‘Laikipia’ runs off the tongue into conversation exactly like the beautiful waterfalls that burst out of the high jungles over the dramatic cactus landscapes of deep canyons and endless vistas in north central Kenya.
Laikipia was a beautiful story in the 1970s, still compelling two decades later in “I Dream of Africa,” but it’s a grim and dark tale, now.
Laikipia is Kenya’s most important conservation and tourist province. Its increasing insecurity pierced global awareness this weekend when Kuki Gallman was shot on her ranch, there.
Kuki Gallman is the author of the memoir which led to a notable movie, “I Dream of Africa.” She arrived for the first time in Africa with her husband and son literally on the same month that my wife and I arrived in Kenya. For all I know we brushed shoulders in the old Bruner’s Hotel where all of us early seventies white people stayed.
They stayed. We didn’t. Like many adventurous discontents from around the world, whether it was like us from the exhaustive ending of the Vietnam War, or like the Gallman’s, from Europe’s increasing instability that would lead to horrible wars, East Africa was fecund territory for folks with limited funds but insatiable ambition and grand imaginations.
And we were warmly welcomed. These were peaceful, hopeful and infinitely promising years in East Africa, with much courted outsiders’ investments slowly coming in after years of conflict that had led to Independence a decade before.
Gallman and many other immigrants of the time, including Joy & George Adamson, Alan & Joan Root, Iian & Oria Douglas-Hamilton and less public but equally significant individuals like trustees from Princeton University and the Smithsonian, all migrated to this beautiful and wild area of Kenya called Laikipia. They were driven by the magnitude that their investment could have in the tiny economy of East Africa, and almost to a soul they dedicated themselves to conservation.
I can assure you that personal satisfaction was the driving factor, but I’d challenge anyone to suggest there is any other group of foreigners located anywhere else in the world whose lives and livelihoods resulted in such advancements to conservation. By the turn of the century Laikipia was a model for conservation worldwide.
Laikipia is geographically unique. Most of the rich land of East Africa is a mile high, the butte if you will of the Great Rift Valley. The butte ends at Laikipia. It falls from rich forests in tumbling waterfalls into deep canyons that cut incredibly scenic rivers through landscapes like those of our own southwest. The vistas are unbelievable, almost all of them distinguished by the snow-capped glaciers on Africa’s second highest mountain, Kenya.
The geography led to an incredibly precious biomass of very rare and stunningly beautiful animals like the reticulated giraffe and Grevy’s zebra. It’s where I found my favorite bird in the world, the golden-breasted starling.
This jagged, unpacked mishmash of geography may have been a feast for the senses and paradise for so many animals, but it isn’t particularly good for human habitation. Agriculture is limited to nomadic herding. It would be decades before the Chinese could drill deep enough to find oil.
So the conflict that even early conservation efforts had with local, developing populations was postponed. The plague of Africa’s growing diseases like malaria and typhoid then AIDS were almost nonexistent, because these are all human vector diseases.
It was a paradise for animals, and for the immigrant adventurers dedicated to preserving the beautiful, unusual places in the world. And almost to a soul they prospered enormously especially by African standards.
Kuki Gallman’s land grew to nearly 400 acres. It looks and feels almost exactly like parts of the Oak Creek Canyon outside Phoenix. She built a beautiful and very expensive tourist lodge at which my daughter found her first green mamba, especially poignant if you recall one of the more dramatic sections Gallman’s story. She set up several foundations and plowed much of her money into many conservation efforts, including many local projects like schools and clinics.
And she got rich, land rich to be sure, but otherwise rich as well. Sunday she was patrolling her ranch alone in her Landrover when she was ambushed and shot and now remains in stable condition in Nairobi. This is exactly what happened to Joy Adamson 30 years before. She died. Joan Root was violently murdered in 2012. I’m convinced all these murders and truly dozens others were motivated in large part by grudges against the rich white landowner.
Laikipia, its wildlife and to a certain extent its beauty, has been enormously compromised this last decade by climate change. It rains less; there are more earthquakes; temperatures are rising. Nomadic herding is stressed beyond belief.
American and Obama policy which militarized Kenya and wages aggressive war in neighboring Somalia didn’t help. Somalia is about 300 miles from here, but old guns and grenades and even old Jeeps seem to travel long distances without a problem. Gun battles among different gangs and tribes is commonplace now in Laikipia, all fighting over the last pieces of grass.
I pulled EWT’s safaris out of Laikipia in January. It was very hard to do but in March another landowner was shot, two tourists were violently robbed in Samburu National Park and besides, the devastating drought just gets worse and worse and so many animals are dead.
It was a beautiful story in the 1970s, a compelling and fascinating one a decade or two later in “I Dream of Africa” but it is grim and dark tale, now.
Like countless similar events around the world, this is a tragic mixture of wealth inequality; conservation sustained by charity rather than as it should be, governments; and climate change. Unique to Kenya it’s compounded by a colonial history still unresolved. It’s a dire mix of how paradise is ruined, today.