Walking with Rhinos in Kenya / Financial Times

March 2017 


 Our guide, a Samburu warrior named Joseph Lekalaile, stands on top of a smooth, rocky outcrop with two uniformed rangers, one of whom is holding up an aerial. Beyond them, beneath a huge blue African sky, an epic landscape of red earth and parched bush dotted with distant dome­-shaped mountains unspools to a horizon as wide as an ocean. They are searching for rhinos — black rhinos with microchips implanted in their horns, the first rhinos to be resettled in this vast and remote expanse of northern Kenya since they were hunted and poached almost to extinction here in the 1980s.

The ranger’s receiver beeps and the hunt is on, though today’s goal is to shoot the rhinos with our cameras, not bullets. My wife, Katy, and I have already signed indemnity forms. Before we set off into the bush, Joseph gives us some final instructions. Walk in single file. No talking. No bright colours. No flashes or camera clicks. And watch for the hand signals with which he will tell us to advance, freeze or retreat. We have no guns, just Joseph’s “rungu” — a traditional Samburu club with a heavy steel head — because black rhinos are a critically endangered species of which there are scarcely 5,000 left on earth. Under no circumstances can they be shot — not even if one of the notoriously aggressive creatures charges straight at us.

For the next hour, caressed by a soft breeze and the late afternoon sun, the five of us trek past fearsome­-looking thorn bushes, termite mounds resembling giant sandcastles, and flat-­topped acacia trees from which the round nests of weaver birds hang like Christmas baubles. We scatter guinea fowl, hornbills and tiny antelope called dik­ dik. We spot rhino, elephant and giraffe tracks in the sandy soil, their dung too. Periodically the rangers take soundings that show we are closing in on our prey. Joseph shakes ash from a sock to determine the wind direction. We must stay downwind of the rhinos because they have poor eyesight but a formidable sense of smell and hearing.

Using an aerial to track black rhino in Sera And then we hear the one that we are tracking. We hear it munching vegetation somewhere right in front of us. We stop, listen and scan the trees and bushes, astonished that such a big animal can be so hard to spot.

Joseph creeps forward. A minute later he beckons us to follow. Suddenly there is a crashing in the undergrowth. We hurriedly retreat, but too late. The rhino — a female adult weighing 1.5 tonnes — appears from behind a bush 20 metres away and turns to face us. We freeze. We stand motionless for what seems like an eternity. Our hearts are pounding, for we are completely exposed and rhinos can move extremely fast. The rhino knows she has company, but cannot see who or what. After a minute or two she begins to advance. Alarmed, Joseph swiftly throws a stone to her left. Hearing it land, she veers towards the sound. Then, abruptly, she plunges back into the undergrowth and lumbers away, leaving us relieved and thrilled in equal measure.

We could have seen rhinos in any number of reserves elsewhere in Africa, but not like this. Not on foot rather than from the safety of a jeep. Not having tracked them through the bush in fulfilment of some atavistic instinct. Not rhinos as genuinely wild as these — or with such an uplifting story.

I last visited this part of Kenya in 2013, but for a different reason. I was writing about the scourge of elephant poaching. I spent 48 hours with a heavily­armed mobile patrol run by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), a confederation of 26 community conservancies covering an area the size of Wales. In that short time we found the stinking, rotting carcases of two elephants that had been killed for their tusks, and received reports of two more. That year alone the NRT lost more than 100 elephants. It appeared to be losing the war, but in fact the tide was turning.

Established in 2004 by an eminent conservationist named Ian Craig, the NRT’s goal was to persuade the indigenous peoples of what was known in colonial times as the Northern Frontier District — a vast, lawless region that stretched up to the Ethiopian border and was off-­limits to most outsiders — that wildlife was worth more alive than dead. Backed by an annual budget of $10m raised from foreign donors including Britain’s Tusk Trust, it offered them financial support, security, jobs, tourism, training, markets for their livestock and other inducements if they set up conservancies, appointed rangers and actively resisted the poachers, many of whom came from neighbouring Somalia. “At first it was like a missionary process of persuasion, but now it’s completely flipped,” Craig told me last month.

Today the NRT supports 33 conservancies covering 17,000 sq miles, with other communities eager to join the programme. It has created 1,500 jobs, most of which are in conservation and tourism, in a region where formal employment is scarce. Last year just eight elephants were killed by poachers, and their numbers are finally beginning to rise.

One of those conservancies is Sera — 1,300 sq miles of sun­-scorched wilderness north of the frontier town of Archer’s Post and east of the Samburus’ sacred mountain, Ololokwe. It’s an area that was once renowned for banditry and bloody tribal conflicts. In 2015 Craig took the enormous gamble of moving 13 black rhinos from Lewa, his own well-protected conservancy about 100 miles south, and from two national parks, to a 200 sq mile sanctuary in the heart of Sera. With the horns of each rhino worth about $400,000 in Shanghai or Saigon, “everyone said I was mad”, he recalled.

In the event, three died shortly after relocation but the others are thriving. Two of the remaining 10 have since given birth to the first rhinos born in northern Kenya in 30 years; three others are pregnant, and there has not been a single incident of poaching. To see rhinos returned to their natural habitat “gives me an enormous buzz”, says Craig, but the benefits extend far beyond conservation.

