Giraffe

The first thing we did in Nairobi was to go off to the Giraffe Center in the suburb of Langata. I’d read about this effort to breed the critically endangered Rothschild’s giraffe and reintroduce it into the wild. We didn’t have the time to visit Lake Nakuru or other places where there is an established population of this giraffe species, so visiting the center was the only way we were going to be able to see this rare animal. For a wildlife enthusiast like The Family, this counts as a failure. We drove through a suburb full of sprawling colonial era bungalows, hidden behind tall walls surrounding immense gardens. The colonial era ranches were as large as some cities. That era’s greed for land is at the root of the crisis which the Giraffe Center tries to mitigate.

The Giraffe Center is open from 9 in the morning to 5 in the evening. A busload of school children was getting down in a disciplined queue as we entered. You can buy a paper bag full of chips of acacia branches to feed to the giraffes if you wish. I decided to keep my hands on the camera, as The Family gingerly fed the beasts. A tall animal dipped its head down to pick up the pieces of branches from her hand with its prehensile lips. I had expected its shoulders to be higher than her head, but I hadn’t realized that a giraffe’s lip is a grasping organ! Their really long tongues are their main organ for grasping and manipulation, but the lip also seems to be able to grasp quite delicately.

I’d been primed by my reading to look closely at the pattern on these giraffes. The irregular dark patches could be roughly six, or five, or four sided. But the colour was darker towards the center than at the edge. The background was lighter, but quite a dark shade of beige at places. But most distinctive, I thought, were the “white socks”. The pattern on its hide did not continue all the way down the legs, so the giraffes looked like they were wearing socks. We climbed up to a feeding balcony which was about two meters up. The necks of the giraffes easily came up here, but not much higher. So I guess Rothschild’s giraffes are between 2.5 and 3 meters tall.

The giraffe has its heart in the right place, protected by its rib cage. This must be a huge and muscular organ, since it needs to pump blood up a couple of meters to the animal’s head. I watched all the interesting motions that a giraffe makes: it walks with both front and back legs on the same side of its body moving forward together. This is quite unlike a cow’s gait, for example. A cow moves front and back legs on opposite sides of its body forward together. I watched with interest how a giraffe sits and gets up. This did not look very different from the way a cow gets up from a sitting position. The most interesting thing is the way it dips its head to eat or drink. You would think that excess blood pressure needed to pump its blood up to the maximum height of its stretched head would be enough to burst its arteries when it lowers its head. But there must be something special about its circulatory system that prevents this pressure overload. Such an amazing creature!

Instant winter

When I booked tickets to Nairobi on a flight which left Mumbai before 6 in the morning, I was looking forward to arriving at 10 AM, with a whole exciting day in front of us. I’d forgotten that, this being an international flight, we would have to be awake half the night. As it was, we finished the formalities quickly and had a very early breakfast in the lounge before boarding. My first priority was to catch up on sleep. When I woke up we were halfway through the flight. The map told me that we were flying over the Carlsberg ridge. This is one of the more active zones on the earth’s crust, the border where the Indian and Somali continental plates are pulling apart. This geological feature is named after the brewery which financed the expedition which discovered the ridge. What a lovely and positive piece of advertisement; I promised to raise a glass of their brew to cheer their commitment to science. I peered across the still sleeping figure of The Family. The sea looked pretty calm.

A little later we were over Africa. A whole new continent! We’d sighted land a little south of Mogadishu. I gazed down at the parallel rows of clouds which you see in the photo above. I’d never seen this kind of weather before. I was to find later that these so-called cloud streets are parallel to the direction of the wind. So the cloud street showed me that a cool wind was blowing in from the sea as Somaliland heated up. The land below us remained brown as we passed over the equator. Another lifetime achievement for us; this was our first time in the southern hemisphere. In an instant we’d passed from summer to winter!

Everything would be new and different (even the style of artwork on the sachets of salt and pepper given by the airline). We peered out of windows eagerly as we landed in Nairobi. The landscape was brown and dry, as it had been as we flew over Somalia and inland to Kenya. “Karibu”, one of security men said in welcome as he showed us which way to go. The Family and I looked at the windows near the immigration queue; zebras and acacia trees, lions and elephants were painted on them. We would see them soon enough. I pulled a jacket over my t-shirt. It was colder than a winter’s day in Mumbai.

Reading about Kenya

With banquets of game and fowl and fish,
Strange fruits, and many an unknown dish.

About Malindi
The Lusiads VI.2
(Luis Vaz de Camoes)

It is hard to find books which would be useful background for a trip to Kenya. There are many books by travelers, usually western travelers. There are books by famous Kenyan authors, which are not about travel. The travel books, sometimes by intention, sometimes through unexamined cultural assumptions, tend to view Africa as exotic. I’d read (who hasn’t) Hemingway’s stories about East Africa, grown up with Tarzan and stories of lost civilizations, read about Idi Amin when I first started reading newspapers. And then, much later, I read Binyavanga Wainaina‘s short savage piece in Granta called How to Write About Africa. It is a very strong reaction to western writing about Africa. I would strongly recommend that you click through that link and read that piece, it is not much longer than this post.

At the head of my current reading list of books by Kenyan authors is Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. This is likely to be the only novel I finish before my trip, but there are a few which I would like to read. A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan classic, and I think that’s the one I want to read next. The Promised Land by Grace Ogot, with its questions about women’s role in African life, is another of the founding classics of Kenyan writing. Years ago The Family had picked up Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and it had settled, unfinished, into a pile of good intentions. I think this trip will make me start on it again. Kenya has a vibrant literary scene, with many authors writing in English, so I guess I will keep meeting new and old writings.

