Back from the brink…

Despite its seductive landscapes, terrific wildlife & few other visitors, Meru is one of Kenya’s most unsung national parks

MeruOf all Kenya’s major national parks and reserves, Meru is the one that remains the least visited and in many ways the most pristine, wild and captivating. On the more remote east side of Mount Kenya, the park protects a ravishingly beautiful wilderness of tall grass savannah and acacia woodland, scattered with rocky outcrops, strikingly forked doum palms and majestic, elephantine baobab trees. It was in Meru that the animal-lovers Joy and George Adamson released the lioness Elsa back into the wild, recording the story in the 1960 bestseller Born Free, which was later made into a hugely successful film.

The park faces towards the monsoon weather systems that roll in from the Indian Ocean and provide abundant rainfall, especially in the higher districts, which range up to 1000 metres above sea level. Streams and rivers, fringed with dense thickets of fig trees and raffia palms, meander like dark ribbons through the park from west to east, forming several large swamps before they join with Kenya’s biggest river, the Tana, along the park’s southern boundary.

Meru’s rich grasslands support huge herds of buffalo and plains zebra, which are the main prey animals for the park’s lion prides. The golden-maned lions of Meru hunt strategically, using stream confluences to ambush and corner old, sick or young animals. Meru is also good leopard country, but these cats are hard to see in the dense bush. Towering above the grazing herds, Meru’s many elephants are easily seen above the tall grass, as are the park’s handsome reticulated giraffe – the richly coloured subspecies with its crazy-paving coat of cinnamon and cream – as they browse the leaves of spiny acacia trees with their blue tongues. With the establishment of the rhino sanctuary (a secure park within a park) you can now be reasonably sure of seeing both black and white rhinos, sometimes with young.

In more open areas you’re likely to spot the rare, pinstriped Grevy’s zebra and the distinctive giraffe-necked gazelle, or gerenuk, often seen standing on its hind legs to reach the best morsels on acacia bushes. Larger antelope such as the nervous lesser kudu, with their spiral horns, and the elegant straight-horned beisa oryx tend to fear big cats the most, but the gerenuk and fleet harems of caramel-coated impala keep a wary eye on the horizon for the tell-tale movement of a cheetah’s sinuous form gliding through the grass. Your best chance of seeing one of these sleek felines is to drive across the Kiolu or Rojewero plains in the western centre of the park.

Meru’s streams and rivers are home to fat river turtles, Nile crocodiles and pods of snorting hippos. On the Rojewero River, the largest watercourse in the park, brilliant kingfishers – malachite, pygmy, pied and others – flash from bank to bank through the sunlight, while fish eagles patrol overhead. More than 400 species of birds have been recorded here, ranging in size from the splendid, blue-legged Somali ostrich to the miniature red-cheeked cordon bleu, and including some real rarities, such as the huge Pel’s fishing owl and the African finfoot. Between October and April the park is also a spectacular gathering area for Palearctic migrants such as swallows, martins, bee-eaters and rollers.

As rich and diverse as this ecosystem is today, the park hasn’t always been so blessed: between the late 1970s and the late 1990s it was overrun by poachers. Meru was decimated: George Adamson, who lived nearby, was killed in a shootout; the rangers were outgunned, demoralised and co-opted; all the rhino were wiped out; the elephants took a heavy toll; and the big cats vanished.

As the poachers moved on, rejuvenation began. In 2000 the International Fund for Animal Welfare, together with the French Agency for Development and the Kenya Wildlife Service, started a project to restore the 870 square kilometres of Meru National Park to its former status as a jewel in Kenya’s natural heritage crown. With new earth roads and vehicles, they began safeguarding the wildlife, created the ultra-secure rhino sanctuary and translocated leopards and other vulnerable species into the park. What you’ll experience today is a measure of the commitment not just of the conservationists and investors but of people from the local Meru and Boran communities on the ground who staff the camps and secure the park – proud of its renaissance and growing reputation. And there is more good news, as recently the Born Free Foundation and Land Rover have established a new partnership with KWS to protect this precious landscape.

Conservation in Action

Meru National Park is steadily regaining its position as a premier tourist and conservation area thanks to a new five-year initiative by Born Free and Land Rover, writes Paul Udoto

A new era has dawned for the 870-sq-km Meru National Park, thanks to the five-year Lion Rover Project implemented jointly by the Born Free Foundation and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and supported by Land Rover. Captain Kenneth Ochieng, the KWS Senior Warden for Meru National Park, has received a donation of tents, laptops, binoculars, cold weather clothing, cameras and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) from the Born Free Foundation. The equipment was bought with funds provided by Land Rover.

