September 2010

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A Samburu in front of Sarara Camp.

I’m still trying to understand the various ways in which wildlife is protected in Kenya. It’s very confusing, even to those who live here. There are Kenya game parks and Kenya game reserves, and then there are wildlife ranches and wildlife conservancies. Masai Mara is a national game reserve; Mt. Kenya is a national park; Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp is in the Esoit Maasai Ranch while Sarara Camp is in the Namunyak Conservancy. But they all manage and preserve wildlife. Got all that?

I’m probably going to make a mess of this, but let me try and muddle my way through it. The main difference between a national park in Kenya and a national reserve is this: In a park, human habitation is excluded. To quote from the National Park Trustee’s report of 1951, five years after Kenya established their first national park, Nairobi National Park: a national reserve denotes a preservation area “where the reasonable needs of the human inhabitants living within the area must take preference.”

So, in a reserve, it’s people over animals.

The Masai Mara became a national reserve in 1974. The reason it was not made a park is because there were thousands of Maasai living here with tens of thousands of their goats and cattle. There was no way in hell you could displace them. And there never will be. In fact, each year it gets a little (or a lot) worse in the Mara because pressure from the Maasai and their livestock continues to squeeze out the animals. Everyone is competing for the same resources: land, grazing grass, and water.

Okay, now what about ranches and conservancies? Let me try and explain it by telling this story: After WWI, Britain tried to increase the number of British settlers in Kenya by setting up a “Soldier Settler” entitlement program that gave land to Brits who built a residence and lived on their property in Kenya. One of those old soldiers was named Alec Douglas and he established a cattle ranch north of Mt. Kenya in an area called Lewa Downs. After he died, his daughter, Delia, inherited the property and with her husband, David Craig, ran the farm for 26 years before handing it over to their eldest son, Ian (who we are supposedly having lunch with today).

A black rhino at Lewa. Photo by Daryl & Sharna Balfour.

So Ian Craig, just like his father, ran a cattle ranch. Until Kenya passed a law in the late 70s outlawing hunting (which turned out to be a disastrous move—but more on that later) and the country’s wildlife population was decimated by poachers. When I say decimated, I’m not kidding. After the hunting ban, the number of black rhinos in Kenya dropped from an estimated 20,000 to fewer than 300 in about five years.

In an effort to save what few rhinos were left, in 1983 the Craigs set aside 5,000 acres of their cattle ranch as a rhino sanctuary. Now here’s the tricky part: all the wildlife living on their ranch, including the rhinos, belonged to the Kenyan government. But the land, which was private, was the Craigs. So far so good?

This project was so successful that in 1995, the whole of the Craigs’ old Lewa Downs ranch, as well as the state owned Ngare Ndare Forest Reserve, was enclosed with 100 miles of electric fence, both to keep animals in and poachers out, and officially became the non-profit Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, which is now home to more than 300 people and encompasses over 62,000 acres where some 70 different mammals, including 65 black rhinos, and over 400 species of birds live.

So while the impetus for converting Lewa Downs from a cattle ranch into a conservancy was a private initiative to save black rhinos, what it has developed into is a community conservation area that gives jobs to the local tribes, protects their livestock, and funds schools, health clinics, and the like.

This is all very complicated but also very important because the bottom line is that the real heavy lifting in wildlife conservation in Kenya is really being done not in the National Parks but in the community conservancies.

It’s all about Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” pyramid theory: Before people can care about animals or even other people, first they must have the basics—food, water, shelter, health, and security. The rest will follow. That’s what the community conservancies (as opposed to the national parks and reserves) are doing. And both Lewa and Sarara, as well as Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp, are shining lights in this regard.

What does this mean to you? It means that should you ever want to visit Kenya to see wildlife, it is massively important where you decide to stay: In a lodge where the money is going to end up back in the pockets of some multi-national conglomerate and the minions of the Kenyan government or in a camp owned and operated by a community conservancy where the cash goes back into their pockets so they have more of a reason to preserve wildlife rather than shoot it?

Consider this: the Maasai in the Mara receive nothing from your visit (and, in fact, even the game wardens there have a hard time getting paid) while Sarara is owned by some 7,000 Samburu and the camp generates over $150,000 annually to those who live there. So they have a reason not to shoot the elephants. Because they are a valuable resource.

Now where would you rather stay?


Far yet not far

A Samburu staff member at Sarara Camp. Photo by David Lansing.

Everyone who works at Sarara, except the administrators, is Samburu, a somewhat mysterious tribe thought to be an offshoot of the Maasai (like the Maasai, they shave the women’s heads, adopt a one-legged stance while herding, and speak a Maa dialect which is similar but not identical to the Maasai).

This morning when I had my coffee in the mess tent, I tried talking to the young Samburu waiter but it wasn’t easy. He told me his English wasn’t very good but I think that’s just a polite way of avoiding conversation. I think many Africans find the questions asked of them by mzungus like me to be perplexing at best. Like they must think to themselves, Why would anyone want to know this thing?

