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Rejuvenated, uncrowded and peaceful wilderness

By | January 13th 2011

By Harold Ayodo

Harold Adoyo took a fly-in safari for a birds eye view of the expansive Meru Conservancy where he witnessed a rebirth of the park.

We boarded a light plane to fly over the expansive Meru National Park on a fine Saturday morning. Our intention for the aerial view was to sample the conservation area that was once a no-go zone due to rampant bandit attacks.

The expansive Meru conservation area borders Ntonyiri, Igembe, Mwingi, Tharaka, Garbatula in Eastern province and Tana River in Coast. However, miraa (khat) plantations occasionally limited our view of the park before the pilot explained that it was the main economic activity in Meru.

For starters, the resurgent park was once a national showpiece of wilderness with excellent panoramic views of Nyambene Hills and Mount Kenya. The famous release of lioness Elsa (of Born Free movie) attracted a large number of tourists until the 1980s when bandits struck.

Increased poaching and insecurity dimmed the star of the conservation area as poachers targeted elephants and rhinos for tusks and horns. The attacks from the north not only affected the two flagship species but several other game whose population were reduced to near extinction.

Interestingly, the poachers left nothing on their trail, they stole livestock, killed people and collapsed the infrastructure.

We flew over herds of elephants, lions, leopards, cheetahs, bohor reedbucks, white and black rhinos, grevy and burchells zebras and impalas among others. Our aerial excursion included Kambi Ya Simba (Lions Camp) where George Adamson — the grandfather of lions was laid to rest 21 years ago.

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For starters, Adamson was a seasoned conservationist who adopted orphaned cubs, raised them into adult lions before releasing them back to the wild. Unfortunately, he succumbed to bullets of bandits on August 20, 1989 at then Kora Reserve within Meru Conservation Area.

To the king of the wilderness, Adamson left them orphaned even as recent research figures show an increasing number of lions in the park.


Earlier, lions were threatened with extinction at the expansive eastern conservation area following increased poaching and banditry attacks. Today, the roar of lions is arguably as a result of conservation efforts of the late Adamson nicknamed Baba ya Simba (father of lions).

Furthermore, most of the cubs in the conservation area today are fondly referred to as the great grandchildren of the late Adamson.

Lions at the Meru Park. Their increase is due to conservation efforts of George Adamson. [PHOTOS: EVANS HABIL/STANDARD]

Most foreign tourists to the conservation area want to see the lions following how books and movies immortalise Adamson and his wife Joy. For instance, Born Free, a best seller, is based on the true story of Elsa, an orphaned lioness the Adamsons raised and later released in the wild.

Back to the lions, seasoned tour operators say their clients book exclusive vans to see the lions. They are unaware that most of them would not be around had Adamson not adopted their great grandparents as cubs and released them into the wild as adults. The lions move in packs before they pick on their prey — mainly adult buffaloes — and pounce on them with gusto.

Players in the tourism sub sector concur that the resurgence of the park is attracting visitors to the area.

Take the case of Johnstone Kirimi who has been a tour operator in the area for nearly a decade.

"The numbers of tourists keen on seeing the lions kept increasing ahead of the commemoration of the 21st anniversary of Adamson," Kirimi says.

The tour operator says tourists spend hours either clicking their cameras away or video shooting the prides once spotted.

"Meru conservation area is home to the big five but most guests seem enthralled by the lions following their rich and moving history," Kirimi says.

According to Kirimi, the tour of most foreign tourists almost comes to the end after viewing the lions.

"Majority of tourists from the West and Far East wind up after seeing the ‘grandchildren’ of Adamson they read in books or watched in movies," Kirimi says.

Currently, the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust (GAWPT) and KWS are in the process of rehabilitating the Kora George Adamsons Camp.

Wildlife researchers are unanimous that the descendants of adopted lions like Elsa roam the park today. According to wildlife researchers, the increased number of black and white rhinos is another indicator of a rejuvenated park.

KWS Assistant Director, Eastern Conservation area Jonathan Kirui says regular aerial surveillance monitors the rhinos.

"We have four aerial surveillance a week including, other security measures that we cannot make public," Kirui says.

Influx of animals

KWS researcher Geoffrey Bundotich says the current population of rhinos at 63 (mostly male) depicts a massive reduction in poaching.

"All black and white rhinos were swept away at the height of poaching and banditry in the 1980s," Bundotich says.

Today, Meru conservation area is among the parks with the highest population of rhinos countrywide following increased security and availability of pasture. According to Bundotich, rejuvenation of rhinos in the park started in 1989 when seven white rhinos were translocated from Solio ranch and Lewa conservancy.

Twenty-two rhinos (19 white and three black) were born last year. No diseases and injuries were reported over the same time.

Bundotich says the white rhinos are faster in reproducing calves following their gestation period of one year compared to two years of their black counterparts.

"Our observation shows more female black rhinos are expectant following successful mating…we are yet to conduct a study on their exact number," he says.

Meru conservation area acting senior park warden and Kora National Park warden Mark Cheruiyot says the sanctuary will be expanded to contain the influx of rhinos.

"The sanctuary will be increased from 48 to 74 square kilometres to cater for the increasing population before releasing them into the wild," Cheruiyot says.

"We will soon introduce a modern rhino monitoring database system towards improving surveillance," Kirui says.

Furthermore, accommodation facilities in the conservation area continue recording high bookings — an indication of increased visitors. For instance, The Elsa’s Skoje, Rhino River Camp, Offbeat Camp and the Leopard Rock Lodge are ever fully booked.

Offbeat Camp director Piers Winkworth says over 90 per cent of their tourists are from abroad.

"Majority of our guests have flown in from Nairobi while others do the five hour road drives from Nanyuki and Laikipia," Winkworth says.

"Accommodation is a slight challenge but KWS has leased land to about 12 private developers to erect eco lodges towards meeting future demand," Kirui says.

According to Kirui, the increasing numbers of visitors to Meru conservation area is testimony that game viewing is returning from where it started.





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