Sanctuary for the Sitatunga

As the chilly, early morning mist cleared, we sat in silence, patiently waiting and watching. The drone of insects heralded dawn’s awakening as we 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 us that they were on the move. Excited that our patience had eventually paid off, all binoculars were trained on the very shy antelope that are so difficult to observe.

In the tropical wetland and surrounding riverine forest, Saiwa Swamp National Park was created especially for the protection of the habitat which provides shelter for the rare and vulnerable semi-aquatic Sitatunga antelope and is also a preserve for the endemic De Brazza monkey. It is the smallest of Kenya’s national parks and although only 3 sq. km its ecological diversity more than makes up for its very small size.

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 runoff from the surrounding riverine forest. Rarely visited and well off the tourist track this compact park is unique in that it is only accessible by foot. There are no roads within the park but 18km of walking trails and bridges that meander around the park. The simple-to-follow walks take you across the bouncing timber boardwalks, over the swamp, and down jungle and forest paths. Keep an eye on the rippling waters under the boardwalks and in between the bulrushes and reeds as you may get to see the Sitatunga peeking at you.

Swamp Star

Sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii)

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) is 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. Interesting too is that the pasterns, which is the part of the leg above the hoof, are flexible, this unusual leg construction makes it easier for them to run on damp surfaces. The Sitatunga have ingeniously 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.

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 remarkably twisted horns can reach a meter or more in length. They can live up to about 20 years and their predators are lions, leopards, large pythons, and of course, humans.

They like it Swampy

Sitatunga is 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 Situtunga 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 underwater.  Young Situtunga is born in the dry season and is 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. Their lifestyle is basically sedentary although occasionally they do leave the swamp after dark to browse. Habitat and wetland loss is the greatest threat to Situtunga as well as changing water levels as this has a direct effect on their diet.

There are thought to be about 170,000 Sitatunga worldwide and 40% of these are in protected areas. With their preferred habitat of wetlands and marshy areas, small groups can be found in scattered locations throughout western, central, and a few places in East Africa. Isolated groups are also found in the swamps of Angola, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Lush Landscape

Saiwa Swamp National park consists of three distinct areas: wetland of reeds, bulrushes, sedge, and tall swamp grasses, wooded grasslands, and bordering the swamp a tropical forest area of wild fig trees, yellow acacias, and swamp palms amongst many others. Within the dense grass beds and rushes, 24 of Kenya’s exquisite terrestrial orchids can be found. The forest provides a unique and important habitat for birds, insects, and mammals. Ambling through the shaded landscape in this tropical wetland and assortment of riverine forests is a delightful experience.

The swamp is home to several cats, including leopards, 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.

Both the Spotted–necked otter and the Cape-clawless otter live happily around the swamp while the lesser bushbaby and giant squirrel have an ideal habitat in the forest trees.

With its dense canopy and rich earthy smell the forest hums with life. Swamp insects, dragonflies, butterflies, toads, frogs, lizards, and snakes are numerous and add to the fun of exploring the dense undergrowth, slimy ponds, and windy paths of this peaceful ecosystem.

Saiwa Swamp National Park 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 is alluring and is a peaceful haven for nature lovers.

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About The Author

Written by Diane McLeish

Diane McLeish is a freelance writer who lives on the shores of Lake Naivasha in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya. From South Africa, she has traveled extensively in sub-Saharan Africa and has been living in Kenya for the last 16 years.