On the centenary of the First World War, we look at the role Tsavo played in this brutal conict, and at the multitude of conservation operations that are healing this battered yet lovely land.
The First World War left its mark on Tsavo in many ways, etching itself into not just the land but the language. Salaita, a hill that was a key and recurrent battleground, derives from the word Slaughter; Maktau comes from Mark Time, referring to military drills; and Mwashoti is a distortion of More Shots.
The facts about the ﬁrst world war in Tsavo are stark. It was longer than the war in Europe: German commander Lt-Col Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck received the telegram with news of the German defeat three days after the war had ended, and took another nine days to formally surrender. It's believed around two million Africans were involved in the war, some as soldiers but many more in direct line of ﬁre as porters carrying ammunition, food and other supplies. Even more macabre, war graves commemorate the British, German and Indian soldiers, yet there's no memorial to the – much higher number – of African soldiers who died.
Tsavo today, however, is a fascinating and appealing place. Tsavo National Park was established in 1948, and was one of the largest national parks in the world. It was later split into Tsavo West and Tsavo East, on either side of the Nairobi Mombasa Highway, for administrative purposes.
Highlights of Tsavo include its diverse array of habitats and its vast herds of elephants, known as the red elephants of Tsavo for their distinctive shade of red dust. The sparkling water of Mzima Springs ﬂows from the Chyulu Hills – made famous by Ernest Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa. Filtered through the earth, the springs are unbelievably clear, giving ﬂawless views of the hippos that wallow in their waters. Lake Jipe, fed by the melted snows running oﬀ imposing Mt Kilimanjaro, is believed to have the largest variety of aquatic birds in Africa.
The dramatic ﬂow of solidiﬁed lava entwined with trees, roots and rocks that crosses the park is called Shetani by the locals; its name, meaning evil, evokes the terror locals must have felt on seeing lethal liquid lava coursing towards them.
Yatta Plateau, another spectacular lava ﬂow – said to be the longest in the world – draws migrating birds from around the world. And Lugard's Falls, named for the ﬁrst proconsul to East Africa, plunges through picturesque eroded rocks into frothing and foaming rapids.
Into this stunning land have stepped a number of conservation organisations. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is the predominant establishment in the area. An elephant rescue organisation, they release orphaned elephants into Tsavo through a number of rehabilitation sites. With anti-poaching units, dog units, aerial surveillance, mobile veterinary units, de-snaring and elephant stockades, the SWT is a vital protector of the Tsavo area.
Tsavo Trust works with the Kenya Wildlife Service and other organisations, providing aerial and ground support, doing monitoring and data collection, and responding to suspected threats. Their animal welfare programme rescues, rehabilitates and, where possible, releases orphaned and injured animals in the Tsavo Conservation Area.
Wildlife Works is part of the ground-breaking REDD+ project that reduces emissions from deforestation by setting a ﬁnancial value on the carbon stored in forests. With an eco-factory producing clothes, an eco- charcoal project, and an array of jobs in education, agriculture, conservation and tourism, Wildlife Works gives employees the opportunity to support their families without resorting to burning trees for charcoal or poaching animals to survive.
Tsavo Conservancy, a vital animal migration corridor between Tsavo West and Tsavo East, brings together seven ranches that aim to protect the wildlife, create alternative sources of income, and develop community-based tourism. The conservancy is locally owned and managed, and all beneﬁts go to the local communities.
Malewa Trust promotes environmental education and sustainable land management through income-generating projects like permaculture farming, eco-construction and sustainable energy production. They also oﬀer an assortment of exciting and adventurous activities for visitors through Kasigau Base Camp.
Eco Charcoal is a renewable energy company in the foothills of Mt Kasigau. Making eco-charcoal briquettes from pruned branches – rather than whole cut trees – the group dries them, carbonises them and mixes them with a natural binder to produce briquettes with less smoke and reduced greenhouse emissions. The organisation has an ongoing tree planting scheme that produces renewable wood and protects the natural habitat.
Self-catering camps where your stay contributes to conservation
With the spacious and comfortable Ndovu House, and acollection of rooms, bandas, dormitories and camping spaces, there are plenty of options here. The camp also houses the Tsavo Discovery Centre with ﬁeld exhibits and museum collections, and supports the outstanding Tsavo Conservancy.
Nyika Bird Sanctuary
With a two-bedroom cottage, a few ﬁxed tents and plentiful camping space, this is a rustic idyll. It operates only with solar power and uses sustainable water sources. Highlights include views of Mt Kilimanjaro, over 200 species of birds, and you get to support and enjoy the awesome Nyika Bird Sanctuary.
Kasigau Base Camp & Eco Village
On the banks of the Malewa River, this camp offers a canvas and thatched cottage, Kanini cottage, safari tents, dome tents and a lush campsite. The wealth of activities includes abseiling, rock climbing, challenge courses, high ropes courses, rafting and trekking – and your stay supports the remarkable Malewa Trust.
SWT Umani Springs
Nestled in the Kibwezi Forest, this lovely house has a selection of dining and sitting spaces, ﬁve bedrooms, a spacious kitchen and an alluring swimming pool. The forest is a delight for botanists, birdwatchers and entomologists, as well as those who simply want to relax in a beautiful location – and your stay contributes to the many projects of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.