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Extinction reverse


Mention the word ‘extinction’ and most people will cite the dodo. Once common on the island of Mauritius, this large, flightless bird made a fatal error of judgement: having lived alongside men for centuries it assumed that its fellow bipeds were harmless. And until 1598 it was right. But then along came the Dutch East India Company whose sailors, finding that the peaceably inclined dodo made no attempt to run away from them, hunted it to extinction in just 64 years.

The West African black rhino made a similar error. Having existed for 8 million years, by the 1900s there were 850,000 of its kind in existence, which made it the most prolific species of rhino on the planet. Between 1970 and 1992, however, 95% of them were massacred until, by 2006, it was thought that there was only one West African black rhino left in the cosmos… somewhere in Cameroon. However, since nobody could find it, in 2011 it was declared extinct.

As for the northern white rhino, until last month, it was feared that it too would walk the extinction plank; but fate intervened in the shape of a group of determined scientists on a Kenyan conservancy called Ol Pejeta. It was here, in the shadow of Mount Kenya, that the planet’s last three northern white rhinos lived out a gilded existence in their own private wilderness enclosure: guarded day and night by gun-toting rangers; cossetted by their keepers; indulged with pony pellets; and visited by carefully regulated groups of awestruck tourists. The trio had originally been reared in the Czech Republic’s Dvůr Králové Zoo but in 2009, Sudan, his daughter, Natu, and his granddaughter, Fatu were relocated to Ol Pejeta in the hope that the more conducive surroundings would encourage them to breed. It was not to be: Sudan was too old and neither of the ladies could become pregnant. Then, in 2018, Sudan died; and the threat of extinction went into overdrive. Until it was reversed.

As luck would have it, before Sudan’s death, a dedicated group of scientists had harvested his semen and in August 2019, a team of veterinarians successfully harvested eggs from Natu and Fatu, a procedure that had never been attempted in northern white rhinos before. The eggs will now be artificially inseminated with the frozen sperm from Sudan, and in the near future the embryo will be transferred to a southern white rhino surrogate mother. The successful procedure was a joint effort by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) Berlin, Avantea, Dvůr Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

“Both the technique and the equipment had to be developed entirely from scratch”, said Prof. Thomas Hildebrandt from Leibniz-IZW. “We were able to harvest a total of 10 oocytes – 5 from Najin and 5 from Fatu – showing that both females can still provide eggs and thus help to save these magnificent creatures.”

Kenya: one. Extinction: nil. To learn more about this extraordinary initiative, visit: www.olpejetaconservancy.org

Warrior Boy


In this issue we meet Virginia Clay, the author of the best-selling book, Warrior Boy, which is enthralling young readers all over the world. An adventure story, it follows the encounters of a young Maasai boy on his voyage of discovery, which leads him from London to the land of his birth.

I was an unexceptional child. Like most others, I enjoyed disappearing into the limitless world of my imagination. I don’t know if I ever expected to grow out of this habit, but I think what makes me different now, is that I haven’t. As a youngster I read prolifically, forced indoors by the persistent Lake District rain, and each story I consumed would inspire me to put myself in another person’s shoes. It’s probably the reason I became an actor initially, but I distinctly remember – at the age of twelve – reading about the Maasai and thinking how phenomenal it was that they could survive, even thrive, on blood and milk alone. I wondered if I could do that too and, although I knew nothing of it at the time, that’s when the WARRIOR BOY seed was sown.

When I was fifteen, one of my elder brothers took a teaching post in Kenya. Occasionally he would send letters home, filled with thrilling adventures and encounters with exotic wildlife. When I finally gave in to my curiosity and joined him as a teacher in 2009, I was immediately captivated by the beauty of the Maasai Mara – the landscape, the wildlife and the glorious people I had been so interested in as a child – but I never considered writing a book about it until a new student from London joined my English class.

Matthew’s family were Kenyan but he had never visited the country himself. As his peers made jokes about his strangeness, I began to wonder how he would cope. What would happen to him if he just couldn’t fit in, would his family reject him? Send him home? A story began to emerge and I knew I had to pay attention.

WARRIOR BOY is an adventure story that follows its hero Ben, a boy from London, as he meets his Maasai family in Kenya for the first time. Ben’s journey unfolds and he begins to question his place in this new community, including his responsibilities to care for an environment he wasn’t born into. But eventually, he discovers more about himself than he ever could have imagined possible, including extreme bravery as he challenges the endemic problem of elephant poaching.

But how do we carry this burden of conservation, whilst attempting to discover our own place in the world? This seems to be one of the weightier questions preoccupying our young people today. And whilst it has become a burden for them – the issues are so much more complex than they were when I was young – I feel passionately that we need to find strategies to help them carry it. I hope you will agree that WARRIOR BOY goes some way to achieving this. But it is also my heartfelt wish that, as the story takes you from inner city London to the vast plains of Kenya, you might be able to lose yourself in the adventure of it, and perhaps fall in love with this wonderful country as I did.

You can find out more about the author at www.virginiaclay.co.uk
WARRIOR BOY is published by Chicken House Books and is available at all good book shops and on www.amazon.co.uk

A tale of three elephants


Like all the best stories, this is a tale of the triumph of good over evil. The evil lies in man’s desire to harm animals for the sake of money. The good manifests in the lengths to which ordinary people will go to save their fellow creatures. It’s a tale of courage and trust. And a reminder as to the power of chance. It’s also a celebration of Kenya’s own journey towards the establishment of a world-leading brand of sustainable community conservation.

The story begins in the arid north of Kenya, a land of drought, rust-red dust, searing heat and one of the least visited mountain ranges on the planet – the mighty Matthews Range. Until recently, when a team of international scientists ventured into the Matthews Range and uncovered more than 100 species of plants and animals that had never been recorded before, including tiny rats, bats and butterflies, the Matthews lay beautifully undiscovered. A sleeping beauty rising to
2,688 meters above sea level, the Matthews divide the virtual desert of what used to be known as the Northern Frontier District, from the more lavish plains of Laikipia. And so isolated were these mountains, that the evolution of their flora and fauna took place in a vacuum – what scientists call a ‘sky island’ – a remote patch of tropical highland forests that has evolved free of influence for over 10 millennia.

