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ENVIRONMENT IS AT THE HEART
The Great Rift Valley, a dormant volcano, vital water tower, and a Critically Endangered forest antelope.
Date: Kenya’s Great Rift Valley 11 – 15 June 2018
Species and Range: The bongo is split into two subspecies. While the lowland bongo (T. e. eurycerus) is fairly widespread across the Congo Basin and further into West Africa, the mountain bongo (T. e. isaaci) occurs only in the mountains of Kenya’s Rift Valley. It is Critically Endangered with only around 100 mature animals remaining in fragmented forests that also happen to shelter the most important watersheds in the country making their conservation a double priority.
Chris Roche – Wilderness SafarisChris has spent more than 20 years working in the ecotourism industry and over the past 10 years in particular has been intimately involved in the evolution of Wilderness Safaris out of the savannahs and deserts of southern Africa into more specialised habitat niches in the rainforests of central and east Africa. He is convinced that ecotourism can do more in helping conserve these ecosystems (and the services they provide to humanity – such as provision of water) and believes that mountain bongo and flagship species will be the mechanisms through which this will take place. Armed with a Master’s degree in springbok ecology in South Africa’s Karoo and a background in biological research and guiding, Chris is currently the Chief Marketing Officer of Wilderness Safaris but does his best to spend time in the field exploring new opportunities for the company.
Dominic Grammaticas – Governors’ Camp CollectionDominic, a native of Kenya, grew up spending time in the pristine Masai Mara; first on long summer holidays, then later working and growing up alongside Governors’ Camp and its Masai community neighbours. Governors’ Camp, the first permanent tented camp inside the Masai Mara, was the brainchild of Dominic’s father Aris. Before ecotourism was even really defined, Aris understood the important role responsible tourism played in the conservation of wildlife areas, beliefs he passed on to his children.
For Dominic this, and a formative life in the wilderness, led to studying a degree in Biological Science at the University of Edinburgh. Armed with this base he later moved into a successful career in finance in both the UK and Hong Kong. By 1999 though, the inescapable call of Africa became too loud, and Dom returned home, taking over the reins of the family business as Managing Director. Under Dominic’s leadership, involvement in wildlife conservation and community support initiatives has been integrated even deeper into the fabric of Governors’ Camp. Amongst its achievements, some 4 000 students in Kenya and Rwanda are being taught in classrooms built and equipped by Governors’ Camp, its community trust partners, and with the key support of its guests. The opportunity to play a pivotal role in the future of Kenya’s bongo population speaks to the very core of what Governors’ Camp is all about.
Donna Sheppard – Rhino Ark / Calgary ZooDonna has been with the Conservation and Research Department of the Calgary Zoo, Canada, since 1999. After some years seconded to projects in Guyana, South America, her time has mostly been spent in Africa. From 2004 for 2014, for example, she was based in Ghana developing community-based conservation projects on hippo, western sitatunga and West African manatee. At the same time, she was able to contribute to community forestry programmes in Liberia.
For the last three years Donna has been based in Kenya, seconded to Rhino Ark and its work on water towers and endangered species. It is a return of sorts, since Donna’s Master’s degree looked at red-tailed monkey ecology in neighbouring Kenya.
Solomon Muriithi – Bongo Surveillance ProjectBorn just outside the Eburu Forest in Ndabibi village, Solomon has known the dormant volcano his entire life. He started with the Bongo Surveillance Project in 2004 and since then has worked on tracking and camera trapping this threatened population. Before that however, he was a poacher and charcoal maker....
Today, he estimates there to be between 10 and 13 animals only, with the reasons for their decline being human encroachment and resultant poaching and deforestation for charcoal production. Like Solomon, things have changed though. Fencing has reduced illegal utilisation of the forest, and community awareness projects (in which Solomon himself is involved) have changed local perceptions about the importance of the bongo and its forest habitat. According to Solomon, tourism is the last piece of the puzzle and will help substantially with the inevitable financial hurdles to conservation.
Bongo Surveillance ProjectThe objective of the Bongo Surveillance Project is to protect and conserve the Critically Endangered eastern or mountain bongo and its habitat, by working with local communities and stakeholders worldwide. The project was founded in 2004 by Mike Prettejohn, with an initial focus on the Aberdares National Park, the last known stronghold of the mountain bongo.
For the past 15 years, Mike has led a team of experienced trackers in gathering scientific data on the presence and distribution of the remaining mountain bongo, first in the Aberdares and then later on Mount Kenya, before moving further afield to confirm the species’ continued perilous existence in Eburu and the Mau Forests. He and his team have discovered previously-unknown populations and have championed the continued survival of this species in the wild in Kenya.
It is no exaggeration to say that this small group of committed Kenyans (and their supporters such as the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenya Forestry Service) can consider themselves responsible for bringing the plight of the mountain bongo into the public consciousness.
Founded in 1988 with the explicit aim of staunching the rampant poaching of black rhino in the Aberdares ecosystem, Rhino Ark immediately identified that ‘good fences make good neighbours’ and that separating rural people from the inhabitants of the national park was an urgent priority. Its initial fundraising therefore focused on building an electrified fence around the Aberdares, thus preventing human-wildlife conflict like crop raiding by elephants, while simultaneously making illegal incursions into the park more challenging.
This success and the strong partnerships that resulted with the neighbouring communities helped form the Rhino Ark philosophy of “humans in harmony with habitat and wildlife.” This is an approach that has subsequently been extended to Kenya’s other montane forest ecosystems and ‘water towers’ like Mount Kenya and Eburu. Eburu – vulnerable to deforestation through illegal charcoal production – was encircled with fencing in November 2014 and this has allowed Rhino Ark to fully engage with the rural communities here, beginning the formation of effective partnerships around education and awareness as well as livelihood diversification
Rhino Ark – Eburu programmesAside from the obvious commercial and awareness benefits of visiting a largely unknown destination (Eburu is hardly known, even in Kenya, and receives only a handful of visitors a year) and paying for access and services rendered, the beneficiary of proceeds generated by this trip is Rhino Ark and its local Eburu programmes – all targeted at the protection of the ecosystem and species like its flagship, the mountain bongo.
None of the organisations involved – Governors’ Camp Collection or Wilderness Safaris – will receive payment or mark-up on this journey. Instead, any and all proceeds will be channelled to Rhino Ark for use in the urgent priorities of fence patrolling and maintenance, community engagement and education (e.g. Eburu Rafiki) and livelihood diversification (e.g. the Hifadhi Farmers’ Cooperative).
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