For instance, I asked the waiter, whose name was Jarso, how old he was. From the look in his eyes, I could see that his head was about to explode. He had no idea how to answer this, partially because few Samburu have birth records but also because they just don’t record time the way we do. Time is like the stars in the sky; there are many and they go on forever so why would anyone want to count them?

Then I asked him where he was from. This was better. He could name this. He told me with a smile that he came from Sero-olipi.

And where is Sero-olipi, I asked him. Ahh. This was a problem. A mzungu would say, “It’s 35 miles northeast of here.” Jaro said, “I walk in seven hours.”

Now, do you have any idea where Sero-olipi is in relation to Sarara? Because I don’t. That’s another thing that’s so different; they don’t think of distance in terms of miles or even feet. If a Samburu guide (or a Maasai guide, for that matter) tells you that he has seen an elephant and you ask him where, he most likely will point vaguely over his shoulder and say, “Over there.” Pursue that by asking him how far and he is likely to reply, “Very close.” Or, “Not far.” But he will never say a hundred yards or a mile away. Because they do not think spatially the way we do. It makes no difference if the elephant is a mile away or five miles away; it only matters if you can walk there before it gets dark. So “very close” means, Yes, we can walk there in the daylight. But nothing else.

Peter Matthiessen, in his book The Tree Where Man Was Born, talks wonderfully about this disconnect between Western and African thinking: “I would have liked to talk to the Africans, but I spoke no Kamba and very poor Swahili, and even if my Swahili had been excellent, there was no reason to talk that they would understand: I was full of good will but had nothing at all to say. Feeling above all impolite, I sat down by the fire with a drink, and listened to crickets and soft African voices and the hum of the kerosene lamp…”

There it is, you see: I was full of good will but had nothing at all to say. That’s the feeling you have so often with the Africans. And certainly the way I felt with Jaro. So I took my coffee and went off to sit on the rocks, alone, letting Jaro get back to his work.


Hardy at Sarara's natural rock pool. Photos by David Lansing.

The water for the tent showers at Sarara are solar heated and they take a bit of adjusting. At first the water is just tepid and you convince yourself that’s as hot as it’s going to get and start to soap up and then the scald comes. The whole process takes about three and a half minutes. I could tell because I timed it from when Hardy first turned on the shower next door to our tent cabin to when I heard him scream. Just about exactly three and a half minutes.

It was quiet down in the dining pavilion. Pete and Fletcher weren’t up yet. Neither was the family whose dinner we’d interrupted when we first came in. The dining pavilion was open on three sides. The back was a smooth mud wall above mortared rocks and the whole thing was covered by a thatched roof in a cone shape, almost like a Mexican palapa. There was a comfortable sitting area with several large couches and some old black and white photos on the wall, including one of Osa and Martin Johnson from when they passed through this area in 1924.

A Samburu wearing a green and blue plaid kikoi around his waist, like a skirt, and bright necklaces, bracelets, and anklets, brought me a cup of coffee. The wooden floor extended out onto a large deck with wide steps that led down to a natural pool built into the rocks. The water was turquoise and reflected the dark gray clouds in the sky. I thought about going back up to my tent and putting on a swim suit but I knew the plan was to have a quick breakfast and then go out game viewing so unless Pete and Fletcher failed to get up soon, there wouldn’t be time for a swim.

Hardy was sitting on an outcropping just beyond the pool, looking through some binoculars. I asked him what he was looking at.

“A family of elephants just came out of the bush to this water hole,” he said.

I thought he was kidding but I took my tea down to the outcropping where he was huddled and sure enough, not forty feet away were two cows and a calf squirting water over themselves as they took their morning bath.

Hardy and I sat there, drinking our tea and watching the elephants, not talking, just looking at these huge gray beasts, so close we could smell them, and the green valley spreading out behind them and the peaks, like chinamen hats, of the Lengiyu Hills poking through the clouds.

A young girl and her dad at the elephant water hole. Photo by David Lansing.

After awhile a young girl, about ten, came out. Hardy told her there was a family of elephants at the water hole taking a bath. She said, very blasé, “I know. We’ve seen them before.”

I asked her how long her family had been at Sarara and she said two days and they were leaving tomorrow. “We’ve already seen everything,” she said.

I asked her if she’d seen any African porcupines, thinking that might impress her.

“Several,” she said. “There’s one that lives under this deck. I found one of his quills yesterday and my dad said I could take it home with me.”

Then her father came down for breakfast and she ran over to him and before the Samburu could even pour him a cup of coffee, she’d dragged him over to the pool. “Look, dad, more elephants!” she said excitedly. “I love elephants.”

Obviously her worldliness was reserved for complete strangers and not her father.

The dad acted appropriately impressed at the sight of the elephants and told the little girl to hurry and go get her camera. Meanwhile, Hardy and I got up from our prime viewing spot and headed back up the rocks to the dining pavilion.

“Isn’t this amazing,” said the dad as he passed us, his daughter skipping down the rocks swinging an instant camera around in her hand.

“Absolutely the best,” said Hardy. “Particularly when your daughter gets to see it with you.”

