Charging for Conservation: How a Somewhat Decadent and Depraved Off-Road Event Is Saving Kenya’s Forests

ELODIE SAMPERE and I are behind the bushes with our pants down. We’d just met a few hours earlier when she’d handed me some homemade twice-fried chicken while someone else passed along a Bloody Mary. It was about eight in the morning. Now, as we pee behind the acacia brush after scouting for snakes, she tells me about how at the previous year’s Rhino Charge, the driver of their team, Pinks in Charge, had nearly died. The dust and the heat at Magadi had kicked up her asthma and landed her in the hospital for two weeks.

“So I assume she’s not coming this year,” I say, as we wiggle and shake and zip up.

“No, no, of course she’s coming!” she replies.

It’s time for Rhino Charge, an annual pilgrimage of rally car racers to the Kenyan backcountry for an orienteering motor-sport event. While some nonprofits hold gala dinners and art auctions to raise their funds, the Kenyan conservation group Rhino Ark raises money by inviting people to the wildest of the country’s outback, with their biggest and baddest off-road vehicles. Competitors at Rhino Charge have ten hours to seek the shortest distance between thirteen points scattered over approximately 100 square kilometers. In the first race, in 1989, they brought in a few thousand dollars while “Charging for Conservation.” This year, they raised over a million dollars. It’s also a great big party—Burning Man meets Monster Truck.

The actual course is top secret until the day before the event, which this year is in the Baringo District of central-western Kenya. The area is a part of the Great Rift Valley, which cuts across the continent and is filled with a string of lakes and acacia-dotted savannahs, and a good chunk of the planet’s biodiversity. The course centers on the small village of Yatya, a place that is normally quiet and bereft of much motor traffic, where the days revolve around herding goats and cows and searching for water and firewood. The Tugen Hills to the west present an impressive backdrop of forested peaks, a place where Richard Leakey and others have unearthed human and elephant remains more than a million years old.

Indeed, the place feels removed from time. Locals line the road and watch the vehicles arrive, their faces turned unflinchingly into the dust. There are clusters of kids in ragged shorts and t-shirts and women with small dreadlocks poking from the tops of their heads. Some of these observers are laughing at the spectacle, others uncontrollably wincing as the big vehicles plow down the main dirt road. The convoy I ride in on consists of the participants and spectators of two teams: Pinks in Charge and Team Zero Footprint.

At checkpoint one we receive slips of paper with the coordinates of the thirteen control points and an 11 x 17 topographical map. At a tent set up as a bar, hundreds of people have gathered to start drinking and listen to the brief orientation. We’re all inhaling the fine red dust that has been kicked up, coating clothes, sunglasses, hair, and lungs. The thermometer reads 98 degrees Fahrenheit.

To get to the press meeting, I work my way through the crowd to the announced spot behind a truck, only to find an old local Tugen, perched on a small wooden stool that lifts him just a few inches from the ground, watching the melee. After a few minutes, he stands and walks away, and a small cadre of press arrive and gather wordlessly around Rhino Ark founder Colin Church and press liaison Simon Welland. Church holds himself like an emeritus while Simon gives us the lowdown on the event. Simon says that sixty cars are registered, and that the British High Commissioner will be riding in car #15. Two vehicles, held up in Durban, never made it. He says teams have come from London, Nigeria, and even Zambia. He tells us the Zambians took five days to overland to Kenya and got stuck at the Tanzanian border.

Simon says, “You have to be mad to participate in this event.”

THE RHINO Charge raises an obvious question: why do a bunch of people need to drive a lot of really fuel-inefficient vehicles into some of the last wild remnants in the world, then proceed to run over some trees, and uproot others with their winch lines as they dig their tires into sensitive soils on steep slopes…all in the name of conservation? The short answer is, because it brings in buckets of money. And what conservation needs more than anything right now, other than a paradigm shift with regard to how humans interact with the natural world they inhabit, is funds to secure the last bits of earth that we humans have yet to despoil. Rhino Ark’s modus operandi is building fences—long, tall, electrified fences, preferably around entire mountain ranges: intact ecosystems on one side, and we two-leggeds with our nefarious ways on the other. They’ve finished one around the Aberdare Range that’s 250-miles long and are now working on two more.

