Everything is at the waterhole even though it’s an unfashionable time to be drinking, now at lunchtime – despondent wildebeest drink morosely, zebras kick and frolic, baboons spit and argue, buffalo drink deeply and resignedly and even an impala skips between them, a scout for his bunch of bachelor boys, males who have been cast out of the herd to find their own ladies.
Tsavo West national park is stricken by drought, which is a naturally occurring phenomenon here every 10 to 15 years. But this year, it seems to be worse: perhaps because there are more tourists witnessing the effects – the decomposing bodies of starved hippos in the waterholes, the gaunt lone buffalo living from day to day in the hope lions won’t take them during the coming night, and the migration of the Maasi men, who are droving their cattle across the length and breadth of the country in search of green pastures.
On the outskirts of Nairobi, I saw a band of Maasi patiently sitting outside the Nairobi National Park waiting for their confiscated cattle to be returned to them – they had turned their herd loose in the park for its grass, and rangers had arrested the cattle and were debating the course of action.
In a Maasi village in southern Kenya, a group of women told me how 20 men from their village have been away for two months, droving their cattle. If they stay on this dry, dusty land, they will grow thinner and weaker, and even the ferocious skills of the Maasi won’t be able to protect them from lions.
Further west, in the internationally famous Masai Mara game reserve on the Kenyan-Tanzania border, we saw a Maasi cow snared in mud on a river crossing. The herd had passed through but many thin cattle gorge themselves on dry grass, then drink too deeply, their bloated bodies becoming too heavy for their thin legs, and they collapse. The herd waits for no-one. “The Maasi know they must pay a sacrifice to the greater good,” said my guide Julius. “She will either get clear and rejoin the herd, or grow weaker as she struggles and become an easy kill for the plains hunters.”
Meanwhile, in Tsavo East National Park, our camp’s staff describe how they have had five dead elephants in the past 14 days, starved of food.
The lions are fat these days, feasting on Kenya’s misfortune.