A front row seat to conservation at Solio
Heaving breaths of agitation. A nose bleeding from a self-inflicted graze. There was a palpable hint of adrenaline and fear in the air. He sat in the weather-beaten cage piercing onlookers with rage, condemnation and apprehension. Occasionally, when someone moved closer his best defence was to bare his yellowed canines and periodically let out a horrifying roar to ensure some distance between him and his captors. He was a mere four-year-old, but had a strength, willfulness and tenacity that had, unbeknownst to him, landed him in this cage. Many other lions suffered a much more devastating fate for hunting cattle in neighbouring farms. Herders and ranchers in Kenya have been known to poison big cats in retaliation for such a misdeed. After almost six months away, he was baited, trapped and transported for two hours on the back of a trailer by an enviable entourage of KWS Rangers. His final destination- 19,000 acres of rolling savannah belonging to the Solio Game Reserve.
For many, Solio has become synonymous with its active efforts towards sustainable conservation. Positioned between the foothills of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares Range, it has become one of the most successful ‘private rhino breeding reserves’ in Kenya. In the 1970s and 80s, rampant poaching saw black rhino populations diminish to 96% of its original numbers. In 1970, a portion of the 64,000 acre Solio Ranch was established by Courtland Parfet as a rhino sanctuary. Over the years, as awareness of the plight of these mammals increases, so has the number of black rhinos worldwide, to around 5,500. The introduction of a founder herd of southern white rhinos from South Africa in 1980 has also been highly successful. On almost every game drive during our two-night stay, we encountered at least 30-40 southern white rhinos in herds of five to ten individuals. These grassland grazers have thrived in this new habitat, but poaching is still a very present threat.
John, our affable guide, shared many stories of conservation and its impressive challenges here at Solio Game Reserve. In 2017, a female southern white rhino and her calf were brutally killed for their horns. It was a devastating blow for the KWS and Solio. Nevertheless, the rhino sanctuary has continued to populate other reserves and national parks with the black rhino and the southern white rhinos where populations had previously been eliminated.
Aside from Solio’s laudable conservation efforts, there is much to be said about Solio Lodge itself. Built just 10 years ago, the property is the only guest accommodation on the expansive ranch. The main building and its five luxury cottages are topped with undulating steeple-thatched roofs and interspersed with sheets of floor-to-ceiling glass in keeping with its natural surroundings. Picture-perfect vignettes of the landscaped lawns, architectural wooden decking, majestic yellow fever acacia trees and idle giraffes in the distance were the views we encountered upon entering the main lounge. And everywhere walls were decorated with representations of the endangered rhino. In giant black and white photographs or delicate illustrations, it was hard to ignore that the preeminent symbol of Solio was one of the reasons people far and wide flocked to this little corner of the Great Rift Valley.
Our meals were particularly noteworthy. Solio’s Chef, Elvis Mwangi, told us that he and Ava Patton, the General Manager, work closely to develop menus and dishes for guests that are wholesome, healthy and yet show a great passion for the provenance of the ingredients. He explained that they source as much of their produce from local farmers and producers considering the Kenyan Highlands are a veritable cornucopia. Their pride in growing fresh herbs, lettuce, rocket and even kaffir lime in their on-site ‘shamba’ reflected in the simple and seasonal approach to building flavours. An outdoor deck overlooking the conservancy was a mesmerising location for breakfast and lunch. Our dinners were enjoyed in our expansive cottage, nonchalantly wrapped in our bathrobes and snuggled by the fireplace where the interior space took on a much more intimate and soft glow.
Part of the Safari Collection Group, Solio is admittedly, one of the most romantic locations we’ve had the opportunity to visit and some travellers prefer to take advantage of their magical space and choose to read a book on their cottage deck or opt-out of the early morning game drives in favour of a ‘lie-in’. We however took advantage of their significant selection of activities from a wildlife walk where our boys learned how to make their bows and arrows to a magnificent horse-back safari on the ranch flanked by Mount Kenya and the Aberdares in the distance amidst herds of grazing zebra