On the Front Lines of Wildlife Conservation in Africa

On my first night of camping in Kenya, I lay in my tent at Kimana Sanctuary, five hours outside of Nairobi, and listened with fascination and wonder to the sounds of the animals beyond my canvas enclosure.

The haunting calls of hyenas woke me from a sound sleep and then the wild, repeated thrashing of a crocodile taking down its prey in a stream just a few feet away, kept me awake and enthralled.

As I lay there in the dead of night, it began to sink in. I had finally made it. My lifelong dream of visiting Africa had become reality, and being immersed in the sounds of the animals all around me on the Kenyan plains was my first real sense of the remarkable adventure I was embarking upon.

But little did I know all that was in store for me that coming day or during the week ahead.

That morning, in Kimana Sanctuary, as the sun began to rise and I unzipped my tent, one of the most fascinating and memorable days of my life and of my entire journey in Kenya, began to unfold.

My recent visit to the country was part of a new itinerary offered this year by Intrepid Travel and the non-profit, Australian-based Thin Green Line Foundation.

The first of its kind itinerary, called Kenya: Wildlife Rangers Expedition, gives small groups of travelers incredibly rare access to the front lines of wildlife conservation in Kenya, a nation that is leading the effort in Africa to preserve and protect some of the planet’s most endangered animals.

The unique expedition takes travelers into the unseen world of Kenya’s wildlife rangers – the men and women who have dedicated their lives to the dangerous task of saving elephants and rhinos from extinction.

A seven-day experience, the trip includes game drives and foot patrols with rangers, as well as a day at a newly built ranger academy in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro to learn about what it takes to become a ranger. There are also nights spent around a campfire talking with rangers about their adventures protecting wildlife and fascinating conversations with local Maasai elders who have decided to be part of the monumental effort to try and save elephants and rhinos from extinction.

The Journey Begins

Our small group of travelers, just four other participants and I, arrived from all corners of the globe and gathered for a trip orientation in a hotel in Nairobi. Our first official group meeting took place in the hotel café.

We sat around a table introducing ourselves and then Sean Willmore, founder of the Thin Green Line Foundation, began a presentation about his organization.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Willmore’s work or who he is. I had no idea that the Aussie in shorts and a t-shirt sitting next to me was one of the world’s most passionate and dedicated non-profit leaders or that he would be accompanying us on our journey.

A personal friend of Jane Goodall, as Willmore flipped through his slideshow there were pictures of him beside everyone from British royalty (Prince William, Prince Charles) to Hollywood celebrities, all of whom he had enlisted over the years to support his cause. (Leonardo DiCaprio is among his supporters.)

As these pictures registered in my mind, I began sitting up straighter and leaning in closer to pay better attention as Willmore explained the mission that inspired him to upend his life and create Thin Green Line Foundation.

Every day, Willmore explained, rangers put their lives at risk to protect wildlife from poaching and other threats. And in pursuit of that goal, more than 1,000 rangers have been killed over the past decade. In the last year alone, more than 149 rangers have died.

These deaths are often at the hands of commercial poachers and armed militia groups, but in some cases, the deaths are also caused by the very animals the rangers are protecting. To make matters more challenging, many rangers are under-equipped, underpaid, and often under-appreciated, noted Willmore.

Yet in spite of all of these dangers and challenges, rangers not only continue to do their jobs but do so with a profoundly humbling level of dedication and passion.

“Rangers are on the front-lines of conservation, buying us time, keeping species from extinction as best they can,” Willmore explained. “Without rangers, many more ecosystems would have been lost, many more species lost.”

In exchange, Willmore continued, the global community needs to give these noble souls much more support than we do, in the form of training, equipment, and insurances, so that when they are out there on the front lines for months at a time, away from family, facing the dangers of poachers and the animals they protect, they know we have their back.

Big Life Foundation

One of the first stops on our itinerary was the Big Life Foundation, a non-profit organization five hours outside Nairobi in a small speck of a town made up of one dusty, red dirt road lined by a handful of small shanties.

A series of low-slung buildings connected by walkways, the Big Life campus is the command center for what has become one of the most successful non-profit conservation efforts in Africa. And our Intrepid group were the first travelers ever to be given a tour.

Big Life Foundation is legendary. Co-founded in 2010 by photographer Nick Brandt, conservationist Richard Bonham, and entrepreneur Tom Hill, Big Life was the first organization in East Africa to establish coordinated, cross-border anti-poaching operations.

The non-profit organization is focused on preserving the wildlife and habitats of the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem, which currently includes one of the greatest elephant populations left in East Africa.

Thanks to Big Life, and its team of about 300 local Maasai rangers who patrol a staggering 1.6 million acres, elephant and rhino poaching has remarkably been brought to a near halt throughout the region.

