Our Great National Parks (2022) s01e03 Episode Script

Tsavo, Kenya

The first time I visited Kenya, about 30 years ago, I was a stranger.
This was the land of my father, who had passed away and who I barely knew.
But I met my family.
I visited the village they had come from.
I felt welcome everywhere.
And as my sister and I spent a few days on safari, I felt something else.
At the African bush that swept on forever, with wide open skies, and wildlife that never seemed to end.
What a gift to see the world anew.
To see the place where, ultimately, all of us come from.
I'd like to take you to one special park in Kenya, to experience the heartbeat of Africa.
A wilderness of boundless space, breathtaking beauty, and wildlife on an epic scale.
Tsavo National Park.
A land where the elephants are king.
And everyone knows it.
In the East of Africa lies Kenya, home to a rich array of wildlife and breathtaking landscapes.
In the south is Tsavo.
Nearly 8,500 square miles, it's the size of a small country, and Kenya's largest national park.
To the west, the unforgettable sunsets behind Africa's highest mountain, Kilimanjaro.
Lording over an ancient land of lava, volcanic hills, and sparkling oases.
And in the east, an endless haze of thorny scrub traversed by life-giving rivers.
Alongside them, the shady wall of the Yatta plateau, one of the longest lava flows in the world.
And everywhere you look, Tsavo's iconic bright red soil stamps its personality on everybody who lives in this extraordinary wilderness.
Tsavo is home to Kenya's largest elephant populations.
Over 13,000 roam freely through this vast landscape.
To find them, you have to know where to look.
Enjoying a swim, adolescent bulls let off some steam like synchronized swimmers in liquid chocolate.
It's April.
The watering holes are full.
The rains may not return for six months or more.
As males get older, they prefer to go it alone.
A few of them may go on to become the biggest tuskers to walk the Earth.
This is Lugard, named by the rangers who monitor him.
A 50-year-old "super tusker" and one of Kenya's national treasures.
Each tusk alone weighs well over 100 pounds.
These ambassadors of the elephant world have had to endure immense challenges living through successive droughts, modern development, and poaching from the illegal ivory trade.
Today, there are believed to be just 30 super tuskers remaining across Africa.
And Tsavo is home to a third of them.
Most are now living well into old age.
National parks play a vital role in their protection.
Over the coming months, Tsavo's extreme climate will test all the animals that live here.
Only those that have adapted to its fast-changing conditions will survive the dry season.
This hungry hornbill has developed an ingenious way of getting a bigger breakfast.
But he can't do it alone.
A family of dwarf mongooses.
The hornbill is ready to go, but they are in no rush.
He can only wait while the mongooses get ready for their day.
They won't go anywhere until the signal is given.
At last, they're off.
And right behind them, the hungry hornbill.
The scampering mongooses stir up bugs in the undergrowth, and what they miss, he'll snap up, saving him the job of finding his own food.
The mongooses don't seem to mind.
Foraging together works for everyone.
Especially when the landscape dries up and there's a lack of cover.
The hornbill acts as a lookout.
One call sends everyone diving for cover.
Of all the items on the menu, this appears to be a favorite.
Giant African land snails, each up to six inches long.
Some of the largest, juiciest snails in the world.
Easy to catch too.
These snails aren't going anywhere fast.
But they are a tough nut to crack.
These mongooses have developed a special technique.
They use the wooden logs like an anvil to smash the snails against.
Tsavo is one of the few places where this behavior has been observed.
The hornbill knows a dinner gong when he hears one.
The dry climate here means this isn't an easy place to make a living.
So working together helps ensure they both get enough to eat as food becomes scarce.
As the dry season tightens its grip on this vast park, the resource that's in most urgent need is water.
To protect one of Tsavo's most critically endangered animals, this remote water hole is filled by rangers.
As evening approaches, the stage is set for this shy creature to appear.
Black rhinoceros.
A mother and her calf.
Using a sensitive night vision camera, we are able to see them in color.
Youngsters follow their mothers' movements closely.
They have an intense bond.
Rhinos have poor vision at a distance but an incredible sense of hearing and smell.
They curl their lips back to sense who's around in the night air.
More families arrive to take a drink.
Dominant black rhinos are often territorial.
But some individuals are more feisty than others.
There were once around 8,000 here in Tsavo.
In the 1970s and '80s, poachers killed all but ten for their horn.
A breeding program has since increased the population to over 100.
These usually solitary creatures come to drink and socialize.
Mothers greet friends.
Calves meet playmates and fathers.
But when more males arrive, the atmosphere changes.
During the dry season, unusually high numbers of rhinos gather here.
