Endangered rhino flee Rift Valley bush fires

Endangered rhino flee Rift Valley bush fires

25 February 2008

published by www.timesonline.co.uk

Kenya — Visitors to Lake Nakuru in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley expect to seepink clouds of flamingos rising into the air. This weekend all they saw wasthick black clouds of smoke billowing across one of East Africa’s mostspectacular national parks, as wildfires cut a swath through its forests andplains.

By yesterday the worst of the fires had been beaten back, but it will takeyears for the park’s acacia and euphorbia woodlands to grow again. “The worstis over because there’s simply nothing left to burn,” said Jayne Nguatah, amanager at the Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge.

After two months of political and ethnic strife in Kenya, it was yet anotherblow to the region’s embattled tourist industry, she said. “When peopleimagine the place to be burnt they will not come here. We didn’t need this.”Lake Nakuru National Park is one of the must-see destinations for tourists onsafari.

The park was declared a rhino sanctuary in 1983. A restocking programme hasensured that the highly endangered black rhino now number almost 60. White rhinowere also brought in from South Africa.

Lake Nakuru park at the weekend. It will take years for trees to recover (ZOHRA BENSEMRA)

Much of their preferred browsing territory was destroyed in the fire andrangers are hoping that the animals will be able to move to some of the park’sother forested areas to the south of the lake, where leopards can also sometimesbe spotted in trees.

The lake’s alkaline waters are rich in blue-green algae, making it afavourite feeding ground for lesser flamingos. As many as 1.5million congregatearound its salt-encrusted shore, giving the water a shimmering pink sheen. Thespectacle makes it the country’s busiest park.

Yesterday there was none of the usual tour vans, only rangers trying toextinguish the last few flames licking charred tree stumps. Smoke stillspiralled into the air from 25 sq miles of blackened scrub, enveloping entirehillsides on the east side of the lake. Zebra stepped gingerly through smokinggrassland and buffalo began returning slowly to their forest territory.

The alarm was raised on Thursday as a bush fire, started by burning litter onthe neighbouring Soysambu estate, crossed into the park. The flames, fanned by astrong wind, spread across land parched at the end of the dry season. Rangershelped by soldiers, volunteers from Nakuru town and road grading equipment froma construction site, cleared firebreaks and brought the blaze under controlwithin hours.

A second fire — started by someone burning branches just outside the park— erupted the next day. It closed in on two lodges in the park and sentanimals fleeing. “The buffalo really panicked, going in this direction andthat,” said Ms Nguatah. “There were rhino and impala as well, all trying toget out of the way.”

The fire has destroyed much of the forest habitat preferred by the blackrhino. Charles Muthui, the park’s senior warden, said that there was still arisk of embers reigniting fires, particularly as buffalo dung could continueburning for days. “At least last night we all had a good sleep. Now we havemen there with a water bowser putting out the last stumps that are burning,”he said. His men will stay on watch until the arrival of rains, due next month.

Mr Muthui said there were no reports of animals being killed and he wasoptimistic that parts of the park would recover rapidly. “The pasture maysprout very fast once the long rains appear. Within a month the bushes will begrowing again,” he said. “But the trees they will take much longer – years,probably.”

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