Wild life

How I rewilded the African bush

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

3 November 2018

9:00 AM


My two Jersey bulls Halcyon and Hosanna were grazing happily on the lawn in front of the house when a pride of lion breached the 7,500-volt high-security fence enclosing our garden, pounced on the cattle and broke both of their necks. I am down by 24 sheep so far this year thanks to the old leopard who patrols the hillside above us. A cheetah boldly tried to grab a calf in the valley the other day. The pasture grass I planted at huge expense has attracted great numbers of oryx, buffalo, zebra, eland, gazelles and warthog. The electric fences I placed around the perimeter of the farm have completely failed to keep out the roaming elephant, giraffe and plains game. In my lucerne field, we attempted to get rid of the termite colonies by digging into their mounds until we found the white slug queens at the heart of the brain-like masses of fungal combs — but despite killing several of these the efforts were ultimately fruitless. Within weeks fresh mounds appeared, spreading their mud capillaries across the soil, building earth chimneys heavenwards — and then in moved the ant-eating aardvarks.

And so after 15 years of struggling as a neophyte rancher, losing money and stoking my blood pressure, at last I can say that I have been remarkably successful at rewilding the African bush. If you looked only at our farm, and avoided reading the news, you might find it absurd to hear that there are only 7,000 cheetah in the world and perhaps just three or four times that number of lion. About 70 years ago there were few zebra left in our county of Laikipia because they had all been slaughtered to feed Italian prisoners of war incarcerated on the western slopes of Mount Kenya. At times on our plains today zebra seem as common as starlings, despite my best efforts to keep them out of the land. Until a few decades ago, lion were considered the enemy and ranchers had a ‘five before breakfast’ club — which involved competing to shoot as many of the predators as possible on early Sunday mornings. You might say I was gutted when the lion killed my two Jersey bulls, but as we ate their tender fillets week after week, the thought of wishing any lions dead did not cross my mind.

I recall how, when we first moved on to the land, it was like a desert with few trees and bare earth. There were hardly any animals at all and almost no birdsong. The first creatures to return to drink at the springs seemed to be the elephant, perhaps because they have such long memories. After that the herds of impala and waterbuck moved in and then everything else, from gerenuk to duikers and striped hyenas. They are not that timid and generally ignore us if we encounter them. They graze alongside our cattle and sheep and not long ago I was astonished to find a herd of eland right inside the main barn munching on our hay bales. By simply leaving things alone, a thick forest of acacia species has grown up in the valley and I would say it is almost too dense now, despite being browsed by giraffe and occasionally hammered by elephant.

Before the natural rewilding began, I imagine there were always creatures like Parabuthus scorpions on the farm, and perhaps I began seeing them only because I started to know what I was looking for. They sit about on the rocks absorbing starlight and glowing electric blue on full moon nights. As long as they do not come into the house, we get along fine. We avoid killing them and we also try to stay nice to the snakes — apart from the black mamba that came into the office the other day and rose up in front of my wife Claire while she was on a telephone call to Los Angeles. I tried to persuade the animal to slither out of the door again but when he refused to go and sulked under the puddled curtains I had to fling my gumboots at him and then I bashed him to pieces with a walking stick.

Near our bedroom window is a gnarly wild caper tree with an old woodpecker hole in it. Not long ago, a female hornbill took up residence in this cavity and imprisoning herself with a masticated wall of mud so that she could lay her eggs inside while her devoted mate brought her food. They got on with their lives and ignored us. By just leaving Nature alone, I feel the world recovering around us.

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