Just last Sunday, FoNNaP members together with other members of the public and Nairobi National Park Researchers set out early morning to do the animal counts. Well, I was not part of the crew and will leave the narration to them. They seem to have had a great time and first up is Sabi Muteshi with a beautiful narration of her experience as a first timer in the exercise and she seems to have had a great time. Other members who participated in the count included Liz Kimotho, Wendy Ayres, Ann Mutua and her son who is wild about wildlife, Tessa Goverse and Marco Pruiksma, Dr. Kambe, another first timer Dorothy Kamya, the crew from Jabari Kenya, Nish Shah, Deepak Sankreacha, Biddy Davis, Joan and Davinder Sikand, Susan Allan, Sue Alleyne, Hugo Mouch and Terry Andenga. The KWS team was led by researcher Dan Mwenda who did some good work with the organization and coordination of the whole exercise. However, for Njeri Kuria, it was not an interesting experience to wake up at 4.00 a.m. only to find herself in a bus bound for Tsavo! But being a nature enthusiast and not one to give up when disappointed, she is looking forward to the April count.
So here is from our members………………………………..
We the counters, we the hunters: a morning in Nairobi’s wild idyll
By Sabi Muteshi
Pre-dawn and already six cars lined up by the kerb at the entrance to the park.
“It’s cold today. I’m waiting for the man with the clipboard. They don’t always start by 6am,” said a veteran of the bi-monthly count. She explained that there are normally about twelve passenger cars that come to do the count.
Other cars began to arrive and the line grew longer. All the cars were 4WD. At least two of them were the long-wheel base, “official” safari vehicles. Some already filled with passengers-cum-tourists, happy to have a fee-waived romp through the park.
Before 6:30am, the man with the clipboard arrived. He asked if everyone present had registered in advance for the count. A few people had not but the FONNAP office had registered both me and my car. One eager foreign participant stood close to him and asked him to check her name off. But, in the typical Kenyan style designed not to cause offence, the clip-board man looked like he was looking for her name but proceeded to follow the proper way established and read the first name on the list. I was second on the list. The eager lady had to wait her turn.
“Have you done this before?”
“No, but I’d be happy to take a KWS guide with me,” I ventured, hoping this was indeed possible.
“OK, you better take some volunteers. Who are the volunteers?”
Varying shadows of ten or so hands went up. I walked across the huddled group in the pre-dawn light and made out two of them; young Kenyan men both enveloped in red sweaters against the usual Nairobi morning chill. I noticed some young women who also were volunteers and we decided to do a gender balanced team.
With my girl-boy-girl-boy team, we were ready to set off, paperwork in hand. A photocopy map of the park, a list of animals to be checked off. We were waived through at the gate but I stopped to ask how to get to N7, the block where our assigned patch for counting was located.
“You will see the signs, it is very well marked”
“Oh, ok, so the counting blocks are signed?”
“Yes, it is very clear, you can’t get lost”
Famous last words, I muttered to the amusement of my passengers . Nonetheless, we, the self-named Lion Hunters, agreed that the thrill of not having to go through the often snail-paced, anxiety causing check-in at the gate was enough of an incentive to volunteer to do the game count.
On the road
Shortly after, our first sighting was of a giraffe silhouetted by a gap in the dark leaves of the trees pierced by the yellow gold of the rising sun on the horizon. It beautiful, long lashed, eyes stared boldly at us in what appeared as a stylised flirtatious pose. Vintage Africa at its best. Block N7 was at the furthest eastern reaches of the park. It may be true that all the park roads can get you from point A to point B, but how to do it efficiently became the question. Some of the time we would come to, for example, a 5B stone marking but that would be the very one not on the map. There would be 5A and 5C, but no 5B. Slowly, we made our way across the park, revelling in the beauty of the landscape, the light and the diversity of animals and birdlife that appeared along the way.
A long-short hour and a half later we arrived at N7, arguably the most dramatically spectacular landscape of the park with its deep hills, open plains, forested border and adjacent dam. Well worth the trek, if sometimes we suffered delays chasing our proverbial Prado tail. Opinions differed as to how best to get from A to B: follow the city to exit or the hump of Lukenya to go south was one passionately held view. Follow the map, as best as possible was mine. Later, when the sun reached its zenith and the self-packed picnic breakfast fully consumed, the heat, dust, zig-zagging roads and creeping feelings of hunger left tempers frayed as the main gate remained elusive.
