African Stars

Kenya’s conservancies pair unique safari experiences with the chance to see responsible community and wildlife initiatives in action. Lauren Jarvis visited two, in Tsavo and Laikipia.

African-StarsThe bugs are everywhere. Scorpions, beetles and dragonflies cover the table, their armoured bodies and iridescent wings glinting in the African sun. The insectoid gathering is taking place at Kipalo Hills, an exclusive safari camp within the Mbulia Conservancy on the edge of Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park. But this isn’t a case for The Hotel Inspector, because these creepy crawlies aren’t real, they’re SNART – art pieces created from poachers’ snares, designed to trap Tsavo’s wildlife and retrieved by rangers from the African bush.

Over 1000 metal snares have been recovered by Chief Game Warden John Mutiso Kyeli, and his team of rangers, as part of Mbulia’s hands-on anti-poaching campaign. Funded by the US$60 bed fees collected from each guest for every night of luxurious sleep at Kipalo, this is just one of many community conservation initiatives being powered by Kenya’s conservancies that give visitors the opportunity to witness first-hand the difference their tourist dollars can make, while offering up-close wildlife encounters that are second to none.

Kenya’s conservancy model was first introduced in the 1990s in the Masai Mara, when safari camp owner Jake Grieves Cook persuaded the local tribespeople to set aside some of their lands, which adjoined the increasingly busy national park, for wildlife protection. The Maasai were paid rent for their land, camps were set up, and a proportion of profits from the ensuing safaris were poured into local conservation and community projects. While the benefits to the local people and Africa’s increasingly threatened wildlife are clear, it’s a model that’s a win for tourists, too. Generally more remote and less-visited, conservancies can offer a more personalised experience and a range of activities that are prohibited in the national parks, including walking and night safaris, and the chance to explore away from well-trodden trails.

Located alongside the boundary of one of Africa’s greatest wildlife areas, Tsavo West National Park, the Mbulia Conservancy provides an additional 12,000 acres of protected land for the large numbers of game in Tsavo, including the Big Five, and is a vital dispersal area during the dry season for over 700 elephant and 200 buffalo. But with great riches comes great responsibility, and it’s a role that Kipalo Hills shareholder and Managing Director of Liberty Safaris Richard Corcoran takes very seriously.

“The bedrock here makes the region unfarmable, so previously the local people’s only means of survival was chopping down old-growth trees for charcoal, or poaching. The conservancy is giving them sustainable revenue and showing them that game has more value when it’s alive. It’s very simple: if something makes money in Africa, it will survive. If it doesn’t, it won’t.”

The conservancy has funded beekeeping, education and community projects, as well as retraining local young people and former poachers as game scouts, who help Mutiso to combat the Chinese-hired hunters and Somalis targeting the Tsavo Conservation Area. Home to over 35,000 elephants in the 1960s, drought and poaching saw numbers in Tsavo plummet to just 6000 by the late ’80s. The 1989 ivory trade ban and efforts from the Kenya Wildlife Service gave some reprieve for the following two decades, allowing numbers to rise to 11,000 animals, but despite a tougher new wildlife bill introduced last year, demand from increasingly affluent Asian markets means that Kenya’s largest elephant population is once more back in the firing line, along with the rangers who have pledged to protect it. In May last year one of Tsavo’s best-loved ‘hundred-pound tuskers’, Satao, was killed for his ivory by a poisoned arrow, while a family of 12 elephants were felled by poachers within the national park in July.

“We’re all working hard to protect the elephants,” 69-year-old Mutiso tells me. “We’ve arrested 27 poachers, but the area we need to cover is vast. Tourists coming to Tsavo will show the local people, and the world, that our elephants are worth saving.”

After a piping hot ‘bucket bush shower’, I leave the luxury of my spacious tent for breakfast in the simple but chic open-air dining room, which overlooks Kipalo Hill’s pool. This morning I’m joining Richard, Mutiso and some of his scouts for a walk through the dense, green bush that springs up from Tsavo’s distinctive red dirt after the rains. Without the perceived safety of the 4WD that brought me on the three-hour trip from Tsavo’s airstrip to Kipalo, lion prints near camp take on heightened meaning, acting as a reminder that here in Africa’s wilderness I’m not at the top of the food chain. We track leopards and wild dogs, passing under towering baobab trees and climbing Kipalo’s escarpment, which reveals breathtaking views of the hills and plains, stretching across to a shimmering mirage-like Kilimanjaro beyond. In the distance, the mighty, ochre-stained elephants of Tsavo are making their timeless way through the African bush, under Mutiso’s watchful eye.

Heading north to the land of the Samburu, I visit another camp and conservancy on the edge of the Northern Laikipia Plateau, run by Verity Williams, one of the first women to lead safaris in Kenya. Remotely beautiful, Sabuk Lodge commands incredible views over the Laikipia Plains to Mount Kenya, from its six magical open-fronted stone and thatched cottages, and stylish lounge and dining area. Woken naturally by the purple sunrise of a new Kenyan day, I’m immersed in the landscape from the moment I pull back my mosquito net and walk out onto the smooth rock that forms the boundary to my room, as the Ewaso Nyiro River rumbles below and Africa’s dawn chorus begins to rise.

Travelling by camels driven by Samburu guides Gus and Robert, I’m led through Laikipia’s hilly wilderness, where kudu, elephant, lion and elusive African wild dogs roam. Unlike Kenya’s national parks, conservancies allow visitors to stretch their legs, get dirt on their boots, sip sundowner drinks on rocky outcrops, and indulge in delicious bush breakfasts served on shady riverbanks, which is where I find myself drinking my coffee as the camels settle down for a rest, and the heat starts to sizzle over the plains.

Later that day, Verity arranges a trip to the local village, where Samburu women are selling the gifts they make from elephant dung. On the way back to the lodge we visit Lobarishereki Primary School, where a percentage of fees from Sabuk have helped to build a new dormitory for 60 girls, meaning they’ll no longer have to bed down overnight in a cramped army tent, or risk a daily walk through lion country to get an education.

Back in my room, I lie out on the rock, looking up at the millions of stars dazzling in the inky night sky. Kenya has had more challenges to overcome than many of the world’s top wildlife destinations, but the inspirational people behind the country’s conservancies will do their best to ensure that its brightest stars will never burn out.