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Managed care for the wildest resources

In Kenya, wildlife thrives before your eyes

kenya wildlife reserve Lewa Downs was a cattle ranch whose owner made it into a wildlife conservancy. (Steve Jermanok/Globe Correspondent)
By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / July 12, 2009
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LEWA DOWNS, Kenya - Our welcoming party at the Lewa Airport included two Maasai tribesmen dressed in traditional red garb, a giraffe standing at the edge of the runway, and Toby Fenwick-Wilson, one of Africa’s most knowledgeable safari guides. Fenwick-Wilson piled us into the open-air Land Rover and we were off on our first game drive.

The air was cooler than I had expected in this arid landscape, a vast savannah edged by the rolling hills of the Rift Valley and dwarfed by the serrated edges of 17,058-foot Mount Kenya, now shrouded in clouds.

We immediately came upon several Grevy’s zebras, about half the size of the classic zebra. Large vultures stood atop the cactus branches of the prehistoric-looking candelabra tree. Impalas and chestnut-colored water bucks scurried under acacia trees. Then around another bend, less than 15 feet away, stood a mother elephant and her year-old cub, whose thick hide was reddened from rolling in the mud. The little one clumsily tried to find something to eat in the tall grass.

“It’s funny watching a baby elephant trying to use that long trunk,’’ said Fenwick-Wilson.

Not so long ago the elephants would have wandered onto pri vate farms or cattle ranches in these parts and been shot. The rare Grevy’s zebra was skinned for its hide, while impala and water bucks were killed for their meat. During the height of poaching in Kenya in the 1960s and ’70s, at least 30 percent of the meat sold at the Nairobi market was from the bush.

The rhinoceros, slaughtered for its horn, was practically extinct here for most of the 20th century. Chinese and Thai herbalists would grind the hard enamel into a powder and get exorbitant prices for the supposed aphrodisiac. The horn of the black rhino was in such demand that the animal’s population dwindled from 20,000 to a few hundred in less than two decades.

In the 1980s Anna Merz, a septuagenarian conservationist, persuaded Ian Craig to create a rhino sanctuary on his 62,000-acre property. Craig’s family had owned Lewa Downs since the 1920s and managed it as a cattle ranch. But after Kenya gained its independence in 1963, the once-thriving commission boards that were designed to sell the cattle fell into chaos and corruption. This overgrazed land was not nearly as fertile as the White Highlands, Kenya’s hub of agriculture, so large cattle ranchers had to think of another potential source of income, like the travel business.

An estimated 60 to 70 percent of the wildlife in Kenya is found outside national parks and reserves. Lewa Downs is on the easternmost edge of the Laikipia region, which has the second highest density of wildlife in Kenya after the better known Masai Mara National Reserve, to the south on the Tanzanian border. Craig took Merz’s recommendation and reintroduced 15 black rhinos to his ranch. In 1995 he founded the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and opened his grounds to the world.

There was still the question of how to stem the lucrative practice of poaching. To truly have a successful safari, Craig needed elephants, lions, and other animals to migrate freely in and out of the property without being killed by his neighbors. So he made the seven surrounding communities part of the equation, practicing the tenets of ecotourism. The lodges and game reserve would provide jobs for locals, and he would use part of his profits to channel money back into their villages. There are now more than 100 rhino in Lewa, and there’s a newfound appreciation of wildlife conservation among the locals.

Craig limits the number of visitors on his property to 90 people a day to reduce traffic. So, unlike the far more popular Masai Mara, where Land Rovers are as abundant as the Cape buffalo, we rarely saw another vehicle in Lewa. This leads to an air of exclusivity, especially for travelers who want to experience the African safari away from the masses. As lead guide in Kenya for the outfitter Abercrombie & Kent, Fenwick-Wilson has been venturing to this locale for the past decade, bringing such luminaries as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, rock singer Sting, and British royalty Prince Charles and his sons.

Craig has a handful of small lodges onsite, including Kifaru, which was housing a film crew from “Animal Planet’’ while I was there, and Wilderness Trails, built by Craig’s brother Will and perfectly perched atop a bluff for prime wildlife viewing. Yet, it’s hard to top the chance to sleep in the bush close to the animals on an Abercrombie & Kent mobile tented safari. These are no small tepees, but luxury tents furnished with a queen-sized mattress, flush toilet, sink, shower with warm water, and locally made rugs.

A bevy of employees, including my favorite, Kip, who’s been working for Abercrombie & Kent as a bartender for more than two decades, help to satisfy your every need. Each guest receives a hot eucalyptus-scented towel after every game drive to wipe the dust off your face and hands. Afterward, everyone sits around the campfire drinking sundowners of choice, like the Kenyan Tusker Beer. Gourmet dinners are served at candlelight underneath a large canvas tent.

That’s not to say your first night’s sleep isn’t restless, listening to the loud grunting of zebras and the ear-piercing whoop of the crowned crane. But then you wake up to sunshine and a cup of hot pressed Kenyan coffee, watch the ostriches stroll by, see that familiar jagged massif of Mount Kenya, and you’re ready to start the day.

One of the advantages of visiting a private wilderness conservancy instead of a national park or preserve is the opportunity to get out of your vehicle and try a different mode of travel, like horseback, a camel trek, even a biplane flight with Will Craig. In the late afternoon, we went horseback riding in a cool breeze, provided by Lewa’s high elevation. The temperate climate also means the region is far less prone to mosquitoes and malaria. I took the necessary precautions with a daily dose of malaria pills, purchased safari pants doused in a protective shell of bug repellent, and lathered on the DEET products, but I didn’t see or hear one mosquito while I was in Lewa.

We ambled along the grounds for a good two hours in saddle, spotting giraffes who were pruning the tops of the round desert date tree, families of warthogs zipping through the grass, and a lone rhino standing proud. As the sun set, we climbed a ridge to take in the vastness of our surroundings, a large swath of land barely touched by civilization.

Lewa has created a worthy prototype for other landowners to follow. Far more unthinkable is the alternative, a return to the dark days of poaching, with nary a rhino in sight.

Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.

If You Go

Abercrombie & Kent
800-554-7016
www.abercrombiekent.com
Abercrombie & Kent has been bringing guests on safari to Kenya since 1962. The dry months of June through mid-October are best. The company has many tours in East Africa, with or without mobile tents. Prices vary, including $5,255 per person for a 10-day Highlights of Kenya Tour and $8,560 per person for an 11-day mobile tented safari called the Kenya Hemingway Safari.
If you choose to travel independently to Lewa Downs, stay at one of the eight cottages of Wilderness Trails (www.lewa.org/wilder ness_trails.php). Book through Furstenberg Safaris in Nairobi (www.furstenberg-safaris.com); rates start at $625 per person ($315 per child under age 12) per day, including rooms, all meals, game drives, horseback riding, and camel treks.

For more information on the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, visit www.lewa.org