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Extinction reverse

2019-11-25T07:23:28+00:00

Mention the word ‘extinction’ and most people will cite the dodo. Once common on the island of Mauritius, this large, flightless bird made a fatal error of judgement: having lived alongside men for centuries it assumed that its fellow bipeds were harmless. And until 1598 it was right. But then along came the Dutch East India Company whose sailors, finding that the peaceably inclined dodo made no attempt to run away from them, hunted it to extinction in just 64 years.

The West African black rhino made a similar error. Having existed for 8 million years, by the 1900s there were 850,000 of its kind in existence, which made it the most prolific species of rhino on the planet. Between 1970 and 1992, however, 95% of them were massacred until, by 2006, it was thought that there was only one West African black rhino left in the cosmos… somewhere in Cameroon. However, since nobody could find it, in 2011 it was declared extinct.

As for the northern white rhino, until last month, it was feared that it too would walk the extinction plank; but fate intervened in the shape of a group of determined scientists on a Kenyan conservancy called Ol Pejeta. It was here, in the shadow of Mount Kenya, that the planet’s last three northern white rhinos lived out a gilded existence in their own private wilderness enclosure: guarded day and night by gun-toting rangers; cossetted by their keepers; indulged with pony pellets; and visited by carefully regulated groups of awestruck tourists. The trio had originally been reared in the Czech Republic’s Dvůr Králové Zoo but in 2009, Sudan, his daughter, Natu, and his granddaughter, Fatu were relocated to Ol Pejeta in the hope that the more conducive surroundings would encourage them to breed. It was not to be: Sudan was too old and neither of the ladies could become pregnant. Then, in 2018, Sudan died; and the threat of extinction went into overdrive. Until it was reversed.

As luck would have it, before Sudan’s death, a dedicated group of scientists had harvested his semen and in August 2019, a team of veterinarians successfully harvested eggs from Natu and Fatu, a procedure that had never been attempted in northern white rhinos before. The eggs will now be artificially inseminated with the frozen sperm from Sudan, and in the near future the embryo will be transferred to a southern white rhino surrogate mother. The successful procedure was a joint effort by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) Berlin, Avantea, Dvůr Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

“Both the technique and the equipment had to be developed entirely from scratch”, said Prof. Thomas Hildebrandt from Leibniz-IZW. “We were able to harvest a total of 10 oocytes – 5 from Najin and 5 from Fatu – showing that both females can still provide eggs and thus help to save these magnificent creatures.”

Kenya: one. Extinction: nil. To learn more about this extraordinary initiative, visit: www.olpejetaconservancy.org

The Lord of the Dance

2019-07-22T11:22:07+00:00

If you’d come expecting to see a traditional Maasai dance performance you’d have been disappointed. Instead of the rhythmic chanting that typifies a Maasai dance, there’s a man in a cowboy hat playing an accordion: another holds a metal ring that he plays not unlike an orchestral triangle. It could be an American barn dance. And, instead of the gravity-defying jumps of the Maasai warriors, these dancers are paired into couples and follow a stately progression around the floor holding each other studiously at arm’s length. If you didn’t know better you might be tempted to say that they’re dancing a parody of a waltz. And you wouldn’t be far wrong because this performance at the Kenyan Cultural Centre known as The Bomas of Kenya is an authentic rendition of the Mwomboko dance of the Kikuyu people. And it’s actually a tongue-in-cheek copy of the fox trot, which shot to fame in America in 1910 and was danced to rag time music.

Surreal, elegant and quaintly romantic, the Mwomboko was born in the 1930s to 1940s era of colonial East Africa. Some say it was the result of the Kikuyu people having watched the British colonials dancing the waltz at their evening parties, many of which were rather colourfully decadent. Others say that the Kenyan foot soldiers of the First World War, the Carrier Corps and the Kings African Rifles, copied the dance from the waltzes, Scottish dances and fox trots that they watched their then colonial masters dance during the war.

Whatever its origins, the Mwomboko became an instant hit amongst the Kikuyu and remains one of their most popular dances to this day. Some say it owes its popularity to the fact that the couples are required to embrace each other as they dance, which is unusual in traditional Kenyan dance, and this makes it very popular with the young. Others say it’s the dance of choice at all community events because the older generation prefers the grave propriety of its perambulations (and the genteelly flirtatious nature of its ankle twirlings) to more modern forms of dance. But there’s a darker side to the history of Mwomboko, whose name evolved from the Kikuyu word for ‘eruption’. It seems that the Kikuyu were in the habit of weaving certain gestures into their traditional dances, such as the Murithingu dance, that spread anti-colonial messages of rebellion and insurrection. So, with sweeping finality, the British banned all such dances. It didn’t work.

