Humans and Beasts in the Wilds of East Africa
Story by Julia Hubbel

A writer returns to Kenya and Tanzania in the midst of worldwide travel restrictions for five adventure-filled weeks, seeing the ongoing struggle between a growing human population and the wild animals that need room to roam.

East Africa travel story

The two Range Rovers sat tailgate to front bumper. My driver, Simon, was outside ours watching for advancing wildlife. The animals were simply curious; mostly migrating wildebeest in great numbers, occasionally snorting and sporting with each other. A few stared from a distance. They had reason. I was sitting in a folding chair in the dusty plains, my head back. A young clinical worker, his face (and mine) both masked, was wearing a green paper gown. Very gently, unlike his overenthusiastic American counterparts, he eased a Covid PCR test Q-tip up my nostril, twirled and removed it.

"Done," he said in Swahili to Simon. As soon as I stood, the wildlife bolted. We leapt into our respective vehicles. With a burst of dust in either direction, we headed our opposite ways. Simon and I were returning to Mara Eden, a magnificent safari camp on the Mara River in the Maasai Mara in Kenya; the clinicians were off to run my Covid test so that I could travel to Tanzania the following day. That was the best story I ever got out of a $130 medical test.

A New Path to Conservation Cooperation at Ol Pejeta

I spent a week in a full-immersion conservation experience with an organization striving to strike the right balance between the people and the animals trying to live next to each other: Ol Pejeta. The 90,000 acres of prime land close to Mt. Kenya is home to one of the finest big mammal conservation and community programs in the world. The key is how Ol Pejeta ties the success of animal tourism to community success. When the animals thrive, so do the local villages close to Nanyuki town. Tourism funds the animal husbandry, farming and farm product programs which improve soil productivity and yield. Tourism also funds educational support and scholarships which funnel high-potential village kids into college. As local communities thrive with better livestock, their kids gain critical educational advantages. Ol Pejeta launches a broad range of initiatives such as fuel-efficient stoves to reduce deforestation. The locals return the favor by keeping an eagle eye out for potential poachers.

mother and baby rhino in Africa

During my time at OP, I helped lay out salt for the wildlife, repair fences to keep baboons out of village farms, cleaned stalls and dog kennels, and went on regular game treks to see lions with their kill. We walked with the rhino patrols which are constant and necessary, for the pressures of poaching are increasing as the price for the horns rise in direct relation to their scarcity. Each day was a revelation and an education. From the exquisite early morning dawns to the discoveries of hyena families on the way back our accommodations, the conservation program agenda was a deep dive into the sophisticated, yet sometimes remarkably simple work of community building and trust. That relationship better ensures the future of the animals Ol Pejeta is committed to preserving. The first-hand contact with anti-poaching dogs and being able to see how OP has woven deep connections with the people who share its borders made for a much-needed week of good news.

Maasai Mara Mara Eden Resort

The long drive from Nairobi to the Maasai Mara has changed. The area is now dotted with farms and fences which have choked off the animal migrations.

"We used to always see giraffe and zebra there," Simon, my driver, pointed out. As the government bows to pressure for more land available to people, the animals are corralled into smaller and smaller spaces. That doesn't bode well for species like rhino, who protect large territories. If they are to thrive, they need land, which is one reason Ol Pejeta recently acquired more acreage. That's a statement on one hand of their success in breeding more rhinos, and the hard stop African countries are facing as the need for people to raise food competes with the animals' need to roam and range comfortably. As we approached the gate, small groups of colorfully-dressed Maasai women approached us. Simon told me to roll up the window. The women pressed their faces against the glass, holding up beaded necklaces. Their numbers have increased with the population and presence of more villages near the gate.

giraffes wildlife photosOnce inside the Mara, immediately I was photographing zebras and giraffes close to the vehicle. Twenty minutes later we, along with one other vehicle, were following an elephant herd. The long drive through the park to Mara Eden is a smorgasbord of animal viewing. The deeper into the grasslands we drove, the further behind we left the thick clumps of hotels jammed near the gates. By the time Simon and I spotted the light on a far hill which marked our destination, we were fully immersed in Africa's vast wilderness.

