The plains rear up in my window. Six dark shapes appear, moving slowly across the parched grass. ‘Elephants at nine o’clock,’ says Murtaza from the pilot’s seat, as our 10-seater Cessna banks sharply left.
After a night relaxing to the sound of monkeys and tropical birds at One Forty Eight, an artist’s residence turned boutique hotel in Nairobi’s Langata district, I’ve taken to the Kenyan skies with Scenic Air Safaris. This is its maiden endangered species tour and with their help I’m hoping to get up close to some of Africa’s most elusive creatures.
‘We want to provide experts who can answer questions beyond your average guide’s knowledge,’ explains Scenic’s Simon Penfold, as we touch down on a dusty strip in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
With a rich diversity of habitats, Kenya is one of the best places in Africa to see animals on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s ‘Red List’ of threatened species. Animals like the lion, black rhino and elephant.
The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) estimates that there are just 2,000 lions left in the country, down from 15,000 two decades ago. The picture is bleaker for Kenya’s black rhino, of which there are only an estimated 640 left. Across Africa, elephant populations slid 30 per cent between 2007 and 2014, according to the Great Elephant Census. Kenya’s wildlife is at crisis point.
The idea of the tour is to show how conservationists are marrying local efforts and technology to bring species back from the brink, as well as offering visitors a memorable glimpse of Africa’s wild heart.
The Mara covers 1,510 square kilometres and is perhaps Africa’s best-known nature reserve. It’s encircled by nine private conservancies, where landowners and locals work together to protect the wildlife.
I’m joined on my first game drive by David Mascall. With 35 years’ experience with the KWS, Mascall is one of the country’s leading lion conservationists.
‘People don’t realise that the lion is endangered,’ he says. ‘But the boom in the human population and livestock has hit numbers hard.’
Kenya’s human population today stands at 49.7 million, up from 8.1 million in 1960. UN figures suggest it will reach 81 million by 2050. The growth means more livestock grazing larger areas, leading to a fall in small prey. As lions take cattle instead, farmers often retaliate.
We’ve been on the road for just 10 minutes when a call comes in on the radio.
Our driver puts his foot down. We pull up by a small acacia tree to find two grown females and five cubs snoozing in the midday sun, unruffled by our presence. The Mara Lion Project estimates there are now 420 lions here. ‘That’s good, considering the decline nationally,’ says Mascall.
After an afternoon spotting hippos, buffalo and giraffe, we head towards the 14,100-hectare Siana Conservancy. On our way, we catch sight of a female cheetah and her three young as they make their way across the bush. It’s a rare privilege. Cheetah numbers are also dwindling thanks to encroaching livestock.
That evening, Mascall and I go out again. It doesn’t take long to find a pride. Soon we’re at a watering hole, watching a mother and her cubs having a drink. I’m transfixed.
‘The community is our first defence against poaching,’ says Ian Lemaiyan, standing in the cold dawn on the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (see box on page 51 for more). We’ve flown an hour north from the Mara to this 25,000-hectare site, run by Lewa, an innovative partnership of local tribes and conservationists that has helped turn this area into a haven for endangered species.
Lemaiyan is a scientist specialising in black rhino. Thanks to tip-offs from locals and Lewa’s community education projects, no rhino has been poached for its horn in Lewa since December 2013.
After Lemaiyan takes us off-road to watch a black rhino cow and her calf feed in a grassy hollow, we head to Lewa’s operations room. Inside an unprepossessing hut are two massive screens hooked up to computers, showing real-time tracking data on rhino and elephants.
There’s a direct line for local tribes, many of whose members work at Lewa and children attend schools funded by
the conservancy, to call in to report any poaching – meaning armed response teams can be on the scene in minutes, with staff manning phones and computers 24 hours a day. It shows both the urgency of the task at hand and the seriousness of Lewa’s staff and the local people when it comes to protecting rhinos.
‘We are seeing positive change,’ says Lemaiyan. ‘Hopefully the work we are doing here can help boost the population further.’
I find the same positivity further north in the Samburu National Reserve. After a short 15-minute flight, we are met by Saba Douglas-Hamilton, whose Save the Elephants (STE) charity is at the forefront of protecting this species.
It would be easy for Douglas-Hamilton to be downhearted. Poaching for ivory remains a serious business. In December 2012, 28 elephants were killed in Samburu alone. In the outcry that followed, community pressure led to 19 poachers, working on behalf of ivory traffickers, turning themselves in.
