Africa’s most endangered large mammal
We awoke this morning to a fresh pot of Kenyan coffee (delivered to our tent by a smiling waiter – how cool is that?!), a beautiful sunrise and a RHINO AT OUR BACK FENCE! We didn’t actually see any rhino yesterday (much to our disappointment), but the gods saw fit to reward our our patience this morning by encouraging one of Lake Nakuru’s rhinos to have its breakfast virtually in our back yard. It was so cool being able to stand just inside the camp’s fence and watch the rhino munch away on grass, whilst the sun gradually rose above the horizon. Totally awesome!
There was a time when rhinos were a common sight throughout much of Africa and Asia. These rather placid, shy and innocuous mammals are now, however, one of the most endangered species in the world. Rhinos have been hunted to near extinction simply because they have the misfortune of having a horn that, when ground up, reputedly has medicinal properties. Unfortunately the Far East Asian market for rhino horn persists, despite the steep decline in rhino numbers in recent decades and international attempts to curb demand. As a consequence rhino can be incredibly hard to see in the wild. Lake Nakuru National Park is one of the few places where these huge herbivores can still be observed in their natural habitat – which is one of the main reasons we’re here!
As well as our early morning rhino encounter we also saw a family of rhino grazing in the park during our all-day game drive today. These beasts are part of Lake Nakuru’s 100-strong rhino population, which are protected from poachers by kilometres of electrified fencing and armed rangers who patrol the national park and have orders to detain or shoot poachers on sight. In the wild, adult rhinoceros have no real natural predators other than humans. Although rhinos are large and have a reputation for being tough, they are quite passive and very easily poached; they follow a predictable routine – visiting the same water holes daily – and can be easily killed while they drink. Unfortunately poaching has increased globally in recent years, with over 1,000 animals killed this year alone in Africa. The animals are killed for their horns, which, unlike those of other horned mammals (which have a bony core), only consist of keratin and thus can be easily ground into a powder and consumed. It’s tragic to think that an animal weighing 1-2 tons can be killed just for its horn! Which is why some champions of rhino protection are advocating the surgical removal of rhino horns from animals still in the wild to protect them from poachers. It’s sad really and from our perspective we’re just grateful to be able to see rhinos in the wild while they still exist as a free-living species.
We saw heaps of other animals, including jackals, water buck, buffalo, gazelles, zebra and a lot of baboons. These large, communal-living primates are very common around Lake Nakuru and are quite habituated to humans. They were fascinating to watch – so many of their expressions and behaviours are so human-like! The baby ones were especially cute!
As expected, many of the animals and birds we saw today are water and/or wetland dwelling creatures. Unfortunately, however, we couldn’t drive all the way down to the lake-front as the level of Lake Nakuru has risen so much in recent years that the road that used to wind its way along the shore is now under water! The level of the lake has fluctuated greatly over the past few decades, with the entire lake almost drying up in the 1970s but then rising consistently over the past 30 years. The rising water levels have certainly changed the face of Lake Nakuru national Park; as well as submerged roads we saw road markers and buildings (constructed in the early 1980s to house the park’s rangers) under water. The locals are blaming it on climate change, though it’s hard to say for sure as the level of Kenya’s Rift Valley lakes is notoriously variable.
All in all we had a great day exploring Lake Nakuru National Park and are loving this whole safari “thing”. Tomorrow we head off on a long drive through the heart of Kenya, to Amboseli National Park, where the elephants outnumber people and Mt Kilimanjaro dominates the landscape. Tune in tomorrow to see whether we make it down to Amboseli without incident!