“We’ve done it,” Daniel Ole Sambu, Big Life’s engaging and charismatic director of conservation for the past decade, tells us during our visit. “We have a very good population of wildlife.”

Sambu welcomes us into his office with immense warmth, as if we are long lost relatives and begins immersing us in the fascinating logistics of Big Life’s efforts.

Its efforts to track and apprehend wildlife criminals, for instance, is an operation that has grown to include 30 permanent outposts and tent-based field units, 14 patrol vehicles, and even planes for aerial surveillance.

As it successes with eliminating poaching have grown, Big Life has found itself addressing an even more challenging threat – human-wildlife conflict, which has increased tenfold as the local human population multiplies.

“How to address the growing population, that is the challenge now,” says Sambu, noting that the human-wildlife conflict kills more elephants than poaching ever did.

Population growth has led to increasing swaths of land being lost to agriculture. Wildlife habitat is being eliminated at thousands of acres per day, which can be particularly challenging for elephants. To maintain their size and dominance elephants need to take in as many nutrients as possible, which means they spend a lot of time grazing on local farmer’s crops.

To address this issue and prevent retaliation against the wildlife when crop raids occur, Big Life works closely with local Maasai providing compensation when crops are lost. Similarly, when livestock falls prey to local predators Big Life compensates herders. This system has dramatically decreased retaliatory killings.

But Big Life’s work with the local Maasai runs far deeper than just compensation. It also supports the local Maasai through educational scholarships (it has provided hundreds of scholarships to date), employment (it is one of the largest employers of local Maasai) and through funding salaries of local teachers.

All of these things have helped win the hearts and minds of the Maasai community, says Big Life. It is only when you provide such community benefits from conservation that you can truly ensure the protection of wildlife well into the future.

“Our partnership with the local Maasai has been critical to our success,” says Sambu.

Kimana Sanctuary

Kimana Sanctuary is a shining example of a groundbreaking community conservation model that has also played a key role in preserving wildlife in Kenya.

A 5,700-acre plot of land in the heart of the Amboseli ecosystem, the sanctuary is communally owned by 480 local Maasai who in 1996 set the land aside to be the first community conservancy in the country. Today, it is a central part of a crucial corridor linking Amboseli National Park with nearby Chyulu Hills and Tsavo protected areas. It provides animals with a route through what is an otherwise densely settled area.

Our campsite within the preserve could not have been more idyllic, situated amid a shady cluster of trees beside a narrow stream.

After setting up our tents, we set out for our first drive around the sanctuary. Halfway through our excursion, our driver parked next to a small rise of rocks so we could sit and enjoy sweeping views of the plains as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon. As we all clambered out and began exploring, Daniel Kutata came walking along.

One of the Big Life Foundation rangers, Kutata joined the program last year. His father is one of Big Life’s oldest and most respected rangers, a man responsible for creating the now legendary Maasai Olympics, a program that allows Maasai warriors to compete in athletic events rather than killing lions as their rite of passage into manhood.

Kutata, the young ranger we met that day, is an engaging, soft-spoken and doe-eyed 28-year-old with an infectious smile. He is the eldest of seven children and the first in his family to follow his father’s footsteps.

“I love being out in nature,” he told me as we sat on a giant rock overlooking the plains. “I love protecting animals.”

“It’s not about the money, it’s about protecting these wild animals,” continued Kutata, who said he knew as early as three or four years old that he wanted to be a ranger.

“My father instilled in me the importance of conservation and as the firstborn, I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps,” he explained.

Kutata’s goal is to spend his life protecting the legendary big five in Africa (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and buffalo) and to someday pass down the value of doing such work to his own children, in the same way his father did with him.

His comments would be echoed again and again throughout our trip. Each ranger I came in contact described eloquently and selflessly their love for animals and nature, exhibiting a dedication to a challenging and life-threatening job that was humbling. I consistently walked away from such conversations moved by the spirits of these individuals and thankful for their efforts.

Tim the Tusker

Before departing from Kimana, our driver Joseph Lepapoti, came by to pick us for one final game drive. Having woken that morning to the remarkable sight of a bull elephant standing just outside my tent, I thought to myself – what else could there be to see?

The answer: Tim the Tusker.

One of the last remaining tuskers (an elephant whose tusks are so long they touch the ground) in Kenya and by some accounts, in all of Africa, spotting Tim is a rare event.

Tim is legendary, known not only for his tusks but also his friendly and charismatic personality. He is also said to be a prolific father.

As our vehicle was making its way through Kimana, we came to a sudden stop and Lepapoti, almost holding his breath, raised his arm and pointed off into the distance.

There, foraging among the trees, was a magnificent elephant, unlike any I had ever seen.

“That’s Tim. You are very lucky to see him. Not many people see him,” Lepapoti said in barely more than a whisper.

We sat in our vehicle in awed silence, using binoculars, long-range camera lenses and anything else we could get our hands on to get a closer look.

