Princess and the Beast

The Princess and the Beast

A Rescue of Grevy Zebra • Part 1

By Iris Hunt

An unplanned visit of royalty in our capture camp turns hazardous with a young elephant in trouble and her maddened mother on the rampage.

It seemed to be all in a day’s work back then, more or less. But reflecting on it now, many years later, it would seem like a fairy tale, my mind playing tricks. Yet we’ve still got the pictures to prove it all happened – an unexpected, perilous adventure as it turned out with real-life royals.

They were Princess Margaretha of Sweden and her English consort, John Ambler, whom Don and I met quite by chance. They had heard about the role the Mount Kenya Game Ranch was playing in wildlife conservation and wanted to meet with our partner, Bill Holden, to discuss how they might become involved themselves.

Zebra capture

Bill was in Kenya at the time, working up at our capture camp near Maralal in Northern Kenya. He was about to return to Hollywood to make a film from which he would later inject fresh funds into the operations. But he was able to make time to meet up with the Amblers briefly before flying off.

He advised them to join Don and I on an animal rescue safari and see exactly what we do. It was, though, something of a tongue-in-cheek invitation. Although he liked the unstuffy, apparently enthusiastic royals – he doubted they were up to roughing it in the hot, desert wilds of the old Northern Frontier District.

A week later, we were up there ourselves at a place called Muramar Dam, little known to anyone but the local Samburu who water their cattle there. It was remote from anywhere – about a four-hour drive north over atrocious tracks from Nanyuki. But the surrounding area, the Kisima Plains and Karisia Hills, was teeming with game.

Zebra capture

We’d set up a fairly spartan camp by the dam and were getting up at four in the morning for the catching operations. Part of the daily routine was to be back at base in the afternoon and a couple of hours snooze through the fierce heat of the day.

But the well-earned siesta was interrupted this particular afternoon with the unannounced arrival of visitors rattling and clanking into camp in a small, beaten-up sedan. As we watched it judder to a stop, we wondered who’d been crazy enough to risk the trip unescorted and in a vehicle altogether unsuitable for a terrain of baked, rutted grit, sand rivers and who knows what else they’d encountered on the obstacle course up from Nanyuki.

It was, of course, Her Royal Highness and consort – clearly tired, faces streaked with damp rivulets of dust, but with the Princess smiling cheerfully as she brushed down her skirts and made the introductions. We were to please call them Margaretha and John – thoroughly enjoying themselves as they were, she explained, remote from the routine formality of their official lives. They couldn’t wait to see what we were up to in our exciting bit of bush…

Zebra capture

Don and I exchanged a quizzical (or actually an incredulous) glance and proposed afternoon tea from a thermos on the sandbank we offered in lieu of a lawn. It was too late for them to get back before dark, but we were sure that, with curiosity satisfied after a night in the spare tent, they would be happily on their way with a fine story of bush adventure to retail to their society friends in Stockholm and London, no doubt over “proper” tea at The Savoy or some similarly suitable environment.

But they were an engaging couple, increasingly so through the ritual sundowner of a couple of Scotches, an excellent candlelit dinner, more campfire chat… and so, eventually, to their cot beds. Far too fatigued at that stage to be sensible of, let alone anxious about, whatever perils might be imagined out there in the African night.

Zebra capture

Don and I arranged to get up at 4 a.m. as usual, but told the night guard to let the guests sleep until they rose of their own accord. They were then to be served a full English breakfast, the cook was advised, and given a note we’d leave behind, thanking them for their visit and expressing the hope that we’d meet again somewhere more salubrious than a working capture camp.

We duly got our early wake up call and had the usual breakfast of tea and slices of a high calorie bran cake that would keep us going until our return to camp anything up to 12 hours later. At about 4.30, we fired up the cars ready for the off, when Margaretha suddenly burst out of her tent, waving and shouting… “wait for us!”

No time to argue with the lady. We just packed them in with the African crew and headed off into the night, to arrive two hours later at daybreak at our pre-determined catching area on the Lesolo plains.

