Photograph by Peter McBride, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A herd of elephants crosses the Sarara River in Kenya's Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy. Founded in 1995, Namunyak has provided a sanctuary for elephants, supported by ecotourism.

Photograph by Peter McBride, Nat Geo Image Collection

How Tourism Helps Elephants—and People—Make a Home

Kenya's Sarara Camp is a model of community-driven ecotourism.

In the heart of northern Kenya, the pointed peaks of the Mathews Range engulf Sarara Camp’s six canvas tents. Dispelling notions of traditional safaris, a stay here—within a dense forest thick with acacia and juniper trees, grazed by elephants, giraffes, and dik-diks—is just as much about access to wildlife and nature as it is about the indigenous Samburu culture.

The Samburu are a group of seminomadic pastoralists related to the Maasai, who’ve thrived in the desert foothills of Mount Kenya for centuries. Though their territory once extended north of Lake Turkana into Ethiopia, tribal warfare in the mid-1800s forced the Samburu south to their present-day lands—an area which includes Sarara Camp, a destination quickly gaining recognition for its community-based conservation model.

Set within a portion of the 850,000-acre Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy, Sarara Camp was founded by Piers and Hilary Bastard in 1997. It’s since grown from a mobile outfit to a luxury eco-retreat entirely owned and managed by the Samburu community’s 1,200 families. Working in partnership with the founding Bastards’ son, Jeremy, and his wife, Katie Rowe—and with support from organizations like Conservation International—the Samburu continue to protect one of the most vital stretches of untouched African wilderness.

Painful Past

Beginning in the 1970s, poachers on the hunt for ivory killed nearly all the elephants within the Mathews Range. And although the area was one of the last strongholds for Kenya’s black rhinos, the species was hunted to extinction by the 1990s as poachers profited from their keratin horns. Other species declined as well, from reticulated giraffes to Grevy’s zebras.

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Sarara Camp, a National Geographic Unique Lodge, overlooks the terrain in Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy.

Namunyak began in response to this poaching crisis, aiming to protect wildlife through community-driven conservation. As Kenya's stringent anti-poaching measures gained traction, Sarara Camp offered the economic benefits of tourism to the Samburu community in exchange for their role in protecting wildlife. The partnership has seen over 4,000 elephants return to the area.

Beyond Sarara’s thatched-roof veranda, visitors can float in a natural pool set 20 feet above a watering hole where dozens of elephants languidly drink their fill, a sight all but unimaginable during poaching's heyday. Even a herd of Grevy’s zebra—three of which Rowe found abandoned and bottle fed for the first months of their life—stop by for the occasional sip.

These elephant herds are thriving, thanks to Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, the first community-owned and managed elephant orphanage in Africa. Launched by the Samburu tribe less than an hour's drive from Sarara, Reteti is another outgrowth of a widely recognized and expanding grassroots movement of community-driven conservation across northern Kenya, which began taking root in the late 1990s and early 2000s with dozens of organizations.

Retiti's partnership with Sarara, funded by individual donors plus contributions from conservancies, advocates for the Samburu community to benefit from wildlife management while maintaining cultural traditions.

Situated among Kenya’s second largest elephant population, the Samburu community take in orphaned and abandoned elephant calves, care for them, and eventually re-release them into the wild herds adjoining the sanctuary. And although elephant poaching in Africa continues at an alarming rate, the sanctuary has rescued over 30 calves in northern Kenya (out of a population of about 8,700) thanks to a team of wildlife nutritionists, with veterinary mentorship provided by the San Diego Zoo. Thirteen elephants and one black rhino are currently in Retiti's care.

“Many of the sanctuary’s 45 employees are former Samburu herders,” says Rowe. “It’s incredible to watch them care for the elephants by doing things only they could know, like throwing a branch into an acacia tree to release pods to feed the elephants.”

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A Samburu warrior overlooks a pool at Sarara Camp, which is entirely owned and managed by the Samburu people.

Their efforts are paying off: Thousands of elephants have returned to the Mathews Range, and other species, like leopard, buffalo, and wild dog, are beginning to follow suit. But the sanctuary’s impact—and the camp’s—includes people as well as wildlife.

People Power

The Samburu tribe’s partnership with Sarara Camp and Reteti spotlights the need for community conservation at a time when neighboring East African countries are doing the opposite.

According to the independent policy thinktank Oakland Institute, nearly 40,000 Maasai were forced from their ancestral land in northern Tanzania earlier this year in favor of a development plan for a private game park funded by a United Arab Emirates-owned safari company. And the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) reports similar issues in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo: The Batwa people, who have been evicted from Bwindi National Park and Volcanoes National Park to protect the mountain gorillas with which they once sustainably shared the forests, reportedly receive no economic benefit from tourism to their former homes.

Reteti and Sarara are different. Looking to blend ecotourism with community enrichment and wildlife conservation, these organizations hand the reins to Samburu people to be the stewards of their land, ultimately controlling their own futures.

“Reteti created a big change for women here,” says Dorothy Lowuekuduk, the sanctuary’s first-ever female supervisor, who began her career at the sanctuary in 2016. Her first duties included searching for orphaned elephants by tracking their dung in the desert landscape. Valiant in the face of resistance, Lowuekuduk broke tradition when she stepped into her new title, a position many in the community once believed only suited a man. “I was the third woman hired at Reteti, and I’m changing my community because of this. There are now six women here, and our fathers and grandfathers can see how strong we are and all that we’re capable of accomplishing.”

And while game drives remain a central pillar of a Sarara Camp safari, the retreat also touts its intimate experiences with members of the Samburu community. Whether opting to create unique jewelry pieces with Samburu women, or setting out on a bush walk to the singing wells (watering holes), where Samburu warriors chant traditional songs as they gather their cattle to drink, travelers have the chance to learn from individuals like Robert Lemaiyan, a Samburu warrior who manages Sarara Camp’s newest venture, the Sarara Treehouses. (The arboreal retreats were funded by donations from attendees of last year's expedition Summit Sarara.)

Lemaiyan grew up alongside Jeremy Bastard, and has been an integral part of Sarara since the camp’s formation. A leading proponent of the area’s community-conservation model, Lemaiyan has witnessed Samburu attitudes change towards wildlife in the last two decades, as the community now serve as protectors of elephants, rhinos, and giraffes. Animals they once viewed as a threat to their livelihood now support it through ecotourism.

“This project means so much to us as a community,” says Lemaiyan. “Not only is it giving us jobs on our own land, it is protecting this area for generations to come. We are so proud.”