As with most lost islands, the Matthews Range is a realm of magic and mystique. It’s a place of juniper forests as old as time. A place where rare de Brazza monkeys swing and gorgeous Hartlaub’s turaco flash through the vaulted gloom in a glory of iridescent green. It’s a sanctuary for massive cycads, which are monstrous ferns, once dinosaur fodder, that have flourished for 250 million years. And it was in the Matthews Range, until 1990, that the last of Kenya’s black rhino roamed; and where great herds of elephants roam still. But it was also here, where three small elephants got into very big trouble.

The first of the trio, Warges, is named after the highest peak in the Matthews. When he was only four-years-old he lost his mother to a poacher and, utterly traumatized, he attempted to join a new herd. As it happens, his adopted herd had decided to scale the Matthews Range. So Warges followed. But somewhere along the way he was attacked. And so it was that he descended the mountain with a spear wound in one ear, alone, emaciated and without hope. Somehow, however, he made his way to the gates of the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, the only place within many hundreds of miles where the kind of help he required was available. It was a miracle. But elephants are good at miracles and often present themselves on an elephantine whim to those who they somehow sense will help them. Warges was no exception, he was taken in, given shelter, medical attention and (most important of all to baby elephants) love. And he thrived. Or to put it in the words of his keepers he emerged from his trauma as ‘a happy-go-lucky, friendly big brother to the other elephants, with an insatiable appetite’.

Sosian also lost his mother to a poacher’s gun when he was three. And, though he arrived at the gates of the Reteti Sanctuary physically unharmed, he was caked in his mother’s blood and, unsurprisingly, traumatised and confused. Indeed, such was the degree of his misery that all the other elephants spent the night waving their trunks through the wooden slats of their stalls trying to comfort him. And his cries echoed through the night causing the local rangers to report unusual agitation in the elephant herds of the region on the following morning. Painful though his start in life had been, however, Sosian was brave, and he adjusted well to his life with his new herd. He also became firm friends with Warges and, according to his keepers, developed a passion for mud baths.

Lingwesi was found wandering, painfully thin, on the Il Ngwesi Community Conservancy in Laikipia. He had been separated from his herd at the age of eight months, but the local rangers had waited and watched to see if he would survive without intervention. When it became clear that he would not, they delivered him to Reteti where he was given the usual cocktail of food, love and elephant company. He made an excellent recovery, put on weight and, according to his keepers, ‘showed his playful side’. He also formed an unbreakable friendship with Warges and Sosian.

It took many months of planning with the Kenya Wildlife Service before the good people at Reteti deemed the young trio ready for release into the wild. A special site was chosen on the Sera Community Conservancy where there was good security, low predator density and a monitoring infrastructure already well-established thanks to the presence of a community-run black rhino sanctuary. When they arrived, the three young bulls were released into a large temporary holding pen with shade, water, a mud bath and space to browse. Thereafter they were monitored to see how they adjusted to the new sights and smells of the area while the keepers continued to feed them with giant baby bottles. Originally it had been thought that the trio would remain penned for a week, but in three days they seemed keen to venture out into the wild.

And so they set forth.

The release was a complete success. Though followed by their keepers (armed with monster milk bottles) the young elephants took to the wilderness with gusto showing no inclination to return to their pens to sleep at night. Now, one month later, they are fitted with radio tracking collars and feeding themselves. They’re also travelling around 14 kilometres a day – which is a long way for a small elephant.

Best of all, the rangers of the area have reported that the three friends are three no more – they’ve been accepted by the other elephants of Sera – and are back within the warmth of the greater family they once lost.

About the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary

Located on the Ngilai West Group Ranch on the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in Samburu County, the Reteti Sanctuary was established to rescue any orphaned or abandoned elephant calves found in the northern regions. Once rescued the sanctuary is committed to making every effort to reunite the calves with their families. If this is not possible, the elephants will be kept in the centre and provided with round-the-clock care, though the ultimate aim will always be to release the calf back into the wild. Visits to the sanctuary can be arranged and there are a number of accommodation options within this beautiful area.

For further information: www.retetielephants.org

Playing it by ear


It hunts but with a single bound
Flying on four outsized legs
Of all the wind’s offspring, it is the resplendent one
Trailing its tail on the ground

It clings to the neck of its prey
Like the embrace of a spurned lover
When its enemy sees it chasing behind
Its conscience whispers words of perdition into its ear.

Ibn al-Mu`tazz
Extract from the fourteenth-century enclyclopedia
The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition


It’s the archetypal image. A tsunami of wildebeest engulfs the plains of the Masai Mara. Densely black and heaving like flies on a cadaver they appear to be consuming the landscape. There are literally hundreds of thousands of them thundering across the savannah in a welter of horns and hooves. As they arrive at the precipitous banks of the Mara River there’s a mass lemming-like leap into the void. And then the chocolate-churning river roils with straining black-maned bodies. It’s the money-shot, the poster image of the annual migration of the wildebeest. But it’s also the tip of the iceberg of the ‘greatest wildlife show on earth’ because nine-tenths of the action actually takes place elsewhere; and at other times of year.

Typically, the famous Mara Crossing takes place between July and August in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. But there’s plenty of action elsewhere in Kenya, such as in the many conservancies that surround the Reserve. The great wilderness epic also features any number of different scenes. There’s the clash and charge of the rutting season, the bellowing melee of the mating season, and the madness of the calving season during which half a million calves are born within a couple of weeks.

And nor are all the actors in the migration epic wildebeest. Thousands of zebra pound alongside the 1.2 million wildebeest during their trek (though whether they do so as a gesture of solidarity or are just carried along on the tide of mania, it’s hard to tell). There’s also a star-studded cast of lions, leopards, hyenas, crocodiles and vultures all of whom grow grossly fat on the spoils.

Until relatively recently, however, the cheetahs played only a bit part in the migration-fest. Cheetahs are not built for bringing down wildebeest. They’re fragile of frame, delicate of bone and they cannot afford to be injured by a flailing hoof. Yet their method of hunting relies on their being able to knock over their prey and kill it by clamping their jaws around its windpipe until it suffocates. Typically, then, they go for smaller animals.

Cheetahs hunt best in short bursts of chase at up to 60 mph. But wildebeest can run at 50 mph for hours on end so, again, they don’t make the ideal prey. Cheetahs have to eat their kill quickly before the lions, leopards, hyenas and vultures arrive. A wildebeest, however, makes a mega-meal meaning that once again the wildebeest is not ideal cheetah kill.

