‘There is a rather large hedgehog in the sitting room darling’, whispered hubbie as he shone the torch around, trying not to wake up the sleeping children. ‘Come and see it’.

‘Wow, that is a large hedgehog, don’t let the Diesel (our Jack Russell terrier) chase it.’

Apart from the nightly genet who comes to finish off Diesel’s food, and the occasional spitting cobra, we have never had a porcupine visit before. He had piped the genet to the post in the dog dish, and then lumbered, with surprising silence, down the steps of our cottage and off into the night.

He was lucky to have be there actually, given his cousin had been killed and eaten by a lion a few months or so before, just outside the bush kitchen tent. The children had a great time collecting all the quills to decorate the cottage with, much to the bemusement of their health and safety conscious nanny.

It has been a rather strange and interesting time since the rains came. Not only have we seen a plethora of the lesser-seen animals close to camp, such as the porcupine in our cottage, elephants feeding of a fallen fig opposite our cottage and a leopard relaxing on a dead log across the river from the dining tent, but also strange tales of poisonous grasses killing off cattle in the community conservation area.

It is common knowledge among the local Maasai that when young, certain species of grasses can be poisonous to cattle. Curious about this, I tried to read up on the subject and discovered that indeed some of the larger grass species, particularly after a heavy grazing period such as a drought, harbor high levels of cyanide in their leaves, presumable as a defense mechanism against grazing animals. In a typical year, Maasai and their cattle stay well away from such grasses, only coming back to graze on them later in the season when they have grown up and lost their poison. This year it has been different. Severe drought forced cattle to have little option but to eat the young poisonous grasses, as they were the most plentiful food to be found. And many died as a result, adding insult to injury for Maasai who had already lost cattle to diseases and other drought related conditions.

I sit and watch my children playing in the river late one afternoon, in turn watched by our resident troop of baboons, and wonder at the extremes of nature. She can be so cruel and yet so beautiful, all at the same time. The people who live closest to her feel the cruelty perhaps more than the beauty, while those who can take a step back see mainly the beauty. As the light fades and I persuade the children out of the river and into a warm bucket bath, I hope for their sake that their understanding and love for nature can encompass all the emotions that come with her.

Samantha du Toit (Russell) is a wildlife conservationist and works for SORALO in the Olkirimatian-Shompole ecosystem in Kenya’s southern part of the Great Rift Valley. She lives with her husband, Johann, and their two children at Shompole Wilderness, a tented camp in the Shompole Conservancy.

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