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On the trail of Sitatunga antelopes

By | January 14th 2010

Kassim Shitawah

Recently I was in Kitale town with two French friends to review the projects being undertaken by an international NGO working in the area that they were sponsoring.

I was accompanying them to help in bridging the communication barrier between them and the locals.

When we arrived in Kitale, I was pleasantly surprised by the warm ambience of the town and the hospitality of the locals. Of the many towns I have visited in the country, I found the town most tranquil and serene. I felt safe walking with my mobile phone in my pocket and laptop bag slung over my shoulder.

The local staff of the NGO took us to the areas where they have implemented projects on the prevention and management of HIV and Aids, peace and reconciliation, and supporting survivors of sexual and gender based violence.

French philanthropists take a break on a boardwalk. [PHOTOS: KASSIM SHITAWAH/COURTESY]

We cleared our business earlier than anticipated so we decided to tour some of the attractions around the town. I immediately thought of Saiwa Swamp National Park. I had never visited it so I sought the services of a local driver-cum-guide going by the name of Cleophas. He was not loud, braggart or a verbose know-it-all. Instead, he was quiet and composed, always giving honest answers to our questions.

We set off from Kitale in the morning and took the Lodwar highway. On reaching the Kipsaina junction, we branched off to the right and followed the signposts leading to Saiwa National Park. Villages and farms spotted the road. We could see the locals busy working on farms while chatting merrily to each other.

It is hard to imagine that a national park lies amidst this agriculturally rich zone. After an hour of driving we arrived at the park’s main gate. We drove farther inside after clearing the entry formalities. We drove for a few metres until we got to a clearing that was the last point for vehicles. We got out and asked one of the game rangers to show us the nature trails.

The park is centred around a swamp that is the natural habitat of the Sitatunga (a species of antelope). Measuring about three-kilometres-square, Saiwa Swamp National Park is the smallest park in Kenya and can be explored on foot. Several platforms and watchtowers make it easy to observe animals and birds.

Indigenous trees

Established in 1974 to protect the Sitatunga and the nesting grounds for the crowned crane, the park is also home to numerous species of indigenous trees such as the African Green Heart, Croton Megalocarpus, Stranglers fig tree, the umbrella-looking Parasol tree, orchids and Bryophytes among others. The park has recorded 660 floral species.

Apart from the Sitatunga, there are also several species of birds together with tree squirrels, bushbuck and various species of monkeys including the De Brazza, black and white Colobus monkeys.

The game ranger gave us a few hints on how to successfully observe animals in the park. One is supposed to be very quite and patient while looking out for animal tracks. Any slight movement in the nearby bushes attracted our attention.

When a tourist spotted a Fauve antelope deep in the bushes, we scrambled for binoculars to get a better look. We almost thought we had spotted the prized Sitatunga but on closer observation, we realised it was a female bushbuck. Startled, it scampered hurriedly deeper into the bushes.

Boardwalks have been erected across the swamp to enable visitors cross over in search of the elusive antelope amid other wildlife. Trails pass through the cool dense forest. The terrain is flat making walking very comfortable.

Sudden commotion

In some places the forest canopy is so thick that one cannot see the sky. Most trees are well labelled, the nametags showing scientific, English and local names together with its uses.

A sudden commotion in the branches revealed a family of De Brazza monkeys — with a white beard! — looping from one branch to another with amazing agility. These swamp monkeys are always found near water and are excellent swimmers and tree climbers. The white beard gives the monkeys a comical look of an old man.

Further on, a troop of Colobus monkeys boasting a beautiful coat of white and black perched high in the tree canopy. These arboreal monkeys spend the entire day up in tree canopies looking for shoots, berries and fruits, which forms their diet. They only come down to get water. Strangely they are the only primates without a thumb!

We still had not spotted the Sitatunga and it was getting very hot. As it is known they hide from heat, we decided to climb one of the watchtowers and observe the park from there. From up there, we were able to see a couple of crown cranes.

From the corner of my eye (through the binoculars), I saw a brownish animal standing motionless in the reeds. It was a Sitatunga antelope!

We waited patiently hoping the Sitatunga will move. Then we noticed a second one lying next to it. The second one had horns meaning it was male. The first one was female.

The Sitatunga is a very shy and secretive antelope. It is also an excellent swimmer and will dive deep in water and submerge itself completely except for the nose.

Outrun predators

This is its defence mechanism in case of any danger. The Sitatunga has an oily shaggy coat that is water repellent. It has elongated and splayed hooves that make it easy to walk on submerged vegetation and effortlessly outrun its predators.

On land, however, the Sitatunga has difficulties since it has a clumsy gait. Other places where Sitatungas can be found include the papyrus swamps of Lake Victoria, the King’wal Swamp in Kapsabet and Lewa Downs.

We left the park later in the afternoon after enjoying a picnic lunch at the park’s only campsite. You could not wipe the feeling of accomplishment as we headed back to Kitale.

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