The receding tide exposed a tangle of mangrove roots on the riverbank. A pair of malachite kingfishers fluttered in the dense foliage above, and fiddler crabs scuttled for cover as our boat disturbed the still brown water.
In these lower reaches of the delta, the Tana River flows slow and shallow. The main stem of the river drains into the Indian Ocean at Kipini further up the coast, but here its branches trickle into the sea. With a diminishing supply of freshwater, the ebb and flow of the tides now shape the landscape. River-dwelling creatures have retreated upstream, and thick mangrove forests have replaced wide open grasslands.
As we travelled deeper into the distributary network of the delta, our surroundings began to change. The vegetation on the banks of the river thinned, and we spotted fresh elephant and crocodile tracks in the black cotton soil. We rounded a bend and drifted into a large pod of hippos, bobbing and snorting in the shallows. A large male leapt out of the water in the direction of our boat, so we sped off upstream.
This stretch of the coast forms part of a 150,000 acre conservancy, managed by the Lower Tana Delta Conservation Trust. The trust was established 14 years ago by local Orma and Pokomo community members, to protect their rangelands. The Pokomo are pastoralists, farmers and fishermen, and have traditionally lived a subsistence lifestyle along the banks of the Tana. The Orma are semi-nomadic pastoralists, who rely on the river to water and graze their cattle.
Violent clashes between the two tribes have dominated their recent history, but the establishment of the trust has helped to shift their focus towards the protection of this fragile ecosystem. The delta was also designated as Kenya’s sixth Ramsar site in 2012, becoming a Wetland of International Importance.
The trust employs 12 community rangers, who play a vital role safeguarding the conservancy. They conduct regular patrols to deter poachers, monitor wildlife and respond to community conflict. As we explored the delta, we came across a number of illegal fishing nets spanning the width of the river, trapping everything that swept into it. It’s the job of the rangers to remove these nets, and to ban repeat offenders. They also prevent farmers from damming or diverting the river, and restricting the flow of water to settlements downstream.
Having reached a point in the delta where the water was too shallow to continue, we snaked our way back towards the beach, and to the Delta Dunes lodge where we were staying. The lodge is owned by a newcomer in Kenya’s hotel industry, called H12 Art of Life. H12 covers the lease to the community for the lodge, and every guest pays a conservation fee to the trust, supporting education, employment and medical facilities for its 13,000 members.
The lodge sits high up amongst sand dunes and doum palms in the heart of the Tana River Delta, near the village of Anasa. It’s not easy to reach, but this remoteness provides a refreshing sense of solitude. Its seven driftwood and palm thatch cottages are open to the elements, and offer spectacular views of the river on one side, the Indian Ocean on the other, or both. Whether we looked out towards the beach, or inland across the mangrove forests of the delta, there was very little sign of human habitation, save a few Pokomo fishermen drifting in their dug-out canoes.