Sunday, May 15, 2011

Kenya Calling - Pensive at Porini Part 1

Porini Camps – Model of Wildlife Conservation & Sustainable Tourism

One of the primary areas I wished to experience and understand in Kenya was the various models of wildlife conservation efforts that were being done privately across the country. Since, according to various reliable sources, the government wasn’t doing anything significant in this field at all. This is ironic as to the outside world most African countries, Kenya in particular, are marketed as the haven for wild life, unique flora-fauna and spectacular landscape.

Normal tourists flock to these nations, jump out of the planes, board safari vehicles and are whisked away into the national parks (at exorbitant costs) for a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience where they dine while watching elephants, big cats, rhinos, etc grazing in the vicinity. These are beautiful sights indeed but with only few days stopover, while rushing from one park to another and flying over the Savannah, most of us miss the point that what lies beneath and around and what seems to make the entire country and continent a virtual paradise, is due to the efforts of only a handful and in most cases with the help of international foreign aids.

For the government and ruling parties this doesn’t seem to be of any priority at all. It is common knowledge that African wild life has been suffering apathy at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and help them proliferate. This might seem an inauspicious and negative beginning to a post from me and I don’t like to dwell upon negative things. Good and evil exist hand in hand and I prefer to focus on the good, rather than highlight evil.

In Kenya many private and community owned conservancies have sprung up in the last two decades or so, mostly within and around the vicinity of national parks where outside players have joined hands with local communities using different models of conservation and ecotourism. Where both the players (operators) and the local communities benefit out of the wildlife and strive to conserve and grow the same as they have a direct link to their revenues, earnings and betterment of livelihood in general.

Holistically it is a win-win situation for everyone involved – the local communities, the wildlife (forests and land included) and the ones who invest into (bringing in foreign funding as well) and bring in the tourists and manages the cash inflow. Before these private players or safari tour operators came in, the wildlife was mostly considered contradictory to their welfare and livelihood by the local tribal communities. There were constant conflict between the wildlife and human beings and the latter always won eventually, thereby depleting the wildlife population and resulting in massive deforestation. This is severely compounded by poaching for bush meat, ivory, rhino horns, skin trade, exotic animal merchandise, etc.

Deforestation happens primarily due to the need of land for cattle and other domestic animal grazing, need of pasture lands, building houses, agricultural needs to feed the ever growing population, etc. When studied in totality it almost seems that the African wildlife and forests have no chance to survive the need for human greed and ignorance. It’s a losing battle but not a ‘lost’ battle yet. But for these conservancies and efforts from genuinely concerned people and the willingness from the local tribal landowners to join hands, the battle would have been lost long time back.

While doing research for my Kenya trip I gleaned the above from various sources and wanted to visit some of these conservancies and study their conservation cum ecotourism models in person. One name that kept coming up time and again was that of the Porini Camps and its managing company Gamewatchers Safaris. Based out of Nairobi, Gamewatchers Safaris is jointly owned and managed by two very respectable names; Jake Grieves-Cook(then head of Kenya Tourism Board) and Dr Mohanjeet Brar. When my friend Sandy, who then lived and worked in Nairobi, contacted Mohanjeet about my trip and my interest to study the kind of work they were doing, Mohanjeet offered to host me at three (they have four such camps altogether) of their Porini Camps across two major wild life areas (Amboseli and Mara).

My first meeting with Mohanjeet bonded us like friends and his instant smile and bonhomie was contagious to say the least. He was open to any ideas I had and offered to help me in my research and experiential learning in any manner that he could. I was free to visit the camps and had carte-blanche to ask anything to anyone regarding the working model and to take pictures as I fancied. I was much impressed with his willingness for knowledge and experience sharing without seeking anything in return.

