There is something about the Chyulu Hills. Long revered by the Kamba and Maasai people, they have stood proud for millennia, bisecting the gentle plains to the west and the baobab strewn scrub lands of Tsavo to the east. In Out of Africa, they set the stage for a love story for the ages and captured hearts the world over.
The Chyulu Hills are an intrinsic part of our work. They are the site of some of our most ambitious conservation projects. They are where elephants like Bondeni's stories began; equally, they are where our most vulnerable orphans will reclaim their place in the wild.
This month, join me as we explore this exquisite rolling mountain range with its cloud forest, and the remarkable ways in which it supports life across Kenya.
– Angela Sheldrick
A Cloud Forest and its Life-Sustaining Springs
There is an otherworldly quality about the Chyulu Hills, especially in the morning. Clouds shroud each hilltop and a blanket of mist hovers among the trees, giving a gossamer quality to the point where heaven meets earth. The ethereal effect is only magnified when viewed amidst the wider landscape: The Chyulus act as an artery connecting two of Kenya’s most significant ecosystems and tribes. To the west is Amboseli, the southern reaches of Maasailand, a place of sweeping grasslands and swamps. To the east is Tsavo, an endless wilderness known for its vibrant red earth and the traditional lands of the Kamba. The Chyulus rise above this arid landscape like earthbound islands, clearly defined and astonishingly verdant against the dusty plains that surround them.
There is indeed something supernatural about the Chyulu Hills, but their existence is earthly to the core. The sedate green mounds belie the geological turmoil within: The Chyulus are actually a relatively young volcanic range which began forming just 1.4 millions years ago. They have been dormant since the mid-19th century, when the Shaitani and Chainu cinder cones last erupted, but striking geographic features remind us that this is no ordinary landscape. Leviathan Cave, Africa’s longest lava tube, is perhaps the most celebrated. Others are more nuanced: the nutrient-rich soil, which fosters life in a way the surrounding landscape cannot; the labyrinthine caves that hide within the rock face, the porous strata through which a network of springs filter.
The Chyulu Hills are a perfect confluence of nature’s elements. The volcanic landscape sets the stage, catching the moist air that gusts inland from the coast. This ocean air cools as it hits the hills, creating a curtain of mist that seeps into the porous soil, manifesting in the form of countless springs that percolate at its base. The most notable is Tsavo’s Mzima Springs, which produces over 100 million litres of ice cold water each day.
Indeed, the artery analogy is apt, as the Chyulus are a lifeforce for southern Kenya. These springs sustain all manner of life in the region, and beyond: Every day, millions of litres from Mzima Springs are pumped as far as Mombasa, supporting our coastal neighbours. A spectacular array of flora and fauna call the hills home. Bushpigs snuffle among the roots, while leopards skulk in the branches. Trumpeter hornbills skim the trees, heralding their arrival with their signature mournful cry. Klipspringers, dainty rock-hopping antelopes, use their truncated hooves to navigate the jagged lava terrain with ease. The Chyulus have become a stronghold for a small but vital number of critically endangered black rhinos. Some creatures are attracted to the lush, undulating plains; it is not uncommon to find giraffes, elands, and buffaloes within the hills. One comes to expect the unexpected in the Chyulus: During one memorable patrol, our pilot spotted the queen of the plains, the cheetah, lazing atop a grassy knoll high on the summit.
And of course, there are elephants. Some are permanent residents of the Chyulus, others are merely passing through on their way to Amboseli or Tsavo. This thriving population includes 14 of our own orphans, a very special group of elephants who have overcome the most formidable and traumatic circumstances. They are the residents of our Umani Springs Reintegration Unit, which is located in the Kibwezi Forest, a lush groundwater forest nestled on the lower reaches of the Chyulu Hills. We created Umami Springs expressly for physically compromised elephants like Murera and Sonje (and their lucky friends), knowing they could flourish within such a gentle, protected environment.
A collaborative, innovative approach to conservation is needed now more than ever: Years of human encroachment had taken their toll on the Chyulus. Until quite recently, the hills were billowing in smoke because of all the illegal charcoal burning. Logging was rampant, as was the threat of poaching. When we began our operations in the area, the first task we set about was to secure the Kibwezi Forest into the Chyulus through an electric fenceline. The effect was transformative, curbing illegal activity and protecting neighbouring communities from marauding wildlife. Over the years, we have expanded the fenceline to the east and west, and it now stretches over 90 kilometres long.
A fence is only as good as its maintenance. With close oversight, the entire line is patrolled daily. We employ local members of the community to complement our teams in this endeavour, creating job opportunities and engendering buy-in on a conservation solution that is mutually beneficial for humans and wildlife: The barrier thwarts poachers and trespassers from pillaging wild areas, but it also prevents marauding wildlife from raiding crops and coming into conflict with bordering communities.
One new endeavour is the Chyulu Hills REDD+ Project, which is part of a global initiative to mitigate climate change in developing countries and help communities conserve vital carbon stores. Working with local communities, Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Forest Service, and NGO partners, we are implementing a carbon credit program in the Chyulu Hills. At the launch of the project, around two million carbon credits were available for sale. We use the proceeds from these credits to fund vital conservation projects.
Just last year, the REDD+ Project allowed us to begin construction on a new road along the eastern side of the Chyulu Hills. A road may sound simple enough, but this was no ordinary road. Carved through incredibly challenging volcanic terrain, its presence will save untold wild lives and acres of wilderness. Bushfires have emerged as one of the greatest threats to the Chyulu Hills and surrounding Tsavo ecosystem. This strategically placed road will offer vital access for our firefighting and security teams, while simultaneously forming a break to prevent fires that originate on the plains from moving uphill into the cloud forest. The Chyulu Hills REDD+ Project is only a few years old, but I am proud to say that we have already made a positive impact in the area: While plot sampling is ongoing, Kibwezi Forest has demonstrated the greatest increase in carbon stock of any area. Of course, keeping carbon out of the atmosphere benefits not only this corner of Kenya, but the entire planet.
This brings me back, one more time, to the artery analogy. In the grand scheme of Kenya’s wild spaces, the Chyulus are relatively small, stretching only a hundred kilometres long. However, their impact is felt across the country. The hills reach into the heavens, capturing water from the clouds. In a place like Kenya, water is a treasured resource, but the Chyulus share their wealth. They feed springs that fuel the far reaches stretching way beyond Tsavo, and they offer a home for our most vulnerable orphans. Don’t be fooled by the gentle, rolling slopes of the Chyulus: This is nature in its most powerful form, a life force that supports an entire landscape.
Angela Sheldrick produces Field Notes as a special monthly email, providing her personal insight into varying aspects of Kenya's wildlife and habitats, along with the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To be the first to receive future editions of Field Notes, please subscribe here.