The Red Park: Adventures in Tsavo

If I’ve learned anything from following the movements of GPS-tagged vultures, it is that vultures get around. Masai Mara is clearly a very important area for them, but when the wildebeest aren’t here many of the vultures try out some new locations. One area that about a third of the tagged individuals have used over the years is Tsavo. Tsavo actually consists two parks – two of the largest in the country – divided by the main highway leading from Mombasa to Nairobi.
In past years I have focused all my research on Masai Mara and the surrounding environment, but this year it seemed that it would be important to visit some of the other areas that the tagged birds had been doing. Not so much to see the actual tagged birds (though that would have been very exciting), but more to get a feel for the different habitats that the vultures are using in an effort to explain their movement choices. So last week, I set off on a five day journey through Tsavo West, Tsavo East, and the sanctuaries and cities in between. Along for the ride was photographer extraordinaire Karim (who was no novice to adventures in vulture research having joined Munir and I for the somewhat complicated trip to Kwenia last year).
Tsavo was different from the Mara – fewer tourists, fewer animals, huge red clay-stained elephants with tusks that I would have thought no longer existed, and trees and bushes galore. Camping in Tsavo the stars were beautiful and the sounds were novel with the trumpets of elephants and growls of lions added to the cattle bells and hyena moans of the Mara. The soil was red but the land was green and with so much brush the visibility was low.
Each day we found a unique treasure of Tsavo. The first night it was a waterhole with elephants. The second day it was the famed Mzima Springs – an area famous for its clear waters and hippos that I had long promised myself I would go to. The water was crystal clear – unlike any river or lake I had yet seen in Africa. You could literally see the fish beneath the surface and there was even a tiny viewing platform built into the water where you could look through glass to see the fishes (like an aquarium of wild fish). The hippos weren’t quite as close as I had hoped but we did see a freshwater eel – its immense body of at least four feet wrapped around a sunken log. The third day we visited Lugards Falls in Tsavo East, an expanse of canyons smoothed and shaped by the rushing rapids though with no real “falls” in sight. A crocodile had managed to wedge its way down the rapids into a small pool where it seemed to be struggling to stay afloat, though still fishing. A brief walk downstream and it was clear the animal was going to be in trouble with no clear way out of its little pool. The fourth day we drove through Taita Hills Sanctuary, a surprising gem just in between the two parks (and an area where vultures seem to spend considerable amounts of their time). The last day, through misfortune and luck (the gate we had entered didn’t have a “smartcard” machine so we had to drive to another entrance to pay meaning a rather large detour), we stumbled upon the lovely Lake Jipe, which borders Tanzania. The lake was teaming with wildlife, including several hippo pods and immeasurable number of pelicans, herons, and geese. Though seemingly undiscovered, the lake was visited by a large group of ex-militia Brits who had come to follow the trails of some of East Africa’s wars. Camping along the lake shores we fell asleep to the snorts of hippos and awoke to the trumpets of elephants (which were only about 50 m away from our tents).
The drive out of Tsavo was perhaps the most exciting of all since we got lost for nearly three hours and then had to drive back to Nairobi in the dark, but all in all the trip went on without a hitch.

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