Kenya's fading giant: the Tsavo, one of world's most unique ecosystems, battles conservation enemies

In 2011 Tsavo East National park had 156,822 international visitors - by 2015 this number had dropped to a shocking 32,433

FINCH Hattons is a luxury tented camp in Tsavo West national reserve in Kenya that has won so many accolades that, when I was invited to visit the lodge, I just had to see what the fuss was all about…particularly since it has once again been nominated for the best lodge in Kenya and best in Africa by the World Travel awards. 

It has won has won the best lodge in Kenya prize four times, and the World Travel award three times. 

After a three and a half hour drive from Nairobi I stepped into a world that truly lived up to the lodge’s namesake - Denys Finch Hatton. Hatton was a British aristocrat who travelled to Kenya in 1911 and fell in love with Africa’s “wild” spaces. His fascination turned him into a dedicated conservationist and host, introducing both business tycoons and British royalty to his world of Luxury Safari.

The camp reflects his reputation. 

Nestled at the foot of Kilimanjaro, the sheer excessiveness of Finch Hattons in such an untamed landscape is magnified. Having driven through some of the driest terrain I’ve seen in Kenya and on to dusty roads surrounded by wild vegetation, the juxtaposition of coming into a camp with large natural springs, vibrant furnishings, gleaming chandeliers and dramatic artwork is a shock to the senses. 

In amongst all of this opulence however there was one glaring question that stood out - how do they sustain a place like this? 

With price tags ranging from $700 to $3,750 a night and a popular reputation that spans over 20 years, Finch Hattons has beaten the odds in what I soon found to be a volatile market and in a corner of Kenya that faces big threats to its ecosystem and therefore the life-blood of the Tsavo. 

A diamond in the rough

The 22,000km2 Tsavo area is made up of the Tsavo West and Tsavo East National parks - making it the largest national park in Kenya and one of the largest in Africa. 

Tsavo hosts Kenya’s largest, and one of Africa’s biggest, elephant populations. The area itself is notably different from other parts of the country with unique and rare geological phenomenon. It is dotted with volcanic cones, hosts the world’s longest lava flow known as the Yatta Plateau and the marvel that are the Mzima Springs - natural springs that are replenished with 221 litres of crystal-clear water every day from underground streams stemming from the Chyulu Hills. 

However, the pressures on this precious, protected area are obvious even when driving in. 

Most visible on the drive down to Tsavo is the standard gauge railway (SGR), the country’s biggest infrastructure project since independence, which is being built and connects the Kenyan port of Mombasa with Nairobi.

Worst fears

Though Tsavo was previously spilt into the East and West side by the “lunatic express” railway and the Mombasa road, this new railway line - of which a 133km section goes through Tsavo -  the SGR is raised and there are also plans for it to be fenced off. 

I spoke to Paula Kahumbu, a leading Kenyan wildlife conservationist, about this and my worst fears were confirmed.

“Tsavo is one of the greatest ecosystems in the entire world” but the new railway has “created a barrier to the movement of wildlife”, she said. This is extremely problematic because Tsavo’s ecology relies heavily on its elephants and their migrations. 

“Elephants are essential to the recycling of the nutrients. Anything that affects elephants and their movements affects the amounts of nutrients being recycled and seeds being distributed”, Kahumbu said. In essence, if the elephants are cut off from migrating the landscape and ecosystem of this area is bound to change. 

In an attempt to mitigate this, the area that connects Tsavo East, Tsavo West and the Chyulu National Parks is now going to be dependent on wildlife crossing structures as proposed by KWS - but the full impact of these isn’t even known yet. 

Elephant conservation group, “Save the Elephants”, said that they - in partnership with KWS and the Tsavo Trust - will be collaring 10 elephants next month to help understand exactly what impact the railway and its new underpasses will really have on the animals’ migrations. But it begs the question, then what?