Eventually, over the course of what seemed to be at least a half-hour, Tim and his herd moved closer and closer to us. And then, before we knew what was happening, Tim walked right beside our vehicle, nearly within arm’s reach.

As he slowly loped by, peacefully and silently, each of us held our breaths and watched.

“This is Africa,” Lepapoti eventually said, proudly.

A Walk with the Rangers

One of the final highlights of our trip was an afternoon spent on rhino patrol with Big Life’s most elite unit of rangers.

To participate in the patrol, we drove far out into the bush, to a tiny camp of a few humble buildings where the foundation’s rhino unit members live for 21 days at a time and then have seven days off. The team is led by Joseph Kotoke, a tall, imposing ranger with a blinding smile and movie star looks straight from central casting.

Kotoke explained that he had hand-picked each member of the elite rhino unit very carefully, based on the individual’s skills, including bravery and honesty.

“I need someone who would never think of compromising,” Kotoke explained, referring to the potential temptation to accept bribes from poachers.

To become part of the team, an individual first must volunteer for several weeks (without pay) and be tested, as well as go through various training.

“Once they qualify, we bring them out,” said Kotoke.

After a brief introduction to the team, we headed out on a patrol by foot.

Rangers walk on patrol for as much as 30 kilometers per day and spend anywhere from five to six hours walking. The goal of the treks is to make sure the area is safe and that there are no poachers in the vicinity.

During our walk, we inspect a variety of camera traps attached to trees throughout the area.

In between each camera trap, the rangers observe barely visible markings in the dust (that an ordinary person would not look twice at) and point out that a rhino has passed through the area.

From a swath of crushed grass alongside a trail, the rangers can tell a rhino has left his mark here in this place as a method of notifying other rhinos of his presence.

We examine three digital camera traps during the course of about an hour, checking the images of poachers on each one. The first camera shows no images of poachers or animals. As we scroll through the images on the second camera, we see a partial rhino horn, and Kotoke says: “That’s Dixon.”

Kotoke can tell, just by looking at the animal’s horn, which rhino it is.

Every three days the footage is reviewed by the team. When the camera traps do happen to capture the image of a potential poacher, the team works to track the individual down and engage law enforcement.

As we head back to our vehicle to depart, I walked along with 26-year-old Payiai Nteru, a member of the team or just five months. Payiai was inspired to join the rangers by his 52-year-old father, Nteru Lormunyei, also a member of the team.

“My father used to tell me ‘My son, you need to consider taking care of nature,’ ” Payiai Nteru, the firstborn of nine children told me.

Payiai went to college and studied business, but after finishing his studies told his dad that he felt the best thing to do with his life was to become a ranger. To make it onto the team, Payiai spent months volunteering with no compensation other than accommodations and food.

Much like Kutata a few days earlier, Payiai said he had his heart set on filling the role his father had before him.

“My dad committed himself to this job and I admired him and I wanted to be like him. Just like my dad had done, I want to follow in his footsteps,” Payiai said. “He taught me a lot about the wild.”

Amboseli National Park

Before heading back to Nairobi, we spent a day exploring Amboseli National Park, a vast preserve in southern Kenya known for its elephant herds.

With its sweeping beauty and plains filled with zebras, elephants, wildebeest, and more, Amboseli was everything I had imagined Africa might be. It is said to be one of the most rich and diverse wildlife areas in all of Africa.

Our drive through the park was nothing short of spectacular. There were more elephants than I’ve ever seen in one place, as far as the eye could see, bathing in marshes, frolicking, walking, and grazing. Families of elephants shepherding babies along and young adolescent elephants playing by the roadside.

The successful proliferation of elephant herds in particular here is due in large part to the constant efforts of Big Life Foundation rangers.

Kenyan Wildlife Service officials told Willmore as we entered the park that day that if it weren’t for the rangers of Big Life Foundation guarding around the borders of the park the scenes we witness of a place where herds of elephants are thriving, would not be possible.

As I stood in the jeep during our visit watching elephant after elephant at ease, in the wild, living peacefully, as they were meant to, I realized that I would carry this day in my mind’s eye for years to come.

Goodbye, Kenya

I left Kenya grateful that there are people in the world like the Big Life Foundation rangers, who dedicate themselves so selflessly to making the planet a better place and to protecting endangered wildlife so that we all may continue to enjoy such remarkable creatures.

I flew back to my suburban life in San Diego, a world away from the people and places I had seen, knowing that I will carry this journey and my interactions with the rangers and Tim the Tusker, for as long as I live. For years to come I will think of the rangers, all of them, and see them walking along the savannah, doing their patrols. and silently thank them. We are forever in their debt.

How You Can Help

One of the best ways to support the organizations mentioned in this article is to make donations to fund their efforts. You can donate to Thin Green Line Foundation here and to Big Life Foundation here.

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