In retaliation, the Kikuyu came up with the Mwomboko, which the British found hard to disapprove of. It was, after all, a seemingly innocent copy of their very own dance traditions. What the British didn’t know however was that the Kikuyu were not only using the Mwomboko to continue to pass on messages of rebellion but also to poke fun at the British. It’s a great story and the living embodiment of a fragment of history: it’s also just one of the many fascinating tales that lie behind the fifty or so dances preserved in the living archive of The Bomas of Kenya.

Established as a repository for the preservation of Kenyan tradition, The Bomas preserves not only Kenya’s dance traditions, but also her music, cuisine, cultural artefacts and life styles. But it does so with a dedication to detail that would do credit to the most exacting of museums. Every dance is researched in the region of its birth. Musical instruments are made according to ancient traditions using raw materials that are anthropologically correct and, when such things as colobus skins, kudu horns or monitor lizard hides are required, these are sustainably sourced from the Kenya Wildlife Service. Choreographers study the steps, musicians write down the music, designers replicate the costumes, local singers perform the songs, and very slowly the dance performance is moulded into a thing of ethnic perfection. And even that’s not good enough for the eagle-eyed culture vultures of The Bomas. Because, when they have finally perfected the dance to the best of their ability, a delegation of community elders is invited down to Nairobi to assess the finished performance for precision of footwork, costume, lyrical enunciation and style of playing. And the elders don’t hold back when it comes to correcting anything that is not absolutely true to their fiercely protected ethnic history.

The same attention to detail is brought to bear with the representations of the ethnic villages that dot the extensive grounds of The Bomas of Kenya. Laid out in exact replica of a traditional village complete with grain stores, look-out posts and cattle enclosures, every hut has been hand-made by ethnically correct craftsmen and all the materials, even the mud, is regionally sourced. None of which makes for easy maintenance. A Rendille hut, for instance, is built to withstand immense heat and profound drought, and struggles to remain standing amid the periodic deluges and chill of Nairobi. And then there’s the baboons. Situated immediately adjacent to Nairobi National Park, The Bomas is a potent baboon draw, which is unfortunate because the baboons like nothing better than to methodically un-thatch the huts so carefully thatched by the cultural experts.
Back on the dance floor, beneath the vast vaulted ceiling of the central pavilion, which was itself inspired by the traditional African hut, the Mwomboko has been replaced by a Kisii dance called the Rigesa, which originates from Nyanza. Now the musician plays a traditional obokano or 8-stringed lyre and instead of parodying the British, the dance tells the story of the Kisii migration from Uganda. And, if you watch carefully, you’ll see that representations of all the fearful animals the people met on their perilous journey have been woven into the dance – lions, elephants, leopards, buffalos and more. Even the lyre tells an ancient tale of how the Kisii people lived for a long time alongside the Luo people, the originators of the ancient nyatiti lyre, which echoes far back in time to their own migration down the Nile from Sudan.

Next comes a display of Chuka drumming, which originated amongst the Embu people of Eastern Kenya. The dancers, all male, bare-legged and muscled of arm are clad in provocatively short swaying rope skirts and hold huge cylindrical drums between their legs. The phallic inference is inescapable and history recounts that originally the dance was performed only for unmarried women in order that they might choose a husband. ‘We had to tone it down a bit for some of the performances,’ confides the choreographer in the darkness, ‘especially when we get a school party.’

There’s a 50-strong group of small school children in the audience – they’re rapt. On the front row, a diminutive boy is head-banging with all the conviction of a heavy metal addict. Two other little boys are thrusting their hips back and forth at each other in time with the drumming. It seems that the toning-down has not been entirely successful.

Which is exactly as it should be.

The place of the lost tribe

2017-11-09T13:36:18+00:00

The most dramatic yet the least-visited of the Great Rift Valley lakes, Lake Bogoria is a sinuous pewter-blue ribbon of mirrored water often pink-frosted with over a million flamingoes. On its western shores erupt the devilish spouting geysers and bubbling cauldrons of Kenya’s most spectacular volcanic springs, to the east it is bounded by the forbidding walls of the towering Siracha Escarpment, and to the south by gentle groves of fig trees and golden-green acacias, in whose shade linger the rare and beautiful greater kudu.

