Lauren Jarvis visits Kenya’s Nairobi National Park, the Masai Mara, Amboseli and Shimba Hills, and discovers the crucial role the nation’s people are playing in protecting its animals
We bump our way through Nairobi National Park as the sun sinks behind the acacias, painting a golden wash over the distinctive greens and ochres of the African bush.
It’s my last day of a week-long trip to Kenya, during which four of the country’s fantastic five have stood up to be counted: elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard (yes, I’m including the fleeting view of a tail as it vanished into the night: I definitely saw spots…). I’ve been lucky, and as I head back to camp for my last sundowner, I’m happily resigned to leave the last biggie — the elusive rhino — for next time.
But Africa is a land of surprises. From the corner of my eye I catch some movement and turn to see a tonne of most likely surprised and definitely disgruntled black rhino storming from the bush for an 11th-hour farewell — an over-zealous guest who doesn’t want to miss the party. Before gatecrashing into our Land Cruiser the bluffing diva thankfully slows, stops and raises its huge horn, outlined and echoed by a distant glassy skyscraper that rises from Nairobi’s hazy urban sprawl, reflecting the last light of the Kenyan day.
In one moment, this striking image of a noble African icon, surrounded by savannah as the long shadow of civilisation spreads towards it, seems to encapsulate the ongoing struggle between Kenya’s wildlife and its people. But just as the capital’s booming population poses one of the animals’ biggest threats — it will rise to almost six million by 2025 — educating and empowering that population could prove to be their salvation.
One man who knows better than most how important it is to engage the local community in conserving wildlife is Jake Grieves-Cook. The Kenyan-born MD of Gamewatchers Safaris started his career in 1972 at Keekorok, then the only safari lodge in the Mara, and has been a passionate advocate of sustainable and responsible tourism in Africa ever since, founding the Ecotourism Society of Kenya, serving on the board of the Kenya Wildlife Service, and holding posts as chairman of the Kenya Tourism Federation and the Kenya Tourist Board.
But perhaps Jake’s greatest achievement is his introduction and development of the conservancy concept in Kenya, working with local Maasai communities to convert their lands into wildlife sanctuaries that generate income from tourism and extend the habitat available for Africa’s animals beyond the borders of the national parks. “All this land was terribly overgrazed and the wildlife had practically gone when we began our partnership here with the Maasai,” Jake tells me, as we drive through the Ol Kinyei Conservancy, home to Gamewatchers’ secluded Porini Mara Camp, where I spend my first night in Kenya.
Looking out over the lush, green landscape, as Burchell’s zebra and Masai giraffe wander across our track and lions feast on a fresh wildebeest kill a whisker away from our vehicle, it’s hard to comprehend, so Jake shows me. We drive out of the conservancy and are met almost immediately with scrubby, treeless plains, where cattle and goats are the only ‘wildlife’.
We’re just outside the border of the great Masai Mara National Reserve but this once-rich land has been decimated, as the Maasai people have been largely driven from the parks, had their communal rangelands divided, and been left little choice but to turn to intensive grazing or clear the land for agriculture, rather than pursuing their traditional, low-impact lives as pastoral, semi-nomadic herders. Mismanagement has allowed destructive grazing within the reserve, too.
“Conservancies are now crucial buffer zones for the parks,” says Jake. “We rent the land from the Maasai and preserve it for wildlife, and by doing that, we’ve added 50 per cent to the protected area of the Mara. The Maasai gain a sustainable income, while tourists benefit from a more intimate safari experience.”
The conservancy model limits the number of tourist tents to one per 700 acres of parkland, so visitors avoid the scrum that spoils the viewing experience in some of the reserves. It also allows walking safaris and night drives, prohibited in the national parks. But the Maasai aren’t just landlords here, they also run Jake’s camps and are trained as guides and drivers, sharing their encyclopaedic knowledge of the land and animals, able to pinpoint the tiniest darting kingfisher, while our untrained eyes struggle to spot a monster croc snoozing across the river.
In their expert hands, Ol Kinyei slowly opens up to reveal its treasures, large and small: Cape buffalo being pampered by yellow-billed oxpeckers; sibling lions squabbling over a zebra kill like kids with a bargain bucket of KFC; comical bat-eared foxes huddled in the shade of a termite mound; golden weavers honing their craft on orbs overhanging a stream. There’s no rush, and not a selfie stick-wielding tourist in sight to shatter the serenity, as we’re taken to the perfect spot for sundowners by the river, while hippos indulge in a pool party of their own below.
Back at Porini Mara a meal is waiting for us in the communal dining tent — no menus, just fantastic, home-cooked fresh food accompanied by good wine and coffee — before the Maasai officially welcome us with a traditional adamu dance. Dressed in their instantly recognisable bright-red shukas, they leap into the air to show their strength and stamina, as if we were ever in any doubt of their warrior credentials. Later, they escort me and my fellow guests back to the camp’s six simple but chic en suite tents, where their rhythmic chanting replays softly in my head over a backing track of bush sounds, soothing me to sleep.
