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Story behind the enduring legacy of Tsavo

 Elephants in Tsavo East. (Peter Muiruri/Standard)

Travel editors at the New York Times have listed Tsavo, Kenya’s largest conservation as one the places to visit in this year’s list of 52 Places to Go in 2024. Tsavo gained international acclaim as a result of two female lions, the world’s most maligned and vilified felines that had a fetish for human flesh.

The Indians who had become easy prey for the two lions in 1898 were among thousands constructing what was then known as the Uganda Railway, itself a controversial project that had British lawmakers on tenterhooks. British legislators had earlier poured scorn and derided the project as one having no tangible benefits to the British.

Still, the colonial government went ahead to build the one-meter gauge railway which became known, albeit sarcastically as the “Lunatic Express”. And if nothing else could convince the British lawmakers that the East African venture was doomed, the mauling of Indian ‘coolies’ in Tsavo surely did. So daring were the Tsavo lions that they were known to drag workers out of moving wagons.

In fact, the Indians believed that these were no mere lions, but some demons, or ghosts of departed African chiefs who were unhappy with the railway project. But the workers soldiered on and soon. Tsavo was behind them, but memories of lost colleagues lingered on for years.

Telling Tsavo’s story is recounting the history of a nation. In fact, long before Kenya became a nation, there was Tsavo, and all trade routes from the interior had to contend with the harsh terrain.

Slave traders drove their human cargo laden with ivory, skins and spices through the region, with many dying of hunger and disease. Could the lions have tasted human flesh before it became a staple? We may never know. Still, the Arab traders favoured this route rather than encounter the dreaded Maasai warriors.

In listing Tsavo among the most desirable places to visit this year, the American media house looked beyond the old and absurd theatre for a story of hope, one that still had to do with Tsavo’s wildlife. Danielle Pergament who describes herself as a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to NYT living in Madrid, Spain with her husband, two children, and their dog Norman, was taken in by Tsavo’s elephant rehabilitation story.

“In 2021, African savanna elephants went from vulnerable to endangered, putting them on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list for possible extinction. But in Kenya, the elephant population has grown by 21 percent since 2014, to a total of 36,280. Almost half live in Tsavo, home to Africa’s most successful elephant rehabilitation program, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust,” part of her citation at NYT reads.

Pergament continues: “At [Tsavo’s] heart are several core conservation projects, including an elephant orphanage, rehabilitation units and mobile veterinary clinics that have treated more than 11,000 animals, including some 3,500 elephants, since 1977. The organization has rehabilitated and released 200 elephant orphans (120 are still in their care) and runs anti-poaching teams, builds water sources and secures vulnerable boundaries.” 

It may seem ironical that a location that gained notoriety during the dark days of elephant poaching should be the place where these iconic creatures thrive. But then Tsavo has had the services of devoted conservationists David and Daphne Sheldrick.

David was born in 1919 in Egypt where his father had been fighting for his homeland during the First World War before the family moved to Kenya under the British soldiers’ resettlement programme, trying their hands at coffee farming in Mweiga, Nyeri.

It was David who, in 1948 and armed with “just one lorry, and a handful of labourers” had the unenviable task of transforming the uncharted Taru desert”, the size of Michigan State or Israel into a protected area as part of the then Royal National Parks of Kenya. Tsavo National Park was born.

So resilient was David that, as the founding warden, he was known to patrol Tsavo on foot despite the presence of the descendants of the ‘man-eaters’ and risking a run-in with poachers who were making inroads in Tsavo. He died in 1977, shortly before full-scale poaching decimate the vast herds to a mere 6,000. His work was immortalized by his wife, Daphne, who set up the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Daphne perfected her husband’s work or rearing and reintegrating orphaned elephants and rhinos back into Tsavo through Ithumba Reintegration Unit, located in the northern area of Tsavo East National Park.

Daphne was the first person to perfect the milk formula that the young animals depend on for survival. Daphne died in 2018 but the elephant rehabilitation programme she started with her husband lives on in Tsavo.

While David Sheldrick opened up Tsavo with roads, park offices and airstrips, its wild side has changed little over the years. The animals are still wild and the region barely hospitable. But Tsavo’s enduring legacy lies in the rugged beauty that continues to reel in visitors every year.

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