Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The man eaters of Tsavo

A little bit of Kenyan history for you which I learned enroute to Tsavo National Park last weekend:

In March 1898 the British started building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya. The project was led by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson. During the next nine months of construction, two maneless male Tsavo lions stalked the campsite, dragging Indian workers from their tents at night and devouring them. Crews tried to scare off the lions and built campfires and bomas of thorn fences around their camp for protection to keep the maneaters out, to no avail. The lions crawled through the thorn fences.

After the new attacks, hundreds of workers fled from Tsavo, halting construction on the bridge. Patterson set traps and tried several times to ambush the lions at night from a tree. After repeated unsuccessful endeavors, he shot the first lion on December 9, 1898. Three weeks later, the second lion was found and killed. The first lion killed measured nine feet, eight inches (3 m) from nose to tip of tail. It took eight men to carry the carcass back to camp. The construction crew returned and completed the bridge in February 1899. The exact number of people killed by the lions is unclear. Over the course of his life, Patterson gave several figures, once claiming that there were 135 victims.

I have learned to be aware of abrupt movements in the wild (including Nairobi). The animals which you are viewing are shy and watchful. They have a habit of evading you when you least expect it. When bending down to reach for your camera, the animal has slipped out of view and skipped into the high marsh away from voyeuristic eyes. The stillness of their movements has a noble quality. We humans have lost the ability to be still, domestic animals too have lost this ability.

The elephant matriach has mastered the art of stillness, moving to the top of the herd and then stopping completly still to watch her human stalkers. The herd behind her, imitate every movement, trusting her movements and waiting in stillness to anticipate her next move. Movements are repeated over and over, a rhythmical tempo that blends in with the sights and smells of the landscape.

I was in awe of the majestic stilness of these great beasts, moving and stopping, moving and stopping across our path, reacting with stillness to our abrupt movements and the sound of the engine. They may not see very well but can certainly hear the slighest sound, even our whispers.We continued talking so as to keep the disrupted equilibrium going.When we spoke in whispers, the elephants stopped as if confused by our silence.

On our return to Lion's Bluff camp, we spotted two lionesses and seven cubs, on the path. The lionesses slowly moved aside while the cubs cowered in the high grass, staring at us while we stared at them.

And there were others; prancing dik dik, the Oryx, mongoose,and the sad sight of a dead elephant sprawled near the path, possibly due to drought, the corpse left alone without a vulture in sight...

One feels like a novice in the wild, the rules of the wild do not register easily for me. I grew up on a farm but even then, the only predator animal to be found was a lonesome bull, lurking in a field full of cows, and one would have to really upset it in order to get a reaction. I live by the safari rule- do not get out of the car and perhaps a survival strategy- throw myself into a thorn bush if chased by a wild cat or run up a tree, if there are trees nearby.

My friend, understands the rhythm of Africa. He has fallen in with the wind, and the colours and smells of the landscape. He has fallen into the tempo of the wild where stillness and movements are repeated over and over. There is much to be learned from the silence and stillness of the wild

as karen Blixen wrote in 1937

when you have caught the rhythm of Africa, you find it is the same in all her music

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