Here is an article published in the March, 2011, edition of East Africa’s Destination magazine, written by Juliet Barnes.
“In the vast savannahs of Africa there is a dimension of time and space that is an echo of our own beginnings and which reminds us that we were not born initially to live in the concrete jungle” -William Holden
Snakes Suffer Too. Poor old puff adders – nobody likes them. I felt a shard of pity when I heard that they’re supposed to live in hot, dry areas, but nowadays they’re being found on the forested slopes of Mount Kenya. Like us, snakes are victims of climate change. I looked at the stuffed puff adders, amongst many other specimens at The William Holden Wildlife Foundation
Education Centre: The African monarch is more palatable because it’s beautiful, but actually it’s also poisonous – other butterfly species mimic it so they don’t get snapped up by predators either. Nature is indeed a stage for a myriad of miracles. However this intricate ecosystem on Africa’s second highest mountain, also a World Heritage Site, is – as the puff adders prove – under very serious threat. William Holden Wildlife Fund Education Centre.
This Centre inspires school children (aged 11 and up), from all over Kenya, irrespective of background, to think about conservation. It’s not open to the public, although representing Destination I was hosted by Administrator David McConnell and shown around by Michael Ng’ang’a, Educational Coordinator. This conservation guru imbues these youngsters with knowledge and wisdom, his lectures tailored to age and background. This unique educational experience is mainly conducted in the great outdoors, supplemented with talks and films in the impressively stocked library/ lecture theatre.
Day groups combine activities at the Centre with visiting the nearby Animal Orphanage. The more comprehensive three day programme adds in campfire discussions and quizzes, treasure hunts around the nature trail, a game drive in the Centre’s four wheel-drive vehicles (including the popular six-wheeler), a weather station visit, and activities like tree-planting, cleaning up litter, or dismantling snares. Older kids climb a hill, studying vegetation zones and the uses of indigenous plants. Groups bring food and bedding, otherwise the entire experience, including cooking facilities, washrooms and spacious dormitory tents, is free.
However this is no frivolous picnic on Mount Kenya; alcohol and cigarettes are banned, and groups must partake in the programme. Before leaving they clean up. Afterwards they’re expected to write up their observations.
My kids did the three day visit and came back preaching conservation. They’d stroked a baby bongo and met llamas (No way! I thought. Ha! Perhaps we should listen to our kids…) Like the other 10,000 plus youngsters who visit annually, or benefit from the Centre’s outreach programmes, they learned valuable lessons to carry with them into adulthood in an ever challenging world where the destruction of natural resources is spiralling our planet into crisis.
Recycling and Conserving
This was about the only two days in the year the WHWF wasn’t fully booked, so it was relatively quiet, apart from the shouts of red-chested cuckoos from the treetops. As we toured the attractive, well-maintained buildings and grounds, I learned about combatting climate change (which we can all do at home) and Mount Kenya’s crucial importance. Nature is artfully designed to work in harmony, but bring in one factor and it all goes amiss. A sign in a glade on the nature trail directs you to open a door to see the environment’s greatest enemy. You find yourself gazing in a mirror!
First we toured the wetland that recycles all the camp’s waste water, emerging in the last pond having been cleaned by plants and filtered through stones. I was shown a simple biogas plant converting llama dung (more on llamas later) – although cow dung is better – into cooking gas. One parent expressed much gratitude after his daughter forced him to make biogas at home. Every youngster also makes an eco-friendly briquette: gently squeezing and moulding a ball made of soaked sawdust, waste paper, dry grass, leaves and charcoal dust, then dried into a cheap, slow-burning fuel alternative that emits minimal smoke. Michael invented his own briquette press.
Then there’s a solar water boiler – a black kettle hung in a reflecting cone, tilted to catch the sun’s rays; a bush fridge and solar box oven. Youngsters also learn the importance of composting, separation of waste and recycling.
The nature trail winds through unspoiled forest alongside the clear, glacier-fed Nanyuki River. There’s information on everything from soil quality to climate change. All groups plant a tree and harvest seeds for the nursery, taking seedlings back to school. They’re also shown organic farming: there are trout ponds, ducks, geese and rabbits and vegetable gardens with space and water-saving examples in sacks and tyres. Across the fence denuded land beside Kaloleni village reminds us of this forest’s fragility: we’d seen butterflies, birds, monkeys and two rare, wild black river duck. The other side of the fence supports nothing.
Movie Stars and History
Actress Stefanie Powers is the driving force behind the WHWF Education Centre. Best remembered co-starring with Robert Wagner in Hart to Hart (which earned her five Emmy award nominations), she’s still starring, mainly on stage nowadays. Stefanie’s nine-year love affair with actor William Holden kept her close to Kenya. A year after he died in 1981, Stefanie opened this Centre on land donated by the Hunts, fulfilling Holden’s dream. In her autobiography One from the Hart, she writes: “I see his legacy in the animals he helped to preserve and the people whose lives he bettered.”
Holden’s love affair with Kenya began when he first visited in 1964. He met a fellow big game hunter, Don Hunt, well known in America for his children’s educational TV show. Both realising the importance of protecting Africa’s animals, they bought land and founded the Mount Kenya Game Ranch in 1967 – the first in Kenya. Don also met his future wife, German-born Iris, in Kenya. Heavy poaching in the 70’s prompted their rescuing and translocating of many vulnerable species with the blessing of Kenya’s first President, the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. The ranch offered safe sanctuary, while surplus stock were exported to zoos in the USA and to other African reserves. When Iris’s house and bedroom became too full of rescued creatures in need of expert care, she started the orphanage.
Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy
In 2004 the Game Ranch became the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy. Separate from the WHWF, albeit working together side by side, this 1,200 acre sanctuary is still home to Stefanie Powers and Don and Iris Hunt, as well as 1,500 animals – some 28 species. Reserved for the breeding and rehabilitation of wild animals, it’s not open to the public.
