Amboseli – A Miracle too far ?

Excerpt 1    ‘To Suffer Progress’

In 1906 the British administration created the Southern Game Reserve which covered a large part of southern Kenya and included the area which was to become known as Amboseli. Embosel, from which the name is derived, is the Maasai word for the large dry pan or lake-bed to the north west of Kilimanjaro and forms part of the boundary between the Kisongo and the Matapatu sections of Maasai. The creation of such a large area as a wildlife preserve was indeed a far-sighted move for those days, and while not all species of animals were protected – game-birds and certain antelopes could still be taken on licence – there was a good measure of protection. The only trouble was that the Reserve shared a common boundary with German East Africa (later to be named Tanganyika, and later still, Tanzania) where there was no such protection in force and where shooting of all species was still allowed. Many herds of plains game migrated over the border in the wet seasons where their numbers were heavily  depleted.  During the First World War in 1914 the area all along the border became populated with troops from both sides and thousands of animals were slaughtered for the pot, and doubtless to relieve boredom. In the comparatively short time since the Berlin Conference of 1885 (at which the European countries agreed boundaries for their administration of eastern Africa) there had been a very considerable reduction of the herds overall, including in Amboseli and the surrounding countryside. But so much wildlife still abounded that no one thought there was any danger of  seriously reducing the existing herds.

The Maasai had lived with the great herds throughout history and looked upon them with a kind of benign indifference. Indeed, we now know they were not unhappy to see the animals go to make more room for their own cattle, sheep and goats.

Before the European influence, the Maasai were entirely pastoral. They grew no crops nor did they kill any wild animals for food. They simply lived off their domestic herds. The stock a man owned represented his entire wealth, and money was unknown to them. Their herds were much smaller then, due to bovine diseases such as rinderpest, east coast fever and malignant catarrh. Records show that the quality of the individual beasts was far greater then, than it is today.  In the 1920s, the British Administration introduced veterinary care and compulsory inoculation against rinderpest resulting in the virtual eradication of that disease. With the cessation of all tribal wars and the restraining of the warrior activities, the herds of all domestic stock soon swelled to many times their previous numbers. Even then, money was still of no value to the Maasai. Their wealth lay entirely with their stock. The more cattle a man had, the wealthier he was, and true to human nature every Maasai man strove to enlarge his herd whether or not he needed them to feed his family. Soon cattle began to out-number wild animals on the plains of Amboseli. At last this part of the world, too, had been brought under the influence of western veterinary expertise, and the wildlife had to suffer the consequent march of (human) progress. Inevitably the balance of nature, so carefully maintained over the millennia, was being upset.

There had already been plans for the creation of National Parks in Kenya before the Second World War. In I938, public demands for their establishment and for a more effective system to preserve Kenya’s wildlife, led to the appointment by the Kenya Government of a Game Policy Committee charged with the task of putting forward recommendations. The primary attention was directed towards what is now the Nairobi National Park. However, the intervention of WWII prevented any successful achievement until 1945 when the National Parks Ordinance was enacted, based on similar legislation in North America, where the first U.S. National Park, Yellowstone, was created in 1872.

A board of 14 trustees was nominated and Mervyn Cowie was appointed as the Executive Officer. Nairobi National Park was subsequently gazetted in December 1946 followed by Tsavo and the Mountains National Parks. Amboseli was proclaimed a National Reserve in November 1948. Thus, in a relatively short space of time vast areas of Kenya’s beautiful countryside: “…for the safeguard of all objects whether animate or inanimate within the preserve…for the interest, advantage and enjoyment of the peoples of Kenya and the world”.  Bold and positive words indeed, but sadly not backed up by the financial support required to keep them pristine. The allocation of funds by the British and later the Kenya Governments turned out to fall far short of what was needed to operate these wonderful Parks and Reserves effectively.

The National Reserves, of which Amboseli was but one, were different from the National Parks in one major feature. Within a National Park the countryside and all wildlife was preserved to the exclusion of everything else, and no human development was allowed (although, contrary to popular belief, no humans were evicted from their homes in order to create any Park until after Independence in 1974). The Parks were for the benefit of the nation as a whole and the world in general. A National Reserve, on the other hand, was a term denoting an area for wildlife preservation ‘where the reasonable needs of the human inhabitants living within the area were paramount’. It was a compromise between a National Park and a Game Reserve, where the establishment of a National Park, while eminently desirable, was not possible without the eviction of the resident landowners, as happened to the Indian landowners in the Yellowstone Park.

As far as Amboseli National Reserve was concerned, the Trustees took on an area heavily populated with domestic stock which was competing fiercely with the remnants of the wildlife which once abounded there. Nevertheless, it was a remarkable piece of country with the great snow-clad mountain Kilimanjaro watching benignly over the fate of its northern environs, where the photogenic yellow fever trees grew, even if the herds of the wild animals had been markedly reduced. The establishment of the National Reserve was a compromise to ensure the preservation of the wildlife while respecting the needs of the local community, the Maasai landowners. From now on all the flora and fauna  would be fully protected.

Even before the National Parks took over the administration of the area, it was a favourite game-viewing place for visitors from all over the world. Tourists were brought in by Kuoni World Tours from their cruise ships at Mombasa to experience a night around the camp fire in the middle of the African bush. One of the main routes in the central area of Ol Tukai was known as ‘Coronia Avenue’, named after one of their pre-war luxury cruise ships. Budge Gethin, who built and owned the Namanga River Hotel, had also been bringing in visitors on photographic safaris since the early 1930s, and knew the area better than any other European.

By 1950 a permanent warden and ranger staff were stationed at Ol Tukai to oversee the 1,200 sq. mile Reserve. Tabs Taberer was given this job and I went to join him as assistant warden in February 1952. One of our main jobs was to maintain good relations with the Maasai who owned the land by right of Treaty. No poaching of wildlife occurred in Amboseli because the Maasai would not tolerate outsiders on their land; moreover, they would report the sighting of  any suspicious characters to us.

Snowfall, which occurs on the upper elevations of Mount Kilimanjaro’s landmass, feeds the age-old glaciers on the summit. On the lower, forested slopes, the snowfall turns to rain, and the porosity of the volcanic soil combined with the structure of the rocks beneath, act like a drainage bed  allowing  the  water to  percolate through the soils to appear at the base as springs around the foothills. At Amboseli where the country is so level, the water from these springs turns to swamps which are virtually at the same level as the dry, dusty plains.  The Maasai had always used these swamps to water their livestock, and since history was recorded for this part of Africa the water level had always remained the same.

Visitors arriving at Ol Tukai for the first time after a long drive across dusty plains,  were amazed to see Acacia woodlands, lush green grass and papyrus suddenly appearing out of the mirage. The yellow fever trees (Acacia xanthophloea) grew in the vicinity of these swamps where the water table is never far from the surface, and it was these beautiful trees with, maybe, a couple of the celebrated long-horned rhinos in the foreground and the mountain in the background, which created the iconic picture for which Amboseli was to become so famous.

‘Amboseli – A Miracle Too Far’ Published by Mawenzi Books  – 2009 – Shs 1,600/-  Available from from all good bookshops.

By David Lovatt Smith

Former Warden Amboseli National Reserve.


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