This initial phase of the project will be followed by a series of co-ordinated actions under the Lion Rover Project, including the establishment of the Born Free de-snaring team, provision of supplemental fuel for anti-poaching activities and development of conflict mitigation strategies with local people (including improved livestock security).

Meru National Park in northern Kenya, 348 kilometres from the capital Nairobi, lost its position as a premier destination for visitors seeking untamed wilderness when it suffered a downturn in the late 1970s and early ’80s due to rampant banditry and poaching.

At its peak in the early 1970s, the park and adjacent conservation areas hosted as many as 50,000 tourists. Meru was the jewel of Kenya’s tourism. Then disaster hit.

In the tragic years that followed, poaching exploded and spread across the area, 90 per cent of the park’s wildlife, especially elephants and lions, were lost. Rhinos were completely wiped out. Disease took a terrible toll on the remaining wildlife. The park’s infrastructure collapsed. Lawlessness and land use conflicts between humans and wildlife devastated the park and tourism plummeted.

But since 2000 the park has risen from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix. With funding from international donors Agence Française de Developpement (AFD), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Born Free Foundation, KWS has been steadily restoring the park to its former glory.

Improved security, massive wildlife restocking, increased conservation awareness, infrastructure development, community engagement and aggressive marketing have all helped restore Meru’s ecosystem and infrastructure. In addition, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) has chosen the park as a site for Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), which has further enhanced the protected status of the park.

More to be done
But the park is not yet out of the woods. Habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, snaring of wild animals, destruction of key environments around the park and extraction of water before it enters Meru Conservation Area are starting to negatively affect some of the 14 permanent rivers that water the park, potentially reducing its ability to support wildlife.

The conservation of Ngaya Forest, which covers 4139 hectares, and which is currently managed by Kenya Forest Service (KFS), is critical to the survival of Meru National Park and its wild animals. Martin Mutie, the KFS Ngaya Forest Manager, says most of the water in the forest percolates into the ground and feeds the rivers in Meru National Park.

Indiscriminate and widespread use of wire snares significantly affects the lion’s natural prey base, such as antelope and gazelle. This leads to lions attacking livestock and thereby escalating conflict with the park’s neighbouring communities.

The Kenya Wildlife Service, with support from AFD and IFAW, has invested in new infrastructure developments including four airstrips, visitor accommodation facilities, roads, gates, staff housing and community projects.

These funds have allowed rebuilding of the park’s original ranger headquarters, repair of security vehicles, and fencing of two nearby farms to prevent elephants from wandering onto them.

KWS have built one of its biggest ranger camps, with 129 housing units, at the park’s Murera gate to boost security and avoid a repeat of the 1980s poaching and banditry.

Boost to protection
In November 2013 Land Rover agreed to a new sponsorship with the Born Free Foundation continuing its successful Global Conservation Partnership first forged in 2002 and confirming Born Free as its primary global conservation partner.

The origin of Land Rover’s historic association with Born Free goes back to the 1960s when Land Rovers were featured in the classic wildlife film Born Free, starring the Foundation’s founders Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers. The requirement was then, as it is now, to rely on the Land Rover vehicles to reach wildlife in the most remote of locations.

The new sponsorship will see Land Rover vehicles deployed by the Born Free Foundation in Kenya, Ethiopia, India and South Africa where they support the charity’s vital field work.

In Kenya, a fleet of Land Rovers enables the charity’s teams, working with the Kenya Wildlife Service, to reach remote areas to apprehend poachers and remove deadly snares. During times of severe drought the Land Rovers have also provided a lifeline, bringing food to animals in danger of starvation.

How it all began
The Born Free Foundation was founded in 1984 by actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, who were inspired by their involvement in the 1960s film Born Free. Today, the charity is led by the couple’s eldest son, Will Travers, and it has become a global force for compassionate conservation. Working on the principle of caring for wildlife in the wild, the charity’s activities protect some of the world’s most at risk species and also raise awareness of how people and wildlife can better coexist.

Elsa’s story
Meru National Park is best known as the setting for George and Joy Adamson’s book, Born Free, about an orphaned lioness cub they raised and named Elsa – a story retold in the 1966 Oscar winning film of the same name.

Joy Adamson acquired the lioness after George shot its mother in self-defence. The film depicts the dilemma the Adamsons faced when their time in Kenya came to an end, forcing them to decide whether to place Elsa in a zoo, or to attempt to teach the habituated lioness to hunt and fend for herself. Elsa was successfully released back into the wild.

Elsa, the intelligent and trusting cub, changed the couple’s lives and the world through subsequent award-winning books and films. The inspiring story of Elsa promoted enormous interest in wild animals and largely changed the way the Western world viewed wildlife and conservation.

