In mid-February of this year, my wife, her parents, my mother, and myself, left for a vacation in East Africa: Kenya & Tanzania!
Personally, my heart was exploding to be returning to East Africa. I had spent a month in East Africa, mostly Tanzania, in 2004, with a small group of graduate students studying cultural ecology in Ndarakwai Game Reserve. In a nutshell, these studies focused on whether the reserve was sustainable to the number of elephant herds or whether it was beyond its carrying capacity resulting in increased habitat destruction and increased negative animal>human conflicts. Additionally, we met with local Maasai tribes evaluating their use of the natural resources and their struggles with local laws prohibiting historically traditional uses for the thorny acacia trees which they used to surround their mud-huts (bomas) to protect them and their livestock from lion predation. While this graduate coursework was not a true vacation, it was still the best month of my life; camping in the dust of Mount Kilimanjaro, and I longed to return someday. Finally, after 14 years, it was happening.
Having traveling companions with fairly limited international experience was both challenging, and incredibly exciting. I knew what their senses were in for, but kept it close to vest; watching them experience things so unfamiliar would be half the fun for me! And, although I had been to this region before, I was elated to be returning with loved ones, and my photography equipment in tow, on a true vacation no less! In fact, it was my first true vacation ever! I am fortunate to travel fairly frequently, but by and large my travels are because of my career in the travel industry, and when I use my vacation time I typically can only afford local camping trips. Not this time; go big or go home.
So, after seemingly endless flights, overly friendly TSA pat-downs, we arrived in Nairobi Kenya late at night, exiting the aircraft and immediately hit with the warm air, fragrant with flowers. While everyone else exiting the plane was shuffled to the general customs and immigration lines, we were met with the smiling face of our greeter, holding a sign for “Zahn family.” A private van was right there beside the aircraft, and drove us to a private immigration office where we went through expedited immigration formalities. It pays to have a career in the travel industry with the right connections! Little did my travel companions know that this royal VIP treatment would continue for the next 16 days!
In the dimly lit concrete baggage-claim area, all of our luggage thankfully arrived safely, and our airport greeters insisted on handling all our bags, ushering us to a waiting van on the main road. I almost couldn’t contain my excitement thinking about what must be going through my families minds confronted with new smells, unusual sights and sounds of the Kenyan capital at night; local women adorned in brilliantly colored garb, men driving scooters with impossible cargo balanced on their shoulders, whole families sharing a single motorcycle down a busy road, a mess of vehicles with little regard to traffic laws and lanes. One minute surrounded in the familiar comforts of airplanes and airports, the next minute walking out of the airport into what feels like a different planet. No matter how much travel experience one has, when you’re introduced to a new destination and culture, new channels and pathways are opened in your brain as you internalize what you’re seeing and feeling; local norms and behaviors you had never considered, and often experiences which challenge things you once thought you understood. That, my friends, is the beauty one finds outside your comfort zone.
Our first stop for the first two nights was Giraffe Manor, only about an hour drive outside Nairobi, yet truly a world away in its own right. Giraffe Manor is a luxury boutique estate built in 1923 and maintains that 1920s décor, and is situated on a 140 acre reserve for wild endangered Rothschild giraffe species. Arriving in the darkness was ideal; I knew we’d be in for an astounding wake up the next morning. After a very nice welcome from the hotel manager who briefed us on what to expect the next couple days, we were led to our rooms on the second floor. My wife and I were appointed a lovely room with a large deck overlooking stone patios and the surrounding forests. Despite the excitement, we forced ourselves to bed as quickly as possible, with alarms set for sunrise-- we didn’t want to miss a thing!
When the alarms woke us the following morning, my eyes opened easily with anticipation. It was still quite dark outside but the blue hues of morning light sifted through the linen drapes. My wife immediately opened the doors to our private deck and walked outside. “Oh my gosh! There’s one right here! Oh my gosh, my heart is beating so fast!” her eyes wide with excitement. Sure enough, as I walked outside I saw we were standing just above the enormous back on an endangered Rothschild’s giraffe, its head hidden as its long neck was reaching through the windows to the room below us. We got our things together as quickly as possible and knocked on our parents doors before descending the mahogany staircase to the lower level. There, in the dining room, guests sat around their tables, dining on a beautiful breakfast spread, while several massive giraffe intruded their long necks through the windows looking for snacks.
Breakfast was one I’ll remember forever. The delicious food took a backseat to the giraffes at the center of everyone’s attention. I recall around 6 or 7 giraffes wandering about that morning—a couple young ones, a couple pregnant females, and one enormous elder named Ed. They were not shy to extend their entire head and neck into the building, their long tongues wrapping around the treat plucking it from your palm and leaving long trails of saliva. Some of us even put treats in our lips and let the giraffe lick them right off our faces! Needless to say after a few minutes you were ready to wash your hands and face. Also, all around the lawns were wild warthogs grunting and grazing on grass and dropped treats. Interestingly, they primarily graze kneeling on their front “elbows,” an “evolutionary failure” as my wife says. The hilarious breakfast ended as the giraffes had their fill, slowly ambling away into the shaded forests for the day.