Some Arabic words were mingled
With the language they were speaking;
They covered their heads with turbans
Of fine cotton-weave fabric

About Swahili
The Lusiads V.76
(Luis Vaz de Camoes)

Soon after The Family and I shelved our collection of books together, I picked up a book from what used to be her collection called The Tree where Man was Born. This was written by Peter Matthiesen, one of the founders of The Paris Review. I flipped through this book again in preparation for our journey. The book Safari Ants, Baggy Pants and Elephants, by Susie Kelly, is now on my Kindle, in company with West with the Night by Beryl Markham (hugely praised by Hemingway) and North of South by Shiva Naipaul. Beryl Markham’s book reads like a meeting between Saint Exupery and Hemingway. Susan Kelly is a new travel writer for me. Shiva Naipual, who died at age forty, is now known mainly as the younger brother of the Nobel prizewinning V.S. Naipaul. His book promises a different perspective, since it is the only one about East Africa which is written neither by a native African, nor by an European or European settler. That’s quite a long reading list for a short trip.

A giraffe is a giraffe. Is it?

Until yesterday I knew that a giraffe is a long-necked mammal with brown patches of fur on white, which walked gracefully through east African savannas, delicately picking leaves off the tops of trees. Now, while idly surfing for information on giraffes online, I find that there are more species of giraffes than I could hope to see in one trip. Web sites called Giraffe Conservation Foundation and Giraffe Worlds list out the four main species of giraffes: the northern, the southern, the Masai and the Reticulated. IUCN, meanwhile counts only one species, but concedes that these four are subspecies, each deserving of individual conservation effort. When I tried to access original literature on giraffes I was stunned to find how little they have been studied.

The Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi) ranges over large parts of Kenya and Tanzania, with an isolated population in Zambia. Even with the intense conservation effort that Kenya and Tanzania are known for, the population of the Masai giraffe has halved over the last decades, and now stands at about 35,000 individuals. This year it has been moved from a classification of Vulnerable to Endangered. It is such a pity that the tallest animal on earth, the 6 meter high adult Masai giraffe, is in danger of becoming extinct.

The reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) can be found in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia (and probably inside Somalia as well). Most counts place their population at about 15,000. This has also been moved into the class of endangered species.

Distribution of giraffe species

The northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis) has extremely fragmented habitat, and therefore has been reclassified this year as Critically Endangered. The northern giraffe contains populations called the Nubian, Kordofan and West African giraffes. The Nubian giraffe can be seen in north-western Kenya, South Sudan, and Uganda. The Kordofan giraffe can be seen in Central African Republic, Chad, and Cameroon. To see the West African giraffe you need to travel to the extreme west of Niger. This population has only about 600 individuals left. Some add the Rothschild’s giraffe, from the Baringo area of Kenya, as a separate population to this species. This can be seen in the breeding center in Nairobi.

The southern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa) has two sub-populations: the Angolan and South African. Fortunately, the conservation effort for this species has paid off, and both populations are on the increase. I understand that this holds out hope for giraffe conservation across the continent, although populations like the West African and Rothschild’s giraffes will have to pass through a really narrow genetic bottleneck. I understand that giraffes evolved in the Miocene era, about when apes were diverging from monkeys, and so evolved along with us in the East African Rift Valley geography which is our ur-homeland.

For a mere traveler like me, Kenya seems to be the most giraffe-diverse country. One should be able to see the Masai, reticulated, Rothschild’s, and Nubian giraffes in this one country.

The rift where man was born

While planning a visit to the East African savanna, I thought I would read up on how old this landscape was. This led me down an exciting path of discovery through articles which connected geology, weather, and human evolution, and told me about how much more there is to see than just the Big Five. In the featured map you can see a long valley down the center of Ethiopia, ending somewhere a little south of Nairobi. Equally visible is a line of lakes along the border of Uganda and Tanzania. These are the eastern and western East African Rift Valleys.

45 million years ago, soon after India crashed into the still forming Eurasian continent, a massive plume of magma welled up from deep inside the earth near where Djibouti is today. This cracked the continential plate of Africa into three: the present day Arabian plate, and the still separating Somalian and Nubian plates. Signs of this immense geological change are visible in the creation of the Gulf of Aden, and the 30 million years old lava fields and highlands of Eritrea and Ethiopia. In geological time, this is not long before the split between monkeys and apes (hominoids). It is now believed that the geographical changes due to this initial rifting may have cause climate changes that favoured the rise of the hominoids.

The magma plume later created two bubbles below the African plate and pushed up the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia (clearly visible in the map). About 7-10 million years ago, the heated rocks of the African continental plate began separating out, with the Nubian plate pulling west and the Somalian plate moving eastward. The land between them subsided, and the Walls of Africa rose up 3 to 4 kilometers high. The high walls blocked off wet air from the oceans, changing the climate locally, and converting forests to grasslands. This is also the time at which the split between apes and humans (hominin) took place.

Darwin thought that modern humans had arisen in the grasslands of Africa. The discovery of hominin fossils along the rift valley seemed to agree with this theory. But modern thinking is that the savanna of the rift valley and hominins evolved together as a response to geology and weather. Humans evolved in this land, and then left to settle in far corners of the world. When I go to see the annual migration in the Serengeti, or to look at the dormant volcano called Mount Kilimanjaro, or even to taste the wine grown high in Kenya’s rift valley, I will be a migrant’s child come back to marvel at the homeland that his ancestors left.