Amboseli Porini Camp – Selenkay Conservancy

Located well outside the Amboseli National Park, within the sight of the majestic Kilimanjaro (on a clear day), Selenkay Conservancy covers an area of roughly 15000 acres and the entire land is owned by the Kisonko Clan of the Maasai people. This is where Jakes started the first Porini Camp in 1997. The entire Conservancy is on lease to Gamewatchers for a period of 15 years renewable thereafter. The model is simple, the landowning Maasai people agreed to vacate this area and also that they won’t graze or encroach within this area in future and they allowed Gamewatchers to run and manage the conservancy.

While Gamewatchers agreed to set up their Porini Camp, run tourism, safari drives, etc within the conservancy, provide employments to local community people through their camp and conservation operations. Revenue generated out of tourism would be shared between Gamewatchers and the Community. The revenues would be used to run the camps, pay the staff, and to train and hire and operate conservation efforts like anti poaching rangers, roving patrols, etc. While the share that goes to the community would be used for community development and welfare projects like housing, schools, boreholes, irrigation and water projects, road developments, medical healthcare, etc.

Gamewatchers would also get outside aids and donations towards housing and other development projects like books, furniture, solar panels, etc for the communities. What earlier was considered barren and arid land consisting conflicting wildlife (elephants, lions, etc) by the locals suddenly became a source of income to them. Where earlier they had very meager resources of earnings, even when they had these massive tracts of unproductive land, now they had a steady source of income, no matter what. Gamewatchers was committed legally to pay the land lease irrespective of tourism or inflow of visitors. With the local communities as guardians, the land and wildlife, and the forests all flourished slowly and steadily and so did the tourist inflow and with that the cash revenue.

On the appointed hour the Gamewatchers’ vehicle picks me up from my Nairobi residence (that incidentally is at a short distance from their office) and we zip off to pick up two more guests who were headed for Amboseli. My companions turned out to be a pair of young British girls, delightful and charming in their youthful exuberance and excitement. It took us few hours to reach the pickup point where we changed vehicles and boarded a modified Toyota Landcruiser safari version with high chassis and super cool suspensions. Emmanuelle is our new driver cum guide.

Towering well above 6 ft, he is a proud Maasai, dressed in his traditional regalia and a certified guide. We are now well inside the conservancy and we head forward through dirt track, which can be tackled only with 4 wheel drives. Emmanuelle briefs us briefly about the area, about what we may or may not see and our codes of conduct while we are in the conservancy. I like the point of not getting out of the vehicle under any pretext without the expressed permission of the guide.

The ride feels like my old jolly boat rides in open oceans as we roll and pitch and then roll on our way. Soon enough a giraffe pokes its head atop some lofty bushes and eyes us eagerly. A female Maasai giraffe, our guides rattles out, and follows it with a detailed overview of giraffe anatomy and internal systems and other such details that escape me now. Severely shaken and stirred we reach the camp in one piece and I hop out wobbly to be greeted in a jumbo handshake from the Camp Manager, Tony Musembi.

I take instant liking to Tony, in fact all the staff gathered around us; who have such warmth and smiles exuding all around. With barely two nights and the promise of a third dawn, time is certainly not on my side to have a complete experience and same is the case with my companions. It seems most guests come here for two nights and within this Porini packs in nature walks, safari drives, Maasai village trip, Amboseli National Park visit, sundowners (guzzling beverages and delectable snacks while watching the sun go down), night drives and as much food and beverages (including some exotic wines and alcohol) as you can possibly consume (never mind if you can’t digest). Besides the normal guest itinerary I also had to interview the staff and visit the community development area and schools and meet the current Community Chairman. So my plates were not only full but already overflowing when Tony suggested that we be shown to our tents and after a quick makeover and settling of our internal gyros, we reassemble at the dining tent (that would be our common area for the stay) in 20 minutes for group briefing and registration etc.

One of the lanky camp guards show me to my tent, entering which I wonder if I am still in the middle of African bush world or in some exotic undisclosed location. Though Porini claims its tents are basic with no-frills to my rustic sensory organs it seems the epitome of luxury and materialistic comfort. I like the predominant shades of ochre, rust and beige and the clutter free occupants of the tent large enough to cater to a family of four.

