Galana, A Chronicle of Mankind

Published on the 30th of May, 2024

In a time when humans are increasingly disconnected from the natural world, here, much of the country continues to live off the land. There is no single, traditional Kenyan ‘way of life’ — each of its 40+ tribes are utterly unique.

This month, I would like to discuss how the history of one specific landscape is interwoven with a local tribe. It's probably a place you've heard me talk about before: Galana.

– Angela Sheldrick

Galana, A Chronicle of Mankind

Landscapes are living chronicles of mankind. In an ideal world, they would be impervious to man — after all, Kenya’s pristine forests, commiphora bushlands, wide plains, and undulating hills stood long before humans traversed them. But today, the reality is different. Our landscapes are inextricably linked to mankind and influenced by our actions.

Galana is a testament to that statement. This sprawling landscape joins with Kulalu Ranch below to form a 2-million acre extension of Tsavo East National Park that sweeps out towards the Indian Ocean. Sharing an unfenced boundary, Galana is essentially a continuation of Kenya’s largest national park. It is also an important habitat for Tsavo’s wildlife — particularly its elephants. Because of its proximity to the coast, dramatic storms blow off the Indian Ocean, building and falling over the eastern side of Galana, turning it into a valuable dry season rangeland for elephants.

As nature intended, Galana is a vital bedrock that supports the beating heart of Tsavo East. But conversely, insecurities in Galana directly affect the national park. When my father, David Sheldrick, was appointed the founding warden in 1948, he looked east, to the vast, vulnerable boundary of the park. This was 75 years ago, when much of Kenya was still truly wild. However, he recognised that Galana, the eastern frontier, could either be an enormous asset for conservation or a liability.

It was during this time that David became acquainted with the Watha, a Tsavo-area tribe of hunter-gatherers. Their history has always been interwoven with the elephant; indeed, in the myth of one Watha clan, they are related.

According to the story, a Watha hunter was preparing for a hunt. His wife warned him that if he did not come home with a large animal that had plenty of meat to sustain them, he would feel her wrath. But alas, he returned with only a small animal (the exact creature varies from storyteller to storyteller). His wife flew into a rage and a deep rumble emanated from her chest. As her anger built, she started throwing her body around their hut and shaking her head side to side. Giant ears began to grow, her teeth extended into tusks, her nose became a trunk, and she thundered down onto all fours, and charged into the bush with a final trumpet. The elephant race had been created.

Years later, the hunter’s sons encountered an elephant in the bush. Knowing of their mother’s transformation into an elephant, they were reluctant to hunt the elephant, although they knew it would provide much food for their family. They consulted their village elders, who concluded that the new species should be treated as a gift. The wife’s curse was that she and her elephant offspring had become the very source of food she had demanded. From that day onwards, the Watha became elephant hunters, although they remained reverential of the species and, in their way, respected them as relatives.

For generations, the Watha hunted elephants on a subsistence level. But the explosion of the global ivory trade diverted their ancient practices. The hunters became poachers. With their unparalleled bush skills, intrinsic knowledge of elephant behaviour, and pinpoint accuracy with a bow and arrow, they were lethally effective in this capacity. It is estimated that Galogalo, a prolific Watha poacher who was eventually apprehended during David’s time, killed a staggering 2,000 elephants over the course of his career.

Despite the obvious crossroads, David spent a lot of time with the Watha. When we were living in Tsavo, he passed many evenings in their company, gathered around the campfire and sharing stories. They provided invaluable insight into the mechanics of the ivory trade, how ivory went from the poachers to the middlemen to the Arab traders on the coast, and finally to the markets in Asia. The Watha made very important contributions in the development of Tsavo East National Park, helping teams navigate the ancient elephant paths that crisscrossed the wild landscape and then working on the crews that turned these paths into park roads. With their excellent tracking abilities, they also made impressive rangers, although of course they were reluctant to apprehend people from their own community.

And then time moved on. After David left Tsavo, the landscape went through a difficult few decades. Beginning in the 1970s, poaching rose to unprecedented levels. Tsavo’s population of some 35,000 elephants dropped to 6,000, while black rhinos all but disappeared. Over time, thanks to concerted conservation efforts, Tsavo East National Park and Tsavo West National Park recovered. But the vast eastern boundary — a place so vital to the security of the parks and their wild denizens – remained a largely lawless land. The collective effect of poaching, charcoal burning, livestock incursions, and other illegal activities degraded the land and created a hostile environment for wildlife.

In May 2021, we were approached to assume management of Galana Wildlife Conservancy, a 60,000-acre area within Galana that is fully annexed for conservation. But it quickly became apparent that in order to truly secure the eastern frontier of the Tsavo ecosystem, we needed to work across Galana and Kulalu Ranches as a whole.

In many ways, it felt like a return to David’s early days. Infrastructure was there, but much of it was in severe disrepair. While ivory poaching was largely under control, the commercial bushmeat trade had the landscape in a vice. Bushmeat poachers saw it as open season across the ranches, using the lethally effective lamping method to kill scores of creatures in a single night. (On moonless nights, poachers shine bright torches at their quarry, oftentimes accompanied by loud bells. The animal is temporarily blinded and startled into submission, which gives the poacher the opportunity to move in and butcher them.) This, combined with increased cattle incursions from the north and extensive charcoal burning, took its toll on Galana.

I have detailed our early efforts on Galana in a previous Field Notes. The indomitable Mark Jenkins spearheaded the work on the ground, until his untimely and shattering passing in December 2022. We knew that the best way to honour Mark’s legacy was to continue the work he started. Roads were cleared, airstrips were graded, dams were built, grass was reseeded — no stone was left unturned. We implemented a school lunch program for local students with the aid of a generous donor and showed our neighbours that we were there to support them, too. (The daring helicopter rescue of a truck driver marooned in the flooded Galana River stands out as a highlight, as do the several medivacs and the search-and-rescue operations to find a lost children in the region).

Underpinning this infrastructure work was the implementation of an extensive ground and aerial presence. Anti-poaching teams were installed across the landscape, while pilots covered the skies. Through their daily patrols they scouted out illegal activities, and generally sent the message that it was no longer open season on Galana.

And that brings me back to the Watha. Just as David did, we turned to their unique skills to support our conservation work in the landscape they know best. Their ancestors were historic elephant hunters; now, some Watha are using their incredible bush skills to protect their mythological relatives.

Transformation does not happen overnight, but three years into our conservation mandate on Galana, we are already seeing tangible results of our work. The conservancy is once again a very healthy environment — and a reminder of the resilience of our natural world. We just protect the landscape; nature does the rest.

I remember how thrilled we were when a single bull buffalo showed up at the waterhole in Lali Camp, our field headquarters on the conservancy. Due to over-grazing and other challenges, they had vacated the area. Seeing the return of a few bull buffalos was a very welcome surprise. Now, it is not unusual to see well over a hundred based there. Elephants, zebras, giraffes, and plains game have also returned to the landscape in prolific numbers, and with more herbivores comes more lions, leopards, and other predators, too.

As we enter this new phase of conservation on Galana, it it heartening that people whose history is steeped in the landscape continue to be part of that story. The future of our country’s wild spaces rests in our hands. I am always encouraged and moved by Kenyans who honour their heritage through conservation, using their formidable skills for the protection and preservation of their ancient home.

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.

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