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SOS Rhino : In the News : Where animals find a home away from home

Where animals find a home away from home

  By Justo Casal
The Standard
Saturday, March 12, 2005

After crossing towns such as Thika and Nyeri, where President Kibaki and Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai come from, Nanyuki was waiting for our arrival with the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Kenya in the horizon.

Three hours of driving through paved but potholed and dusty roads, and traversing coffee and tea growing areas, the savannah grasslands of the Sweetwater Game Reserve, which straddles the Equator, welcomed us with tamarind juice.

Built in the early 70s, the main building was originally the residence of billionaire Adnan Khashoggi's ranch manager. In 1984 Mr. Khashoggi had to leave the country after the 1982 military coup attempt.

The reserve is part of Lonhro Hotels Africa and is run by the Flora and Fauna Group.

The 24,000-acre private reserve is situated within Ol Pejeta Ranch, which means "burnt area" in Maasai. Unlike many Kenyan national parks, Sweetwaters offers escorted game walks, night game drives, horseback game rides and meals in the bush.

Apart from the typical game animals such as warthogs, spotted hyenas and lions, Sweetwaters is host to the only chimpanzee sanctuary in Kenya and Morani, a tame black rhino whose mother was killed in Amboseli National Park by poachers and was brought to the reserve, for his safety, 16 years ago.

Most of the Sweetwaters' chimps, 32 in total now, came from the Jane Goodall Institute in Burundi, where a great many were taken after being rescued from a miserable existence. Others came from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In countries such as Cameroon, Rwanda and DRC, some people consider this ape to be a sacred-specie, says Tim Mwangi, who has been working for the last nine years as a ranger at the Sweetwaters Reserve. "They chop off the chimpanzee's arm or finger and put it to boil in a frying pan with water. Afterwards they smear the mixed substance onto a baby's body believing that it will get the wisdom of a chimpanzee."

He adds: "Others, regardless of age, drink the substance with the same purpose."

Poco, one of the chimps at Sweetwaters, spent six years of his life imprisoned in a 100cm birdcage suspended from the roof of a garage in Bujumbura, Burundi. His story explains why he walks on his back feet rather than also using his hands. Nowadays, in the sanctuary, Poco is a handsome, contented chimpanzee, able to explore his habitat, climb trees and interact with his many companions. Like Poco, most of the other chimps have similar fairy-tales that will make you think about the cruelty of human beings. Each chimp has its own name and they respond to it immediately.

"They are very smart," says Tim. "You can learn a lot from them."

Chimps, as humans, are territorial and will do everything to defend their territory. These apes are extremely intelligent and social animals and genetically almost identical to humans, bearing 98.6 per cent of our genes (as humans, chimpanzees can also get malaria). Chimpanzees have short legs and walk on the flat soles of their feet and on the knuckles of their hands. Their arms are 10 per cent longer than their legs and they are four times stronger than human beings; newborn chimps weigh between 900 grams to1.8kg. The story of Morani, who lives in his own 100-acre enclosure and is protected by armed guards 24 hours a day, is as pitiful as the story of the chimps.

Morani , which means "warrior" in Maasai, was six months old when he was rescued when he was found wandering near his mother's corpse, after she was killed by poachers. Morani, one of the 40 black rhinos inside the Sweetwaters Game Reserve, lives alone in his compound after having been taken to three or four other locations where his safety was put at risk. According to Jeremy Kimathi, one of the rangers looking after Morani, he cannot go back to his natural habitat because other rhinos would kill him since he has grown up in the presence of humans and wouldn't know how to defend himself from other rhinos or against poachers. "He now smells like a human being and he wouldn't be accepted by his counterparts," explains Jeremy.

For Sussane Bart, a visitor who comes from Jacksonville, Florida and was visiting Kenya for the first time, the most exciting thing to do in the Sweetwaters Game Reserve is to visit Morani's compound. "I wouldn't expect to be so close to a rhino," says Sussane, who had to postpone her visit to Kenya in 1998 after the bombing incident at the US Embassy in Nairobi. "You can't live your life in fear," says Sussane, who will be in Kenya for another week with her family and friends from the US "This place is just lovely."

And for others the most beautiful event in the reserve is when the animals, ranging from impalas to storks, come to the dewpond located metres away from the dining area and the verandah of the tents. Hemingway would probably have described this scenery as "Absolutely true, beautiful and believable."

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