A few weeks ago, I wrote an article leading up to this year’s Great Grevy’s Rally (GGR): an innovative census of Kenya’s Grevy’s zebra population. Grevy’s are amongst the most endangered animals on the planet, and about 90% of their global wild population can be found in Kenya.
On the weekend of 28-29 January, over 700 people spread out across five counties took GPS-tagged photographs of every Grevy’s zebra (and reticulated giraffe) that they came across. These photos were then shared with the GGR organisers, who will use sophisticated stripe recognition software to determine their respective populations in Kenya. Baseline data from the 2016 GGR will also provide insights into Grevy’s migration patterns, and reveal whether the overall population is stable, growing or decreasing.
Attracted by the idea of becoming citizen scientists for a weekend, my girlfriend and I signed up and settled on the Loisaba Conservancy as our destination for the rally. The conservancy was recommended to us by GGR organisers, and I was keen to explore this northern corner of Laikipia.
Equipped with a very detailed four-page PDF of directions provided by Loisaba management, we set off on the 310 km journey from Nairobi. The conservancy is wedged between Suyian, Mugie and Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) West Conservancies. The 110 km stretch from Nanyuki to Loisaba takes you first along the road towards Rumuruti, before veering north past Ol Jogi and the Mpala Research Centre.
The 60 km or so beyond Mpala were a bit more tricky, having to rely on instructions like: ‘Cattle enclosure on the left with big hills behind it’. But we eventually made it to the conservancy headquarters, with some extra guidance from the Loisaba CEO, Tom Silvester, who spotted us in his Land Rover as we trundled aimlessly along the conservancy’s dusty tracks.
Loisaba is a 56,000 acre wildlife conservancy and working ranch. Its permanent rivers and springs attract an abundance of wildlife, and it sits on the western edge of one of the country’s most important elephant corridors. In December 2014, The Nature Conservancy facilitated the purchase of the property by the Loisaba Community Trust, who both aim to ensure that the conservancy remains a prime eco-tourism destination, catalyst for community development and hub for wildlife research.
There is a range of accommodation options in the conservancy, including the high-end Loisaba Tented Camp and Loisaba Star Beds – both within the Elewana Collection, and offering truly breath-taking views across the conservancy. Then there’s the more budget-friendly Acacia Campsite, located under a canopy of acacias by the Colcheccio Dam. Firewood and water for washing are provided, but campers otherwise have to be completely self-sufficient.
We opted to stay at the campsite for the rally, accompanied by our guides Benji and Chris. Having worked on Loisaba for five and three years respectively, these two rangers knew the conservancy inside out, and guided us to where we were likely to spot herds of Grevy’s zebra. Thanks to their local knowledge, we managed to spot around 80 Grevy’s, although many were repeat sightings.
The GGR organisers stressed that we only photograph the right side of each zebra and giraffe that we came across, which proved to be a challenge. The giraffes tended to either stare at us or walk directly away from us, and the zebras seemed determined to only present us with their left sides. The remedy for this usually involved a bit of off-roading, and some expert zebra herding by Chris on foot.
After a day and a half of scanning the horizon for black and white stripes, we obviously became a bit delirious. We spent a good 20 minutes in pursuit of a group of donkeys on the edge of the conservancy, fooled by their Grevy’s-esque white bellies.
As we explored the conservancy, I came to appreciate what attracted me most to Loisaba. The topography is so diverse: the Acacia Campsite sits within a gentle valley in the heart of the conservancy, and the grassy plains are vast and unbroken. In the east where the Star Beds are tucked high into a kopje, the landscape opens up to the wider Laikipia ecosystem. In the evenings, we admired this view from ‘Elephant Rock’ and ‘Super Hill’ with the other GGR team on the conservancy, from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.
There was plenty of wildlife, too. For the whole weekend, our camp was surrounded by a herd of elephants, and we were lucky enough to spot a leopard and an African wildcat on the way back from sundowners one evening. And, late on the second night, a couple of lions within a few hundred metres of camp gave us their guttural rendition of: ‘Who is the king of this land? I am… I am… I am.’
Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation