Chris Gordon, ZSL's Kenya Country Manager, is working to protect the Critically Endangered black rhino in Tsavo West National Park. He shares a typical day in his life...
06:00 – I am woken up by the sun filtering in through the windows of the rustic stone hut, with no curtains to darken the view. A flock of helmeted guinea fowl “caaarck” manically outside, followed by the rushed beating of wings as they all scramble away from some unseen danger.
I’m down in Tsavo West National Park, a vast expanse of wilderness in the south east corner of Kenya. Laid out in front of me is a green carpet of Acacia bushes rolling up to the base of the Ngulia Mountains, and beyond them, far in the distance, I can just make out the snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro.
I take in the view while enjoying a cup of freshly brewed coffee; a coffee percolator is one of the few luxuries I always carry to the field. Most of the time I’m based out of Nairobi, but I come down to Tsavo once or twice a month for work as the ZSL Kenya Country Manager. Tsavo is home to ZSL Kenya’s flagship project, which focuses on monitoring and protecting the critically endangered eastern black rhino.
06:30 – I meet up with two Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) security rangers, Abdi and Kenneth, to conduct a ranger patrol of one of the security blocks in Tsavo West. ZSL has been working with KWS since 1989, providing technical support and building capacity of teams on the ground.
Over the past two years, ZSL has been training KWS on new systems to monitor their patrol efforts so that Platoon Commanders can track ranger patrol coverage and be more strategic to ensure they are regularly visiting critical rhino areas.
We begin the patrol, slowly creeping through the dense vegetation of Tsavo. Both rangers are carrying semi-automatic weapons so that they are prepared in case they should encounter poachers in the bush. Care is taken with every footstep, avoiding dry branches or leaves to minimise our noise. I note which way the wind blows, ensuring that I am always walking towards it so that my scent doesn’t give me away. Communication between us is through hand signals only. Our progress is occasionally checked as one of us detangles ourselves from the “wait-a-bit” thorn.
07:30 – We hear a grinding chew from a rhino feeding ahead of us. We manoeuvre between bushes until I have a clear view of the rhino’s head. It’s Bill, one of the oldest bulls in the area, his distinctive horn shape an obvious feature. Kenneth takes a photo and records the information; this will feed into the intensive rhino monitoring programme that ZSL has helped to establish here. We retreat and continue the patrol. As we leave, the rhino gets wind of our scent, gives a sharp exhale and crashes through the bushes.
10:00 – I drive over to the main ranger base to meet ZSL’s Field Manager, Moses. Moses runs our team on the ground, providing operational and technical support to the Park Management Team. We quickly check on the progress of a couple of our projects. The walls are currently being plastered on a new accommodation block that we are completing. A chalk outline marks the new office block which we will begin constructing shortly, with two of the ZSL team beginning to dig the foundations.
A team of labourers unload rocks from the tractor trailer nearby. It takes a huge amount of hard work and effort behind the scenes to keep a National Park running effectively, which is why our role in Tsavo is to support the Kenyan Government and Park Management Team where we can.
11:45 – I meet with Horris, the KWS Rhino Researcher, to discuss how we can improve the monthly rhino monitoring report. Horris is sorting through all the camera trap photos that were collected from the field yesterday, identifying the rhinos in each picture by counting their ear notches and looking at the shape of their horns and any other unique features such as a missing tail! Understanding the rhino population is critical for protecting them from poachers.
13:30 – Moses and I drive out to check on the progress of the team cutting firebreaks. Due to Tsavo’s immense size, the most effective way to stop wild fires from spreading is to have large firebreaks of cleared vegetation, usually alongside dirt roads, so that the fire runs out of material to burn. The team have now managed to cut 20km of firebreaks around important rhino habitat. We need to get these finished as soon as possible before the dry season reaches its height in September. The team are currently resting under the shade of a Boscia tree nearby, with the sun now at its hottest.
15:00 – I arrive at the National Park Headquarters to meet with the Senior Park Warden and his management team. We discuss progress on the current projects and outline the workplan for the next six months. ZSL is a guest of KWS, working inside the National Park, and therefore it’s important that all the projects that ZSL delivers fit into the objectives of the Park Management Team. These regular meetings are vital for ensuring that we are all working collaboratively.
18:00 – I arrive back at the camp and make my way up the hill to a nearby rocky outcrop. I know this is the only place I can regularly find mobile phone signal. I call home to speak to my family before my children head off to bed. My 3-year old daughter takes great pleasure in telling me about the chameleon she found in the garden at home.
18:30 – I pull up a chair on the camp veranda just in time to see the sun start to drop behind the Ngulia Mountains, the clouds above turning orange first and then a dusky pink. I open a cold beer from the coolbox and enjoy an African sundowner, the first few gulps removing the dust from my throat and the heat from the day.
20:00 – I drive over to the nearby waterhole in the darkness, spotting the odd zebra blinking in the glare of my headlights. Two rangers are sitting in a concrete bunker a few metres from the water’s edge, where they will spend the night on full alert. A full moon at a waterhole is the most dangerous time for rhino because they are highly vulnerable to poaching.
After 45 minutes of waiting in silence, a rhino cow and calf slowly walk towards the water pan, stopping every few metres to listen and sniff the air. Their eyesight is poor and this cautious approach keeps them safe. The mother eventually gets to the pan, and even though she is standing 30m from me, I can hear every gulp of water. She also needs to remove the heat from the day.
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