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Technology and Tales from the Bush

Ian Belcher discovers how Kenya’s Laikipia county is embracing drones and predator-tracking apps, as part of its frontline role in conservation

After a digital detox? Look away now. I’m deep in the African bush, beneath the lip of a dramatic escarpment, exploiting the shade from the tangled branches of a boscia (rough-leaf shepherd’s tree). Having just watched a 60-strong elephant herd amble past our Land Rover, my eyes are now glued to a laptop – the surrounding wilderness trumped by mesmerising photographs of leopard.  

Screens needn’t feature in your visit to Loisaba Conservancy, whose prolific wildlife can be experienced on a traditional safari drive, or on horse, camel, even bike. But the magnificent 22,662-hectare quilt of wilderness in northern Kenya’s Laikipia county happily embraces cutting-edge technology, from drones to predator tracking apps, as part of its frontline role in conservation – and it wants you to take part. Lodo Springs, its photogenic lodge, provides a unique opportunity to join experts, from lion trackers to PhD researchers, out in the field.  

“Our ambition is to create a more authentic conservation experience,” says Tom Silvester, Loisaba’s chief executive and the driving force behind its acclaimed ecotourism. “You’ll have as much behind-the-scenes access as possible. We’re saying, ‘be part of our story’.”  

Story of Partnerships

That story involves partnerships with several leading wildlife NGOs from Lion Landscapes to San Diego Zoo. I start with the latter, whose groundbreaking research into leopard numbers and territory – the first in Kenya’s history – started in 2017. There’s nothing unusual about naturalists using remote motionactivated cameras. But linking a comprehensive grid of 56 across Loisaba and neighbouring Mpala Conservancy? That’s special.  

Our first outing involves a spine-jarring drive across potholed grassland, before clambering up a boulder-strewn ridge. Directly above, just days ago, a lioness was involved in a kill with a baboon. Today is the calm after the storm. Sadly, the camera has recorded porcupine and genet cat, but none of the conservancy’s 25 to 40 leopards.  

The next day is potentially more thrilling. We’re driving to the area that achieved global fame when a camera trap, placed by a visiting photographer, captured footage of an incredibly rare black leopard, a moonlight sheen on its sinuous torso. A media feeding frenzy allowed the images to reach 1.3 billion people.  

Our chances of a second spot are slim but approaching Lorok – site of the famous film clip – anticipation rises. Might lightning strike twice? The undulating bush, littered with boscia trees and spiky euphorbia, is devoid of animals suggesting predators lurk nearby. Sadly, they remain under cover. In fact, there’s not even a camera. It has been snaffled by playful hyenas.  

So no leopards, of any colour, and no dazzling footage. Instead, research assistant, Ambrose Letoluai, offered a privileged insight into the project. He describes press claims that this was the first black leopard spotted in a century as ridiculous. “Locals have mentioned sightings for years. My father saw one in 2008. Our cameras filmed the animal six months before.”  

He whips out his laptop to show me footage, taken since, of a black leopard with two cubs, one black, one golden, part of a ‘flame’ of six dark cats. He seems completely unfazed that the visiting photographer received the worldwide acclaim. “I just hope it gains recognition for the valuable conservation work and helps with funding. If locals see the world is amazed by the images, then they won’t let a poaching cartel use them to kill the animal. 

I also learn a nifty conservationist’s trick. To entice the leopards, each camera is sprayed with Chanel N°5 or CK Obsession. Both perfumes’ synthetic civet musk acts like a magnet. Cue jokes about ‘the Lynx effect’. 

Giraffe Guard 

If Tuesday is for leopards, Wednesday is for giraffe. Reticulated giraffe. Symon Masiaine is a Twiga Walinzi, a giraffe guard and chief researcher on the project hosted by Loisaba and Namunyak Conservancies. A combination of habitat loss and bushmeat hunting has halved the animal’s population in three decades. Under 16,000 survive. “People hardly noticed,” says Symon, uploading a chart onto his laptop. “The numbers dropped silently.”  

As well as motion-activated cameras and GPS tracking collars, the research – backed by several international wildlife organisations – uses revolutionary software to identify individual animals from markings on their flank. Symon, who recently completed a postgraduate degree in America and is ‘optimistic’ the species will bounce back, also spends time winning hearts and minds in local villages. “I explain giraffe meat isn’t an essential part of anyone’s diet.”  

