The Eastern Frontier

Published on the 27th of October, 2022

This is a story I have been eager to tell for some time. Galana and Kulalu Ranches form the eastern frontier of the Tsavo Conservation Area, spanning some 2 million acres. While a map demarcates them as distinct landscapes, they share an unfenced border with Tsavo East. To any roaming elephant, lion, leopard, or giraffe, the ranches are indistinguishable from the national park they neighbour.

When the board of Galana Wildlife Conservancy approached us to manage the landscape, we didn’t imagine that it would soon turn into a much larger mandate, spanning the entire Galana and Kulalu Ranches. After just 17 months in the landscape, we are already seeing the fruits of our labours.

This month, I would like to introduce you to Tsavo’s eastern frontier.

– Angela Sheldrick

The Eastern Frontier

Not so long ago, in the grand scheme of earth’s history, our planet belonged to nature. There were no borders or boundaries, just vast open space that stretched from ocean to ocean.

Those days have long passed. Now, national parks, reserves, and protected areas are the last remaining sanctuaries for wildlife. No longer is untouched land the default, but the exception.

Here in Africa, Kenya is known for its commitment to conservation. The country is home to 27 national parks, 34 national reserves — yet collectively, these make up just 8 percent of Kenya's land. However, there are also increased initiatives to secure wilderness outside national parks and reserves. In an effort to further protect important landscapes, conservancies have been formed, along with other creative conservation projects. These dedicated spaces for wildlife are vitally important — and, in an age of relentless development, their existence must never be taken for granted.

I often say that Kenya’s national parks and reserves are the beating heart of its natural world. But what is a heart without its arteries? No wilderness should be an island; elephants and other animals don’t understand the distinction between land that has been designated for them and land that is no longer their own. They are driven by something far more ancient and innate, following migratory paths that have been etched through the generations.

Thus the importance of buffer zones, wildlife corridors, and dispersal areas. They increase protected land and link habitats across the country, expanding rangelands and ensuring that migratory species, such as elephants, can travel between cradles of life. They also remove pressure from park borders, creating soft transition buffer zones that give wildlife a larger cushion from human settlements.

In today’s increasingly developed world, most buffer zones are small-yet-vital pockets of land. But on the eastern frontier of the Tsavo Conservation Area sits a behemoth. Galana and Kulalu Ranches stretch along almost the entire eastern boundary of Tsavo East, collectively covering 2 million acres that extend towards the coast. They are stacked on top of each other and bisected by the Galana River, with Galana Ranch to the north and Kulalu Ranch to the south. It is important to note that they share an unfenced border with Tsavo East, meaning wildlife can roam freely between the park and the ranches. Like their neighbour, the ranches provide vital habitat for all manner of species, including elephants, lions, cheetahs, giraffes, wild dogs, leopards, and plains game.

Both Galana and Kulalu Ranches are managed by the Agricultural Development Corporation, a parastatal that oversees sustainable agriculture development in Kenya. Galana and Kulalu were always intended to be mixed land use, with selective ranching activities that are complementary to conservation efforts. However, it is a vast landscape, and ADC lacked the resources to focus on the conservation aspect. Over the past 40 years, the landscape had become increasingly hostile, overrun by illegal activities such as poaching, charcoal burning, and livestock incursions. The eastern frontier of the Tsavo Conservation Area — Kenya’s largest protected wilderness — was in peril.

Our efforts in Galana began in May 2021, when we were asked to assume management of Galana Wildlife Conservancy by its board of directors. Spanning 60,000 acres, the dedicated wildlife conservancy sits within Galana Ranch and was struggling with the same challenges that plagued the wider landscape. Galana Wildlife Conservancy is an important area. Fully protected for conservation, it is essentially a continuation of Tsavo East. Insecurities in Galana affect not only the conservancy, but also the national park. Galana Wildlife Conservancy is also a favoured tourist destination, with game roaming seamlessly between the two.

Everyone quickly realised, however, that in order to truly secure Tsavo’s eastern frontier, we needed to work across Galana/Kulalu as a whole. As we continued to build upon our conservation work in Galana Wildlife Conservancy, we also agreed upon a second arrangement with ADC, in which the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust manages the conservation mandate of Galana and Kulalu Ranches.

From KARI Ranch to the Kibwezi Forest, we are no stranger to prodigious undertakings — but even by our standards, Galana/Kulalu was daunting. Over the past decade, illegal activities had taken hold across the landscape. Bushmeat poaching had reached rampant levels; poachers saw it as open season across the ranches, killing scores of creatures for the commercial bushmeat trade. This, coupled with illegal cattle incursions from the north and widespread charcoal burning, degraded the land and created a hostile environment for wildlife.

