Eventually I have to admit that I’m lost. Bad news. The good news is that this doesn’t matter, the Kenya Airways pilots have done little wrong thus far, and I suspect that they have found Nairobi before.
Huge lakes come and go below me, the land between them alternately crumpled with mountain ranges and smoothed with expanses of bushveld. Flying feels like an adventure missed. I try to plot a mental map of the continent, and have just decided that we are surely over the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania when the pilot announces our imminent arrival in Nairobi. Embarrassed internal cough, replaced by excitement – that brief but desperate urge to jump around. I’m about to land in Kenya, a long-awaited moment. Nairobi National Park flashes past below us, yellow grass replaced by runway just in time.
Bag successfully claimed, I approach the sliding exit doors apprehensively. Any African traveller will be familiar with the scenes at public ports of arrival across the continent. A deep breath and I charge through, arms out and ready to push through a crowd clamouring to offer me a taxi, Kenyan Shillings or a place to sleep. Quiet. Some strange looks from the small crowd. I withdraw from the demented-mummy pose. I have an hour to kill before a friend arrives, and trying to look slightly more normal I do what any self-respecting explorer does on arrival in a new country, and head to the airport café for an ice-cold Tusker.
Truth is, I didn’t know what to expect. This is my first time here, and as a bush and wildlife lover I feel that my visit is overdue. The elections have recently come and gone, peacefully so despite the apparent desire of the world press for a bloodbath. We leave Nairobi early the next day without knowing the city at all, but heading south we can’t seem to shake it. New-build developments far from the city have erupted like warts on the landscape; the giant faded marketing signs advertising beautiful couples strolling through wetland oases. The contrast with reality couldn’t be greater. The land is blasted, no sign of green life below cattle-height. The Mombasa road carries us further south, the stream of trucks is steady and we settle into life at 40km/hr. Eventually we leave the main road and head into Maasailand, I’m looking for the beauty but the land degradation appears even worse here. Clouds begin to build ahead, but something below. That flutter of excitement again. Kilimanjaro. Only the lower slopes, but enough to turn my mood.
The taxi takes us as far as the colourful collection of tin buildings (town would be pushing it) known as Mbirikani. We are met by a land cruiser belonging to the Big Life Foundation. Headed by conservationist Richard Bonham, the organisation has taken on a multitude of challenges facing the human-dominated zones of the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem. The area is vast, somewhere around two million acres wedged between Amboseli National Park in the West, Chyulu Hills and Tsavo National Parks to the east and southeast, and Kilimanjaro to the south. Wildlife from each of these refuges relies on the Maasai group ranches in between for seasonal grazing as well as migration corridors. This communal land is still mostly under livestock production system and, for whatever reason, the Maasai have coexisted with wildlife for centuries. But things are changing. Growing human populations are putting stress on the natural resources of the ecosystem, and conflict between people and wildlife is escalating. In addition, the on-going transition to a monetary based economy has in most cases made wildlife more valuable dead than alive. Poaching of all kinds is a growing problem. The organisation runs a team of about 250 game scouts across the region, engaged in everything from shooing elephants out of farming areas to chasing down ivory poachers. The scale is daunting but the results have been clear.
I am here to assess the results of a separate initiative of the organisation. Prior to ten years ago there was a startling increase in lion-killing, and by all accounts the local population of these cats was headed for extinction. The Maasai relationship with lions is a complex one and it is hard to separate one motivation from another. One theory is that with the increasing use of money in the community, livestock start to transition from representing social status and wealth to also representing hard currency. The word “afford” began to crop up. People could no longer afford the monetary losses to predators and monetary cost became a factor in behavioural decisions. The Predator Compensation Fund (PCF) was set up to compensate livestock owners when their animals are killed by predators. So as not to incentivise poor livestock husbandry, reduced amounts are paid for predation of livestock lost in the bush and those that are killed in poorly constructed bomas. The deal – if someone in the community kills a predator then the surrounding area forgoes compensation payments for a two-month period, and the perpetrators are fined heavily. Despite a shaky start, the community appears to have accepted the program and I am here with a fellow researcher to determine exactly what impact monetary compensation has had on people’s attitudes and behaviour towards predators, particularly lions. Interesting months lie ahead.
The Big Life base is on the slopes of the Chyulu hills, adjacent to Ol-Donyo Lodge. The fates of the two are neatly intertwined, conservation payments from guests in the lodge go some way to supporting Big Life, and Big Life helps to maintain the state of the ecosystem that attracts tourists. The lodge is on Maasai land, and annual payments represent a benefit to the community from tolerating wildlife. Nothing is perfect, but this model at least integrates local people. We point our bonnet for the hills and as the permanent structures disappear in the dust behind us my smile grows. This is it, the environment that I had imagined. The eroded gulleys recede, replaced by vast golden plains strewn with lonely umbrella thorns. Unbroken horizon in all directions, connected by a deep blue sky. A herd of oryx fifty strong form a single silhouette on a hill, cattle graze below them. As we follow the dark track into the volcanic Chyulu range I look back, plains melt into the distant haze and the snow-capped summit of Kilimanjaro peeks out of a break in the clouds. This place is worth every drop of conservation sweat going into it.
Photos © Jeremy Goss