From their bird’s eye vantage point, our pilots get a unique perspective of Tsavo. They fly above the furthest reaches of the landscape, opening a window into extraordinary places — places that are largely uncharted by the human footprint. These are areas where animals still reign, just as they have done for millennia. Some of the most incredible wildlife sightings have been witnessed by our Aerial Unit.
Through pilots’ eyes, the wild world comes to life in a very unique way, helping us better understand how the animal kingdom works. Below are just a few of their fabled sightings.
– Angela Sheldrick
The Lion and the River
Tsavo’s lions are the stuff of legends — quite literally. In 1898, two male lions relentlessly hunted workers on the British Kenya-Uganda Railway. In a nine-month period, they claimed the lives of dozens of people. The most colourful estimates put their death toll at 135 men; more realistically, that number was probably closer to a still-staggering 35. Even more than a century after their reign of terror, people still talk of the ‘Man-Eaters of Tsavo’ in hushed tones.
Thankfully, their descendents are more focused on plains game and Tsavo’s large buffalo herds, as the circle of life dictates. However, make no mistake: Lions are formidable creatures and Tsavo’s lions are a special breed, distinct, fierce and opportunistic. Unlike their cousins across much of the continent, they are most commonly mane-less. The exact reason remains a mystery — some researchers suggest it is simply too hot for the added insulation; others believe the thick bush would snag and tear at a mane; still others purport that Tsavo’s lions have unusually high testosterone levels, which makes them unusually aggressive and may lead to less hair. What they lack in ruff, they make up for in presence. Tsavo’s lions are enormous creatures and powerful predators.
Thus, a SWT fixed-wing pilot got quite a shock when he saw this terrified lion swimming across the Galana River. It’s rare to see lions in water — the stereotype of felines disliking water holds, even with big cats — but even more surprising was the look of abject fear on his face. He had every reason to be scared: The Galana River is infested with crocodiles, and he must have known that every pawstroke put his life at risk.
And yet, he made the choice to cross the river. What led to this decision, we’ll never know. Possibly he was ousted from his pride, or perhaps he was seeking better hunting opportunities on the other shore. Either way, it was a humbling reminder that even the king of the animal kingdom can be, well, a scaredy cat. (This lion’s story had a happy ending, and he made it across the river unscathed.)
The Tusker of Tsavo
Perhaps no sight is more emblematic of the African wilderness than a giant elephant striding across the plains, ears held wide and tusks sweeping the grass beneath his feet. Few creatures have captured the imagination and reverence of people the world over as the elephant. They are pillars of our natural world, both iconic and of great ecological importance.
And yet, in many countries, those pillars are crumbling: The latest assessment of African elephant populations reveals a broadscale decline in African elephant numbers across the continent. In the last 50 years, the number of African savanna elephants decreased by at least 60 percent. Poaching, which reached its apex in 2011, took a terrible toll on the species. Those with the biggest tusks hunted for their trophy tusks, claiming countless lives — and with them, irreplaceable wisdom and generations of genes.
But Tsavo is a land where tuskers still reign. It is Kenya’s largest national park and home to the country’s largest population of elephants. This vast wilderness is one of the few places in the world where nature’s behemoths can be found. During a routine patrol after the rains, a SWT helicopter pilot looked down to see this emblem of Africa striding across the newly verdant landscape. It was a stunning sight — and a striking reminder of what we are working so hard to protect. As I was writing this, this particular elephant was spotted again. Life is difficult, even — especially — for a tusker, and it was a relief to know that he had successfully navigated a challenging drought year.
Although its tusker population wasn’t immune to the scourge of poaching, several incredibly impressive bulls continue to preside over Tsavo. This chap, named Balguda, is one of them. We know his and his fellow tuskers’ genes will continue to unfurl into the future: They have undoubtedly sired several of our orphans and the wild-born babies our grown orphans have gone on to have. In the fullness of time, perhaps some SWT orphans will become the next generation of Tsavo’s tuskers.
The Elephant and the Leopard
Simply by existing, elephants support all forms of life in a myriad of ways. They are classified as a ‘keystone species,’ which means they have a disproportionately high impact on the ecosystem relative to their population. One of the most interesting roles elephants play is that of water shaman. They have a unique ability to smell water deep beneath the ground, scouting drinking sources that are invisible to the naked eye. Using their tusks, trunks and feet, they unearth hidden springs that would otherwise be inaccessible to all manner of creatures. Their talent for finding water provides a lifeline to animals great and small, especially as droughts become more severe and rains increasingly unpredictable.
Last year, Tsavo fell into the grips of a devastating drought. Surface water evaporated and rivers ran dry, turning life into a daily fight for survival. While it was the herbivores who struggled most, no creature was immune to the terrible effects of the drought. During a morning patrol over dried river beds of Tsavo, a SWT pilot spotted an extraordinary symbiosis unfolding — and a striking reminder that, by protecting elephants, we are supporting entire ecosystems.
Beneath the plane’s wings, a large elephant dug for water hidden deep underground. But there was much more to this scene than met the eye: A leopard rested just a few metres away, quietly watching the bull at work. He clearly knew that elephants are expert water excavators and, if he just lay in wait, his patience would be rewarded.
That is precisely what unfolded. The elephant diligently worked away at the dry sand, shuffling his feet and digging with his tusks. It only took a few minutes before he reached water, creating a fountain of life within the dry riverbed. After he drank his fill and walked off, the leopard moved in to quench his thirst. We don’t think of a formidable predator like a leopard relying on an elephant, but that’s nature — constantly challenging our assumptions.
The Wild Dogs of Ithumba
Sometimes, a seemingly innocuous sighting tells an entire story. In nature, it is the big cats who get most of the predatory glory. And yet, the crown may belong to another: the African wild dog. For every ten hunts undertaken by a pride of lions, they typically make just three kills. African wild dogs, on the other hand, have an 80 percent success rate. They have a fascinating social structure that fuels their hunting success.
Wild dogs live in packs ranging from 10 to 50 individuals. They have a strong sense of family, which motivates their every action. Violent confrontations among dogs are rare; unusually, pack hierarchy is determined by submission rather than dominance. Each pack is anchored by one monogamous breeding pair, whose young are communally raised by the entire group. When pups are young, the alpha female remains in an underground den. The rest of the pack shares the responsibility of caring for the young. Some are designated babysitters, while others deliver food to the mother and pups. They operate as a well-honed, surprisingly empathetic force that puts family at the heart of everything.
However, it is their efficacy that has also led to their downfall. Wild dogs are often reviled as ‘problem animals’ because of their devastating ability to wipe out livestock. Habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict have emerged as the primary threats to their survival. On top of that, wild dogs are very susceptible to diseases carried by domestic dogs, such as rabies or canine distemper. These illnesses can wipe out an entire pack. During the last century, the number of wild dogs have dwindled from 500,000 to just around 7,000. It has become incredibly rare to spot them in the wild.
While their future looks uncertain in many parts of Africa, northern Tsavo has become a stronghold for the species. When we began working in Ithumba, there were no wild dogs to be found. However, as our field teams secured the landscape and turned it into a safe haven once more, they started to trickle back. Flying over the landscape, it has become a common occurrence for our pilots to see these remarkable creatures at play and at work, resting and hunting, raising their young and supporting each other. Each sighting is a privilege — and a tangible reminder of the impact of our conservation work.
Field Notes is a monthly newsletter written by Angela Sheldrick to share a unique perspective into our field projects and the people behind the cause. The email edition includes an interview with a member of the team, which is exclusively available to Field Notes subscribers. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, please sign up here.