And so the count began. We were lucky to have a rookie guide with us who could differentiate a giraffe from a gerenuk, as no one had remembered to carry the mammal book. By 11am, we were completing our designated block having counted a silver-backed jackal with a still bleeding rabbit in its jaws; tens of Grants; Tommies; Impala; Wildebeest; Buffalo, Hartebeest; some Eland, warthog, ostriches and Zebras crossing the road with the shimmering city skyscape as their backdrop. Many young were on display, hugging close to their mothers’ bodies. We then saw the fabled Unicorn, standing on a knoll on its own. Ok, it was an antelope sadly with one horn only, perhaps the other lost to in a fight over a female. It made me think of Negley Farson’s account in “Last Chance in Africa” where he claims it was said that the beautiful, long horned oryx gave the design to the Unicorn.
The dark thing in the shade of the Acacias
About to complete the circuit of N7, my gender parity attempts paid off as our female volunteer, cried out “Lion”. Where, we all yelled. We had recently named ourselves the Lion Hunters and now four hours later, had resigned ourselves to not seeing one. Over there she had said, pointing to a darkness in the shade between two acacias.
“If you can see something that looks like a stone, that is the lion”, she continued. A recent grad of the university, she was of the generation that had heard of the KWS count via Facebook. She had been the one to spot the jackal. Earlier she had provided the telephone numbers to enable us to make our lunch booking at a nearby restaurant. A true Girl Friday.
The rookie guide agreed that he too could see the lion. My front passenger and I strained our eyes but all we could make out was a dark shape that looked like a rock. The binos didn’t reveal more. The zoomed photo of the dark shape only confirmed that it was a dark shape.
”It looks like there may be a road close to the lion, lets drive around and see if we can find it,” I suggested.
We drove from 13A up the hill past the 10A rock marking continuing on the curving road. We were above the now hidden-from-view said lion and could not see a way down the hill. We decided to go back to where we had come from. We parked and the back passengers enjoyed the view of the lion whereas the front passengers stared uncomprehendingly at the rock-cum-lion. I remembered the FONNAP meeting the week before when the esteemed Chair, Paula, had said that one of the lures for the count is that it is the only time you can legally go off-road. But how?
The road to Damascus
“OK, guys, lets do it. I’m going to go off-road but I need you to keep your eyes peeled to the ground for me”, I announced. In a road-to-Damascus moment, our team name weighing heavily on my mind, I had realised that as the driver, I was the only person who could make this happen .
Inching slowly forward, I was grateful for the dry weather. The grass was golden-white and did not surpass the tops of my tyres. Two hundred meters later, we came to the area that had looked like it could have been a road. It wasn’t but it was stony and had very little vegetation atop the dry red-earth surface. From there we made a bee-line for the two acacia trees and as we approached, it became crystal clear we had a full-maned lion sitting in the shade. Euphoria. We had lived up to our team name and found the lion. Initially it ignored us, the way only a member of the cat family can do. We sat and stared at it as if it was our virgin sighting of a male lion. And in a way, every sighting is like the first time. It soon decided it was bored with us and would rather cross the “road” to the larger shade of a clump of trees. We followed at a respectful distance and parked near where it had sat. It looked like it was past its prime but its tawny eyes through the binos were alight with an internal fire. We had long shut tight our windows and retracted the sunroof and so felt “safe” in our metal cocoon. We would have stayed longer but the lion eventually lay down in the grass and became partially hidden from view. We took that as our cue, reversed, made sure we had marked it in our count for N7. Farson puts the figure for the number of lions in the park in the late 1940s as between fifty and sixty, what would 2011 reveal? We began our exodus out of the park.
Nature’s call and a walk in the wild
On the way, we made a bathroom stop (clean with sometimes flushing toilets) and came across a short walking trail along the river. Accompanied by KWS armed wardens, we took the opportunity to stretch our legs. Below us we witnessed the incongruousness of a tortoise facing off a crocodile from the safety of its rock, separated by the river. A malachite kingfisher sat on a branch just above the water. Our special treat at the end of the fifteen minutes was a clan of tiny species of monkey – our rookie guide wasn’t with us then to inform us of the species. There was a mother with several young perched in the green within hands reach of us on the high bank of the curving river. Earlier, on the Kitengela side of the criss-cross metal bridge, we had seen a healthy herd of mostly white, scampering goats – also a treat for the eyes.