Lately, however research has shown that East Africa’s cheetahs have adapted to embrace the mechanics of the migration. Increasingly, they seem to hunt in pairs. It’s a canny move. It’s not just that an orchestrated pincer movement helps in separating the victim from the herd, but also that two jaws clamped around a windpipe act faster than one; and two stomachs are more swiftly filled than one.

The cheetah has also manifested another fascinating genetic modification, giving it a unique competitive advantage over all other cats. The fastest living land mammal, a cheetah can accelerate from 0-60mph in around three seconds, which is faster than the 2019 Porsche 911 Carrera (0-60mph in 4.2 seconds). Unlike all other cats, however, its head doesn’t rock while it is running at speed. And this means that it can lock its gaze on the prey with the tenacity of a heat-seeking missile. Why doesn’t the cheetah’s head rock? It’s all to do with the structure of its inner ear.

We all have inner ears, and we all use them to keep our balance, but researchers at the American Museum of Natural History recently decided to investigate the cheetah’s genetic modification by putting the skulls of 14 different species of cat, including extinct species of cheetahs, through a high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT) machine. The results of the study revealed that the inner ear of the modern cheetah is much larger, relative to its body size, than all other cats. And that the hairs and canals at its centre have been genetically honed so as to ensure that the animal’s head doesn’t move up-and-down or side-to-side when it is running – even at speed. They also discovered that this evolutionary tweak is a relatively recent thing, which suggests that the cheetah has elected to cheat the odds.

Or to put it another way: the cheetah has decided to play the migration game by ear.

Other curious cheetah facts

A cheetah has long, black lines which run from the inside of each eye to the mouth. These are usually called ‘tear lines’ and scientists believe they help protect the cheetah’s eyes from the harsh sun and help them to see long distances.

Cheetahs have between 2,000 and 3,000 spots.
Cheetahs are the only big cat that can turn in mid-air while sprinting.
Cheetahs are the only big cat that cannot roar. They can purr though and usually purr most loudly when they are grooming or sitting near other cheetahs.
While lions and leopards usually do their hunting at night, cheetahs hunt for food during the day.
A cheetah has amazing eyesight during the day and can spot prey from 5 km away.
Cheetahs rarely climb trees and have poor night vision.

Trunks and Trump


Donald Trump may not believe in climate change, but elephants do. And that belief has proved to be a trump card in their evolutionary progress because recent research has revealed that, over the course of evolution, the elephant’s brain has grown in size in direct relation to ancient periods of climate change.

As has our own. »

Like the elephant, our ancestors originated in Africa. Like the elephant, we migrated out of Africa to inhabit other continents. And, like the elephant, the size of our brain grew over time – most rapidly during times of dramatic climate change.

Across nearly seven million years, the human brain tripled in size. Most of the growth occurred in the past two million years. For the first two thirds of our history, the size of our ancestors’ brains was within the range of those of other apes living today. The final third of our evolution saw nearly all the action in brain size. Homo habilis, the first of our genus Homo who appeared 1.9 million years ago, saw a modest hop in brain size. The first fossil skulls of Homo erectus, 1.8 million years ago, had brains averaging a little larger than 600 ml. From here the species embarked on a slow upward march, reaching more than 1,000 ml by 500,000 years ago. Early Homo sapiens had brains within the range of people today, averaging 1,200 ml or more. And, as our cultural and linguistic complexity, dietary needs and technological prowess surged forward, so our brains grew to accommodate the changes.

As for the elephant, recent research by a team of scientists from South Africa, Europe and North America has revealed that their brains grew in two distinct phases, both of which appear to relate to climate change.

An elephant has the largest brain of any land animal. Until recently, however, scientists have struggled to determine why this should be so. The new team of researchers tackled the problem by applying cutting-edge scanning techniques and state-of-the-art statistical reconstruction of ancestral features to address the problem. And their research, which made use of a fossil record of elephants that included over 300 species, revealed the fact that the brain size of ancient elephants grew in two distinct ‘pulses’. One such pulse occurred 26 million years ago when Antarctica froze for the first time. This brought about a wave of global aridification that caused Africa’s dense rain forests to turn into savannah. The second pulse occurred 20 million years ago when the African climate became warmer and wetter and, for the first time, a land-bridge appeared, which linked Africa to Asia thus allowing the elephants to leave Africa and migrate in search of new habitats.

Both changes were crucial in the evolution of elephants in so much as they forced them to adapt to survive. 20 million years ago an elephant was a much smaller creature than it is today. Then it was about the size of a tapir. It also had a very short trunk. Modern elephants, on the other hand, weigh-in at around six tonnes, can be up to 4 metres in height and have trunks that are over 2 metres in length.

So, what prompted the elephant to expand so enthusiastically?The answer is that being BIG works for elephants. A large creature makes a predator think twice before attacking; a big body is also able to store more fat and water than a small one – especially when resources are short. A larger gut is also more efficient in digesting food.

But it’s not all about body size: brain size matters too. The elephant has a brain that weighs four times that of a human brain (elephant brains weigh 11-13 pounds, human brains weigh around 3 pounds) – and it has put that brain to extraordinarily good use.

Having a large brain, for instance, has allowed the elephant to work out how to migrate, where to find food, how to cope with new diets and, crucially, how to remember the location of distant waterholes during dry periods.

The size of its brain has also allowed the elephant to demonstrate a level of behavioral intelligence that is similar to our own. It manifests in a number of ways: the elephant has, for instance, one of the most closely-knit societies of any living species and elephant families can only be separated by death or capture.

Elephants exhibit behaviors associated with grief and mourning; with learning and mimicry; with play and altruism; with the use of tools and the ability to cooperate. They are also compassionate, cooperative, self-aware and communicative.

And finally, of course, it seems they’ve taken the concept of climate change on board.

The intelligence of elephants

Here are just some illustrations as to the power of the elephant’s brain:

Elephants have been observed digging holes to drink water and then ripping bark from a tree, chewing it into the shape of a ball, filling in the hole and covering it over with sand to avoid evaporation – then later going back to the spot for a drink. Elephants have also been known to drop very large rocks onto an electric fence either to ruin the fence or to cut off the electricity.

