For years Kenya, birthplace of the safari, saw its wildlife populations plummet. Conservationists, safari outfitters, local herders, and landowners are now working together to ensure that the country's Big Five are no longer at risk of becoming a big zero.
Back in 1962, a year before Kenya won independence, American travel writer Martha Gellhorn stopped at the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi. She was about to make a two-thousand mile trip across Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika in a battered Land Rover whose speedometer never swung above thirty-five miles per hour, and the hotel's Thorn Tree café was a traditional starting off point for such adventures. Gellhorn—no slouch herself when it came to testosterone-fueled feats of derring-do—surveyed the other safari-goers with her usual sardonic eye: "The correct outfit was a deep sunburn, well-cut, much-worn, faded starched khaki trousers, long or short, a short-sleeved khaki bush jacket or shirt with ample pockets, old safari boots: New clothes betrayed the tenderfoot tourist. The tone was easy machismo; everyone had been eyeball to eyeball with a lion... Departures were impressive and rather theatrical, especially if celebrities were about to venture into the bush."
That description could apply just as accurately to the groups of tourists setting off today from Nairobi's top hotels, bound for the Masai Mara, Amboseli, and Tsavo. Pockets, more pockets—what do people put in all those pockets now that guns and cartridges are off-limits and cameras no longer use film?—and enough khaki to clothe Rommel's desert army. The bush hat, preferably rakishly decorated with a leopard-spotted bandanna, is ubiquitous, as are intricately laced hiking boots. The latter seem particularly superfluous, given that the longest hike most visitors will make is from their gleaming zebra-striped minibus to a lodge whose mod cons—hot water on tap, flush toilets, Wi-Fi, and a good signal for their BlackBerry or iPhone—mean the designated tent is about as rough-and-ready as a suite at the Hilton.
But then, holidays are always mythical constructs, intellectual fabrications. In the case of the Kenyan safari, the fantasy is a pith-helmeted, gin-flavored cocktail of colonial nostalgia whose ingredients include Isak Dinesen's doomed love for Denys Finch Hatton, the high jinks and low murders of the Happy Valley set, Teddy Roosevelt's great shooting expeditions, Elizabeth II's accession to the throne (she was staying at Treetops Hotel when she became queen), and the lyrical writings of Beryl Markham and Ernest Hemingway, Gellhorn's own ex-husband. And Disney, let us never forget Disney. The Lion King has an awful lot to answer for.
Enthusiastically endorsed by the Kenyan tourist industry, the country's second-biggest foreign exchange earner, the sepia-tinted safari myth has a vice-like grip, reaching back to the days when Nairobi was just a depot on a British railway line intended to link the coast with Africa's fertile heart. When you live in the place—especially if you are reporter covering the local political and economic scene—it swiftly gets on your nerves, so out of kilter does it begin to feel with the complicated, turbulent modern African nation you know.
So this trip across the country, a quest to establish what has replaced those flamboyant Gellhorn-era expeditions, represented something of a personal climbdown. When I was based in Nairobi in the 1990s, I rarely went on safari. I would sometimes make the most of the reduced rates residents pay to stay at a tented camp, but once there, I snubbed the obligatory hunt for the Big Five. Not for me the early-morning game drive—thanks, but that's breakfast time—and I never bothered photographing the wildlife. Why waste your pixels on a blurry shot of a distant hyena when the Great Rift Valley lies before you in all its soul-lifting, heart-stopping wonder?
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There was more than mere intellectual snootiness at play. I was uncomfortably aware of the de facto apartheid that ruled Safari World. In this parallel universe, the guests were always Westerners, the managers white Kenyans (Kenya cowboys, they call them), and the people who fried the breakfast eggs, carried the bags, steam-ironed the multi-pocketed waistcoats, drove the cars, and located the animals were black. I occasionally met Asian Kenyan guests at the lodges but never a black Kenyan. The safari—the Swahili word actually just means trip—seemed an indulgence strictly reserved for the wazungu, as Westerners are locally known, a term that, tellingly, originally meant "those who wander aimlessly."
