Expert Reviews – Laikipia

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Ranchland reclaimed for wildlife
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This intriguing part of Kenya consists of a 9,500 sq km mid-altitude plateau running northwest from the moist highland saddle between Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, and incised by the Ewaso Nyiro and Ewaso Narok Rivers. Ecologically, it is remarkable for its intermediate location between the moist central highlands and dry northern badlands, which has led to a wide variety of species, including northern specials such as reticulated giraffe and Grevy’s zebra. The country’s second-largest protected ecosystem (after Tsavo), Laikipia is also unusual in that it is not one state-owned entity, but a network of perhaps two dozen small private conservancies, most reclaimed from what was formerly community-based or private European-owned ranchland. It is thus the only part of Kenya where wildlife numbers have significantly increased since independence. Each of the region’s properties – a list that includes Lewa, Ol Pejeta and Solio – has its own character, but the general trend is towards small exclusive lodges or tented camps, and collectively they protect the country’s largest populations of black rhino, greater kudu, Jackson's hartebeest, Grevy’s zebra and African wild dog, as well as plenty of lion, leopard and other predators. The scenery is also impressive, with the snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya prominent on a clear day.

The Future of African Conservation
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The Laikipia plateau has no distinct boundaries, no start or end point, but to generalise it’s the huge chunk of land falling away to the north of Mt Kenya down to the burning semi-desert of northern Kenya proper. On paper this seems a strange area for a safari. There are no big name national parks here (in fact there are no national parks or reserves at all) and the landscape is a patchwork of ranch and farmland and community lands. But not just is wildlife of all shapes and sizes present here but by and large it’s positively flourishing thanks to the work of numerous individuals, organisations and local communities to create a new conservation and tourism model that allows people and wildlife to live side by side in a manner that is mutually beneficial to all. From humble beginnings the project is working a treat and many experts now point to the Laikipia plateau as the model for the future of conservation in Africa.

What I find most striking about a safari to Laikipia is how obviously conservation here is run as a business. There are numerous lodges set on private and community lands and the safari experience here is very exclusive if not authentically wilderness. In most cases you will be one of only a handful of guests and staff go out of their way to show you what you want to see. You want rhino then they will find you one. Lion? Not a problem. But it’s not just the wildlife viewing that is the attraction. Being on private land means that visitors can go on horse riding safaris, walking safaris, night safaris and numerous other activities. Lots of emphasis is also placed on community and cultural interaction. Although, with probably around two dozen conservancies here the experience at all is different so check out the website of each lodge carefully before committing to one.

To summarise while there are wilder areas in Kenya there are few that are as beautiful, so rich in wildlife and, most importantly, where your presence really does benefit both locals and wildlife. For that reason I would say that for anyone who can afford the often high prices then Laikipia is an essential experience for the ultimate in exclusive safari.

Laikipia, a place where people, cattle and wildlife coexist in harmony
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Laikipia is a fascinating place. In fact, it isn’t just one place, but a group of bordering game ranches covering an immense area of two million acres. The game ranches that make up Laikipia are all privately owned and each one of them has decided to do its bit for conservation by protecting the wildlife. A lot of the ranches are well stocked with game including black and white rhino.

Although, I love this success story for conservation, the place kind of lacks some wilderness appeal. At no point did I really feel like being completely out in the bush, away from civilization. When driving around, you’re likely to be within view of something man-made like a fence, a gate or power line at any time. The ranches are well managed and cattle roam around in dedicated areas. Contrary to some places, the farmers accept some loss of livestock to predators. They own both the cows and the lions!

Laikipia: The Future of Kenyan Conservation
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Laikipia is the place to watch when it comes to Kenya’s wildlife. High atop a plateau in the country’s heart, this patchwork of private conservancies combine community engagement with wildlife conservation. By taking former cattle ranches and working with (rather than excluding) local Samburu and other local communities, Laikipia is a significant step away from the national park model. It’s also a world of exclusive, luxury lodges and intimate wildlife-watching experiences, and the proof is in some of Kenya’s best wildlife experiences – signature species include rhinos (both black and white), elephants and lions (with around 270 spread across the plateau), as well as some real local specialties, such as the Somali ostrich and Grevy’s zebra. And as most of the conservancies are community-run and open only to those staying at the lodges within conservancy boundaries, and as these are privately or community owned lands where night drives and off-road driving are permitted, you’ll have that all-too-rare pleasure of having what you discover all to yourself and be very close to the animals.

Beautiful landscapes and a sanctuary for black rhinos
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Laikipia County is in the middle of Kenya. The conservancies here (mostly former ranches) are leading the way in black rhino protection, with around half the country’s population in their care – and more. Ol Pejeta Conservancy, for example, is home to the last two northern white rhinos in the world (which you can meet) and has a special endangered species enclosure for black rhinos, Grevy’s zebras, Jackson’s hartebeests and other at-risk animals. The jagged peaks of Mount Kenya, the country’s highest point, are visible when the weather’s clear; it’s a beautiful landscape of rolling hills. It’s also an easy drive (around four hours) from Nairobi and there’s a variety of accommodation options from super-luxe to budget/self-drive. I love all the activities available in Laikipia, expanding the offering beyond game drives – from running through Borana Conservancy with the rangers to meeting the anti-poaching dogs at Ol Pejeta.

A huge region that proves traditional pastoralists, commercial farmers and wildlife can all co-exist.
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The Laikipia region stretches from the western flank of Mount Kenya into Kenya’s little-visited northern territory and has a landscape that includes open grassy plains, semi-desert acacia bush, high altitude plateaus and forested valleys. It isn’t a national park or reserve, but is divided into huge wildlife conservancies, which are either privately or communally owned by large-scale ranchers and Maasai or Samburu communities – all of which are totally devoted to wildlife conservation but are working cattle and other livestock operations too. It’s one of Kenya’s few safari destinations where you can see significant numbers of black rhino, as well as elephant, Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, and perhaps even wild dog. My drives on the more dusty remote roads have been quite difficult at times, although Lewa and Ol Pejeta are reached more easily from the main road that encircles Mount Kenya, and I’ve seen huge amounts of game at both. Other Laikipia lodges – often lovely private homesteads on ranches – are best reached by flight so a safari can be an expensive. But each usually offers plenty of experiences from camel- and horse-riding to game drives and walks, and Laikipia’s biggest appeal is exclusivity free from hordes of game vehicles and flashing cameras found in regular parks.

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