Wild about Kenya

A unique sa­fari in the com­pany of ex­perts

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - CAR­RIE HUTCHIN­SON

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

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