A wildlife safari in Kenya remains one of the ultimate travel adventures — heralded by Hemingway, haunted by Dinesen, reinvigorated by Disney. While cameras have thankfully replaced rifles, a venture into the bush is an irresistible opportunity to confront the laws of nature in the natural world.
To see elephant families nurturing their half-ton 2-year-olds and rhinos rooting around for their loops of fruit is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But certain lifetimes are rapidly running out — the ravages of poaching and human population expansion have dramatically reduced the numbers of roaming elephants and pushed rhinoceroses to extinction.
When I was offered the opportunity for a conservation safari with the Bently Foundation, I jumped at the chance. We were going to meet the incredible people working to save these species, preserve habitat, mitigate human-animal conflict and deter poachers. We wanted to feel the love and give some back, too.
We embarked on this adventure with the Bently Foundation, a nonprofit that supports hands-on environmental and conservation organizations. (Author’s disclaimer: I am privileged to serve on their board of directors.) Executive Director Camille Bently is passionate about on-the-ground organizations doing the work, with the enthusiastic support of her husband, Chris Bently, the foundation’s president.
First stop, Amboseli National Park at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. We saw our first thrilling glimpse of elephants (and giraffes, warthogs and zebras) on the short drive to Tortolis Camp. We gleefully discovered rustic tents with hardwood floors, hot showers and plenty of comfort. The lively bar and lounge area overlooked an animal-attracting water hole, with an open-air dining room laden with a delicious buffet of locally grown specialties. As part of the camp’s sustainability ethic, we were encouraged to refill water bottles and mitigate energy use.
Conservationist Richard Bonham introduced us to the work of Big Life Conservancy. Big Life works closely with local communities, partner NGOs, national parks and government agencies to preserve one of the greatest populations of elephants left in East Africa, with more than 1,000 in Amboseli. Big Life supports anti-poaching teams who work across the Kenya-Tanzania border. Its community-based, collaborative approach is a model for other African ecosystems.
We saw the result firsthand, witnessing the breathtaking spectacle of some 200 elephants spontaneously rumbling together to socialize at sundown. It turns out that elephants, like humans, enjoy hanging out, although their hors d’oeuvres consist of acacia tortolis leaves adeptly plucked with their trunks.
After two whirlwhind days of bush drives and exquisite sightings — flamingos in flight! baby baboons!— we left Amboseli to fly to the adjacent Mutara and Ol Pejeta Conservancies near Mount Kenya. Our glamping tents in the lovely Jambo Mutara Camp hotel looked right out of a Ralph Lauren ad, revealing romantic four-poster beds.
Ol Pejeta Managing Director Richard Vigne outlined his integrated approach to wildlife, livestock and tourism operations. Understanding that economic realities affect conservation efforts, Ol Pejeta has worked on solutions that serve the wildlife and provide jobs, healthcare and education for the resident communities, including the indigenous Maasai tribes. To thwart poachers, the conservancy sponsors and hires rangers from local populations. Ol Pejeta also offers interactive experiences including hands-on volunteering, visits to its chimpanzee sanctuary, nature walks, bush drives and a very popular junior ranger program for children and families.
Ol Pejeta is particularly focused on rhino conservation, housing more than 80 black rhinos, a critically endangered species — there are fewer than 5,000 left on the planet. It is home to the last two northern white rhinos in existence, a mother and daughter; the world’s last male northern white died there last year. Vigne’s team is hoping to performa posthumous IVF miracle to revive the bloodline, but no luck yet.
Our last stop was Ol Jogi Conservancy, 60,000 lush and varied acres of heaven. As the only guests on the private property, we took up residence in owner Alec Wildenstein’s compound, which is staggeringly sublime. Nestled into a high rock outcropping, with breathtaking views in every direction, you can almost hear Simba and Nala frolicking nearby. Meanwhile, a well-trained staff — steeped in old-world hospitality — attended to our every whim.
But luxury is only the lure. Our real mission was reinforced by Ol Jogi’s game manager, Jamie Gaymer, a native Kenyan and character out of Indiana Jones. He’s as charismatic as he is passionate about the urgency of rhino conservation and led a tour of the veterinary clinic, where a Smithsonian-sponsored veterinarian nurtured MeiMei, a young, 2,000-pound blind rhino with a digestion problem, back to health. When so few remain, saving one becomes priority.
Saving endangered species is not for the weary. But witnessing nature’s majesty, and the humbling, often-unheralded work by good people trying to do great things, was an eye-opening experience. I want to remain an essential part of this circle of life.
Jet-Setters Weigh In
Dr. Carolyn Chang: “When you go to Africa, it’s a leap of faith. You’ve got to have everything choreographed. … I highly recommend a mobile tented camp where you can spend the night in the Serengeti and avoid the day-trippers.”
Nicole Villeneuve: “Tanzania is known for Serengeti National Park and the dense wildlife of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, but the highlight of our trip was the lesser-known Selous Game Reserve. The limited access (tiny planes are required!) meant that we could escape the crowds of the Serengeti and observe lions, elephants and giraffes without anyone else in sight. The Sand Rivers Camp, operated by Nomad Tanzania, was the perfect home base for walking safaris and boat trips down the Rujifi river. Open-air rooms with private plunge pools allowed us to take in river views, and the kitchen cooked amazing meals every night (including fish we caught in the crocodile-patrolled waters). We capped several nights with local Amarula liqueur and listening to hippos rustle around outside our door.”
Anne Hassett: “Enock Nnko (africa-experience.com) is the greatest Tanzanian guide of all time.”
Big Life Conservancy, biglife.org
Ol Pejeta Conservancy, olpejetaconservancy.org
Ol Jogi Conservancy, oljogihome.com
Lodging and Touring
Tortolis Camp, Amboseli, Kenya; elewanacollection.com
Jambo Mutara Camp, Mutara Conservancy, Kenya; jambochesterhotels.com/mutara