If, like me, you love elephants then you'll love visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust which is located on the outskirts of the Nairobi National Park. Each day for an hour, the nursery elephants are brought out for the public to view, be entertained and learn about elephants and the work of the Trust. However this is more than just presenting cute baby elephants to the public. For over 30 years the Trust, which relies on donations to operate, has been rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned elephants and rhinos as well as doing other conservation work. The cost of your visit goes towards these projects.
You may also be interested in adopting an orphaned elephant. Apart from receiving monthly updates about your elephant and a beautiful watercolour print to collect, you also get the opportunity to visit the Trust late in the afternoon when the orphans are returning to their stalls for the evening - watch them be fed and bedded down and best of all, touch these beautiful creatures. These visits are free (or were in 2009) but you do need to call the Trust to make a booking.
There is a wealth of information on their website so please visit it and make a donation.
If you have a spare afternoon while in Mombasa, then Haller Park (formerly Bamburi Nature Trail) is worth a visit (it's on the north coast). It's a conservation project to reclaim the former cement works back to natural habitat. You can hand feed the giraffes or view the feeding of the two resident hippos (who have to share with the cheeky vervet monkeys). Other animals to see are eland, oryx, waterbuck, cape buffalo, crocs and some very large tortoises. I booked my visit with a tour company but you can get there by taxi.
For an incredible and authentic Maasai experience, visit Maji Moto in the Loita Hills. Maji Moto means "Hot Springs" in the Maa language. Not only is this an authentic cultural experience it also provides economic assistance to the Maasai people. Stay at either the ecological campsite or in a traditional manyatta (mud hut with beds); go walking with Maasai Warriors; learn about Maasai culture or visit the Maasai Mara National Park which is a 1.5 hour drive away.
The most wonderful experience I had at Maji Moto was visiting the widows' village and refuge. Salatan (the Chief) introduced me to Hellen Nkurayia, a Maasai teacher who has set up Enkiteng Lepa, a refuge for Maasai girls. The village is a place for widows and their children as well as the refuge. You might be asking what would Maasai girls be wanting refuge from - circumcision or more rightly Female Genital Mutilation ("FGM") and early marriage. FGM has been banned in Kenya since 2001 but the government has said that it will not interfere with cultural practices, which FGM is considered one of them, so it still goes on quite freely. I have read that Maasai women don't know why it is done only that it is part of their "culture". My Maasai guide, Tiampati, told me that he was told by an elder that it was because eons ago when the Maasai lived near Mt Kenya, the women were left alone in the village one day while the men went off with their grazing cattle. When the men returned they found their women with other men not from the village, so it was decided the women should be "circumcised" to stop them from being "promiscuous". In some cultures FGM only removes the clitoris, but in Maasai culture it is everything (I don't think I need explain!!) and what remains is then stitched together causing horrific scarring and problems urinating and menstruating. The same unsterilized knife is used to perform FGM on several girls which could lead to various transmittable diseases. If a girl doesn't die from the shock, she can die from infection as the only thing put on the "wound" is butter!!
Hellen told me that some women have, as a result of FGM, died from massive blood loss when giving birth because the scar tissue tears so badly and there are no hospitals nearby to treat them. To prevent this from happening some women are now not eating after the first three months of their pregnancy which, of course, causes malnutrition not only in the mother but the baby, birth defects and, as Hellen put it, the babies look more like "rats" than babies when they are born as they are so small. Hellen has been campaigning through education to try to stop FGM.
After a girl is "circumcised" she is then eligible to marry which is around 12 or 13 years old. In some cases she may end up being wife number 5, 6 or 7 to someone who is 70 or 80 years old. When the husband dies he not only leaves behind several widows but young children. Again, as a Maasai cultural practice, women cannot inherit their husband's property nor remarry leaving these often uneducated young girls/women with no prospects of employment and struggling to look after their children while still trying to make ends meet. Hellen is assisting these women with income generating projects.
Fortunately, Salatan is supporting Hellen by giving her land for the village and warriors for protection, something which is very unusual for a Maasai man as these are considered "women's issues" and is something which men don't normally get involved in.
I only spent two days at Maji Moto, which was not nearly long enough, but I was so warmly welcomed by these beautiful people that I hope to return in the not too distant future.
The sanctuary was set up in 1995 by the local community to protect the people and elephants from conflict with each other whether it be the elephants raiding crops, being killed in revenge or people being killed while trying to run off an elephant. The sanctuary is about 36 square kilometres and all money is put back into the community. I was there in November 2009 but there weren't as many elephants as I had expected however the closeness I got to some was pretty amazing. I had hoped I would be able to see from my tent, at the Travellers Mwaluganje Elephant Camp, lots of elephants at the waterhole, but because there had been recent rain, they were able to move around more to other water sources and didn't need to come to that particular waterhole. It was also the mating season so they were moving between Mwaluganje and the nearby Shimba Hills Reserve. Once I entered the park I had a game drive on the way to the Camp and saw a few elephants fairly close to the road. Although my 150-500mm lens comes in very handy, however a few times some elephants were so close to the side of the road that the lens was too big and I had to revert to my compact Powershot instead. On the way out of the park I came across a lone male who was only about 5 metres from the edge of the road. He was very happy to eat while I clicked away - the key is to sit quietly and be patient. If they are unhappy by your presence they will either walk away or give a mock charge to make you move, and if you don't get the message, then they will charge for real.
