Lewa Wildlife Conservancy : Reviving Africa’s Rhinos

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Black Rhino is a majestic beast

Published first in Deccan Herald  (Jun 2016) 


We had barely brushed the dust off our 45-minutes flight from Nairobi, when we spotted the wallowed-in-the-mud white rhino. A few twist in the dirt road later, our open-sided Land Cruiser came head-on with a herd of galloping zebras. A little further up on the savannah, an elephant family grazed languidly by the flattop acacias. Not far from them, we eyeballed a cud-chewing male cape buffalo. And just a stone’s throw from our camp, we surprised a pride of resting lions. In this 20-minute, airstrip to camp drive by, we had ticked off almost all the African Big Five and many other animals besides.

Animal safaris have often been called voyeuristic affairs. But on the first day in the bush, you expect the thrill of a peek-a-boo not a full monty. With such easy viewing ennui can set in.

To add to that, the lions were all radio collared. Making them look protected and somewhat domestic.

It reminded me of my venerable old guide at Kaziranga National Park, who after a frustrating day of tiger chasing, exclaimed, ‘in Kaziranga there are real wild tigers. Unlike the tame ones in Ranthambore and Bandhavgarh, that any fly-by- night tourist can spot’.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

The lions here are everywhere

But we were in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in central Kenya, a place synonymous with conservation. In colonial Kenya, it was a cattle ranch owned by the Craig family who in 1983 turned the 500 square kilometers property into a conservancy. This was all in an effort to stem the tide of rhino poaching, which had threatened to completely wipe out rhinos from Africa. Little over 30 years, Lewa Conservancy has expanded many folds and has been at the vanguard of providing a safe haven for its rhinos. (Although in 2014 the record was broken when six rhinos were poached.)

Today Lewa has over 75 black rhinos and over 65 white rhinos. The rhinos are not only easily spotted here but are less skittish than rhinos elsewhere in Africa. In Ngorongoro, several years ago, a rhino remained a small fidgety dot on the horizon, which assumed any shape only though my zoom lens. Rhinos have a hopelessly bad eye-sight and as the guide told us, from that distance the rhino probably mistook our jeep for another rhino.

In our evening safari in Lewa, a rhino came so close to our jeep, that to fit him into the frame, I had to switch to a wide angle lens. Led by its enormous horn, the prehistoric beast serenely pushed through the dry and long savanna grass, aware but unmindful of our presence. Over our heartbeats, we heard the crunch of its feet over dry twigs and leaves.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Eland, the largest antelope keep their distance

The rhino was massive but the Indian rhino is bigger and looks more ancient with its armor-plated skin. But both the species evolved almost 50 millions years ago. To be exact more than 48 millions years before humans came into being.

Biologists say, in the evolutionary scheme of things, animals develop traits to counterbalance the traits of other animals in order to survive and maintain that essential ecological balance.

Sadly no species has been able to evolve fast enough to counter man’s rapid evolution from an insignificant cave dweller about eleven thousand years ago to a lethal gun wielding marauder today.

Least of all the rhinos. The demand its horn has spurred a legion of poachers, pushing their numbers to the brink.

In Lewa, the rhinos are well looked after, in the happy marriage of private enterprise and community involvement. Whether it’s India or Africa, the engagement of locals is intrinsic to combat poaching. In Lewa the local community has a stake in keeping the rhinos safe. Their school, their hospitals, their water management programs are regularly funded by the revenue generated by the Conservancy. For its work Lewa was declared an UNESCO world heritage site.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

In the Savannah, there is no place for the reticulated giraffe to hide.

The savannas in Lewa are rolling. No matter where we drove there were hills that ran like walls all around and hid animals in their folds. But there was no cover for the reticulated giraffes anywhere. We saw a towering neck of one rising up from behind a small escarpment. There were a lot of dry twisted acacia trees. It was the handiwork of the elephants, our guide told us. Man is after all not the only special responsible for deforestation. There were many acacia swathes in Lewa where elaborate electric fencing was built two meters or so from the ground. This was to prevent elephants from getting in, while allowing passage to other grazers.

We saw two of the largest grazers from the antelope family. The arid specialist, the oryx and the eland; the world’s largest antelope. Camouflaged in the undergrowth we also spotted one of the smallest antelope dik-dik. The Ostrich family showed up with their clutch of nervous chicks that ran helter-skelter between their mother’s stilt-like legs.

Getting a surfeit of Africa’s glamour animals right at the start has its pluses after all. You finally take notice of the other delightful animals in the savanna grass.

How to Get here.

There are regular Kenya Airways flights from Mumbai to Nairobi. From Nairobi one can either drive the 270 kilometers distance to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy or take the 45-minute flight via the small Safarilink aircraft.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

These are the smallest antelope and funnily called dik-dik. Yes they are really small.


 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Another species responsible for deforestation is the elephant.


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