Fences are on the rise, literally and figuratively, as a conservation tool to minimize human-wildlife conflict around the world. A fence can serve as an enclosure, or an exclosure—it’s all a matter of perspective and priority. In places like Australia and Moloka’i Island in Hawaii, where invasive species have decimated native flora and fauna, there are fence projects that involve killing all the feral and non-native foxes, goats, and pigs within their bounds so that the native landscape can recover. Other fences are destroying wildlife, whether sheep fences in China snaring the last of the Przewalski’s Gazelles or the political barrier between Mexico and the United States that prevents the last of the jaguars from passing across the Sonoran Desert. Recognizing this, some political fences between the nations of South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe have fallen to allow for the unrestricted movement of wildlife.

In Kenya, Rhino Ark’s work, done in collaboration with the government-run Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), is the most ambitious of its kind, but smaller projects have sprouted up as well, with various sources of funding. The Shimba Hills fencing project is run by KWS and Kenya Forestry Department, while in Marsabit National Park an eighteen-mile fence was put in by KWS with support from Food for the Hungry International and the National Council of Churches in Kenya.

Like many conservationists, I’m on the fence about fences. In an ideal world, the fences come down, migration corridors like the dreamily expansive Yellowstone to Yukon passage open up, and we re-wild the planet. But the reality is that humans are everywhere, and human-animal conflict is on the rise as human populations increase, encroaching acre-by-acre into the pockets of wilderness where many of the megafauna once found refuge. The brilliant underbelly of the Aberdares story is that while humans often build fences to protect themselves from the destructive tendencies of animals, the Aberdare Range was fenced in to protect animals from humans, the most ecologically destructive species on the planet. From what I hear, the Kenyan farmers near the Aberdare fence are delighted that their maize crops are safe from marauding elephants, but it is the forest that has been saved from ruination, from every rhino horn being transformed into a polished dagger handle, every tree cut for charcoal.

Kenya’s population has increased eight-fold since it secured independence from the British in 1963. That means Kenyans need eight times as much charcoal from the forests, and eight times as much maize and wheat grown on land where herds of wild animals used to graze, and at least eight times more of just about everything. They need this all while catering to more and more tourists who arrive eager to experience an untouched Africa. There are more accommodations available in the “wilds” of the Masai Mara than in Nairobi. Moreover, the Chinese are on a road-building binge here—and some evidence is showing that increases in poaching correlate with road placement. If you build it, they will come. It’s a microcosm of a global predicament: everyone is scrambling for the same limited resources. Land untouched by humans is rare and getting rarer.

Some of the seeds of conservation were planted in Africa more than a century ago, when Europeans safeguarded properties they’d claimed as their own for trophy hunting. Teddy Roosevelt was also a frequent visitor. Some of that land has turned into parks, reserves, and private conservancies, but poaching of wood and animals remains rampant, and recent studies show that ungulate populations of such graceful animals as gazelles and giraffes are down by 70–95 percent. Lions might disappear from Kenya in our lifetime. Where does a conservationist even begin?

ON THE road. June 3, Charge Day. You should know this about me: I’m more inclined towards activities that don’t involve heavy machinery, things that involve a bicycle and a pair of binoculars and a bird book, perhaps. It was a somewhat random sequence of events that led me to Rhino Charge, from my interest in the conservation work of Rhino Ark to my personal and professional relationship with Teeku Patel, who I had just finished co-teaching a conservation media course with in Kenya for American undergrads. Teeku’s been doing the Charge for twelve years, long before the big sponsorships and tricked-out vehicles. He remembers when it was just a bunch of guys heading out in their Landies to the bush, instead of fully catered camps with sushi chefs flown in from Mombasa. In the old days, Teeku says, there were compasses and a lot of looking up—to the next hill, the tallest tree. Maps with thumbtacks and string to plot points. Now, heads lean low over GPSes, and Garmin (a producer of commercial GPS devices) is a lead sponsor.

Teeku’s team includes him and his brother Bijal, a recently returned Kenyan who’s had enough of New Jersey; Ragu Muraya and Michael Ogwapit, who’ve been friends of the Patel brothers since all were about knee-high; and Kevin Bender, who came to Africa from Washington, D.C. about twenty years ago and never really found a reason to return. Other team members Mark Muinde, Victor Oyango, and Devan Khagram remained behind in Nairobi.

Together, they’ve been Team #25, but this year, they’re going for zero—as in, Team Zero Footprint. And so there it was, a big fat goose egg stickered on the doors and hood of their battered 1976 Range Rover V8 3500cc, whose rear doors and tailgate had long ago been removed. When the rains arrive in September, they’ll be planting trees to offset the four tons of carbon they’d emit in the days ahead. They’re a rowdy bunch of guys who like single malt and stories and all are deeply committed to conservation in Kenya. All told, they’ve raised more than $75,000 by Charging. This year, I get to tag along with them.

IT’S A bad sign when, at 6 a.m., on the way to the first control point, just a couple miles from camp, the air still holding a residual ounce of coolness, we hear the official at the convoy say, “I think you’re boiling over.” It’s still pitch dark, and Michael leans over and shines a flashlight on the dashboard as Teeku, behind the wheel, wipes the dust off with his gloved hand to read the temperature gauge. Indeed. We’re nearly in the red, and as the dust settles, we see the steam rising from under the hood and hear the hiss. But the convoy is rolling, so off we go, flicking on the supplemental fans and hoping the gauge will drop. It doesn’t.

We pull over to the side of the road, and I observe that the five men of Team Zero Footprint believe that in pretty much all cases, action is better than inaction. They quickly discuss the problem, as a cuckoo repeats its relentless three-tone call from the bush, and a decision is made. Within minutes we’re driving back the way we came, against the flow of cars from the next convoy, bound for the mobile welding and puncture repair setup of a man named Bradshaw. We arrive at 6:47 a.m., and the camp, which consists of an old canvas pup tent and a small jeep with a smaller trailer holding a generator—is silent with sleep.

They emerge as if out of a clown car, a miracle of accommodation contained within the little white vehicle. Two bodies are nestled in hammocks slung lengthwise above the seats where two other men are sleeping. Bradshaw slips out of the tent, a small wiry fellow who instantly reminds me of an Irish bartender I know back in New York City. The African men zip up their tattered blue coveralls and set to work. Another red-chested cuckoo is calling from the trees.

The theory is that the engine is overheating because the auxiliary fan they’d had installed days before was put in backward. “I told the guy three times: ‘Make sure it’s blowing in the right direction,’” says Kevin as Michael folds up a ten-bob shilling note and watches it get sucked against the grill. The drone of the diesel engine drowns out the sound of the cuckoo as one worker yanks the generator to life. A touch of a match ignites the flare of the welding torch.

Bradshaw talks to me with a mischievous half-smile, flip-flops on his feet and a cigarette in his mouth. He was in the UK for a while, until there was an accident of some sort that landed him with enough insurance money to get back to Kenya. He wished he’d come back twenty years earlier. Like Bijal, he’s one of many Kenyans I’d met who’d left and returned, finding something in their home ground that was missing in the fabled West and North, a land of laws and limitations.

An hour-and-a-half and a thousand bob (about twelve bucks) later, we’re on the road again, Teeku gunning it full-throttle to get us to “CopyCat,” our first control point. The Charge has begun! We crash through acacia shrubs that border on tree-size for a couple miles, branches with inch-long thorns smashing against the windshield and into the car, which only has doors in the front. We descend a thirty-foot drop into a dry riverbed, stop to pass along our only bottle of brake fluid to another car that lost its brakes on the same hill, and carry on past a mud hut that appears out of nowhere.

