Born Free By Fiona Sanderson
Meru National Park, in addition to being one of Kenya’s key conservation areas, is also, significantly, the spiritual home of Born Free. It is where Joy and George Adamson lived, raised Elsa the lion cub and successfully, against all the odds, returned her to the wild. It is also where actors Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers focussed much of their attention when they started the charity Born Free (formerly called Zoo Check). So it was fitting that Land Rover, with whom Born Free has established a long-term relationship, should invite me to the Park to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the charity, and to see some of the remarkable, if harrowing, work that is routinely undertaken in conjunction with the Kenya Wildlife Service.
The jewel in the crown of Meru is Elsa’s Kopje, an award-winning lodge set in the heart of the Park. Currently the only fully operational lodge in Meru, guests have virtually the entire Park to themselves. The landscape is arid and dotted with baobab trees, but its thirteen rivers and springs also allow for thriving riverine habitats. The Park is known for its diversity of habitats and species, including rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, gerenuk and Somail ostrich. The peak of Mughwango Hill looks down over the Park, affording a breath-taking 360 degree view of the surrounding volcanic plains.
Born Free’s relationship with Land Rover goes back over twenty years, when an official partnership between the two companies was established in 2002, but in reality, the origins of the association date back to 1966, when Land Rovers featured in the Born Free film. The requirement was then as it is now – vehicles with outstanding capacity and all-terrain capability to reach wildlife in the most remote locations.
Despite the majority of Born Free’s operations today being managed by her son Will Travers, at the age of 83, Virginia McKenna remains a very present driving force behind the whole operation. “I feel enormously grateful that we’re still here 30 years on,” she tells me, “and the challenges are possibly even greater now – but so is our determination not to give in.” That determination has resulted in the launch of a new anti-poaching scheme. Increased demand for bush meat is taking its toll on many species through poaching, and in one way or another, lions are affected. Meru is lion country, and the work that Born Free and the Kenya Wildlife Service carry out here is vital for their continued survival and presence here.
The trouble is, Africa’s lion population has been decimated, not just through poaching but also through human conflict and increased (sometimes illegal) agriculture, so the Park has become something of a refuge. There are around 50 lions here, and that’s a number that Born Free are working hard to maintain, and indeed increase.
“Balance is absolutely essential in life, and nature does it really well by itself,” Virginia says passionately. “Then [man comes] along and turns it upside down. It’s topsy-turvy and it’s chaos.”
But despite this, Virginia recognises the need for human involvement to preserve the life of the lions who live here. It’s a view shared by son Will Travers, who is looking to raise the awareness that will translate into much-needed funds for the charity to continue its work. “Tourism, and by that I mean everything from mass package tourism to luxury end tourism, has a fantastically important role to play in conservation,” he tells me. “Tourism brings in over a billion dollars to the Kenyan economy every year. It’s a very important part of Kenya’s economic strategy.”
Consisting of nine open-plan cottages, one honeymoon suite and Elsa’s Private House, and situated in one of the most spectacular settings in East Africa, Elsa’s Kopje is almost invisible to the naked eye as you approach. Built above the site of George Adamson’s original campsite, each uniquely crafted cottage is the ultimate “room with a view.” An inviting infinity pool overlooks the beautiful Meru plains, and it really is as close as you can get to being in paradise on earth. “A big part of this is about ‘responsible tourism,’” Will tells me and so of course, it’s no surprise to discover a lot of the initiatives promoted here are aimed at benefiting the local community. The School Book Project, for example, allows guests at Elsa’s Kopje to buy books at the camp shop and donate them to school children in person. Interested guests can also visit a traditional village for a fee that is paid directly to the local community.
Working with local communities, particularly those living on the edges of the park, is vital, Born Free’s Programmes Officer Victor Mutumah tells me. “We hope that communities who live with these wild animals can be spurred on by awareness and incentives made available through our conservation work,” he says. Despite these hard efforts, however, poaching of wild animals is very much evident, as I witnessed when KWS showed us the shocking sight of a recently snared giraffe.
