The male elephants were in must, which meant they were randy, aggressive and unpredictable.Don’t move, whispered Bernard, my guide, as a giant bull approached our Land Cruiser and peered down its enormous tusks at me. Move? I was frozen solid. Never had I witnessed such dangerous beauty, so close up.
After Sudan the rhino the air safari seeking to save Kenya's other endangered species
I was still buzzing by the time we arrived at Save the Elephants, a UK-registered charity that operates out of a ramshackle research centre in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. Here, I was brought down to earth by some sobering exhibits at the on-site museum.
“We often see this, said Frank Pope, the charity’s chief executive officer, pointing to bullet holes in an elephant’s skull.If you ran this through a metal detector, you’d find it was full of lead.
It’s a familiar story in Africa, where the population of savannah elephants has crashed from an estimated 1.3 million in 1969 to just 415,000 today. Statistics to you and me, mutilated bodies to the team at Save the Elephants, who have documented the slaughter.
That was the bad news; the good news?
We anticipate the poaching crisis will end, said Frank, citing China’s recent ivory ban – which Save the Elephants lobbied for – as a reason to be optimistic.They’ve gone from being the biggest problem to one of the loudest voices against the ivory trade.
I was visiting Save the Elephants as part of a new endangered species safari in Kenya, devised by Torben Rune, the conservation-minded MD of Scenic Air Safaris. That such a package exists is a damning indictment of our stewardship of our environment, and this week's death of Sudan, the world's last male northern white rhino, in Kenya is a reminder of how much we have already lost - but it is hoped the experience will raise awareness among the privileged and influential about the parlous state of Africa’s wildlife.
The USP is access – to remote locations, vulnerable wildlife and pioneering conservationists – and though the subject matter can be challenging, the safari offers fascinating insights alongside unashamed luxury. Travel to national parks and wildlife conservancies is by private plane, and accommodation is at high-end lodges, where lavish boudoirs, fine cuisine and infinity pools await.
Our safari began in Nairobi, Kenya’s traffic-choked capital. From there we flew over the Great Rift Valley and into the Masai Mara National Reserve, low enough to see hippos splashing around in the Mara River below.
Murtaza, the captain, banked the Cessna for better views of the muddy waterway, which, during the annual wildebeest migration, is the scene of extensive carnage. It’s a good time to be a crocodile.
“Elephant at 11 o’clock, Murtaza announced, before reeling off a who’s who of safari animals – giraffe, wildebeest, buffalo, zebra – all of which we could see from the plane. I didn’t know where to look.
Big cats were the focus in the Masai Mara, where I watched sodden cheetahs sit out a storm, lion cubs learn to hunt and a leopard groom herself by a stream, her eyes fixing on mine for one magnificent moment.
The thing about going on safari with conservationists is that they know where to look. Cue Dr Elena Chelysheva, a fast-talking cheetah expert from Russia, and David Mascall, a beer-swilling big cat specialist from Kenya, who, with the help of our Masai guide, Dominic, located five cheetahs and 31 lions in two days.
David told me he’d been attacked by a lion once –longest 22 seconds of my life– but devoted himself to protecting the big cats, which, like leopards, are persecuted by Masai herdsmen for preying on their cattle; when we met, he was trialling a light system to scare cats from cattle enclosures.We’ve seen a huge reduction in retaliatory killings, he said.
The Masai Mara is one of the best places in Africa to see cheetahs, but, warned Dr Chelysheva, their numbers have halved across the continent since the 1970s, due to habitat loss. She told me she hopes her research will identify land practices that benefit both man and cheetah – pertinent work, given Kenya’s human population is set to double by 2050.
We saw all of the Big Five in Kenya’s flagship reserve, though one species that’s definitely not endangered is man; tourists abound. Not so in Siana Conservancy. Located on the fringes of the government-run reserve, this 35,000-acre former cattle ranch is one of many privately managed conservancies in Kenya, which typically lease land from communities to set aside for wildlife.