The universal appeal of the African savanna


Matt Ridley, The Spectator

Date Published
My wife and I were lucky to escape for a long-delayed birdwatching holiday in Kenya over Christmas. To have been warm, sunlit and free while so many in Britain were not won’t endear me to most readers, I realise. Nairobi was rife with Covid and Christmas cancellations devastated the tourism industry. So we had the extraordinary Elephant Watch Camp run by Saba Douglas-Hamilton in the Samburu National Reserve almost to ourselves. Baboons and vervet monkeys wandered freely through the camp, and in the night the river flash-flooded after a storm in the hills to the west, but the tents were safe. Elephants were everywhere, feasting on fresh vegetation after a long drought. My old friend Chris Thouless, director of research for Save the Elephants, explained that throughout Kenya elephant numbers are up, poaching is down and the biggest problem is increasing conflict with farmers and herders. Ingeniously, they have found you can deter elephants from raiding a maize farm by hanging beehives from wires around the fields. Elephants are scared of the aggressive African honey bee.

Francis Lenyakopiro, a Samburu warrior who acted as our guide, proved as knowledgeable about ecology as anybody I have met, but also very talented at singing traditional songs (wearing traditional Samburu dress with a touch of Douglas tartan) round a fire as the sun sank behind the hills. I will not forget his quiet voice, almost a whisper, at a picnic: ‘I don’t want to interrupt your lunch, but we are being watched by a lioness.’

At Borana Lodge in the Laikipia highlands, where we watched elephants, rhinos, waterbuck and kudu, as well as a bounty of birds, from the veranda of our bedroom, our guide Lawrence Ngugi shared insights into the lives of animals from the cooperative breeding of wattled starlings to the tendency of black rhinos to get aggressive after eating the steroid-rich bark of the candelabra tree. In a relationship that may be millions of years old, the honeyguide bird leads people — and honey badgers — to wild bees’ nests with a special call. It expects to be rewarded with wax when the nest is smoked out. If you fail to reward the bird, it will lead you to a buffalo next time, which Lawrence thinks is a myth, but is not sure it is worth the risk of finding out.

The names of African birds may soon be decolonised. Verreaux’s eagle, a huge black predator that swept past as we picnicked one day in a gorge, was named by and for an enthusiastic 19th-century French taxidermist who, together with his brother, attended the funeral of a tribal warrior in what is now Botswana in 1831, then secretly disinterred the body and stuffed him as a museum exhibit in Paris. The poor bloke’s body was repatriated from Barcelona in 2000 and cremated in Gaborone.

Borana Conservancy is a private venture, started by the Dyer family and backed by philanthropists, that turned a huge cattle ranch into a wildlife reserve, teeming with elephant, rhino and antelopes galore, and supporting local communities. On Christmas morning, about 60 of us gathered on Pride Rock, the gravity-defying ledge copied by Disney for The Lion King, to sing Christmas carols, watched by a giraffe and three bemused buffalo. A white-backed vulture showed up during ‘Silent Night’, presumably hoping the rock would topple under our combined weight.

People recreate the African savanna at every opportunity. In Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a character points out that there’s nothing natural about English parkland: it’s ‘Capability Brown doing Claude who was doing Virgil’. But as the ecologist Gordon Orians argues they were all doing the Africa savanna, a preference for which lies deep inside our psyches. Looking out over Borana’s gentle, grassy hills with spreading trees, distant water and herds of impala, I might be in a London park. Except for the lion roars at night on Christmas Eve.

What is natural? When white people first came here in the late 19th century they found a land almost empty of people but full of game (except elephants, which had been wiped out by Arab ivory traders). We now know this was because smallpox had devastated the people, and rinderpest the cattle.

Chris Thouless told me that it was nearby that the talented artist-scientist Jonathan Kingdon discovered a bizarre fact. A stripy animal called the crested rat was known to be poisonous to dogs if caught. Kingdon worked out that the rat chewed on the bark of the same tree the Waliangulu used to make poison arrows, then spat into a fold in its fur.

One of Kenya’s biggest exports is cut flowers, its biggest market is Russia and the busiest week is leading up to Valentine’s Day. The pandemic needs to end by then.