The Story of the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy is as full of color, romance and memorable incident – both human and animal – as any of the classic Out of Africa sagas.
Yet it’s never been told.
One day, perhaps. But in the meantime, the following outline covers some of the highlights of the founding and almost 50 years of development of this African heritage conservation project for the preservation of endangered wildlife in Kenya.
At the heart of the project is the ANIMAL ORPHANAGE, a privately owned and funded facility, unique in East Africa, for the care and rehabilitation of young, abandoned, sick or otherwise vulnerable animals and their eventual return to the wild.
It all began like this… Two young Americans met up in East Africa for the first time in 1964. They were in Kenya, their country of choice, for no good purpose other than to enjoy themselves. Do a Teddy Roosevelt – go off on wild adventurous safaris in the bush, hunting and fishing, and collecting themselves a bag of the fabled “Big Game” trophies.
Kenya was newly independent of British colonial rule and under the Republic’s founding President, “Mzee” Jomo Kenyatta, they found the reborn “Black African” land both a warm and welcoming place – and of beauty beyond description.
They bonded closely over the course of their Safaris into the wildest parts of Kenya. But the thrill of hunting soon began to wane. What they came to realize was that the sheer pleasure and personal reward they received from the African “bush” experience were not from the destruction of wildlife but from feelings of wonder and exhilaration at its very existence in a timeless natural environment.
From that point, they made a pact to do what they could to protect and preserve the animals.
It was at first a day-dream, but over time they began to talk more seriously about the possibility of owning a small private part of the wild, with no other agenda than to fulfil their commitment.
It would eventually happen. They found a stretch of pristine rangeland and so began what would be a lifetime’s work of developing the first project of its kind in “Black Africa” – The Mount Kenya Game Ranch.
The two friends and partners in the enterprise were film actor William (Bill) Holden and TV personality, Don Hunt.
The Ranch In their search for the ideal location, they were joined by Julian McKeand, former professional hunter turned game warden, and Iris, a German-born art and Africa enthusiast who would later become Don’s wife.
They eventually found their perfect site – 1,216 acres of rough marginal rangeland nestling in the foothills of Mount Kenya, surrounding the world-famous Mount Kenya Safari Club. Owners Jim and Betty-Ann Nicholsen were elderly and finally tiring of a hard life of subsistence on a small annual wheat crop and a few sheep they ran on the land. They were ready to sell.
The deal with the Nicholsens was duly done and the farm acquired. Dean Johnson, a well-known U.S. Attorney and Bill’s close friend and mentor, joined the group to oversee the legalities.
Together they agreed to Don’s idea for the concept of their corporate logo, which symbolized the core purpose of the project that would remain the one constant over the ensuing decades of development and ever more diverse activities on the Ranch. It featured the elusive Bongo of Mount Kenya and the Aberdare forests – the rarest, most threatened and, some say, most beautiful of the African antelopes.
From day one, for all the partners, Kenya would remain “Timeless Africa”. It would take up many hours of deep and meaningful musings around the campfire on safari, or, more soberly, at breakfast at the ranch, watching the snowy peaks of Mount Kenya gleaming in the early light.
The farm was all but devoid of wildlife. It bordered dense forest land and the Mount Kenya National Park, where traditionally, animals had been hunted for meat – but also, increasingly at the time, poached for illegal trade in horns and skins. The game warden and his staff did all they could to contain the onslaught of commercial poaching.
Increasing human settlement posed a further threat to wildlife and people alike. What were once traditional migratory routes for the game became “conflict zones” and the animals were seen as trespassers to be chased off or shot. The conflict has yet to be resolved.
The Work Begins
Bill went back to Hollywood to make movies to provide much of the initial investment needed to begin development of the Mount Kenya Game Ranch towards its ultimate objective- the preservation of endangered wildlife and its regeneration, where indicated, through selective breeding programs.
Don and the others stayed on to get the work started and, from the outset, he and Iris spent much time on safari, moving animals out of areas earmarked by the government for resettlement of the poor and landless.
Bill joined the couple whenever he could, never losing his youthful enthusiasm for life in the wild- the wilder the better, including the always hazardous capture operations.
Julian stayed behind to supervise development of the ranch infrastructure and to deal with the new African government authorities in Nairobi.
President Jomo Kenyatta himself – the well-loved founding “Father of the Nation” -took an immediate and lasting interest in the project. He often directed Don and his crew to particular areas of human-wildlife conflict, seeking their help in the translocation of vulnerable animals. He took much pleasure in initiating a program to assist in the re-stocking of wildlife parks in other African countries, for which he was later inducted into The International Conservation Hall of Fame.
Slowly the Ranch filled with rescued wild animals and, whenever a surplus of stock accumulated, some of the animals would be sent not only to African reserves, but also to established, carefully vetted zoological parks in the U.S.
Many of these animals would form the nucleus of breeding herds, from which, in due course, viable family groups could be returned to their original habitats where the species had been depleted to the point of local extinction.
