Protection of the wilderness and wildlife we cherish is increasingly falling to private conservancies. To find out what they are like to visit, we sent Craig Rix to Laikipia
Dry earth crunched under foot. The ankle-high grass glistened yellow as first light stretched out across the hill. The sky shimmered in anticipation of the heat to come. For now, however, a cold, breathless tension hung in the air. We pulled our hoodies over our ears and strode silently on, in single file behind our lead scout.
He paused. We paused. We scanned the forest in the dip to our right, peering hopefully through binoculars. A few mutterings in kiSwahili (our guides were men of few words), then Scout Number 1 set off cautiously into the thicket below while Number 2 led us onwards around the crest. Along the way we barely noticed two hyenas sleeping in the morning sun. They each focused one eye on us before flopping back into their slumbers. For about fifteen minutes we surveyed the valley, squinting into the sun, which by now had fully risen, turning the sky a vibrant blue and slowly thawing out our fingers.
“We have found nothing,” announced Scout 1, as he emerged from the forest. I couldn’t bring myself to be disappointed. We had been searching for a pair of black rhino that had been seen here just a few hours earlier. There are few things more thrilling than the prospect of approaching rhino on foot, but it was somewhat reassuring that they were so difficult to find. It should never be easy to see animals in the wild. And if our trackers couldn’t find them, surely that would mean it was difficult for poachers, too?
We had come to Borana, in Kenya’s Laikipia region, to see first hand the work of a modern conservancy. Together with its neighbour, the world-renowned Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, and others such as Ol Pejeta and Loisaba, Borana has found itself on the frontline of rhino conservation. Indeed, Laikipia is possibly the most extensive stretch of privately owned land in Africa to be dedicated to intense preservation and related community programmes.
Borana itself spans 32,000 acres of open grassland, basalt hills and cedar forests. Originally a Boran cattle and sheep farm, about thirty years ago its owners Michael and Nicky Dyer committed to wildlife-based tourism. They sold the sheep, reduced the cattle herd to its current 2000 or so, and built two lodges. The wild animals soon returned and today Laikipia boasts the second-highest concentration of elephant in Kenya, predators abound and it is home to half of Kenya’s black rhinos. More than a hundred black rhino roam freely between Lewa and Borana.
But with poaching on the increase, places such as Borana have had to establish sophisticated operations to protect animals, especially rhino. The Dyers employ more than a hundred security personnel, who provide 24-hour surveillance. Forty-two scouts operate during the day, patrolling designated zones and gathering GPS data on all forms of wildlife. Feeding off their information, pairs of trained and armed anti-poaching guards are deployed to key vantage points each night, from where they can scour large areas for suspicious activity, using night-vision binoculars and radio communications.
On our first evening, we arrived as Chief Conservation Officer Sam Taylor was overseeing the deployment of vehicles to different corners of the property, and we were able to join one. Our team had spent all their lives in a nearby village and had undergone a rigorous training programme, working their way through the ranks to this now senior role. We were humbled by the sincerity of their commitment and their passion for protecting their environment. Having grown up among subsistence poachers and small-scale farmers who saw wildlife as a threat, these young men were now educating the next generation on the importance of conservation.
On our final day we spent a glorious night fly camping with the Dyers. It was one of those experiences that make you yearn for a life on permanent safari. Tents were tucked discreetly among the acacias; a sea of stars spread itself wide above our heads; and the occasional whoop of a hyena or roar of a lion echoed in the darkness. We stared reflectively into the flickering campfire and sank into easy conversation.
We couldn’t resist prying into the business side of the operation. The cost of running the conservancy, including all its wildlife activities and its community outreach programme, is about US$600,000 per annum. Tourism is critical to funding this, and with the decline in visitors to Kenya in recent years Borana has had to be subsidised by the family’s other enterprises such as cattle farming.
During our visit we had stayed in a vast villa, eaten like royalty, packed our days with multiple adventure activities and enjoyed memorable wildlife encounters in unforgettable landscapes. We had been all around the ranch, learning about the livestock business and visiting the horticulture project; Borana is almost entirely self-sufficient. We had seen the extent of their security operation and enjoyed nearly every activity on offer.
Everything about the conservancy is geared towards appreciating and protecting the natural environment. We savoured our bush breakfast doubly because we had seen where and how it had been produced. We looked forward to talking to our guide Rianto just as much as spotting animals, since we understood his wider work in the community.
We took nothing for granted, for we knew that our visit to Borana was contributing to something considerably more important than our enjoyment. Without tourism, conservancies would not exist; they are crucial for the preservation of natural habitats and threatened wildlife, and for the development of rural communities. It doesn’t make for a cheap holiday, but it is worth every single penny.
Pack for a purpose
Borana has an active community outreach programme, supporting a mobile clinic and five local primary schools — to which your visit contributes. If you wish to take something with you to give away, visit packforapurpose.org, which will advise you on useful things required by such projects across the world.
On private conservancies there are often many different activities on offer. Here’s our pick of the best from Borana, www.borana.co.ke
• Anti-poaching deployments If you decide to venture out on an anti-poaching deployment, fear not: you won’t be expected to stay up all night with a weapon and night-vision binoculars. This is a game drive with a difference, delivering rangers to their overnight surveillance point, gaining a valuable opportunity to meet the people on the frontline.
• Horse riding Borana has a well-established riding safari set-up, so that both experienced riders and beginners can reach areas that are inaccessible by vehicle. We followed the Ewaso Ng’iro river, encountering giraffe, gerenuk and kudu, before enjoying a delicious bush breakfast of Eggs Benedict, pastries and fresh fruit under a canopy of acacias.
• Bush walks There is something truly invigorating about setting out on foot as the sun rises. There’s a palpable sense of relief, as birds dart back and forth, gazelles pronk playfully and buffalo shuffle uneasily as you pass. At Borana there’s the added thrill of possible encounters with rhino.
• Mountain biking If you’re feeling energetic, jump on a bicycle. This is fantastic cycling terrain, but it is hilly so you need to be reasonably fit.
• Quad bikes and buggies Enjoy a fun excursion or an overnight adventure, camping in the bush, visiting ‘singing wells’ and exploring remote riverbeds.
• Paragliding So this is what it’s like to fly! With Hunter Marrian piloting our tandem flight, we soared several hundred metres above the village, forest and rolling plains, the wind whistling in our ears.
• Flights of fancy If paragliding is not for you, it is possible to charter a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft, including a 1930s biplane.
• Fly camping It was tempting to stay one more night in our villa, but the lure of sleeping in the bush was too much. We enjoyed a delicious three-course meal and shared stories around the campfire. The tents, with beds warmed by hot water bottles and sheepskin blankets, were dotted around among the trees. We fell asleep to the sounds of lion, hyena and jackal, and the grass rustling as unseen animals moved through the camp. Hot water and flannels arrived at dawn, as if by magic.
• Ngare Ndare Forest Reserve This reserve to the east of Borana has felt increasing pressure from agriculture and is shrinking in size. A trust was formed for its protection and today the local community manages the area, engaging in educational work and facilitating visits. We swam in rock pools, picnicked among African olive and red cedar groves, and braved the 450m-long canopy walkway, 40ft high in the trees — from where we saw, among many other unusual birds, a rare Hartlaub’s turaco.