A few days later I’m watching a herd of elephants with a wildlife guide from Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge. Set against an iconic African backdrop of Kilimanjaro, rising up across the border in neighbouring Tanzania, the lodge is just minutes away from the unique, emerald-green swamps of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. Fed by melting snows from the mountain, these marshes are oases for wildlife in this otherwise arid wilderness. Transfixed, I watch as buffalo bask surrounded by cattle egrets and scattered sacred ibis, while herds of elephant wallow, eat, snorkel and play away the afternoon in a blissful swampy soup, bubbling with life.
While hundreds of these great beasts are poached in Africa every day, victims of Asia’s insatiable lust for ivory, Amboseli’s 1500 elephants are thriving, thanks to an engaged Maasai community, the committed anti-poaching rangers of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) chaired for many years by Kenyan conservationist Dr Richard Leakey — soon to be played by Brad Pitt in a biopic directed by Angelina Jolie — and the dedicated Dr Cynthia Moss, an American woman who came to Africa in 1968 to volunteer as a research assistant, and has been studying the elephants ever since, founding the non-profit Amboseli Trust for Elephants.
“I fell in love with the elephants and never left,” smiles Cynthia over dinner. “They have such interesting and complex social lives — the dynamics between the family groups are like a big soap opera!” And it’s a show that visitors can tune into every day in the national park.
For more than 40 years, Cynthia and her team, which currently includes 17 Maasai community scouts, have documented the lives of almost 3000 animals for the world’s longest-running study of a land mammal, the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, producing several books and a documentary series, Echo of the Elephants, along the way. “Kenya is doing well compared to neighbouring Tanzania — they’ve lost 60 per cent of their elephants to poaching in the past five years,” she tells us. “We’ve lost some of our males that have strayed across the border, but because our researchers are active here, and because we have the support of the local Maasai and the KWS, Amboseli’s population has been stable.” Which is great news for the elephant, as well as the visitors from Serena Safari Lodge who get a close-up view of the herds relishing their freedom in the Amboseli swamps, and the locals who continue to benefit from the ‘must-watch’ appeal of the stars of the show.
Kenya’s dazzling-white beaches that reach out to the east along the Indian Ocean provide plenty of perfect places to flop after the bleary-eyed early mornings and bumpy, dusty days on safari. From Amboseli I head to the Msambweni Beach House & Private Villas near Diani Beach, less than two hours south of the historic port of Mombasa.
Languishing on a 40ft cliff overlooking a pristine, four-mile stretch of sand including its own pretty, private beach, this Moorish-inspired castle is an exotic and calm retreat. The maze of the main house offers three vast, white rooms plus a suite opening on to verandahs cooled by the ocean breeze, with two additional rooms on the second floor and a romantic tented room, so you can fall asleep to the sound of the sea. There are also three spacious villas, each with private pools and impossibly beautiful ocean views that will more than compete for ‘nose-in-a-tablet’ time. Meals are enjoyed around the infinity pool or by the sea, with monkeys playing in the trees and post-dinner drinks served around the fire pit under a canopy of stars.
I spend the afternoon sailing with local fishermen on a traditional dhow and snorkelling on the offshore reef. As they sing us back to shore across the turquoise sea, it becomes clear that the true magic of Kenya extends far beyond its safari adventures and into the heart of its people.
The following day I’m looking down the barrel of a loaded AK-47. Thankfully, it’s in the hands of a KWS ranger, who reassures me with a smile that the safety catch is on. He’s leading a trek to Sheldrick Falls, secreted away in the coastal forests of Shimba Hills National Reserve, just an hour’s drive west from Diani Beach. The conservation area is home to sable antelope, leopard and elephant, all of them vulnerable to poachers who lay snares and bring poison arrows into the park, hoping to evade KWS patrols and bag a lucrative prize. As I gaze across the verdant wilderness at the end of our walk, I struggle to imagine anything corrupting such a pristine paradise. Only the gun, now resting at the ranger’s side as he waves his goodbyes, acts as a reminder of how coveted these natural treasures are, and the dangers he and Kenya’s army of wildlife heroes face to ensure that they survive.
• Getting there Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com) operates daily flights from London Heathrow to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. A visa is required. Gamewatchers Safaris (gamewatchers.com) offers a nine-night safari package from £3140 per person on a full-board basis based on two sharing. This price includes accommodation, domestic flights with Safarilink (flysafarilink.com), activities, park and conservation fees, all airport transfers, meals and non-premium alcoholic drinks and taxes.
• Where to stay The writer was hosted by Nairobi Tented Camp, Porini Amboseli Camp, Porini Rhino Camp, Porini Mara Camp, Porini Lion Camp, Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge, Amboseli Lodge and Msambweni Beach House, all highly recommended.
• When to visit Kenya has a tropical climate, but altitude plays its part, so expect hot and humid days at the coast and cooler temperatures in higher, inland regions. The country’s ‘long rains’ are April-June and the ‘short rains’ November-December, with hot, dry weather in January and February.
• Health Visit your local GP or travel clinic to ensure you have all the necessary vaccinations before you travel. Anti-malarials are advised for most regions.
• Further reading For more information on Kenya, visit magicalkenya.com, and to find out more about the Amboseli Trust for Elephants go to elephanttrust.org. Find out how you can support the Born Free Foundation at bornfree.org.uk.