The flip side of the picture postcard Kenyan landscape is environmental turmoil.
Savannah as far as the eye can see. A scattering of thorn bushes.
Unexpected encounters with elephants, lions, giraffes, and more. The numbingly beautiful light
and the incredible sense of being on the set
of Out of Africa. Welcome to Kenya,
and its Soysambu Conservancy. Dreams, adventure,
pumping adrenaline. The flip side of the postcard is political, economic
and environmental turmoil, opposed by a band of heroes
whose iron will is only equalled by
their passion for life in the wild.
Reserves in Africa are the legacy of “white colonial”
hunting grounds, established by moving local communities from their
Historically, national parks and reserves in Africa have been the legacy of “white colonial” hunting grounds, often established by moving local communities from their ancestral homes. Newly independent African countries preserved many of these “reserves”, but progressive thinking now rightly seeks to put communities at the heart of conservation strategy. As Michael Gachanja of EAWS ( East African Wildlife Society ) explains, “Current policy practices in Kenya focus on co–management of natural resources, encouraging communities to derive benefits that will motivate them to participate.” With national organisations such as the Green Belt Movement, which earned its founder, Wangari Maathai ( 1940–2011 ), a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to “sustainable development, democracy and peace”, and thanks to the work of conservationists such as Helen Gichohi, president of the AWF ( African Wildlife Foundation ) since 2007, the focus is now on galvanising communities to develop initiatives and programmes to support their own diverse and fragile ecosystems.
“On the one hand, you have the smaller community–based marine and forest administrations,” says Rob Brett, Africa Programme Director of FFI ( Flora and Fauna International ). “And on the other, big areas in the North called conservancies, which enable those communities to have a stake in their resources and start improving the status of the wildlife. Peace and wildlife go hand in hand.”
Tom Cholmondeley, the great grandson of the 3rd Baron Delamere now runs the family farm as a conservancy, which is also now part of a Rift Lakes conservation initiative to link Soysambu on Lake Elementeita to Lake Naivasha further south, and create a larger area of about 120,000 acres, eventually comprising the 40,000 acres of Lake Nakuru Park.
As Cholmondeley comments, “Soysambu conservancy has made great progress and now operates four tourism facilities and a ranger force. Some 25 % of the area is fenced and there are 15,000 wild animals, including over 10 % of the world’s remaining Rothschild’s giraffes. It is the largest island of wildlife on the f rontier, and is Unesco world heritage listed.”
Several hundred kilometres directly to the north of The Rift Valley lies the Laikipia plain and its free–ranging populations of more than 6,000 elephants and most of Kenya’s 5– 600 black rhino population. This great wildlife spectacle is all the more remarkable as it occurs in a landscape with no government–designated protected areas. Wildlife here survives among people, making it a living laboratory for human–wildlife conflict. —Throwing open the windows of her colonial home nestled in the fertile embrace of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, Alice de Janzé, the American socialite and member of the infamous Happy Valley set, is reported to have witheringly uttered these words as she focused her corrosive gaze on the vast plains and lakes below, “Oh God. Not another fucking beautiful day!”
De Janzé, her character popularised in James Fox’s bestselling novel White Mischief and in Michael Radford’s 1987 film adaptation, was a member of a hedonistic set of English and Anglo–Irish aristocrats and adventurers who scandalised British and Kenyan society in the 1930s and 1940s with their irreverent behaviour, culminating in 1941 in the much publicised trial of Sir Jock Delves Broughton for the murder of Josslyn Hay, the 22nd Earl of Errol.
One of the first British settlers in East Africa and a central figure in the Happy Valley set, was the Rt Hon Hugh Cholmondeley, 3rd Baron Delamere, who first travelled there in 1891 to hunt lions and is credited with coining the term “white hunter”. In 1896, he settled in Kenya, where in 1906 he acquired a large farm, the Soysambu Ranch, and eventually married Diana Caldwell, the former wife of Jock Delves Broughton and herself a suspect in Lord Erroll’s murder.
Soysambu ranch is still owned by the Cholmondeley family and this part of Kenya has seen radical change, both political and environmental since the days of Diana Delamere and the sombre legacy of her infamous friends. The forecast for the plains and lakes of Kenya’s Rift Valley, which once teemed with wildlife is now uncertain, and the present situation a far cry from Alice de Janzé’s myopic, morphine–laced predictions, as the last areas of land in East Africa where animals can roam safely without fear of poaching and habitat destruction have become the stage for a political and economic struggle, whose prospect is far from bright or beautiful.
Max Graham, founder and CEO of Space for Giants, an elephant research and conservation organisation, has worked in the region for the last decade. As he explains, “Space for Giants’ focus is landscape–scale conservation and anti–poaching, as the race to secure a future for Africa’s remaining wildlife has become ever more urgent. Today, I find myself becoming aligned with local community–based conservation organisations like the Northern Rangelands Trust in northern Kenya, who need to perceive wildlife as an asset if wildlife is to have a future.”
The threats to elephant and rhino populations are numerous both in this region and across the African continent. Chinese investment in Africa has been sudden and transformative and has created the trade network for illegal ivory and other wildlife parts. In their report last year, the Washington Convention ( CITES ) listed eight countries heavily implicated in large–scale illegal ivory and rhino horn trade: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, China and Thailand.
Rob Brett of FFI, who became Kenya’s rhino coordinator with the KWS ( Kenya Wildlife Services ) in the early 1990s, remarks, “There has in the last two or three years been a massive upswing in poaching, in response to the demand for rhino horn. The big demand has come out of Vietnamese affluence. Stories abound of shaved horn being used at parties as an aphrodisiac or for its supposed benefits for cancer and AIDS. The horn is regarded as a status symbol, a trophy.”
The relationship between conservation and hunting in East Africa has always been a close and contentious one, with many of the important early figures in wildlife protection originally starting out as game trackers. One of the most famous was George Adamson ( 1906–1989 ), whose work with lions in the 1950s inspired the film, and who was one of the first to draw attention to the plight of Kenya’s great cats, its lions, leopards and cheetahs, all of which had been brought to the brink of extinction by the trophy hunters of the first half of the last century.
Adamson was himself shot by Somali poachers in 1989 at Kora, the reserve he created in Northern Kenya in 1970, to rehabilitate captive or orphaned big cats for eventual reintroduction into the wild. His work at Kora has been continued, following his death, by Tony Fitzjohn, who came out to work with Adamson in 1971, and went on to create the Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania in 1997. Fitzjohn is pragmatic, “I’ve had a great life, someone
DAmE DAPhnE ShELDRIck Born in 1934, she has devoted her life to protecting wildlife, following her marriage to David Sheldrick, the founder of Tsavo National Park in Kenya. In her autobiography, “An African Love Story: Love, Life and Elephants” (...
Tony Fitzjohn, worked for many years with pioneer George Adamson before setting up Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania.
Max Graham, founder of Space for Giants, works with local communities to protect wildlife.