The miracle of Laikipia

21:33, Aug 21 2012
Males of the rare grevy’s zebra species spar for the opportunity to mate.
Elephants live in tightly bonded groups of related females and their offspring, each moving within larger, extended social communities of families all known to each other.
Samburu girls in beaded regalia.
Laikipia has half of the remaining population of black rhino.
Leopards, which are solitary, are Laikipia’s most numerous big cats, with an average of 12 for every 100 square kilometres.

Hardly any elephants existed on the Kenyan highlands plateau of  Laikipia 40-odd years ago. Now an estimated 7500 liv there in an amazing wildlife conservation success.

An elephant can destroy an entire crop in a few minutes,  so it’s not as if all farmers were immediately overjoyed about the rescue project for the world’s biggest populations of endangered mammal species. However, widespread compliance by  landowners and communal farmers, led by the Laikipia Wildlife Forum’s co-existence approach, has continued to secure a vast landscape for them.

Northern unrest and poaching had a gradual influence on elephants – notable not just for their size but also intelligence – adopting the high country as their haven. Protected by round-the-clock patrols in Laikipia, elephants offend by stripping tree cover in their browsing, and the bulls topple trees.

Northern unrest and poaching  had a gradual influence on elephants – notable not just for their size but also intelligence –  adopting the high country as their haven. Protected by round-the-clock patrols in Laikipia, elephants  don’t  endear themselves  to everybody on the land. They strip tree cover in their browsing, and the bulls topple trees.

But elephants are also something that visitors especially want to see in natural habitat, and they help to put millions of dollars into Laikipia’s thriving eco-tourism industry.

As a premier safari destination, Laikipia operates  outside the jurisdiction of national parks. Its nighttime    game drives, guided nature walks, bike tours, horse riding, and camel treks are largely free of the constraints that apply elsewhere in national parks and reserves.

Celebrating the spirit of Laikipia – in its wildlife and people – the LWF commissioned a coffee-table book, Kenya’s High Country, featuring photographs by New Zealand-based Tui De Roy and Mark Jones. Renowned internationally for their natural-history photography, the duo’s superb Laikipia portrayals, including birds and flowers, showcase a healthy template for sustainable conservation elsewhere.

Laikipia’s wildlife numbers are now 15 per cent higher than a few decades ago, in contrast to a 55 per cent national decline, with population densities second only to the famed Maasai Mara Ecosystem.

Under guard in Laikipia are half of Kenya’s threatened black rhino population of 595. It took 1.5 million years for this animal to evolve but only 40 years for poachers to reduce the world population from 60,000 to fewer than 4000 today.

Lions live alongside boran cattle, and mixed herds of zebra, impala, and gazelle graze with livestock. Also present are reticulated giraffe (2000 in Laikipia out of 3000 in Kenya), countless leopards (the region’s most numerous big cat) and hyenas, growing numbers of cheetahs, and several hundred wild dogs.

Extending from the foothills of Mt Kenya to the Great Rift Valley, the region also supports the only remaining viable population of jackson’s hartebeest and large herds of buffalo.

Water is a key to survival for the wild animals roaming free on the large commercial ranches. They take advantage of the dams and bore-holes put in for cattle, with a fenced corridor on the southern Laikipia boundary allowing animals to migrate from Mt Kenya through the wide open spaces of central Laikipia and into Samburu and the north.

If ranches sometimes take a pounding from the bigger wildlife, they are more able to absorb the cost than the smallholders whom the LWF and Kenyan Wildlife Service are dedicated to assist.

More than 80 mammal and 450 bird species live in Laikipia’s 10,000 square kilometres of semi-arid grassland and bush savannah, but even bigger assets are its people and cultures. Treats await visitors with privileged access to the region’s Mukogoa Maasai, Samburu, Pokot and other peoples.

De Roy and Jones from the outset realised their challenge was ‘‘far bigger and more subtle than the whisker-perfect big-animal photo albums emerging from numerous African safaris, from the Serengeti to Okavango’’.

They never resorted to digital trickery, and for each picture that satisfied them there were thousands of rejects. Their strategies included complex camera-traps with subtle flash lighting set-ups to ambush elusive nocturnal species and remotely-triggered hidden cameras for candid close-ups.

‘‘As it turned out, our Laikipia experience spanned a couple of years of exceptionally high rainfall, on the heels of a severe 14-month drought,’’ say De Roy and Jones at the back of the book.

‘‘This came as both a blessing and a curse. While the land and the wildlife rebounded in front of our eyes beneath the sort of dramatic cloudbursts only Africa can generate, we seemed to alternate between slithering in ‘black-cotton’ mud the consistency of axle grease, and travelling in our own portable dust cloud wherever the rains had taken a detour.’’

De Roy and Jones, who live in Golden Bay, were in the Galapagos Islands for many years before moving to New Zealand in 1993, the Laikipia project being their first working stint in East Africa. Books by include studies of the world’s 22 albatross species, Galapagos, New Zealand, Antarctica, and the Andes. Their next will be a study of all penguin species.


KICK START: Giraffe males duel for dominance and mating rights. One ploy is to destabilise an opponent by hooking head under an opponent’s leg and lifting it off the ground.
MAN OR MOUTH: Male hippo displays razor-sharp tusks that he uses in aggressive gestures and as tools for ripping and processing tough grasses.
EYES ON THE PRIZE: Lion roam and hunt freely on Laikipia's open savannah.
Kenya's High Country, Bateman, 160pp, $69.

The Dominion Post