One double bed along with a single bed and flaps rolled up in three directions make up the interior. Two tables, solar lamps, a whistle, anti mosquito spray, a manually winding torch, and an open cupboard with hangars and a wicker basket for keeping dirty laundry take up the rest. There’s a list of birds / animals one is likely to see, few glossy wild life magazines that instantly give you the complex since you would never capture wildlife in the manner displayed in their glossy and photo-shopped pages, and few bottles of bottled mineral water complete the picture.

The en-suite bathroom has hot and cold water safari shower, flush toilet, a well-appointed mirror mounted basin and all other amenities of soap, gel, etc that one may use after a hard day in the bush. The shower is a mechanical concoction of a 20 ltr canvas bag hung outside high up, which can be lowered and raised with a pulley. A pipe from the bottom of the bag leads into the bathroom and joins up with an overhead shower. So when you wish to shower, you must inform one of the staff who would fill up the bag with hot / cold (as you wish) water and then raise it and leave it locked in that position. Thereafter everything happens by gravity. Water is scant therefore precious and limited. You are advised to shower only with as much water you need to wash and rinse. No wastage is allowed. Being a mountaineer and submariner all my adulthood I am not known for my showers so I eye the contraption and feel the softness of the towels that are spotlessly white.

We gather at the dining tent. While I have been able to do absolutely nothing, the other two guests, who would be my companions for some of the camp activities, had already showered (unbelievable), changed, applied some amount of color to their demeanors and seemed ready and willing to take on the world. Women and youth; heady combination that it is, I stay silent and let Tony, the manager to take center stage. Tony smiles and he is more a man of action than words but within his words he uses ‘plan’ a lot. He always has a plan and since most of his guests have no idea what they are in for, Tony’s plans are always the best and one followed unquestioned.

While we fill up the forms and guest register he quickly briefs us about the camp program insisting all the time that though there’s too much to be done and experienced we are free to do absolutely nothing and that food and drinks are in inexhaustible supply and that our wish is his command. Tony is a nice man, a perfect example of Porini Staff: effusive, charming, loyal, ever smiling and thoroughly professional. It’s already nearing 4 pm and ahead of us lay a game drive, visit to Maasai village, night drive and night campfire barbeque not to mention the tea and late lunch that is already being laid out under an umbrella.

After such a lunch siesta is mandatory, hence everyone retires to do what humans do best, which is to do nothing. I am on mission impossible and not permitted such luxury so I drag myself back and catch Tony over cups of tea and home baked ginger cookies while the coast is clear. As I grill him I also wonder why I don’t see a single overgrown or obese staff which strikes me as grossly inexplicable with such food and gastronomic delights that the camp has. Tony is the head of the tourism side of Amboseli Porini Camp and has a hospitality background. This is what I glean from him.

With nine tents to take care of, he has around 30 staff that includes drivers for the landcruisers, kitchen staff, stewards, camp guards, maintenance staff and two bronze and two silver rated guides. Most of these people are from the local Maasai land owning communities and clans. Whenever a new staff is to be recruited the group ranch elders are informed and they pick up someone suitable for the job. The new recruit is then trained in-house and allotted his duties. Besides their salaries the staff is entitled to transport allowances, medical benefits, accommodation and meal at the camp, 30 days paid leave, sick leave and annual bonus. No wants to leave or defect to another similar tour company.

If I hadn’t met Mohanjeet in Nairobi and seen the Gamewatchers set up there, I would have claimed that Porini Camps are truly by, for and off the local communities. The emoluments earned by Porini staff is way much higher than an average Kenyan and obviously they are a happy lot and fiercely loyal to Gamewatchers. Happy staff makes happy guests seem to be the unspoken ethos of Porini. Supplies come from Nairobi every fortnight and in between if anything is needed urgently. All camp garbage of any kind is taken back to Nairobi for proper disposal or recycle and the camp and the conservancy is kept absolutely free of any garbage.

