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July 30, 2022
📸: Charles Runnette
The black leather boots of the lead ranger trudge through the thorny Commiphora bush in Kenya’s Sera Conservancy with ease. My sneakers are no match for this unforgiving terrain, but next to me, my Samburu guide, Joseph, who’s wearing sandals made out of old car tires, seems unfazed.
We’ve been following the ranger for a half hour on a walk organized by Saruni Rhino when he comes to a grinding halt, his palm shooting up and motioning for us to stop. He then hoists radio telemetry above his head, rotating it in different directions, listening for a beep from a microchip implanted in the horn of any of the 19 black rhinos that roam this wildlife sanctuary. The ranger takes out a small sack and shakes it. Ashes drift toward us, disappearing somewhere over our shoulders. Rhinos have a strong sense of smell, Joseph had explained to me earlier, and the wind blowing toward us means our scent won’t waft back to the mother and calf that I can now see browsing barely 200 feet away.
My heart pounds so loudly that I fear the rhino might hear it—the duo is close enough for me to make out the rough texture of their gray, pachydermal skin. Joseph tells me the mother weighs about one ton and is almost as tall as me. Remembering that it can charge at speeds up to 34 miles per hour, I mentally calculate how far back we left our jeep. Then, as I inch even closer, twigs crackle under my feet, and the mother and calf wander off in the opposite direction.
I was born in Kenya and have been on close to 60 safaris, but few encounters with wildlife have felt as thrilling as my recent rhino tracking walk in Kenya’s Sera Conservancy. I was also happy to know that by simply signing up for the experience, I was not only helping to fund the protection of this critically endangered species, which requires the daily monitoring patrols by rangers that I took part in. I was also making a contribution to the livelihood of the 16,000 semi-nomadic Samburu pastoralists who own this land. Each guest pays a conservancy fee, 100% of which goes back to the community, who have seen benefits ranging from employment and better access to health care to education. These benefits are incentives for the Samburu to continue using their land for conservation and rewilding efforts, rather than turning it over to less sustainable agricultural activities.
One of the conservancy’s first black rhinos, Naitamany, was translocated here from Lewa Conservancy in 2015, and she had the sanctuary’s first calf the following year. Since then, the population has steadily increased to its current 19, which is no small feat considering that black rhino had been absent from this part of northern Kenya for 30 years. Today, guests to Sera Conservancy can visit the sanctuary for orphaned or abandoned rhino calves, which are cared for by rangers before being released back into the wild. They can base themselves out of one of Saruni Rhino’s three thatch-roofed accommodations, all of which are hidden among towering doum palms. The property’s infinity pool faces the dry riverbed of seasonal River Kauro, where an adjacent waterhole often attracts such wildlife as Grevy’s zebra and gerenuk.
There’s a growing number of experiences across eastern and southern Africa that offer travelers a closer look at conservation efforts — and sometimes even the chance to participate. Read on for two more standout trips.
In Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park, Asilia Africa is gearing up to open Usangu Expedition Camp in June 2022, offering guests a rare chance for firsthand involvement in conservation and research projects in the wetlands via the on-site Douglas Bell Eco Research Station.
After check-in, guests get a camera trap to set up near their tent for the duration of their stay. On the final day, they can check the images to see which animals were wandering outside their room at night, or finally settle that debate on whether it was a hyena or baboon they heard the previous morning. Upload images to the camp’s predator identification hub for the research team to compare against their own database. Who knows—you might even be lucky enough to spot something the conservation team hasn’t discovered yet. For an even more immersive experience, spend the day driving around with scientists who are tracking, monitoring and recording collared animals such as lions, sable antelopes or wild dogs.
The camp itself is composed of four tents on raised wooden decks with private front porches shaded by trees of the surrounding miombo forest. Rooms face the Ihefu Swamp’s green marshland (for birders, a boat ride through the swamp is a must). More intrepid travelers might want to try the sleep-out experience in a Star Cube tent and drift off under a ceiling of stars.
Founded more than 30 years ago, andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve is a leader in hands-on guest conservation experiences rooted in scientific need, ranging from rhino dehorning to elephant collaring. In 2019, Phinda reintroduced a small group of pangolins that had been rescued from poachers, and today the reserve continues its monitoring and research of them in collaboration with the African Pangolin Working Group.
Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked animal. On the African continent, they are threatened by poaching for their meat and scales, which end up in Asia for falsified medicinal purposes. With pangolin numbers in Asia dwindling, there is growing poaching pressure on Africa’s population. Phinda offers guests a chance to see the elusive nocturnal creatures while supporting crucial monitoring work that is helping these mammals thrive in a region where they had been extinct for decades. Head out at night with a researcher to locate and observe pangolins up close as you help the team collect information on their behavior, movement and territory. Then stay in any of andBeyond’s four properties, including Phinda Mountain Lodge, which sits on a hill with views of the private game reserve. From the pool, you just might spot a herd of elephants milling around in the grasslands below.
Turkish Airlines, Emirates and Qatar Airlines offer connecting service to East Africa from Seattle.