And perhaps there was another reason for my arm's-length approach. I always took it for granted that Kenya's wildlife was doomed. Since 1977, when it introduced a ban on hunting and culling, Kenya has lost about seventy percent of its wildlife. It seemed obvious that a country whose population had mushroomed to more than forty-one million from less than nine million at independence—and grows by about one million a year—would eventually gobble up its protected national parks and their wild inhabitants. I winced when I read newspaper articles about poaching, illegal land grabs, squatters, and forest clearing. But these seemed inevitable in a country this poor and hungry. So best not get too fond. Kenya's wildlife might just last my lifetime, I guessed, but not much longer than that.
Yet the picture is more nuanced and more hopeful than this suggests. "The glass is half full, not half empty," insisted Mike Norton-Griffiths, a grizzle-haired expert who has been analyzing conservation trends for decades. "We can't go back to the wildlife levels we had forty years ago. But I'm not running around in a panic. Most people aren't."
Meru National Park, 336 square miles of land east of Mount Kenya, was once the country's foremost safari destination, attracting fifty thousand visitors a year. Then, in the 1960s, the Shifta War broke out. As the government crushed secessionist attempts by ethnic Somalis, northeast Kenya became increasingly insecure. The men with guns not only rustled cattle but also shot ninety percent of Meru's elephants and wiped out the rhinos. When drought hit, pastoralists drove their livestock into the park in search of grazing. Neglected and misused, Meru dropped off the radar. When I lived in Nairobi, no one I knew ever visited it, and that's why I put it at the top of my itinerary. I wanted to be nudged out of my comfort zone, to try lodges and camps I never had the time—or funds—to visit before, comparing the different survival techniques being adopted in the state-protected and private sectors.
I flew in from the town of Nanyuki, our Cessna making a looping curve around the mountain, whose seventeen-thousand-foot peak is too high for unpressurized aircraft. Below us, we could see the glint of corrugated-iron roofs and the dark-green orchards where Kenyan farmers grow the stimulant miraa, or khat. Freshness is of the essence in that trade, and the pink-stemmed shoots, recently banned in the United Kingdom, are driven at breakneck speed to Nairobi's Wilson Airport and rushed from there to Somalia, Yemen, and Ethiopia, to be chewed during afternoon-long male bonding sessions. "My first job was flying miraa into Somalia," said the pilot. "Flying in was fine, but you never knew what kind of reception you'd get on the tarmac, whether fighting would break out. Three months was enough for me."
We landed on a dirt strip at the foot of Elsa's Kopje, a rocky pimple on plains whose river courses are traced by the pea-green embroidery of tree cover. The camp is named after Elsa, the lioness raised by George and Joy Adamson, who staged their famous experiment in releasing domesticated big cats into the wild here in the 1950s. Photographs of the couple, who can probably take credit for an entire generation of Western children's love affair with nature, dot the walls of the lodge.
Elsa's Kopje is so discreetly designed that even the animals appear to have forgotten its existence. When I popped into the manager's office, a rock hyrax was waddling calmly across reception. His relatives, comatose in the heat, sprawled like corpses on the steps. I found myself shooing francolins off the path, chasing another hyrax along the rope bridge leading to my "room"—a euphemism for an open-air apartment whose views stretched toward a dreaming, languorous blue horizon somewhere in Somalia—and when I opened the door, an eagle threw itself into startled flight. That night, wondering what could be responsible for an increasingly noisy sound of rummaging, I switched on the light to glimpse a furry nose poking from behind my luggage: a friendly genet.
In the late 1990s, working with conservation agencies, foreign donors, and local communities, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) started restocking the park, reintroducing endangered species while simultaneously improving security (surveillance is especially tight around the rhino sanctuary), increasing the number of rangers, and putting up new fencing. "We have lost only two rhinos and about four elephants recently," said camp co-manager Philip Mason. "The patrols have been pretty active, and the spotter plane is in daily use."