By the time other guests gather for our evening game drive the sky clouds over ominously. Unexpected shower, Tony claims, but good for the animals as the land is arid otherwise. I pack in my writing material and join the merry making crowd. Besides the two Brit teenagers, we are now joined by a British honeymooning couple. Two vehicles cruise out of the camp area and land right in the middle of a pack of frolicking impalas. Impalas are standing high jump champions and they scatter and jump around but do not stray too far from our path. Cameras flash, people sigh and we push on.

Next to greet us is a solitary giraffe, this time I know, it’s a male, who runs alongside for a while before realizing he would never outrun us so veers off into the wild. Then comes our prize catch of the day; a pair of cheetah springs out of the bush to our left. Our guide and driver both freeze and so does the vehicle and the occupants. Seven pair of human eyes confront two pairs of feline counterparts and it seems for a while the perfect standoff. No one backs off, no one moves, no one seems frightened either. I bring up my tele lens in slow motion and take a burst, which seems to break the spell. The cheetahs run into a bush.

Our guide is adamant; he claims the cats are stalking the impalas we have seen before and we should stick around. We drive around the bush and get a much better view of the cats in action. The light is very low, the sun has already set, the sky is totally overcast, so I zoom up my iso and keep the camera cradled like a bazooka launcher. One cheetah suddenly leaps and disappears, apparently in pursuit of his prey, while the other one walked right in front of us majestically, slowly, swishing its tail as if to sweep the dust off the ground. I was wishing it would charge at us with teeth and claws bared, but no such luck. With the departure of the cats we started off for the Maasai village and the shower started.

Droplets the size of hand grenades fall from above drumming the vehicle roof and sides like Ringo Starr. We soon arrive at a deep ditch through which a river flows with crocs for company. The vehicles cross the river with some mild protestations and as we come up on the other side, a line of colorfully clothed Maasai warriors approach us from the yonder. Reception party, our guide Wilson confide.

The vehicles stop and we spill out to meet them half-way. Among the warriors there’s a young boy with freshly ochre pasted hair who is the latest warrior initiate. His seniors pull harmless pun at his expense that he fends off good-naturedly. We pose for some pictures and then our caravan resumes its journey. I prefer to walk with the warriors. They are singing their ululating song in which I join. Words don’t matter, the tune and the spirit does. Soon we reach the village where a large group of elder and young ladies are belting out their songs for our benefit. Tony had told me that this is the only village permitted within the conservancy for the tourists to visit. It was absolutely authentic and the villagers lived a true pastoral life. Whatever they displayed and shared with the guests were actually the way they lived and survived. Nothing was make-believe or put up for the show. They allowed guests to come into their homes and in exchange Porini paid them some amount of fee per guest. We had been strictly told not to offer any money or anything else to the villagers.

The women come forward and share their ritual greeting with hands and nodding of heads and bouncing of shoulders. The warriors begin their jumping dance cum competition in which we are encouraged to join. The village elder speaks English and introduces us to his people. The kids are curious with the bazooka launcher in my hand while I am enamored by a particular Maasai woman who seems to send smiles in my direction. We are taken inside the village periphery (a cordon of thorn bushes to keep predators out and cattle in). The villagers are engaged in their daily normal activities of milking the cows, driving home the goats, kids loitering around, someone producing smoke from wood, etc.

Several kids follow me as I lead them like the Pied Piper as my camera is the center of attraction. An hour later we leave as the sky becomes completely dark and we drive back under heavy shower. This makes the ground totally slushy and traction-less. The wheels turn and twist and skid and skate. Our driver battles and grapples, revs and accelerates to keep us on the road and out of muddy ditches. Finally, within the site of the camp, our vehicle finally gets stuck in the mud while the other vehicle zips by. We are instructed to deplane and foot it to the camp. We do so and reach the camp totally wet and caked with mud spatters and grass of all shades and sizes. By the time we wash, change and ready for evening supper, the rain has stalled but the air is redolent with flying insects of all kinds.