Since that first overheating, it hasn’t gotten much better for Team Zero Footprint, mechanically speaking. We make it to the second control point, which is the entrance to “The Gauntlet,” a triad of points only about 400 meters apart as the cuckoo flies, but each perched atop a highpoint with chasms between. Spectators line the course, drinking and jeering and cheering in the searing sun.

We make it down the first hill and halfway up the second before the Rover chugs to a stop in the soft soil. We winch the vehicle to a euphorbia tree, uproot it, and then find another. But the transmission mysteriously loses its ability to engage.

“It won’t shika, man, I’m telling you it just stopped,” Teeku explains to his teammates after they’ve rolled the car back down the hill. A woman near the uprooted tree is vomiting into the acacias. Kevin climbs underneath the car and finds a small yellow vacuum hose melted onto to the exhaust pipe, reattaches it and we shika once again. We all leap in the car and make it about ten feet before someone spots splatters of dark oil trailing behind us. The differential has blown, and with that, the vehicle ceases to be a 4WD.

“Game over, boss. We might as well go home,” someone says, but it’s not even 11 o’clock, so we soldier on, limping to two more control points where we receive cold wet bandannas and hot meat pastries. An ancient, adorable, and nearly anorexic volunteer climbs on top of the car to check that our official locked GPS box is still sending out its signal, and stamps our passage on our clipboard. We load back up and head to the next control point, which sets us up for a tiger line—two of the route’s notoriously difficult stretches. We ignore the new smell of gasoline.

MEANWHILE, ELODIE and the rest of Pinks in Charge are kicking ass all around the course. Their pink Range Rover lost its power steering the night before, but Caroline Armstrong, the driver who nearly died last year, wages war with the steering wheel for ten hours straight, only breaking one impeccably manicured nail in the process. The four other women navigate and serve as runners, scouting out the best route. At one point they are near a control point, but can’t find it, sitting alone amid the thorny shrubs, nothing in sight but a herd of goats.

“Those goats,” the women reason, “must be going somewhere.” And so they follow them. The goats were going to a water pool created by a small dam. Not much help, but where there is livestock in Kenya, there is a person close by. They spot a shepardess and like a beacon they follow her as she leads them directly to the control, beckoning them the whole way with, “This way, Mommy, this way.” Pinks in Charge, Team #18, will end up making ten of thirteen points and taking home the Coupe des Dames trophy of a testicled warthog to mark their first-place status among the four all-women teams that ran the Charge. Go Pinks!

As for Team Zero Footprint, the smell of gas can no longer be ignored. Under the hood, a broken fuel line is spewing gasoline onto the burning hot manifold. The boys try to bend and reattach the tube, but it has the flexibility of fine crystal and breaks, again and again. Each setback is flurry of problem solving, a puzzle to be unraveled. A perusal of the toolbox, and then the cooler, yield a couple different bits of tubing that are spliced with a juice box straw. Luckily the durability of the fix doesn’t have to be tested because car #34 passes by, bearing a spare hose and warnings of the brutality that lies ahead. As the car drives off, Teeku laughs. They had a tough time on the road ahead of us, and they’d put $35,000 into their vehicle. Ours? Well, at least we have a front and rear winch. That’s about as fancy as it gets. Stuck on the next hill after the fuel line is fixed, our front winch untethers itself from the vehicle. OK, we have a rear winch.

We’re officially “buggered.”

That rear winch extracts us from a sandy riverbed as we finally admit that it’s game over. By 2:30, the sun at its peak, we arrive at our final destination—the bar—and commence drinking. The war stories emerge with each team’s arrival. One car caught on fire. Some were stuck in one spot for hours. One got lost. A man walks by in a sling. “I was just a spectator,” he says to me. “I slipped.”

For reasons that remain unclear, Braeburn, a high school, is sponsoring the bar, and the men are simultaneously unnerved and thrilled as scantily clad teenage girls lean over to serve them round after round of beer. A man sits at a nearby table with bouquets of qat, a stimulating plant and killer Scrabble word, that he is willing to distribute for the mere price of a kiss. Or so I’m led to believe. Someone tells me that the local word for the drug is miraa, “like your name.”