Zebra capture

It’s a spectacular place where the arid bush abruptly runs out at one point in a sheer 1,500 ft. drop into the Great Rift Valley. The local Samburu call it “the end of the world” and, on previous visits there, we’d usually found some cattle-owning elder standing sentinel on the vantage point for hours – sometimes days – surveying the scene with evident pride and satisfaction.

After the spring rains, he would have had his kin herd the family stock down a treacherous track to the fresh grass on the valley floor. To us, except through binoculars, they were indeterminate specks, like pock marks, on the vast, sea-green landscape of the Rift. But the old man could see them all individually – his best bulls, his best cows and their new season calves that were giving him actually elevated social status in the land.

The plains themselves had been surveyed and officially gazetted for settlement and, for this reason, there was no certain future for the local wildlife. Of particular concern was the predictable fate of what was then a healthy population of Grevy Zebra, which elsewhere in Kenya were becoming alarmingly thin on the ground.

It so happened, however, that the concern was shared by the country’s President at the time, the Mzee – “venerable elder” – Jomo Kenyatta, who valued the heritage of Kenya’s wildlife as an important source of national wealth and prestige. The much-revered “Founding Father” was in fact a genuine conservationist – internationally recognized as such after he initiated a program to capture viable breeding groups of endangered species and relocate them to areas of safety. Some he specifically assigned to his “brother” African Heads of State to help them restock their own national parks and reserves.

It was Kenyatta himself who had directed us to catch and trans-locate Grevy from the Lesolo plains for the dual purpose of establishing a nucleus breeding herd at the Mount Kenya Game Ranch and introducing the species in Tsavo National Park, down in the south-east of the country.

Zebra capture

That was the operation in progress on the day of the impromptu royal safari – except that the work-plan was disrupted before we got started. Still on our way to “the end of the world,” just after day-break, the convoy was stopped by an excited, arm- (or actually spear) waving squad of Samburu moran -“warriors” on stock escort duty.

Their agitation, as it transpired, was due to the fact that they had lost three cows over the preceding two nights to a rampaging female elephant. It had “gone mad,” they said, chasing and killing the cattle and charging at any human who came within sight. They’d never seen an elephant in such a state of demented rage.

Some of the braver moran finally tracked the animal into a forest not far from their village. The trail led eventually to a deep ravine where a hole had been dug for water during the previous dry season – and it was there they found the cause of the elephant’s belligerent behavior. Her calf had stumbled into the hole and had become firmly stuck. The mother had then run amok in frustration after failing to extract it. Clearly something had to be done before she caused any further damage in the immediate area.

Two of the young Samburu then climbed aboard our car and off we went into the forest in the direction of the ravine. They told us that the elephant had moved some distance away to feed, as they had watched her do previously, and reckoned we would have 20 minutes or so to survey the situation at the hole before she returned to her maternal vigil.

But it was still risky. The forest was too dense to get the vehicles right up to the site so we had to walk the last hundred yards, taking great care not to break a twig or make even the slightest sound to alert the trapped animal. If it were to cry out, the moran warned, we could count on the mother charging back and killing anyone who got between her and the calf.

Elephant stuck in the mud

Finally at the scene, we found not a baby as expected but a hefty two-year-old standing belly deep in water still welling up in the hole that barely encompassed the large body. It was clearly wedged tightly and looked exhausted.

Prudently we cut the visit short and returned to the cars. Only then did we realize that we’d had company on the foray, trailed at a discreet distance by the royal guests. They came up behind us, the slender Princess in the lead, moving like an athlete, but with her portly husband panting somewhat from his exertions.

It was obviously too late to be worried about their safety and, in any event, the priority was to deal with the elephant crisis – rescue the stricken calf and relieve the mother’s menacing distress. But it was necessary to consult first with the Samburu Elders, Don decided, so we all piled back into the cars and headed off to the village.

Once there, we sat in Council with the wizened Mzees and after much wise palaver finally agreed on what should be done. They would draft several strong young men to the task of cutting a path to the hole so we could get right up it in the long wheel-based Toyota. Others would try to ward off or otherwise “engage” the mother, if necessary by baiting her with a cow to chase. If she could be kept at bay long enough, we would try to haul out the calf with ropes.

Click here for Part 2 of this story
Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy