Preserving Africa's mane attraction

Preserving Africa's mane attraction
By admin


As the lioness wearily raises her head from a parched acacia thicket, safari guide Daniel seizes the opportunity to count the number of whiskers beneath her fleshy-pink nose.

He grabs a tatty notebook from the dashboard of our dusty Toyota Land Cruiser and thumbs through pages of childlike sketches. After some deliberation, he confidently identifies the lioness as Madala, while behind her rests a male, Naserein. Even without his characteristic flowing crown – an adaptation to this hot, dry environment – the predator still looks majestic.

Daniel pulls out a smartphone to take a picture and record our co-ordinates. A guide for the Sasaab Lodge, he's one of 20 trained lion watchers operating in the Samburu National Reserve in Northern Kenya, close to the Equator, where we're currently bumping through arid, thorny, sun-scorched plains in search of big cats.

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After every sighting, Daniel inputs data into a custom-made app, which he'll then transmit to an information bank once we have Wi-Fi connection back at the lodge. It's all part of monitoring lion numbers in Samburu and increasing a population under threat.

Arguably the most iconic of safari's Big Five headliners, there are 32,000 lions in Africa – a 90 per cent drop since 1975, according to National Geographic. In Kenya, the birthplace of safari, there are fewer than 2000 and Kenya Wildlife Service says 100 were lost last year.

Although overshadowed by the appalling decimation of elephants and rhino by poaching, the plight of Africa's lions is now receiving deserved attention.

"People expect to see a lion on safari; if they don't they'd be surprised," says Mickey Carr-Hartley who, along with wife Tanya, owns Sasaab and three other properties in The Safari Collection portfolio.

In Samburu, the couple is supporting the work of conservationist Shivani Bhalla, who is working to raise both the profile and population of Africa's big cats through her project Ewaso Lions, and guests at Sasaab are invited to learn about her work. She is also responsible for Lion Watch and the phone app Daniel and his colleagues use.

I meet the 36-year-old Kenyan in her "office", a huddle of canvas tents in the Westgate Community Conservancy, which borders Samburu National Reserve. A plan for the week ahead is scribbled on a white board hanging from a tent pole, while an old, battered laptop is flipped open on the camp table, although there's no internet connection.

An Oxford graduate who originally came to Samburu for her PhD, Shivani has been camping here for eight years. Her slight frame and bookish appearance cast her as the archetypal scientist, but get her on the subject of predators and she becomes wildly animated.

She pulls out a faded and slightly blurry Kodak print of a cheetah, a snap she proudly tells me she took in this very area when she was eight years old. It sparked a passion which has led to her being awarded a Whitley Award for conservation and being named an emerging explorer by National Geographic.

Shivani highlights community conflict as the main threat to lions and much of her work involves educating the 600 Samburu families in Westgate about the importance of wildlife.

Habitat destruction and overgrazing has led to a significant drop in lions' prey, meaning many now target the pastoral community's precious livestock.

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But by teaching people about the value of wildlife and the money it brings through tourism, along with methods to protect livestock, she has helped raise the number of Samburu lions from 11 in 2007 to 40.

"And for the first time we've noticed that lions in the reserve are starting to roar, a sign they feel safe," she tells me with relief.

We're joined by Letoya, a 20-year-old Samburu warrior whose tall, lithe body arches like a bow as he leans in the tent doorway. His sleek, braided hair is pasted with ochre, and he wears a body armour of colourful beadwork.

As part of her Warrior Watch program, Shivani has trained him and 13 others as wildlife guardians, monitoring lion behaviour and troubleshooting.

In the past, Letoya, like many of his peers, regarded lions as a nuisance.

"But now I am coming to like them, and I understand they bring me money," he says with calm conviction. "I want them to be with us for a very long time."

Guests at Sasaab Lodge can make donations to Ewaso Lions but even by staying in the Westgate Conservancy, where the lodge pays a lease to the Samburu people, they are supporting wildlife and community.

The nine luxurious tents on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River are a world apart from Shivani's simple set-up. An infinity pool and spa overlook the shallow water where elephants cross, and open-sided stone bathrooms offer the chance to shower by starlight.

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I fall asleep to the sound of a grunting Verreaux's eagle owl and baboons barking like an agitated pack of dogs; in the morning I awake to find dik-diks (who look like Bambis shrunk on a 90-degree wash cycle) truffling on my front lawn, and weaver birds dressing their pendulous nests that hang from acacia trees like rough-hewn baubles.

* Sarah Marshall was a guest of The Safari Collection (www.thesafaricollection.com)

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