While Meru does not yet boast the density of game in the Masai Mara, it is refreshingly free of the ten-minibuses-around-a-lion phenomenon that alienates so many visitors in the southwest. "Here you have to know your terrain," my guide explained. "You have to hunt the animals out, and when you find them, you feel real satisfaction. The animals have their privacy and their rights, and are treated with respect."
I was not complaining. If the Narnia vistas hadn't sufficed, Meru had enough game to satisfy any Big Five obsessive. Within minutes of leaving the lodge on my second day, we stumbled upon a herd of elephants and watched the youngsters curiously tasting the air with their trunks as they picked up our unfamiliar aroma. From the fawn staggering under the licks of its gazelle mother to the mongoose snatched up in its mother's mouth, it was heartening to see how many of the animals were babies. This was a park very literally experiencing a slow rebirth.
Like many commentators, I was dismayed by the election victory this year of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, who are both due to stand trial before the International Criminal Court in the Hague on charges of masterminding violence that claimed more than a thousand lives following Kenya's 2007 polls. No country benefits from an indictee as head of state. But those who work in the tourism industry, hit by mass cancellations during that crisis, take solace in the fact that the latest vote was peaceful, the new administration is keen to prove its business-friendly credentials, and Kenyatta made an explicit—and rare—pledge during his televised inauguration speech to fight poaching, recognizing the government's duty as "guardians and custodians" of the environment.
One big change since my time living here has been a shocking resurgence in rhino and elephant poaching, linked by some to the ballooning Chinese presence in East Africa, which makes it easier for buyers in Southeast Asia to hook up with local hunters. In June, Kenya's parliament dramatically stiffened penalties so light they did little to deter poachers. The new director of the KWS, William Kiprono, has announced the mobilization of a thousand new park rangers and suspended a senior warden, platoon commanders, and rangers suspected of providing poachers with the information needed to make their kills. But I suspect the unveiling of Chinese film star Li Bingbing as the UN Environment Programme's goodwill ambassador with an anti-poaching message may have more impact than all the drones, spotter planes, and armed rangers currently being thrown at the problem. When the star of Resident Evil: Retribution wept by the side of an elephant's headless torso in Samburu National Reserve, she was targeting the demand side of the equation, the appetite that creates supply.
But state agencies can achieve only so much. It is in the private sector that the most encouraging changes in Kenya are taking place, as ranch owners, farmers, and pastoralist communities together discover reasons for nurturing what had come—in part thanks to legal bans on hunting and culling popular with Western-funded conservation groups—to be seen as disease-bearing, cattle-eating, fence-flattening, water-hogging pests.
Wildlife, by definition, move around, and more than seventy percent of the animals are estimated to be wandering outside KWS-protected zones at any given time. If Kenya's safari industry is to survive, so must the wildlife straying outside the parks. The country now has more than a hundred conservancies, areas where local communities, private landowners, and tour operators have reached agreements that allow pastoralism and wildlife to coexist to everyone's benefit. One model is Ol Pejeta Conservancy, in the county of Laikipia—it's a not-for-profit venture that was once a ninety-thousand-acre cattle ranch owned by Adnan Kashoggi, the Saudi arms dealer.
Laikipia is dominated by its wind-swept wheat farms. The breadbasket of Kenya, it has an agribusiness feel to it and will never match Meru for its haunting beauty. But Sweetwaters, Ol Pejeta's tented camp, is easy to reach and child-friendly. A three-hour drive from Nairobi (turn left after you cross the equator), the conservancy provides a home for rescued chimpanzees—which can be viewed up close in a sanctuary co-founded by the Jane Goodall Institute—and a young rhino willing to take sugarcane from nervous young hands.
On my first morning there, I was treated to an orchestra of blood-curdling shrieks, wheezes, gasps, whistles, and determined drilling—the first courtesy of those damned hyraxes, the last the work of an energetic woodpecker. Exasperated by the sheer volume of the African dawn chorus, I unzipped my tent to find myself facing Mount Kenya, bathed in gold. Traditionally regarded by the Kikuyu as the seat of God, the snow-mustachioed summit is famously coy, often hiding behind cloud cover. In Sweetwaters, you can't seem to get away from it.
