Hunt for elusive hartebeest at Solio

Friday January 9 2009


The Lelwel Hartebeest is a nationally endangered antelope and one of its last strongholds is the Solio ranch, which stretches from the southern edge of Laikipia district to Nyeri district.

Because we had seen the rare antelope, the mountain bongo (which had not been seen for many years since 1988 in the Aberdares) the previous day, I hoped lady luck would smile on us again and bring out the Lelwel hartebeest, commonly called kongoni.

Luckily, Sandai is just a 10-minute drive from Solio, and after a leisurely Sunday breakfast with new friends made at the homestay, we all troop to Solio between the Aberdares and Mt Kenya.

“Solio is a unique conservation idea,” explains Petra Allmendinger, who shows visitors round the private game reserve.

Solio is the largest private game reserve, formerly a cattle ranch-turned-wildlife haven, thanks to the late wife of the owner, who was concerned about space running out for wildlife.

When the country was hard hit by poachers slaughtering the rhino for the infamous rhino horn trade, her idea was to turn the land into a rhino sanctuary. It was an avant-garde idea but one that has worked, though not always smoothly, with poachers always on the lookout for any lapse in security.

Within minutes of driving into Solio, we come across the black rhino with the longest horn, easily stretching to 51 centimetres.

The lumbering beast moves about with little interest in us and we drive on thinking we’ve done really well when we come across the next lot of six white rhinos taking a siesta under the shade of a huge acacia tree.

In the centre of the family is a tiny calf looking so cute that you want to cuddle it in your arms. Of course, like all mothers, rhino mothers take no chances where their babies are concerned and will have little trouble sticking their horn through the intruder if need be.

One of the most endearing things about the white rhino is that the mother always has the calf walking in front of her, so that she never loses sight of it. An animal of the open plains, it is an evolutionary process while for the black rhino, a browser that hangs around in the thickets and is not a grass-mowing machine, the calf normally trails the mother.

Anybody who thinks that only humans have capacity for emotions, has to hang out in the wild to see how wrong they are. “Solio has so many different terrains,” continues Allmendinger, stopping on a bridge in the middle of a swamp directly below an acacia branch with a lilac-breasted rolled poised for a photo shoot. “There’s swamp, forest, bush and open grassland.”

Every few minutes, we see the rhinos — more of the white because they browse in the open plains — with an occasional sighting of a black. “If it wasn’t for Solio, I believe there would be no rhinos in Kenya today,” says Allmendinger. “The first rhinos restocked in almost all the national parks are from Solio.”

At this point, we’re sitting under another acacia tree for lunch on the plains, surrounded by rhinos and anyone would think that we’re having lunch with the prehistoric animals. A male ostrich bathing in the distance adds a dash of dust.

We spot a pair of coypus swimming in the swamp, rodents that were brought into the country from South America for fur-farming. Of course, some escaped, raising concern around Lake Naivasha and in other water bodies as they became pests and started upsetting the ecological balance.

We chance upon herds of reticulated giraffe, common zebra, impalas and Thomson’s gazelles and a lonesome Bateleur eagle perched on the high branch of a thorn tree. But no Lelwel Hartebeest and it’s getting close to closing time.

Sammy Mugo, who can identify 400 birds by sound, points to an article in Swara magazine of an endemic species of rare owls in the area. “These are Mackinder’s eagle owls. The cliff site is not far from here.”

He contacts Paul Muriithi, the coordinator of the owl project ,and we meet him at the tiny roadside town, from where we drive through local farms and homesteads to cliffs in the distance.

We begin our trek along the mud path through the farmers’ onion fields to the rare owls’ cliffs. Halfway through, the skies open and we get thoroughly soaked. Paul and Sammy can see the Mackinder’s eagle owls through the binoculars, but we can’t.

“You’re wet anyway, so there’s no point turning back. Let’s walk on and we’ll see the pair on the cliffs,” says Paul. At this point, it is a sensible suggestion and we plod on through the mud to the bottom of the valley, across a stream and by the cliffs.

Despite the two’s efforts to point out the birds to us, we cannot see them. Then, suddenly, one of the eagle owls lifts off from the cliff face and flies above to return to perch. Using the binoculars, we can see the birds perfectly blended against the cliffs.

“We’ve identified 26 breeding sites between the Aberdares and here,” explains Paul, “and I’m helping with research on the effects of farming on the owls. According to one questionnaire, 75 per cent of the local community believes that owls bring bad luck.”

Only 25 per cent know of the ecological importance of owls as pest controllers that eat rodents that destroy crops. The farmers are thus forced to use more chemical pesticides, which enter the food chain and end up in our body tissues. So perhaps it’s best to leave the owls alone for our own sake.


Fact file: Solio’s wildlife and the Mackinder’s Eagle Owl

If you’re around Mweiga, past Nyeri, and want a spot of owl tracking, contact Paul Muriithi on 0733-768871 or email: [email protected] or check the website

Charges for the owl walk are about Sh500 per person, depending on the duration – a whole day will cost more compared with an hour. Solio is a private ranch and game drives cost about Sh2,000 per person per day. There is no accommodation inside. Stay at Sandai, the beautiful homestay. Check rates at time of booking .

Contact: Tel: +254 (0) 721656699, +254 (0) 733734619, +254 (0) 203523232
email: [email protected]