They have bred so successfully that there's now increased competition for space and mates.
One of the males makes his move on the mother with her calf, but she gives him a clear message.
A dominant older male arrives at the water hole.
Rangers call him Atoti.
A young female.
Too young to mate, she's not interested in him.
His frustration leads to hostility.
He uses his horn to try and hook her hind legs and trip her up.
The other females and calves decide it's time to go.
The young female manages to outrun him.
And Atoti cools off.
As the dry season continues, many of the natural water sources around the park slowly disappear.
But there is a special place to the north which is a permanent oasis.
The cloud forests high in the Chyulu Hills rise out of the plains in Tsavo West.
Formed from porous, volcanic rock, they absorb rainfall, creating underground reservoirs.
It takes over 20 years for the water to seep through to the plains below where it emerges in a constant supply at Mzima Springs a name that means "alive" in Swahili.
It's estimated that over 50 million gallons pour from the ground every day into crystal-clear pools buzzing with activity.
Fig trees provide food for the vervet monkeys.
And barbel wait below for falling fruit.
A bountiful paradise with enough food for everyone.
But this magical pool belongs to a pod of 14 hippopotamuses, fiercely defended by the huge alpha male.
He can hold his breath for up to five minutes and spend more than half his life submerged.
Normally found in muddy pools, it's incredibly rare to see the intimate lives of these shy creatures.
Early every morning, Dad leads his family to deeper, cooler water.
Hippos can weigh more than a family car, but underwater, they are surprisingly graceful.
The adults sleep during the hottest part of the day.
The youngsters play right through it.
And when they get too boisterous, the adults keep them in line.
Without the hippos, the diversity of life here wouldn't exist because they bring something vital to this water.
A natural fertilizer.
It might not do much for the crystal-clear visibility but this is the very stuff that keeps Mzima's ecosystem thriving.
It provides nutrients for the plants and food for the insects and fish who follow the hippos for the freshest supply.
Fresh dung isn't the only food that hippos offer the fish here at Mzima.
By opening his mouth, this hippo invites the fish inside his huge, powerful jaws.
They forage for scraps stuck between his teeth, demonstrating an extraordinary level of trust.
Their rasping mouthparts also clean the hippos' hide, their toenails, their cracked feet, and all those important places.
A full meal in exchange for a pedicure and polish.
The small green oasis at Mzima Springs provides water to the fortunate animals who live in this corner of the park.
But it's a different story for those who roam across its arid center.
Elephants have incredible memories, guiding them to areas where they've found food and water in previous dry seasons.
But in the middle of the park, they face a daunting obstacle.
Tsavo was established in two parts, East and West, sliced down the middle by an existing road and railway.
The busy road is now a dangerous barrier for wildlife moving between the two parks.
In 2017, a new railway was completed alongside the old one, linking Kenya's largest port, Mombasa, and her capital, Nairobi.
The steep embankments and fences prevent the animals from crossing the tracks, restricting their movements.
They can only reach the other side via specially-built underpasses.
Some of the elephants are brave enough to make it through the obstacles.
Across Africa, there's a boom in infrastructure that is affecting its wild places.
It's why the size of Tsavo is so important.
It's big enough to offer alternative feeding grounds.
But it's not only the larger animals that travel huge distances at this time of year.
It's July, Tsavo's driest month.
On the parched plains to the east, a male sandgrouse and his mate are raising their family.
As ground-nesting birds, these newly hatched chicks will get up and walk within hours.
With temperatures reaching up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, they must find shade and a safe hiding place.
Their father faces an urgent challenge.
Find drinking water, or his chicks will die.
He joins a flock of other sandgrouse, all in desperate search of the same thing.
They will fly up to 20 miles away to the mighty Galana River.
It's a lifeline for the animals as the dry season really bites.
The sandgrouse come here in huge numbers at this time of year.
At the water's edge, there are threats.
Keeping close to his flock means that hundreds of eyes keep a lookout.
He can hold up to two tablespoons in his throat, but it isn't enough for his three chicks.
He wades in a little further for a remarkable trick.
Rocking backwards and forwards, he absorbs water into his breast feathers.
Their specially-adapted spiral shape soak up water like a sponge.
Fifteen minutes to fill up, and he's off flying home fully-laden with water.
One by one, the birds peel off from their flock.
He calls to his mate.
She guides him to where she's hidden their thirsty chicks.
Dad to the rescue.
Desperate for a drink, the chicks crowd their father, stripping precious water from his feathers with their beaks.
He will make this arduous journey every day for the next two months until the chicks are big enough to make the flight to water themselves.
In recent years, Kenya's climate has become less predictable and more extreme.
