sheets in one hand and binoculars with the other, with heads sprouting out of 4 by 4s. Bouncing overland in their designated blocks the idea was to cover every 500m square blocks and count each animal. Its hard work, not at least on the back! An observer would tap the roof asking the driver to stop. Then hissing digits under their breath they would settle on a number, and only change their mind once it had been put to paper by the appointed scribe. We had volunteers, land-owners, managers and residents all participating at very short notice.