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Death in Happy Valley

A son of the colonial aristocracy goes on trial for killing a poacher in Kenya, where an exploding human population is heightening tensions and stretching resources to the breaking point

The most intriguing thing about Tundo's testimony was the question of visibility. Two ten-foot-high lelechwe bushes grew between Cholmondeley's position and that of the poachers. With knee-high grass and overhanging branches, it looked as if Cholmondeley would have had no more than a narrow window of visibility, roughly from knee to waist, on either side of the bushes. And yet the prosecution never asked what seemed to be the obvious questions: Would anyone who understood basic gun safety have fired a rifle here? And would Cholmondeley have fired if he'd thought the voices belonged to white people?

Afterward, in Nakuru, I looked up the pathologist who had performed the autopsy on Njoya. He said that the bullet had been intact when it hit Njoya, and that it had traveled a level course through his body. "So the ricochet theory?" I inquired.

"It's crap," he said.

One morning a little after sunrise, I walked out to a ridge overlooking Soysambu in the middle of the Great Rift Valley. Red hills and rocky bluffs rose up out of the parched landscape, and here and there a shoal of acacia trees swept through along a dry riverbed. Below me, a Masai herder wandered past with his goats, as Masai have always done in these parts. A monument on the ridge, built of rough volcanic stone, marked the grave of a British settler, Galbraith Cole, "buried here at his home in Kikopey in the making of which he laboured, loved and suffered much." Cole's house, now converted into a tourist lodge, stood behind me. On another ridge, a few miles away, I could see the modest home where Cholmondeley's parents, the current Lord and Lady Delamere, still live. Everything else seemed timeless.

It was hard to fathom that this valley, and particularly its lakes, could be under siege. It was a siege being waged not just with guns and pangas, but also with greenhouses and fishing nets, and broad-bladed mattocks and makeshift irrigation schemes. To the west, on the flanks of the Mau escarpment, clouds cast pockets of shadow that looked like forest but weren't. Much of the forest, a national reserve, had been opened up to small farmers and cut down in the 1990s. "It made people happy, and politicians get elected by making people happy," Bernard Kuloba, a conservation biologist for KWS, had told me. But what the politicians had failed to calculate was that the Mau forest was the critical water source for two of the most celebrated natural areas in Africa, the Masai Mara reserve on one side, and Lake Nakuru National Park on the other. People were getting a few shillings' worth of maize, said Kuloba, but at the expense of tourist dollars--Kenya's second largest source of income--and drinking water.

That trade-off was happening all over this stretch of the Great Rift Valley. On the old Cole ranch in Kikopey, 7,000 people were ekeing out a living on the same arid land that supported perhaps 200 people a generation ago. A few miles uphill, the government had granted permits for two farmers to draw irrigation water from a hot spring—and 200 pipes had gone in instead, straws all sipping the same meager drink. All through the foothills, said Kuloba, rivers and streams now run dry long before they reach the lakes--except when rains and the lack of upland vegetation turn them into flash floods. As a consequence, Lake Elmenteita itself had dried away to a shallow puddle in the middle of a broad, bleached-out lakebed. And it was much the same at Lake Nakuru, a little to the north.

"If there's no water, the flamingos could die," Kuloba told me. He
shrugged, to indicate the general public reaction. "And if there's
no water for Nakuru town either? Then people will die too."

I thought he was overstating the case, until I went out to Crater Lake. It was one of two small lakes at the southern end of Lake Naivasha, neither of them normal flamingo habitat, where the birds had suddenly turned up in huge numbers in 2006. Biologists speculated that the falling water levels had changed the chemical balance of all the lakes, altering the population of bacteria on which the flamingos feed. The changing conditions may also have favored certain bacteria that produce a potent neurotoxin fatal to the birds.

From a scenic viewpoint above Crater Lake, the flamingos looked almost absurdly beautiful, lining the shore like pink icing on a big birthday cake in the middle of a desert. Then I hiked down to the lakeshore, and as small groups of birds skittered away across the water, I realized that scores of those left behind were dead. They lay with their elegant pink necks s-curving across the surface of the water, or folded back between their wings, as if in sleep. Hundreds more victims of the "pink death" lay heaped where someone had tossed them in the bushes. And if the flamingos were dying, what did that say about the second half of Kuloba's prediction?

The last place I visited in Kenya was the village of Kiungururia, where Robert Njoya used to live, on the north side of Soysambu. The border separating the village from the ranch was a line of dense, thorny cholla cactus, but with wide paths cut through it. In the course of perhaps 15 minutes, I counted five young men riding out of the ranch on bicycles stacked high with firewood. I didn't see anyone with bush meat, but Jeff Mito, a private investigator hired to improve security at the ranch, had assured me that poachers were there every day. "And the same people who come as poachers by day come and attack us by night," he added.

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About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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