The best place to see the ‘King of the Antelopes’

Bogoria is one of the few sanctuaries in Kenya where you may be fortunate enough to catch an early morning or late evening glimpse of the rare greater kudu. Abundant until 1960 when its numbers were decimated by rinderpest, this large, slender grey antelope is distinguished by a pair of magnificent spiral horns and six to eight prominent vertical white stripes on either flank. Extremely shy and preferring to rest in the shade during the heat of the day, the kudus can best be spotted amid the acacia groves of the Sogomo Causeway, immediately adjacent to the Acacia Campsite (turn left by the sign reading ‘Saragi Escape Route’).

The Bogoria cast

On the plains to the north of the lake, Burchell’s zebra, impalas, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, and warthogs can be seen grazing the shoreline though the majority of the reserve’s larger animals tend to concentrate south of the hot springs. Nimble klipspringers and gregarious rock hyraxes inhabit the steep rock faces, and delicate pairs of Kirk’s dik-dik quiver amid the dense thorn bush. Around the hot springs and the campsites are plenty of vervet monkeys and olive baboons whilst along the roads you may have sightings of large monitor lizards and massive meandering leopard tortoises. The reserve also hosts a small herd of buffaloes, while its predators include leopards, spotted hyenas and mongooses.

Pink paradise

The only constant alkaline habitat in the Rift Valley, Lake Bogoria provides a major feeding site for its itinerant population of an estimated two million lesser flamingoes, which increasingly since the 1990’s tend to frequent Bogoria’s waters rather than the more polluted waters of Lake Nakuru. Promenading the shoreline in shifting lines of mature pink and immature white, they can be seen scything their beaks to and fro to sift algae from the water. Some stand on one leg, others chug through the water like ducks or upend and kick their shocking pink legs in the air; all murmur, honk and mutter in incessant dialogue, and overhead cyclamen and black flight formations arrow in, tiptoeing briefly on the water before fluttering to an elegant landing.

A lake of shifting shades of blue and green

A grey-blue ribbon of water that appears almost oily in its passivity, the 16 km long, 1-4km wide, 5.4 – 10m deep Lake Bogoria is fed by the Sandai (or Waseges) River, which rises on the eastern scarp of the Rift Valley; also by its own hot springs. Like most of the Rift Valley lakes, Bogoria has no outlet and this coupled with the searing heat of its climate causes intense evaporation. The resultant alkaline water provides the ideal habitat for the blue-green algae, Spirulina, which is the staple food of flamingoes. Consisting of three basins and two ‘necks’ of land, the lake is bordered for the length of its eastern shore by the starkly furrowed walls of the Siracha Escarpment, which rises 610m above its mirrored waters.

An insane vision of hell

Bogoria has around 200 hot springs in total but the largest and most spectacular collection erupts along the lakeside at Loburu, some 9 km from Loboi Gate. Characteristically signs of declining volcanic activity, hot springs are an indication that molten rock (magma) lies not far below the earth’s surface. Boiling up from beneath the precariously shallow crust of the earth at temperatures from 94-104°C, the diamond-clear water is scalding hot to the touch and wreathed in billows of steam. Bursting into bubbling pools and boiling waterfalls, many of the ochre-brown depressions centre on sulphurous rock sculptures from which angry geysers blow jets of boiling water several meters into the air. Surreally set against the pink of the flamingoes, the petrol-blue of the lake and the forbidding mass of the escarpment, and punctuated by the bizarre spectacle of visitors boiling eggs in the writhing waters, the scene resembles a vision from an insanely beautiful hell.

Twitchers’ treat

Bogoria boasts over 222 species of birds. Common ostrich are plentiful on the lakeshores as well as blacksmith’s plovers – both of which nest here. Around the reserve’s three permanent swamps, black-headed herons, hadada and sacred ibis abound, but due to its high salinity the lake attracts only a few water birds, such as Cape teals, Egyptian geese, black-necked grebes, hamerkops and storks. Most easily spotted are the brilliant blue lilac-breasted rollers (above) and the magnificent grey-crowned cranes.

Titles old and new

According to local legend, Bogoria is known as ‘the place of the lost tribe’, because it was here that the God, Chebet, punished the Kamale tribe for their inhospitality by invoking a deluge, which drowned the village. The reserve became Kenya’s 3rd Ramsar site in 2001 (Convention of Wetlands of International Importance), and has also been designated a World Heritage Site).

The keepers of God’s cattle

2017-07-11T09:47:16+00:00

It’s one of Kenya’s most iconic images, the Maasai warrior in his traditional pose, spear in hand, scarlet shuka cloak thrown over his shoulder, one leg raised to rest on the other, gaze turned to the far horizon. Certainly the most visually striking of the colourful tribes of Kenya, the Nilo-Hamitic Maasai are a nomadic people whose style of life has remained unchanged for centuries and is still dictated by the constant quest for water and grazing land for their cattle.

