Bush Telegraph: Can tourism save Kenya's magnificent wildlife?

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Concluding a year-long stay in Africa, our safari correspondents hear how tourists can help to ensure the survival of Africa’s wildlife.

Until now, the conservancy model has held its own against the most devastating effects of poaching. At Borana Camp, on the final leg of our 18-month odyssey through the African bush, my wife Sarah and I found ourselves on the front line in the fight to save the rhino. On the face of it, few locations in Africa are more idyllic. At the foot of Mount Kenya at 6,500ft, Laragai House is like a thatched English country house and gardens teleported into the African bush. The rooms are baronial, the atmosphere informal and the views gobsmacking.

But to protect the 21 highly endangered rhino translocated last year from the neighbouring Lewa conservancy, armed guards trained by a retired SAS officer and wearing camouflaged battle fatigues are deployed into the bush every night. We joined them one evening with Borana owner, Michael Dyer, as they melted into the bush, rifles and night vision goggles at the ready.

“This is a war, make no mistake,” Dyer told us. “This is the front line in rhino conservation. It’s 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and it’s going to be like that until this crisis ends.” It was a visceral example of why Kenya’s wildlife tourism is so important for the wildlife itself. For without funding from tourism and without the eyes and ears of the safari vehicles to help keep poachers away, this very expensive operation would not be possible.

But what of the Samburu and the Maasai who own these conservancies? Interaction with them through visits to their villages and engaging with their cultural traditions, notably music and dance, is an integral part of the safari experience at these camps. At Ol Malo, the magnificently quirky lodge built by Colin and Rocky Francome on the edge of the Laikipia plateau, we visited a school funded and built by profits from tourism.

Their near neighbours, the Samburu, are also cattle herders and have similar traditions and initiation rituals as the Maasai. Sarara Camp in the Mathews Range is home to the famous “Singing Wells” where local Samburu tribesmen bring their cattle to drink. Dug into the riverbed during the dry season, each well has its own unique song, sung by a cattle-herding warrior, which the cattle recognise so they know which well to drink from.

Mark Lnusari, our Samburu guide, explained. “Each local family has around 50 cows and they sing to their cattle using the names and colour of their favourites and telling them that they will protect them and give them water in return for their milk and blood.”

One of the Madden's final wildlife sightings (picture: Sarah Madden)

Sarara’s manager, Jeremy Bastard, told us why the conservancy model is so important for the camp and the Samburu. “In Kenya the wildlife is owned by the government so the people have no incentive to protect it. But with the conservancy model, they do. The Northern Rangelands Trust, of which we are a part, is one of the highest-earning in Africa and last year gave 600 scholarships and bursaries to students from local communities. It’s a flagship model of community and wildlife conservation.”

Our final stop at Lewa Wilderness, the place where this remarkable story began and which provided the conservancy model for the camps we had just visited. Owned by the Craigs since 1922 and originally a cattle ranch, the land was transformed by from a farm into a not-for-profit wildlife conservancy with the income from guests paying for conservation and community development.

Our arrival could hardly have been more thrilling. Picked up from Sarara by Will Craig in his bright yellow Thirties-style Waco Classic open-cockpit biplane, we wound our way along canyons, swooping over cliff edges and treetops as we gazed down on herds of elephant, zebra and oryx like toy models beneath us.

Lewa is one of the most reliable camps in Kenya for seeing the Big Five as well as very rare species, including black rhino, Grevy’s zebra, the long-necked gerenuk, the Somali ostrich and the Beisa oryx.

It was also at Lewa that we witnessed the very rare sight of two male giraffe engaged in a neck-fight. A fitting final sighting on the final day of our Bush Telegraph odyssey.