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Kenya: Big five & beyond

Conservation and big game should go hand in hand but with poaching, population growth and over-grazing a constant threat, this often isn’t the case. Nevertheless, safaris offered by some of Kenya’s pioneering conservationists show how tourism can have a key role protecting the African savannah

Kenya: Big five & beyond
Lewa. Image: Getty

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We can’t be doing more than 20mph, but our 4WD still jolts violently as Norman swerves to avoid the worst of the potholes. All around, the evening sun bathes the savannah in a warm glow, turning the wiry grass a golden yellow. As we approach the pride, two other vehicles have already beaten us to it, so we hang back. Mass-market tourist trap this is not — visitor numbers are strictly controlled at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and no more than two vehicles at a time are allowed near a wild animal.

We sit patiently, catching glimpses through binoculars of the well-camouflaged predators ambling among the tall grass. With no obvious prey around, and with the lions seemingly intent on conserving their energy, we won’t witness a chase. Nevertheless, they’re moving in our direction. A tense five minutes pass, as the prospect of seeing the hunters up close sends a ripple of excited whispers and tensed camera shutter fingers through my group of fellow travellers. One by one, seven emerge from the grass — crossing just metres from the front of our vehicle, with no more than a casual glance acknowledging our presence — before disappearing again.

Buzzing at our luck — or, more likely, Norman’s careful planning and insider knowledge — we sit for a moment, watching them pad off into the distance. I’ve seen lions before, at the zoo, but observing them in captivity always feels a little depressing. It certainly pales in comparison to the hair-raising experience of seeing them in the wild, with nothing more than the open side of a safari vehicle between you and an animal that could tear you apart in seconds. With the excitement over and dusk setting in, we retire to an open area by a swamp for a G&T sundowner, soundtracked by a rhythm section of croaking frogs and chirping birds.

Elephants, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

Elephants, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya. Image: Seamus McDermott

I’ve only been at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, in central Kenya, a couple of hours but already the wildlife has put on a show, from the reticulated giraffes casually dining on acacia trees bordering the dusty airstrip, to stoic-looking buffalos grazing on the plain. The critically endangered black rhinos, meanwhile, put in an appearance in the first 15 minutes of this evening’s drive, with a mother and juvenile leisurely cleaning themselves by a mud hole.

Over the next few days, my morning and evening drives reveal a dazzling array of wildlife, from tiny dik-dik antelopes and their elegant cousins, the impala, springing through the grass, to cute vervet monkeys and olive baboons, hiding among the acacia. Zebras and herds of elephants roam the plain, while jackals and hyenas hunt at night, eyes glowing in the headlights. Even Lewa Safari Camp, where I’m staying, plays occasional host to an intimidatingly large Somali ostrich, despite the perimeter fence.

Think of the quintessential safari experience, and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy ticks all the boxes. Straw-coloured savannah merges with the misty outline of distant hills. In the background, the craggy crown of Mount Kenya pierces a blue sky while flat-topped acacias punctuate the landscape, providing a cinematic backdrop to iconic wildlife.

Conservation credentials

My ‘tented accommodation’ at Lewa Safari Camp is far more luxurious than it sounds, with thatched roofs, luxurious double beds and hot showers. Set around an old cottage, it’s one of only five camps in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. This 62,000-acre haven has its roots in a sanctuary set up in the early 1980s in response to the rapid decline in Kenya’s wild black rhino population (from around 20,000 in 1960 it had dwindled to approximately 400). Declining habitat and an insatiable demand for the creature’s horn in Eastern medicine meant extinction was a real possibility, but since those dark days a remarkable turnaround has seen black rhinos from the conservancy reintroduced to areas where they’d previously vanished. But the fight against extinction remains an uphill struggle, with the astronomical black market price of rhino horn increasingly attracting international criminal gangs, armed with sophisticated hunting equipment.

On my second morning I get the chance to see some of the conservancy’s hard work up close. As we’re finishing our morning game drive, Norman announces he has a surprise. After a few minutes we bump off the track through a thickly wooded area and come to a stop. I hear them before I see them, their grunts carrying through the undergrowth. Norman beckons me out of the 4WD and leads me to a dense clump of vegetation.

At its centre, three orphaned baby rhinos are rolling in the wet mud to cool down, while a pair of rangers stand guard. Small, pudgy, and barely three feet tall, they maintain a certain cuteness despite their prehistoric features. They perk up at the intrusion on their morning ablutions and one of them walks over, gently butting our legs with its hind quarters by way of enquiry, while their protectors gently stroke them with sticks and speak softly to calm them down.

Kenya Conservation Efforts - baby black rhinos Nicky and Hope take a mud bath, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

Nicky and Hope take a mud bath, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya. Image: Seamus McDermott

Nicky, Hope and Kalifi enjoy celebrity status in the conservation world and, without the help of the staff at Lewa, would probably have perished in the wild. Fourteen-month-old Nicky has been blind since birth and will need to be looked after for the rest of his life. Khalifi, three months, and Hope, seven months, are more fortunate in that they’ll eventually be released back into the conservancy.

The rangers follow the trio all day, hand-feeding them milk and scaring away other animals that approach. At night they lock them up safely in enclosures and keep watch. The affection the rangers have for the animals is apparent. With a fond smile, one tells me that when talking about his three daughters he often adds that he has three sons as well.

Community engagement is an important part of the conservancy’s work; the idea being that in order to thrive, conservation projects must earn the trust and support of local communities and recruit them in the fight against poaching. Accordingly the conservancy raises around $2m (£1.2m) a year to support 18 schools, 10 water programmes and a personal finance programme in the local area. Not surprisingly, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy has been held up as a model for community conservation in Africa.