Around midday, we drove to the nearby Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a very admirable organization dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned elephants and rhinos. Their orphans come from a wide variety of situations, most of them heart-breaking and related to poaching. Elephants and rhinos are under continuous human threat: the ivory trade for elephants tusks remains a multi-billion dollar black market, and the rhinos are hunted for the debunked “medicinal” properties of their horns for Asian markets. Elephant and rhinoceros poaching statistics are horrifying and a stain on our human conscience. Between 1979 to 1989, a mere decade, half of all of Africa’s elephants were decimated for the ivory trade. This incited new regulations and anti-poaching efforts which slowed the decline for a short time. But as China’s economy boomed, so too, did the demand for ivory creating another wave of poaching on a massive scale, which reduced the remaining elephant population by 62% between 2002 and 2011. An elephant is poached every 15 seconds. Wild elephants could face extinction in the next decade at current rates, despite increasing anti-poaching efforts. Elephants are highly intelligent animals which display a wide range of emotions, problem solving skills, and complex social relationships. They even mourn their dead relatives, returning annually to “graveyards” where they gently caress their ancestors bones while swaying back and forth and crying. The orphans at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust seized our hearts immediately. They are quick to play and show their personalities, yet are fragile and traumatized. Several had witnessed their parents slaughter, and were found (often several days later) in extreme distress by the body. I don’t intend for this blog to be all doom & gloom, but I encourage you to assist in any way you can, and not turn a blind eye to this unfolding tragedy. You can donate to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, or other reputable organizations. I donate 10% of my photography sales to the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF). Also, as a hunter myself, be knowledgeable about the benefits to hunting—in many cases, the media picks up a trophy hunter story which creates public outrage (remember Cecil the lion?). I get it: it’s hard to consider these rich white foreigners posing with a dead animal as anything but atrocious, but it is our duty to understand the importance of wildlife management. In most cases (there is some variance country to country), hunters pay thousands of dollars to a hunting outfit for a regulated “tag” which allows for the taking of a specific species in a specific age group. Cecil the lion, for example, was a 13 year old lion, well past his breeding age. Male lions will actively kill lion cubs to reduce the risk of that lion growing to be a challenger to his dominance. Hunting tags are issued to eliminate these old lions so that cubs have a better chance at survival, and the revenue produced (around USD$35,000) from the hunting tag is put into conservation efforts such as buying land to increase wildlife habitat, paying for wildlife biologist, and funding anti-poaching efforts in the area. When a massive media outcry comes down on a hunter, the hunting outfits, who work adamantly to maintain wildlife population health, are often forced to close their doors eliminating their progress in managing the local wildlife. This then allows the poachers to move into that area. Similarly, one might be baffled to learn that elephant hunting tags are also sold in many countries costing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but again, the stipulations for the tag are for mature specimens above their breeding age, and only in circumstances where biologists feel the need to reduce the elephant population to keep the overall herds at a healthy level. Going back to my first trip to Africa, this relates to our study—we were analyzing whether the Ndarakwai Reserve was beyond its “carrying capacity” for elephants, meaning that if there’s too many elephants in an area, the overall herd health suffers. I won’t continue on the hunting subject any further. Hunting is so controversial and sparks emotional responses from both sides of the aisle. My point is that while it’s easy to label hunters as bloodthirsty, I’ve found (both through research, and as a hunter myself) it is more accurate that the hunting community is passionate about conservation and population sustainability. Please keep an open mind and research as needed.
The caretakers at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust displayed great care and intimacy with their rescued orphans. They bottle feed them each individually, bath them, administer any medications needed, even sleep on the enclosure floor beside them every single night. The orphans require this intimacy at their fragile young ages to manage their PTSD, and the caretakers have literally taken over the role of the parents. If rehabilitation goes according to plan, the orphans will be slowly reintroduced to the wild. This is no easy task as local herds are skeptical of any newcomers and often won’t allow an orphan to tag along. So the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust team must slowly create interactions between the orphans and a herd, over weeks and even months, in hopes that a herd will choose to adopt the orphan. I’m not a religious man, but these folks are doing God’s work. I cannot fathom the emotion they must feel when an orphan, rescued from certain death, walks away healthy into the wilderness with a new caring family.
The next couple days at Giraffe Manor were full of laughter and surreal joy as we had encounter after encounter with these resident giraffes. Each meal was delivered with elegance and perfection by the staff, with welcome interruptions from the giraffes and warthogs. We quickly were able to identify them by name, had our favorites picked out, knew which ones could get a little feisty (my mother-in-law got a little headbutt from one giraffe), and took thousands of photos for memories. While Giraffe Manor is a once-in-a-lifetime experience unless you’re made of money, it was worth every damn penny. It quite literally felt as if we were in an extended dream; how else could this experience exist in the reality we once knew?
On our final morning, we had a last breakfast with the giraffes, even got big Ed to cooperate for a family photo, and checked out. Waiting for us beside a tan safari jeep, was James, our guide and driver for the next 4 days. James would drive us from Giraffe Manor (not far from Nairobi, Kenya), about 7 hours west, to the great Masai Mara National Park. Our first few days at Giraffe Manor were so mind-blowing that we all felt as if we had been in Africa for weeks. Now it was time to head into the East African wilderness; the cradle of mankind.
My next post will pick up on Day 4 of our safari.