Supper stays uneventful except countless occasions when ladies and gents (not me) shriek out of delight or fright when giant gnats and sundry hoppers dive into their food or inside their clothes for whatever reasons. A blue colored flying missile the size of my palm dives perfectly inside the wine glass of my neighbor and the poor girl screams so loud that I am sure that the poor insect must be dead of heart seizure if not already of wine drowning. That brings our jolly supper and night to a jolly end. As I wriggle into bed handling my overloaded tummy rather delicately I wonder what the next day has in store for me.

Early morning while I am doing a bit of yoga and digestive breathing, other guests depart for Amboseli National Park from where they would return only in the evening that leaves me alone in the camp. I wake up, eat a lazy breakfast, visit the kitchen, staff quarters, etc and also see the ‘mobile’ tree (mobile signal is available only beneath the tree within a radius of 1 meter). Today I have the exclusive privilege of being guided by Wilson who is Silver rated and is an authority on avian population in the area. Two of us set out for a nature walk.

The ground is soft and we sink at places. Wilson teaches me to recognize different trails and places to look for birds and other animals. He mimics several animal calls and shows me what one can learn from animal droppings. Wilson is thorough and a delightful teacher. We chat, we laugh and we enjoy the cool morning. Amboseli is known for its elephant population, yet I don’t see any though the droppings are all around. We follow a silver backed jackal for a while and I learn to recognize jackal trail, which doesn’t mean that I can still do it. The nature walk concludes with the sight of a curious but amorous (as Wilson claimed) encounter between two fluorescent dung beetles. The ball they have rolled up is enormous and much bigger than the two put together.

Post lunch we set off for a game drive. Soon the antelopes and gazelles and other grazers and creepers trapeze across our path. These are usual sights and I have already seen them before aplenty. Unlike any other tourist I am Kenya bound for nearly three months and I would see much more of these animals in the days to come so I ask Wilson to show me something different, to which he suggests instead of down and around we should look into the trees and bushes and at the sky – in short do bird-watching of the flying kind. African wildlife normally doesn’t conjure up images of flying animals so I think that’s a very good idea and Wilson’s specialty. Within the next two hours or so, Wilson shows me nearly 100 different species, few migratory and two very rare ones as well.

I am spellbound. A forest that I thought is devoid of novelty suddenly fills up with myriads of colors, feathers and enchanting calls. Armed with my 600 mm lens and Wilson’s ability to pick up invisible birds, the hours went off in a puff. For those hours all other wildlife that the forest abounds disappears like magic. My triumphant moment arrives when I spot a Diederik cuckoo to my left, very well camouflaged within the thick green foliage, much before Wilson does. Wilson is happy and gives me a high five while I am ecstatic. We then leave the conservancy and meet up with the group ranch Chairman and visit the school and one solar installation as well. By the time we drive back the sun has set and we meet up with others for a sundowner at a desolate spot surrounded by dry skeleton trees. The sky is still overcast and more showers seem in the offing.

Supper is another extravaganza of gastronomic delights and we are joined by a Finnish couple who are so far away during the Christmas month. I tell them of my trips to the Lapland and my climbs along the Russian border where elves live and also my Santa encounters. The honeymooning couple moon about their jet lag, journey and close encounters of the creepy crawly kind. In short the night ends well. Showers rain down later and I have a well deserved slumber full of dreams and animal conversation.

Morning breakfast concluded we indulge in Maasai spear throwing competition where I challenge Emmanuelle the reigning champion. Needless to say I end up an amazing loser much to everyone’s merriment. The return journey is uneventful so I would conclude my Porini Amboseli experience with what Wilson had told me in his way, here reproduced in the way I had interpreted, ‘In the jungle don’t look to find, let the jungle find what is right for you.’ I am yet not sure what he had meant by that but I would forever remember Wilson and Tony and the cook and the staff and all the people I met at Porini Amboseli. Tony, as always, your plan was perfect to the capital T.

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