Bruce Anderson

TRAVEL SPECIAL: Pride and preservation

Bruce Anderson joins the Masai on an eco-friendly safari

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A PAIR of lionesses were ambling through the grass; three cubs were scampering around them. A delightful spectacle, but this was the African bush, not Disneyland. The lionesses were not going for a stroll. It was many hours since their last meal, so they were out to kill and feed.

As for the cubs, they were playing regardless of their doom. I said to our guide that they had presumably survived the worst menaces that overshadow leonine infancy, but was told that this was not the case. Unfortunately for them, the leader of their little pride was a ten-year-old lion. That is late middle-age in the lion world and, in the same neighbourhood, a four-year-old lion was lurking. Driven from his pride by a seven-year-old, he was looking for lionesses of his own, and in a fight he would probably be too strong for a ten-year-old. Even if the older fellow defied the odds and fought off the four-year-old, there would soon be other challengers.

Once the new lion was in charge, he would expect his conjugal rights, which would create a problem. Lactating lionesses lose interest in sex. But a lioness without a cub stops lactating. So the new master of the pride would simplify matters with three brutal paw strokes. There was almost no possibility that the three cubs would survive to adulthood.

We drove on for a few hundred yards, to an apparently pastoral scene. As the sun declined towards evening, a large herd of buffalo was slowly emerging from shade. In front of them - a tawny flash in the grass - a Thomson's gazelle was sheltering. Then, suddenly, there was tension among the buffalo; they had probably got wind of the lionesses. On this occasion, the buffalo had nothing to fear. A single fully grown buffalo is hard prey even for a lion, and this was a herd of 150 or so with many powerful males to protect the calves. But not the gazelle. Small and numerous, Tommy's gazelle is the rabbit of the African bush, an important part of most carnivores' diets. A fast-moving little creature, it spends much of its short life running away from danger.

Alerted by the buffaloes' agitation, our gazelle suddenly sprinted off, but towards an area where we had seen cheetah earlier. A lion might decide not to bother with a Tommy, on the grounds of too much chasing for too little eating. A cheetah would have no hesitation.

I had come to the Masai Mara in Kenya as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent, who know everything there is to know about organising safaris. In magnificent landscape, we saw lion, leopard, cheetah, rhino and crocodile, plus any amount of antelope - and, of course, elephant and giraffe. After two or three days, one grew quite blasZ about giraffes. We also went on to the Ngorongoro in Tanzania, the vast crater of an extinct volcano, an enchanted prelapsarian wilderness abundant with wildlife.

Wherever we went, we had the benefit of local guides, who would spot with the naked eye what we were having difficulty in seeing even through powerful binoculars. Abercrombie & Kent are far more than a mere tour operator. In both Kenya and Tanzania - as in other African countries - they are closely involved with the economy and the environment. The Kent family (it is very much a family firm) are all committed environmentalists in the proper, almost lost, sense of the word: serious academic qualifications rather than tree-hugging sentimentality. They have also thought through the problem of preserving the African heritage from contemporary pressures.

Africa is full of poor and hungry people, too oppressed by the struggle for subsistence to appreciate the glories of nature. There is pressure on cultivable land; there is also pressure to turn game into food. A giraffe or an elephant could fill a lot of bellies, while the depredations of elephants - or lions - could destroy vital foodstuffs; a herd of elephants can inflict an awesome amount of damage on a village's crops.

Years ago, in the Arizona desert, a grizzled old redneck told me that there were only two kinds of animals: 'Critters, what ye eat, and varmints, what ye shoot.' Many Africans would agree with him.

A&K work hard to put the opposite point of view, and to stress the economic importance of preserving wildlife. Every year, they train large numbers of local staff to exacting first-world standards; many A&K graduates have gone on to important jobs in the Kenyan and Tanzanian private sector. The firm's aim is to promote a form of tourism which will help to sustain the local ecology while involving local people, and enriching them.

As with all tourism, there is a precarious balance. How do you enable people to look at something unspoilt without spoiling it? So far, A&K have succeeded. As we travelled around, there was a sense of primaeval Africa, which was effortlessly combined with high standards of accommodation and cuisine.

In the areas I visited, A&K have been fortunate in their neighbours, the Masai. The Masai man the camps and wait on the visitors without ever compromising their own dignity. It is a deep-rooted dignity, as one might expect from a people who believe themselves to be the favourite children of Heaven. Less conveniently, they also believe that they own all the world's cattle. Any cattle in other ownership can therefore be claimed at will.

Acting on this principle, the Masai do not believe that their young men are entitled to call themselves moran - warriors - until they have been on a cattle raid. Yet it is not easy to square cattle raids with modern state structures, or modern state boundaries. Thus far, such structures are only in their infancy in the Masai lands. There is little to prevent the Masai wandering at will, and robbing cattle almost at will. But how long will that continue? It seems unlikely that the Masai will survive the 21st century without some challenge to their customs, including cattle raids. But when that happens, something precious will be lost.

On our final evening, we were dining out of doors on an escarpment above the Masai Mara. There was a sudden yell. Twelve moran sprang out of the bushes, causing consternation among some of our number. They then sang and chanted, but this was not a stunt for tourists. These were the songs and chants with which they would inspire one another as they went on a dangerous raid in hostile territory. They were singing not only to us; they were singing to themselves. It was a song we were privileged to hear.

After dinner, I was escorted back to my hut through the African dark by a Masai Askari with a spear and a torch. Near at hand, an old buffalo was making grumbling noises, while the hippos splashed in the river. There was no roaring lion that night, which was unusual. As we arrived at the hut, we frightened off a bush baby which had been sitting above the door.

A safari with A&K is one of the safer ways of getting close to African nature, but not too close. On our first trip into the bush, we were reminded that, as soon as you leave the Land Rover, you become part of the food chain. A&K enable their guests to see the food chain at close quarters, while remaining outside it. Such holidays do not come cheap, but they are a memorable experience.