The Mara Eden Resort is situated on the great Mara River, which is heavily populated with hippos and crocodiles. The well-appointed tents face onto the river, so that the guttural hippo gossip and the rush of the water weave a backdrop to the rich sounds of the African bush. The owners paved the rocky path to the tents so that wheelchair-bound guests could enjoy being more than armchair tourists. Disabled folks can now stalk cheetahs or take an early morning balloon ride to be first to see what had taken place during the silky but deadly African night. Eden features generous appointments, big beds, hot water, and overfilled amenities. The camp uses solar for its electricity and features a pool. Simon and I drove out very early to see what cheetahs caught, found lions in the bush gnawing on the last of their prey, and observed baby topis practicing how to run under the watchful eyes of their mothers. The staff tell you, and you forget, that they slip a rubber hot water bottle under the covers to warm your bed. On more than one occasion that has led to a few terrified screams before the client realizes that it's a courtesy, not a cobra.

Simon and I roamed far and wide, discovering lions with their wicked paws splayed wide as they slept off the heat of the day. We passed hyena mothers suckling their pups next to greenish water befouled by rotting carcasses. Dry season is baby season, and they were everywhere, as were the predators. Newborns kicked at the sky, nestled next to their mothers while surrounded by the herds. Perhaps the best treat at this beautiful camp were the night birds and the resident wandering hippo.

camp hippo east africa

She would march onto the property and take her time exploring the grounds. While not harmless, she was so often in the camp that staffers took her for granted. Her massive bulk and royal air took up many times the width of the narrow pathways the patrons walk. The morning after my field Covid test, Simon drove me the four hours to the Nairobi airport. Each successive hour took us further away from the blissful Eden of animals and the normalcy of watching elephant crossings bring highway traffic to a stop. The brief flight landed me at the small airport where Alladin from ETrip collected me, and we were off to new horizons.

An Unsullied jewel of Tanzania

"Same" is a smallish town in northern Tanzania on the Kenyan border, surrounded by the Pare and Chambogha Mountain ranges. Its claim to fame is the lesser-known Mkomazi game park. Most of the game are still unaccustomed to vehicles, so they tend to be skittish. For my part, that adds to the unspoiled nature of the place. For several days we encountered only two other vehicles with guides.

We located the lapis-colored lake which was the water source, part of it infested with emerald green hyacinth. As we crested the hill, a herd of bachelor elephants appeared about a half-mile away. Led by a huge bull, his great curved horns aloft, the four made their steady, stately way to the water's edge below us. They bathed with great dignity, splashing and spraying themselves in the warming air. We crept closer, edging along the perimeter road. Eventually they ambled over to a well-used spot where they dusted their damp bodies with protective dirt. The male positioned himself over a large boulder, then massaged his undercarriage while the other boys bathed in the sand.

african elephants photo

I've never been able to observe this behavior in previous trips, which is one reason Mkomazi was a particular treasure.

Alladin had secured a far greater treat for me, however. On the second day in Same, we visited the recently-established Black Rhino program. Gifted with plenty of land for the animals to roam, the park now has several offerings which pay off handsomely in viewing and extraordinary photos. At three p.m. our second day, Alladin and I drove swiftly—as swiftly as one can drive on the curving, dusty and most unpredictable roads of a game park—to meet the wardens an hour away. We just made it as the Rover was already en route to the first rhino viewing point at four pm. We left our vehicle and leapt aboard.

Rhinos, Close Up and Personal

The first site was an underground bunker located a short distance from a water hole fed by a hose. We spent the better part of an hour watching five rhinos and a sounder of wart hogs fight over the fresh water. Impala ranged near the acacia trees and low bushes. With the sun starting to paint the acacia leaves gold, we loaded up and drove to the other watering hole. This time the driver pulled up right next to the water supply. The rhinos were sauntering in. They took little notice of us. A mother and daughter were already at the water. We were almost close enough to touch.