When Richard Vigne, a tea planter's son, became Ol Pejeta's manager seventeen years ago, he set out to challenge the established maxim that tourists will not pay wildlife viewing fees if there is livestock in the same area. Rejecting the traditional either/or dichotomy, he opted for both. "We decided from the start that keeping our cattle would provide us with a risk-management tool. Tourism is a fickle business. It paid off in 2008, when wildlife revenues disappeared overnight, and it proved itself again this election year." Tourism is his main earner now, but livestock revenues can carry the property through a crisis.
The integrated model creates more than twice as many jobs as the ranch alone, and this fuels local goodwill. Ol Pejeta invests its surpluses in twenty-two schools, road building, agricultural extension workers, and health care, and it grants local pastoralists limited access to its grassland when drought hits. Such efforts make it more likely that when poachers come prowling—Ol Pejeta holds four of the world's last eight northern white rhinos—someone will tip off the authorities.
"It gives us a degree of political robustness," said Vigne, after I got a guided tour. "The media mutter endlessly about Laikipia ranch owners of colonial extraction who won't let livestock on their land. But it's very difficult for a local MP to look over our fence and say, 'You're not using your land properly.' If conservation is to succeed, it has to go from being preservation for preservation's sake to being all about people. You don't have to have enemies all around you."
The reward is a conservancy teeming with buffalo, zebras, giraffes, and gazelles. Elephants meander along ancestral routes. When Vigne arrived, Ol Pejeta had just two lions, which had snuck under the fence. Now there are seventy. I came across one crouched in high grass, tearing into its zebra kill with a happy, ripping noise.
But it is along the edges of the Masai Mara National Reserve, a near-obligatory stop on any self-respecting safari company's itinerary, that the conservancy idea has really taken off. Here, hundreds of Masai landowners have gone into partnership with tour operators, creating five large conservancies that together increase by half the amount of land available to animals. While wildlife viewing inside the national reserve can feel like queueing up for airport check-in, thanks to the 250-bed behemoths, these conservancies specialize in low-impact, light-touch tourism.
A formula fine-tuned by Jake Grieves-Cook, an industry veteran responsible for Gamewatchers Safaris and Porini Camps, sets a ratio of one tent for every seven hundred acres of land, with a maximum of twelve tents per camp. Landowners, in exchange, undertake not to build on the plains where the wildlife congregate, to keep their herds modest, and not to hog the water holes. In Ol Kinyei, Mara Naboisho, and Olare Motorogi—where Virgin's Richard Branson has set up base—fixed fees are paid directly to small landowners irrespective of guest occupancy levels, a system that shifts financial risk from the Masai onto the shoulders of the lodges.
"This land used to be terribly over-grazed, there was hardly a blade of grass, and the people who owned it were terribly hostile to wildlife," said Grieves-Cook. "Now the Masai are saying that even the weather seems to have changed. It's greener, there are a lot more animals, and they're getting regular income paid into their bank accounts."
The flight from Wilson Airport revealed how high the stakes are in this part of Kenya. Heading west from Nairobi, we breasted the escarpment and floated over the Great Rift Valley. From this altitude, the land looked as though it had split its skin, fissuring like an overripe piece of fruit as the tectonic plates pulled apart. Clouds threw giant ink splotches over the plains, which were punishingly dry, uninhabited save for the odd halo of ringworm created by a manyatta, the traditional Masai thorn compound for young men. But as we came in to land, the country turned juicier. A series of green concentric rings—maize farms—brought home the point: This is no waterless wilderness. It is desired by many.
Saruni, one of the 74,000-acre Mara North Conservancy's twelve camps, is tucked into the side of a valley fragrant with groves of camphor and bushman's tea. It is the only tented camp I've ever stayed in with a lending library—a tribute to the tastes of its creator, Italian former journalist and writer Riccardo Orizio. The conservancy, set up in 2009, embraces nearly eight hundred landowners.
