Elephants & Mount Kenya

Stephen Quinn
December 10, 2010 share
Artists for Conservation

Dec 8 - For some reason I couldn't sleep (maybe it was the scotch) and woke early this morning while it was still dark. The Tree Hyrax and Spotted Hyenas where still sounding off nearby. The night was still and the stars were bright, different from most all our previous nights in the Aberdares that were cloudy and overcast. All others were asleep so, without a sound to disturb them, I stepped out on the veranda in the cool night air. It was a beautiful night and I was sad to remember that today we would start our return to Nairobi and the long trip home. Our expedition was nearly over. I sat on one of the chairs overlooking the forest and focused on the distance. There, floating on the horizon, was Mount Kenya in all her glory! I could make out the snow and glacier fields at her craggy summit. This was the Mountain that Akeley loved so well and where he had his near fatal encounter with an elephant in its dense bamboo forests. This was also a beloved mountain of my mentor Bob Kane at AMNH who featured it in his wonderful background painting in the Black Rhino diorama in the Akeley Hall. Bob told me that on brightly moonlit nights the glaciers on Mount Kenya would bounce light back up on the peak and made the mountain magically glow. That was the only time Mount Kenya appeared during our trip. By morning it had vanished in the mists and clouds brought on by the building heat of the sun.

We packed our gear and started our journey back to Nairobi but not before taking one last game drive through the mountains. Jeff and I elected to ride up on the roof on top of Murray's Landcruiser as it was wonderful to feel immersed in the passing forest. What wasn't wonderful is that the landcruiser wasn't really equipped for us to ride up there and we were climbing up through the sunroof and then sitting on the luggage rack with our legs hanging down in through the opened sunroof. The roads were really bad - rutted, muddy and bumpy - so when Murray got up to speed, you needed to hang on tight and you would bounce on your bum on the wire mesh luggage rack. By the end of the drive you had a severe butt ache!  Have you ever seen photos of the strange large bare calloused areas on a baboons hindquarters called ischial callosities. Well, after riding on top of Murray's Landcruiser, I'm sure that Jeff and I have them. And they are probably black and blue and red like a Mandrill's.

But the morning was glorious and made the suffering worthwhile. We could have ridden inside the vehicle but the morning was so beautiful we stuck it out up top. No sooner had we left camp that we were into elephants. Once again, I felt a bit vulnerable on top of the vehicle as these guys were close, and after being chased by elephants on an earlier expedition for AMNH in the CAR, I've got a great deal of respect for these animals. They were a bit stroppy when we encountered them and would turn to face us while shaking their heads and tossing their ears. One smaller bull was fascinating to watch as he seemed to want to get to the other side of the trail and we were in the way. All around us we could hear saplings and branches cracking as the elephants fed while moving as a herd through the forest. This bull would watch us, bluff charge, try to intimidate us, back off, trumpet, and then bluff charge again in an attempt to intimidate us. He was a splendid animal with a massive sculpted head. Akeley loved elephants, in spite of nearly being killed by one. They were his favorite subject for sculpture and probably his best bronze featured elephants - "The Wounded Conrad". The sculpture features a wounded bull elephant being supported and escorted to safety by  it's surrounding herd. It was based on an observation that Akeley himself observed in the wild.
We finally made our way out of the park and started our way back to Karen, outside Nairobi, where we had been invited for cocktails at the home of Collin Church, the Chairman of the Rhino Ark. 

When passing through the town of Nyiri, Guy and Murray mentioned that it was the final resting place of Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the scouting movement around the world. Theodore Roosevelt, who grew up in the American Museum and Powell championed the Boy Scouts of America in the United States one hundred years ago, this year!  I had wonderful childhood experiences through scouting and credit it for some of my passions for the out-of -doors and interests in natural history so I asked Murray if we could make a quick stop to pay respects. It was a brief stop, but important to me. I'm still involved in Boy Scouting and I'm proud to say my son is an Eagle Scout. I made as big a donation to the local scout troop in Nyiri that our travel budget could allow and paid my respects to the Lord.

Collin Church opened his home to us and told us all about the work the Rhino Ark is presently undertaking. He was excited to announce to us that, just as Rhino Ark had built a fence around Aberdares National Park, they were now raising funds to do the same for Mount Kenya National Park and a smaller preserve near Soysambu where Bongo are known to still exist. Bongo are, arguably, the most beautiful antelope in all of Africa, if not the world, and are nearly as endangered as Black Rhino. Rhino Ark is about to focus on Bongo conservation along with its Black Rhino efforts and Collin asked me if I might bring their story back to the American Museum in the form of an exhibit. I assured Collin as I had assured Mike Cranfield of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project that I would do everything I could to assist them in their work and be happy to propose, with them, an exhibit at the museum that might assist them in getting their story out and reaching their important goals.

After visiting with Collin, we returned to the Muthaiga Club, where our journey in Kenya had begun a week ago. After dinner we hit the sack, as tomorrow would be our last, but no less busy day.


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