‘It’s exciting, not overwhelming,’ says Douglas-Hamilton of STE’s efforts. ‘You can be paralysed by how bad things are, but once you get moving, things happen.’
STE has unrivalled information on Africa’s elephant populations. Its researchers know 1,000 individually in Samburu alone. Forty-seven of them are fitted with tracking collars, allowing Douglas-Hamilton and her team to follow herds around the reserve and beyond, utilising Google Earth to home in on any collared animal and check its location in real time. But there’s no better way to understand the true majesty of elephants than to get up close to them.
After driving across a dry riverbed, she pulls up and points out four bulls coming towards us, explaining who each of them is and then calling out to one who peels away from the group and heads towards us. I’m breathless as he steps within feet of the 4×4, letting out a grunt and circling the vehicle before mooching off. ‘They’re such social animals,’ says Douglas-Hamilton. ‘They recreate society even when they’re not related, especially after poaching.’
There’s still a huge amount of work to do. The IUCN reported in September 2016 that African elephant numbers had seen their worst decline in 25 years. But in Samburu at least, there are causes for optimism. In 2014 there were more births than deaths, while the Kenyan government has instituted life sentences for poaching.
‘To me elephants represent the fabric of life; how we look after them reflects on us,’ says Douglas-Hamilton. ‘It all plays into the wider picture of how we look after our planet.’
Her words stay with me as I board Scenic’s Cessna for the last time. It could be easy to feel dispirited. But the power of the conservancies and reserves, allied with local knowledge, points towards a better world for Africa’s endangered species.
Scenic Air Safaris offers a nine-day endangered species safari, including flights on its Cessna Grand Caravan, full board accommodation, game drives and the services of specialist wildlife experts at each destination. scenicairsafaris.com
Cathay Pacific implemented a ban on all ivory and all ivory-related products in November 2016
HONG KONG: PROBLEM OR SOLUTION?
It’s one accolade Hong Kong’s glamorous retail industry doesn’t like to boast about: the city is the world’s biggest market for ivory products.
Those products may have been legally acquired, or they predate the
ban in ivory trading, but the example to the world isn’t a good one – especially when there’s good evidence of a thriving illicit trade over the border to the Chinese mainland.
The city’s authorities plan to ban all trade in ivory by 2021. Pressure groups like World Wide Fund for Nature want to bring that date forward and fight claims for compensation from the traders. ‘Compensation will only make the market more attractive,’ says Connie Tam, the group’s communications manager in Hong Kong.
The race to save Kenya’s wildlife
A former Cathay Pacific pilot is helping to save Africa’s black rhino through running
To many, Kenya is known for two things: wildlife and long-distance runners. And while its athletes have flourished in competitions around the world, the situation at home for the animals is a precarious one.
The trouble is poaching. Between 1970 and 1992, 96 per cent of Africa’s black rhinos were wiped out by poachers. Statistics like these make places like the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya crucial in protecting Africa’s remaining rhino and its other endangered species.
It’s an issue that’s close to home for Hongkongers – particularly for Paul McIntosh, a former 747 pilot for Cathay Pacific. McIntosh started visiting Lewa in the early 1980s, and quickly became involved in its wildlife conservation.
McIntosh is the executive producer of Running Wild, a documentary showing onboard this month, which looks at Lewa’s efforts to raise funds and awareness through its annual marathon.
The race began in 2000 with just 140 runners, each of whom pledged to raise money for the private wildlife reserve. The marathon has now grown into an annual event with 1,400 participants coming from all over the world, who come to conquer the 21 kilometres of dirt roads (the full marathon requires two rounds of the course) through the reserve, across savannah plains, along river banks and through acacia woodland. To date, the marathon has raised more than US$5.5 million (HK$43 million) – 40 per cent of which goes to Lewa, with the rest going to other charities. Last year, Cathay Pacific pilot Mike Migdoll ran the Lewa Marathon, raising almost HK$60,000 for the charity.
Lewa also supports 22 primary schools, funding education bursaries, and works with small businesses in the local community, making it one of the largest employers in Kenya’s Eastern Province.
That community also includes Cathay Pacific. Last year, the airline banned transport of all ivory and ivory-related products. And passengers that want to support Lewa Wildlife Conservancy can donate their Asia Miles – 100 per cent of which go towards supporting Lewa’s efforts. For more information, visit redeem.asiamiles.com.
To contact Lewa to learn more about how you can help, send an email to: [email protected]