As the hot Kenyan sun prepared to quietly slip away behind the distant mountain range, the vast Lewa Downs spread out before me, all the way to towering Mount Kenya. Silent and alone in the middle of these broad plains, the setting sun turning his skin an attractive shade of gold, stood a single white rhino.
As I clicked away with my camera at this iconic pairing – national mountain and endangered national wildlife – leaning as far as I dared from the side of the safari car, it struck me what a unique sight I was witnessing. So expensive and demanding are the resources required to effectively protect these animals, they need to be contained within special sanctuaries which can ensure their safety, lest they fall into the hands of opportunistic poachers. The survival of the entire rhino species now rests of the small shoots of safety these sanctuaries provide.
Situated on the edge of the striking Laikipia plateau, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is one such sanctuary, fighting back against the struggles of the rest of the continent to prevent rhinos and other endangered species from hurtling towards extinction. In 1984, with rhino numbers plummeting in Kenya, the Craig family, who had been operating the land as cattle ranchers for the past half century, partnered with the pioneering Anna Merz to create the 5,000-acre Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary, the first safe haven in East Africa specifically created to protect the country’s remaining black rhinos, which at the time numbered only a few hundred. Following the addition of an electric fence and specialist security personnel, they transported in as many wild rhino from across northern Kenya as they could get their hands on.
Gradually, the population began to return, and today, 72 white and 61 black rhino live in Lewa alone. The past three decades has seen them joined by other such iconic species as elephants, lions, buffalo, leopards and cheetahs, as well as the endangered Grevy’s zebra (of which Lewa’s 300 individuals represent roughly 11 per cent of the entire global wild population). The protected territory itself has expanded more than tenfold, and now encompasses an impressive 62,000 acres, including 14,000 acres of national forest. With financial support provided by the US-based Nature Conservancy, it is now in the hands of a local Kenyan trust called Lewa Milele, Swahili for ‘Lewa Forever’.
The neighbouring Mount Kenya UNESCO World Heritage Site was expanded in June 2013, and now includes Lewa Conservancy and the nearby Ngare Ndare Forest. Furthermore, the decision two years ago to remove the fence between Lewa and neighbouring Borana Conservancy has led to a 93,000-acre open rhino reserve, collectively home to 13 per cent of Kenya’s rhino population. Even more impressively, Lewa was recently able to undertake the symbolic action of moving some of its rhino population to the community-run Sera Wildlife Conservancy, further north, in an effort to repopulate a part of the country which had completely lost its wild rhinos.
‘When the conservancy began, the idea was to breed the rhino population here and use it to restock previously inhabited areas across northern Kenya,’ says Wanjiku Kinuthia, a spokesperson for Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, ‘and we’ve been able to do that.’ From a childhood in Nairobi, her family’s frequent visits to the famous Nairobi National Park triggered a passion for conservation which eventually led her to travel north to Lewa.
‘It’s really spectacular, especially as I am Kenyan,’ she explains, ‘to feel that I’m playing a role in shaping the future of my country, and trying to establish a future where both people and wildlife can thrive. We don’t interact with wildlife much in Nairobi, unless you go to the [Nairobi] National Park. But once you go out of the city, you see all the amazing work that people are doing, especially Lewa. When I first came here my mind was blown, I couldn’t believe the extent of the programs, the amazing model that’s been set up here. I’m very passionate about what we’re doing.’
So successful was Lewa’s conservation operation, it began being approached to manage several surrounding conservancies and areas of community land. With its resources becoming increasingly stretched, encompassing land further and further to the north, a decision was made to create two separate entities – the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, whose responsibility would be the operations of this one specific conservancy, and a new organisation, the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). The NRT now consists of 33 different private and community-owned conservancies – including Lewa – with a further 11 planned, stretching the NRT as far north as Turkana, a semi-arid region on the way to South Sudan. From an initial 35,000 hectares, NRT land now covers a massive 320,000 hectares.
‘It’s an umbrella membership organisation,’ says Tom Lalampaa, Chief Programs Officer of the NRT. ‘We want to support the conservancies, help them keep doing what they are doing. We want to play a “big brother”; we listen, we look at their budgets, we look at their wildlife security report. A community conservancy is just like a private conservancy but owned by the community. So the conservancy becomes the institution to manage that land. All the model provides is that step to make sure that the locals, the people who are landowners or communities, are doing it 100 per cent right. You just become an enabler.’