Our goal is to turn Galana/Kulalu into a flourishing wildlife habitat once more. Our first move was to establish a field base at Lali, which would serve as our hub in the landscape. Bushland dominates the ranches, stretching endlessly into the horizon. The Lali Hills, which sit at the heart of Galana Wildlife Conservancy, offer one of the few elevated vantage points. With 360-degree visibility, the camp is in prime position to spot disturbances in the land unfolding around it. We also graded Lali airstrip and based a plane there to support field operations.

Given the pervasive threat of bushmeat poaching, we placed great emphasis on targeted patrols. We began by rotating our existing Anti-Poaching Teams into Galana/Kulalu. As the year progressed, we established four Anti-Poaching Teams that are permanently based in the ranches. They are supported by the 18 SWT/KWS Anti-Poaching Teams who are already working within the Tsavo Conservation Area. Fully equipped, their collective manpower has proven to be a formidable presence. Each recruit goes through intensive training and then hits the ground running.

Arresting poachers requires a constant change of tactics, as they continue to adapt their nefarious strategies. The teams have logged countless hours on the ground, understanding perpetrators’ favoured routes and routines. For targeted operations, the Canine Unit is brought in to track down perpetrators. Extensive aerial patrols bring a new dimension to our anti-poaching efforts, ensuring no corner remains unsurveilled. The dedicated Galana/Kulalu plane flies over 50 hours each month.

Already, we have witnessed a decline in poaching on Galana/Kulalu. The teams have spearheaded many significant arrests — each one a sobering reminder of the devastating effect that poaching has on wildlife populations. Over the course of a two-day ambush in February, four people were arrested and eight motorbikes (the favoured vehicle of poachers) were confiscated. The scale of their bushmeat haul was staggering: 142 dik-dik, three gerenuks, three bustards, two kudus, two hares, and one warthog were retrieved. To harvest such a bounty, they employed the lamping technique. On moonless nights, animals are blinded by bright lights and frightened by bicycle bells. As they stand, stock still and startled, the poachers make their move. When one considers that this level of poaching once went unchecked, one begins to understand how poaching can decimate even the most significant wildlife populations and disrupt the entire food chain.

Faced with a prolonged dry season that evolved into a brutal drought, we have focused significant resources on water projects across Galana/Kulalu. We installed a borehole at Lali, which supplies both the teams in situ and local wildlife, and upgraded dams and watering points. To support animals through the current drought, a watering team harnesses water from the Galana River to keep the banks green and viable. We also provide supplemental lucerne and range cubes to more than 45 hippos who would otherwise be at risk of starvation.

Just as wildlife feel the effects of the drought, so do rural communities bordering conservation areas. Building on our successful school feeding program in the Tsavo Conservation Area, we secured funding to expand the program to Galana/Kulalu, providing daily lunches to 900 students from four local schools.

Like the rest of the Tsavo Conservation Area, Galana/Kulalu is a challenging landscape even in the best of times. The drought has taken it to a new level. Field emergencies have become an everyday occurrence, from orphan rescues to veterinary treatments. These are difficult, heart-wrenching operations — but they are often full of hope.

I immediately think of a recent mission to rescue a large elephant from the drying mud of Harawa Dam. Day turned into night, and still our team, working alongside KWS and ADC rangers, struggled to excavate the elephant. It wasn’t until 10 PM that they finally succeeded. Just as the team pulled the bull to solid ground, a wild herd arrived at the water’s edge. The rangers swiftly retreated so the herd could drink in peace. Instead, the elephants gathered around the recumbent bull and helped him to his feet. Together, they disappeared into the darkness. It was an incredibly humbling reminder of all that is great about our wild world.

It is wildlife who serve as the best barometer of success in a landscape. We are just 17 months into our management of Galana Wildlife Conservancy and partnership with Galana/Kulalu, but we have already seen a dramatic improvement. Not long ago, elephants avoided many parts of the ranches; now, with a reduction in illegal activities, hundreds of elephants are accessing the deepest reaches of the landscape. On any given day, as many as 130 elephants visit the Lali water hole. Lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, and leopards have taken up permanent residence in the conservancy, while healthy numbers of oryx, zebra, gazelle, impala, giraffe, warthogs, and gerenuk have been witnessed across Galana/Kulalu. There is still much work to be done, but we have already seen heartening progress. Through these efforts, we are helping to secure the vital and vast eastern boundary of Tsavo East.

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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