And then we went up and had our breakfast while the father and daughter sat on the rocks looking at the elephants.


Sunrise over Sarara

The sun also rises over Sarara. Photos by David Lansing.

Shortly before six this morning I heard a slight shuffling of feet on the sandy path leading up the hill to the tent Hardy and I are sharing and then a light rap on the door.

A small man dressed in a white kanzu, carrying a wooden tray, said in a voice barely above a whisper, “Tea, sir.”

The overcast sky was just starting to pick up the first light of day. Through the mosquito netting, I watched him  arrange a thermos of tea with two cups, sugar and milk on a short table made from a cedar burl on the veranda and then heard him shuffle back down the hill.

I threw on some shorts, unzipped the mosquito netting, and sat on the veranda, pouring myself a cup of tea from the thermos. The Mathews Range, still cloaked in purple shadows, sat before me.

The Hyrax Family beneath my tent.

We’d gotten in so late last night that we really hadn’t seen any of the country, but here it was coming to light all around us. The camp was situated on a hill covered with acacias, gnarled cedars, and thickets of commiphora. Directly in front of us, about half a mile away, was a kopje—a good spot for a leopard. Other kopjes rose up out of the valley between us and what the Samburu call Ol Doinyo Lengiyu (or Lenkiyio) which wistfully means “the mountain where the child got lost.”

I was sitting there drinking my tea and watching the sun slowly rise in the saddle between two hills when I heard a rustle and little chittering noises below the deck. I leaned over and there were three or four rodent-like animals scurrying outside a den in the rocks—hyraxes.

Damn, here I’d been in Sarara for less than 12 hours and I’d already seen two of the Small Five: African porcupines and rock hyraxes. Surely I’d spot an aardvark before lunch.

These hyraxes were obviously used to humans. They didn’t seem the least disturbed by the fact that I was leaning over the deck with my camera trying to take their picture. In fact, they seemed to rather pose for me. They’d stop what they were doing, look up at me with what looked like little smiles on their face, and wait for me to snap off two or three photos before getting on with their business. Quite thoughtful.

I say the hyrax resembled a rodent, but actually they say that their closest living relative is the elephant. Frankly, I just don’t see the family resemblance. But I’ll tell you what: If I was a hyrax I’d certainly claim to be related to elephants instead of rats as well. Makes you seem more upper-crust, don’t you think?


A late appearance at Sarara

The Sarara Camp in the Mathews Range of Northern Kenya.

There is a bit of tension when we finally arrive at Sarara Camp. It is dark, it is late, and we’ve interrupted the dinner of the camp’s host, Tim, a slim middle-aged man, dressed head to foot in khaki, whose pale delicate features remind me of photos I’ve seen of Denys Finch Hatton, the great white hunter played by Robert Redford in Out of Africa.

Denys Finch Hatton with Karen Blixen.

Tim is very nice, very gracious but, as we’re shaking off the dust of the long drive and accepting his offer of a cold Tusker, he makes it clear that they were expecting us hours ago.

“Piers canceled a meeting in Nairobi thinking you’d be joining him for lunch,” he says with a smile.

“Lunch?” I say, slightly amazed. “We had lunch in Nanyuki. There was no way we were ever going to make it here in time for lunch. Why would he think that?”

“Well,” says Tim, handing me a chilled mug of beer, which I can hardly wait to down, “that’s what he was told.”

“Well is he around?”

“He’s left for the evening,” Tim says.

Left? Left for where? We are in the middle of nowhere. Like almost all camps in Kenya, there’s a rough airstrip around here somewhere and I’m sure Piers, like everyone else in Kenya, flies his own plane. But does that mean he’s gone back to Nairobi? I’m hesitant to pursue this any further with Tim. Whoever’s feelings were upset they’ll just have to wait until tomorrow when, after some food and a good night’s sleep, we can sort this out.

“Do you think Piers might be able to join us for lunch tomorrow?” I ask Tim.

“Possibly,” he says mysteriously. “Ian Craig is flying in. He wants to meet you.”

Well this is something. Ian Craig is the godfather of a nascent conservancy movement in Kenya in which camps like Sarara are actually owned by the local tribal community, in this case the Il Ngwesi Samburu. It’s a very long story about how this how came about, but the short version is that in late 1989, Craig was camping out in the very spot where Sarara is now located when he and his gun bearer suddenly found themselves surrounded by AK47 gunfire. Hiding in the dense bush, they watched for over an hour as a team of shifta bandits from Somalia slaughtered an entire family of elephants, cutting out the tusks and leaving the bodies to rot in the sun.

Shocked by what he’d seen, Craig vowed to do what he could to save the rest of the wildlife that was being decimated by shifta in the Mathews Range and eventually came up with a plan to establish the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy Trust, an area of 185,000 acres here in the Mathews Range, which is wholly owned by the local Samburu community and run by Piers Bastard—the gentleman who I seemed to have offended by not making it to Sarara in time for lunch.

Ah, well. We’ll get this all sorted out tomorrow, I’m sure.


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