COVID-19 was tough luck for those planning once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list trips.
But the pandemic was perfect for pachyderms — as well as other safari animals. In Kenya, the lockdown, lack of tourism and reduced poaching led to — a lot — of sex on the savannah.
Back in May, the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife and the Kenya Wildlife Service launched Kenya’s first-ever National Wildlife Census.
The two-month exercise, which set a baseline for future counts, was carried out by the newly created Wildlife Research & Training Institute.
“The information generated during the census will support the implementation of Government of Kenya conservation and tourism policies and support tools for adaptive management,” said Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife, the Hon. Najib Balala.
The most exciting thing to come from the census was the elephant “baby boom”; more than 200 elephants were born during 2020 Wildlife Research & Training Institute or, as Balala calls them, “COVID gifts.”
After a grueling journey to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, from New York — it took about a day to get there via Doha with Qatar Airways — all shreds of exhaustion disappeared as I found myself feeding Betty, a pregnant giraffe, snacks of cereal just hours after landing.
Giraffes are pregnant for anywhere between 15 to 20 months and James, our knowledgeable guide at Giraffe Manor, told me that there have been around five babies born during lockdown. Thanks to “no one bothering” the giraffes, they’re been free to procreate.
There is just one male at the center among the tower of Giraffes, Mr. Eddie, who is indeed “very popular, busy and famous.”
Tourists flock to Kenya to see the Big Five — lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and cape buffalo.
And key species are thriving: The national elephant population has increased 12% to 36,169, partly thanks to national efforts to curb elephant poaching.
Giraffe populations (Kenya is home to three giraffe species) saw growth to 34,240 animals, representing about a 49% increase in three years. Efforts to increase penalties on crimes related to threatened species appear to be bearing fruits.
The rare sitatunga, a swamp-dwelling antelope, is now known to have a population of 473, with most populations occurring in unprotected wetlands, showing the need for community conservancies and county reserves in these areas.
We stayed in Karen, a beautiful suburb named after the Danish author Karen Blixen who made her home in Nairobi and whose book was famously turned into a movie, “Out of Africa.” And yes, by the end of the first day I had already driven everyone mad with my Meryl Streep impression.
After a night at the House of Waine, a boutique hotel, we were up early for a flight on a tiny “puddle jumper” plane to Laikipia, which is making its way up the ranks as one of Kenya’s prime ecotourist hotspots.
This insanely beautiful corner of Kenya stretches from the foothills of Mount Kenya to the edge of the Great Rift Valley. Laikipia is made up of 12 conservancies, or private wildlife reserves, and a variety of ranches.
Here you will find the second largest population of elephants in Kenya and over half of Kenya’s black rhino population.
It’s worth bumping along barely forged roads for a couple of hours to be met with zebras and antelopes running free beside you as you arrive at El Karama, an off-the-grid destination that’s not your average safari lodge.
As a young Cambridge University graduate, Brit Sophie Grant came to Kenya as a volunteer for the Good Earth Trust in 2006 and after falling in love with Kenyan wildlife sculptor Murray Grant, she moved to the country full-time.
The couple has poured their passion for conservation into El Karama and live there with their two children.
The food is organic — Sophie will happily show you her garden — and delicious. They’ve created an eco-resort where you can watch the sun go down with a “sundowner” cocktail, go on a nighttime safari drive in a jeep bundled up in blankets, and where you can camp outside after having dinner out under the stars. Their lodges are intimate and you’re sent to bed with Kenyan sweet tea and a hot water bottle, enough to send even the most jet-lagged of travelers to sleep.
There’s even a bush school, where your little ones can learn all there is to know about tracking animals through their poop and the incredible landscape outside.
Back on another puddle jumper from Nanyuki Airport, we sailed through the skies to the Maasai Mara, a wildlife sanctuary that stretches over 583 square miles.
From the back of our jeep, we saw lionesses sprawled out in the sunshine, heard a pair of majestic lion brothers calling to each other in the dark and silently watched in awe as a mother cheetah looked on as her baby cubs frolicked around her.
It’s in the months of late July to October that the drama-filled Great Migration takes place — the world’s largest migration of wildlife. Over two million animals, including wildebeest, zebra, eland and Thomson’s gazelle, make the migration from Serengeti National Park to the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
But go at any time and this will be an adventure you won’t forget.
I was lucky enough to stay at Mara Nyika, a new tented camp from the Great Plains Conservation group. Mara Nyika, meaning “Large Plains” or “Great Plains.”
It’s set within the 50,000-acre, private, game-rich Mara Naboisho Conservancy that borders the Maasai Mara.
Inside the tents, the interior design pays homage to Kenya’s history. Stunning glasses made locally sit by your bed, mirrors replicate traditional dhows — the boats that sail the Indian Ocean — and beaded coasters are reminiscent of the beaded jewelry that adorn the Maasai people.
While taking a bath in the gilded soaking tub, you can relax with only the passing zebras for company.
While luxurious, each guest’s stay supports over 500 Maasai families and helps to ensure the conservation of the Maasai Mara ecosystem.
It’s important to note that while the pandemic has helped the wildlife, some species still face local extinction: Numbers of roan and sable antelope and mountain bongo are down to less than 100, and the government knows it needs predator-free sanctuaries and intensive management, as seen at Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy, where the population of the hirola antelope soared to 497 animals in 2021.
But the continued pressure of human activities on wildlife and habitats is still very much evident, with poachers armed with machine guns.
County governments hope to develop wildlife coexistence programs and use technology to count the wildlife.
For our final destination, we headed to Lamu, far away from the bush — and to where many Europeans actually fled to during the pandemic.
The Lamu archipelago is made up of over 65 islands in the Indian Ocean. Lamu Island was once the epicenter of trade, attracting Persians, Arabs, Indians and Europeans. It’s a true adventure as you and your luggage are whisked by boat to your hotel — we found ourselves being dunked by the waves at full speed amid driving rain.
Lamu Old Town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, and as you wind your way through the narrow, whitewashed streets, noting the intricately carved doors, you’ll see talented artisans whittling on wood as school children play outside. Donkeys are used as transport — and to transport goods, while motorbikes will dash past you after only recently being allowed.
We stayed on Manda Island at the Majlis resort. Just a five-minute boat ride away you can clamber off the beach at Shela — a bohemian retreat that has become hugely popular with ex-pats and A-listers like Sting, Naomi Campbell, and Mick Jagger, who stay at the famous Peponi hotel.
To escape the stresses and strain of New York, there can’t be any better place than Kenya — and I still dream of sundowners.