Lewa Wildlife Conservancy – the centre of African rhino and wildlife conservation
By Fiona Sanderson
Once upon a time, Lewa was a humble cattle ranch. Today, it is an inspirational wildlife reserve, recognised internationally as a role model for wildlife conservation, protection and management, and operating a world-leading education and conservation-based tourism model that, in the process, supports the local communities in so many different ways.
Located north of Mount Kenya, set amidst 65,000 acres of sprawling savannah, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy boasts some of the most spectacular views in northern Kenya. Dramatic snow-capped peaks dominate the views to the south, while to the north the terrain drops away to a breath-taking vista of Samburu and beyond to the Matthews Range. With one of the country’s highest wildlife densities, including 10% and 14% respectively of the country’s black and white rhinos, the Conservancy is also home to the world’s single largest population of Grevy’s zebra.
Since the 1920s, Lewa has been home to the Craig family, and whilst a distinct passion for wildlife and conservation had been passed down from one generation to the next, it wasn’t until some 60 years later that a real effort to protect the local rhino population was formulated. By the early 1980s, it was uncertain whether any black rhinos would survive in Kenya; poaching for horn had reduced the rhino population from some 20,000 in the mid-1970s to just a few hundred. It was clear that the only way to prevent the animal’s complete extinction was to create high security sanctuaries.
In 1983, David and Delia Craig came up with the concept of creating a rhino sanctuary within 5,000 acres of the ranch. Together with conservationist Anna Merz, they fenced off an area at the western end of Lewa Downs, populating it initially with black rhinos and later adding the white, square-lipped sub-species. The focus, always, was on protecting northern Kenya’s last remaining black rhinos, whose chances of survival in the wild were at that time measured in months, rather than years.
Within a decade, the sanctuary had expanded to cover the entire ranch, plus the neighbouring Ngare Ndare Forest Reserve and Borana Conservancy, before it was formulated as a charity in 1995. Today, it is a key location for spotting Africa’s “Big Five” – rhino, lion, leopard, elephant, and buffalo, not to mention more than 400 species of birds. In addition, 14% of all Kenya’s rhinos now live on the plains of Lewa and Borana, with 14 calves born here last year alone.
It’s not just wildlife that benefits from the work of the Conservancy, however. Half of the annual budget is directed to neighbouring communities, positively impacting over 60,000 local people. Lewa helps to educate some 10,000 students, brings accessible water and healthcare to over 50,000 community members, contributes to the local economy through a women’s micro-credit program serving almost 2,000 women, and also supports sustainable farming initiatives.
As well as this, Lewa is known for the way in which it uses world-class anti-poaching techniques and cutting-edge technology, ensuring that the local communities are crucially engaged to support the conservation effort. The Conservancy’s renowned dog tracking unit aids the anti-poaching work, with these remarkable animals able to follow scents left at the crime scenes to lead Lewa’s security team directly to the doors of the poachers involved. It’s been an incredibly successful programme – so much so there have been zero poaching incidents for several years at Lewa.
I was lucky to find Lewa’s Head of Anti-Poaching, Edward Ndiritu, in HQ on a day when he was not out in the field overseeing Lewa’s massive security operation. Edward is proud of his team’s zero rhino-poaching rate over the last few years which has, he says, been achieved through the continuous monitoring of wildlife on Lewa and the implementation of effective responses to reported incidents of human-wildlife conflict. He is deeply passionate about his work, and asks me, “If we lose nature, there will be nothing left for us and what will we tell our children?” It is a question we both leave hanging, unanswered; the reality too much to speak out loud.
I wanted to know more about the Lewa Conservation Education Programme and went to meet Ephantus Mugo who, together with his team, sees over 5,000 students a year. “We teach them to understand the complexities of conservation and the benefits of wildlife protection,” he tells me.
“We provide young, inquisitive minds with the tools and information needed to do better for the environment and wildlife, both in school and at home, and explain why poaching has no benefits and how they can be a part of the solution,” Ephantus adds.
A great example of this was our Masai wildlife guide, Zion, who – as the youngest of 33 children – had received no education by the age of 16 and could not speak Swahili or English. He was one of the lucky few for whom sponsorship to the Lewa Conservation Education Programme transformed his life. A few years on, he is proud to be able share his unique wildlife knowledge with the guests that visit Lewa – and there are many who come here each year.
Funding for ongoing conservation projects across the Conservancy comes, in part, from the five properties on site that are used exclusively for tourists, each with its own offering – be that adventure, wildlife, luxury, or culture. Guests who stay in the Lewa Lodges have private and privileged access to the Conservancy’s 65,000 acres of protected wilderness, while all the profits generated by the camp are reinvested directly into Lewa’s conservation and community efforts. Funds from tourism raise a third of the Conservancy’s annual revenue so by visiting, tourists will not only be signing up for a great African adventure, but will also be directly contributing towards wildlife conservation and helping communities develop and improve their own quality of life.
For my own experience, from the moment I arrived here, I knew that Lewa was special. Not only is the landscape and wildlife spectacular, but it has unbelievable soul, and is as much a home as it is a truly unique safari experience and pioneering wildlife conservancy. My visit confirmed my strongly-held belief that the future of wildlife conservation depends on sound management and successful interaction with the local communities who derive their day-to-day livelihoods in ways that are compatible with thriving wildlife habitat. That is what Lewa does magnificently – and long may its incredible work continue.
For further information, go to www.lewa.org. Lewa Wildlife Conservancy invites you to join them by investing in future wildlife stewards. A donation can help provide young people with valuable opportunities to learn about the critical role we all play in safeguarding our planet. To make a donation, click here.