Nearer to the main gate, we were delighted when our rookie guide spotted a white rhino moving between the bushes. A perfect ending to a perfect morning even if it took us more than two hours to mis-make our way to the main gate. We were running late for our birthday lunch commitments and so had to give the planned tea at the KWS mess a miss. We handed the completed count-sheet to the guard at the gate. He checked that the car licence plate corresponded to that noted on the sheet (it almost didn’t) and waved us through. Later, we realised we had forgotten to look at the total tally for each animal counted. Can we get our sheet back?
Planning the next count
I understand that this count takes place every two months on the first Sunday of that month. The park is a priceless treasure in the midst of our well-loved but traffic-crazed city. It is well worth every visit, especially one that gives us an opportunity towards helping maintain the park through keeping tabs on the animals. Remember to carry a well stocked food hamper and snacks t share, lots of drinking water, someone who knows their animals and a good spotter. We were told it would take 2-4 hours to do including a game drive after the count, if one chose to do so. It turned out that I could have driven to Galu beach in the time it took us to navigate, count and return to base. The stiff neck a day later may be the result of that long sitting and driving. The park’s tonic-to-the-soul qualities was well worth every second.
And from Liz Kimotho………………
Yes I did enjoy my time at the game count….don’t quite consider myself to be a writer but will still go ahead….
What I especially loved on my first game counting experience was the sunrise! I loved that I got to see the sun rise over the park hills and plains with the Nairobi tall buildings in the background. The first animal we saw – with a bit of difficulty was an ostrich whose pose made it such a task to see what exactly it was in the first place! Next up were a herd of zebras and kongoni – again not very close to the road, which prompted me to stop the car and hang out on the car door as I tried to squint through the binoculars for a better count…..at one point I wondered if I had counted the same animals twice as they milled about….oh well I figured, perhaps there’s a marginal error of +/- one!
Next up – more zebra and then some more kongonis and then some more zebras (with lots of young too, clearly it was a busy calving season!). We were glad to see all these beautiful animals but we were so looking forward to seeing more! Well that was soon fulfilled when we came across a herd of buffalo – and lots of them at that…on both sides of the road and even on the road as well. I was scared for a moment as I kept on thinking “what if one of them charges at us? are we too close?” well, not long after that a male infront of our car was busy mounting his female counterpart to mate with her, so clearly he was going about his business not bothering about us after all!
After driving ever so slowly through the buffalo herd (phew!) we were up for a pleasant surprise as we came across an eagle – now I’m no good with bird watching but my co-driver: Phoebe on the other hand; kept on pointing out to different birds and identifying them…..clearly the person to hang out with when you see a “cool looking bird” and have no idea what it is…she even told me of a bird that after being tagged was discovered to fly to the Mara and then fly back to the Nairobi National Park within the same day after its meal…how about that!
Well in between we did get a bit lost but I guess seeing that we were 2 determined ladies, we finally did get back on track as per the map:-)….and what did we sight after this re-discovery of getting on track – more zebras! (in total we counted 200 zebras that morning)….one though did have a nasty wound on its back towards the rear with the wound looking fresh. Later when we were exchanging stories of what we saw at the officer’s mess, we learnt that a zebra had lost her calf to a lion on the hunt that morning….our zebra must have been the mother who tried to protect her young one:-(
Well all in all, it was a super way to start off the day (and week)….next time round I’m “canvassing” to be allocated to another block within the park so at least I can get to count some cats….don’t get me wrong, was fun to see all the zebras, ostrich, kongonis, buffalo, impala and giraffe…just want some carnivorous animals as well!
And for Hugo, two rhinos made the experience worthwhile considering…………….
I couldn’t on time but I managed to go throw the park and I met the two rhinos and that was best I have ever seen in the park .And I would like us to do more on the clean up in park and on the people who spend the nights at the park it was no good in the two campsites .
Deepak of Bigfoot Africa Safaris looks forward to your company as a FoNNaP member next time………………..
