The Sitatunga Antelope Of Kenya: The Endemic And Rare Animal In Your African Quest
A rare sight, this red- earth antelope species has splayed hooves for walking in muddy places.
I finally get to see a situnga for the first time in my life. In bird lingo when you see a bird for the first time, it’s a ‘lifer’ for you. But the situnga is an antelope and a very rare one indeed. I wonder how I can term these experience, to see one of the world’s rarest antelopes on a road=side swamp, which happens to have no protection but yet harbors one of the largest population in the country.
“When I first saw the sitatunga in 1999 here, I was surprised. It was the same kind I had seen at the Saiwa Swamp many years ago,” recounts Mzee Kipkel Maiyo from the area.” I reported the sighting to the KWS office in the area and a team came to see if it was true.”
Kinwal swamp lies on the Eldoret Kapsabet road. The tarmac string runs right through the swamp and it is quite unbelievable that a rare antelope lives in the midst of the papyrus swamp lining it.
It’s a lovely sunny morning and we are walking along the main road trying to see though the enormous papyrus flowers for the rare red-earth colored antelope that has splayed hooves specially adapted for walking in muddy swamps. A pair of white butterflies flitting by the grasses grabs our attention as they settle on a stalk of grass looks like love is in the air.
“Kingwal swamp is surrounded by people who cultivate right around it and divert the water to there farm. Yet the farm has been expanding because of siltation. “We’re getting the running commentary from Mary Mbenge, a young woman who knows the swamp like the back of her hand.
“This swamp is not legally protected,” she goes on,” yet it has more sitatunga compared to Saiwa swamp or Lewa Down.”
Three crowned cranes peck on the farmer’s ploughed fields by the swamp.” This road is actually very useful,” continues Mary,” because it acts as a fire breaker.” She recalls an incident when a fire did break out but did not spread to the other side of the road. It saved the situnga.
By this time, we’re getting impatient to see the elusive antelope.” Don’t worry, you will see them says the young woman confidently. I’m not quite sure because from the literature I’ve read, they prefer to come out during the cooler part of the day=early morning or late evenmg.It’s now approaching midday and the sun is burning.
“We’ll drive in .The swamp stretches seven kilometers inland on this side of the road. You will meet some villagers and members of the environment group who will tell you more.”
With that, we jump into our hired matatu and with Mary Mbege acting as the navigator; we brave the beaten track inland. The Nandi home steads are picturesque sitting on pretty farms. The ploughing season is on and every one is busy tilling the land for preparation for the rains. More crowned cranes grace the fields.Finally; we reach a homestead and walk through it to the swamp which is thick with papyrus, reeds and other water plants. A red fireball lily breaks the monotone green. Ladder leans against a tall tree. It’s one of the situnga towers from where can hopefully spot the antelope.
“When I counted them in 2004 they were 67.Saiwa Swamp has fewer than 12 there was six that were Tran located to Lewa Down in Laikipia a few years ago. You will see them,” she repeats with the same confisence.She is one of the first to study the swamp, starting as a Bsc student on world life management at Moi University. Hooked by the beauty and rare sightings in the area, she’s been around for six years now, working with the community and starting environment clubs.
The swamp is busy with birds and spots what look like otters swimming in a pool in the swamp. We trudge through to get a closer look with the sun hot on our backs. Its then that one member of Tasike Setanda, the local environment group, spots the Sitatunga among the reeds.
The excitement is palpable. We scoot through the reeds to get to exact spot and crane our necks for a glimpse. All we can see is its nose sticking out of the reeds and a spot of the rich red color of its coat. We deem ourselves lucky, consoling ourselves that to see even the nose tip of a rare antelope is really lucky.
“Okay, we’re now going to that homestead,” announces Mary .A stunning red flowered tree marks the homestead.” If you don’t mind getting your feet wet, we can walk through the swamp or drive around it.”
By now, faint with anger most of us opt for the car. Our lunch is in it too. Mary and a few other friends walk through the swamp. I like the confidence of this young woman who made complete map of the swamp with Gaps markings for her bachelor’s degree project. What she doesn’t tell us is that with the muddy terrain, it will take us almost an hour to drive around the swamp while she wades through the swamp in a matter of minutes.
Again, we walk through the earlier homestead to reach the swamp lining it. Another ladder is propped against a tall tree. I think the Nandi has built a ladder to their specifications forgetting that short people can not climb rungs that almost reach their chest. The sportier ones among us are up the tree=tower and in the clearing of the swamp among seconds. They spot a pair of sitatunga coolly having there lunch break.
I cannot come almost 400 kilometers from Nairobi to see a swamp antelope and not see it because of the inappropriately built ladder. The guys are great and help improvise the ladder and with much heave and hoi scale the ladder and see the sitatunga=in the swamp clearing. Its a historical moment for all of us seeing it at the first time.” I told you you’d see he sitatunga,”says Mary smugly.” The local people do not hunt this species, that’s why we can see them almost any time during the day. And another thing. The Nandi do not even have a word for the sitatunga because they have never seen the antelope before.”
Satisified, we clamber down to a picnic lunch by the swamp.
Kingwal swamp is 25 kilometers from Eldoret towards Kaosabet. Its slightly bigger than Saiwa swamp which is a protected national park for the sitatunga. Kingwal currently measures 2.73 square kilometers. Saiwa Swamp near Kitale is 1.89 square kilometers.
The sitatunga once numerous around the swamps of Kenya is now listed as a threatened animal. This is because swamps in Kenya haven’t being managed properly, most being drained for other purposes. In other parts of Africa they are numerous where the wetlands are left alone.
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About the Author: Robert is a tour consultant in Kenya and has planned business and vacation safaris for over 10,000 tourists in the East African region. He is a tour operation- major and involved in National tourism policy development in Kenya.
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