Kenya’s National Parks are undoubtedly the heart of its natural world. But what is a heart without its arteries? That’s where wildlife corridors and dispersal areas come in. They connect habitats across the country, ensuring that migratory species, such as elephants, can travel between these cradles of life.
This month, we travel to the land of giants: the Amboseli ecosystem. A number of our orphans come from this part of Kenya. Among our more recent rescues are Ambo, who was found stuck in mud; Lemoyian, a well victim; Quanza, who saw her family gunned down by poachers; and Ziwa, who lost his mother to natural causes. All of these orphans are currently at our Reintegration Units and, in time, they will become part of the wild elephant populations of Tsavo and the Chyulus.
Raising an orphaned elephant is for naught if they don’t have a protected wilderness to one day call home. That is why initiatives like Kimana Sanctuary are so vital. Someday, this conservation corridor may just play host to the likes of Ambo or Ziwa, as they follow in the steps of their forebears.
– Angela Sheldrick
A Corridor for Giants
There is perhaps no sight more iconic in Africa than the hulking form of Mount Kilimanjaro rising above the plains of Amboseli, snow blanketing its blunt peak. This is the land of giants, one of those rare places still presided over by tuskers whose ivory sweeps the very grass beneath their feet. Set against the backdrop of Kili, shrouded by the mist on the savannah, these elephants seem almost supernatural.
Even the most magnificent bulls, of course, come from humble beginnings: Nurtured in their mother’s womb for 22 months, they are born into this remarkable landscape and raised in the loving embrace of their herd. For millennia, the Amboseli ecosystem has played host to the elephant’s circle of life. It is where tiny calves take their first steps, where old tuskers live out their twilight years.
Human activities threaten to disrupt this cycle. Mankind’s temptation to develop is too great, and all too often happens at the expense of our natural world. Entire habitats are whittled away, turning once-great swathes of wilderness into a shadow of what they once were. This imperils all wildlife, but especially our giants of the plains. For elephants, being reduced to live in fractured and isolated pockets is simply not tenable. They are a species that needs space, and lots of it.
However, we must be realistic. We cannot reclaim all the wilderness that has been sacrificed for development; we can only forge ahead and focus on creating a viable future for all creatures. One of the most promising ways to achieve this is to secure elephants’ ancient migratory routes through community partnerships. This creates a safe passage that allows elephants to move unimpeded between ecosystems with the seasons, as nature dictates. It also provides vital income for local landowners, incentivising them to choose conservation over development.
This brings me back to Amboseli. Over the years, the human footprint has continued to advance on the ecosystem — and often, it doesn’t tread lightly. Buffer zones that served as rangelands for all manner of creatures have been taken over by commercial farming. Land that was once home to elephants, giraffes, zebras, and lions has been razed and reduced to a tangle of tomato vines or tilled for rows of avocado trees.
Were this to continue unchecked, it would not only spell disaster for the 1,500 elephants who call the Amboseli ecosystem home, but also for those further afield. We often forget how interconnected our natural world is. It cannot be dictated by humans; it follows its own rules, rules that we don’t always fully understand. As the seasons change, many elephants roam far and wide between habitats. They move from Amboseli to the Chyulu Hills, traversing into Tsavo beyond. For elephants, a hundred kilometres is a mere stroll. Should they lose the natural corridors between these habitats, they would inevitably fan out into communities and untold numbers would become caught in the crosshairs of human-wildlife conflict.
Over the years, we have seen these dispersal areas and corridors shrink. And so, in 2018, when the need arose to secure the last remaining open tracts that connect Amboseli to the Chyulu Hills and Tsavo ecosystem, we leapt at the chance. Spanning just 5,700 acres, Kimana Sanctuary is a small but critical wilderness in Kenya. Once upon a time, it was part of a much larger patchwork of land. Today, joined with the Kimana corridor, it forms the connection between the habitats of the southeast and west. Flanked on either side by settled areas, it provides the holy grail for wildlife in today’s increasingly developed world: safe passage.
To ensure this vital corridor remained open for generations to come, we partnered with Big Life Foundation and local Maasai landowners. The result is Kimana Sanctuary, a gem of wilderness and a template for conservation that we must replicate across the country. We cover the cost of land leases for both the Kimana Corridor and the Sanctuary, providing local Maasai landowners with a reliable and competitive income stream, while Big Life oversees its daily management. Our SWT/KWS Amboseli Mobile Veterinary Unit is on-call to respond to any wildlife emergencies that occur throughout the entire Amboseli ecosystem.
It has been incredible to witness Kimana’s transformation over these past few years. After suffering from decades of mismanagement, it finally has the resources to flourish. Springs bubble into vast swamps, where chattering waterbirds flit overhead. Groves of yellow fever trees and Acacia tortilis fan out across the plains, swathed by a low mist in the morning and crowned by sunlight as the day progresses. Above all else, Mount Kilimanjaro dominates the landscape, a colossus emerging from the flatlands.
This is the stomping ground of tuskers. Some just pass through Kimana Sanctuary on their way to more distant adventures; others take up residence for months. To me, this is one of the most hopeful aspects of the project. Kimana is relatively small; it is but a handkerchief in the great blanket of land that elephants used to have free rein over. However, they have figured out the new lay of the land, aware that this hourglass is necessary to reach the Tsavo and Amboseli ecosystems at either end. It just shows how amenable and adaptable elephants really are. Although mankind has reduced their homelands, they work with what we give them, forging a future out of the wilderness that remains at their disposal. Of course, Kimana is not just a home for elephants. It provides a safe haven for all manner of species, which only adds to its unique charm. Even at a glance, it is a landscape that pulsates with life.
Community-owned corridors and dispersal areas are essential to the future of all wildlife. To make conservation sustainable, we must find solutions that are mutually beneficial to animals and the people who live alongside them. Kimana is an inspiring example of what happens when we give land back to nature, instead of developing it into oblivion. Where wildlife thrives, tourism follows, along with conservation initiatives that further benefit the entire economy. It shows communities that conservation really can pay. We are proud to be in a position to initiate and facilitate these partnerships, and looking forward, we hope to continue to secure more wildlife corridors and dispersal areas using a similar template.
Many of the elephants in Kimana Sanctuary have roamed this land for upwards of 50 years. For the newborn calves who are just embarking on the journey of life, what will the world look like decades from now? The steps for conservation that we take will have an impact today and into the future. With more initiatives like Kimana, that future will look promising for the giants of the plains.
Angela Sheldrick produces Field Notes as a special monthly email, providing her personal insight into varying aspects of Kenya's wildlife and habitats, along with the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To be the first to receive future editions of Field Notes, please subscribe here.