Last month Sera became the first community conservancy in east Africa to offer westerners the opportunity to track the rhinos on foot, generating more valuable revenue. And to serve those visitors Riccardo Orizio, an Italian writer and safari guide, has just opened a magical little lodge within Sera named Saruni Rhino. The lodge is a two­-hour drive along a dirt track from the nearest airstrip, and far beyond the range of television, internet, mains electricity and mass tourism. The only people we encountered en route were semi­-nomadic herdsmen tending large flocks of cattle, goats and sheep. Not far from the track, we met children who had never seen white faces before.

The lodge consists of two open-­fronted, well­-appointed, stone­-and-­thatch “bandas” (cottages) that were built a decade ago for a BBC reality TV show and can accommodate a maximum of six guests. They stand on the edge of a “lugga”, a dry, sandy river bed as wide as the Thames, and are sheltered from the midday heat by great doum palms in which monkeys cavort. We were woken one night by a leopard growling right outside.

There is no white overseer. The half­-dozen delightfully open and solicitous staff are all Samburus — a tribe less celebrated than their Maasai counterparts in southern Kenya but every bit as proud and handsome, colourful and distinctive. At lunchtimes we watched whole families of elephants trundle out of the bush to drink and spray themselves at a waterhole barely 100 yards away. In the balmy evenings we had drinks beside a campfire as oryx and warthogs took their turn at the waterhole, then dined beneath a dazzling cascade of stars at a table set up on the river bed.

As we ate, Joseph and Sammy Lemiruni, the lodge manager, talked about their people and customs. We learnt how to tell the social and marital status of Samburus from the brightly coloured necklaces, bracelets, chains and earrings with which they festoon themselves. We learnt about the circumcision ceremonies that all young Samburu men must endure to become warriors — and how if they flinch they bring shame on themselves and their families. We learnt how they use cows as currency, drink the blood of their livestock for nutrition, traditionally considered cattle-­rustling a rite of passage, leave the bodies of those who die young out in the bush, and believe in curses and animal sacrifices.

Few older Samburus know their own age. Even today, many send their children out to tend their animals instead of to school. Our total immersion in Samburu culture included a visit to a semi­-nomadic settlement, whose stick-­and­-animal­hide homes can be packed up within hours, and an impressive display of spear-­throwing staged by the lodge’s exuberant staff for our benefit. Peter Lengolos, our young waiter, showed us the elaborate scars — “local tattoos” — with which he had decorated his torso using a razor blade and acacia thorns.

But the highlight was our visit to Kisima Hamsini (“Fifty Wells”), where generations of herdsmen have dug through bedrock to create deep wells that never dry up. We arrived soon after dawn to find the sand criss-­crossed with the fresh tracks of elephants, hyenas, zebra, jackals, baboons and other nocturnal visitors. Then came the sandgrouse, thousands and thousands of them, swooping down flock by flock to drink from the pools in a mesmerising display of aerial co-­ordination that lasted precisely 30 minutes.

As the sandgrouse left, the herdsmen began to emerge from the bush — gnarled old men with machetes, boys as young as seven, women and girls with cones of multi-­layered, many­-coloured necklaces tumbling down over their shoulders. They had come from 60 miles around, driving goats, sheep, cows and camels with wooden bells hung round their long necks. The men stripped, climbed down into their holes, and began hauling up water in battered metal cans to fill troughs fashioned from hollowed­-out palm trunks. As they did so they sang — not songs but a sort of rhythmic, wordless, timeless chanting that emanated from deep in their throats and supposedly attracts and soothes their livestock.

Samburu, Rendille and Borana tribesmen used to fight deadly battles at these “singing wells”, over scarce water, grazing rights and stolen cattle, but no longer: nowadays the conservancy’s board resolves disputes.

Back in the rhino sanctuary, Katy and I enjoyed one more spectacular encounter with a rhino before we left the delights of Sera. It was late afternoon, and the sun was sinking, when we spotted the huge two-­tonne adult male that we were tracking.  It was peacefully browsing on the far side of a clearing. We hid behind a large, dead thorn bush and watched transfixed as the great beast slowly crossed the open space. But then, instead of vanishing into the bush, he turned and headed our way.

Once more we froze. The rhino kept coming. He finally stopped just five yards from where we were standing, on the far side of our thorn bush, and lifted his great prehistoric head as if sensing an alien presence. We were so close we could see every crease in the rhino’s leathery hide, the hairs on his ears, the scars on his horns, the oxpecker birds perched on his back. We hardly dared breathe lest he heard us. He sniffed the air. He stood there for a minute, two minutes, three. Then one of the oxpeckers trilled in alarm. The rhino took fright. He turned and trundled swiftly away, leaving behind five utterly mesmerised human beings.

(Martin Fletcher was a guest of the Ultimate Travel Company (http://theultimatetravel company.co.uk), which of ers a one-­week tailor-­made northern Kenya safari from £5,530 per person, including three nights at Saruni Rhino, meals, all activities, flights from London with Kenya Airways, bush flights, private transfers and a rhino tracking donation to the community conservancy.)