A 2010 experiment revealed that in order to reach food elephants can learn how to coordinate with a partner in a task requiring two individuals to simultaneously pull two ends of the same rope to obtain a reward.

Elephants are one of the few species of mammals that have any recognizable ritual around death. Elephants show a keen interest in the bones of their own kind and are often seen gently investigating them with trunks and feet while remaining very quiet.

Elephants show compassion to other creatures – even humans. George Adamson, of ‘Born Free’ fame used to tell the tale of an old Turkana woman who fell asleep under a tree after losing her way home. When she woke up, there was an elephant standing over her, gently touching her. She kept very still because she was very frightened. As other elephants arrived, they buried her under branches. She was found the next morning by the local herdsmen, unharmed.

Researchers at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK have discovered that African elephants can distinguish differences in human gender, age, and ethnicity purely by the sound of someone’s voice. If the voice belongs to a person who is more likely to pose a threat, the elephants switch into defensive mode.

The Lord of the Dance


If you’d come expecting to see a traditional Maasai dance performance you’d have been disappointed. Instead of the rhythmic chanting that typifies a Maasai dance, there’s a man in a cowboy hat playing an accordion: another holds a metal ring that he plays not unlike an orchestral triangle. It could be an American barn dance. And, instead of the gravity-defying jumps of the Maasai warriors, these dancers are paired into couples and follow a stately progression around the floor holding each other studiously at arm’s length. If you didn’t know better you might be tempted to say that they’re dancing a parody of a waltz. And you wouldn’t be far wrong because this performance at the Kenyan Cultural Centre known as The Bomas of Kenya is an authentic rendition of the Mwomboko dance of the Kikuyu people. And it’s actually a tongue-in-cheek copy of the fox trot, which shot to fame in America in 1910 and was danced to rag time music.

Surreal, elegant and quaintly romantic, the Mwomboko was born in the 1930s to 1940s era of colonial East Africa. Some say it was the result of the Kikuyu people having watched the British colonials dancing the waltz at their evening parties, many of which were rather colourfully decadent. Others say that the Kenyan foot soldiers of the First World War, the Carrier Corps and the Kings African Rifles, copied the dance from the waltzes, Scottish dances and fox trots that they watched their then colonial masters dance during the war.

Whatever its origins, the Mwomboko became an instant hit amongst the Kikuyu and remains one of their most popular dances to this day. Some say it owes its popularity to the fact that the couples are required to embrace each other as they dance, which is unusual in traditional Kenyan dance, and this makes it very popular with the young. Others say it’s the dance of choice at all community events because the older generation prefers the grave propriety of its perambulations (and the genteelly flirtatious nature of its ankle twirlings) to more modern forms of dance. But there’s a darker side to the history of Mwomboko, whose name evolved from the Kikuyu word for ‘eruption’. It seems that the Kikuyu were in the habit of weaving certain gestures into their traditional dances, such as the Murithingu dance, that spread anti-colonial messages of rebellion and insurrection. So, with sweeping finality, the British banned all such dances. It didn’t work.

In retaliation, the Kikuyu came up with the Mwomboko, which the British found hard to disapprove of. It was, after all, a seemingly innocent copy of their very own dance traditions. What the British didn’t know however was that the Kikuyu were not only using the Mwomboko to continue to pass on messages of rebellion but also to poke fun at the British. It’s a great story and the living embodiment of a fragment of history: it’s also just one of the many fascinating tales that lie behind the fifty or so dances preserved in the living archive of The Bomas of Kenya.

Established as a repository for the preservation of Kenyan tradition, The Bomas preserves not only Kenya’s dance traditions, but also her music, cuisine, cultural artefacts and life styles. But it does so with a dedication to detail that would do credit to the most exacting of museums. Every dance is researched in the region of its birth. Musical instruments are made according to ancient traditions using raw materials that are anthropologically correct and, when such things as colobus skins, kudu horns or monitor lizard hides are required, these are sustainably sourced from the Kenya Wildlife Service. Choreographers study the steps, musicians write down the music, designers replicate the costumes, local singers perform the songs, and very slowly the dance performance is moulded into a thing of ethnic perfection. And even that’s not good enough for the eagle-eyed culture vultures of The Bomas. Because, when they have finally perfected the dance to the best of their ability, a delegation of community elders is invited down to Nairobi to assess the finished performance for precision of footwork, costume, lyrical enunciation and style of playing. And the elders don’t hold back when it comes to correcting anything that is not absolutely true to their fiercely protected ethnic history.

The same attention to detail is brought to bear with the representations of the ethnic villages that dot the extensive grounds of The Bomas of Kenya. Laid out in exact replica of a traditional village complete with grain stores, look-out posts and cattle enclosures, every hut has been hand-made by ethnically correct craftsmen and all the materials, even the mud, is regionally sourced. None of which makes for easy maintenance. A Rendille hut, for instance, is built to withstand immense heat and profound drought, and struggles to remain standing amid the periodic deluges and chill of Nairobi. And then there’s the baboons. Situated immediately adjacent to Nairobi National Park, The Bomas is a potent baboon draw, which is unfortunate because the baboons like nothing better than to methodically un-thatch the huts so carefully thatched by the cultural experts.
Back on the dance floor, beneath the vast vaulted ceiling of the central pavilion, which was itself inspired by the traditional African hut, the Mwomboko has been replaced by a Kisii dance called the Rigesa, which originates from Nyanza. Now the musician plays a traditional obokano or 8-stringed lyre and instead of parodying the British, the dance tells the story of the Kisii migration from Uganda. And, if you watch carefully, you’ll see that representations of all the fearful animals the people met on their perilous journey have been woven into the dance – lions, elephants, leopards, buffalos and more. Even the lyre tells an ancient tale of how the Kisii people lived for a long time alongside the Luo people, the originators of the ancient nyatiti lyre, which echoes far back in time to their own migration down the Nile from Sudan.

Next comes a display of Chuka drumming, which originated amongst the Embu people of Eastern Kenya. The dancers, all male, bare-legged and muscled of arm are clad in provocatively short swaying rope skirts and hold huge cylindrical drums between their legs. The phallic inference is inescapable and history recounts that originally the dance was performed only for unmarried women in order that they might choose a husband. ‘We had to tone it down a bit for some of the performances,’ confides the choreographer in the darkness, ‘especially when we get a school party.’

