It’s pouring with blessed rain and I’m looking down the barrel of a gun.
“Do you have the safety catch on?” I ask my Kenya Wildlife Service guide as he purposefully strides down the steep, muddy hillside with me practically skiing after him. He has an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, the muzzle inadvertently pointed at my head. I’m hoping he doesn’t slip.
“Yeah,” he replies, before surreptitiously clicking it up.
We’re walking into Shimba Hills National Reserve, one of the few areas under KWS control where walking safaris are allowed. It’s not, therefore, a place where you’re too likely to run into a lion or an elephant — not that the animals realise all this. Land boundaries are, after all, abstract human inventions.
“Is the machine gun necessary down here?” I enquire, as we traipse along a solitary path through dense underbrush. “Are local poachers well armed?”
“The bush-meat poachers around here carry bows, arrows and machetes — be careful!” he warns, pointing out a snare hidden in a small-game pathway, bisecting our man-made trail, “They lay these snares to catch suni antelope.”
My momentary belief that we have the poachers outgunned passes as quickly as the downpour: “Rifle noise made it very easy for us to track elephant poachers, so now they dig pit traps full of sharpened tree branches laced with a local poison. It can kill an elephant — inflicting an agonising death — in 30 minutes; within an hour the tusks can be removed effortlessly, which is why they use it.”
“We rangers have to be careful not to let the poison touch our skin. Within five minutes your nails start coming off; in ten minutes your teeth fall out; and then you die of organ failure.”
A gun now seems the lesser of two evils: at least a rifle’s report helps pinpoint poachers. But as I clamber into our Land Cruiser to set off towards Amboseli National Park, Julius Cheptai, KWS assistant director for the Southern Conservation Area, tells me otherwise.
“Sport hunting is legal in Tanzania, so when a gunshot rings out round here, you can’t tell if it’s a poacher or an authorised shooting.”
Elephants don’t know the boundary between Kenya and Tanzania, nor between park and private land. But tour operator Jake Grieves-Cook, who is riding along with us, has devised an inspired way of expanding their safe haven — and it’s a model he’s happy for his competitors to emulate.
Gamewatchers Safaris rents the collective lands belonging to Maasai herdsmen, thus creating huge private reserves; this gives the wildlife a greater protected area in which to roam and lets local people earn an income directly connecting their livelihood with the ongoing existence of Africa’s wildlife.
“You can only kill an elephant once,” says Jake, “but left alive, you can earn your living from tourism for years to come. So when poachers come to hunt for ivory, the community won’t allow it!”
Trundling along raised tracks through an endless morass of marshland, our vehicle grinds to a halt. The path has been blocked by the imposing bulk of an elephant, causing an unlikely wilderness traffic jam as he casually picks at a tree’s branches. He’s not alone.
In every direction, elephants bask under the scorching sun – and the protection of the KWS – occasionally cooling their enormous hides in the relative safety of Amboseli’s swamps.
A mother with glistening, wet skin picks her way through the quagmire, her calf using his trunk to grip his mum’s tail. As I put eye to viewfinder, she looks straight down the barrel of my camera lens. If she were stood just a few miles south, she might instead be in crosshairs.