Ol Donyo – a roaring conservation success!

We’ve seen some great action at ol Donyo Lodge the past three months. It’s difficult to know where to start but we may as well do so with an incredible conservation success story.

The White-Rock Lions

White Rock Pride. Image Jackson Lemunge

Two days ago a report came in from one of the members of the community landowners. Twenty lions were crossing the road to Mbirikani! Our guides and guests immediately went in search and found the ‘White-Rock pride’. Tucked into their diurnal refuge on the slopes of the El Mau hills were 11 four-month-old cubs, playing under the watchful eyes of five lionesses and three pride males.

The report itself is a great example of the conservation success story of this area. When ol Donyo Lodge was first built on the 275,000 acre Mbirikani Group Ranch 27 years ago, there were many lions, leopards, cheetahs and scavengers around. Sadly, the ecosystem suffered. Lions and hyenas began to kill more livestock belonging to the Maasai landowners causing them to retaliate. This resulted in the loss of most predators at the top of the food chain as well as the scavengers whose job it is to deal with carcasses. This ultimately also removed much of the draw to the area for visitors who – along with the incredible vistas of mount Kilimanjaro and the pastel coloured hills of the volcanic Chyulu range, were hoping to be able to see the iconic, key species for which wild Africa is known.

The Chyulu Hills. image: Jackson Lemunge

Working to conserve

A number of projects were implemented to try to encourage the local Maasai landowners to see the benefits of wildlife. The ‘predator compensation scheme’ was started in 2003 so that landowners who had lost livestock to predators could apply for compensation after verification of the incident and authenticity of the claim.

Next came the Lion Guardians – where young members of the community were employed as guardians for the lions. Historically, they would have been part of the warrior parties sent to kill lions. The Lion Guardians reacted to reports of predators raiding livestock and prevented retaliatory killing of lions, explaining the compensation program and the benefits of having predators around. This includes a significant economic value to the landowners (who receive payments from tourism bed-nights).

Maasai Olympics ‘High Jump’. Image Beverly Joubert

In response to the national law banning the hunting of lions in Kenya (previously considered part of Maasai custom), and at the request of the Maasai Elders,  Great Plains Conservation and Big Life Foundation started the Maasai Olympics. Various group ranches located around the Tsavo-Amboseli-Chyulu ecosystem now had a way to compete and prove themselves through their strength, speed, stamina and accuracy without damage to their natural heritage, wildlife and the employment-generating tourism.

After twenty years of increasingly effective conservation successes, improving tourism and employment, the results of these changing mind-sets are clear. Relaxed ‘100 pounder’ elephants can be seen daily around the lodge. Lions and cheetahs are photographed by visiting guests, whose stay contributes financially to one the best ecosystem bounce-backs and conservation success stories of any community owned conservation area.

Another lion pride appears

Lions at ol Donyo. Image Jackson Lemunge

A week ago, another report came in about ‘Nelowua’, a collared lioness and her pride of 9 who have spent the past months up in the rolling grasslands and patchy mist forests of the upper Chyulu Hills. Members of this pride were seen at the top end of Windy valley near one of The Big Life Foundation ranger posts. Since then they moved down the hills closer to ol Donyo Lodge where they opted to rest  in the “Secret Garden” (an island of grass in the middle of the Lava flows) for twenty-four hours before heading over to the ol Donyo Lodge where three of them were spotted.

Although there is a lion census being done currently, the preliminary reports from the lion research in this area suggests there is plus 30 individual lions around the Mbirikani group ranch. The most recent results have suggested there are 151 lions over 18 months-old in this greater Tsavo-Amboseli-Chyulu ecosystem. A very viable population in an open, unfenced area. Worth protecting.

The cheetahs

One of ol Donyo’s cheetah brothers. Image Vanessa Stephen

At the time of this report the area around the lodge and further afield is alive with a huge variety and number of wildlife. The inch of rain we have received in the last week has led to a flush of fresh green grass. Large herds of zebra, wildebeest, fringe-eared oryx and gazelles have moved in to join the resident herds. The two well-known cheetah brothers have been making the most of this influx with guests witnessing one of their most recent hunts and successful kills. From our own counts we have 8 cheetahs that we see regularly.


Motion activated cameras near the lodge have photographed five different leopards – two of them cubs, whose mother lives in the area around the Ride Kenya horse stables. While these secretive cats are still shy, their presence is essential to the ecosystem and with time and increasing conservation, they are likely to be seen more often. Sightings like this are testament to the important work Great Plains Conservation in conjunction with the Big Life Foundation and the Mbirikani Group Ranch communities do in terms of wildlife protection.

The giant elephants

One Ton with Kilimanjaro behind. Image Richard Pye

Not to be outdone by the big cats are the area’s renowned bull elephants. There have been between twenty and thirty bulls around the lodge these past two weeks and guests have been able to sit with an icy beverage of their choice watching these giants from the safety of the open air hide –  or even the newly opened sunken ground-level hide.

One-Ton, one of the famous big bulls of the area has been spotted a number of times these past weeks as he moves from the lower slopes of the Chyulu Hills down to water and back, most often accompanied by his younger ‘boy guards’.

All together with the incredible wildlife viewing, backed by the vistas of Kilimanjaro and Hemingway’s Green hills of Africa, the new hide and waterhole, the up-and-coming Spa and wellness retreat set to open in December, it has been a perfect ending to a magical October here at ol Donyo Lodge.

 – Richard Pye

(To find out more about the Maasai Olympics, we recommend watching Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s latest documentary, Tribe vs Pride.)