As the official end of the Charge arrives, and the bar crowd expands, clouds roll in from over the Tugen Hills, and soon there is a rainbow and then there is rain, falling from the skies upon our dusty, now muddy bodies. Bottles of champagne are popped, the contents sprayed upon the teams, both winners and losers. Darkness descends. The Pinks arrive, tired and dirty and elated. There is more champagne. For some, the party will last until dawn.

OUR MILEAGE wasn’t great. We clocked 5.2 miles. In about six hours. I could have walked the route in less time. But could a walk-a-thon have raised a million dollars? That’s the figure—77 million Kenyan shillings—that Rhino Ark officials announce the next morning in the hot stagnant air under the headquarters tent, as some continue to nurse Tusker beers. Glen/Llewelyn’s Team #48 ranked first, making it to all control points in just over twenty-six miles and earning them a parking spot under the tent. Our Pinks collect their beloved warthog.

And the land, somehow, goes on. I don’t know if the entire event—the thousands of people, the puke in the bushes, the trench where the burning trash went and the countless shit holes that were dug, the crushed native aloes and medicinal plants and the thrashed acacias—I don’t know if it really meant much more to the land than if a large herd of elephants had come crashing through. This timeless place had a storm of humanity sweep through for a day, leave some footprints and uproot a few trees, and leave. When we drive from camp to headquarters, I’ve already lost my bearings: we pass clearings where camps once stood, but no evidence remains. Like a mirage, the crazy gods come and then they go.

Outside of the tent, the same old Tugen man I’d seen in the press area on the first day wanders over, and Teeku hands him a baseball cap that has mysteriously ended up on the grill of the Pinks’ car. He silently brushes the dust off of it, and tucks it under his arm along with the wooden stool he still carries. But the locals get more than leftover swag. Entry fees generated $30,000—a staggering sum for these communities—which will go to development projects under the direction of a local committee and Rhino Ark.

On the other side of the road, a passing Range Rover makes an offering to a group of boys, who reach for the plastic bottle filled with clear cold water, a singular blessing in a place where people can walk miles to find a drink.

Even after last night’s rain, the land remains parched, the rocky river beds dry. What is life without water, the water that feeds ecosystems and the inhabitants of this country, human and non-human? Right now, the worst drought in sixty years is developing in the Horn of Africa. In Kenya, the source of the water supply lies in the mountain ranges that Rhino Ark is trying to protect. The Aberdare alone are the origin of five of the country’s major rivers. Since the first Charge in 1989, Rhino Ark has generated more than $10 million for conservation in Kenya, most of it going toward the Aberdare fence. It took twenty-one years to build the 250-mile fence, completed in 2009. Plans are now underway for an equivalent fence around Mt. Kenya and a smaller one in the Mau Eburru, an area especially hammered by heavy illegal logging. They call their fences “ecosystem conservation tools.”

The Aberdare. The Mau. Mount Kenya. These peaks and the repositories of life they contain—140 wild mountain bongo forest antelope, the last of the black rhinos—are the real reason we came here in search of the shortest distance among thirteen points. The mountains’ armies of forests reach into the clouds and snatch the morning mist, transforming drop into rivulet into stream into river. The names are like music. The Tana. The Athi. The Ewaso Ng’iso North and South. The Sondu and Mara and Njoro. These lifelines provide the water that Nairobian trucks deliver to gated communities, that women carry in jerry cans, that tourists suck from plastic bottles. The water in which the hippos of Lake Baringo wallow. The water that the wildebeest and the zebras cross by the thousands each year in one of the greatest movements of life on earth. The water and forests and the rhinos and the Charge are all linked.

As for Team Zero Footprint, it’s had better Charges in the past, but the teammates are looking to next year. Kevin does back-of-the-envelope calculations and figures that, if they can plant about 4,000 trees, the entire carbon footprint of the Rhino Charge could be offset.

Meera Subramanian is a freelance environmental journalist and an associate editor of Killing the Buddha, an online magazine about religion, culture, and politics.

Image: davida3, Flickr cc, 2010

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