There’s a 50-strong group of small school children in the audience – they’re rapt. On the front row, a diminutive boy is head-banging with all the conviction of a heavy metal addict. Two other little boys are thrusting their hips back and forth at each other in time with the drumming. It seems that the toning-down has not been entirely successful.

Which is exactly as it should be.

Last Women Standing


Catching a glimpse of imminent extinction is not easy. You have to book in advance, absorb the facts offered in a small lecture, climb into a safari vehicle, pass through various gates and fences and be surveyed by a number of armed guards. And, even then, the last northern white rhinos on the planet are not immediately visible.

Then, in the shade of a spreading acacia tree, you can just make out two large pale grey rumps. Mother and daughter, Najin and Fatu, are having an afternoon nap. Fortunately we have come equipped with a rhino keeper and a bucket of horse pellets. The ladies, it seems, are fond of both. The keeper rattles the bucket and, beneath the tree, one huge head lifts; then the second. Our presence has been noted but it takes a little longer for an audience to be granted.

Having eventually succumbed to enticement, both rhinos rise to their feet. It’s a struggle because they’ve made a cool dusty pit for themselves and now plumes of grey dust rise up around them like phantoms. Facing us head-on, the two huge creatures survey the safari vehicle with the rhino equivalent of a raised eyebrow. Their keeper throws an arc of horse pellets on to the sparse savannah grass. An ear, delicate as a large grey tulip, swivels. Then the rhinos amble towards us. There’s a lot of snuffling and munching as the pellets are consumed. But no unseemly rushing or bolting – this is a very dignified encounter.

The ladies are magnificence incarnate. Their sheer bulk is intimidating. Seemingly impenetrable, their grey skin is deeply scored by thousands of thorny encounters; and huge overhangs of flesh protect their joints like flanges on a medieval suit of armour. And the more you look at them, the more you are overcome by their grace and beauty; and the more in awe. As we watch, another rhino, a southern white, comes over to join them. ‘She’s a friend’ says our guide, ‘they like company.’

It wrings the heart to look at the last two members of a species that first evolved 55 million years ago. The rhinoceros has been one of this planet’s most enduring creatures. Arriving in the wake of the dinosaurs, it has endured the Ice Age, numerous bouts of climate change and the need to migrate across entire continents. In the course of its evolution it has sported single horns over a metre long, double horns growing side by side, horns in its lower jaw and an entire wardrobe of woolly coats. Fossil records also reveal that it has survived attack by giant crocodiles and prehistoric hyenas. But all this has meant nothing thanks to the arrival of the new boy on the planet, the 5 million-year-old up-start known as man. And thanks to his attentions a creature that once ranged over Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo is considered extinct in the wild. And only two of its kind remain in captivity.

And we’re looking at them.

It was in 2009 that four of the planet’s last surviving seven northern white rhinos were brought to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy from a zoo in the Czech Republic. It was hoped that back in Africa they might breed. But they didn’t. Soon there were only three northern white rhinos on the planet: Najin, Fatu and their father/grandfather Sudan. Then it was discovered that neither Najin nor Fatu could breed. Frantic efforts were made to find a mate for Sudan.

But it was too late. In 2019, at the age of 45, Sudan breathed his last. And, while hopes exist for the creation of a hybrid by means of assisted reproduction using eggs from Fatu and Najin, the genetically purest form of the northern white rhino is about to bid us goodbye.

At the end of the visit, which lasts little more than half an hour in all, we are driven out of the specially constructed enclosure that protects rhino royalty and on to the rolling savannah. There’s a lone tree and beneath it a series of humps. As we draw closer, we see that they are gravestones. All commemorate rhinos and the inscriptions make hard reading. At the front, larger than the rest, is a stone that reads, SUDAN. After 55 million years, he was the last man standing.

Born Free


In this issue, actress and activist, Virginia McKenna, who played Joy Adamson in the 1966 film, Born Free, tells us why she loves Kenya and how her time spent in Kenya whilst filming Born Free changed her life.

Virginia McKenna OBE, British stage and screen actress, author and wildlife campaigner is best known for such films as A Town Like Alice, Carve Her Name with Pride and Ring of Bright Water, but it was her role alongside her husband, Bill Travers, in the 1966 classic Born Free that was to change everything. The film was based on the book, Born Free, by Joy Adamson. A worldwide best-seller read by 50 million people and translated into 21 languages, Born Free told the true-life tale of game warden, George Adamson, who adopted an orphaned lioness cub, and Joy Adamson, who formed a unique relationship with her. Set in Meru National Park, in northern Kenya, it was the most successful animal story of modern times.
Born Free changed many lives, but especially those of Virginia and Bill who devoted their lives to campaigning for the right of all animals to be born free and live free and to the establishment of the Born Free Foundation. Today, the Born Free Foundation has 100,000 supporters worldwide and spends more than £2 million every year fighting animal exploitation, conserving endangered species, and rehoming animals from run down zoos to Born Free sponsored sanctuaries all over the world.

The film also brought huge publicity to Kenya as millions all over the world saw, for the first time, the glory of her wilderness and wildlife. Finally, the story of Elsa the lion cub served as a catalyst for the cause of animal conservation – it also earned Virginia the title, ‘the midwife of animal conservation’.
Q You first came to Kenya in 1964 with your husband, Bill Travers, to begin work on the film, Born Free. You then spent 9 months living in the bush, living alongside lions and preparing for your roles. What were your first impressions of Kenya and how did those impressions change during your stay?

A Where do I begin? It was a very long time ago – 55 years in fact – that Bill Travers and I sailed from London to Mombasa with our children to begin work on a film called Born Free, which was based on Joy Adamson’s famous book on her life with George Adamson. George was our ‘lion man’ and I have to say that without his quiet wisdom and sensitive guidance the film could never have been made. We had to work closely with six different lions after the two circus lions that had been selected to ‘play’ Elsa were deemed too unpredictable. This meant that we had to get to understand them – as individuals – and form relationships with every one of them. Our family home (and the base for the lions) was an old settlers’ house on a little river in the town of Naro Moru. My first memories of Kenya are of the great beauty of the land and the warmth and kindness of all the people we met. Also of the cloud-filled skies which, for some reason, never seem to obscure the sun. They’re memories that are echoed every time I return to Kenya.