There we sat for more than an hour listening to the heavy breathing, snorting and lively conversation as the incoming rhinos forced the mother and baby away from the water. Neither Alladin nor I had ever heard rhinos interact like this. It felt like being part of an intimate conversation. We observed in complete silence, watching as the sun laid a layer of bronze, then red onto the dusty backs of these great creatures. The only sounds were our cameras and the rhinos as they siphoned off the fresh water by the gallon. As with all magical spells, this one had to be broken. The park closed at seven, it was an hour's swift drive from where we were, and we had to move out soon. However, there was yet one more extraordinary experience.

rhinos in east africa

The Deadly Wild Dogs of Africa

Burgeoning population growth has led to the decimation of the wild dog populations of Africa, but a few packs of them remain. Their challenge is that they are both forced towards and drawn to human areas, where they are often poisoned. Wild game managers struggle to balance rebuilding the populations and keeping them from being killed in the villages. Mkomazi has been breeding wild dogs for release.

Alladin and I followed two rangers to the wild dog enclosure. There, the pack swiveled their satellite dish-ears towards us in anticipation. The manager let himself into the compound, keeping a careful eye on the dogs. Like a single organism, they followed his every movement. They were constantly trying to encircle him, which he didn't allow, keeping his back to the enclosure fence. Being surrounded is a death sentence. As he moved ever so slowly, the dogs flowed in liquid eddies, their beauty deadly and fascinating. Would they survive release? Only time will tell. It was yet another chapter in the ongoing battle between the natural inhabitants of the land and the human usurpers.

wild dogs Tanzania

Tanzania is rightly considered the best game viewing country on the African continent and tourism is a huge part of its income. As a result, these efforts to repopulate rhinos and wild dogs, among others, are an acknowledgment that if Tanzania is to survive, so must its wildlife. It's an uneasy truce, for ancient grazing practices strip the land of its forage, forcing more and more of the creatures we want to view into smaller areas. Human animal conflict is, by all accounts, the single biggest challenge to the survival of Africa's wildlife. The other stressor, which is brought on by the contraction of these once-spreading ranges of land, is that various species are being decimated by competition for food. Lions and hyenas steal food from other predators like wild dogs, and that means populations die or move. When dogs move close to people, they die even worse deaths.

Aladdin and I leapt into our vehicle after tipping the rangers, and sped towards the setting sun. An African sunset is a wonder, as we witnessed it silhouetted by giraffe and elephants, our speeding drive punctuated by the occasional startled dik-dik.

cheetahs in Tanzania

The Perils of Paradise in East Africa

My return to East Africa was both a great gift and a burden. Being willing to take more time to see facilities and concessions which are farther afield offered me two things: fewer tourists (because of Covid) and far more time to speak to the guides and park workers. I was able to score abundant photos, but also take a deeper look into the growing challenges of two of Africa's most popular game viewing destinations. They struggle to maintain animal populations as well as meet the needs of human population growth, estimated to break 10 billion worldwide by 2100. This is going to present terrific challenges for those animals whose lands are shrinking by the day, whose forests are being stripped for firewood, and whose habitats are being grabbed by humans for crops.

If there is a lesson, and it's not just Covid-driven, it's to go soon. Facilities like Ol Pejeta can do more work to save these animals when we visit or donate. Tourists help fund programs like the rhino and wild dog breeding efforts in Mkomazi. While much more has to be done, when we travel to see these animals, a part of what we spend goes towards supporting their survival.

And that's the best news of all.

Julia Hubbel is the author of two books, a prize-winning journalist, and adventure athlete. Her primary interest is in adventure sports in the farthest reaches of the world, learning about indigenous cultures and discovering the last of the world's pristine places.

Related Features:
Where Wildlife Protection and Human Prospering Work Together in Kenya - Julia Hubbel
Adventures in Kenya: Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave - Mark Aspelin
Kilimanjaro Then and Now: A Mountain Comes to Terms With a Changing World - Julia Hubbel
Can Tiny Planes Save the African Beasts? - Richard Bangs

See other Africa stories in the archives

Read this article online at: Humans and Beasts in the Wilds of East Africa

Copyright © Perceptive Travel 2022. All rights reserved.

Also in this issue:

Books from the Author:

Buy WordFood: How We Feed or Starve Our Relationships at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Kobo Canada

Buy Tackling the Titans: How to Sell to the Fortune 500 at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Kobo Canada

Sign Up