On Patrol with the Kenyan Wildlife Service
Today we are enjoying our first rest day in the great nation of Kenya. The roads over the past few stages have been torturous on both bike and body, everyone is happy to have a day off. What's more, this is easily one of the nicest campsites we have experienced yet. We are lodged at the Kenyan Wildlife Service headquarters in Marsabit. The town is an oasis of lush rainforest on the side of a dormant volcano, surrounded by the harsh, barren Dida Gagalu desert. It is quite amazing to ride up from chalky, bumpy roads crafted from volcanic rock spewed forth from this mountain eons ago and arrive in a thriving town. What's even more amazing is that the day before yesterday we were struck by one of the most violent storms I have ever seen… in the middle of the desert. It was absolutely unreal.
Today while most of the riders attended to their washing, drying out their tents and shopping in the market for tonight's BBQ I was invited along on a patrol with the Kenyan Wildlife Service rangers. Now, when I think of Park Rangers my opinion is coloured by my experiences in Canada of friendly men and women manning park gates, ensuring that my park tags are up to date and reminding me that it still isn't a good idea to feed bears or encourage young children to totter up to wild Elk for that "perfect picture".
Here in Kenya, it's an entirely different story. The Kenyan Wildlife Service Rangers are dedicated, highly trained, highly armed individuals intent on protecting local animals and their environment from anything that may pose a threat. Last night, one of the officers, Jack, struck up a conversation with me. We talked about the challenges facing the Marsabit area, my experiences working with the WWF in Nepal and the differences between life in Canada and Kenya. Towards the end of our conversation I hesitantly asked if I would be able to accompany a number of his men on a patrol. He said yes, and I was overjoyed. No boring rest day for this guy.
This morning Mark Knight, Alex Shanny and myself pulled ourselves into the open canopy back of a camouflage green pickup truck alongside uniformed KWS Rangers sporting locked and loaded automatic rifles and full webbing. These guys meant business, even if it was just to take a few mzungus out on a regular patrol. Driving through the village prior to entering the patrol circuit it was clear these guys were liked and respected by the local community as we were inundated with frequent waves, smiles and shouts of "Jambo!" quickly replied to with a bellowing "Mizzuri!".
Upon entering the park we began to navigate a steep, muddy track up the volcano side, recent rains didn't help our cause as we frequently spun out and even got ourselves stuck twice. The good thing about getting stuck going up a mountain is that you can always hit it into reverse and try again, so we weren't waylaid for long. Upon reaching the top we gazed upon the volcanic crater mouth where ‘Paradise Lake' now sits as a watering hole for elephants, buffalo, baboons and numerous other animals in the Marsabit area.
Unfortunately for our timing the elephants and buffalo had retreated to the lowland plains to sun themselves for the day, nonetheless we were able to see firsthand how the Kenyan Wildlife Service rangers operated on a day to day basis. Some based themselves in the village, while others operate from posts along the mountain; constantly vigilant for poachers. Just last week the guys here came upon a poached carcass a few kilometers from were we are now. From the damage done to the elephant it becomes abundantly clear why they need to operate in such a militant manor. The poachers here are heavily armed and highly dangerous. KWS rangers are permitted to shoot them on sight as the poachers have no scruples about attacking neither man nor animal, and they have shot at these men in the past. Luckily for us there were no untoward run ins with ne'er-do-wells on our patrol, just a beautiful ride up to the top with some top notch guys who were eager to teach us about the Marsabit park and show us a day in their lives.