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Saving Kenya’s black rhinos with satellite technology and tourism

A new lodge in the wild Sera conservancy in Northern Kenya has unveiled the first black rhino tracking on foot safari in East Africa, combining GPS positioning and traditional bushcraft. Lydia Bell reports for Glint Perspectives

My Samburu guide, Joseph Lekalaile, who has been tracking wild animals in the bush since he was eight years old, and is as sharp as a razor, issues a concise stream of instructions: “The black rhino are about 200 or 300 metres from here,” he says. “So from now on it’s single file, no talking, no phones, and no cameras. I will be the lead guide in front, and the rest will be behind. Watch out for thorns in your eyes and try not to snap dry branches.” He shows us the hand signals for stop, forward, back, and freeze.  Then cautions: “The rhinos have amazing hearing. They can hear us now. If they pay attention to you, never run, or make a sound. Unless they charge – in which case, yell, but don’t move.”

“They can hear us now. If they pay attention to you, never run, or make a sound. Unless they charge – in which case, yell, but don’t move.”

We are in the wild Sera Community Conservancy, a vast, empty 1300-square-mile tract of parched earth managed by the Samburu people. Here, a small group of relocated northern black rhinos roam an arid, 107-sqkm fenced sanctuary riven with dry riverbeds and granite extrusions. One hundred and twenty SAS-trained rangers ensure their survival. The black rhino was once a dime a dozen but was hunted to extinction in many sub-Saharan countries in the first half of the 20th century. Current numbers are hovering around the 5,000 mark, thanks to conservationist efforts, but this still constitutes a critically endangered situation under threat from poaching.

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This is the only on-foot tracking of the species possible in East Africa and, in an era where “taking nothing but photographs and leaving nothing but footprints”, is not enough for engaged visitors, the experience allows one to do something more meaningful and actively contribute to the protection of this iconic species. My time there is combined with excursions with a similarly conscious operation called Scenic Air Safaris. Their trips aboard bespoke Cessna Grand Caravans, take clients on a new nine-day ‘Endangered Species’ itinerary, led by experts in threatened, endangered and critically endangered species; from Grevy’s Zebra and African Wild Dog, to Lion and Cheetah, Elephant, and White and Black Rhino.

Scenic Air Safaris

Scenic Air Safaris

To lend a sense of perspective this space, Sera Conservancy, is about the size of Hong Kong and Luxembourg combined. Previously, only resident Kenyan campers in the know came here. Now, there are four beds available at Saruni Rhino, a lodge set up expressly to allow guests to take part in the conservation of the species. This microscopic lodge currently consists of two beautiful and bijou bandas – open stone cottages with bare stone floors and high thatched roofs.

Privilege is a word that comes to mind but does not begin to cover it. Thrilling is another word. Along with the two other guests at the lodge, a Washington DC financier and his teenage son, we bounce along the sandy tracks of the sanctuary in a Land Rover. There’s Joseph, our tracker, Samuel, handling the telemetry, and Thomas and Ambrose taking up the rifle-packed rear. A transmitter delivers the GPS coordinates of the 11 horned charges inside the fence, whose horns are micro-chipped. It’s a brilliant example of the way in which Kenya, a world leader when it comes to employing mobile phone use to bridge technological chasms, has embraced the high-tech in its battle to help pastoralist nomadic communities engage with and protect wildlife. In the Masai Mara, transparency of payments to the hundreds of landowners in the Mara North Conservancy is made easy by the ‘M-pesa’ payments that link up with the Masai’s mobile phones and their bank accounts.

Trying to pick up the signal from a micro-chipped rhino

Trying to pick up the signal from a micro-chipped rhino

The range of the rhinos, Joseph explains, is about 2-3 kilometres per day, and about 3-6 kilometres per night. Samuel announces that we have a signal. We listen to it beep in the quiet of the bush. “Number 9 and Number 16 are quite close by,” says Joseph. “They are both females. Let’s drive a bit further then start to walk.” There are 11 rhinos currently resident inside the sanctuary, five males and six females. Removed from the Nakuru National Park and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, the rhinos quickly established their territory, and one pregnant female gave birth in January, but then rejected her infant. One baby was removed to a nearby orphanage, and three are yet to be born. Of the sixteen rhinos that were brought here, three died shortly after being translocated, but the remainder are thriving.