We were assigned sector N2 and therefore were able to start the count very early. N2 is a vast and generally flat terrain with short acacia bush which has has one of its edges forming the parks boundary. I had never counted in this sector before and therefore it was a good opportunity to recon the road network thoroughly. Just as an observation and for those of us who are explorers at heart, you will be happy to note that there is a track adjacent to the pipeline which eventually joins up with 7A. This sector hosts 2 very spectacular dams, not too far from each other and perfect locations to just park up and watch animals come and go as they quench their thirsts. What i like most about game counts is the fact that one gets a chance to spend the duration of the count with other members. In the past i have teamed up with bird enthusiasts, naturalists, members of other conservation groups and i look forward to teaming up with more of our members. Not only is it an opportunity to make new friends but also an opportunity to share valuable knowledge and skills that like minded members brings.
Njeri Kuria eagerly awaits the April 3rd Game Count in Nairobi National Park and not Tsavo………………….
Unfortunately I made it to the gate of KWS and never to the park. The gate people directed me to the Tsavo Bound team, I was among the 1st three and most people arrived at seven an by the time i realised i was at the wrong place it was 7.00. And everyone had left…so after all the syke i was crushed…and when i asked the gate people apparently they had no idea that there were two game counts. And so were the KWS people in the Bus….talk of communication miss…
Considering I woke up at 4.00 am to make it on time, that was one of the worst experiences. Though never say die or??? so am looking forwad to the 3rd of April for another one right?
Sue Alleyne has been counting ever since and for first timers……………….
KWS and FONNAP organizes 6 game counts per year in the Nairobi National Park. These take place on the first Sunday of every other month (February, April, June etc.) The Park is divided in 15 blocks and counting begins at first light – usually 0630 and it takes approximately four hours to count one block.
FONNAP was founded by game count volunteers together with support from KWS personnel. Volunteers from KWS and FONNAP are allocated a block and are provided with a map, information sheet and recording sheets as they enter the park at the main gate on the day of the count. If any rhino or cats are seen on the way to or from our block we record this information on the sheet giving location of sighted animal in case they have not been seen by the team counting that block.
I count in a group of 3 or 4 friends and we all help navigate and count the animals seen. We have our field guides to help identify some of the lesser known species which we have been very fortunate to have seen over the years such as an Aardwolf one early morning, a leopard with an injured foot, steenbok, serval cat and even when counting a buffalo herd we noted a hippo in amongst them and not so long ago some pink domestic farm pigs!
It is interesting to note how the number of plains game has changed over the years and even the distribution in the park often varies considerably from count to count. The migratory animals having left the park in search of grazing are often killed for bush meat or simply cannot find a way back into the park due to development along the park boundary At one time the park was very short of impala, grant and tommy but recently the numbers seem to have risen which is encouraging. Again there are not as many lion as their used to be as so many have been killed by the Maasai when they go out of the park following the herds of zebra and wildebeest but I believe the numbers are increasing now. We used to see cheetah nearly every time but I have not seen one for a very long time. There used to be a female who nearly always had up to seven cubs. One can see ostrich with a family of babies and sometimes you can be lucky enough to see a rhino with quite a small baby Last year in the very dry weather there were a lot of Maasai cattle in the park and one nearly always saw them or signs of where they had crossed the road and there were many carcases.
This last Sunday we saw one goat on a cliff! We also saw two young male lions and a lioness on a zebra kill. It had probably been killed quite close to the road and then dragged into the bush as at one time two tawny eagles came down near the road and were chased away by one of the lions. We also saw three silver backed jackals.
The game count is always a most enjoyable morning and if one does the same block each time it makes indentifying the boundaries easier and counting more efficient. A well earned break half way through the count to enjoy a cup of coffee and picnic breakfast is often spent observing a herd of eland or if lucky a rhino or two.
Our Japanese Volunteer, Dr. Kambe was also part of the team and………………..
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to send you our experience of that day. We were given the block 5. Our members consisted of veterinarians, students of vet science, an Asian lady and a Kenyan who were very keen on identifying the bird, named Isaac. On the way to our block, two lionesses were beside the main road.
We started the count in the block, not many animals and more than sixty Kongoni and so on. When we got to the border of the park and Mombasa rd, we were disappointed that so many plastic paper bags were all over, looks like big flowers of acacia trees.
Finely, we found a big black rhino from next block to our block 5, focuses we counted on this guy. And we did not find any of the wired traps around block.
Thank you again, we very much enjoyed the count,.