Q You’ve been quoted as saying that making Born Free in Kenya had a tremendous impact on you and Bill – could you tell us more?

A It would have been impossible for anyone not to have been affected by the making of a film of Joy’s book. It was a love story; it was also the story of a relationship between a lioness and two extraordinary people and the unique and unpredictable journey they travelled together. For Bill and I, it was a leap into the unknown because we had to understand the different natures and traits of all the different lions who ‘played’ Elsa.

Q You’ve spoken about the fact that no matter how much you had read about lions, nothing had prepared you for the reality of meeting a lion, could you tell us a little more?

A Nothing can prepare you for the moment you actually meet a lion. How could it? Animals are all different – just like us – and you need, slowly but surely, to learn about their likes and dislikes; when they are bored or uninterested; whom they like or don’t like.

Q What are your abiding memories of your time in the Kenyan wilderness and what, if anything, evokes your strongest memories of Kenya?

During the months of filming in Naro Moru we had no time to travel and experience ‘the wild’ but once filming was over we took our two eldest children, Will and Louise, on safari in Kenya and Tanzania. It was an experience never to be forgotten: not only of seeing such iconic creatures as elephant, lion, rhino, cheetah, giraffe, but also of encountering the birds, herbivores and the miraculous dung beetle, which will always remain one of my very special creatures.

Q In your journals, you wrote about how leaving Africa was ‘agony’, as was saying goodbye to the many ‘Elsas’ who starred in the film. Could you tell us more?

A We worked with over 20 lions and had close and extraordinary relationships with a number of them so you can imagine our horror and disbelief when, at the end of filming, we were told that they had been sold to a series of zoos and safari parks. Joy and George shared our horror, but it was too late – the deals had been done. We did, however, manage to save two lions called Boy and Girl. Also a large male called Ugas who joined George’s little pride of lions. The other lions were not so lucky: our much-loved Mara and Little Elsa went to Whipsnade Zoo in England while fun-loving Henrietta was returned to Entebbe Zoo in Uganda. Our sense of having betrayed these creatures ran very deep. So deeply, that Bill decided to make a documentary about our visit to Mara and Little Elsa at Whipsnade Zoo. It was an experience I will never forget. It was also the inspiration for the many documentaries Bill would make over the coming years and which opened up a new path in life for him.

As for George, a friend for life, he set up a simple camp in Meru where he cared for the three lions we had saved. You can still see the site today. It lies just below the current lodge, Elsa’s Kopje, a beautiful place where I stay every time I visit Meru. You can also still see the rusting remains of George’s various vehicles as they lie in the bush – poignant reminders of the path that would ultimately lead to his tragic death.

Q You’ve said that every creature, human and non-human, deserves to be born free and stay free – could you tell us how you’ve translated this belief into the establishment of the Born Free Foundation?

A I have always found it challenging to accept that wild animals can be kept in captivity; that they can be removed from their mothers and sent to zoos in distant lands, that they can be subjected to living in cages or enclosures; and that they can be denied companions of their own kind and required to mate according to the dictates of man. Worse still that they should be sold to circuses, which are really travelling menageries where they are trained to perform tricks such as standing on tubs, jumping through hoops or riding horses with loud music blaring around them. Surely such spectacles belong to history. I also question how we can watch wildlife documentaries – in wonderment and amazement – and yet still approve of wild animals being kept in captivity?

Q Born Free was released in 1966, would you say that the understanding of wild animals – their natures, needs and desires – has improved dramatically since then?

A I think that a growing number of people do think very differently now – especially when they hear about the rescues that we, and other groups, have carried out; such as ensuring that wild animals be removed from concrete cages, circus trailers or private ‘ownership.’ But the horror stories still continue. And many of them are not only condoned but also compounded by the extraordinary indifference displayed by those in positions of authority.

It is also true that fewer circuses use wild animals in the United Kingdom, though the same does not apply elsewhere in the world. There is also the fact that as the human population increases so the availability of land for the wildlife decreases, and this leads to conflict between man and wildlife and between the wildlife itself. Perhaps it’s time for the spirit of Elsa to be reborn; time for people to learn to respect and treasure our wildlife and wildernesses; and to conserve the natural world, whose beauty and seasonal change so enriches our souls. I may be an eternal optimist, but I am always encouraged by my visits to Kenya where I rejoice in the beauty of the land and its creatures. I’m also encouraged by my meetings with the school children who already care so deeply about wildlife – despite the fact that many of them have only encountered it in the form of pictures. I recall one particular young boy, who asked, ‘Please Miss, why do men kill lions?’

Now there lies our hope for the future.

Born Free country

Few places offer a more genuine wilderness ambience than the remote and rugged Meru and Kora National Parks. It was here that the real-life stars of Born Free, Joy and George Adamson released their famous lioness, Elsa, back in to the wild. Here too where she is buried. Located in northern Kenya these parks lie far off the usual tourist tracks and promise exclusive wildlife viewing, magnificent vistas and an unrivalled diversity of landscape. Brilliantly painted on a natural canvas of magnificent scale, these sister parks contrast luxuriant jungle with fast-flowing rivers and verdant swamps with mile upon mile of golden savannah.

A classic savannah landscape
A fine example of the classic savannah landscape, Meru’s character is defined by the rivers that form its perimeters: the mighty Tana to the south, the Ura to the south-west and the Rojeweru to the east. The Park is also scored by 15 permanent streams which drain off the nearby Nyambeni Hills.

A rich tapestry of habitats
Thanks to the huge diversity of its habitats, Meru is a unique game viewing destination. The northern plains offers one of the most rewarding areas for wildlife viewing, boasting elephant, lion and cheetah. Both species of zebra, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle, impala, beisa oryx, kongoni and reticulated giraffe are also easily seen. The dense woodlands of the southern plains shelter gerenuk, common eland, Kirk’s dik-dik and warthog. They also make an ideal habitat for one of the Park’s highlights, the lesser kudu. The swampy grasslands are grazed by Defassa waterbuck and shifting herds of buffalo, whilst Hippo and Nile crocodile are common in the slower streams of the Tana River.