While Don occupied himself with the main operations, Iris found herself more and more required to take responsibility for the young, often sick and dying wildlife casualties of the pressure zones in Kenya and elsewhere on the continent.
These were “orphans of the wild” in need of a new home – of care and resuscitation in the safe environment of the Ranch.
As the menace of poaching grew, so the flow of motherless orphans onto the Ranch increased to the point that Iris’s home and garden could no longer double as a refuge for wild baby animals. She then set herself the task of building a permanent facility from what had been Betty-Ann’s old chicken coops.
The wildlife waifs – mostly guests, but also a few permanent residents – were thus provided with a new home and compound, which she named, formally, The Mount Kenya Animal Orphanage.
Iris then drew on the experience of game scouts, game wardens, vets, and others to refine the care program, which included training a staff of African keepers and developing “survival diets” for the most-at-risk infant orphans. One of her early supporters and advisers was the well-respected Kenyan National Park Warden Bill Woodley.
Neighbors and visitors soon became used to seeing Iris with a baby elephant or giraffe or brood of baby cheetah in tow - or most memorably for some - a boisterous scamp of a young chimp in her arms.
Often, wherever possible, the orphanage “graduates,” a never-ending stream of them, would be returned to their natural homes all across Africa.
One inflexible principle Iris has always applied in the running of her project is that none of the animals would ever be treated, assigned or consigned to anyone as pets. Her strong view has been that, no matter how endearing they become, they would all remain as nature intended – wild animals, free in particular of human anthropomorphic sentiment.
In any event, the process of rehabilitation and release is never easy. But it is the consistent aim of the Ranch and Orphanage – and the success rate among Iris’s “bush graduates” clearly attests to the fact that she and her team are, as she puts it “at least on the right track.
Whereas the saving of a few orphans may not count in the overall picture of conservation, it plays a primary part in how much attention and respect we should pay to nature and the environment as a whole. Since Iris started the Animal Orphanage, she has invited more than 100,000 African students to visit and take part in its conservation programs. Neither the Mount Kenya Game Ranch nor the Animal Orphanage is a charity or trust. Nor does either one provide salaried employment for its owners or directors. The dedicated staff get paid, but no one else.
Visitor tickets to the Orphanage have helped. But the receipts have never been nearly enough to meet the costs. The facility has been funded from the start through money earned not begged or otherwise solicited as donations.
A Memorial to Bill
The sudden tragic death of Bill Holden in 1981 was a great shock for Don and Iris and an irreplaceable loss for the partnership. But the couple recommitted themselves to the project and continued to meet most of the cost over-runs from their own personal earnings and savings.
They joined with actress Stefanie Powers in contributing to the creation of a unique permanent memorial to their close friend through the fulfillment of his long-standing wish to draw the new generations of young Africans into the cause of preserving their own natural heritage. He’d had in mind a structured program of encouragement, information and education and it was for this purpose that the William Holden Wildlife Education Center was conceived and developed.
Don and Iris donated the land for the Education Center and the investment finance was provided by Stefanie and the legions of people who had valued what Bill Holden had given them, either personally or through his accomplished work.
The facility was duly constructed and, since 1982, the student intake from Kenyan Schools for its program of short courses has built up to a total of 7,000 a year.
Some time after the inception of the project, Stefanie joined the Mount Kenya Game Ranch Board of Directors. She has remained deeply involved in the Foundation, but also frequently works with Iris and the staff of the Orphanage, helping in whatever way she can.
Along with Iris, she has almost a religious conviction that all creatures have a right to a secure life on the planet and that humans, the dominant species at the top of the food chain, have a duty to ensure that African wildlife – not exclusively, but in particular – continues to share the earth’s natural resources in its natural environment.
The Mount Kenya Game Ranch/Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy is now a recognized and significant link in the world-wide network of conservation organizations.
The most remarkable of the Conservancy’s exotic stock are:
- A breeding herd of the rare mountain bongo, now extinct on Mount Kenya, which forms part of a program to return the species to the wild.
- A breeding herd of 30 very rare white zebra, offspring of the last of their kind, rescued from extinction many years ago in the arid northern Kenya range. these are now the only specimens of their kind left alive in Africa.
It is currently home to some 28 species – around 1500 animals – all of which are the progeny of the individuals and small family groups rescued from threatened wildlife range and forest areas under the direction of the Kenya Government in the seventies and eighties.
Kenya has come a long way in the field of conservation, with its various Tourism & Wildlife Services still maintaining the largest land area in Africa given over exclusively to wild flora and fauna.
Mount Kenya has been recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site and with a renewed commitment made by the new government of President Mwai Kibaki, it will almost certainly remain a primary world ttraction for the present and hopefully for future generations.
As always, the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy will make its contribution, not least with a main objective of restocking the forest parks with its own emblematic Bongo Antelope.