As the curio-shop deadline approached, prices dropped on everything from fully mounted lions to silver dinner gongs slung between elephant tusks. More than $2 million in ivory gewgaws were sold, many ostensibly at half price or less. Zebra skins and buffalo-horn snuffboxes, bottle openers made from warthog incisors and wastepaper baskets fashioned from the feet of rhinos and elephants—all was up for grabs. On March 12, the final day of legal sales, long queues formed in front of the Kimathi Street dukas, while tourists and Kenyans alike paraded the streets laden with their "trophies." Simultaneously, the government was celebrating Kenya's first annual Wildlife Awareness Week—a sincere attempt to educate the country's 14 million citizens to the value of their unique heritage. After all, wildlife tourism—mainly minibus jaunts through the country's 32 game parks and reserves—have accounted for $100 million a year. Kenya's gross national product is $3 billion.
I had timed my visit to coincide with the dry season because at that time the game tends to congregate at water holes, while after the rains it disperses and is difficult to spot in the tall grass. Kenya's rainy season comes in two parts—the "short rains" of October and November and the "long rains" of April through mid-June. But when I arrived at Nairobi's Embakasi Airport on March 2, the rains were there ahead of me. In fact, the short rains of the previous fall had never really stopped and indeed were promising to phase into the long rains.
As a result, Kenya was never more beautiful. Grass grew waist high even in the arid Northern Frontier district; the normally stunted, spavined cattle of the herding tribes looked fat and sleek; such plains game as impala, topi, hartebeest and Grant's and Thomson's gazelles were calving as if at the Creation. Cape buffalo covered the grasslands in greater abundance than I had ever seen in three earlier visits to Kenya. Yet in three weeks of travel over more than 1,500 miles of Kenya, from the Tanzanian border in the south to the Northern Frontier District above Isiolo, we spotted only two rhinoceroses and just one elephant with respectable tusks. Lions are abundant, and frequently we heard leopards hunting at night, but we saw not a single cheetah—perhaps on account of the tall grass. Burchell's zebra—the small, wide-striped variety most commonly seen in Western zoos and game parks—galloped the plains in greater numbers than I had ever seen. But the Grevy's zebra, longer-legged, pin-striped and mule-eared, proved to be in short supply. Perhaps there's been a shift in taste among fanciers of zebra-skin rugs.
From all the horror stories I had read about the end of the game, I had expected to find the country empty of animals. It was quite a joy to discover that, among certain species at least, the fecundity that follows plentiful rain was at work once again. "There's a resiliency to wildlife that always surprises you," said Bill Winter as we drove from Nairobi to his home near Nanyuki. "Given half a chance, either by the weather gods or by man, most species can rebound from disaster in very short order."
The same could be said of Winter himself. Three years ago, on a hunting safari in the Masai Mara region, he was shot in the right leg by a client while following up a wounded buffalo. The .375-caliber bullet shattered his leg a few inches above the ankle. After 21 operations and months of delirium in a Nairobi hospital, the foot was saved, but his right leg is now two inches shorter than the left and the foot itself is virtually boneless. "They filleted it for me in England last fall," he said. "Funny thing, when I flew back to Kenya from London last month after they took the bones out, I set off the airport security metal detector into a long loud howl. Bits of bullet still in there. But I can hop about all right, thanks to a good shoemaker."
In the 46 years since he was born in England's Lake District, William Henry Winter has "hopped about" in some very hot places. As a commando noncom in Korea, as a police officer in Malaya during the guerrilla warfare of the early 1950s, a police inspector in Kenya during the Mau Mau "emergency" and as a warden in the Kenya Game Department, he "saw the elephant" (as the 19th century expression goes) in every possible guise, both figuratively and literally. Short and stocky, with a leonine mane of brown-streaked blond hair, he remains an incorrigible punster and maker of limericks, a lover of words and wild country, of books and beasts and the beauty of stark places. To travel Africa with him is to have Linnaeus, Dickens, Darwin and Monty Python at your elbow. Not to mention Allan Quatermain. Although he is no longer permitted to earn a living as a white hunter, he remains active as a leader of photographic safaris.
Funga safari! Make ready for the journey. But remember that this is Africa we're about to see, and Africa is the land of inconsistency. Pliny the Elder knew it, and the headlines of today confirm his warning, "Out of Africa, always something new." Swahili, the lingua franca of black Africa, is a language of fatalism, of the dying fall, of the story in which cruelty and beauty meld into a swift, soft sunset. Leopards cough at night on the kopje; the stars are like shattered sapphires; a baboon screams in death. Lions rip at a wildebeest's gut while zebras browse placidly nearby.
Our first stop was at Ol Pejeta, a 40,000-acre game and cattle ranch owned by the French industrialist Henry Roussel, a frequent client of Winter's before the hunting ban. A week earlier, Roussel's game scouts had found the carcass of a young rhino killed by a poacher. "It was an inside job," Winter said as we bumped through tall grass and thorn bush to the site of the killing. "The poacher turned out to be one of Henry's own cattle drovers. He plugged it with a homemade, hand-loaded slug from a single-shot Stevens shotgun. The government called in all firearms last September, but farmers and drovers were allowed to keep their guns for protection against marauding lions and stock theft by rustlers."
The kill lay at the foot of a kopje, a weathered knob of rock that rose from the bush just above a water hole like the knee of a sleeping stone giant. We smelled the dead rhino long before we saw it. A solitary baboon watched from a mimosa as we got out of the truck; klipspringers bounded away over the brow of the kopje. As we neared the skeleton, a family of hyraxes began barking their sharp alarms. By now the carcass of the rhino had been picked clean by scavengers. The head lay upside down, the spine curved around the trunk of a thorn tree. The stump of the sawed-off horn was the only straight line in the twisted array. Leg bones, ribs, well-gnawed feet and sections of thick, tattered hide lay strewn for 10 yards all around. Flies flushed from the eye sockets as Winter poked a stick at the skull to show us where the horn had been.
"It was a very young rhino," he said. "Couldn't have been much of a horn, not on a skull that size. But at the price Hong Kong is willing to pay..."