‘Lewa and NRT’s relationship is very special,’ says Kinuthia. ‘Of course we are its parent, so we have to nurture it and give as much support as possible. So much of the training is done here. We supply wildlife populations to restock previously inhabited areas, we give a lot of technical and managerial expertise to NRT as well, its offices are here. Because we are working to save the same wildlife, we’re working to benefit the same communities. We gain more by working together.’
Sat in my boutique tent within the picturesque Lewa Safari Camp, part of the Elewana Collection, I hear an unusual panting one evening, the sound of someone perhaps having just finished a long run. Starting slowly, it begins to build, like a steam train gradually picking up speed. It definitely doesn’t sound human. Cattle, perhaps?
Lions, my safari guide Alex assures me the following morning, as he takes me out for a pre-breakfast drive, to see what animals we can spot before the heat of the day sees them all retire to the shade. He laughs at my widening eyes and reassures me I have nothing to fear. It seems this distinctive sound can travel great distances across the landscape, making a mockery of my imagined fears about lions prowling around my tent while I slept.
A few hours later, I’m sat in a space resembling mission control at NASA. It’s Lewa’s 24/7 monitoring operations room, with blinking lights, satellite imagery and short radio messages beeping away, plus a phone ringing in the background. The walls are covered by giant screens depicting various different maps of the conservancy, each of which is covered in dots and lines indicating the location of different collared animals.
John Tanui, senior radio operator, is pointing to one screen, explaining the location of one of the two collared lions currently in the conservancy, each one an indication of a surrounding pride. ‘She is, in relation to where we are, to the northwest.’ He smiles, and glances over his shoulder at me. ‘Close to Lewa Safari Camp.’ I attempt a smile, quietly reminding myself of Alex’s earlier words.
The operations room is a fascinating insight into the technological requirements of modern conservation, especially when it comes to species such as rhino, lions and Grevy’s zebra, which have reached such small numbers that individual animals need to be constantly monitored. The park’s specialist rhino rangers need to head out every single day and try to physically spot each individual rhino. If three days pass without an individual being seen, an intensive operation is begun to locate it. After five days, the helicopters are launched. There are no chances taken whatsoever.
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy’s anti-poaching operation works so effectively that, with no poaching in all of 2015, the Tusk Trust, a conservation NGO operating in the region, awarded its inaugural Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award to Edward Ndiritu, Head of the Anti-Poaching Unit for the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.
You won’t find many paved roads this far north of Nairobi. But there is the A2, which runs from the capital up to Moyale on the Ethiopian border, skirting the iconic Mount Kenya along the way. Just south of the Lewa Conservancy sits one of the many nondescript, forgettable mini-bridges this road runs over. But rather than allowing a stream – or another road – to run underneath, this is a special wildlife crossing point.
It’s called the Elephant Corridor, or Elephant Underpass, and is celebrated only by the grand-sounding ‘Elephant Corridor Resort’, a slightly beaten-up-looking building by the side of the road. My driver, Muriithi, pulls up by the bridge and I jump out and run over, camera swinging from my hand, feeling wildly over-optimistic about seeing an elephant walking through the corridor at that exact moment. Inevitably, my hopes are dashed. The underpass sits empty, silent apart from the crickets, the gentle hum of the surrounding electric fence, and the rumble of cars passing overhead.
Nevertheless, the corridor has been an overwhelming success. Since opening in January 2011, it has enabled significantly easier movement of wildlife between Lewa Conservancy and Mount Kenya National Park, a journey of roughly 10km. ‘Immediately after we opened it, that same evening, a bull called Tony used the underpass to go to Mount Kenya,’ recalls Kinuthia. ‘It was a great moment. People were very sceptical about it when the idea was initially floated, but the elephants proved everyone else wrong.’
Surrounded by fencing on both sides, the corridor runs along the traditional elephant migration route between the two sites. ‘Elephants are migratory, we can’t keep them locked in here,’ explains Kinuthia. ‘They need to be able to move to Mount Kenya, through their traditional migration routes, through Lewa and up north in Samburu.’ Prior to the corridor’s opening, the presence of migrating elephants passing through human communities was a major problem. ‘Since it was constructed,’ says John Tanui, ‘incidents of human-wildlife conflict in this area went down, almost to zero.’
‘There’s nothing which is as sweet as seeing the elephants get out of Lewa, go for months in the community conservancies, and also come back later, safe,’ enthuses the NRT’s Lalampaa, ‘as opposed to getting out of Lewa and not coming back, because they’ve been poached.’