Meru is also renowned for its rocky outcrops (known as inselbergs or kopjes), where baboon cavort and leopard lurk among the boulders

A brilliance of birds
Meru’s birds are abundant and colourful; common river birds include ibis, heron and African fish eagle while the riverine acacia woodland shelters the smallest of the long-tailed sunbirds, the black-bellied sunbird. Flocks of glorious golden-breasted starling are also often encountered as well as loudly honking groups of hornbills.

Kora National Park
Meru’s sister Park, the adjoining Kora National Park (1,787 sq km) is famous as the former home of naturalist George Adamson. A vast area of acacia bushland from whose alluvial plains rise stark granite kopjes and low hills, it is bordered to the south-east by the Mwitamisyi River, which supports an abundance of lizards, snakes, tortoises and crocodiles.



There is a fine line between real and surreal. Right now it’s a skein of dawn-grey cloud. Below the line, the great beast of Nairobi is growling into wakefulness, above the line is an expanse of rain-sodden air. In the far distance rise the silver spires of Mount Kenya. And the snout of the plane is pointing straight at her.

We had left Nairobi in the half-light as strings of rush-hour headlights spun cobwebs across the city. Now the temperature in the cabin is plummeting and there’s a roar of rushing air. Someone has taken the back door off the plane and a square hole gapes where seats and windows should be. In the hole, lashed to the fuselage with a harness, a photographer wields a lens-heavy camera.

We’re doing the ‘scenic trip’.

The closer we get to the mountain, the higher we climb and the more the air thins until we’re breathing through oxygen masks. Fingers turn to ice. Our headphones twitter: Nairobi Air Traffic Control is uneasy. What are we doing at 17,000 feet they want to know? Gradually, the vastness of the mountain engulfs us until it fills the screen, the windows and the howling hole where the photographer hunches. We seem perilously close; it seems terrifyingly alien. Suddenly we swing east to circle the citadel of peaks. Below us, vast skirts of forest wash up the mountain’s flanks – they’re deeply striated by valleys and icy tarns as if clawed by a monstrous beast. It’s minus two degrees centigrade in the cabin now and the high peaks are dusted with snow. Despite the rushing roar of air within the plane, the mountain is wreathed in stillness and sanctity.

This is not the realm of man, but of God. And we’re in his airspace.

Abruptly, as if she has tired of us, the mountain releases us from her orbit and, as her enormity falls away behind us, a lone puff of pink cloud attaches itself to her highest peak. As we skim the sun-blazed plains of Laikipia, the ranch land below us is veined by slow moving chains of black, brown and white cattle; also visible are the circular cattle enclosures of the Maasai, scrawled across the landscape like the hieroglyphics of the Gods. There’s a sudden change in tempo as the plane is buffeted by hot blasts of air and, as if in response, the landscape begins to buckle and convulse. We’re heading down into the inferno of the Suguta Valley, one of the hottest places on earth. It’s 60 degrees centigrade in the shade here. But there is no shade, just bald, burning, baking earth. Eight thousand years ago this valley held a vast lake whose white crystalline shoreline is still painted on the landscape. Now it’s known as the Valley of Death.

As the shadow of the plane flits across the landscape, time flips and millions of years seem to concertina into a gigantic geological wince. It’s at this point that the scenic trip turns psychedelic and the earth goes mad. Huge calderas, the size of cities, give way to great outpourings of glutinous black lava so liquid as to appear as though still on the move. Lurid green crocodile pools mark the path of an ancient river; battalions of half-moon sand dunes march across a landscape eerily reminiscent of the roof of a giant’s mouth. A monstrous set of rocky teeth, high as skyscrapers, bite into the sky; great golden rock-castles rise out of a landscape that’s part Lord of the Rings, part Armageddon. Ahead of us lies a black barrier of volcanic cones, slithering and sifted-sugar soft. The beauty and majesty is becoming almost too much to bear. »

But the show’s not over yet. The plane skips gaily over the black satanic barrier and swoops down into a heat-shimmered heaven where Lake Logipi lies sweltering amid streaks of lilac, pink and gold. It’s a limpid mirror of cloud-shadowed water in which is reflected the ethereal stone steeples of Cathedral Rock. Across its surface, thousands of carmine flamingoes are blown as if by a giant breath and its shores are laced alternately grey, green and violet like floating petticoats. As the plane banks, sky, water, cloud, rock and birds merge into a kaleidoscopic blur: we’re heading for the final frontier.

Despite what’s gone before, Lake Turkana steals the show. The largest alkaline lake on earth, her jade green waters are wind-whipped into a million white horses. At her southern tip, lies the perfect volcanic cone known as Nabiyotum. Encircled by a filigree of peacock blue bays, it is otherworldly in its serenity. In the far distance lies the shimmering mirage of South Island where a million crocodiles bask. Much further north lie the petrified forests of the world famous Paleolithic site, Koobi Fora, home to our earliest ancestors. It’s hard to believe we’re still in Kenya; we might just as well be on the moon.

And here, in the madness of a moonscape, some maniacal genius has built a wind farm. Hundreds of whirling turbines stride across the landscape and harness the hot wind to supply 17% of Kenya’s annual energy requirement. Surreal blends into bizarre as the pilot turns in his seat to announce, ‘five minutes to landing.’ We drop out of the sky on to a baking stretch of rust-red gravel. Welcome to the airstrip at the end of the world.

‘Tea?’ says the pilot unscrewing a Thermos flask. We’ve flown way beyond fantastic and well into weird. There’s nothing here but a squat breezeblock arrival building. Inside is a circle of red plush sofas and six empty magazine racks. On the rough dirt track outside stands a lone traffic sign: T-junction. It’s slightly bent: somebody has driven into it. In the shadow of the plane, we stare into the reflections of each other’s sunglasses and sip our tea. Had we not believed in the existence of a God when we climbed out of Nairobi, we certainly do now.

The facts

Our incredible trip was organized by Boskovic Air Charters, a long established and much respected local company who provide a wide range of private charters throughout eastern and central Africa. They operate out of Nairobi’s Wilson Airport. Our pilot was Andy Allen. For further information, visit:

Our photographer was professional safari guide Sean Dundas (www.seandundassafaris.com) who leads his own safaris with Kenya’s original safari operator, Ker and Downey Safaris.

Our aircraft was a Cessna Grand Caravan EX and our round trip covered 800km.

