Birthday wishes come true…


Kylie Butler, International Intern

Date Published

I’m finishing my last blog from the backpackers in Nairobi, and it’s hard to believe that just this morning I was waking up in my tent to Stumpy the mischievous no-tailed money and the chattering mongoose, and now I’m back in the big city. What’s even more difficult to believe is that it is already ten weeks since I was first sitting here getting ready to begin my internship!

Yesterday was my birthday and also my last full day as an STE intern. It was very sad this morning leaving my Samburu home and driving through the park one last time on the way to the matatu stage at Isiolo. Still, I’m happy that I’m not going all the way back to Australia just yet. I have almost two months in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania to look forward to. So at least the adventures continue.

My last two days in Samburu have been incredible. Everyone at STE certainly made my birthday feel very special. On Monday David, Chris and I went to the airstrip in the morning to pick Fran, a new intern and artist, who is going to have an exciting few weeks painting one of the walls at Westgate school with a beautiful wildlife theme. On the way to the airstrip, on what is commonly referred to as the ‘dik dik route’ for its general absence of larger species, we came across a pack of wild dogs. It was so beautiful to see them with their painted fur blending into the shadows as they rested under the scrubby vegetation. After meeting Fran at the airstrip, we drove around the Westgate area looking for bull elephants and found quite a few. We stopped at a scenic spot by the dry river bed for chai before the long hot drive back to camp.

Late in the afternoon David, Fran and I went out for long-term monitoring on the Samburu side of the reserve. Within five minutes of leaving camp we found one of Shivani’s mane-less male lions named Loirish, lounging in the setting sun with a friend. We also found Novel, a large bull elephant following the tracks of the Royal family. Back at camp we started my birthday celebration according to Australian time, and had a fantastic dinner of nyama choma, goat stew and rice, finished off with a cold Pilsner.

On Tuesday, my actual birthday, I had a lovely day soaking up the tranquility and serenity at camp, while I tied up some loose ends of my research project. I wanted to double-check I had all the families and individuals in my focal groups correctly identified and that I knew all the matriarchs of the families, while I still had ready access to the ID Files. It really does make a huge difference to my project to be able to know the individual elephants, their family units and their ages so accurately. The long-term research efforts of Save the Elephants in developing such comprehensive knowledge of the population, has provided such a unique opportunity to explore social learning.

In the afternoon Jeronimo, Fran and I went out in the park on what was easily one of the best drives I have been on – which is saying a lot because I have had many incredible days in the park! To begin with, we found three lion cubs stalking a family of young warthogs. Part of me was hoping to see a lion kill, but as warthogs are one of my favorite animals to watch I wasn’t sure I wanted to see one of these guys end up as dinner. I therefore wasn’t too disappointed to see the hunt abandoned. It was interesting enough to watch the lions hide behind trees and assume pouncing pose. I guess these young guys just weren’t stealth – or hungry – enough.

A lot of elephants were back in the park (relative to the previous few weeks). We watched Yaegar walk past us within metres of the car. His sheer size is just incredible. Not so much his height but just how broad and bulky his frame is – even his head and trunk have massive width. He’s such a cool elephant: destructive in the way he rips apart vegetation as he feeds and moves around (although how a creature of his size and weight could not be destructive is beyond me), but nonetheless seems to have a very pleasant nature. Even more fun than watching Yaegar was finding Goya (from the Artists family) with her small male calf, born just last year. The calf was standing atop a small hill to the left of the car, while Goya was browsing on the right. This was one feisty little man, ready to stake his claim as boss of the ecosystem at a very young age. He repeatedly ran down his little hill charging at the car with ears extended and his floppy trunk swinging every which way as he practiced his trumpeting. He would then return to his position on the hill to watch us from above. I have a feeling he will grow into a magnificent bull in the years to come.

Then, as if watching a lion stalk its prey and an elephant calf charging wasn’t enough of a birthday show, we came across a leopard stalking an impala. As the leopard stealthily followed the lone impala, I thought it had its dinner as good as served on a silver platter, but somehow it just wasn’t the night for cats to feast. The leopard ended up resting on a dead log, providing us with some great photo opportunities.

Back at camp it was time for one final goat and Pilsner meal, before I packed up my things ready to leave this morning. Easily the best birthday I’ve ever had!

I’d read a lot about Save the Elephants, and the amazing work Iain Douglas-Hamilton and his team have done for elephant conservation before arriving in Samburu. But seeing first-hand the challenges and endless hard work that goes into ensuring a future for elephants gave me a whole new perspective. It really is a huge commitment, with countless obstacles. If it’s not man threatening the survival of elephants, it’s the drought, or the flood. I have so much admiration for everyone on the STE team, and am so grateful to have been given this opportunity. In the past months I have participated with sound experiments, collaring Bonsai, rescuing an elephant from the mud, long-term monitoring surveys and mammal census. I have seen the magic of elephant interactions and felt privileged to be in their presence; and I have seen the terrible realities of poaching: the pain and distress it causes the individual elephant but also the entire family unit, and the struggle orphaned calves have to endure to try and survive without their mothers. I’ve seen more wildlife species than ever before in my life and explored a new part of Kenya. And I’ve had the absolute pleasure of working with some truly inspiring conservationists.

A huge ‘asante sana’ to everyone at STE!