Suddenly we hear the comical “num-num-num” of a chewing black rhino, like a monster from a Disney cartoon or Darth Vader having a picnic.

We set off into the scrub, across coppery, iron-ore-rich earth. For a while we don’t encounter anything apart from squawking guinea fowl riled by hawk eagles. Then Joseph whispers that they are very near. Suddenly we hear the comical “num-num-num” of a chewing black rhino, like a monster from a Disney cartoon or Darth Vader having a picnic. Joseph signals that the rhino is moving closer and installs us all behind a dead tree. “A tree, rock or termite mound is safe,” he says, softly, “because the rhino would never reach you here. They always charge straight, but they never go around, because they are very bad at turning as their necks are heavy and their heads too short.”

A black rhinoceros and baby in Lewa, Kenya

A black rhinoceros and baby in Lewa, Kenya

What is so fascinating is the way my guides combine these modern technologies with their own traditional methods. Every rhino’s microchip contains a signal, and each rhino sends a different signal. The signals are captured by an aerial that is handheld by the rangers, who can follow the signal and roughly determine where the rhinos are and how close they are, as the sound changes depending on proximity to the rhino. The rhinos’ signals are also transmitted via GPS to a digital map in the Lewa Conservancy, where their movements are followed. A very small battery powers the microchip and when that battery ceases to work – probably in about a year’s time – the signals will cease. Then the idea is to track the rhinos in the fully traditional way, without the help of telemetry and technology.

That traditional way ranges from following rhino tracks and rhino tic feeding oxpecker birds to the classic ‘ash-in-a-sock’ technique, which tells Joseph which way the wind is blowing and therefore from where the sound of the masticating beast is emanating. It also means that we can approach down wind of them, so as not to overwhelm them. Suddenly, the chewing rhino trots by slowly right in front of us. Joseph signals for us to keep still. I edge so close to his back that I am essentially stapled to him. “There she is,” he says. “She is pregnant and will give birth in two months.”

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“Are you scared?” he adds. No, I am not, because I instinctively and completely trust Joseph. But my senses are on fire. In fact, I feel emotional, humbled to be at ground level with these amazing prehistoric creatures. Tracking the rhino is not “just” a thrilling alternative to the traditional safari – it’s about the excitement of contributing first hand to a very innovative conservation project and to the return of the black rhino to Northern Kenya after 30 years’ absence. But God – it’s electrifying too.

The rangers are holding rocks in their hands – a good distraction during a charge, he says. The rhinos will follow where the sound is coming from – and then you can dive behind a bush. This prevention method seems scarily basic.

Birds flocking around a watering hole

Birds flocking around a watering hole

Finally, we edge away from the rhinos, and Joseph climbs onto a dead acacia tree, spotting another female in the distance. It’s too late to follow her though, the sun is dipping low and the gentle breeze of evening has arrived. “We need to go,” Joseph says. “It will be dark soon, and the rhino is disappearing into thicker bush.” I am disorientated, and distracted by the “go, go, go” call of the white-bellied ‘go-away bird’, but we arrive at the vehicle without much effort. Joseph points out a pile of rhino poo at my feet. It is filled with sticks cut through at a precise 45-degree angle, sliced neatly by the black rhino’s angled pre-molars. We drive back past the bobbing pom-pom nests of the black-capped social weaver as the sun flees behind the dark outline of the Mathews Range and the sky darkens. A giraffe appears out of nowhere like a phantom suspended on stilts in the headlamps.

A natural heart

Geographically, this is the heart of Kenya; to its residents, it is considered north – far away from Nairobi, largely forgotten. Sera is part of the Northern Rangelands Trust, which was established by conservationist Ian Craig in 2004 and acts as broker between the tourism industry and landowners and has a whopping total of 33 conservancies, powerful financial muscle and an army of efficient rangers. As with all the conservancies of the Northern Frontier created by the Northern Rangelands Trust, the aim for Sera is to regenerate overgrazed land and create sustainable alternatives for local communities while encouraging wildlife. And regenerating it is – we may be in the middle of nothingness, but it is pregnant with nature, replete with wildlife.

