Saving the big cats

Undated Handout Photo of lions in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. See PA Feature TRAVEL Kenya. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Sarah Marshall. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Kenya.
Undated Handout Photo of lions in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. See PA Feature TRAVEL Kenya. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Sarah Marshall. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Kenya.

As the lioness wearily raises her head from a parched acacia thicket, safari guide Daniel seizes the opportunity to count the number of whiskers tapering beneath her fleshy-pink nose.

After every sighting, Daniel inputs data into a custom-made app, which he’ll then transmit to a central information bank once we have Wi-Fi connection back at the lodge. It’s all part of a drive to monitor the number of lions in Samburu and increase a population that is currently under threat.

Arguably the most iconic of safari’s Big Five headliners, there are currently 32,000 lions in Africa - a drop of 90 per cent since 1975, according to statistics from National Geographic. In Kenya, the birthplace of safari, there are fewer than 2,000 lions, and Kenya Wildlife Service estimates 100 were lost last year.

Although overshadowed by the appalling decimation of elephants and rhino by poaching, the plight of Africa’s lions is now receiving deserved attention. “People expect to see a lion on safari; if they don’t they’d be surprised,” says Mickey Carr-Hartley who, along with his wife Tanya, owns Sasaab and three other properties in The Safari Collection portfolio.

In Samburu, the couple is supporting the work of inspirational conservationist Shivani Bhalla, who is passionately working to raise both the profile and population of Africa’s big cats through her project Ewaso Lions, and guests at Sasaab are invited to learn about her work. She is also responsible for the Lion Watch initiative and the phone app Daniel and his colleagues now use.

Shivani highlights community conflict as the main threat to lions and much of her work involves educating the 600 Samburu families in Westgate about the importance of wildlife. Habitat destruction and overgrazing has led to a significant drop in lions’ prey, meaning many now target the pastoral community’s precious livestock.

But by teaching people about the value of wildlife and the money it brings through tourism, along with methods to protect livestock, she has helped raise the number of Samburu lions from 11 in 2007 to a present count of 40.

“And for the first time we’ve noticed that lions in the reserve are starting to roar, a sign they feel safe,” she tells me with relief.

Guests at Sasaab Lodge can make donations to Ewaso Lions but even by staying in the Westgate Conservancy, where the lodge pays a lease to the Samburu people, they are supporting wildlife and community.

The nine luxurious tents on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River are a world apart from Shivani’s simple set-up. An infinity pool and spa overlook the shallow water where elephants cross, and open-sided stone bathrooms offer the chance to shower by starlight.

In the past, only government officials would visit this part of Kenya and subsequently villages are unaffected by mass tourism. To my relief, a trip to a local manyatta (homestead) is far from being a contrived circus show.

Almost 40 per cent of children in the conservancy now go to school, and Sasaab regularly donates funds to the Ngutuk Ongiron primary school and clinic. Shivani also works with the Safari Collection’s excellent in-house community and conservation manager Ali Allport on projects to introduce children to wildlife, which they intend to roll out in the company’s Solio property in Laikipia and Sala’s Camp in the Masai Mara.

Set up in 1970, Solio holds the mantle for being Africa’s most successful rhino breeding reserve, but on my visit to the lodge, set within Kenya’s first private conservancy in a valley between Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Mountains, I spend time with a number of lions. I share an hour with three 18-month-old cubs who tumble and play-flght in the long grass, doing their best to aggravate their remarkably composed father. It’s the first of many sightings.

It’s a similar story in the Mara, further south-west, where the annual wildebeest migration serves as an open buffet for lions who are otherwise haphazard hunters. Bellies bloated, they lick their paws, leaving discarded carcasses for vultures to feast on.

During other months, however, numbers are lower. Nic Elliot, project director for the Mara Lion Project, says in the past five years lions have changed their behaviour and become more shy, mainly as a result of conflict with local Maasai communities. Yet despite all the problems, he still rates Kenya as the best place in Africa to see - and hear - lions.

As I lie in bed that night in Sala’s Camp, in a quiet corner of the Masai Mara Reserve close to the Tanzanian border, I’m certain I hear a gruff, rolling roar. It could be thunder, but I very much hope it’s a lion.