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Elephants in the Masai Mara

Safari Dreams
Ithaca Child - Spring 2001
By GLYNIS HART

The weather in Kenya is warm, from an average of 80F in port city Mombasa to 65 in Nairobi, 5500 feet above sea level. All the storybook zoo animals -elephants, rhinos, lions, zebra, giraffes, wildebeest-roam the high savannas this equatorial country that touches Indian Ocean. Africa draws the Western explorer with the promise of a land more ancient and more raw than our own, as if we saw in its giant beasts a second coming of wilderness, and as if by visiting "the dark continent' we could re-enter a world where sea and dodos, woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers have not yet been extinguished.

The Africans don't quite see it like that. Their rapidly growing populations are mostly bound for the city, seeking escape from subsistence farming to lifestyles less toilsome and uncertain. In Kenya the government maintains numerous parks and conservation areas to protect the game animals, but the great appreciators of these animals are mostly Western tourists. Few African children have ever seen a lion or an elephant. As a rule, Africans do not toss the kids and a few sleeping bags, fishing poles and spears in the car and head for the parks on their days off.

However, if the TV screen's glimpse of the great beasts in their high, hot grasslands seems too small; if you long to hear strange and beautiful languages in an open market while you shop for vividly printed cloth or exotic fruits: if you only want to see for yourself what you've heard about your whole life, you can go to Africa and build connections between the land and its people at the same time.

Ithaca values
Take Anne Loehr, for example. "You may leave Ithaca but the Ithaca values never leave you," she explains. "We went out to Kenya to run hotels, originally, but we adopted 'Giving Back to the Community' as our motto." Anne, a native Ithacan and her husband, a native Kenyan, moved gradually out of the hotel business into an endeavor called Eco-resorts which offers, naturally enough, eco-tourism. The Eco-resorts partners also offer Hospitality Management Services, which work with resorts that have alternative energy or waste treatment arrangements, or that use indigenous materials in their camps or lodges.

Anne's outfit poses questions: "'Does the community have a percentage of the property? Are the indigenous people hired there or trained?' Our goal is to make the indigenous people stakeholders in preserving their natural resources. Ideally," she says, "we want both community involvement and ecologically sustainable properties."

The organization' s methods let tourists form real connections to the places they visit. A percentage of their safari fees will be spent directly in the community, for libraries, schools, an orphanage or other projects. "The response we got after we started this approach was unbelievable." Anne says. "The guests were so attached to the community! You can't just live out there and not get involved."

Thus, Eco-resorts offer "Masai" safaris which let visitors camp with local tribal people or stay in village homes. "Your meals will be solid, basic meals," Anne explains, "quite often based on traditional tribal fare such as ugali, rice with a bean and vegetable stew, or perhaps fish and coconut sauce if you are on the coast. You may be cooking at times and showers will be cold!"

On this travel itinerary, visitors share work with the villagers on coconut plantations. They trek through the forest seeking a glimpse of the Golden-rumped Elephant Shrew, the Scops Owl or Sokoke Pipit - species that live only in the Arabuko-Sokoke forest. Native guides help the newcomer explore Watamu Marine Park and Masai Mara National Park.

Those who don't feel up for cold showers can sign up for the "Elephant" safaris, where "no luxury is left unexplored." This trip takes in Amboseli National Park where community conservationists are working to diversify the traditional Masai pastoral economy with wildlife husbandry. The Elephant safaris offer unique experiences in areas inaccessible to cars, such as horseback riding through giraffe and zebra herds or camel trekking with Samburu warriors. Between these and the Masai safaris, several different packages mix and match cultural and natural explorations, to suit the budget and the spirit of the traveler.

Africa for Africans
Each of the three Eco-resorts partners has a community project that receives a percentage of the organization's profits. Anne is secretary of the Children of the Rising Sun Home, an orphanage started in 1994. In Africa, the loss of one parent, through divorce or death, can reduce a family to desperation. The children in the home were fending for themselves, on the streets, before they came here. Now, they are working toward self-sufficiency, hoping that the addition of a farm and woodcarving shop will some day support the home. In the meantime, electricity and more toilets would be nice!