Northern Rangelands Trust rangers using their GPS tracking system

Northern Rangelands Trust rangers using their GPS tracking system

Saruni Rhino is twinned with the inspiring eyrie that is Saruni Samburu lodge. It looks over plunging bleached cliffs to the endless plains of Kalama a two-hour drive (or eight minute flight) away. This is a lodge offering a more traditional upscale safari option in the Kalama Conservancy and the nearby Samburu National Reserve. They are both the project of Riccardo Orizio, an Italian former foreign correspondent who relinquished the newsroom for the African plains. Over fresh pasta atop Saruni Samburu, he explains that Saruni Rhino provides the Sera Conservancy community with a significant income and “the first they’ve ever received from conservation, from safaris and from the protection of wildlife”. The technology, says Riccardo, is “lending an extra

commercial value to the Sera Conservancy community”, which acts as a major incentive to nurture and protect these black rhinos. Sera Conservancy is an ideal habitat for the black rhinos but has never had any significant tourism activity. It’s a win-win.

The Saruni Rhino lodge

The Saruni Rhino lodge

Back at Saruni Rhino’s quiet conference of bandas, lanterns light the paths and flares have been lit out on the riverbed. A starlit supper is served with the lodge manager Sammy Lemiruni, who tells me that because of the leaves that drop profusely from the trees here, it has always been considered by the Samburu an excellent place to bring goats. In the Samburu language, this spot is Seree Ee Parwa – “sandy place with palms”. It is also home to the Kisima Hamsini [sic], about 50 springs where the Samburu bring their livestock to water, and while they drink, and fill their water bottles, they sing to the animals to soothe them, conversing in unison with the clanging of the bells around the necks of their camels, donkeys, goats and cows. It is enough reason alone to come back.

One of Saruni Rhino's bandas

One of Saruni Rhino’s bandas

Ultimately, Saruni Rhino is about empowering the Samburu locals of the Sera Conservancy so that they can safeguard their land, their wildlife and their futures. As Riccardo said to me, technology is “important”, especially in the initial phase of the project, “but what really provides safety to the rhinos and a long-term future is the involvement of the community in the project and their strong sense of ownership. This is a unique project that puts Northern Kenya on the map of African conservation.”

I venture back alone to my impossibly romantic open-sided banda with its four-poster trussed with mosquito nets and curtains swishing in the night air, listening to the baboons own the night. Rocked to sleep by the wind in the doum palms, I wake to the dawn chorus. In the early morning, bathed in sun, I watch the river bank and the doves flying over zebras, oryx and a strutting ostrich. The red earth is decorated with collapsed palm fronds and the other side of the river is obscured by the shaggy green tops of acacia. I recall Ernest Hemingway’s musings: “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy.” I know how he felt.

Elephants passing through Saruni Rhino

A visitor to Saruni Rhino

Lydia Bell travelled as a guest of Natural World Safaris (www.naturalworldsafaris.com, 01273 691 642) who offer a 9-day Scenic Air Safaris Endangered Species Flying Safari from £7,440 per person based on a party of 10. Includes accommodation at 148 Nairobi, Spirit of the Masai Mara, Loisaba Tented Camp, Lewa Safari Camp and Elephant Watch Camp, and exclusive use of a Cessna Grand Caravan throughout, accompanying pilot-guide, professional silver level KPSGA guide and host for duration and endangered species specialists at each camp.

Extend your journey to incorporate a 5 day safari which includes tracking black rhino on foot from £2,720 per person sharing, including roundtrip flight from Wilson Airport, 2 nights at Saruni Samburu and 2 nights at Saruni Rhino with all meals, house drinks, conservation fees and activities included. (naturalworldasfaris.com 01273691642).

Contact Scenic Air Safaris  (www.scenicairsafaris.com/ 020 7978 4534)

Kenya airways (www.kenya-airways.com) flies from London to Nairobi from £458 per person For more information on, visit www.magicalkenya.com.

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