Animals By the Thousand Arrive at Kenya's Meru National Park

NAIVASHA, Kenya, August 28, 2007 (ENS) - Some 2,000 wild animals are being relocated to Kenya's Meru National Park from areas of the country with larger populations as part of a drive by the government to revive and rebrand the park as "complete wilderness." Species such as the endangered Grevy's zebra, common zebra, impala, hartebeest and Beisa oryx are being moved in what the Kenya Wildlife Service is calling, "the greatest African ungulate translocation."

Early this month, Kenya Wildlife Service Director Julius Kipng'etich formally started the last phase of an historic process to restore the park's biodiversity that started in 2000.

Since the end of July when this relocation started, 396 zebras and 492 impalas out of the targeted 2,000 have been moved to the park. The animals are being taken from overstocked wildlife areas in Naivasha, Nakuru and Laikipia.

Zebras newly relocated to Meru National Park (Photo courtesy Kenya Ministry Tourism and Wildlife)
They are driven into funnel-shaped capture sites and loaded into crates. The system can only be used for smaller animals and is commonly used in South Africa.

This relocation will cost Sh8.8 million (US$135,000), says Paul Udoto, corporate communications manager with the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Meru National Park in northern Kenya, 348 kilometres (216 miles) from the capital Nairobi, lost its position as a premier destination for visitors seeking untamed wilderness when it suffered a downturn in the 1970s and early 80s due to rampant banditry and poaching.

During this period, poachers slaughtered 90 percent of the park's 3,000 elephants. Rhinos were completely wiped out. Lawlessness and land use conflicts between humans and wildlife devastated the park and tourism plummeted.

Since 2000, international donors Agence Francaise de Developpement, AFD, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW, have helped to bring animals back into the park. In April 2003, one of nine endangered white rhinos translocated to the park the month before gave birth to a healthy calf, the first born in the park in 20 years.

Thirty-nine reticulated giraffe from Lewa Wildlife Conservancy were relocated to Meru National Park in June 2003 as part of ongoing efforts to replace wildlife species in the vast protected area. In 2000, the Kenya Wildlife Service moved 66 elephants from private ranches in Laikipia to Meru. IFAW teamed up with the Born Free Foundation and Ol Pejeta Ranch, a private game sanctuary, to help the Service translocate the elephants. Each family group was captured and moved at one time to ensure that their social bonds were not disturbed.

Meru National Park is best known as the setting for George and Joy Adamson's book and Oscar-winning 1966 film "Born Free", about an orphaned lioness cub they raised and named Elsa.

Joy Adamson acquired the lioness after George shot its mother in self-defense. The film depicts the dilemma the Adamsons faced when their time in Kenya came to an end, forcing them to decide whether to place Elsa in a zoo, or to attempt to teach the domesticated lioness to hunt and fend for herself. Else was successfully released back into the wild.

Relocated to Meru National Park in 2003, reticulated giraffes survey their new habitat. (Photo courtesy IFAW)
Gazetted as a protected area in 1966, Meru National Park straddles the equator at the foot of the Nyambene Hills. It is inhabited by rare and unique animal species characteristic of semi-arid areas and is dominated by tall grass, lush swamps, thorny acacia, bush lands, and 14 permanent rivers.

The rivers support swamps and river forests with such diverse trees as figs, tamarinds and doum palms. There are 400 recorded species of birds, including such rare species as Peter's finfoot and Pel's fishing owl.

The Kenya Wildlife Service, with millions of dollars in support from AFD and IFAW, has invested in new infrastructure developments including four airstrips, visitor accommodation facilities, roads, gates, staff housing and community projects.

These funds have allowed rebuilding of the park's original ranger headquarters, repair of security vehicles, and fencing of two nearby farms to prevent elephants from wandering onto them.

The Service is building one of its biggest ranger camps with 129 housing units at the park's Murera gate to boost security and avoid a repeat of the 1980s poaching and banditry.

Earlier this month, investors in the tourism industry were invited to purchase sites in four development locations in parks and reserves in the Meru Conservation Area, which includes the Meru and Kora national parks and the Bisanadi and Mwingi national reserves, having a total of 5,000 square kilometers (1,930 square miles).

A 10 year management plan for the area, unveiled at the end of June 2007, opened 13 new sites for construction of tourism facilities in Meru National Park.

All these moves are in line with Kenya's Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife's shift "from mass to exclusive high-end tourism," says Udoto.

Some of the area's key tourist attractions include game viewing, wilderness habitats, the grave of Elsa the lioness and the home of Joy and George Adamson, a rhino sanctuary, Adamson's Falls, and boating opportunities on River Tana.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.