Unfortunately, there is already evidence of human-wildlife conflict getting worse because of the railway and its impact on migratory routes. In December a Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) official said that cases of human-elephant conflicts increased in Taita Taveta county since the construction of the standard gauge railway began. Elephants whose migration routes had been affected were getting confused, moving out of protected areas and destroying crops. 

This adds a big toll on the Tsavo elephants that are already suffering greatly due to the demand for their ivory. Back when the park was officially gazetted in 1949 there were believed to be about 45,000 elephants in this area - sadly, because poaching has increased alarmingly across the African continent, today the Tsavo elephants number about 11,000 animals as at the last census which was conducted in February 2014.

People pressures

The shift in the ecosystem caused by the standard gauge railway’s impact on wildlife isn’t the only challenge to Tsavo. Another visible threat to the Tsavo national parks are people. 

A large number of settlements are cropping up in very close proximity to the park’s boundaries. Along with people come farms and also livestock - in fact there were times you can see the livestock moving into what is meant to be protected areas. This threatens the healthy existence of the ecosystem as the livestock change the available pasture, degrade the habitat and spread zoonotic diseases. 

The impact of the livestock can become extreme.

During the last drought in 2009 for example, hundreds of thousands of cattle came into the park and ate all of the grass around the world famous Mzima springs, the hippos that act like wetland ecosystem engineers are essential to a healthy environment but they were starving to death.  

“It’s very political”, Kahumbu said. The livestock often belongs to bigwigs in the area who are able to force KWS into taking no action and, because of this type of political wrangling, so common in Kenya’s conservation world, sometimes private actors are compelled to act themselves.

In the case of the hippos in 2009, for example, it was Finch’s manager, Jonathan Mutisya Yumbya, who stepped in. Finch is built around natural springs which are believed to be connected to Mzima and so, after contacting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust conservation on what to do, the camp started leaving vegetable off cuts from their kitchen near the springs for a pod of about 16 hippos that needed help. They did this for several weeks before KWS started to distribute bundled hay grass.

Shocking decline

To fight all these challenges to Tsavo there needs to be a unified effort of all the stakeholders affected, and a great deal of resources need to continuously be pumped into the KWS, the government body charged with managing and conserving wildlife. But just getting enough money is a challenge in itself.

Figures obtained from the KWS show a sharp decline in tourism numbers.

In 2011 Tsavo East National park had 156,822 international visitors - by 2015 this number had dropped to a shocking 32,433. Tsavo West followed had a similar trajectory with 64,116 visitors in 2011 and just 12,118 by 2015.  

Tourism numbers in Tsavo have fluctuated over the years for couple of reasons. The first big fall was in 2007 when the disputed presidential poll plunged the country into chaos. More recently travel advisories, due to terror threats, from key source markets have impacted the Coastal region - an area that feeds a great deal of numbers into the Tsavo reserves as tourists come up from the coast for a day safari. 

This creates a vicious cycle since the tourism industry is the main source of revenue for the Kenya Wildlife Services - the agency which is meant to be key in protecting the reserves and ensuring tourists continue to come. Never has this revenue been more greatly needed than now; to pay for the deterrent patrols against poachers, encroachers into the reserves and to mitigate the shocks to the ecosystem as a result of infrastructural development. 

But the coffers are running dry and all too often the burden of fighting these challenges lie in the hands of conservationists and the hospitality sector that value the environment and are trying to preserve the life-blood of their businesses. 

Undervalued asset

Finch Hattons recently went through a multi-million dollar refurbishment and throughout it one of their major directives was to fit holistically within the environment. This is an aim that is shared by many lodges and camps around Kenya. 

Unfortunately, efforts like this are being countered by negligence in development planning, the severe lack of cohesion between stakeholders and insufficient resources to protect the country’s incredible ecosystems. An all too familiar story in Kenya.  

Hopefully, the Tsavo will be able to recover from all of these challenges, the new and the gradual, and that actions will be taken to steadily ensure this happens quickly - or we all risk losing out. 

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