A Run to Conserve

Safaricom Marathoners support Kenya’s rugged northern-scape

Published In The East African,Nation media 20-26 May 2017

The iconic loaf-shaped mountain Ololokwe, and the Warges of the Mathews Range behind - a high peak at 8,000 feet high above the plains. Tthe local Samburu call Mathews Range Ol-doinyo Lenkiyieu It stretches 80 kilometers north copyright Rupi Mangat
The iconic loaf-shaped mountain Ololokwe, and the Warges of the Mathews Range behind – a high peak at 8,000 feet high above the plains. Tthe local Samburu call Mathews Range Ol-doinyo Lenkiyieu It stretches 80 kilometers north copyright Rupi Mangat

From the high glades of Mount Kenya down to the flatlands of Samburu, past the Ewaso Nyiro River that is the life-lung of the arid lands and the iconic loaf-shaped mountain Ololokwe, a high peak pops 8,000 feet high above the plains. It’s the Warges of the Mathews Range that the local Samburu call Ol-doinyo Lenkiyieu stretching 80 kilometers north.

45 minutes later on a red murrum road – that only a four-wheel drive can handle- filled with thorn bushes, waterless luggas and scattered homesteads of the pastoral Samburu we’re at the base of the range.

In this remotest of corner cradled in it, we’re escorted to a stockade where a month-old baby elephant is being bottle-fed by Naomi Leshoro, his human-mama holding an umbrella over it.

Reteti Elephant Sanctuary

This is the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary – the first sanctuary for orphaned elephants owned by the local Samburu community of Namunyak Conservancy under the umbrella of Northern Rangelands Trust.

“We can’t take the little ones out for walks because it’s too hot for them,” tells Amos Leleruk, the big-dad here. Leleruk’s an old hand at weaning orphaned elephants having worked as an elephant keeper at David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi for 12 years.

“We started the conservancy in August 2016,” tells Tom Letiwa the sanctuary’s manager “and got our first baby in December 2016.

“Before this elephant orphans from here were taken to the elephant orphanage in Nairobi. But we decided that instead of taking our orphans away, it was better for them to be looked after at home. At first we started with elephants orphans in Namunyak conservancy but now we take in all orphans north of the Equator.

The 2012 census by Save The Elephant shows a population of 5,700 elephants in the Samburu-Laikipia area of which 2,700 wander through the Mathews Range where female elephants use the high forest glades as nurseries for their young.

“We chose this remote area because it’s far from human settlement which helps to avoid human wildlife conflict over water and pasture.”

Looking after orphans is not cheap. The little lad has to be fed a litre of powdered milk every three hours – a formula that Dame Daphne Sheldrick finally succeeded with in the 1970s when poaching was at its height leaving many orphans in its wake. A 14-kilometer water pipe keeps the water-hole full for the calves need a mud-hole to bathe in.

A few minutes later, the older ones arrive from their walk, barge to their keepers holding their milk bottles. Gulping it down, the boisterous clan troop to the waterhole and plunge into it – like happy kids.

There’s one who catches everyone’s attention. She the biggest – Shaba – who was rescued on 10 November 2016 near Shaba national reserve. The five-year old flops around, raises her truck and lets it fall repeatedly splashing everyone around – she’s a real drama-mama.

The keeper meantime leads the tiniest to the pool – but it won’t step in. The keeper sprays it with a hose-pipe and then throws red soil over it with a spade for the mud acts as a sun screen. It’s something that the real elephant mother would have done with her trunk.

With nine elephant orphans, one abandoned black rhino calf and a retinue of elephant mums and dads on a 24-hour watch and patrol rangers, it’s not cheap running the sanctuary.

The Safaricom Marathon in Lewa

Seventy kilometres south, we’re back at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – where the story of community conservancies and wildlife sanctuaries for the mega-herbivores began in the 1990s. High on a hill in Lewa, we’re sandwiched between the eroded granite peaks of Mount Kenya and the Warges. It’s surreal with a herd of Grevy’s zebra and Reticulated giraffes – both species listed Critically Endangered near us. Lewa is a stronghold for them including others like cheetahs, African hunting dogs and Grey crowned cranes.

The running route for the annual Safaricom marathon is being readied for the runners – everyday people doing extra-ordinary things. Through the heat and dust they will sweat it to the finishing line – either the 21 or 42-kilometer marathon – to raise money for the last of the wild. The monies raised are for the community conservancies under NRT established in 2004 – has 33 so far covering 10.8 million acres – with projects like the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, the elephant migration corridor and famous bead-work by Samburu women marketed under NRT Trading.

Cycle of Life

For centuries, the African elephant has migrated over well-established paths to keep their large bodies healthy for an elephant’s life is one long meal. In a 100-year cycle, the mammoth transformed forest into bushland and bushland into grassland opening up areas for smaller creatures to move in. This constant movement kept the savannahs dynamic.

In changing times, many migratory corridors have been completely altered by human settlement, farms and infrastructure.

The elephant migratory corridor high on the slopes of Mount Kenya is a vital one for the elephants to move from the northern rangelands, through the tunnel under the Timau-Meru highway to the lower slopes of Mount Kenya and 14 kilometers up to reach the Mount Kenya forest. At this point the elephants are moving between the community farms and large-scale tracts of canola and wheat farms along a path that’s lined with electric fences and tumbling wires to stop the elephants from straying into the farmers’ fields – and none has so far.

On the fence of the montane forest, sensory cameras from Lewa monitor the comings and goings of the elephants with the Joint Wildlife Protection team patrolling on foot and horseback –Ethiopian ponies that can withstand the high altitude cold and rough terrain.

“Our job is to build a good partnership with communities and partnerships with poachers (many now rangers),” states Edwin Kinyajui of the team.

In 2005, Kinyanjui then a researcher spotted a collared elephant on the other side of Mount Kenya at Kihara at Mountain Serena Lodge. “It was the first time to see a collared elephant there and two months later the elephant was back in Samburu. It had been collared by Save The Elephant.”

In 2005, few Samburu elephants dared so far.

Now with the corridor, the elephants move to and fro with increased frequency.

“The Joint Wildlife Protection team is supported by the Safaricom marathon,” continues Kinyanjui. “We have a patrol car for increased mobility and regular patrols. Before 2009, it was normal to find more than 30 snares in a day – with incidents of elephants caught in them and those that managed to escape had severed trunks or limbs. This year we have picked up only five snares.”

“We’re united for elephants,” adds on Letiwa from Reteti. “The marathon is a really important fund raiser for our work.”

“Our support is in line with our desire to continue working with communities to transform lives. We have seen remarkable change in the communities in and around Lewa over the last fifteen years, with the funds raised from the Marathon reducing human-wildlife conflict, funding wildlife conservation efforts and creating better livelihoods by providing access to better education, healthcare and economic opportunities,” states Bob Collymore CEO of Safaricom, the multinational telecommunications company.

Since its inception the Marathon has raised US$ 6,100,000 thanks to the 12,361 runners from 35 nationalities. In the last three years, no rhino has been poached around Lewa which holds 15% of Kenya’s rhino population.

The number of elephants poached in NRT conservancies in 2015 was the lowest reported in the last 6 years. However the on-going drought has led to increased human-wildlife conflict but the positive reduction in poaching incidents is a fantastic achievement. Addressing the root causes of human/elephant conflict is a priority.

Run the marathon – http://www.safaricommarathon.com

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