In the central highlands of Kenya, is the Mt Kenya Animal Orphanage that rehabilitates victims of poaching and abandonment. I was taken round by Eric Mwenda, the wildlife officer, and in the aftermath of the rains the place was lush and green.
Among the first animals I saw in wire mesh enclosures were caracal cats, small slender carnivores with tan fur and tufted ears. They were found abandoned as kittens in Laikipia County in the north.
A male ostrich walked freely in the well-tended gardens, pecking maize kernels from Mwenda’s hand. A young buffalo called Nyati had been found alone in the Aberdares by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers.
It is my first time to see bush pigs. Stocky animals with long, bristly hairs and pointed ears, they are feeding on vegetables grown in the orphanage’s garden.
The primate section is a menagerie of baboons, Sykes monkeys, colobus monkeys and rare patas monkeys with reddish-brown fur.
A mangaboon monkey called Safari is the accidental offspring of a rescued baboon that mated with a golden-bellied mangabey on transit from West Africa. This unnatural interspecies breeding means the mangaboon cannot reproduce.
The orphanage was founded by Hollywood actor William Holden, former big game hunter Don Hunt and his wife Iris. Their first animal was Mary, an abandoned elephant calf born in 1975 and the victim of poaching.
At 12 years old it was transferred to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Orphanage facility in Tsavo National Park.
Open to the public
Five years ago, the orphanage was bought by a Kenyan investor and is now open to the public. At present, there are 140 animals and 29 species, some of them born here. In one corner are the birthing pens for larger animals such as the bongo antelope.
Newly arrived animals are first given a drink of warm water sometimes with glucose. Wildlife manager Donald Bunge says, “They are checked for diseases and injuries, we identify suitable housing and a quarantine area.” The animal’s dietary requirements are determined, a feeding protocol is created and later the staff holds a naming ceremony.
Not all the animals are indigenous to Africa.
A herd of llamas, resembling small camels, originated from South America. They were used as pack animals on expeditions to Mt Kenya by visiting students.
A pair of endangered West African pygmy hippos wallowing in a mudhole are the offspring of hippos gifted to president Jomo Kenyatta by the president of Liberia in the 1970s. Being siblings the two hippos cannot breed. But, says Bunge, “We are working with KWS to get individuals from other institutions and continue the species in the country.”
Fostering so many animals has its unique challenges including nutritional needs, control of parasites, disease vectors, striking the carrying capacity balance between species with different preferences and interspecies competition.
57 staff work at the orphanage and up to 40 casual workers depending on the needs. A typical day involves feeding, changing water, inspecting animal health, cleaning enclosures, maintaining the gardens and showing visitors around.
For more extensive veterinary services they call on KWS vets or the nearby North Kenya Veterinary Services.
Some of the animals do not recover fully, such as two large Verreaux eagle owls brought in as fledglings by a local resident. Due to cultural superstitions their nest was attacked and the owls sustained severe wing damage.
Although they have been treated they cannot fly.
On the adjacent 1,200acre conservancy is a breeding programme for endangered eastern bongo antelope, running since 2004. Another rare indigenous species is 5 Sokoke forest cats.