Published: 15 September 2018
At the Nyatote gate of Ruma National Park in Lambwe Valley near Lake Victoria, metal casts of the roan antelope (Hippotragus equines langheldi) are nailed to the gates. This subspecies of the handsome antelope with a face that looks like it was painted by a make-up artist is only found in Ruma –which means it is endemic. It is a handsome antelope, the size of a horse. It has distinct facial markings — black-rimmed eyes set against white, very much like a traditional African mask. Wearing a coat of russet copper, it really is a noble looking antelope. Both male and female have ringed horns.
We’re hoping to see the noble roan –after all, the 120-square-kilometre Ruma is the only place in the world for them. Until the 1970s, the roan roamed the plains from the Maasai Mara all the way to Ruma. In Ruma there were more than 300 roan antelopes in the park and on the Kanyamwa escarpment, at the edge of the park. However, by the turn of the millennium, the number went down to 100. In 2004, there were 85 and the last census in 2006 showed only 56 roan antelopes.
Mbita to Ruma
It’s been an interesting morning so far having taken the early morning waterbus from Mfangano Island to Mbita and then driving from Lake Victoria Safari Village past Gembe Hills and the crater into the little-visited park Ruma. Most of it is tarmac until recently when it could take five hours to drive from Kisumu 140 kilometers away on rough roads.
At the gate, the side road is busy with traffic with vehicles and boda bodas ferrying their passengers to the villages around the park.
We’re quite excited when the rangers inform us that besides the roan there are 27 black rhino and 15 white rhino in the park. And we may see the odd leopard and hyena.
It’s quite a different view surrounding the park from 20 years ago. Then most of the homesteads of the Luo were traditional thatched huts. Now shining mabati and stone houses surround the park.
But on the flat floor of the park, the grass is dotted with whistling thorn acacia and the olive tree with wild flowers in bloom. Long necks of the Rothschild giraffe stick out in the plains. Endangered, they seem to be doing well in the park.
But our eyes are focussed on the roan. A large antelope dashes across the road but it turns out to be a topi. The road deeper into the park gets denser with thick scrub and bushes and we’re unable to see much. On this side of the park the animals are also more finicky. The waterbuck and bushbucks hide in the bushes whereas in the Maasai Mara they just watch the tourists go by.
The road gets rough and we have to turn around. More Rothschild giraffes, topis and zebras go about eating their usual greens. But no roan.
Stopping at the ranger’s post for a picnic, they inform us that there are about 30 roan left in the park. That is a real shocking statement.
It means that in the last decade the population has gone down by almost 50 percent – a fact virtually unknown to most Kenyans.
The thick green riverine forest stretches through the park of the Lambwe River. Historically, the park was used as a slave route. Being mid-August we’re also looking for the globally threatened blue swallow, a scarce intra-African migrant. It flies into Ruma from southern Tanzania where it feeds and roosts on the grasslands and leaves in September.
By this time it’s getting late and we have to be out of the park by 6 p.m. The rangers suggest we drive to the new airstrip where the rhinos usually are. The airstrip is littered with the rhinos dung piles but no rhino in sight – or roan for that matter.
We circle the airstrip for a second time before leaving – but nothing again.
It’s at this point while we’re driving out, on the side of the road, grazing contently is a white rhino. Finally at last, we can say we’ve seen all the big 5 – elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino – in four days from Maasai Mara to Ruma.
Where to Stay
In Ruma – at the KWS guesthouse that’s fully equipped.
At Mbita Point, spend a night at the light house at Lake Victoria Safari Village. It’s an amazing view of the lake and the islands – and it’s the only lighthouse in Kenya to sleep in.
Ruma is 386 kilometers west of Nairobi. You can go via Maasai Mara and Kisii or via Kericho and Kisumu – or fly to Homa Bay and hire a car at the airport.