Our destination was Mpala Ranch containing a scientific research centre focused on ecological and environmental research, followed by a visit to nearby Sulyian, a working cattle and wildlife ranch with a boutique safari eco-lodge.
The drive to Mpala from the capital Nairobi takes 5 hours. The road takes us past the country's highest mountain, Mount Kenya, rising more than 17000 feet asl.
As we are a birding group, much of our safari was spent observing, identifying, counting and photographing the indigenous and migratory bird species common to Laikipia. Around 500 species have been recorded on the ranches we visited and in the five days of our safari we saw 160 of these. A few of these are shown below.
Although all of us are Kenya citizens or long-term residents of the country, none of us had ever seen Wild Dogs. Laikipia is home to several packs of these animals and our guide from Suyian lodge promised to find these elusive creatures for us. It required setting off from camp at 5am in order that we could be in position below their den when they began the first of their twice daily hunt for prey. On Suyian they mainly kill small antelope such as Dik-dik although the pack is capable of bringing down larger game. The top predator on the ranch is the lion which accounts for several cattle every week, a price that has to be paid for the privilege of having wild game on the property.
Things did not go exactly to plan. We were in position at 6:30am as arranged but a thick mist obscured the steep hillside where the dogs have their den. Suddenly, the mist cleared from the ridge and we could see the Wild Dogs in the distance. It was clear they were not going to descend the hillside and we surmised correctly, that the dogs had already hunted earlier by full Moon. We climbed the hill in our 4-wheel drive and made our way through thick bush. Unable to go further in the vehicle, we continued on foot in the direction we had last seen the dogs. Eventually we caught up with the pack under a large tree on the edge of the escarpment. Suddenly, a big leopard, we had failed to see in the tree, roared loudly and leapt into the middle of the dog pack and then bounded away into the bush! Confused dogs and surprised people! Eventually the dust settled and we were able to observe the dogs at close range. Several pups came out of the den to join the adults and feed on regurgitated meat provided by the adults from the earlier kill.
and, of course, more birds!
Our host at Suyian ranch is a fourth generation Kenyan, Ann Powys
There was much to see on Mpala and Suyian and five days was not sufficient to fully explore these parts of Laikipia. So we will return - after all there are still more than 300 bird species we failed to find! But even as we prepared to leave, we discovered that our adventure was not quite over. The smallest and cutest animal, a Rock Hyrax, had, during the night, eaten through the vehicle fan-belt ensuring an unscheduled delay of several hours to our departure while a replacement part was acquired.
But this story has a sad postscript. Just weeks after our visit to Suyian, the lodge was burned to the ground by marauding herdsmen. There is severe unrest in Laikipia fueled by intense drought. There is little or no grazing left in the County except on the carefully managed cattle and wildlife ranches. Outside the reserves, Samburu, Turkana and Pokot herdsmen run unsustainable herds of native cattle and flocks of goats. Even in the best of times, theirs is a constant search for scarce grazing and water. There is a limited market for the beasts. The Kenya Meat Marketing Commission no longer operates and former meat export opportunities have been lost to Tanzania and other neighboring countries. The ranches operate cattle buying schemes in times of drought but supply far outweighs demand.
The current drought, associated with a strong El Nino event, is one of the most severe that has occurred. Cattle are starving and dying in droves. Desperation is driving an invasion of private land. The El Nino induced drought had been anticipated but the response of the County authorities and central Government was too little and too late allowing a manageable crisis to become an out-of-control catastrophe. Even as thousands of armed herders embark on an orgy of destruction, the Government appear unwilling or unable to intervene. There are fears that there is a political dimension to the problem with politicians encouraging land-grabbing in return for votes at the upcoming elections.