Lewa: the Africa close to William's heart

Sarah Marshal
Kenya's Lewa conservancy is inspiring other conservation projects throughout the country and beyond

On a Google Earth map glaring from a wall-size computer screen, hundreds of small red dots cluster and bundle like blood cells pumping and coursing through veins. As the pulsing threads swell and twist southwards, an analyst furiously scribbles notes. Machines click and whir into action, bulbs flash from clunky pieces of machinery, and I wonder if the room is about to take off.

Lewa HQ is as colourful as any figment of Ian Fleming's imagination. But in place of pretty women, it's elephants and rhinos that need protecting, their whereabouts carefully monitored through radio collars, helping to build a more accurate picture of these species in decline.

As dangerous, widespread and arguably even more devastating than the illegal drugs industry, wildlife crime is one of the biggest threats facing Africa, and here, in a compact operations centre in the north Kenyan bush, I'm meeting some of the people who are fighting on the front line.

Covering a radius of 300km, a Domain Awareness System gathers intelligence from teams on the ground to raise alerts of any poaching threats and helps manage wildlife travelling through community areas.

The trailing veins I'm looking at are an elephant corridor, a safe passage through private and communal land, which even involved the construction of an underpass.

"Around 300-400 elephants travel through here every week," explains the analyst. "They're heading to Mount Kenya for food and to exchange genes," she smiles. "It's like one big Ibiza beach party."

Rolling across hills and valleys in northern Kenya's Laikipia region, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy was established in 1995 and is proud to be one of the few places in Africa where poaching has almost completely disappeared.

In 2015, Prince William awarded the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award to the Head of Anti-Poaching, Edward Ndiritu, who grew up in the surrounding area and now leads a team of brave rangers.

The Duke of Cambridge spent his GAP year working at Lewa and forged a deep connection with the place and the Craig family, who originally purchased the land in the 1920s as a cattle ranch, and are now custodians of the conservancy. Years later, he even chose a thatch cottage within the 250sq km grounds to propose to his future wife Kate.

In 1972, the Craig's family home, Lewa Wilderness, became the first ranch in Kenya to welcome tourists. Nine thatched cottages overlook Lewa's Eastern Marania Valley, linked by trim lawns and stone paths leading to the main ivy-woven house where Will and Emma Craig still live.

Framed family photos smile from the mantelpiece, riding whips coil around coat hooks and battered, wide-brim hats look like something Dr Livingstone might have casually left behind. Overhead, a canary yellow bi-plane sketches puffy, cotton-tail loops across the sky, scarves waving from the dual open cockpits in a scene reminiscent of Biggles.

"That's the Waco," explains Lydia Craig, who's visiting her family for the week. "My father takes guests up for a ride. We've got sheepskin leather jackets and goggles," she gestures towards aviation paraphernalia hanging from the walls. "And we can play the Out Of Africa theme tune if you like!"

The creation of the Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary in 1984, at a time when the country's population of black rhino had dropped from 20,000 to just 300, was the first step towards Lewa becoming a conservancy, and today, 120 of the odd-toed ungulates (both black and white) graze this space.

On my first game drive, within ten minutes of leaving the lodge, I meet one of the latest additions, a newborn black rhino calf clinging closely to its mother's sagging, crumpled belly. We track the pair through golden waves of grass, climbing to a horizon crowned by the snowy peaks of Mount Kenya in the distance.

Strict regulations in the conservancy allow only two vehicles per sighting, and in the absence of day trippers, the area is wonderfully wild and people-free.

Another endangered resident is the Grevy's zebra, slightly leaner and more elegant than its more commonplace cousin, with fine stripes tapering into a white-washed tummy. Victims of habitat decline, 11 per cent of the worldwide population can be found in Lewa, numbering around 300 individuals.

Unlike many safari parks in Africa, Lewa is largely fenced - give or take a few entry and exit points for megafauna, which can be a turn off for some people, Lydia admits. But it's an example of wildlife management at its finest.

"One of the biggest differences between now and when I was a child is the number of trees," says Lydia, referring to the destruction of forest by bulldozing elephants, who - with shrinking habitats to roam - increasingly come into conflict with local communities.

By rotating fenced-off zones for elephants, Lewa has come up with a clever way to let the forest regrow and prevent destruction of local farmland, and - as a result - crucially gain the communities' support.

Still, it's hard to imagine these regal creatures could cause so many problems.

As the light gloops into a honeyed dew and shadows stretch long and thin, a grand matriarch hoists her cabbage-torn ears at full mast, confidently staking her territory. This is her home - but balancing the needs of these animals with a growing human population, is one of the biggest challenges facing conservationists.

It's very clear Lewa's story isn't purely about wildlife; local community are key protagonists too. That's why the conservancy has become a blueprint for conservation and eco-tourism throughout Africa, inspiring countless projects in Kenya and beyond.

In his role as royal patron for the Tusk Trust, Prince William has spoken at great length about the fight against wildlife crime, a task that can - at times - seem like a Mission Impossible.

But at the grass roots lies a force far greater than any special intelligence, and more powerful than any whirring, bleeping computer screens. Even Bond would have a job keeping up with them.