Wednesday, January 16

Rhino Heaven in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

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My day began with an outdoor shower by moonlight, and only got better after the sun rose to shine on a single, lone rhino, or Kifaru in Swahili. Then I noticed a ranger sitting next to the rhino. He was there to protect this mature calf, whose mother is blind.

“What Joy Adamson was to lions, Dian Fossey was to gorillas, and Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees, Anna Merz is to rhinos,” wrote Desmond Morris, the zoologist and author, in his foreword to her 1991 book Rhino At the Brink of Extinction. Tourists on safari were inspired to meet Merz, followed around by a grown orphan named Samia. When Anna Merz died at the age of 81 in 2013, she left no family survivors, but 70 Black rhino, one born on the day she died.

Despite their informal names, all rhino tend to be grey. Their monikers derived from their lips. With no front teeth, they rely on the shape of their lips to pluck food.

Black rhino, with a pointed lip, are browsers, eating leaves and fruit. The white moniker is from an Afrikaans or Dutch word for “wide” which refers to a broad, flat lip adapted to graze. There are other differences; for example, white rhino are larger. But the greatest impression is that you are in the presence of a creature that has existed on this earth for 40 million years. Once widespread throughout much of Africa and Asia, they become more precious every day.

I’m a little envious of the Lewa ranger’s job, outside all day, birds all around in one of the most beautiful places on earth, with rare Grevy’s zebra. Then I note his radio, and wonder if he’s armed.

Rhinoceros (which means “nose horn”) have been hunted for centuries, their horns used to make dagger handles in the Middle East, and ground into powder sold as an “aphrodisiac” or fever cures in Asia. The recent slaughter escalated when a rumor began in Vietnam in 2008 that rhino horn had cured a VIP of cancer. The price shot up, rhino killings soared, and greed prevailed. In Paris, a rhino was killed at a zoo. More rhino than ever were poached last year in Kenya, eleven were lost when transferred from Nairobi National Park to Tsavo where the water supply was fatal.

At Lewa, water trickles down from melting snows and glaciers on Mt. Kenya, to emerge in underground springs. It’s fascinating to learn Mt. Kenya was once taller than Kilimanjaro, until she blew her top, the kind of superb knowledge imparted by my guide and driver, who managed to get me close to a herd of elephant so far on the horizon it took binoculars to find them. Guides at Kifaru House are from local communities and certified by the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association. Along with birds, botany and paleontology, they know individual rhino, cheetah and lion families.

During my game drives, we encountered not one other vehicle. This doesn’t mean Lewa is not popular; it is a favored retreat for Prince William, who spent a year here before going to university, and returned to propose to Kate Middleton at nearby Rutundu cabin on Mt. Kenya. Lewa was also the setting for Anthony Bourdain’s last Parts Unknown episode for CNN, when he saw what makes Lewa’s conservation model successful. The CNN crew visited the adjoining community of Il Ngwesi to learn about their relationship with wildlife, and discussed how this has shifted for the better in the last few decades.

I chose the edge of the rainy season in April, and was blessed by a rain overnight that left spectacular prisms on every blade of grass. Clouds cleared just in time for my moonlit shower, and because of the organic reed thatched roof over my bedroom, I had not heard the rain. But when I stepped outside, the landscape sparkled with tiny rainbows.

Kifaru House, like all lodges and camps represented by Elewana, (meaning Harmony in Swahili) strives to use sustainable practices. The lodge got a head start thanks to another woman who championed conservation, Susan Lyall, an American who designed Kifaru House. Powered by sun and wind, the 5 bedrooms and great sitting room feature fireplace mantels built from wrecked dhows. The swimming pool uses salt water and no chemicals.

Profits and conservancy fees generated by Kifaru House are invested into conservation efforts, which include education and health benefits to local communities, as well as training a security team that is unparalleled. Guests can meet the tracker dog team that provides anti-poaching support. The long ears of bloodhounds help scoop scents up to their sensitive noses. You (or your grandkids) can help the hounds practice by playing hide and seek after providing a sample scent from your footprint. A bloodhound’s sense of smell is 40 times greater than ours; so be prepared to be found and licked.

Lewa Conservancy near Mt. Kenya is famous for their rhino conservation. It all began with Anna Merz, who moved to Kenya to retire, but became a champion for black rhino. Merz persuaded David and Delia Craig to set aside 5,000 acres as a rhino reserve. Starting in 1984 with 15 black rhino, the population has grown to such an extent that successful relocations expand their range. In 2013, 11 Black rhino were moved to contiguous Borana Conservancy, and in 2014, 10 rhino were moved to Sera, a community conservancy supported by the Northern Rangelands Trust. Then the fence between Lewa and Borana was removed, creating a 93,000-acre range, one of the biggest private rhino reserves in Kenya. By 2017, the landscape had a combined Black rhino population of 83 as well as 74 White rhinos, which constitute 14% of Kenya’s rhino.

Airkenya flies twice daily to Lewa from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport, plus you can connect directly from Lewa to the Maasai Mara on Airkenya without having to return to Nairobi. www.airkenya.com

For more detail on Kifaru House and the rest of the Elewana Collection please visit www. elewanacollection.com

A member of The Explorers Club, Delta Willis profiled the Leakey Family for her book, The Hominid Gang, Behind the Scenes in the Search for Human Origins

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