Art, Culture, Books and Travel
Protecting wildlife in Kenya’s northern rangelands
At the height of poaching in the 1980s, an unusual request was made at Lewa Downs, a cattle ranch with wildlife, in Laikipia, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, just over 200 km drive from Nairobi.
Anna Mertz, a guest, asked the Craig family if they would set some land aside for a rhino sanctuary. Kenya’s black rhinos were on the verge of extinction. Blood thirsty gangs armed to the teeth had poached nearly all the country’s 20,000 black rhinos. By the 1980s, only about 300 remained.
Through Anna’s persuasion, the Craig family set aside 5,000 acres as a rhino sanctuary and named it the Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary.
Mertz is internationally renowned as the world’s foremost champion of black rhinos and Ian Craig, as a trail blazer in opening new frontiers with community conservancies.
By 1988, the sanctuary had 16 rhinos including new births, meaning that the sanctuary had to be increased to 10,000 acres.
ALSO READ: Running with wildlife in Lewa
“If it can happen in Lewa, why can’t it happen elsewhere?” says Ian in response to a question I asked regarding the success of the wildlife sanctuary.
It was the genesis of the practise of establishing wildlife conservancies on community land, which in 2004 brought them together under the umbrella of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) covering approximately three million acres.
Ian is in charge of special projects at NRT, and continues to provide strategic advice to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, after serving as its founding executive director from 1995-2008.
Set in a stunning and rugged landscape on the lowlands of Laikipia, with Mount Kenya as a backdrop, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy houses the offices of the NRT.
In the mud-plastered straw-thatched offices, John Tanui, the senior radio operator, who has been at Lewa since 2002, is closely monitoring Stratus the elephant on a large screen Google Earth map. The operations room works round the clock and at the touch of a monitor, the red dot portraying an elephant reveals its name, exact location and time.
“We have 27 elephants, mostly matriarchs and big bulls fitted with satellite collars,” says Tanui. “We receive signals after every hour from the elephants.”
The satellite monitoring is invaluable in tracking the elephants and deploying air patrols and scouts to elephants that show unusual behaviour.
“A few months ago, 15 dots on the screen (representing the matriarchs with their herds of 300) were moving unusually fast from Lekurruki conservancy to Lewa. It’s a distance of 15 kilometres,” says Tanui. Upon investigation, it was discovered that the elephants were fleeing to safety, having sensed poachers in the area.
The 24-hour vigil on the Google Earth map is complemented by infra-red cameras fitted in a gap between Lewa and Leparua conservancies.