On Earth Day 2000, Eco-resorts organized a snorkeling trip for orphanage children. According to Watamu's marine biologist, Richard Bennett, "We had 17 kids and the matron on board. Our boat captain was having problems as he had what appeared to be thousands of laughing, excited children roaming all over the boat. We managed to get the kids to sit down as we motored our way to the Coral Gardens, but sitting gave them the opportunity to delve through the mask and snorkel bag. I have never seen people wear masks over their ears or facing backwards before! Once we were moored at the Gardens, the fun really started! Seven kids were fine, they got into the water, mask the right way around, and snorkeled away quite happily. The other kids all jumped overboard, including the ones who didn't know how to swim! We threw them back on board the boat but at least two immediately jumped over again. I don't think they've had so much fun in years!"

The kids are also hoping to go on safari this year. Last year, Eco-resorts patrons sponsored ten children on a trip to Tsavo National Park. Four of them shared their experiences with Ithaca Child. The following comments are taken from letters they wrote themselves in English:

- Robert Njuguna: "We left home around 6:20am, and it took us four hours to reach the main gate. The journey was long and interesting. In fact, this was my first exciting sight I have ever seen before. My favorite animal was a lion which passed majestically just ten centimetres in front of the car. I was very scared but I took a deep breath to calm my heartbeat. The tour was glamorous and beatitude [sic]. I was very thankful to the sponsors. May the power of the highest be with them."

- Shadrack Fundi: "The first animal to spot was a zebra, a single one. The plain was covered with slight tall brown grass [so] that I could not see rabbit family easily. The day passed quickly as lightning as the time was occupied by excitement and that we had learned a lot at the end of the day. At night we could hear some birds singing joyfully and some animals were roaming about. Since we were too tired we could not do anything else except sleeping. The night appeared to be very short as the climate was favourable. The next day we went on to discover many things. It can be very wonderful if we can ever have another trip."

Because funding was not available for all the children to go on safari, the home had chart competitions so that the children who did best in school work and behavior won the chance to go.

- Peter Kilonzo: "We have been doing charts competitions like the recently one we did. I am among the ten orphans who were sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. John. The morning was very chilly when we set off. My heart was full of gratitude and excitement when we were saying goodbye to our friends. When we reached our destination, we waited for Anne Loehr to go in and pay the tickets. When she came, she came with a game ranger. Soon he let us go in. We start by seeing zebras. My favourite animal was elephants and lions which I wish to save for many years. The one thing which surprised me was the lion which passed just ten centimetres away from the car. We came across two elephants. They were crossing the road but when they hear a car coming they refused to cross. The one who sponsored us took the elephant's photo."

"It was so great for the welcome we were given. We stayed two days and one night. We sleep at a place called 'sobocamb' where the Turtle Bay visitors sleep. We sleep each room two pupils. There were some elephants buffalo and hyena. We were afraid of elephants and other dangerous animals. We thought it was a dream because it was my first journey to visit a place like that. May Almighty God accomplish my dream to be a tour leader."

- William Fonde: "We are 28 children, 23 boys and five girls, five workers. We have four buildings and one dog black colour, six goats, rabbits, hens. The youngest boy he is in nursery while the oldest boy he is in Form One and he is about 17 years old. Only two boys are Form One.

On 30th 8 [sic] this year we have safari to Tsavo National Park. It was my first time to be in a park and I really enjoyed that day because I saw almost all animals, birds. One buffalo was killed by the king lion near the road. I wish to have another chance to visit a park again."

"It's part of our mission to build bridges of cultural understanding," Anne says. As these children grow and study they seem destined to become great bridge-builders themselves, learning to love their beautiful country as they learn to love and value themselves. You can help with donations of cash, material, time, ideas or labor. As Shadrack writes: "My life in orphanage has been lovelier than you can imagine."

Glynis Hart thanks William, Peter, Shadrack and Robert for their wonderful letters.

Ready to go? To learn more about Eco-resorts, visit the Web site eco.resorts.com or contact Anne Loehr: info@eco-resorts.com or at Hospitality Management Services, P.O. Box 120, Watamu, Kenya. You can write her about Children of the Rising Sun Home at the same address.

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