We drove around in the evening light, watched over by Mount Kenya’s peaks, the glaciers elusive behind a shifting wreath of cloud. There’s only one white rhino left after “big muma” was machine-gunned by a gang hell-bent on getting her horn.
Happier news was the golden-eyed, white zebras; early British explorers reported these ghostly creatures on the Leroghi Plateau near Maralal. Later a couple more were sighted on Mount Kenya and zoologists labelled them Albinistic Sports.
As poaching escalated, the Hunts captured the four remaining white zebra from Leroghi and moved them to their game ranch where they bred well. Now over 100 have now been released on the mountain and future plans include releasing more up north.
There are non-indigenous, rescued animals too: two pygmy hippo who yawn for a cookie from Iris, an elderly zebroid (horse-zebra cross) – one of the original pack animals used on Mount Kenya and South American llamas. These crazy-looking creatures (I just love the toothy stare), woolly relatives of our camel, were originally donated by Don’s brother and have bred so well that 12 have been donated to Kenyan universities in the highlands. Amongst their many uses, they are wonderful pack animals, used for scaling the high Andes. The kids at the WHWF Centre actually get to walk with them!
The Animal Orphanage
Above all this isn’t a zoo, Iris emphasises, but a temporary home for creatures with special needs. Over 1,000 animals have already been released back into the wild. We were accompanied by Peter Fundi, currently working on his thesis (he’s been studying bongo for a decade so he’s THE bongo “fundi”). Iris introduced me to the animals as if they were her kids. Some are – she’s raised a variety of babies including a rhino, lion cubs, Mary the elephant – today living in Tsavo with her own babies, Batian the cheetah who became a film star and Max, a baby chimpanzee. We were followed closely by Fundi’s “baby” – a three month old impala, who only survived because Fundi slept beside her. “It’s not a nine to five job,” Iris emphasises. Indeed the Hunts had to live in Tsavo for months to successfully rehabilitate Mary.
Some released orphans return, like the caracal who has been released three times – now being prepared for release further away. Karen the bushbuck, whose mother was eaten by a leopard, has been resident for six years: she leaves to find mates, but returns to her comfort zone to give birth.
Karen and her two grown babies, who haven’t left yet either, were happily playing chase with a baby bongo in the evening sun. Other animals, like the monkeys, are released in family groups. Meanwhile they’re breeding: a Colobus nursed her baby and a Pattas monkey restrained hers from coming too close to us. Patricia the ostrich looked on as I met the world’s first “mangaboon.” A crested Mangabey, confiscated in Zurich, made friends with a baboon and this was the result! Things that wouldn’t happen in the wild happen here: three cheetahs, abandoned cubs who were hand-raised, ignore the Mount Kenya Hartebeest. Romeo the porcupine tolerates Matata, half-whitenosed monkey and half-Sykes, who steals his food. The bush pig wants a scratch. Sokoke wild cats mew for their dinner. The whole place takes on the slightly surreal feeling of an incredibly cosmopolitan, blissfully happy boarding school.
The Bongo Project
I met Kate, a beautiful young bongo, named in honour of Prince William’s engagement. William Holden called bongos the “stars” of the Mount Kenya ecosystem. A big, dark male, with impressive horns, wanders by. Fundi says he’ll grow to over 450 kg. “Aren’t they beautiful?” Iris echoes my thoughts. “They used to be all over Mount Kenya…” I notice her pendant is painted with a bongo.
Back in the 1970’s, after studies indicated a drastic decrease in bongo populations, 20 animals were sent by the Hunts to the USA to breed. In 2004, when bongos had become officially endangered, the first group arrived back home. After settling back in they bred successfully in special designated areas within the conservancy, slowly encouraged to become wild again. Several years later this was named one of the world’s top ten Most Successful Conservation Projects, focussing worldwide attention on the importance of Mount Kenya.
Now there are over 80 bongos, with the first group ready to be released back into the Mount Kenya forest. Don’s vision is to have 400 wild bongos back on the mountain in ten years time.
At the WHWF Centre a plaque acknowledges donors – including Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Martina Navratilova, Paul Newman and Robert Wagner. The orphanage has “tiles” displaying similar. Youngsters in Kenya, whether from private or government schools, benefit from their generosity. Iris assured me that these outfits are transparent – true music to any Kenyan’s ears: every cent of every donor dollar goes back in. “William Holden”, Iris smiled, “used to be sent off to do a film when we needed a new tractor.” They pay their Kenyan staff, but everyone else (international staff) does it for love. But why is it always up to foreign donors? Kenya is surely reaching a place where we are able to give back – to join in protecting our natural resources. Isn’t it time we gave back to our priceless natural heritage?
The WHWF Education Centre also runs outreach programmes for rural schools and communities. Their Bongo Outreach Programme targeted 61,000 people in 2009: many didn’t even know this endangered antelope existed.
David took me to two of the five government schools where the WHWF have built libraries and kitchens. At Guara Primary it was heartening to see the spotless building housing offices, a lecture hall and a library with the emphasis being on conservation. Wathituga Primary had an older, more established library, creatively decorated with maps, charts and posters. They also had a kitchen with an innovative environmentally friendly cooking pot.
Facing the Future
Flying back to Nairobi, via Loisaba and Samburu, I had the chance to see the desperate drought below. A former lifeline, the Ewaso Nyiro River, fed by Mount Kenya’s streams had dried up. Here was a horrifying reminder of the importance of educating the next generation so they can endeavor to repair a frail future.
The Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, Animal Orphanage and William Holden Wildlife Fund Education Centre are situated beside the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club. Urgent assistance with funding is required.
Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club
Tel: +254 20 226 5000
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