Mount Kenya National Park is one of the best of the few available habitats for the little-known Jackson’s Francolin. It has a loud call, but is rarely seen by birders or described by ornithologists because its high-altitude habitat is photographed from afar much more than actually visited.
By Rex Graham
Mount Kenya National Park is too high for wildebeest and cheetahs and all but a few wayward Secretarybirds make the flight. However, this stunningly picturesque park it would be an ideal setting for an animated Disney movie with a cast of intrepid bird and mammal characters from elephants and eagles to monkeys and mole-rats.
Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest mountain, but the diverse ecological habitats of the second highest at each altitude zone support a rich variety of birds, fish and mammals, including the Jackson’s Francolin.
From 2,200 to 3,700 meters (7,200-12,100 ft), the pheasant-like francolins forage in the underbrush of montane forest, bamboo and juniper forest and moorland, heath and scrub to well above treeline. It eats bulbous roots, grass, berries and insects. The handsome bird with a red bill and legs walks around mole-rat mounds up to 6 meters in diameter that are widely distributed in the park.
The francolin begins feeding before sunrise in dry weather, according to The Handbook of the Birds of the World. They pass elephants drawn to Mount Kenya to gorge on dense growths of Giant Groundsel, a type of high-altitude sunflower.
The francolins share the highest parts of Mount Kenya that still have vegetation with the Rock Hyrax, a 4-kilogram (9 lb) mammal that likes to bask in the warm morning sun, ever alert not to become the breakfast of Leopards, Verreaux’s Eagles or other predators.
Lions are very sparse where temperatures can dip below freezing every night. Here, the king of the carnivores is the African Wild Dog. They hunt hoofed mammals such as Zebra.
Park Is Sacred Ark
On the lower plains near the park, ethnic groups living within sight of Mount Kenya typically build their houses with front doors facing the sacred mountain.
From an ecologist’s perspective, the 17,021-foot (5,188 m) mountain is an island. It’s Kenya’s wildlife version of Noah’s Ark in a region where many animals are losing to development, deforestation, agriculture and poachers’ snares that are found right up to the park’s fences. Many Black-fronted Duikers, African Buffalo and other animals at the park can’t go back.
An electric fence keeps the elephants that are in the park from leaving it to raid crops growing in their ancestral feeding grounds. Mount Kenya’s fertile volcanic soil and plentiful water are a blessing to the country’s booming agricultural sector.
Of course, it’s easier for birds to come and go, and many visit and a few stay year-round. Some of the birds seen on the mountain include:
- African Snipe
- Black Kite
- Black-winged Plover
- Buzzards (Augur, Common and Mountain)
- Cape Eagle-owl
- Cape Grass Owl
- Cinnamon Bracken-warbler
- Ducks (African Black and Maccoa)
- Eagles (Tawny, Steppe and Verreaux’s)
- Green Ibis
- Green Sandpiper
- Harriers (Eurasian Marsh, Pallid and Montagu’s)
- Kestrels (Lesser and Common)
- Montane Nightjar
- Open-billed and White Storks
- Rüppell’s Vulture
- Slender-billed Starling
- Speckled Pigeon
- Streaky Seedeater
- Swifts (Mottled, Alpine and Scarce)
- White-naped Raven
- Yellow-crowned Canary
Mount Kenya Primate Ghosts
A primate species that is ghost of Mount Kenya is the Sykes’ Monkey. Biologists surveying the mountain in the mid-1900s found two mummified Sykes’ Monkeys below the Darwin Glacier. There is no easy explanation for why a monkey would climb above treeline to the retreating glacier. A mummified Colobus Monkey also was found – at 15,420 feet (4,700 m). They live at lower elevations, but not above treeline.
The East African Mole Rat is a different matter. They are supremely adapted to flourish in underground burrows on Mount Kenya up to about 3,000 meters (9,800 ft).
“They feed mainly on roots and subterranean stems,” wrote Truman P. Young, a Fordham University (U.S.) biologist, and Matthew R. Evans, a zoologist from the University of Cambridge (U.K.). “They appear to be the only mole rat in Kenya (out of three genera) that stores food.”
Young and Evans published a detailed summary of the alpine vertebrates of Mount Kenya in 1993, based on their observations from 1977 to 1990 along with previously published observations and studies of others.