Get close and personal with elephant on a Samburu elephant safari. The Douglas-Hamiltons are a family synonymous with elephant conservation in Kenya. They’ve created a unique safari experience. Guests at their luxury tented camp, Elephant Watch, have the opportunity to interact in an extremely intimate way with Samburu’s elephant, and learn the amazing life story of each individual pachyderm.
A day in the company of northern Kenya’s elephant is one of Kenya’s best safari experiences: there’s not much in life that can top this. To spend time in close proximity with these gentle giants is both humbling and awe-inspiring. I’ll not forget our wondrous encounter in a hurry…
We were woken in our luxury safari tent at Elephant Watch Camp by the distant roar of lion. We got up for a cup of hot coffee on the deck; then it was time to meet the elephant.
The camp is owned by the Douglas-Hamiltons, a family synonymous with elephant conservation in Kenya. The family, and their team of dedicated rangers and conservationists, has come to know the 66 elephant groups that live in Samburu National Reserve and its surrounding ecosystems. Depending on the rains, these groups can be joined by up to 500 more individuals, coming together to socialise. This makes Samburu one of the finest places on earth to see these majestic, threatened animals in their natural habitat.
Camp staff adapt the programme of each Samburu elephant safari to meet your individual needs. My partner and I wanted to spend as much time with elephant as possible. Our schedule was duly arranged to match their daily rhythms. You might find them in the early morning ambling down to the water after a night of browsing, or at midday in woodland shade along the riverbanks.
A wilderness adventure is only as good as your guide, and Elephant Watch Camp employs the very best: the locals. Our guide, Alfred, carefully planned the day ahead (the elephant experience is available exclusively to camp guests). Alfred told us about elephant dynamics and how we should behave in their presence.
The Samburu people have lived among wild animals for millennia and their understanding of the landscape and wildlife is second to none. The camp’s specialised training complements their ancestral knowledge. This makes them superb ornithologists, elephant experts and among the best big-cat spotters in the business, as well as captivating storytellers with an infectious sense of humour, which makes every activity great fun.
Alfred halted the open 4×4 and pointed to a clump of trees on our left. A herd of elephant approached us silently. Soon they were all around us, completely at ease in our presence. I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face. My partner’s eyes had grown all misty: I know that look!
Alfred told us in hushed tones about each individual animal, its family history, likes and dislikes, its relationship dynamics with others in the group. This I had never experienced before. We began to see them as individuals with distinct personalities.
‘Elephant are so special,’ said Alfred later, as we watched the family splashing in the river. ‘Years of scientific research, and our own daily observations, have shown us that they’re highly intelligent, sentient creatures that thrive in close-knit families and feel emotions like empathy and compassion. They’re self-aware and even seem to have a concept of their own mortality. Just like us humans!’
Elephant Watch Camp is closely connected to Save The Elephants (STE), a conservation charity based a few kilometres downstream from our camp. Established by Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton in 1993, STE is one of Africa’s pioneering conservation bodies. We visited the charity that afternoon to learn about the bigger picture of pachyderm conservation.
The long engagement between the camp’s guides and STE researchers means that everyone is kept up to date on new births, matings or changes in the families. It’s because of this deep insight that Elephant Watch guests enjoy a far greater understanding of how the animals interact, the nuances of their behaviour and the changing relationships. It’s as though these humans have been accepted into the elephant’s social circle.
By collaring key individuals, STE is building up a database with which to influence more elephant-friendly policies both at national and international levels. Also vital is working at maintaining the Samburu people’s traditionally tolerant relationship with wildlife by finding ways to reinforce their culture, building on their natural conservation ethic and providing new skill-sets to help them adapt to a modernising world.
We learnt that, depending on how much time the elephant families spend in and around Samburu, they’re known either as residents, migrants or sporadics. As well as the matriarch-led families, there are about 120 adult bulls that roam through the Samburu ecosystem in search of food, friendship and females. Unfortunately, with their larger ivory, they’re the primary target of poachers.
They also tend towards a high-risk strategy when it comes to finding food and sometimes detour into farmers’ fields to steal crops, putting them in the firing line of angry villagers who can lose a year’s harvest in one night of raiding. Together, these factors mean that many of the most splendid bulls have been lost.
Back in camp that evening, we relaxed around the fire, recounting our thrilling Samburu elephant safari and discussing the future of these giants in this ancient land. I certainly felt that we had been touched by the magic of these graceful animals. My partner still had ‘those misty eyes’.