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Tana River Primate Reserve

Relics of an ancient forest, the last home of two endangered primates

The Tana River Primate Reserve, which is known to the local people as Mchelelo, was formed to protect two endangered species of monkey; the crested mangabey and the Tana River red colobus. It is also one of the last remaining relics of the once massive Central African Lowland Rainforest, but became isolated from the rest of the forest during the seismic eruptions that caused the formation of the Rift Valley. As a result, much of the reserve's flora and fauna are unusual to East Africa and bear traces of ancient links to the Congo Basin forests of the Miocene period.

Fact File
Altitude: 40-70 meters above sea level.
Area: 169 sq km.
Location: Coast Province, Tana River District.
Distance from Nairobi: 350 km east of Nairobi. 160 km north of Malindi.
Gazetted: 1976.
Climate: generally hot and dry. Average rainfall ranges between 400 and 500mm per annum. Precipitation is concentrated in one main season, May - June. Average monthly temperatures range from 20 to 40 degrees Centigrade.
Vegetation: highly diversified riverine forest with nearly 175 species of trees, some bush and areas of grasslands.
Wildlife: seven species of primates, elephant, hippo, gazelle, duiker, giraffe, lion, waterbuck bush squirrel and crocodile.
Birds: 260 species have been recorded.
Roads: due to the presence of human settlements the reserve has a network of tracks and roads. These can, however, become inaccessible due to flooding; and 4WD is recommended at all times.
Security: although once considered an area of high insecurity due to its proximity to the Somali border, the reserve is now considered to be relatively secure; it is also guarded by a special team of armed KWs rangers.

The Tana River red colobus
The rare and seriously endangered, Tana River red colobus is one of 14 separate species of colobus, distributed across Africa. A relatively large member of the colobus family, the Tana River red is an elusive and exclusively arboreal and diurnal monkey, which lives in the evergreen closed canopy of the gallery forest, where it subsists on young leaves, fruit and flowers. Living in groups of approximately ten individuals the Tana River red colobus actually appears predominantly grey. It has a black face, conspicuous whiskers and the only red colouration on its body is the slight rufous tinge on the top of its head.

The crested mangabey
One of four types of river mangabey found in Africa, the crested mangabey lives in the riverine forests that border the Tana River. With a yellow-brown back, white under parts and dark-grey hands, feet and tail, the crested mangabey gets its name from the conspicuous crest on its forehead. Diurnal, arboreal, but mostly terrestrial, the mangabey lives in large multi-male multi-female social groups of up to 60 animals and spends most of its time foraging for food low in the forest.

Other members of the wildlife cast
Other primates found here include Sykes and vervet monkey yellow baboon and three types of bushbaby. There are also 57 species of mammal including; lion, giraffe, buffalo, blue monkey, baboon, Grevy's and Burchell's zebra, oryx, lesser kudu and various squirrels. There is also a small seasonal population of the endangered Hirola antelope (also known as the Hunter's hartebeest), while on the eastern side of the reserve there is possibility of seeing elephants. The reserve is also home to over 260 bird species including the extremely rare white-winged apalis.

The Tana River
The 708 km Tana River flows through Garissa and Garsen before branching into a huge delta as it enters the Indian Ocean, south of Lamu. Along the last 65 km of its course it has a broad floodplain, and the reserve extends for about 36 km of this course. Prone to flooding, the river frequently spills over for up to 10 kms on either side of its banks; and such roads as exist are either awash or a sea of mud.

The Tana River forests
Lying on both banks of the Tana River and dependant on it for their supply of ground water, there are about 71 distinct patches of lush riverine forest in the area, 16 of which fall in the reserve. Together they form part of a mosaic of habitats that includes grassland, wooded grassland, bushland and deciduous woodland. The reserve includes 175 species of trees, some of which are endemic; and at least 61 globally or nationally rare plants.

Home to the Pokomo People
The riverine forests are home to the Pokomo people, who farm the banks of the river using mainly the ox-bows to grow rice immediately adjacent to the water; and maize further back. Large areas of the forest have, as a result, been felled to make way for further cultivation. The Pokomo also use the forest for timber and traditional medicines.

Conservation issues
Although a protected area, some 54% of the Tana Forest were cut down by the local people between 1994-2000 as the result of a human versus wildlife land rights issue. It occurred after the launch of a World Bank project, which aimed to ensure the biodiversity of the reserve. Unfortunately the Pokomo viewed things differently; they felt that their ancestral land was being taken away from them and given to the monkeys, so they took it while they could. The World Bank subsequently pulled the funding of the project.

‘Heart of Darkness'
Hot, wild, lawless, far from civilization and sweltering on the banks mighty brown Tana River, this area conjures up visions of a tale by Joseph Conrad; and has attracted its fair share of eccentrics. At least three of the early colonial officers who were posted here are reputed to have become so oppressed by the area that they committed suicide, while in 1862, an eccentric sultan fled here, decided to dub himself ‘Simba' (the lion) and proclaim the sovereign ‘State of Swahililand', which duly issued its own currency and stamps; it didn't last long, a British expeditionary force razed the ‘state' in 1890. Just before the outbreak of World War I, the settler, Charles Whitton set up a plantation on the delta; it failed, he retired to Lamu where, for forty years, he was the Lord Mayor and universally referred to as ‘Coconut Charlie'. Percy Petley also experimented disastrously with agriculture in the region; failed and retired to Lamu, where he set up the Petley Inn. Reputed to be able to ‘fell a leopard with his fist', Percy frequently told his guests that they had better cook their own suppers; and those that remonstrated were asked to leave.

Where to stay
There is only one place to stay in the Reserve, which is known as the Mchelelo Research Camp and is run as a research station by the Institute of Primate Research, which is part of the National Museums of Kenya. KWS also have their headquarters at the camp. The camp offers a basic self-catering tented camp with 6 tents (showers and WCs) and a campsite. Bookings must be made in advance: Contact: NMK Nairobi: Tel +254 (0)20 3742161-4 nmk@museums.or.ke or visit www.museums.or.ke .

How to get there
From Nairobi take the A2 highway to Thika, then turn east on the A3 turning south on to the B8 to Garsen about 10 km before Garissa. 4WD required.
By air
There is one airstrip.


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