Wild about Kenya
A unique safari in the company of experts
There’s not much that can top spotting rhinos, elephants and lions in Kenya’s wilderness. That is, unless you’re doing it on a special air safari accompanied by those protecting Africa’s most endangered species. Talk about close encounters. The air feels electric. If I raised my arm, I could place my palm against his broad face. He is so close I can smell the wafting pheromones.
“Stay very still,” whispers guide Saba Douglas-Hamilton. “Whatever you do, don’t move.” There’s no chance of that. After what seems an eternity, but is likely less than a minute, Ban Ki-moon (yes, that really is this elephant’s name) exhales loudly, flaps his ears to send a wave of hormones over the truck and ambles off towards the river.
Ban Ki, as Douglas-Hamilton calls him, is in musth. It’s an Urdu word that means gratification or pleasure, but in this case is used to describe the periodic changes that occur to bull elephants. They secrete from a gland near their ears, constantly urinate, have a green crust around their penis and become aggressive.
Usually they take it out on other bulls, but DouglasHamilton has just finished telling us how her father, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, once came between two bolshie boys on the hunt for females of the species. He was fine but not so his LandCruiser.
I am spending the morning with Douglas-Hamilton, who now helps run Save the Elephants with her husband, Frank Pope, in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve.
Guests at the neighbouring Elephant Watch Camp may see her around, but viewing elephants with her is an activity reserved for a privileged few. Douglas-Hamilton is one of the experts guests of Scenic Air Safaris’ Endangered Species Flying Safari meet as they travel between mighty tracts of wilderness, interacting with researchers providing vital protection to at-risk animals.
The Save the Elephants team knows about 1000 elephants individually and tracks their movements using collars fitted with SIM cards plus an iPhone app. In the past couple of years, numbers have increased while the incidences of poaching appear to have dropped.
“In 2013,” Douglas-Hamilton says, “[we held] epic meetings under the trees with all the community and no one would admit they had poachers in their midst.”
She says that, finally, one man who admitted he had killed elephants for their tusks stood up and pointed out another 19 who he knew were poachers.
Conversations about poaching, lobbying governments to ban trading of ivory and working with communities to ensure elephants and humans can live together harmoniously are a reality check amid our ex- tended game drives, where a huge array of wildlife is spotted. No matter how many times you spy a lion panting beneath a bush or glimpse a rhino, it’s impossible not to become excited.
I spot my first wild animal from the window of our long-distance transportation for the week, a Cessna Grand Caravan fitted with first-class seats and headsets so everyone can communicate. We’ve flown out of Nairobi over the Great Rift Valley towards the Masai Mara.
As we approach our destination, the pilot takes us close to the ground. “Giraffes ... three o’clock.” And there they are, just for an instant, as we fly over. From our low cruising height it’s possible to see buffaloes, elephants and hippos swimming in the Mara River.
Our first stop is Keekorok airstrip in the Masai Mara National Reserve where we’re met by Justin McCarthy and his team from Spirit of the Masai Mara, where we’ll bunk down that evening. Three big-cat experts are part of the welcome committee: Niels Mogensen from the Mara Lion Project; David Mascall, who’s worked with lions for most of his life; and Elena Chelysheva, who has spent three decades studying cheetahs and runs the Mara Meru Cheetah Project.
Once we are on the road, the cats don’t disappoint. A leopard trying to nap in a ditch isn’t happy about the whirring of cameras and our excited whispers and roars and rushes at the LandCruiser before slinking off.
Chelysheva’s research assistant Mandela radios to say he’s observing a group of cheetahs hiding among thick shrub. We park away from where they’ve been spotted and eventually they stroll out, seemingly oblivious to us.
A pride of lionesses and their cubs are unflustered.
Elephants in Samburu National Reserve, top; the Scenic Air Safaris Cessna Grand Caravan, above