Crucially, it isn’t only elephants who can use the corridor (as well as a second one, which connects Lewa to Samburu National Reserve in the north). With the conservancy fenced and ranger-patrolled on all sides, to protect the threatened rhino population, the corridor also allows lions, zebra, wild dogs and numerous other species to move freely in and out of the land. Only the rhinos themselves, with their short legs, are unable to get over the 1.5m stone step which must be navigated before an animal can access the underpass, the first stage of the corridor.
Tourism is a core component of the model which has made this conservancy so successful. ‘A third of our income comes from tourism,’ reveals Kinuthia. Each adult visitor who comes to stay at the Lewa Safari Camp pays $105 as part of their daily fees towards upkeep. Furthermore, as with the rest of the NRT, foreign visitors become educated in the work taking place at Lewa, and return home as ambassadors for the conservancy. ‘Tourism’s contribution,’ Kinuthia continues, ‘apart from the financial, is that over 80 per cent of the people who donate to Lewa are people who’ve stayed here as tourists, got interested in the work that we’re doing, and wanted to be part of this success story.’
These foreign revenues can then be directed towards local projects where they can be most effective. ‘In Kenya, it’s not really about fences, or electric wires,’ says Lalampaa. ‘It has to be more about community. The communities have to see the positive side of it. They have to feel it’s part of their life.’ It’s this joining of conservation and development – whereby the benefits of conservation lead directly through tourism dollars to the positive development of local communities – which has helped make the NRT such a success. ‘It’s all about ensuring that you see the other side of the coin,’ says Lalampaa. ‘There will be some losses here and there, but there will always be benefits somewhere else.’
‘We don’t call ourselves just a conservancy, we’re also a development organisation,’ insists Kinuthia. ‘It has to go hand-in-hand. We protect endangered species and also develop the communities. The majority of our budget actually goes to developing the communities; in security, in schools – at the moment we support 21 schools, with close to 8,000 children – through building infrastructure, lavatory blocks, water sanitary projects, taps, we pay for teachers in the schools, and sponsor children. We do not participate in the day-to-day running of them, but we provide the necessary tools and mechanisms. We have 11 water projects at the moment that we’re sponsoring in all the neighbouring areas, so people can now access clean water. We also have close to 1,000 women in a micro-credits program.’
60 per cent of all revenue generated by the conservancies, through tourism or separate businesses such as trading livestock, fish, or fruits, through a scheme named NRTT (NRT Trading) goes to supporting community development, which in turn benefits the wildlife conservation. ‘The dream is to keep all those conservancies going and going and going, independently,’ continues Lalampaa. ‘Some of them are now able to raise nearly 50 per cent of their operating budgets independently from their businesses.’
By educating local communities (and especially community elders as Lalampaa argues that ‘the authority of elders, that we lost, is now coming back, through the conservancy’) on how the survival of iconic species leads directly to foreign tourist revenues, which in turn leads directly to money for community development projects, the NRT has enabled sustainable development and wildlife conservation to grow hand-in-hand, which is continually attracting attention from across the continent.
‘There’s an opportunity for the model to get to Ethiopia, get to Uganda, get to Tanzania, get to other African countries,’ explains Lalampaa. ‘It’s really a grassroots initiative, it has to so much be entrenched in the communities, so that they understand it, and they’re able to do it themselves. We’ve had a lot of visits here, and they are saying the model is really good. You can tweak it to suit your situation. The issue is just about getting communities more structured, more organised, giving them their own institutions so that there is a common entry point to that community.
Back at Lewa Safari Camp, keeping a keen eye on the surrounding landscape for curious wildlife, I meet co-manager Sacha Toronyi, who expresses how impressed he is with the innovative conservation and development efforts taking place around him. ‘The Lewa Conservancy and the NRT is the conservation model which the rest of Africa should be using,’ he insists. ‘Maybe it wasn’t the first to try it [Namibia can claim to be the first country to utilise conservancies in this way] but it has taken it to another level, with all the security and other resources.’
As the sun sets, replacing the heat of the day with a slight chill thanks to our 6,000ft altitude, I scroll through my camera until I find my Mount Kenya-rhino photos, a rare shot which Toronyi challenged me to capture when I first arrived at the camp. With everything I’ve learnt about how Lewa and the NRT functions, there is the hope that one day, a photo such as this would be a common occurrence across Africa once again.
For more on the topic of extinction, pick up Geographical’s special themed September 2016 issue, on sale now.