According to Philip Mason, the Elsa Kopje Lodge manager, Elsa’s story marked the origins of modern safari tourism, changing it from being one for the privileged rich royals to a more sustainable and affordable experience for all nature lovers.

“People in the Western world began to realise that safaris were available to everybody to enjoy with cameras, rather than hunting with the gun,” says Mason.

Elsa is buried in Meru near the Ura River, and to this day many guests to the park visit her grave to pay their respects.

Exploring Meru
Compared with the open country of parks such as Tsavo East, Amboseli and the Masai Mara, where the wildlife can often be seen at a distance, there’s a much more intimate feel to Meru, where twisting red earth roads lined with vegetation reveal new scenes at every bend.
1 Getting there and getting around
Meru’s numerous earth and gravel motor tracks are mostly in good condition and marked by signposts and numbered cairns. Getting to Meru, it’s possible to visit in your own self-drive vehicle, rented in Nairobi, but most visitors are on organised, fly-in stays. The daily, 1-hour flight with AirKenya Express from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport (www.airkenya.com) is the only scheduled flight. If you go by road, either self-driving or with a driver-guide at the wheel, the journey from Nairobi via the foothills of Mount Kenya and Meru town takes around six hours. For backpackers and campers there are plenty of buses from Nairobi to Meru town, from where regular matatus (shared minibus-taxis) run to Maua, the last town before the park. Very few matatus, however, continue to the villages near the park gate – be prepared to improvise. There’s good, budget accommodation in the park, but no public transport inside it, and no practical means of touring it or gaining access to most wildlife sightings without having a vehicle at your disposal.
2 Climate
In theory the rainy seasons in Meru come between April and June and November and December. The annual rainfall is around 700mm in the west of the park and 350mm in the lower, hotter parts in the east. You can visit at any time of year (the park doesn’t close, though some of the camps do) but be prepared for mud and flooded stream crossings in the rains. Visit in July and January for verdant beauty and great photographic light, and March and October for dry conditions and the easiest wildlife-spotting.
3 Park fees
US$80 per 24-hour period (foreigners resident in Kenya pay Ksh1200 and Kenyan citizens Ksh350). Camping fees are US$20 per person per day (Ksh350 for residents and Ksh200 for citizens).

Where to stay
Where to stay comes down largely to budget, and there are surprisingly few options – though they are all good.

• Offbeat Meru
Tucked into a remote and beautiful area on the banks of the Bisanadi River, Offbeat Meru is a traditional safari camp (flush loos, but safari showers) with a youthful ethos and modern twists, like the pool. Energetically managed, with a superb guiding team, this is a fine base for exploring the park.  Guests usually eat together, hosted by the manager, and the next day’s activities are planned around the campfire. The pool and pool terrace make a perfect place to rest through the hot afternoon hours. Closed April, May and November. www.offbeatsafaris.com

• The Kinna bandas, Murera bandas and Meru Guest House
Operated by KWS (book through reservations@kws.go.ke) consist of en suite cabins, with simple rooms, bedding, mosquito nets and bathrooms. The small swimming pool at the heart of the Kinna site is a welcome target on a hot afternoon.

• Ikweta Safari Camp
A short distance outside the park, this owner-managed tented camp is a really good option for a reasonably priced stay that won’t break the bank. They do some great deals for residents, and there’s a pool and park visits on offer if you don’t have transport.
www.ikwetasafaricamp.com

• The KWS public campsite by a wooded stream, has simple ablution blocks and firewood for sale. Part of your daily fee pays for the rangers rostered to guard the site and look after you.

• Murera Springs Eco Lodge
This quirky, ten-room lodge outside the park, a few minutes from the main gate, runs entirely on solar energy. www.wildernessgetawaysea.com

• Rhino River Camp
Although it’s technically just outside the park, this camp is very convenient for visits to the Rhino Sanctuary. Italian-owned and run, this is a stylish, modern, attentively-managed camp, with excellent food and a beautiful natural setting in the forest, close to a stream that runs past the swimming pool. Most guests stay on a ‘package’ basis which includes game drives with the excellent qualified guides from the camp.  www.rhinorivercamp.com

• Elsa’s Kopje
With an iconic location on Mughwango Hill, right above the spot where George Adamson had his camp, Elsa’s is one of Kenya’s most outstanding small lodges, and has a gold award from Ecotourism Kenya. The charming and beautifully furnished cottages are open-fronted, to welcome the huge sky, and have private decks, tucked among the rocks and trees, overlooking the park’s serene horizons. The details here are all perfectly accomplished – from the superb infinity pool to the top-notch food and wine, and the highly skilled safari guides. Watching operations from the ground are countless colourful agama lizards and delightful hyraxes.  www.elsaskopje.com