Lake Turkana lies in the Kenyan Rift Valley and is the world’s largest permanent desert and alkaline lake.

The Lake Turkana Wind Project was completed in 2018 and consists of 365 wind turbines, each with a capacity of 850kW, and a high voltage substation connected to the Kenyan national grid.

Crocodiles and Hippos Abound


We’re in a great iron diving bell. It smells damp and subterranean. Our voices echo hollowly. Tiny square windows are set into the structure’s cylindrical sides. Through them we can see hundreds of blue-grey fishes. They’ve got miniature shark-fins and translucent fangs and they’re all swimming around and around and around the diving bell in an anticlockwise direction. It’s dizzying to watch.

The water beyond the squared windows is crystal clear and shines an otherworldly blue-grey. In the shimmering distance we can just make out a set of short stubby legs. They’re paddling their way through the water with a vaguely pig-like submarine trot; and they’re attached to a vast chocolate-brown body with a raspberry-pink belly. It’s a hippopotamus. And it’s heading our way.

Are we hallucinating? Or about to wake from a nightmare? No. We’re in an underwater viewing-tank sunk below the waters of Mzima Springs in Tsavo West National Park. The water, melt-water from the snows of Kilimanjaro, has flowed here through many kilometres of underground tunnels. The fish, known as barbels, are a type of fresh-water carp. The tank, or so the brass plate bolted to the wall informs us, was installed in 1969. The other brass plate reads: Do not stick fingers into water. Crocodiles abound. Instinctively, our fingers clench.

The entire scene is surreal. We’ve just driven for three hours through tinder-dry bush. We’ve traversed dry wadis where great rivers once swirled. We’ve seen huge herds of elephants mining for water with their tusks (and unearthing little more than muddy puddles). It’s been uniformly khaki, the only flashes of colour delivered spasmodically by the pink blooms of the bulbous-trunked Desert Rose. And by the sapphire-blue flashes of the lilac breasted rollers as they sweep down to snap up an insect, their wings as gorgeous as a pharaoh’s necklace.

This huge park, one of the world’s largest, is a vast arena of sleeping volcanoes and solidified lava flows. Coiled on the landscape like sleeping dragons, they lie simmering in the heat. And yet here we are in an enchanting oasis fringed by papyrus, dripping with luridly green ferns and punctuated by great orange spiky flowers the size of tennis balls – the aptly named fireball lilies. Jurassic Park.

Here in this magical bubble of an oasis, the air is filled with birdsong and the water bursts out of the ground literally gurgling with laughter. And so it might. It has been trapped underground for 25 years or more and now, finally freed from the underground chasms where it has achieved diamond-clarity, it will flash briefly through the pools of Mzima Springs before disappearing again into its subterranean prison.

For the hippos are locked in too. Marooned amid a vast sea of dry bush through which they cannot travel, they create their own food chain. Browsing the undergrowth by night, they return to the pools at dawn and spend the rest of the day wallowing. It is their dung that feeds the fish and nurtures the roots of the fruiting trees that halo the pools.

Below the water, invertebrates feed on the dung, fish feed on the invertebrates and huge, oily black cormorants feed on the fish.
Mzima Springs is a world unto itself.

It’s also one of Tsavo West’s greatest tourist attractions. In the carpark a stream of safari vehicles deposit their passengers. And while the visitors set off down the long narrow volcanic-cinder path that leads to the pools, the safari drivers gather to chat with the Kenya Wildlife Service guards. The drivers are frequent visitors so there’s plenty to discuss. Plenty of interest for the monkeys too. They swing down to peer into the vehicles in the hope of fruit; then set off for the picnic site. If the fruit is not in the safari vehicles then it must be about to hit the picnic tables. And they’re consummate fruit-snatchers.

On the narrow, winding cinder-path there are stone signs giving the names and medicinal uses of the trees. Sapphire-blue and orange agama lizards pose before an obliging whirr of cameras. Ten minutes later, there’s a collective gasp of wonderment. The visitors have reached the springs: the ultimate in surprise and delight features. Because no matter how prepared one is for Mzima, the emerald sparkle of its impossible lushness still delivers a knock-out punch. And there are more to follow. Because the further you travel the path, the better the show.
Dutifully the visitors wait in line until their turn comes to descend the three metal steps into the underwater viewing chamber. For a second or two the door of the chamber emits an eerie sci-fi glow as multiple cameras flash. Then the cavalcade emerges and snakes on down the path to the lower pool. This is Act II of the floor-show.

Some thirty hippos are wallowing against a Hollywood-perfect backdrop of trailing lianas and dense green jungle. There’s a general snorting and blowing as they rise briefly to the surface to survey their audience. And a resounding chortle as they sink once more beneath the surface. The water, transparent as glass, reveals hundreds of barbels threading their way amid the polished blue pebbles. From the crystal depths shoots a black cigar shape, deadly as an Exocet. It lands on a rock and extends its wings, batman-like, to dry. A cormorant.

From the murky shallows a long, brown snout protrudes. Slowly, silently, hardly breaking the surface of the water, it drifts out into the wider reaches of the hippo pool.

It looks like a log. But it has teeth. So do all the other logs.

Crocodiles abound.

Need to know

Tsavo West (9065 sq. km.), Kenya’s largest National Park, is home to all the members of the ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant). Together with Tsavo East it also plays host to the nation’s largest elephant population. Other wildlife includes: cheetah, giraffe, hippo, baboon, waterbuck, Coke’s hartebeest, gerenuk, gazelle, zebra, crocodile, mongoose, hyrax, dik-dik, porcupine, lesser kudu and oryx. The prolific birdlife features 600 recorded species.

An essentially volcanic landscape, punctuated by great chains of extinct volcanoes and solidified lava flows, Tsavo is so vast that one can often drive for hours without encountering another vehicle. A place of magnificent vistas it also offers the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary and the caves of the Shetani lava flow, a solidified tide of molten rock that flowed across the park only one hundred years ago.

Mzima Springs, one of the park’s main attractions, achieved fame thanks to wildlife film-makers Alan and Joan Root whose 1969 documentary Mzima: Portrait of a Spring, featured underwater footage of the hippos and crocodiles. They were also the subject of the 2003 Survival Special, Mzima: Haunt of the Riverhorse.

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