Preserving the Exotic & the Extinct

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The rare indigenous species of Sokoke forest cats with stripped grey bodies are now extinct in the wild. Sokoke cats are named after the Arabuko Sokoke forest in Kenya’s northern coast, where they lived until the 1970s before disappearing completely from the wild.

“The last individuals were shipped to Denmark and that is where the domestic breed was developed.” Donald Bunge, Wildlife manager at Mt Kenya’s Animal Sanctuary tells me. Sokoke cat is now recognized by the cat pedigree association. The captive breeding programme at the conservancy, aims to preserve the species in Kenya.

It is my first time to see bush pigs, stocky animals with long, bristly hairs and pointed ears. They are feeding on carrots, cabbage and other vegetables grown in the orphanage garden. It’s also my first time to see caracal cats, small slender carnivores with tan fur and tufted ears. They were found abandoned as kittens in the Laikipia County to the north. It’s almost feeding time and the caracals are pacing up and down along the fence in hungry anticipation.

For more than 50 years, countless rescued animals have found a caring home at the Mt Kenya Wildlife Sanctuary in central Kenya. Here injured, orphaned and abandoned wildlife are treated and rehabilitated with the aim of returning them back to the wild. Small duiker antelopes share an enclosure with the tiny Gunther’s dik dik recognisable from its protruding snout and a male ostrich walks freely in the well-tended gardens, picking maize kernels from Mwenda’s hand.

When I visit the animal park, the place is luxuriantly green after the rains. A female bush bushbuck leaps past me and wildlife officer Eric Mwenda. The bush buck has the run of the place while her feisty male counterpart stays in a wire mesh pen because he tends to pick fights with other animals.

Further ahead we come across a young buffalo called Nyati, rescued in the Aberdares mountain range after Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers spotted it wandering alone. He grazes on the grass and likes to befriend a solitary warthog or the giant tortoise.

The primate section is a menagerie of vervet monkeys, Sykes monkeys, colobus monkeys, baboons and the rare patas monkeys that have reddish-brown fur. There is also a unique mangaboon monkey called Safari. It is the accidental offspring of a rescued baboon that mated with a golden-bellied mangabey on transit from West Africa. This unnatural interspecies breeding means the mangaboon cannot reproduce.

The orphanage was founded in 1967 by Hollywood actor William Holden, former big game hunter Don Hunt and his wife Iris. Their first animal was Mary, an abandoned elephant calf and the victim of poaching. Mary was eventually transferred to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Orphanage facility in Tsavo National Park and reintegrated into the wild. Five years ago, the orphanage was bought by a Kenyan investor and is now open to visitors.

Wildlife manager Donald Bunge explains that when new animals come in they are first given a drink of warm water mixed with glucose. “They are checked for diseases and injuries and we identify suitable housing and a quarantine area.” The animal’s dietary requirements are quickly determined, a feeding regime is established and later the staff holds a naming ceremony.

Currently there are 140 animals and 29 species. Some of them were born here in birthing pens.

Not all the animals here are native to Africa. A herd of llamas that look like small camels originally came from South America. They were brought as pack animals for expeditions to Mt Kenya by visiting students.

In a muddy pool are two West African pygmy hippos, offspring of hippos gifted to Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta by Liberia’s president in the 1970s. They are siblings and so cannot breed. “But we are working with KWS to get individuals from other institutions and continue the species in the country,” says Bunge.

Caring for such a wide range of wildlife has its challenges such as contrasting food requirements, controlling parasites and disease vectors, managing interspecies competition and striking the correct carrying capacity balance between animals with different preferences.

For more complicated health problems, the conservancy calls upon KWS vets or the nearby North Kenya Veterinary Services. Sometimes the animals never regain full health. Among many local communities, owls are believed to be harbingers of death or misfortune. Two large Verreaux’s eagle owls have been brought in as fledglings by local residents after their nest was attacked in unclear circumstances.. This pair sustained permanent damage to their wings and although they have been treated, they will remain here all their lives.

Animals deemed fit for relocating to the wild are freed in areas similar their natural habitats after assessing an area’s climate, vegetation, water and food availability. But rewilding some captive animals is problematic such as the five full-grown cheetahs in the conservancy. Two of them were removed from the Nairobi Safari Walk due to space constraints while the other three were found as young cubs in another part of the country. Bunge explained that, “Hand-raised cheetahs and large cats are very difficult to put back into the wild unless it is a fenced area where they cannot stray to human settlements.”

57 staff and up to 40 casual workers work on the ranch. On a typical day they feed the animals, change water, clean the enclosures, monitor animal health, maintain the gardens and guide visitors around. At night, a wildlife officer stays in the orphanage and when they have new young arrival, a keeper remains with the animal overnight.

Adjacent to the park is a 1,200acre ranch that is home to more than 70 eastern mountain bongo. This rare antelope is endemic to Kenya and since 2004, the conservancy has run a breeding programme to boost bongo numbers. There are less than 100 bongos in the wild.

One beautiful feline at the orphanage is Azizi, a female leopard usually perched high up in an acacia tree inside a tall, fenced enclosure. She was found alone at just few months old and unable to hunt, was straying into homes and suspected of killing livestock. The KWS brought her here and now at 2-years old, Azizi i scheduled for release in a wild area free from livestock.


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