tsetse

The Nguruman Escarpment

My earlier post on lake Magadi [1] brought to my memory the only trip I made to the Nguruman escarpment. I traveled there with Robin after a few years in Kenya, on a collaborative work with the Tsetse Programme of the ICIPE that was working on the control of tsetse flies and trypanosomosis [2].

Maasai Magadi causeway.tif

Maasai boys with their sheep and goats on one of the Magadi causeways.

The Nguruman Escarpment forms the western boundary of Kenya’s Rift Valley to the south near the border with Tanzania. The trip from Nairobi to Nguruman went through the green foothills of the Ngong Hills followed by a long descent to the semiarid plains on the floor of the Great Rift Valley, crossing Lake Magadi in a westerly direction.

magadi 1

Lake Magadi.

After leaving the lake area there was a rather endless drive through dusty, rough and undulated dirt and very dusty tracks crossing very arid terrain.

As you finally approach its foothills about 60km after the lake, the vegetation changed and mango and pawpaw trees and other vegetables and fruits appeared thanks to some water available from the Entasopia and Ewaso Ng’iro Rivers that, coming from the Mau Escarpment, flow along the base of the Nguruman hills to end at Lake Natron in Tanzania.

The Nguruman -as this rather remote area is usually known- was inhabited by the Maasai and, as usual, they shared it with game. The pastoralists understood the benefits of controlling tsetse flies and welcomed the project to their land. As the main principle of the ICIPE was to avoid the use of pesticides, our entomologist colleagues were introducing odour-baited traps to control the population of the tsetse fly (Glossina pallidipes) in an area of 100km sq., groundbreaking work at the time.

The drive to get to the project area required some special arrangements. Because of the heat, it was impossible to drive with closed windows in a non air-conditioned car as our Series III Land Rover was. Very soon the white car bonnet would acquire a shade of gray because of the tsetse flies and very soon they would start getting inside!

So, while the driver focused on avoiding the frequent and challenging road hazards, the passenger in the front seat did not just seat there looking pretty: his/her job was to destroy flies, particularly those landing on the driver! This was a very specialized job. If you were too careful, the fly would survive but hitting too hard could startle the driver with unknown consequences. In addition the victim could start thinking that old scores were being settled by the procedure and retaliate…

The project was also original in that the Maasai themselves made their own tsetse-catching traps with project support. At the time of our visit one hundred of them, baited with acetone and cow urine [3], had been placed in woodland areas where this fly species aggregate during the dry season. The traps were checked monthly for maintenance.

Our visit was during the early stages of the work but towards the end of their intervention they managed a reduction of 98–99% relative to the number 3 km outside the project suppression zone. So, at the time of our visit this was still not known and the work had a feverish intensity and enthusiasm.

Our job was a minor one and consisted in identifying the ticks present on the Maasai livestock in order to complete the parasite spectrum affecting the animals. So, we spent a couple of days collecting ticks from cattle, sheep and goats to later identify them in the laboratory.

Apart from some ICIPE support staff, the project employed and collaborated with a substantial number of Maasai villagers. In particular I recall a young Maasai teenager that has just undergone the “Emuratta” (circumcision) when we visited and he was working still clad in his dark tunic with the accompanying head-dress made of stuffed birds hunted with blunt arrows as it is traditional. He also carried his bow and arrows with him all the time to shoot any unaware birds to add to his collection. He had become the main nexus with the Maasai community as he was good in English.

Over the couple of nights we camped there, we listened to interesting stories. We learnt that traps suffered from animal damage and also from theft so they required frequent checking to make sure that they were operating to their full effect. The “trap rounds” were done by car as much as possible but walking was also involved and, often these resulted in meeting dangerous game.

It was not the lions that were most feared but buffalo. These animals, particularly the old and lone males also known as “Black Death” can be extremely dangerous, and it is believed that they are responsible for killing more big game hunters than any other animal in Africa so extreme care was taken and the Maasai usually accompanied the technicians for protection or at least “early warning” so that a suitable tree to climb could be found! We saw some rather wild-looking buffalo bulls but always -luckily- from the safety of the car.

The soil in the Rift Valley has a great content of volcanic ash and it is common to drive through it in several places in Kenya. However, nothing prepares you for the driving at Nguruman. The abundant and very fine ash behaves like water and in some places it can be over 50cm deep. The car made waves of dust and in deep areas 4WD was needed to go through while the ash splashed the windscreen covering it and impeding vision unless the wipers were full on. You would breath and eat lots of dust while you wished it was raining although this would only bring a different challenge!

We heard lion roaring in the distance every night but we were extra safe camping in the heart of a Maasai community as predators kept their distance. So, to see lions you needed to drive quite a distance towards the Loita hills and then the Maasai Mara but that was not the purpose of our trip.

I do remember a story one of the project drivers told us while seating by the fire enjoying a Tusker beer. Some time back, when the project was still an idea, he was driving through the Nguruman woodlands when he caught a glimpse of red near the road. He went to investigate and found a piece of Shuka, the Maasai traditional tunic. Nearby he spotted its owner, dead and showing signs of having been mauled by a lion.

Wearily moving around he noted that the grass and bushes around the spot showed signs of a great fight. Eventually, a few metres farther he found a speared young male lion, also dead. Two dead braves were all that remained to show for the long-term enmity between Maasai and lions!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/09/10/lake-magadi/

[2] Dransfield, R., Brightwell, R., Kyorku, C. & Williams, B. (1990). Control of tsetse fly (Diptera: Glossinidae) populations using traps at Nguruman, south-west Kenya. Bulletin of Entomological Research 80: 265 – 276.

[3] Buffalo urine was also used if available.