Protecting the herd in Kenya's Great Rift Valley

A trip to Samburu National Reserve proves to be no ordinary safari. For a select few, Natural World Safaris offers the chance to be a park ranger, monitoring elephants’ behaviour and most importantly, keeping them from harm. Tuesday, 26 November 2019

It’s lunchtime, and Amity is hosting a little gathering. Clustered around her in a fig tree’s purple shade are Verity, her sister, and a few of their younger relatives. Softly as we can, we approach. Amity pauses to hold us in her gaze, and satisfied we’re friends, not foes, she takes another mouthful. We move closer. The atmosphere under the tree seems supremely relaxed, so much so that the youngsters are practically snoozing on their feet.

These ladies-who-lunch are known as the Virtues, and Amity is their matriarch. They’re one of the many families of wild elephants that zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save The Elephants (STE), has been studying in Samburu National Reserve since 1997. Thanks to the efforts of his international team of wildlife rangers, scientists and conservationists, the Virtues have no fear of research vehicles, allowing them to draw so near that their occupants could count every crease on their tremendous trunks.To my amazement, Amity and her sleepy-looking clan don’t seem to mind unexpected guests like me, either. I’ve watched wild elephants from a safari vehicle many times before, but never at such close quarters. It’s extraordinary.

“Are they always so accepting?” I ask.“With us, yes”, says Bernard Lesirin, my Samburu guide. “Amity has a calm nature, and that has a soothing influence on the others.”

Hanging out with the herd

Nodding off in the midday heat is a perfectly understandable move, not just for Samburu’s elephants, but for the wildlife-watchers who come here to see lions, cheetahs and gerenuks — antelopes whose long, slender necks and impressive balancing skills let them nibble the foliage others can’t reach. Lying just 40 miles north of the Equator, this sun-baked, palm-dotted reserve in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley is reliably hot; temperatures in the nearest settlement, Archers Post, can reach 50C — and that’s in the shade.

By mid-morning, most safari guides are winding up their morning drives and taking guests back for brunch and a hard-earned siesta, leaving a heat-hazy silence to settle over the valley. But as a guest at Elephant Watch Camp, the riverside eco-lodge created by Iain’s wife Oria to help support Save The Elephants, my routine is decidedly different.

Now is the time for Bernard to load up his open-sided safari vehicle with picnic boxes and cool drinks and invite me out for a day’s adventure. He knows that as the temperature climbs, the elephants will return from the Ewaso Nyiro river and gather in the shade. And, rather than rushing from sighting to sighting, as some safari excursions do, we’ll be staying with each elephant group as long as we like, observing them in detail.

As I climb in, a smell of warm engine, hot dust and parched grass hangs in the air. Breezing past reticulated giraffes, pretty-eyed dik-diks and comical flocks of vulturine guineafowl, Bernard heads for the herds’ favourite hangouts. He has worked with Iain and STE for long enough to know hundreds of individual elephants by sight, and has a large deck of STE record cards in which each of the creatures are logged by name, ID, family history and distinguishing features.

Amity is unmistakable, partly because she wears a tracking collar. She’s in the habit of leading her herd on long journeys lasting for months, but always returns to this part of the reserve, her collar providing crucial data on her migration patterns.

“It’s surprising, in many ways, that she’s calm. She was forced to become a matriarch at 16, which is very young,” says Bernard, as we watch Amity pluck trunkfuls of palm shoots from the ground while her companions shower themselves with dust or doze. “Her mother and aunt, Hope and Resilience, were both killed by poachers within months of each other.”

Tragically, early death is all too common a fate for East Africa’s elephants. Shortly after my visit, Amity loses another relative, Generosity, to a gunshot wound — possibly dealt by a herder or farmer.

Harsh realities

At Save The Elephants’ research base within the reserve, there are plenty of harsh realities to digest. Information panels document the issues that arise when elephants and expanding human populations live in close proximity. The illegal ivory trade is just part of the problem; if elephants damage crops or frequent roads and pathways, people are tempted to retaliate.

Hearteningly, STE also promotes solutions such as Beehive Fences: since elephants can’t abide bees, a chain of hives will protect farmland as well as providing a useful commodity, elephant-friendly honey. Also on display are tracking collars of various vintages. The latest allow elephants’ movements to be monitored on a high-security, real-time digital mapping system that researchers, conservationists and anti-poaching personnel can access via their smartphones.

I ask Iain why gathering migration data is so crucial to STE’s conservation efforts. “Information is power: it can move mountains,” he says. “The more we know about the choices elephants make, the better equipped we are to protect them.”
Later, cocooned in the bohemian bubble of eco-luxury that is Elephant Watch Camp, my fellow dinner guests include wildlife enthusiasts, STE researchers and the Douglas-Hamiltons’ daughter, Saba, presenter of the BBC’s Big Cat Diary. She currently manages the camp and acts as Save The Elephants’ international ambassador, raising funds for conservation, education and research.

“But it’s the elephants themselves that are the true ambassadors,” she says. “Our guests arrive, have magnificently intimate encounters with these extraordinary creatures and are moved to help protect them. We’re tremendously grateful for their support. It’s the most natural synergy in the world.”

How to do it

Natural World Safaris offers a nine-day Exclusive Endangered Species Fly-In Safari in Kenya, including stays at Spirit of the Maasai Mara, Lewa Safari Camp and Elephant Watch Camp. From £8,370 per person, excluding international flights.

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