Encouraged by the success of Lewa, its co-founder also helped set up the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) to provide support for communities looking to establish conservancies on their communal land. The NRT raises funds for conservancies, trains rangers, brokers agreements with tourism investors, and offers advice. Its work has resulted in around three million acres being turned over to wildlife conservation across Northern Kenya.

Walk on the wild side

The second half of the trip takes me to the Namanyuk Wildlife Conservancy, one such Northern Rangelands Trust-backed scheme, for a very different safari experience. The conservancy is centred on the Matthews Mountain Range, a forest habitat that rises out of the arid plains of Northern Kenya and is home to rare plants and insects as well as diverse animal species. The forest had been left largely untouched by the local tribes for generations, used only for medicine or in times of drought, but due to population increases and economic necessity, grazing began to encroach on its borders.

As I drive up from the surrounding villages, the surrounding landscape holds a warning for the future if the economic benefits of conservation and tourism were to disappear. The felling of trees for firewood combined with the introduction of goats that rip up the roots of grass and vegetation has led to desertification. Recognising the need to economically support the communities in return for leaving the forest to flourish, the NRT has encouraged the switch from goat to camel, and introduced a scheme to buy cattle for a previously agreed price during periods of drought, removing the need to cut down trees to feed animals.

Nearby Kitich Camp is my base for the next two nights — a remote and tranquil group of six tents overlooking a lush glade along the Ngeng River on the range’s upper slopes. As with Lewa, the ‘tented’ accommodation belies its description, with plush double beds and en suite bathrooms. Unlike at Lewa, however, we’ll be leaving the vehicles at camp and exploring the dense forest on foot with guides from the local Samburu villages. Having had my fill of game viewing at Lewa, Kitich offered the chance to study the forest and how the wildlife interacts with it. And with no other camps or villages for miles around, our small group would have the place pretty much to ourselves.

Walking safari near Kitich Camp, Matthews Mountain Range, Kenya

Walking safari near Kitich Camp, Matthews Mountain Range, Kenya. Image: Cheli & Peacock.

Setting off early in the morning, we follow a trail along the river. Leaving the open glade next to camp, a dense forest of podo, rosewood, cedar and strangler fig trees tower overhead, while scrub and ancient endemic cycads line the path. It’s approaching the end of the dry season, and the river has been reduced to a stream but in a couple of weeks the rains will swell its banks, making the area virtually inaccessible. As we walk, local guides Tausen, Lissaman and Thomas, along with camp owner Stefano Cheli, reveal the incredible diversity of the forest and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it signs of animal activity all around.

It’s not long before Tausen stops to point out an imprint in the dirt where a buffalo has slept the night before, while the shiny patches on a cluster of trees turn out to be from elephants cleaning themselves after a mud bath. We’re warned against standing for too long next to a hole under the roots of a tree, which turns out to be a warthog dwelling.

Big cats, too, are seemingly ever-present. Fresh prints betray the presence of a leopard within the past two hours and its white droppings reveal its recent dining habits. Lions also leave their marks, with fur-filled droppings pointing to a dinner of buffalo. Tausen confirms we’ve probably walked within close proximity of two to three leopards and one lion in the course of the day’s trek, although our loud footsteps and talking meant we were unlikely to spot them.

After a couple of hours the coolness of the morning disappears and with the sun beating down between the tree cover, our guides plot a course for a wild swimming spot. In a gorge beneath a waterfall the cascade slows to a languorous pace, collecting in an inviting looking pool. A Tarzan rope added by the camp’s staff hangs invitingly over the edge and I need no second invitation. The cold mountain water is gloriously refreshing against the heat of the day, washing away dust from the walk.

Back at camp, we sit around a fire and reflect on the day. The trek may not have brought us any major sightings, but it did bring home how delicately balanced this rich corner of the world is — tourists, poachers, lion prides and all.

Essentials

Getting there
Kenya Airways and British Airway fly direct from Heathrow to Nairobi.
Average flight time: 9h.

 

Getting around
International flights arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport; internal flights leave from Wilson Airport, an 11-mile drive away. Safarilink and Airkenya fly between Wilson Airport and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, and between Wilson Airport and Samburu Airstrip, four hours from Kitich Camp.

 

When to go
The dry seasons (June-October; December-March) are best for game viewing with temperatures around 20-28C. Rainy seasons are April-May and November.

 

Need to know
Currency: Kenyan Shilling (KSh). £1 = KSh145.
Health: Lewa and Kitich are in malaria-free zones. Immunisation against diphtheria, hepatitis A, tetanus and typhoid are advisable. Check with your GP.
Visa: British passport holders can buy a £30 three-month, single-entry visa on arrival.
International dial code: 00 254.
Time difference: GMT +3.

 

More info
Cheli & Peacock runs Lewa Safari Camp and Kitich Camp. chelipeacock.com
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. lewa.org
Northern Rangelands Trust. nrt-kenya.org
Kenya Tourist Board. magicalkenya.com
The Rough Guide To Kenya. RRP: £16.99.

 

How to do it
Exceptional Travel offers eight days in Kenya, with a night at House of Waine, Nairobi, two at Kitich Camp, two at Joy’s Camp in Shaba National Reserve and two at Lewa Safari Camp, from £3,750 per person based on two sharing. Includes return flights from Heathrow with Kenya Airways, internal flights, road transfers, conservancy fees, game drives, AMREF Flying Doctors membership and full-board at Kitich, Joy’s and Lewa.

 

Published in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)