It's the height of the dry season, and there's no end in sight.
Some have found a way to find the few remaining green leaves.
The gerenuk tiptoes for a nibble.
They may go their whole lives without drinking water.
Nicknamed the "giraffe gazelle," they rely on acrobatics and their long necks to reach succulent leaves that other grazers cannot.
Even for them, it's slim pickings.
Tsavo's red earth is sucked upwards in the swirling dust devils.
Larger animals, like the buffalo, have to keep moving to find food and water.
The herds join up, over a thousand strong.
They head towards the Galana River, which flows year-round.
Stragglers will be picked off by Tsavo's most infamous predators.
When the old railway was built, more than 120 years ago, this territory was terrorized by two lions known as the "Man-eaters of Tsavo.
" Legend has it they devoured 135 railway workers, though the true figure is probably far lower.
Famous for their mohawks, a trait shared by their descendants today.
Their looks are thought to have been shaped by the thick scrub they live in.
This shorter mane is less likely to snare on the thorny undergrowth.
It also keeps them cooler in the heat.
But even the toughest predator struggles at this time of year.
The pride's water hole has become a pool of sticky mud.
Many of their prey have left to find water elsewhere.
These last dregs will sustain them for now.
Across the dry plains of Tsavo East, a group of bull elephants head toward the remote northern reaches of the park.
This is the most wild and inaccessible area.
Vast, rocky monoliths, millions of years old, rise from the dry, thorny scrub.
Each elephant remembers routes they have taken through the years passed down through generations.
Their well-trodden trails are visible from the air, creating a network through the barren landscape.
Large bulls can go several days without a drink, allowing them to travel huge distances across drought-stricken bush.
They have staked their lives on finding water when they arrive.
But the Tiva River has run dry.
Now, it's just a river of sand.
Not a drop of water in sight.
But the doum palms that flank this seasonal river are still green, suggesting there is water here somewhere.
And the wise old bulls know how to find it.
Elephants have an incredible sense of smell.
Millions of receptors in their trunks help guide them to water many miles away, and they can even sense it when it's buried several feet beneath the sand.
To get to it, they must dig.
As these wells become deeper, the groundwater seeps in.
Their trunk acts as a flexible straw, sucking up the sandy water.
It seems they allow the sediment to sink down their trunks and separate, then blow it out.
And enjoy pure, filtered water.
Tantalizing for those watching from the sidelines.
Once they've had their fill, the audience gets to take their turn.
Baboons, always the first to the bar.
Further down the course of the Tiva lies Bisadi waterfall.
Dry, except for a few precious pools.
It's eerily silent until dawn breaks.
It's as if the entire canyon comes under a spell.
Red-billed quelea, the world's most abundant wild bird species.
It's September.
As water sources dwindle, these nomadic super-colonies gather here in their millions.
With mesmerizing rhythm, they drink from these last pools of water, one beakful at a time.
This mass migration builds and builds towards the end of the dry season.
Creating chaos by the water, they spook anyone else who dares to drink here.
Their sheer numbers bend the branches of surrounding trees.
They are prisoners to this place for as long as the water lasts.
The air is heavy with anticipation.
Then, a symbol of hope.
In the parched landscape, the baobab trees throw out green leaves and extravagant white flowers.
Change is in the air.
And everyone can sense it.
And finally in October, after six months of absence, rain building in the hills and mountains of Tsavo West and on the plains in Tsavo East.
The dry, sandy Tiva flows again.
Cascading over Bisadi canyon, where the quelea drank, the waterfall comes alive.
For the next few weeks, this river will keep flowing, rejuvenating the land.
The drama turns to relief.
From barren desert to painted paradise.
It's the extremes in Tsavo that are so magical.
Rinsed of its red dust, morning glory smothers the park with her floral carpet.
And a blizzard of pioneer white butterflies arrive.
Millions fill the skies on a journey towards the coast.
Like a winged relay race, new generations emerge with the fresh growth and continue the journey their parents started.
Dancing across the flowers, these huge swarms in the wet season are vital for the productivity of the park pollinating as they go and providing an easy meal for insect-eaters.
There's time to play and raise the next generation.
A baby boom.
Living evidence that when it comes to protecting wilderness, size matters.
The bigger the park, the more species will call it home.
The larger the gene pool, the healthier the animals.
In recent years, landowners surrounding Tsavo National Park have joined forces to create the wider Tsavo Conservation Area, doubling the protected wild space and allowing animals to roam in safety beyond its borders.
It's only by continuing to protect vast wilderness areas like Tsavo and creating new parks of similar scale that we can secure a future for nature on this planet.

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