You never forget your first time. I never will. It was on a plane, a Cessna Grand Caravan, and we were flying above the shores of Lake Nakuru. The microphone on my headset was pushed away from my mouth so my frequent squeals and exclamations wouldn’t annoy my fellow passengers. It was tangled in my hair, but I managed to get it back to my lips.
“Rhinoceros!” I yelled, microphone finally readjusted. “It’s a rhinoceros.”
Of course, by the time I manage to spit out the words for my first ever rhino sighting, we’ve flown too far for the nine others onboard to gaze downwards. Instead, everyone is scanning the area below where huge flocks of flamingos are feeding. It is an extraordinary sight. Anyone who has bumped across the plains in a 4WD on safari will know the thrill of spotting any new species for the first time, but spying it from a small plane offers a completely different perspective.
We are winging across Kenya on Scenic Air Safaris’ Endangered Species Safari, a nine-day adventure that will take us into the Maasai Mara in the southwest corner of the country, north past Mount Kenya to the reserves of Samburu and Lewa, and onto the high, dry plateau of Laikipia. Along the way, rather than simply taking guided safaris from luxury camps, we are being accompanied by wildlife experts, many of whom study the continent’s most at-risk animals. It is a rare opportunity to see what conservationists and communities are doing to haul back species from the brink of extinction.
But there is another unique aspect to this journey. The company’s Cessna not only allows guests to travel to Kenya’s farthest corners, it also offers a unique perspective of the landscape and wildlife. Rather than taking off, flying at height and landing, our pilot, Murtaza Walijee, takes any opportunity to descend so we can observe the movements of visible animals. At about 150 metres, it’s possible to spot giraffes plucking leaves from treetops, hippos wallowing in shallow pools, and elephants trudging along dry river beds. None seems offended by the low-flying single-prop aircraft.
It’s one of the most comfortable ways you’ll ever safari – each of the padded, first-class seats has its own window, so you never miss a thing. Plus, at the beginning of each flight, everyone takes turns to call shotgun for the co-pilot’s spot.
My early rhino experience has me excited to get closer to these curious creatures, but first we are on the way to Laikipia, where Simon Kenyon has been surveying African wild dogs. From his base at Sosian Lodge, he’s come to the conclusion there are about 300 in the region. In all of Africa, it’s thought there are probably only about 3500 dogs, which makes them as rare as pandas.
“Much of the land around here used to be cattle and sheep farms, so the dogs would go through and kill 50 sheep in a single night,” he tells us as we’re parked high on a ridge, transmitter out, trying to get a read on where one of the packs may be thanks to collars on a couple of the dogs. “The farmers would shoot them, but they’re also susceptible to rabies and canine distemper.”
So rare were the dogs, with their big ears and dark spots painted on tan fur, Simon was 18 before he even saw one – it was love at first sight. It
set him on a path to discover as much as possible about the smallest of Kenya’s big carnivores.
We get a signal from one of the collars and set off. “They are fascinating and there is such a family dynamic,” says Simon of the dogs as we bounce along a rough track through thorny bush and prickly pears. “When they’re moving and on a mission, they are unbelievable machines. They can travel at up to 50 kilometres an hour.” Working in a pack, they’ll chase prey until the unfortunate animal is completely exhausted. At which point the dogs pounce and tear it to pieces. It’s a bloody jungle out there.
Thankfully, some of the younger dogs with an alpha male have decided to take a break in the shade of a tree. They twitter and yip, sounding a lot like a flock of birds, to communicate with one another. Occasionally, one trots off, peers around, then flops again beneath a bush. Nothing to see here.
We began our journey in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, landing at Keekorok Airstrip to be met by Justin McCarthy and his team from Spirit of the Masai Mara. Soon, we are off in open-top 4WDs to find some of the reserve’s big cats, and the experts – Mara Lion Project’s Niels Mogensen, Dr Elena Chelysheva, who has spent 30 years studying cheetahs, and David Mascall, who’s worked with lions for most of his life – are along for the ride. Within 15 minutes, another driver has radioed through the location of a leopard.
When we arrive, it’s hiding in a hollow trying, one suspects, to escape the heat of the day. It stares and we peer back. Soon, annoyed by cameras whirring and people whispering and pointing, the leopard leaps from its hide, roaring and lunging at the truck before slinking off into the undergrowth. It happens so fast, there is no time to react. One of us could easily have ended up as a leopard lunch.
Dr Chelysheva’s assistant Mandela is soon on the radio, too, reporting the presence of three cheetahs. We park away from the thicket hiding them and soon enough they pad out. Not too far away is a pride of lionesses and their cubs in all stages of adolescence trying to shade themselves from the sun’s rays. One of the largest is lying on her back, paws in the air, revealing her stomach in an attempt to stay cool.
The presence of these big cats is awe-inspiring, particularly as David reveals that three years ago, he’d seen only one lion in the neighbouring Siana Conservancy, where the lodge is located, over the course of two weeks. As we return for dinner, he asks the driver to slow down so he can find the resident pride, which now numbers 14. We spy them in a stand of trees, drinking from a large puddle.
