Born Free, Again

As the safari industry follows the global trend to go green, one company has been leading the charge toward sustainable tourism in Africa for more than 40 years. Hopefully, other outfitters will follow in their footprints.
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Masai Mara at twilight, Kenya
MASAI BY TWILIGHT: A view of the Masai Mara as darkness envelopes the savannah  (Stephen Jermanok)

Peering out of the Jeep window at the savannah flats extending south to the Serengeti in the Great Rift Valley, we spotted the curved horns of water buffalo, baboons, impalas, a mother and baby giraffe, a field of zebras, four lions sleeping peacefully under an acacia tree, and a big and brawny 35- to 40-year old elephant with long tusks. Unlike the Serengeti, the Masai Mara, a park reserve in southwestern Kenya named for the Maasai people who traditionally inhabited the area, offers a place where you can drive off-road to get a close-up glimpse of a lion on her back, rubbing her belly with one powerful paw.

"It's the Discovery Channel without the remote control," says John Neva, a safari guide who's been leading guests into the African bush for the past 15 years. He's refering to the intimate experience available at Masai Mara, where you can view a wild animal in person from the same distance that you would view one on the TV from your couch.

Mara is Swahili for dotted hillside, and if you glance around the Mara triangle inside this refuge, you can't help but be enamored by the wealth of wildlife peppering the valley, especially during early summer and fall, when vast hordes of wildebeests make their way to and from the Masai Mara and the Serengeti. Yet only two decades ago this same wilderness area was rife with poachers hunting rhino, Maasai warriors spearing male lions as a ritual gateway to manhood, villagers killing ostriches and impala for their meat, and mass tourism allowing 20 to 30 safari trucks to corral a lone leopard.

It was during this time, when hunting and poaching were climbing at an alarming rate and park rangers were shot and killed on a regular basis, that Jorie Butler Kent, co-owner and President of sustainable travel company Abercrombie & Kent, discovered a dead black rhino less than a mile from her camp. The tusks had been removed, likely ground into a powder that makes the cocaine trade look like chump change—to this day, one rhino horn, used as an aphrodisiac in China, Taiwan, and Thailand, can fetch upwards of $100,000 U.S. on the black market.

Soon, Butler Kent formed a rhino conservation program, which morphed into the Friends of Conservation (FOC) in 1982, long before "green" was a travel trend. Geoffery Kent, her husband at the time and business partner to this day, had implemented the John Muir principal to leave only footprints at Abercrombie & Kent back when he took over his father's company in the mid-1960s. He also masterminded the high-end tented safari concept so that guests could get up-close and personal with the wildlife. More than 40 years later, Kent remains committed to eco-friendly practices, making such efforts as using solar lighting in tents, providing locally harvested produce during meals, and encouraging guests to get on horseback and leave the safari trucks behind.

Butler Kent's work with the FOC has become the blueprint for ecotourism in Kenya and East Africa. In 1999, Abercrombie & Kent unveiled Olonana, a permanent tented camp on the banks of the Mara River—the sinuous waterway that snakes through Masai Mara all the way to Lake Victoria, the world's largest lake. The walls may consist of canvas, but the 14 tents on the property are decidedly upscale in flavor, with queen-sized beds, mosquito netting, indoor and outdoor showers, and flush toilets. The veranda overlooking the rushing river is a real highlight. Upon request, the front desk will wake you up with hot Kenyan coffee and muffins at sunrise; head to the veranda with your cup-o-joe and you might glimpse a mother hippo teaching her young child to swim upstream.

Solar-powered lighting and a small vegetable garden used by the African-themed restaurant add to the environmentally conscious allure, as does a wetlands project behind the tents that filters the toxins from waste water, and returns it to the Masa River cleaner than the actual water found there. A series of three ponds slowly purify the wastewater using vegetation like lily pads that naturally absorb nutrients. Each guest can also plant a tree on the property—not to be used as firewood, but for much needed shade.

Published: 5 Jan 2009 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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