The Lewa Story

Like so many Laikipia properties that later became wildlife conservancies, Lewa Downs was an expansive cattle ranch owned since colonial times by white settlers. In 1983, the owners, the Craig family, along with pioneering rhino conservationist Anna Merz, set aside 20 sq km of Lewa as the Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary. They received their first rhino a year later, and the numbers grew to 16 in 1988. The Craigs doubled the sanctuary's size, and by 1994 the entire cattle ranch (along with the adjacent Ngare Ndare Forest Reserve) was enclosed within an electric fence to create a 251-sq-km rhino sanctuary. The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in its current form was formed in 1995.

True to its origins as a sanctuary to save Kenya's rhinos, Lewa's primary conservation focus continues to be rhinos. Lewa suffered not a single poaching event between 1983 and 2009 – the joke doing the rounds of the conservation community for much of this time was that Lewa was 'State House' (Kenya's presidential palace) for rhinos. Sadly, poaching has been on the rise ever since, with six of Lewa's rhinos killed in 2013, prompting a massive investment in anti-poaching operations. Since the start of these operations, Lewa has not had a single incident of rhino poaching.

At last count, Lewa was home to 83 black rhinos and 74 white rhinos (that's around 15% of the Kenyan total). And despite the poaching, the conservancy is close to its carrying capacity for rhinos. In 2014, the fence that separated Lewa from the 142-sq-km Borana Conservancy to the west was torn down, effectively increasing the size of the rhino sanctuary by 25%.

Rhinos aside, Lewa's conservation effort has been astounding and 20% of the world’s Grevy’s zebras call the reserve home.

Central to the Lewa model is a serious commitment to community development, fuelled by a recognition that local people are far more likely to protect wildlife if they have a stake (financial or otherwise) in its survival. Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is a nonprofit organisation that invests around 70% of its annual US$2.5-million-plus budget into health care, education and various community projects for surrounding villages.

In 2013, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy was inscribed on Unesco's World Heritage list as an extension to the existing Mt Kenya National Park/Natural Forest site.