SOYSAMBU CONSERVANCY, Kenya — Hidden among the umbrella-shaped acacia trees are walls of dull tarpaulin which form a funnel toward the ramp of a truck that waits with its back door open. It is chilly and quiet in the break-of-dawn light. Khaki-clad wildlife rangers wait in silence clutching long switches hacked from trees.
Suddenly the morning hush is shattered by the thumping blades of a helicopter swooping low over the trees, then the sound of dozens of panicked hooves battering the dusty earth.
Chased by the chopper the zebras charge into the tarpaulin trap. Once inside rangers use sticks and shouts to cajole the frantic wild black and white horses along the narrowing tunnel toward the truck. In this way the first truck is loaded with 21 of the stamping snorting animals and the second with 19.
Herding just 40 of the zebras took an hour and a half of slow, frustrating work as the spooked animals would often scatter before reaching the trap or, spotting the tarpaulin or the rangers, would bolt in another direction.
The early morning expedition was the start of a huge undertaking to transport 7,000 zebras and wildebeest from across to Kenya to the drought-stricken Amboseli National Park in the south.
“We are doing this translocation to restock Amboseli,” said Isaac Lekolool, the vet in charge of animal capture and translocation at Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the government body responsible for the country’s diverse animals and 33 national parks and reserves.
“Last year we lost most of the herbivores. It was a bad year for Amboseli and a bad year for Kenya.” This also meant it was a bad year for lions and a bad year for tourism.
Drought has killed off most of the lions’ prey forcing them to hunt outside Amboseli park. They often seize goats and cows, bringing the lions into conflict with farmers and herders who fiercely protect the herds upon whom they also depend for survival.
An estimated 100 lions are killed every year by angry herders and with only 2,000 remaining they are a top conservation priority for KWS.
The drought also hit tourism as horrified visitors to Amboseli saw rotting corpses and whiting bones strewn across the parched landscape while the stench of decomposing animals filled the air.
“Amboseli is a tourist facility and if the tourists come and they don’t see animals they are not happy,” Lekolool told GlobalPost.
In a bid to rectify the situation, February saw the start of one of the biggest man-made animal movements ever undertaken. Five years ago KWS moved 400 elephants in an operation described as, “the single largest translocation of animals ever undertaken since Noah’s Ark.” This translocation of 7,000 beasts will cost around $1.3 million and take many weeks to complete.
The zebras and wildebeest are rounded up from private estates such as Soysambu, a 44,000-acre conservancy wrapped around Lake Elementaita in the Great Rift Valley. Soysambu’s wildlife and community services manager said that getting rid of the zebras was good for the estate which is focused on providing beef for the local market.
“The total number of wildlife here is 11,000 as well as 6,500 head of cattle, they are all very heavy grazers so there is a lot of competition for pasture and for water,” said Charles Muthui. “We have more than we can take.”
The 1,000 zebras coming from Soysambu will be welcome in Amboseli. The restocking will offer the lions enough food within the park so that they do not need to hunt outside its borders and will help restore the natural equilibrium between herbivores and carnivores that was disrupted by the drought.
As the now mid-morning sun burned overhead the pilot landed his helicopter. The zebras had worked out what was going on so the rangers had to move the tarpaulin trap to a new location. They would restart the next morning.
Meanwhile the two trucks loaded with Soysambu’s zebras headed off for the five-hour drive south to Amboseli.
“The lions are happy now,” Lekolool said with a smile. “We bring the food closer to them!”