Elephants,” Abeid Said, a Kenya Wildlife Service officer, says as he points at the leafless thicket full of thorns.
We’ve driven into the Tana River Primate Reserve from Garsen at daybreak – it’s a 40-minute drive on roads partially tarmac and partially potholed. Said has been informed by the villagers of Baomo and Makere, which are on the periphery of the reserve, about the elephants and he’s keeping an eye on the herd. Earlier, we saw three Lesser kudu on the Garsen-Garissa road.
Excited, we jump out of the car to follow Said, hoping to see the pachyderms through the dense thickets. We can hear them snap branches as they forage and the occasional rumble as they catch scent of us and move further in.
I’m surprised to see that a group of people has silently followed us - a visiting family from the USA guided by Abio Lisania Gafo, the office attendant at the Mchelelo Research Centre in the reserve.
It’s a really nice surprise to see him again; we first met in the reserve almost a decade ago when Najma Dharani, the author of Acacias of East Africa and I wanted to photograph the Acacia rouvumaei, which is found in this area. Gafo led us to a perfect one to photograph.
The guides caution us to stay back as the elephants continue to forage. The elephants have proven to be a distraction; they weren’t on the list but it’s always exciting to be surprised.
“The elephants are residents of this area,” Gafo tells us. “We have 57 and they move in groups of six or three. KWS works with the community to keep the elephants away from the villages.”
Done with the elephants, we walk to the riverine forest along the mighty Tana where the red colobus monkeys and the crested mangabey are found.
On our first visit, we saw the troops easily because we spent the night in the reserve. Even though it’s only 7am, it’s hot and the monkeys are slinking into the cool forest. A foot-long earth-coloured snake quickly moves out of the path as we pass by it.
The river forest is cool with lush palms and towering acacias. Said points to an A. rouvumaei in the dense forest close to the Tana. A crocodile suns itself on the banks and a hippo disappears into the water while a myriad of wetland birds flock to the river bank.
Turning around, we look for the ‘only to be seen here’ primates. We spot the Sykes and then a troop of the red colobus foraging high up in the forest canopy. Specialised feeders, their stomach can only digest leaves.
“The last census was done in 1995,” Said informs us. “Then there were two groups, which have increased to eight groups.”
“Both the red colobus and the crested mangabeys have increased in number. The crested mangabey divided into two groups because there were too many males.”
It sounds like we’re gossiping.
While we’re craning our necks to see the rare monkeys, Jonathan Mwashorko of Nature Kenya, a keen birder, is listing the birds in the forest: square-tailed drongo, lilac-breasted roller, eastern pale chanting goshawk, black-headed apalis, yellow-billed stork and a dozen more.
“The red colobus don’t disturb the farmers because they don’t feed on farm crops,” continues Said. “At around 9am, they relax and you’ll see their limbs and tails hanging down as they lie on the branches. The crested mangabey are ground feeders but they are also no problem to the farmers.”
It will be interesting to read what the researcher reports about the two primate species that the reserve is famous for as she trails them in and outside the reserve where they mingle with humans.
But for now, it’s a good feeling to see these once very threatened species doing well.