Called ‘Maasai ‘after their form of speech, which is known as ‘Maa’, the Maasai are renowned for their bravery. They are also distinguished by their complex character, good manners, impressive presence and almost mystical love of their cattle. These days ‘I hope your cattle are well’ is still the most common form of Maasai greeting, whilst milk and blood remains the traditional Maasai diet. Cowhides provide such things as mattresses, live cattle establish marriage bonds, and a complex system of cattle-fines maintains social harmony.

Thought to have migrated to Kenya from the lower valleys of the Nile, the Maasai encountered a troubled history in their adopted home.

Firstly their people were decimated by famine and disease, secondly they lost many of their cattle to the scourge of rinderpest, thirdly their development was affected by the arrival of the European explorers and, finally, they lost much of their land to the influx of British colonialist settlers. Nor did their dispossession end there, because in recent years they have also had to endure the steady shrinkage of their ancestral lands thanks to urban settlement and the establishment of the National Parks and Reserves.

Undeterred, however, the Maasai have risen to the challenge. Many have entered into cooperative ventures with the tourism industry and created lodges and conservancies on their land. And, rather than killing lions as was the custom of the young warriors of the past, the morans of today are actively engaged in protecting them. Some things, however, never change – such as the Maasai love of their cattle. No matter how large the herd, each cow will have a name and a lineage. And only in the harshest of circumstances will a Maasai part with a single animal. Why do the Maasai love their cattle so dearly? Perhaps the best explanation is given by the Maasai themselves in the following folk tale.

In the beginning, the Maasai did not have any cattle. Then one day God called to Maasinta, who was the first Maasai, and said to him, ‘I want you to make a large enclosure, and when you have done so, come back and inform me’. Maasinta went and did as he was instructed. Then, God said, ‘tomorrow, very early in the morning, go and stand in the enclosure and I will give you something called cattle. But keep very silent no matter what you might see or hear.’

Very early in the morning, Maasinta went to the enclosure and waited.
Suddenly there was a great clap of thunder and a leather thong descended from heaven. Down it descended hundreds of cattle in all the colours of brown and black, some with great horns, others with velvet dewlaps. Meanwhile the earth shook so violently that Maasinta’s house nearly fell over and he was gripped with tremendous fear, but he did not make a sound.

It was at this moment that Dorobo, who shared the house with Maasinta, woke from his sleep and went outside. There, seeing the cattle descending down the leather thong, he let out a great shriek.

Immediately God withdrew the thong into heaven and, thinking that it was Maasinta who had shrieked, He said to him, ‘what’s the matter? Are these cattle not enough for you? If that is the case, I will never send any more – so you had better love these cattle in the same way that I love you.’ And that is why the Maasai love their cattle so much.

The Butterfly People

2017-07-11T09:48:51+00:00

Kenya is a microcosm of Africa. People have migrated here from all over the African continent for centuries past, and each incoming group has added to the cultural weave with a distinctive ethnic thread of their own.

More brilliant than most, are the strands contributed by the Samburu, who live in the painted deserts of the north. It is said that the word ‘Samburu’ means butterfly, and there is much of the butterfly in these brightly coloured people, who flit across their harsh but beautiful landscape like so many exotic moths.

The young warriors, lithe and slender, may pride themselves on their beauty but they are renowned for their prowess as warriors. Unlike their cousins, the Maasai, the young Samburu men do not smear their entire body with ochre but make triangular designs down their chest and back. Wearing their traditional shukas wrapped tight around their waists, they apply elaborate paint around their eyes and accentuate the fineness of their elegant facial features with a beaded visor. Down their backs hang long braids of hair.

The girls, close shaven, wear intricate beadwork caps that loop around their eyes and nose. Their necks are encircled by hundreds of rings of beads, which undulate as they dance. Every woman’s collar is unique. Her first loops are given to her by her father. Later, her boyfriend may give her a collar as an indication of his love, but this must be returned when the girl is betrothed to the man of her parents’ choice. Now she will wear only scarlet beads until her marriage, and thereafter her beads will indicate how many children she has born. Lovers of butterfly yellow, brilliant blue and flaming pink, these days the Samburu seem to be conducting a love affair with the imported plastic flower. Both sexes like to top off their headdresses with either a daffodil or a tulip, worn in the style of a plume.

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