There are two very good reasons to visit Sweetwaters - the chimp and rhino sanctuaries.
Sadly, due to our treatment of chimpanzees there is a need for places like Sweetwaters, but thank goodness it exists. Ol Pejeta Conservancy have established the sanctuary in conjunction with the Jane Goodall Institute to rescue chimpanzees which have been orphaned due to the bush meat and pet trades or abuse and cruelty at our hands. Chimpanzees are not native to Kenya so need to be in a large fenced area within the Conservancy. Unfortunately they cannot return to the wild but will live out their days happy and safe.
The rhino sanctuary is home to black and white rhinos. In Africa during the 1980s, the numbers of black rhino dropped from an estimate of 65,000 to just 10,000. The total by 2001 was estimated to be around 3,100. Due to poaching, the population in Kenya went from 20,000 to as low as 300. Although the population in Kenya is still not great, it is estimated to now be around 620, 100 of which are now at Ol Pejeta, making it the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa.
Even more critically endangered is the Northern White Rhino. Four of the last remaining seven are at Ol Pejeta in a breeding program to try to bring them back from the brink of extinction.
My accommodation at Sweetwaters was something like Out of Africa. It may look like a tent, but inside was a double bed, shower with hot water, vanity and flushing toilet. Day and night game drives are available - it is worth going on a night drive to see animals you wouldn't see during the day. In the distance we spotted an aardvark - to see one is very rare and it is said that if you do it will bring you long life!
Established in 1971 to rehabilitate endangered species, especially the cheetah and wild dog. The Centre is about an hour's drive outside Johannesburg but worth the trip or stay overnight at the Cheetah Lodge. The tour of the Centre takes 3 hours which includes the cheetah run (see how fast they go), an informative talk about cheetah behaviour, a photographic opportunity to pat one of them (it costs extra but an experience I will never forget) and a safari to view other animals such as the brown hyena, servals, a variety of vultures, cheetah cubs and wild dog pups.
This was a fantastic up close and personal interaction which elephants. The Sanctuary has 12 elephants at three sites in South Africa and I visited the one at Hartbeespoort Dam near Johannesburg.
The elephants at the Sanctuary are not tame but are trained with food as a way of gaining the elephant's trust. The aim of the Sanctuary is to rehabilitate elephants which have been at zoos or circuses or in the wild but have become difficult. Eventually they will be released back into the wild.
Visitors to the Sanctuary are taken on an interactive tour beginning with a very informative talk about elephants and their anatomy. We were then able to feed a male called Amarula. We were only able to approach him because we had food. Amarula is a 40 year old male who came from the Bloomfontein zoo three years ago. Although he was born in the wild, he has spent most of his life in zoos. Under the guidance of a handler, we next had the opportunity to spend several minutes getting up close to touch and stroke an elephant - this was incredible. Finally I walked "hand in trunk" with an elephant.
Did you know that the lion population of Africa has declined by 80-90% in the last 30 years?
This was eleven of the best weeks of my life!! Having been to Africa several times, I wanted to give something back and especially do something with animals. I knew you could "Walk with Lions" as a tourist in Livingstone, but I didn't know you could work as a volunteer until I found out about it on the African Impact website. In 2010 I spent six weeks as a volunteer and in 2013 a further five weeks. It is an awesome experience to walk along side lions every day and become a senior member of "the pride". As a volunteer, apart from taking the cubs out for walks to get them used to their natural environment, you prepare their meat (donkey, cattle or chicken) [the only not so pleasant task - if you think being vegetarian will get you out of it think again!!] and clean their enclosures; make toys from natural vegetation; lion research; snare sweeping (very important); conservation and community education; project and enclosure maintenance; learn about Zambian culture; and meet the local people. Volunteer for 2 weeks to 2 months but, no matter how long you are here for, it is genuinely a life changing experience.
Please note: there is a lot of controversy at present regarding human interactions with lion cubs and their fate once they become adults. Lion Encounter DOES NOT send its cubs to places for canned hunting. This is a four stage project which costs a great deal of money and time to pursue. Please visit the Lion Encounter and ALERT websites for more details on the projects.
Right next to Lion Encounter is the Zambezi Elephant Trails. These are elephants which have come from a captive situation and cannot be returned to the wild. I have ridden the elephants three times now, once as a tourist and twice while I was volunteering at Lion Encounter. I love elephants so to be able to get this close to them was one of my dreams. For an hour you get to ride one of these magnificent creatures through the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park before hand-feeding your elephant. The elephants are ridden at most three times each day and, when not interacting with tourists, they roam freely around the property under the watchful eye of their handlers.