Diane McLeish

© Copyright 2021 by Diane McLeish

Photo of the board walk.
                                             Photo by the author.

This is a story of my encounter and the search for an elusive and very difficult to find wild animal called the Sitatunga antelope in a remote seldom visited national park in Kenya.

As the chilly, early morning mist cleared, I sat in silence, patiently waiting and watching. The drone of insects heralded dawn’s awakening as I kept an eye on the paths and tunnels made through the reeds and rushes by the Sitatunga. A rustle in the reeds and a faint calling sneeze alerted me that they were on the move. Excited that my patience had eventually paid off, I trained my binoculars on the very shy antelope that are so difficult to find.

I had heard of the small and remote tropical wetland and surrounding riverine forest, Saiwa Swamp National Park, that was created especially to protect the rare amphibious Sitatunga antelope, and preservation of the habitat. These antelope are the only species of antelope known worldwide to be aquatic.

Saiwa Swamp is the smallest of Kenya’s national parks and although though only 3 sq. km its ecological diversity more than makes up for its very small size. I was on a road trip to explore seldom visited places and had been told that this little sanctuary was worth the detour. How exciting the visit had proved to be with that early morning sighting, especially as so few people have managed to see these elusive swamp loving antelope.

Dominated by bulrushes and other aquatic plants the swamp is fed by the Saiwa River which winds its way through the wetland and by the run-off from the surrounding riverine forest. Rarely visited and well off the tourist track this compact park is unique in that it only accessible by foot. There are no roads within the park but 18km of walking trails and bridges that made it exciting to meander around the park, knowing that there were many well-hidden wild animals, including leopard lurking around. Very few national parks in Kenya allow walking as an activity but Saiwa Swamp encourages it and the simple to follow pathways took me across the bouncing timber board-walks, over the swamp and down jungle and forest tracks.

Before setting off on the road trip I had done some research on the Sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii) as I wanted to be as prepared so that I could be mindful of where they may be hiding and of their habits.

These, minimally researched antelope, also known as marsh buck, are swamp dwelling antelope native to Africa and the only species of antelope known to be aquatic. The Sitatunga (pronounced “statunga) are a long legged bovine with strange splayed and elongated hooves that have an average height of 1.5 meters. They look as if they are always hunched over but this is because their rear legs are much longer than their front legs. This strange placement helps with stability in the soft, marshy areas and one of the reason they are so difficult to find is because they seem to survive more easily in wetlands than on dry land. The Sitatunga have adapted themselves so as to be able to exploit the abundant food resources of the swamp habitat and so with the rich, year round food supply, their home ranges are small. While feeding they communicate with very low squeaking noises.

I kept an eye on the rippling waters under the board-walks and in between the bulrushes and reeds and was unexpectedly rewarded as a young female Sitatunga was peeking at me just below the path at the edge of the thick reeds. This took me by surprise and with no one else around I could hardly believe that I was having another extraordinary encounter.

Hardly daring to breathe I stood completely motionless as it was such a marvellous moment and I didn’t want to frighten the little animal away. I was fortunate enough to get a quick photograph as I used my digital camera aiming from my hip. I savoured the moment as I knew this was a one-off chance to see this very shy, wild animal, alone. Sadly the rest of the group missed the sighting because when I moved she quickly disappeared into the reeds.

As I had seen two distinctly, different looking antelope I was pleased to learn that I had had quick glimpses of both the female and male Sitatunga. The females have a reddish-brown coat while the males are dark brown and have a mane and horns. White patches can be seen on the face and throat with several stripes and spots all over the body. The remarkable twisted horns can reach a meter or more in length. They can live up to about 20 years and their predators are lion, leopard, large pythons and of course, humans.

These swamp stars are unique in that they like to live in swampy areas with thick grass and reed beds. They make trails through swamps that lead to clusters of reeds where they can sleep. Their coat is oily and water repellent and with the elongated and splayed hooves they can walk on submerged vegetation and outrun danger in the swamps. Moving slowly to avoid detection the Sitatunga gently enters the water and drops down until nearly all of its body is submerged. They are good swimmers and their escape when in danger, is under water. Young Situtunga are born in the dry season and are concealed by their mothers among the reed platforms of the swamp. They are extremely shy and prefer to feed early morning and evening and spend most of the day submerged or resting in the reedy shade.

Knowing those facts had helped me locate the animal on that early morning as I waited so patiently in the cold mist on one of the wobbly board-walks. As they expertly duck in and out of the swamps to feed, the second sighting of the small female peeking at me from under the board -walk was particularly special.

I so enjoyed strolling through the dense, riverine forest with sun-rays bursting through the leafy canopy, which led to the four strategically placed observation towers. The trails and board-walks helped me explore the entire park and they exposed the beautiful marshland and wildlife living within it. The elevated platforms gave views over the thick and green forested wetlands and with some patience some interesting sightings could be made.

The park encloses a tropical wetland and the landscape consists of three distinct areas: wetland of reeds, bulrushes, sedge and tall swamp grasses, a wooded grasslands and bordering the swamp a tropical forest area of wild fig trees, yellow acacias, swamp palms and exotic banana trees. Within the dense grass beds and rushes, 24 of Kenya’s exquisite and colourful terrestrial orchids can be found.

Ambling through the shaded landscape of the tropical wetland and assortment of riverine forest was a delightful experience as the forest provides a unique and important habitat for birds, insects and mammals.

With such varied vegetation, birding was top notch, not only because of so many interesting species but also for the numbers of birds that flock to the floodplains during the migratory season. There are over 372 bird species and I spent hours watching the marsh birds which were plentiful with the most conspicuous being the grey-crowned cranes, black African duck and the grey heron. The presence of the grey-crowned crane was a good gauge as to the stability of the wetland ecosystem. I spent many hours in the tall watchtowers around the park as they made for excellent bird watching points with constant birdsong all around. The spectacular Ross’s turaco, Narina’s trogon, black and white hornbill and orange tufted sunbirds are some of the splendid birds sheltered within the forest.

As I strolled through the park I also kept a lookout for the endangered De Brazza monkey. This distinctive monkey, with its white beard, is both a strong swimmer and a good climber and forages in family troops in the early morning and late afternoons. It is a cheeky monkey as it scares the birds away by rattling the trees. I unfortunately did not manage to find the De Brazza monkey but saw many fluffy black and white Colobus monkeys as they clambered high up in the trees in search of fresh leaves. They are bountiful in the wooded areas of the swamp as are the vervet and Sykes monkeys.

The swamp is home to a number of cats, including leopard, but most are difficult to spot. The African civet and the common Genet can sometimes be caught in the beam of a spotlight around the swamp at night. Camping in the park was a rewarding night in the wild experience with the chattering of flirty monkeys and croaking frogs around the swamp.

With its dense canopy and rich earthy smell, the forest hummed with life as I strolled on the pathways, stopping to picnic at well located sites. Swamp insects, dragonflies, butterflies, toads, frogs, lizards and snakes are numerous and added to the fun of exploring the dense undergrowth, slimy ponds and the windy paths of this peaceful ecosystem.

My detour to visit the smallest national park was very worthwhile and endlessly rewarding. It is a perfect example of how a small area can survive as a complete ecological entity. The secluded tranquillity of this remote park with its elusive Sitatunga was alluring and a peaceful haven for nature lovers.

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