“It takes a lot to kill a lion,” Justin tells me later. “I’ve seen a giraffe take the skin off the head of one and a couple of weeks later it’s been fine.” Of course, humans are a far greater threat to big cats than fellow plains animals, but there are a number of initiatives being implemented so herders and their animals are protected from predation and vice versa. One has been incredibly simple – using solar power to illuminate holding yards at night. Neither lions nor leopards like the artificial light and leave the domestic animals alone.
In the following days, we fly to Samburu to spend time with Saba Douglas-Hamilton and her husband Frank Pope at Save the Elephants. Her father, Iain, formed the organisation in 1993. Now, it tracks 97 Kenyan elephants (and about 130 more across the rest of Africa) using collars fitted with SIM cards.
Out in the bush, Saba introduces us to some of the elephants who live nearby. Anwar is a young bull with a fascination for LandCruisers. He’ll walk right up and sit on the bonnet, she tells us. He’s even smashed a couple of windscreens. “Not out of maliciousness,” says Saba, “but because he’s had his tusks on the bonnet and just moved.”
Another bull, Ban Ki-moon, approaches our parked vehicle. He’s in musth, a breeding cycle male elephants go through. Not only do they secrete from glands near their ears and urinate constantly, but they also become aggressive.
“Whatever you do, don’t move,” Saba says to me as Ban Ki advances. The hairs raise on the back of my neck when he gets so close I can smell the pheromones on his skin. I want to place my hand on his broad head, which is within my reach, but I take a deep breath and remain completely still. Finally, Ban Ki flaps his ears, sending a wave of a fusty hormones over me, before plodding off in search of something more interesting.
Back at Elephant Watch Camp, Saba and Frank tell of how they’ve worked with communities in recent years, convincing them living wildlife is far more valuable in the long term than a dead elephant’s tusks. Finally, it seems the message is taking hold, with elephant numbers increasing and incidences of poaching decreasing. “In 2013, we managed to turn the community against the poachers,” Saba explains. “There were these epic meetings under the trees with all the community and no one would admit they had poachers in their midst.” Finally, one man, who admitted he had killed elephants, stood up. “He pointed out men – 19 in all – who he knew were poachers.”
They’ve also collaborated with Chinese celebrities, like actor Li Bingbing and basketball player Yao Ming, to spread the word about the damage inflicted by ivory poaching. It seems to have worked. On New Year’s Day in 2017, the Chinese government banned the domestic sale and processing of ivory.
The story is similar in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, where comparable methods are being used to save rhinos. Each and every rhinoceros that lives on the almost 40,000 hectares – Lewa is managed in conjunction with the neighbouring Borana Conservancy – can be identified, either by markings, their horns or by notches added to their ears.
At a bunker where collared rhinos are tracked and monitored, scientist Ian Lemaiyan runs through the figures. In the 1960s, there were about 70,000 black rhinos in Kenya; by 1993 there were only 2475. Now, it’s thought the population has grown to about 5000. In the Lewa and Borana region there are 63, as well as 75 white rhinos, the more docile, grass-eating species.
Lewa is divided into nine blocks and six rangers will patrol each sector 24 hours a day. “Every time a ranger spots a rhino he radios back to the control centre, identifies the rhino, where it is, its condition and its behaviour,” says Ian. If one hasn’t been seen in three days, the situation is considered critical. On day four, rangers go out specifically looking for it and, if that rhino still hasn’t been found by day five, the helicopter is deployed. If a whole week passes, every resource, including armed security, is sent out to search. It’s serious business.
Thankfully, there have been few recent poaching incidents; Lewa has had none in the past three years.
“The community is our first defence,” says Ian. Health clinics, school libraries and bores have been built, and farmers are allowed to graze their cattle on conservancy land when it’s particularly dry in exchange for protection of the endangered animals. “We’ve also built an education centre so children from across northern Kenya can understand the value of the wildlife.”
As we drive through the conservancy we spot herds of the endangered Grevy’s zebra – hunted almost to extinction for their beautiful hide – and a number of rhinos in the distance, but then see Zaria and her calf just off a track. Up close these are huge and unusual beasts, with wide mouths and enormous horns that appear as though they could skewer any number of poachers. Zaria stomps her feet and shakes her head in warning as we get too close, before putting herself between the 4WD and her baby and marching off.
Thinking back to that first glimpse of a rhinoceros far below our plane, I feel privileged to have been able to see these amazing animals from just metres away. But, more importantly, thankful to the humans who dedicate their lives to ensuring other visitors to Kenya will be able to gawp at these species for generations to come.
South African Airways offers connecting flights from major Australian cities to Perth, and onto Nairobi via Johannesburg.
Guests on the Endangered Species Safari stay at some of Kenya’s most luxurious safari camps, including Spirit of the Masai Mara, Elephant Watch Camp and Sirikoi Lodge. Each is completely unique. Spirit has individual villas overlooking the bush, and a main lodge decorated with local art, while Elephant Watch has a boho-luxe, 1970s Morocco vibe. Sirikoi has both lodge rooms and glamorous tents. Sundowners are hosted on the deck overlooking a watering hole – the resident orphan giraffe, Nditu, pops by in her search for oranges.