Diversity in Drought

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It has been very dry in NNP in this continuing dry cycle (despite 27mm :1 inch of rain last night 26/1/09), with much stress caused by an almost complete lack of grazing in the much-humanised ‘dispersal area’ between the park & the Athi -Namanga highway.

As a result, most of the herbivores in the Athi -Kapiti ecosystem are in the park & a visit is a must as the current rains bring a green flush to the extensive short-grass plains that are a welcome feature at present, owing to controlled burns last year.

Above are one of the herds of wildebeest that used to migrate in their thousands into the park during dry times. Alas no more, but at least we’ve got some left!

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The Athi Basin is being intensively grazed by wild herbivores & Maasai cattle alike & the Athi dam is in danger of completely drying up for the first time that I can remember. A sign of the times is large flocks of yellow-throated sandgrouse coming into drink in the early mornings, with much throaty chuckling:splendid birds indeed!

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And what will our large meat-eating crocs do if the dam dries up? Go back to the Embakasi river a kilometre or so away, itself currently a mere trickle…

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It is marvellous the way that organisms react to even the tiniest shower of rain, such as the underground bulbs of these Crinum sp. lilies. A most unlikely sight in the surrounding tawny dryness.

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A pair of a signature species for the park :white-bellied bustards, whose far-carrying cackling cries can always be heard on the plains, a most evocative sound.

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And the keynote species of mammal: lions. A lioness with her 3 fast-growing cubs on a zebra kill in the grass, with giraffe looking on.

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Cattle Conundrum

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Nairobi National Park has always served as a dry season refuge for the grazers of the Athi-Kapiti Ecosystem & this year, in the middle of a dry cycle,is no exception. Most of the herbivores in the ecosystem are now in the park, including many Maasai cattle.

The Park comprises the high part of the Athi Plains, a  high altitude savannah ecosystem consisting of very rich grazing. So rich that in a normal year it has to be burnt to prevent the existence of rank grazing avoided by wild herbivores, not least because it provides cover for predators.

So grazing by cattle in a drought year is no bad thing from a grass management point of view as this removes the rank grazing.

But the NNP is also the most important rhino sanctuary in the country, providing space for rhinos to breed, the resulting extra rhinos being translocated to suitable habitat elsewhere in the country. There are only c.550 black rhino (michealii) in the world….

Cattle disturb the rhinos in their last refuge.

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Species of wild herbivores such as eland, kongoni (Coke’s hartebeest) & wildebeest, which once roamed the Athi Kapiti ecosystem in their thousands, are now down to hundreds of animals & confined to the park as their dispersal area on the plains becomes a truncated ecosystem in a humanised landscape, where land uses other than ranching mean that grazing for cattle is severely limited & as a result, severely overdgrazed.

Where are the wild herbivores to go ?

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A breeding herd of the 278 counted wildebeest remaining in the park.

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Buffalo -all introduced in the park – are increasing in numbers. They are the first species, being so large, to suffer malnutrition & rapidly lose condition in drought circumstances.

Cattle compete with the wild grazers for the last reserves of grazing in the ecosystem, all in the park….

Ticks which have fed on buffalo carry parasites such as East Coast Fever, which can cause high mortality amongst cattle.

Conversely, tick birds (ox peckers) which feed on dipped cattle can die from insecticide poisoning.

In a drought, there are conflicting interests. Should cattle belonging to individuals be allowed to graze in a national park, which belongs to all Kenyans?

And what about the tourists paying  40$ to see herbivores in the park. Are they getting their money’s worth? Will they come back another day?

Are tourists more important for Kenya’s economy than pastoralists, who have to safeguard their cattle?

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Dry cycle

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Here’s to a great 2009 for Nairobi national Park & readers of this blog.

It’s very dry in Nairobi (& indeed in central & eastern Kenya generally) & the Park is coming into it’s own in it’s traditional role as a dry season refuge for grazers, both wild & domestic. Most of the grazers in the dispersal area are now in the park, including our 3,000 estimated zebra population , good numbers of kongoni (c.600), a similar number of eland & close to 300 gnu, who are thriving on the dessicated short-grass plain characteristic of most of the park at present.

It’s a good time to be a lion in NNP, with our estimated 22 lions in good shape owing to plentiful prey. Here’s a great shot by local lion fanatic Gareth Jones.

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The lions are often found near the fast-diminishing water points, such as the Empakasi Dam, seen here with a mob of thirsty zebra.

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Judging by the water level of the Athi Dam, it might dry up this year, for the first time that I can remember! Luckily in the park we have several spring-fed dams that are very unlikely to dry up. Notice the wildebeest.

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Masai cattle (c.1000) are also grazing in the park day & night despite intermittent KWS efforts to keep them out. Impossible when there is zero grazing outside the park.

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NNP is the best place in the world for ostriches & they do very well in the dry, needing minimal water. They have bred very well this year (see above) & lions are eating quite a few of the less wary….

Meanwhile high mortality rates in these dry conditions mean bonanza times for scavengers, such as these vultures. Every cloud has a silver lining for some!

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