February 13, 2010
Tristan McConnell in Kenya
Shortly after dawn yesterday, as a large orange sun shone across a classic Rift Valley scene of grassland, acacia trees and misty blue hills, the silence was broken by the thumping blades of a helicopter.
The pilot made low, buzzing runs at small herds of zebra, coaxing them towards a 50m-wide funnel-shaped trap with Tarpaulin walls hidden among the trees.
Once the stamping, snorting animals were inside the funnel, rangers in camouflage fatigues shouted and used sticks to cajole them towards waiting trucks.
The first truck was loaded with 21 zebras; the second with 19. Herding the 40 took an hour and a half. Then the trucks began a five-hour drive south — the first consignment in one of the largest enforced animal migrations.
Their destination is Amboseli, a drought-stricken national park in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, and its population of hungry lions.
Years of drought have killed off the lions' prey, forcing them to look outside the park for their meals. This brings them into conflict with farmers and herders who also depend on their herds of cattle and goats for survival.
An estimated 100 lions are killed every year by angry herders. With only 2,000 of the big cats remaining, they are a top priority for the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the body responsible for the country's diverse animals.
Now, however, with the man-made migration of zebras and wildebeest, "the lions are happy", Isaac Lekolool, the KWS veterinary surgeon in charge of animal capture and translocation, told The Times. "We bring the food closer to them. We are doing this translocation to restock Amboseli because last year we lost most of its herbivores. It was a bad year for Amboseli."
The relocation will cost about £870,000 and take many weeks to complete.
The zebras and wildebeest are rounded up from private estates such as Soysambu, a 44,000-acre conservancy and cattle ranch wrapped around Lake Elementaita in the Rift Valley.
Soysambu is owned by the Delameres, one of Kenya's oldest and most famous white settler families. Last October Thomas Cholmondeley, the Eton-educated heir to the fifth Baron Delamere, was released from prison after serving time for the manslaughter of a black man found poaching on his estate.
Since then Mr Cholmondeley has thrown himself into developing Soysambu as a conservation and tourism destination. He described Friday's operation as fantastic.
The restocking of Amboseli will provide lions with enough food within the park so they do not need to hunt outside and will help to restore the natural equilibrium between herbivores and carnivores that was disrupted by the drought.
KWS also hopes that it will help tourism, Kenya's main foreign earner. "Amboseli is a tourist facility and if the tourists come and they don't see animals they are not happy," Dr Lekolool said.
Last year visitors to Amboseli were horrified by the rotting corpses andbones strewn across the parched landscape and the stench of decomposing animals that filled the air.
The arrivals over the coming weeks will bring new life to Amboseli and, it is hoped, will help Kenya's lions to survive a little longer.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org