William Santian, a Masai guide at Saruni, said wildlife in the area is already responding to the new management approach. "But the challenge is how you persuade that guy"—he pointed to an elderly Masai tending a motley herd—"not to take the money coming in just to buy more cows. My generation gets it. I have forty cows. That's enough. If we do what we've been doing in the past, we'll kill the whole thing. But with that guy, it's not possible."
Just how closely the various players jostle for space was brought home to me when I left. Waiting for my charter flight to arrive, my driver slowly toured the dirt strip. A last-minute game drive? I wondered. No, he was anxious to shoo away a family of giraffes standing too close to the perimeter. The giraffes held their ground for a while, as steadfast as a row of gantries on a work site, but finally turned and lolloped away. "Actually, the giraffes aren't the real danger," said the driver. "The pilot can see them a long way off. But the warthogs hide in the grass and suddenly dash out at the last moment. They're a menace."
The conservancy idea holds out real hope because it coincides with a historic political shift in Kenya, from the centralized power of the twenty-four-year presidency of Daniel arap Moi to a more devolved system of government. Traveling in Kenya, you can see that the radical implications of the new constitution adopted in 2010 are still being digested. But most travel industry players assume it will mean a smaller role for central government and greater engagement by local authorities, a trend they feel they have already endorsed. "We can expect higher local taxation but a bigger bang for our buck in return, which is probably a good thing," said Vigne.
My tour leaves me feeling far more benign toward the whole safari phenomenon, less gloomy than expected. If Kenya can find the correct formula, it could set an example to the world of how to balance self-interest with ecological awareness. The alternative would be a slow-motion tragedy of the commons.
Much will depend on the tastes of Kenya's burgeoning middle class, already one of Africa's largest and most sophisticated. The continent's recent economic growth rates, which are behind the "Africa Rising" narrative exciting international investors, mean the racial stratification that made me uneasy in the 1990s is already ancient history. While the first instinct of well-heeled black Kenyans is still to holiday on the coast, many are slowly embracing the rituals of game drives and sundowners, with the safari particularly popular among honeymooners. Here, too, apartheid is dying.
On my last visit in Kenya, to see a conservancy wedged between Lake Magadi and Lake Natron in Tanzania, I shared a Land Rover with two young women—one Russian, the other from Montenegro—on their first trip to Africa. These girls had gone for the full Rider Haggard look: sheer linen shirts, casually knotted chiffon scarves, smooth suede hiking boots, Jackie O sunglasses, wide-brimmed panamas. Martha Gellhorn would have chuckled.
Just before the sun dropped over the Nguruman Escarpment, our Masai guides, resplendent in red shukas and beadwork, stopped the car, unfolded canvas chairs, and broke out the chilled white wine. As my companions gleefully snapped pictures of each other in their White Hunter outfits, it occurred to me that the fantasy they were inhabiting at that moment was about as authentic as visitors being offered firewater by Native Americans in feathered regalia outside a tepee in the United States, or nibbling cucumber sandwiches served by beefeaters atop a London double-decker bus.
But why begrudge the women their moment of African whimsy? A country is neither defined nor diminished by the flights of fancy of its visitors. I speak as a Londoner who has sat both bemused and touched through what might be regarded as equally cliché-steeped performances, parodies of Britishness served up on the occasion of the Olympic Games, Margaret Thatcher's funeral, and Will and Kate's royal wedding (a union agreed, as it happens, during a Kenyan safari).
As it registers the stunning diversity nature has bestowed upon this East African nation, Kenya's middle class will surely spin a different set of fantasies around its leisure hours, tethering that web to rival historical reference points while uncovering the same essential truth: This is miraculous and beautiful, let us preserve it. I anticipate an only partially tongue-in-cheek reworking of the Out of Africa cliché. Nyama choma, the meat barbecue beloved of Kenyans, may edge out the full English breakfast as the key meal of the day, Tusker beer may replace the obligatory gin and tonic. But I expect there will always be bush hats, yards of khaki, and pockets, lots and lots of 'em.
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