Rhinos reign here

Rhinos reign here

Kenyan haven

Rhinos reign here

We had barely brushed the dust off our 45-minute flight from Nairobi when we spotted the wallowed-in-the-mud white rhino. A few twists in the dirt road later, our open-sided Land Cruiser came head-on with a herd of galloping zebras.

A little further up on the savannas, an elephant family grazed languidly by the flat-top acacias. Not far from them we eyeballed a cud-chewing male Cape buffalo. And just a stone’s throw from our camp, we surprised a pride of resting lions. In this 20-minute airstrip-to-camp drive-by, we had ticked off almost all the African Big 5, and many other animals.

Animal safaris have often been called voyeuristic affairs. But on the first day in the bush, you expect the thrill of a peek-a-boo, not the full monty. With such easy viewing, ennui can set in.

To add to that, the lions were all radio collared, making them look protected and somewhat domestic. It reminded me of my venerable old guide at Kaziranga National Park, who after a frustrating day of chasing tigers, exclaimed, “In Kaziranga, there are real wild tigers, unlike the tamed ones in Ranthambore and Bandhavgarh that any fly-by-night tourist can spot.”

To end poaching  

But we were in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in central Kenya, a place synonymous with conservation. In colonial Kenya, it was a cattle ranch owned by the Craig family, who in 1983 turned the 500-sq-km property into a conservancy. This was all in an effort to stem the tide of rhino poaching, which had threatened to wipe out rhinos from Africa.

A little over 30 years, the Lewa Conservancy has expanded manyfold and has been in the vanguard of providing a haven for its rhinos. (Although, in 2014, the record was broken when 6 rhinos were poached.)

Today, Lewa has over 75 black rhinos and over 65 white rhinos. They’re not only easily spotted here, but are less skittish than rhinos elsewhere in Africa. In Ngorongoro, several years ago, a rhino remained a small fidgety dot on the horizon that assumed any shape only though my zoom lens. Rhinos have a hopelessly bad eyesight, and as the guide told us, from that distance the rhino probably mistook our jeep for another rhino. In our evening safari in Lewa, a rhino came so close to our jeep that to fit him into the frame, I had to switch to a wide angle lens. Led by its enormous horn, the prehistoric beast serenely pushed through the dry and long savanna grass, aware but unmindful of our presence. Over our heartbeats, we heard the crunch of its feet over dry twigs and leaves.

The rhino was massive, but not as massive as the Indian rhino, which also looks more ancient with its armor-plated skin. But both the species evolved almost 50 million years ago. To be exact, more than 48 million years before humans came into being. Biologists say, in the evolutionary scheme of things, animals develop traits to counterbalance the traits of other animals in order to survive and maintain that essential ecological balance. Sadly, no species has been able to evolve fast enough to counter man’s rapid evolution from an insignificant cave dweller (about 11,000 years ago) to a lethal gun-wielding marauder today. Least of all, the rhinos. The demand for its horns spurred a legion of poachers, pushing their numbers to the brink.

Collaborative protection

In Lewa, the rhinos are well looked after, in the happy marriage of private enterprise and community involvement. Whether it’s India or Africa, the engagement of locals is intrinsic to combat poaching. In Lewa, the local community has a stake in keeping the rhinos safe. Their school, their hospitals, their water-management programmes are regularly funded by the revenue generated by the conservancy. For its work, Lewa was declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

The savannas in Lewa are rolling. No matter where we drove, there were hills that ran like walls all around and hid animals in their folds. But there was no cover for the reticulated giraffes anywhere. We saw a towering neck of one rising up from behind a small escarpment.

There were a lot of dry, twisted acacia trees. It was the handiwork of the elephants, our guide told us. Man is, after all, not the only species responsible for deforestation. There were many acacia swathes in Lewa where elaborate electric fencing was built 2 metres or so from the ground. This was to prevent elephants from getting in, while allowing passage to other grazers.

We saw 2 of the largest grazers from the antelope family. The oryx, the arid specialist, and the eland, the world’s largest antelope. Camouflaged in the undergrowth, we also spotted one of the smallest antelopes, dik-dik.

The ostrich family showed up with their clutch of nervous chicks that ran helter-skelter between their mother’s stilt-like legs. Getting a surfeit of Africa’s glamour animals right at the start has its pluses. You finally take notice of the other delightful animals in the savanna grass.

Getting There

There are regular Kenya Airways flights from Mumbai to Nairobi.
From Nairobi, one can either drive 270 km to Lewa Wildlife
Conservancy, or take the 45-minute flight via the small Safarilink aircraft.