From Nairobi, we fly to Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s quite a contrast. It feels like a European country here — with paved roads and European style architecture — until you reach the wilderness.
As we drive out to Kariega Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, we pass farms and dozens of private game reserves where South African and international tourists can see animals up close.
Wildlife tourism is a major industry here and one that has enabled the steady increase in the number of rhinos not only in national parks, but also in private reserves.
South Africa is home to three quarters of the world’s rhinos. The recovery of the white rhino here has been one of the world’s greatest conservation success stories. From a low of only 50, the white rhino population has recovered to 18,800 and has thus been removed from the “critically endangered” list. This is a sharp contrast to the Northern Whites I saw in Kenya that skirt on the edge of extinction with only seven individuals remaining.
In Kariega, I meet veterinarian Will Fowlds and he takes us to see a very special rhino, a rare survivor of the rhino wars.
In my next post, I will introduce you to Thandi.
I am in the middle of an interview when David and Oria move the vehicles around in a protective circle, like a wagon train from an old cowboy movie, and we get in to watch the action. As a herd of 40 or more elephants comes straight towards us, a large bull in musth (when they are ready for romance they drip a strong smelling secretion from the glands at the side of the head) comes striding across the river.
Bulls in musth can sometimes be aggressive and unpredictable so it’s quite intimidating when one comes marching into the herd less than 20 feet from me. The great deep rumbles and the excited trumpets sound all around me and there’s a lot of charging around and elephant bumper car action going on. The ladies get excited when the big man in town arrives, David tells me. But it all ends peacefully and the herd heads off into the bush.
They have another surprise for me. As the sun starts to go down, I head up to a hill with a spectacular 360 degree view flanked by a dozen Samburu warriors, some of whom work at the camp, singing traditional songs.
As the last light of day slips away, they present me with an 8ft spear and ask me to become an honorary Samburu warrior with the name Lenasakalai, a legendary warrior who protected the Samburu people.
“Please go back and fight for the elephants for the Samburu people” says Bernard Lesirin, a young warrior and top guide at Elephant Watch. They then begin their dancing, jumping straight up into the air and all around me. If the cameras weren’t on me, I would join in.
They light our fire literally by rubbing two sticks together in the traditional way and as a thousand stars and the Milky Way appear above my head, accompanied by the hypnotic chanting of the warriors, I feel like I am being taken back in time. Until the ring of a cellphone in one of the warrior’s pockets reminds me that here the past and the present intermingle.
We then retire to the Elephant Watch Camp, a beautiful tented camp shaded by large trees overlooking the Ewaso Nyiro River. As well as paying guests it is frequented by vervet monkeys, who are quick to steal any food left unclaimed even for a second.
It has a very organic feel to it and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, our host, had even brought in a Shanghai-style Chinese chef, Mr Tang, to make me feel at home. They have built me a custom made bed with my name spelled out in wood, made from fallen trees around the camp.
This is still the bush and Pete warns me to shake out my shoes before putting them on to check for scorpions. I’m a bit disappointed that I never actually find one!
I leave exhausted, having packed a week’s adventure into a single afternoon with a warm glow and perhaps a little sadness that if we are not careful, these ceremonies and the traditional Samburu way of life, like the elephants, may not be around forever.
On the way to meet one of the world’s most endangered animals – the white rhino – I come across some other interesting characters.
First, there is a pack of African wild dogs – which, I’m told are quite hard to find – on the open plain chasing after jackals. They are the size of a small dog, but when they work as a pack they can take down a zebra or wildebeest.
Then, we see a beautiful cheetah and an 8-month old baby – another lucky find.
The baby even attempts to chase our vehicle. An endearing sight I will not soon forget.
Next, we track down a collared lion using a radio signal. I’m happy to act as the radar tower until a storm brews and lightning beckons and I realize that holding up a metal antenna might not be such a good idea! The animals are tracked to learn more about their behavior, I learn from Simba Zhuo, a Chinese conservationist working in Kenya’s Maasai Mara.
Lions are now endangered – falling from a population of 200,000 a hundred years ago to only 20,000 today. This is because of habitat loss, largely to agriculture uses, and conflict with livestock. On top of that, their bones are now targeted for Asian medicinal use, because tiger numbers have been so depleted.
And then, I meet Najin and Suni.
More on that soon.