Lodo Springs 

It certainly isn’t served at Lodo Springs, where African fusion tapas and light lunches – red snapper with herbs and tempura vegetables anyone? – offer a welcome alternative to traditional safari fare. If the food’s different, so is the design. Slipped discreetly along the escarpment edge, its eight enormous canvas-roofed rooms have eclectic interiors behind glasspaned walls with vintage finds including a 17th-century French wardrobe and 1950s American bar stools.  

I’m standing beside its spectacular infinity pool, overlooking the verdant Ewaso Nyiro River valley towards distant Mount Kenya, when a third expert, Thomas Majong, Lion Landscapes’ head ranger, breaks the bad news. His radar and tracking technology show Loisaba’s three prides are far away in neighbouring conservancies.  

Time for old-school tactics. On a nearby hill, a security guard – one of 68 protecting Loisaba – spots four of the nine lions living outside the prides. He directs our guide by radio, suspense growing as we drive into dense bush. We know the big cats are very close but can’t see a thing. Then. Suddenly. They’re right next to us. I’d like to recount a ripping yarn of sharp fangs and stomach-churning roars, but the alpha predators look unsurprised, even bored: the call of the mild.  

Born Free Foundation

A lion also features at my next destination. And not any old lion. Meru National Park was home to Elsa, the star of Born Free – the five million selling book and adored movie – in which George and Joy Adamson reintroduced an orphaned lioness into the wild. Our lodge, Elsa’s Kopje, happily embraces its famous backstory with movie memorabilia, gorgeous photographs of George and various lions, and artefacts from Joy’s life, including her painting easel.  

My arrival is perfectly timed. I coincide with a visit by Virginia McKenna, the actor who portrayed Joy (her husband, Bill Travers, played George). Still charming and charismatic in her early 90s, she answers copious guest questions and hosts an entertaining evening, recounting tales of filming, from stalking alongside the lions at ground level to a lioness dropping a freshly killed gazelle at her feet. “We’d become part of the pride.”  

The experience laid the foundations of the couple’s passion for conservation. “You couldn’t be the same person once you’d met George,” she recalls. “He was so humane, so kind, so understanding. You wanted to share his philosophy.”  

And that’s exactly what they did, eventually launching the Born Free Foundation. In the wide breadth of its campaigning, from opposing ivory trading, wildlife trafficking and the exploitation of captive animals, to protecting endangered species, it consistently aims to give animals a voice.  

On a sun-kissed morning, we explore some of the fruits of its labour. An impromptu safari, spotting rhino, takes us to Kajoo School, just outside the park, where the foundation has funded classrooms, facilities, and textbooks. On arrival, Virginia is mobbed by excited children before she discusses future projects with the headteacher, including funding daily fruit for each child and repairing the school bus for twice-monthly picnics in the park. Most of the schoolchildren have never crossed its boundary. “It’s essential to show them the wild,” she says. “It’s exactly the sort of thing that will ensure Meru continues to exist.”  

Back in 1999, the opening of Elsa’s Kopje helped rehabilitate the park following poaching and land invasions. The higgle piggle of atmospheric thatched cottages, all exposed boulders and tree-branch showers, merge seamlessly into Mughwango Hill. Hyrax grace the reception, genet cat the restaurant and local leopards drink from its swimming pool, while ‘Elsa’s pride’ occasionally rolls up from the valley floor.  

Outside, guests enjoy near exclusive access to one of East Africa’s most diverse national parks, which features forked doum palms looming above forests, lava fields, swamps, and ochre grassland. One safari drive reveals three north Kenyan ‘specials’: reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra and Somali ostrich. Another lets me follow a lioness for a silent hour as she stalks a waterbuck, her mission finally sabotaged by screeching baboons.  

Accompanied by Virginia, I also visit three Born Free landmarks: Elsa’s grave and George’s camp and pool, to which he and two lions would trek for 22 kilometres through the bush. “It’s wonderful this story has lasted all these years,” she says, as a crimson sun bleeds into the Nyambene Hills. “It will live on because people are longing to be inspired by something other than shopping or politics, something far more profound.” 

Elewana Loisaba Lodo Springs

Laikipia, Kenya

Nestled in the nearly 25,000 hectares of the Loisaba Conservancy in Kenya, this five-star, tented property offers an ultra-private experience, as well as magical views

Laikipia

Home to more endangered species than anywhere else in East Africa

Kenya

A wealth of tailor-made Kenyan safari experiences