It’s a lucrative business, with an antelope or giraffe bringing in about $300 in local markets. Despite the removal of hundreds of snares, wildlife poaching has become even more sophisticated, Will Travers tells me. “Many parts of Africa are awash with illegal weapons due to local wars and local insurgencies. They are very easy and cheap to get hold of,” he reveals. “KWS and teams like them have a difficult and dangerous job, with their limited resources. We are committed to supporting them and we need to help them fight back with support and technology which will make them even more efficient. Born Free, with the support of Land Rover, has supplied tents, GPS units, binoculars, cameras and cold weather clothing – all sorts of things that will make their task not just better but more accurate. They have limited resources. They cannot be everywhere, so they need to know, where are the poaching hot spots?”
Since 1979, Africa’s elephant populations have tumbled from 1.3 million to no more than 400,000 today and South Africa is currently losing more than three rhino a day to feed the international demand for rhino horn. With African lion numbers estimated to be fewer than 25,000, the issues in Meru are only a very small part of the “war that is being waged against poaching” and the fight to save Africa’s endangered species. Clearly, conservation is a very complex issue and charities such as the Born Free Foundation, Tusk and WildAid are doing their best to raise awareness and gain public support both locally and at international levels. Will admitted to me that one cannot solve these difficult and complex issues alone; you have to solve it together.
There are individuals who are working hard, in some cases dedicating their whole lives, to the preservation of Africa’s magnificent creatures. At the recent Tusk Conservation Awards ceremony in London, HRH The Duke of Cambridge honoured leading conservationists who have dedicated themselves to protecting Africa’s wildlife and its habitat. As well as announcing plans for a new award in 2015 to recognize “the extraordinary bravery and commitment of Wildlife Rangers,” the Prince presented two campaigners with trophies and substantial grants in recognition of their outstanding efforts.
In a speech at the presentation ceremony, he said: “The people we celebrate tonight, the nominees and all those they represent, work in some of the remotest and harshest environments on the continent. They regularly put their own lives at risk for the sake of conserving some of Africa’s rarest and most treasured species. Their unquestioning, selfless dedication to the cause is humbling, and I pay tribute to all of you. The work of this year’s finalists serves to illustrate some of our greatest conservation challenges: dramatic loss of lion; poaching of elephant and rhino; deforestation and the critical need for community involvement.”
The winner of the Tusk Conservation Award was Herizo Andrianandrasana, an activist from Madagascar who has been the driving force behind getting local people involved in conservation management in his homeland.
“For now, though, people have a choice. They can stand by and do nothing, or get involved and actively make a difference” Will Travers tells me. Clearly, this situation is pretty drastic, so is it a case of too little too late, I ask him. “It’s never too late,” he replies. For the lucky few like myself who can support some of the responsible tourism initiatives in Africa, such as at Elsa’s Kopje, as well as witness the rangers and conservationists like Virginia McKenna, Born Free and KWS and see their work on the ground, I wondered what people could do back home. I put that question to Will, who said, “The first thing for anyone who cares about wildlife is not stay silent; speak up.” Talk to your family and colleagues, become an ambassador, ask them to join you in an endeavor, join a charity, adopt an animal, hold your own event, do a challenge, climb Mount Kilimanjaro, demonstrate your support, and raise a sum of money that the Born Free Foundation will deploy for lion conservation.
Paul Udoto from Kenya Wildlife Service agrees that this is the way forward. “I’m very proud of the new generation coming up, who are not letting the efforts of pioneers such as Joy and George Adamson go in vain. The current generation is reviving that spirit,” he says. “We are paying homage to the work that went on there, handing over the baton to the new generation. We must build on the foundation they created; it must not be squandered.” Time will tell, but just maybe, thanks to the efforts of teams like Born Free, Land Rover and the KWS, there might be a glimmer of hope for Africa’s magnificent creatures.