Aerial safaris offer a glimpse of nature few get to witness.
If there’s anything more captivating than seeing African wildlife for the first time, it’s viewing the majestic creatures from the air as they traverse the land. This was my introduction to Kenya: peering awestruck through the window of a 10-passenger plane while ruddy dunes morphed into lush farmland, and a tower of giraffes floated across the landscape, undisturbed by the shadow of our aircraft.
“Zebras at two o’clock,” narrated our pilot, Murtaza Walijee, as a dazzle of the striped horses frolicked across the Great Rift Valley. He pointed out Menengai Crater, a dormant volcano boasting one of the world’s largest calderas, before dipping to an altitude of 80 feet and soaring over emerald green Lake Elmentaita as thousands of bright pink flamingos took flight.
This is a side of safaris few get to witness. Most visitors to East Africa head to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve or Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park in search of The Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, and rhino). But Scenic Air Safari, Kenya’s only full-service flying safari company, was founded with a desire to connect visitors to Africa’s more remote wonders. And this particular tour has an even greater mission: to focus on the wild African animals whose existence is endangered, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: the lion and cheetah in the Masai Mara, African elephant in Samburu, and wild dog, Grévy’s zebra, and black rhino in the Laikipia.
Photo by Veronica Meewes.
“We aim to offer experiences other than your typical brochurized African safari,” said managing director Torben Rune, an avid outdoorsman and safari operator with 30 years of experience as a private pilot. “All the owners of Scenic are passionate conservationists at heart, and we realized there were no safaris really focusing on endangered species.”
With the United States’ recent reversal of the ban on trophy elephants and lions, followed by the tragic death of the world’s last male northern white rhino, there is no better time to launch such a tour. Though hunting has been illegal throughout Kenya since 1977, endangered species face a number of threats, from poaching to habitat loss to human-wildlife conflict — which can range from self-defense to retaliation for the death of livestock.
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“As a species, we owe it to ourselves to understand the dangers because the more we can get people to campaign back home — in their counties and governments and presidential elections — to change policy, the better,” Rune said. “Because what will save the animals is not so much what is done on the ground here. It’s changing policy internationally.”
Photo by Veronica Meewes.
Scenic Air Safari’s nine-day Endangered Species Flying Safari began in bustling Nairobi, where up to 10 passengers and a guide board a Cessna Grand Caravan, which features swiveling seats and panoramic windows. Throughout the journey, no expense is spared; guests stay in luxurious camps (like Spirit of the Masai Mara, Lewa Safari Camp, and Losaiba Tented Camp) and enjoy catered bush picnics and sundowner happy hours.
The first stop was the world-renowned Masai Mara, one of the best places in the world to encounter big cats. There are fewer than 2,000 lions in the world and around a quarter of them live here. Masai Mara is also prime for cheetah viewing, though their numbers have halved across the continent since the 1970s due to habitat loss.
Photo by Veronica Meewes.
The local Maasai and Samburu tribesmen, pastoralists who were raised alongside Kenya’s wildlife, are employed as guides by each lodge. They serve as the first and last points of contact, greeting guests as they arrive on the airstrip and then leading day and night game drives. Scenic Air Safari also brings in experts on each endangered species — like lion specialist David Mascall and cheetah expert Elena Chelysheva — who presented on their research and conservation efforts before accompanying guests on game drives.
Further north in Kenya, at Loisaba Conservancy, the focus is on wild dogs, a population quickly nearing extinction due to rabies and distemper spread by herd dogs. Conservationists like Ambrose Letoluai are hard at work tracking the wild dogs so scientists can dart and vaccinate them and educating the community on vaccinating their home animals. Letoluai also works with the San Diego Zoo Global Leopard Project to teach conservation in schools and research various methods to eliminate human-wildlife conflicts. This type of educational outreach is as essential to conservation as the tourism brings money to the community.
“They’ve now seen the importance of conservation,” says Geoffrey Chege, head of wildlife and research at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, which opened as the first private conservancy in Kenya in 1984. There are now 160 community-based conservancies across the country. “They see that elephant, they see that rhino, and they see health care, education, and security. Our safety comes from our relationship with the community. The community has become our defense line.”
At Lewa, rhino scientist Ian Lemaiyan leads game drives across the land, where 141 black and white rhino are protected by armed guards. The conservancy hasn’t experienced a poaching incident in five years. Beyond the rhino sanctuary, the conservancy has expanded to include an elephant monitoring program and Grévy’s zebra breeding program. 40% of the conservancy’s income — which comes from both donations and tourism — goes toward community programs like water management, agricultural development, health care, and a micro-credit program to bring low-interest loans to enterprising rural women.
Photo by Veronica Meewes.
Scenic Air Safari’s eye-opening journey came to an end at Samburu National Reserve, where the Save the Elephants research center has studied over 1,000 individual elephants since esteemed elephant conservationist Iain Douglas-Hamilton founded the charity in 1993. The organization has also pioneered the use of GPS collars, currently tracking 300 elephants across Africa.
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Thanks to the collaborative conservation efforts of STE, Kenya Wildlife Service, and the community, the proportion of illegally killed elephants (poached for ivory) plummeted from 72% in 2012 to 38% in 2015.
“You can talk about the benefits of living with elephants until you’re blue in the face, but in the end people are going to go, ‘Show me the money,’” said Douglas-Hamilton’s daughter Saba, a well-known conservationist and TV personality who runs the family’s luxury tented eco-lodge, Elephant Watch Camp. “Tourism is one of the main ways we can bring real understandable value to elephants for the people who live alongside them. If we want conservation to work, we have to bring people together, to work together.”
Elephant Watch Camp, which has raised more than half of funding needed to run Save the Elephants, is staffed by 40 members of the local community, and local Samburu women sell their intricately hand-woven beaded necklaces and earrings out of the gift shop.
“Guests come here expecting to have amazing wildlife experiences,” Saba explains. “They’re not expecting to have these phenomenal experiences with the local people, which is what also happens. So they fall in love on both sides, and I think that’s very powerful.”