Thursday, 21 Mar 2002

SAMBURU, Kenya

I am driving into the Northern Frontier District, a hot dry wind blowing through the open windows of my Land Rover as white dust kicks up behind me. I pass acacia bushes and jagged rock outcrops in a landscape that looks prehistoric. This is the same area of Kenya where Dr. Richard Leakey made his famous archeological discoveries of our early human ancestors. It is also the place where I first got to know Africa. I was stationed here in 1978 as a wildlife researcher, an experience that led to 16 years of living in Africa and my current ecotourism work.

As I pass through the gate and into Samburu Game Reserve, a flood of feelings rush over me. There is Ololokwe, the sacred mountain of the Samburu people and the place where a Samburu warrior once taught me how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together. I pass by Buffalo Springs, a natural pool where I used to swim to escape the intense heat. Sights, sounds, and smells continue to spark memories as I drive along a rough dirt track deeper into the reserve.

Costas tracking elephants with Samburu warriors.

But my visit today is not about reliving the past. Rather, I have come back to Samburu to learn about one of Africa’s newest ecotourism ventures, Elephant Watch Safaris. This is the brain-child of Kenya-born Oria Douglas-Hamilton, who together with her husband Iain, is one of the world’s leading experts on African elephant behavior and ecology.

Shocked at the dramatic drop in elephant populations across Africa due to massive ivory poaching in the 1980s, Oria and Iain supported a worldwide conservation crusade to ban the ivory trade and put an end to poaching. In 1993, Iain set up Save The Elephants, a nonprofit organization dedicated to elephant research and conservation. He established his research camp in Samburu Game Reserve beside a rocky hill along the Uaso Nyiro River, the only permanent water source in the area and the lifeline of the Samburu ecosystem — the very spot where I lived in a tent while studying monkeys 24 years ago.

While Iain prepared to monitor the movements of elephants using radio collars, Oria hatched another plan. “The idea came to me as I was sitting on the roof of my Land Rover, watching elephants,” she explains. “A young female walked towards me and lifted her trunk. I held out my hand to the tip of her nose and murmured a low rumble call while her warm breath flowed over my fingers. For a while, she remained by the car, flapping her ears, ripping grass, and twirling her trunk.” Her idea was to set up an ecotourism experience that would allow visitors to track and observe wild elephants with trained guides.

Monitoring elephant movements within Samburu Game Reserve using radio technology.

Employing only local Samburu people as guides, Oria established a small camp in the reserve and hired Renee Kuriyan, a bright, young American woman who had been working with Iain, to be her assistant. The goal of the project is to generate income and conservation awareness among local communities while also providing visitors with an in-depth, first-hand education in elephant behavior and ecology.

I arrive in time to join Renee for lunch in the Elephant Watch Safaris camp. The table is under the canopy of a large Acacia Elatior tree beside the river. Elephants appear at the edge of the camp, colorful birds are everywhere, and baboons play nearby. Renee explains to me that she is working closely with two local villages, Kiltamany and Lpus Lilowe, that have been involved with the ecotourism venture from the outset. At the request of the locals, a percentage of the income from the project will go towards establishing a training fund, rather than going directly into villagers’ pockets. The fund will support educational opportunities — a priority for the community — as well as other community needs.

Although much of the community work is just starting and Elephant Watch Safaris is new, the project has already supported four full educational scholarships for village children and has helped to establish a women’s handicraft collective. As we talk during lunch, I am impressed with Renee’s grasp of the complexities of making ecotourism work and of her commitment to doing so.

I spent the afternoon tracking elephants with guide Sammy Lemantampsh and a young Samburu warrior named Sumoro Lecharkole. Sumoro has been mobilizing his community to keep cattle out of the park and to monitor the movements of any elephants spotted outside of the protected area. When we visit his village, several members come to him to report seeing an elephant with an injured foot. From the description, Sumoro and Sammy recognize the elephant as Mandela, one of the bulls they are monitoring. Sammy notes the information down for the Save The Elephants team. Later, Sammy, Sumoro, Renee, and I come upon an unusually large herd of bulls and Sammy writes down its exact location and the number of animals in ther herd.

With African elephants being wiped out by poaching in many parts of the continent, every effort to save them is needed. Elephant Watch Safaris is one way that ecotourism can contribute to that effort.